Martin Luther and Omar?

The combination of wine, women and song is found throughout the centuries and in widely separated countries. But perhaps the most controversial of these is that attributed to Martin Luther:

"Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib und Gesang,
Der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang."

Or, as it is usually translated:

"Who loves not women, wine, and song
will stay a fool his whole life long."

(Though Weib is actually singular, the word is usually taken to refer to "woman" generally, and hence rendered in the plural.)

The phrase "attributed to Martin Luther" is used advisedly, because although the great religious reformer is widely credited with this saying, there is no evidence at all that he ever said it, and it is not to be found in any of his writings (1), notably his Table Talk, where it would most likely have been recorded had he ever really said it.

It is certainly true that though a churchman, Luther was wary of the notion of celibacy and approved of marriage for priests (2). It is also true that he himself enjoyed the physical side of marriage (3). But he also had a churchman's abhorrence of lust, and though he approved of sex in marriage, he did not approve of nakedness nor of 'unusual positions' in the process (4).

Luther also liked a drink or two. As Roland H.Bainton (5) notes:

"He imbibed and took some pride in his capacity. He had a mug around which were three rings. The first he said represented the Ten Commandments, the second the Apostles' Creed, and the third the Lord's Prayer. Luther was highly amused that he was able to drain the glass of wine through the Lord's Prayer, whereas his friend Agricola could not get beyond the Ten Commandments. "

"But", adds Bainton, lest his readers get the wrong idea, "Luther is not recorded ever to have exceeded a state of hilarity." Indeed, it appears that he was very conscious of being watched at meal-times, lest he overstep the limits of piety, for he is recorded as saying, "If Our Lord is permitted to create nice, large pike and good Rhine wine, presumably I may be allowed to eat and drink."(6) This, of course, is reminiscent of verse 61 of FitzGerald's 3rd and 4th editions (verse 63 of the 2nd) in which Omar argues that since God created the Juice of the Grape, we should be grateful to Him, and enjoy it!

Moving from women and wine to song now, it is also true that Luther loved music and not just hymns (7). Though he disapproved of profane songs, he was aware that church music in comparison to secular music could be needlessly dull and lifeless (8).

But though he enjoyed marital sex, drank beer and wine, and loved music, he thoroughly disapproved of the drinking and whoring that had come to surround many church festivals (9). It is still surprising, then, that the lines quoted at the beginning of this article should ever have been attributed to him. So how did this attribution come about?

Originally, it seems (10), the German couplet quoted at the beginning of this essay was part of a longer poem, thus:

"Dir wünsch' ich Wein und Mädchenkuss,
Und deinem Klepper Pegasus
Die Krippe stets voll Futter!
Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib und Gesang,
Der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang;
Sagt Doktor Martin Luther."

In English this translates as:

"I wish for you wine and a maiden's kiss,
and for your nag Pegasus,
the manger always full of fodder!
Who loves not women, wine, and song
will stay a fool his whole life long;
Says Doctor Martin Luther."

The second and third lines of this are very puzzling, but since wine and women are mentioned in the opening line, I presume that Pegasus is somehow representative of song. But maybe one determining factor was simply that Pegasus rhymes with Mädchenkuss!

But be that as it may, the lines first appeared, anonymously, in the literary section of the German newspaper, Wandsbecker Bothen (Wandsbecker Messenger), in 1775, under the title, "Devise an einen Poeten" (Motto to a Poet) Two years later they appeared again in a book by the German classicist and poet Johann Heinrich Voss (1751-1826) - his Musenalmanach (Muses' Almanac). Here the lines appeared under the heading "Gesundheit" (Health), and were ascribed to "Dr. M. Luther."

But did Voss actually write the lines, or merely quote them from the anonymous author in the Wandsbecker Bothen ? Though he did have associations with the Wandsbecker Bothen, it is by no means certain that it was he who wrote those lines for it. Voss certainly did write a poem "An Luther" (To Luther) in 1776/7, the last verse of which reads:

"Doch jeder Christ und gute Mann
Stimmt laut mit dir, o Vater, an:
Wer nicht liebt Weib, Wein und Gesang,
Der bleibt ein Narr sein Lebelang."

This translates as:

"Indeed, every Christian and good man
Agrees with you, O Father, that:
Who does not love woman, wine and song,
Remains a fool his whole life long."

