The Works of J. W. von Goethe/Volume 9/Death Lament of the Noble Wife of Asan Aga


[This beautiful poem, purporting to be a translation from the Morlachiau, was first printed in Herder's admirable collection of ballads, translated into German from almost every European language, and published under the title of Volkslieder. The fine poetic instinct of Goethe was signally displayed in this composition; for although, as Mickiewicz has observed ("Les Slaves," tome i. p. 323, Paris, 1849), he had to divine the import of the poem across three bad translations, and was at the same time ignorant of the Slavic language, he produced a perfect version, having instinctively detected and avoided the faults of the previous translators.]

What is yon so white beside the greenwood?
Is it snow, or flight of cygnets resting?
Were it snow, ere now it had been melted;
Were it swans, ere now the flock had left us.
Neither snow nor swans are resting yonder,
'Tis the glittering tents of Asan Aga.
Faint he lies from wounds in stormy battle;
There his mother and his sisters seek him,
But his wife hangs back for shame, and comes not.

When the anguish of his hurts was over,
To his faithful wife he sent this message—
"Longer 'neath my roof thou shalt not tarry,
Neither in my court nor in my household."

When the lady heard that cruel sentence,
'Reft of sense she stood, and racked with anguish;
In the court she heard the horses stamping,
And in fear that it was Asan coming,
Fled towards the tower, to leap and perish.

Then in terror ran her little daughters,
Calling after her, and weeping sorely,
"These are not the steeds of Father Asan;
'Tis our uncle Pintorovich coming!"

And the wife of Asan turned to meet him;
Sobbing, threw her arms around her brother.
"See the wrongs, brother, of thy sister!
These five babes I bore and must I leave them?"

Silently the brother, from his girdle,
Draws the ready deed of separation,
Wrapped within a crimson silken cover.
She is free to seek her mother's dwelling—
Free to join in wedlock with another.

When the woeful lady saw the writing,
Kissed she both her boys upon the forehead,
Kissed on both the cheeks her sobbing daughters;
But she cannot tear herself for pity
From the infant smiling in the cradle!

Rudely did her brother tear her from it,
Deftly lifted her upon a courser,
And in haste towards his father's dwelling,
Spurred he onward with the woeful lady.

Short the space; seven days, but barely seven—
Little space I ween—by many nobles
Was the lady—still in weeds of mourning—
Was the lady courted in espousal.

Far the noblest was Imoski's cadi;
And the dame in tears besought her brother
"I adjure thee, by the life thou bearest,
Give me not a second time in marriage,
That my heart may not be rent asunder
If again I see my darling children!"

Little recked the brother of her bidding,
Fixed to wed her to Imoski's cadi.
But the gentle lady still entreats him—
Send at least a letter, O my brother!
To Imoski's cadi, thus imploring—
"I, the youthful widow, greet thee fairly,
And entreat thee by this self-same token,
When thou comest hither with thy bridesmen,
Bring a heavy veil, that I may shroud me
As we pass along by Asan's dwelling,
So I may not see my darling orphans."

Scarcely had the cadi read the letter,
When he called together all his bridesmen;
Bound to bring the lady homewards,
And he brought the veil as she entreated.

Jocundly they reached the princely mansion,
Jocundly they bore her thence in triumph;
But, when they drew near to Asan's dwelling,
Then the children recognised their mother,
And they cried, "Come back unto the chamber—
Share the meal this evening with thy children!"
Then she turned her to the lordly bridegroom—
"Pray thee, let the bridesmen and their horses
Halt a little by the once-loved dwelling,
Till I give these presents to my children."

And they halted by the once-loved dwelling,
And she gave the weeping children presents,
Gave each boy a cap with gold embroidered,
Gave each girl a gay and costly garment,
And with tears she left a tiny mantle
For the helpless baby in the cradle.

These things marked the father, Asan Aga,
And in sorrow called he to his children—
"Turn again to me, ye poor deserted;
Hard as steel is now your mother's bosom;
Shut so fast it cannot throb with pity!"

Thus he spoke; and when the lady heard him,
Pale as death she dropped upon the pavement,
And the life fled from her wretched bosom,
As she saw her children turning from her.