Tibetan mandala, 19th century
Tibetan mandala, 19th century
Es lockt mich das süße Getön
Allmächtig zu ewigen Höhn.

The sweet notes are calling me
Up to the eternal heights with an almighty power

D 828	Die junge Nonne

Du winkst mir von ferne,
Du ewiges Licht!

You beckon to me from the distance,
You eternal light:

D 842	Totengräbers Heimwehe

A young nun hears a storm outside and tries to resolve the storm within her soul. She hears the bells in the tower and feels that she is being summoned ‘to the eternal heights’. A man who has spent his lifetime digging graves stands on the brink of his own grave and realises that there is noone left who can lay him in it. As he looks down into the darkness he sees ‘an eternal light’ beckoning to him.

Both of these characters were created by the same poet, Jacob Nicolaus Craigher de Jachelutta, in 1822. They both represent characters who are ‘on the brink’, who have reached their limits. Having reached the end they (or their poet) invoke the concept of a non-ending eternity.

ROSENCRANTZ: 	Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where's it going to  end? . . . 
GUILDENSTERN:	Death followed by eternity. . . the worst of both worlds. It is a terrible thought.

Thomas Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead 1966

Does the concept of ‘eternity’ add anything positive to the negative terms ‘im-mortality’ (not dying) and ‘in-finity’ (not ending) or is it essentially synonymous with them as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to think?

Kosegarten made an explicit distinction between ‘infinity’ and ‘eternity’ at the end of ‘Idens Nachtgesang’ (D 227):

Freund, ich bin dein, nicht für den Sand der Zeiten,
Der schnellversiegend Chronos Uhr entfleußt,
Dein für den Riesenstrom heilvoller Ewigkeiten,
Der aus des Ew'gen Urne scheußt.

Friend, I am yours, not just for the sands of time
Which so quickly run out as they flow through Chronos's timepiece,
I am yours for the gigantic river of healthy eternities
Which pour out of the urn of the Eternal One.

Here Ida commits herself to the beloved not for an endless or infinite extent of time but in a dimension (a giant stream of eternities) that is beyond time altogether. The same poet makes a similar distinction at the end of ‘Huldigung’ (D 240):

Trennung ist das Los der Zeit!
Ewig einigt Ewigkeit!

Separation is a feature of time!
Eternity unites for ever!

Eternity is therefore not the same concept as ‘infinity’. Nor is it identical with ‘immortality’, as is made clear in Schubart’s ‘Grablied auf einen Soldat’ (D 454). Here the poet observes a military funeral and makes no bones about the deadness of the bones. The soldier fought bravely but is now dead. Whatever is on offer to him in another dimension is not exactly immortality, which would be a cruel denial of the reality of death. The eternity that is offered is in no sense a continuation of the mortal life that has now ended:

Wie du gelebt, so starbst auch du! 
Schloss'st deine Augen freudig zu
Und dachtest: "Aus ist nun der Streit   
     Und Kampf der Zeit, 
Jezt kommt die ew'ge Seligkeit."  

Just as you lived, you died in the same way!
You closed your eyes joyfully
And thought, "The struggle is now over,
Time's battle;
Now comes eternal blessedness."

Goethe attempted to address the questions raised by the desire to acknowledge human limitations alongside the urge to invoke ‘eternity’ in ‘Grenzen der Menscheit’ (D 716).

Was unterscheidet
Götter von Menschen?
Dass viele Wellen
Vor jenen wandeln,
Ein ewiger Strom:
Uns hebt die Welle,
Verschlingt die Welle,
Und wir versinken.

Ein kleiner Ring
Begränzt unser Leben,
Und viele Geschlechter
Reihen sich dauernd
An ihres Daseins
Unendliche Kette.

What distinguishes
Gods from humans?
The fact that many waves
Pass by them,
An eternal stream:
However, the wave lifts us up,
The wave engulfs us
And we sink.

A small ring
Borders our life,
And many generations
Succeed each other unceasingly
With their being making up
An unending chain.

Yes, we are limited. Of course, we are mortal. However, these very constraints themselves offer a chance of fulfilment and completion. If we see our own life as ‘a small ring’, it itself contains an image of the eternal cycle of reality. A ‘mere’ human life is an essential link in ‘the great chain of being’.

In ‘An Schwager Chronos’ (D 369) Goethe portrays a long coach journey as a metaphor of human life. The traveller sets out full of determination and adventure but the day will end with a headlong plunge into darkness (with the gates of the coaching inn representing the entrance to Hell or the underworld). The highpoint of the journey is the uphill striving in the late morning, when the traveller is granted intimations of eternal life. Here again, there is no contradiction between human boundedness and access to eternity.

Weit, hoch, herrlich der Blick
Rings ins Leben hinein,
Vom Gebirg zum Gebirg
Schwebet der ewige Geist,
Ewigen Lebens ahndevoll.

Wide, high, majestic is the view
All around taking us into life,
From mountain range to mountain range
The eternal spirit hovers,
Full of intimations of eternal life.

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