English translation of Friedrich Hebbel’s "Der Heideknabe"

The Heath Lad

translated by Rolf-Peter Wille

When I recently recited Robert Schumann’s Ballade vom Haideknaben, op.122 no.1, I wandered around on that ghostly heath which is our great Internet to find an English translation of Friedrich Hebbel’s "Der Heideknabe". Schumann had used this very poem in his ballad for piano and recitation. Unlike the heath lad I wasn’t slashed by a farmhand, but what I found on the Internet was no less gruesome: just four prose translations, one or two of them having been inspired—without doubt—by Google Translate. I thus stretched my own English to reincarnate this slain lad whose body has lain forgotten under that (non-weeping) willow tree of the English language for 170 years. Writers who refer to Hebbel’s poem cannot even agree on a title. I found the following ones: "The Lad on the Heath", "The Heath Lad", "The Boy on the Heath", "The Heath Boy", "The Boy from the Heath", "The Heathland Boy", "The Moorland Boy".

The Heath Lad (English)
Der Heideknabe (original German)
Chinese translation by Lina Yeh
Augsburg Newspaper, 1846
Irony and Drama in "The Heath Lad"
Recitation (German)

                 The Heath Lad

The boy is dreaming they send him down
with thirty coins to the heathland town.
     He was on the wayside struck dead
     yet was he not lazy, the lad.

Still trembles he sweating, there suddenly presses
his master him hard and demands that he dresses,
     has coins on his blanket prepared
     and asks him, "why are you scared?"

"Oh master, my master, they strike me dead,
the sun…, it is like blood, so red!"
      "It’s not just for you…, my son;
      make haste! I’ll force you to run!"

"Oh master, my master, that’s just how you spoke,
your face…, your look…, before I awoke;
     that stick…," his voice grows unsteady,
     he falters, he’s beaten already.

"Oh master, my master, I leave, I leave,
farewell to my mother, she shall not grieve,
     search not the four corners in vain:
     The willow tree, there find me slain!"

Away from the town! And behold it stretch:
the heathland…, foggy, a ghostly sketch;
     the winds rush above, so defiant.
     "Oh, had I the feet of a giant!"

And all is so still…, and all is so plain,
one looks for the life of some beings in vain,
     just out of the clouds come squirming
     starved birds to skewer the vermin.

He reaches the lonesome shepherd place.
The aged shepherd looks out of his space.
     The boy is more anxious than ever
     that yet he lie slain to rise never.

"Oh shepherd, your manner is pious and brave,
four farthings did I nicely save,
     lend me your farmhand, I plead thee,
     that he to the village may lead me.

I gladly will give him my farthings here,
he drink next Sunday some tasty beer,
     this money, with horror it filled me,
     for this in my dream they have killed me!"

The shepherd now waved to the farmhand, "come quick,"
that tall one was whittling his walking stick;
     he stepped to the fore – how trembled
     the lad, for the farmhand resembled…!

"Oh, master shepherd, oh no, oh no,
much better it is if alone I go!"
     The tall one remarks with a smirking:
     "He keeps the four farthings, he’s shirking."

"Here, take the four farthings!" He tosses them down
and rushes away with bewildered frown.
     The willow appears in his track;
     the farmhand is tapping his back.

"You cannot endure it, your pace is too quick,
ah, haste makes waste; a boy will get sick;
     that money is weighing you down;
     unbend now and take off your gown!

Come here, sit under the willow tree,
relate that ugly dream to me,
     I dreamed…, I shall be cursed:
     Yours must be mine reversed!"

He grabs the hand of this poor boy,
who nevermore resists the ploy;
     the leaves…, they whisper so madly,
     the brooklet trickles so sadly.

"Now speak, you dreamt" – "There came a man" –
"’twas me? …look closer, if you can,
     I think it was me whom you’ve seen!
     Go on now: How has it been?"

"He drew a knife!" – "The one you see?"
"Oh yes, oh yes!" – "Then stabbed he?" – "Me…"
     "He stabbed you like this in the throat?
     No need to torment whom I smote!"

