C.S. Lewis’ “Weight of Glory”: Longing in the Poets, Composers & Theologians
C.S. Lewis famously discussed the role of the eternal “longing” found in each mortal human being. Lewis referred to this longing using a specific German word, “Sehnsucht.” For Lewis, the longing for a something in the distance and an awareness of its unattainability within this world lay at the heart of man’s hunger for the spiritual, the desire for God, and the need to have our own mortal condition reconciled with something greater than ourselves.
Speaking on the nature of this particular longing in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis remarked:
“Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”
Interestingly, Lewis’ theological formulation in many ways echoes one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most ecstatic and poetical effusions on Beauty and poetry’s power to awaken “the desire of the moth for the star.” Poe explicitly recognized this desire as something innate, calling it “an immortal instinct”:
“An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind — he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us — but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, —or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods — we find ourselves melted into tears — we weep then — not as the Abbaté Gravina supposes — through excess of pleasure, but through a certain, petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.”
While Poe and Lewis use different frames when describing this “desire of the moth for the star,” Lewis makes a very astute and necessary qualification in respect to how our appreciation for Beauty relates to this “Sehnsucht.” Lewis describes how it often appears in the form of shadows, sometimes mistakenly falling on objects, or times, or persons—all of which are in reality only intimations of an even greater longing:
“Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Lewis also spoke to the common sense of hesitancy people feel when faced with their own “Sehnsucht”:
“In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.”
People are often ashamed or confused about the idea of wrestling with eternal longing because it means first acknowledging a very specific kind of emptiness, one that can’t be filled by cake or any other earthly pleasure. Here too, Lewis gives his listeners heart by echoing St. Augustine, who said “God gives where he finds empty hands”; Lewis reminds us that “God gives his gifts where he finds the vessel empty enough to receive them,” for, “a man whose hands are full of parcels cannot receive a gift.”
Two Poems on Sehnsucht
Lewis’ nimble intellect puts us in a better position to appreciate and judge the quality of two particularly interesting poems on precisely the question of “Sehnsucht.” The poems are by the two leading classical poets of Germany, Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Of interest to us in respect to Lewis’ own description of Sehnsucht is to compare and contrast variations on the theme, considering the different treatments by the two poets, the implications, and by a contrast of opposites, expanding our general appreciation and awareness of the role “Sehnsucht” plays in a culture dedicated to cultivating Goodness, Truth, and Beauty in all its forms.
We should note that both Goethe and Schiller are celebrated as the fathers of German Classicism, and were surely read by Lewis, who specifically chose to use the German word “Sehnsucht.” Both poets helped usher in Weimar Classicism along with their collaborators, like the philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder and the classical philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt. Both also had many of their poetic works set to music by some of the greatest musical composers, including Schubert, Brahms, and Beethoven. While Goethe’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (Only he who longing knows) inspired one of Schubert’s most impassioned and compelling lieder (art songs), Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” supplied the lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—arguably the greatest symphonic work.
Let us compare how each poet uniquely treats the theme of human longing, “Sehnsucht.” Let us then examine the differences, using these examples as an opportunity to consider a more general idea of how art and poetry serve as natural vehicles for awakening this longing, which aided by Lewis’ insights and theological acuity, allow us to define and better understand the nature of our own deeper “Sehnsucht.”
In Goethe’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” the poet writes:
Only he who truly longs Knows what grips me. Alone, the love that belongs With me has been set free. I look to the cloudy throngs Across the deep blue sea: But ah! The sweet one who yearns Remains far from me. It dizzies me and burns My innards daily. Only he who truly longs Knows what grips me! Translation © David B. Gosselin
Goethe’s piece appears to be a simple one (in many ways it is). However, within this seemingly simple work lies a great density of emotional tension and musical drama—qualities made transparent when worked out in a proper recitation, and even more so when performed as the score for Schubert’s famous musical setting. There, the seemingly simple quality of Sehnsucht described by Goethe is expanded into new dimensions and brought to greater heights—all of which appear absent in the simple written text per se. And yet, these very lines succeeded in rousing a very deep sense of longing in another of the greatest composers to have ever lived, Franz Schubert.
