Posted by Richard on  UTC 2019-01-13 10:39 Updated on UTC 2020-07-11

Friedrich Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder is a collection of 563 poems he wrote in the first half of 1834 following the deaths of his two youngest children from scarlet fever. Since its first edition in 1872, the work has been mangled and misunderstood. Many mistakenly assume, for example, that the five poems set to music by Gustav Mahler in 1904 comprise the entire collection. This article is an attempt to restore the reputation of Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder as one of the very greatest products of nineteenth-century German poetry.

The Rückert family

A comprehensive biography of Friedrich Rückert has yet to be written – a sign of the neglect that this important German literary figure suffers to this day. We are not going to attempt one here, either – the briefest sketch will have to do. Here is a summary of the basic biographical facts about the Rückert family that we need to get us to our subject, the Kindertodtenlieder.

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Friedrich Rückert (1826) by Karl Barth (1787–1853). Barth was a great friend of Rückert's, his 'dear friend and engraver', as he addressed him in his letters to Barth. Barth's later years were troubled by mental health problems, particularly the paranoid conviction that he was being pursued by the Jesuits. On 19 August 1853 he threw himself from the top floor of the Gasthaus in Guntershausen (near Kassel) crying: 'They are coming. They are coming'. It was a messy end: it took until 11 September for his wish to be fulfilled. [ADB] Image: Coburg, Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg.

Johann Michael Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was born on 16 May 1788 in Schweinfurt, now in northern Bavaria. On 26 December 1821 in Coburg he married Luise Wiethhaus-Fischer (1797-1857). Five sons were born in quick succession: Heinrich (1823-1875), Karl (1824-1899), August (1826-1880), Leo (1827-1904) and Ernst (1829-1834). They then had one daughter, Luise Therese Emilie (1830-1833). A sixth son, Karl Julius was born on 6 January 1832, but died three days later.

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Luise Rückert as a bride, 1821, by Karl Barth (1787–1853). Image: © Literaturportal Bayern.

At the time the Kindertodtenlieder were written, Friedrich Rückert had made a name for himself as a poet, a patriot and an outstanding orientalist scholar. He was teaching at the University of Erlangen and the family were living in Erlangen (now the Südliche Stadtmauerstraße 28).

Starting at Christmas in 1833, all the children became ill with Scharlach, scarlet fever. The older ones survived but Luise died on 31 December (three and a half years old), Ernst on 16 January 1834 (five years and twelve days old).

For completeness we should mention that, after the disaster of their double loss, the Rückerts went on to produce three more children: Marie (1835-1920), Fritz (1837-1868) and Anna (1839-1919).

A diary of bereavement

Distraught at the loss of his two youngest children, the already productive Rückert, of whom it has been said that he almost 'thought in verse', went into poetic overdrive: in the five or six months immediately following the deaths of Luise and Ernst he wrote 563 poems, an average of approximately three per day.

The creative process behind the Kindertodtenlieder is more that of a diary, journal or – in modern parlance – a live blog than a collection or even a cycle of poems.

Further evidence of Rückert's affinity for this approach is the fact that, starting roughly with his retirement in 1848, his poetic works – thousands of poems – were committed to a Liedertagebuch, a 'Poetic Journal' – a blog in other words. That's how Rückert worked: he was thinking in verse and recording those thoughts on a daily basis.

Rückert's 'bereavement blog' is quite remarkable in many ways. One of them is that it is completely 'raw' – at the end of the composition process around the end of June 1834 the manuscript left Rückert's hands and he never revised a line of it. Given the fluency of this poetry we really can believe that he 'thought in verse'. He decided at some point shortly thereafter that the work as a whole would never be published. We might see this as the equivalent of the modern need to put a bad experience behind you.

One further remarkable feature is that the poetry of the Kindertodtenlieder is quite astonishingly honest and immediate. Whilst displaying immense artistry in his versification, Rückert's day-to-day feelings during that terrible time were not artificially modulated. They are quite direct and the lack of any revision or editing process ensured that they stayed that way. In his openness about his own private feelings and emotions Rückert achieves a universal interpretation of grief and bereavement: the modern reader can relate to Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder without the slightest difficulty.

For reasons we shall discuss later, Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder have been neglected and misunderstood. So, this January 2019, 185 years after the events that led to them, let's take a fresh look at Rückert's great work. Native speakers of German may find some of these poems to be the most wonderful things they have read; English speakers will have to put up with the clunky literalism of our translations and try and remember that they are not reading an instruction manual for a washing machine.

Light and darkness on Christmas Eve

The first hint of the catastrophe that was to befall the Rückerts came on Christmas Eve, 1833.

In Germany at that time, Christmas, quite in keeping with the religious idea at its centre, was a festival for the family and particularly for children. With six children in the house, the Rückerts had their hands full at Christmas.

In the German tradition the exchange of presents took place in the afternoon or evening of Christmas Eve. The Christmas tree was lit with candles and decorated with biscuits and chocolates. Luise had tried 'to fulfil all the [children's] wishes' for presents and particularly 'those of the two youngest', Luise, then three and a half and Ernst, nearly five. [KTL 549]

In the Kindertodtenlieder, Friedrich describes the theatricality of the moment on Christmas Eve when the Christmas tree was revealed and the children received their presents.

Hier im dunkeln Stübchen
Saßen meine Bübchen,
Und das Mädchen drunter,
Lauschten froh und munter,
Harrend ungeduldig,
Bis die Mutter huldig
Würd' aufthun die Thüren
Und hinein sie führen
In die hellen Räume
Unter Weihnachtsbäume.
[KTL 340]
Here in the darkened room my boys sat and among them sat the girl, listening happily and cheerfully, waiting impatiently until their beloved mother opened the doors and led them into the bright room and underneath the Christmas tree.

'There was much happiness', Luise noted, 'but not as loud as usual'. But when Christmas Day came, there was nothing left of Christmas happiness:

Nicht allein zu Schmerzerbeutung
Unheilvoller Worte Deutung
Sprech' ich, wie ich hörte, nach,
Die zum Kind die Mutter sprach:
Not simply to capture grief in the divination of fateful words, I repeat, as I heard them, the words the child spoke to her mother:
Was zu naschen, was zu spielen
Von so schönen Sachen vielen
Magst du Kind? Das Kind sprach schwer:
Mutter, ich mag gar nichts mehr.
[KTL 52]
Would you, my child, like something to nibble at, something to play with, something from these beautiful things? The child spoke wearily: Mother, I don't want anything more at all.

That the miserable illness of scarlet fever blighted all six children just at the time of the Christmas celebration of the family was a dismal irony.

After the first intimations of the onset of the disease on Christmas Eve, by Boxing Day there was no longer any doubt that illness had struck them. The youngest, Luise, the only daughter among five boys, was the first to succumb. The doctor was called that evening to her.

Luise, the special one

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Luise Therese Emilie Rückert (1830-1833). Both this portrait and that of Ernst (below) were done by Rückert's friend Karl Barth initially in the autumn of 1833. A short time later both of the children were dead and Barth's pictures took on a deep emotional significance for the Rückerts. In the course of 1834 Barth produced an improved copy of each picture. The pictures were placed in gilded frames. In Erlangen they hung over Rückert's desk and travelled with him on all his subsequent removals. Visitors to Rückert's house in Coburg-Neuses (the Nattermannshof) will see them there today.

As the youngest sibling and the only daughter, Luise had a special place in her father's heart. Friedrich Rückert grew up with four sisters: Sabine Sophie, one year older, (1791-1848) and three short-lived younger sisters Anna Magdalena (1793-1795), Ernestine Helene (1795-97) and Susanna Barbara (1797-1801). The family lived in a house in Oberlauringen, a small town about 20 km from Schweinfurt.

Als Knabe war mein größtes Wohlbehagen,
Ein Schwesterchen im Arm zu tragen,
Geflüchtet aus der engen Stub' hinaus,
Im weiten Garten hinter'm Haus.
As a boy my greatest pleasure was to carry a little sister in my arms, fleeing out of the cramped room into the large garden behind the house.
Doch hatte bald der Tod mein Wohlbehagen
Mir aus dem Arm zu Grab getragen,
Und in des Lebens Braus vergaß der Knab
Das Schwesterchen im stillen Grab.
But death soon carried my pleasure from my arms to the grave and in a hectic life the boy forgot that little sister in the quiet grave.
Inzwischen hatt' ich, größres Wohlbehagen,
Ein Töchterchen im Arm zu tragen,
Das, kommend still nach lauter Buben Troß,
Mein halbes Dutzend lieblich schloß.
[KTL 68f]
But now I had the greater pleasure of carrying a little daughter in my arms, who, arriving quietly after a noisy crowd of boys, beautifully concluded my half dozen.

German speakers will enjoy the characteristically Rückert-style structural formalities of this poem. The Lebens Braus, 'life's turmoil' refers to the period from 1802, when Rückert ended his time at the village school in Oberlauringen and went to the Gymnasium Gustavianum in Schweinfurt, where he spent three successful years. The sister he carried out into the garden was Susanna Barbara (1797-1801).

In Rückert's own family, little Luise was taken under the wings of her older brothers, just as her father had taken his little sisters under his wings. We can imagine that, having experienced as a child the loss of his own infant sisters, the loss of yet another infant girl would be an especially hard blow for Friedrich:

Von den Brüdern jedem war ein
Lieblingsschwesterchen geboren,
Der Mutter ein Lieblingstöchterchen,
Und mir selber eines.
For each one of the brothers a favourite little sister had been born, for the mother a favourite little daughter, and one for me, too.
Von den Brüdern jeder hatt' ein
Lieblingsschwesterchen erkoren,
Die Mutter ein Lieblingstöchterchen,
Und ich selber eines.
Each one of the brothers had chosen a favourite little sister, the mother a favourite little daughter, and I, too.
Von den Brüdern jeder hat sein
Lieblingsschwesterchen verloren,
Die Mutter ihr Lieblingstöchterchen,
Und ich selber meines.
[KTL 70]
Each one of the brothers lost a favourite little sister, the mother a favourite little daughter, and I, mine.

The same German speakers who enjoyed the poetic playfulness in the previous poem will here have encountered a fascinating augmentation of Rückert's structural skills. The polyglot Rückert's brain seems to have been hard-wired to play games with language that would cost us plodders a week of pencil chewing to achieve – if we ever could.

The five boys took brotherly care of this small doll in their midst. In the light of Rückert's anecdote of his own attachment to his little sister, Susanna Barbara, there can be no doubt that the chivalry of his own sons to their little sister made Rückert very happy and proud. Luise herself seems to have coped with all these brothers intuitively well:

Von fünf Brüdern, o beneidenswerthe
Schwester, wärest du umworben;
Jeder zu gefallen dir begehrte,
Gern für dich entbehrte,
Wäre gern für dich gestorben.
From five brothers you were courted, O enviable sister; each one seeking your favour, happy to do without for you, would have happily died for you.
Keinem wolltest du den Vorzug geben,
Jeder Dienst war dir willkommen;
Doch zuletzt nun hast du beim Entschweben
Deinen jüngsten eben
Als den liebsten mitgenommen.
[KTL 103]
You gave your preference to no one, every deed was welcome; in the end, however, at your departure, you took the youngest brother as your preferred one with you.

In Luise's case, the scarlet fever took a hold on her that could not be released. Her condition became worse with each day. Soon it became obvious that her death was approaching. Rückert pleaded for her to live just one more day, even in her suffering:

Du hast uns überlebt die Nacht,
Wiewohl in Todesschmerzen;
Und auch dafür sei dargebracht
Ein Dank von unsern Herzen;
Wenn uns auch nur noch einen Tag
Dein süßes Leben bliebe;
You have survived the night for us, though in mortal agony; and thanks for that are offered from our hearts; if only just one day more of your sweet life remained;
So lang als möglich halten mag
Ja, was sie liebt, die Liebe.
Auf lange fest ja halten mag
Nichts, was sie liebt, die Liebe;
Genug, daß nur von Tag zu Tag
Sich der Verlust verschiebe.
[KTL 120]
love may hold that which it loves as long as possible. In time though love can hold nothing which it loves; sufficient that the loss is postponed from day to day.

Her dying, even though expected, was a shock for which no parent could prepare. As her breathing became more and more difficult she was overcome by mortal fear and her final agony began. She died at two-thirty in the morning on 31 December, less than six days after the first major symptoms had appeared on Christmas Day. Her mother, father and the five brothers were stunned:

Es bringt die Magd die Todeskunde
Vom Schwesterchen der Knabenschaar;
Da rufen sie mit Einem Munde:
Sie ist nicht todt, es ist nicht wahr.
The maid brings the news of the death of their sister to the crowd of boys; they shout with one voice: she is not dead, it is not true.
Sie sehen sie mit blassem Munde
Mit weißer Wang' im dunklen Haar,
Und flüstern leiser in die Runde:
Sie ist nicht todt, es ist nicht wahr.
They look at her with pale mouth, with white cheek in dark hair, and whisper quietly to each other: she is not dead, it is not true.
Der Vater weint aus Herzenswunde,
Die Mutter weint, sie nehmens wahr,
Und bleiben doch bei ihrem Grunde:
Sie ist nicht todt, es ist nicht wahr.
Her father weeps from the wound in his heart, her mother weeps, they see it, yet remain convinced: she is not dead, it is not true.
Und als gekommen war die Stunde,
Man legt sie auf die Todtenbahr,
Man senkt sie ein im kühlen Grunde:
Sie ist nicht todt, es ist nicht wahr.
And when the moment came when she was laid on the bier and lowered into the cool earth: she is not dead, it is not true.
So bleibe sie mit euch im Bunde
Und werde schöner jedes Jahr,
Und werd' euch lieber jede Stunde!
Sie ist nicht todt, es ist nicht wahr.
[KTL 54]
So she will stay united with you and become more beautiful every year and be more loved by you with every hour! She is not dead, it is not true.

Luise was buried at nine o'clock on 3 January, in her favourite white dress. A myrtle garland was put on her forehead and numerous flowers laid on her body. Her mother adds: 'Two wonderful red hyacinths, which the children and I had planted with great pleasure had just come into bloom. I placed them on her breast and she lay there as though the bride of an angel.' [KTL 552]

Rückert summarised bitterly that terrible festive season in his household using the calendar of religious feast days:

Weihnachten frisch und gesund
Im frohen Geschwisterrund,
Am Neujahr mit blassem Mund,
An den drei Kön'gen im Grund.
So thaten die Feste sich kund
Mit Tod und Grab im Bund.
Mein Herz bleibt bis Ostern wund
Und wird nicht bis Pfingsten gesund.
[KTL 82]
Christmas fresh and healthy in the happy circle of siblings, New Year with pale mouth, Epiphany in the earth. That's how the feast days made themselves known, in union with death and the grave. The wound in my heart remained until Easter and will not be healed by Whitsun.

Last things: guilt and regret

Her death released a wave of grief and guilt out of which Rückert's poetic mind created some of his greatest and most moving poems.

Ich hatte dich lieb, mein Töchterlein!
Und nun ich dich habe begraben,
Mach' ich mir Vorwürf', ich hätte fein
Noch lieber dich können haben.
I loved you my daughter! And now I have buried you I reproach myself that I could have been more loving to you.
Ich habe dich lieber, viel lieber gehabt,
Als ich dirs mochte zeigen;
Zu selten mit Liebeszeichen begabt
Hat dich mein ernstes Schweigen.
I loved you much more than I wanted to show you; you received too rarely the signs of love, only my stern silence.
Ich habe dich lieb gehabt, so lieb,
Auch wenn ich dich streng gescholten;
Was ich von Liebe dir schuldig blieb,
Sei zwiefach dir jetzt vergolten!
I loved you, so much, even when I scolded you severely; let what love I owed you be repaid twice over!
Zuoft verbarg sich hinter der Zucht
Die Vaterlieb' im Gemüthe;
Ich hatte schon im Auge die Frucht,
Anstatt mich zu freun an der Blüte.
Too often the feeling of fatherly love was hidden behind the discipline; I was already thinking of the fruit, instead of enjoying the blossom.
O hätt' ich gewußt, wie bald der Wind
Die Blüt' entblättern sollte!
Thun hätt' ich sollen meinem Kind,
Was alles sein Herzchen wollte.
Oh, if only I had known how quickly the wind would strip the petals from the blossom! I would have done everything for my child that her heart had desired.
Da solltest du, was ich wollte, thun,
Und thatst es auf meine Winke.
Du trankst das Bittre, wie reut michs nun,
Weil ich dir sagte: Trinke!
You had to do what I wanted and do it at my bidding. You drank the bitter potions, how I regret it now, just because I told you: Drink!
Dein Mund, geschlossen von Todeskrampf,
Hat meinem Gebot sich erschlossen;
Ach! nur zu verlängern den Todeskampf,
Hat man dirs eingegossen.
Your mouth, clamped in the cramp of death had followed my command; Oh! just to extend the death agony it had been poured into you.
Du aber hast, vom Tod umstrickt,
Noch deinem Vater geschmeichelt,
Mit brechenden Augen ihn angeblickt,
Mit sterbenden Händchen gestreichelt.
You, however, tangled up in death, looked at your father with tear-filled eyes and caressed him with a dying hand.
Was hat mir gesagt die streichelnde Hand,
Da schon die Rede dir fehlte?
Daß du verziehest den Unverstand,
Der dich gutmeinend quälte.
What did the caressing hand say to me, since speech could no longer come? That you forgave the well-intentioned ignorance which tormented you.
Nun bitt' ich dir ab jedes harte Wort,
Die Worte, die dich bedräuten,
Du wirst sie haben vergessen dort,
Oder weißt sie zu deuten.
[KTL 64f]
Now I ask you to forgive each hard word that oppressed you, you will forget them there, or know how to interpret them.

Hindsight modulated through grief led to immense regret, not just for what he now held to be the commission of misguided actions but for the omissions which he could now never make good.

Some of the poems in the Kindertodtenlieder are written from the viewpoint of the mother. They were not written by her, however. Although we know next to nothing about the process of the creation of the poems in the collection, it is easy to imagine that the mother's utterances to her husband on her loss could well form the material out of which Rückert forged some of his poems:

Ich hab' in läss'gen Ohren,
O der Verlust ist groß,
Wol manches Wort verloren,
Das dir vom Munde floß.
I have in casual ears – Oh the loss is great – lost some of the words that flowed from your mouth.
Es floß und quoll und rollte
Auch immer klar und hell,
Ich dachte nicht, es sollte
Versiegen je der Quell.
It always flowed and gushed and rolled clear and light. I never thought the spring would ever dry up.
Da hört' ich ohne Hören,
Antwortet' ohne Wort,
Arbeitet' ohne Stören,
Und du sprachst immer fort.
I heard without listening, answered without words, worked on without disturbance and you spoke on and on.
Nur manchmal hört' ich sagen,
Wenn ichs zu arg gemacht:
O Mutter, auf mein Fragen
Gibst du auch gar nicht Acht.
Only sometimes I heard it said, if I took it too far: Oh mother, you don't pay any attention to my questions either.
Und hatt' ich Acht zu geben
Auf andres als auf dich?
Mein süßgeschwätz'ges Leben,
Nun bist du stumm für mich.
And did I have to pay attention to others rather than you? My sweetly chattering life, now you are silent for me.
In Gold nun möcht' ich fassen
Auch jedes kleinste Wort,
Das mir dein Mund gelassen
In der Erinnrung Hort.
[KTL 96]
Now every little word which left your mouth I would like to embed in gold in my memory.

Guilt, regret but especially loss, the latter manifested in memories that seem to arise from a now distant world:

Es war kein Traum,
Ich muß mirs immer wieder sagen,
Und glaub' es kaum,
So traumhaft hat es sich zerschlagen.
It was no dream, I have to keep telling myself and hardly believe it, so dream-like was it dashed.
Es war kein Traum,
Ich hab' in schönem Sommertagen
In diesem Raum
Die Ros' an meiner Brust getragen.
[KTL 400]
It was no dream, in summer days in this room I carried the rose [Luise] on my chest.

The order of things

Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder are not merely lamentations of loss. In effect he was writing a poetic diary with three poems a day on average, each of which reflected some momentary meditation on his loss, some of which were thoughtful pieces on the wider implications of a child's death. We have no right to expect measured consistency between these moments.

In the following poem, for example, there are thoughts on the father-daughter relationship as it would have developed had Luise lived.

Hoffte, daß du solltest bei mir bleiben,
Nie verlassen, Töchterchen, den Vater,
Wenn die Knaben aus dem Hause liefen,
In der Welt ihr eignes Glück zu suchen,
Losgerissen von der Eltern Herzen;
I hoped that you might stay with me and never leave, daughter, your father, when the boys left the house to find their own way in the world, torn free of their parents' hearts.
Würdest du am stillen Herde walten,
Wo du spielend jetzt dich um die Mutter
Mühst, in ihre Stell' im Ernste treten,
Wohlversüßt den Kaffee selbst mir bringen,
Wie sie jetzt ihn bringt, von dir begleitet.
You would reign over the quiet hearth, where you now play alongside your mother, striving to take over her place, bring me my perfectly sweetened coffee yourself, just as she brings it now with you at her side.
Und nun bringst du diesen bittern Trank mir!
Ihn mir zu versüßen, muß ich sagen:
Ewig konntest du mir doch nicht bleiben;
Unversehens klopfet an ein Freyer,
Und entgegen klopfet ihm dein Herzchen,
Und: herein! werd' ich wohl sagen müssen.
And now you bring me this bitter drink! In order to sweeten it I have to say that you could never have remained with me; sooner or later a suitor would knock and your heart would beat at him, and: come in! I would just have to say.
Und die junge Gattin wird den Gatten
Lieber haben als den alten Vater,
Und die Kinder lieber dann als beide.
Denn daß über alles man ein Kind liebt,
Lern' ich eben, da ich dich verloren.
And the young wife will love the husband more than the old father, and love her children more than either of them. That one loves a child more than anything else I have just learned, since I lost you.
Nun ersparst du diese Eifersucht mir,
Töchterchen, nun kannst du deinen Vater
Einzig lieb, wie er dich selbst, behalten.
[KTL 206]
Now you have spared me this jealousy, my daughter, now you can love your father alone just as he loves you.

