The dying woman
(Poet's title: Die Sterbende)
Set by Schubert:
Heil! dies ist die letzte Zähre,
Die der Müden Aug’ entfällt!
Schon entschattet sich die Sphäre
Ihrer heimatlichen Welt!
Leicht, wie Frühlingsnebel schwinden,
Ist des Lebens Traum entflohn,
Seraphim zum Kranze schon!
Ha! mit deinem Staubgewimmel
Fleugst, o Erde, du dahin!
Näher glänzt der offne Himmel
Der befreiten Dulderin.
Neuer Tag ist aufgegangen!
Herrlich strahlt sein Morgenlicht!
O des Landes, wo der bangen
Trennung Weh kein Herz mehr bricht!
Horch! im heil’gen Hain der Palmen
Wo der Strom des Lebens fließt,
Tönt es in der Engel Psalmen:
Schwesterseele, sei gegrüßt!
Die empor mit Adlerschnelle
Zu des Lichtes Urquell stieg;
Tod! wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle!
Stolze Hölle! wo dein Sieg?
Hello! This is the last tear
That will fall from this tired eye!
Soon the sphere will be within the shade
Of its native world.
Lightly, like disappearing spring mists,
Life’s dream has flown off;
Flowers of paradise are being wound
Already into a wreath by seraphim!
Ha! With your swarms of dust
You are flying off, oh Earth!
The open heaven is shining closer
To the liberated suffering woman.
A new day has arisen!
Its morning light is beaming majestically!
Oh it is from that land where the anxious
Pains of separation will no longer break any hearts!
Listen! In the sacred grove of palms
Where the stream of life flows
Angels’ psalms are resounding:
Rising up at the speed of an eagle she
Climbed to the original source of light;
Death! Where is your sting? Hell!
Proud hell! Where your victory?
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.
An early edition of this poem was entitled ‘Die sterbende Elisa‘ (The dying Elisa), in an assumed reference to the early death of the fiancée of Matthisson’s friend Jakob Friedrich Rosenfeld. According to Matthisson’s autobiography Rosenfeld died suddenly in December 1782 after falling on the ice and Elisa died of grief shortly afterwards. It is perfectly understandable that the poet would need to respond to the shock of these awful events by producing some sort of comforting reassurance for the survivors of the tragedy (including himself) but many of us will probably now find it difficult not to feel some distaste at the resulting pieties and platitudes.
Matthisson climaxes his text with a Biblical quotation: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed. . . . Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (St. Paul, I Corinthians XV: 51 – 55). The language of ‘victory’ belongs to the discourse of battle and warfare, which humans all too easily call on when trying to respond to illness and mortality, but this is one of those metaphors which might actually prevent us from realising the truth of what is happening. We still say that people die after ‘a long battle’ or ‘struggle’ with cancer etc. We even model our understanding of infection and immunity using the lexis of invasion and defence. We see the enemy as death, and we do not want it to win – so much so, that when a young man dies in a skating accident and his girlfriend immediately dies of a broken heart we have to tell ourselves that it is not death but they who are the real winners of the battle.
The other element of Matthisson’s text that is difficult for modern readers relates to gender. Elisa’s immediate entry into heaven and beatification is presented as the inevitable result of her subservience and her inability to live without her fiance. She might as well be committing suttee; in fact, she is even better than a devout Hindu widow since she was not yet married to Rosenfeld at the time of his accident. There is nothing left for her to do but die. All that we know about Elisa is what has happened to her, we know nothing of what she has done (needless to say, she lived in a culture where she would have been so constrained that passivity was the only option). The only indication of her character is in her response to the ‘pains of separation’. In other words, there is no fight in her, she gives up. And this is presented as a victory! Pathetic.
 Susan Sontag wrote very perceptively on the ways in which this language distorts our perception and our behaviour (in Illness as Metaphor, 1978, and Aids and its Metaphors, 1989).
 Matthisson would have used this word in its original, non-ironic sense, of course. For him the dying Elisa was a ‘truly’ pathetic figure.
Original Spelling Die Sterbende Heil! dies ist die letzte Zähre, Die der Müden Aug' entfällt! Schon entschattet sich die Sphäre Ihrer heimathlichen Welt. Leicht, wie Frühlingsnebel schwinden, Ist des Lebens Traum entflohn, Paradiesesblumen winden Seraphim zum Kranze schon! Ha! mit deinem Staubgewimmel Fleugst, o Erde, du dahin! Näher glänzt der offne Himmel Der befreiten Dulderin. Neuer Tag ist aufgegangen! Herrlich strahlt sein Morgenlicht! O des Landes, wo der bangen Trennung Weh kein Herz mehr bricht! Horch! im heilgen Hain der Palmen Wo der Strom des Lebens fließt, Tönt es in der Engel Psalmen: Schwesterseele, sei gegrüßt! Die empor mit Adlerschnelle Zu des Lichtes Urquell stieg; Tod! wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle! Stolze Hölle! wo dein Sieg?
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Gedichte von Friedrich von Matthisson. Erster Theil. Tübingen, bei Cotta, 1811, pages 44-45; and with Friedrich von Matthisson, Gedichte, Fifteenth edition, Zurich: Orell, Füßli & Comp., 1851, pp. 36-37.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 31 [35 von 192] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ170963109