The name of Wilhelm Müller has been with me for 15 years now as a shadowy presence. Some of Schubert’s most famous Lieder are from what Müller wrote, which is why he seemed important. But beyond that, the peculiarities: How childishly simple the words! How repetitive, but so much fascination in the repeated themes! So much sadness… in one place!
As far as I’m concerned, the charm of Müller is that his words (in many places, and artlessly) capture the essence of sadness. I got reminded of this today, seeing (for the first time) the similarity between a line in Die Winterreise and one in Die schöne Müllerin. From the former, “Kalt starrt ihr Bild darin…” and from the latter, “Das Wild das ich jage…”
They’re from two entirely different (but connected in that eerie, depressive way!) sets of songs, two different stories that share the main theme. The former says about how the person “must not let go of that which is killing me,” that is, “I perceive that I will die if I let go of my misery.” The latter says about how the person “wishes for death, and what stands between him and his wish is his pain.” But: His wish for death is exactly because of that pain!
And that really is the reason for sadness. Literally, the reason, that is, the explanation. One remains sad because there is the misguided yet all-too-real perception that if one were to stride away from it, something bad might happen.
It makes me think about all the mind-loops and life-sucking vortices we get into; some make us stray from our purpose, some are addictions, some are deep pleasures and so on; it’s very useful to see sadness in the same light.
So, well, I looked at a few of Müller’s poems, and I came across this gem of history: Müller was not just a poet, he was also a translator. It was he who translated Marlowe’s Faustus into German, which was the inspiration — or perhaps germ-idea — for Goethe’s Faust!
Amazing, really. A silent kind of person who did “little” stuff like translating — and writing poems with, most often, very simple ideas — ending up inspiring much of Schubert and even more of Goethe.