The Works of J. W. von Goethe/Volume 9/Lines on Seeing Schiller's Skull


[This curious imitation of the ternary metre of Dante was written at the age of seventy -seven.]

Within a gloomy charnel-house one day
I viewed the countless skulls, so strangely mated,
And of old times I thought that now were gray,
Close packed they stand that once so fiercely hated,
And hardy bones that to the death contended
Are lying crossed,—to lie for ever, fated.
What held those crooked shoulder-blades suspended?
No one now asks; and limbs with vigour fired,
The hand, the foot—their use in life is ended.
Vainly ye sought the tomb for rest when tired;
Peace in the grave may not be yours; ye're driven
Back into daylight by a force inspired;
But none can love the withered husk, though even
A glorious noble kernel it containèd.
To me, an adept, was the writing given
Which not to all its holy sense explainèd.
When 'mid the crowd, their icy shadows flinging,
I saw a form that glorious still remainèd.
And even there, where mould and damp were clinging,
Gave me a blest, a rapture-fraught emotion,
As though from death a living fount were springing.
What mystic joy I felt! What rapt devotion!
That form, how pregnant with a godlike trace!
A look, how did it whirl me toward that ocean
Whose rolling billows mightier shapes embrace!
Mysterious vessel! Oracle how dear!
Even to grasp thee is my hand too base,
Except to steal thee from thy prison here
With pious purpose, and devoutly go
Back to the air, free thoughts, and sunlight clear.
What greater gain in life can man e'er know
Than when God-Nature will to him explain
How into Spirit steadfastness may flow,
How steadfast, too, the Spirit-Born remain.