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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
18-and-under, joint first prize

Read the judges’ comments
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Read the winning entries from previous years


Francis Scarr

The Destruction of Magdeburg


Ever been to Magdeburg?
A city of golden girls –
Loaded with top-class women.
You must have heard of it...

…where flowers bloom by the roadsides
Count Tzerclaes is coming.
Trampling the meadows and blossom,
The Count is closing in.

'Christ! He's here!'
'We're done for.'
'Stand up to him!' 'Man up!'
'Go and batter him!'

'There's still time!
He's coming bloody quickly
But we've still got time
For a roll in the hay…'

Listen to them:
Money won't save me now.
Your father's already dead.
Kid, please don't go.

Child 1: Mummy I'm starving.
Child 2: Is Daddy dead?
Child 3: Please, just some bread!
Mother 1: We're stuffed.

Mother 2: Daddy's dead, little one.
Everyone's on the run.
A crimson cascade there already.
Mother 3: Where are we going?

Our church fears these rosary-grapplers.
The crucifix-clutchers wrapped round that house.
Hell's inferno with fire and brimstone.
Get out of the house!

We're stuffed.
The army dances through the streets,
Here and there amongst the pyres.
Shit! They've left us.

Houses fall everywhere.
Is mine alright?
What's mine isn't yours!
So leave it mate.

Women scream in fear.
The girls scream even more.
They're screwing everything that moves –
And they've raped the town as well.

Translated from the German by Francis Scarr
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Die Zerstörung Magdeburgs


O Magdeburg, die Stadt,
Die schöne Mädchen hat,
Die schöne Frau'n und Mädchen hat,
O Magdeburg, die Stadt.

Da alles steht im Flor,
Der Tilly zieht davor,
Durch Garten und durch Felder Flor,
Der Tilly zieht davor.

Der Tilly steht davor!
Wer rettet Stadt und Haus?
Geh', Lieber, geh' zum Tor
Hinaus und schlag' dich mit ihm draus!

Es hat noch keine Not,
So sehr er tobt und droht,
ich küsse deine Wänglein rot,
Es hat noch keine Not.

Die Sehnsucht mach mich bleich.
Warum bin ich denn reich?
Dein Vater ist vielleicht schon bleich,
Du, Kind, du machst mich weich.

O Mutter, gib mir Brot!
Ist denn der Vater tod?
O Mutter, gib ein Stückchen Brot!
O welche große Not.

Dein Vater lieb ist hin,
Die Bürger alle fliehn.
Schon fließt das Blut die Straße hin,
Wo fliehn wir hin, wohin?

Die Kirche stürzt in Graus,
Da droben brennt das Haus,
Es qualmt das Dach, schon flammt's heraus –
Nur auf die Straß' hinaus!

Ach, keine Rettung mehr
In Straßen rast das Heer,
Mit Flammen rast es hin und her,
Ach keine Rettung mehr!

Die Häuser stürzen ein.
Wo ist das Mein und Dein?
Das Bündelchen, es ist nicht dein,
Du flüchtig Mägdelein.

Die Weiber bangen sehr,
Die Mägdlein noch viel mehr.
Was lebt, ist keine Jungfer mehr.
So raset Tillys Heer.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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Translation commentary


Having heard about this monumental ravaging of a city on a radio programme, I was interested to discover this poem. The poem is particularly archaic and I found that my literal translation seemed quite stilted and unoriginal. Therefore, I have aimed to create something entirely different from the original in terms of structure yet at the same time to maintain as much of the meaning as possible. I wanted to play with this formality and make the translation a raw expression of the emotions the poem contains.

One particular difficulty I faced in this translation was rendering what seems to be direct speech into something more creative. This I achieved by using a drama-like appearance which gives the poem a completely different form and captures the variety of voices caught in the onslaught of the Catholic army. Additionally, although Goethe seems to imply the desperation between lovers in the moments before Tilly's army finally besieges the town, he does not actually describe any such ideas in much detail. In order to make this aspect more immediate, I employed the sexual innuendo of 'But we've still got time/ For a roll in the hay' which seemed to bring out this despair for lovemaking more vividly. As a Lutheran city, Magdeburg was threatened by Tilly's Catholic army and I thought that to convey this anti-Catholic feeling I should play with certain phrases. For example, Goethe shows the church and houses burning, personifying the church as collapsing in horror: 'Die Kirche stürzt in Graus'. I altered this line to 'Our church fears these rosary-grapplers' which I feel conveys the friction between the Lutheran and Catholic faiths in seventeenth century 'Germany' in a better way to a modern audience.

Francis Scarr