Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Tannhäuser

Translation of an old anonymous German ballad. Illustrated by John Everett Millais.


In ancient days the gods were occasionally dethroned. Vulcan was literally kicked out of Olympus, and Apollo reduced for a time to tend the flocks of Admetus. But in the third century of our era, all the heathen deities were expelled together. Heine, in a charming essay published first in the Revue den Deux Mondes, under the title of “Les Dieux en Exil,” has described the fate of the banished gods.

Apollo acted as head shepherd somewhere in Lower Austria, until betrayed by the exquisite beauty of his songs, he confessed his divine character on the rack, and was accordingly put to death.

Mars, true to his vocation, after various changes, was last seen in the dress of a German Landsknecht, cutting and thrusting, at the sack of Rome, under the gallant Condottiere Frundsberg.

Bacchus entered the ecclesiastical profession, as a jolly fat monk; at the recurrence of the summer solstice he may still be seen, with his fat friend Silenus, and a riotous crew, brandishing the thyrsus amid the dancing Corybantes.

Poor old Jupiter! His fate is terrible. Banished to an island in the North Sea, called the Island of Rabbits, he sits, withered, old, and decrepit, attended only by a lean, featherless eagle, the picture of grim despair; glad to pick up news from a chance whaler.

Mercury, in the disguise of a Dutch merchant, acts as supercargo for the transit of departed souls across the North Seas; and Diana, true to her old vocation, follows in the train of the Wild Huntsman.

Venus, after the destruction of her temples, took refuge, with a licentious crew of nymphs, in an enchanted mountain, called the Mons Veneris, where she spends her time in riotous living. Woe to the rash, who, allured by the sound of music and revelry, seek her attractive court. For them there is no escape. Pleasure may pall, conscience may awaken, but the captive knight cannot break his bonds, and escape from the arms of the vengeful goddess. This fate befel the noble Tannhäuser, whose adventures are told in a quaint old ballad, written apparently shortly after the Reformation. We have ventured to give a literal translation.

Tannhäuser (Millais).png

Good folks, now listen to my song,
’Tis of a noble knight,
And of the wondrous life he led
With Lady Venus bright.

This worthy knight, Tannhäuser, longed
Great marvels for to see,
And in the hill of Venus sought
Fair women’s company.

I love you passing well,” she said;
“You may not seek to flee,—
You swore upon your soul,” she said,
Never to part from me.”

Dame Venus, I never sware that oath:
My love for you is past;
I trust in Heaven’s mercy now
To save my soul at last.”

What can you mean, Sir Tannhäuser?
O, spend with us your life!
My fairest playmate I’ll give to you
To be your wedded wife.”

No other woman will I wed
Than her whom I adore;
For if I do I needs must burn
In hell for evermore.”

Why talk you of the flames of hell,
Which you did ne’er assay?
Think rather of my cherry lips,
Which smile on you alway.”

Your cherry lips avail me nought:
I loathe them from my heart!
In the name of all women’s honour, I pray
You’ll give me leave to part.”

You ask my leave to go, Sir Knight,
But that I may not give.
Stay with me yet, Tannhäuser dear,
And love the while you live.”

My life is sick and loathsome grown,
I can no longer stay;
Fair ladye, give me leave to go
From your beauty far away.”

Nay, speak not thus, my noble lord,
Your senses are not right;
Into my secret chamber come
And taste of love’s delight.”

Your love to me is hateful grown;
I feel within my soul,
Venus, noble ladye fair,
You are a fiend full foul.”

Alas! how can you speak such words,—
So sorely lightly me;
Now if you still remain with us
I shall revenged be.

And if you yet will take your leave,
Of old men ask the same;
And still, I think, where’er you go,
You needs must praise my name.”

Tannhäuser, Venus’ mountain left,
In sorrow and repentance;
I’ll go to the holy city, Rome,
From the Pope to hear my sentence.

And joyfully I’ll tread the path
To learn God’s holy will,
And hear from Pope Urbanus’ lips
If he can save me still.—

Urbanus, holy father mine,
My sins I sorely rue,
The which I grievously did act,
As I’ll confess to you.

One whole long year I did abide
With Venus fair to see;
Let me confess, and penance do,
That I God’s face may see.”

The Pope bore in his hand a staff,
Carved from a wither’d tree,
When this dry wood shall bud and bloom,
May thy sins forgiven be.”

O, welcome back, Tannhäuser dear,
I’ve grieved for you full sore;
But now, my faithful, lovely knight,
You’ll part from me no more.”

O, had I but one year to live,
But one year free from sin,
The sorest penance I would do
God’s mercy for to win.”

Full sadly then he left the town,
I wis his heart was sore:
Mary, mother, maiden pure,
Shall I see thee never more?

Into the mountain I’ll return,
Eternally to live
With my sweet ladye, Venus bright,
Since God will not forgive.”

Meanwhile at Rome, in three days’ time,
The staff began to sprout,
And messengers were sent abroad
To seek Tannhäuser out.

But to the mountain he’d return’d,
And lies imprison’d there,
Until the day of judgment, when
God will his doom declare.

No priest should ever dare withhold
From men the hope of heaven;
They who repent, and penance do,
Their sins shall be forgiven.

L. D. G.