Distichon (Distich)

The verse form Distichon (distich), a classical couplet comprising one hexameter and one pentameter line, can qualify as a Begriff (concept) in Clark Muenzer’s sense of an “experimental technology” that facilitates the intelligibility of a world in flux. Goethe experimented with this ancient form throughout the decade following his return from his first journey to Italy and developed it into a fine-tuned vehicle for his emerging natural scientific and cultural conceptions. While he drew from both the elegiac and epigrammatic distichal traditions, the epigram, in particular, shaped his conceptualization of the distich as a primal poetic unit mediating the poet’s encounter with the world. The flexible segmented structure of the distich, as defined by its two lines and caesuras, nicely accommodates parallel, contrastive, reciprocal, circular, and triadic configurations that play a role in his morphological thought and aesthetic-cultural program.

  1. Introduction
  2. Genre History and Theory
  3. Structure
  4. Stones Speak
  5. The Pairing of Lovers
  6. All is Leaf
  7. Stinging and Pollinating Insects
  8. Conclusion
  9. Notes
  10. Works Cited and Further Reading


The classical distich is a poetic couplet deriving from Greek and Latin epigrammatic and elegiacal poetry and consisting of a line of hexameter followed by a line of pentameter. It offered Goethe a flexible vehicle through which to explore his fundamental preoccupations in a pivotal decade in his life and career. Most of Goethe’s experimentation with the ancient couplet fell within a decade, from roughly 1788 to 1798, a timespan that saw his return from Italy, the emergence of his relationship to Christiane, the birth of five children and death of four, his friendship and collaboration with Schiller, his wide-ranging scientific explorations, and significant literary output,1 all, meanwhile, as the old European order became engulfed by Revolution and war.2 Landmark works in distichs written and published in that decade include Die Römischen Elegien (1795; The Roman Elegies), Venezianische Epigramme (1796; Venetian Epigrams), the massive Xenien complex (1796; Xenia), “Alexis und Dora” (1797; Alexis and Dora), “Euphrosyne” (1798), and “Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen” (1798; The Metamorphosis of Plants).

Both genres traditionally associated with the distich, epigram and elegy, are well represented among Goethe’s works from this period; yet the epigrammatic genre had arguably the more definitive impact on his emerging philosophy and practice of the form. For the epigram, in both its brevity and its presumed original function as the inscription for a monument or a grave, serves Goethe as a primal unit of poetry and as a particularly apt site for the theorization and performance of the elemental relationship between poetry and world, self and other. A particular attraction of the distich for Goethe is its capacity for a versatile segmentation, marked off both by the distinctive characteristics of the hexameter and pentameter lines and by the caesuras internally dividing those lines. In Goethe’s hands, the distich encapsulates core dynamics that he identifies in the natural and cultural world such as cyclical flow, dynamic transmutation, reciprocal determination, and contraction and expansion. As developed below, these motions correspond to certain prominent tropes in his distichal poetry—of stones speaking, lovers communing, plants unfolding, and insects stinging or pollinating. The couplet ultimately became a crucial poetic vehicle for the development of his morphological thought as well, as the cultural philosophy he shared with Schiller in the period known as Weimar Classicism.

Genre History and Theory

Goethe’s conception of the epigrammatic distich was informed by two contemporary commentators who develop competing paradigms of the epigram from different classical antecedents. G.E. Lessing’s “Zerstreute Anmerkungen über das Epigramm und einige der vornehmsten Epigrammisten” (1771; Scattered Notes on the Epigram and Several of the Finest Epigramists) takes as its chief model the witty and satirical distichs of the first-century Roman author Martial. J.G. Herder’s two-part “Anmerkungen über das griechische Epigramm” (1785; Notes on the Greek Epigram) is a reply to Lessing through a shift of focus away from Roman models to the Greek Anthology, a collection of epigrams initially compiled by the poet Meleager in the first century BCE.

Lessing’s essay emphasizes the bi-partite character of the epigram, as it proceeds from “Erwartung” (expectation) to “Aufschluss” (disclosure).3 For Lessing, an epigram awakens curiosity toward some object (corresponding to the monument in the ancient tradition), sustains attention, and then brings satisfaction all at once in a pointed ending (Lessing 7:188). While Lessing’s analysis does not explicitly tie this rhetorical duality to the metrical divide between hexameter and pentameter, certainly it evokes the potential inherent in that structural feature of the distich. More broadly, Lessing’s paradigm points to the distich’s capacity to present miniature narratives (in the arc from “Erwartung” to “Aufschluss”) and to deal in surprising twists and revelations.

Herder places emphasis less on the epigram’s witty or satirical turns than on the relationship it establishes to a real or fictional object. The earliest epigrams, according to Herder, consisted entirely of the exposition of a monument, providing, for example, the historical context that “das Denkmal selbst in seiner stummen Sprache nicht sagen konnte” (the monument itself could not say in its mute language).4 For Herder, then, the epigram represents a primal interface between things and their linguistic articulation. As Gerhard Neumann’s reading of Herder suggests, “[d]as Epigram ist Sprachwerdung der Welt (oder Weltwerdung der Sprache) ist Weltdeutung und Sinngebung” (The epigram is the world-becoming-language [or language-becoming-world], it is interpretation of the world and the bestowal of meaning).5 Also suggestive for Goethe’s later conception of the distich is Herder’s highlighting of botanical imagery in the Anthology, beginning with the Greek title, which Herder translates “Blumenlese” (collection of flowers) (Herder 4:501). He compares the distich to a floral wreath: “Hexameter und Pentameter winden einen Kranz in Worten” (Herder 4:512; Hexameter and pentameter weave a wreath in words). Thus, Herder invests the epigrammatic distich with a sense both of primordiality and of budding, organic promise.

The distich is perhaps better known in modern poetry for its association with the elegy and the elegiac mode of lament, often in tribute to the dead. But of the works in distichs that Goethe published under the rubrics “Elegien I” and “Elegien II” in his collection of 1815, only one poem, “Euphrosyne,” serves as a poetic eulogy; others address a vaster span of life, including love, sexuality, and even reproduction.6

Ultimately Goethe’s distichal elegies and epigrams share many of the same rhetorical patterns, tropes, and themes, and are distinguished, mostly as a matter of degree, by their more elevated or lowly tone and subject, and, of course, by their length.7 The convergence of the two genres is most apparent in the complementary and overlapping relationship between the two cycles Roman Elegies and the Venetian Epigrams. Indeed, the fourteen-line concluding epigram of the Epigrams was originally composed in connection with the Elegies.8 Goethe’s distichal poetry, whether epigram or elegy, is thus properly understood as its own distinct corpus.


Even within longer poems, Goethe’s distichs often convey a certain epigrammatic, self-enclosed character, a unity within which an internal differentiation unfolds. The contrasting hexameter and pentameter lines are frequently conceived as an arc or a circuit. Schiller famously describes the distich to work like a jet of water.

Das Distichon.
Im Hexameter steigt des Springquells flüssige Säule,
Im Pentameter drauf fällt sie melodisch herab.9
The Distich.
In hexameter the fountain-spring’s liquid pillar rises,
In the pentameter it thereupon falls melodically down.

Beyond the two metrical verses with their ascribed rising and falling trajectories, additional segments emerge through caesuras in both lines. In the hexameter, the caesura typically divides the line in two after the third Hebung (beat), although occasionally two caesuras create a tripartite line. The caesura in the pentameter is much more fixed and pronounced, consisting of a Hebungsprall (beat-impact) of two consecutive stressed syllables in the middle of the line, producing a pentameter that actually has six stresses rather than the five implied by the name. Sometimes an enjambment across the two lines creates a middle section around which the beginning and end segments radiate. However the distich is sliced, whether into two, three, four, or even more parts, it lends itself easily to a wide range of parallel, contrastive, chiastic, circular, and successive configurations. Goethe deploys this segmentation to great effect to create a sense of the structures and the motions involved in fundamental natural and creative processes.10 The next four sections consider the prominent tropes that shaped Goethe’s use of the form.

Stones Speak

In a number of Goethe’s distichs voices emerge from stones. With this play on the ancient function of the form as inscription, the poet explores original scenes and relationships of poetic production. In his early experimentation with the form in 1782, prior to his “distich decade,” Goethe wrote poems in distichs that were intended as actual inscriptions for stones or sculptures in the parks in Weimar, Gotha, and Tiefurt. As he wrote to Knebel, “es werden bald die Steine zu reden anfangen” (FA 2.2:419; soon the stones will begin to speak). In one of the poems planned as an inscription, “Erwählter Fels” (chosen stone), the poet selects a particular stone among all the elements of nature to testify to his love: “Werde mir Zeuge, du Stein” (FA 1.1:337; Be a witness for me, you stone). But the encounter is reported by the stone, who, in turn, quotes the words through which the poet gave it voice: “Dir allein verleih ich die Stimme” (FA 1.1:338; To you alone I lend voice). Thus, the distichs record the genesis of the poem, the moment when the poet’s ephemeral feelings are externalized, memorialized, and given object status. The trope of a voice resounding from stone appears in a sublimated form in the elegy “Euphrosyne” (1798), which Goethe wrote in memory of the recently deceased young actress Christiane Neumann Becker (1778–1797). On a mountainous journey, the poet has a vision of his young friend as she emerges to address him, as if from the rock: “Aber was leuchtet mir dort vom Felsen glänzend herüber” (FA 1.1:633; But what gleams towards me, glowing there from the rock wall). The speech of the ghostly Christiane takes up three-quarters of the poem and ends with her request that he grant her what her death denied, the opportunity to live on and develop in his works (FA 1.1:638). What begins as an internal inscription on the poet’s memory, an image “in des Freundes Erinnrung eingeschrieben” (FA 1.1:634; inscribed in the memory of the friend), becomes concretized externally as poetry and—it is promised—in future theatrical performance. Here too, then, the distichs purport to record the original moment of encounter when ephemerality assumes lasting form, or to paraphrase Neumann on Herder, when world becomes language and language becomes world.11

In Goethe’s Römische Elegien and Venezianische Epigramme the stones that come alive are not objects in nature but rather ancient monuments. In this way, Goethe employs the trope to explore not only the dynamics of production, but of reception as well. The Roman Elegies open with an invocation to the forbidding ancient façades of Rome: “Saget Steine mir an, o! sprecht ihr hohen Paläste” (FA 1.1:393; Proclaim to me stones, oh speak you high palaces). Those dead walls indeed come to life when the poet’s beloved whispers to him from a window, intimating that only through his own sensuous and erotic experiences can he achieve access to classical antiquity. The Venetian Epigrams invert the relationship between life and art. In the first epigram, ancient sarcophagi and urns sport marble friezes that come alive and activate the viewer’s senses: “wir sehen und hören den Marmor” (FA 1.2:208; we see and hear the marble).12 At the end of the first epigram, the poet imagines his own future reception, proposing that his book of epigrams might similarly someday adorn his own sarcophagus so that it might be “mit Leben geschmückt” (FA 1.2:208; embellished with life). If in the Elegies, living bodies animate dead monuments, in the Epigrams, living monuments animate funereal remains.13 In both cases, distichs mediate or disclose the nexus between life and death.

