“Mist” by Nikolaus Lenau

Nikolaus Lenau was the nom de plume of Nikolaus Franz Niembsch Edler von Strehlenau, a poet who is now considered one the most important voices of Late-Romantic literature in German. 

A portrait of Lenau by Matevž Langus

Born in Csatád in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Lenauheim in the Banat region of western Romania) in 1802, he studied in Vienna and Bratislava, tried his luck in a utopian commune in Indiana, went from there to Germany, until he finally settled in Austria. Although ‘settled’ is an understatement: exhibiting signs of serious mental illness, he was committed to an asylum near Vienna where he died in 1850.

As is the case with many other poets of the period, not only those writing in German, Lenau’s works are characterised by pessimism, melancholy and Weltschmerz. If you’re into classical music, you’ll be interested to know that quite a few of his poems were turned into music by composers such as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Robert Schumann, and Richard Strauss.

The poem I’ve chosen for this post is a very brief one, typical of his romanticist interest in nature, coupled with his struggle with sadness and depression. The English translation is taken from the collection of poems titled “A Century of German Lyrics” selected and translated by Kate Freiligrath-Kroeker, published in New York in 1894. 

English-language learners, as in most of my other poetry posts, you’ll find a vocabulary exercise at the bottom (with a link to the answer key). If you’re confused about the ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ words, have a look at this post.


MIST

Grey envious mist, thou still dost hide
Valley and river’s run,
The forest on the mountain side,
And every gleam of sun.

Take thou into thy sombre night
This earth so broad and vast;
Take all that makes my soul so sad,
Take, too, away the Past!

People say, not without reason, that something always gets lost in translation. If you happen to speak or learn German, you can compare Freiligrath-Kroeker’s translation with the original:

NEBEL

Du, trüber Nebel, hüllest mir
Das Tal mit seinem Fluß,
Den Berg mit seinem Waldrevier
Und jeden Sonnengruß.

Nimm fort in deine graue Nacht
Die Erde weit und breit!
Nimm fort, was mich so traurig macht,
Auch die Vergangenheit!

VOCABULARY EXERCISE

Match the following words with the synonyms (or partial synonyms) found in the poem:

enormous, limitless (adj.)

ray, beam (n.)

spirit (n.)

woods (n.)

serious, solemn (adj.)

fog (n.)

extensive (adj.)

jealous (adj.)

To check your answers, please click on this link.

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