Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translator’s Note on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Work:

I’ve long admired Goethe’s work, but I’ve been always been struck by his Roman Elegies, perhaps Goethe’s most controversial work. In German they are known as Erotica Romana, and their publication was suppressed until after Goethe’s death. Given their often racy subject matter (and Western culture’s obsession with all things sexual), they seem particularly well-suited for translation in modern American idiom.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in 1749 in Frankfurt, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Over the course of his lifetime, he produced some of the finest literature in the German language—and any language. His well-known works include Faust, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice and The Sorrows of Young Werther, and he produced a number of autobiographical works, including From My Life: Poetry and Truth and Italian Journey. A polymath, Goethe also produced several scientific works, including his influential Theory of Colors. He died in Weimar in 1824.


Brett OrtlerBrett Ortler (translator) is cofounder and coeditor of Knockout Literary Magazine and writes rather random letters at His work appears widely in print and online. He lives in the Twin Cities and works as an editor at Adventure Publications.



Goethe’s Third Roman Elegy

Look, don’t regret falling for me so quickly,
Believe this: I don’t think you’re cheap; I don’t think you’re easy.
Love’s arrows work in many ways: some only scratch
but sicken the heart for years with creeping poison.
Others, powerfully feathered, with fresh-ground tips,
go straight to the bone and the blood burns.
In ancient times, when gods and goddesses loved,
lust followed vision, pleasure followed desire.
Do you think that Aphrodite was really thinking about love
when she saw Anchises for the first time?
Had Luna delayed to kiss her beautiful sleeper,
Endymion would have awoken to a dawn full of jealousy.
Hero saw Leander at a festival, but soon his warm body fell into the evening flood.
Rhea Silvia wandered, a vestal virgin, to fetch water from the Tiber.
The god seized her—this is how gods make love.
Her twins drank from a wolf, and Rome calls itself the princess of the world.


Original German:

Laß dich, Geliebte, nicht reun, daß du mir so schnell dich ergeben!
Glaub es, ich denke nicht frech, denke nicht niedrig von dir.
Vielfach wirken die Pfeile des Amors: einige ritzen,
Und vom schleichenden Gift kranket auf Jahre das Herz.
Aber mächtig befiedert, mit frisch geschliffener Schärfe
Dringen die andern ins Mark, zünden behende das Blut.
In der heroischen Zeit, da Götter und Göttinnen liebten,
Folgte Begierde dem Blick, folgte Genuß der Begier.
Glaubst du, es habe sich lang die Göttin der Liebe besonnen,
Als im Idäischen Hain einst ihr Anchises gefiel?
Hätte Luna gesäumt, den schönen Schläfer zu küssen,
O, so hätt ihn geschwind, neidend, Aurora geweckt.
Hero erblickte Leandern am lauten Fest, und behende
Stürzte der Liebende sich heiß in die nächtliche Flut.
Rhea Silvia wandert, die fürstliche Jungfrau, den Tiber,
Wasser zu schöpfen, hinab, und sie ergreifet der Gott.
So erzeugte die Söhne sich Mars! – Die Zwillinge tränket
Eine Wölfin, und Rom nennt sich die Fürstin der Welt.

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