Hymn to the infinite one
(Poet's title: Hymne an den Unendlichen)
Set by Schubert:
for quartet (SATB) and piano
[July 11, 1815]
Zwischen Himmel und Erd’, hoch in der Lüfte Meer,
In der Wiege des Sturms trägt mich ein Zackenfels,
Unter mir sich zu Stürmen,
Schwindelnd gaukelt der Blick umher,
Und ich denke dich, Ewiger!
Deinen schauernden Pomp borge den Endlichen,
Ungeheure Natur! du der Unendlichkeit
Sei mir Spiegel Jehovahs!
Seinen Gott dem vernünft’gen Wurm
Orgle prächtig, Gewittersturm!
Horch! er orgelt – Den Fels wie er herunterdrönt!
Brüllend spricht der Orkan Zebaoths Nahmen aus.
Mit dem Griffel des Blitzes:
Kreaturen, erkennt ihr mich?
Schone, Herr! wir erkennen dich!
Between heaven and earth, high in an ocean of wind,
In the hub of the storm a rocky ridge holds me up,
Clouds tower up
Under me forming storms,
I look around and feel giddy
And I think of you, eternal one.
Lend your shuddering pomp to finite things
Imposing nature! You, infinity’s
Mirror Jehovah for me!
Let its God be known to the rational worm
By your mighty proclamation, thunderstorm!
Listen, it is roaring! How it is rumbling down the cliff!
The hurricane is bellowing and pronouncing the name of Sabaoth.
With the stylus of the lightning is:
“Creatures, do you recognize me?”
Spare us, Lord! We recognize you.
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, it appears, was no specialist in either metereology or Hebrew. Hurricanes do not develop around mountain peaks and the word ‘Zebaoth’ is not exactly a name. However, if we overlook these minor quibbles and accept the hymn’s rhetoric on its own terms we can open ourselves up to what it is that the storm might be telling us.
The poet and his readers are just worms (albeit worms with a reasoning capacity) caught in the maelstrom of the elements. The scene is set between heaven and earth, on a rocky crag in an ocean of air, overlooking storm clouds shot through with flashes of lightning. In other words, all four elements have come together to create a unique vantage point for contemplating creation. The sheer vulnerability of the worm’s situation is what leads us to reflect on infinity and eternity.
We begin to see that we are part of nature, and that even we have been lent something of the majesty of the creator. Nature is itself the ‘giant’ (majestic?) daughter of infinity. That is why it is possible to see an image or a reflection of God even in the realm of the finite. Things do not come much more finite than momentary flashes of lightning, but these are what write the words of God; similarly His name is sounded in the rolling of the thunder.
In Luther’s translation of the Bible, God is often called ‘der Herr Zebaoth’ (e.g. Psalm 24: 10, ‘ Wer ist derselbe König der Ehren? Es ist der Herr Zebaoth, Er ist der König der Ehren’). This phrase was more accurately translated in the 1611 Authorised Version as ‘the LORD of hosts’ (‘Who is the King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory’). The word (never really a name) appears twice in the 1611 English New Testament (e.g. Romans 9:29, ‘Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we had been as Sodoma, and been made like unto Gomorrha’). Schiller must have interpreted the Hebrew genitive plural as a proper name (Lord Zebaoth) and imagines it being rumbled out in the course of a thunderstorm (though this would not have been very different from the sound of armies – hosts – setting off to battle!).
There may also be echoes here of the unutterable name of God, the four unpronouncable Hebrew consonants (YHWH). When the Torah was read aloud the vowels of the Hebrew word for ‘Lord’ (Adonai) were often added to these consonants as a reminder that the name should be replaced by the word ‘Lord’. At some point people began to miss the point of this and just read the consonants YHWH intersperesed with the vowels AOA to produce the name Yahowah or Jehovah. For Schiller it is Jehovah that is mirrored in nature.
However, God’s message as etched using the stylus of lightning bolts, ‘Creatures, do you recognize me?’, is not just asking ‘Do you know my name?’ It is not about whether we call him God or YHWH or Infinity; it is about whether we acknowledge his power and our relationship as finite beings with an infinite being. Schiller is not really interested in a theology in which God has personal relationships with individuals or specific groups; for him God is more of a unifying moral principle than an interacting agent (he set out his ideas about divinity more fully three years later in ‘An die Freude’, Schubert’s D 189). His viewpoint becomes clear if we compare the Hymne an den Unendlichen with a passage from the Hebrew Bible which uses a similar setting to present an image of God:
And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.(I Kings 19: 11 – 12)
For Schiller, there is no still small voice speaking to us. The LORD, if he is anywhere, must be in the wind and the earthquake and the fire. For a rational worm, it is possible to work out what unites these disparate phenomena; we do not need to be told. We are invited to read, reflect and think.
Original Spelling Hymne an den Unendlichen Zwischen Himmel und Erd', hoch in der Lüfte Meer, In der Wiege des Sturms trägt mich ein Zakenfels, Wolken thürmen Unter mir sich zu Stürmen, Schwindelnd gaukelt der Blick umher Und ich denke dich, Ewiger. Deinen schauernden Pomp borge den Endlichen, Ungeheure Natur! du der Unendlichkeit Riesentochter! Sey mir Spiegel Jehovahs! Seinen Gott dem vernünftgen Wurm Orgle prächtig, Gewittersturm! Horch! er orgelt - Den Fels wie er herunterdrönt! Brüllend spricht der Orkan Zebaoths Nahmen aus. Hingeschrieben Mit dem Griffel des Blitzes: K r e a t u r e n , e r k e n n t i h r m i c h ? Schone, Herr! wir erkennen dich.
Confirmed by Peter Rastl with Schubert’s source, Friedrich Schillers sämmtliche Werke. Zehnter Band. Enthält: Gedichte. Zweyter Theil. Wien, 1810. In Commission bey Anton Doll, page 231.
First published in Anthologie auf das Jahr 1782, anonymously edited by Schiller with the fake publishing information “Gedrukt in der Buchdrukerei zu Tobolsko”, actually published by Johann Benedict Metzler in Stuttgart. This poem (pages 126-127) has “Y.” as the author’s name.
To see an early edition of the text, go to page 231 [237 von 310] here: http://digital.onb.ac.at/OnbViewer/viewer.faces?doc=ABO_%2BZ207858305