Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Aug. 28, 1749 - Mar. 22, 1832


The Bride Of Corinth

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


A youth to Corinth, whilst the city slumber'd,
Came from Athens: though a stranger there,
Soon among its townsmen to be number'd,
For a bride awaits him, young and fair:
From their childhood's years
They were plighted feres,
So contracted by their parents' care.


But may not his welcome there be hinder'd?
Dearly must he buy it, would he speed.
He is still a heathen with his kindred,
She and hers wash'd in the Christian creed.
When new faiths are born,
Love and troth are torn
Rudely from the heart, howe'er it bleed.


All the house is hush'd; -- to rest retreated
Father, daughters -- not the mother quite;
She the guest with cordial welcome greeted,
Led him to a room with tapers bright;
Wine and food she brought,
Ere of them he thought,
Then departed with a fair good-night.


But he felt no hunger, and unheeded
Left the wine, and eager for the rest
Which his limbs, forspent with travel, needed,
On the couch he laid him, still undress'd.
There he sleeps -- when lo!
Onwards gliding slow,
At the door appears a wondrous guest.


By the waning lamp's uncertain gleaming
There he sees a youthful maiden stand,
Robed in white, of still and gentle seeming,
On her brow a black and golden band.
When she meets his eyes,
With a quick surprise
Starting, she uplifts a pallid hand.


Is a stranger here, and nothing told me?
Am I then forgotten even in name?
Ah! 'tis thus within my cell they hold me,
And I now am cover'd o'er with shame!
Pillow still thy head
There upon thy bed,
I will leave thee quickly as I came.


Maiden -- darling! Stay, O stay! and, leaping
From the couch, before her stands the boy:
Ceres -- Bacchus, here their gifts are heaping,
And thou bringest Amor's gentle joy!
Why with terror pale?
Sweet one, let us hail
These bright gods --their festive gifts employ.


Oh, no -- no! Young stranger, come not nigh me;
Joy is not for me, nor festive cheer.
Ah! such bliss may ne'er be tasted by me,
Since my mother, in fantastic fear,
By long sickness bow'd,
To Heaven's service vow'd
Me, and all the hopes that warm'd me here.


They have left our hearth, and left it lonely --
The old gods, that bright and jocund train.
One, unseen, in heaven, is worshipp'd only,
And upon the cross a Saviour slain;
Sacrifice is here,
Not of lamb nor steer,
But of human woe and human pain.


And he asks, and all her words doth ponder --
Can it be, that, in this silent spot,
I behold thee, thou surpassing wonder!
My sweet bride, so strangely to me brought?
Be mine only now --
See, our parents' vow
Heaven's good blessing hath for us besought.


No! thou gentle heart, she cried in anguish;
'Tis not mine, but 'tis my sister's place;
When in lonely cell I weep and languish,
Think, oh think of me in her embrace!
I think but of thee --
Pining drearily,
Soon beneath the earth to hide my face!


Nay! I swear by yonder flame which burneth,
Fann'd by Hymen, lost thou shalt not be;
Droop not thus, for my sweet bride returneth
To my father's mansion back with me!
Dearest! tarry here!
Taste the bridal cheer,
For our spousal spread so wondrously!


Then with word and sign their troth they plighted,
Golden was the chain she bade him wear;
But the cup he offer'd her she slighted,
Silver, wrought with cunning past compare.
That is not for me;
All I ask of thee
Is one little ringlet of thy hair.


Dully boom'd the midnight hour unhallow'd,
And then first her eyes began to shine;
Eagerly with pallid lips she swallow'd
Hasty draughts of purple-tinctured wine;
But the wheaten bread,
As in shuddering dread,
Put she always by with loathing sign.


And she gave the youth the cup: he drain'd it,
With impetuous haste he drain'd it dry;
Love was in his fever'd heart, and pain'd it,
Till it ached for joys she must deny.
But the maiden's fears
Stay'd him, till in tears
On the bed he sank, with sobbing cry.


And she leans above him -- Dear one, still thee!
Ah, how sad am I to see thee so!
But, alas! these limbs of mine would chill thee:
Love! they mantle not with passion's glow;
Thou wouldst be afraid,
Didst thou find the maid
Thou hast chosen, cold as ice or snow.


Round her waist his eager arms he bended,
With the strength that youth and love inspire;
Wert thou even from the grave ascended,
I could warm thee well with my desire!

Panting kiss'on kiss!
Overflow of bliss!
Burn'st thou not, and feelest me on fire?


