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Christian Morgenstern

For the German landscape painter, see Christian Ernst Bernhard Morgenstern.
Christian Morgenstern
Born Christian Otto Josef Wolfgang Morgenstern
(1871-05-06)6 May 1871
Died 31 March 1914(1914-03-31) (aged 42)
Nationality German
Occupation Poet

Christian Otto Josef Wolfgang Morgenstern (6 May 1871 – 31 March 1914) was a German author and poet from Munich. Morgenstern married Margareta Gosebruch von Liechtenstern on 7 March 1910. He worked for a while as a journalist in Berlin, but spent much of his life traveling through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, primarily in a vain attempt to recover his health. His travels, though they failed to restore him to health, allowed him to meet many of the foremost literary and philosophical figures of his time in central Europe.

Morgenstern's poetry, much of which was inspired by English literary nonsense, is immensely popular, even though he enjoyed very little success during his lifetime. He made fun of scholasticism, e.g. literary criticism in "Drei Hasen", grammar in "Der Werwolf", narrow-mindedness in "Der Gaul", and symbolism in "Der Wasseresel". In "Scholastikerprobleme" he discussed how many angels could sit on a needle. Still many Germans know some of his poems and quotations by heart, e.g. the following line from "The Impossible Fact" ("Die unmögliche Tatsache", 1910):

Weil, so schließt er messerscharf / Nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf.
"For, he reasons pointedly / That which must not, can not be."

Embedded in his humorous poetry is a subtle metaphysical streak, as e.g. in "Vice Versa", (1905):

Gerolf Steiner's mock-scientific book about the fictitious animal order Rhinogradentia (1961), inspired by Morgenstern's nonsense poem Das Nasobēm, is testament to his enduring popularity.

Morgenstern was a member of the General Anthroposophical Society. Dr. Rudolf Steiner called him 'a true representative of Anthroposophy'.

Morgenstern died in 1914 of tuberculosis, which he had contracted from his mother, who died in 1881.

Gallows Songs

Morgenstern's best known works are the Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs, 1905), eight of which were used in a song cycle by Jan Koetsier for soprano and tuba, five in a song cycle by Siegfried Strohbach for male choir a cappella. This volume of humorous verses was followed by Palmström in 1910. Published posthumously were the important companion volumes Palma Kunkel in 1916, Der Gingganz in 1919, and Alle Galgenlieder in 1932. In German these works have gone through dozens of different editions and reprints and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. English translations include:

  • The Gallows Songs. Christian Morgenstern's Galgenlieder, translated by Max Knight (University of California Press, 1964).
  • Gallows Songs, translated by W.D. Snodgrass and Lore Segal (Michigan Press, 1967).
  • Songs from the Gallows: Galgenlieder, translated by Walter Arndt (Yale University Press, 1993).
  • Lullabies, Lyrics and Gallows Songs, translated by Anthea Bell with illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger (North South Books, 1995).

A number of these poems were translated into English by Jerome Lettvin with explanations of Morgensterns wordplay methods and their relationship to Lewis Carroll's methods. These were published in a journal called The Fat Abbot in the Fall Winter 1962 edition, along with an essay illuminating subtle characteristics of the originals.


To get this research undertook
I bought a needle and the BOOK,

and with the BOOK an old and hairy
faintly starving dromedary.

N.A.M., to help this thesis,
gave, on loan, a standard Croesus.

When the Croesus, missal-guided
went to Heaven's gate and tried it,

Peter spoke - "The Gospel proves
a camel through a needle moves

Sooner than we may admit
a Rich man." (Christ, J., opus cit).

Testing to confirm the Word,
I loosed our camel, hunger-spurred,

and motivated by a lure
of buns behind the aperture,

The subject, in a single try,
squeezed grunting through the needle's eye;

a graceless act. The camel crammed
and Croesus muttered, "I'll be damned."


One night, a werewolf, having dined,
left his wife to clean the cave
and visited a scholar's grave
asking, "How am I declined?"

Whatever way the case was pressed
the ghost could not decline his guest,
but told the wolf (who'd been well-bred
and crossed his paws before the dead),

"The Iswolf, so we may commence,
the Waswolf, simple past in tense,
the Beenwolf, perfect; so construed,
the Werewolf is subjunctive mood."

The werewolf's teeth with thanks were bright,
but, mitigating his delight,
there rose the thought, how could one be
hypostasized contingency?

The ghost observed that few could live,
if werewolves were indicative;
whereat his guest perceived the role
of Individual in the Whole.

Condition contrary to fact,
a single werewolf Being lacked
but in his conjugation showed
the full existence, a la mode.


Once there was a picket fence
of interstitial excellence.

An architect much liked its look;
protected by the dark he took

the interspaces from the slats
and built a set of modern flats.

The fence looked nothing as it should,
since nothing twixt its pickets stood.

This artefact soon fated it,
the senate confiscated it,

and marked the architect to go
to Arctic - or Antarctico.


When Anthony addressed the fishes
a simple shark became religious,
adored the Host, denounced the Aryan,
and turned, save Fridays, vegetarian.

