An Italian and a German poem on quiet nature
I recently read for the first time Tasso’s (1544-1595) poem the first line of which is “Tacciono i boschi e i fiumi”, and it reminded me immediately of Goethe’s (1749-1832) famous 1780 poem known as “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (also Schubertized), which I and hosts of other students memorized in school (however much we may remember it still!). Here I want to put the two poems side-by-side.
Tasso’s words are as follows:
Tacciono i boschi e i fiumi,
E ‘l mar senza onda giace,
Ne le spelonche i venti han tregua e pace,
E ne la notte bruna
Alto silenzio fa la bianca luna;
E noi tegnamo ascose
Le dolcezze amorose:
Amor non parli o spiri,
Sien muti i baci e muti i miei sospiri.
Here’s a rough attempt at Englishing:
The woods and rivers are silent,
And the sea, waveless, lies still;
In the caves the winds hold their peace, tranquil;
In the darkish night
Deep quiet doth make the moon while white;
And we, we keep unseen
Let love neither speak nor emanate,
Let kisses be quiet, my sighs faint to hear.
Before discussing anything in either poem, I’m happily compelled to give, too, Goethe’s little poem
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
The rhyme scheme (ABABCDDC) is mirrored exactly in Longfellow’s translation, than which I can do no better, so I give it here:
O’er all the hill-tops
Is quiet now,
In all the tree-tops
Hardly a breath;
The birds are asleep in the trees:
Wait, soon like these
Thou, too, shalt rest.
The poems both conceive places of silence, and both with nature as evidence of this silence — note that what Longfellow translates as “trees” is really “forests” in German, something that serves as a verbal similarity between Goethe and Tasso, who in the first line has “boschi”, i.e. “woods” — but the most striking point of difference between the poems is that Tasso has in mind more than one person in this silence, Goethe a lone individual. Tasso not only includes among his cast elements of nature and someone(s) to experience them, as does Goethe some centuries thereafter, but lovers, albeit quiet lovers. There’s sweetness, love, and kisses, but they lie fallow at just this point, at least visibly and audibly: while these things are still there — somebody who has kissing in mind still kisses, just imperfectly compared to the real thing — no one else has any knowledge of them. These amorous matters are hidden still more with Goethe, if they exist with him at all, who in his poem shows us only nature, and nature with an addressed observer of it, who is anachronously in tune with it: the stillness of those natural representatives (hill-tops, tree-tops, birds) will soon, but not yet, reach Goethe’s observer. We know nothing of why that observer and participant is missing quiet stillness, but that doesn’t matter: as there are enough times in nature absent of tranquility, so, too, any human being who thinks about his or her life beyond the slightest film of superficiality knows those intranquil seasons and events. But as nature goes on, so does life, especially as considered beyond the individual.
As for the characters, Tasso himself, or some nonspecific narrator, at least, takes part in a role. He says “we” (noi), that is, the speaker and the lover; he speaks of “my” (miei) sighs, and the kisses, though missing any possessive pronoun, are, of course, those shared between him and his lover. There is, however, no first person, whether singular are plural, in Goethe’s lines: it’s only the singular addressee (du). Goethe (or, again, a nonspecific narrator) takes part as speaker, but he takes no otherwise scripted part in the poem.
Both of these memorable poetic bits highlight the possibility of a consonance between humanity and the rest of nature, whether that representative of humanity be lone or companioned. Whichever of the two you are now, I hope you’ll read the poems aloud, as always!