Closer yet they cling, and intermingling,
Tears and broken sobs proclaim the rest;
His hot breath through all her frame is tingling,
There they lie, caressing and caress'd.
His impassion'd mood
Warms her torpid blood,
Yet there beats no heart within her breast!


Meanwhile goes the mother, softly creeping,
Through the house, on needful cares intent,
Hears a murmur, and, while all are sleeping,
Wonders at the sounds, and what they meant.
Who was whispering so? --
Voices soft and low,
In mysterious converse strangely blent.


Straightway by the door herself she stations,
There to be assur'd what was amiss;
And she hears love's fiery protestations,
Words of ardour and endearing bliss:
Hark, the cock!'Tis light!
But to-morrow night
Thou wilt come again?
-- and kiss on kiss.


Quick the latch she raises, and, with features
Anger -- flush'd, into the chamber hies.
Are there in my house such shameless creatures,
Minions to the stranger's will?
she cries.
By the dying light,
Who is 't meets her sight?
God! 'tis her own daughter she espies!


And the youth in terror sought to cover,
With her own light veil, the maiden's head,
Clasp'd her close; but, gliding from her lover,
Back the vestment from her brow she spread,
And her form upright,
As with ghostly might,
Long and slowly rises from the bed.


Mother! mother! wherefore thus deprive me
Of such joy as I this night have known?
Wherefore from these warm embraces drive me?
Was I waken'd up to meet thy frown?
Did it not suffice
That, in virgin guise,
To an early grave you brought me down?


Fearful is the weird that forc'd me hither,
From the dark-heap'd chamber where I lay;
Powerless are your drowsy anthems, neither
Can your priests prevail, howe'er they pray.
Salt nor lymph can cool,
Where the pulse is full;
Love must still burn on, though wrapp'd in clay.


To this youth my early troth was plighted,
Whilst yet Venus ruled within the land;
Mother! and that vow ye falsely slighted,
At your new and gloomy faith's command.
But no god will hear,
If a mother swear
Pure from love to keep her daughter's hand.


Nightly from my narrow chamber driven,
Come I to fulfil my destin'd part,
Him to seek to whom my troth was given,
And to draw the life-blood from his heart.
He hath served my will;
More I yet must kill,
For another prey I now depart.


Fair young man! thy thread of life is broken,
Human skill can bring no aid to thee.
There thou hast my chain --a ghastly token --
And this lock of thine I take with me.
Soon must thou decay,
Soon wilt thou be grey,
Dark although to-night thy tresses be!


Mother! hear, oh hear my last entreaty!
Let the funeral-pile arise once more;
Open up my wretched tomb for pity,
And in flames our souls to peace restore.
When the ashes glow,
When the fire-sparks flow,
To the ancient gods aloft we soar.

Of this poem, which is acknowledged to be a masterpiece, Mrs. Austin has said very happily, An awful and undefined horror breathes throughout it. In the slow measured rhythm of the verse, and the pathetic simplicity of the diction, there is a solemnity and a stirring spell which chains the feelings like a deep mysterious strain of music. Several attempts have been made to translate it into English, but in no previous instance has the exact metre of the original been adhered to, owing, no doubt, to the poverty of our language in double rhymes. It is hardly necessary to observe that all great composers have taken especial care to adopt, vary, or modify their metres according to the peculiar tone and character of the poem; and, in this instance, it appeared to the translators, that by no other form of verse except that which Goethe had selected could this poem be rendered so as to convey to the English reader a due impression of its power. Therefore they resolved, whatever amount of labour the effort might require, to overcome the metrical difficulty; and so much at least they have been able, by mutual co-operation, to accomplish. Their success, however, they are well aware, must be estimated according to their fidelity to the original, the expression of which they have striven throughout to maintain without any kind of alteration.

The legend on which this poem is based is to be found in a treatise by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of the Emperor Adrian, where it forms the first of the series of marvels recorded by that singular writer. The opening of the story is lost, but its nature is made sufficiently obvious by what remains.

