Beyond the Lines: Two Poems on "Sehnsucht"

Music and Genius

Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang Goethe stand out as two of the greatest poets in history. Both are celebrated as the fathers of German classicism, which they helped usher in with their scholarly collaborators, including the philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder and the classical philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt. Schiller and Goethe also had many of their poetic works set to music by some of the greatest musical composers, including Schubert, Brahms, and Beethoven.

Goethe’s “Der Erlkönig,” “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Nähe des Geliebten” inspired some of Schubert’s most celebrated and impassioned songs. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” supplied the lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—one of the greatest musical works ever composed. In fact, the Ninth Symphony—inspired by Schiller’s poem—has on several occasions served as a universal anthem of freedom, including during the iconic 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the two poems that follow, we will compare how each poet uniquely treats the theme of human longing, “Sehnsucht.” Let us consider what the difference is, and use these two examples as an opportunity to consider a more general idea of how poetry expresses a universal process of creative thought whose characteristic is in essence musical.

In Goethe’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht Kennt” the poet writes:

Nur Wer die Sehnsucht Kennt
By Johan Wolfgang Goethe

Only he who truly longs
Knows what grips me.
Alone, the love that belongs
With me has been set free.
I look to the cloudy throngs
Across the deep blue sea:

But ah! The sweet one who yearns
Remains far from me.
It dizzies me and burns
My innards daily.
Only he who truly longs
Knows what grips me!

Translation © David B. Gosselin

It is in many ways a simple piece, but within this seemingly simple work lies a density of emotional tension and musical drama—qualities made most transparent when worked out in a proper recitation. Indeed, a fundamental part of being able to fully appreciate a great classical poem is not only a matter of reading the literal text per se, but also considering how such a text—much like a musical score—functions off the page i.e. when it is properly performed. In this way, the various tensions and ironies found between the lines become fully transparent.

It is also the case, especially with much contemporary poetry, that no intelligible approach for communicating the meaning of the written word may exist. While the words appear written with form and structure on the page, using line lengths and line breaks, off the page no authentic approach makes the work genuinely intelligible; or no approach seems better than any of the infinite other possible routes for interpreting the poem. Thus, the performance of even a very simple poem by a true poetic craftsman often requires a discovery of its own, which when achieved allows us to fully appreciate how much richness and meaning may be uncovered and conveyed in even a simple piece of properly performed classical poetry.

Depending on how a poem is read, depending on the reader’s own epistemological outlook, or how one chooses to read a poet’s intention, various and often diverse readings of a piece result. That is not to say that there is only one absolutely correct way to recite a poem, but that various readings can nonetheless be evaluated by virtue of the degree to which the ironies, dramatic tension and nuances of a piece are made fully transparent.

Consider the opening thematic statement of Goethe’s piece: “Nur wer die Sehnsucht Kennt” (translation: Only he who truly longs/knows what grips me). Goethe’s words are not a literal statement, but a musical statement. For, what we are dealing with is not prose but poetry—strophic poetry, to be exact. Despite the outward similarity to prose, given that the lines are expressed in the written word rather than musical notation, poetry functions similarly to music—not prose. Despite the absence of musical notation, a great classical poem is full of music, contrapuntal ironies, various “keys” and “tones,” and rhythms, which when brought together allow a musical idea to unfold, develop, and transform.

A proper reading also requires the right quality of voice. Depending on the nature of the imagery and meaning, various darker or rounder qualities of sound are appropriate to precisely communicate all the particular nuances or dimensions of a poetic idea. This idea is found nowhere in the literal text, but everywhere between the lines and words, including each silence, pause, and every change in color and tone.

As in a typical strophic poem, there are recurring statements, line lengths, and musical units, such as “stanzas” (which means “room” in Italian). There is repetition of both forms and phrases—something constant—but also something changing. In Platonic terms, this would be known as the process of “Becoming”—the tension unfolding between the unchanging unity of idea and the multiplicity of unfolding thoughts and images.

The tension between the constantly changing and constantly unchanging elements of provides a great degree of contrapuntal irony, musicality, and depth. It is not any simple or arbitrary kind of tension, but a creative tension which compels the mind forward, and makes it conscious of what may not be directly observable, but nonetheless present and discoverable. The same musical quality can be found in great speeches, sermons, compelling screenplays, dialogues, and musical compositions—all of which have their roots in poetic composition.

Finding the poetry becomes a question of discovering the best ways to emphasize and convey the various changes and tension woven throughout the composition. With each new strophe and stanza a richer and more developed quality of idea emerges.

Readers should consider: is there really such thing as repetition in classical poetry? Is a recurring statement or line ever really read in exactly the same way? What about in classical music? In reality, repetition functions as a special kind of variation. The same literal words appear, but the creative tension transforms the overall meaning with each successive strophe and stanza. Each re-statement brings us closer towards a thematic conclusion.

