Heaven, the sky

Carl Gustav Carus, Pilgrim's rest, 1818
Carl Gustav Carus, Pilgrim's rest, 1818

The English phrase ‘contemplating the heavens’ carries some of the ambiguity of the German word ‘Himmel’, which can mean either simply ‘the sky’ or ‘heaven’. German Wikipedia disambiguates the term by distinguishing between ‘Himmel (planetar)’ and ‘Himmel (Religion)’, but of course most German poets have wanted to retain the ambiguity! The word functions effectively as a metaphor, allowing poets to find a way of speaking about spiritual and intangible dimensions whilst using the everyday language of physical space and experience.

Where is ‘heaven’? The Judaeo-Christian background

As good a place as any to begin a consideration of the use of the word ‘Himmel’ in German thought and literature is a debate in the 1520’s between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli about where Christ went after he ‘ascended into heaven’.

The Nicene Creed (325) as modified at the Council of Constantinople in 381 had declared that Jesus “rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of the Father” (English translation from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer). Huldrych Zwingli, the founder of Reformed Christianity in Zürich, believed that because Jesus was now in heaven, sitting at the right hand of God the father, it did not make sense to believe that he could literally be present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. However, Martin Luther in Wittenberg insisted that it is precisely BECAUSE Christ is at the right hand of God (in heaven) that he is actually present in the bread and the wine. How can anybody be so stupid as to believe that God the Father is an old man in a beard sitting in the sky with his son on a chair by his right hand (on our left as we look up)? Heaven is not ‘the sky’. It is not ‘up there’. God is everywhere, His right hand is everywhere, Heaven is everywhere.

What Luther was pointing out was that the traditional language of ‘ascension’ and ‘heaven’ is imagery, not reality. We need physical and literal language in order to conceptualise abstractions, but we need to avoid being deluded by these images and metaphors. The English term ‘ascension’ derives from the Latin version of the creed (‘et ascendit in caelum’), but the German equivalent is perhaps more graphically literal: Himmelfahrt Christi (Christ’s journey into the sky). Many pious Christians in northern Europe in the 15th century celebrated Ascension Day by hoisting a life-size wooden figure of Christ up from the floor of the Church. A pulley allowed it to rise up through the roof as the congregation looked up.

Albrecht Dürer, Ascension c. 1510
Albrecht Dürer, Ascension c. 1510

The imagery of the take-off became even more popular in the early 16th century. Albrecht Dürer’s popular woodcut of the Himmelfahrt Christi from his 1510 ‘Little Passion’ series set the pattern for many other such images (in paint, sculpture and print). The launch pad is central and clearly ‘earthly’. The imprint of Christ’s footprints indicates the pressure involved in the lift-off. In contrast, the clouds surrounding the ascending figure of Christ, even though they might remind people in our generation of the gases that accompany ignition, were intended to represent the higher dimension into which Jesus was entering, the sky, the heavens. The apostles (like the rest us left here below) can only look up as best they can.

The irony is that Zwingli’s argument that Christ’s body is not literally in the bread and wine because he has ascended into heaven was based on his conviction that the Last Supper is a symbol. It represents something but it is not that thing. For Luther, though, the bread is both really bread and really the body of Christ, since the body of Christ is at the right hand of God, i.e. everywhere. Yet, what is clear is that it is Luther’s position that is the more poetical. He accepts that it is the physical images and categories in which limited human beings perceive the world that allow us to grasp that ‘other’ dimension, which links earth to heaven. For Luther, the incarnation means that the earth is not cut off from the realm of spirit and that the same word (Himmel) rightly refers both to a location (‘the sky’) and a spiritual reality that cannot be confined (‘heaven’).

