July 26, 2011

Christian Morgenstern

Fishes' Night Song [above]

Christian Morgenstern [Germany]

Christian Otto Josef Wolfgang Morgenstern, born on May 6, 1871 in Munich, spent his early schooling at the "humanistische Gymnasium" in Breslau, later studying law and economics at the Breslau University. Yet he chose not to enter in either career, but worked first as a journalist in Berlin, traveling extensively to other parts of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, in part to find relief for his tuberculosis.

Although his health was never restored, he did meet some of the foremost literary and philosophical figures of the day.

Most of his short life was devoted to writing, composing his most famous collection, Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs) in 1905. Humorous and witty works, these poems grew very popular, the author himself living to see fourteen editions published. In the tradition of Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear, Morgenstern's works satirized scholarly writing through intense wordplay and nonsense.

His humorous songs were followed with the publication of Palmström in 1910. Three volumes Palma Kunkel (1916), Der Gingganz (1919), and Alle Galgenlieder (1932), were published posthumously. Although the poems are notorious difficult to translated, several translations of Gallows Songs have appeared in English and numerous other languages.


In Phanta's Schloss : Ein Cyklus humoristisch-phantastischer Dichtungen (Berlin: Schuster und Loeffler, 1897); Galgenlieder (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1905); Galgenlieder, nebst dem Gingganz (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1909); Der Gingganz (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1919); Palmström (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1920); Auf vielen Wegen (Munich: R. Piper, 1921); Palma Kunkel (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1922); Einkehr (Munich: R. Piper, 1922); Melancholie (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1928)


Galgenlieder, trans. by Max Knight (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963); Gallows Songs (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967); The Great Lalula and Other Nonsense Rhymes (New York: Putnam, 1969); Gallows Songs: Galgenlieder (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1970); The Daynight Lamp, and Other Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973); Songs from the Gallows (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993)

For a discussion of the sound values in one of Morgenstern's poems, click here:

For a video performance of some of Morgenstern's "lyrics" in German, click below:

Das grosse Lalulā

Kroklokwafzi? Semeememi!
Bifzi, bafzi; hulalemi:
quasti basti bo...
Lalu, lalu, lalu, lalu la!

Hontraruru miromente
zasku zes rü rü?
Entepente, leiolente
klekwapufzi lü
lalu lalu lalu lalula!

Simarar kos malzipempu
silzuzandkundkrei (;) !
Marjomar dos: Quempu Lempu
Siri Suri Sei []!
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

The Two Donkeys

A gloomy donkey, tir-d of life
one day addressed his wedded wife:

"I am so dumb, you are so dumb,
let's go and die together, come!"

But as befalls, time and again,
they lived on happily, the twain.

--Translated from the German by Max Knight

(from Galgenlieder, 1905)

The Twelve Nix

The Twelve Nix raises up his hand
and midnight strikes throughout the land.

The gaping pond in silence harks;
the canyon canine softly barks.

The bittern rises from its bog;
out of his swampland peers the frog.

The snail perks up within his house,
and likewise the potato mouse.

The will o' wisp has stopped its jig
and rests upon a broken twig.

Sophia dreams, the hangman's wench:
The moonsheep pleads before the bench.

The gallows gang sways up and down;
an infant cries far off in town.

Two moles, just married, turn about
and kiss each other on the snout.

While deep within the forest's mist
a spiteful night ghoul shakes his fist

because a hiker, late on tour,
did not get lost in pond and moor.

The Raven Ralph calls out in fear;
"The end is near, the end is near!"

The Twelve Nix, now, puts down his hand
and sleep again enshrouds the land.

--Translated from the German by Karl F. Ross

(from Galgenlieder, 1905)


The Winglewangle phlutters
through windowadowood,
the crimson Fingoor splutters
and scary screaks the Scrod

--Translated from the German by Max Knight

(from Galgenlieder, 1905)


Palmström stands beside a pond
where a scarlet handkerchief he wide unfolds;
printed on it is an oak tree and, beyond,
a lone person and a book he holds.

Palmström does not dare to blow his nose;
he is plainly one of those
who at times, with sudden start,
feel a reverence for art.

He refolds with tender skill
what he just had spread out clean,
and no gentle soul with wish him ill
if, with nose unblown, we leave the scene.

--Translated from the German by Max Knight

(from Palmström, 1920)

English language copyright ©1963 by Max Knight. Reprinted from Galgenlieder (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).

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