Rückert's grief is not selfish. His wife was deeply affected and collapsed after the death of little Luise. She took to her bed for some time afterwards.

The following poem opens with a charming, though now in grief painful anecdote, which is developed into a pointed conclusion concerning his wife's importance to little Luise.

Reizender als alle Sprachen,
Die ich jemals lernt' und sprach,
Tönt, was deine Lippchen brachen,
Mir noch jetzt im Traume nach.
More delightful than any language which I have learned and spoken, the sounds that came from your lips echo in my dreams.
Wenn man dir von Großpapachen
Und von Großmamachen sprach,
Bildeten in deinen Sprachen
Neue Formen kühn sich nach:
When we spoke to you of 'Great-Father' and 'Great-Mother' you created audaciously new forms in your language:
Kleinpapachen, Kleinmamachen,
Vater, Mutter, nanntest du,
Wenn sie für dich Blumen brachen,
Oder trugen Früchte zu.
'Little-Father', 'Little-Mother' you called your father and mother, when they brought you flowers or fruit.
Kleinpapachen! Kleinpapachen!
Riefst du recht als wie zur Schmach,
Wann dich deine Kitzel stachen,
Deinem großen Vater nach.
'Little-Father'! 'Little-Father'! you shouted mockingly at your big father when your tickles hit home.
Kleinmamachen aber sprachen
Nicht die Lippchen halb so gern,
Weil die Kleinheit von Mamachen
Wirklich stand nicht halb so fern.
[KTL 80]
Your lips said 'Little-Mother' not as readily, because the smallness of your mother in reality was not half as distant.

The joke in the fourth stanza needs some explanation. Friedrich Rückert was a tall man in an age of small men, over two metres (six foot six) tall, so Luise's term for him, 'Little Father', was in that context quite ironic, particularly when the little doll of a child was shouting it while tickling her giant of a father.

Ernst: hanging on to the very bitter end

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Ernst Rückert (1829-1834) by Karl Barth.

On 1 January 1834, the day after little Luise had died, her brother Ernst took to his bed.

Ernst's suffering would last fourteen days. During that time there were even occasions when he was thought to have died, but then suddenly recovered. For Rückert, losing his beloved daughter Luise had been torture enough, but the dying of his youngest son was a torture magnified and extended.

Ernst hung on, moving in and out of life. The resulting delay merely offered his doctors more time to torment him with their cures – even though they had for some time considered him to be a hopeless case. He had been bled three times on his arms. The wounds from that now began to ulcerate. Like Luise, blistering plasters had been applied to his neck and the itching of the resulting blisters now tormented him: the blisters were scratched, wept and bled. Cold flannels were applied that made him shiver until his teeth literally chattered.

As a final medical insult, mercury ointment was rubbed onto his head, which he disliked greatly, but, his mother tells us, 'he was obedient to the voices of his father and me until his death, and let it happen.' [KTL 555]

Rückert, who during his daughter's death throes had wished for just one more day of life for her, was so affected by Ernst's sufferings that he now prayed for a rapid end to his son's misery:

Geh! du kannst ja doch nicht bleiben;
Warum willst du gleich nicht gehn?
Warum willst du länger leiden,
Ringen noch mit Todeswehn?
Geh, der Schwester nachzueilen,
Laß sie so allein nicht gehn!
Go! you cannot stay; why won't you just go? Why do want to suffer longer, wrestle with death agony? Go, hurry after your sister, don't let her go on alone!
Und es wird uns Trost ertheilen,
Wenn wir auf den Kirchhof gehn,
Ja es wird das Herz uns heilen,
Wenn bei Frühlingslüfte-Wehn,
Eingefaßt von Blumenzeilen
Wir dort eure Gräber sehn
So vereint, wie eure beiden
Bettchen in der Kammer stehn:
Auch der Tod kann euch nicht scheiden,
Ihr zwei unzertrennlichen!
[KTL 135]
And it will be a comfort for us when we go to the churchyard, yes, it will heal our hearts when in spring breezes, enclosed in rows of flowers we can see your graves side-by-side just like your beds in the bedroom: Even death cannot separate you, you two inseparables!

Ernst and Luise

After Luise's death, Rückert had written of his difficulty in believing that she had really gone. Now, with Ernst dead, he had two losses to deny. He did so in a very characteristic piece of Rückert versification:

Wie ich reiflich
Wog mein Leid,
Es ist doch mir unbegreiflich,
Daß ihr mir verloren seid.
As I carefully weighed my poem, it is incomprehensible that you are lost to me.
Sah ich nicht die Todtenbahre,
Und den dunkeln Kranz im Haare
Meinem schönen Kinderpaare?
Doch bezweifl' ich
Noch mein Leid,
Es ist doch mir unbegreiflich,
Daß ihr mir verloren seid.
Did I not see the bier and the dark wreath in the hair of my beautiful pair of children? Nevertheless I still doubt my poem, it is incomprehensible that you are lost to me.
Leugn' ich ab das Offenbare,
Und es sei nicht wahr das Wahre!
Doch an meinem Hals das klare
Fehlt handgreiflich,
Das Geschmeid;
Und das Weh ist unabstreiflich,
Daß ihr mir verloren seid.
Deny what is manifest and that truth is no longer true! But on my throat the clear evidence is missing, the necklace; and the pain cannot be cast off, that you are lost to me.
Kommen nun und gehen Jahre,
Und Natur am Brautaltare
Bald und bald auch an der Bahre
Wechsl' umschweiflich Kleid um Kleid!
Diese Schart' ist unauschleiflich,
Daß ihr mir verloren seid.
[KTL 434]
Years now come and go, Nature soon at the wedding altar and soon at the bier changes without delay one dress for another! This notch cannot be ground out, that you are lost to me.

This poem illustrates one of the problems of Rückert's poetry and of the Kindertodtenlieder in particular: conspicuous artifice sometimes distracts from their content. The too-clever-by-half versification suggests only emotional insincerity or superficiality.

In this particular poem, Rückert is seeing how many words of the form —flich he can stack up in the poem. The words become odder and odder – reiflich / unbegreiflich / bezweifl' ich / unbegreiflich / handgreiflich / unabstreiflich / umschweiflich / unauschleiflich – and culminate in the absurd word unauschleiflich [a notch in metal that is] 'incapable of being ground out'.

Rückert was clearly not insincere about the death of his children, but occasionally the crossword-puzzler and word-trickster in him cannot be suppressed. It may very well be, though, that Rückert's self-inflicted confrontation with versification trickery was part of the therapy for him. It was, after all, his métier and took his mind off things.

We should also remember that Rückert never went back and edited the Kindertotenlieder, so that in this poem we confront the raw skill of Rückert's language talent without editorial mediation.

The inseparables

The bereaved person takes comfort wherever it is to be found. Rückert took cold comfort that both Luise and Ernst had died, almost as a pair. In the poem above, Geh! du kannst ja doch nicht bleiben he addressed them finally as Ihr zwei unzertrennlichen!, 'you two inseparables!' They were a pair in death just as they had been in life.

Rückert developed the theme in a poem titled [Die] Inseparables, a German word derived from French, Italian and Latin used at the time for lovebirds, the small African parrots.

Unzertrennliches, ach vom Tod getrenntes,
Zartverschwistertes, durch Geburt und Neigung,
Für einander geschaffnes Vogelpärchen!
O du Brüderchen, an der Schwester hangend,
O du Schwesterchen, nicht vom Bruder lassend!
In dem sonnigen Käfich, eurem Stübchen,
Auf dem Stängelchen, eurem Stuhle, sitzend,
Immer nebeneinander, aneinander.
Saß das Brüderchen auf der rechten Seite,
Und das Schwesterchen links, so ließ sein Köpfchen
Links das Brüderchen hangen, und sein Köpfchen
Rechts das Schwesterchen, also daß die beiden
Köpfchen leise sich ohne Druck berührten.

Inseparables, ah, separated by death, tender siblings, through birth and inclination, a pair of birds made for each other! Oh you, brother, clinging to the sister, Oh you, sister, not leaving his side! In the sunny cage of your room, sitting on the perches, your chairs, always together, side-by-side. If the brother sat on the right-hand side and the sister the left, the brother tilted his head to the left and the sister tilted her head to the right until the two heads lightly touched each other.

Saß das Brüderchen aber auf der linken,
Und das Schwesterchen auf der rechten Seite,
Denn sie pflegten in diesem Stück zu wechseln,
War das Hängen der Köpfchen auch gewechselt,
Daß sie gegeneinander wieder neigten.
So war euere Neigung gegenseitig,
So war euere Liebe wechselwirkend,
Ohne Wechsel als den der äußern Stellung.

If, however, the brother sat on the left-hand side and the sister on the right, for they used to change like this, then the tilt of the heads also changed, so that they inclined to each other again. So your inclination was mutual, so your love reciprocal, without change other than the external position.

Was ihr aßet, das aßet ihr zusammen,
Und ihr tränket zusammen, was ihr tränket;
Was ihr spieltet und scherztet, sangt und spränget,
Was ihr lebtet, das lebtet ihr zusammen.
Und so seid ihr zusammen auch gestorben.
Als das Schwesterchen mit zerdrückter Brust lag,
Eingedrückt von des Geiers ehrnen Krallen,
Jenes Geiers, vor dem den Lebensvogel
Kein Goldkäfich der Liebe kann beschützen;

Whatever you ate, you ate together, and you drank together whatever you drank; what you played and joked at, sang and jumped, what you lived, you lived together. And so you died together. When the sister lay with a crushed breast, squashed by the vulture's iron claws, that vulture from which no gilded cage of love can protect the bird;

Ließ das Brüderchen auch das Köpfchen hangen,
Nicht zur linken und nicht zur rechten Seite,
Sondern grad' auf die Brust, und hobs nicht wieder.
Und nun laßt uns zusammen sie begraben,
Unter Thränen, am Fuß des Lebensbaumes,
Wo wir klagen um sie im dunkeln Schatten.
[KTL 204f]

the brother also hung his head, not to the left and not to the right side, but rather down on his chest, never to raise it again. And now let us bury them together, under tears, at the foot of the tree of life where we lament them in dark shadows.

The theme of the companionship in death as in life of Luise and Ernst, the two 'lovebirds', is one that inspired Rückert to a number of poems in the Kindertodtenlieder:

Ach von meinem lieben Schwärmchen
Die zwei kleinsten, die zwei feinsten,
Immer unter sich am einsten,
Die sich hatten lieb am reinsten,
Wie sie mit geschlungnen Aermchen
Eines um des andern Näckchen,
Eines an des andern Bäckchen,
Saßen zwei auf einem Stühlchen,
Lehnten zwei an einem Pfühlchen,
Spielten zwei auf einem Tischchen;

[KTL 129]
Oh, from my beautiful little swarm the two smallest, the two most delicate, the two most united between themselves, who loved each other the purest, how they sat with their arms wrapped around each other, one around the other's neck, one around the other's cheek, the two sat on one chair, laid back on one couch, played at one table …

Ernst and Luise were so inseparable that they were given the nickname in the family of 'knife' and 'fork', because they always belonged together and remained next to each other. From its content, the following seems to have been written after Luise's death and during Ernst's illness.