Hans Süß vom Kulmbach (1480 - 1522), Himmelfahrt Christi, 1513 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Hans Süß vom Kulmbach (1480 – 1522), Himmelfahrt Christi, 1513 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

‘Where is heaven?’ Schubert’s poets

About 130 of the poems that Schubert set to music include the word ‘Himmel’ (the sky / heaven / the heavens) or its derivative, ‘himmlisch’ (heavenly). For the vast majority of the authors of these texts the answer to the question, ‘Where is heaven?’ is fairly straightforward: it is, almost by definition, not here. It is a domain that we long for, that we have lost, that we may one day attain. Where a theologian might have spoken of the human condition as ‘fallen’ and our need to find a route to heaven through redemption, these poets see human beings as unfulfilled in ordinary, banal experience. Only sensitivity (love, aesthetics, sociability, openness to nature etc.) allows us to transcend normal life and enter the heavenly domain.

In around 40 of the texts the word ‘Himmel’ can only realistically be translated into English as ‘the sky’. The poet looks ‘up’ at the sky and notices how different things are ‘up there’. Seidl’s persona in ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ (D 870) contrasts the moon’s passage across the sky with his own traversal of the earth. The moon moves contentedly through its own beloved homeland (the heavens), whereas I trudge across the ground and am condemned to be a stranger everywhere. Similarly, in Schreiber’s ‘An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht’ (D 614), I see the friendly face of the moon in the sky and reflect on how this ‘son of heaven’ can look down on so much of human experience, yet it can never penetrate my ultimate home, the grave. Rather than moving towards heaven I am on a journey away from it, into total darkness and annihilation.

Müller’s miller boy (D 795 20) follows the same trajectory, but in has case it is water rather than earth that cuts him off from the sky and any hope of ‘heaven’.

Gute Nacht, gute Nacht,
Bis alles wacht.
Schlaf aus deine Freude, schlaf aus dein Leid.
Der Vollmond steigt,
Der Nebel weicht,
Und der Himmel da droben, wie ist er so weit.

Good night, good night!
Until everything wakes up,
Sleep off your joy, sleep off your pain!
The full moon is rising, 
The mist is clearing,
And the sky up there, how expansive it is!

We do not even need to be dead to realise that ‘heaven’ is beyond our reach. Schiller’s pilgrim (Der Pilgrim, D 794) tries everything in his power to reach heaven. He climbs mountains and crosses bridges, he swims and trudges his way towards ‘the golden gates’ but all to no avail:

Hin zu einem großen Meere
  Trieb mich seiner Wellen Spiel,
Vor mir liegt's in weiter Leere,
  Näher bin ich nicht dem Ziel.

Ach kein Weg will dahin führen,
  Ach der Himmel über mir
Will die Erde nicht berühren,
  Und das Dort ist niemals Hier.

I was taken off to a great ocean,
The play of its waves carried me along,
Lying in front of me is a broad expanse,
I am no nearer to my goal.

Oh, no path is going to lead there,
Oh the sky above me
Is not going to touch the earth,
And 'there' is never 'here'.

Can we gain access to the inaccessible?

On 28th April 1814 Ernst Schulze wrote a poem (Der liebliche Stern, D 861) about a star shining high above in the sky which was also reflected in the water around him, and this led him to think of all of the heavenly bliss that was out of reach for him.

Nicht kann ich zum Himmel mich schwingen,
Zu suchen den freundlichen Stern,
Stets hält ihn die Wolke mir fern.
Tief unten, da möcht es gelingen,
Das friedliche Ziel zu erringen,
Tief unten da ruht' ich so gern.

I cannot launch myself into the sky
To look for that friendly star;
The cloud is always holding it too far away from me!
Deep down there I might be able to manage it,
To reach the peaceful goal!
Deep down there is where I could so happily rest!

Schulze was one of many poets who see ‘heaven’ as something that is unattainable, beyond their grasp, and who use their poetry as a way of coming to terms with the resulting frustration. The vision is genuine but it is also fugitive. It is a simple statement of down-to-earth fact that we cannot fly up to the heavenly realm and grasp hold of ‘the beloved star’, yet we cannot allow ourselves to believe that our longing is pointless or delusional. Schulze’s text invites us therefore to look down rather than up: ‘Deep down there is where I could so happily rest!’

