Winterreise article

Der Lindenbaum

What, then, is a folk song, ein Volkslied? (And what, then, is folk?) Well, there are two types of folk songs: the ones whose author is unknown and the ones whose author is known. Both types have been proven extremely popular in the so-called "folk", the ordinary country people, peasants, shepherds, grandmothers, hangmen and so on. The anonymous songs have been altered a lot before one day a learned guy wanted to write them down. (And the learned guys, like Herder, Goethe, Brentano and von Arnim, deliberately altered the simple folk songs when they thought them too simple - or too indecent.)

Der Lindenbaum is a folk song which belongs to the second class of folk songs: songs we know the authors of (sometimes even the composers) but who proved so catchy and moving that they became popular with, well, the ordinary people.

Everyone in Germany has come across Am Brunnen vor dem Tore once in his or her life. It is one of the most popular German folk songs, sung in a tune that is a little bit simpler than the Schubert melody (well, not everyone is a Prey or Fischer-Dieskau, not even a Bocelli). Most people would be highly astonished should they learn that there is an author to this poem. The romantic idea still survives that the "folk" wrote those songs, that they stem from the folk's dreamworld and its subconsious - like the fairy tales. Well, today we know that the Grimms not only collected but also rewrote the fairy tales. There goes another childhood myth... But let us now talk about Der Lindenbaum.

In the previous essays on Müller's Winterreise I already talked about the stanzas chosen by Müller and we saw that Müller, an extremely well-read guy, deliberately chose the stanzas made popular by Brentano and von Arnim in their folk song anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (by the way, the folk songs in this collection are more original creations by the two poets than real documents). Der Lindenbaum is another example of this deliberate artistic method: it presents the four-line-stanza (or, if you want so, the eight-line-stanza) we already know from Gute Nacht, the first song of the cycle. So, if you want more information on this stanza, please look it up in my essay on Gute Nacht.

I treat the stanzas in Der Lindenbaum as eight-line-stanzas. I think it simply makes more sense but it's not a dogma.

Before we begin with the word-for-word-analysis please note the similarity of the Lindenbaum setting with the setting of Grimm's The Frog Prince: the well and the wood respectively the linden tree. These are strong maternal symbols of shelter. Read the rest in the books by our friends, the Freudians.

The first stanza

Am Brunnen vor dem Tore
Da steht ein Lindenbaum;
Ich träumt in seinem Schatten
So manchen süßen Traum.
Ich schnitt in seine Rinde
So manches liebe Wort;
Es zog in Freud und Leide
Zu ihm mich immer fort.
(By the well before the gate there
stands a linden tree; I dreamed in its
shadow some sweet dreams. I carved
in its bark some words of love; in joy
and sorrow I was ever drawn to it.)

We understand Heine's envy: these are beautifully simple lines, emotional but not sentimental, using no metaphors but moving and impressive images.

Someone (we know it is our wanderer, the poor heartbroken chap) remembers a linden tree. The whole stanza is full of beauty but it is a beauty remembered. We think we can see the very place in our minds: the big, large, sheltering linden tree, the well, ah, we hear the water. What a nice sound! It is a quiet place now but it is not always since it is a popular place, too. The city gate is near, now and then (maybe it is afternoon) people come to fetch some water, to have a little conversation. But we just sit and relax. Now look, there is a young chap, ah, it is the guy who is so in love with whatshername. He carves her name into the linden tree's bark as so many guys have done before him. There are numerous hearts, slowly moving upwards as the giant tree still grows. And now our friend takes a nap in the tree's shadow. We can see that he is dreaming a jolly good dream, he is smiling. It is May, life is wonderful. And this young man not only has a sweetheart but also a place where he can go and a soul friend. Who is his soul friend, his confidant? It is the linden tree. Yes, nature is his friend. This place, full of memories, full of dreams, full of peace draws him to it. "It" draws him as the text literally says. - Cut. Winter. A broken heart. A lost hope. And the linden tree, the soul friend: memory. Now a leafless guardian before the city gate where she lives, the faithless one. We have to pass this guardian in the middle of the night.

The second stanza

Ich mußt auch heute wandern
Vorbei in tiefer Nacht,
Da hab ich noch im Dunkel
Die Augen zugemacht.
Und seine Zweige rauschten,
Als riefen sie mir zu:
Komm her zu mir, Geselle,
Hier findst du deine Ruh!
(Today, too, I had to wander past in
the dead of night; then I closed my eyes
even in the darkness. And its branches
rustled as if they were calling to me: Come
over to me, chap, here you will find your rest!)

It was Thomas Mann in his magnificent novel The Magic Mountain who explained in a wonderful passage of the wonderful chapter Fülle des Wohllauts (Richness of melodious sound - read it, read it, read it) that the topic of Der Lindenbaum is death, nothing else. And right he is. What kind of rest is the linden tree talking about, now in the dead of winter and the dead of night? It is definitely not the sweetheart, this would be too cynic (and have you ever met a cynical tree?) and far-fetched.

The wanderer closes his eyes as he wanders past the tree, a forced rambler not a voluntary one ("Ich mußt auch heute wandern" - I had to...). The wanderer shuts himself to the place where he was so happy, to the tree he saw as a soul friend. But still nature is sympathetic but now it is a sinister and ghastly sympathy: it is a call to eternal rest, to rest forever. The depressed soul of the wanderer is mirrowed in nature. It is striking that the wanderer does not yield to this call. He is not like the miller in Die schöne Müllerin who obviously commits suicide or gives in to death by broken heart. The wanderer wants to live on, he wants to suffer. (Well, this is now - Das Wirtshaus is yet to come.)

Stanza three

Die kalten Winde bliesen
Mir grad ins Angesicht,
Der Hut flog mir vom Kopfe,
Ich wendete mich nicht.
Nun bin ich manche Stunde
Entfernt von jenem Ort
Und immer hör ichs rauschen:
Du fändest Ruhe dort!
(The cold winds blew straight into my
face, the hat flew from my head, I did
not turn. Now I am some hours away
from that place and still I hear the
rustling: You would find rest there!)

Nature does everything to literally turn the wanderer: cold winds straight in the face, the hat blown away. But no, he is on his way. It is highly symbolic that the hat, the shelter, is blown away. The wanderer now is without protection, given over to the elements (and is so since Lied No. 3, since Der Lindenbaum is memory and the wanderer has already gone out of the city gates, past the linden tree).

But even some hours away from the place of his happiness (by the way, "manch eine Stunde" is not "many an hour" as many a translator says, it is "some hour" and nothing else) the wanderer still hears the tree's call. Now, is the promised rest really death? I think so, others do not. In any case there is no return possible. The bride is given to someone else, the words in the bark are only memory now, the dream gone. But maybe the tree (like the brook in Die schöne Müllerin) wants to call the wanderer back into life, to a second (and third and fourth...) possible happiness? Maybe; this is a wonderful thought. But our stubborn friend does not turn. This could be the motto of the whole cycle, of the whole depression-loving attitude of the guy: "Ich wendete mich nicht."

Robert Peters © 2000