Saturday, July 12, 2014


Vanitas Vanitatum

A sonnet by Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), translated by Judith Ryan:
Wherever you look, you see nothing but transience on earth. What this man builds today, that man tears down tomorrow: where cities now stand, there will be a meadow on which a shepherd's child will play with the herds of animals.

What now blossoms splendidly will soon be trodden down. The beating heart, the defiant will is ash and bone tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever, neither bronze nor marble. Now fortune laughs, now troubles thunder down on us.

The fame of great deeds must pass away like a dream. How can that toy of time, the fragile human being, survive? Alas, what is all this, which we regard as precious,

other than a poor nothingness, shadow, dust, and wind. Like a meadow flower that one cannot find again. Yet no person wants to consider that which is eternal.
The German, in modern spelling:
Du siehst, wohin du siehst, nur Eitelkeit auf Erden.
Was dieser heute baut, reißt jener morgen ein:
Wo jetzt noch Städte stehn, wird eine Wiese sein,
Auf der ein Schäferskind wird spielen mit den Herden.

Was jetzt noch prächtig blüht, soll bald zertreten werden.
Was jetzt so pocht und trotzt, ist morgen Asch' und Bein,
Nichts ist, das ewig sei, kein Erz, kein Marmorstein.
Jetzt lacht das Glück uns an, bald donnern die Beschwerden.

Der hohen Taten Ruhm muss wie ein Traum vergehn.
Soll denn das Spiel der Zeit, der leichte Mensch, bestehn?
Ach! Was ist alles dies, was wir für köstlich achten,

Als schlechte Nichtigkeit, als Schatten, Staub und Wind;
Als eine Wiesenblum', die man nicht wieder find't.
Noch will, was ewig ist, kein einzig Mensch betrachten!
Another translation, by Marvin S. Schindler:
You see wherever you turn only vanity on earth.
What one man builds today, another tears down tomorrow:
Where now proud cities stand will be a meadow soon,
On which a shepherd's child will dally with his herds.

What blooms so lovely now will soon be trampled down.
What boasts now and defies will be tomorrow's dust and ashes.
Nothing is eternal, neither bronze nor marble monument.
If Fortune now smiles on us, she'll thunder soon with hardships.

The fame of splendid deeds must pass away like dreams.
Can then Time's hapless plaything, fragile man, remain?
Oh! what is everything that we consider precious,

But wretched emptiness, but shadow, dust, and air?
But a wild flower on the meadow which one will find no more.
And yet, no one will contemplate what lies beyond all time.

Thanks very much to Karl Maurer, who sent his translation of the sonnet, in which the rhymes and the meter of the original are imitated:
Whatever here you see, you see but empty shadow.
What these erect today, tomorrow those destroy:
What is a crowded town, tomorrow makes a meadow
Where playing with his flock is only a shepherd boy.

What now in glory blooms, too soon is trampled under,
What conquers and defies, is soon but ash and bone.
There's nothing that endures, not bronze, not solid stone.
Wherever Fortune laughed, misfortunes darkly thunder.

Our glories of high deeds all vanish like a dream.
How could a man survive, that tiny toy of Time?
And O! what are all things that we regard as great

But scraps of nothingness, but shadows, dust, and wind,
And blossoms of the field, that soon no one will find?
And that which does endure, none wish to contemplate.

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