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  • Translation

On Contemplating Schiller's Skull

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Here in this charnel-house of bleaching bones,

like yesteryear’s

fading souvenirs, 

I see the skulls arranged in ordered rows.

Who knows whose owners might have murdered peers,

packed tightly here

despite fierce hate?

Here weaponless, they stand, in this gentled state. 

These arms and hands were once so delicate!

How articulately 

they moved! Ah me!

What weights once placed such pressure on these feet?

Still there’s no hope of rest for you, poor souls!

Deprived of graves,

forced here like slaves

to occupy this overworld, sad ghouls! 

Now who’s to know who loved this brittle skull?

Except for me;

reader, hear my plea:

I know the grandeur of the mind it held!

Yes, and I know the impulse love would stir

here, where I stand 

in this alien land

surrounded by these husks, like a treasurer!

Even in this cold, 

in this dust and mould 

I am quickened by an ancient reverie,

as if this shrine to death could quicken me!

One shape out of the past enchanted me 

with its mystery!

Still retaining its angelic grace!

At that sight, I am back at sea ...

To that current where ennobled figures race.

O secret vessel, you 

gave life its truth.

It falls on me to recall your living face.

I turn away, abashed by all I see:

this mould was worth

more than all the earth.

Let me breathe fresh air and let my thoughts run free!

What is there better in this life than he

who gives us a sense of man’s divinity,

of his place in the universe–

where spirit and matter meet, in his living verse!

For more on Goethe, see our "Profiles in Poetry: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe."


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