Poetry and Politics: Scott County, Iowa, 1896

In recognition of April as National Poetry Month, we look to a Davenport newspaper’s use of a famous German poem to make a point about Scott County voters in early 1896.

Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei recounts the legend of a beautiful maiden who would perch atop the steep banks of the Rhine River and “sing the nicest kind of song to allure the passing voyager, who, succumbing to her enchantment, was dashed upon the rocks and devoured by the remorseless waves.” (1) The Davenport Weekly Leader, a Democratic newspaper, likened this voyager to the county citizens who voted Republican Francis M. Drake into office. The newspaper suggested that if a few words in the poem were to be changed, it would accurately describe the Liberal Republicans’ conduct running up to the November 1895 Iowa gubernatorial election and the area voters’ vulnerability to campaign promises.

Below is an English translation (2) of the Die Lorelei text appearing in the January 17, 1896 edition of the Weekly Leader; the substitute words and phrases suggested by the newspaper are in parentheses following the originals.

I know not if (well) there is a reason
Why I am so sad (tired) at heart.
A legend (Liberal Republican promises) of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.

The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine (Mississippi) courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening’s final ray (Liberal Republican “Mondschein”= moonlight).

The fairest of maidens (Liberal Republicanism) is sitting
So marvelous up there,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She’s combing her golden hair.

She combs with a comb also golden,
And sings a song as well
Whose melody binds a wondrous
And overpowering spell.

In his little boat, the boatman (Anti-Prohibitionist Voter)
Is seized with a savage woe,
He’d rather look up at the mountain (Prohibition Record of the Republican Party)
Than down at the rocks below.

I think that the waves (Prohibition Republicans) will devour
The boatman and boat as one;
And this by her song’s sheer power
Fair Lorelei (Scott County Liberal Republican leaders) has (have) done.

The many German immigrant families in Scott County for whom beer gardens were a way of life (and breweries often a livelihood) had long opposed Prohibition by supporting Democrats. However, the Iowa Republican party’s efforts to disassociate itself from the temperance movement in the early 1890’s (3) had apparently won over some of these voters, much to the chagrin of the Leader and Davenport’s two German-language newspapers: Der Demokrat and Iowa Reform.

Although it is unlikely the invitation to “other local poets” to “prepare a campaign song for the next election using the German ballad as a model” had any takers, we chroniclers of Davenport and Scott County history delight in the Leader’s literary turn this National Poetry Month 2016.

(posted by Katie)

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(1) “Liberal Republican Loreleis.” Davenport Weekly Leader January 17, 1896: 12.

(2) Foreman, A. Z. “Heinrich Heine: The Lorelei (From German).” Poems Found in Translation. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.

(3) McDaniel, George W. “The Rocky Road to Nirvana: Iowa and Prohibition in the 19th Century – Essay Read at the German-America[n] Heritage Center, June 10, 2012.McDaniel Talk – German American Heritage Center. German American Heritage Center. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.

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