poem for the day


Post photo: Lake Erie | © Mike Toler on Pixabay 

Today I was prompted by several readers, independently of each other, to a poem by Theodor Fontane made aware. And indeed, it goes quite well with current events and in at least one school in Heilbronn it is even a topic in class right now. It is interesting that this poem also had to be discussed when I was at school (in the middle of the Cold War).

On the night of August 8th, 9, the paddle steamer Erie caught fire while sailing across the eponymous lake from Buffalo to Erie. The Helmsman Lothar Fuller remained at his post to the end and survived the accident with serious injuries. Unfortunately, only 200 of the approximately 29 passengers could be saved. Fuller became an alcoholic and died impoverished.

Theodor Fontane processed the tragic event into a ballad in which all passengers were saved, but the helmsman, named John Maynard, found death. Fontane thus elevates service to heroism and creates a poem that has probably not lost its attractiveness to this day.

I would already be glad if most people — especially those who serve, especially our politicians and officials — would at least make an effort to carry out their duties to some extent, e.g. B. ensure that high school exams can be written on time.

I don't ask anyone to be a hero, because we could already pave our streets with bullies today. But I understand that especially in such dark times as at the end of the 19th century and especially today, the call for heroes is getting louder and louder.

Theodor Fontane don't hide from us that heroes are mostly dead. Today we also know that those heroes who survive like to fall into alcohol or other drugs and die unloved.

Only the bullies enjoy life to the fullest and usually end up highly decorated.

John Maynard

John Maynard!

"Who is John Maynard?"
"John Maynard was our helmsman,
he endured till he gained the shore,
he saved us, he wears the crown,
he died for us, our love his reward.
John Maynard."

The "Swallow" flies over Lake Erie,
Spray foams about the prow like flakes of snow;
from Detroit she flies to Buffalo –
but the hearts are free and happy,
and the passengers with children and wives
already see the shore in the twilight,
and chattering up to John Maynard
kicks everything: "How much farther, helmsman?"
He looks ahead and around:
"Thirty minutes... half an hour." 

All hearts are happy, all hearts are free –
there it sounds from the hold of the ship like a scream,
"Fire!" was what sounded,
smoke came out of the cabin and hatch,
a smoke, then flames ablaze,
and twenty minutes to Buffalo. 

And the passengers, mixed up
at the bowsprit they stand huddled together,
at the bowsprit there is still air and light,
but at the helm it's packed tight,
and a wail is raised: "Where are we? where?"
And fifteen minutes to Buffalo. – 

The draft grows, but the cloud of smoke stands,
the captain peeks after the rudder,
he no longer sees his helmsman,
but through the mouthpiece he asks:
"Still there, John Maynard?"
"Yes Mr. I am."

"On the beach! Into the surf!”
"I stand by it."
And the ship's people cheered: "Hold on! Hello!"
And ten minutes to Buffalo. – –

"Still there, John Maynard?" And the answer comes
in a dying voice: "Yes, sir, I'll hold it!"
And in the surf, what a cliff, what a stone,
he chases the "swallow" into the middle.
If rescue is to come, it will only come that way.
Rescue: Buffalo Beach!

The ship broke. The fire smolders.
Saved everyone. Only one missing!
All the bells go; their tones swell
skyward from churches and chapels,
a ringing and ringing, otherwise the city is silent,
one ministry only that she has today:
ten thousand follow or more,
and not a single eye in the process that is empty of tears. 

They lower the coffin in flowers,
with flowers they close the grave,
and written in gold on the marble stone
the city writes its thanks: 

"Here rests John Maynard! In smoke and fire
he held the wheel firmly in his hand,
he saved us, he wears the crown,
he died for us, our love his reward.
John Maynard."

Theodor Fontane, 1886

Addendum 20.4.2023

Here you can find that from Hans Müller attached photo

Plaque for John Maynard
Plaque for John Maynard in Buffalo

“Unfortunate the land that has no heroes… No. 
Unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

Bertold Brecht, The Life of Galileo (1943)

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  • Dear Mr. Kummerle,

    Great compliment that you remembered the poem "John Maynard" by Theodor Fontane. Fontane was one of Germany's greatest novelists of the 19th century. His "wanderings through the Mark Brandenburg" touched me particularly well when I visited our sister city Frankfurt (Oder) several times after the reunification and the friends there took me to various places that Fontane had visited or had a connection to him. such as B. Letschin in the Oderbruch, where his father had a pharmacy for a while. Later I visited Neuruppin with a small group from Heilbronn, where Fontane was born on December 30.12.1819th, XNUMX.

    Here's a "tidbit": I'm enclosing a photo from the port of Buffalo, NY. There is a bronze plaque on the harbor wall with the Fontane poem (in English). It was donated by Dortmund, Buffalo's German sister city. In the summer of 2000, Kurt and Susanne Scheffler, my wife and I were also in Buffalo during a long tour of the USA and made a tour of Lake Erie and the Niagara River on the ship "Miss Buffalo II".

    Fontane worked several times as a journalist in London. After the 1848 revolution, many German democrats and those opposed to the German Empire went into exile in London, including Carl Pfänder from Heilbronn, about whose adventurous life I wrote in the book "Heilbronnica 4". It can be found as an online publication on the website of the Heilbronn City Archive. Fontane met many of these emigrants in London and also wrote about their meager life there. I quoted Fontane in my Pfänder report. Another "treat": Carl Pfänder is the great-great-great-grandfather of Victoria Beckham.

    Thanks for encouraging me to "snuggle" in my photo albums.

    • Dear Mr. Müller, thank you for the feedback and the picture. Originally, I thought of using a shot of the memorial plaque from the depths of the internet as the featured image.

      School (Effi Briest) and reading other of his “Berlin” novels Fontane put me off for many years. It was only with his poems that I found some connection to this writer again. But I never got around to reading his wanderings, which I probably would have liked better.

      Today his 67 notebooks would probably be interesting for me, especially to find out how he actually ticked as a democrat and as a person.