Song of the Spirits over the Waters

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The Staubbach Falls in the Lauterbrunnen Valley served Goethe as inspiration for the poem.

Song of the Spirits Above the Waters is a six-verse poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from 1779. It was written during Goethe's stay in Lauterbrunnen as part of his second trip to Switzerland. It is counted to the lyrical genre of thought poetry.


The poem was written on Goethe's second trip to Switzerland in 1779. From October 9th to 11th the author stayed with other travelers in the Lauterbrunnen area in the Bernese Oberland . Under the impression of the 300-meter-high Staubbach Falls , which lies between Lauterbrunnen and Stechelberg , Goethe sent the six-stanza poem under the title Song of the lovely spirits in the desert to Charlotte von Stein . This title shows a clear parallel to the poem Mahomets Gesang , composed a few years earlier , which also focuses on a river that tries to make its way through rocks. The desert theme appears in the song of the spirits over the water in the form of the mountains, since, according to the prevailing contemporary opinion, alpine regions were nothing other than inhospitable land and harbored many dangers.

This first version provided for a division of the verses into two ghostly voices as follows: First Spirit verses 1–4, 8–17, 23–24, 28–29 and 32–33. Verses 5–7, 18–22, 25–27 and 30–31 are assigned to the second spirit. This Steinian version also contains a few small deviations from the printed version from 1789. In the eleventh verse, the author dispenses with the word then , in the fifteenth it only says veiled instead of veiled and in the thirty-first it says all the waves instead of foaming waves . The dialogical division can also be found in an untitled copy by Johann Gottfried Herder as well as in the copy of Luise von Göchhausen , which bears the title Vor'm Staubbach .

The poem was first printed in Volume 8 of the Writings in 1789 under the title, which is still used today . Compared to the version that Goethe sent to Charlotte von Stein, the modifications mentioned are found here. The author made no further changes later, so this is the final edition.

Peter Härtling puts the creation of the poem in the context of a kind of escape from Goethe's relationship with Charlotte von Stein and describes it as follows:

“He turned away and let himself be carried away. Not to forget. He never could. But he wanted to answer what was bothering and pushing him away with new images and experiences, freeing himself for a while from a love that had not yet become a burden for him, but certainly a nuisance. "

- Peter Härtling : Song of the spirits over the waters

Form and content

The poem consists of six stanzas of different lengths  , the second being the longest with ten verses. Regarding the meter, one can speak of free rhythms, whereby most of the verses have an alternating structure in two-leverage. However, especially towards the end of the work, there are more and more irregular verses, for example ' Sneaking the meadow valley' or ' Wind mixes from the ground '. Most of the mailings have a female cadence . In terms of content, Goethe draws a comparison between the elements of nature and human existence; Specifically, he contrasts the human soul with the element water and names similarities between the two. The main theme is the transience of human life. The wind embodies the predestination of life. While the soul of man is approaching the inevitable end of life, fate is also determined by others and every attempt by people to take it into their own hands can only fail ..

The human soul is
like water:
it comes from heaven, it
rises to heaven,
and it has to go down again
to earth,
changing forever.

Flows from the high,
steep cliff
the pure jet,
it sprays gratefully
in clouds waves
the smooth rock,
and easily receive
Wallt he veiling,
Leis rushing
down to depth.

If cliffs loom
The fall meet,
Foams he angrily
the abyss.

In the shallow bed he
creeps up the meadow valley,
And in the smooth lake
her face
All stars graze.

The wind is the wave's
lovable wooer;
Wind mixes
foaming waves from the bottom .

Human soul,
how you are like water!
Fate of man,
how you are like the wind!

In the first stanza the author notes the similarities between the human soul and the element water, since both come from heaven, rise again and inevitably come back to earth. So there is an infinite cycle. The second and third stanzas describe how “the pure ray” flows down the high cliff, where it bypasses every obstacle, and finally arrives “quietly” back in the creek bed. In the fourth verse, the course of the stream has calmed down again and finally flows into a lake that is so clear that the stars are reflected in it. The fifth and sixth stanzas deal with the influence of the wind, which here represents the external force of fate. It is possible for him to foam up the temporarily calm state of the water and thus set certain developments in motion to which the human soul is at the mercy.


The poem draws a comparison between human existence and the element of water. In the critical edition of the work on Goethe, the author's intention is described as follows, based on the cultural historian Victor Hehn :

“As the water floats back and forth between heaven and earth in eternal rise and fall, so does the human soul between the real and the ideal, between necessity and enthusiasm, between the common and the eternal, or how one should otherwise grasp the opposites. And just as the flowing element, held up by cliffs in the fall, hisses and foams annoyingly, then quietly spreading in the meadow reflects the moon and the stars, so violent passions excite the soul in gloomy confusion, or with clear harmony it takes the images of the World and the eternal heavenly ideas. Those cliffs are then the obstacles at which the desiring will splinters. "

Accordingly, man is part of both the heavenly and the earthly kingdom. The entire human existence takes place in this outer framework. Fate appears as a further determining power on the individual level, which intervenes again and again, be it in a positive or negative way. Man is completely exposed to these influences and it is solely up to these externally given factors how his existence proceeds.

Another way of looking at things can be found with Terence James Reed , who believes he can identify “the emotional disturbance factor love” in the fateful intervention of the wind. He attributes this thesis in particular to the term “lovely wooer”. This verse suggests that there is always something lovely about the wind, putting it into perspective that love is not the only force of fate. And in fact, Goethe's departure for Switzerland resembled a kind of escape from his relationship with Charlotte Stein, which, according to Härtling, was "annoying" for him. He then sees in the poem a parable for the inner state of the poet at that time.

Settings (selection)


Web links

Commons : Staubbachfall  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. a b Erich Trunz (Ed.): Goethe's works. 8th edition. Hamburg 1966, p. 535.
  2. Peter Härtling: Song of the spirits over the waters. In: Marcel Reich-Ranicki (Ed.): Frankfurter Anthologie 12. Frankfurt am Main 1989, p. 37.
  3. Victor Hehn: Song of the spirits over the waters . In: Rütten & Loening (Ed.): Goethe Yearbook . 15, Frankfurt am Main, 1894, pp. 125-126. Retrieved from .