Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Da sah ich also heute morgen, oops, so I saw a post in FaceBook this morning that inspired me to dig deeply into a period of German culture I’ve despised since my high school days. Romanticism.

And before you get your knickers in a twist, I do realize the importance of this epoch for all its ramifications regarding German and European political and cultural developments of the 19th century. Still don’t like it. Too much weepiness.

When I was a child, our granny would read and recite poetry to us and we were encouraged to learn poems by heart, including Die Bürgschaft. This masterpiece of Friedrich Schiller’s, poster poet of Romanticism, has 20 verses and I still remember most of them. The poem we liked best was The Glove = Der Handschuh. … Und er wirft ihr den Handschuh ins Gesicht: “Den Dank, Dame, begehr ich nicht”, und verläßt sie zur selben Stunde. [Gratitude, Lady, I do not desire, he says while slapping the glove across her face. Then he leaves stage left] Oh that Fräulein Kunigunde, she got what she deserved! We loved those sessions with our dramatic grandmother, who would’ve slapped us across the face if we had called her granny!

When I was a high school student it got more serious. During 11th grade or so I got embroiled into a major battle with my German teacher. We had a serious personality conflict, in which teachers customarily win. He simply graded my essays with Ds and Fs and decorated my work with bouquets of sarcastic remarks. My parents offered to intercede on my behalf, but I rejected their help, as I perceived it as interference in my personal war against male chauvinism and misogynistic behavior. The study material of the second half-year was especially difficult and required intense study. Back then, German high school students had to deal with the medieval precursors of our modern language, especially Middle High German, which is much less closely related to modern German, than Shakespearian English resembles contemporary English. To the student’s chagrin, there are any number of 12th-century texts with which to torture hapless teenagers. All of the famous Minnesänger songs are written in Middle High German or similar linguistical aberrations. During our Springbreak, we were given the task of first translating a section of such courtly poetry and then to write an interpretation. In my need to prove my intellectual worth to my teacher, I worked my then still skinny ass off. One of my sisters typed the resulting masterpiece for me and I proudly handed in a professional looking little thesis. In return, I got an F. His comment read: fantastic work – if YOU had done it. I received a D for the year and moved on to the next grade and a different German teacher. But that poor grade lowered my entrance grade for the Abitur, the German state exam that all high school students have to take toward the end of their final year to determine their GPA for university. If the grade of your written exam diverges by more than one grade in either direction from your entrance grade, you have to buckle down again and take an additional oral exam in that subject a few weeks later. The oral is quite a scary proposition for your average youngster. A single chair, yours, faces a long table set up for the government-appointed examiners, and your teacher in that subject plus the school principle. In my school, there was a row of high windows behind this tribunal, turning the faces of my judges into opaque masks. There was also a gallery off to one side for visitors because the exam is open to the public. I did have an audience. HE showed up, plunking himself in the first row of seats and leaning forward toward me. His repulsive presence inspired my performance. It truly came together for me, as I expounded passionately on the Romantic movement and its most important representative, leader and inspirational father, Goethe. I never cared for Germany’s best known and most beloved writer, but at that crucial moment his tremendous body of work and the endless wealth of interpretative material on dear Goethe proved my salvation. I was still speaking, when my former teacher rose and left the auditorium with a reverberating bang of the heavy door. Such a victorious percussion in my ears.

Goethe let us far from the original impetus for this tale, because at the beginning, this morning, the inspiration was a ladybug, a cute little beetle. My FaceBook friend, Sis F, one of my Canadian cyber sisters, wrote about her delight of finding a ladybug and gently transferring it to one of her house plants. That started me wondering if the plant might have aphids because that’s the preferred ladybug food. Sis F called her beetle ‘she’, so I also began to wonder if ladybugs show a significant sexual dimorphism – they don’t – and when I started googling all of these buggy situations, I soon arrived at Des Knaben Wunderhorn.


I’ll tell you. In the Wikipedia site for Coccinellidae, ladybugs, it mentioned a children’s nursery rhyme:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home

Your house is on fire and your children are gone

All except one, and that’s Little Anne

For she has crept under the warming pan

This rhyme alludes to fire in regard to the ladybug’s “children”. In a similar Polish nursery rhyme, a spider threatens the ladybug offspring. All of these ugly images may go back to a nursery rhyme of unknown origin with a very similar content, called Marienwürmchen, which is published in an anthology of German folk songs and poetry by the best-known editors of Romanticism, the poets Brentano and von Arnim. These two were  still students full of piss and vinegar and romantic nationalist notions, when they compiled their collection of old tales and lullabies, not hesitating in the least to “adjust” either meter or content to their personal ideas of Germanic idealism. Brentano and v. Armin called their book “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” [The boy’s Magic Horn] after the poem of a youth presenting his Empress with a magical horn. Reading the poem today, it does elicit a chuckle in this somewhat cynical woman. The lyrics appear to be a mixture of  medieval court songs and sixties Playboy magazine. I’m in an excellent position to check on this because I happen to have an addition of the anthology – the magazines are long gone.


Embossed and colored linen cover

The lead poem tells of a youth who rides on his horse to the castles high on a cliff to present his Empress with a magical horn encrusted with jewels and decorated with gold ribbons and one hundred golden bells from the depth of the ocean. So far so good, but then we get into the “function” of the horn, which necessitates the pressure of the Empresses’ finger resulting in a lot of golden bells ringing. Well,  …

Final page of the anthology’s lead poem

The book is very prettily decorated with steel engravings and dedicated to, who else, the most eminent Doctor Goethe.



The volume is dedicated to “His Excellency the Lord Privy Councillor von Goethe”

On page 156 we find the ladybug nursery rhyme:

mündlich = in oral tradition


In this rather odd rhyme, the first and third verses are quite lovely while the middle one turns nightmarish with burning [ladybug] children and spiders suffocation them – just like the British and Polish nursery rhymes. I wouldn’t want to sing this to a child. “Your children scream most desperately”. Really? But the first verse sounds beautiful, something like this: Marienwürmchen* rest on my hand, I won’t harm you. Nothing bad will happen to you because I just want to see your colorful wings. Your colorful wings are my joy.

*Marien [Mary’s] würmchen [little worm = small bug]

Another thing I learned is the correlation between Maria or Mary, Mother of God and this beetle. I read that statues of Mary were often shown with a red cape like the ladybug’s elytra. There are many different legends, of course, but the beetle’s German name Marienkäfer easily translates into beetle of [the Lady] Mary = Ladybug. So you see, Sis F, your sweet encounter with a pretty beetle on Saturday initiated a rummage through my bookshelves and a lot of happy research on a lazy Sunday.


Have a great week, y’all!

One thought on “Des Knaben Wunderhorn

  1. Quite deep thought today.Wer war der Deutschlehrer?
    Schon komisch wenn man an die Schulzeit zurückdenkt aber wir hatten auch faire Lehrer
    As always great reading


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