Life is a dream
(Poet's title: Das Leben ist ein Traum)
Set by Schubert:
for trio (TBB or SAA) and piano
[August 25, 1815]
Das Leben ist ein Traum,
Man merkt, man fühlt ihn kaum;
Denn schnell wie Wolken ziehn,
Ist dieser Traum dahin.
Wohl dem, der gut geträumt,
Wohl dem! dess’ Saat hier keimt
Zur Ernte für die Zeit
Das Leben ist der Blick
Auf einer Zukunft Glück,
Das jeder haben kann,
Der hier es wohlgetan.
Wohl dem! der nach der Nacht
Des Grabes froh erwacht,
Den nicht die Stimme schreckt,
Die aus dem Schlummer weckt.
Wer bei der Arbeit Schluss
Die Rechnung fürchten muss,
Hat wahrlich keinen Blick
Auf einer Zukunft Glück.
Life is a dream,
It is hardly noticed, it is barely felt;
For as quickly as clouds pass by
This dream is over.
Anyone who has had a good dream is happy,
Anyone is happy who plants seeds here
That will be harvested at the time
Life is a glimpse
Into the happiness of the future
That anyone can have
Who has done good things here.
Happy is he who, after the night
Of the grave, wakes up cheerfully,
Who is not terrified by the voice
That wakes him out of sleep.
Anyone who, as the work comes to an end,
Has to fear the reckoning
Truly has no glimpse
Into the happiness of the future.
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.
There is something of a contradiction between the two central clusters of imagery in this poem: sleep and dreams on the one hand, and the language of sowing and harvest on the other. If life is a dream that passes with us barely noticing it, it is hard to understand how it can also be the arena where we sow the seeds of our future happiness by doing good works.
Of course, we should not be so literal about it. The poet is battling with the ineffable and assumes that things will only make sense in another dimension. From the point of view of the resurrection (after we have been ‘woken up’) we will look back on our earthly existence and it will be as insubstantial as a dream. We will forget the details. The happiness that seems so fleeting on earth will be more meaningful when we see that it was just a glimpse of the ecstasy in store. At the last trumpet a voice will wake us up and we will come to realise where we really are and what is what.
Another way of putting all of this is to say that when we ‘go to sleep’ we are buried. Our body is a seed planted in the ground, but that the seed will germinate, a plant will grow and a harvest will follow. Or it is our actions on earth that are the seeds, and these are what will sprout and be fruitful in heaven. The poet may be echoing the words of St. Paul: ‘God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.’ (Galatians 6: 7-8 King James Version)
Wannovius’s text ends with a reminder that not everyone will be happy to be woken up. Some people will be terrified. The image now changes from dreaming and waking up, sowing and harvesting, to the idea of being paid for your contribution at the end of the working day. This too seems to recall a passage from St. Paul, ‘For the wages of sin is death’.
Original Spelling Das Leben Das Leben ist ein Traum, Man merkt, man fühlt ihn kaum; Denn schnell wie Wolken ziehn, Ist dieser Traum dahin. Wohl dem, der gut geträumt, Wohl dem, deß Saat hier keimt, Zur Erndte für die Zeit Der Unvergänglichkeit. Das Leben ist der Blick Auf einer Zukunft Glück, Das jeder haben kann, Der hier es wohlgethan. Wohl dem! der nach der Nacht Des Grabes froh erwacht, Den nicht die Stimme schreckt, Die aus dem Schlummer weckt. Wer bey der Arbeit Schluß Die Rechnung fürchten muß, Hat wahrlich keinen Blick Auf einer Zukunft Glück.
The poem was never published independently of Schubert’s setting.