What is the best interpretation of the verb zwingen in this line of verse?

Den frohen Künstler kann die Welt nicht zwingen,
Er aber zwingt mit seiner Kunst die Welt.

I'm broadly familiar with the range of meanings of zwingen, but struggling to understand the implications in this context.

  • 3
    Where did you find this?
    – Paul Frost
    Nov 13, 2023 at 10:16
  • In this case, "zwingen" is used in the sense of "bezwingen". This is an outdated use of the verb, but we find it still in some regular dialects in the context of eating: "Ich zwinge die Pizza nicht" = "The Pizza is too much for me to eat". Hence, the meaning is that the world can not subdue the artist, but the artists masterpieces subdue the world. Nov 16, 2023 at 12:16
  • 1
    @Paul Frost It's a personal dedication to a family member in a book. Likely to be late 19th / early 20th century.
    – ajor
    Nov 19, 2023 at 17:04

5 Answers 5


The meaning of "zwingen" here is "to force [someone/something to act/react]". We'd expect some specification in the context on what exactly is being forced onto someone else here. But that is omitted, so that could be pretty much "anything".

In the first line it is stated that the world cannot force the "happy artist"* to do anything.

In the second line: by creating and publishing art, the artist forces the world to act/react (e.g. to the message expressed by their art).

You could extend the lines by inserting specific things that the original author might have meant, but left the act of actually inserting them as an exercise to the reader. Here's one of many possible specifics that could have been meant:

Den frohen Künstler kann die Welt nicht zwingen, konform mit der Welt zu gehen.
Er aber zwingt mit seiner Kunst die Welt, über sich selbst nachzudenken.

A bit more generalized and written in english, you could choose to interpret the text as:

Even against the world, artists will find a way to express themselves,
but the world cannot ignore the artists' message.

*) There is some hint about "braveness" or "optimistic determination" in "froh" that is not present in the word "happy", but I can't seem to find a better suited english word and the question is not about that.

  • Perhaps plucky for the adjective. Nov 14, 2023 at 1:03
  • I think a good choice for zwingen might be "compel", and perhaps "contented", or "assured", for froh? But then I barely speak German - I'm just basing those on orithena's descriptions.
    – JonathanZ
    Nov 14, 2023 at 2:09
  • Glad is a better match for froh
    – Zibelas
    Nov 14, 2023 at 7:25

This is the verb bezwingen in reality. But the author used the plain zwingen out of poetic freedom because the sentence has a better rhythm that way.

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    Das überzeugt mich nicht. Warum sollte die Welt den Künstler eher bezwingen als zu etwas nicht Gesagtem zwingen? Nov 13, 2023 at 0:43
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    Weil "zwingen" nur in Verbindung mit einem ausdrücklichen oder stark implizierten "zu" sinnhaft ist. Da hier keines zu finden ist, ist die Interpretation als "bezwingen" wahrscheinlicher. Nov 13, 2023 at 7:57
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    @KilianFoth Those lines read pretty poetic, so I'd assume that: By omitting what exactly is being forced onto whom, inserting the specifics is intended to be left as an exercise to the reader.
    – orithena
    Nov 13, 2023 at 9:54
  • @KilianFoth Zum Zeitpunkt, als das Gedicht geschrieben wurde, hatte "jemanden zwingen" die Bedeutung "jemandem etwas aufzwingen". "Bezwingen" ist damals wie heute eher "Überwinden", und das ist im Gedicht definitiv nicht gemeint.
    – toolforger
    Nov 13, 2023 at 22:03
  • @toolforger: Wann wurde das Gedicht denn geschrieben und von wem? Nov 16, 2023 at 5:02

"Zwingen" just as its English counterpart "force", needs additional words to clarify what is forced e.g.

Ich zwinge dich, mir dein Geld zu geben I force you to give me your money

but it could also be implied through context:

Why should I give you my money? I will force you to.

Wieso soll ich dir mein Geld geben? Ich zwinge dich.

I think there is no "correct" answer here, as its pretty much up to interpretation and to broader context which is not given, to interpret what the author wanted to say.

My interpretation is that "zwingen" also means Person A wants Person B to do something that benefits Person A using force. Person B would not do it on their own, so the thing represents the values of Person A , more than Person B, and Person A wants Person B to act according to its own values.

So in this instances I would argue it could mean that a good hearted artist will not imprint the values of the world onto his art, but his art imprints the values of himself onto the world.

Or it could mean forced to change:

The world does not force a well hearted artist to change, but forces the world to change.

  • 1
    I'd agree here, but would suggest an edit in the last line: "The world cannot force a well hearted artist to change, but the artist does force the world to change."
    – orithena
    Nov 13, 2023 at 9:49
  • 1
    "Zwingen" The poem intentionally leaves out what might be enforced, meaning "the happy/serene poet cannot be forced into anything".
    – toolforger
    Nov 13, 2023 at 22:05
  • Inhaltlich falsch, behaupte ich. Man kann auch ganz abstrakt den Akt Zwang auszuüben als zwingen bezeichnen, ohne zu konkretisieren wozu jmd. gezwungen wird. Und wer sich nicht zwingen lässt, ist widerstandsfähig und frei. So ist der ideale Künstler. Zum Zwang d. Künstlers siehe m. Kommentar zu Bakunin. Nov 16, 2023 at 5:01

Den frohen Künstler kann die Welt nicht zwingen, …

Beugen, niederringen, abhalten oder aus der Bahn bringen - stop, suppress, bow, derail.

… Er aber zwingt mit seiner Kunst die Welt.

He bans the world with his art. He distillates the essence out of it and puts it in a song, a poem, a sculpture, a painting. It's a difficult struggle, to do so, therefore the metaphorical wording. He forces the world into his artwork.

There is no change of the world implied in the second part and no concrete action or lack thereof in the first.

And it's not a force from the artist to the audience, to act or react in some way, at least it isn't narrowed down to such an reaction, except, perhaps, of being astonished, how well the world is captured in this piece of art.

Der Künstler bannt die Welt (nicht das Publikum) mit seiner Kunst. Das Publikum wohl auch, aber nicht primär.


We have to do or to conform to a lot of things: you want to go to school - you need to have a certain haircut (there are countries where that is the case), you want this job - you need to wear a suit, you want to become a manager - you must grovel before this guy, etc..

What the first line of the poem says is that the artist - "froh" here is not so much "happy" but rather "in tune with his art and happy about that" - cannot be bothered by the world in this way and is not affected from such constraints.1)

Instead - the second line of the poem - the artist with his work compels the world to do his bidding.

The word "zwingen" here is meant as "[jemandem etwas] aufzwingen" and could be translated as "to compel", "to force sth. upon so." or similar.

1Which is, IMHO, utter nonsense and romanticism: erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral (Brecht)

  • "Er aber zwingt mit seiner Kunst die Welt" nicht seinen Willen zu tun, sondern er bezwingt die Schwierigkeit, die Welt so abzubilden, dass sie erkannt wird. Die Welt widersetzt sich dem Künstler und es ist schwierig, sie darzustellen. Das gelungene Kunstwerk aber schafft es. Allerdings kenne ich den Urheber nicht - mit mehr Kontext könnte ich meine Lesart nochmal überdenken. Nicht? Man zwingt die Welt auf die Bühne, in ein Bild, in eine melodisch/rhythmische Umsetzung. Der Betrachter/Hörer erkennt sie wieder und vergisst, dass es nur Kunst ist. Nov 16, 2023 at 4:50

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