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MLN 119.3 (2004) 431-450

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The River and its Metaphors:

Goethe's "Mahomets Gesang"1


Goethe's "Mahomets Gesang" shares with his "Prometheus" the ambiguity of form, being at the same time both part of a dramatic fragment and an independent poem. While the genetic relationship between fragment and poem in "Prometheus" remains uncertain, what later became known as "Mahomets Gesang" was originally conceived as a dialogue between Ali and Fatima for the fourth act of the drama.2 Only in 1777 when Goethe copied some of his early poems for Frau von Stein did he surrender the form of the dialogue and give it the title "Mahomets Gesang".3 With this title, it has become known as one of Goethe's Jugendhymnen.4 Apart from the dialogue, which had yet to be worked into the drama, Mahomet did not progress beyond the opening scene.5 Here Mahomet is first seen by himself in [End Page 431] a prose monologue that is followed by a prose dialogue with Halima.6 While the internal chronology of its genesis remains uncertain up to a point,7 the "Gesang" stands in a much clearer and closer relationship to the whole of the dramatic fragment than the Prometheus hymn does to its fragment. Yet while being identifiably part of the plan for Mahomet, the "Gesang" was never worked into the drama, and as it stands by itself, it has a completeness that the drama as a whole would never achieve.8

The Orient, as a textual universe, is only diffusely sketched in Mahomet9 and will reappear much later and much larger in the West-Östlicher Divan. In the context of Goethe's early hymns, however, even the faint orientalism of "Mahomets Gesang" is surprising, as most of the other hymns are located in the productive polarity between Classical antiquity and German modernity. When the hymn is distilled from the drama fragment and stripped of its dialogue form, it further loses its specific oriental background and is more easily assimilated with the other hymns. By forging a monologue from the dialogue, the move from drama to hymn, from a discursive to a deictic mode is completed. As the hymn now (1777) stands, it even makes the title, "Mahomets Gesang", seem redundant, belonging to earlier stages of the poem. The link between Muhammad and the river poem that carries his name is much more tenuous than the link between Ganymede and that lyrical poem. Where the Ganymede myth prefigures the coming together of two disparate beings (man and nature) and works as an amplification of the lyrical, the river poem has washed out the specificity of the historical Muhammad and the oriental background in its move from the dramatic fragment. [End Page 432] What remains is a poem that operates within the metaphor of the river, and to that metaphor attaches itself, from earlier stages and another genre of the text, the name of Muhammad, as a specific but not necessary reading of the poem. This article will seek to trace the course of the river as a locus of metaphorical exchange in Goethe's poem and to point to other, similar courses of rivers in poetry. Rather than trying to decode the river and its metaphors into a plain text message about a historical character, this reading sets out to preserve the different metaphorical layers interwoven in the poem.

From the source to the mouth, the "Gesang" moves along with the river. It begins at the "Felsenquell" (l. 1) and ends with "Dem erwartenden Erzeuger | Freudebrausend an das Herz" (ll. 71-72). It evolves with the same fluid linearity, accelerating and accumulating, as the river of which it speaks. The course of the river, its serpentine wandering, its tumescence and its debouchement, structures the poem, its opening and end. Where "Prometheus" shifts backwards and forwards in time, recounting and asserting, in the past indicative and in the imperative, the "Gesang" runs along in a continuous present. The initial imperative "Sehet" (l. 1) effectively marks only the opening of a hymn...


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