Poetry on Peace

Goethe (1749-1832):

Scene III from Faust (1808)
Wayfarer's Night Song (1780)

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

FAUST, Part I, Scene III (1808)

Behind me, field and meadow sleeping,
I leave in deep, prophetic night,
Within whose dread and holy keeping
The better soul awakes to light.
The wild desires no longer win us,
The deeds of passion cease to chain;
The love of Man revives within us,
The love of God revives again.

Ah, when, within our narrow chamber
The lamp with friendly lustre glows,
Flames in the breast each faded ember,
And in the heart, itself that knows.
Then Hope again lends sweet assistance,
And Reason then resumes her speech:
One yearns, the river of existence,
The very founts of Life, to reach.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Faust, Parts I & II
Translated by Bayard Taylor (1870)
Modern Library, New York, 1950, pp. 41-42


Der du von dem Himmel bist,
Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillst,
Den, der doppelt elend ist,
Doppelt mit Erquickung füllest,
Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Süßer Friede,
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!


Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch,
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.


Thou which art from heaven
thou soothe all grief & pain
fill the doubly wretched
doubly with refreshment:
oh, I'm weary of this unrest!
Why all this pain, all this joy?
Come, sweet Peace,
oh come into my heart!


Over all the hill-tops
it is still
In all the tree-tops
you can hardly feel
a breath stirring.
Little birds are silent in the woods.
Wait! soon you too
will be still.

Goethe: Selected Verses
Translated in prose by David Luke
Penguin Books, New York, 1964, pp. 49-50

Notes: Wandrers Nachtlied I was first printed in 1780 in J. C. Pfenninger's Christliches Magazin, with music by Goethe's friend Kayser, under the title Um Frieden, [On Peace]. The poem breathes deep religious intensity and is a fervent cry for the peace of heaven in the human heart— "the peace which passeth all understanding." A copy was sent to Frau von Stein, whose mother, a pious Scottish lady, wrote on the back of Goethe's manuscript a quote from John 14.27. Wandrers Nachtlied II is one of the most beautiful poems outstanding for its wealth of lyrical gems. It was composed on the evening of September 6, 1780, in a small shooting-box of the Duke's on the Gickelhahn, the highest of the hills around Ilmenau. Goethe wrote it on one of its wooden walls and mentioned this in a letter to Frau von Stein dated 6 Sept. 1780. Goethe's last visit to Gickelhahn took place on 27 August, 1831, the eve of his last birthday [age 82]. Berginspektor Mahr, who accompanied Goethe, related that Goethe wished to see the poem he wrote on the wall some 51 years ago. The writing was still there, but hardly legible. At Goethe's request it was renovated by Oberforstmeister von Fritsch, who wrote underneath: "Renov., den 29 Oct. 1831" The original 'Bretterhäuschen' was burned down on 11 August, 1870, and was replaced soon afterwards by an exact replica with the poem engraved. The subject of this poem is peace. When the great British scientist John Tyndall read this poem, he remarked with reference to line 5— that it portrayed an atmosphere so still as to allow thin lines of smoke from the cottages to rise slowly upwards. Unbeknownst to Tyndall, this is what Goethe mentioned in his letter to Frau von Stein on the rising smoke of the charcoal burners. (James Boyd, Notes to Goethe's Poems, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1966, pp. 101-102, 159-162). What I enjoy about these two "Night Songs" is that in the first poem, Goethe's mind is restless, so he prays for peace. In the second poem, Goethe has found his peace— the stillness all around him is but a reflection of his inner state of mind that is tranquil and still. A beautiful Zen poem indeed!

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email: peter@wisdomportal.com (3-29-2003)