She passed, writes Phlegon, to the door of the stranger's room, and there, by the shimmer of the lamp, beheld the damsel seated by the side of Machates. At this marvellous phenomenon she was unable to command herself; and, hastening to the damsel's mother, called with a loud voice to Charito and Demostratus to arise and go with her to their daughter; for that she had come back to life, and was even now closeted with the stranger in his room. Hearing this strange announcement, Charito, between fright at the intelligence and the bewilderment of the nurse, was at first distracted; then, remembering the daughter she had lost, she began to weep; and in the end, thinking the old woman crazed, she commanded her to betake herself to rest. To this the nurse rejoined by reproaches, insisting that she herself was in her right mind, but that the mother was unwilling from pure fear to behold her own daughter; and so at last Charito, partly constrained by the nurse, partly impelled by curiosity, repaired to the door of the stranger's apartment. But as a second message had been required to persuade her, a considerable space of time had, in the meanwhile, elapsed, so that by the time she reached the chamber they were both in bed. Looking in at the doorway, she thought she recognised the dress and features of her daughter; but being unable to satisfy herself of the truth, she conceived it best to make no disturbance. Moreover, she hoped, by rising in the morning betimes, to take the damsel by surprise; or, even if she should fail in this, then she thought to put Machates to question as to the matter, when of a surety, seeing how momentous it was, he would not speak that which was untrue. And so she withdrew noiselessly from the door. By daybreak, however, she found the damsel already gone, peradventure through chance, peradventure according to the will of some god. Disconcerted by her so sudden withdrawal, the mother narrated to her young guest all that she had seen, and, embracing his knees, besought him to tell her the truth, and to conceal nothing. Upon this the youth was at first smitten with consternation and sore confusion; at length, however, with difficulty he mentioned her name, Philinnion -- recounted how she had come to him on the first occasion -- with what fondness she had encountered him, and how she had said, that her visit was made without the knowledge of her parents. Furthermore, to confirm his tale, he opened a chest and showed a certain gift presented to him by the damsel; to wit, a golden ring, and also a scarf from her bosom, which she had left behind her on the previous night. On seeing these proofs, Charito shrieked, rent her robes in twain, tore the veil from her head, and, throwing herself upon the ground, kissed the well-known tokens, and broke forth anew into lamentations. When now the guest had reflected on what had transpired, and beheld them all weeping and wailing immoderately, as though they were now about for the first time to lay the damsel in the tomb, he began, all confounded though he was, to speak words of comfort to them, and vowed to give them intimation if she should return. Tranquillised by these assurances, Charito returned to her chamber, after conjuring the youth to deal truly with his promise. When night closed in, and the hour had come at which Philinnion was wont to visit him, the others held themselves in readiness for the tidings of her arrival. And truly come she did; and when she had entered at the accustomed time and seated herself upon the bed, Machates unconcernedly took his place beside her, longing nevertheless with all his heart to come at the bottom of the business; for he could not bring himself to think that it was a dead maiden with whom he had holden intercourse, seeing that she returned so punctually always at the same time, and ate and drank with him. Therefore did he mistrust the assurances of the nurse and of the parents, holding rather to the opinion that thieves had broken into and plundered the tomb, and sold the garments and the ornament of gold to the father of the damsel, who had in this wise made resort unto him. Wishing to be assured of the truth, therefore, he privily called his servants and sent them to the parents. Demostratus and Charito hastened with all speed to the apartment, and beholding the damsel there, they were for a time struck dumb with amazement at the wondrous apparition; but, recovering themselves, they ran forward with a great cry, and fell upon their daughter's neck. Then spoke Philinnion to them in this wise: 'Oh, mother and father, unjust and ungentle are ye, in that you grant me not to tarry unmolested with this stranger but for three days at my father's house. Now, therefore, because of your busy curiosity shall ye once again be made to mourn. But for me, I return unto my appointed place; for hither have I come not without the intervention of the gods.' When she had so spoken, she fell back dead once more, and lay there stretched out upon the bed.

The utmost excitement, says the chronicler, was occasioned in the household and the city by this singular event. The family-vault was searched, when all the bodies were found in their places, with the exception of Philinnion's, and, where that had lain, a steel ring belonging to the guest was discovered, and a parcel-gilt goblet, both of which she had received from her companion on the occasion of her first visit. By the advice of an augur of great reputation, the body was burnt outside the city walls -- an expiatory sacrifice was made to Hermes and the Eumenides -- lustrations were performed in the temples-sacrifices offered up for the Emperor and the public weal; and, as an appropriate consummation to the whole, the youth Machates laid violent hands upon himself.

It is interesting to observe how dexterously Goethe has availed him of the incidents narrated with so much circumstantiality in this striking legend; and what additional interest he has given it, by marking so distinctly the period when the old mythological faith was passing away under the influence of the Christian creed. With all reverence for the genius of Goethe, it is impossible to deny that he had strong Pagan tendencies, and these were never so forcibly exhibited as in the composition of this wonderful poem. It is said that it cost him only two days' labour, and, when completed, required no corrections; an effort which deserves to be recorded, for few poems in any language have been so complete and absolutely perfect in their structure as The Bride of Corinth.


Poems And Ballads Of Goethe
Copyright 1859
William Edmondstoune Aytoun, D.C.L. ("A.")
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