Nänie – “Funeral Song” – is a poem by Friedrich von Schiller, first published in 1800. It is an anguished lament for the transience of beauty and the inevitability of death, using examples from classical myth and echoing the melancholy and pathos with which ancient poets such as Horace sometimes explore the same theme. The final couplet brings a note of consolation: beauty dies, but there is a sense in which it can live on, transmuted into art, in the memories and the songs of those who love it. Schiller himself does exactly this: the ancient Greeks and Romans are long dead, but some of the beauty that they created is preserved and exalted in his poem.
The educated audience that he was addressing would have recognised at once that he was using in modern German exactly the same rhythmical poetic form used by ancient Roman poets such as Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus: elegiac couplets, a hexameter epic line like those of Homer and Virgil, followed by a shorter (pentameter) one with a pause, or caesura, at its centre. Schiller assumes also that readers will immediately recognise five figures from myth – Pluto, Eurydice, Adonis, Achilles and Thetis – who are referred to quite obliquely in the poem, and not by name (Westbrook, the translator, has named Adonis for the sake of the rhythm, but this does not happen in the original German).
The poem carries an additional message for readers today: the poetry and myth of the ancient world were such a strong influence, not only on Schiller, but on the majority of European writers from the Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century, that some appreciation of classical culture is essential if you want to understand them. That is one good reason for Pantheon Poets’ mission to make classical poetry in the original accessible to those, in the majority these days, who know little or no Latin.
See the illustrated blog post here.
The reader is Tatjana Pisarski. To listen, press play: