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by Julian Scutts


"Wandrers Sturmlied" was composed in the first flush of Goethe's discovery of the pent-up dynamic and reverberating force that lay within the word 'Wanderer” about a year after his essay or speech dedicated to the greatness of Shakespeare's genius as a dramatist and poet (“Rede zum Shakespeares Tag”) had declared the modern poet's emancipation from artificial neoclassical conventions on the basis of the release of the poetic imagination. In this Shakespeare was named the greatest "Wanderer" in a patently metaphorical sense. This wanderer conflated German folklore and Greek classical mythology in the form of a giant bestriding the globe in seven-league boots while evincing Promethean characteristics as a creator of mankind in defiance of Jupiter. As yet Goethe had not realized that the heady raptures of such wandering would soon entail withdrawal symptoms of a traumatic sense of isolation, existential loneliness and inner doubt. "Wandrers Sturmlied" presents a candid confession of feelings so poignant and distressful that the poem would not be published until forty years after its composition. Goethe in 1772 was known as a "Wanderer" within the literary circle hosted by Ephraim Herder in Darmstadt to whose home Goethe trudged through wind and weather from Frankfurt am Main where he lived. Something of his experience as a "Wanderer" or cross-country rambler is conveyed by "Wandrers Sturmlied," which blends the here-and-now of his local German surroundings with the recall of the mythical landscape of ancient Greece.. In the view of the noted scholar L. A. Willoughby the poem reveals the tension generated by the dual implication of the word "Wanderer" in young Goethe's mind that had a foundation in the ideal creative force working within the poetic genius and the personal down-to-earth identity of Goethe himself. [1] It would take some time before Goethe worked out ways to unite and reconcile the personal and impersonal aspects of wandering.

  1. " Wandrers Sturmlied"


  1. The Problem of the Original Text


     "Wandrers Sturmlied" confronts the interpreter with a number of problems relating to the origins of the poem. These problems are not merely of "academic interest," as different conclusions on this point entail significant differences of interpretation. The poem was composed some time between March 1772 and September 1773, when Goethe sent a manuscript version to Betty Jacobi. This version differs somewhat from the revised one which Goethe felt obliged to publish almost forty years later in 1810 (shortly after the poem had appeared in print without his permission). The first version of the poem differed from that published by Goethe in 1810 in the organization of the strophes addressed to the Wanderer's "Genius." This opening section comprised three strophes of almost equal length, suggesting the beginning of a poem with a regular formal structure, indicative perhaps of Goethe's original intention to imitate Pindar's organization of strophes in triadic groups.[2] One critic, Klaus Weimar, goes so far as to doubt that the last strophe of the poem was included in the version sent to Betty Jacobi in 1773.[3] Weimar argues that Goethe must have composed the fourteen lines beginning "Wenn die Räder rasselten" ("when the wheels rattle") later and sent them in a letter to Friedrich Jacobi in 1774. This conclusion leads Weimar to believe that "the original version,'' ending according to Weimar with the word "Theokrit," was conceived by Goethe as a hymn dedicated to Zeus after the manner of Pindar, in which  there is evidence of a close self-identification with Zeus on the part of the Wanderer and the poet. After sending this version to Betty Jacobi, Weimar's theory goes, Goethe retracted from what he now held to be a presumptuous, well-nigh blasphemous, self-over-evaluation and wrote an additional strophe to redress matters. There is, however, the internal evidence provided by the text of the poem to consider, and this does not appear to vindicate Weimar's contention.


  1. Mythological Figures and Tropes


    The mythological landscape of the poems derives much of its imagery from Greek legends associated with mountains - particularly Olympus, the home of the gods, and Parnassus, sacred both to Apollo and the Muses. In the Greek version of the Deluge story, Deucalion (Gk. "new wine sailor"), son of Prometheus, and Pyrrha, his wife, reached terra firma on Mount Parnassus. It was also in the region of this mountain that Apollo slew the serpent Python. Apollo, the Muses, and Deucalion's flood enter as motifs into the texture of "Wandrers Sturmlied" and help to demarcate the main elements of the poem's structure. The flood legend underlies the associations of water, earth and mud. Mud has great symbolic value in this poem, at least representing, as it does, a merging or confusion of the elements earth and water. The first person speaker praises water as the Jovian element of utmost purity against wine, a delectable though inferior liquid attributable to the demigod Dionysus. [4]  When composing the poem, Goethe may well have had Pindar's Ode Olympian 1 in mind, for this begins with a eulogy of water:


Water is the best thing of all, and gold

Shines like flaming fire at night

More than all a great man's wealth. [5]


  1. Motifs:  Ascent/Descent, Evoking Spirits and Gods and "the Elements"


     The mythological topography of "Wandrers Sturmlied" has both a vertical and a horizontal axis. In terms of poetic imagery, the Wanderer ascends through the operation of a spiritual levitating force, only to descend, as though down a slippery slope, to a low level at which he must wade through mud in order to reach a refuge perched on a hill ahead of him. Climbing the hill poses  an ascent of a kind, though hardly on the grand scale envisioned earlier. While the motif of elevation, or ascent, is common to many of Goethe's poems (e.g. "Zueignung"), "Wandrers Sturmlied" is uncharacteristic of Goethe's typical treatment of analogous themes in its disarmingly frank exposure of the sense of inadequacy the poet feels in meeting the challenge imposed on him by his ambition of becoming at one with the gods. The Wanderer displays no open defiance of Jupiter, as in Prometheus, nor sustained confidence in attaining unity with him, as in Ganymed. Feelings of inadequacy well up within him even at the contemplation of "the fiery black peasant" that appears in the seventh strophe, who possesses that firm resolution of spirit the Wanderer feels to be lacking in himself despite help received from muses, graces and gods. Wafting precariously between earth and sky, the Wanderer feels himself to be missing out - both as a human being, who should share the concerns and enjoyments of ordinary mortals, and as an aspirant to the spiritual realm. The desire to extricate himself from his muddy path motivates the Wanderer's appeal for help addressed to his "Genius" or guardian spirit.


Den du nicht verlässest, Genius,Wirst ihn heben übern Schlammpfad Mit den


Him, whom thou dost not forsake, Genius, thou shalt raise from the mud path with fiery wings


    The image of mud as the child of water and earth produces a humorous element in keeping with the mock-heroic spirit that suffuses the poem, and we should not forget that humour and self-irony serve as a defence against the discomforts of self-exposure. For all the real or apparent humour in the poem, the fact that it treats highly sensitive issues is evident in the long delay of its publication.

    The section of the poem which traces the Wanderer's ascent towards Jupiter is divisible into three subsections, in which the Poet-Wanderer addresses first his genius, second the graces (Charites) and muses, and third the gods. The fact that Apollo alone among the denizens of Olympus is not apostrophized need not surprise us in view of his aloof and threateningly vindictive aspect. In the second phase of ascent, the Wanderer, now escorted by muses and Graces, wafts or hovers over the muddy terrain with which he was contending when he addressed his "genius." We note the change of tense from the future in the second strophe:


Wandeln wird er / Wie mit Blumenfüssen / Über Deukalions


He shall waft as though with flowery feet above Deucalion’s muddy



to the present in the sixth:


Ihr umschwebt mich, und ich schwebe / Über Wasser, über Erde, /


Ye hover round me, I hover) Over water, Over earth /



    At the same juncture, the Wanderer becomes aware of a separation of earth and water into distinguishable bodies or masses, for he exclaims:


Das ist Wasser, das ist Erde.

That is water, that is earth.


     It is interesting to note in passing that the emergence of earth, water and air from an undifferentiated mass constitutes a central element of the various creation (and related deluge myths) belonging to many cultural traditions. Perhaps references to the opposites of fire and water allude to contemporary rival theories about the Creation (viz. Volcanism and Neptunism). In the second phase of ascent, the Wanderer perceives the little black (swarthy) fiery peasant, whose dark colour suggests his affinity to the earth. In the third phase of ascent, and then only in the presence of the third and highest of the deities to which reference is made, the Wanderer finds the pure water he longs for at its castalian source. At this level of heightened awareness, the Wanderer speaks of his song as that which flows to the god who is himself the source of water in both a literal and metaphorical sense.


