To a churchyard
(Poet's title: Auf einen Kirchhof)
Set by Schubert:
[February 2, 1815]
Sei gegrüßt geweihte Stille,
Die mir sanfte Trauer weckt,
Wo Natur die bunte Hülle
Freundlich über Gräber deckt.
Leicht von Wolkenduft getragen
Senkt die Sonne ihren Lauf,
Aus der finstern Erde schlagen
Glühend rote Flammen auf!
Ach, auch ihr, erstarrte Brüder,
Habet sinkend ihn vollbracht.
Sankt ihr auch so herrlich nieder
In des Grabes Schauernacht?
Schlummert sanft ihr kalten Herzen
In der düstern langen Ruh,
Eure Wunden, eure Schmerzen,
Decket mild die Erde zu! –
Neu zerstören, neu erschaffen
Treibt das Rad der Weltenuhr,
Kräfte, die am Fels erschlaffen,
Blühen wieder auf der Flur!
Und auch du, geliebte Hülle,
Sinkest zuckend einst hinab
Und erblühst in schöner Fülle
Neu, ein Blümchen auf dem Grab.
Wankst, ein Flämmchen, durch die Grüfte,
Irrest flimmernd durch dies Moor –
Schwingst, ein Strahl, dich durch die Lüfte,
Klingest hell, ein Ton, empor!
Aber du, das in mir lebet,
Wirst auch du des Wurmes Raub?
Was entzückend mich erhebet,
Bist auch du nur eitel Staub?
Nein! was ich im Innern fühle,
Was entzückend mich erhebt,
Ist der Gottheit reine Fülle,
Ist ihr Hauch, der in mir lebt! –
Greetings, blessed stillness,
Which awakens soft mourning in me,
Where nature, with bright drapery,
Covers the graves in such a friendly way.
Lightly carried by hazy clouds,
The sun sinks at the end of its journey;
Leaping out of the dark earth
Glowing red flames flare up!
Oh, and you too, motionless brothers,
Have also completed your journey by sinking;
Was your descent as magnificent as this
When you sank into the awful night of the grave?
Sleep softly, you cold hearts,
In your gloomy long rest.
Your wounds, your agonies,
Are now covered up by the earth.
As one thing is destroyed another is created,
That is the impulse of the wheel of the world clock;
Powers that lie dormant in the rocks
Blossom again on the grassy surface.
And you, too, beloved covering,
Shuddering as you sink down,
And, in beautiful fullness, you will blossom
Again, a small flower on the grave.
You will flicker, a small flame through the burial vault,
You will shimmer across this moor, wandering around;
As a ray of light, you will jump through the air,
As a note, you will ring out clearly!
But you, that which is living in me,
Will you too be prey to worms?
That which lifts me up in delight,
Are you also simply nothing but dust?
No, that which I feel deep within,
That which lifts me up in delight,
Is the pure fullness of divinity,
It is the breath of that which lives within me.
All translations into English that appear on this website, unless otherwise stated, are by Malcolm Wren. You are free to use them on condition that you acknowledge Malcolm Wren as the translator and schubertsong.uk as the source. Unless otherwise stated, the comments and essays that appear after the texts and translations are by Malcolm Wren and are © Copyright.
Schlechta’s Ode is not fully unified either in terms of who (and what) is being addressed by the poetic voice or as regards the use of imagery, but this very fact might point to the difficulties of coming to terms with the experience of reflecting on (and in) the churchyard.
The first addressee is ‘blessed stillness’ (geweihte Stille), but it soon becomes clear that the speaker is having difficulties experiencing this outer calm as an inner peace. The next apostrophe is to the bodies buried in the churchyard and their cold hearts. After a series of reflections on mortality (are we overhearing the thoughts of a mourner at a funeral while a corpse is being lowered?) he then addresses one particular outer shell or husk (his own body). In what seems to be a clumsy attempt to move from the outer form that is mortal to the inner spirit which is bound to survive (at the beginning of the penultimate stanza to the end of the text) the final address is to the inner breath itself, ‘the pure covering of divinity’ (der Gottheit reine Hülle).
The complexity of this final apostrophe is directly related to the overlapping clusters of images throughout the text. One set of imagery is about coverings and the contrast between the outer surface and what is concealed beneath. Closely connected to this is language about getting to the end of a journey, going to bed and being tucked in. Throughout the text there are references to falling and rising (implicitly connected with getting in and out of bed). On the horticultural level (the garden bed) this becomes sowing and sprouting, bringing us back to the seed, with its outer husk and its hidden, inner life.
The stillness of the churchyard awakens only a gentle sorrow (sanfte Trauer) because nature in its kindness, as an act of friendship (freundlich), has thrown bright coverings over the graves. Some of these will be beds (directly on the surface), covered in colourful eiderdowns or duvets of grass and wild flowers or recently offered ‘floral tributes’; others will be sofas or ottomans (projecting stone tombs) with throws of moss or ivy over them. In all the cases, the brightness of the drapings highlights the dullness and darkness of what they hide.
The poet is observing the scene at sunset. The sun has come to the end of its journey and is retiring. As it sinks into invisibility and descends beneath our feet, like the bodies in the churchyard (brightening the covers of the graves), it sends colour up from out of the darkness (in this case the red flames of evening).
The poet now addresses the dead bodies directly, using a vivid image: ‘erstarrte Brüder’, ‘brothers who have become stiff’. They have dried out or become petrified. They are fossilized. He has seen beneath the bright coverings and uncovered what is hidden here in the churchyard in its simplicity: a collection of stiffs. Their journey has ended, but did they sink with anything like the majesty of this setting sun? It seems difficult to believe that the answer could be ‘yes’ when faced so directly with what it means to be dead.