You’re asking what further has happened yet?
Just ask two birds, they watched and sat;
     the raven quite cheerfully stayed,
     the dove could not leave without aid.

The raven tells more of that villainous breed,
and how the hangman avenged the deed;
     the dove relates how the lad
     his tears and his prayers had.

(translated by Rolf-Peter Wille)

(read the original German by Friedrich Hebbel)

                       Irony and Drama in "The Heath Lad" 

by Rolf-Peter Wille

Unlike Bürger’s "Lenore," 1773, which inspired at least ten notable verse translations into English and was enthusiastically received in many countries, Hebbel’s "Heath Lad," 1844, mainly affected the German language area. Yet did the poem inspire minds as different as those of Adorno and Schumann. More importantly, it still shocks us today and not in that pleasantly uplifting manner "Lenore" or Poe’s "Raven" do. Why is that? Being constantly exposed to killings, have our souls not hardened? Maybe this ballad has some sexual overtones, the farmhand takes the boy by the hand and the raven—not Poe’s—implies "something more." Or perhaps not. Are we not more than hardened in this regard as well? It must be Hebbel’s horror. But how does he evoke it? Where is the kitsch horror, where are the clattering bones, the graves, the gore? Where are the supernatural beings, the evil elf- and erlkings? We only get two (less than trustworthy) birds. Should not he narrator, at least, have made the boy’s ghost hover above the willow and torment his murderer forever (…Quoth the raven "Evermore")?

But the narrator, a rather ruthless and alien one, refrains from kitsch. Where kitsch appears—in the last farewell to the mother who is to search under the willow tree, in the leaves, the brooklet and the dove’s "praying lad"—some faint irony creeps in. And what creeps out of this ballad? Read superficially it is fast, rough and rigid, the lad’s life "nasty, brutish and short." The premonition is told in a few laconic words. The scenery is thrown onto the canvas with swift and brutal strokes, the striking master, the red sun, the barren and ghostly heath, the lonesome shepherd house, the tall farmhand, the knife, the throat. The story is simple: A boy dreams that he is murdered for money on the heath. He is woken up by his master, sent on an errand, reluctantly steps onto the heath, solicits the help of a farmhand and is murdered by this very farmhand.

Tchaikovsky who orchestrated Schumann’s setting called the ballad "Prophetic Dream." Is the tragic end predetermined? Like in the fairy tales of 1001 Nights the prophecy only becomes true because the protagonist attempts to avoid it. Does the farmhand actually have a complementary dream? Or does he just overhear the boy’s talk? Adorno remarks: "What one most fears for no real reason, apparently obsessed by a fixed idea, has the unnerving habit of occurring." An idée fixe? Does the victim’s sweet dream of victimhood provoke the perpetrator? Adorno draws a parallel with fascism. (He does not really mention Hebbel in his essay "Heideknabe.")

Not much is sweet in the lad’s fantasizing except, perhaps, that he is to be found by his mother under the willow tree. The narration moves so swiftly towards the murder that there is little room for toe wiggling let alone complex seduction. The farmhand may have been provoked. Yet in the "stretto" development of the poem he too—despite his sarcasm—acts like he follows not just the lad but a predetermined path. The narrator seems to play with marionettes. Our poor lad—he touched us with his thrice-recurring exclamation "Ach Meister, mein Meister!"—is forsaken by the force(s) above and treated like a marionette. The real perpetrator is not the farmhand but the narrator. And Hebbel. And God.

And us innocent readers! The narrator assumes without further ado that we would like to know "what further happened." What happened? The boy hardly had the time to answer the farmhand’s terse questions before he was stabbed in the throat. Without further ado! What could the killer have done afterwards except take the money and leave? And be hanged, naturally. And when could the lad have prayed? After he was stabbed? But we’d like to hear "some more" and the two reporting birds willingly comply. The last word "habe" ("Die Taube erzählt, dass der Knabe geweint und gebetet habe") feels somewhat ironic here in its subjunctive mood. And could the farmhand have raped the boy before slashing him? Again, this does not make any sense in the structure of the ballad. It moves so swiftly that the climax must be the fulfillment of the foretold fate—murder. Rape, hanging, crying and praying are rather what our own "raven-dovish" heart likes to imagine.

