On the tombs that lie scattered below;
The moon fills the place with her silvery light
And the churchyard like day seems to glow.
When see! first one grave, then another opens side,
And women and men stepping forth are descried,
In cerements snow whit and trailing.
This is the first verse, in English translation, of Goethe's poem "Der Totentanz."
I had thought of devoting this post to Goethe's own death, which occurred on this day, March 23, in 1832. Goethe in his own lifetime was known to be averse to dwelling on the deaths of those he knew and loved. In 1828, he fled to Dornburg, rather than stay in Weimar and attend the funeral of Duke Carl August. But rather than focusing on his own fear of death, I thought it would be more fun to look at "Der Totentanz," one of his lighter products on death.
On Good Friday of April 1813, Goethe traveled to the spa at Teplitz via Dresden and Leipzig. This was a moment in the Napoleonic wars, when the inhabitants of Weimar were looking at an occupation by either the French or the Russians. Goethe got out. His diary and his letters offer a good account of what he saw. Amazingly, for a time of war -- constant presence of soldiers, including Cossacks and Russian Asians with camels -- Goethe always enjoyed good lodgings and, moreover, good food. In an April 20 letter to Christiane, he mentioned the excellent carp in "Polish sauce" he had for breakfast. He wrote about the art he saw, for instance, at the cathedral in Naumburg, and about a terrible production in Dresden of Cosi fan tutte: "Nein! so ein Schreckniß ist mir niemals vorgekommen" (No! I have never before experienced such a horror).
In his letter of April 21 to Christiane Goethe mentions that, "for amusement" (zu unserer Lust) he had written down in rhyme the death dance legend that his son August had told them. He sent the finished poem to August on May 22, with this message: "This bit of fun [Diese Späße] has at the same time the important purpose of telling you to be happy and cheerful, whatever your immediate daily circumstances; for the disaster that is occurring in our vicinity -- which we observe, safe but still with fear, like someone observing the shipwreck of entire fleets from a cliff -- is limitless." Goethe, on his trip to Teplitz, was clearly following his own advice.
The theme of the dance of death can be traced back to at least the 14th century in Europe, as epidemics like the Black Death brought the universal sway of death, to rich and poor alike, to the imagination. Movement, whether a dance or a journey, seems to have been a later addition. German woodcarvers and engravers produced famous prints, including the glorious rendition by Michael Wolgemuth of "Tanz der Gerippe" above. The beautiful chasuble at the left, from the Benedictine abbey of Kremsmünster now on exhibition (until April 9) at the delightfully named Museum für Sepulkralkultur in the city of Kassel, exemplifies the constant awareness of death in the world before the advent of antibiotics.
In "Der Totentanz," Goethe might have identified with the figure of the warder:
Now waggles the leg, and now wriggles the thigh,
As the troop with strange gestures advance,
And a rattle and chatter anon rises high
As of one beating time to the dance.
The sight to the warder seems wondrously queer
When the villainous Tempter speaks thus in his ear:
"Seize one of the shrouds that lie yonder."
There is much one could say about the language of this ballad, but the pace of action is particularly thrilling. As the midnight hour passes, the dead gather their garments and climb back into their graves. But there remains the one whose shroud has been taken by the warder: "The shroud he soon scents in the air." He goes in pursuit of it ("The shroud he must have, and no rest will allow") and begins to climb the Gothic edifice of the tower, "like a long-legged spider" (Es ruckt sich von Schnörkel hinan,/ Langbeinigen Spinnen vergleichbar). The warder quakes, would like to get rid of the shroud, but when he throws it down it gets caught on one of the spikes. Fortunately for him, the churchyard becomes dark as the silvery light that had filled it is obscured ("With vanishing lustre the moon's race is run"), the bell in the tower thunders loudly, and the skeleton falls to earth and is crushed to atoms. Goethe too escaped death for another day.
Goethe's behavior amid death and destruction actually seems the right way. Contrast it with that of a contemporary Jeremiah, W.G. Sebald. If you have read On the Natural History of Destruction, concerning the firebombing of German cities during World War II, you will know that Sebald loved to dwell on the Revelations-like horrors. For instance, "After the rubble had cooled down, they found people still sitting at tables or up against walls where they had been overcome by monoxide gas. ... Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat, which had risen to a thousand degrees or more, that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket." Pretty impressive stuff, what?
What really seemed to annoy Sebald, however, were instances of people, in the face of such destruction, attempting to go about their daily life. For instance, the cinema employee, a Frau Schrader, who, immediately after a bombing, commandeered a shovel and began clearing the rubble in front of the movie house so that people could get in for the 2 p.m. matinee. Or, as reported by the novelist Hans Erich Nossack, who wrote of walking in the suburbs of Hamburg shortly after the bombings of July 1943 and seeing residents of a building that had not suffered sitting on their balconies drinking coffee.
For a writer with a high moral point of view like Sebald, it was apparently difficult to imagine that people who, having seen their nearest and dearest incinerated (carried away in a laundry basket, for goodness' sake!), might wish to reclaim, however momentarily, a vestige of their humanity. No, for the pompous Sebald, such a scene exhibited "a lack of moral sensitivity bordering on inhumanity." Of course, his intent in The Natural History was to take Germans to task for their complacency after the war, their willingness to forget, to get back to coffee and cake in the afternoon, to rebuild their country. I prefer Goethe's attitude myself.
It was not until August 26-27 that the European armies clashed in Germany, in Dresden, then later in Leipzig, on October 16-18. For a comparative view, the Battle of York (seen above) was fought on April 27, 1813, the first important American victory on land during the War of 1812.
For an English translation of the full poem (and a wonderful accompanying illustration by the Czech artist Jiri Trnka), I am grateful to Ian Burkard's site (of August 3, 2007).