Morgenstern's poems are typified by punning, rhyme and alliterative wordplay. Some feature strange creatures: Ralf the Raven, the Moonsheep, the centaurs Golch and Flubis, the Nasobēm 1 (which gave rise to a running joke about Snouters), the Midnightmouse, the Schildkrökröte (the "Tortoitoise"), and so on. Others feature the misadventures of eccentric characters (Palmström, Herr Korf and Palma Kunkel) in unreliable realities. Some are comic, some outright sinister. See Metaphorical maps of improbable fictions: the semantic parables of Christian Morgenstern (Robert Ian Scott, TheFreeLibrary) for examples of the content.
These poems are little-known outside the German-speaking world probably because they're seriously difficult to translate - "untranslatable" is a common description - as much of the language collapses under literal translation. For instance, the poem "Der Purzelbaum" ("The Somersault") is rooted, so to speak, in tree imagery because "Purzelbaum" literally means "tumbletree" in German; but this doesn't work in English because "somersault" has no such allusions.2 However, problems like this aren't always insurmountable; check out Nonsense poetry by Christian Morgenstern for some examples from The Gallows Songs (Christian Morgenstern's Galgenlieder: A Selection Translated, with an Introduction, Max Knight, University of California Press 1964). Knight's translations use creative modifications to preserve the metrics and rhyme, as with the beginning of "Das aesthetische Wiesel" ("The Aesthetic Weasel"):
Morgenstern original:Personally, I'd have altered the animal (though a mustelid is still possible) and kept the water:
sass auf einem Kiesel
sat on a pebble
in the middle of the babble of a stream
Max Knight translation:
perched on an easel
within a patch of teasel. 3
A stoatThere's been a deal of discussion of how exactly Morgenstern's poems can be classified. Explorations in the field of nonsense (ed. Wim Tigges) describes him as a precursor of Dada and Surrealism - exemplified by "Das große Lalulā" ("a phonetic rhapsody") - and An anatomy of literary nonsense (also by Tigges) has an extended discussion of critical appraisal of Morgenstern. Standard comparisons are with Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, but he has his own style, probably more complex in its wordplay than either, and mostly focused on the verbal (in contrast to Carroll's focus on logic and mathematics). Morgenstern generally denied any philosophical or literal meaning to the nonsense poems, but the commentary in the Max Knight collection says that occasionally he offered possible interpretations. Take "Das Mondschaf" ("The Moonsheep"):
sat on a boat
in the middle of a moat
Das Mondschaf steht auf weiter Flur.
Es harrt und harrt der großen Schur.
Das Mondschaf rupft sich einen Halm
und geht dann heim auf seine Alm.
Das Mondschaf spricht zu sich im Traum:
"Ich bin des Weltalls dunkler Raum."
Das Mondschaf liegt am Morgen tot.
Sein Leib ist weiß, die Sonn' ist rot.
The Moonsheep stands on a wide clearing.
It awaits and awaits the great shearing.
The Moonsheep plucks itself a straw.
And then goes home to its mountain pasture.
The Moonsheep speaks to itself in dream:
"I am the cosmos' dark space."
The Moonsheep lies in the morning dead.
His body is white, the sun is red.
Morgenstern said of this:
The moonsheep ... might be thought of as the moon itself — first on the wide expanse of the firmament, later vanishing behind mountains, in a "dream" seeing his tiny body as the universe, and appearing as a white disc in the morning.
Apart from the Max Knight examples mentioned above, translations of a few can be found online, Variously, see "The Moonsheep" ("Das Mondschaf") and "The Midnightmouse" ("Die Mitternachtsmaus"); Two "Untranslatable" Poems (nice translations of "Der Werwolf" and "Der Purzelbaum", the latter a very clever solution to the Purzelbaum / somersault problem); and the Google Books preview of Selected translations, by William Davis Snodgrass, which has "The Knee", "The Mousetrap", "The Spheres", "Palmstrom to a Nightingale which Would Not Let Him Sleep", "The Questionnaire", "The Pike", and "The Wallpaper Flower".
German-speaking readers: see the Digitales-Christian-Morgenstern-Archiv, which has an extensive collection of his works including all the humorous lyrics, at Portal:Humoristische Lyrik.
2. "Somersault" comes from the French soubresaut, which ultimately tracks back to Latin supra above + saltus leap (OED).
PS: I thought I'd have another go at translating one of the more straightforward ones, "Der Traum der Magd" ("The Maid's Dream"):
Am Morgen spricht die Magd ganz wild:
"Ich hab heut nacht ein Kind gestillt -
ein Kind mit einem Käs als Kopf -
und einem Horn am Hinterschopf!
Das Horn, o denkt euch, war aus Salz
und ging zu essen, und dann -"
halt's Maul!" so spricht die Frau, "und geh
an deinen Dienst, Zä-zi-li-e!"
The maid this morning, talking wild:
"In the night I suckled the weirdest child -
a child with a cheese for a head, I say -
and a horn on the end of its little D.A.!
That horn, you thought, was made of salt
which you went to eat, and then -"
Halt your chat!" said the housewife, "Pay
Attention to work, Ce-ci-li-ay!"
Enjoyable exercise in a crossword-puzzle way, and it was interesting to see the difficulties. The main one was finding an English equivalent, and rhyme, for "Hinterschopf" (literally, "hind lock" or "hind tuft of hair"): "D.A." seemed a good option. The second was recognising "Zä-zi-li-e" not to be a nonsense-construct, but a split-up personal female name Zäzilie (Cecilia), which shows how important context is. In another Morgenstern poem, Zäzilie is revealed as a lazy and cunning housemaid who, on being told to clean the windows so well that no-one can tell there's glass or thin air there, takes out the glass.