In his short, tragic poetic career Nikolaus Lenau came to embody
the Sehnsucht, or melancholy longing, of the German Romantic movement.
Born Nikolaus Niembsch von Strehlenau in 1802 to German parents living in Csatád,
Hungary, Lenau was bitten early with the Wanderlust, traveling ceaselessly around
Hungary and southern Germany before crossing the seas to seek peace and happiness
in the United States in 1833. Like the tormented protagonists about whom he wrote,
Lenau's own youth had harbored a hopeless passion, and his American journey ended in
bitter disillusionment. In the last seven years of his life, he struggled with encroaching
insanity before dying at the age of forty-eight.
Influenced by Goethe, Eichendorff, Byron, and the Young German Movement, Lenau's verse employs
many of the archetypes of Romantic thought: the wanderer (an image which carried a personal
poignancy), the notion that "above every joy there hovers a threatening vulture,"
the gnawing feeling of Weltschmerz, the pervasive 19th century melancholy, the restless
striving for an ultimate justice beyond the human reach, and the belief that nature mirrors human woes. Combining
a deep pessimism of thought with an exquisitely elegiac lyricism of form, Lenau's works
range from the early poems on folk themes (GEDICHTE 1832) to poems of praise for the
American wilderness and its Native American inhabitants (DAS BLOCKHAUS AND NIAGRA),
to epics like SAVONAROLA (1837) and DIE ALBIGENSER (1842).
The inherent musicality of his verse made him a natural choice for many Lieder
composers of the late nineteenth century, among them not only Griffes
(AUF GEHEIMEM WALDESPFADE), but also by Ives, Mendelssohn, Schumann Franz,
Mahler, Wolf, and Berg, to name as few, and his dramatic verse drama, FAUST and
DON JUAN, inspired both Liszt and Richard Strauss' tone poems.
Kommen und Scheiden
So oft sie kam, erschienen mir die Gestalt
Whenever she approached, her form seemed to me
So lieblich, wie das erste Grün im Wald.
As lovely as the first green in the woods.
Und was sie sprach, drang mir zum Herzen ein
And what she spoke pierced my heart
Süss, wie des Frühlings erstes Lied im Hain.
Sweet as the first Springsong in the glade
Und als Lebwohl sie winkte mit der Hand,
War's ob der letzte Jugentraum mir schwand.
And when she waved farewell , It was as if youth's last dream disappeared.