The Ideal and Life
Ever straight and pure as crystal spring Flows Life on its light and breezy wing To th' Olympus of the blest away; Moons wane, races sink into the tomb, Roses, in their godlike youth, still bloom Undecaying mid the ruins gray. But to Man a sorry choice is given 'Tween the joy of thought and heart's repose, On the forehead of the blest in Heaven Their united sunbeam glows. Leads there up to yonder heights no way? Must the flower's gay ornaments decay, When with fulness harvest's gifts are crown'd? When fair Luna fills her silver horn, Must the other half in darkness mourn? Will the beamy disk be never round? Yes, there lead from prisons of the thought Upward paths to where no end we find; Those, who of the blessings here taste nought, No law fram’d by Time can bind. Would you while on earth be like to Gods, Wander free too when in Death's abodes? Ne’er of this, its garden’s fruit, partake; With its glitter may your glances toy, But upon the banquet's passing joy Quench’d desires will soon their vengeance slake. E'en the Styx, which nine times round her winds, Need not Proserpine from earth divide; Her the apple, which she seizes, binds Evermore to Pluto's side. O'er our bodies only have they sway Who weave Destiny in dark array; But secure from Time's uprooting storm, Blessed Nature's play-companion hight, Wanders through the upper fields of light, Godlike midst the Gods themselves, fair Form. Would you on her fleet wings mount the skies? Cast away the earthly weight that whelms, And from Life, the dull and hollow, rise Into the Ideal's realms. And before that fearful multitude, To preserve you from their onset rude, Break the bridges fearlessly behind; Tremble not to leave your home of pride, All the paths which you to Life can guide In the grave their common end must find. Give up gladly what you now possess, What you once have been, and what you are, And in ever-blest forgetfulness Banish all the past afar. Let no memories of anguish curse This free city, and no fell remorse, No anxiety, no ling’ring tears. They, who to this sanctuary flee, From all olden rights are ever free, From all dying Nature's claim'd arrears. Wanders here the slave, his freedom won, With unconsciousness of fetters blest: E'en the vengeful Fury slumbers on Calmly on the sinner's breast. Young, unscath'd by ills of earthly days, And encircl’d by Perfection's rays, Human Nature's godlike form soars here; Like life's phantoms that in silent mood Wander glancing by the Stygian flood, As she once stood on the heav'nly sphere, Ere unto the tear-bedewed tomb The Immortal to descend yet dar'd. While in life reels battle's final doom, Here the vict'ry is declar'd. Not to disentangle from the fight, But to arm the weary with new might Waves here Victory her fragrant wreath. Strongly, while your sinews you repose, You into its giddy dance Time throws, Life—into its boiling waves beneath. But low droops the wing of daring will At the barriers of painful thought, Then discovers it from Beauty's hill With delight the goal it sought. If defence and rule we glorious deem, Combatants 'gainst combatants will stream On the paths of glory and success; There may boldness against vigour dash, And the chariots with a thund'ring crash On the dusty plain together press. Courage only can the thanks here gain Which are glimm'ring at the course's goal; While the strong can Destiny constrain, Sinks o'erwhelm'd the feeble soul. But when hemm'd by precipices gray, Wild and foaming it has work'd its way, Soft and even then flows on Life's stream Through calm Beauty's shadow-haunted land, And upon its billows' silver strand Hesperus and fair Aurora gleam. By the compact free of grace allied, Melted into mutual love now flow Passions, all whose enmity has died, And evanish'd is the foe. If to dead Form to give life and light, If itself to Matter to unite, Genius glorified by deeds burn high, There let nerves by industry be mann'd, There let struggling thought, by fervour spann'd, Make the element beneath it lie. But to zeal by trouble undismay'd Wells the spring of Truth that deep has lain, But to chisel's blow is open laid Marble's coy and prudish grain. E'en as far as Beauty's sphere would press — But in dust still lingers — Heaviness, With the senseless matter which it sways. Not the mass from mother earth scarce wrung — Light and airy, as from nothing sprung, Soars the Image 'fore the ravish'd gaze, Hush'd is ev'ry strife and ev'ry doubt In the vict'ry's high security; It has all the witnesses shut out Of Mankind's necessity. When you, in Man's nakedness, with awe Stand before the grandeur of the law, When to Holiness guilt draweth near, Pale grow Virtue in Truth's searching ray, And before the Ideal far away Flee the blushing deed pursued by fear! No, creative mind has reach'd the mark, O'er this gulf, by wakeful horrors bound, Carries us no bridge's arch nor bark, And no anchor finds the ground. But afar from prisons of the mind Flee, till freedom of the thought you find! And the phantom that once scar'd is flown, And th' eternal gulf itself doth fill. Seize the Deity with potent will, And it quits its universe's throne. For the stern Law's iron fetters span But the slavish thought on which it trod; Vanishes before resisting Man All the grandeur of the God. Girds you weak Humanity with woes — And still struggle Priam's sons' big throes 'Gainst the serpents with yet unknown pain- Then let Man arise, and let his cry Pierce with anguish yonder vaulted sky, And each feeling bosom rend in twain I Nature's dreadful voice triumphant be, O'er Joy's cheeks be spread the pallid hue, And bend down to holy sympathy Immortality in you! But in lands of happiness, in those Where the forms of purity repose, Murmurs Sorrow's troubl'd stream no more. Here the heart is broken by no woe, Here no tears to Grief's sad story flow, Shielding spirits all do hover o'er. Lovely, like gay Iris' flaming beams On the thunder-cloud's refreshing dew, Through the veil of melancholy gleams Here Repose's cheering blue. Low degraded to the coward's slave, In unceasing fight, Alcides brave, Once Life's way most heavily did tread, Strove with hydras, and the lions wrung; And, his friends to rescue, living sprung Into bark that ferries but the dead. All the plagues and burdens earth can span, Heaps the Goddess's remorseless soul On the shoulders of the hated man, Till he has attain'd the goal, — Till the God, of earthiness unclad, In the flumes adieu to mortals bade; Then the light empyreal air he drinks; Joyous at the new unwonted flight Flees he upwards, until out of sight Dreamy earth's existence sinks, and sinks. There Jove's festival the new God seeks, Whither harmonies of Heav'n beguile; And the Goddess with the rosy cheeks Hands him wine with welcome smile.
[*] The Song of the Bell and Other Poems from the German of Goethe, Schiller, Bürger, Matthisson, and Salis, trans. J. J. Campbell (London 1836), 215–24. Back.
Translation © 2019 Doug Stott