The Forsaken Maiden
Early, when the cock crows
Ere the stars retire,
I must stand at the hearth,
Must tend the fire.
What beauty in the fire's light,
With the sparks leaping,
I stand long gazing at them,
Lost now in my grieving.
Suddenly I remember,
'twas you I was dreaming of
Till the night had ended.
Tears well up and fall
One upon the other;
The day has just begun—
Oh, would that it were over!
Translation: Charles L. Cingolani Copyright © 2005
For Eduard Moerike 1829 marked the beginning of what was the sunniest, most promising
period in his life. He had found the love of his life in Louise Rau and had announced their
engagement. It was a new experience: Far from being a make-believe figure of his poetic
imagination, Louise was a tangible person on whom he could shower his love. It is said that
Moerike's correspondence with her produced a volume of the most charming letters to a
bride-to-be in German literature.
The letters show an extraordinary depth of emotion. His capacity to love is evident, as is his
hope for reciprocation. But from the beginning he senses the dark suspicion that the
relationship might not last, as in fact, it did not. By the year 1833 they had called off their
engagement. For that reason it is not surprising when Moerike in his very first letter to
Louise speaks of a harbinger of the death of our love. Nor is it a cause for wonder that "Das
Verlassene Maegdlein" was composed at this time. It is in keeping with Moerike's motional
state and can be read as a premonition of what was to come.
The poem is a scenic treatise on authentic love and broken promise. Preoccupied with this
contradiction Moerike seems to be masking himself in the role of the girl so as to achieve
distance from the happening itself and need not betray own anguish.
The poem begins in a setting of sad resignation. It is early morning. The maid is alone and
her forlornness is heightened by the crowing of a distant rooster, significant in its allusion to
the betrayal of Christ by Peter. The term Maegdlein means more than just a girl. The
diminutive Maegdlein reveals youth and perhaps her innocence, thus indirectly making the
suffering which she undergoes all the more poignant.
The young girl is the only speaker in the poem and relates her story calmly. She is
composed. She shows character in her simplicity. She speaks in the present tense which
makes her presence more perceptible; the brevity of her expression makes the listener feel
as if he is being made privy to an intimate story, too painful to elaborate.
Once she has kindled the fire she finds in it something consoling and beautiful. Attracted by
the beauty of the flame, she gives herself over to its spiritual power and sinks into an
otherworldly contemplation. This is interrupted suddenly when she remembers her dream.
The shift from dream to reality makes the girl all the more aware of the pain caused by her
The poem exemplifies how love and suffering belong together for Moerike. But it is how his
figures come to grasps with these opposites that gives Moerike's poems their beauty and
significance. In this case, once the maid has become aware of what has happened she
refrains from divulging her feelings toward her unfaithful lover, is willing to go on with her
drab workaday life. Her inner strength expresses itself in her calm resignation to her fate.
A last consideration: When Moerike writes schön ist der Flamme Schein he is using the word
Flamme [flame] as a love symbol. Attached to this is the word Schein, a noun with a
double meaning in German. It can mean both "glow" and "semblance", the former
representing a real fact, the latter something that is only seems to be a fact. The maid is in
a quandary about this ambiguity. She is faced with the question as to whether love is
genuine or just an empty show. Moerike compresses into the uncertainty of this one word
[Schein] the bitter suffering of the disillusioned maid.
Das Verlassene Maegdlein
Frueh, wann die Haehne kraehn,
Ehe die Sternlein verschwinden,
Muss ich am Herde stehen,
Muss Feuer zuenden.
Schoen ist der Flammen Schein,
Es springen die Funken;
Ich schaue so drein,
In Leid versunken.
Ploetzlich, da kommt es mir,
Dass ich die Nacht von dir
Traene auf Traene dann
So kommt der Tag heran—
O ging er wieder!
Eduard Moerike 1829