We might be tempted to see Schulze’s quest as a sort of illusion. The star that is mirrored in the water is not a star, it is ‘just’ reflected starlight. Yet what else is there? Even the most advanced scientific enquiry into the astral realm makes use of reflection (such as the James Webb Space Telescope). Accepting our constraints is not the same thing as admitting that we have no hope of escaping our limitations.

So, what are the ways in which an unattainable heaven can be glimpsed or even experienced, according to the poems that Schubert set to music? What does it mean to look ‘down’ rather than ‘up’?

Sensitivity to Nature

Ich blicke her, ich blicke hin,
Und immer höher schwebt mein Sinn.
Nur Tand sind Pracht und Gold und Ruhm,
Natur, in deinem Heiligtum!

Des Himmels Ahnung den umweht,
Der deinen Liebeston versteht;
Doch, an dein Mutterherz gedrückt,
Wird er zum Himmel selbst entzückt.

I glance this way, I glance that way,
And my mind floats ever higher.
Splendour, gold and glory are just worthless,
Nature, in your sanctum!

An awareness of heaven surrounds
Anyone who understands your music of love;
But, pressed to your motherly heart,
He will be carried off enchanted to heaven itself.

These two strophes are the climax of Naturgenuss by Matthisson (set by Schubert as D 188 and D 422). Matthisson, along with other members of the Göttinger Hainbund, had a great appeal to the young Schubert, with his repeated insistence that human limitations could be transcended by developing ‘sensitivity’ (Empfindsamkeit) to the natural world around us. Even ‘heaven’ becomes accessible.

Poets of the following generation, the so-called ‘Romantics’, took this idea of sensitivity to nature even further:

In des Sees Wogenspiele
Fallen durch den Sonnenschein
Sterne, ach, gar viele, viele,
Flammend leuchtend stets hinein.

Wenn der Mensch zum See geworden,
In der Seele Wogenspiele
Fallen aus des Himmels Pforten
Sterne, ach, gar viele, viele.

Into the play of the waves on the lake
They are falling through the sunshine  - 
Stars, oh, so many, many of them,
Blazing, alight, endlessly falling.

If a human were to become a lake,
Into the play of the waves in the soul
Falling out of the gates of heaven there would be
Stars, oh, so many, many of them.

Bruchmann, Am See (D 746)

Here, Schubert’s friend Bruchmann simply makes the standard metaphorical switch from outer to inner vision to ‘open the gates of heaven’. As the light from so many stars falls from ‘the heavens’ onto the surface of the lake, the sensitive inner film in our souls reflects and captures it.

Schubert was not just attracted to the image of stars and starlight allowing us a vision of the heavenly realm. Sensitivity to nature was also acute at the moment of sunset:

O wie schön ist deine Welt,
Vater, wenn sie golden strahlet,
Wenn dein Glanz hernieder fällt,
Und den Staub mit Schimmer malet;
Wenn das Rot, das in der Wolke blinkt,
In mein stilles Fenster sinkt.

Könnt ich klagen? könnt ich zagen?
Irre sein an dir und mir?
Nein, ich will im Busen tragen
Deinen Himmel schon allhier.
Und dies Herz, eh es zusammenbricht,
Trinkt noch Glut und schlürft noch Licht.

Oh, how beautiful your world is,
Father, when it shines with gold!
When your glow falls down towards us
And paints the dust with its shimmering;
When the red, as it gleams through the clouds,
Sinks into my quiet window!

Could I complain, could I be apprehensive?
Lose my faith in you or me?
No, in my breast I shall carry
All of your heaven here.
And this heart, before it collapses,
Will continue to drink the glow and savour the light.

