Germany. A Winter’s Tale

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

Caput VI

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

With Paganini always came
A “Spiritus familiaris”,
Now in the shape of a dog, and now
In the shape of the late George Harris.

Napoleon saw a crimson man
Before every serious event;
Socrates had his daemons too:
Not the sort that he’d invent.

I myself, when sitting at my desk,
At night, often happened to see
A muffled form of a guest,
Mysteriously standing behind me.

Underneath his cloak he held,
Strangely shining, something concealed,
An axe, an executioner’s axe,
Or so, to my eyes, it seemed.

He appeared of stocky build,
Like two stars, his eyes shone brightly;
He never disturbed my writing,
He only kept his distance quietly.

For years this singular visitor
Has been leaving me alone,
Suddenly I find him here, once more,
In the still moonlight of Cologne.

I strolled thoughtfully along the streets,
And right behind me, he came,
Just like my shadow, and if I stopped,
He would stop, just the same.

He remained riveted in his tracks,
With some sort of expectant air;
And when I hurried, he would follow,
Till we reached the Cathedral square.

I could no longer take it! I turned
And said: I need an explanation!
Why do you follow, me step for step,
Here, in this nightly desolation?

I always meet you in the hour
When cosmic feelings are dashing
Across my breast, and through my brain
Wild inspirations are flashing.

You stare at me in such a piercing way!
Speak: What is it that you hide,
That glints there, behind you cloak?
Who are you, what’s on your mind?

But he replied with the driest of tones,
One would say, almost phlegmatic:
“Please do not exorcise me,
And do not behave emphatic!

I am no ghost of the past, no scarecrow,
Out of a grave arising.
I am not inclined to rhetoric,
Nor do much philosophising.

I am of a practical nature,
Calm, silent and resolute.
But know: What your mind conceives,
I will always execute.

And though many years may go by,
I’ll find no satisfaction
Until thoughts become reality:
You think, and I take action.

You are the judge, I am the bailiff:
Like a servant you trust,
I execute the judgment you pass,
Be it right or unjust.

In Rome of old, before the consul,
They bore an axe. Let me remind
You: you too have a lictor, but now
The axe is carried from behind.

I am your lector, and I march
With a well polished axe
Behind you: your current thoughts
Will be my future acts.”


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