Skip to content

GOETHE’S COPTIC SONG – KOPHTISCHES LIED

June 13, 2012

Figure 1: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in 1828, by the German painter Joseph Karl Stieler (1781 – 1858).

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832),[i] was a German writer, artist, scientist and politician, who wrote extensively in so many genres, including drama, comedy, plays, opera, novels and poetry. Without any doubt Goethe is considered a giant in German and world literature. Some of his famous works are Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) and Faust. His many poetic works include Gesellige Lieder (Convivial Songs), which was published in 1814; and in it one finds two poems: Kophtisches Lied and Ein Andres, often translated Coptic Song and Another, respectively.[ii] The two poems are sometimes called Kophtisches Lied I and Kophtisches Lied II – that is, Coptic Song I and Coptic Song II. Both were writen by Goethe in 1787.[iii] It is these two rather interesting poems that carry a Coptic label that I will try to research in this and the following article, each separately; first by reproducing the German original, then by giving a background to its composition, and lastly by talking about their main English translations, which I will reproduce also.

Kophtisches Lied[iv]

Lasset Gelehrte sich zanken und streiten,

Streng und bedächtig die Lehrer auch sein!

Alle die Weisesten aller der Zeiten

Lächeln und winken und stimmen mit ein:

Töricht, auf Beßrung der Toren zu harren!

Kinder der Klugheit, o habet die Narren

Eben zum Narren auch, wie sich’s gehört!

Merlin der Alte, im leuchtenden Grabe,

Wo ich als Jüngling gesprochen ihn habe,

Hat mich mit ähnlicher Antwort belehrt:

Töricht, auf Beßrung der Toren zu harren!

Kinder der Klugheit, o habet die Narren

Eben zum Narren auch, wie sich’s gehört!

Und auf den Höhen der indischen Lüfte

Und in den Tiefen ägyptischer Grüfte

Hab’ ich das heilige Wort nur gehört:

Töricht, auf Beßrung der Toren zu harren!

Kinder der Klugheit, o habet die Narren

Eben zum Narren auch, wie sich’s gehört!

If you, like me, don’t read or speak German, but want to have a taste of the power and beauty of German language and poetry, as is displayed in the Kophtisches Lied, listen to it being read by this German young woman:

Goethe, we are told, wrote Kophtisches Lied (and the other poem, Ein Andres) as part of a musical play (opera) titled Die Mystificierten (The Mystified), which he began writing while in Italy in 1787.[v] Only fragments of this opera have been preserved, and it is fortunate that Kophtisches Lied (and Ein Andres) have not been lost. The opera was never played, as Goethe, when he returned back from Italy to Germany, abandoned it completely. In its place, he wrote a play, Der Gross Kophta (The Grand Kophta), which was cast in a comedy form, and was completed in 1791. It was first performed on 17 December 1791 at the Weimarer Hoftheater, but proved to be a failure on stage. Der Gross Kophta was a satire on Freemasonry, a masonic comedy, which Goethe suspected was behind the French Revolution, of which he was a vocal opponent. The two Coptic songs, Kophtisches Lied and Ein Andres did not feature in Der Gross Kophta. Goethe, however, later published them for the first time in 1814 in his poetic work, Gesellige Lieder (Covivial Songs).[vi]

The Die Mystificierten and Der Gross Kophta were both based on the famous scandal, L’Affaire du Collier (often translated the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace), of 1785, that involved the French Royalty and is considered by historians to have been one of the main reasons for its downfall, and the events that culminated in the French Revolution in 1789. The scandal at the court of Louis XVI (1774 – 1792) unfairly discredited Queen Marie Antoinette; while a notorious Italian villain and imposter, Alessandro Cagliostro (1743 – 1795),[vii] escaped convinction at the trial that followed the affair, which was believed by many, including Goethe, to have been largely due to the matchless impudence of his defence.[viii]  Goethe believed that Cagliostro plotted the Affaire with the lodges of freemasonry in France including his Egyptian Lodge, in order to  undermine the reputation of the monarchy, and pave the way for a a revolution. Goethe believed that in political and social life, as in nature itself, the best results were attained not be violent breaks in nature’s working, but by gradual processes, by evolution and not by revolution.[ix] He, therefore,  expressed his opposition to France’s violent events that ended its House of Bourbon. Der Gross Kophta as Hume Brown writes “is simply a satire on imposters and on the folly of persons who are fooled by them. Under changed designations the leading personages in the comedy play the same parts as their historic originals… To complete the delusion of his dupes the Graf [who represents Cagliostro] announces the coming of the Gross Cophta, and in the end gives himself out as that mysterious personage.”[x] Charles Harris tells us that the title Der Goss Cophta was due to the fact that Cagliostro “had pretended to revive an ancient Egyptian system of freemasonry, and had called himself as head of it, Grand Cophta;”[xi] [xii]which means the High Priest of Egypt or its Chief Magician.

