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Hofmannsthal’s ‘On the Transitory: I-IV’

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Poems in Terza Rima

I
On the Transitory

I still feel her breath upon my cheeks
How can it be, that these close days
Are gone, gone for ever, completely passed?

This is a matter that no one fully comprehends,
And it’s far too grim for any complaint:
That everything slips and passes away.

And that my own Ego, limited by nothing,
Slips away from a small child
To me unearthly silent and alien like a dog.

Then: I existed a hundred years ago
And my ancestors, those in the shroud,
Are as related with me as my own hair.

Are as one with me as my own hair.

II
The hours! In which we stared into
The pale blue of the sea and understood death,
So simply and festively and without dread,

Like small girls, who appear very pale,
With big eyes, and who are always chilly
Silently gazing out into the evening

And know that life is silently flowing out
From their limps drunk with sleep
Into trees and grass garnished with faint smiles

Like a saint who pours out her blood.

III
We are made of the stuff of dreams,
And thus dreams open their eyes
Like small children under the cherry trees,

From whose crown the pale golden course
Of the full moon lifts up through the great night.
…Not otherwise appear our dreams,

They are there and live as a child, that laughs,
No less large in floating up and down
Than the full moon is, awakened by the crown of trees.

The innermost is open to her weavings;
Like the hands of ghosts in a locked room
They are within us and always have life.

And the three are One: a human, a thing and a dream.

IV
On occasion never-loved women appear
Before us in a dream as small girls
And are unspeakably touching to behold.

As if they had accompanied us on a distant path
Once on an evening
While the tree-tops moved, breathing

And scent descended, and night, and fear
And along the path, our path, the dark one,
By the evening’s light the silent ponds are resplendent

And, mirror of our desire, in dreamlike flashes,
And all softly-spoken words, all breezes
Of the evening air and the first starlight

The souls quake deeply and sisterly
And are sad and filled with the jostle of triumph
In the face of deep apprehension, which the great life

Comprehends, with its magnificence and strength.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Terzinen I-IV: Über Vergänglichkeit (1894) (S.H. transl.)

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