Indeed, a fundamental part of being able to fully appreciate a great classical poem is not only a matter of reading the literal text per se, but also considering how such a text—much like a musical score—functions off the page i.e. when it is properly recited and performed aloud. In this way, the various tensions and ironies found between the lines are made transparent.
Consider the opening thematic statement of Goethe’s piece: “Nur wer die Sehnsucht Kennt” (Only he who truly longs/knows what grips me). Goethe’s words are not a literal statement, but a musical statement. For, what we are dealing with is not prose but poetry—strophic poetry, to be exact. Despite the outward similarity to prose, given the lines are expressed in the written word (rather than musical notation), poetry functions similarly to music—not prose. The classical poem is essentially a musical score, with contrapuntal ironies, rhythms, tones, and color, which when brought together allow a musical idea to unfold, develop, and transform.
As in a typical strophic poem, there are recurring statements, line lengths, and musical units, such as “stanzas” (which means “room” in Italian). There is repetition of both forms and phrases—something constant—but also something changing. In Platonic terms, this would be known as the process of “Becoming”—the tension unfolding between the unchanging unity of idea (Being) and the multiplicity of unfolding thoughts and images (Becoming).
Finding the poetry becomes a question of discovering the best ways to emphasize and convey the various changes and tension woven throughout the composition. The apt reader learns to use the natural tension between the various lines, and across each new strophe and stanza to unearth new layers of richness. Out of this process emerges the unspoken musical idea between the lines.
Before proceeding to the text, readers should consider one more thing: is there really such a thing as repetition in classical poetry? Is a recurring statement or musical line ever really read in exactly the same way, or is it only a special kind of variation? The same literal words appear, but the creative tension transforms the overall meaning with each successive strophe and stanza, reflected in the most natural and divine of instruments: the human singing voice.
The poem begins with “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt/Weiss was ich leider.” The literal translation reads: “Only he who longing knows/Knows what I suffer.” In the English, the verb “knows” is repeated twice, but the German text uses two distinct words for the same verb: “Wissen” and “Kennen.” While the nuance is lost in translation, it is indeed helpful to recognize the original German wording, which in many ways informs us on how to best unfold the tension between the opening two lines.
Goethe’s opening lines read:
Only he who truly longs Knows what grips me. Alone, the love that belongs With me has been set free. I look to the cloudy throngs Across the deep blue sea:
The speaker in Goethe’s piece longs for something in the distance. There is an inherent tension between the object of desire and the poet who longs for it. His longing spans across the cloud-filled skies and deep blue sea.
In the second stanza, the poet describes how the consciousness and pain created by such distance burns his “innards daily.” Rather than diminishing it, the great distance only increases his desire:
But ah! The sweet one who yearns Remains far from me. It dizzies me and burns My innards daily. Only he who truly longs Knows what grips me!
Exploring Goethe’s lines through the eyes of a musical composer provides additional degrees of insight into the poem’s musical dimensions and how they might be spoken aloud—an art that has been nearly lost in today’s world, with much detriment not only to poetry, but to thought itself, and the ability to read and think between the lines. For Franz Schubert, Goethe’s seemingly simple lines offered an opportunity to plumb the depths of human longing—“Sehnsucht.”
At this point, we recommend that readers listen to Schubert’s musical setting and work their way backwards. Consider the emotional tension unfolded by Schubert. How might this tension be captured in a proper recitation? How was Schubert able to take such seemingly simple strophes and lines and imbue them with so much depth, tension, and meaning? Are the recurring lines ever really repeated?
In the case of Goethe’s poem, the object of desire is a person: the beloved. It falls in the category Lewis termed “Adolescence” or “Romanticism.” The work does not represent the kind of Sehnsucht described by Lewis, but if properly understood, it serves as an intimation in the same way Wordsworth’s tendency to harken back to his past kindled intimations in the form of “nostalgia.” True “Sehnsucht” is “a forward-looking nostalgia,” says Lewis. Its destination is nowhere on Earth, though we find intimations of it everywhere.
In a very Socratic sense, knowledge of where it isn’t and what it is not, however ostensibly close in outward appearance, becomes our first approximation and taste of the thing we desire. The more we understand what it is not, the closer we become to appreciating and desiring the real thing.
What else might be an object of desire beyond any person, place, or thing? How might a poet treat such “Sehnsucht”?
