Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A Poem from Romanticism: Friedrich Schiller’s Nänia

Michael Ferber

Friedrich Schiller’s little poem is one of the greatest works of German Classicism, the revival of Greek thought and literary forms centered in the Weimar that Goethe and Schiller made famous, but its theme of the death of beauty is no less Romantic, and we should not forget how important the Greeks were to the Romantic generation.  It is much loved in the German-speaking world, but known outside it only through Brahms’s rich and serene setting for chorus and orchestra of 1881 (opus 82).


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 Geschenck.
Nicht stillt Aphrodite dem schönen Knaben die Wunde, 5
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. 10
Siehe, da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinen 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.


Even the Beautiful dies! It may conquer all gods and all humans,
But with a bosom of steel Stygian Zeus is unmoved.
Once and once only did love win over the Lord of the Shadows,
Yet on the threshold of life sternly his gift he revoked.
Great Aphrodite can not heal the wounds of her beautiful lover, 5
Horribly carved by the boar into his delicate flesh.
Even the goddess his mother can not save the godlike hero,
When he at the Skaian Gate falls and accomplishes fate.
Out of the sea she arises with all of Lord Nereus’ daughters,
Keening her grievous lament over her glorious son.  10
Look how the gods shed tears, and the goddesses join them in weeping,
Weeping that Beauty must pass, what is most perfect must die.
Yet a lament on the lips of those who have loved us is glory,
Those who are common descend songless to Orcus’ domain.

Though it looks at first like a sonnet, and it arguably has a “turn” or volta at the beginning of the “sestet,” marked by Aber (“but”), it is not a sonnet but a set of seven elegiac distichs or couplets in “hexameters,” as they are loosely called.  There are no rhymes, as there were no rhymes in classical verse.  Each couplet ends with a full stop; each seals itself off enough from the others to stand not only as an independent sentence but also as a sententia, a quotable aphorism or maxim.  And this effect is enforced by the metrical form of the elegiac distich, which is a dactylic hexameter (like the line of Homer and Virgil) followed by a pentameter made up of two identical halves or hemistichs consisting of a pair of dactyls and a long (or heavy) syllable:

Here the final syllable of the first line is the “indifferent” or variable syllable (long or short), considered long in virtue of its position at the end of the line, and the in the middle of the second line is a strong break (a word may not straddle it).  In the hexameter line a long syllable may be substituted for the two shorts (i.e., a spondee for a dactyl), though there is a tendency to avoid doing so in the fifth foot; in the pentameter line a long may be substituted for the two shorts in the first half but not in the second.  There should be a feeling of closure at the end of each pentameter line.

This form goes back to the earliest lyric poetry of Greece, where it was used at not just for elegies or laments but for almost any subject, typically war, love, dedications, or epitaphs.  It did seem the proper form for funeral songs, perhaps because its couplets suited the traditional cry and response of the women keening over a corpse, the wife or mother taking the first line, the chorus taking the second; it became the standard form for epitaphs.  But it was also the favorite form of Ovid’s, who was more likely to write about illicit love affairs than the death of friends.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century many German poets seized on this form, though like the earliest Greeks, and Ovid, they used it for many subjects.  Goethe and Hölderlin wrote great examples of it, some of them quite long.  Schiller’s “Der Spaziergang” (“The Walk”) has one hundred distichs; A. W. Schlegel’s “Rom: Elegie” (“Rome: Elegy”) has one hundred forty-eight.  Such lengths courted tedium, but apparently the form was honored and appreciated by enough readers to sustain the trend for several generations.  To my ears, as a translator, seven seems about the right number, but elegiac distichs have never caught on in English and they sound strange to me.  The bases of English and German verse are alike: loud and soft stresses rather than the long and short intervals of classical verse.   Nonetheless the form seems to go better into German than into English, though that may be so only because no great English poet has taught us to appreciate it.