Zwar ihr beiden ungetrennet,
Oft von uns im Scherz genennet
Messerchen und Gäbelchen;
Weg mit diesem Fäbelchen!
Wird uns auch kein Bissen schmecken,
Wenn wir unsern Tisch nun decken,
Und das Gäbelchen gebricht,
Messerchen, nur fehle nicht!
[KTL 52]
But you two unseparated, we often called you jokingly knife and fork; Away with this tale! It will not taste the least bit good when we lay our table now and the little fork broken – little knife, just don't be absent!

The loss of Ernst may appear not to play as big a role in the Kindertodtenlieder as that of little Luise, but that is partly due to the role of the little sister in Rückert's upbringing and partly to the great shock of the first childhood death. Most importantly, after the death of Luise, Ernst is now frequently mourned as one of a pair, not individually.

Medical torture

It was bad enough for parents to have to watch their children suffering, but having to watch the suffering caused by medical treatments intended to cure them was a terrible ordeal. There was a joke that lasted for centuries, that the sick needed to be really healthy before they called a doctor.

Friedrich Rückert was appalled at the medical torture he had to witness with both Luise and Ernst, treatments that resulted in nothing but more suffering:

Schlimmer als ein Kranker seyn,
Ist es einen haben,
Dem man heilend anthut Pein,
Quält ihn statt zu laben,
Sieht vergehn wie hohlen Schein
Und ist froh nur das Gebein
Endlich zu begraben.
So mit meinem Mägdelein
War es, und nun soll es seyn
So mit meinem Knaben.
[KTL 105]
Worse than being ill yourself is looking after an ill person, having to inflict suffering in the cause of healing, having to torment them instead of soothe them, having to watch youthful gifts of heaven disappear like empty show, having to be happy in the end just to bury the bones. That's how it was with my little girl and how it will now be with my little boy.

In her mother's account we learn that Luise resisted at first, clenching her teeth, so that her parents had to force her mouth open to administer the bitter medicine and to spray it into her throat. Blistering plasters (containing irritants such as cantharidin or mustard powder) were applied around her neck. All, of course, to no avail – mere torture of a dying child. [KTL 551]

Ultimately it was the Rückerts, not the doctors, who had to force their children to drink the useless, bitter potions:

Da solltest du, was ich wollte, thun,
Und thatst es auf meine Winke.
Du trankst das Bittre, wie reut michs nun,
Weil ich dir sagte: Trinke!
[KTL 64]
You had to do what I wanted and do it at my bidding. You drank the bitter potions, how I regret it now, just because I told you: Drink!

Rückert had to stand by and watch leeches suck his children's blood, a sight that haunted him:

Aerzte wissen nach den Regeln
Aus der Welt kein Kind zu schaffen,
Ohne mit abscheul'chen Egeln
Die Naturkraft hinzuraffen.

Doctors know as a rule no way of removing a child from the world without using revolting leeches to dissipate their natural powers.
Nie mehr werd' ich mich in Quellen
Unbefangen spiegeln;
Immer werd' ich in den Wellen
Schaudern vor Blutigeln,

Never again will I unguardedly look at my reflection in the water of the spring; I shall always now shudder at the thought of leeches.
Die das Leben mit dem Blute
Meines Kinds entsogen;
So mißhandelt ist das gute
Seelchen, ach, entflogen.
Those things which sucked the life out of my child with her blood; thus maltreated, that good soul has, oh!, flown away.
Aber nicht aus reinen Quellen,
Sondern styg'schem Sumpfe
Holt man diese Blutgesellen
Zu des Tods Triumphe.
[KTL 51]
But these blood brothers are not collected from clear springs but Stygian marshes, for the triumphal march of death.

In the six days of her illness Luise had leeches applied to her chest once, on Sunday 29 December, barely a day before she died.

Her brother Ernst's suffering lasted longer, nearly sixteen days, and so the doctors had more time to work their repulsive magic on him. He was leeched on his arms on three separate occasions. Towards the end the leech bites ulcerated, becoming black, infected, itchy and painful – yet more misery for the boy in what would be the last days and hours of his life.

Dark spirits of the earth

Rückert's powers of observation and his analytical mind strove to reconcile healing with the vicious substances that were supposed to bring it about.

Shortly after the death of little Luise, he finds himself at the intersection of the spiritual, the purity of his 'angel' now in Heaven, and the corruption of the earthbound and subterranean matter, the 'earth spirits' which had been used on her.

Goethe's Heinrich Faust and his mentor Mephistopheles were the models for the medical practitioners who conjure with these materials. They had made him a co-conspirator in the despoilment of his own child:

Als ich aus dem Fenster schaute
Nach dem wintergrauen Himmel,
Wo ein einz'ger Streifen Lichtes
Mir die Bahnen schien zu zeichnen,
Die mein Engel angeflogen;
As I looked out of the window at the grey winter sky, where a single strip of light seemed to mark the paths flown by my angel;
Fielen meine Thränentropfen,
Und ich merkte, daß sie fielen,
Nur weil sie auf Gläsern klangen,
Die da vor dem Fenster standen.
My teardrops fell, and I only noticed that they fell because they chinked on the bottles which stood on the ledge in front of the window.
Soviel Arzeneiengläser,
Mit den myst'schen Signaturen,
Zugezählt nach Stund' und Tropfen,
Konnten nicht ein Leben fristen.
So many medicine bottles with mystical signatures, counted out in hours and drops could not eke out a life.
Soviel erdentstiegne Geister,
Von der Kunst gebannt in Flaschen,
Konnten nicht den Tod bekämpfen.
Soviel unterird'sche Mächte,
Fremd dämonische Gewalten,
Über den Beschwörer herrschend,
Mußten aufgerufen werden,
Eingefangen, um von Banden
Einen Engel frei zu machen.
[KTL 86]
So many earthly spirits trapped by artifice in bottles, could not fight off death. So many subterranean forces, alien demonic powers dominating the sorcerer, had to be called up or caught in order to free an angel from its bonds.

The doctors of the time really were mere practitioners of the black arts, meddling ineffectually with compounds known by their alchemical signatures and measured out and applied in forms that would not be out of place in a conjurer's book of spells. We note in passing that the modern fans of homeopathy still talk of the 'signatures' of substances left in their waters.

Among the many guilt feelings that come with grief is the feeling that all this medical torture was completely unnecessary. Even among the great marvels of modern medicine, many patients and carers still have to confront the decision whether or not medical intervention is necessary. It is ironic that despite Friedrich Rückert's distaste for the medical profession, his second son Karl (1824-1899) would go on to become doctor.

Brutal Nature

Rückert was overcome by helplessness and grief at his loss, at having to watch two small children die. The religious – and Rückert was a convinced Christian – are forced to absolve the maker of the earth and seas by blaming Nature for her barbarity:

Abzuschaffen geschärfte Todesarten,
Abzustellen den Graus der Folterkammern,
War wol unseren aufgeklärten Zeiten
Vorbehalten zu einem Ruhm. Doch leider
Daß unschuldige Menschenleben gleichwol,
Von Krankheiten gespannt auf Folterbetten,
Schwerem langsamem Tod entgegenschmachten!
Ach wenn menschlicher auch die Menschen wurden,
Unsre Mutter Natur, sie ist bei ihrer
Alten heiligen Barbarei geblieben.
[KTL 114]

The abolition of the death penalty, the end of the horror of the torture chamber, were held to be the great fame of our enlightened times. But it is sad that innocent human lives just the same are stretched out on torture beds and face the mortification of a difficult slow death! Oh, even though humans have become more humane, our Mother Nature has kept to her ancient sacred barbarity.

This perceptive remark of Rückert's reveals the state of cultural and intellectual progress in the West at that time. He was of course aware of the progress made during the Enlightenment (roughly 1650-1800), that age of reason which began to break the shackles of bigotry and superstition. But he could not yet see the results of the Scientific Revolution (roughly 1550-1900), which would bring so many benefits to mankind.

In 1834, when the Kindertodtenlieder were being written, the fundamentals of scientific chemistry were only just being laid. John Dalton (1766-1844), the founder of the atomic theory of matter was still alive, and chemistry was finally moving out of the manipulation of earthbound substances, of alchemical 'signatures' and 'affinities'.

Progress in medical science would follow, but too late to help the Rückert children. The treatments they had to suffer would have been familiar to any doctor in the two or even three preceding centuries. Once it started, however, progress was fast: it would be only another century or so before antibiotics were discovered and manufactured and a few pills could have prevented the deaths of Luise and Ernst and the sufferings of the other Rückert children.

Your newborn author was only prevented from being an early adopter of penicillin by his parents' keeping his older brother, then mottled with scarlet fever, well away from him for several weeks. In the family tradition, this banning of the elder son is the explanation of a lifelong sibling rivalry between him and the little upstart. With penicillin having barely entered into general use your author reflects on the deep wisdom of keeping this germ-laden, festering oaf away from him.

Rückert was by no means the only one at that time having bleak thoughts on the brutality of the natural order and the seeming indifference of the Almighty to suffering– can we speak of a Zeitgeist?

Alfred Tennyson's friend Arthur Hallam had died in 1833, the year before Rückert's children, and Tennysons's grief at his loss would lead to the questionings of In Memoriam, with its famous line 'Nature, red in tooth and claw' [Canto 56]. Tennyson, like Rückert, separated God from the Nature he was presumed to have created, allowing them both to give the blame to Nature for its 'holy barbarity'.

The physical reality of death

Rückert had no illusions about the bodily corruption of death and faced that fact square on. When he saw the body of Luise arrayed with flowers in her coffin he did not shun that awful reality:

Sie haben ganz, o Kind, um das wir trauern,
Mit Blumen dich und Kränzen überdecket;
Die werden tief nun, wo du liegst gestrecket,
Mitmodernd, deinen Leib nicht überdauern.
[KTL 37]
They have covered you over, O child whom we mourn, with flowers and wreaths; they will now decompose in the depths where you lay stretched out and not outlast your body.

There is a limit to how much of the awful physical reality of death the normal person – let alone the grief-stricken – can be expected to take. Rückert experienced his share of that:

Ich habe Gott gebeten,
Daß oft im Traumgesicht
Er lasse zu mir treten
Die Kinder schön und licht.
I have often prayed to God to let my children appear to me, beautiful and light, in a vision.
Nun ist erhört mein Beten,
O wäre so es nicht!
Sie kommen hergetreten
Mit Leichenangesicht.
My prayer was answered, if only it hadn't been! They walked up to me with the faces of corpses.
Und wieder muß ich beten:
Solang ihr lebenslicht
Wie sonst nicht könnt hertreten,
Erscheint mir lieber nicht!
[KTL 214]
And once more I had to pray: as long as they cannot appear in the usual light of their lives, they shouldn't appear at all.

