Christian Morgenstern

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Christian Otto Josef Wolfgang Morgenstern (May 6, 1871 in Munich– March 31, 1914 in Meran) was a German author and poet from Munich. Morgenstern married Margareta Gosebruch von Liechtenstern on March 7, 1910. He worked for a while as a journalist in Berlin, but spent much of his life traveling through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, primarily in a vain attempt to recover his health. His travels, though they failed to restore him to health, allowed him to meet many of the foremost literary and philosophical figures of his time in central Europe.

Morgenstern's poetry, much of which was inspired by English literary nonsense, is immensely popular, even though he enjoyed very little success during his lifetime. He made fun of scholasticism, e.g. literary criticism in "Drei Hasen", grammar in "Der Werwolf", narrow-mindedness in "Der Gaul", and symbolism in "Der Wasseresel". In "Scholastikerprobleme" he discussed how many angels could sit on a needle. Still many Germans know some of his poems and quotations by heart, e.g. the following line from "The Impossible Fact" ("Die unmögliche Tatsache", 1910):

Embedded in his humorous poetry is a subtle metaphysical streak, as e.g. in "Vice Versa", (1905):

Ein Hase sitzt auf einer Wiese
des Glaubens, niemand sähe diese.
Doch im Besitze eines Zeißes
betrachtet voll gehaltnen Fleißes
vom vis-à-vis gelegnen Berg
ein Mensch den kleinen Löffelzwerg.
Ihn aber blickt hinwiederum
ein Gott von fern an, mild und stumm.

"A rabbit in his meadow lair
Imagines none to see him there.
But aided by a looking lens
A man with eager diligence
Inspects the tiny long-eared gnome
From a convenient near-by dome.
Yet him surveys, or so we learn
A god from far off, mild and stern."

Gerolf Steiner's mock-scientific book about the fictitious animal order Rhinogradentia (1961), inspired by Morgenstern's nonsense poem Das Nasobēm, is testament to his enduring popularity.

Morgenstern died in 1914 of tuberculosis, which he had contracted from his mother, who died in 1881.


Gallows Songs

Morgenstern's best known works are the Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs, 1905), eight of which were used in a song cycle by Jan Koetsier for soprano and tuba. This volume of humorous verses was followed by Palmström in 1910. Published posthumously were the important companion volumes Palma Kunkel in 1916, Der Gingganz in 1919, and Alle Galgenlieder in 1932. In German these works have gone through dozens of different editions and reprints and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. English translations include:

  • The Gallows Songs. Christian Morgenstern's Galgenlieder, translated by Max Knight (University of California Press, 1964).
  • Gallows Songs, translated by W.D. Snodgrass and Lore Segal (Michigan Press, 1967).
  • Songs from the Gallows: Galgenlieder, translated by Walter Arndt (Yale University Press, 1993).
  • Lullabies, Lyrics and Gallows Songs, translated by Anthea Bell with illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger (North South Books, 1995).

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