Michael R. Burch

1958
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Goethe and Schiller translations

These are modern English translations of the "Xenia" epigrams written in collaboration by the German poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, plus an elegy Goethe wrote for Schiller...

ON LOOKING AT SCHILLER’S SKULL
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Here in this charnel-house full of bleaching bones,
like yesteryear’s
fading souvenirs,
I see the skulls arranged in strange ordered rows.

Who knows whose owners might have beheaded peers,
packed tightly here
despite once repellent hate?
Here weaponless, they stand, in this gentled state.

These arms and hands, they once were so delicate!
How articulately
they moved! Ah me!
What athletes once paced about on these padded feet?

Still there’s no hope of rest for you, lost souls!
Deprived of graves,
forced here like slaves
to occupy this overworld, unlamented ghouls!

Now who’s to know who loved one orb here detained?
Except for me;
reader, hear my plea:
I know the grandeur of the mind it contained!

Yes, and I know the impulse true love would stir
here, where I stand
in this alien land
surrounded by these husks, like a treasurer!

Even in this cold,
in this dust and mould
I am startled by an a strange, ancient reverie, …
as if this shrine to death could quicken me!

One shape out of the past keeps calling me
with its mystery!
Still retaining its former angelic grace!
And at that ecstatic sight, I am back at sea ...

Swept by that current to where immortals race.
O secret vessel, you
gave Life its truth.
It falls on me now to recall your expressive face.

I turn away, abashed here by what I see:
this mould was worth
more than all the earth.
Let me breathe fresh air and let my wild thoughts run free!

What is there better in this dark Life than he
who gives us a sense of man’s divinity,
of his place in the universe?
A man who’s both flesh and spirit—living verse!


These are selected XENIA epigrams...

#2 - Verse versus Kiss

She says an epigram’s too terse
to reveal her tender heart in verse ...
but really, darling, ain’t the thrill
of a kiss much shorter still?
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#5 - Criticism

Why don’t I openly criticize the man? Because he’s a friend;
thus I reproach him in silence, as I do my own heart.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#11 - Highest Holiness

What is holiest? This heart-felt love
binding spirits together, now and forever.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#12 - Love versus Desire

You love what you have, and desire what you lack
because a rich nature expands, while a poor one retracts.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#19 - Nymph and Satyr

As shy as the trembling doe your horn frightens from the woods,
she flees the huntsman, fainting, uncertain of love.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#20 - Desire

What stirs the virgin’s heaving breasts to sighs?
What causes your bold gaze to brim with tears?
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#23 - The Apex I

Everywhere women yield to men, but only at the apex
do the manliest men surrender to femininity.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#24 - The Apex II

What do we mean by the highest? The crystalline clarity of triumph
as it shines from the brow of a woman, from the brow of a goddess.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#25 -Human Life

Young sailors brave the sea beneath ten thousand sails
while old men drift ashore on any bark that avails.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#35 - Dead Ahead

What’s the hardest thing of all to do?
To see clearly with your own eyes what’s ahead of you.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#36 - Unexpected Consequence

Friends, before you utter the deepest, starkest truth, please pause,
because straight away people will blame you for its cause.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

#41 - Earth versus Heaven

By doing good, you nurture humanity;
but by creating beauty, you scatter the seeds of divinity.
―from “Xenia” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Keyword/Tags: Goethe, Schiller, epitaph, epigram, German, Germany, translation, modern English translations, love, kiss, friendship, desire, holy, holiness, earth, heaven, beauty, divinity, nature, spirit
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