Dich, dich strömt mein Lied" (l0th strophe).

Thee, thee, my song flows


    The transitive use of an intransitive verb shows the trace of Klopstock's influence in breaking the bounds of ordinary grammatically regulated utterances in order to achieve a higher language more fitted to be the vehicle of rapturous emotion. Klopstock anticipated Goethe in favouring the image of the flowing stream to inculcate a feeling of the essential qualities of poetry or inspired language. Even at the apex of his spiritual elevation, the Wanderer is still mindful of his responsibilities towards common humanity. Not only should his song flow back to divinity; from the Castalian fount a rivulet flows down to happy mortals below.

     Pindar occupies a position of pre-eminence among the poets analogous to Jupiter's preeminence among the gods, as a parallel between the gods and poets is evident in the very structure of the poem. The eighth, ninth and tenth strophes of the poem refer in turn to Dionysus, Apollo and Jupiter. The importance of this ordering is emphasized in the rhetorical question:


"Warum nennt mein Lied dich zuletzt?"

("Why doth my song name thee last" (in the first line of the tenth strophe).


     The final three strophes refer in turn to Anacreon, famed for poetry about the joys of wine; Theocritus, generally considered to be the originator of idyllic poetry (the words "Sonnebeglänzte Stirn" ("sun-illumined brow") suggest a connection with Apollo); and finally Pindar. The last strophe is introduced by the image of turning wheels and racing chariots, a fitting evocation of Pindar's celebration of the events and achievements of those competing in the Olympic and similar festive games. The dust thrown up by the chariots is likened to a flurry of grit, hail or sleet sweeping down a mountainside. "Kieselwetter" ("sleet") incorporates meanings that pertain to the mineralogical and to meteorological domains, and in the context of the poems furnishes an image that fittingly marks the transition from one scene to another.[6] The vision of an Olympian and Olympic past yields to the dreary reality of a traveller contending with the meteorological conditions of winter in a more northerly clime.



  1. Elements in the Poem which do not Conform to its Macro-Structure: A Discussion of their Implications


     The Wanderer's ascent was not achieved without the experience of a trauma - that namely which resulted from his encounter with Apollo, that most implacable of Greek deities, whom the Wanderer may have offended by his very choice of the dithyrambic mode, customarily dedicated to Dionysus, a mere demigod. Though he felt able to enter into a reciprocal relation with Jupiter, he was totally overawed by Apollo’s brilliant sunlike radiance as well as perplexed by his own inability to reciprocate in like manner - to "glow back." The following lines from the ninth strophe express the Wanderer's sense of crisis in urgent tones:


Weh! Weh! Innere Wärme,



Glüh entgegen

Phoeb Apollen.


Woe, woe, inner warmth,

Soul warmth,

The centre! Glow against

Phoebus Apollo


     These lines find an echo in the last strophe:


"Mut.--Glühte?--/Armes Herz!"

("Courage - glowed - Poor heart")


     Scaling down his ambition, the Wanderer declares himself content with just enough self-generated heat to enable him to get through the mud that separates him from his goal, a mountain hut. Though the Wanderer may be perplexed by his inability to produce or sustain inner fire, not all references to fire, or heat at least, carry negative or fear-engendering associations. Different qualities of heat are referenced in the poem. The wings of Jove, metamorphosed into a birdlike creature, generate comforting, protective warmth. There is the inner warmth produced by wine. There is the inborn ardour of the fiery peasant.

     One reason why Goethe entertained misgivings about this poem has arguably less to do with the poem's apparent formlessness than with the tensions and unresolved conflicts to which it gives expression. The stage-by-stage ascent from earth to the heights of Parnassus might be graphically represented as stairs leading upward. However, various cross-connecting links between the lower and upper levels break the clean lines of the poem's tectonic structure. The genius, the personal guardian spirit assigned to each mortal from birth to death (lower in the hierarchy of spiritual beings than muses or gods), is identified in the eighth strophe with Dionysus.


Vater Bromius! Du bist Genius, Jahrhunderts Genius,

Bist, was innre Glut Pindarn war,

Was der Welt Phoebus Apoll ist.


