Wednesday, 10 May 2017

On "Von den Elben" by Heinrich von Morungen (early 13th century)

Customary in the twelfth- and thirteenth- century art of Minnesang is frequent reference to 'Hohe Minne', that is to say to an exalted love - often on a more hyperbolic or hyperreal plane than we may recognise. The fifth poem in Heinrich von Morungen's oeuvre, 'Von den Elben', leans heavily into this tendency towards the supernatural, specifically the ways in which a spell a woman can cast over the man who is besotted with her resembles a more magical reality than the everyday.

The lexis of the supernatural begins, of course, with the reference to 'elben' in the first line, and the popularly held fear that men could be seduced off paths by impish, mischievous elves; the poet doesn't fear such phenomena, however, but rather is seduced by the overwhelming love he feels towards his beloved lady. Typical of Minnesang is the extent of this love and its attendant high stakes; it is 'gróze[...] liebe' and his lady is '[die] besten, die ie dehein man ze friunt gewan'. We are very quickly plunged into the traditional format of the poet praising his lady above all others. Such hyperbole naturally leads into the adunaton with which the poet ends his first stanza: in asserting that the lady delights him so much that it may well end his life, which we may well see as impossible or illogical or contradictory, Morungen has already indicated just what kind of all-consuming passion it is with which we are dealing: Liebestod - dying for the sake of love - has already been invoked.

The second stanza unpacks in poignant terms just how unequal this relationship is; the lady in question commands such power over him - an almost unearthly power - that she is 'hêrer' within his own heart than he himself is. Not only does she rule over his every waking moment, but Morungen conveys this in language which explicitly emasculates the poet in the form of 'hêrer' and its close resemblance to the masculine epithet for 'master, lord'. What's more, he adds, if he only had such power over her, then she would stay lying beside him for a full three days: hyperbole rears its head again, but it is an effective heightened state which is conveyed to us. The last line, which is both the simplest and the most central of the entire work, succinctly sums up the poet's problem and source of all his woes: for all the elfin magic she seems to cast on him, for all that he fantasizes about exerting an equal or stronger pull on her orbit, the lamentable fact of the matter is that 'si [ist] leider or mir alze vrî'. She is quite content without, and indifferent towards, him; 'vrî' here being employed in the common MHG sense of not being affected or plagued by something.

Having made his Klage thus so explicit, so central, the poet launches with renewed vigour into the poem's second half (such as we believe it to be - the exact order of the stanzas is subject to some debate), specifically its most distinctive and graphic section. The self-contained Aufgesang of stanza III is full of plosive effects, as Morungen builds assonance and consonance on top of one another - from the hardness of 'enzündet', 'daz', 'den durren zunder', 'vremeden' and 'daz' twice more to the more sibilant but nonetheless forceful 'z' sound in 'enzündet', 'daz', 'zunder', 'herze', 'daz', 'wazzer' and 'heize', it is a section most distinctive and powerful when read aloud (unsurprisingly enough, given Minnesänger composed these stanzas for oral performance).

More interesting still than the Aufgesang's alliterative quality, though, is the meaning conveyed. The lady's clear bright eyes enflame the poet just as fire does dried-out tinder (and note how much more dramatic, how exciting, the fire is in comparison to the wood: the gulf in power-struggle terms remains as huge as it was in the previous stanza), and yet the distance she keeps from him injures him as much as water quenches embers. This dual image very neatly enhances the more conventional 'love as flame' motif in suggesting his lady is akin to two elements, fire and water: diametrically opposed and yet both waging war on the speaker. As she sets him alight, so she puts his flames out:. He is, as it were, besieged; small wonder, then, that this section is as plosive, as distinctive, as it is - it is an emotive climax.

Instructive, then, that the Abgesang of Stanza III is utterly different. Where all was short and terse and barked out in bitterness, here the poet slows the pace right down: longer vowels, softer consonants, gentler topics, all combine to give us much-needed respite after the cacophony of noises we have just experienced. 'Hôher muot', 'schoene', 'werdecheit': these are the most pleasant images by far in what has been up till now a rather manic, desperate poem. And yet still these qualities, taken together with her 'tugenden', seem only to do him harm: or do they? Like any poet worth his salt, Morungen knows the value of an intriguing final line, and the closing words 'oder lîhte guot?', the gentlest and most optimistic this poem has yet been, certainly fall under this category. Perhaps there is a chance, the poet thinks, as the pace slows down and (one imagines) he takes deep breaths, steadies himself; that 'lîhte' echoes the lady's 'vil liehter ougen schîn' is the icing on the cake.

Morungen might have been pleased with that callback, and certainly wanted to remind us of it further, for in the very next line - the opening of stanza IV - he returns to the same image. Here the lady's bright, clear eyes (though no colour is specified, naturally, for that runs the risk of allowing the lady at court to be identified) look in his direction - and woe betide anyone who gets in the way! The fourth line here, 'dem muoze al sîn wunne gar zergên', is a pleasing echo of the last line of stanza I, but this time around it is the interloper who may threaten the poet's happiness who is at risk of losing everything, as opposed to the poet himself. It is immediately clear, then, how far things have come from his earlier desperation. The Abgesang is more optimistic still: he stands before his lady and awaits her love 'rehte alsô des tages diu kleinen vogellîn'. Gone the imagery of flames devouring wood then being promptly extinguished; here her love is like a sun, and he simply must await its rising just as birds await the sunrise before singing - a poetological image of some familiarity, granted, but not without power.

The poem has therefore dramatically shifted in a positive direction: she has become, like dawn, an inevitability. The poet does not yet know when she will grant him her love - 'wenne sol mir iemer liep geschên?' but he is confident that she will. We might wonder whether it was the powerful hyperbole of 'mich enzündet' and its subsequent lines which gave the lady cause to react as though impressed, and this in turn gave rise to the poet's hopes. Certainly, the upward trajectory from his lady's utter indifference seems marked: how has that came about? The answer may lie in the 'kleinen vogellîn': not magic and supernatural in and of themselves, but they act along associative, alchemical, symbolic lines of logic, for when they sing it dawns. Whether one causes the other is mostly irrelevant - they go hand in hand, like the bell and the salivating of Pavlov's dog. So too does singing of this bird - or, were we to alter just one letter, this bard - bring a different but still more magical sunrise into being.


Heinrich von Morungen, Lieder, Reclam (3. Auflage 2003), edited with an introduction by Helmut Tervooren.

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