Criticism of the Poem by I. v. Goethe “Ganymede”

The world has remained engrossed over time by the myths and legends of ancient Greece. It would appear that every ancient civilization has its form of mythology, which loosely resembles one another. This fascination has infiltrated art, music, and literature over the centuries in all European civilizations. In Goethe’s case as displayed in his “Grosse Hymne” “Ganymede”, the same captivation with the unknown can be marked by its theme.

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References to Ganymed can be found in Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the great storytellers and bards of history. The poem describes in very physical, almost erotic terms, Ganymed’s upward movement from Earth to heaven. Goethe conveys his characteristic interest in man’s relationship to God through nature in telling the story of a well-known myth. In order to criticize this poem, the themes, syntax, diction, and poetic devices will be examined with the intention of identifying their purpose and overall consequence on the poem.

It is imperative to understand the background of the story of Ganymede, who he was, and why he makes a perfect subject for a dramatization of emotion. Ganymede was purported to be a mortal of unsurpassed beauty and extreme allure.

Goethe’s poem describes the feelings of the young lad as he is transported up to heaven by Zeus to become a cup-bearer to the gods (Wilkinson, 2004, 84). The poem itself resembles a ballad in that it is a short and concise attempt to explore human emotions facing Ganymede. “Ganymede” is devoid of many of the commonplace poetic devices and indeed bears a closer semblance to blank verse, with no consistency in the length of lines or any formal metrical scheme and only occasional suggestions of half-rhymes.

Wie im Morgenrot
Du rings mich anglühst,
Frühling, Geliebter!
Mit tausendfacher Liebeswonne
Sich an mein Herz drängt (Ganymede 1-6)

In the first stanza, it is evident that Ganymede is already feeling lustful. The stanza is emotively compounded, speaking of the glow of morning, and describes how the wonders of the love from the giver to the recipient. ’Drangt’ is a word that is more likely to be associated with urgent need than with a languishing want. The morning sun does not merely fall upon the recipient, it envelops him and the speaker refers to this love (whether pure of source or not), as having a thousand facets.

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This hyperbole is particularly striking in that the language is passionate. It becomes apparent that Zeus infers omnipotence and all-encompassing emotion which could for all intents and purposes be more closely related to lust than love. In the opening stanza, it is the words theme selves that conjure the image of the omnipotence of lust. The authenticity of emotion, the single theme around which Sturm und Drang revolves, is further articulated by the personification of the season „Fruhling“. Spring is in this context relating to Zeus the god. In other contexts, Ganymed could be seen to be expressing his love for all life on Earth since he is addressing spring as his lover, referring to it as „Fruhling, Geliebter“.

The question here might readily be asked as to whether the speaker is in fact in love with the recipient or infatuated, or perhaps in love with the idea of love? Earlier forms of poetry were concerned with recreating the situation as close to its origin as possible, Goethe was concerned with the symbolism created by man in order to explain an emotion. He likens Zeus to nature, which perhaps better conveys the images of the omnipresent than it would have he attempted to describe Zeus as a mortal being. Furthermore, Goethe writes with an innate passion for nature, which at the time of Ganymeds creation was among the various interests Goethe had taken on. Later forms of poetry gradually moved away from realism culminating in Surrealism and Post Modernism, which drew meaning from inarticulate ‚things’, that were considered unexplored facets of the human psyche, to portrayals of such ‚things’ within each human being.

Deiner ewigen Wärme
Heilig Gefühl,
Unendliche Schöne! Daß ich dich fassen möcht
In diesen Arm! Ach an deinem Busen
Lieg ich, schmachte,
Und deine Blumen dein Gras
Drängen sich an mein Herz (7-13)

In these two stanzas, the focus shifts from the feeling Ganymede had of the warmth of love and emotion to the craving he had had for the “unending beauty“ of the feeling he did not yet have but awaited. Favorable to the hypothesis that the poem is charged homoerotically, a deep longing for love appears to be apparent. Other schools of thought may consider the text to imply that Ganymede has been lured into a form of rape, but this cannot be conclusively backed by any statement from within the text. Ganymede describes his lover not as being like the grass and flowers but as being the said entities, “deine Blumen Dein Gras”.

This metaphor further denotes the power of Zeus, both as a lover and as the king of the gods and as an unrealistic faculty beyond human comprehension. There is one example of assonance in this stanza, ‘ich’ and ‘dich’, which may be syntactically representative of the German language i.e it may be a coincidence but on the other hand, it could serve to emphasize the two parties involved. If so, ‘I’ and ‘You’ are indicative of Ganymede and Zeus, indicating the period of literature with the “Sturm und Drang” era that focuses on the individual rather than the collective.

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It also represents an era concerned with the psychological meanings of human relationships rather than the previous belief that certain aspects of mankind were taboo, such as homosexuality. Thematically consistent with Goethe’s previous flirtation with Shakespearean theatre there is a splitting of stanzas to create a dramatic break both in thought and in speech.

