Schiller’s politics and his skull

Schiller’s reputation, at least in the US, is one of the oddest of any great poet. It is not unusual for a poet to experience extreme shifts in favor according to the mood and tastes of the time.  And often one who achieves great fame in one era is considered banal for one reason or another in a later age.  But the case of Schiller is somewhat different  Once considered both an intellectual and aesthetic genius (sufficiently so that many of his lyrical works were turned into art songs by Beethoven and Schubert, for example), he is not so much now denigrated as completely forgotten.

Part of that is no doubt due to the particular political context of his work. Americans never really understood feudalism and have no memorials of it (notwithstanding the remnants of manorial grants in New York).  Therefore, the radicalism of his youthful first play Die Räuber (which tells of the rivalry of two noble siblings) as well as the psychological insights it contains are somewhat obscured for us by its odd Robin-Hoodesque setting.   It is now hard to conceive of the shock-of-the-new it inspired and even more difficult to see how it caused him to be inducted as an honorary member of the French Republic by the Jacobins. It is less surprising that he declined the honor.

His own later acceptance of nobility conferred on him by the Duke of Weimar in 1802 says something about the nature of German progressive romanticism at the time (as does Beethoven’s use of “van”).  It is as though the Germans were bound to conceive of progress without regard to the lessons or principles of the French Revolution (which Schiller grew to despise) or even the American.  It is therefore no wonder that Schiller’s views of “freedom” owed more to Rousseau than the work of the National Assemby.


from Poems of the First Period

by Friedrich von Schiller

Monument von unsrer Zeiten Schande,
Ew’ge Schmachschrift deiner Mutterlande,
Rousseaus Grab, gegrüßet seist du mir!
Fried’ und Ruh’ den Trümmern deines Lebens!
Fried’ und Ruhe suchtest du vergebens,
Fried’ und Ruhe fandest du hier!

Wann wird doch die alte Wunde narben!
Einst war’s finster, und die Weissen starben!
Nun ist’s lichter, und der Weissen stirbt.
Sokrates ging unter durch Sophisten,
Rousseau leidet, Rousseau faellt durch Christen,
Rousseau—der aus Christen Menschen wirbt.


[translated by DK Fennell]

Monument to our era’s shame,
The ceaseless smears of your motherland,
Rousseau’s tomb—I salute you from my heart!
Peace and rest for your once living remains,
Peace and rest you sought in vain,
Peace and rest you here obtain.

When will old wounds become mere scars?
Once the age was dark, and wise men perished.
Now there’s some light, but the wise man still passes away.
Socrates succumbed to the  Sophists,
Rousseau suffered, Rousseau staggered at the hands of Christians,
Rousseau — who tried to make Christians men!

Schiller’s sententious observations also put him in disfavor in an age when sententiousness is reserved for pop celebrities and middlebrow culyutr  This week’s bonus poem shows how Schiller’s aphorisms provides temptation for plaque-laden translations:

Zeus zu Herkules

from Poems of the Second Period

by Friedrich von Schiller

Nicht aus meinem Nektar hast du dir Gottheit getrunken;
Deine Götterkraft war’s, die dir den Nektar errang.

Translation by E. P. Arnold-Forster (1902):

Not my nectar it was to thee which Godhead accorded;
Thy God-granted might pounced on the nectar amain.

Unfortunately for Schiller the fate of oleaginous translation would not be his only indignity.  The man who sung of the “peace and rest” Rousseau enjoyed after his death would not have equal comfort.  According to the May 3, 2008 issue of Spiegel Online an international team of anthropologists, genealogists and DNA-experts examined Schiller’s own Trümmern pursuant to a commission by MDR Thüringen and Weimar Classics.  Their work was recorded for a television documentary entitled Der Friedrich-Schiller-Code. They reported that the skull in the tomb (which was next to those of Goethe and a prince of Weimar) does not belong to Schiller.  Historian Ralf G. Jahn explains in that article that Schiller’s skull was evidently stolen in the 19th Century by skull robbers (Schädeljäger) and replaced with a similar looking skull.  (The business of 19th Century German skull robbing seems deserving further remark.  If I ever find out more, I’ll pass it along.)  As with all scientific discoveries filmed for television documentaries, however, the publicity surrounding the starling conclusion was the last heard on the subject.  It is perhaps just as well, however, to let the last contemplation of Schiller’s skull be Goethe’s Bei Betrachtung von Schillers Schädel.  Here is Edgar A. Bowring’s 1853 translation:

Lines on Seeing Schiller’s Skull (1826)

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Within a gloomy charnel-house one day

I view’d the countless skulls, so strangely mated,
And of old times I thought, that now were grey.

Close pack’d they stand, that once so fiercely hated,
And hardy bones, that to the death contended,

Are lying cross’d,—to lie for ever, fated.
What held those crooked shoulder-blades suspended?

No one now asks; and limbs with vigour fired,
The hand, the foot—heir use in life is ended.

Vainly ye sought the tomb for rest when tired;
Peace in the grave may not be yours; ye’re driven

Back into daylight by a force inspired;
But none can love the wither’d husk, though even

A glorious noble kernel it contained.
To me, an adept, was the writing given

Which not to all its holy sense explained,
When ‘mid the crowd, their icy shadows flinging,

I saw a form, that glorious still remained.
And even there, where mould and damp were clinging,

Gave me a blest, a rapture-fraught emotion,
As though from death a living fount were springing.

What mystic joy I felt! What rapt devotion!
That form, how pregnant with a godlike trace!

A look, how did it whirl me tow’rd that ocean
Whose rolling billows mightier shapes embrace!

Mysterious vessel! Oracle how dear!
Even to grasp thee is my hand too base,

Except to steal thee from thy prison here
With pious purpose, and devoutly go

Back to the air, free thoughts, and sunlight clear.
What greater gain in life can man e’er know

Than when God-Nature will to him explain
How into Spirit steadfastness may flow,

How steadfast, too, the Spirit-Born remain.

  1. If I haven’t expressed this in the past man, it’s long overdue. You’ve definitely created some great cyber real estate. The breadth of the knowledge base that you draw upon makes your writings really enjoyable to read.

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