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Gryphius, or the Transitory Nature of Humanity


I have just posted original translations of two poems by the great Silesian Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius. Last week when I put up my translation of Brentano’s Springtime Cry from the Deep, I noted that the work reminded a great deal in tone and language of Gryphius, and these two poems in particular are what I had in mind.

These poems are the essence of the Baroque in Middle European literature. It’s strange that the popular idea of Baroque today assumes splendor and flourishes, gold-gilt, trumpet music and unnatural manneristic poses of statuary. All of that of course belongs to the Baroque vernacular, but it’s extremely misleading. The real core of Baroque thinking and writing involves rejection of vanity and the esthetic façade. These things are used to shock, to attack the senses, to awaken. They draw to a different message, which is essentially introspective and religious.

Perhaps this is more readily understood in music—if we juxtapose occasional music like Handel’s “Musick for the Royal Fireworks” (which is what most people immediately think of as Baroque, but is from a much later period, actually) with the core musical output of this period, which would be more on the order of Michael Praetorius’s “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” or Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Herzlich lieb hab ich Dich, o Herr” works which were composed just before and a few decades after the date of these poems, 1630 (though Gryphius reworked the second several times, and there are versions surviving from the mid-1640s as well). The latter two works follow rigid rules of polyphonic construction—they are driven by a mathematical approach to composition that met its ultimate expression in Johann Sebastian Bach, and they are filled with the same ultimate message of Gryphius’s poetry, namely an admonition to the listener to consider the transitory nature of life (memento mori).

The markers of the Baroque era in Middle Europe are not in any event peace and splendor. They are war and pestilence. This was a period of immense hardship and death waiting around every corner. The environment was sharply polarized—Gryphius is writing in the core of the religious wars, and if one place was continuously devastated by fighting throughout this period, it was his homeland of Silesia—today part of Poland, then a Habsburg province that would shortly would pass to the Prussians—a classic Middle European borderland. Silesia was also a center (especially then) of tremendous intellectual output and fertility. It was a profoundly multicultural environment, a meeting point between Slavs and Germans, with a large community of Jews. An enormous portion of the important literature of the period comes from this small and relatively impoverished province. War is the father of all things, it is said. Does that explain it? Or does Silesia’s position as a borderland explain it? Was it the mix, or was it just the Silesians?

In any event, these two poems are haunting and beautiful. Their structure is simple and they are rhymed (I have not attempted to keep to meter or rhyme in translation, for to do so would distort the meaning. The rhyme in the second is abba in the first two stanzas and ccd eed in the last two; the first set are quartets and the last two are terzinas, the form also taken by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal for his Terzinas on the Transitory, which I always imaged to follow immediately from these two poems. The meter is the six-count Alexandrine. But the internal structure is amazing.


We may of course think of Baroque works as florid and unnatural, but here the hallmarks are simplicity and mathematical precision, a great economy of expression. And the essence is a series of thoughts and counter-thoughts (built today, torn down tomorrow; the flower which blooms, and is lost). The word used is “vanity,” but I am not convinced that Gryphius has an exactly theological sense in mind when he uses this—rather it is another manifestation of the thought of the transitory, the idea that all the treasures about us, which are so often the subject of human desires and action, and which so often corrupt human conduct, are fleeting and not ours ultimately to hold or possess. Let there be no doubt: Gryphius is particularly weary of the political world when he writes this—of the aspirations of princes and generals—which made Europe and their own peoples’ lives into a hell during Gryphius’s own lifetime.

Gryphius’s voice is also curiously modern. He is speaking directly to his reader; his tone is familiar (again, like Brentano’s). He warns against an obsession with the vanities: do not waste your life entirely in the pursuit of fame, of wealth, of praise and honor (to which we should add by way of modern transposition: to careerism). Remember that there are other more important aspects to life. And indeed those who have lived well and found harmony and peace may be nameless. The perspective is religious, though not explicitly sectarian nor indeed necessarily even Christian, and also philosophical. Gryphius is concerned with the way we interact with what is around us, and particularly with other human beings. Perspective is essential to these poems.

There’s another thing about these two poems which unites them in a way with Brentano’s, and with our current plight. For Gryphius, security and stability were lifelong worries. The deprivations of the Thirty-Years’ War made his childhood and youth miserable. He was constantly concerned about shelter, food, health, and safety from the disorganized armies that lived off the land and that characterized this blood-filled and inhumane period. He was separated from his stepfather and forced to flee to find shelter before the advancing Imperial and Protestant armies. The quest for security is an essential theme deep in these poems.

But Gryphius warns about where this can take us. He warns about hatred and intolerance–emotive vanities. And in the end do they afford us security? Even marble and ore, he reminds, cannot stand in the face of time. For Gryphius, the only real security is internal, it involves living a just life and interacting with our fellow man in a way that conscience demands. It involves caring not just for one’s material needs, but also for one’s spiritual welfare. Throughout his life he saw very little of that, and this inhumanity, ultimately, was the source of instability for his Middle European world.

A generation arose that had learned the lessons of the violence of the religious wars, and had learned the dangers of demonizing an adversary, and of manipulating religious values for political purposes, especially for war-making. Those lessons seem far removed today, but in reading men like Gryphius we can recall them.

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