Knowing the Lay of the Land.

A recent Laudator Temporis Acti post makes a good point about the occasional usefulness of having physically visited the spot described by a poem. The post starts by quoting Goethe:

Poetry if you would know,
To its country you must go;
If the poet you would know,
To the poet’s country go.

Wer das Dichten will verstehen,
muß ins Land der Dichtung gehen;
wer den Dichter will verstehen,
muß in Dichters Lande gehen.

It goes on to cite an instance from Leopardi’s “L’infinito,” which begins:

Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.

Ian McGilchrist translated those lines thus:

Always dear to me has been this lonely hill,
and this line of trees which, from so much
of the furthest horizon, hides my view.

And his brother Nigel comments:

It is conventional to translate siepe as a hedgerow, which is exactly what it means in current Italian usage. But in older garden-design tracts siepe is often used to mean a “break of trees”. Since the land drops sharply below the spot in Recanati where Leopardi is said to have composed the poem, only a line of tall trees rising from further down the slope, rather than a hedgerow, would effectively occlude his view.

There’s a photograph that “gives a hint of the declivity involved.” I have to agree that a hedgerow would not fit the situation of the poem.

Update. But as Biscia points out in the comments, poets twist the facts just as much as novelists do: “Here, for instance, is a paper – which I find rather convincing – that suggests there was no actual hedge or line of trees, and that if there was any concrete element inspiring the poem it was probably a wall.”


  1. I see what you did there.

  2. The Goethe poem introduces the explanatory appendix to his “West-östlicher Divan”; later on there is a variant (or second verse?):

    Wer den Dichter will verstehen
    Muß in Dichters Lande gehen;
    Er im Orient sich freue
    Daß das Alte sey das Neue.

  3. I see what you did there.

    Heh. I confess I had that on my mind.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Lande is the archaic plural.

  5. Also used in die Niederlande “the Netherlands”.

  6. In 2005 I made my first foray into France (a shockingly late start with distant travel, for this antipodean). By bus from Barcelona, to Montpellier and Sète. My purpose: to visit the resting-place of Paul Valéry, in the graveyard he had made famous in “Le Cimetière marin”. I examined his tomb and the extravagantly representational ones around it (pensive angels in abundance), strolled among the cypresses, gazed at the Mediterranean, and generally deepened my sense of that justly celebrated poem.

    The unassuming bookshops of Sète were a revelation. I picked up a grammar of Occitan (in French), and dictionaries and the like. (Ach! Close to Catalan, but without the cheeky zing.)

  7. David Marjanović says “Lande is the archaic plural.”

    I suspect it’s singular though. True, today you cannot say *”in das Lande gehn” (into) but you can say “im Lande gehen” (within). Likewise “Tür”, “Türe” and a number of other words.

    The other interpretation is that “Lande” has already been—or has always been—not simply an equivalent of the modern plural “Länder” (countries), in sense more akin to “Ländereien”, i.e. “Gegend”, “Region”.

    Hermann Paul’s Dt.Wtb. p380 has this to say: “Pl. *Länder*, daneben die altertümlichere Form *Lande” […], die dem höheren Stil angehört, außerdem bevorzugt wird, wenn die Vorstellung einer Mehrheit zurücktritt: *in deutschen Landen*, *die österreichischen Erblande*; jetzt nur noch üblich *Niederlande*, *Rheinlande*.”—Nobody say “die Rheinlande” any more, but “aus deutschen Landen frisch auf den Tisch” is a classic of post-war commercial slogan poetry.

  8. “im Lande gehen”

    That’s simply the traditional dative singular. Goethe has an accusative plural. The -e in Türe is an obsolete feminine nominative singular.

    Semantically, “Länder” implies that you can give a finite list of countries, while “Lande” is simply much more vague (and more appropriate for the Goethe’s metonymical use for “historic-cultural background”, where “Länder” simply wouldn’t work).

  9. David Marjanović says

    What ulr said, except I find “obsolete” exaggerated for Türe.

    True, today you cannot say *”in das Lande gehn” (into) but you can say “im Lande gehen” (within).

    Yes, but walking around in poet’s country makes less sense here than going to poet countries, and it would absolutely require an article.

