9 classic German poems: From politics to nursery rhymes
Published on August 25, 2022 / Updated on February 8, 2024
When you think of German poems, names like Goethe and Schiller probably come to mind. So, you might ask yourself: How am I ever going to read these in German? And you are right. Reading poems is never an easy task, but certainly worth it. Germany is known as the country of poets and thinkers. Learning German wouldn’t be complete without a look at some of the most important works of world literature. Don’t worry. You don’t have to tackle Faust right away. There are many famous short poems to start with. Some of them have even been set to music and have become popular nursery rhymes. Here are nine poems to start your literary journey.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the most notable proponents of the proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang between 1760 and the early 1780s. After traveling Italy, his ideals shifted from the importance of genius to the good, true and beautiful. This period is known as Weimarer Klassik with Goethe, Wieland, Herder and Schiller as its four most influential poets. Goethe was a universal talent and excelled not only as a poet but also as a scientist, philosopher and artist. While everyone has at least heard of Goethe’s famous poems “Die Leiden des jungen Werther” and of course his “Faust”, he is also the author of many short German poems. Some of these are among the best German love poems. “Der Strauß”, is also known as “Blumengruß” and has been set to music.
|Der Strauß, den ich gepflücket,
Grüße dich vieltausendmal!
Ich hab mich oft gebücket,
Ach, wohl eintausendmal,
Und ihn ans Herz gedrücket
|The bouquet that I gathered,
Greets you a thousand times over!
I have often stooped thus,
Ah, indeed a thousand times,
And clasped it to my heart,
A hundred thousand times!
Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller was a close friend of Goethe and shared many of his views on art. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” is still sung all over the world thanks to the fourth movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Part of which in turn became the anthem of Europe. The poem that celebrates the ideal of a peaceful world in which all humans are equal actually consists of nine stanzas in an early version, the latest revision comes without the last stanza and a different wording in the first. We have given you the famous first four lines of the poem celebrating a peaceful world in which all men are equal, but make sure to read all of it.
|Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elisium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken
Himmlische, dein Heiligthum.
|Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity [or: of gods],
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly one, thy sanctuary!
Heinrich Heine was born in 1797 into a Jewish family. In his own words, the doctor of law was a “entlaufener Romantiker” – a Romantic, but not quite. Feelings and nature are a recurrent theme in Heine’s work, and these are the features that made it so attractive to composers like Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. But with his irony, sarcasm and political topics the liberal radical, a third cousin of Karl Marx, shows himself as a child of the enlightenment and literary realism. Both commented on the riots sparked in 1844 by the working conditions of weavers in Silesia. Heine’s poem “The Silesian Weavers” consists of five stanzas of which we will give you the first.
|Im düstern Auge keine Träne,
Sie sitzen am Webstuhl und fletschen die Zähne:
»Deutschland, wir weben dein Leichentuch,
Wir weben hinein den dreifachen Fluch
-Wir weben, wir weben!
|Their gloom-enveloped eyes are tearless,
They sit at the spinning wheel, snarling cheerless:
“Germany, we weave your funeral shroud,
A threefold curse be within it endowed-
We’re weaving, we’re weaving!
Hans Theodor Woldsen Storm was born in 1817 in the Silesian town of Husum, under the rule of the King of Denmark. The lawyer shared not only his profession but also his liberal views with Heine, and of course his literary fame. Storm is one of the most notable authors of literary realism, but focuses less on the political and more on the timeless conflict between man and nature with strong pictures inspired by the landscape of his coastal home. Dedicated to his place of birth, “The Town” is a perfect example.
|Am grauen Strand, am grauen Meer
Und seitab liegt die Stadt;
Der Nebel drückt die Dächer schwer,
Und durch die Stille braust das Meer
Eintönig um die Stadt.
Es rauscht kein Wald, es schlägt im Mai
Kein Vogel ohn Unterlaß;
Die Wandergans mit hartem Schrei
Nur fliegt in Herbstesnacht vorbei,
Am Strande weht das Gras.
Doch hängt mein ganzes Herz an dir,
Du graue Stadt am Meer;
Der Jugend Zauber für und für
Ruht lächelnd doch auf dir, auf dir,
Du graue Stadt am Meer.
|By the grey shore, by the grey sea—
And close by lies the town—
The fog rests heavy round the roofs
And through the silence roars the sea
Monotonously round the town.
No forest murmurs, no bird sings
Unceasingly in May;
The wand’ring goose with raucous cry
On autumn nights just passes by,
On the shoreline waves the grass.
Yet all my heart remains with you,
O grey town by the sea;
Youth’s magic ever and a day
Rests smiling still on you, on you,
O grey town by the sea.
Wilhelm Busch was a poet, illustrator and painter who lived and worked through most of the 19th century. His innovative satires exposed the bigotry of contemporary life and provided moral uplift. Future generations drew inspiration from the innovative artist such as the Katzenjammer kids from the famous Max and Maurice. We can only give the opening lines of the story in seven Scherze (tricks), but you will surely want to read on.
|Ach, was muß man oft von bösen
Kindern hören oder lesen!
Wie zum Beispiel hier von diesen,
welche Max und Moritz hießen;
Die, anstatt durch weise Lehren
sich zum Guten zu bekehren,
oftmals noch darüber lachten
und sich heimlich lustig machten.
|Ah, how oft we read or hear of
Boys we almost stand in fear of!
For example, take these stories
Of two youths, named Max and Moritz,
Who, instead of early turning
Their young minds to useful learning,
Often leered with horrid features
At their lessons and their teachers.
August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben was a university teacher. Like so many important poets of the 19th century, he was a liberal hoping for a united Germany. He wrote “Das Lied der Deutschen” 1841 on the isle of Heligoland, a British colony, against territorial claims of France on the Rhineland. He meant it to accompany the melody of Haydn’s Austrian hymn for the Kaiser, “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”. With the beginning of the Weimar Republic, the third stanza became the text of the national anthem. Heine and others didn’t think much of the poetry Fallersleben wrote for the bourgeois society of his time, but his nursery rhymes became popular in his days and are still known to every German child, like “Ein Männlein steht im Walde” (first stanza).
|Ein Männlein steht im Walde ganz still und stumm;
Es hat vor lauter Purpur ein Mäntlein um.
Sagt, wer mag das Männlein sein,
das da steht im Wald alleinmit dem purpurroten Mäntelein?
|A little man stands in the forest completely still and quiet.
He wears a little, pure purple cloak.
Say! Who can that little man be
Who stands there alone in the forestWith the little crimson cloak?
Christian Otto Josef Wolfgang Morgenstern was born in 1871 in Munich and spent most of his life traveling through Germany, Switzerland and Italy. He was well acquainted with many of the big names in literature and philosophy of his days. His own work was influenced by English literary nonsense and targeted scholasticism in all its narrow-minded forms. A still popular quote is from Die unmögliche Tatsache (The Impossible fact):
|Weil, so schließt er messerscharf
Nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf.
|For, he reasons pointedly
That which must not, can not be.
Ingeborg Bachmann is an Austrian poet of the 20th century. Born in 1926 she studied psychology, philosophy and German. She saw the rise of the Nazi regime and lived through WWII. Fascism, emancipation and philosophy are recurring themes in her poetry. In very few words she brings up topics of truth and language while evoking strong emotions as in Bleib (Stay), which opens with the following lines:
|Die Fahrten gehn zu Ende,der Fahrtenwind bleibt aus.
Es fällt in die Händeein leichtes Kartenhaus.
|Now the journey is ending,the wind is losing heart.
Into your hands it’s falling,a rickety house of cards.
The Jewish satirist writing in Berlin slang would not side with anyone: Communists, republicans, clergymen and even the Jewish community found him at fault, to say the least. Foreseeing the Third Reich, he claimed in 1931 that the Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers) had become Richter und Henker (judges and hangmen). He fled Germany in 1933 and took his own life in 1938, despairing over what seemed to be the imminent victory of the Nazi regime. The poem “Augen in der Großstadt” which starts with the following lines, features as a song in Edgar Reitz’s movie Die zweite Heimat.
|Wenn du zur Arbeit gehst
am frühen Morgen,
wenn du am Bahnhof stehst
mit deinen Sorgen:
da zeigt die Stadt dir asphaltglatt
Zwei fremde Augen, ein kurzer Blick,
die Braue, Pupillen, die Lider –
Was war das? vielleicht dein Lebensglück…
vorbei, verweht, nie wieder.
|When you go to work
early in the morning
when you stand in the station
with all your troubles:
the city shows you asphalt-smoothin
a funnel of peoplea million faces:
Two strange eyes, a quick glance,
the brows, the pupils, the lids –
What was that? Your happiness, perhaps…
gone, passed, no more.
The 18th and 19th centuries produced some of the biggest names in poetry, but the art form is still very much alive up to this day. Goethe for sure has written some of the most famous poems of all time, but also some of the best obscure German love poems. Many German poems are rather long, political works, which can be intimidating. For language learning, start with some easy and short German poems like nursery rhymes and work your way up through the most important works of literary history.