Echoes of Chamisso


October 15, 2016 by AK

Two poems by D. H. Lawrence, Bitterness of Death (1916) and A Woman and Her Dead Husband (1917), begin the same, except for a comma:

Ah, stern, cold man,
How can you lie so relentless hard
While I wash you with weeping water!

I’m probably not the first to make this connection, and I could be imagining it, but these lines struck me as a paraphrase of Chamisso’s:

Du schläfst, du harter, unbarmherz’ger Mann,
Den Todesschlaf.

“You are sleeping, you harsh, merciless man, the sleep of death.” This is the eighth poem of the Frauen-Liebe and Leben cycle. Composed in 1830, the nine-poem cycle was set to music by Schumann in 1840. The composer omitted the ending poem, so the one I’ve quoted closes the circle. It begins with

Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz gethan,
Der aber traf.
Du schläfst, du harter, unbarmherz’ger Mann,
Den Todesschlaf.

“Now you have given me the first sorrow – but how it hurts.” According to Chamisso’s diary, these are almost literally the words of a young widow upon her husband’s death. The two lines addressed to the sleeping hard-hearted man follow immediately after “it hurts.”

Some interpreters claim that Schumann’s song is about the husband’s unfaithfulness and his death is metaphorical, but they just can’t deal with the anguish.


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