English translation of Heinrich Heine's "Du bist wie eine Blume"

(Heinrich Heine)

     Du bist wie eine Blume

Du bist wie eine Blume,
So hold und schön und rein;
Ich schau' dich an, und Wehmut
Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.
Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt',
Betend, daß Gott dich erhalte
So rein und schön und hold.
                 Heinrich Heine, 1823

   You Are so Like a Flower
You are so like a flower,
So fair and pure and fine;
I gaze on you, and sadness
Steals through the heart of mine.
It is, as though I should gently
Lay hands upon your hair,
Praying to God, that He keep you
So fine and pure and fair.

                   (tr. by Rolf-Peter Wille)

                                 Heine's "Flower Rhythm"
               in "Du bist wie eine Blume" (You Are so Like a Flower)

             (this essay includes the famous translation by the late Yoda
              as well as three excerpts from Chekhov's "Two Beauties")

by Rolf-Peter Wille

Who is the fair flower in this poem? I feel it must be the poem itself because what could be more fair and pure and fine and simple and natural? So simple and natural, in fact, that we may miss its beauty. And its irony.

Let us assume God ignored our prayer. The flower wilts and the poem could then sound like this:
O dear, o lovely flower,
So pure and fair to see;
I look at you, and sadness
Comes stealing over me. 
I lay my hand in blessing
Upon your golden hair,
That God may always keep you
So lovely, pure and fair.
Well, this doesn't sound too bad, does it? In fact I have culled these lines from other translations. On second hearing though, we easily sense the kitsch ("lovely", "golden", etc.). And worse: the verse drones along with strong accents on every foot:
O dear, o lovely flower,
So pure and fair to see;
I look at you, and sadness
Comes stealing over me.
Compare this to the original first line:
Du bíst wie eine Blúme
The accent on "ei" is quite weak and and in recitation this prompts a slight acceleration towards the main accent on "Blu". The "st" consonants in "bist" ask for a very small retention of the tempo before "wie". "Du bíst…: wieeine Blúme." "Thou art so like a flower" would correspond well with the German line. Unfortunately "thou art" sounds antiquated. Closer even is "Thou seem’st to be a flower". The "st" in "seem’st" corresponds with the "st" in "bist" and the assonance "Thou/flower" resembles "Du/Blume". Again "Thou seem’st" sounds far too "biblical". Translations of Heine strangely decay much faster than his German. "You are so like a flower" sounds nice, as long as the "so" is pronounced nonchalantly:
You áre… so-like-a-flówer
How different the second line now! It has three equally strong accents: "So hold und schön und rein;" ("So fáir and púre and fíne"). This and the repetition of "and" (polysyndeton) asks for a ritenuto in declamation. Time seems to have been suspended in this "so fair and pure and fine". Heine could have intensified the effect thus: so fair, so pure, so fine, and some translators have actually done this:
"Thou seemest like a flower,
so fair, so pure, so bright.
A melancholy yearning
steals over me at thy sight."
But this sounds too blatantly like advertising: Buy flowers—so fair, so pure, so bright!!! Heine, in the original German, has avoided both assonance and alliteration. "Hold", "schön" and "fein" do not share any letters except for the final "n" in "schön" and "fein". Each accent falls onto another vowel (o-ö-ei) and the effect of this is not only variegation as in the color of flowers but also a retention of tempo. Each attribute "blooms" in our ear. As the graceful acceleration in "wie eine Blume" (so like a flower) resembles its sprouting, the second line evokes the triple blooming of a flower:
You are    so like a flower,
So fair    and pure    and fine;

This "flower" effect—the sprouting, blooming—neither results from a prosaic report, nor from metaphorical description. It is evoked through sound and rhythm.

Compare these two lines with the prose sentence:
You are as fair, pure and fine as a flower.
Or compare it to the kitsch "translation":
Oh fair, oh sweet and holy
as dew at morning tide,
Here the original again:
You are so like a flower,
So fair and pure and fine;

Quite different is the rhythmic shape of the next two lines:
I gaze on you, and sadness
Steals through the heart of mine.
In my "wilted" version—I look at you, and sadness / Comes stealing over me—the accentuation drones on metrically. If the fourth line begins with "steals" though, this creates an inverted accent (trochaic substitution) asking for a fermata. A hesitation on "Steals" supports the "creepy" effect. The German "Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein" translates more literally "creeps (me) into my heart". I did not find an English word with the somewhat dirty "sch"- and "ch"-sounds of "schleicht". Neither could I emulate the painfully stretched "Wehmut" which is not only "sadness" but rather "woeness". The long "eh" in the German original creates a painful dissonance with the colorful "o-ö-ei" vowels of the second line.

The third line opens rather innocuously: "I glance on you". How do we expect this to continue? Probably:
I glance on you and—alas:
Love blossoms in my heart!
When, instead of sweet love, sadness creeps in, the effect is surprising, ironic perhaps: "fair and pure and fine" with you, ...and "creeping sadness" with me.