Irony creeps out of the rhythm as well. The meter here always feels sweeter (than the story). Especially the final two verse lines of each stanza feel rhythmically like refrains or conclusions. But in the narrative they do not function as conclusions, especially not in the "stretto" section which pushes through the stanzas towards the climax. The result is a faint discrepancy. While this may not be untypical in a ballad, the effect is more horrible here because of the lack of ornament and the timelessness of the story which could easily be turned into a "realistic" newspaper report: "Boy Slashed on Heather," etc. It is the poetic ballad rhythm that transports us to "surrealist" horror.

In the murderous stanza finally, in the climax, a revelation happens: epic character and narrator disappear. The drama breaks through and "He stabbed you like this in the throat?" cuts like a knife through the ballad—right into [the word] "this."
It must have been this dramatic aspect that inspired Schumann to compose an incidental piano music for the "Heath Lad,": Ballade vom Haideknaben [old spelling] op.122 no.1, 1852. "Declamation ballad" may be a better term for this narration with piano accompaniment. Schumann, an expert on all literary genres, must have deemed the dramatic speed of the "Heideknabe" too fast for a Lied setting.

In combining declamation with piano accompaniment Schumann should be regarded as an innovator. Schubert’s "Abschied von der Erde," written about 20 years earlier is more of a Lied with incidental recitation ("Lied mit Worten"?). The new salon genre, called "melodrama," a forerunner to silent movies with live music, was severely criticized by Wagner who called it a "genre of the most unedifying mixture" and Hanslick who believed that music "separates from the spoken word like oil from water". Music in a melodrama would be relegated to the background as, in fact, it functions quite naturally in movies now.

A film score (almost) always follows the filmed action. The script is usually not performed simultaneously by musicians and actors. Schumann did compose the music after the "script" (the poem). He did not change the words of the script, but decided the rests and defined the tempo. It should be noted that both music and narration have to be performed together. In the opening of "Ballade vom Haideknaben" the pianist indeed seems to be "just" extemporizing to the word. And entire stanzas are recited without any music. But soon the music condenses quite dramatically. Towards the climax it dominates and sets the tempo. At this point in the performance the music definitely does not "follow" the declamation but the narrator is pushed forward by it. A recitation without Schumann’s music might be tempted to linger. But when Schumann’s voice commands from the piano, the narrator is forced into an accelerando, just as the lad and the farmhand’s action are controlled by an invisible force. The form-building power of music, superior to that of the word, inspires the dramatic shape of the recitation. The pianist turns from accompanist to marionette master.

Schumann’s composing technique is less fragmented than generally believed. The "incidental manner" is calculated. An opening six-note lamenting motive, a downward sigh, is most certainly inspired by the boys "Ach Meister, mein Meister…."
The short three-note motive that begins the nightmarish "stretto" and corresponds to "Komm’ setz dich" is fashioned from the lament motive.
The composition technique achieving coherence through relating motives reveals hidden relations in the text—a "subliminal" structure.

The genre of melodrama was further developed by Liszt who, among other poems, set Bürger’s Lenore about five years later and emulates Schumann’s melodramatic technique. Tchaikovsky in a "Prophetic Dream" orchestrated Schumann’s piano music in 1874. The declamation uses a Russian translation of "Heideknabe."

In the 20th century the melodrama evolves into movie as the sound of music, somewhat ingloriously, "disappears" behind the image. An excellent essay on melodrama Schumann’s Melodramatic Afterlife (Ivan Raykoff) can be found in Rethinking Schumann.


here is the original:

                Der Heideknabe

Der Knabe träumt, man schicke ihn fort
mit dreißig Talern zum Heideort,
     er ward drum erschlagen am Wege
     und war doch nicht langsam und träge.

