- Song or Narration?: Goethe’s Mignon
This short piece wishes to engage a large question, namely, the question of how the specific story a poem tells relates to the ways in which poetry emotionally engages its readers. Obviously, this is too large a question to allow for a clear and satisfactory answer. And yet, poetry stands at a peculiar intersection since it usually contains some specific story or rudimentary narrative while also evoking sentiments in the reader or listener who can recognize himself or herself in the poem. I do not wish to suggest that empathy or identification is the key mechanism we need to consider. Instead I want to ask why and how poetry is able to address everyone, even while telling a rather discrete tale.1 How can poetry speak to all when telling about only one? More simply: How can the universal and the singular come together in reading poetry? I believe that the answer to this question lies in effects prior to or outside of mechanisms of empathy—at least this is what I will suggest by means of example. The example, of course, is not a neutral one, for there are no neutral examples. The example or case I will discuss is that of Goethe’s Mignon, and more specifically her song “Kennst du das Land.”
Everything about Mignon suggests simplicity, but it is precisely her simplicity that makes her most mysterious. Her simplicity may be the result of a mixing of opposites and extremes, as in child and adult, male and female, naïve and wise, nature and culture.2 She appears out of the blue, introduced twice as a Rätsel, and she disappears shortly before it is revealed that she is the product of an incestuous relationship. Between these events, she never quite fits the role of Wilhelm’s servant, foster child, confidant, protégé, or lover. She is also not consistent or consistently understood in her symbolic role as a substitute family, muse, warning Xantippe, lover, or jealous wife. If anything, this ambivalence only increases from the early Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung (1777–85) to Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1794–95). However, her presence may be felt most strongly not in the plot, but in her lure through art.
Her presence through art and as art begins, of course, with the strange Eiertanz and her denial to perform it on demand. Here her art is shaped by two elements: on the one hand, the absolute precision by which she makes her steps, which the running commentary of the novel associates with an automated and mindless clockwork, and on the other hand, her independent and willful decision when and when not to perform it. However, it seems that there is no middle ground between these extremes of radical machinelike action and radical assertions of free will. [End Page 79]
In the following, I will not even begin to consider the figure of Mignon in this in-between-ness,3 but will focus only on her famous song—or poem—“Kennst du das Land.” To be sure, this song comes to us in the form of a poem in translation, as the narrator in the novel explains.4 That is, again, we are facing a plurality of versions, the one we know, and the one that we may imagine we might have heard, in a language we may imagine to be Italian. My interpretation, however, will bracket these complications and focus on the printed text.
[Kennst du das Land]
Kennst du das Land? wo die Zitronen blühn, Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn, Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht, Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht. Kennst du es wohl? Dahin! Dahin! Mögt ich mit dir, o mein Geliebter, ziehn.
Kennst du das Haus? Auf Säulen ruht sein Dach. Es glänzt der Saal, es schimmert das Gemach, Und Marmorbilder stehn und sehn mich an: Was hat man dir, du armes Kind, getan? Kennst du es wohl? Dahin! Dahin! Mögt ich mit dir, o mein Beschützer, ziehn.
Kennst du den Berg und seinen Wolkensteg? Das Maultier sucht im Nebel seinen Weg In H...