Karoline von Günderrode, “Don Juan”

Karoline von Günderrode’s poem “Don Juan” was published in her first, 1804 collection of poems, dialogues and short stories, Poems and Fantasies. The poem is a highly original take on the Don Juan story and reflects Romantic ideas of gender, of the relationship between art, love and morals, and of social constraints vs individuality. Günderrode’s characteristic focus on the momentary and its relationship to the eternal is also evident in this piece. Some of the unique features of Günderrode’s poem later became common tropes of the Don Juan myth, yet her influence on this story has never been explored. Enjoy this translation of Günderrode’s poem and my brief comments on the piece; suggestions for further reading are included at the end of the post.

In her poem, Günderrode merges two characters and the stories around them: the fictional libertine Don Juan, who first appeared in literature in the early 17th century, and the real John of Austria (1547–1578), the illegitimate half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1599), the latter features as a villain (Don John, the Bastard Prince), and, after Günderrode’s time, he appears in mid- and late-19th century works featuring a love rivalry between Don John (sometimes written as “Don Juan” or “Don Giovanni”) and King Philip.

In merging these two characters, Günderrode significantly modifies the Don Juan story from a tale of an amoral or wicked womaniser to a man hopelessly love with one woman. For this reason, Marjanne Goozé describes Günderrode’s poem as “the first truly romantic Don Juan.”

Goozé notes parallels between Günderrode’s 1804 poem and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1813 version of the Don Juan story, including the deliberate conflation of romantic and aesthetic experience and the positioning of Don Juan as an idealist seeking his ideal embodied in the form of women (Hoffmann) or one woman (Günderrode). When considering the latter aspect of Günderrode’s “Don Juan,” it’s crucial to cross-reference with her other work, especially the poem “Change and Constancy,”* which was published together with “Don Juan” in Poems and Fantasies. In this poem, as well as in the unpublished fragments “Love and Beauty”* and “Only One and One to Serve,”* Günderrode presents love as the search for an ideal, which drives a person to seek out embodiments of beauty in many individuals, always moving on to the next love-object once their passion for the previous one has been exhausted. This is a marked contrast with the obsessive protagonist of “Don Juan,” who seeks his ideal in one woman – and, indeed, in one moment of perfect consummation.

Another interesting point of comparison for the poem is Günderrode’s play “Magic and Destiny,” in which, like her Don Juan, the protagonist attempts to force destiny to comply with his wishes, with tragic results.

*My translations of “Change and Constancy,” “Love and Beauty,” and “Only One and One to Serve” will appear in Philosophical Fragments, a collection of translations of and commentary on Günderrode’s philosophical work, under contract with Oxford University Press for completion summer 2021.

The original German text of Günderrode’s “Don Juan” can be found here. I have not attempted to replicate the original ABABCCC rhyme pattern or the metre.

Don Juan

Now the festival has come
Decorations fill the town,
All the balconies are green,
Flowers bloom on the princess’ path.
In gold and silk she comes,
Beautiful in fine regalia
At the side of her new husband.

The crowd watches her, astonished
And praises her beauty!
But one man, one in the crowd
Feels her beauty more deeply.
He would pass away in gazing
After seeing her once,
His heart full of deep sorrow.

His gaze follows her to the wedding dance
Through the gay ranks of the dancers,
Dies away in her radiance
Revives in gentle observation.
Thus he falls prey to his watching,
And his eyes’ sweet pasture
Brings his heart bitter pain.

For months he was consumed
By the embers of his heart;
Denied his pain expression,
Steeled in renunciation;
Then he could scorn this earlier courage
And live only in deep craving
To behold her, so graceful.

With Philip at the holy shrine,
On the pious day ordained for souls,
His court gathered for the prayer
That frees souls from torment;
Then Juan’s ardent gaze implored
That she would just once make him happy!
He would force it from destiny.

She sinks her head with silent senses
Then raises it to heaven;
And a bold plan flames within him,
He climbs boldly on the altar.
Aloud he’ll tell her of his passion,
And confess his heart’s hot burning,
In the presence of the sacred.

Aloud he speaks: Priest! let fall silent
All prayers for the dead.
Raise for me your ardent pleas;
For greater is my love’s torment,
From which I can less recover,
Than those unhappy creatures
Chosen for the fiery torment.

