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The River Calls

The Water Nymph, by Collier
Folk melody, words by Heinrich Heine

I cannot divine what it meaneth,
This haunting nameless pain:
A tale of the bygone ages
Keeps brooding through my brain:

The faint air cools in the gloaming,
And peaceful flows the Rhine,
The thirsty summits are drinking
The sunset's flooding wine;

The loveliest maiden is sitting
High-throned in yon blue air,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She combs her golden hair,

She combs with a comb that is golden,
And sings a weird refrain
That steeps in a deadly enchantment
The lsit'ner's ravished brain:

The doomed in his drifting shallop,
is tranced with the sad sweet tone,
He sees not the yawning breakers,
He sees but the maid alone:

The pitiless billows engulf him! -
So perish sailor and bark;
And this, with her baleful singing,
Is the Lorelei's grewsome work.

Translation by L.W. Garnbam

I do not known what it signifies.
That I am so sorrowful?
A fable of old Times so terrifies,
Leaves my heart so thoughtful.

The air is cool and it darkens,
And calmly flows the Rhine;
The summit of the mountain hearkens
In evening sunshine line.

The most beautiful Maiden entrances
Above wonderfully there,
Her beautiful golden attire glances,
She combs her golden hair.

With golden comb so lustrous,
And thereby a song sings
It has a tone so wondrous,
That powerful melody rings.

The shipper in the little ship
It effects with woes sad might;
He does not see the rocky clip,
He only regards dreaded height.

I believe the turbulent waves
Swallow at last shipper and boat;
She with her singing craves
All to visit her magic moat.

My thanks to the American satirist Mark Twain for including these two translations of "The Lorelei" in his travel journal, A Tramp Abroad. Twain vividly described his travels down the Rhine and the haunting legend of Lore, a favorite among German folk legends. He included these two most popular versions of the song, of which I by far prefer the Olde English. There is something about its harsh lyricism that fully conveys the imagined seduction and disastrous dangers. The Lore, according to myth, was a water nymph who used to sit on a high rock called Ley, or Lei, in the Rhine and lure boatmen to destruction in a furious rapid, so bewitching them with her plaintive song and wondrous beauty that they forgot everything else to gaze up at her.

I cannot imagine, as Twain must also have agreed, a better tale with which to compress and symbolize the lure and intrigue of travel in mysterious foreign lands. The lure of travel is, in fact, its very beauty, surprise, and uncertain adventure: dangers lurk in the vast unknown. And while I do not suppose to encounter the nymph on my upcoming two week journey down the modern Rhine, I certainly do hope to encounter the mysterious and magical as I sail its length and poke around through centuries of tales, crumbling ruins of warfare, collected and looted art, conflicting cuisines, blended languages - all that defines the peoples of Europe the length of Holland, where I begin, to Switzerland, where I finish. I and my companions go by boat, by train, by foot. I will complete a personal "bucket list" dream hiking the lowest slopes of the Matterhorn. And I expect to collect and consume a fair amount of wine, chocolate; even perhaps, toting home a miniature work of art on a postcard or charming quite garish stein.

Life's an adventure! So forgive me if the posts are infrequent the next two weeks until my return the end of June. I'll bring home stories along with those Swiss chocolates and crazy steins. Until then, imagine me...a tramp abroad.

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