Pauses in drama place the emphasis on a particular thought, emotion, or point. In this case, the pause between ‘deinem Busen’ and ‘lieg ich’ places the emphasis on the preceding sentence and then again on the solitary floating sentence. The purpose of this is as much figurative as it is literary as it denotes once again the Sturm und Drang issue regarding yearning as a form of intense loneliness. Structurally, Goethe’s imagery is as much in these broken sentences as it is in the words used.

The German language is more restrictive in terms of vocabulary than the English, for instance, the break-in this particular stanza draws the eye immediately to the floating line that stands alone making it both visually and verbally isolated. Poetry written with a form of literary freedom suggests that Goethe was as much creating his own natural feeling as he was attempting to reconstruct another literary image.

“Du kühlst den brennenden
Durst meines Busens,
Lieblicher Morgenwind!“(13-15)

One of the emotions commonly associated with love in all forms of Sturm and Drang poetry is a deep longing and yet again in this broken stanza, it pertains to the pining and desire for the recipient. Goethe here manages to draw the reader into a sense of desperation since their love be it real or perceived is always presented as insatiable. There is a distinct paradox within the whole sentence, one of a “brennende durstt” and the other of “kuhl” and “lieblich”.

The adjectives used herein are compounding two opposite emotions, which intensifies the semiotic focus of the poem as a whole. Zeus is described as the wind, bringing coolness to the heat of Ganymede’s passion. This is a metaphor that carries, as aforementioned, a dual meaning. This stanza can be compared to the writings of Euripides and Plato in their odes. Descriptively it is enticing the reader into a world of the unknown with the use of dramatic poetic adjectives and describing the insatiable love and a thirst that seems to be quenched only by the presence of the god Zeus himself. If it is loosely compared to the visual arts of the time, such as paintings of the same theme, it can be said that Goethe in fact ‚ pain In with words.

The Romantic period of painters used nature as symbolism in order to convey the emotion surrounding the particular event. Goethe has ‚painted’ a series of pictures in a similar fashion. The famous mythological event where Leda was supposedly raped by Zeus is portrayed in some arts as Leda and The Swan. Congruently, Goethe has richly woven this myth using the same dramatic formula of man and nature as one and the same thing. Goethe’s own interest in nature

Ruft drein die Nachtigall
Liebend nach mir aus dem Nebeltal. Ich komme! Ich komme!
Wohin? Ach, wohin? Hinauf hinauf strebts!
Es schweben die Wolken
Abwärts die Wolken
Neigen sich der sehnenden Liebe.(16-21)

This stanza is most comparable to Goethe’s Prometheus, a gross Hymne which too, expresses the contrary impulses of the “Sturm und Drang” period and discusses how a man, Prometheus stole fire from the Gods. It uses strong emotive sentences that are interspersed by the presence of distraught exclamations. The nightingale “ruft” Ganymede, we are led to assume, to his place waiting in the heavens.

The call comes apparently through the mists of what one can presume to be the emotional depression of the lovelorn mind. This emotive parallel drawn between the sorrows of unfulfilled love and the hope of reunification becomes metaphorical in itself. “Wohin! Ach Wohin!” is a shortened sentence that carries the panic-stricken emotion of Ganymede. Similar to the previous exclamation “Ich Komme, Ich Komme!” Goethe shortens the rhythm in order to relay the stress of the situation. These sentences are repeated in order to engender a dramatic effect of bringing the reader’s attention to those specific words.

The meter of the sentence is sharp and fluid, with no more than 3 syllables contained in it, bringing the reader into the specific moment of panic from where Ganymede is now stumbling through the “nebel” to find his way to his love. Another metaphor is the symbolism of the mist itself which is often used in drama and literature to denote a sense of being lost. If the previous notion that Zeus is the wind and the grass itself, the same conclusion can be drawn when contemplating the clouds. From this recurring metaphor, we can deduce that Zeus himself is descending as the clouds to meet his minion and the use of the word “sehnenden” puts the emphasis back on the yearning and longing love.

Mir! Mir
In eurem Schoße
Umfangend umfangen!
an deinen Busen
Alliebender Vater!(22-28)

The clouds have now descended upon the virtuous and naïve Ganymede, and the embracer becomes the embraced, the all-loving omniscient father becomes the loved and the lover. The ecstasy is evident both in the shortened sentences and in the speed at which the transition from patiently awaiting and obedient Ganymede becomes the honored and rewarded faithful servant. There is again a meaningful paradox of dramatized tension/ and relief.

These two opposites make the poem successful by evoking the differences between different forms of human emotion: pain and relief; yearning and reception; lost and found; sadness and elation. The poem itself is devoid of alliteration except in phrases such as “Umfangend, umfangen” and “Nagtigall liebend nach mir aus dem Nebeltal”. The repetition of similar structures within the stanzas compounds the idea that although there is little in the way of alliteration and assonance, the dramatic pertinence is the actual wording. Returning to the metaphor of mist, it became centuries later, a motif used in screen theatre with the first silent thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, The Lodger, who used the mist as a motif of secretiveness, fear, and mystery.