The Pairing of Lovers

Another prominent trope within Goethe’s distichal corpus is the encounter of lovers, whereby the poetic couplet can either perform the erotic relationship or represent its outcome. Here, too, the figure implies a myth of origins, according to which poetry arises from primordial, generative relations. A famous version of the trope, simultaneously linked to the animation of stones, occurs in the fifth Roman Elegy, where the poet moves from contemplating classical statues to caressing his sleeping lover:

Dann versteh ich erst recht den Marmor, ich denk’ und vergleiche
Sehe mit fühlendem Aug’ fühle mit sehender Hand. (FA 1.1:404)
Then I understand the marble all the more, I think and compare
See with feeling eye, feel with seeing hand.

This distich uses segmentation to great effect. In the hexameter, the delay of the caesura until after the fourth Hebung creates a sense of deferral, as does the evocation of three deliberative mental operations: understanding, thinking, comparing.14 But in a move that recalls Lessing’s bipartite Erwartung and Aufschluss, the pentameter then quickly pivots from abstract thought to full sensory embodiment, conjuring fulfillment through a chiastic exchange between feeling and seeing: the poet sees with feeling eye and feels with seeing hand (emphasis added). While the implied, culminating sexual event is elided, several lines later the poet creates a distich in a peaceful post-coital moment, as he gently counts the hexameter beats on his sleeping lover’s back. Here we return to a sense of asynchronous deferral, since the emergence of the hexameter is described in the pentameter line. Poetry arises in close proximity to encounter, albeit a few beats late.

If the distich seems to emerge from the union of lovers in the famous passage in the fifth elegy, in “Der neue Pausias und sein Blumenmädchen” (1797; the new Pausias and his flower-girl), the couplet appears as the formal equivalent of their exchange. In alternating distichs, the lovers, designated as he and she, tell the story of their first meeting and subsequent traumatic separation. But as they come upon each other again in a crowded market, their speeches narrow into the alternating lines of the distich—she in the hexameter and he in the pentameter. In the following example, the lovers gently link themselves through enjambment and repetition:

Ja wir teilten das Volk, wir kamen zusammen, du standest vor mir
Und du standest vor mir, ja! und wir waren allein. (FA 1.1:631)
Yes we divided the crowd, we came together, you stood before me
And you stood before me, yes! And we were alone.

The structure of the couplet mirrors the lovers’ physical convergence, from the tripartite hexameter formed by the double caesura, to the bipartite pentameter, with its culminating segment in which they find themselves at last alone.

Both the Roman Elegies and “Metamorphosis of Plants” end with references to “a couple” that simultaneously evoke the joining of lovers and metrical lines. In the final elegy of the former, the songs (elegies) themselves are implored to reveal the beautiful secret of a happy (or fortuitous) couple.

Und ihr, wachset und blüht, geliebte Lieder und wieget
Euch im leisesten Hauch lauer und liebender Luft,
Und wie jenes Rohr geschwätzig entdeckt den Quiriten
Eines glücklichen Paars schönes Geheimnis zuletzt. (FA 1.1:438; emphasis added)15
And you beloved songs, grow and bloom and cradle
Yourselves in the softest breath of mild and loving air
And loquacious like that reed, reveal to the Romans
The beautiful secret of a fortuitous couple at last.

The reading of the word Paar (couple) as not only the paired lovers but also the couplet is supported by an earlier line in the elegy where the poet commends his love affair to the distich: “Dir Hexameter, dir Pentameter sei es vertrauet” (FA 1.1:436; To you hexameter, to you pentameter, let it be confided). In the final lines of “Metamorphosis of Plants,” love bears fruit through the couple whose union reveals a higher world.

. . . die heilige Liebe
Strebt zu der höchsten Frucht gleicher Gesinnungen auf,
Gleicher Ansicht der Dinge, damit in harmonischem Anschaun
Sich verbinde das Paar, finde die höhere Welt. (ll. 77-80) (FA 1.1:641; emphasis added)
. . . holy love
aspires to the highest fruit of like-mindedness,
of kindred view of things, so that in harmonious beholding
the couple may join themselves and find a higher world.

Here, in the tradition of Lessing, distichs disclose; but what they disclose is, in the tradition of Herder, a dynamic relationship, at once primordial, generative, and enhanced (“higher”).

