German poetry: Theodor Fontane "John Maynard" | German Language Blog

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German Poetry: Theodor Fontane – “John Maynard” Posted by on Aug 24, 2012 in Language, Literature

Theodor Fontane (born 30 December in Neuruppin) was a German novelist and poet. His main job was actually pharmacist – a profession also carried on by his father – but always felt called to writing. His first novel Geschwisterliebe (Siblings Love) was published in 1839, the same year he finished his education in pharmacy. Ten years later, in 1849, he decided to quit his job as a pharmacist in favor of being a full-time writer.

“John Maynard” is one of Fontane’s best known ballads. For the first time, it was published in the Berliner Bunte Mappe (here: “Berlin Random Folder”).


Historic background of “John Maynard”

In the night from 8 August to 9 August 1841, the paddle steamer Erie caught fire while its trip from Buffalo to Erie (Pennsylvania). Turpentine and paint was stored next to the steam boilers. Unlike in the ballad, only 29 out of 200 passengers were rescued. It is also not known whether the real “John Maynard” (probably the helmsman Luther Fuller) had survive this catastrophe or survived seriously injured.


John Maynard!”Wer ist John Maynard?”


“John Maynard war unser Steuermann,

Aus hielt er,

bis er das Ufer gewann,

Er hat uns gerettet, er trägt die


Er starb für uns, unsre Liebe

sein Lohn.

John Maynard.”


Die “Schwalbe”

fliegt über den Erie-See,

Gischt schäumt um den Bug

wie Flocken von Schnee;

Von Detroit

fliegt sie nach Buffalo –

Die Herzen aber

sind frei und froh,

Und die Passagiere

mit Kindern und Fraun

Im Dämmerlicht

schon das Ufer schaun,

Und plaudernd

an John Maynard heran

Tritt alles:

“Wie weit noch, Steuermann?”

Der schaut nach vorn

und schaut in die Rund:

“Noch dreißig Minuten … Halbe Stund.”


Alle Herzen sind froh,

alle Herzen sind frei

Da klingt’s aus dem Schiffsraum

her wie Schrei,

“Feuer!” war es, was da klang,

Ein Qualm

aus Kajüt und Luke drang,

Ein Qualm,

dann Flammen lichterloh,

Und noch zwanzig Minuten

bis Buffalo.


Und die Passagiere,

bunt gemengt,

Am Bugspriet

stehn sie zusammengedrängt,

Am Bugspriet vorn

ist noch Luft und Licht,

Am Steuer aber

lagert sich´s dicht,

Und ein Jammern wird laut:

“Wo sind wir? wo?”

Und noch fünfzehn Minuten

bis Buffalo.


Der Zugwind wächst,

doch die Qualmwolke steht,

Der Kapitän

nach dem Steuer späht,

Er sieht nicht mehr

seinen Steuermann,

Aber durchs Sprachrohr

fragt er an:

“Noch da, John Maynard?”

“Ja,Herr. Ich bin.”

“Auf den Strand!

In die Brandung!”

“Ich halte drauf hin.”

Und das Schiffsvolk jubelt:

“Halt aus! Hallo!”

Und noch zehn Minuten

bis Buffalo. – –


“Noch da, John Maynard?”

Und Antwort schallt’s

Mit ersterbender Stimme:

“Ja, Herr, ich halt’s!”

Und in die Brandung,

was Klippe, was Stein,

Jagt er die “Schwalbe”

mitten hinein.

Soll Rettung kommen,

so kommt sie nur so.


der Strand von Buffalo!


Das Schiff geborsten.

Das Feuer verschwelt.

Gerettet alle.

Nur einer fehlt!


Alle Glocken gehn;

ihre Töne schwell’n


aus Kirchen und Kapell’n,

Ein Klingen und Läuten,

sonst schweigt die Stadt,

Ein Dienst nur,

den sie heute hat:

Zehntausend folgen

oder mehr,

Und kein Aug’ im Zuge, das tränenleer.



