Winterreise article


Erstarrung uses the same stanza pattern as Gefrorne Tränen and Der Lindenbaum. I have already worked out that Müller deliberately chose the patterns he found in Des Knaben Wunderhorn to make his poems folksong-like. He was a gifted and learned poet and used classical verse for some of his works on Greece and the Greek. So everyone who calls him a naive poet is - well - naive himself. Sometimes the title of this Lied is translated with Numbness. This is not wrong but misses the point of coldness, the associations of winter, of frozen water, of stiff limbs. I would choose the words Freezing and Paralysis as title translations. It is a paradoxical title since there is a lot of moving going on in the poem but it is circular motion, leading nowhere.

The first stanza

Ich such im Schnee vergebens
Nach ihrer Tritte Spur,
Wo sie an meinem Arme
Durchstrich die grüne Flur.
(In vain I am seeking her footprint's trail
in the snow where she rambled on my
arm through the green meadows.)

There are a lot of mad things people do when their hearts are broken. To look for a long-gone trail or trace is not the most crazy. Yet the image is moving: the stressed word in the first line is "vergebens" (in vain), naiveley pointing out the senselessness of the poetic I's action. Here he was happy once ("Der Mai war mir gewogen" as it was put in the first Lied), here she went on his arm ("an meinem Arme"). The simplest contrast marks the bitter change in his life: then the world was green, now it is white and her trail is gone. Maybe "trace" is the better word: in any case he looks for her footprints to have something to follow, to have a guideline in life again. Here is a man who is utterly lost, who has no concept, who desperately needs to find a trace - but he won't find it because time has changed.

The second stanza

Ich will den Boden küssen,
Durchdringen Eis und Schnee
Mit meinen heissen Tränen,
Bis ich die Erde seh.
(I want to kiss the ground, to pierce
ice and snow with my hot tears
until I see the earth.)

Up to this line the wanderer is just another unhappy lover with no talent to give up hope. Here he crosses the line to madness. The idea is clear though utterly crazy: here he went together with her, here the two of them left their footprints. Now snow covers the ground and together with the ground their trail. If he could move away the snow he would find the footprints again. He doesn't do it, he just wants to do it - but anyway: the sheer idea of a man leaning on snow and melting away the ice with his tears hurts. Müller takes up the words of the last stanza of Gefrorene Tränen here: the heat of the tears, the notion to destroy the snow. "Durchdringen" is a word that is nearer to "penetrate with force" than to "pierce" - there is energy and strength in it - the strength of desperation.

Stanza three

Wo find ich eine Blüte,
Wo find ich grünes Gras ?
Die Blumen sind erstorben,
Der Rasen sieht so blass.
(Where do I find a blossom, where
do I find green grass? The flowers
have died away, the lawn looks so pale.)

The first two stanzas consist of one long sentence each, now there are questions, questions without answers. The mad energy is gone, now there is nothing but helplessness and despair. May has gone for good: what the wanderer so urgently needs, some signs of the happy time of his life, blossoms, green grass, has vanished. The world is dead, colourless ("blass"). The German participle "erstorben" stresses the act of dying, so emphasizing the idea of gone life. Of all Winterreise poems this is the one which leads into the most total loneliness and misery.

Stanza four

Soll denn kein Angedenken
Ich nehmen mit von hier ?
Wenn meine Schmerzen schweigen,
Wer sagt mir dann von ihr ?
(Shall I then take no keepsake with me
from here? When my grief is silent
who will speak to me about her?)

Again questions. Again no answers. He wants a souvenir, a memento but there is nothing. The form of the question ("Soll denn...") stresses the victim role of the poetic I - it seems like a stroke of fate, like a deliberate act of mischievous gods that he is to leave without anything to remind him of his gone happiness. And now he speaks out: left without keepsakes like flowers or trails or whatever there are only his sorrows, there is only his grief to remind him. And when once his grief is stilled nothing will remain of this time of this life. Here we are at the heart of the wanderer's "neurosis": he desperately clings to his grief because he cannot let go of the woman he so dearly loved. He sees no alternative to this concept: suffering is the bond beetween him and her, he gives himself over to this suffering. The whole Winterreise is proof of this. And finally the poetic I becomes this very suffering. The last Lieder do not speak of the beloved anymore but they still speak of suffering: man has become the medium for grief, life and grief are identical.

The last stanza

Mein Herz ist wie erstorben,
Kalt starrt ihr Bild darin:
Schmilzt je das Herz mir wieder,
Fliesst auch ihr Bild dahin.
(My heart seems like having died away,
cold and frozen her image in it: if my heart
ever melts again her image, too, will flow away.)

This last stanza (no question, a statement) is a variation of the fourth stanza. The wanderer cannot let go grief, it is his only connection with her, his lost and unfaithful beloved. This stanza brings two interesting details:

  1. The wanderer's heart is "erstorben". Müller used the same participle for the flowers in stanza three - man responds to nature, is winter's victim as nature is it.
  2. "Kalt starrt ihr Bild darin" - the German verb "starren" can mean two things. First it can be an old form of "erstarren" - to be frozen. This would mean that the girl's image is frozen in a frozen heart. Secondly it can mean "to stare". This would mean that the image has a dead, ice-cold glance. This image is absolutely horrifying: the beloved seems to be transformed into a kind of wicked and sinister icon. No tender and charming atttributes remain. It is the more frightening that the wanderer wants to hold on to this ominous love goddess. He cannot let go, he knows that it is destroying his life but he simply cannot let go.

Robert Peters © 2000