It seems that the first translations of these Coptic songs into English made their appearance more than a couple of decades later.[xiii] [xiv] It appears that the first one to translate Kophtisches Lied into English was the Irish poet and nationalist, James Clarence Mangan (1803 – 1849). Mangan was multi-linguist, and translated German literature, particularly Goethe’s works.[xv] He was interested in free interpretations rather than strict transliteration; and therefore his version of Goethe’s poem, A Song from the Coptic, which he published in 1836,[xvi] assumes a unique character. John Sullivan Dwight (1813 – 1893), an American pastor who showed interest in classical music and literary work, made a translation of the poem in 1839 under the title, Cophtic Song.[xvii] We find another translation in 1853 made by Edgar Alfred Bowring, under the title, Coptic Song. Bowring (1826–1911) was a British author, politician and a translator of various works of poetry from German into English, especially those of Goethe.[xviii] Two famous translations appeared in 1859: the first by William Grasett Thomas (1822 – 1911), an American[xix] litterateur, who published the Kophtisches Lied under the title, Coptic Song;[xx] and the second by two Scottish poets, who worked together on many projects, William Edmondstone Aytoun (1813 – 1865) and Sir Theodore Martin (1816 – 1909), and translated Goethe’s poem under the title Coptic Song.[xxi]

These are not the only translations, but they are certainly the best. More recently, in 1999, an American writer, Stanley Appelbaum, translated Kophtisches Lied under the title, Song of the Great Cophta.[xxii] Another translation by the Canadian, Emily Ezust is also available.[xxiii] For the benifit of the reader, and to bring this great poem, Kophtisches Lied, by Germany’s great writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to life again in its various translations into English, I will reproduce them below in one go.

James Clarence Mangan

A Song from the Coptic.

Quarrels have long been in vogue among sages;

Still, though in many things wranglers and rancorous,

All the philosopher-scribes of all ages

Join, una voce, on one point to anchor us.

Here is the gist of their mystified pages,

Here is the wisdom we purchase with gold –

Children of Light, leave the world to its mulishness,

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;

Berries were bitter in forests of old.

Hoary old Merlin,[xxiv] that great necromancer,[xxv]

Made me, a student, a similar answer,

When I besought him for light and for lore:

Toiler in vain! Leave the world to its mulishness

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;

 Granite was hard in the quarries of yore.

And on the ice-crested heights of Armenia,

And in the valleys of broad Abyssinia,

Still spake the Oracle just as before:

Wouldst thou have peace, leave the world to its mulishness

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;

Beetles were blind in the ages of yore.

 

John Sullivan Dwight

Cophtic Song.

Spite of the wrangling disputes of the sages,
Earnest and strict though the schoolmaster be,

All of the wisest of all the past ages
Wink as they smile, and together agree:

“Folly, to wait until fools become better !

Children of wisdom, ’tis true to the letter,

Fools will be fools, as it’s best they should be !”

Merlin the Old, while the tomb shone around him,

Where, an inquisitive youth, I once found him,

Gave but the same sweeping answer to me:

“Folly, to wait until fools become better !

Children of wisdom, ’tis true to the letter,

Fools will be fools, as it’s best they should be !”

And on the Indian heights were these mottoes;
And in the depths of Egyptian grottoes

Spake the same oracle ever to me:
“Folly, to wait until fools become better!
Children of wisdom, ’tis true to the letter,

Fools will be fools, as it’s best they should be !”

 

Edgar Alfred Bowring

Coptic Song.

LEAVE we the pedants to quarrel and strive,

Rigid and cautious the teachers to be!
All of the wisest men e’er seen alive

Smile, nod, and join in the chorus with me:
“Vain ’tis to wait till the dolt grows less silly!
Play then the fool with the fool, willy-nilly,—

Children of wisdom,—remember the word!”

