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Ariadne auf Naxos -- Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Guest poem submitted by Mark Penney, an excerpt
(Poem #1679) Ariadne auf Naxos
 There is a land where all is pure,
 And this land is called
 The land of death.
 Here nothing is pure.
 All things suffer corruption.
 But soon a herald will come.
 Hermes is his name,
 his winged wand rules all souls.
 Like birds affrighted,
 like withered leaves before him they fly.
 O beautiful, peaceful god,
 See, Ariadne waits.
 Ah, from all pains and miseries
 must my heart be purified;
 then you will nod to me,
 your steps will reach my cave,
 on my eyes there falls a darkness,
 on my heart you'll lay your hand.
 In the regal festal garments
 that my mother wove for me,
 I will wrap my weary body,
 and this cave will be my tomb.
 But my soul in solemn silence
 follows its new-made lord,
 like a leaf by winds driven
 downward falling, gladly following.
 On my eyes there falls a darkness,
 darkness too will fill my heart,
 and within this cave my body
 richly robed alone will lie.
 It is you who will save me,
 my captive soul freed of
 this burden of being.
 Lift it from me.
 To you I will lose all myself
 with you will Ariadne dwell.
-- Hugo von Hofmannsthal
This requires quite a bit of explanation.  It's Ariadne's "Es gibt ein
Reich" aria, from what is in many ways one of the strangest operas ever
written, Ariadne auf Naxos.  (More on how it's strange in a minute.)
Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) was an Austrian poet, responsible in his early
career for some fascinating and truly beautiful lyric poetry.  He abandoned
poetry, despairing of the power of language in a crumbling world, and turned
to drama, and ultimately opera, after he met Richard Strauss.  With Strauss
he wrote six operas, including at least four true masterpieces (Elektra, Der
Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten), making this
one of the most productive artistic collaborations ever.  Without doubt,
Hofmannsthal's libretti are among the most poetic ever written, and can
stand alone in their own right.

Pre-First World War Viennese art has a certain unique flavor to it; this is
a background in which you have to read this poem (which was written in 1911
or 1912).  Vienna was becoming ever more illiberal, ever more reactionary.
Moreover, there was a sense of values being lost, of the society decaying
all around.  How do you react?  Do you wallow in it, becoming a champion of
the decadent and amoral?  Do you pine for the lost world?  Do you just
decide you want to die?  Do you instead try to shock the world around you
into seeing its failures?  Do you create an artistic fantasyland of
escapism?  Or can art even matter at all?  (Here I'm parroting (and probably
making a travesty of) the ideas in Carl Schorske's fascinating book
"Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture.")

This indecision about how to react to a dying world is captured pretty well
by Ariadne auf Naxos.  So anyway we have Ariadne, stranded by Theseus on
Naxos, waiting to die.  She's surrounded by three nymphs who do their best
to make her comfortable, but also by five commedia dell'arte characters
prancing around trying to cheer her up.  The commedia dell'arte characters
seem like they're from another play, and that's because they are.  In the
Prologue, we're told that the crotchety old fart who has commanded these
performances at his salon has decided that, in order to be over in time for
the fireworks at 9:00 sharp, the opera seria and the improv comedy are going
to have to be performed at the same time on the same stage. Anyway,
ultimately it's not Hermes who shows up to get Ariadne, but Bacchus.  Love
conquers all, Ariadne winds up sailing off into the sunset with the God of
Partying, and the commedia guys get the last laugh.  (It's not nearly as
funny as it sounds, unfortunately, but by golly is it beautiful.)

The translation above is (mostly) an unattributed public domain translation.
Like a lot of translations of opera libretti, it's designed to be sung to
the original music, so the main goal of the translator was to reproduce
Hofmannsthal's rhythm, not his meaning.  This results in some sort of
dubious readings of a few lines.  I've "fixed" a few of the most egregious
departures from the sense of the original, since I know no one is going to
be singing this version.  In German, it's very beautiful, almost
heartbreakingly so, though in context it's impossible to take Ariadne 100%
seriously.  Auf Deutsch:

 Es gibt ein Reich, wo alles rein ist
 Es hat auch einen Namen:
 Hier ist nichts rein!
 Hier kam alles zu allem!
 Bald aber naht ein Bote,
 Hermies heissen sie hin.
 Du schoener, stiller Gott!
 Sieh! Ariadne wartet!
 Ach, von allen wilden Schemrzen
 muss das Herz gereinigt sein,
 dann wird dein Gesicht mir nicken,
 wird dein Schritt vor meiner Hoehle,
 Dunkel wird auf meinen augen,
 deine Hand auf meinem Herzen sein.
 In den schoenen Feierkleidern,
 die mir meine Mutter gab,
 diese Glieder werden bleiben,
 stille Hoehle wird mein Grab.
 Aber lautlos meine Seele
 folget ihrem neuen Herrn,
 wie ein leichtes Blatt im Winde
 folgt hinunter, folgt so gern.
 Dunkel wird auf meinen Augen,
 und in meinem Herzen sein.
 Diese Glieder werden bleiben,
 schoen geschmueckt und ganz allein.
 Du wirst mich befreien,
 mir selber mich geben,
 dies lastende Leben,
 du nimm es von mir.
 An dich werd' ich mich ganz verlieren,
 bei dir wird Ariadne sein.

 -- Mark

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