Considering the original German text of Goethe’s poem offers an added degree of insight and ability to appreciate the nuanced nature of the compositional principles at play, and the beauty which a mastery of such principles creates. The poem begins “Nur wer die sehnsucht Kennt/Weiss was ich leider.” The literal translation reads: “Only he who longing knows/Knows what I feel.” In the Englishthe verb “knows” is repeated twice,butthe German text uses two distinct words for the same verb: “Wissen” and “Kennen.” While the nuance is lost in translation, it is indeed helpful to recognize the original German’s wording, which in many ways informs us on how to best unfold the opening lines.

The speaker in Goethe’s piece longs for something in the distance. There is an inherent tension between the object of desire and the poet who longs for it. His longing spans across the cloud-filled skies and deep blue sea. The consciousness and pain created by such distance burns the speaker’s “innards daily” and only adds to his desire, rather than diminishing it.

Exploring the lines of Goethe’s poem through the eyes of a musical composer provides additional degrees of insight into the poem’s musical dimensions and how they might be expressed verbally. For Franz Schubert, Goethe’s seemingly simple lines offered an opportunity to plumb the depths of human longing and desire—“Sehnsucht.”

At this point, we recommend the reader listen to Schubert’s musical setting and work their way backwards. Consider the kind of emotional tension unfolded by Schubert. How might this tension be captured in a proper recitation? How was Schubert able to take such seemingly simple strophes and imbue them with so much depth, tension, and meaning? Are any of the recurring lines ever really repeated as such?

In the case of Goethe’s poem, the object of desire is a person: the beloved. However, what else might be an object of desire beyond any person, place, or thing? How might a poet treat such a desire?

Friedrich Schiller’s poem offers us a unique example of what that might look like. However, before going further a few additional words on the nature of musical composition and creative thought can be said.

Musical Thoughts

The musical development found Goethe’s poem and expressed in Schubert’s musical setting is not something confined strictly to poetry, music, or even dance. Rather, they are all reflections and representations of a more general process whose character is inherently musical. Einstein himself described this when discussing the thought processes which led to his fundamental breakthroughs in physics. He said: “It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition.”

In reality, the inner process of dialogue and investigation which goes into exploring a new hypothesis or thought-experiment functions in much the same way a Bach fugue or Platonic dialogue functions: it begins as the investigation of a seemingly simple theme or question and then proceeds to thoroughly explore all of the possibilities, nuances, and potential implications inherent in the proposed theme or idea.

Indeed, the more musical our thoughts become, the richer and more developed our insights and sentiments will be. We become more capable and excited about investigating the richness of the universe, our minds, and the minds of others. Poetry thus plays a vital role in fostering and cultivating a more musical thought process and increases the mind’s degrees of imaginative freedom—a freedom which lies at the heart of creative discovery in both science and art. The opposite is also true: to the degree a scientist or artist’s thinking lacks music, their thinking becomes rigid, stifled, and uninspired. It leaves them incapable of making the kinds of inspired and insightful leaps that are the hallmarks of new fundamental breakthroughs in both science and art.

Examples include Einstein’s discovery of relativistic physical space-times, which overturned the infinitely extended “empty box” notion of Newtonian physics. Einstein described a universe based on physical principles, rather than a purely abstracted linear universe. Similarly to Einstein, the discoveries of Johannes Kepler—another scientist steeped in the musical tradition—defined the solar system as an essentially musical system with harmonic principles governing the motions of the planetary system as a whole, rather than simply describing the mechanical pair-wise interaction of individual parts, which lead to such epistemological paradoxes as the “three body problem.”

With his musical insights, Kepler succeeded in overthrowing the Ptolemaic and Aristotelian priesthood that had dominated astronomy for thousands of years. Einstein succeeded in overthrowing the Newtonian conception of the universe defined wholly by linear action and demonstrated that the physical universe was fundamentally non-linear. In both the case of Kepler and Einstein, musical thinking lay at the heart of their thought process. It led to their fundamental breakthroughs.

In fact, one can even go back to Plato’s Timaeus dialogue where he describes the Creator of the universe as a “composer” and proceeds to identify a series of harmonic proportions which can to this day be found in the relationships among various planetary orbits in our solar system—a system which is itself simply a variation on the infinite possibility of other uniquely tuned and organized solar systems.

To this day, it can be argued that many of the musical systems defining our unfolding universe—from the biological to the galactic—are still waiting to be discovered. In a word: while art and science have been treated as two fundamentally different domains in recent times, this was never the case for an Einstein, Planck, Kepler, Plato or the Pythagoreans. We should once again concern ourselves with the vital relationship between scientific work and artistic creation.

Having arrived at the conclusion of our interlude, we can now turn to our second musical example: the case of Friedrich Schiller’s “Sehnsucht.” For, having further delved into the musical nature of thought, poetry, and the universe as a whole, let us consider a different kind of poem about a different kind of longing—a new variation.

