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The Works of J. W. von Goethe/Volume 9/Religion and Church

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RELIGION AND CHURCH.

THOUGHTS ON JESUS CHRIST'S DESCENT INTO HELL.

[The remarkable poem, of which this is a literal but faint representation, was written when Goethe was only sixteen years old. It derives additional interest from the fact of its being the very earliest piece of his that is preserved. The few other pieces included by Goethe under the title of "Religion and Church" are polemical, and devoid of interest to the English reader.]

What wondrous noise is heard around!
Through heaven exulting voices sound,
A mighty army marches on.
By thousand millions followed, lo,
To yon dark place makes haste to go
God's Son, descending from His throne!
He goes—the tempests round Him break,
As Judge and Hero cometh He;
He goes—the constellations quake,
The sun, the world quake fearfully.

I see Him in His victor-car,
On fiery axles borne afar,
Who on the cross for us expired.
The triumph to yon realms He shows,—
Remote from earth, where star ne'er glows,—
The triumph He for us acquired.
He cometh. Hell to extirpate,
Whom He, by dying well-nigh killed;
He shall pronounce her fearful fate;
Hark! now the curse is straight fulfilled.

Hell sees the victor come at last,
She feels that now her reign is past,
She quakes and fears to meet His sight;
She knows His thunders' terrors dread,
In vain she seeks to hide her head,
Attempts to fly, but vain is flight;
Vainly she hastes to 'scape pursuit
And to avoid her Judge's eye;
The Lord's fierce wrath restrains her foot
Like brazen chains,—she cannot fly.

Here hes the Dragon, trampled down,
He lies, and feels God's angry frown,
He feels, and grinneth hideously;
He feels Hell's speechless agonies,
A thousand times he howls and sighs:
"Oh, burning flames! quick, swallow me!
There lies he in the fiery waves,
By torments racked and pangs infernal,
Instant annihilation craves,
And hears, those pangs will be eternal.

Those mighty squadrons, too, are here,
The partners of his cursed career,
Yet far less bad than he were they.
Here lies the countless throng combined,
In black and fearful crowds entwined,
While round him fiery tempests play;
He sees how they the Judge avoid,
He sees the storm upon them feed,
Yet is not at the sight o'er joyed,
Because his pangs e'en theirs exceed.

The Son of Man in triumph passes
Down to Hell's wild and black morasses,
And there unfolds His majesty.
Hell cannot bear the bright array,
For, since her first created day,
Darkness alone e'er governed she.
She lay remote from ev'ry light,
With torments filled in Chaos here;
God turned for ever from her sight
His radiant feature's glory clear.

Within the realms she calls her own,
She sees the splendour of the Son,
His dreaded glories shining forth;
She sees Him clad in rolling thunder,
She sees the rocks all quake with wonder,
When God before her stands in wrath.
She sees He comes her Judge to be,
She feels the awful pangs inside her,
Herself to slay endeavours she,
But e'en this comfort is denied her.

Now looks she back, with pains untold,
Upon those happy times of old,
When all these glories gave her joy;
When yet her heart revered the truth,
When her glad soul in endless youth
And rapture dwelt, without alloy.
She calls to mind with maddened thought
How over man her wiles prevailed;
To take revenge on God she sought,
And feels the vengeance it entailed.

God was made man, and came to earth.
Then Satan cried with fearful mirth:
"E'en He my victim now shall be!"
He sought to slay the Lord Most High,
The world's Creator now must die;
But, Satan, endless woe to thee!
Thou thought'st to overcome Him then,
Rejoicing in His suffering:
But He in triumph comes again
To bind thee: Death! where is thy sting?

Speak, Hell! where is thy victory?
Thy power destroyed and scattered see!
Know'st thou not now the Highest's might?
See, Satan, see thy rule o'erthrown!
By thousand-varying pangs weighed down,
Thou dwell'st in dark and endless night.
As though by lightning struck thou liest.
No gleam of rapture far or wide;
In vain! no hope thou there descriest,—
For me alone Messiah died!

A howling rises through the air,
A trembling fills each dark vault there,
When Christ to Hell is seen to come.
She snarls with rage, but needs must cower
Before our mighty hero's power;
He signs—and Hell is straightway dumb.
Before His voice the thunders break.
On high His victor-banner blows;
E'en angels at His fury quake,
When Christ to the dread judgment goes.

Now speaks He, and His voice is thunder,
He speaks, the rocks are rent in sunder.
His breath is like devouring flames.
Thus speaks He: "Tremble, ye accursed!
He who from Eden hurled you erst,
Your kingdom's overthrow proclaims.
Look up! My children once were ye,
Your arms against Me then ye turned,
Ye fell, that ye might sinners be,
Ye've now the wages that ye earned.

"My greatest foemen from that day,
Ye led my dearest friends astray,—
As ye had fallen, man must fall.
To kill him evermore ye sought,
'They all shall die the death,' ye thought;
But how! for Me I've won them all.
For them alone did I descend,
For them prayed, suffered, perished I.
Ye ne'er shall gain your wicked end;
Who trust in Me shall never die.

"In endless chains here lie ye now,
Nothing can save you from the slough,
Not boldness, not regret for crime.
Lie, then, and writhe in brimstone fire!
'Twas ye yourselves drew down Mine ire.
Lie and lament throughout all time!
And also ye, whom I selected.
E'en ye for ever I disown.
For ye My saving grace rejected:
Ye murmur? blame yourselves alone!

"Ye might have lived with Me in bliss,
For I of yore had promised this;
Ye sinned, and all my prospects slighted;
Wrapped in the sleep of sin ye dwelt.
Now is My fearful judgment felt.
By a just doom your guilt requited."—
Thus spake He, and a fearful storm
From Him proceeds, the lightnings glow.
The thunders seize each wicked form.
And hurl them in a gulf below.

The God-man closeth Hell's sad doors;
In all His majesty He soars
From those dark regions back to light.
He sitteth at the Father's side;
Oh, friends, what joy doth this betide!
For us, for us He still will fight!
The angels' sacred choir around
Rejoice before the mighty Lord,
So that all creatures hear the sound:
"Zebaoth's God be aye adored!"