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There is this passage from the Gralserzählung from Lohengrin:

Drin ein Gefäß von wundertät’gem Segen
Wird dort als höchstes Heiligtum bewacht.
Es ward, dass sein der Menschen reinste pflegen,
Herab von einer Engelschar gebracht.

How does one parse the third line grammatically? In english it's "It was to be cared for by the purest of man". What trips me up is the positioning of sein. Is it to be read as "der Menschen (dativ) sein reinste" = "Mankind's purest?", in which case 'sein' should have been 'ihr'. In addition, there seems to be no object for pflegen.

2 Answers 2

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The full text can be found here, and the interesting part is:

es ward, daß sein der Menschen Reinste pflegen, herab von einer Engelschar gebracht;

Note, that Reinste is uppercase here indicating use as substantive.

This translates to:

To be taken care of by the purest of mankind, it was brought down [i. e. from heaven] by a group of angels.

Sein actually poetically refers to the Gral (more exact: the Gefäß from the previous clause) and it is exactly the object of pflegen you did not find elsewhere.

der Menschen Reinste is also poetic/dated construct, the left-hand attribute, which is addressed in this German answer.

Update to reflect comments:

DWDS shows in the last example a dated use of pflegen with genitive from Schiller.

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    I would interpret sein as a shortened form of seiner which means it's a genitive object.
    – RHa
    Aug 13, 2021 at 15:15
  • @RHa Interesting! Is it common in the past to have verbs to take the genitive object in cases where the akkusative would have been used today? In another passage (Einsam in trüben Tagen) Elsa says "des Ritters will ich wahren, er soll mein Streiter sein"
    – Jan Lynn
    Aug 13, 2021 at 20:53
  • @ZhanfengLim Yes, that's a somewhat common pattern. Another example is "vergessen". Current usage "Vergiss mich nicht", old usage: "Vergiß meiner nicht", shortened: "Vergiß mein nicht", which is the name of a flower ("Vergißmeinnicht"). Quite parallel to what is happening in the Lohengrin verse.
    – HalvarF
    Aug 14, 2021 at 10:28
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    In Lohengrin, Wagner used the genitive a lot, maybe in order to make the language sound archaic: Nie sollst du mich befragen, noch Wissens Sorge tragen, woher ich kam der Fahrt, noch wie mein Nam’ und Art!
    – RHa
    Aug 14, 2021 at 21:16
  • @RHa Interesting to know that such uses of the Genitiv is considered archaic even in Wagner's time! I thought that it would have been more normal to write this way during his time. I know the passage you just mentioned, but never knew 'der Fahrt' was in genitiv (after all it could have been Dativ). How would one translate the sentence 'woher ich kam der Fahrt' here? I'm quite interested in archaic german.
    – Jan Lynn
    Aug 16, 2021 at 19:38
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From DWDS for sein

It is using outdated language which is probably what's confusing. "Sein" in this case is a Personalpronomen like "Ihm","Ihn" or "Ihr"

So you could write it as

"Es ward, dass ihn der Menschen Reinste pflegen ..."

Your translation is pretty spot on I feel:

It was to be cared for by the purest of man Es ward, dass sein der Menschen reinste pflegen

"to be cared for" moves to the end of the sentence here as "pflegen" "the purest of man" becomes "der Menschen Reinste" While "sein" simply refers to "him" the Gral

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  • "Sein' would stand for "es" then (das Gefäß), not "ihn", though. "Es ward, dass es der Menschen Reinste pflegen, ...".
    – HalvarF
    Aug 13, 2021 at 13:03
  • @HalvarF We're not talking about "Das Gefäß" -> es We're talking about "Der Gral" -> ihn
    – user49310
    Aug 13, 2021 at 16:48
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    At this point nothing about 'der Gral' is mentioned though, it only appears in the next paragraph, so grammatically does it not have to refer to das Gefäss? Thanks for the informative answer! Something new I learnt today again about the German language!
    – Jan Lynn
    Aug 13, 2021 at 20:48
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    @HalvarF "Es ward" is referring to "something happening" and is not referring to any noun. The english equivalent would be saying "And so it was" the "it" here also doesn't refer to any specific thing
    – user49310
    Aug 15, 2021 at 12:22
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    @Trae: No. Read the whole verse. You own translation "It was, to be cared for by the purest of man, ..." contradicts your statement. "Es ward, dass [....], herab von einer Engelschar gebracht.". "Es ward gebracht" - nämlich das Gefäß.
    – HalvarF
    Aug 15, 2021 at 17:48

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