And astonished the crowd sees him
Transfigured beautifully in love.
“Where among the festive splendour?”
Some quietly think, “is she intended
“By his words and with such fervour?”
She, weeping secret tears,
Is who Juan’s ardent love intended.

_______

Was it pity, was it love,
That wrung those tears from her?
From grief love cannot recover,
If it does not abandon doubt.
He cannot hunt down peace;
For never again dare his lips,
Lament to her his love’s pain.

Only one day will he behold
That does not fly past him dully;
Only one hour, filled with rapture
Where sweet love blooms for him
Only one day awaken from the night,
Then death’s night, with its terrors,
May cover him forever.

The Queen loves the stage,
Often appeared in colourful play.
To serve her smallest wishes
Is now his life’s only goal.
He has a theatre built for her,
There he will see the loveliest
Of women in new grace.

The court unites one day for a play,
The Queen, dressed as a shepherdess,
Appears with lovely grace
A floral wreath in her hair’s night.
And Juan’s soul recklessly,
With impetuous wild stirrings,
Looks forward to the coming moment.

He signals: flame and fumes pervade
Now horribly the theatre;
He will conceal love’s happiness
In fumes and night, and fear and horror;
He rejoices; he has succeeded,
He has forced destiny’s power
And gained love’s sweet wages.

The lovely hour has come;
He bears her through the fire’s rage,
Steals kisses from her lovely mouth,
Awakens her bosom’s deepest blaze.
In her arms he would pass away,
Would give all! To impoverish her,
Never warm to another life.

The hurrying minutes fly;
He does not mark the dangers,
And feels only her cheeks’ glow;
But she, she no longer dreams,
She tears herself from him, trembling,
He sees her float through the halls.
The minute’s life is breathed out.

_______

With a sick, longing heart
Juan hurries through the halls.
In bliss’ grief and sweet aching
His crazed senses wholly sink,
He throws himself upon his bed,
And lovely dreams show him again
Her beloved, lovely image.

The sun rises and falls;
But it remains evening in his breast.
Day has sunk for him, does not return,
And she, only she is known to him,
And ever, ever is imprisoned
His spirit in tormenting desire
To see her, whether waking, dreaming.

And when he wakens from his slumber
It seems he’s climbing from a crypt,
So strange and dead; and all the anguish
That slept with him awakes and cries:
Oh weep! she’s lost to you forever
She who your love chose
An abyss divides you from her!

He gathers himself with dull soul
And hurries to the palace gardens;
There he sees, in the moonlight,
A maiden hurrying to him.
She gives him a page and disappears,
Before he finds the words to ask her,
He breaks the seal and reads:

“Escape! when you have read this page
“And by doing so save me.
“To me it is as if I once was,
“The present dies away in me,
“And that hour alone is living,
“It speaks to me with such sweet lips,
“Of you, of you, and always of you.”

He reads the page, gently trembling
Loves it, holds it to his heart.
His life is violently divided
In great bliss – deep pain.
Should he now avoid his dearest?
How can she cause him this sorrow?
Should he never see her again?

He goes now, as she bade him;
A killing dagger finds his breast.
But to the dead he rises gladly,
For memory’s sweet passion,
Calls up to him the loveliest hour,
He still hangs on her mouth;
And gently slumbers in her arms.

FURTHER READING

Christmann, Ruth. Zwischen Identitätsgewinn und Bewußtseinsverlust. Das philosophisch-literarische Werk der Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806). Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2005. 139f.

Goozé, Marjanne E. “The Seduction of Don Juan: Karoline von Günderrode’s Romantic Rendering of a Classic Story.” In The Enlightenment and Its Legacy. Studies in German Literature in Honor of Helga Slessarev. Ed. Sara Friedrichsmeyer and Barbara Becker-Cantarino, 117–129. Bonn: 1991.

Lazarowicz, Margarete. Karoline von Günderrode. Porträt einer Fremden. Europäische Hochschulschriften I.923. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1986. 85f.

Licher, Lucia Maria. “Siehe! Glaube! Thue!” Die poetische Konfession der Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806). Oldenburg: Bis, 1998. 24–25.

Marjanne Goozé describes Karoline von Günderrode’s poem “Don Juan” as “the first truly romantic Don Juan.”

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