Lappe, Im Abendrot (D 799)

Analysis of Nature

Goethe’s lyrics shared many of the assumptions about the value of being open to nature found in the poetry of ‘Empfindsamkeit’ and the Romantic movement, but often without the religious or mystical overtones. Goethe brings an Enlightenment sensitivity which is more open to analysis and critical understanding of nature, yet he is able to use this down-to-earth, scientific approach in a fully poetic way to explore the agony of human beings feeling excluded from ‘heaven’. On 9th and 10th October 1779 Goethe (in his capacity as personal tutor to the Duke of Weimar) visited the Staubbach Falls in the Alps and realised that this waterfall was only a small part of the more complex system of the water cycle. The falling waters have come originally ‘from the sky’ and long to return there, as indeed they do. So it is with the human soul, which is ‘from heaven’ and on its way back there. However, ‘heaven’ is no fixed abode. We climb back up there but fall again. Change is the only thing that is eternal.

Des Menschen Seele 
Gleicht dem Wasser.
Vom Himmel kommt es, 
Zum Himmel steigt es, 
Und wieder nieder 
Zur Erde muss es, 
Ewig wechselnd.  

The human soul
Is similar to water:
It comes from the sky / the heavens,
It rises to the heavens / the sky
And back down
To earth it has to come,
Eternally changing.

Goethe, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D 484, D 538, D 705, D 714

Sociability and brotherhood

Goethe’s interests in geology, meteorology and botany never distracted him from his concern with human beings, with individuals and society. In Tischlied (D 234) he admits that the alcohol he has just been sharing with his friends has allowed him to partake of ‘the delights of heaven’, but he is keen to point out that it is the social context as much as the chemical which has granted this access to the heavens:

Mich ergreift, ich weiß nicht wie,
Himmlisches Behagen,
Will mich's etwa gar hinauf
Zu den Sternen tragen?
Doch ich bleibe lieber hier,
Kann ich redlich sagen,
Beim Gesang und Glase Wein
Auf den Tisch zu schlagen.

I don't know how but I have been seized with
Heavenly delight.
Might it perhaps even
Carry me to the stars?
But I would rather stay here,
I can honestly say,
With this singing and a glass of wine
That I can hit on the table.

Goethe’s close friend Schiller, similarly praised ‘brotherhood’ as the basis for ‘joy’ opening up ‘Elysium’ (An die Freude, D 189).

The arts (particularly music) as a gateway to heaven

Schiller’s ‘Laura am Klavier’ (D 388) also refers to ‘Elysium’. It appears to the poet here that the music he has heard Laura perform on the keyboard must be the language that is spoken in Elysium. Needless to say, Schubert was attracted to set a number of texts expressing a similar sentiment, from Schober’s ‘An die Musik’ (D 547) to Mayrhofer’s strange ‘Geheimnis’ (D 491), which is an explicit attempt to understand the secret of Schubert’s own creativity:

Sag an, wer lehrt dich Lieder, 
So schmeichelnd und so zart? 
Sie rufen einen Himmel 
Aus trüber Gegenwart. 
Erst lag das Land, verschleiert
Im Nebel vor uns da - 
Du singst, und Sonnen leuchten, 
Und Frühling ist uns nah.  

Tell me, who teaches you songs,
Songs that are so flattering and so tender?
They summon a heaven
Out of the overcast present.
At first the veiled land lay
There before us, covered in mist - 
You sing - and suns light up,
And spring is close to us.

Creativity and Creation: Heaven and earth

Mayrhofer’s stanza echoes Genesis 1:1-4,

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness."

In the context of this creation story it might have been better for the English translators in 1611 to use the term ‘sky’ rather than ‘heaven’. ‘Heaven and earth’ just means ‘everything’. This is how the phrase is used in a number of the texts set by Schubert. There is no trace of any idea of heaven connoting an afterlife or any kind of bliss.

Schon', ach schone den Wonneversunknen.
Himmel und Erde verschwinden dem Trunknen.

Spare me, oh spare someone who has sunk into bliss.
Heaven and earth disappear for someone so intoxicated.

Kosegarten, Die Mondnacht (D 238)

Meine Selinde! denn mit Engelsstimme 
   Singt die Liebe mir zu: sie wird die Deine! 
     Sie wird die Meine! Himmel und Erde schwinden! 
       Meine Selinde!  

