Box with hoopoe on the lid

Box with hoopoe on the lid

Contributor: Alexander Knopf

Location: Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum, Frankfurt/Main, Germany

Description: On the 22 December 1820, Goethe sent a small box to Jakob and Marianne von Willemer in Frankfurt. The lid of the box showed a hoopoe (Upupa epops). The present, ‘manufactured by the most delicate hands and with a liberal heart’, was enclosed with a letter addressed to the couple. However, it was intended for Marianne alone, Goethe’s former lover. Goethe’s phrasing avoids very carefully any personal dedication. The gift ‘may be received friendly and, according to an attached note, be used at least for a while’ (Goethe 1986, 104). The husband should by no means feel offended. It was, nonetheless, the picture on the cover which revealed to Marianne that she was the recipient. Consequently, the enclosed paper did not bear a mere ‘note’, but a poem beginning with a direct address:

Du! Schweige künftig nicht so lange
Tritt freundlich oft zu mir herein;
Und laß bey jedem frommen Sange
Dir Glänzendes zur Seite seyn. (Goethe 1986, 106)

Thou! From now on, don’t be silent for so long
Step friendly in to me more often;
And, with every pious chant,
Let something gleaming be next to your side.

As a figure from Persian mythology, the hoopoe was familiar to Marianne since she had taken part in the formation of Goethe’s grand poetic cycle, the West-Eastern Divan, from the very beginning. During a five-month sojourn in southern Germany in 1815, several of the poems have been written by Goethe and Marianne as part of a dialogue between lovers. It is said that the Hoopoe, under its onomatopoetic Persian-Arab name Hudhud, had already delivered messages of love between the prophet Solomon (Sulaimān ibn Dāwūd) and the Queen of Sheba (Koran, Sure 27, V. 20–27). In Hafis’s ‘Diwan’ which, in Joseph von Hammer’s translation, was the decisive motivation for Goethe’s poetic project, the hoopoe also serves the loving couple as a mail carrier (Hafis I, 267 and 306). In the West-Eastern Divan, the hoopoe appears in the third book, the ‘book of love’. It contains a poem entitled ‘Greeting’ [Gruß] in which Solomon and the Queen of Sheba are mentioned, but only in order to encourage the bird to become the ‘match-maker’ [Kuppler] again between the speaking subject and his beloved:

Eile doch, Wiedehopf!
Eile, der Geliebten
Zu verkünden, daß ich ihr
Ewig angehöre.

Hurry now, crested hoop,
Hurry to my beloved
And bring tidings that to her
I now belong for ever

The poem was written on the 27 May 1815, the morning after Goethe’s arrival in Frankfurt.

O wie selig ward mir!
Im Lande wandl’ ich
Wo Hudhud über den Weg läuft.

Oh, what blissful feeling!
In lands I wander
Where Hudhud runs across the path. (Goethe 1998, 98–99)

The hoopoe, however, did not immediately become an ‘important cipher’ (Richter 511) in Marianne’s and Goethe’s relationship. Goethe has spent six weeks altogether in Willemer’s house. This hospitality facilitated a closeness, an intense lyrical exchange, a gregarious being together in which a messenger was not needed, even less a winged one. Only when Goethe and Marianne had parted in Heidelberg on the 26 September, a distance grew which was staunchly maintained by the silence from the side of Weimar. and Goethe had taken the decision not to see Marianne again. From now on, letters were directed towards Jakob Willemer or Marianne’s stepdaughter Rosine Städel. Willemer’s note from June 1817 that Marianne had fallen ill caused a formal reaction. Another letter from February 1818 informing Goethe about Marianne’s severe sufferings caused none. When Willemer became urging in October, Goethe sent two sample prints from the West-eastern Divan which ‘may bring joy to you and our beloved Mariane’ (Goethe 1986, 75).

Willemer’s visit in Weimar in March 1819 put an end to this situation. Goethe sent a letter the very same month. Marianne’s late reply arrived in July. And here, at the end of her letter, Hudhud ‘runs across the path’ (Goethe 1986, 84) again. The bird will never again disappear from their correspondence. Already in his immediate response, Goethe took up the motif: ‘If I was Hudhud, I would not only cross your path; I would run straight to you. You would have to receive me gently not as a messenger, but for my own sake’ (Goethe 1986, 85). According to Joachim Seng, this letter was a confession. It marked a ‘turning point’ (Seng 113) in Goethe’s relationship to Marianne. For his seventieth birthday, on the 28 August 1819, he got a walking cane ( made of holly wood. The handle was an artfully carved hoopoe. Inspired by this gift, Goethe wrote a whole series of Hudhud poems which he sent to Marianne in December. One of them referred directly to the walking cane:

Hudhud auf dem Palmensteckchen
Hier im Eckchen
Nistet, äugelnd, wie charmant!
Und ist immer vigilant. (Goethe 1986, 94)

Hudhud on the palmtree stick
Here in the corner
Nesting, eyeing, how charming!
And always vigilant.

It is only now, when Willemer’s tolerance allowed them to continue the relationship and express their feelings, that Hudhud gained a new significance as messages had to be carried back and forth between Weimar and Frankfurt. Only now, the symbol rose above its artistic function and merged poetry and life into one. In August 1820, Marianne wrote: ‘As long as the space has to play such an important role, and neither vicinity nor custom tie the friend to us, Hudhud will have to try the most possible in order to shorten the distance by cheerful messages.’ (Goethe 1986, 98) Thus, the hoopoe box which Goethe sent one year later is not just a response to Marianne’s birthday present. It represents the overcoming of silence. In this respect, the accompanying poem which relates the silence to the addressee, points back to its author at the same time. For a messenger is needed only when there is message to be delivered. The box, hence, symbolises the inviolability of their ‘future’ [künftig] dialogue.

Date: 1819

Creator: unknown

Subject: hoopoe (Hudhud)

Object type: Cardboard box with coloured pen drawing

Format:  Height: 14,3 cm; Diameter: 11,3 cm

Media rights: Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Publisher: Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Collection record: FDH-FGM IV-775


Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Briefwechsel mit Marianne und Johann Jakob Willemer. Ed. by Hans-J. Weitz. Frankfurt/Main: Insel-Verlag, 1986 (all translations by A. K.)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Poems of the West and East. West-Eastern Divan – West-Östlicher Divan. Transl. by John Whaley. Bern et al.: Lang, 1998.

Mohammed Schemsed-din Hafis: Der Diwan. 2 vols. Transl. by Joseph von Hammer. Stuttgart, Tübingen: Cotta’sche Buchhandlung, 1812-13.

Karl Richter: “Kommentar”. Johann Wolfgang Goethe: West-östlicher Divan. Sämtliche Werke [Münchner Ausgabe]. Vol. 11.1.2. Ed. by K. R. in collaboration with Katharina Mommsen and Peter Ludwig. München: btb, 2006, 428–870.

Joachim Seng: “‘… über allen steht Goethe’. Marianne von Willemers Leben nach der Begegnung mit dem Dichter”. Hendrik Birus, Anne Bohnenkamp (eds.): “Denn das Leben ist die Liebe …”. Marianne von Willemer und Goethe im Spiegel des West-östlichen Divans. Frankfurt/Main: Freies Deutsches Hochstift, 2014, 105–126.