Seeds and weeds he bolted whole
with faith as firm as amphibole,
till vitals issued, overloaded,
lapsed Pelagian and exploded.

So littoral this revelation
fish schools died of inspiration.
The Saint, recalled to bless the lowly,
said only: "Holy! Holy! Holy!"


The Moonsheep cropped the Furthest Clearing,
Awaiting patiently the Shearing.
The Moonsheep.

The Moonsheep munched some grass and then
Turned leisurely back to its Pen.
The Moonsheep.

Asleep, the Moonsheep dreamt he was
The Universal Final Cause.
The Moonsheep.

Morning came. The sheep was dead.
His Corpse was white, the Sun was red.
The Moonsheep.


After many "if"s and "but"s,
emendations, notes, and cuts,

they bring their theory, complete,
to lay, for Science, at his feet.

But Science, sad to say it, he
seldom heeds the laity -

abstractedly he flips his hand,
mutters "metaphysic" and

bends himself again to start
another curve on another chart.

"Come," says Pitts, "his line is laid;
the only points he'll miss, we've made."


When I sit, I sitting, tend
to sit a seat with sense so fine
that I can feel my sit-soul blend
insensibly with seat's design.

Seeking no support the while
it assesses stools for style,
leaving what the structure means
for blind behinds of Philistines.

Zwei Trichter wandeln durch die Nacht.
Durch ihres Rumpfs verengten Schacht
fließt weißes Mondlicht
still und heiter
auf ihren
u. s.

Through darkest night two funnels go;
and in their narrow necks below
moonbeams gather to cast
the better a
light upon

The Night Song of the Fish[1]
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by Christian Morgenstern


Christian Morgenstern was also an acclaimed translator, rendering into German various prominent works from Norwegian and French, including the dramas and poems of Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and August Strindberg.

Musical settings

Morgenstern's poems have been set to music by composers such as Erik Bergman (four Galgenlieder, Das große Lalula, Tapetenblume, Igel und Agel, Unter Zeiten), Hanns Eisler, Sofia Gubaidulina, Paul Graener, Friedrich Gulda, Paul Hindemith, Robert Kahn, Yrjö Kilpinen, Matyas Seiber (Two Madrigals and Three Morgenstern Lieder for soprano and clarinet), Rudi Spring (Galgenliederbuch nach Gedichten von Christian Morgenstern op. 19), Siegfried Strohbach (5 Galgenlieder) and Graham Waterhouse (Gruselett, Der Werwolf).

Essays, reviews and aphorisms

In his early years Christian Morgenstern wrote a considerable number of essays and reviews for various German periodicals. They have been collected together and published in Volume 6 (Kritische Schriften, 1987) of the German collected works of Morgenstern. His philosophical and mythical works were largely influenced by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the Austrian educationalist Rudolf Steiner (the originator of anthroposophy and the Waldorf school movement), and the Russian writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

Perhaps Morgenstern's most philosophical volume is a collection of aphorisms published posthumously in 1918 entitled Stufen: Eine Entwickelung in Aphorismen und Tagebuch-Notizen (Stages: A Development in Aphorisms and Diary Notes). It has given rise to a number of celebrated quotations. These include:

  • "Home isn't where our house is, but wherever we are understood."
  • "I shall excavate the strata of my soul."
  • "I’m a man of limits: forever physically, emotionally, morally and artistically on the brink of plunging into the abyss. Yet I manage to keep my balance and possess presence of mind."
  • "I bear no treasures within me. I only possess the power to transform much of what I touch into something of value. I have no depths, save my incessant desire for the depths." (Translated by David W. Wood)

Collected works

A complete edition of the works of Christian Morgenstern in German in nine volumes is currently being prepared by Verlag Urachhaus (Stuttgart) under the direction of Professor Reinhardt Habel. Volumes 1 and 2 comprise Morgenstern's lyrical writings and poems; volume 3: humoristic writings, including the complete Gallows Songs; volume 4: epic and theatrical writings; volume 5: collected aphorisms; volume 6: critical essays and reviews; volumes 7-9: complete correspondence. The volume titles in German are:

  • Volume 1: Lyrik 1887–1905, ed. Martin Kiessig, 1988.
  • Volume 2: Lyrik 1906–1914, ed. Martin Kiessig, 1992.
  • Volume 3: Humoristische Lyrik, ed. Maurice Cureau, 1990.
  • Volume 4: Episches und Dramatisches, eds. Reinhardt Habel and Ernst Kretschmer, 2001.
  • Volume 5: Aphorismen, ed. Reinhardt Habel, 1987.
  • Volume 6: Kritische Schriften, ed. Helmut Gumtau, 1987.
  • Volume 7: Briefwechsel 1878–1903, ed. Katharina Breitner, 2005.
  • Volume 8: Briefwechsel 1905–1908 (in preparation)
  • Volume 9: Briefwechsel 1909–1914 (in preparation)


  1. ^ "Fisches_Nachtgesang". Retrieved 2014. 

External links

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