My Selinde! Since with the voice of an angel
Love is singing to me: she is going to be yours!
She is going to be mine! Heaven and Earth disappear!
My Selinde!

Stolberg, Stimme der Liebe (D 412)

Admittedly, though, in a couple of the more pious texts, where God is praised ‘in heaven and on earth’ there is nothing to preclude an eternal heavenly choir being involved:

Groß ist Jehova, der Herr! denn Himmel und Erde verkünden
Seine Macht.

Great is Jehovah the Lord! for heaven and earth proclaim
His power!

Pyrker, Die Allmacht (D 852, D 875A)

Ihm, aller Wesen Quelle, werde
Von allen Wesen Lob gebracht,
Im Himmel und auf Erden
Lob seiner weisen Macht!

Praise him, the source of all beings,
Let praise be offered by all beings,
In heaven and on earth,
Praise to his wise power!

Uz, Gott, der Weltschöpfer (D 986)

Prayer and piety as a foretaste of heaven

Of the roughly 130 texts set by Schubert which make explicit reference to ‘Heaven’ (Himmel) or ‘Paradise’, only about a dozen use the term to refer primarily to an eternal life of bliss as a result of divine grace or salvation. According to Matthisson, when Laura prayed (Die Betende, D 102) or sang Klopstock’s resurrection song (An Laura , als sie Klopstocks Auferstehungslied sang, D 115) she opened a sort of portal onto heaven, but these poems of sensibility perhaps tell us more about the poet’s attitude to ‘pure’, pious girls than his beliefs about the afterlife. The Novalis Hymns, from the later, ‘Romantic’, generation (D 659, D 661, D 662) are more explicitly theological in that they attempt to fuse aesthetic sensitivity with spiritual transcendance experienced in the Catholic sacraments. The agony and frustration of romantic longing becomes part of the passion of Christ and, through his and our angst and ecstasy, a route is found leading to eternal life:

Durstiger und hungriger 
Wird das Herz,
Und so währt der Liebe Genuss
Von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit. 
Hätten die Nüchternen 
Einmal nur gekostet, 
Alles verließen sie, 
Und setzten sich zu uns 
An den Tisch der Sehnsucht, 
Der nie leer wird.

More thirsty and more hungry
Becomes the heart:
And thus the pleasure of love endures
From eternity to eternity.
Imagine if the sober
Just once took a taste,
They would leave everything
And sit down with us
At the table of longing,
Which will never be empty.

Novalis, Hymne I  D 659

Longing and yearning

Of course, since we are still dealing with poetry rather than theological analysis or preaching, the focus of most texts remains on the fact that, even if ‘heaven’ (as future bliss) is real, we are not there yet:

Frieden gibt den treuen Herzen 
Nur ein künftig Paradies.

Faithful hearts are granted peace
Only in a future paradise.

Jacobi, Trauer der Liebe D 465 

Earthly concerns continue to weigh us down, but we can follow the lead of the mountains and strain to reach higher things:

Sieht uns der Blick gehoben, 
So glaubt das Herz, die Schwere zu besiegen,
Zu den Himmlischen oben 
Will es dringen und fliegen.

Look at us with our eyes raised upwards - 
That is when the heart believes that it can overcome gravity;
Up there into the heavenly realm
Is where it wants to burst through and fly.

Schlegel, Die Berge D 634

In a large number of the texts Schubert chose to set to music (particularly before 1823), this longing does not always have the metaphysical overtones that are central to Schlegel: it is much more to do with yearning for bliss in the presence of the beloved.


Mein Himmel glüht in deinen Blicken,
An deiner Brust mein Paradies.
Ach! alle Reize, die dich schmücken,
Sie sind so hold, so süß.
Es wogt die Brust in Freud' und Schmerzen,
Nur eine Sehnsucht lebt in mir,
Nur ein Gedanke hier im Herzen:
Der ew'ge Drang nach dir.

My sky glows in your glances,
My Paradise is at your breast.
Oh, all the charms which adorn you
They are so magnificent, so sweet.
My breast wells up with joy and pain,
But only one longing lives in me,
Only one thought here in my heart:
The eternal drive towards you.

