The Bride of Corinth (1797) by Johann Wolfgang Goethe
There once descended a youth from Athens
Unto a sleepy Corinthian town;
Eager to meet his new family, friends
And bride in waiting of great renown.
They had recently
Both been dearly
Paired, soon by the heavens to be bound.
But will this warm and graceful welcome last
If one so dearly has to pay?
He is still among a heathen race classed,
She already walks the Christian way.
With a new creed born,
With Love and truth torn,
The dark night quickly consumes each day.
The house already silently sleeps,
Father, daughter, only mother wakes;
Wishing him goodnight she quickly retreats -
Alone in his room now sleep awaits:
Food and wine are laid,
But he retires to his silken drapes.
He cared neither for hunger nor for thirst,
He had no thought of sense’s pleasures;
All was forgotten by his weary body –
Into bed he fell still sporting trousers;
A guest comes creeping
By his door - enters his sleeping quarters.
By his shimmering night lamp, he beholds
A maiden wearing her veil and robe,
Appearing with angel’s graces and silken folds,
And sporting a band of black and gold;
But as she sees him,
By a light so dim
She unveils a pallid hand so cold.
"Am I so forgotten in this household,
That no word of guests was sent to me?
Oh! How they in this prison chamber hold
Me, and in this deep shame keep me.
These dreams must now cease,
I must leave in peace,
And fade before anyone can see."
"Wait! Beautiful maiden" the young boy pleads,
Rising from his bed so quickly:
Let us enjoy the gifts of Bacchus and Ceres
And welcome blushing Cupid warmly.
Why now look so pale
Why not sweetly hail
These gifts, which Gods offer graciously.
Stay away oh young soul! stay far away,
Joy’s grape no longer greets my pallet,
I know no bliss, night consumes each day;
For my mother with her devout fears
Has taken her oath
And pledged my troth
To heaven, along with all my youthful years.
The ancient throng of Gods have taken flight,
Our home has been emptied of their lore.
For unseen there lies in the heavens' light
A son who once mercifully bore
Man’s every sin
To save our kin -
So we pledge our woe forevermore.
He listens, weighing every word she speaks,
Not one of them escaping his mind:
“I cannot fathom in such a quiet place
Such a dream I could have never feigned.
Oh but be mine now!
For our father’s vow
Has been by the heavens so ordained.”
“Though my hand you cannot have faithful soul
My fair sister will be your delight;
Yet when I am weeping in my dark cell
Think on me as you hold her at night.
I think but of you,
I dream but of you
Soon to hide my face where there is no light.”
“No wait! By the sacred flame I already swore
That you would be kept on Hymen’s throne;
But let us not leave all forsaken,
Come with me to my father’s home.
What should we afear
When there is so much cheer
And a wonderful feast before us shown!”
Tokens of their faith were swiftly exchanged:
She hands him a glittering chain of gold,
And he offers her an exquisite chalice
Of shining silver and beauty untold:
"This I cannot take,
But please for my sake,
Give me just one lock of your dark hair."
The unhallowed midnight hour knell rang--
Suddenly the maiden came alive:
With a parching thirst, she quickly drank
The dark and purple tinctured wine,
But of the wheat bread
Upon which he fed,
She refused to take the slightest bite.
She handed her same cup to the youth
And he, like she, quickly drank each drop.
He implored the maid for her true ruth.
Alas! Love had been lit in his heart.
But as he persists,
She only resists
Until, weeping he sinks into bed.
The maiden pitifully leans over him
“Oh! How it pains me to see you so,
But were you to feel these limbs
You would shudder, knowing what they conceal.
A snow-white maiden,
Whose blood is frozen -
Such is the love that these limbs reveal."
The ardent youth wraps his arms around her
With the strength young love inspires:
“Were you risen directly from your grave
My love would set your every limb on fire.”
Kissing and caressing,
“Don't you feel it, the burning desire?”
Holding each other closely, neither contain
Their tears falling with the sweetest ardor,
His hot breath surges through her frame,
Each thinks of nothing but the other.
So a fiery flood
Warms her frozen blood
But alas! No heart beats in her breast.
Meanwhile the devout mother makes her way
Through the halls. As she tends to her chores,
She hears a murmur and wonders what might lay
On the other side of one of those doors:
Wailing and crying,
Sobbing and sighing,
Who can allay Love's frenzied pangs?
She halts in front of the door, listening,
Hoping to convince herself that what she heard
Was nothing real – then she hears lamenting
Entreaties and passionate parting words:
“Quick! The cock now crows,
But come tomorrow,
Won’t you return?” and then kiss on kiss.
Without hesitation, she quickly opens
The door, anger swelling across her face:
“Have such shameless scandals and unbridled sins
Made their home in my own hearth?” she screams.
Looking through the door,
A sight to abhor,
Her daughter in a heathen's embrace.
Terrified, the youth seeks to cover her,
Draping a white sheet over her head,
Yet she slyly slips from her lover’s
Embraces, and she reveals herself:
With ghostly mien,
She begins rising
Like a wraith from the depths of the tomb.
“Mother! Mother! Give me one good reason why
I was born for loveless nights alone,
Ripped from Love’s warm embraces –
Left here only to pitifully moan.
You bereft my heart
Of both life and art,
And left it cold and sullen like a headstone.
“Alas in this frigid and dark cave,
I will end my wretched sleeplessness;
Your priests and their holy hymns can’t save
Me - nor holy prayers from above.
Salt and water cools,
But the heart of fools;
Yet the frigid grave cannot cool Love!
“My vows had already been pledged to this boy
When Aphrodite’s temple still stood.
Mother, have you chosen to destroy
Sacred vows that you once understood.
No God lends his ear
To mothers who dare
Forsake one of their own innocent brood.
“Driven nightly from my grave, forsaken,
I walk this land in hopes of quenching
My desire for the one who’d been given
My hand – to draw the blood from his being.
His life is now mine,
But there's more to find –
Many helpless souls are still in waiting.
“Oh beautiful boy! Your heart has run its course:
This dark chamber will soon be your grave.
While my neck chain is wrapped around your neck
This lock of your hair I'll gladly save -
Though now it is dark,
Soon it will be grey,
As its sable luster flees the grave.
“Dear mother, this life has taken its toll:
Lay out a funeral pyre on this ground,
And let me grant succor to my wretched soul --
At last, the peace I've always longed for!
When glistening flames flow,
When the ashes glow,
To the ancient Gods aloft we'll soar.”
Translation © David B. Gosselin