The last two lines, of course, are our contentious couplet, and here they certainly are, in a poem by Voss, and associated with Luther. But was Voss being irreverent here? He was certainly an advocate of religious freedom, and the original lines can be seen as a jibe against the general religious disapproval of life's pleasures by the overly pious in the Church - which might well include, of course, Luther's own disapproval of the wanton behaviour exhibited on some church festivals! But then Voss's poem, overall, is hardly anti-Luther, so is it possible that Voss believed, on the strength of the lines in Wandsbecker Bothen, that the lines were by Luther? The thing is that Weib is singular, and can mean "Wife" as well as "Woman", and this puts quite a different slant on things when one considers the views of Luther on wine, marriage and music, cited above. Be that as it may, it is a fact that Voss failed to secure a teaching post because his lines were deemed to be of malicious intent.(11)

Whatever the truth of it, the opening couplet of the present essay, with or without Luther's name attached, entered into popular culture, surfacing , for example, in German drinking songs. On a more refined level, the couplet was also the source of inspiration for the title of Strauss's well-known "Wein, Weib und Gesang" waltz, commissioned for the Vienna Men's Choral Association in 1869. On a different front, the couplet also became a theme for jolly German postcards (Fig.1 & Fig.2 - both dating from the first decade of the twentieth century) and posters (Fig.3 - dating from about 1880.) Interestingly, the more respectable version of the couplet, taking Weib to mean Wife, also puts in an appearance - Fig.4 is an example from America, one assumes devised by German immigrants - at any rate, it was a print published by Kimmel and Voigt of New York, in about 1873. But the fame of the lines spread beyond the German world, for by 1862 they were being quoted - with Luther's name attached - in chapter 7 of Thackeray's novel, The Adventures of Philip on his Way through the World. The novel has Philip singing a song entitled "Doctor Luther", "taken from a German song book", each of whose three verses end with the lines:

"As Doctor Luther sang,
Who loves not wine, woman and song
He is a fool his whole life long."

Interestingly, though, the couplet did not appear in the 1869 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

Exactly how or why the whole thing started, then, and whether Voss himself started it or just gave it a good boost, remains uncertain. The suggestion has even been made (12) that poor old Luther got dragged into it simply because his name rhymed with "Futter" in the third line. I suspect, though, that there is a bit more to it than this, and that we have here a piece of religious sarcasm, at least at some level.

It remains only to mention that the couplet quoted at the beginning of this essay is to be found inscribed in a room once famously occupied by Luther - the room now known as the Luther Room in the Castle of Wartburg (13). This was where he took refuge from the authorities between May 1521 and March 1522, and where he did his translation of the New Testament into German. There is no reference to such an inscription on the castle website, but it is certainly mentioned by Büchmann (cited in note 10.) Who actually inscribed it there - officially, or in the form of an unofficial graffito - I do not know. Possibly whoever put it there thought the lines really were by Luther, and - taking weib to be wife or otherwise - agreed wholeheartedly with them; possibly they are there as a piece of anti-Lutherian mischief, such as indeed Voss was accused of. Who knows?


(1) Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (1993), p.310. Oberman says, "We cannot find the apt saying 'Who loves not women, wine, and song will stay a fool his whole life long' in Luther's writings", adding that, "The Reformer's admirers protested indignantly against such nonsense being imputed to their hero. And they were right!" Hugh Percy Jones in his Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Qutations (1949), simply says, "These lines have been attributed to Martin Luther, but it is more than doubtful whether he was the author of them." (p.386)

(2) Richard Friedenthal, Luther (1967), p.217-8 & p.446.

(3) V.H.H.Green, Luther and the Reformation (1974), p.44, p.123 & p.149.

(4) Susan C. Karant-Nunn & Merry E, Wiesner-Hanks, Luther on Women (2003), p.11-12.

(5) Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther(2012), p.298.

(6) Friedenthal p.445.

(7) Friedenthal p.461.

(8) Friedenthal p.463-4.

(9) Friedenthal p.218; Green p.90.

(10) W. Francis H. King, Classical and Foreign Quotations, 3rd edition (1904), entry 2999 (p.383.) In this, King follows Georg Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte ("Winged Words" - a book of quotations), the 19th edition of 1898, p.125-7, which in its turn follows Carl Christian Redlich, Die poetischen Beiträge zum Wandsbecker Bothen (Poetical Contributions to the Wandsbecker Mesenger) (1871), p.57. See also the excellent online source cited in note 11 below.

(11) A very useful source on all this, including a translation of the key Büchmann source cited in note 10, is the website:
See under "Wine, Women and Song".

(12) Thus the 13th and Centennial Edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (1955), p.382, which, following Redlich (cited in note 10), attributes the couplet to Voss, says that it "has also been attributed to Luther, apparently on no better authority than an eighteenth century jingle in which 'Luther' is needed to rhyme with 'Futter'."

(13) Thus, for example, the fourth edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1992) says this: "Attributed (later inscribed in the Luther room in the Wartburg, but with no proof of authorship.)"


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