Germany. A Winter’s Tale

Text by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)
translated into English by Joseph Massaad

Caput XVI

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Departure | I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII | XIV | XV

The coach’s jolting woke me up,
But soon my eyelids drooped once more,
I went back to sleep and dreamed
Of Barbarossa, the Emperor.

Again, we chatted and strolled about
Through every echoing hall.
He asked me this, he asked me that,
He bade me to tell him all.

He had not heard from the upper world
For an untold number of years.
In fact, since the Seven Years War,
No mortal word had reached his ears.

He asked about Moses Mendelssohn,
Madame Karschin, and no less
About countess Dubarry,
Louis the Fifteenth’s mistress.

“O emperor,” I said, “you’re way behind,
So many years have gone
Since Moses died; dead and gone too are
Rebecca and Abraham, their son.

This Abraham and Lea gave birth
To a baby boy, Félix by name,
Who made his mark in Christendom,
As a conductor of great fame.

Old Madame Karschin is dead as well,
And so is Madame Klencke, her daughter;
Helmine Chézy, her granddaughter,
Has not yet passed over.

As long as Louis the Fifteenth was ruling,
Dubarry’s life was merry and fine;
By the time she went to the guillotine,
She was no longer in her prime.

King Louis the Fifteenth died in bed;
His last hour was serene.
But Louis the Sixteenth was guillotined,
With Antoinette, his Queen.

The Queen displayed the greatest courage
And dignity, as you’d expect,
Whereas, under the guillotine,
Madame Dubarry screamed and wept.

The Emperor suddenly stood still;
He looked with his eyes gleaming,
And said: “For God’s sake, please tell me
What’s this business of guillotining?”

“The guillotine”, I explained to him,
“Is a newly invented apparatus
For putting people to death,
Regardless of social status.

The apparatus that is used
Is really a simple machine
Invented by Monsieur Guillotin,
Hence the name guillotine.

You are shoved between two posts
After they tie you to a platform,
Which is then lowered; above you hangs
An axe of triangular form.

They pull a string, the axe shoots down,
And one hears a merry crack.
In consequence, your head will drop
Into a receiving sack.”

Here, the Emperor interrupted my speech:
“Be silent! Do not mention this machine
Of yours, and may the Lord forbid
That I’d ever need a guillotine!

The King and Queen strapped!
Strapped! On a platform!
Against all the rules of etiquette,
And due respect, of any norm!

And who do you think you are to dare
Converse with such intimacy?
Just wait, my lad, and you will see:
I’ll clip your wings without mercy!

When I listen to what you say,
I am upset beyond reason.
Your very breath is a lèse-majesté,
And a high act of treason.”

When the old man flew into such a rage
And lost all sense of proportion,
My inmost thoughts burst out,
And, I too lost all caution.

“Sir Barbarossa”, I cried out loud,
“You belong to an old fable-kingdom;
Go back to bed, we shall succeed,
Without your help, to gain our freedom.

The republican would scoff at us
If a ghost with sceptre and crown
Marched at the head of our ranks.
There’ll be much laughter in town!

I do not like your flag anymore,
For, in the student’s league of old,
The foolish Germans spoiled my taste
For colours such as red, black and gold.

It would be best if you stayed at home,
In your hall at old Kyffhäuser.
To do without an Emperor,
Upon reflex ion, would be wiser.”


Departure | I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII | XIV | XV