Original preface by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I feel no small reluctance in venturing to give to the public a
work of the character of that indicated by the title-page to the
present volume; for, difficult as it must always be to render satisfactorily
into one's own tongue the writings of the bards of other lands,
the responsibility assumed by the translator is immeasurably increased
when he attempts to transfer the thoughts of those great men, who
have lived for all the world and for all ages, from the language
in which they were originally clothed, to one to which they may
as yet have been strangers. Preeminently is this the case with Goethe,
the most masterly of all the master minds of modern times, whose
name is already inscribed on the tablets of immortality, and whose
fame already extends over the earth, although as yet only in its
infancy. Scarcely have two decades passed away since he ceased to
dwell among men, yet he now stands before us, not as a mere individual,
like those whom the world is wont to call great, but as a type,
as an emblem--the recognised emblem and representative of the human
mind in its present stage of culture and advancement.

Among the infinitely varied effusions of Goethe's pen, perhaps
there are none which are of as general interest as his Poems, which
breathe the very spirit of Nature, and embody the real music of
the feelings. In Germany, they are universally known, and are considered
as the most delightful of his works. Yet in this country, this kindred
country, sprung from the same stem, and so strongly resembling her
sister in so many points, they are nearly unknown. Almost the only
poetical work of the greatest Poet that the world has seen for ages,
that is really and generally read in England, is Faust, the translations
of which are almost endless; while no single person has as yet appeared
to attempt to give, in an English dress, in any collective or systematic
manner, those smaller productions of the genius of Goethe which
it is the object of the present volume to lay before the reader,
whose indulgence is requested for its many imperfections. In addition
to the beauty of the language in which the Poet has given utterance
to his thoughts, there is a depth of meaning in those thoughts which
is not easily discoverable at first sight, and the translator incurs
great risk of overlooking it, and of giving a prosaic effect to
that which in the original contains the very essence of poetry.
It is probably this difficulty that has deterred others from undertaking
the task I have set myself, and in which I do not pretend to do
more than attempt to give an idea of the minstrelsy of one so unrivalled,
by as truthful an interpretation of it as lies in my power.

The principles which have guided me on the present occasion are
the same as those followed in the translation of Schiller's complete
Poems that was published by me in 1851, namely, as literal a rendering
of the original as is consistent with good English, and also a very
strict adherence to the metre of the original. Although translators
usually allow themselves great license in both these points, it
appears to me that by so doing they of necessity destroy the very
soul of the work they profess to translate. In fact, it is not a
translation, but a paraphrase that they give. It may perhaps be
thought that the present translations go almost to the other extreme,
and that a rendering of metre, line for line, and word for word,
makes it impossible to preserve the poetry of the original both
in substance and in sound. But experience has convinced me that
it is not so, and that great fidelity is even the most essential
element of success, whether in translating poetry or prose. It was
therefore very satisfactory to me to find that the principle laid
down by me to myself in translating Schiller met with the very general,
if not universal, approval of the reader. At the same time, I have
endeavoured to profit in the case of this, the younger born of the
two attempts made by me to transplant the muse of Germany to the
shores of Britain, by the criticisms, whether friendly or hostile,
that have been evoked or provoked by the appearance of its elder
brother.

As already mentioned, the latter contained the whole of the Poems
of Schiller. It is impossible, in anything like the same compass,
to give all the writings of Goethe comprised under the general title
of Gedichte, or poems. They contain between 30,000 and 40,000 verses,
exclusive of his plays. and similar works. Very many of these would
be absolutely without interest to the English reader,--such as those
having only a local application, those addressed to individuals,
and so on. Others again, from their extreme length, could only be
published in separate volumes. But the impossibility of giving all
need form no obstacle to giving as much as possible; and it so happens
that the real interest of Goethe's Poems centres in those classes
of them which are not too diffuse to run any risk when translated
of offending the reader by their too great number. Those by far
the more generally admired are the Songs and Ballads, which are
about 150 in number, and the whole of which are contained in this
volume (with the exception of one or two of the former, which have
been, on consideration, left out by me owing to their trifling and
uninteresting nature). The same may be said of the Odes, Sonnets,
Miscellaneous Poems, &c.

In addition to those portions of Goethe's poetical works which
are given in this complete form, specimens of the different other
classes of them, such as the Epigrams, Elegies, &c., are added,
as well as a collection of the various Songs found in his Plays,
making a total number of about 400 Poems, embraced in the present
volume.

A sketch of the life of Goethe is prefixed, in order that the
reader may have before him both the Poet himself and the Poet's
offspring, and that he may see that the two are but one--that Goethe
lives in his works, that his works lived in him.

The dates of the different Poems are appended throughout, that
of the first publication being given, when that of the composition
is unknown. The order of arrangement adopted is that of the authorized
German editions. As Goethe would never arrange them himself in the
chronological order of their composition, it has become impossible
to do so, now that he is dead. The plan adopted in the present volume
would therefore seem to be the best, as it facilitates reference
to the original. The circumstances attending or giving rise to the
production of any of the Poems will be found specified in those
cases in which they have been ascertained by me.

Having said thus much by way of explanation, I now leave the book
to speak for itself, and to testify to its own character. Whether
viewed with a charitable eye by the kindly reader, who will make
due allowance for the difficulties attending its execution, or received
by the critic, who will judge of it only by its own merits, with
the unfriendly welcome which it very probably deserves, I trust
that I shall at least be pardoned for making an attempt, a failure
in which does not necessarily imply disgrace, and which, by leading
the way, may perhaps become the means of inducing some abler and
more worthy (but not more earnest) labourer to enter upon the same
field, the riches of which will remain unaltered and undiminished
in value, even although they may be for the moment tarnished by
the hands of the less skilful workman who first endeavours to transplant
them to a foreign soil.

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Other poems by 'Johann Wolfgang von Goethe'

Proverbs

The Legend of the Horseshoe

Procemion

The Erlking

Rhymed Distichs

Courage

The Wedding

Self-Deceit

Symbols

Winter Journey Over The Hartz Mountains

Search Poems
e.g. love, marriage, kids

Popular poems this week

In Silence We Left

The Lost Dances of Cranes

The Author to her Book

Summer Evening

The Lesson

A chilly Peace infests the Grass

You Fit Into Me

To Mæcenas

mr youse needn't be so spry..

Oh, honey of an hour