The Metamorphosis of the Plants

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Translated from the German by Fredrick Turner & Zsuzsanna Ozsvàth

You are perplexed my love by this thousandfold mixed profusion
 Flowering tumultuously everywhere over the garden grounds;
So many names you are hearing, but one suppresses another,
 Echoing barbarously the sound makes in the ear.
Each of their shapes is alike, yet none resembles the other,
 Thus the whole of the choir points to a secret law,
Points to a holy puzzle. I wish, lovely friend, that I were able to
 Happily hand you at once the disentangling word!—
Watch now and be transformed, how bit by bit the plant-form,
 Guided step-wise, builds to emerge in blossom and fruit!
Out of the germ it unfolds, the moment the still and fertile
 Lap of the earth has loving let it go out into life,
There where the charm of light, the holy eternal mover
 Now ushers in the most delicate structures of burgeoning leaves.
This was a power that simply slept in the seed; a prototype
 Lay there closed and curled up in itself inside the husk,
Leaf and taproot and seed, as yet half-formed and colorless;
 Thus the dry kernel holds and protects the dormant life,
Then it gushes, heaving up, trusting to milder moistures,
 Lifts itself all at once out of the enveloping night.
Still, though, it simply retains the form of its first appearance ,
 Thus the infant reveals and betrays itself under the new plant.
Soon after that, a following impulse, renewing, throws upward
 Knot upon towering knot, in still the original shape.
Never the same, though; for always its self-generation is manifold,
 Always the following leaf, you see there, is fully informed:
Notched, expanded, and split into apex and branched division,
 That which in embryo rested curled up in the organ below.
Now it achieves for the first time its highly-determined completion,
 Which in some species can leave you astonished and awed.
Fretted and torn allover its mastlike and bristling surface,
 Now in full force appears the drive to be endlessly free.
Here, though, Nature with mighty hand halts the upbuilding,
 Leading it gently on until its full form is complete.
So with more measure it guides the sap and tightens the vessels,
 Suddenly blazoning out the patterns more dainty effects.
Silently now the drive ebbs from the leading edges,
 Letting the vein of the stem build itself fully out.
Leafless and swiftly, though, rises the stalk in its greater elegance,
 Where the observer is drawn to a yet more miraculous form:
Ringed in a circle, each petal, in number defined or left open,
 Sets itself, smaller at first, by its twin that emerged before.
Crowding around the axle, the mounting cup comes to decision,
 Which, in its highest form, releases the colorbright crown.
Nature thus boasts a now a nobler and fuller manifestation,
 Stepwise arraying organ on organ in orderled display.
Always, you're freshly amazed when the flower on its stem, now open,
 Sways there above the slender scaffold of altering leaves.
Now, though, this splendor becomes a new shapings annunciation,
 Yes, the bright-tinted petal feels the hand of God;
Swiftly it draws itself in, and then the tenderest of structures
 Bifold strive to emerge, determined to make themselves one.
Intimate now they stand, the lovely couples together,
 Round the sacred alter in order arranging themselves.
Hymen floats nearby, and heavenly fragrances violently
 Pour their sweet and quickening odors all through the air.
Germcells at once swell up now, each an individual,
 Lovingly wrapped in the waxing fruits of the mothering womb.
Here, then, Nature closes the ring of eternal forces;
 Still, a new one promptly fastens itself to the old,
So that the chain might extend itself onward all through the ages,
 And that the whole be revitalized, as is the single one.
Turn now, beloved, your eyes to these blooming and colorful multitudes ,
  See how, perplexing no longer, they stir there in view of your soul!
Every plant announces, to you now, the laws eternal.
 Every flower louder and louder is speaking with you.
You but decipher here the holy glyphs of the Goddess,
 Everywhere, though, you see her - in even their changing itself.
Slow crawls the caterpillar, in haste, the butterfly flutters,
 Man the adaptable changes himself the foreordained form.
Think then also, my love, how from the germ of acquaintance
 Little by little in us a familiar dearness springs up,
Friendship unveils itself in power from our inner concealment,
 Till like Eros at last it procreates flower and fruit!
Think how soon these forms and those, in their manifold course of emerging ,
 Gently have lent to our feelings the presence of Nature herself!
So then, rejoice - and rejoice for today! Love in its holiness
 Strives to the highest fruit of the same movement of thought,
Same outlook on things, in harmonic contemplation,
 Thus the pair make their bond, and find out a loftier world.

1779
from the journal THE HUDSON REVIEW

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