• Translation

The Gods of Greece by Friedrich Schiller


Edwin Church - The Parthenon

We present the uncensored version of Friedrich Schiller's "The Gods of Greece" translated into English for the first time. Because of its religious connotations, the original 25 stanza poem (published in 1788) had been judged inappropriate and was therefore re-written by Schiller in 16 stanzas and published anew in 1793. We happily present the original uncensored version of Schiller's poem from his second period, as a newly minted English poem.

While our beautiful world was still governed

By guiding rays from your eternal light,

When men and nations were still happily led,

Beautiful beings from fairy lands bedight,

When still your sacred worship shone

How different was the world by our gaze found,

When man your temples so happily crowned

Oh fair Amathusia!

When the magic of poetry’s fair garbs

Still wound around the truth’s dizzying heights,

Through creation streamed life’s happy fullness—

Such things once felt no longer greet our sights.

To press against the bosom of a chaste

Nature filled all with high nobility,

Each eye enlightened with ability

Could trace in her a Godly face.

Where now we’re by our wisest sages told,

A soulless fireball swims through the skies,

When Helios once steered his car of gold

Across our winding worlds and earthly skies.

The Oreads once inhabited each height,

Frolicking dryads dwelt in yonder tree;

And from the Nayads still more lovingly,

Sprang glittering streams of light.

The ever-youthful laurel taught us to heed

And Tantals silent daughter slept in stone;

Syrinx’s cries called out from every reed,

While Philomela’s dole from woods had flown.

The brook received Demeter’s tears

Who for her sweet Persephone so wept,

And Venus’ lament from each hill leapt—

As her heart filled with fears.

Unto Deucalion, from starry realms,

Immortals made their heavenly descent;

And to vanquish Pyrrha’s beautiful daughter

Bright Hyperion bore the shepherd’s staff.

Among the Gods, men, and every hero,

Love weaved his sacred bow with magic hues,

And worshiping in sacred Amathuse

Were both God and mortal hero.

Before your altars gracefully praying

The lovely priestess piously knelt,

Sending silent wishes to her Venus,

As she offered her purest sacrament.

For she ruled the earth with her graceful ways,

And taught even the Godly ranks above

To heed those charms, using her belt with Love,

Which brought Zeus beneath her sway.

Heavenly and immortal was the fire

That flowed from Pindar's glorious hymning,

In the awesome power of Arion’s lyre,

Within the marble stone Phidias cast.

Earthly beings breathed such nobler form—

They were the shadows of a higher being;

From heaven's heights the Gods were flowing,

Eternity upon earth born.

Worthy was one of every Gods’ goodness,

And dear each gift that ripe Nature bestowed;

Beneath Iris’ trail bloomed pure loveliness,

Among each rivulet and stream that flowed;

And Galloping arrived the eye of dawn,

In Himmeren’s rosy dress clad,

And music from old Pan's enchanted flute

Had filled the fields, by shepherd's hand.

So lovingly was blooming youth painted

In the fairest of mortals, young Ganymede;

Never was the valiant virtue tainted,

Of the brave Triton’s Medusan shield;

It was ever gentler, for Hymen still

Was saint of the heart’s eternal band,

And even the dreaded hand of Fate

Still traced the world with gentler will.

The ever-jovial thyrsus swinger,

With his panthers and votive disciples,

Announced the coming of the rapture bringer;

Faun and Satyr danced in spellbound cycles;

About them sprang the frenzied Maenad,

In praise of his immortal rapturous wine,

When the cheeks of the birther glowed divine,

Calling his tribes all panther clad.

With greater worth was every gift bestowed,

Imparted to all who nature befriended.

What greater joy there seemed in each creation!

It flowed from the creator to created.

Thus, can my thoughts pierce the cloudy fences

And reach that place of sovereign understanding?

Struggling, I sift through ideas unending,

But fruitless return to the world of senses.

Your temples like joyous kings were found,

You brought the warrior’s games to heightened glory

Where at the festive Isthmus were crowned

The chariot drivers and their riveting story.

With beautiful dances, ethereally swirling,

The altars were bedecked with radiant

Wreathes, laid by the newly announced triumphant,

Bearing their crowns, gold locks twirling.

The very best he had, man gave away:

The shepherd gave his most beloved lamb;

The presence of joyful guests was welcomed—

The greatest gift that one could give a man.

Where should I turn? Is this sudden silence

The herald of the highest creator,

Dark like Fate itself is this vindicator—

All else must I then renounce.

