Here's the second-to-last verse from a translation of Fontane's "Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan" ("The Tragedy of Afghanistan"):

They played all night and the following day,
They played like only love made them play;
The songs were still heard, but darkness did fall.
In vain is your watch, in vain is your call.

The rest of the poem is telling a story in third-person point of view. Why, then, does the last line here suddenly switch to second-person ("your watch", "your call")? A quick Google Translate of the original verse confirms that the original also addressed the reader. What effect does this add to the poem?

Why does "The Tragedy of Afghanistan" suddenly switch to second-person in the second-to-last verse?

1 Answer 1


A quick Google Translate of the original verse confirms that the original also addressed the reader

Maybe I'm totally missing something here but as a german native speaker, I'd doubt that the narrator adresses the reader here. Contextually, the remaining soldiers of the story are still on focus. It's a rhetorical device, bringing the reader from a quite objective point of view a bit more into the scene. So one can say, the narrator somehow speaks to the soldiers/involved protagonists of the story.

What effect does this add to the poem?

At least a minor effect is the emphasis of an ongoing scene (with unknown result for the narrator as well up to this point) that is been observed more actively by the narrator and the reader both, comparable maybe a bit to a war coverage done by a quite active observer. Without the transition from an objective point of view to a more subjective layer, the aspect of tension might get lost a bit.

In general, a further aspect of this rhetorical device can sometimes be an identification or even an "anti-identification" with a protagonist or relevant group of the story. With focus on Fontane's poem, that might be the emphasis, that this kind of war coverage is created by a member of the fractions involved here (the british soldiers). The opposite, i.e. the "anti-identification" emphasis is sometimes observable within columns in news papers for instance, namely when authors want to emphasize their opposition to fascistic tendencies for instance. Within quite objective articles, you can sometimes observe phrases like "You will never prevail!".

  • Please note that line 33 ("Sie bliesen die Nacht und über den Tag") is in the past tense, whereas line 36 ("Umsonst, daß ihr ruft, umsonst, daß ihr wacht") is in the present tense and is not in quotes, unlike Sir Robert's words, which are actually addressed at the soldiers.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 10:37
  • 1
    @Tsundoku yes I know but that should not affect my points since I wanted to say, that the narrator adresses the soldiers here directly, evaluating the situation a bit more subjectively.
    – Secundi
    Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 10:50
  • The switch from past to present tense can be seen as an in-scene "recent past" summary up to the "current" time point of the poem: Telling the recent background in paste tense but stating the evaluation of the situation in present tense, emphasizing the lyrical presence of the narrator.
    – Secundi
    Commented Feb 22, 2021 at 10:56

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