• Translation

The Bride of Corinth (1797) by Johann Wolfgang Goethe


There once descended a youth from Athens Into a dreamy Corinthian town; He was eager to meet new family, friends And his luscious bride of sweet renown. They had recently Both been dearly Paired—soon under heaven to be bound.

But could this warm and graceful welcome last If one so dearly had to pay? He still was among the heathen race classed, She already walked the Christian way. With a new creed born, With love and truth torn, Dark night quickly consumed each day.

The house was already hushed and sleeping, Only the mother and new son were awake. She wished him goodnight, then retreating, Let him rest and sleep off the day’s weight: Food and wine were laid, Lavishly displayed, But he retired to his silken drape.

He cared neither for hunger nor for thirst— He had no thought of sense’s pleasures. All was forgotten by his weary body; He fell into bed still sporting trousers. But almost sleeping, A guest came creeping By his door, and entered his quarters.

By his shimmering night lamp, he beholds A maiden wearing a veil and robe, Appearing with angel’s graces and silken folds, And sporting a band of black and gold; But as she saw him, By a light so dim, She revealed a hand, pallid and cold.

"Am I so forgotten in this household, That no word of guests was sent to me? Oh! How can my wretched family hold Me in this chamber, imprisoning me? The suffering must cease, I must rest in peace, And fade before anyone can see."

"Wait! Beautiful maiden," the young boy pled, Rising from his bed so quickly. Let us enjoy the gifts of Bacchus and Ceres And welcome blushing Cupid warmly. Why do you look so pale? Let us sweetly hail Gifts the Gods have granted graciously."

“Stay away! Please young soul! Stay far away! Joy’s grape no longer greets my pallet, I know no bliss or light, or even 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 salvage our kin— So we pledge our woe, forevermore.”

He listened, weighing every word she spoke— Not one of them escaping his mind: “I never thought that a maid could invoke Such fire, such strange and haunting love bind. Oh please be mine now! Your own father’s vow Has been by the heavens so ordained.”

“Although you may never have my hand, love, My fair sister will be your delight. When I’m in darkness below, you above, Think of me as you hold her at night. I think but of you, I dream but of you— But must now fade to where there‘s 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 gave him a glittering chain of gold; He offered 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 sprang For a dark and purple tinctured wine, But of the wheat bread Upon which he fed, She refused to take the slightest bite.

She handed her chalice to the youth He drank—then the wine and passion wed. He implored the maiden for her gentle ruth. Alas! Cupid on his heart now fed. The boy persisted; She only resisted— Until, weeping, he laid in his bed.

The maiden pitifully leaned over him, “Oh! It pains me to dampen your zeal, But were you to feel these limbs, You would shudder, knowing what they conceal: A snow-white maiden, Whose blood is frozen Is all these limbs could ever reveal."

The ardent youth wrapped 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, Love overflowing, “Don't you feel it, the burning desire?”

Holding each other closely, neither contained Their tears falling with the sweetest ardor. His hot breath surged through her ice-cold frame— Each thought of nothing but the other. So a fiery flood Warmed her frozen blood But alas! No heart beat inside her.

Meanwhile, the devout mother made her way Through the halls, tending to her last chores. She heard a murmur and wondered what might lay On the other side of one of the doors: Wailing and crying, Sobbing and sighing, What soul can resist Love's violent pangs?

She stopped in front of the door, listening, Hoping to convince herself nothing was heard —Nothing real. She then heard new lamenting, Promises, and one last parting word: “Quick! The roosters crow! Come back tomorrow! Please, won’t you return?” Then kiss on kiss.

The mother then angrily opened the door With rage swelling over her stern face: “Has such shamelessness and sinful horror Made its home in my own dwelling place? Looking through the door, A sight to abhor: Her daughter in the heathen's embrace.

Terrified, the boy sought to cover her, Draping a white sheet over her head. Yet she slyly slipped from her lover’s Embrace, slowly revealing herself: With a ghostly mien, She began rising Like a wraith from the depths of a tomb.

“Mother! Mother! Give me one good reason why I was born for loveless nights alone, Ripped from true Love’s warming embraces, Captive, left to do nothing but moan. You bereft my heart Of both life and art— Turned it cold and sullen like a stone.

“Alas, in this frigid darksome cave, I will end this sleeplessness and lack of love. Your priests and their holy hymns can’t save Me—nor holy prayers from above. Salt and water cools Only hearts of fools— But even the grave cannot cool Love.”

“My vows were already pledged to this boy When Aphrodite’s temple still stood. Mother, have you chosen to destroy The same vows that you once understood. No God lends his ear To mothers who dare Sacrifice their own beautiful 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 will be mine, With many more to find— Countless helpless souls are in waiting.

“Now, sweet boy, your life has run its short course: This dark chamber will become your grave. Though my neck chain is wrapped around your neck, This lock of your hair I'll gladly save. Though now it is dark, It soon will be grey— Its dark lustre consumed by the grave.”

“Dear mother, this life has taken its toll! Make a funeral pyre on this ground, Let me release my ailing wretched soul— The peace I've always truly longed for! When glistening flames flow, When the ashes glow, To the ancient Gods aloft I'll soar.”

Translation © David B. Gosselin