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  • Translation

Life and the Ideal by Friedrich Schiller


Listen to the full poem off the page here.


Forever calm and fair and crystal clear 

Flows life upon Olympus’ tranquil plains, 

Among its changeless climes and deathless race. 

Moons trace their routes and countless ages wane, 

But carefree and above all vanity 

Unfurls the splendid rose of youth divine. 

Yet mortal man has but a choice between 

Sensual joy and true serenity, 

Whilst on eternal Heaven's stainless brow, 

They’re wed without sorrow or strife.


If you desire to be god-like on Earth,

To finally be free from the threat of death,

Think twice before you pluck the fruit. 

Your eyes can feed on their charms forever, 

But joy’s desires will always quickly wane 

And be consumed by endless transience. 

Even Ceres' daughter could not escape 

As she sailed the nine-fold rivers of Styx:

She grasped the apple and then sealed her fate 

Among Orcus' eternal shades.


The Fates alone hold sway over the flesh 

And every perishable thing that dwells 

Below within Earth’s turbid vortexes. 

But high above their reach, within fair realms 

And in the company of gods, resides 

Eternal Form in pure perfection. 

If you wish to soar among the gods, 

Cast off the fear of earth and its dark vales. 

Soar from the narrow breaches of the world 

Into the realm of the Ideal.  


Alive and eternally young, free from 

The stains and decay of indifferent Time, 

Reigns the finished and archetypal man. 

Like gleaming shades gliding over the dark 

And soundless Stygean streams coursing below, 

As fair as found among Elysium’s fields 

Before immortal ones are garbed in flesh, 

If earth’s vicissitudes inspire some doubt 

About this life and our uncertain fates, 

Victory here still reigns supreme.

 

Not to release you from the strife of life, 

But to nurture and strengthen your resolve 

Does victory wave her glorious garlands. 

Although we long to lounge in soft repose, 

Relentless watersheds carry us off 

Into the oceans of clamoring life. 

Yet, when we falter in our strength and hope 

And life feels sense constricting everything, 

From Beauty’s hilltops still we see the glow 

Of the sublime and longed-for goal. 


Life must be fought and won with true zeal: 

The wrestler only claims fortune and fame 

Once he has defeated the challenger; 

The chariots must roll and thunder through 

The blinding clouds of dust to make their course; 

To prove their true nobility, heroes 

Must challenge both their tribes and foes alike. 

So only do the brave and strong attain 

Their golden crowns; the weak must fail. 


While life’s ecstatic streams have their course thrown 

By rocks and crags and raging elements, 

It smoothly flows as it expands to sea 

Reflecting—gleaming—with its silver waves, 

Mirroring Aurora and Hesper’s rays 

Until it peacefully settles by night. 

Dissolved in tender and mutual love, 

It harmoniously rests in boundless grace, 

With every stern and warring force subdued, 

And the ruthless enemy fled. 


To impart life into the lifeless marble, 

The sculptor must persevere with fervor, 

Until thought finally breaks through the stone. 

So watch each nerve and aching muscle strain 

Until each imperfection’s overcome 

And brought under the artist's noble vision. 

Only in honest labor will the Truth 

Reveal its hidden charms and divine grace; 

For, only after many chisel blows 

Do form and matter become one. 


Once broken into Beauty’s splendid spheres, 

Freed from all gravity, weight disappears, 

Carried away like marble dust by winds. 

As if from nothingness the statue springs, 

Untainted by the countless strokes and blows; 

It stands serene before the gasping crowds. 

Silencing every doubt and argument, 

Embodying true mastery of form 

—With every imperfection and flaw fled— 

Until art vanquishes the world. 


Though human sin confronts perfection’s law, 

We find our pride and prejudice subdued, 

With even the saintliest feeling guilt. 

Thus, weighed against perfection’s purity, 

We see how short we come to the ideal— 

How mean even the greatest hero is! 

But who has ever crossed the threshold then,

Between the Ideal world and our sad state? 

Wider than oceans seems the gulf—one where 

No anchor has been cast before. 


Yet fly beyond the senses’ limitations, 

And live the Ideal only thought can breed.

Behold! Suddenly the gulf disappears, 

Now, magically, the soul’s impotence fades. 

The high throne may be shared with the divine; 

Embrace it and let it become your will.  

Obey the Law and never fear its bonds,

Which may enchain the sense, but not the soul. 

Thus, never fight the will of Jove—then see 

How swiftly he lays down his bolt. 


When you feel life’s misery wrapping round 

Your soul like serpents around Laocoön,

With his innocent children crying out, 

Think of his writhing limbs and wearied eyes 

Until your heart breaks with pity—then hear 

The helpless cries and sad despairing shouts 

Of ancient Ilion’s embattled priest, 

And let these witnessed woes enter your soul, 

Let your cheeks become pale, and your eyes tear, 

And share the human sympathy. 


