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The Boy on the Moor

by michwo 

Posted: 23 November 2017
Word Count: 367
Summary: My own approximate translation of the 1842 poem "Der Knabe im Moor" by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848).

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The Boy on the Moor
Dreadful it is to walk on the moor
When the burning heathland swarms with smoke.
Ghostly vapours swirl with flecks of spoor
And tendrils twisting through bushes poke.
With each step a tiny spring comes forth
And from a fissure sings at its source.
Dreadful it is to walk on the moor
When reedbeds rustle and frogs there croak!
Trembling the child holds on to his primer
And runs as if hunted by hounds;
The wind ploughs the plain as sea a liner –
What’s that on the heath out of bounds?
It’s the ghost of a cutter of peat,
Who for his master stacks the sods neat;
He comes out of the earth like a miner!
The timid boy to duck has grounds.
From the river bank, both far and near,
Stumps stare and uncanny pines bow.
The boy runs on, each sound straining to hear,
As much as the tall stalks of grass allow;
And how it trickles and rustles in there!
A madwoman haunts this place!  Take care!
Bewitched Leonora, withered and sere,
Spins in the rushes her bobbin now!
Onward, onward, on running still,
On as if fearing he might be caught;
In front of his feet puddles spill,
Of the soles of his shoes earth makes sport,
Whistles up a ghostly riddle.
A phantom musician scrapes his fiddle.
To be a thief also he's had the skill –
A wedding farthing’s luck he’s sought!
The moor bursts, exudes a sigh
Up out of a gaping hollow;
Woe, woe, you can hear some damned soul cry:
“Have pity on my spirit’s sorrow!”
The boy would have jumped like a wounded deer
Had his guardian angel not been near.
A mole would have found by and by
His bleached bones in its lonely burrow.
Gradually the ground becomes more firm
And over there, next to a meadow,
The flickering flames of an oil lamp burn
And the boy stands now next to a hedgerow.
He breathes out having left the worst behind,
Yet to its sinister charms still pays mind.
The things he met with there were stern,
Dreadful it was on the moor to go!

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 20:10 on 26 November 2017  Report this post
Quite a haunting poem. Nothing better than moorland to stir the imagination – and none more susceptible than a young boy. He conjures up a peat-cutter’s ghost, Leonora, a phantom fiddler, and a ‘damned soul’. He is frightened, glad to be back to civilisation, yet still fascinated by the mysterious moor. ‘Dreadful it was on the moor to go’ – but thrilling too.

In the original, is Leonora a reference to Gottfried August Bürger’s poem Lenore? This I find to be a very powerful story, which you may know.  Lenore does not know that her soldier fiancé has been killed. A young knight who looks exactly like him appears and asks her to go with him to their marriage bed. This turns out to be the grave, and the knight morphs into the figure of Death. I’m not as easily scared as I used to be, but that makes the blood run icy. But this Lenore doesn’t tally with the ‘madwoman’ spinning among the rushes; and I can’t see a connection with the Leonora of Beethoven’s Fidelio.
The natural moor is quite vividly present in the poem too. The swirling smoke from moorland fires, the rustling of tall grasses, springs and marshy ground, the ‘sigh’ emitted by ‘a gaping hollow’. Well worth translating into English.
Now, I don’t know if you want me to come up with ideas for revising the English verse. I can do that, but I could never be sure that my suggestions would be faithful to the original. Even so, if you would like to ‘polish’ the poem by improving a line here and there, I’m fine with that.

michwo at 22:35 on 26 November 2017  Report this post
These are the last four lines of the third stanza in the original German:
Und wie es rieselt und knittert darin!
Das ist die unselige Spinnerin,
Das ist die gebannte Spinnlenor‘,
Die den Haspel dreht im Geröhre!
'Haspel' in my Collins German College Dictionary translates into English as 'reel' or 'bobbin' and 'Geröhre' I have taken to mean 'reeds' or 'rushes'. Actually the first word is given as feminine gender rather than masculine, but maybe der Haspel is a regional variant in Westphalia, and, similarly, the plural of 'Rohr' in the sense of 'rush' or 'reed' is 'Rohre'.
But I took it that -lenor'
was an abbreviated form of a woman's name.  I don't know either the Bürger poem or the Beethoven opera, I must admit.
I did get given a free ticket for the BBC Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester last night  playing a new work by Arlene Sierra (never heard of her) called Nature Symphony, Dvorak's Eighth Symphony (sorry for the missing accents - I didn't know how to insert them using the ALT key + numbers on the number pad) and a very percussive piano concerto by Bela Bartok.  
James, if you can change this poem to suit yourself, that's fine.  I suspect that you're a performance poet when called on to be who isn't afraid to go on The Word on Radio 3 and mingle with the likes of Ian McMillan.  I'm afraid my poems ultimately have an audience of one - me!  I do rather compose them in my head before I write them down, especially if they contain rhymes, which most of them do, and they're never written with an audience in mind.  Is that bad?  Probably.

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