Father Bromius! Thou art genius, century's genius.

Art what was inner warmth to Pindar,

And what the world is to Phoebus Apollo.


     A close association between the poet's "Genius" and Jupiter is suggested by the lines at the beginning of the tenth strophe:


Warum nennt mein Lied dich zuletzt? Dich, von dem es begann,

Why doth my song name thee last, thou from whom it began,


     An underlying fear of being unable to distinguish the subjective consciousness from the Universal Mind belies all attempts to enter the state of harmony and unity. To judge by the outline of its structure, "Wanders Sturmlied" constitutes an affirmation of the traditional Olympian order, with Jupiter stationed at its apex and Pindar occupying an analogous position among poets. Other indications in the poem, however, point to trends that work against the official hierarchy. The reason for the structural and emotional collapse revealed by the last strophe result not from Goethe's sudden change of heart after the writing of the poem, but from the inner conflicts that he experienced when writing it. On the one hand, Dionysus is linked in the structural context of the poem with Anacreon and Anacreontic poetry of the kind Goethe had grown out of; on the other, we find in the eighth strophe evidence of a close association of Dionysus (and Apollo) with modernity (viz. "Jahrhundertsgenius") and the suggestion that Pindar is "passé‚" (viz. "Bist, was innre Glut / Pindarn war" - "(Thou art what to Pindar was inner warmth"). What seems to be called for here is not a downgrading of Dionysus but his re-evaluation in modern terms


  1. The Poem's Inner Tensions


     The reasons for arguing that the poem as we have it is not substantially different from the poem as originally composed can be summarized as follows: Considering the recurrent triadic structures in the poem, we would expect that a third strophe referring to Pindar would complete the triad of strophes dedicated to the poets. Recognizing this, Weimar argues that Goethe originally considered any reference to Pindar superfluous as so much had been said about him in the poem earlier.[7]

     Second, the metaphysical doubt, which, according to Weimar, suddenly beset Goethe after the completion of the poem (i.e., without the final strophe) manifests itself throughout the poem. There is no need to consult the final strophe to recognize in it the signs of deep metaphysical anxiety, self-doubt and tension. The formal structure of the poem notwithstanding, a reading of "Wandrers Sturmlied" (with or without the final strophe) not only reveals a close identification of the Wanderer with Jupiter but also with Vater Bromius, or Dionysus. The wanderer at last follows the peasant's footsteps to the security of an enclosed building. The Wanderer, Goethe himself, will never return to the easy ways celebrated by Anacreon. His understanding of Dionysus has deepened. This is not to say, either, that he has given up any hope of approaching Jupiter thereafter. Many later poems prove the contrary. But he had learnt to tread (or waft) more warily in the upper regions of  Parnassus.


[1] L. A. Willoughby, “The Image of the ‘Wanderer’ and the ‘Hut’ in Goethe’s Poetry, “Etudes Germaniques, Dec. 1951

[2] As C. M. Bowra explains in his introduction to The Odes of Pindar in Penguin Classics, Pindar often uses a series of triads, each of which consists of strophe, antistrophe, and epode. See "Introduction," xiii: The Odes of Pindar, translated and edited by C. M. Bowra (Harmondsworth, 1969). 



[3] Klaus Weimar, Goethes Gedichte 1769-1775: Interpretationen zu einem Anfang  (Paderborn 1982)  66-68.                                                                                                           


[4] In this connection it is interesting to note that Robert Graves concludes from his research into the evolution of the Greek version of the Deluge story that Deucalion, as his name suggests, was originally a Noachic figure responsible for the invention of wine. Reference to his importance in such a rôle was later suppressed in deference to Dionysian claims.                                              


[5] Greek philosophers before Plato were much concerned with identifying the primordial essence of the universe in terms of one of, or a combination of "the elements." For Thales this was water, for Anaximenes air (pneuma), for later philosophers a combination of the "four elements,"  earth, water, fire and air.


[6] While "Kies" in standard German means gravel or grit, "Kiesel" and "kieseln" have much the same meaning as "hail" or "to hail" in Grimm's dictionary. See footnote 73. Weimar, Goethes Gedichte, 150.