Then from the artist’s eye with daring gaze, 

From whence true artistry is seen and born, 

See how Laocoön writhes, but never groans; 

See how the lofty sense feels no sharp pain; 

See how a divine soul emerges from the grief, 

And how the brave resolves its joys and woes; 

Then, like the light that shines from gilded clouds 

Or rainbows shimmering after the storm,

Through grief’s dark veil emerges the soft light 

Of a sweet moral heaven. 


So, bowed down in his true humility, 

Under the bonds of mortal laws and wills, 

Brave Heracles made his harrowing journey. 

He tamed the hydra and the hungry lion; 

To rescue a beloved friend from life above, 

He descended to Pluto’s realm below; 

And all of Juno’s punishments and spite 

He bore with fortitude and iron will 

Until his course was run at last— 


Until a god, stripped of all earthliness, 

He then was freed from his mortality, 

Finally breathing the light ether’s air. 

With new-found strength Heracles upward soared, 

Higher and higher still, height upon height— 

The earthly disappearing like day dreams. 

Welcomed by choirs, hymns and the muses all, 

Transfigured, he soon proudly joined the gods, 

Then smiling Hebe brought his cup, pouring

The draught of immortality.

 

Translation © David B. Gosselin

41 Comments


winestone.poet
Dec 01, 2023

This piece is profoundly beautiful and sublime! It is an absolute joy to read. These lines speak to me a great deal:


If you wish to soar among the gods,

Cast off the fear of earth and its dark vales.

Soar from the narrow breaches of the world

Into the realm of the Ideal.


The entire tenth stanza strongly resonates with me as well:


Though human sin confronts perfection’s law,

We find our pride and prejudice subdued,

With even the saintliest feeling guilt.

Thus, weighed against perfection’s purity,

We see how short we come to the ideal—

How mean even the greatest hero is!

But who has ever crossed the threshold then,

Between the Ideal world and our sad state?


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martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
Dec 11, 2023
Replying to

I talked about this poem ('To Have Loved') in my comments in the New Lyre and I picked out the same lines as you. You have a good ear for poetry, Shannon. Those lines are indeed exquisite.

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martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
Nov 30, 2023

I really like this poem. You and Schiller seem 'effortlessly wed' in that you have great feeling and passion for the essence of what he is saying about Life and the Ideal, and have translated his words in a manner that keeps them 'Alive and eternally young', despite a few minor flaws which can be ironed out with a bit of constructive feedback. Well done, David.

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martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
Dec 01, 2023
Replying to

Yes, capturing 'the spirit' of a poet is one of the most important elements in a top class translation, and David does this admirably with 'Life and the Ideal'. That's what I meant when I was talking about 'great feeling and passion' for Schiller's work. You do the very same thing yourself when translating Sappho. Her spirit moves through what you do, and in turn the work moves me.

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canicat39
Nov 30, 2023

The person who posted a comment did not ask you about the meaning of the poem, or about its influence upon Humboldt's educational theories. He asked about your irregular meter, bad elisions, mistaken Latin plurals, and he criticized its overall aesthetic effect. You have a tendency to ignore aesthetic questions in favor of vague philosophizing. It's a problem you share with Schiller.


By the way, the possessive case is not /Cere's/ but /Ceres'/.

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Michael R. Burch
Michael R. Burch
Dec 01, 2023
Replying to

Well said, Shannon. Any translation, especially a long translation, can be improved.

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jm6783685
jm6783685
Nov 29, 2023

A nice translation. But...


I wish you'd get your metres a bit more regular. Iambic and trochaic are not the same. Hexameter and pentameter and tetrameter are not the same. The rules of elision are fairly strict. A dromedary ride can never set up that pattern of expectations which would make the occasional variation really telling.


Strict metre has a pleasure of its own which nothing else can replace.


Irregular metre gives an impression of arbitrariness, which is never a good idea in any artwork. Every stroke should feel as if its been determined by God for all eternity. That's what gives the work of art its power. And it's authority.


And the plural of 'vortex' is 'vortices'.

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bobbyfunderburk1
bobbyfunderburk1
Jan 25
Replying to

Civilised life has its appeal, if somewhat boring, as long as everyone else is civilised, but it was the barbaric cowboys and Red Indians who crossed an ocean twice to save your country from the dreaded Hun. Rhymed regular verse was my first choice until forced into free verse by circumstance, and I developed a fondness for it in a short time. By the way, I have no credentials to comment on a poet such as yourself as is evidenced in my own poetry, but I'm American, still in the process of becoming civilized. Build a campfire and sit by it for a spell; you may enjoy a touch of barbarism.

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