Merlin the old, from his glittering grave,
When I, a stripling, once spoke to him,—gave

Just the same answer as that I’ve preferr’d;
“Vain ’tis to wait till the dolt grows less silly!
Play then the fool with the fool, willy-nilly,—

Children of wisdom,—remember the word!”

And on the Indian breeze as it booms,
And in the depths of Egyptian tombs,

Only the same holy saying I’ve heard:
“Vain ’tis to wait till the dolt grows less silly!
Play then the fool with the fool, willy-nilly,—

Children of wisdom,—remember the word!”

WILLIAM GRASETT THOMAS

Coptic Song.

LET ye the learned dispute and fight on,
Teachers austere and discreet too may be !
All of the wisest in times that are gone
Nod to each other, and smile, and agree :
Foolish to wait for the improvement of fools !
Children of wisdom, to treat as your tools
Fools, as is fitting, be all of accord !

Merlin the old, in his luminous grave,
Where in my youth spoken with him I have,

Taught me in answer a similar word :
Foolish to wait for the improvement of fools !
Children of wisdom, to treat as your tools
Fools, as is fitting, be all of accord !

And on the lofty far Indian heights,
Deep too ‘mid Egypt s mysterious rites,
Only that sacred reply I have heard :
Foolish to wait for the improvement of fools !
Children of wisdom, to treat as your tools
Fools, as is fitting, be all of accord !

AYTOUN & MARTIN

Coptic Song.

Howe’er they may wrangle, your pundits and sages,

And love of contention infects all the breed,

All the philosophers, search through all ages,

Join with one voice in the following creed:

Fools from their folly ’tis hopeless to stay!

Mules will be mules, by the law of their mulishness;

Then be advised, and leave fools to their foolishness,

What from an ass can you get but a bray?

When Merlin I questioned, the old necromancer,

As halo’d with light in his coffin he lay,

I got from the wizard a similar answer,

And thus ran the burden of what he did say:

Fools from their folly ’tis hopeless to stay!

Mules will be mules, by the law of their mulishness;

Then be advised, and leave fools to their foolishness,

What from an ass can you get but a bray?

And up on the wind-swept peaks of Armenia,

And down in the depths, far hid from the day,

Of the temples of Egypt and far Abyssinia

This, and but this, was the gospel alway:

Fools from their folly ’tis hopeless to stay!

Mules will be mules, by the law of their mulishness;

Then be advised, and leave fools to their foolishness,

What from an ass can you get but a bray?

Here we have it then, the great Kophtisches Lied of the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, his Coptic Song. We have seen that he wrote it in 1789, while in Italy, and in response to the L’Affaire du Collier. He wrote it as part of his musical play (opera) Die Mystificierten, which he later abandoned. Thanks Providence this poem, together with Ein Andres, another Coptic song of his, have been preserved and published. Kophtisches Lied, that great German Song, may not be directly related to the Copts. However, just by its mere association with the Copts, those genuine descendants of the ancient Egyptians, the song interests us. In a way the song becomes a national possession of the Copts – in association with that great German nation, which has done, perhaps, more than any other nation to study Coptic history, language and culture, and, consequently, to assist Coptic nationalism in its best forms.

Copts, and non-Copts, in fact all wise people, whether from Egypt, Abyssinia, India, Armenia, Germany, or elsewhere, all can identify with these great lines:

Töricht, auf Beßrung der Toren zu harren!

Kinder der Klugheit, o habet die Narren

Eben zum Narren auch, wie sich’s gehört!

 

Mules will be mules, by the law of their mulishness;

Then be advised, and leave fools to their foolishness,

  What from an ass can you get but a bray?

How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (13 June 2012), COPTIC SONGS BY THE GREAT GERMAN WRITER JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE – KOPHTISCHES LIED I, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/coptic-songs-by-the-great-german-writer-johann-wolfgang-von-goethe-kophtisches-lied-i/?preview=true&preview_id=1510&preview_nonce=c66ddc5718

 


[i] For a good book on Goethe’s biography, read Life of Goethe by P. Hume Brown; 2 Volumes (London, John Murray, 1920).

[ii] See Gesamtausgabe der Werke und Schriften in zweiundzwanzig Bänden: Poetische Werke (Complete edition of the works and writings in twenty-two books: Poetic Works) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta, [1949- 1960- printing]). Find Kophtisches Lied in pp. 96-7; and Ein Andres in page 97.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Life of Goethe; p. 428. See also, Goethe’s Poems; selected and edited with introduction and notes by Charles Harris (Boston, D. C. Heath & Co., 1899); Note 70. Kophtisches Lied (the poem is given in page 80-81) in p 222.