‘To die, to sleep’, of course (as Hamlet put it). Perhaps their lack of motion is just a form of sleep. Perhaps the night they are experiencing will be like other nights and be followed by a morning. Perhaps we should see the grave as a bed, a ‘final resting place’. So, the poet wishes them well. ‘Sleep softly, you cold hearts’. At least you are tucked in (zudecken) nicely; the earth is covering up your wounds and your pain.
Stanza 5 introduces a new image to the text: the wheel. After the linear time of the story so far (people and the sun coming to the end of a journey and going to bed), time is now seen as circular. It is as if we have moved from a digital to an analogue clock. Like a Buddhist or a Hindu, the poetic persona sees the universe as a rotating force that cannot bring destruction without also bringing along creation in its wake. The motionless brothers might well be woken by this cosmic alarm clock. The fossils that are lodged in the rock blossom again on the surface.
The addressee changes again. The poet addresses a ‘covering’ that he is particularly fond of: his own body. He realises that he will be lowered but will blossom in glory as a flower on his own grave. On the molecular level there is something in this, but it is apparent that the speaker is not fully convinced by his own rhetoric. Can a single dandelion really be the ‘glorious fullness’ that his existence is directed towards?
The following stanza (stanza 7) therefore presents a number of metaphors as possible improvements on the flower on the grave business. The language now is not about mass (a flower) but energy: movement, light and sound (shimmering, flickering, ringing). However, the locations are hardly any more glorious. The shimmering will be amongst burial vaults, the wandering will be across barren moors, the resounding will go unheard up into the atmosphere.
All that was about the future of the covering, the husk. What about the real inner life within? Is that subject to decay and does it get recycled into plants, gas and minerals in the same way? There is surely something about the delight that lifts my spirit that cannot be reduced to ‘mere matter’. Isn’t spiritual and aesthetic experience sufficient refutation of a bleak materialist view of the world?
Richard Dawkins (in Unweaving the Rainbow: science, delusion and the appetite for wonder, 1998) answers this question by challenging the assumption that materialism (the idea that there is no need to invoke a dimension of reality beyond matter) has to be bleak. On the surface (ironically) Schlechta’s final stanza appears to be a defence of traditional dualism (the claim that spirit and matter are different and incommensurable). He refers to the breath living within him. However, this is complicated (and perhaps undermined) by him saying that the force that lifts him up is ‘the pure covering of divinity’. He seems to be avoiding older Christian (or even Platonic and Gnostic) ways of talking about this as the divine spirit being freed from the covering of the body. More ‘orthodox’ writers might have been happy to stick with the image of the seed that has to die before it can germinate (the body that has to be buried before it can be resurrected etc.), but Schlechta has worked hard to draw our attention to the significance of the outer, of the coverings, for our inner life. The poet’s ode to a churchyard, set at sunset, has drawn our attention to all of the ways in which we cover up our mortality: with mourning rituals, with tombs and gravestones, with flowers and wreaths, but, above all, perhaps with metaphors and imagery. We should not dismiss all of this as ‘mere’ surface; it is through all of this, the pure covering of divinity, that the spirit can stir within us.
Note on the title
In the Deutsch catalogue and in all editions of Schubert’s songs the title is ‘Auf einen Kirchhof’ (To a churchyard). However, Peter Rastl argues that the title should be in accordance with the early editions of Schlechta’s poem: ‘Auf einem Kirchhof’ (In a churchyard) or ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ (In the churchyard).
Original Spelling Auf dem Kirchofe. Sey gegrüßt geweihte Stille, Die mir sanfte Trauer weckt, Wo Natur die bunte Hülle Freundlich über Gräber deckt. Leicht von Wolkenduft getragen, Senkt die Sonne ihren Lauf, Aus der finstern Erde schlagen Glühend rote Flammen auf. Ach auch ihr, erstarrte Brüder, Habet sinkend ihn vollbracht, Sankt ihr auch so herrlich nieder In des Grabes Schauernacht? Schlummert sanft ihr kalten Herzen In der düstern langen Ruh, Eure Wunden, eure Schmerzen, Decket mild die Erde zu. Neu Zerstören, neu Erschaffen Treibt das Rad der Weltenuhr, Kräfte, die am Fels erschlaffen, Blühen wieder auf der Flur. Und auch du, geliebte Hülle, Sinkest zuckend einst hinab, Und erblühst in schöner Fülle Neu ein Blümchen auf dem Grab. Wankst ein Flämmchen durch die Grüfte, Irrest flimmernd durch dies Moor - Schwingst, ein Strahl dich durch die Lüfte, Klingest hell, ein Ton empor! Aber du, das in mir lebet, Wirst auch du des Wurmes Raub? Was entzückend mich erhebet, Bist auch du nur eitel Staub?! Nein, was ich im Innern fühle, Was entzückend mich erhebt, Ist der Gottheit reine Fülle, Ist ihr Hauch, der in mir lebt.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Zeitung für die elegante Welt. Herausgegeben von K. L. Methus. Müller. Neunzehnter Jahrgang. 1819. Leipzig, bei Leopold Voß. no. 140. Dienstags, den 20. Juli 1819, column 1113-1114.
Note: Schubert set the poem from Schlechta’s manuscript (which has not survived). A variant of the poem was published in the above source. Much later Schlechta published a heavily revised version of this poem
To see an early edition of the text, go to column 1113 [75 von 692] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ164921900