Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: From 'Venetian Epigrams'

Translation from German by Jerome Rothenberg               


[As a follow-up to Pierre Joris’s recent posting on Jacket2 of a translation from Goethe’s West-Östlicher Divan, “a poem addressed to the greatness of the Persian poet Hafiz,” I’m resuscitating here a number of my own translations from Goethe’s Venetian Epigrams, an early series of erotic & sexually explicit poems that illuminate the further range of Goethe’s work & bring him even closer to some of the workings & concerns we share at present.  They are in that sense an extension of the rethinking of Goethe’s total œuvre that Jeffrey Robinson & I proposed in Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, as the model of a poet who works up to & including his (& our) limits. (J.R.)]


Urns and sarcophagi

pagans paint into life,

dancing fauns,

dancing bands of bacchantes,

bright lines of them,

goatfooted, fatcheeked,

squeeze sounds

hot & wild

through brass horns,

percussions & cymbals

blare out,:

we see & hear

            on the marble

                        birds beating wings,

sweet taste of the fruit

            on your beaks,

no noise to frighten

                        still less to drive Eros away

who joins the bright crowds


                        hoisting his torch.

So bounty overcomes death

            & the ashes within

in the house made of silence

            still find pleasure in life.

Some day

            may the tomb of the poet

                        be graced

with this scroll

            he has richly bejewelled

                        with life.




Tight little alleyway – no room

to squeeze between its walls –

a young girl blocks my way,

my rambles around Venice

knocks me off my feet,

the place, the come-on

to a stranger’s eye,

a wide canal my drifting

takes me to.  If you

had girls like your canals,

o Venice, cunts

like little alleyways, you’d be

the greatest city in the world.





what bothers me is this:

            the way Bettina gets to be so skillful

every limb in her body

grows looser & looser

till she can stick her own little tongue

            up her own little cunt

a charmer who tastes her own charms

            will soon lose all interest in men.




Is it so big a mystery

            what god and man and world are?

No! but nobody knows how to solve it

            so the mystery hangs on.




Lots of things I can stomach.  Most of what irks me

I take in my stride, as a god might command me.

But four things I hate more than poisons & vipers:

tobacco smoke, garlic, bedbugs, and Christ.




Doesn’t surprise me that Christ our Lord

            preferred to live with whores

& sinners, seeing

            I go in for that myself.




I could have made it just as well with boys

            although my thing has always been with girls.

And once I get my satisfaction with a girl

            I can turn her around & have her as a boy.




Not schwanz meaning “tail”

but some fancier word

o Priapus

me being a poet

            in German

that word grinds me down.

In Greek I can call you

            a phallos a marvelous

                        sound to my ears

and in Latin mentula

            from mens meaning “mind”

                        another good word.

But  schwanz is something

            that sticks out from behind

                        & back there isn’t where

I find the most pleasure.