No Comment — September 16, 2007, 1:36 am

Truth and Fidelity, in a Ballad

I have posted an original translation of Schiller’s Die Bürgschaft. This is a ballad, one of the most significant in the totality of world literature, perhaps even the most important. The ballad is a fairly simple genre, with great popular appeal, usually set to song. A month ago I was driving through the Scottish borders listening to ballads by Burns and Scott—and it seems to me that this form has not been raised quite to the same level elsewhere as by the Scots, though the Germans can’t be far behind. Goethe, Schiller, and Bürger brought the ballad to a very high level in the last years of the eighteenth century, and then Fontane revived it with very impressive works in the latter nineteenth century. Generally the ballad anticipates a folk theme, but Schiller gives it a typically classical twist, and he also packs the material with much more depth than is common for the genre. The event he seizes upon for his tale is drawn from Greece in the age of Plato, or more precisely Magna Graecia, the island of Sicily.

Schiller probably has the basic plotline from the late medieval Gesta Romanorum. But it turns on a tale from the life of the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse, who also figured quite prominently in the literature of Weimar Classicism—most significantly in Christoph Martin Wieland’s novel Die Geschichte des Agathon (1767). Dionysius is an altogether reprehensible figure in Wieland’s novel, and in most of the Greek literature in which he appears he is likewise the very model of the wicked autocratic leader. He overturned democratic rule and tried constantly to aggrandize his power by waging wars and taxing his people to fight them. He liked to surround himself with philosophers and men of letters (Plato, for instance), but he is a dilettante who does not much appreciate them, and who abuses them. Dionysius emerges from this literature as the ultimate tyrant.

But in Schiller’s recounting, Dionysius appears as a more sympathetic figure. He escapes an assassination attempt, he grants an accommodation to the would-be assassin: he may leave to attend his sister’s wedding, and leave a friend to stand surety in his stead. But if he does not return by sunset on the third day, his friend will be crucified in his stead. The core of the poem consists of a recounting of the extraordinary ordeal the protagonist suffers in his effort to return. As it ends, he has overcome all obstacles to take his friend’s place on the cross. The experience produces a catharsis in the tyrant. He relents, offering the friends their freedom, and his final words “ich sei, gewährt mir die Bitte,/in eurem Bunde der Dritte” has passed into the German language as a much-loved colloquialism.

This work always struck me as closely attuned to Wilhelm Tell, Schiller’s masterful drama of the struggle against tyranny and for the attainment of personal freedom. Its hero also plans to slay a tyrant, but in the end his heroic act is a distinctly personal rather than political one. It would be easy to appreciate this work on a superficial level. It is filled with pathos and drama. It unfolds quickly and powerfully. But assuredly, Schiller is crafting another message for the reader prepared to look for it. On September 1, 1798, he writes of his plans for the work in a letter to Goethe: “I am curious to ascertain whether I have successfully developed the principal themes that are woven into this material. Tell me if you don’t agree that that is one of those unusual cases in which you can proceed with clarity and still invent in accordance with your own principles.”

I think this is exactly what Schiller has done–brilliantly in fact. So what are the principles lurking in this work? Well, it’s no mystery why the theme of a political assassination gone foul would have appeal to Schiller. He is writing within a decade of the French Revolution, after it had turned to blood and gore, mayhem and war. Indeed, when Schiller received his patent of citizenship in the French Republic, about this time, it bore the names of Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins—both figures he openly admired—amidst a half dozen other victims of the Reign of Terror. (Goethe joked: “with respect that that decree of the citoyens, I can only say how delighted I am that a document which came to you from the realm of the dead found you still among us living.”) Schiller followed the course of the French Revolution first with elation, and then with horror as the revolution began to eat its own children. He reviled the flow of blood. And so he drew the ultimate conclusion: Europeans were not yet ready for the revolution he had in mind.

“Not a man, but the law must be placed upon the throne. And man must be respected as an end in himself; true freedom must be made the basis of our political conduct.” But the “present moment finds an unreceptive humanity,” he writes in his letters on the esthetic education of humanity. (Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen, 5. Brief [1793]).

So the protagonist fails in his effort to remove the tyrant of Syracuse. He faces in its stead a different ordeal: a test of his true friendship to the man left as his hostage. In a sense the test of character has been internalized. Schiller was sickened by the advocates of revolution who turned to the pursuit of their own power and vanity and who betrayed their fellow revolutionaries. For him, the fundamental test was less that of high politics, and more whether these politicians were capable of remaining good human beings in the course of the political transformation. Did they stoop to “ends justifies the means” thinking? Did they forget the moral imperative requiring man to be viewed as an end in himself, and not as a means to the accomplishment of an end—to use the Kantian language that Schiller adopts in the letters and in other philosophical writings? Schiller firmly believed that partisan politics inevitably tends to corrupt perceptions; to turn man from his fundamental duty to respect his fellow man; to make of men mere vehicles for the obtaining of political objectives. And this was an abomination. This is the challenge that lies at the heart of Die Bürgschaft. It is a wondrous, moving tale of political intrigue turned to pure nobility of spirit. It reflects Schiller’s aspiration for the French Revolution—his sense that it has turned sour in its life-taking, and that it needs fundamentally to reexamine its human premises.

There are several extant English translations of this poem, mostly filled with Victorian cobwebs. They are faithful to the form rules of the ballad, but they have next to nothing to do with Schiller—they’re so distant from the original text that it makes more sense to view them as other poems on the same themes, not translations. I have not attempted to maintain the ballad form; I have focused on presenting a reasonably poetic facsimile of Schiller’s work, read for meaning consistent with Schiller’s contemporaneous philosophical writings, particularly his engagement with Kant, his correspondence with Goethe and his reactions to the French Revolution.

I retained the conventional English translation “The Hostage,” but it should be noted that is a few steps distant from the German. “Bürgschaft” would in this context refer to a surety, namely something given to a bail bondsman in exchange for a person’s liberty, subject to forfeiture upon failure to appear on a certain date. It is of course not common that the surety would be a human being. Using the term “hostage” places the emphasis on that fact—where, I believe, it appropriately belongs.

This is a ballad, meaning it is designed to be read dramatically if not indeed sung. Here is a respectably good reading which you can download as a podcast. But even better: listen to one of the two settings of this ballad by Franz Schubert. The better one is No. 246 in the Deutsch-Verzeichnis, and the best recording I know is by the wonderful baritone Thomas Allen in the Hyperion Schubert Edition, vol. 16.

This translation is for my friends Paul Ford and Maureen Flaherty. They were married yesterday at sunset on the Carroll Street Bridge in Brooklyn—two great spirits embarking on a joint voyage, who will understand the great message of “Die Bürgschaft”—a call for fidelity and faith in humanity and in the fellow humans we take as friends. What I wish Paul and Maureen is that they enjoy the challenges of maintaining the high friendship of which they are capable, without of course facing the ordeal of the protagonist of the Bürgschaft. Paul is our web editor at Harper’s, and as he now embarks on his honeymoon, you can expect to find many more typos and grammatical errors in No Comment than we’ve had in the past. He’s a terrific editor, and it will be difficult posting without him.

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