All is Leaf

The distich also became a vehicle for Goethe’s morphological thought in the era after his return from Italy. In the Venetian Epigrams, the city of Venice presents a kind of primordial soup, a “Pfuhl,” (swampy pool) out of which life emerges and into which it decays (FA 1.1:448). Taking a cue from a reference to the “Neptunische Stadt” (Neptunist city) in the final epigram, Ralph Hexter suggests that Neptunism, the scientific theory embraced by Goethe that the earth’s crust emerged out of water, lies at the heart of the lyrical cycle’s conception. According to Hexter, the Venice of Goethe’s poems is represented as “liminal. . . a world between land and sea” characterized by rain, mud, and amphibious creatures.16 Liminality cuts in many different ways throughout the cycle, as it also suggests the proximity of lovers to prostitutes, of poets to charlatans, and of humans to animals.

A liminal figure at the center of the cycle is the young acrobat Bettine, with whom the poet feels a close affinity: “Denn Gaukler und Dichter / Sind gar nahe verwandt” (FA 1.1:454; for street entertainers and poets / are quite closely related). The child seems an artistic ‘Urbild,” (original model) for the “Bübchen” (little boys) of Renaissance painting, specifically Bellini’s Putti and Veronese’s cup bearer (FA 1.1:451). In ways that anticipate Mignon in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–96; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship),17 the poet similarly represents Bettine as prepubescent and androgynous, but he still lingers—sometimes unsettlingly in some of the unpublished epigrams—on her unselfconscious, nascent sexuality. In one distich, she appears “weich und ohne Gebein” (FA 1.1:451; soft and askeletal), like undifferentiated “Molluska” (FA 1.1: 451; mollusca). And yet, in the next couplet, as if evolving into greater complexity, she is jointed and transposable:

Alles ist Glied, und alles Gelenk, und alles gefällig,
Alles nach Maßen gebaut, alles nach Willkür bewegt; (FA 1.1:451)
Everything is limb and everything joint and everything pleasing,
Everything built in proper measure, everything moves by whim.

This description of Bettine evokes two comparisons. First, her flexible segmentation suggests an analogy with the distich form itself, here emphatically divided into five parts through the repetition of the word “Alles.” Second, the introductory words “Alles ist Glied und alles Gelenk” bring to mind Goethe’s famous phrase from his Italian journey: “Alles ist Blatt” (FA 1.24:84; all is leaf). That is, the “Urbild” Bettine is an embryonic form on the verge of differentiation and dynamic mutation, not only like the “leaf” at the center of Goethe’s plant morphology, but also like the metrical vehicle that drives his famous plant-elegy.

Indeed, several of Goethe’s distichal poems build on the botanical association noted in the discussion of Herder’s essay on the epigram, including his comparison of the couplet’s trajectory to the weaving of a metrical wreath. In the alternating lines of dialogue in “Der neue Pausias und sein Blumenmädchen,” for example, the flower girl and her beloved weave floral wreaths as well as distichs, while another of Goethe’s elegies, “Amyntas” (1797), involves a less benign weaving of vegetation. Here an ivy vine entwines itself around an apple tree in a fatal embrace that will eventually choke the tree to death. And yet the tree still professes love for the beloved it once raised up and nourished. According to Eibl, this particular motif probably derives from “Der erstorbene Ulmbaum” (the dead elm tree), which is one of the epigrams in the Greek Anthology that Herder himself translated.18

The botanical theme culminates in Goethe’s last significant work in distichs, “Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen” (the metamorphosis of plants), a didactic poem in which the poet instructs his beloved concerning the confusing profusion of flowers in their garden. He thereby both explains and poetically performs the rhythmically informed process of contraction and expansion that first emerges in the poem’s opening distichs and is subsequently shown to govern plant growth and development, as well as human understanding and relationships.19

The poem begins, strikingly, with an accusative “Dich” (you) as the unitary consciousness of the poet’s beloved, who is seeking to understand the botanical chaos in her midst:

Dich verwirret Geliebte | die tausendfältige Mischung
Dieses Blumengewühls || über dem Garten umher, (FA 1.1: 639; emphasis added)
You are puzzled, beloved, by the thousand-fold mixture
Of this floral throng, around and about the garden.

After the initial address to the beloved “you,” the next three segments of this distich (indicated by the caesura marks above) effectively zoom out. Each of them is defined by a keyword signaling the increasingly expansive field that the poet’s beloved seeks to grasp, or conceptualize: thousandfold mixture of the floral throng in the garden. By the third distich, however, a clear countermotion towards contraction is underway:

Alle Gestalten sind ähnlich, | und keine gleichet der andern;
Und so deutet das Chor || auf ein geheimes Gesetz, (FA 1.1: 639; emphasis added)
All the forms are similar, and none approximates the next;
And so the choir points to a secret law.

Here the antithetical segments of the hexameter present a paradox: the plants appear both similar and different. But the pentameter next points to a solution, first by substituting a collective noun “Chor” for the initial plural “Gestalten” and then by promising a secret foundational principle (“Gesetz”) at the root of the profusion. Thus, a semantic contraction occurs within this distich, which moves from manifold figurations to the conceptual unity of law.

As the poem proceeds, Goethe continues to play with alternating rhythms of contraction and expansion. Sometimes the movement toward expansion occurs in the hexameter line and contraction in the pentameter, in alignment with the relative length of the two lines.20 Elsewhere the relation reverses: the longer hexameter suggests the contraction and the shorter pentameter, the expansion.21 This disparity suggests that each stage along the plant’s development contains the seeds of its opposite. The following distich addresses the overlapping process directly:

Und hier schließt die Natur || den Ring der ewigen Kräfte,
Doch ein neuer sogleich || fasset den vorigen an; (FA 1.1: 640)
And here nature closes the ring of eternal forces;
Yet a new one instantly clasps onto the former.

Nature’s “ring of eternal forces” might serve as yet another figure for the distich, as it recalls other cyclical metaphors for the form such as Herder’s floral wreath and Schiller’s circuit of water.

Stinging and Pollinating Insects

Goethe also deploys the distich as an intervention in the cultural politics of his day. His distich decade coincided with his development, in collaboration with Schiller, of an anti-Revolutionary, classicizing cultural program, as promoted by their journal Die Horen (1795–97; The Horae). According to the journal’s announcement, the editors intended to eschew politics and current events. Instead they took their cues from ancient models that embody the timeless rhythms and circuits of the natural order: “die weiterhaltende Ordnung, aus der alles Gute fließt, und die in dem gleichförmigen Rhythmus des Sonnenlaufs ihr treffendstes Sinnbild findet” (the sustaining order from which everything good flows and that finds its most apt symbol in the uniform rhythm of the sun’s path).22 But The Horae faced an over-saturated market in journals, and after the first year (1795), subscriptions fell off precipitously. Goethe and Schiller were also roiled by negative reviews. Inspired by the poet Martial’s distichs describing gifts of hospitality for the Roman festival of Saturnalia, Goethe came up with the idea “auf alle Zeitschriften Epigramme, iedes in einem einzigen Disticho, zu machen, wie die Xenia des Martials sind” (FA 2.4:147; to make epigrams for each journal, each in a single distich, like Martial’s Xenia). Over the next several months, the two men wrote nearly one thousand distichs, which Schiller sorted through and arranged for publication in his Musenalmanach für das Jahr 1797 (Muses’ Almanac for 1797). A little over 400 of them ended up in the “Xenien” collection proper, while 200 additional epigrams were published separately in the almanac. For the most part, no distinction in authorship was made.

The hundreds of distichs that compose the massive Xenien-complex are disparate in theme, tone, and rhetorical and metrical strategies and reach well beyond the original plan to attack rival journals. But broadly put, they had two related aims. Firstly, the authors wanted to expose contemporary culture as empty, repetitive, crassly commercial, and bent on leveling, or disrupting, social relations. And secondly, they hoped to replace current modes of circulation—which were either too fast or too slow—with their own model of rhythmic circulation drawn from classical culture and natural processes.23 The following two epigrams, both concerning the search for truth, suggest how Goethe and Schiller employed the metrical resources of the distich in this two-pronged approach of critiquing their competitors and consolidating their own cultural model.

The target of the first distich is the poet Matthias Claudius, whose designation as the messenger of Wandsbeck plays on his earlier editorship of Der Wandsbecker Bothe (1771–75). Its title Erreurs et Verité refers to a mystical, hermetic work in French by Louis Claude de Saint Martin, which Claudius translated, but confessed not to understand.24

Erreurs et Verité.
Irrthum wolltest du bringen | und Wahrheit, o Bote, von Wandsbeck;
 Wahrheit, sie war dir zu schwer; || Irrthum, den brachtest du fort! (Schiller, Musenalmanach, 20).
Error you wanted to bring and truth, oh messenger of Wandsbeck
Truth was too heavy for you; Error you brought forth!

This epigram raises the question whether truth can be conveyed in a flawed package, i.e., Saint Martin’s error-filled book. Its argument turns on the role of conjunctions, beginning with the French conjunction “et” (and) linking error and truth in the title. The terms “Irrthum” (error) and “Wahrheit” (truth) are then spread in ABBA pattern across the distich’s four segments. In the first line, the conjunction “und” (and) marks the caesura between Irrthum and Wahrheit. But in the second, the conjunction falls away altogether, with a semicolon indicating a more decisive break, both rhythmically and semantically. Claudius hoped to transmit error and truth, but he is too weak a messenger for truth; he only transmits error.

The following double distich suggests an alternative process for finding truth that is exemplified by the reciprocal relationship between the two poets. This epigram appeared in the “Tabulae Votivae” section of the almanac attributed to both authors, but clearly the I of this epigram is Schiller and the you Goethe.

Die Uebereinstimmung.
Wahrheit suchen wir beyde; du aussen im Leben, ich innen
In dem Herzen, und so findet sie jeder gewiß.
Ist das Auge gesund, so begegnet es aussen dem Schöpfer,
Ist es das Herz, dann gewiß spiegelt es innen die Welt. (Schiller, Musenalmanach, 157).
The Accord.
Truth we both seek; you outwardly in life, I inwardly
In the heart, and so each will certainly find it.
If the eye is healthy, then it will encounter the creator outwardly
If the heart is healthy, then it will internally mirror the world.

The first couplet divides into three parts. The first part concerns the search the truth; the third part asserts the certainty of finding it. The pivot between seeking and finding occurs in the middle segment created through enjambment, which brings together dichotomous pairs (I/you; outwardly in life/inwardly in the heart). The second couplet further elaborates their dichotomous exchange by establishing a chiasm to bridge the Kantian divisions: the external sense (Auge / eye) perceives a moral agency (Schöpfer / creator) while the moral subject (Herz / heart) mirrors empirical reality (Welt / world). The outcome is a new concept of truth that has been enriched by divergent outlooks. Both the negative example concerning Claudius and the positive one modeled on Goethe and Schiller’s exchange thus use parallel and contrastive structures to show a failed, or successful, unification.

