Mourning and hope

by Schiller

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:

To scroll the original and English translation of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.

Auch das Schöne muß sterben! Das Menschen und Götter bezwinget,
Nicht die eherne Brust rührt es des stygischen Zeus.

Einmal nur erweichte die Liebe den Schattenbeherrscher,
Und an der Schwelle noch, streng, rief er zurück sein Geschenk.

Nicht stillt Aphrodite dem schönen Knaben die Wunde,
Die in den zierlichen Leib grausam der Eber geritzt.

Nicht errettet den göttlichen Held die unsterbliche Mutter,
Wann er, am skäischen Tor fallend, sein Schicksal erfüllt.

Aber sie steigt aus dem Meer mit allen Töchtern des Nereus,
Und die Klage hebt an um den verherrlichten Sohn.

Siehe! Da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinnen alle,
Daß das Schöne vergeht, daß das Vollkommene stirbt.

Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten, ist herrlich,
Denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab.

The beautiful also must die! Ruler of Gods and of mortals,
But leaving the feelings untouched of the ironbound Zeus of the Styx.

Only once did love melt the resolve of the lord who holds sway in the shadows,
Then, just at the threshold itself, sternly he called back his gift.

Aphrodite cannot heal the wound of her beautiful boy, her Adonis,
That in his delicate flesh the wild boar so grievously ripped.

Nor, although so like a god, could his undying mother preserve him,
The hero who fell at Troy’s gate, his destiny there to fulfil.

The mother rose up from the sea, with all of the daughters of Nereus,
Lifting her voice in lament over her paragon-son.

See, the Lords of Olympus are weeping, the Goddesses weep along with them,
Weep for the passing of beauty, bewail the perfection that dies.

To exist as the song of our loss in the mouth of love, that, too, is glory,
For that which is commonplace goes under to Orcus unsung.