Maybe I shouldn’t put my reputation on the line again so soon after my last weepy post, but at the risk of sounding folksy and romantic, I am here to tell you: I love rivers (and trains). I love spending lazy days floating downstream, Fat Tire in hand and a flotilla of friends bobbing around me; I love the Buffalo
for its underdog story of how a grassroots movement kept the river one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the States; I love the White River for the weekends I’ve spent eating good food and listening to 70s folk at my friend’s cabin there; I love the Mississippi for all the Mark Twain-y Delta Bluesy imagery it conjures. I love rivers for the place in mythology they hold, and I love what rivers can do to language, for all the “Old Man River” epithets and the “You can’t stand in the same river twice” proverbs they inspire, and how it’s still okay to use slightly out-dated and sentimental phrasing like “ancient waters” and “down by the riverside” and “lonesome banks” when talking and telling stories and singing songs about them. I am, in short, hokey.
And rivers make me think of home. When I get lonesome fer the green, green grass of home, I listen to the sappiest and the Southernest of music: Johnny Cash, bluegrass, Delta blues (it’s funny, the way getting taken out of the South only makes you more of a Southerner). And 9 times out of 10 (there’s an exaggeration), these songs are about rivers (or trains), and these songs run the musical genre gamut (by which I mean bluegrass, folk, blues, and classic rock, because that’s what I listen to, but a quick search through my iTunes did reveal one song by M.I.A. which begins “When it’s really hot we go to the river and swim/ When we go fishin’ we catchin’ the brim”… so I assume there’s more of a gamut to run than my limited and questionable tastes might suggest). And while we’re talking about gamut running, these river songs cover an array of topics and moods, from laments to romps, from murder ballads to gospel, and I’m happy to report that the completely archaic sentiments expressed by completely contemporary artists (Joe Purdy sings about his desire to be a riverboat captain, and Old Crow Medicine Show asks “Where’s a boatman to go?” after his job is made obsolete by train moving in) make my admittedly ridiculous notions of rivers (and trains) seem positively au courant.
I’m thinking about this, though, only because the other role rivers can play: a wealth of songs and stories and cities grow up around them, yes, but also, they flood, people die. And this happened here, just a few days ago. I live at the confluence of the Nahe and Rhine rivers, and it’s quite apparent how much of a lifeline the Rhine still is: barges, tourist cruises, and passenger and car ferries are a constant. The thing is, I live slightly upriver from a famous point in the
Rhine, the Loreley. This is a sheer cliff marking the narrowest part and a particularly windy portion of the Rhine, which has proved itself to be one of the most dangerous bits for river traffic. I thought, somehow, that this danger had long been sorted out since, oh, I don’t know, the Middle Ages or so. But, we were reminded that the Rhine does still pose a threat just two days ago, when a barge shipping sulphuric acid capsized near the Loreley. Two of the crew members were saved; two still haven’t been found. The river is closed to traffic while authorities try to prevent the sulphuric acid from leaking and search for the lost crew members, an effort made nearly impossible by the river’s current high level.
And, not to lessen this tragedy or chalk it up to mythology, but I thought I might take this opportunity to tell you a bit more area lore, since it’s suddenly nosing its way into the news. This river, like any other river, has its own crop of stories, as the story of Hatto II and the Maeuseturm suggests. And today, here’s a new and, unfortunately, timely one.
This rock causes both a dangerous eddy in the river and (before the noise of urban development overpowered it) a mesmerizing murmuring echo (the word “Loreley” may or may not come from the Celtic word ley, or rock, and the Old German word for murmuring, loreln). That irresistible combination of danger and beauty spawned the myth of Loreley, who, as the legend goes, was a beautiful siren/mermaid/daughter of a ruined king/ghost/enchantress/nymph/probably virgin because don’t these figures tend to be virgins? who sat atop this aforementioned cliff, combing her golden hair with a golden comb, singing a song with a golden melody, a melody so alluring that it lured sailors to their deaths. Perhaps she threw herself off the rock when her lover-sailor never returned. Perhaps she was condemned by the church as a witch because every man who fell in love with her died. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps (aren’t legends lovely?). This melancholy story has not only made this rock a sort of a tourist destination, but has also been made the subject of German poetry (including the most famous by Heinrich Heine, written in 1824, found in translation below), paintings, and songs (as all good river stories and myths about virginal beautiful women should be). As luck should have it, it’s also been written about by names more familiar to our ears: Mark Twain, Paul McCartney, Eagle Eye Cherry (bet it’s been about a decade since you’ve thought about them), and, yes, Sylvia Plath (wouldn’t she just).
Translated by Ernst Feise
I do not know what haunts me,
What saddened my mind all day;
An age-old tale confounds me,
A spell I cannot allay.
The air is cool and in twilight
The Rhine’s dark waters flow;
The peak of the mountain in highlight
Reflects the evening glow.
There sits a lovely maiden
Above so wondrous fair,
With shining jewels laden,
She combs her golden hair
It falls through her comb in a shower,
And over the valley rings
A song of mysterious power
That lovely maiden sings.
The boatman in his small skiff is
Seized by a turbulent love,
No longer he marks where the cliff is,
He looks to the mountain above.
I think the waves must fling him
Against the reefs nearby,
And that did with her singing,
The lovely Loreley.
(A nice collection of poetry and paintings of Loreley can be found here; the site’s in German, but I’m sure Google Translate would gladly do the dirty work for you.)
(One last factoid before I go: Despite Heine being a Jew, the Third Reich couldn’t entirely outlaw his poem due simply to its popularity.)