And though ye bind your noble prey in thongs and fetters hard and fast,
And though ye lead her out to die beneath the fortress wall at last,
And though she lie beneath the sod, whose fair green grass at dawning red
The peasant girl with roses decks, — I tell ye all, she is not dead!
And though ye rob her forehead high of all its locks of floating hair,
And choose the murderer and the thief your dungeon-den with her to share;
Though she has donned your prison dress, and ta’en the food your gaoler gave;
And though she now your oakum picks, — I tell ye, she is not your slave!
And though ye hunt her from her home, and drive her out to distant lands,
And though she seeks a stranger’s hearth, and mutely by its ashes stands,
And though she bathes by unknown streams feet sore with stones and splinters sharp,
She ne’er will deign on foreign trees to hang on high her sacred harp.
Ah no— she sets it at her side, and proudly strikes a strain of hope;
She laughs her exiled state to scorn, as she has laughed to scorn the rope;
She chants a song whereat ye all spring to your feet in evil cheer,
That sets your hearts — your coward hearts — your traitor hearts — athrob with fear.
No strain is hers of grief and tears, nor e’en regret for those that died;
Far less a song of keen contempt for that hypocrisy of pride,
Your Beggar’s Opera, in whose scenes ye well know how to prance and prate,
How smirched soe’er your purple be, how rotten all your robes of state.
Nay, what she sings by foreign streams is not the shame of folk forlorn;
‘Tis song that triumphs o’er defeat, and hails the future’s mighty morn.
Bright dawns her day: she speaks but that her fierce prophetic eyes can see,
Of days to come, as erst your God: “I was, I am, and aye shall be!
“Yea, yet shall be, and once again before my People I
Shall plant my foot upon your necks, and lay your thrones and kingdoms low;
Shall free the slave, and right the wrong, with sword unsheathed and flag unfurled,
And strong with outstretched arm of might cry Freedom’s
birth to all the world.
“Ye see me in the poor man’s hut, ye see me in the dungeon den,
Or wandering on the thorny path of exile among unkind men;
Ye fools! a dwelling-place is mine wherein the tyrant hath no part,
A kingdom in the brave man’s brow, a home in every noble heart.
“In hearts that know not how to bend, that cannot cringe, and dare not lie,
That beat in sacred sympathy with all that suffer and that die,
In every hut where workers toil, and men for freedom strive and strain,
There, there I hold eternal right with undisputed sway to reign.
“Day dawns apace; yet once again before my People I shall go,
Shall plant my foot upon your necks, and lay your crowns and kingdoms low.
‘Tis no mere threat; the words ye hear are writ by Fate with iron hand —
This sultry noon! — Yet, while I sing, free breezes cool this foreign land.”
This poem was written by the German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810 – 1876) in 1851 . Freiligrath was a close friend of Karl Marx. Rosa Luxemburg ended her last known written article ‘Order reigns in Berlin’, composed after the defeat of the Spartacus League uprising, with the words “Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein” “I was, I am, I shall be”, taken from the poem. She was murdered by the Freikorps the following day, on 15 January 1919.
This translation is by the English socialist J L Joynes, who was a schoolmaster at Eton and a member of the Social Democratic Federation. It is in a wonderful collection of German poems translated and edited by Joynes, ‘Songs of a Revolutionary Epoch’, published in 1888.