    (…The construction with the anarthrous singular genitive does throw me off, though. I’m not sure I quite understand it.)

  10. What ulr said, except I find “obsolete” exaggerated for Türe.
    I only know that form from books, but googling shows a surprising number of hits from contemporary, everyday / non-literary texts. Duden has it as landschaftlich “regional”, and the google hits I could easily locate geographically seem mostly Southern German, Swiss, and Austrian.
    @ulr: I don’t remember whether you already mentioned it somewhere on LH, but you also seem to be a speaker of non-Southern German like me?

  11. David Marjanović says

    Probably another case where Standard German maintains archaisms in regions where the local dialects lack them – they’re maintained precisely because the innovative forms are felt to be too close to the dialects.

  12. It can be useful, yes, as long as one keeps in mind that poets twist the facts just as much as novelists do. Here, for instance, is a paper – which I find rather convincing – that suggests there was no actual hedge or line of trees, and that if there was any concrete element inspiring the poem it was probably a wall: .

    If I were trying to translate “L’infinito,” it would be great to have a little chat with Giacomo or at least visit Recanati. But for siepe I would be trying to find a word with certain characteristics that have little or nothing to do with historical accuracy.

  13. A very useful reminder — thanks!

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    Is the Leopardi somewhat vertigious also for a native speaker, i.e at first reading you think it is “that my view hides” but then you see it has to be “that hides my view”? I had this experience.

  15. @PlasticPaddy: I’m not a native Italian speaker! But my husband, who is, says not really – not more than your average anastrophe, and anastrophes are more common in Italian. Of course, it depends on whether the native speaker is used to reading nineteenth-century poetry; when I pressed him a little, he said sure, his middle school students have trouble parsing it at first glance. The “da tanta parte” makes it pretty clear even to them that the siepe is not the object, though.

  16. you also seem to be a speaker of non-Southern German like me?

    Yes. Just for fun, I compared my language to that Arno Schmidt used in a couple of readings on Youtube recorded around the time I was born, and the only noticeable difference is the pronunciation of /r/ — in my pronunciation, it’s a uvular fricative or approximant [ʁ] before vowels, and a vocalic glide [ɐ] before consonants or at the end of a word; Schmidt’s pronunciation of /r/ seems to be all over the place – [ʁ], [ʀ] and [r], in all positions — and I suspect that this was not his pronunciation in everyday conversation, but a reading pronunciation.

    I never spoke the local dialect or an approximation of it, simply because I never heard anyone speak it — my parents were from another part of Germany altogether, and I was educated in a protestant primary school in a largely catholic region: in other words, most of the kids were, like me, the children of recent (post-war) immigrants from other parts of Germany (there was just one boy who French surname showed that he belonged to the traditional local protestant minority (17th century protestant refugees from France)..

  17. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @PlasticPaddy: Biscia’s husband has a more representative experience teaching middle school students, but to me as one native speaker that passage seems transparent.

    I suppose that’s because “the hedge blocks my view” is perfectly natural whereas “my view blocks the hedge” sounds nonsensical. Accordingly, in my location Google finds only four instances of “my view blocks the,” and all four are “in my view blocks the.”

    As a non-native English speaker, I’m conversely puzzled by the original discussion of translations for siepe. I thought the meaning was the same as English hedge. English Wikipedia reports that “A hedge or hedgerow is a line of closely spaced shrubs and sometimes trees” and provides pictures of “A typical clipped European beech hedge,” “Oak and beech hedges … common in Great Britain,” and “A clipped beech hedge … grown as high as a house.”

    I’m personally most familiar with my mother’s laurel hedge, which is quite a bit taller than a person and would gladly grow even taller if allowed to.

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    No worries. I asked because I am bothered by similar constructions in English.

  19. @ulr: my idiolect is a mish-mosh of various features, most of them Northern; some Rhine / Ruhr features like short vowels before /rC/ from my father’s side and from my mother’s upbringing on the Lower Rhine; words from Western Prussia and Thuringia from my maternal grandparents’ side, Northern features from my own upbringing in East Frisia, and some features belonging to the written standard (like distinguishing long e from long ä) of which I don’t know where I picked them up.

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