“Michael Hamburger’s Goethe:  Some Conditions of Literary Translation” by Jonny Elling (University of Bristol) 

In 1983, Michael Hamburger published Roman Elegies, a selection of Goethe poems  translated into English. It was the culmination of a lifelong engagement with this most  famous of German poets. Hamburger, an Anglo-German translator and writer, tackled his  first Goethe poem at fifteen, but he was nearly sixty when Roman Elegies appeared. The  Introduction to the expanded edition is a lesson in the forces that shapes a literary translator’s  work: biography, historical circumstance, poetic skills and principles, enthusiasm, and one’s  capacity as a critic.

Hamburger is wonderfully honest about his book’s origins. Only the 150th anniversary  of Goethe’s death could ‘prod’ him into collating decades of irregular work in a publishable volume, and the process only confirmed his perennial struggles:

If even the present gathering of all but my juvenile versions of                  poems by  Goethe remains miscellaneous in character, one                       reason is that I have neve been able to translate Goethe as                         persistently and consistently as […] his  younger contemporary               Hölderlin.[1]

That said, the limit imposed by Hamburger’s efforts has not hindered his own aesthetic  encounter with Goethe’s poetry. He has not simply translated the poems which he could in  his ‘own fashion’, but also those he was ‘moved’ to. The fashion means staying loyal to what  moved him.[2] The translations in Roman Elegies are ‘pointers’ and ‘inductions’, not ‘“English  poems in their own right”’.[3]

If the translatory technique is ‘empathetic’, this empathy is not only for Goethe  himself but for readers held off from Goethe by a language barrier. But Hamburger  anticipates their enjoyment will primarily be intellectual:

English poetry is so rich as to have little need or room for                           additions in the  guise of translations; but our awareness of                       ‘world literature’ is not rich enough  to do without a poet as                        extraordinary and as central as Goethe.[4]

If Roman Elegies ‘arouse[s] curiosity’ for Goethe, then, it ‘will have served its purpose’.[5] A  dispassionate goal, but one stemming from passion. When Hamburger evaluates Goethe, he  glows with admiration for the poet’s ‘uniqueness’ and ‘staggering diversity’.[6]But the relationship is not purely emotive. That Goethe commands German is an analytical  observation, drawn from poems ‘inextricably rooted in their linguistic humus’, and whose  author has ‘cultivated every stratum of the spoken and written language’.[7]

To justify himself, Hamburger begins a properly linguistic investigation, while  bringing this back in turn to the translation process. Römische Elegien transformed the  classical elegiac couplet by reproducing it in German. To restage this transformation,  Hamburger has settled on English hexameter, which has a similarly ‘refractory’ power.[8] Elsewhere, Hamburger found no English equivalent to Sehnsucht which would fit a particular poem’s metre. Yet in scrutinising the word, Hamburger considered not only the meaning of  Sehnsucht but also its associations. Having found such an association in ‘loss’, he saw that  the poem as a whole adequately conveyed the feeling of Sehnsucht, and ‘loss’ could stand in  for the word itself.[9]

If Hamburger can reconcile enjoyment and close reading of Goethe’s poetry, why  does he expect a more intellectual response from us? The answer goes back to his logistical  difficulties. So many poems have eluded him that all he can offer is a ‘gathering’, which gives readers ‘an intimation of Goethe’s thematic range’. A representative book would  demand ‘untranslatab[le]’ poems, ‘hundreds’ of them, and more space than publishing  allows.[10]

In Hamburger, then, spirited reading meets the printed world and the translator’s own  intellect. Whatever his sense of his own limitations, he successfully navigates the  practicalities of publication, channels his enthusiasm into analysis to find the best textual  solutions, and translates his own joyful encounter into a new language.


Hamburger, Michael, ‘Introduction’, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Roman Elegies, and  Other Poems and Epigrams, trans. by Michael Hamburger, 2nd edn (London: Anvil Press  Poetry, 1996), pp. 9–16.

Author Biography

Jonny Elling is a first-year PhD student at the University of Bristol. His collaborative project  with the British Library examines the archive of poet and translator Michael Hamburger, and is funded by the AHRC. Jonny’s thematic interests are in Romanticism, translation,  creativity, and comparative literature.



[1] Michael Hamburger, ‘Introduction’, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Roman Elegies, and  Other Poems and Epigrams, trans. by Michael Hamburger, 2nd edn (London: Anvil Press  Poetry, 1996), pp. 9–16 (p. 9).