A further conceit of the Xenia concerns not their internal structure but their epigrammatic brevity, which renders them flexible and potent rhetorical insurgents in this cultural battle. The cycle, as arranged by Schiller, opens as the mono-distichs slip through the tollgate of the city of Leipzig and past the censor to attend the book fair.

Distichen sind wir. Wir geben uns nicht für mehr noch für minder,
Sperre du immer, wir ziehn über den Schlagbaum hinweg (Schiller, ed., Musenalmanach,199).
We are distichs. We don’t claim to be more or less.
Go ahead and block the way, we will pass over the tollgate.

Described as “dünnleibig” (thin-bodied) “geflügelt” (winged) and “luftig” (airy) (Schiller, Musenalmanach, 282) the distichs continue on a circuit that takes them through the heavens, the German territories, and at last the underworld, where, like Odysseus, they challenge the illegitimate suitors to battle. At points the mono-distichs appear as earth-scorching agents, like the biblical foxes released with tails aflame into the fields of the Philistines (Schiller, Musenalmanach, 209). Elsewhere they appear less maliciously as insects.

Der Almanach als Bienenkorb.
Lieblichen Honig geb’ er dem Freund, doch nahet sich täppisch
Der Philister, ums Ohr saus’ ihm der stechende Schwarm! (Schiller, Musenalmanach, 258).
The Almanac as Beehive.
May the Almanac give sweet honey to the friend, but let the Philistine
Awkwardly approach, around his ears let the stinging swarm rush!

The image of pollinating insects with a dual capacity to sting their enemies and bring honey to their friends echoes an epigram that Herder had recently published in The Horae, “Zwei Gattungen des Epigramms” (Two Genres of the Epigram). For Herder the two complementary genres that belong in the same garden are the darting, stinging bee (a model he attributes to his unspecified addressee) and the budding rose, which provides the nectar and is his own model (Schiller, Horen, 5.1:28). These two roles correspond to the two traditions under discussion: the Roman tradition of pointed wit, represented by Lessing, and the Greek tradition of organic connection and growth, championed by Herder. And these two traditions align, in turn, with the two prongs of the Xenia strategy: the critique as well as the cultivation of contemporary culture.


Why did Goethe’s experimentation come to a relatively abrupt end after 1798? One reason might be the massive wave of anti-Xenia distichs that the Almanac inspired among Goethe and Schiller’s contemporaries. While this response perhaps came as no surprise, the resulting prevalence of the form might have caused it to lose some of its elite classical luster. An epigram by Fürchtegott Christian Fulda imagines Schiller observing that others can write distichs just as well as he can.

“Hätt’ ich Xenien doch im Leben nimmer geschrieben!
Andre seh’ ich nun wohl, können so gut es, wie ich”25
“If only I had never written the Xenia into life!
Others, I see, can do it as well as I”

Goethe may also have been all too aware that the anti-Xenia critics had a point when they lambasted his metrical skills. Even his friends were hardly flattering.26 When, towards the end of the decade, he decided to prepare his epigrams and elegies for publication in his New Writings (Neue Schriften), he made a sustained effort, in consultation with A.W. Schlegel, to improve the rhythm. Trunz sees the exacting judgment of the Metriker (metricians) as the reason for Goethe’s ultimate abandonment of hexameters in particular (Trunz 112).

A more likely explanation for the end of Goethe’s distichal period, however, is that, setting aside the more technical challenges of rendering classical prosody into German, he really had mastered the form—at least for his own purposes. Through the course of the Xenia project he had developed the distich into a finely sharpened rhetorical weapon. By the time he composed his didactic poem “The Metamorphosis of Plants,” the distich had become, within his own poetic practice, highly amenable for programmatic use. As his later essay “Über das Lehrgedicht” (1827) (FA 1.22:317–18; on didactic poetry) reveals, Goethe was ambivalent about the use of poetry for didactic ends. Having exploited the formal features of the couplet to address both primary and ephemeral preoccupations, and meanwhile having provoked a groundswell of distich-writing by, in his view, second-rate poets, he was perhaps simply ready to move on.

Yet in the preceding pivotal epoch in Goethe’s life and work, the distich had served as a key vehicle for reflections about the fundamental role of poetry and the encounter of self and other. Further, it represented a primordial unit of poetry corresponding to conceptions of embryonic and dynamic forms like the “leaf” in his morphological thinking. Finally, it was deployed as a supple form capable not only of cultural satire, but also of instantiating classical and natural modes of cultural circulation. The distich thus represents a largely overlooked “conceptual technology” that helped shape the course of Weimar Classicism.