The rhetorical/musical shape of the first stanza would thus be:
thesis (proposition)
1st  line: "sprouting" (antecedent)
2nd line: "blooming" (consequent)
                                                            fine = half cadence
antithesis (refutation)
3rd line and 4th line (antecedent and consequent connected)
                                                       of mine = full cadence
The fermata on "Steals" underlines the enjambment from the 3rd to the 4th line merging these two lines. The shape of the stanza is analogous to a four-bar phrase in music: 1 bar + 1 bar + 2 bars. As the second stanza hardly has caesuras between its lines the complete shape of the poem could be compared to an eight-bar phrase: 1 + 1 + 2 + 4, or perhaps to a 16-bar period 2 + 2 + 4 + 8.

If I call the first two lines "thesis" and the next two "antithesis", the second stanza could be called "synthesis". It connects the "You" and the "I", "my hands" and "your hair" (or "head", actually). At least in the imagination of the poet. Here is the stanza as a prose sentence:
I should lay my hands upon your head and pray that God may preserve your beauty.
"I should". But I won’t do it? In Heine it is yet more subtle: "It is" (I feel, meseems) as if I should. This certainly does sound ironic especially as the "It is" (Meseems) seems to parody the "You are" of the first stanza’s opening: "Du bist—Mir ist"

I feel hot. I feel terrible (reading this analysis, for example). But "I feel as if I should"? The possible activity has been "downgraded" to a sentiment here: After this heavy meal I feel, as if I should go to the health club and work out (but, of course, I drink a beer instead).

In the German original:
Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt’,
Heine uses a chiastic (cross) structure:

I believe it is impossible to translate this without being accused of Yodaism (the rhetorical figure of anastrophe). Nobody has tried so far:
Meseems, as if I the hands now
On th’head of yours should lay,
Even Yoda—who may have been German, perhaps—would not dare to say that. And, incidentally, I do wonder how Yoda might have translated this poem. Well, maybe thus:
So Like a Flow’r Thou Seemest

So like a flow’r thou seemest,
So fair and pure it feels.
On thee I gaze, and sadness
Into my heart it steals.
My hands, meseems, that I should now
Upon thy head them lay,
That God preserve thee praying
So pure and fine and gay.
                                            tr. by Yoda

(This just as a digression and a short reprieve from my dry analysis.)

"Praying"—like "Steals" before—creates an inverted accent again. The long "e" of "Betend" reminds us of the "eh" sound in "Wehmut" (sadness, or "woeness").

"Betend, daß Gott dich erhalte" (Praying, that God may keep you): The German "erhalte" can have two meanings: keep (preserve) or receive. Obviously God should preserve your beauty and purity. On the other hand "receive" is not entirely nonsensical. If God receives your beauty, it means that you have been pure even in death and go to Heaven. But the parody of the last line, how Heine—Yoda-like—inverts the "hold und schön und rein" to "rein und schön und hold" sounds ironic again. I thus doubt this second, religious, meaning of "erhalte" and meseems, that "your beauty" here has almost seduced an atheist to pray to God.

In conclusion I would like to contemplate the dangerous liaisons between beauty and sadness. But, luckily, I decided to repress my further rumination and rather quote three excerpts from Anton Chekhov’s tale (or literary essay, perhaps) [Two] Beauties, 1888:
As a boy the narrator is traveling with his grandfather by horse carriage to Rostov-on-Don. When they arrive at an Armenian village they make a stop at the estate of an Armenian who is a friend of his grandfather. The daughter of the Armenian is a true beauty and when she offers the boy a glass of tea, he feels "as though a wind were blowing over his soul":
"I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstasy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again. My grandfather, too, grew melancholy; he talked no more about manure or about oats, but sat silent, looking pensively at Masha."
"And the oftener she fluttered by me with her beauty, the more acute became my sadness. I felt sorry both for her and for myself and for the Little Russian, who mournfully watched her every time she ran through the cloud of chaff to the carts. Whether it was envy of her beauty, or that I was regretting that the girl was not mine, and never would be, or that I was a stranger to her; or whether I vaguely felt that her rare beauty was accidental, unnecessary, and, like everything on earth, of short duration; or whether, perhaps, my sadness was that peculiar feeling which is excited in man by the contemplation of real beauty, God only knows."
The following paragraph refers to another beauty overlooked on a train:
"On the platform between our carriage and the next the guard was standing with his elbows on the railing, looking in the direction of the beautiful girl, and his battered, wrinkled, unpleasantly beefy face, exhausted by sleepless nights and the jolting of the train, wore a look of tenderness and of the deepest sadness, as though in that girl he saw happiness, his own youth, soberness, purity, wife, children; as though he were repenting and feeling in his whole being that that girl was not his, and that for him, with his premature old age, his uncouthness, and his beefy face, the ordinary happiness of a man and a passenger was as far away as heaven. . . ."    
(translation by Constance Garnett, 1921)

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