Is there a song asleep in the dark?
By 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years War, the remaining population of the German speaking lands in Europe was only about 33% of what it was in 1618, Their lands were where by and large that war was fought. Death was a common experience: seen, heard, smelled, felt every day. Andreas Gryphius was left as an orphan after one or another ravage of a city, village, fortress, church, farm, etc. In 1627 he witnessed, live, the pillage and then burning of the city of Freystadt.
But he also got for himself a top notch classical education, wrote dramas that were unsurpassed for 150 years, and lifted his language, German, to the level of a poetic litarary language that provided the linguistic-artistic foundation for one of Western Civilizations greatest writers, thinkers, drama directors, natural scientists: and literary theoreticians: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
But read and hear, Menschliches Elende/Human Misery from 1637 not just for content but for the artistic care given the meter, rime scheme, imagery and in general his artistic acumen.
Menschliches Elende, 1637 Human Misery 1637 Andreas Gryphius Menschliches Elend Human Misery Was sind wir Menschen doch? What are we humans, then? Ein Wohnhaus grimmer Schmerzen, a home for ferocious kicks ein Ball des falschen Glücks , a ball of false luck ein Irrlicht dieser Zeit, a fen-fire of this time ein Schauplatz herber Angst a theater of tart worry besetzt mit scharfem Leid acted out in mournful mime, ein bald verschmelzter Schnee a snow soon melted away und abgebrannte Kerzen. and burnt-out candle sticks. Das Leben fleucht davon Life is whisked away wie ein Geschwätz und Scherzen. like idle chatter and jest. Die vor uns abgelegt Whoever before us laid down des schwachen Leibes Kleid the frail body’s cloak und in das Totenbuch and in an obituary page der großen Sterblichkeit of the great Book of Croak längst eingeschrieben sind, long since had been written in: sind uns aus Sinn und Herzen. vanished from mind and breast. Gleich wie ein eitel Traum Just like a vain-hoped dream leicht aus der Acht hinfällt easily fades to black und wie ein Strom verschleußt and rushes onward like a stream den keine Macht aufhält which no power can hold back, so muß auch unser Nam, Lob, thus must our name and praise, Ehr und Ruhm verschwinden honor and fame come to naught. Was itzund Athem holt Whatever now draws breath muß mit der Luft entfliehn must go with the escaping air Was nach uns kommen wird Whatever comes after us wird uns ins Grab nachziehn haul us back to its grave’s jail. Was sag’ich? Wir vergehen What am I saying? We fade wie Rauch vor starken Winden. Like smoke in strong wind gusts.
As usual, Gryphius is clear, resonant and teaching in his work. The images are crystal clear, the meter simple (iambic, 3 foot) and the rime schemes not complicated. That is all perfectly consistent with the training which was typlical for 17th century German poets: know and use all the tools of poetic craftsmanship. Teach. And above all, share the wisdom of experience: tossed and turbulent lives contrasted against the stability of eternal being.
But he could have chosen to frame his reminders of memento mori and the vanity of position, power, status and prestige in prose. He was skilled at funeral orations, but he did not. Instead he gives us a rimed, rhythmic, ordered succession of images and final reminders that it all on this globe amounts mostly to having been forgotten: memento mori.
So what does that poetic structure do for us? The human mind seeks linear patterns and predictabillity. Raw nature is not comforting. So we make suburban lawns, and Nature has yet to draw a straight line. The poetic application gives us a sense of structure and non-verbal background comfort or steadiness amidst destruction and decay. It is something beyond the immediate experience of earthly vanity. That would have been hard to express in an essay.
Is there a silent, quiet song for our hearts in the skill of Gryphius’ structure for some sobering thoughts? Do we make lemonade out of sour lemons as he has? Can we shape “reality” to give us some song almost no matter how bad it has become? Is there indeed a balm in Gilead?
Gryphius has given us a gift: food for thought in our turbulent times. And it has been nurturing and sustaining us for almost 400 years. Some food! Some thought.