  1. Among the works published in this decade are Torquato Tasso, Reineke Fuchs, Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, and Herrmann und Dorothea.
  2. Reiner Wild suggests Goethe may have continued his work on the distich collection “Die Weissagungen der Bakis” up until 1800, but they were chiefly composed in the spring and early summer of 1798. Goethes klassische Lyrik (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999), 252.
  3. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Werke und Briefe, eds. Wilfried Barner et al., 12 vols. (Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1985–2003), 7: 188.
  4. Johann Gottfried Herder, Werke in zehn Bänden, eds Günter Arnold et al. (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1989–2000), 4: 522.
  5. Gerhard Neumann, “Nachwort,” in Deutsche Epigramme, ed. Neumann (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1969), 300.
  6. As Theodore Ziolkowski points out, Goethe’s love elegies draw on a Roman tradition that includes Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid. The Classical German Elegy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980), 73–74. Ziolkowski also argues that even into the 1790’s there was still no necessary connection between the distich form and its subject matter in the German elegy (56, 66).
  7. It should be noted that Goethe also wrote both elegies and epigrams in metrical forms other than distichs.
  8. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, eds. Hendrik Birus, Dieter Borchmeyer, Karl Eibl, et al., 40 vols. (Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013), 1.1:1153. Hereafter cited as FA in the body of the text.
  9. Schiller, Friedrich, ed. Musenalmanach für das Jahr 1797 (Tübingen: Cotta, 1796), 67.
  10. See Ammon: “Diese Zäsur verleiht dem Vers sein charakteristisches Gepräge; sie kann ihn in zwei völlig symmetrische oder zwei weitgehend asymmetrische Hälften teilen, was parallele oder chiastische Fügungen nahelegt” (this caesura lends the verse its characteristic profile; it can divide the verse into two fully symmetrical or two vastly asymmetrical halves, which can give rise to parallel or chiastic arrangements). Frieder von Ammon, Ungastliche Gaben, die “Xenien” Goethes und Schillers und ihre literarische Rezeption von 1796 bis in die Gegenwart (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2005) 20. Ammon also emphasizes how the combination of flexibility and metric rigor makes the distich suitable for the representation of dynamic processes (30).
  11. See also Neumann’s discussion of the scene at the boundary of life and death in “Euphrosyne” as an instance of Goethe’s “poetics of transience” (Poetik des Übergänglichen) and of the structure of temporal consciousness in his elegies. Gerhard Neumann, “Alexis und Dora. Goethes Poetik des Übergänglichen,” in Die Gabe des Gedichts. Goethes Lyrik im Wechsel der Töne, eds. Gerhard Neumann, David Wellbery (Freiburg: Rombach, 2008), 309–10.
  12. This line appears in the version published in 1815, but it does not appear in the 1795 version.
  13. See Eibl’s commentary on the parallels and polarities between the two cycles generally: “In den Elegien Zeitaufhebung, Brücke zwischen Gegenwart und antik-heidnischem Rom im erfüllten Augenblick der Liebe, in den Epigrammen deutlichste Zeitzuwendung, gegenwärtiges katholisches Italien, und die Geliebte in der Ferne,–erst Rom-Ergreifung durch den ‘Modernen’, und dann, von dem errungenen Standpunkt aus, Gegenwartsschelte durch den ‘antikisch’ gesponnenen Neu-Heiden” (FA 1.1:1133; in the elegies, suspension of time, bridge between the present and ancient, pagan Rome in the fulfilled moment of love; in the epigrams, the clearest possible attention to the times, present-day Catholic Italy, with the beloved faraway–first the seizure of Rome by a modern, and then, from this achieved stance, a diatribe against the present day by the classically burnished neo-pagan.)
  14. See Gumbrecht on the role of rhythm in creating a sense of delay and then acceleration in the lovers’ encounter in the Elegies. “Charms of the Distich: About the Function of Poetic Form in Goethe’s ‘Römische Elegien,’” in Die Gabe des Gedichts. Goethes Lyrik im Wechsel der Töne, eds. Gerhard Neumann and David E. Wellbery (Freiburg: Rombach, 2008), 271–86.
  15. The lines quoted follow the version published in 1795.
  16. Ralph Hexter, “Poetic Reclamation and Goethe’s Venetian Epigrams,” MLN, 96.3 (1981): 554.
  17. Wolfdietrich Rasch, “Die Gauklerin Bettine. Zu Goethes Venetianischen Epigrammen,” in Aspekte der Goethezeit, eds. Stanley Corngold, Michael Curschmann and Theodore Ziolkowski (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1977), 120.
  18. FA1.1:1204. See also Klausmeyer’s discussion of this poem: “Spirale (Spiral)” in Goethe-Lexicon of Philosophical Concepts 1(1): 101–2.
  19. The convergence of the poem’s poetic form with its lesson in plant morphology has often been noted. Overbeck, for example, sees contraction and expansion at work at multiple levels in the poem, including in the rhythmic alternation between hexameter and pentameter. “Goethes Lehre von der Metamorphose der Pflanzen und ihre Widerspiegelung in seiner Dichtung,” Publications of the English Goethe Society 31.1 (1961), 56–59. Wellmann also argues that the distich “affords Goethe the sensually experienceable presence of the rhythmic episteme of metamorphosis,” but proposes a different sort of pattern, namely that while the hexameter contains conventional Linnaean wisdom, the pentameter presents Goethe’s own morphological insights. Wellman’s reading is not laid out in sufficient detail to allow a reader to evaluate it as a consistent rhetorical principle in the poem, but where the pattern clearly does occur, it aligns well with the convention of disclosure that Lessing associated with the epigrammatic pentameter. Janina Wellmann, Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm 1760-1830, trans., Kate Sturge (New York: Zone, 2017), 112; 130–31.
  20. For example, “Ausgedehnter, gekerbter, getrennter in Spitzen und Teile / Die verwachsen vorher ruhten im unteren Organ” (FA 1.1:639; More extended, more crenated, more divided into tips and parts, / which previously rested fused in a lower organ).
  21. For example, “Stille zieht sich der Trieb der strebenden Ränder zurücke / Und die Rippe des Stiels bildet sich völliger aus” (FA 1.1:640; calmly the sprouting, striving drive at the margins contracts / And the stem’s rib forms itself more fully).
  22. Friedrich Schiller, ed. Die Horen. Eine Monatschrift, 1.1 (1795): vi.
  23. See my full analysis of the Xenia strategy in Karin Schutjer, “Heaven Help Us! Journals, Calendars!: Goethe and Schiller’s Xenien as Circulatory Intervention,” Goethe Yearbook, 28 (2021): 33–58.
  24. Eduard Boas, Goethe und Schiller im Xenienkampf, 2 vols. (Stuttgart and Tübingen: Cotta, 1851), 1:57–8.
  25. Wolfgang Stammler, ed., Anti-Xenien (Bonn: Marcus und Weber, 1911), 33.
  26. Wilhelm von Humboldt blamed Goethe’s penchant for producing “so entsetzlich schlechte Verse” on the challenges of rendering hexameters in German. Qtd. in Erich Trunz, Weimarer Goethe-Studien (Weimar: Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1980), 124.

