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Becoming the Listener: Goethe's “Der Fischer”

from Special Section on What Goethe Heard, edited by Mary Helen Dupree

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 May 2018

Deva Kemmis
Affiliation:
American University
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Summary

Und wie er sitzt und wie er lauscht,

teilt sich die Flut empor;

aus dem bewegten Wasser rauscht

ein feuchtes Weib hervor.

[And as he sits and listens well, The billow breaks and parts, And from the waters’ churning swell A dripping woman darts.]

—Goethe, “Der Fischer”

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

DER FISCHER” (“The Fisherman,” 1779), a ballad about a fisherman's encounter with a mermaid written early in Goethe's poetic production, features prominently in the German Lied tradition. The poem was hailed by Herder as exactly the kind of text that German poets needed to be writing in order to usher in a golden age of literary achievement, and had its place as the first example of folk poetry characterized by Herder as German in his Volkslieder, among other texts within his larger project that aimed to unite the German states through a shared cultural, linguistic, and mythopoetic background. As befits the significance of sound in the Lied genre for Goethe, Herder, and their contemporaries, listening crowns the sensory hierarchy of this poem. The listener sits at the center of the poetic activity of “Der Fischer”: the listener who is both the fisherman himself in the ballad, and, as Wallace Stevens writes in a very different poem, “the reader leaning late and reading there.”

The encounter between a human being, the fisherman, and the water woman, who has been depicted countless times in literature, folklore, and myth, be it as siren, water nymph, nixie, mermaid, Melusine, Undine, Lorelei, or selkie, is a poetic site that yields rich insights into the epistemological nature of knowledge creation, for in both literature and myth, this encounter often leads to knowledge outside of human scope. The meeting between a human being and a water nymph can be read as a poetic figuration of the epistemological dynamic between sight and hearing in the moment of knowledge transfer.

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Information
Goethe Yearbook 25
Publications of the Goethe Society of North America
, pp. 31 - 54
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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