In such a time there stood no grim reaper

Above our bed coldly foreboding death;

A kiss sealed the final word of the speaker,

When worldly genius took its final breath.

Once playful images frolicked joyously

Around mankind’s earthly necessity,

Even the sternest Fates came more gently

In the garbs of chastened humanity.

After the spirits’ most terrible laws

No barbarian from man's early morn

Could judge, whose cold blue eye never thawed

With tears—like delicate creatures by woman borne.

Even Orcus’s stern judge with strict scale

Once held the grandson of a mortal,

And the weathered Thracian’s heartbreaking dole

Made even the Erinyes pale.

His happy shadows joyfully retraced

The treasures of life through Elysian fields;

True Love found for itself true husband’s grace,

And the bright charioteer was followed by his train;

Orpheus still played those dear familiar tones,

In Alcestens receiving arms Admet sank,

So Orestes had once more found his friend,

Philoctotes his sacred dart.

But lost and never to return again

Is all that I had known of these fair worlds,

No more can one this earthly bliss regain—

Gone is all which breathed life into these words.

For now some foreign seldom understood joys

Tear me from those winding worlds of beauty,

Such that delights which so lightened our duty,

I must exchange for one that cloys.

A higher prize strengthened the wrestler

On the laboring path of true virtue;

And those who accomplished great deeds

Climbed their way up to the Olympian blue.

Before the one who claimed each vanquished soul

All the Gods bowed in silence solemnly,

And the sailor from Neptune’s silvery sea

Saw the twins in the starry bowl.

Oh beautiful world, where art thou flown?

Oh face of nature’s purest bloom, return!

Now only in the fairy land of song

Still lives the image for which we yearn.

And barren mourn once blooming fields,

No Godhead lights up nature’s visage;

How from the world’s every living image,

Naught but a shadow yields!

But all such blooms have long since vanished,

The spring of beauty chilled by northern winds;

Where for one truth to have itself enriched,

Authority, a world of Gods rescinds.

Weeping, I search in vain the starry spheres

For Selena—no longer can one find you!

Nothing’s heard from the airy blue,

Save for the sound of falling tears.

A stranger made to all the joy she yields,

Never to be enchanted by her grace,

Never to see her magnificent fields

Never to be warmed by her pure embrace;

Unconscious of the magic of her arts,

Like the droning of a lifeless pendulum,

She must now serve only the strictest laws

Of a godless nature.

To breathe life anew once more tomorrow,

She digs her grave in the world’s fallow fields;

About its own cold and silent sorrow

The moon to drab uniformity now yields;

Returned to the poet’s ethereal home

Are all the Gods whom useless deems this world,

Which now no longer needs a Godly hand

Guiding the starry dome.

Friendless, with no brother and with no equal,

No divine Goddess, no loyal son,

Someone else now rules the mysterious ether,

On once mighty Saturn’s overturned throne.

Blessed beings before had rejoiced over him,

But now they see through all time streaming

Naught but the selfsame image returning,

Forever, time after time again.

Olympian citizens, if I could follow

You Gods, whose marble is lavished with praise,

If I could but live in such a creator’s shadow,

What next could come closest to your Godly ways,

Which gave birth to the mortal kind?

Only the first and noblest of worms.

As the Gods were to humans ever closer,

Men on earth were more divine.

But these rays strike me prostrate to the ground

With the power of the Creator's mind!

I ache, but give me wings, or send a chariot down

So that I might know you—or then be so kind,

And take from me this sternest Goddess,

Holding a glaring mirror before me.

Return her dearest sister graciously,

Save the other for the next world.

Translation © David B. Gosselin

See here fore original German.


Listen to Franz Schubert's sublime musical setting of this poem.

Notes on the poem

Schiller's poem was criticized by many because it was viewed as an attack on Christianity. As a result, his later version, only 16 stanzas instead of 25, took out all the references to Christianity. However, rather than a reaction to Christian thought, the poem was a reaction to the mechanical and 'rationalist' view of Newton, which had taken hold of people's thinking, be it in theology, philosophy, science etc...

As Keats famously wrote in his poem Lamia, lamenting the same Newtonian idea in his time:

Do not all charms fly At the mere touch of cold philosophy? [...] Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine— Unweave a rainbow.[...]

Newton had taken the colors out of the rainbow. As a poet, Schiller recognized the effects this had not only on the heart but on the very essence of creative thought.