GER 341, 342, 343 HomepageOregon State University

"Wandrers Nachtlied II:" Interpretation*

*Taken from Elizabeth M. Wilkinson, "Goethe's Poetry"

  1. This poem evokes a mood, not by describing the stillness of evening, but by becoming evening stillness itself.

  2. Goethe's poem is often misquoted as "Über allen Wipfeln ist Ruh," as though the suggestive sound of the words were all that mattered, as though it were immaterial whether Gipfel or Wipfel comes first. This is of course not so.

    It is of course essential, it is indeed the heart of the poem's meaning and the feature which stamps it as peculiarly and specifically Goethean, that Gipfel should precede Wipfel. For the order of the natural objects mentioned here is not arbitrary. It is not dictated purely by the mood of this wanderer as he stands, a human being over against nature, and lets his eye range across the evening landscape, seeing in its stillness an analogy of the peace which will one day tranquillize his own troubled breast--nature here plays no mere analogical role, is not mere background for human needs and desires, nostalgic longing. Nor is the order of the objects determined purely by the requirements of aesthetic composition, an order of the outward appearances of nature as perceived by the senses.

    It is an order of the inner process of nature as known by the mind, an organic order of the evolutionary progression in nature, from inanimate to the animate, from the mineral through the vegetable, to the animal kingdom, from the hilltops, to the tree-tops, to the birds, and so inevitably to man. The poet wanderer here is not embracing nature in the romantic way. He is, of necessity, embraced within it, as the last link in the organic scale of being.

Wandrers Nachtlied II.