Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Journey

It is ten years since the untimely death of W. G. Sebald and earlier this month there was a special event to celebrate his work and launch Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001. There were contributions from Iain Sinclair, A. S. Byatt, Andrew Motion and others who knew him (like poet Will Stone, whose recollections of studying with Sebald were particularly poignant).  It was sad to reflect that the last time I had seen translator Anthea Bell on stage it was next to Sebald himself, reading from the recently-published Austerlitz.  The crumbling Victorian Wilton's Music Hall was a particularly resonant setting for the readings, and for the performance of songs from Schubert's Winterreise by Ian Bostridge.  Hearing the Winterreise in this context prompted thoughts of all the journeys and sadness in Sebald's writings.  

There are many clips online of Ian Bostridge performing the Winterreise - the one I've included above is the opening song in the sequence.  I thought it would be interesting to provide here short summaries of the cycle's twenty-four songs, to show how many of them start with some aspect of the winter landscape - the rustling sound of linden trees, ice on a frozen river, a tree's last few leaves trembling in the wind.  Many of these natural elements are evoked in Schubert's piano score (for example, in 'Der Lindenbaum', 'the piano’s fluttering triplet figuration in E major which opens the song evokes the gentle breezes and whispering leaves of summer: the figure returns later, altered with chromatic harmonies, to depict the cold wind and eerie rustling of the tree in winter, and the young man’s growing sense of delusion'.)  Rather than do a plain synopsis I've turned the Winterreise below into a set of tanka-style verses - I know this is a complete travesty (as Mrs Plinius was quick to point out when she saw what I was doing) but I just found it more fun than writing a set of bullet points... I've based this on the English translation at the Lied, Art Song and Choral Text Archive, using Arthur Rishi's titles; you can follow the link to read proper translations, or the original German poems by Wilhelm Müller. 
Good Night

I leave, a stranger -
Remembering the flowers
And the talk of love
As I walk this path in snow
And write “Good Night” on thegate.

The Weathervane

The weathervane blows
Whistling at this fugitive.
In that house, the wind
Plays quietly withpeople’s hearts.
What is my suffering tothem?

Frozen tears

Frozen teardrops fall
Like morning dew turned toice
But spring from a heart
That’s burning hot enoughto
Melt all the ice of winter.


No trace of her now
Walking on this once greenfield.
Pale turf, dead flowers.
And if my dead heartshould thaw,
Her image would melt away.

The linden tree

By a fountain, near the gate:
A linden tree. Though it’s dark
I try not to see
The words of love we carvedthere.
Still, I hear the tree rustling.


The snow drinks my tears,
But when the grass starts to grow
And the ice breaks up
A brook will carry them through
The town’s streets and past herhouse.
On the stream

Wild stream, with a hard
Solid crust of ice onwhich
I carve her name, and
A broken ring.  Underneath
There is a surgingtorrent.

Backward Glance

I’ll not pause until
The town is out of sightwhere
Once the windows shone,
The linden trees wereblooming
And a girl’s eyes wereglowing.


A will-o'-the-wisp
Led me astray. Now I walk
Down a stream’s drycourse.
Every stream will find the sea,
Every sorrow finds its grave.


Too cold to stand still
I’ve walked this desolateroad.
Sheltering now in
A coal burner’s narrow hut
I cannot rest, my woundsstill burn.

A Dream of Springtime

Dreaming of flowers
And the song of birds inMay,
I wake in the dark
With ravens shriekingabove.
When will all these leavesturn green?


A dark cloud passing
Through clear skies, I make myway
Through bright, joyful life.
When the tempests were raging
I was not so miserable.

The post

What makes my heart leap
At the sound of a posthorn
Coming from the street?
Why would I want to look there?
There is no letter for me.

The grey head

My frost coated hair
Soon thaws and leaves megrieving,
Sad to think that death
Is still far off.  This journey
Has still not turned my hair togrey.

The crow

A crow is circling.
It’s been with me since the town
And won’t leave until
The end.  Not much further now.
Fidelity to the grave.

Last hope

A few coloured leaves
Are visible on the trees.
If that one I choose
Is caught and blown to the ground
I too will sink down and weep.

In the village

The hounds are barking
Whilst men sleep and dream ofthings
They do not have. Bark
Me away, you waking dogs.
I am finished with all dreams.

The stormy morning

Weary shreds of cloud
Flit across a storm-torn sky,
Red flames among them.
This morning is to my taste -
It is nothing but winter.


Before me a light…
I follow it eagerly
Through the ice and night
Imagining a warm house…
But it is all delusion.

The signpost

I search hidden paths
Over cliff tops and wastelands -
One sign before me,
My eyes fixed upon the road
From which no one returns

The inn

I reach a graveyard,
Its death wreaths tempting to
The weary traveller.
But all the rooms are taken
And I must go further on.


Snow flies in my face.
I shake it off.  My heart cries,
But I sing brightly.
I have no ears for laments
And stride on against thewind.

The phantom suns

Three suns in the sky
They seem to stare down atme.
Gone, the best two suns,
And I do not need thethird:
I’m better left indarkness.

The hurdy-gurdy man

Barefoot on the ice,
An old hurdy-gurdy man.
Nobody listens.
Shall I go with him and let
Him play along to my songs?