Goethe’s Roman Elegies Translated by Michael Hamburger

I was just going to tweet the text of this poem, but Michael Hamburger’s translation of Goethe’s Roman Elegies is so sublime and beautiful that I decided it deserved a blog post instead.  I have been reading, along with his autobiography A String of Beginnings, the Michael Hamburger Reader from Carcanet Press.  In addition to his translations, this fabulous volume contains his own poetry and essays.  Hamburger, who began translating Goethe at the age of fifteen, comments about his poetry: “To reflect on the untranslatability and elusiveness of Goethe’s poetic work as a while is to go straight to the heart of his uniqueness, his staggering diversity and the extent to which many of his most original poems—especially the earlier lyrics—are inextricably rooted in their own linguistic humus.”

From Goethe’s Roman Elegies


Happy now I can feel the classical climate inspire me,

Past and Present at last clearly, more vividly speak—

Here I take their advice, perusing the works of the ancients

With industrious care, pleasure that grows every day—

But throughout the nights by Amor I’m differently busied,

If only half improved, doubly delights instead—

Also, am I not learning when at the share of her bosom,

Graceful lines, I can glance, guide a light hand down her hips?

Only thus I appreciate marble;  reflecting, comparing,

See with an eye that can feel, feel with a hand that can see

True, the loved one besides may claim a few hours of the daytime,

But in night hours as well makes full amends for the loss.

For now always we’re kissing; often hold sensible converse.

When she succumbs to sleep, ponder, long I lie still,

Often too in her arms I’ve lain composing a poem,

Gently with fingering hand count the hexameter’s beat

Out on her back; she breathes, so lovely and calm in her sleeping

That the glow from her lips deeply transfuses my heart.

Amor meanwhile refuels the lamp and remembers the times when

Likewise he’d served and obliged them, his triumvirs of verse.

—Michael Hamburger, trans.



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3 responses to “Goethe’s Roman Elegies Translated by Michael Hamburger

  1. The Roman Elegies are superb. Or anyway Hamburger’s versions are. Not how most people think of Goethe.

    You might have a good time wrestling with Hamburger’s translations of Hölderlin, a lifelong translating project. Hölderlin is pretty hard, but you will be more than ready for his classical references.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron

    Thank you, Madam ! Many think the classical Roman Goethe is much too sensual. But for me it´s an intersting style…

    “When gods and goddesses in days of heroes made love, then
    Lust followed look and desire, with no delay, was indulged.
    Surely you don’t think the goddess of love lost a moment reflecting
    When, in Idean grove, Anchises caught her eye.
    Nor did Luna delay about kissing that beautiful dreamer—
    Jealous Aurora had else hastily wakened the lad.
    At the loud banquet Hero regarded Leander—then promptly
    Into dark waters he plunged, ardently swam toward his love.
    When Rhea Silvia, princess and virgin, came down to the Tiber
    Just to fetch water, a god seized her and that is the way
    Mars begat himself sons, a pair of twins whom a she wolf
    Suckled. Today a proud Rome claims to be queen of the world.”

    Liked by 1 person

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