The launch of one of my videos on YouTube is always accompanied by a flurry of PR activity. Well actually, I just tweet it a couple of times in the hope that somebody somewhere will notice. From time to time I even get some responses. My most recent one on the death of Alaric elicited a gem of a response from @sciamannata who drew my attention to a poem on the subject by the German romantic poet August Graf von Platen. I don’t know anything about this guy apart from his dates – early nineteenth century. But reading the poem you can get a big sense of what Alaric meant to pre-unification Germans.
Alaric is a doomed romantic hero, dying young and mourned by his adoring people. It isn’t hard to see why Germans of the time would be looking for heroes like that. Their country had been walked over by Napoleon’s armies and carved up afterwards by outsiders. The arrangements they had been left with could have been designed to make Germany weak on the world stage. In fact, that was exactly what they had been designed for. Who wouldn’t long for a heroic leader with a strong military track record?
Nationalism of course, as we now know, turned out to have some pretty big downsides. But the big thing in history is that the people who participate in it, unlike us, don’t know what is coming next. August must have thought he was indulging in a harmless, even a noble, pastime when he penned his poem. That that kind of thinking would lead to war, suffering and disaster must have been the last thing on his mind. But it is a good poem.
On Busento’s grassy banks a muffled chorus echoes nightly,
While the swirling eddies answer and the wavelets ripple lightly.
Up and down the river, shades of Gothic warriors watch are keeping,
For they mourn their people’s hero, Alaric, with sobs of weeping.
All too soon and far from home and kindred here to rest they laid him,
While in youthful beauty still his flowing golden curls arrayed him.
And along the river’s bank a thousand hands with eager striving
Labored long, another channel for Busento’s tide contriving.
Then a cavern deep they hollowed in the river-bed depleted,
Placed therein the dead king, clad in proof, upon his charger seated.
O’er him and his proud array the earth they filled, and covered loosely,
So that on their hero’s grave the water-plants would grow profusely.
And again the course they altered of Busento’s waters troubled;
In its ancient channel rushed the current–foamed, and hissed, and bubbled.
And the Goths in chorus chanted: ‘Hero, sleep! Tiny fame immortal
Roman greed shall ne’er insult, nor break thy tomb’s most sacred portal!’
Thus they sang, and paeans sounded high above the fight’s commotion;
Onward roll, Busento’s waves, and bear them to the farthest ocean!