Rückert, father and poet, recorded a terrible moment that took place immediately after Luise's death. It became one of his greatest poems:

Sie haben dir die Augen
Vergessen zu schließen,
Die nun nicht ferner taugen
Mein Licht zu ergießen.
They forgot to close your eyes, which are of no more use to flood with my light.
Doch nütz' ich ihre Fehle,
Und sehe noch immer
Im Auge meiner Seele
Von Seel' einen Schimmer.
But I took advantage of their mistake and still see with my soul's eye a shimmer from your soul.
Wie hinter Fensterscheiben
Sein Liebchen gesehen
Ein Liebender, es bleiben
Die Züg' ihm da stehen.
As when the lover sees behind a pane of glass his loved one, her features remain.
Er glaubet süß betreten
Zu sehn sie noch immer,
Wenn sie zurückgetreten
Schon längst in das Zimmer.
He believes he can still see her, even when she has left the room long before.
So scheint mich noch die Seele
Vom Auge zu grüßen,
Wie längst das Leben fehle
Von Haupte zu Füßen.
It seems to me thus that the soul greets me through the eye, though life is missing from head to toe.
Vielleicht, eh ganz sie räumte
Das Haus, das zu schwache,
Daß sie noch einmal säumte
Im schönsten Gemache;
Perhaps, before she completely leaves the house, that is now too weak for her, she tarries once more in the beautiful room;
Daraus noch einmal blickte
Ins irdische Leben,
Eh sie den Flug beschickte
Um höher zu schweben.
And looks once more at earthly life before she takes flight to higher things.
Und ists nicht drin die deine,
Die Seele, die stralet,
So mag es seyn die meine,
Im Spiegel gemahlet.
And should there be nothing of your soul left that shines, may be it is mine, caught in reflection.
Solange noch beseelet
Ein schmerzliches Brennen
Dein dunkles Aug', entseelet
Nicht kann ich dich nennen.
As long as a painful burning still inhabits your dark eyes, I cannot call you dead.
Solange mich beseelet
Mit Schmerzen das Brennen
Des dunklen Augs, entseelet
Wie kann ich dich nennen?
[KTL 78f]
As long as the pain of that burning of your dark eyes inhabits my mind, how can I call you dead?

Even the exceptionally mild winter of that year prompted thoughts of the physical reality and the finality of the grave for his dead children:

Winter, der du jetzt im Norden
Frühling lügst, mit Schmeichellüften
Kannst du doch nur Blumen morden.
Winter, you who now in the north feign spring with caressing breezes, you can only murder flowers, though.
Ungefroren ist die Erde,
Daß zu meiner Kinder Grüften
Leichter sie erwählet werde.
The soil is not frozen, thus my children can be laid in their graves more easily.
Blumen in den Staub zu strecken,
Das vermagst du, nicht mit Düsten
Blumen aus dem Staub zu wecken.
[KTL 230]
You can bury flowers in the dust, but not wake flowers from the dust with dusts.

Let's not deny Rückert, a poet capable of recording such stark sights, his occasional elevation into hope for his children's place in heaven. He had, according to his wife, 'a religious sense' and 'a great love': [KTL 7f]

Eure Geister sind nicht hier zugegen,
Wo die Todten ihre Todten legen.
Doch die Gegenwart auch eurer Leiber
Fühl' ich nicht in diesen Grabgehegen.
Daß ihr läget unter diesen Hügeln,
Das zu glauben kann mich nichts bewegen.
Wäret ihr mir leiblich nah, es müßte
Mir im Herzen ein Gefühl sich regen.
Doch ich fühls, mit Leib zugleich und Geiste
Seid ihr aufgeschwebt dem Licht entgegen.
[KTL 479]
Your spirits are not here, where the dead lay their dead. And I do not feel the presence of your bodies in this graveyard. That you might lie under this mound, I cannot bring myself to believe that. Were you near me in body, a feeling would make itself known in my heart. But I feel, with body as well as spirit, that you have flown towards the light.

Despite his rationalist conviction that the children he has lost are not in any sense present in their graves in the churchyard, combined with his faith in their place in heaven, it was not easy for Rückert to separate himself from the physical remains of the dead and from whatever spiriti loci seemed to remain:

Soll ich nun die Stadt verlassen,
Wirds nicht schwer mir fallen,
Meinen Abschied kurz zu fassen
Von den lebenden allen.
Were I to leave this town I would not find it difficult to make brief my farewell from the living.
Aber schwer wird mir das Scheiden
Von zwei lieben Todten;
Noch von fernher sei den beiden
Lebewohl geboten.

[KTL 393]
But the separation from the two beloved dead will be hard; even from afar the two will be bid farewell.

At other times the pain of loss forced the rationalist mind to seek refuge in comforting poetic conceits. Such inconsistency is the chief reason we have chosen the live-blogging metaphor to describe the creation process of the Kindertodtenlieder. Rückert – thankfully – did not revise his work. It was left in an almost stream of consciousness state.

In the following poem, for example, Rückert elevates the graves that hold the decomposing bodies of his children to the status of their protectors. The winter had been mild, but the spring of 1834 was cold and windy. A day of bad weather led Rückert to a dark reflection of helplessness and hope.

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,
Nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus;
Man hat sie hinaus getragen,
Ich durfte dazu nichts sagen.
In this weather, in this storm, I would never have sent the children out; they were carried out and I could say nothing against that.
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus,
Nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus,
Ich fürchtete, sie erkranken,
Das sind nun eitle Gedanken.
In this weather, in this tempest, I would never have let the children go out, I would have feared that they would have sickened, those are now vain thoughts.
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus,
Hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus,
Ich sorgte, sie stürben morgen,
Das ist nun nicht zu besorgen.
In this weather, in this awfulness, I would never have let the children go out, I would have worried that they would have died the next morning, there is nothing to be done about that now.
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,
Sie ruhn als wie in der Mutter Haus,
Von keinem Sturm erschrecket,
Von Gottes Hand bedecket.
[KTL 416]
In this weather, in this storm, they rest as though in their mother's house, frightened by no storm, sheltered by God's hand.

Mahler fans will have recognised this as the text of the fifth and last of his settings of the Kindertodtenlieder.

The artefacts of loss

After the deaths of Luise and Ernst, Rückert's life is filled with physical reminders of what once was, as well as with the presences of the departed and the shadows of their former existence. For the bereaved, everything becomes a reminder of loss. The Kindertodtenlieder contain numerous examples of this universal phenomenon of grief.

Zur heiteren Stunde fehlet ihr,
Zum fröhlichen Bunde fehlet ihr.
Den Sommer kündigen Schwalben an,
Der freudigen Kunde fehlet ihr.
In the cheerful moment you are missing, in the happy group you are missing. The swallows announce the summer, at the happy news you are missing.
Die Blumen im Wiesengrunde blühn,
Dem blühenden Grunde fehlet ihr.
Mit lachendem Mund gehn Rosen auf,
Mit lachendem Munde fehlet ihr.
The flowers in the low meadow are flowering, from the flowering earth you are missing. With smiling mouth the roses open, with smiling mouth you are missing.
Gefunden hat Glück und Lust die Welt,
Zum glücklichen Funde fehlet ihr.
Die Brüder schlingen den Reihentanz;
Warum in der Runde fehlet ihr?
Happiness and joy have discovered the world, from the happy discovery you are missing. Your brothers weave through the dance; why are you missing in the round?
Die Mutter erzählt ein Mährchen schön;
Warum bei der Kunde fehlet ihr?
Ihr fehlt, ich weiß nicht, warum ihr fehlt;
Aus nichtigem Grunde fehlet ihr.
Mother tells a beautiful story; why during the telling are you missing? You are missing, I do not know why you are missing, for no good reason you are missing.
Ihr fehlt uns in jedem Augenblick,
In jeder Sekunde fehlet ihr.
Ihr fehlet an jedem Ort, nur nie
Dem Herzen als Wunde fehlet ihr.
We miss you at every moment, at every second you are missing. You are missing at every place, only from the wound in the heart are you never missing.
Was fehlt dem Herzen? ihr fehlet ihm,
Damit es gesunde, fehlet ihr.
[KTL 209]
What is wrong with the heart? He is missing you. In order to heal him, you are missing.

The abandoned Christmas tree

Here, for example, Rückert notes the desolate state of the Christmas tree, left over when Christmas was so brutally interrupted by illness and death.

O Weihnachtsbaum,
O Weihnachtstraum!
Wie erloschen ist dein Glanz,
Wie zerstoben ist der Kranz,
Der um dich den Freudentanz
Schlang zur Weihnachtsfeier.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas dream! How snuffed out is your radiance, how shattered the wreath around which the Christmas party dance circled.
O Weihnachtsbaum,
O Weihnachtstraum!
Der du noch an jedem Ast
Halbverbrannte Kerzen hast;
Denn wir löschten sie mit Hast
Mitten in der Feier.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas dream! That on every branch you still carry half-burned candles, for we put them out quickly in the middle of the party.
O Weihnachtsbaum,
O Weihnachtstraum!
Jeder Zweig ist noch beschwert,
Und kein Naschwerk abgeleert.
Ach, daß du so unverheert
Überstandst die Feier.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas dream! Every twig is still weighed down and no treats have been eaten. Oh that you survived the party so untouched.
O Weihnachtsbaum,
O Weihnachtstraum!
Mit den Früchten unverzehrt,
Mit den Kerzen unversehrt,
Steh, bis Weihnacht wiederkehrt,
Steh zur Todtenfeier.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas dream! With the fruit uneaten, with the candles undamaged, stand until Christmas comes again, stand for the service of remembrance.
O Weihnachtsbaum,
O Weihnachtstraum!
Wenn wir neu dich zünden an,
Kaufen wir kein Englein dran;
Unsre beiden Englein nahn
Drobenher zur Feier.
[KTL 201]
O Christmas tree, O Christmas dream! When we light you again we will buy no angel: our two angels will come here for the party.

The empty beds

Among the worst of the physical reminders were the children's empty beds. In a wondrously clever poem, Rückert moves the two children from their earthbound empty beds into their aerial afterlife:

Seh' ich eure Bettchen
Beide stehen leer,
Wird das Herz mir schwer;
In dem Ruhestättchen
Regt es sich nicht mehr.
When I see your empty beds my heart becomes heavy; in the place of rest, nothing moves any more.
O ihr Amorettchen,
Seid ihr ausgeschlüpft,
Habet abgestrüpft
Das zu lockre Kettchen,
Das euch uns verknüpft!
Oh you little cupids, emerge from your beds, slip off the chains, too loose, that bind you to us!
An des Zaunes Lättchen
Sah ich dunkelbraun
So zwei Puppen, traun,
Leer, und zwei Silphettchen
Flogen übern Zaun.
[KTL 385]
On the plank of the fence I saw two dark brown pupae (truly!), empty, and two little moths flew over the fence.

We are in the presence of a world-class linguist and philologist who taught himself forty or so languages with scholarly precision. Modern readers need a bit of help in untangling Rückert's clever and for him quite characteristic wordplay.

The genesis of the conceit at the heart of this poem appears in stanza no. 55 of his series of three line poems Dreizeilen-Hundert, which also form part of the Kindertodtenlieder. German prosody knows the form under the name Ritornell.

There Rückert wrote: Blüh', Amorellchen! / Im Bettchen schläft ein goldnes Amorettchen, Hat ein Goldammerchen zum Schlafgesellchen., 'Flower little cherry! / In the bed sleeps a little golden Cupid, with a yellowhammer for company'. The amorelle (or amarelle) in the diminutive form Amorellchen refers to one of the many varieties of the sour cherry, Prunus cerasus. [KTL 284]

In the present poem (now separated from the other in this edition by a hundred pages) he develops and expands that imagery.