Noch liegt er im Angstschweiß, da rüttelt ihn
sein Meister, und heißt ihm, sich anzuziehn
     und legt ihm das Geld auf die Decke
     und fragt ihn, warum er erschrecke.

"Ach Meister, mein Meister, sie schlagen mich tot,
die Sonne, sie ist ja wie Blut so rot!"
     "Sie ist es für dich nicht alleine,
     drum schnell, sonst mach' ich dir Beine!"

"Ach Meister, mein Meister, so sprachst du schon,
das war das Gesicht, der Blick, der Ton,
     gleich greifst du" - zum Stock, will er sagen,
     er sagt's nicht, er wird schon geschlagen.

"Ach Meister, mein Meister, ich geh', ich geh',
bring' meiner Frau Mutter das letzte Ade!
     Und sucht sie nach allen vier Winden,
     am Weidenbaum bin ich zu finden!"

Hinaus aus der Stadt! Und da dehnt sie sich,
die Heide, nebelnd, gespenstiglich,
     die Winde darüber sausend.
     "Ach, wär' hier ein Schritt, wie tausend!"

Und alles so still, und alles so stumm,
man sieht sich umsonst nach Lebendigem um,
     nur hungrige Vögel schießen
     aus Wolken, um Würmer zu spießen.

Er kommt ans einsame Hirtenhaus,
der alte Hirt schaut eben heraus,
     des Knaben Angst ist gestiegen,
     am Wege bleibt er noch liegen.

"Ach Hirte, du bist ja von frommer Art,
vier gute Groschen hab' ich erspart,
     gib deinen Knecht mir zur Seite,
     daß er bis zum Dorf mich begleite.

Ich will sie ihm geben, er trinke dafür
am nächsten Sonntag ein gutes Bier,
     dies Geld hier, ich trag' es mit Beben,
     man nahm mir im Traum drum das Leben!"

Der Hirt, der winkte dem langen Knecht,
er schnitt sich eben den Stecken zurecht,
     jetzt trat er hervor - wie graute
     dem Knaben, als er ihn schaute!

"Ach Meister Hirte, ach nein, ach nein,
es ist doch besser, ich geh' allein!"
     Der Lange spricht grinsend zum Alten:
     "Er will die vier Groschen behalten."

"Da sind die vier Groschen!" Er wirft sie hin
und eilt hinweg mit verstörtem Sinn.
     Schon kann er die Weide erblicken,
     da klopft ihn der Knecht in den Rücken.

"Du hältst es nicht aus, du gehst zu geschwind,
ei, Eile mit Weile, du bist ja noch Kind,
     auch muß das Geld dich beschweren,
     wer kann dir das Ausruhn verwehren?

Komm, setz' dich unter den Weidenbaum
und dort erzähl' mir den häßlichen Traum;
     mir träumte - Gott soll mich verdammen,
     trifft's nicht mit deinem zusammen!"

Er faßt den Knaben wohl bei der Hand,
der leistet auch nimmermehr Widerstand,
     die Blätter flüstern so schaurig,
     das Wässerlein rieselt so traurig!

"Nun sprich, du träumtest" - "Es kam ein Mann -"
"War ich das? Sieh mich doch näher an,
     ich denke, du hast mich gesehn!
     Nun weiter, wie ist es geschehn?"

"Er zog ein Messer!" - "War das, wie dies?" -
"Ach ja, ach ja!" - "Er zogs?" - "Und stieß -"
     "Er stieß dir's wohl so durch die Kehle?
     Was hilft es auch, daß ich dich quäle!"

Und fragt ihr, wie's weiter gekommen sei?
So fragt zwei Vögel, sie saßen dabei,
     der Rabe verweilte gar heiter,
     die Taube konnte nicht weiter!

Der Rabe erzählt, was der Böse noch tat,
und auch, wie's der Henker gerochen hat;
     die Taube erzählt, wie der Knabe
     geweint und gebetet habe.

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