Körner, Liebesrausch  D 164  D 179

Beglückt, beglückt,
Wer dich erblickt
Und deinen Himmel trinket;
Wem dein Gesicht
Voll Engellicht
Den Gruß des Friedens winket!

Made happy, made happy
Is anyone who looks at you
And drinks in your heaven,
Anyone seeing your face
Full of angelic light
Beckoning with a greeting of peace.

Hölty, Der Liebende  D 207

In a number of these poems (particularly those by Goethe and Schiller) it becomes impossible to make any useful distinction ‘earthly love’ and ‘heavenly bliss’:

Seine Küsse - paradiesisch Fühlen! 
Wie zwei Flammen sich ergreifen, wie
Harfentöne in einander spielen
Zu der himmelvollen Harmonie -

Stürzten, flogen, schmolzen Geist in Geist zusammen,
Lippen, Wangen brannten, zitterten,
Seele rann in Seele - Erd' und Himmel schwammen
Wie zerronnen um die Liebenden!

His kisses - the feeling of Paradise! - 
Like two flames engulfing each other, like
The sounds of harps playing together
To make harmony that is full of heaven,

They plunged, they flew, spirit melted into spirit,
Lips and cheeks burned, trembled - 
Soul flowed into soul - Earth and heaven swam
Around the lovers as if melting away.

Schiller, Amalia  D 195

Texts like this remind us that German love poetry frequently uses the concept of the Liebestod, the love/death, which sees the highest ecstasy as a form of annihilation. It is therefore inevitable that many of the references to ‘heaven’ in these poems are in fact really about death, repose and extinction.


Throughout his song-writing career Schubert was attracted to poems about evening and the setting sun. The sky in the evening (Abendhimmel) reminds us daily of our own departure:

Ins stille Land,
Wer leitet uns hinüber? 
Schon wölkt sich uns der Abendhimmel trüber, 
Und immer trümmervoller wird der Strand. 
Wer leitet uns mit sanfter Hand 
Hinüber, ach, hinüber 
Ins stille Land.

Into the quiet land!
Who is going to lead us over there?
The evening sky is already clouding over for us and looking ominous,
And the shore is also becoming increasingly bleak.
Who will take us with a gentle hand and lead us
Over there, oh, over there,
Into the quiet land?

Salis-Seewis, Lied D 403

Horch! des Abendglöckleins Töne 
Mahnen ernst der Erde Söhne, 
     Dass ihr Herz 
Sinnend ob der Heimat Schöne, 
Sich des Erdentands entwöhne.  

Listen! The notes of the evening bell
Are sending a powerful reminder to the sons of earth
That their hearts
Should turn heavenwards,
As they reflect on the beauty of home
And the need to break their attachment to the fripperies of earth.

Silbert, Abendbilder  D 650

Although many of these texts on the surface are offering solace and rest, in reality the poet and the reader are still involved in the troubling turbulence of life. It is precisely because of this that the image of ‘heavenly rest’ exerts its power. This is as true of the workaday, unpublished verse of friends of Schubert (such as Heinrich Hüttenbrenner) as it is of the great poetry of the seemingly unperturbable Goethe:

Die Abendglocke tönet,
Vom Himmel sinkt die Ruh;
Das Auge grambetränet
Nur schließet sich nicht zu.

The evening chimes are ringing out,
Calm is descending from heaven;
My eyes are full of tears caused by grief
And they will not close now.

Heinrich Hüttenbrenner, Wehmut  D 825

Der du von dem Himmel bist,
Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillst,
Den, der doppelt elend ist,
Doppelt mit Entzückung füllest,
Ach! ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Süßer Friede!
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!

You who come from heaven
And soothe all agony and pain,
For those who are doubly suffering
You fill them with double delight.
Oh, I am tired of this coming and going!
What is the point of all the pain and pleasure?
Sweet peace,
Come, oh come into my breast!

Goethe, Wandrers Nachtlied  D 224

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