Christian Morgenstern  

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"The seagulls by their looks suggest that Emma is their name" -- "The Seagulls" (1905) by Christian Morgenstern

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Christian Morgenstern (May 6, 1871March 31, 1914) was a German author and poet from Munich. Morgenstern's best known works are the Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs, 1905).

Morgenstern's poetry, much of which was inspired by English literary nonsense, is immensely popular, even though he enjoyed very little success during his lifetime. He made fun of scholasticism, e.g. literary criticism in "Drei Hasen", grammar in "Der Werwolf", narrow-mindedness in "Der Gaul", and symbolism in "Der Wasseresel". In "Scholastikerprobleme" he discussed how many angels could sit on a needle. Still many Germans know some of his poems and quotations by heart, e.g. the following line from "The Impossible Fact" ("Die unmögliche Tatsache", 1910):

For, he reasons pointedly / That which must not, can not be. (German: "Weil, so schließt er messerscharf / Nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf.")

Embedded in his humorous poetry is a subtle metaphysical streak, as e.g. in "Vice Versa", (1905):

A rabbit in his meadow lair
Imagines none to see him there.
But aided by a looking lens
A man with eager diligence
Inspects the tiny long-eared gnome
From a convenient near-by dome.
Yet him surveys, or so we learn
A god from far off, mild and stern.

(German: "Ein Hase sitzt auf einer Wiese / des Glaubens, niemand sähe diese. / Doch im Besitze eines Zeißes / betrachtet voll gehaltnen Fleißes / vom vis-à-vis gelegnen Berg / ein Mensch den kleinen Löffelzwerg. / Ihn aber blickt hinwiederum / ein Gott von fern an, mild und stumm.")

The ongoing joke about the fictitious species Rhinogradentia, based on Morgenstern's nonsense poem Das Nasobēm, is testament to his enduring popularity. Morgenstern died in 1914 of tuberculosis, which he had contracted from his mother, who died in 1881.


Gallows Songs

Morgenstern's best known works are the Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs, 1905), eight of which were used in a song cycle by Jan Koetsier for soprano and tuba. This volume of humorous verses was followed by Palmström in 1910. Published posthumously were the important companion volumes Palma Kunkel in 1916, Der Gingganz in 1919, and Alle Galgenlieder in 1932. In German these works have gone through dozens of different editions and reprints and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. English translations include:

  • The Gallows Songs. Christian Morgenstern's Galgenlieder, translated by Max Knight (University of California Press, 1964).
  • Gallows Songs, translated by W.D. Snodgrass and Lore Segal (Michigan Press, 1967).
  • Songs from the Gallows: Galgenlieder, translated by Walter Arndt (Yale University Press, 1993).
  • Lullabies, Lyrics and Gallows Songs, translated by Anthea Bell with illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger (North South Books, 1995).


Christian Morgenstern was also an acclaimed translator, rendering into German various prominent works from Norwegian and French, including the dramas and poems of Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Björnstjerne Björnson and August Strindberg.

Essays, Reviews and Aphorisms

In his early years Christian Morgenstern wrote a considerable number of essays and reviews for various German periodicals. They have been collected together and published in Volume 6 (Kritische Schriften, 1987) of the German collected works of Morgenstern. His philosophical and mythical works were largely influenced by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the Austrian educationalist Rudolf Steiner (the orignator of anthroposophy and the Waldorf school movement), and the Russian writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

Perhaps Morgenstern's most philosophical volume is a collection of aphorisms published posthumously in 1918 entitled Stufen: Eine Entwickelung in Aphorismen und Tagebuch-Notizen (Stages: A Development in Aphorisms and Diary Notes). It has given rise to a number of celebrated quotations. These include:

  • "Home isn't where our house is, but wherever we are understood."
  • "I shall excavate the strata of my soul."
  • "I’m a man of limits: forever physically, emotionally, morally and artistically on the brink of plunging into the abyss. Yet I manage to keep my balance and possess presence of mind."
  • "I bear no treasures within me. I only possess the power to transform much of what I touch into something of value. I have no depths, save my incessant desire for the depths." (Translated by David W. Wood)

Collected Works

A complete edition of the works of Christian Morgenstern in German in nine volumes is currently being prepared by Verlag Urachhaus (Stuttgart) under the direction of Professor Reinhardt Habel. Volumes 1 and 2 comprise Morgenstern's lyrical writings and poems; volume 3: humoristic writings, including the complete Gallows Songs; volume 4: epic and theatrical writings; volume 5: collected aphorisms; volume 6: critical essays and reviews; volumes 7-9: complete correspondence. The volume titles in German are:

  • Volume 1: Lyrik 1887–1905, ed. Martin Kiessig, 1988.
  • Volume 2: Lyrik 1906–1914, ed. Martin Kiessig, 1992.
  • Volume 3: Humoristische Lyrik, ed. Maurice Cureau, 1990.
  • Volume 4: Episches und Dramatisches, eds. Reinhardt Habel and Ernst Kretschmer, 2001.
  • Volume 5: Aphorismen, ed. Reinhardt Habel, 1987.
  • Volume 6: Kritische Schriften, ed. Helmut Gumtau, 1987.
  • Volume 7: Briefwechsel 1878–1903, ed. Katharina Breitner, 2005.
  • Volume 8: Briefwechsel 1905–1908 (in preparation)
  • Volume 9: Briefwechsel 1909–1914 (in preparation)

See also

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