(Poet's title: Hoffnung)
Set by Schubert:
[August 7, 1815]
Es reden und träumen die Menschen viel
Von bessern künftigen Tagen,
Nach einem glücklichen, goldenen Ziel
Sieht man sie rennen und jagen;
Die Welt wird alt und wird wieder jung,
Doch der Mensch hofft immer Verbesserung.
Die Hoffnung führt ihn ins Leben ein,
Sie umflattert den fröhlichen Knaben,
Den Jüngling begeistert ihr Zauberschein,
Sie wird mit dem Greis nicht begraben;
Denn beschließt er im Grabe den müden Lauf,
Noch am Grabe pflanzt er die Hoffnung auf.
Es ist kein leerer schmeichelnder Wahn,
Erzeugt im Gehirne des Toren,
Im Herzen kündet es laut sich an,
Zu was Besserm sind wir geboren,
Und was die innere Stimme spricht,
Das täuscht die hoffende Seele nicht.
Humans talk and dream a great deal
About better days in the future;
In pursuit of a happy, golden aim
That is what you can see them running for and chasing after.
The world gets older and becomes young again,
But humans always hope for improvement.
Hope leads them into life,
It flutters around the jolly lad,
It inspires the youth with its magical glow,
It is not buried with the grey-headed old man;
For although he comes to the end of his tired course in the grave
What he plants on that grave is still – hope.
It is no empty, flattering delusion,
Conceived in the brain of a fool.
It is declared aloud in the heart:
“We are born for something better!”
And what the inner voice is saying
Does not deceive the soul that hopes.
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.
Schiller published this text in a journal called ‘Die Horen‘ in 1797. The Horae were the daughters of Zeus and Thetis and in ancient Greece were often seen as goddesses of the seasons, in charge of things happening or being done at the appropriate time. They were sometimes portrayed preparing the route for Apollo as he travelled in his chariot in his role as the sun god. They seem to belong in an agricultural context in which the cycle of planting, growth and harvest is central to human experience.
However, Schiller presents hope (clearly deeply connected with the function of the Horae) as something slightly different from the inevitability of the relentless cycle of the years. Although the world gets older and is regularly rejuvenated, humans hope for something rather more than this: they crave actual improvement (‘Die Welt wird alt und wird wieder jung, / Doch der Mensch hofft immer Verbesserung’). We know that we live in a cyclical world, and we are subject to the comings and goings of events, but we also desire to take control at times, to escape from the cycle and to break free. We have a longing to experience our lives as purposeful, as linear rather than cyclical. Achieving goals (‘happy, golden goals’ Schiller calls them) is how we take some control, how we become agents rather than objects.
There are religious ways of modelling this tension between cyclical and linear readings of human experience. In eastern traditions the cycle of rebirth is a given, we are doomed to go round and round unless we can break out in some way (e.g. in Buddhism we are encouraged to escape the cycle of desire and attain nirvana). In the Judaeo-Christian traditions there is a distinction between the fallen world of relentless effort (the punishment of Adam and Eve as they were expelled from Eden) and the salvation offered in a ‘better world’. Hope therefore functions as a virtue rather than a mood or a personality trait in traditional Christian theology: it is something that we should practise and struggle to achieve (even if we need grace to help us in the process). It is something we do, not something we have. In this type of traditional Christianity the main object of hope relates to life after death:
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.(The Book of Common Prayer 1662)
For Schiller, though, the plant of hope that grows on our grave is probably not connected with the Christian heaven. Part of the Englightenment project to which he was committed involved distinguishing true hope for the future of humanity from relying on superstition and the false hope that had previously been offered by tyrants and authoritarian systems. In Stanza 2 he presents hope as a sort of guide. It sets us on our way when we are very young and it is never far from us as we set out on our own (it ‘flutters around’ rather like adults who encourage children to walk and run by letting them go but reassuring them that they are still there to pick them up if they fall). Young adults are guided in a different way. They need the magical glow of hope to give them something to strive for; this is what inspires them (‘begeistert’, literally, what gives them spirit). We usually now call this ‘motivation’ or ‘drive’. There is no need to lose hope as we approach death since there is still the possibility to plant the seeds of something that will blossom in later generations. We do not need to limit our hopes to another dimension. Acceptance of death does not need to be a form of despair.
Stanza 3 reinforces Schiller’s belief that it is the traditional attitude to hope that is a delusion. He insists that the enlightened, humanistic tradition offers genuine, authentic hope. People might claim that it is an unrealistic fantasy based on nothing more than human desires and cravings, but the very fact that there is a universal conviction that things ought to be better than this is sufficient evidence to show that hope is basic to human experience. Indeed it is old-fashioned superstition that has quashed genuine hope for a better world.
These were burning questions around 1797, the year of the poem’s publication. In 1794 the French Revolution, which had offered so much hope to ‘enlightened’ writers such as Wordsworth and Schiller, had unleashed the policy of state Terror. Religious and political conservatives were quick to argue that this was evidence of the delusion at the heart of the project. However, the peaceful transition of power from President Washington to President Adams at the beginning of 1797 offered contrary evidence, suggesting that more rational systems were possible (indeed Washington’s principled refusal to serve a third term as President as set out in his Farewell Address is one of the clearest statements of Englightenment principles).
So, how do we decide what is ‘false hope’ and what is a genuine golden goal? Can we judge between the competing claims of the new regimes in America and France and those of ‘reaction’ (the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, for example)? For Schiller, we just have to trust that inner voice that insists that we were born for something better than this.
Original Spelling Hoffnung Es reden und träumen die Menschen viel Von bessern künftigen Tagen, Nach einem glücklichen, goldenen Ziel Sieht man sie rennen und jagen. Die Welt wird alt und wird wieder jung, Doch der Mensch hofft immer Verbesserung! Die Hoffnung führt ihn ins Leben ein, Sie umflattert den fröhlichen Knaben, Den Jüngling begeistert ihr Zauberschein, Sie wird mit dem Greis nicht begraben, Denn beschließt er im Grabe den müden Lauf, Noch am Grabe pflanzt er - die Hoffnung auf. Es ist kein leerer schmeichelnder Wahn, Erzeugt im Gehirne des Thoren. Im Herzen kündet es laut sich an, Zu was Besserm sind wir geboren, Und was die innere Stimme spricht, Das täuscht die hoffende Seele nicht.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Gedichte von Friederich Schiller, Erster Theil, Leipzig, 1800, bey Siegfried Lebrecht Crusius, page 205; and with Die Horen, Jahrgang 1797, Zehntes Stück. Tübingen in der J.G. Cottaischen Buchhandlung 1797, page 107.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 163 [169 von 292] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ207858202