The first stanza shows us the empty beds left behind by the dead children. There is a clever paradox between the Ruhestättchen, the place of quiet, where now 'nothing stirs'.

In the second stanza we are told that the empty beds used to be occupied by the two Amorettchen, little Cupids, who have slipped the chains that bound them to the family. In a general context ausgeschlüpft would mean hatched, but in this specific context it should be read as 'emerged' [from their resting places] to slip their loose chains.

In the final stanza, Rückert transforms the image of the two empty beds in the house into two empty pupae cases (Puppen) hanging on the garden fence. The two 'little sylphs' flying away 'over the fence' can be taken literally to be moths (the etymology for this is complex and not altogether clear) or spirits of the air.

The greater allegory, in the context of their deaths, is the flight 'over the fence' as the transition between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

We now realise why Rückert used the rather odd word ausgeschlupft to describe the escape of the two little Cupids in the preceding stanza: it prefigured their hatching as moths or spirits from their pupae and thus their departure – their slipping free – from their beds.

The poet takes his reader into a world of metaphors and metamorphoses – transitions from inside to outside, hatching into a new, more beautiful forms and existence, souls escaping from earthbound matter and flying over the fence that separates the earthly from the heavenly.

In another poem – at a lower level of etymological complexity although still with a characteristically Rückert-like complex scheme of rhyme and repetition – Rückert notes the light that has both literally and metaphorically gone out of his life. This appears to be one of the poems which Rückert wrote from the point of view of the mother:

The night-light

Es brannt' in meiner Kammer
Ein Lämplein sonst bei Nacht,
Das ging nun aus, o Jammer,
Das hat der Tod gemacht.
In my bedroom a little lamp burnt in the night, that has now gone out, O misery, Death did that.
Es brannte für die Kleinen
Das Lämplein in der Nacht,
Daß sie nicht sollten weinen,
Wenn sie mir aufgewacht.
It burned for the little ones, the little lamp in the night, that they would not cry, when they woke me up.
Sie schliefen ohne Weinen,
Und sind nie aufgewacht,
Doch gerne ließ ich scheinen
Das Lämplein in der Nacht.
They slept without crying and never woke up, but still I let it shine, the little lamp in the night.
Ich sah bei seinem Scheinen
Gern wenn ich aufgewacht,
Wie ruhig meine Kleinen
Fortschliefen in der Nacht.
I gladly saw by its light when I woke up, how quietly my little ones slept on in the night.
Nun hat man meine Kleinen
Gebettet außerm Haus,
Ich lösche nun mit Weinen
Das nächtge Lämpchen aus.
Now my little ones have been bedded outside the house, I extinguish, weeping, the night lamp.
Wozu noch sollt' es scheinen?
Die Bettchen stehen leer,
Ich seh' darin die Kleinen
Im Schlaf nicht lächeln mehr.
[KTL 224]
What is the point of it shining? The beds stand empty, I no longer see the little ones smiling in their sleep.

The children's book

Those who have suffered bereavement will not need to be reminded of the fact that everyday life continues after the loss, leading often to bitter ironies. After the death of Luise and Ernst, a children's book, of all things, arrives for them:

Fünfzig Fabeln für Kinder,
Mit anschaulichen Bildern,
Nett von Spekter gezeichnet,
Für die Jugend geeignet,
Hast du, Freund, mir empfohlen,
Und ich ließ sie mir holen.
Fifty fables for children, with attractive pictures nicely drawn by Speckter, suitable for the young – you, friend, recommended it to me and had it delivered.
Leider zu spät empfangen!
Denn inzwischen gegangen
Sind die beiden, für deren
Jahre die Fabeln wären;
Ihre Augen verdrossen
Sind den Bildern geschlossen.
Unfortunately, received too late! For in the meantime they for whom the fables were intended have gone; their eyes unenthusiastic are closed for the pictures.
Und die übrig gebliebnen,
Schon zur Schule getriebnen,
Müssen an den Vokabeln
Kauen phädrischer Fabeln,
Die nicht Zeit ihnen lassen,
Sich mit Deutsch zu befassen.
And the remaining children, already sent off to school, have to chew on the vocabulary of Phaedrus' fables, which will leave them no time to study German.
In der Lage der Sachen,
Was ist also zu machen?
Selber in meinen alten
Händen will ich behalten
Diese kindischen Mährchen
Für mein kindisches Pärchen.
In the state of things, what can be done? In my old hands I shall keep these childish stories for my childish pair.
Kommt im nächtlichen Schweigen,
Laßt die Bilder euch zeigen,
Euch vorlesen die Reime!
Und die Lust, die geheime,
Hab' ich, euch an den Augen
Abzusehn, was sie taugen.
[Ernst and Luise,] come in the silence of the night, have the pictures shown to you, the rhymes read aloud to you! And from the secret pleasure that can be seen in your eyes I shall know what they are worth.
Wo das Köpfchen ihr schüttelt,
Diese habt ihr bekrittelt;
Wo ihrs senktet und höbet,
Diese habt ihr gelobet;
Und gern theil' ich in allen
Stücken euer Gefallen.
[KTL 347]
The ones where you shake your head you will have criticised, where you nod up and down you will have praised; and I shall be happy to share your pleasure in all the fables.

The book was Fünfzig Fabeln für Kinder, which had been first published in 1833 and was, thus, 'hot off the press'.

The author of the fables, Johann Wilhelm Hey (1789-1854), a vicar and school inspector in Thuringia, remained anonymous in the first edition, merely the name of the illustrator, the Hamburg artist, Otto Speckter (1807-1871), was on the title page. Hence Rückert's sole attribution to the illustrator 'Spekter'[sic].

The book and its sequel remained a bestseller throughout the 19th century and even into the early 20th century. A digitalisation of a facsimile edition from 1920 is available on Wikisource, a good digitalisation of an 1852 edition is in the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

Rückert, despite being a classical philologist, orientalist and astounding polyglot, was a German patriot and a great champion of the German language. Thus, thinking of the school education that his remaining children were undergoing, with Hey's attractive book of fables in front of him, he takes a dig at the fables of Phaedrus (20BC?-50AD?) that were used in the schools of the time to teach Latin, leaving them 'no time to study German'.

Every modern parent can relate to Rückert's agonized imagining of a reading session much as it had been before, but this time shared with the ghosts of his dead children. In the phantasmagoric session, when the dead children appear to him in the 'silence of the night', he can show them the pictures and read them the rhymes aloud. He would judge their opinions from their eyes and the movements of their heads.

Rückert gives us a memory of one of his readings or recitations to Luise and Ernst:

O wie ich nun so einsam bin,
Wenn meine Großen sind zur Schule,
Wo sonst mir blieb mein kleiner Buhle,
Und meine Nebenbuhlerin,
Die beiden, stets in Einigkeit,
Und über nichts als das im Streit,
Sich mir zu zeigen dienstbereit!
O how lonely I am now that my bigger children have gone to school, where otherwise only my little lover and his rival remained. Both of them always in agreement and only battling to show who was the most willing!
Sie sitzen so mir noch vorm Sinn,
Wie rechts und links von meinem Stuhle
Im Stühlchen saß mein kleiner Buhle,
Und meine Nebenbuhlerin.
Sooft er küßte meine Hand,
So zupfte sie mir am Gewand,
Alsob sie Eifersucht empfand.
In my mind they still sit right and left of my chair, my little lover and his rival. Whenever he kissed my hand she tugged on my robe as though she were jealous.
Ich nahm die Schmeicheleien hin,
Und sang zum Dank das Lied von Thule:
Wie lauschte da mein kleiner Buhle,
Und seine Nebenbuhlerin!
Nun sind sie fort im Schattenheer,
Gefallen ist die Krön' ins Meer,
Und nie mein Becher thränenleer.
[KTL 222]
I took in the flattery and sang in gratitude the song of Thule: how my little lover listened and his rival! Now they are gone into the army of shadows, the crown has fallen into the sea and my goblet is never empty of tears.

Here Rückert recalls reciting Goethe's ballad Der König in Thule to Luise and Ernst. The ballad, although it also has an existence as a standalone poem, found its final resting place in Goethe's Faust I [lines 2759–2782], where it is a song sung by Gretchen whilst she is getting ready for bed. Franz Schubert set the song to music in 1816 (D 367).

Both on its own and in the context of Faust, the ballad is a rich source of symbolism and interpretation, too rich for us to discuss here. Over time, the story of the ballad was picked up by other writers and became a fixed point in the German literary canon.

In the ballad, the King of Thule is given a golden goblet by his dying lover, his Buhle. He made good use of the goblet at every meal, emptying it with tears in his eyes for his dead love. When his turn came round to die, he disposed of all his riches among his heirs but kept the goblet for himself. At his death he drank from the goblet one last time then hurled it into the sea.

Rückert not only references Goethe's ballad directly in the last stanza of his poem, his intensive and unusual use of der Buhle for Ernst and die Nebenbuhlerin for Luise is also a clear allusion. The modern usage of der/die Buhle and particularly der Nebenbuhler/die Nebenbuhlerin is rather unpleasant, but Rückert's usage is the older meaning that Goethe would also intend – a 'lover'. In this case, therefore, a male lover and his female rival for their father's affections.

Now his adoring children have gone into the army of shadows, the king's crown – in other poems he referred to his children as his crown – has been lost into the sea, but he is left to fill the goblet with his tears.

Notches in the doorposts

The dead depart and leave behind not just the memories of them that remain with the living but the physical artefacts of their former existence. Here, for example, Rückert meditates on the height marks that had been cut into the doorposts every half year to follow the growth of the two children.

An der Thüre Pfosten waren
Angezeichnet eure Maße,
Und wir freuten uns zu sehen,
Wie in jedem halben Jahre
Ihr um eine halbe Spanne
Oder eine ganze wuchset.
On the doorposts your height was marked and we happily saw how in each half-year you grew by a half or a full span.
Scheidend trat der Tod nun zwischen
Unsre Freud' und euer Wachsen,
Und nicht werden an den Pfosten
Eure Maße höher steigen.
Death has now stepped between our joy and your growth, and your markers on the posts will never go any higher.
Aber gleichsam um auf eine
Art - ach eine schlimme Art - uns
Zu entschäd'gen, hat der Würger
Euch nun auf die Sterbebettchen
Hingestreckt um eine ganze
Spanne länger als ihr lebtet.
At the same time to compensate us in some way – ah, a bad way – the strangler Death has now laid you out on your deathbeds a whole span longer than when you lived.
Soll das etwa dafür gelten
Euern Eltern, um ein ganzes
Oder halbes Jahr des Lebens
Euch im Tode nachzumessen?
[KTL 323]
Is that somehow for your parents, so they can measure in death a year or half-a-year of your life?

Children's clothes

More physical reminders of what once had been are the clothes of the two children. Since Luise and Ernst were the youngest in the family, their clothes and shoes will not be passed down but preserved as they are.

It is possible that these two poems are also among those written in the persona of the mother:

Hier lieg' in der Truhe,
Was euch angehört;
Heilig sei's und ruhe,
Wie ihr, ungestört.

