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,
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!
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."