Critiquing a piece such as Ganymede leaves the aperture for discussion rather deep, as one commentary states: “Like Prometheus, this is a freely written poem, with no consistency in the length of lines nor any formal metrical scheme. There is only one rhyme (‘Nachtigall’ and ‘Nebeltal’ in lines 18–19), and there are only occasional suggestions of half-rhymes (in the first verse there are ‘Liebeswonne’, ‘Warme’ and ‘Schone’, which have enough similarity to sound associated).”[1].

This is debatably not an excuse to digress from the importance Goethe places rather on the length of sentence and the emotive description within the text, than on rhythm and meter, assonance, and alliteration. It must also be considered that thematic ties within, for instance, Homer’s Odyssey, are also considered to be poems yet are strange without rhyme although the sentence structure is even and the meter/syllabic count is identical for each line.

The form of Ganymede’s yearning and the motifs of nature relate directly to Goethe himself whose love of nature formed his own escape from reality. That Goethe attempted to explore the Greek era rather than re-invent it is, evidently debatable but one could not be assumed to be without grounds on which to make this supposition. “Ganymede” is as much a feast of opulent syntax and adjectival painting as it is of sexuality, yearning, and lust.

Goethe has evolved in this poem, from the need to accomplish Shakespearean quality in his work, to be able to understand the qualities of human emotion. His work on the tragedy Iphigenia opened an aperture wide enough to free him from the constraints of formal poetry. Rhythm, meter, and alliteration are no longer as important as the meaning of the words themselves. Goethe has certainly modified the Romeo and Juliet style of drama, drawing away from what is visible as a form of tragic love, to an aspect of the emotion not easily described or accessed. This was perhaps the beginning of man’s interest in the psychology behind love.

Ganymed places a great deal of importance on aspects of love that are not directly associated with human emotion, such as trees, the elements, birds. It appears that Goethe wishes us to see that should we live within this world and be part of it, it is inherently part of us. At any given moment there is a part of nature that is a part of our own existence. In any situation involving any relationship, there are things happening around us, and perhaps Goethe really wants us to notice it? At the same time that Ganymed was pining for his love, the wind, trees, birds were all still living, continuing their lives. It also focuses more on the nature of God in terms of the all-encompassing and omnipotence of His existence. The Greeks created their gods as a way to explain why and how nature worked: there was a god for the wind, a god for the sea, goddesses for nature.

It was their way of explaining why the wind blew or the sea raged. In essence, the man was nature and nature was man, but Goethe takes it a step further into modernity: imagery is a much a part of our understanding of ourselves as it something that we look at and take for granted. Conclusively, the recreation of artistic subjects as a means to express one’s own interpretation of events in Goethe’s ‘Ganymed’ expresses once again the constant evolution of formal subjects from their initial portrayal to the modern aspects that gradually creep into the spotlight. Literary and poetic license is grated for this subject and many others.

The carrying off of Ganymede by Zeus introduces yet other significant motifs, reflecting Greek society in particular and human life in general, i. e. the motifs of homosexuality and rape. Since the gods embrace all of the passions and appetites of being human, it would be surprising if homosexuality were not present.

Representation of lyrical poetry in the Sturm und Drang. New ways of resurrecting new ideas.

The poetry of individual experience is often heightened emotionally.

The metaphorical use of time

Individual thriving in hostile nature – the poet is a lens for the natural energy of the universe. As I write energy enters my writing through nature….therefore a genius by plugging myself into nature.

Not anacreontic but uses writing that would have come from simple people.

Grosse Hymen. Mythological references. Reflected back to the classical world although admittedly they had to chime in with his own ideas at the time.

Concept of “Entselbstigung” and “Verselbstigung”.c bd.

Always want liaisons/connections with poems. Intellectual ideas/autobiographical elements with his love as a young man [1] Critique from The Open University ‘Prometheus and Ganymed’.


Commentary. “Ganymede, Rape and Homosexuality”. Oxford University Press USA. 2007.

Critique: “Prometheus and Ganymed”. The Open University. 2007. Web.

Euripides, “Iphigenia At Aulus”. The Internet Classics Archive.Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics. (C) 1994-2000, DanielC. Stevenson, Web Atomics.

Funk & Wagnalls. “New Standard Encyclopedia”. XIII Fra-Ger. 1948. Unicorn Press, New York.

Funk & Wagnalls. “New Standard Encyclopedia”. XIV Ger-Hag. 1948. Unicorn Press, New York.

Goethe, J.W. 1987. “Ganymed”.

“Johann Wolfgang Goethe”. 2003. (Website name unknown). Web.

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