By Friedrich Schiller

If I could fly from this dark valley
Where the gloomy vapors creep
And by some wonder swiftly flee,
My soul would blessedly weep!
Gazing upon this pure serene,
Eternal hills rise everywhere;
Had I wings to climb this scene,
My spirit would scale the air.

I hear a melodious strain
Descending in soothing streams,
While the soothing breezes and rain
Carry the heaven's sweet dreams.
The luscious fruit hangs ripening
On never wilting branches,
The flowers never fear the fangs
Of the winter's ravishes.

Oh! How sweet it must be to dwell
Under an eternal sun,
How the sanguine airs must softly blow
Through the woods where wild deer run.
But the foaming waters stifle
Even my bravest attempts
And my frightened soul can but toil
Before those frothing torrents.

Yet see! A lonely bark is rocking
And it seems no helmsman's there:
Sails are open, waves are foaming,
But should a mortal soul dare?
Then its courage and faith alone
Must direct it—no God's hand;
Only wonder carries a man
To that magic wonderland.

Translation © David B. Gosselin

What is this “magic wonderland” Schiller speaks of? How can we get there? Is Schiller’s vision of the landscape described in the first stanza a place on earth at all? Is it really even the description of something visible? What about the second, third and fourth stanzas?

In the first stanza, Schiller counterpoints the image of a “dark valley” with the image of “pure serene.” This creates the initial tension which he then unfolds and resolves through the poem’s development. Rather than any image, place, or time, the tension between these various images, places, and times defines the real subject matter.

In the following stanzas, Schiller describes the sound of “a melodious strain,” “soothing breezes and rain,” “never-wilting branches”—a world without fear—where “the flowers never fear the fangs/of the winter’s ravishes.” But by the end of stanza III, having lulled us into a dream-like state, Schiller forces us to break away from the ideal state by shifting the imagery to another kind of landscape, essentially introducing a new musical theme:

Oh! How sweet it must be to dwell
Under an eternal sun,
How the sanguine airs must softly blow
Through the woods so frolicsome.

But the foaming waters stifle
My frail attempts at crossing
And my frightened soul can but toil
Before those torrents frothing.

Schiller defines a faith in something beyond knowledge, which he ironically treats as a special kind of knowledge—“wonder.” According to Schiller, it is by this “wonder” alone that we can enter a “magic wonderland”—the land of creative discovery, inspiration, and true freedom from the “dark valleys” and “frothing torrents.”

Unlike Goethe’s poem, Schiller’s poem doesn’t seem to describe any physical location or object at all, or even the desire for a relationship with anything earthly. The ironies found in the images force our mind to consider a different kind of landscape. However, man must take his fate into his own hands if he is to enter this world.

While Schiller was not espousing any kind of pantheist or anti-Christian views when he writes “no God’s hand” in the last quatrain of the last stanza, he was challenging those who were so complacent in their adherence to dogma, either religious or philosophical, that they no longer saw any genuine need for creative imagination, creative thought, or discovery, instead choosing to believe that everything had already been taken care or predetermined; that one had only to follow the rules and check off all the right boxes in order to enter paradise or reach “enlightenment.”

Schiller recognized, like any great poet or artist, that nothing fundamentally creative or original was ever achieved by simply checking off all the right boxes and having the right beliefs. Thus, he concludes:

Then its courage and faith alone
Must direct it—no God's hand;
Only wonder carries a man
To that magic wonderland.

There is neither a formula for beauty, nor for truth, yet what happens to a world that stops believing in truth and beauty, or simply leaves it up to chance? Rather than prescribing some formula, Schiller describes a state of mind, a set of ironies and paradoxes, which the creative individual must confront within himself or herself in order to discover the kind of passion necessary for original creative work.

Schiller refers to this desire as “Sehnsucht.”

Interestingly, Schubert also set Schiller’s poem “Sehnsucht” to music, although with less success. In this case, the piece functioned similarly to a “recitative” or musical accompaniment for the written word, rather than a truly original and closed musical creation.


Having compared two poems on the same theme of human longing and having explored the various and original ways in which two different poets have treated the same theme, we are afforded a fine example of how true genius works.

We were able to see how such genius is able to take even a seemingly simple idea, set of words, or notes and unearth a wealth of richness, depth, and poetic insight. We have seen how this same method applies universally to both science and art. We have discussed how this universal process unfolds in a Bach fugue or Beethoven symphony as much as it does in the investigation of great scientific minds who busy themselves with the many unheard melodies which make up our universe.

As with any great composition, we must learn to listen. We must learn to see with our mind’s eye and learn to listen with our inner ear—to hear the music that has always been there. In a word: like Schiller and Goethe, we must learn to long.

David Gosselin is a poet, translator, and linguist based in Montreal. He is the founder of The Chained Muse and New Lyre. His first collection of poems is entitled Modern Dreams.