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.