I have tried to recreate the meter in my translation, but once or twice I inserted an extra syllable, and here and there I rely on the good will of the reader to fit my line into the metrical scheme.  If the English sounds forced at times, so does the German.  I think it is absolutely necessary to translate this compact and elegant poem into elegiac distichs, however alien they sound to English readers.  “Nänie” is partly about a funeral song, after all.  Its name is from Latin naenia or nenia, which means “funeral song” or “dirge,” and it serves not only as a generic title but as the subject of the poem: the lament chanted by the Nereids and the other gods and goddesses over the fallen son of Thetis.  They doubtless chanted in elegiac distichs.  In reviving the form Schiller is hearkening to one of the first two records we have of Greek mourning rituals: the burial rite for Achilles described in Book 24 of the Odyssey.  The other is the rite for Hector in Book 24 of the Iliad.

It seemed so important to retain the meter that I occasionally sacrificed connotations of the original that I was reluctant to lose, or added something the original lacked. The opening clause, for instance, means “Even the beautiful must die,” but I have omitted the muß because I could not find a way to get it in while preserving the meter, and there seems no other term for Schöne than “beautiful.”  I think “Even the Beautiful dies” implies that it dies necessarily, and not just adventitiously, but the muß resonates solemnly in the original. 

The seven couplets fall into three parts.  First we have a general statement in one couplet that beauty must die, a commonplace no doubt but unbearable to those who love someone young and beautiful.  However powerful beauty may be, victorious even over the gods, death is more powerful still.  “Stygian Zeus,” the “Zeus” of the underworld river Styx, is Hades, “the Lord of the Shadows” of line 3, the Orcus of the final line; in so naming him Schiller imitates Virgil’s “Stygian Jove” (that is, Pluto) in the Aeneid (4.638). 

Then come three couplets each with an example of the helplessness of a mortal or a goddess before the death of a beloved (3-8).  Hades granted Orpheus’ plea to bring back Eurydice, but on condition that Orpheus not look back at her as he leads her out of the underworld; on the threshold of the upper world he did look back, and so he lost her.  Aphrodite was in love with the beautiful youth Adonis, who was gored by a boar and died in her arms.  Achilles, though he had an immortal mother, the sea nymph Thetis, and was “godlike” himself, was nonetheless mortal: he chose a short but glorious life, and met his fate, death from an arrow, at Troy’s Skaian Gate. 

The last three couplets expand on the third example, and tell us about the mourning ritual over Achilles.  It differs somewhat from its source in the Odyssey (24.46-59), where it is nine Muses, not the other gods and goddesses, who join Thetis and her sisters.  For seventeen days they sing in “antiphonal” song or in response.  In reading this passage Schiller must have been struck with how the very fact that Achilles had to die young made him immortal in song.  At Achilles’ tomb Alexander cried, “O fortunate youth to have found Homer as the herald of your glory” (Cicero, Pro Archia 24).  Doubly fortunate was Achilles to have the Muses themselves compose his antiphonal elegy. Norbert Oellers has described “Nänie” as a “Klagelied in zweiter Potenz” (“lament to the second power”).[1]  It is a lament for the lost laments of the Greek world, indeed for the lost Greek world as a whole, which seemed to be lamenting its own passing even before it passed.  In so beautifully restoring their form, however, the poem retrieves something of the Greek laments, and something of the beauty that occasioned them.  The ancient antiphonal choric rituals may have been designed to contain the grief that might otherwise overwhelm the bereaved.  In its “classical” restraint this poem does something more: it seems to show that, at the behest of this new German Orpheus, the stern lord of the shades has had to let some of them go after all.  They are here.

[1] Friedrich Schiller: Zur Modernität eines Klassikers, ed. Michael Hofmann (Frankfurt/M, 1996), p. 179.

Michael Ferber’s
Romanticism: 100 POEMS is available soon.

About The Author

Michael Ferber

Michael Ferber is Professor of English and Humanities Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire. After a stint in physics and math he majored in Greek and English at Swarthmore ...

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