[2] Ibid., p. 11.

[3] Ibid., p. 15.

[4] Ibid., pp. 15–16.

[5] Ibid., p. 16.

[6] Ibid., p. 9

[7] Ibid., pp. 9–10.

[8] Ibid., p. 15.

[9] Ibid., p. 15.

[10] Ibid., p. 13.


New Approaches to Romanticism Blog: “Coleridge and the Supernatural” by Elizabeth Laughlin

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his “The Rime of the Ancient Marinere,” (1798) delights in the supernatural, particularly in the realm of spirits. Unlike Wordsworth, his counterpart in Lyrical Ballads and good friend, Coleridge views nature as separate from himself, and in that regard, Friedrich Schiller would have considered Coleridge to be a sentimental poet. Nevertheless, when involving the supernatural, Coleridge depends upon his idea of the “suspension of disbelief”—or “the means by which the reader might accept unreal elements of verse to illuminate senses strictly afforded within the real” (McMorrough 229). It is through this process that Coleridge’s work transcends space and time, and lost in Coleridge’s world, the reader questions his own reality.

In the introduction of Lyrical Ballads, Fiona Stafford of the Oxford University Press discusses the writing abilities and partnership of Wordsworth and Coleridge. She states, “To make the supernatural entirely believable, or to transform the ordinary into something equally compelling, required extraordinary imaginative and technical powers” (xxix). Both Wordsworth and Coleridge viewed the imagination as an almost supernatural feature, although Coleridge dives into the metaphysical much more. Stafford also writes that “although the supernatural are most obvious in ‘The Ancient Marinere,’ the poem can be—and often has been—read psychologically or symbolically” (xxix). Stafford’s point is an excellent segue to discuss what the supernatural symbolically represents in Romantic writing.

The first poem of the 1798 and 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads is “The Rime of the Ancient Marinere,” which features a mariner who has been cursed. Coleridge’s poems “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel” also feature the supernatural, but it is important to note that he did not include them in Lyrical Ballads. However, all three of these pieces feature dreams, as expressed in Jennifer Ford’s essay. She writes, citing essayist Thomas DeQuincey, “DeQuincey described [Coleridge] as a poet…a prolific dreamer: a man whose poetry was shrouded in mystery—supernatural like the ‘ancient marin

ere’—awfully sublime” (Ford 171). 

“The Rime of the Ancient Marinere” features its own spirits, although they look different from traditional ghosts. In fact, Coleridge’s spirits are sublime entities—things not to be understood by the human brain. The following section is an excerpt describing Coleridge’s spirits:

“I saw something in the Sky

No bigger than my fist

At first it seem’d a little speck

And then it seem’d a mist” (lines 139-142). 

This “mist” that Coleridge describes also represents the sublime, often symbolized by a mist or a fog. This entity soon curses the entire ship, leaving all the people on board dead except the mariner, who must live with the curse. Here is an excerpt about the curse that plagues the mariner:

“An orphan’s curse would drag to Hell

A spirit from on high

But O! More horrible than that 

Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!

Seven days, seven nights I saw that curse

And yet I could not die” (lines 249-254)

By repeating the word “seven,” Coleridge makes these lines sound like a chant, going along with the ballad structure. Because he does not die, the mariner is cursed and must repeat the story in order to find any peace.  This is an embodiment of storytelling and the role writers and storytellers play. After hearing the mariner’s story, the wedding guest turns into “[a] sadder and wiser man” (line 624). It is through this repetition, this retelling of stories, that represents the oral tradition of stories, including ghost stories.


Biographical Statement: Elizabeth Laughlin is a graduate student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she is a part of the English Literature and Composition master’s program. She also writes for the school’s Marketing and Communications Department. Above all, she is interested in Gothicism, Romanticism, and Modernism. In her spare time, she enjoys meditating, writing books, and watching football.


Works Cited


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Marinere.” Lyrical Ballads. Edited by Fiona Stafford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp.5-24.

Ford, Jennifer. “Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Pains of Sleep.” History Workshop Journal, no. 48, 1999, pp. 169–186. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4289640. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.

McMorrough, John. “Funny, Crazy, Silly: Lyrics for The Suspension of Architectural Disbelief.” Log, no. 37, 2016, pp. 228–233. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26324736. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.

Stafford, Fiona. “Introduction.” Lyrical Ballads. Edited by Fiona Stafford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. xii-xlv.