Here in the chest lie your belongings. Let them be sacred and rest, like you, in peace.
Kleidchen in der Truhe,
Leibchen in dem Grab.
Eure Kinderschuhe
Tretet ihr nicht ab.
Clothes in the chest, body in the grave. You will never wear out your children's shoes.
Täglich aus der Truhe
Nehm' ich Kleid um Kleid,
Daß dem Herzen thue
Wohl das sanfte Leid.
Daily from the chest I take out garment after garment, that the heart feels the gentle suffering.
Weil ihr wart die kleinsten
Bleibt ihr unbeerbt;
Euern Staat, den feinsten,
Ließt ihr unverderbt.

[KTL 339]

Because you were the smallest, they will not be handed down; your Sunday best, the finest, you will never spoil.

Staat is a now obsolete term for what might be called in English the children's 'Sunday best'. As already noted, the Rückerts produced another three surviving children – were these clothes ever handed down? Who knows?

Shadows and shades

The family house, once noisy with six children, has now gone quiet and is filled with shadows.

Man merket kaum im Hause
Die schwebende Schaar,
So still ists, wo vom Brause
So laut einst es war.
One hardly notices in the house the floating crowd, so still it is, where once it was so loud.
Ihr weiten Räume schienet
So voll, nun so leer,
Seit euch zur Füllung dienet
Von Schatten ein Heer.
[KTL 44f]
You large rooms appeared so full, but are now so empty, serve only now to be filled with an army of shadows.

Even when the surviving children arise from their sickbeds, they, too, move around the empty house like shades:

Als von den vier Todeskranken
Zwei nun aus den Bettchen stiegen
Und durchs Zimmer wieder wanken,
Kehren erst mir die Gedanken,
Daß zwei andre draußen liegen.
When two of the four deathly ill now climb out of their beds and wobble through the rooms the thoughts come back to me that two others lie outside.
Man hat sie hinausgetragen,
Und ich hab' es wohl gesehn;
Doch ich dacht' in diesen Tagen
Immer noch, daß alle lagen,
Um mit einmal aufzustehn.
They were carried out and I saw it, yet I still thought in these days that all of them lay [in their beds], to arise sometime.
Nun zerronnen ist der Traum,
Aufgestanden sind nur zwei,
Schatten gleich, man hört sie kaum,
Schleichen sie im leeren Raum,
Sonst gefüllt von Lustgeschrei.
[KTL 151]
Now the dream has faded, only two got up, like shadows, you hardly hear them, they creep around in empty rooms that were once filled with shouts of joy.

A pair of extremely moving poems describe the emptiness left by the loss of Luise.

In the first of these, Luise's place has been taken by shadow. Reality and imagination are mixed skilfully: the shadow is not her ghost, but the absence of light left by her own absence:

Wenn zur Thür herein
Tritt dein Mütterlein
Mit der Kerze Schimmer,
Ist es mir als immer,
Kämst du mit herein,
Huschtest hinterdrein
Als wie sonst ins Zimmer.

When your mother comes through the door, with the candle's shimmer, it seems to me as though you came in with her, flitting just behind her as always in the room.
Träum' ich, bin ich wach,
Oder seh' ich schwach
Bei dem Licht, dem matten?
Du nicht, nur ein Schatten
Folgt der Mutter nach.
Immer bist du, ach,
Noch der Mutter Schatten.
[KTL 77]
Am I dreaming, am I awake, or is my sight failing me in this light, this dimness? Not you, but only a shadow follows behind your mother. You still are, oh!, your mother's shadow.
Wenn dein Mütterlein
Tritt zur Thür herein,
Und den Kopf ich drehe,
Ihr entgegen sehe,
Fällt auf ihr Gesicht
Erst der Blick mir nicht,
Sondern auf die Stelle
Näher nach der Schwelle,
Dort wo würde dein
Lieb Gesichtchen seyn,
Wenn du freudenhelle
Trätest mit herein
Wie sonst, mein Töchterlein,
O du, der Vaterzelle
Zu schnelle
Erlosch'ner Freudenschein!
[KTL 77]

When your mother comes in through the door and I turn my head to look at her, my glance does not fall on her face but rather on the place closer to the threshold, there where your lovely face would be when you entered happily with her as always, my little daughter. Oh you, the ray of light in your father's room, too soon extinguished.

This pair of poems was made famous as one of the five Kindertodtenlieder that were set to music by Gustav Mahler between 1901 and 1904. For some reason, Mahler reversed the order of the poems, which means that his setting begins with poem no. 2.

The Rückert family house is full of the shadowy presences of the two children who have passed on:

Es ist kein Fleckchen
Im Hause weit,
Kein dunkles Eckchen
Ist weit und breit,
Aus dem hervor nicht dränge
Und mir entgegen spränge
Von Zeit zu Zeit
Eins meiner beiden Geckchen.
There is no place in the big house, no dark corner wherever, out of which from time to time one of my two little monkeys did not rush out and jump at me.
Es ist kein Streckchen
Im Gartenraum,
Kein Rosenheckchen,
Kein Strauch, kein Baum,
Aus dem hervor nicht klänge
Und mir entgegen sänge
Ein schöner Traum
Von meinen beiden Reckchen.

[KTL 349]
There is nowhere in the garden, no rose hedge, no bush, no tree from which noise emerged and sang me a beautiful dream of my two little heroes.

Following the sheep

In former springtimes, Luise and Ernst could not be restrained from joining the shepherd taking the sheep out early in the morning and bringing them back in the evening. Now they are both dead, this ritual is one more painful memory for their father:

Es waren meine Kindchen
Zu halten nicht im Haus,
Wann mit dem Schäferhündchen
Die Schafe zogen aus.
Sie hüpften mit den Lämmern
Durchs Feld im Abendschein,
Und trieben dann beim Dämmern
Sich mit der Herd' auch ein.
My children could not be kept inside when the sheep were taken out with the sheep dog. They jumped around the field with the lambs in the evening light and returned at twilight with the herd once more.
Nun treibt mit seinen Schafen
Der Schäfer ein und aus;
Ihr habet es verschlafen,
Ihr schlaft auch gar nicht aus!
Doch bei des Abends Dämmern
Da seh' ich hell und klar
Bei ros'gen Wolkenlämmern
Dort ruhn mein Kinderpaar.
[KTL 408]
Now the shepherd drives his sheep in and out; you have slept through it, you will never wake for it again. However, in the dusk I can see bright and clear in the rosy cloud-sheep that my children rest there.

There will be tasteful readers who are repelled by what they take to be Rückert's descent into what seems to be at first glance merely maudlin kitsch. There are two things to be said about this.

The first thing we need to realise is that Rückert's imagery of the rosy clouds is a clever allusion via the word Wolkenlämmern, 'cloud lambs' to the German word Schäf­chen­wol­ken, 'little sheep clouds', the high, cirrocumulus clouds that look like fluffy sheep. As high clouds in clear weather they catch the setting sun and glow rose and gold in the sky. Rückert has cleverly linked this real phenomenon with the sheep Luise and Ernst loved so much.

He is not the first poet nor will he be the last to imagine the souls of his children now in heaven – itself an ancient synonym for sky. It is noticeable that Rückert chooses not to use the word Himmel, 'sky' or 'heaven' directly – the allusion to Wolkenlämmern is sufficient.

The second point is one that we have mentioned on a number of occasions already: that there is no overarching thematic structure or concept behind the Kindertodtenlieder. They were written, often several on one day, as a form of grief management. They were, in effect, composed in the mood of the moment by an accomplished, talented and highly educated poet. As such they were a poetic diary, not a structured poem cycle. In modern terminology, as we have already noted, we would call them a blog.

Some days Rückert woke up feeling depressed, some days hopeful, some days melancholic, some days religiously moved, some days… well, who knows? – probably some combination of all of these. The man who could not stop writing poetry was moved to literary creation by whatever struck him at the time. If it was Schäf­chen­wol­ken at sunset, so be it. The memory of his children's excitement at accompanying the shepherd, his dog and his sheep came to him, too – and this is the poem we get.

The two doves

Our understanding of Rückert as a poetic diarist or blogger is reinforced when he recounts noteworthy events that occur in the household. The following poem brings us a remarkable coincidence of finding two doves, initially intended for the cooking pot, perched on the empty beds of his deceased 'lovebirds', Ernst and Luise:

Ich weiß nicht, ob es mich heute
Betrübte mehr oder freute,
Als ich gieng durch die Kammer
(Es war eine Freud' im Jammer)
Wo noch stehn aufgeschlagen
Die Bettchen, in welchen lagen
Die beiden, die nun liegen
In übergrünten Wiegen.
I do not know today whether it saddened or pleased me as I went through the bedroom (it was a pleasure in lamentation) where the beds still stand in which the two lay, who now lie in grassed over cradles.
Ohne dahin zu sehen,
Wollt' ich vorübergehen.
Da traf mein Ohr ein Girren,
Ein sanftes Rauschen und Schwirren,
Und hin mußt' ich mich wenden.
Da sah ich an den Enden
Der Bettlein (soll ichs glauben
Den Augen?) ein Paar Tauben,
Die sich in Eintracht wiegen,
Sich aneinander schmiegen,
Und die Köpflein mit Schweigen
Gegen einander neigen,
Ganz wie einst jene thaten,
Die ich schwer muß entrathen.
Without looking I just wanted to go past. Then I heard a cooing, a gentle whispering and whirring and I had to turn towards it. There I saw at the ends of the beds (should I believe my eyes?) a pair of doves, who rocked in harmony, nestled together and inclined their heads silently to each other, just as once did those whom I now find difficult to do without.
Bild der Geschwisterliebe,
Bist du ein Schein, zerstiebe!
Doch lebet ihr und leibet,
So saget mir, und bleibet,
Wo seid ihr her gekommen?
Doch ich hab' es vernommen:
Für die Küche gekaufet,
Seid ihr nur ungeraufet
Darum bisher geblieben,
Weil ihr Spiel mit euch trieben,
Und dieses Nest euch gaben
Die unbefangnen Knaben,
Und hier euch reichten Futter,
Mit halbem Willen der Mutter,
Hinschiebend von Tag zu Tage
Euere Niederlage.
Image of sibling love, you are a phantom, disperse! But you live and resemble them, so tell me and stay: where have you come from? But I had heard about it: you were bought to be eaten, you are still unplucked and you are only still here because the boys play with you, have given you this nest and here the mother feeds you, with half-hearted will, putting your end off from one day to the next.
Nun aber, dem Ort zu Ehren,
Will ich euch ganz abwehren
Das Messer von der Kehle
Mit Hausvaterbefehle.
Der heiligen Freistatt wegen
Sollen die Brüder euch pflegen
Stets mit dem reifsten Korne,
Und dem frischesten Borne,
Daß ihr tunket und picket,
Schlucket und euch erquicket,
Und danket mit Geflister,
Wie ihre rechten Geschwister.
Now, though, to honour this place, I want to keep the knife completely from your necks by order of the head of the house. Because of the holy sanctuary here the brothers should always feed you the ripest grains and the freshest spring water that you dip and peck, drink and refresh and thank with murmurings as though your true siblings.
Sie sollen auch vor der Tatze
Der taubenmordenden Katze
Fein euere Schwelle hüten,
Bis ihr groß seid zum Brüten.
Dann brütet hier, wenn ihr wollet;
Doch wenn ihrs wo anders sollet,
Und mögt nicht bei uns bleiben,
Dort durch die gebrochnen Scheiben
Entfliegt zum Himmelsbogen,
Wie jene uns einst entflogen.
[KTL 424f]
You should also protect your threshold from the paws of the dove-murdering cat until you are big enough to breed. Then breed here if you will, but when it should be elsewhere and you don't want to stay with us any more then fly there through the broken pane to the rainbow, the way those others also did once.