Sie lassen den Sarg

in Blumen hinab,

Mit Blumen

schließen sie das Grab,

Und mit goldner Schrift

in den Marmorstein

Schreibt die Stadt

ihren Dankspruch ein:

“Hier ruht John Maynard!

In Qualm und Brand

Hielt er das Steuer

fest in der Hand,

Er hat uns gerettet,

er trägt die Kron,

Er starb für uns,

unsre Liebe sein Lohn.

John Maynard.”

John Maynard!”Who is John Maynard?”


“John Maynard was our helmsman true.

To solid land

he carried us through.

He saved our lives, our noble king.


He died for us; his praise we sing.


John Maynard.”


From Detroit to Buffalo


As mist sprays her bow

like flakes of snow

Over Lake Erie

the “Swallow” takes flight

And every heart

is joyful and light.

In the dusk,

the passengers all

Can already make out

the dim landfall,

And approaching John Maynard,

their hearts free of care,

They ask of their helmsman,

“Are we almost there?”

He looks around

and toward the shore:

“Still 30 minutes…. a half hour more.”


All hearts are happy,

all hearts are light —

Then out of the hold

comes a cry of fright.

“Fire!” it is, that terrified shout.

From the cabin and hatch

black smoke pours out.


then fire and flames aglow,

And still 20 minutes

to Buffalo.


And the passengers,

in a colorful crowd

Stand pressed together

on the bow.

Up on the bow

there is still air and light

But the smoke at the helm

forms a thick, dark night.

“Where are we? Where?”

the men must know,

And still 15 minutes

to Buffalo. —


The wind grows strong

but the smoke cloud stays.

To the helm

the captain turns his gaze.

The helmsman is hidden

by the raging fires

But through the bullhorn

the captain enquires:

“Still there, John Maynard?”

“Yes, sir. I am.”

“Onto the beach!

Into the surf!”

“Yes, sir. That’s my plan.”

And the people cry:

“Hold on! Hallo!”

And still 10 minutes

to Buffalo.–


“Still there, John Maynard?”

And the answer is clear,

Though with dying voice:

“Yes, sir. I’m still here.”

And in the surf,

rocks, obstacles afloat,

Into their midst

he plunges the boat.

To be saved,

it’s the only way to go.


the shores of Buffalo!


The fire is out.

The ship’s run aground.

All are saved.

Only one can’t be found.


The bells ring out,

their notes all fly

From churches and chapels

to heaven on high.

The city is still

but for funeral bells.

For one service only

the sad sound swells:

In the procession ten thousand go by,

Or maybe more –

and not one dry eye.



With layers of flowers

the grave they soften.

Under more flowers

they bury the coffin.

With golden script

in marble stone

The city

has its tribute shown:

“Here lies John Maynard!

In smoke and fire

He held fast to the wheel;

he did not tire.

He saved our lives,

our noble king.

He died for us;

his praise we sing.

John Maynard!”


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About the Author:Sandra Rösner

Hello everybody! I studied English and American Studies, Communication Science, and Political Science at the University of Greifswald. Since I have been learning English as a second language myself for almost 20 years now I know how difficult it is to learn a language other than your native one. Thus, I am always willing to keep my explanations about German grammar comprehensible and short. Further, I am inclined to encourage you to speak German in every situation. Regards, Sandra


  1. Anuj Kumar:

    Das gedicht ist wirklich gut und besonder. Das gedicht gefält mir sehr. Ich habe auch etlichen gedichte geschreiben.

    Mit grüß
    Anuj Kumar

  2. Lilly H:

    Thank you for putting that on the web. I loved learning this poem in school but never really got it until I was out of school. I love that it tells of an historical event and altough not entirely true is still based on a real story.
    There is just so many great values within the poem too. I will definitely have my children learn this poem. Thank you again for the translated version too.