[vi] See Gesamtausgabe der Werke und Schriften in zweiundzwanzig Bänden: Poetische Werke. The full list of Gesellige Lieder, which contains 24 songs, including our two songs, can be reviewed in page 1315.

[vii] On the criminal history, and a biography, of Alessandro, Count Cagliostro, see: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911).

[viii] For the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, see: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911).

[ix] Life of Goethe; pp. 424-427.

[x] Ibid; p. 428.

[xi] Goethe’s Poems; p. 222.

[xii] William Gasett Thomas in his The Minor Poetry of Goethe (see n. xxi) gives this footnote: “The celebrated necklace trial afforded Goethe the materials for an opera, to which he gave the title, Der Gross Coplita, one of the names and characters assumed by Cagliostro. As intended to be brought upon the stage, several songs were introduced, which do not appear in the piece.”

[xiii] See Goethe’s lyric poems in English translations prior to 1860 by Lucretia Van Tuyl Simmons (Madison, 1919). She gives a list of books in which a translation of Kophtisches Lied have been included (p. 126).

[xiv] Bayard Taylor in his Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with illustrations by Harry Clarke; translated into English, in the original metres, by Bayard Taylor; an Illustrated Edition (Cleveland, Ohio, New York, The World Publishing Company 1935), talks in his preface about a translation of the ‘Coptic Song’ by Dr. Hedge. I could not find the book of Dr. Hedges in which he translated the Kophtisches Lied.

[xv] Mangan also translated from Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and Irish.

[xvi] Dublin University magazine: a literary and political journal, Volume VII; p. 293.

[xvii] Select Minor Poems, Translated from the German of Goethe and Schiller with notes By John S. Dwight (Boston, 1839); p. 49.

[xviii] The Poems of Goethe; translated in the original metres by Edgar Alfred Bowring (London, 1853). See also The dramatic works of J. W. Goethe, translated from the German with Sir Walter Scott, and Anna Swanwick and others (1880). The original book has recently been republished: The Poems of Goethe (Mobi Classics) By Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe; translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring (Mobi Classics, 2008).

[xix] He was born on the Island of Barbados, British West Indies, but went to the United States when he was twelve years old.

[xx] The Minor Poetry of Goethe. A selection from his songs, ballads, and other lesser poems. Translated by William Grasett Thomas (Philadelphia; E. H. Butler & Co.; 1859); pp. 306-7.

[xxi] Poems and Ballads of Goethe; translated by W. Edmondstone Aytoun and Theodore Martin (London, 1858); p. 178-9. You can also go to: The Poems of Goethe by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (Wildside Press LLC, 2008); p. 85. This volume of Goethe’s collected works includes hundreds of poems, translated in the original meters by E.A. Bowring, W.E. Aytoun, Theodore Martin, and H.W. Longfellow, Thomas Carlyle, and others.

[xxii] 103 great poems: a dual-language book (103 Meistergedichte) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; edited and translated by Stanley Appelbaum (Mineola, New York, Dover Publications, 1999). Kophtisches Lied is to be found in pages 84/86; while its English translation (under the title, Song of the Great Cophta, is to be found in pages  85/87).

[xxiii] The translation is not titled. To my knowledge, it has only been published on the internet. Emily Ezust permits her own translations to be reproduced without prior permission for student recitals, provided the following credit is given: Translation copyright © by Emily Ezust, from The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archivehttp://www.lieder.net/  (which began as The Lied and Art Song Texts Page, which is now called The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive).

[xxiv] Merlin (or Merlin the wizard) is a legendary figure with supernatural powers who featured in the Medieval Arthurian legend. Later, it also featured in the Nuremberg Chronicle, which is a history book, with illustrations, telling the story of Mankind as related in the Bible. It was written by Hartmann Schedel in Latin (Liber Chronicarum [Book of Chronicles]), with German translation (Die Schedelsche Weltchronik [Schedel’s World History]), and appeared in 1493.

[xxv] Necromancy is the conjuration of the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Advertisements
One Comment leave one →
  1. October 31, 2012 12:04 am

    Reblogged this on A Drink With Clarence Mangan and commented:
    Here comes a lovely pair of articles showing Clarence Mangan’s songs “from the Coptic”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: