Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The tale of the dangers of hubris.
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
translated by George Madison Priest
PROLOGUE IN HEAVEN
The LORD. The HEAVENLY HOSTS.
The THREE ARCHANGELS come forward.
Raphael. The Sun intones, in ancient tourney
With brother-spheres, a rival song,
Fulfilling its predestined journey,
With march of thunder moves along.
Its aspect gives the angels power,
Though none can ever solve its ways;
The lofty works beyond us tower,
Sublime as on the first of days.
Gabriel. And swift beyond where knowledge ranges,
Earth’s splendour whirls in circling flight;
A paradise of brightness changes
To awful shuddering depths of night.
The sea foams up, widespread and surging
Against the rocks’ deep-sunken base,
And rock and sea sweep onward, merging
In rushing spheres’ eternal race.
Michael. And rival tempests roar and shatter,
From sea to land, from land to sea,
And, raging, form a circling fetter
Of deep, effective energy.
There flames destruction, flashing, searing,
Before the crashing thunder’s way;
Yet, Lord, Thy angels are revering
The gentle progress of Thy day.
The Three. Its aspect gives the angels power,
Since none can solve Thee nor Thy ways;
And all Thy works beyond us tower,
Sublime as on the first of days.
Mephistopheles. Since you, O Lord, once more draw near
And ask how all is getting on, and you
Were ever well content to see me here,
You see me also midst your retinue.
Forgive, fine speeches I can never make,
Though all the circle look on me with scorn;
Pathos from me would make your sides with laughter shake,
Had you not laughter long ago forsworn.
Of suns and worlds I’ve naught to say worth mention.
How men torment them claims my whole attention.
Earth’s little god retains his same old stamp and ways
And is as singular as on the first of days.
A little better would he live, poor wight,
Had you not given him that gleam of heavenly light.
He calls it Reason, only to pollute
Its use by being brutaler than any brute.
It seems to me, if you’ll allow, Your Grace,
He’s like a grasshopper, that long-legged race
That’s made to fly and flying spring
And in the grass to sing the same old thing.
If in the grass he always were reposing!
But in each filthy heap he keeps on nosing.
The Lord. You’ve nothing more to say to me?
You come but to complain unendingly?
Is never aught right to your mind?
Mephistopheles. No, Lord! All is still downright bad, I find.
Man in his wretched days makes me lament him;
I am myself reluctant to torment him.
The Lord. Do you know Faust?
Mephistopheles. The Doctor?
The Lord. Yes, my servant!
Forsooth, he serves you most peculiarly.
Unearthly are the fool’s drink and his food;
The ferment drives him forth afar.
Though half aware of his insensate mood,
He asks of heaven every fairest star
And of the earth each highest zest,
And all things near and all things far
Can not appease his deeply troubled breast.
The Lord. Although he serves me now confusedly,
I soon shall lead him forth where all is clear.
The gardener knows, when verdant grows the tree,
That bloom and fruit will deck the coming year.
Mephistopheles. What will you wager? Him you yet shall lose,
If you will give me your permission
To lead him gently on the path I choose.
The Lord. As long as on the earth he shall survive,
So long you’ll meet no prohibition.
Man errs as long as he doth strive.
Mephistopheles. My thanks for that, for with the dead I’ve never
Myself entangled of my own volition.
I like full, fresh cheeks best of all the lot.
I’m not at home when corpses seek my house;
I feel about it as a cat does with a mouse.
The Lord. ‘Tis well! So be it granted you today!
Divert this spirit from its primal source
And if you can lay hold on him, you may
Conduct him downward on your course,
And stand abashed when you are forced to say:
A good man, though his striving be obscure,
Remains aware that there is one right way.
Mephistopheles. All right! But long it won’t endure!
I have no fear about my bet, be sure!
When I attain my aim, do not protest,
But let me triumph with a swelling breast.
Dust shall he eat, and that with zest,
As did the famous snake, my near relation.
The Lord. In that too you may play your part quite free;
Your kind I never did detest.
Of all the spirits of negation
The wag weighs least of all on me.
Mankind’s activity can languish all too easily,
A man soon loves unhampered rest;
Hence, gladly I give him a comrade such as you,
Who stirs and works and must, as devil, do.
But ye, real sons of God, lift up your voice,
In living, profuse beauty to rejoice!
May that which grows, that lives and works forever,
Engird you with Love’s gracious bonds, and aught
That ever may appear, to float and waver,
Make steadfast in enduring thought!
Heaven closes, the ARCHANGELS disperse.
Mephistopheles [alone]. I like to see the Old Man not infrequently,
And I forbear to break with Him or be uncivil;
It’s very pretty in so great a Lord as He
To talk so like a man even with the Devil.
The First Part
OF THE TRAGEDY