The first line of the last stanza was changed by Richard Strauss to read (or insert above, if you prefer):
Today the graves are full of scents and flowers,
in obvious reference to the fragrant resedas of the first stanza.
DIABOLICALLY DIMENSIONAL DIABLOG:
Kitsch and Schmaltz? One-dimensional? Or at best superficial, i.e. two-dimensional? Well, maybe. Some erudites would insist on saying so.
But there may be more dimensions to it than one or two. This poem is extremely popular in German-speaking countries. And its one-line refrain "Wie einst im Mai" (As it once was - or happened - in May), with its brevity and easy assonance, has achieved the status of an every-day German language phrase. Vox populi, vox Dei!
And there is Richard Strauss, whose setting of "Allerseelen" (op. 10, No. 8) belies the tender age of 18 (or 21?) at which he wrote it. Lieder singers of note have lined up - and are still lining up! - to perform it. In fact, why don't you listen to more than half a century of their efforts, from Lotte Lehmann to Fischer-Dieskau to Jessye Norman to Brigitte Fassbänder. And then some.
But where are those other dimensions? Well, for one, the title of the poem is Allerseelen, i.e., All Souls' Day. True, nowadays Allerseelen (known in various forms and by various names, for instance in Mexico as Diá de los Muertos) is on the way out - aided and abetted by Halloween's supercommercial kick in the rear. You know, the way the Christ Child (das "Christkind" in German) was kicked out by Santa Claus, who sent it flying...
Yours Truly thinks of Halloween as 2-D: cheaply molded plastic, with no spatial or temporal stability to speak of. (Christmas? Don't get me going on that! Our Merry Merchants start hawking Kriss Kringle's reindeers even prior to Halloween's ghosts and goblins!)
All Souls' Day, on the other hand, I think of as three-dimensional, as (at least) 3-D. This is an ancient ceremony, both mythical and mystical. The dead are remembered by their loved ones with flowers and candles on their graves. Sometimes the dead are even invited to participate in meals, with dishes set out for them on the family table.
In Austria, whence I hail, the cemeteries on November 2nd are lighted, scented islands in a sea of drifting autumn fogs - expressions of human memory, I suppose, but also promises of resurrection. The sweet smell of decaying leaves, the sadness of loves lost, of times past - all transfigured and transcended by the beauty of their earthly remainders and reminders.
There are (at least) four physical dimensions involved here. I'll count them off according to Einstein's Theory (really: Einstein's Law, although nobody calls it that) of Relativity: There are the "left-right", "up-down", and "back-forth" three spatial dimensions, and there is the "backward-forward" temporal one. (Note: Often, in the fuss about "Left vs. Right" and "Progress vs. Regress", it happens that "Above vs. Below" gets ignored. But I digress.)
And I shall also not discuss the eleven dimensions of String Theory (a "theory", if there ever was one) and I shall only cast a furtive glance at such DOTS (dimensions of the soul) as memory and myth - plentiful on All Souls' day, starved off its roots on Halloween.
(WAKE UP AND START READING MORE ATTENTIVELY, DEAR STUDENTS OF GERMAN CLASSES! YOUR GRADE IS AT STAKE, A POP-UP TEST IS COMING!)
The first stanza calls for the strongly scented blossom spikes of resedas (Reseda odorata, sweet mignonette) and the last red asters (red: the color of passion and the fall; asters: typical cemetery flowers of Central Europe). These are to be brought into the house and to be placed "on the table".
The last stanza talks of similar blossoms having been placed on each grave.
Shouldn't that remind you of the many poems comparing the grave to a table or a house, for instance a very famous one by Emily Dickinson?
Now, there are three physical dimensions of space involved in a table or a house changing into a grave and back again (plus at least one mental one). So what about physical (and also mental) time?
The time of the poem is All Souls' Day in November. The time of the refrain is May. November is being changed to May, love lost to love regained. And if that weren't enough...
Well, enough! - or your German prof will first go nuts and then go after ME - and, more importantly, after YOU!
But, just speaking of your prof: What is his/her test going to ask you about this poem? Do you really want to know?
Well, see, I reckon that depends on where and when this august figure (I am merely cutting the Gordian "he/she" knot here - plus showing off, of course)... well, as I was saying, where this august figure once graduated and now is happily reselling the goods. I should get on with it? Ok, my best test guess is this, and I quote:
"Who is the speaker of the poem? Male or female? Dead or alive? To whom are the verses addressed? To a male or to a female person, to a dead or to an alive one? State your reasons for each answer.
Bonus Point: Does this poem consist of mere clichés bound together by wearily tinkling words; is it an expression of sadness at mortality or a hinting at immortality; does it betray age or sex discrimination; is it a lament for loves lost or merely a call to necrophilia? Is it neither or all of these? Or a combination of some but not others?
Discuss your choice in light of the fact that the poet, Hermann von Gilm, Ritter zu Rosenegg (1812-1864), was a Tyrolean and a liberal blade (I mean, a believer in the Enlightenment), and that he was given to questioning conservative authority and to writing poetry of uncommon combinations, e.g. sonnets coupling eros with politics.
(You may also consider that Richard Strauss's setting is unusually dark and dramatic - heavily modulated may be the correct term: check with your music prof! - when compared to the easy-going prosody and rhyme structure of the quatrains - and that his changing of "funkelt" to "duftet" - of lights to scents - may have been made with not only the singer's enunciation in mind...)"
You think I have biased the translation in favor of my own interpretation, my own feelings? Most likely. So did Richard Strauss. Artists as well as translators - is there a difference, buddy? - need soul. And soul exacts its price.
But lest I should start singing my very own Translator's Blues, let me point out some limitations inherent to the trade of being a traitor to two languages. Because I can't step beyond my own shadow. And I want the translation to have the same R&R (rhythm and rhyme) as the original. And I want it to be "cantabile". That limits the choices and - dangerously but delectably so (at least for me) - casts the translator's shadow longer and darker when the poet's sun sets on the semantic horizon.
And now, please, let me bend down to the fire and to that Laphroaig, and let me look once more into the dying embers of Allerseelen before this Diablog ends...
A diablog is a diablog - whatever that may mean. Guessing is allowed; in fact, encouraged. But research and knowledge is something else entirely. And, for me, additional knowledge is a reason for updating - on the chance that you may be eager to find out more about this famous poem.
Anyway, a former classmate of mine [Thanks, Mui, thanks so much!] sent me for Christmas a book about the South Tyrol of old and the many people of note that have visited there. (Dietmar Grieser, "Im Rosengarten", Insel Taschenbuch 2509, Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1999; in German).
Among these notables was Hermann von Gilm, Ritter von Rosenegg, and his (unfulfilled) love, Sophie Petter. How this ties in with his most famous poem "Allerseelen" is described on pages 164-177, entitled "Wie einst im Mai".
I should give you a preview? Well, for instance, Hermann von Gilm was buried in Innsbruck (in North-Tyrol, Austria) with mignonettes (resedas) covering his grave...