Erich Kästner (1899–1974)

A Father’s Lullaby

Sleep well, my child; my child, sleep well.
They say you really are my son.
But if it’s true I cannot tell.
Sleep well, my child; my child, sleep well.
It’s to her aunt your mother’ gone.

My child, now let your eyelids fall.
That is the wisest course, my boy.
I am so tall. You are so small.
He who can sleep, can laugh at all.
He who can sleep has cause for joy.

I lie beside my wife at night.
She says: find something else to do.
She loves me not. She’s no delight.
Her nagging’s turning my hair white.
Who knows what I’ll be driven to.

Sleep tight, my child; my child, sleep tight.
You won’t be missing anything.
You’ll dream perhaps you are a knight.
You’ll dream perhaps your wife’s all right.
Yes, dreaming is a princely thing.

You toil on. Love and live and eat
And can’t make up your mind
Why all these things should have to be.
She says that you resemble me.
The devil take her kind!

He’s fortunate who wakes no more.
You sleep best when they bury you.
Who knows who mama’s waiting for.
Be quiet. What are you trembling for?
I did not mean to worry you.

Forget the moon. Sleep well, my child.
And let the starts shine in the sky.
Forget me too. Forget the wind.
And now, good night. Sleep well, my child.
And please, there is no need to cry.

Erich Kästner (1899–1974)
Tr. Patrick Bridgwater


Aforesaid Spring is Here

It’s true. Now spring is set upon its course.
Flowers stretch their arms. And windows open wider.
The air’s so soft, it seems it’s made of eider.
And nothing else is worth a tinker’s curse.

All dogs now feel the need to find a mate.
And Pony Hütchen gave me to understand
She finds the sun above has hot little hands
Whose tickling is often rather intimate.

Caretakers proudly stand outside their cares.
And people drink their coffee on the pavements,
No longer huddled up in winter garments.
All those with infants push them round in chairs.

Most of the girls have started feeling shy.
Like sweetened cream the blood runs in their veins.
The sky is filled with shining aeroplanes.
And you are happy. And you don’t know why.

You should go walking in this sort of weather.
The blues and greens and reds had grown quite faint.
It’s spring! The world has a fresh coat of paint.
And people smile until they’re drawn together.

Souls stand on stilts and stalk all over town.
On every balcony men lightly dressed
Stand sowing seeds in window-boxes; blest
Is he who calls a window-box his own.

The gardens bleakness is but superficial.
The sun is hot and winter’s end is near.
The same thing happens every single year.
Yet every time it seems quite fundamental.

Erich Kästner (1899–1974)
Tr. Eva Geisel


Knowst Thou the Land Where Only Cannons Grow?

Knowst thou the land where only cannons grow?
Not heard of it? You’ll know it soon, prepare!
There Jacks in office, keen as mustard, go
Smartly to work as on a barrack square.

A corporal’s collar under each cravat,
Faces galore but not a single head.
They dream of helmets when they sport a hat,
And make more soldiers when they go to bed.

When a superior wants something done—
And it’s his business to think up demands
The mind must first shut up, and then it’s “’Shun!
Eyes right! And dare to question my commands!”

Children are born there, spurs on little feet.
And from the start they wear a rookie’s cap;
No one is registered in Civvy Street,
And if you want promotion—hold your trap!

Knowst thou the land? All sorrows it could heal,
It could be happy and bring happiness,
A land of rolling cornfields, coal and steel,
And skilled and willing hands, all things that bless.

You can find souls whose thoughts are pure and mild,
And heroes, too. Not many, though, it seems.
In every other man there lives a child
Who’s playing with tin soldiers in his dreams.

There freedom withers, with no sun to nourish.
And when they build—it’s one more barrack square.
Knowst thou the land where only cannons flourish?
Not heard of it? You’ll know it soon, prepare.

Erich Kästner (1899–1974)
Tr. John Lehmann


The Very Moral Taxi Ride

He took a cab; he thought it right—
She talked of her husband the while.
He knew she looked her best that night,
But didn’t so much as smile.

Night’s alleyways went spinning by.
A stranger drove the car.
The stars were dressed up prettily.
The streets were pretty bare.

And when the taxi swung round curves
Their knees would manage to touch,
And both of them got a fit of nerves
Whenever it swung too much.

He spoke of a play he had just seen.
That sounded somewhat too ready.
She said how happy her marriage had been.
Her voice was not very steady.

Though looking out of the window, he knew
Her eyes had him fixed with a stare.
And suddenly she was troubled too
And said they were almost there.

Then they were silent for a stretch.
Overhead a storm-cloud broke.
In the end he felt a stupid wretch
And told her a silly joke.

The air was mild. And the taxi ran.
It smelled of fun and fuel.
For nature neither gave a damn.
Their knees were fighting a duel.

And then they got out. He gave her his hand.
And left. And thought: that’s that.
But when he got home he couldn’t stand
It, and kicked a hole in his hat.

Erich Kästner (1899–1974)
Tr. Eva Geisel


Young Man, 5 a.m.

Leaving you just on daybreak,
Out of your house, discreet,
I step on to the grey, bleak
And deserted street.

Up in the trees the sparrows
Grumpily greet the light.
There are cats in the shadows,
Wooden with appetite.

Will you long go on crying?
Or are you sleeping again?
May you after this suffering
Find a better man.

Down below at the baker’s
Cake is turning to stone.
Shrill, the alarm clock wakes us,
Rings away and is done.

This is still the great respite
Between the night and the day.
I’m going home in the twilight,
Hating myself all the way.

A faint light is glowing
In your window yet.
Will you long go on crying?
Soon the sun will be shining.
But it’s not shining yet.

Erich Kästner (1899–1974)
Tr. Patrick Bridgwater