The God and the Dancing Girl by Johann Wolfgang Goethe

Mahadiwa, lord of the world,
Traveled through the seasoned earth,
Returning for the sixth time
To see what fate he might unearth.
He longed to visit humankind
To know our pain and our joy:
For, to judge us he must know us,
Live among our mortal kind.
He wanders through the city in a stranger’s disguise,
Observes the wealthy and pities the poor,
Then once again vanishes on the midnight tide.

He discovers her in the streets,
Beholding the pretty face
Of a fallen mortal woman
Straying from her fair race.
The god greets her; she receives him:
“Welcome to our house of love—
I am your faithful Bayadere—
My life’s a dance, and I dance well.
She leads him in, strikes cymbals and begins dancing
Gracing his neck with garlands, artfully jiving
To and fro, whirling in circles and casting her spell.

She pulls him in with flattery,
Eagerly drawing him closer:
“Come, join me in the lamp-lit room,
Let me please you lovely stranger!
If you are tired, I will rouse you.
Sore feet? Then have a nice seat.
I’m here to meet all your demands:
For a laugh, or rest, or love.”
She soothes the stranger’s many pretended pains;
He laughs because through all the vice, buried deep
He sees a heart stamped with a love from above.

He asks her to do several tasks,
Which she performs cheerfully;
Work she was trained to accomplish
Leads her on, innocently.
But guided by a higher nature,
The fruit of the flower grows;
The persistence of the heart
Turns to love and quickly glows.
Still he must test her more fiercely—more intensely:
To lead her through the depths and heights of ecstasy,
Wild lust, and the most excruciating of woes.

Kissing her cheek full of makeup
—Salted tears she never knew—
She weeps, and then soon confesses
A feeling both strange and new.
She falls before him in anguish,
Seeking neither pleasure nor fee;
Her soft limbs begin to languish,
Losing all their energy.
Enjoying each one’s lively, passionate company,
Night soon cast its veil of comforting darkness
And magical delight, weaving its beautiful web.

Worn out by love, she falls to sleep,
But wakes up shortly after
And finds his body stiff beside
Her: fled to the hereafter.
Deceased, she cannot awake him—
Sadly, her moans are in vain.
Men arrive and usher the corpse
Away to the funeral pyre.
She hears priests singing their sorrowful dirges,
Then rushes through the crowd in a frantic frenzy:
“Who are you? How dare you spite our sacred fire?”

She falls to her knees at the pyre,
Rending the air with cries: “I’m here
To claim my departed husband,
Following him without fear.
How can I watch the flames devour
The one whose limbs were divine?
He was mine like none before—
For one sweet night, he was mine.”
The priests begin singing: “We carry the old ones,
The withered and the old, the early-departed,
The innocent and young: all to the fire resign.”

“Listen to the wise men’s teachings:
You were not this man’s wife;
You are but a lowly dancer,
Living out your wayward life.
Only bodies take their shadows
To the heavenly abode.
Only husbands take their wives—
Such is what the laws dictate.
Hear our solemn trumpets singing dear Immortals,
Take this worldly vessel as our offering:
Allow our flaming pyres to carry him to you.”

The choir proceeds indifferently,
Chanting over her sad wails.
Arms wide-open she professes
Jumps into the fiery wells.
The god arises from the fire
And raises her aloft,
Saving her from the red hot pyre,
And the priesthood’s solemn rites.
Let all sinners seek repentance, for the gods
Above rejoice in them; they forgive all lost souls,
Raising them with arms divine to higher heights.

Translation © David B. Gosselin

Featured in Issue Two of New Lyre Magazine

1 comment on “The God and the Dancing Girl by Johann Wolfgang Goethe

  1. martinmccarthy1956gmailcom

    A beautiful poem beautifully translated. As always David, you seem to excel at understanding the delicate interplay between the gods and some human beings. Not only that, but there is an almost flawless delicacy to the language used to bring this relationship to life. Goethe certainly is in good hands here!


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