Supplementary Appendix 276.2

Goethe’s Johanna Sebus [*]

On 27 May 1810, after Caroline’s death, Schelling wrote to Pauline Gotter: [1]

I will always be enormously grateful for anything you can relate about or especially from Goethe, and be it only verses as beautifully convivial as the most recent. Caroline often read aloud the previous verses, namely, those about Johanna Sebus, which I believe we also received from you; she attributed double significance to such readings because it did not at all seem easy to her. But she read such that Goethe himself would have been moved.

Johanna Sebus

(To the memory of an excellent and beautiful girl of seventeen, belonging to the village of Brienen, who perished on the 13th of January, 1809, whilst giving help on the occasion of the breaking up of the ice on the Rhine, and the bursting of the dam of Claverham.)

The dam breaks down, the ice-plain growls,
The floods arise, the water howls.


"I'll bear thee, mother, across the swell,
'Tis not yet high, I can wade right well."
"Remember us, too! in what danger are we!
Thy fellow lodger and children three!
The trembling woman! — Thou'rt going away!"
She bears the mother across the spray.
"Quick! haste to the mound, and awhile there wait,
I'll soon return and all will be straight.
The mound's close by, and safe from the wet;
But take my goat, too, my darling pet!"

The dam dissolves, the ice-plain growls,
The floods dash on, the water howls.

She places the mother safe on the shore;
Fair Susan then turns toward the flood once more.
"Oh, whither? Oh, whither? The breadth fast grows,
Both here and there the water o'erflows.
Wilt venture, thou rash one, the billows to brave?"
"They shall, and they must be preserved from the wave!"

The dam disappears, the water growls,
Like ocean billows it heaves and howls.

Fair Susan returns by the way she had tried,
The waves roar around, but she turns not aside;
she reaches the mound and the neighbor straight,
But for her and the children, alas, too late!

The dam disappears, — like a sea it growls,
Round a hillock in circling eddies it howls.

The foaming abyss gapes wide, and whirls round,
The women and children are borne to the ground;
The horn of the goat by one is seized fast,
But, ah, they all must perish at last!
Fair Susan still stands there, untouched by the wave!
The youngest, the noblest, oh, who now will save!
Fair Susan still stands there, as bright as a star,
But, alas! all hope, all assistance is far.
The foaming waters around her roar.
To save her no bark pushes off from the shore.
Her gaze once again she lifts up to heaven,
Then gently away by the flood she is driven.

No dam, no plain! to mark the place
Some straggling trees are the only track.

The rushing water the wilderness covers,
Yet Susan's image still over it hovers. —
The water sinks, the plains reappear.
Fair Susan's lamented with many a tear, —
May he who refuses her story to tell,
Be neglected in life and in death as well!

Zelter’s music to the final stanza:



[*] Poetical Works of J. W. Von Goethe, 2 vols., ed. N. H. Dole (Boston 1902), 1:118–20.

The ballad is based on the true story of Johanna Sebus (1791–13 January 1809), who saved her mother when a dam collapsed but then lost her own life trying to save others in peril. Karl Friedrich Zelter set this ballad to music.

Illustration from G. Wigand, Deutsches Balladenbuch (Leipzig 1852), 145. Music score: C. F. Zelter, Johanna Sebus für Singstimmen am Pianoforte in Musik gesetzt, new ed. (Leipzig 1855), the dramatic final six pages of the score, beginning with “Fair Susan still stands there, untouched by the wave.” Back.

[1] Plitt 2:211. See also Caroline’s letter to Pauline on 7 August 1809 (letter 442), responding to Pauline having sent her a copy of the poem; Caroline remarks that “notwithstanding that this poem does indeed gain by being read aloud, it is also quite difficult to read, and our various orators certainly have their work cut out for them.” Back.

Translation © 2014 Doug Stott