Works Cited and Further Reading

  • Ammon, Frieder von. Ungastliche Gaben, die “Xenien” Goethes und Schillers und ihre literarische Rezeption von 1796 bis in die Gegenwart. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2005.
  • Arndt, Erwin. Deutsche Verslehre. Ein Abriss. Berlin: Volkseigener Verlag, 1968.
  • Bell, Matthew. “Anonymität und Autorschaft in den ‘Xenien.’” Goethe-Jahrbuch 122 (2005): 92–106.
  • Boas, Eduard. Goethe und Schiller im Xenienkampf. 2 vols. Stuttgart and Tübingen: Cotta, 1851. Hathi Trust.
  • Gumbrecht, Hans. “Charms of the Distich: About the Function of Poetic Form in Goethe’s ‘Römische Elegien.’” In Die Gabe des Gedichts. Goethes Lyrik im Wechsel der Töne, edited by Gerhard Neumann and David E. Wellbery, 271–286. Freiburg: Rombach, 2008.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche. Edited by Hendrik Birus, Dieter Borkmeyer, Karl Eibl et al. 40 vols. Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013.
  • Herder, Johann Gottfried. Werke in zehn Bänden. Edited by Günter Arnold et al. Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1989–2000.
  • Hess, Peter. Epigramm. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1989.
  • Hexter, Ralph. “Poetic Reclamation and Goethe’s Venetian Epigrams.” MLN, 96. 3 (1981): 526–555.
  • Kayser, Wolfgang. Kleine deutsche Versschule. Bern: Franke, 1961.
  • Klausmeyer, Bryan. “Spirale (Spiral).” Goethe-Lexicon of Philosophical Concepts 1 (1): 99–112.
  • Lange, Horst. “Goethe’s Strategy of Self-Censorship: The Case of the Venezianische Epigramme.” Monatshefte, 91.2 (1999): 224–240.
  • Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Werke und Briefe. 12 vols. Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1985–2003.
  • Muenzer, Clark. “Begriff (Concept).” Goethe-Lexicon of Philosophical Concepts 1 (1):20–44.
  • Neumann, Gerhard. “Alexis und Dora. Goethes Poetik des Übergänglichen.” In: Die Gabe des Gedichts. Goethes Lyrik im Wechsel der Töne, edited by Gerhard Neumann and David Wellbery, 287–318. Freiburg: Rombach, 2008.
  • —. “Nachwort.” In Deutsche Epigramme, edited by Neumann, 285-355. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1969.
  • Overbeck, Gertrud. “Goethes Lehre von der Metamorphose der Pflanzen und ihre Widerspiegelung in seiner Dichtung.” Publications of the English Goethe Society, 31.1 (1961): 38–59.
  • Rasch, Wolfdietrich. “Die Gauklerin Bettine. Zu Goethes Venetianischen Epigrammen.” In Aspekte der Goethezeit, edited by Stanley Corngold, Michael Curschmann and Theodore Zioilkowski, 115–136. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1977.
  • Schiller, Friedrich, ed. Die Horen. Eine Monatschrift, 1795-1797. Digitale Sammlung, University of Bielefeld, http://ds.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/viewer/toc/2104386/1/LOG_0000/
  • Schiller, Friedrich, ed. Musenalmanach für das Jahr 1797. Tübingen: Cotta, 1796. https://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Musen-Almanach_f%C3%BCr_das_Jahr_1797,
  • Schutjer, Karin. “Heaven Help Us! Journals, Calendars!: Goethe and Schiller’s Xenien as Circulatory Intervention.” Goethe Yearbook, 28 (2021): 33–58.
  • Schwarzbauer, Franz. Die Xenien. Studien zur Vorgeschichte der Weimarer Klassik. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1992.
  • Stammler,Wolfgang, ed. Anti-Xenien. Bonn: Marcus und Weber, 1911.
  • Trunz, Erich. Weimarer Goethe-Studien. Weimar: Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1980.
  • Wellmann, Janina. Embryology and the Epistemology of Rhythm 1760–1830. Translated by Kate Sturge. New York: Zone, 2017.
  • Wild, Reiner. Goethes klassische Lyrik. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999.
  • Ziolkowski, Theodore. The Classical German Elegy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980.