Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Morning Red, Evening Dead!

It was but a little after 5 pm, but as we left the swimming exercise the sky was dark but for a far, faint band of fading yellow. A memory came into Brigitte’s mind from far away and long ago. “Morgen rot,” she said. “There is that German saying. But how does it go on?” I knew it too, but neither of us could produce the answer.

I awoke with it this morning—which tells us something about the mysteries of memory, the hard-working, obedient brain cells laboring away, all through the night. “Morgen rot, Abend tot.” Post breakfast I went to discover what I could about it. Turns out that it’s very well known in German and appears on multiple websites that deal with proverbs and folk sayings. One of these is well made; it presents sources and predecessors. Now the origin for this saying, according to this site (link), is Lucius Annaeus Seneca. The Latin is Quem dies veniens videt superbum, hunc dies videt fugiens jacentem. A literal translation is available in The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations: The Illiterati’s Guide to Latin Maxims, Mottoes, Proverbs, and Sayings. To wit: “The man whom the new day sees in his pride is by its close seen prostrate.” A translation that at least touches on the German saying is in Marlowe’s Edward II: “He whom the dawning day has seen exalted in his pride, the departing day has seen downfallen.” Here at least the word “dawn” appears. In German Morgenrot means dawn. All right. Seneca had the general idea, but it was the German folks speech that shortened it. Or was it?

I next encountered a fairly well known nineteenth century poem by the German poet Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827). I reproduce it below with my own translation. Hauff only lived to be twenty-five—and may have had a premonition of his own life’s brief duration. He died of fever, however, not in battle. In his version, the linkage is much more clear—and it is possibly from this poem that the German saying got its legs:

Reiters Morgenlied
The Rider’s Morning Song

Morgenrot, Morgenrot,
Red of dawn, of dawn the red,
Leuchtest mir zum frühen Tod?
Your light foretells my early death?
   Bald wird die Trompete blasen,
  Soon the trumpet will be blown,
   Dann muß ich mein Leben lassen,
  Then my life, it will have flown,
   Ich und mancher Kamerad!
  Mine and other comrades’ too!

Kaum gedacht, kaum gedacht,
Barely thought, barely thought,
Wird der Lust ein End gemacht!
Yet all the fun will soon be naught!
   Gestern noch auf stolzen Rossen,
  Day hence on proud horse, fancy-dressed,
   Heute durch die Brust geschossen,
  Today a bullet through my chest,
   Morgen in das kühle Grab!
  Another day—cool grave must do!

Ach wie bald, ach wie bald,
Oh how soon, oh how soon,
Schwindet Schönheit und Gestalt!
Pass true form, our beauty’s bloom.
   Strahlst du gleich mit deinen Wangen,
  If your cheeks are all aglow,
   Die wie Milch und Purpur prangen,
  Rosy now, and white as snow,
   Ach, die Rosen welken all!
  Alas, the roses all wilt too. 

Darum still, darum still
Therefore still, therefore I,
Füg ich mich, wie Gott es will.
God’s rules mind proclaimed on high.
   Nun, so will ich wacker streiten,
  So now therefore I’ll staunchly fight,
   Und sollt ich den Tod erleiden,
  And if death comes and takes my light,
   Stirbt ein braver Reitersmann!
  Then a brave rider passes here—adieu!

In a way it surprises me that the saying did not get picked up in English. At least a Google search did not produce it. It works with equal force, rhymes the same way. Could two world wars have something to do with that neglect? If so, too bad.


  1. "The early bird gets the worm,"
    Or so the much use phrase is turned.
    A worm for breakfast? I'd feel forsaken!
    The late bird dines on eggs and bacon.

  2. Neat, John. The Germans are more crassly capitalistic, you might say. Their equivalent to "early bird" is "Morgenstund’ hat Gold im Mund," which translates as "The morning hour finds gold in the mouth" -- unless they are referring to a dental visit...

  3. Here is a possible first use of this: "This is first recorded in John Ray's A collection of English proverbs 1670, 1678: ..."


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