Blessed Advent! We invite all of our readers to enter this holy season with these words from David Bannon, author of Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations. As David notes: Some text portions of this article were excerpted and edited from Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, which features ten Rückert poems not printed here. As with those in the book, the Rückert poems in this article are original translations that have never before been published in English.
“Your hurts, small as a child”
Communion in Friedrich Rückert’s Songs on the Death of Children
Text and translations by David Bannon
Friedrich Rückert was a compassionate man. Visitors often commented on his enthusiasm, whimsy and humor.1 Hailed by The Atlantic Monthly as “the last of the grand old generation of German poets,”2 many of his lieder, or songs, were set to music by the great composers of the day. But for three decades Friedrich hid from view his most personal work.
The day after Christmas 1833, Friedrich’s youngest child, three-year-old Luise, showed symptoms of scarlet fever. She died on New Year’s Eve. His son Ernst died on January 16, twelve days after the boy turned five. Friedrich’s four remaining children survived. He was kind and attentive to them, grateful for each moment, yet his grief for Luise and Ernst was unassuaged. “That I should drink and eat, eat and drink,” he wrote, “forgetting all the while that you are lost to me!”3
Over the first six months of 1834 Friedrich composed hundreds of poems on loss and mourning. “Spare me these delights!” he cried. “They cannot fool my heart, adding grief to grief.”4 He averaged 2–3 poems each day. Some are his finest, others less so; none was intended for publication.5 He kept Luise and Ernst’s pastel portraits with him for the rest of his life.6 Six years after Friedrich’s death, in 1872, his son Heinrich compiled 425 of the poems in Kindertodtenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).7
Your hurts, small as a child,
you brought to me, mother-like,
for consolation and care.
Now my hurt, not so small,
I bring to you:
Oh my child, console me!
So we exchange love for loss:
a heart full of care;
a hurt inconsolable.8
Friedrich’s life resonates with me. He was a scholar, translator and professor. We both taught college for years; both published on Asia extensively; both translated from Asian and other languages. We both lost children on the same day: his son died on January 16, 1534; my daughter died on January 16, 2015.
Rückert had a gift for understatement and a penchant for allusion. Before my daughter’s death, the depth and breadth of his sorrow would have been beyond my grasp. Now I find communion and solace in his poems. Occasionally I’ll come across a piece that defies literary analysis; that dares me to capture in translation a moment many bereaved parents know well:
Here rests in this chest
much that was yours;
sacred and silent:
like you, undisturbed.
Your dress in this chest,
camisole in your coffin.
Your little shoes
never to remove.
Each day from this chest
I lift dress after dress;
seeking sorrow, perhaps:
or solace or mercy.9
Friedrich chose a double entendre for this poem. Truhe, meaning chest or trunk, is also a word for coffin. It took me a year to finally go through all of my daughter’s things. Her chest is here with me as I type, carefully preserved in my office closet.
Research shows that fathers who have lost adult children are at the highest level of grief for men in every bereavement category except guilt.10 Such comparisons are useful to counselors and medical professionals—may in fact be necessary and helpful—but to the bereaved, they seem obscene. Friedrich’s children were young, my daughter was an adult; he lost two of eight, I lost my only child. A moment’s thought reveals how such measurements lose all meaning. In Rückert’s songs, I stumble through the same dark valley he walked 180 years ago. Friedrich and I share something else: an affinity for the waldesgrund. Literally translated as forest ground or floor, the term is seldom used for a glade or park; only the deep wood:
Deep in the wood
and the rocky valley
my heart and voice cry
a thousand times:
Children, are you there?
Where is here? ‘Here! Here!’
Dark wooded brush
stands between us,
I do not see you;
tell me, are you
How near? ‘Near, near!’
Do you want to draw near
from where you are?
Always mine, the one
joy in this pain?
Mine? No? Yes?
Always yes? ‘Yes, yes!’11
Gustav Mahler later set five of Rückert’s poems to music; his Kindertotenlieder premiered in 1905. Gustav’s interpretations are moving but his most profound work was still to come. In 1907 his four- year-old daughter, Putzi, died of diphtheria and scarlet fever. As a musician, Mahler may have appreciated Rückert’s subtle tonality, cadence and repetition. Now in his grief, Gustav knew the harm and hope Friedrich put in each song:
You were the slightest:
are you, then, unharmed?
Your country, that fineness,
are you, so, unspoiled?
Your country, your slightness:
preserved, then, in
such purity, so
preserved and saved?
The slightest, dearly loved;
brightest now, and gone,
radiant once, always:
Will I see you there?12
Mahler’s next composition, Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth), speaks of life, death, parting, and redemption. 13 It was Gustav’s masterpiece.
Some text portions of this article were excerpted and edited from Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, which features ten Rückert poems not printed here. As with those in the book, the Rückert poems in this article are original translations that have never before been published in English.
1 fancy and humor: Bayard Taylor, Critical Essays and Literary Notes (Putnam’s Sons, 1880): 97
2 The last of the grand: Bayard Taylor, “Friedrich Rückert,” Atlantic Monthly, 18(105) (July 1866): 33; collected in The Atlantic Monthly, v18 (Ticknor & Fields, 1866).
3 That I should drink: from “Daß ich trinken soll und essen,” Kindertodtenlieder [Songs on the Death of Children], ed. Heinrich Rückert, trans. D. Bannon (Sauerländer, 1872): 69.
4 Spare me these delights: from “Rathet mir nicht zum Vergnügen,” Rückert, 142.
5 Some are his finest: see Peter Revers, “Kindertotenlieder” in Karen Painter, ed., Mahler and His World, Revers section trans. Irene Zedlacher (Princeton University Press, 2002): 174.
6 pastel portraits: Friedrich had the portraits made in autumn 1833.
7 Six years after: In 1881, after Heinrich’s death, Marie Rückert rearranged 241 of the poems according to Friedrich’s diary in a new edition, Lied und Leid [Song and Sorrow]. See Friedrich Rückert, Gesammelte Poetische Werke, v12, ed. Conrad Beyer (Sauerländer, 1882): 477.
8 Your hurts: “Wie du sonst dein kleines Leid,” Rückert, 173.
9 Here rests: “Hier lieg’ in der Truhe,” Rückert, 279.
10 highest level of grief: William Fish, “Differences of Grief Intensity in Bereaved Parents,” in Therese Rando, ed., Parental Loss of a Child (Research Press, 1986): 223, 417, 426.
11 Deep in the wood: “Tief im Waldesgrund,” Rückert, 206-207.
12 You were the slightest: “Weil ihr wart die Kleinsten,” Rückert, 279-280.
13 Mahler’s four-year-old daughter: Maria Anna, called Putzi, 3 November 1902 – 5 July 1907.