Let us consider another example—also set to music by Schubert—this time by Friedrich Schiller.
Sehnsucht By Friedrich Schiller If I could escape this valley Where the gloomy vapors creep, By some wonder finally flee, My soul would blessedly weep! Gazing upon this pure serene, Dreamy hills rise everywhere; Had I wings to climb this scene, My spirit would scale the air. I hear the melodious strains Descending in soothing streams, While the gentle breezes and rains Carry the heaven’s sweet dreams: Luscious fruit dangles, ripening On never wilting branches; Flowers never fear the cold fangs Of the winter’s ravishes. Oh! How sweet it must be, dwelling Under an eternal sun, With sanguine airs softly blowing On streams that endlessly run. But the foaming waters stifle Even my bravest attempts, And my frightened soul can but toil Before the frothing torrents. See then! A lonely bark is rocking, And it seems no helmsman’s there: Sails are open, waves are rising, But should a mortal soul dare? He must be bold, he must have faith, Waiting is no fair god’s hand— Only wonder carries a man To that magic wonderland. Translation © David B. Gosselin
What is this “magic wonderland” Schiller speaks of? How can we get there? Is Schiller’s vision of the landscape described in the first stanza a place on earth at all? Is it even a description of something visible? What about the second, third, and fourth stanzas?
In the first stanza, Schiller counterpoints the image of a “dark valley” with the image of “pure serene.” This creates the initial tension which he then unfolds and resolves through the poem’s development. Rather than any image, place, or time, the tension between these various images, places, and times defines the subject matter.
In the following stanzas, Schiller describes the sound of “melodious strains,” “soothing breezes and rains,” “never-wilting branches”—a world without fear—where “the flowers never fear the fangs/of the winter’s ravishes.” But by the end of stanza III, having lulled us into a dream-like state, Schiller forces us to break away from this ideal state by shifting the imagery to another kind of landscape, essentially introducing a new musical theme:
Oh! How sweet it must be, dwelling Under an eternal sun, With sanguine airs softly blowing On streams that endlessly run. But the foaming waters stifle Even my bravest attempts, And my frightened soul can but toil Before the frothing torrents.
In pursuing this “Sehnsucht” (which remains unnamed), Schiller acknowledges and captures the emotional turmoil that often comes with longing for something seemingly so far out of reach.
It is at precisely this moment that Schiller defines a faith in something beyond knowledge, which he ironically treats as a special kind of knowledge—“wonder.” According to Schiller, it is by this “wonder” alone that we can enter the “magic wonderland”—a land of discovery, true inspiration, and divine enthusiasm—true freedom from the “dark valleys” and “frothing torrents” of the mortal world.
Unlike Goethe’s poem, Schiller’s poem doesn’t seem to describe any physical location or object per se, or even the desire for a relationship with one. The ironies found in the images force our mind to consider an altogether different kind of landscape. And here is where only faith and wonder—humility in the face of divine mystery—allow us to enter.
While Schiller was not espousing any kind of pantheist or anti-Christian view when he wrote “no fair god’s hand” in the last quatrain of the final stanza, he was challenging those who were so complacent, in every sense of the word, that they no longer saw any genuine need for creative imagination, creative thought, or wonder of any kind. Instead, life and faith were reduced to a kind of joyless Formalism, which runs completely contrary to the notion of a race of created human beings in which the creation (man) is excited and longing to know its loving Creator, something which Schiller explicitly refers to in the chorus of his “Ode to Joy”:
Chorus. Be embrac’d, ye millions yonder! Take this kiss throughout the world! Brothers—o’er the stars unfurl’d Must reside a loving Father.
Schiller’s poem on “Sehnsucht” reminds us that to truly appreciate what at best can in English be translated as “wonderland”—a land of wonder—we must allow ourselves to be moved by wonder—as a child is. As Christ said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mathew 18:3). Without this “Sehnsucht,” or the humility and child-like awe to accept and confess such a hunger, we forever desire and seek vain fruits. In this respect, Lewis in his “Weight of Glory” remarks:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.”
So must we learn to long. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “this hunger is better than any other fullness, this poverty better than all other wealth.”
David B. Gosselin is a poet, translator, writer, and researcher based in Montreal. He writes on Substack at Age of Muses.