Friday, 16 September 2011

A translation of Goethe's sonnet about nature and art

Natur und Kunst, sie scheinen sich zu fliehen

Natur und Kunst, sie scheinen sich zu fliehen
Und haben sich, eh man es denkt, gefunden;
Der Widerwille ist auch mir verschwunden,
Und beide scheinen gleich mich anzuziehen.

Es gilt wohl nur ein redliches Bemühen!
Und wenn wir erst in abgemeßnen Stunden
Mit Geist und Fleiß uns an die Kunst gebunden,
Mag frei Natur im Herzen wieder glühen.

So ists mit aller Bildung auch beschaffen:
Vergebens werden ungebundne Geister
Nach der Vollendung reiner Höhe streben.

Wer Großes will, muß sich zusammenraffen;
In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.

Nature and art, they seem to shun each other

Nature and art, they seem to shun each other
Yet in a trice can draw back close once more;
The aversion’s gone too that I felt before,
Both equally attract me, I discover.

An honest effort’s all that we require!
Only when we’ve assigned art clear-cut hours,
With full exertion of our mental powers,
Is nature free our hearts once more to inspire.

Such is the case with all forms of refinement:
In vain will spirits lacking due constraint
Seek the perfection of pure elevation.

He who’d do great things must display restraint;
The master shows himself first in confinement,
And law alone can grant us liberation.

Goethe sees nature and art as apparently opposing forces, like magnets that repel each other, only to be attracted to each other again. In the poet, apparent aversion is a stage that is now past – he sees no real opposition between the two.
The basic human path of personal development (Bildung) is seen as being from the freedom of nature (the innocence of childhood) through willing subjection to the rigours of art to a higher form of (adult) freedom. This is a highly common theme in Romantic poetry, for example. Opposed to this is the idea of the human spirit being unwilling to subject itself to the law of art, of choosing licence instead of working for freedom. But this inability to bind oneself cannot lead to any real form of emancipation or liberation. For the true aim of personal development is to attain ‘the perfection of pure elevation’. Belief in the supreme power of individual genius, of unbridled imagination - the fundamentalist side of Romanticism - is rejected in the poem.
English has no one term that can satisfactorily translate ‘Bildung’. It has many meanings, but one of the crucial ones is personal ‘forming’ or ‘shaping’. It can also refer to the result of this process. 
Note that Goethe does not use the word 'Kultur' - this operates at a higher level than the individual.
The basic message of the poem is that you have to observe the laws, gain mastery of them, before you are allowed to go beyond them. Goethe is well over his 'Sturm und Drang' phase. The poem was written in 1800.

For a very different translation of the same poem, I would refer you to that of David Luke.


John Irons said...

this page has had over 1,500 visitors as of today (28.10.14), i just wonder why it is so popular, apart from the fact that it's goethe at his best.

John Irons said...

i have found two more translations of the poem at this address: