English translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Mächtiges Überraschen"

translated by Rolf-Peter Wille

Goethe: Rapids of the River Reuss 

                      Mighty Surprise

From cloud enshrouded rocks a river gushes
Bound for the ocean’s fatherly embraces;
What yet may shimmer up from space to spaces,
Into the valley ceaselessly it rushes.
But demon-like quite suddenly there crashes—
Woods follow her and whirling mountain faces—
Down Óreas to find a realm of graces,
Hems in the basin, stems the mighty flushes.
The billow foams, and bends away, astounded,
And swells uphill, of its own selfhood drinking;
Dammed up is now all to-the-Father striving.
It sways and calms, into a lake rebounded;
While night stars, mirrored back, behold the blinking
Of breakers on the rocks—new life arriving.
(tr. by  Rolf-Peter Wille)

Goethe (Switzerland, 1775) 

                                                   A Sonnet Crushed by Rocks

by  Rolf-Peter Wille

Oreas is a (pseudo-Greek) mountain nymph. She makes another very short appearance in Faust 2 calling out from a natural rock to Mephistopheles: "Up here! My mountain ridge is old, / Arises in primeval mold." In Mighty Surprise the mountain nymph stands for a rockslide which stems the flow of the river turning it into a lake.

Goethe (Switzerland, 1775) [Goethezeitportal]

A real catastrophe in the Swiss Alps, the Goldau Rockslide (or Landslide), 1806, inspired Goethe. The Zürcher Zeitung described it thus: "Noises, crashing, cracking fill the air with deep roaring thunder: Whole stretches of soil torn away – pieces of rock, large and even larger than houses – whole rows of fir trees, standing upright and floating, are being flung through the thickened air at the speed of an arrow. Our paradise is transformed into hundreds and hundreds of wild death hills." A 10 meter high tsunami followed and the village of Goldau ceased to exist.

Goethe: Mount Etna

Goethe, who had visited the area in 1775, was shaken. The second quatrain [strophe] of his sonnet, the "mountain and woods in whirlwinds", seems to echo the newspaper report. Yet, Mighty Surprise is not about the transformation of a paradise into wild death hills, but about the transformation of a river into a lake. Oreas, as a counter force to the gushing river, is the catalyst of this surprising metamorphosis.

Goethe: Rhine Falls

The images in the last tercet [the last three lines of the sonnet] strangely mirror the first quatrain [the first four lines]: the river is now a lake, the cloud enshrouded rocks are lapped by breakers, the gushing water now sways and stays. While the river rushed forward regardless of anything that may mirror up, the stars are now reflected from the much calmer lake.

Goethe (lake)

A sonnet writer, or "sonnetist", knows that such a "strange mirroring", or transformation, lies in the nature of the Italian sonnet. A "resolution" to the opening "argument" of the quatrains is usually offered by the concluding tercets. The "argument" here is the clash of the first "river quatrain" with the second "rockslide" one being resolved by the "lake" tercets. In other words: this cataclysmic natural event seems perfectly suited to be expressed through the sonnet form and Goethe does it with verve. His verve, in fact, is as much counterpoint to the form as Oreas is to the river.

Goethe: Mountain Landscape With Rapids

But was not Goethe a sonnet hater? In 1800, perhaps as a reaction to a sonnet mania, Goethe wrote that he might like to write sonnets himself but would not feel comfortable with the artificial rhyme scheme:
"Thus might I like in stylish sonnets yet
With pride of effort eloquently put
In rhyme all things that—to my sense—are true.
Just how to lie with comfort in this bed?
Else do I love to carve whole blocks of wood,
Now should from time to time depend on glue."
(tr. RPW)
["Ich schneide sonst so gern aus ganzem Holze, / Und müßte nun doch auch mitunter leimen."]. Ironically these lines are from a sonnet—Goethe’s very first one (I am too lazy to translate the opening quatrains). A few years later Goethe wrote another sonnet about sonnet writing, pitting the "doubters" against the "lovers". It begins thus: "Ihr liebt, und schreibt Sonette! Weh der Grille!" Here is my translation of the opening quatrain:
"Sonnets you love and write! Woe to the whimsy!
The heart, with all its gift for revelation,
Shall ponder rhymes and their affiliation;
Oh children, trust in me, that aim is flimsy."
(tr. RPW)
The "doubters" conclude thus (as translated by John Whaley):
"Why torture then yourselves and us who read you
To push the stone uphill in steps so tiring
Whilst back it rolls and makes the struggle harder?"
to which the sonnet lovers reply:
"Our way is right, so don’t let that mislead you!
To melt the hardest stuff needs only firing
By all-consuming love’s commanding ardour."
(tr. John Whaley)
In Mighty Surprise that "hardest stuff", ironically appears to be the gushing river and it is dammed up by the energy of the rockslide. For the sonnetist, though, the "hardest stuff" is the sonnet form itself and here it is not only animated by Goethe’s powerful images of nature, but the rhetorical contortions of the second quatrain almost destroy it. Here is the "content" in "normal" prose: "But suddenly [nymph] Oreas crashes down like a demon in order to find comfort there. She is followed by mountains and woods in a whirlwind. As a result the flow is dammed up and the wide basin hemmed in."

This, now, is Goethe [in my translation]:
"But demon-like quite suddenly there crashes—
Woods follow her and whirling mountain faces—
Down Óreas to find a realm of graces,
Hems in the basin, stems the mighty flushes."
"Demon-like" is willfully pushed forward to the beginning of the sentence. But far more intrusive is the insertion "Woods follow her and whirling mountain faces", which radically cuts the main sentence into two halves. "But demon-like quite suddenly there crashes / down Oreas" would be an enjambment [running over from one verse line to the next]. With the inserted line cutting right into it, we now have to endure a suspended enjambment. I doubt that anyone could understand the quatrain on first reading.

Yet, Goethe is not interested in readability here, but enjoys expressing the radical transformation of landscape through radical language—not through description and "poetic" adjectives, but by twisting the language itself. More descriptive, in fact, is the first quatrain: "From cloud enshrouded rocks a river gushes" has a steady rhythm [more steady and majestic is the original German: "Ein Strom entrauscht umwölktem Felsensaale"] and rather regular stresses. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s Roman Fountain by comparison begins with far stronger rhythmic energy: "Up springs the spout and falling fills / to brim the marble basin’s round".

Goethe: Most Secret Residence

After the "cataclysmic" second quatrain, we would expect a calmer rhythm in the description of the lake. At first, though, the billow reacts, bends away astounded and swells uphill. The action or argument in a sonnet often "turns" around in its 9th verse line. This is called "volta", or "turn", and here the wave, or billow, turns quite literally:
"The billow foams, and bends away, astounded,
And swells uphill, of its own selfhood drinking;
Dammed up is now all to-the-Father ["father" = ocean] striving."
Goethe achieves the "swelling" through accumulation: "Die Welle sprüht, und staunt zurück und weichet, / Und schwillt bergan [polysyndeton: and, and, and].

Calmer now appears the final tercet. Stars, after all, are mirrored back and, apparently have enough leisure to behold the blinking of breakers on rocks. Here are the last two lines:
"While night stars, mirrored back, behold the blinking
Of breakers on the rocks—new life arriving." 
This does not sound calm at all. We still have an insertion and an enjambment and a separate conclusion—small aftershocks, perhaps. Thus each strophe has its own characteristic rhythm: the first one majestically flowing, impulsive and chaotic the second quatrain, dammed up and accumulated the third strophe and the final tercet rippling.

Goethe: Landscape With Clouds

Mächtiges Überraschen was written shortly after the Goldau Rockslide, in 1806 or perhaps in 1807. The title has been translated as follows: "Mighty Surprise", "Surprised by Might", "Immense Astonishment", "Unexpected Overwhelming". It was published in 1827 as the first number of a cycle containing 17 sonnets. The cycle’s motto is: "Liebe will ich liebend loben, / Jede Form, sie kommt von oben" [my translation: "Love I seek to laud with love, / Ev’ry form comes from above"].


Here is the original German:

            Mächtiges Überraschen

Ein Strom entrauscht umwölktem Felsensaale,
Dem Ocean sich eilig zu verbinden;
Was auch sich spiegeln mag von Grund zu Gründen,
Er wandelt unaufhaltsam fort zu Thale.

Dämonisch aber stürzt mit einem Male –
Ihr folgen Berg und Wald in Wirbelwinden –
Sich Oreas, Behagen dort zu finden,
Und hemmt den Lauf, begränzt die weite Schale.

Die Welle sprüht, und staunt zurück und weichet,
Und schwillt bergan, sich immer selbst zu trinken;
Gehemmt ist nun zum Vater hin das Streben.

Sie schwankt und ruht, zum See zurückgedeichet;
Gestirne, spiegelnd sich, beschaun das Blinken
Des Wellenschlags am Fels, ein neues Leben.

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