Picking the blossom

In our hard-bitten and cynical modern age writing about flowers and blossom is a highly suspect activity – it is fair to say that those who do it will never achieve literary standing. Rückert, like his almost exact contemporary John Clare (1793-1864), had no such inhibitions. Clare wrote of nature as he found it, as did Rückert, whose collection of 137 three line Ritornelle in the Kindertodtenlieder is structured mostly around flowers.

Two related poems are built around the image of the blossom of spring. It was only in May 1834 that Rückert and his wife began to recover their equilibrium after the deaths of the two children in the winter. The first of the pair of poems is a traditional appeal to the human not to pluck the bud but to allow it to blossom and enjoy its brief existence.

Ich wollt' eine Knospe pflücken
Im Morgenglanz,
Mich frühlingsgemäß zu schmücken
Mit einem Kranz.

I wanted to pluck a bud in the morning light, to make a spring chaplet for me to wear.
Da hört' ich die Knospe sprechen
Mit leisem Ton:
Und willst du mich also brechen
Im Frühthau schon?
Then I heard the bud say in a soft voice: And are you going to pluck me already in the early dew?
Ich bitte bei deinem Kinde,
Dir früh geraubt:
Mir sei noch im Frühlingswinde
Ein Tag erlaubt!
[KTL 250]
I plead with your child, so early stolen from you: a day in the spring breeze is allowed.

The second of the pair of poems deals with what we would now call delayed gratification: the flower that is plucked will never bear fruit. We saw this idea as it appeared in Johann Gottfried Herder's 1771 poem Die Blüthe a forerunner Goethe's Heidenröslein. Sixty-odd years before Rückert, the clergyman Herder was warning wild young men of exactly this problem. Rückert's version is considerably more nuanced:

Meine Knaben brachen Blüten,
Welche mir am Herzen lagen,
Und ich wollte sie behüten,
Aber doch den Grund nicht sagen.

My boys plucked blossom, which were close to my heart, and I wanted to protect them without giving the reason.
Und ich sprach: dem Strauch wenn heute
Ihr die Blüten habt genommen,
Wird euch keine Frucht zur Beute,
Wenn im Herbst wir wiederkommen.
And I said: the bush from which you have taken the blossom today will give you no fruit, when we come again in autumn.
Doch ich dachte jener Blüten,
Die ich vor dem Tod, dem frechen,
Leider konnte nicht behüten,
Als er wollte Rosen brechen.
But I thought of those flowers which I sadly could not save from insolent Death when he wanted to pluck roses.
Aber ihnen wollt' ichs schenken,
Nicht bei welken Blumenstielen
In der Lust daran zu denken,
Daß des Todes Amt sie spielen.
But I wanted to show them, not by withered flower stalks, during their fun to consider that they perform the office of death.
Sollt' ich diesen trüben Schatten
Werfen auf die frohen Knaben?
Gott sei Dank, auf grünen Matten
Daß sie spielen unbegraben!
[KTL 250f]
Should I cast these dreary shadows on the happy boys? Thank God that on green meadows they are playing unburied!

These two poems are kept together in the 'thematic' collection that Heinrich Rückert produced from his father's manuscripts. But as so often in the present collection of the Kindertodtenlieder we find related poems ripped completely out of context.

In this case, 230 pages after the pair of poems about collecting blossom, comes the resolution of the blossom picking problem: if all the blossom were left to fruit the tree would break under its weight. Nature is bounteous and from all the blossoms it produces, God chooses those which should ripen to fruit, just as, allegorically, God chooses the childhood blossoms that will never ripen.

Der Baum ertrüge selbst nicht die Beschwerden,
Wenn alle Blüten sollten Früchte werden.
Allein warum läßt Gott mehr Blüten treiben,
Als an den Zweigen sollen Früchte bleiben?

The tree itself could not bear the weight when all the blossom turned to fruit. Why did God allow more blossom to grow than there should be fruit on the boughs?

Um voller uns den Hoffnungskranz zu schmücken,
Und daß die Lenzluft könne Blüten pflücken,
Ohn' irgend sich an einer zu vergreifen,
Die uns, von Gott bestimmt, zur Frucht soll reifen.
[KTL 482]

In order for us to decorate the wreath of hope and so that the spring breeze can pluck blossom without touching any of those which, decreed by God, should ripen to fruit for us.

Faith and hope

'Faith, hope and love' wrote St Paul in the thirteenth verse of the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. The chapter in its entirety – in its magnificent brevity – constitutes one of the cornerstones of Christian faith, whatever the flavour, founded as it is on the doctrine of faith, hope and love. Rückert was a believing Christian, a Protestant, whose religious faith and hope supported him during and after the tragedy of the loss of Luise and Ernst.

The reader who doesn't believe in an afterlife, or who considers it beyond human comprehension, or in whom faith and hope have been replaced by cold reason alone, may find Rückert's faith and hope to be hard going. But it was what it was, and in times of observing their two youngest children sicken and die, what hard-hearted cynic would take away the parents' faith in their continuing life after death and their hope for a reunion.

Niemals anders sah ich dich erwachen
Als mit einem heitern Lachen,
Gleichalsob vom Paradiesesbaume
Blüten du gepflückt im Traume.
I never saw you wake up other than with a cheerful smile, as though you had gathered blossom from the Tree of Paradise in your dreams.
Und so hoff ich, daß mit heiterm Lachen
Du auch jetzo wirst erwachen
Droben von des Lebens kurzem Traume
Unterm Paradiesesbaume.
[KTL 95]
And so I hope that you will now also wake with a happy smile, away from life's short dream, under the Tree of Paradise.

Faith and hope – but not the simple sort such as that mocked by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) in his short story Un cœur simple (1877), in which Felicité, the servant girl, elevates Loulou, the stuffed parrot, to the status of the Holy Ghost.

Unlike Felicité, Rückert possessed extraordinary intellectual powers and, in particular, an extensive knowledge of other religions. But in the end, in those moments of the deepest despair which he endured in 1834, the foundation which sustained him was the rock of Christian faith and hope.

After Ernst's death, for example, he comforts himself in a triumph of hope over reason by imagining his son now freed from the troublesome path of the earthbound boy and, now taught by angels, spared the schoolmaster's Bakel, his cane:

Von des Lebens Plage
Hast du nichts geschmeckt
Als die vierzehn Tage,
Die dich hingestreckt;
Sie sind überstanden,
Geh nun hin und sei
Von des Lebens Banden
Und des Todes frei!
You have tasted nothing more of life's torment than the fourteen days that laid you low; they are now behind you, go now and be free of life's bonds and of death!
Heißer Tagesmühe
Bist du schön entrückt,
Wie in goldner Frühe
Blum' im Thau gepflückt.
Unbefangen hüpftest
Du fünf Jahre lang;
Länger, so entschlüpftest
Du hier nicht dem Zwang.
The heat of the daily grind you have left behind, as in the golden morning, plucking flowers in dew. You jumped around unconstrained for five years; any longer and you would not have escaped the compulsion.
In die dumpfe Schule
Müßtest du hinein.
Dort auf goldnem Stuhle
Mit dem Schwesterlein
Horchst du einem Engel,
Lernest frohgerührt,
Der den Lilienstengel
Statt des Bakels führt.
[KTL 423]
Here you would have had to attend the musty school. But there, seated on a golden chair with your sister, you listen to an angel, learning full of pleasure from one holding a lily not a teacher's cane.

There is the faith, too, that one day Rückert will be reunited with his two children:

Oft ist mir, müß' ein Wunder geschehn,
Es müße das Grab sich theilen,
Hervor meine beiden Engel gehn
Und in die Arme mir eilen.
I often think that a miracle will occur, the grave will open, my two angels will emerge and rush into my arms.
Geduld! es wird kein Wunder geschehn,
Doch wird der Himmel sich theilen,
Und deine Engel wirst du sehn
Von dort dir entgegen eilen.
[KTL 421]
Patience! There will be no miracle, but Heaven will open and you will see your angels, who will rush towards you.

We repeat: Rückert's collection of Kindertodtenlieder is neither a religious tract nor a calmly structured cycle of homogeneous insights – it is best viewed as a diary or a blog in which each day brings what it will.

Job and the consolations of faith

On occasions he accepts with humility and subjugation the divine will expressed in that anthem of the bereaved, Job 1:21: 'Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord':

Ich habe ja nicht soviele gewollt,
Und als so viele kamen,
Sprach ich: in Gottes Namen!
Wenn ihr mir bleiben sollt.
I did not want so many, and when so many came I said: In God's name! If you should remain with me.
Und als es so sich fügen gesollt,
Daß einige Abschied nahmen,
Sprach ich: in Gottes Namen!
Wenn ihr nicht bleiben wollt.
And when it happened that some took their leave I said: In God's name! If you don't want to remain with me.
Nun sind die Stürme vorüber gerollt,
Die ihren Theil hinnahmen;
Ich sprech': In Gottes Namen!
Mir blieb, was Gott gewollt.
[KTL 500]
Now the storms have passed over which took their part; I said: In God's name! What remains with me was what God wanted.

On other occasions this unthinking consolation does not come easily. The loss of his children is a loss which cannot be transformed by Panglossian sophistry into a gain for which he must now somehow be grateful:

Mit dem Himmel zanken
Kann ich freilich nicht,
Aber ihm zu danken
Für das Strafgericht,
Scheint mir eine schwere Pflicht,
Daß von meinen Kranken
Zwei ins Grab nur, und nicht mehr noch sanken!
Clearly I cannot quarrel with Heaven, but to thank it for the punishment seems to me to be a hard duty, that from my sick ones only two and not more sank into the grave!
Wenn der Sturm den kranken
Baum nicht ganz zerbricht,
Ihm noch ein'ge Ranken
Läßt sein Zorngewicht;
Ist es wohl des Baumes Pflicht,
Ihm dafür zu danken,
Daß er nicht ganz übertobt die Schranken?
[KTL 150]
When the storm only partly breaks the sick tree and leaves it in anger a few runners behind, is it the duty of the tree to thank it that it did not completely rage without limit?

We are not surprised to find that the religious questions raised in the Kindertodtenlieder are closely aligned with those of that great Judeo-Christian analysis of suffering, the Book of Job. Rückert, like Job, never blames God directly for his misfortunes, but the meek acceptance of suffering was a heavy burden for both Job and Rückert.

Rückert, like Job, even had his comforters – who it appears were as useless as Job's comforters had been. When their comforting words come, they are not the right ones at all:

Sie wollen unter anderm Trost
Auch diesen Trost mir bieten,
Von Kindern, ihrer Mutter Noth,
Die, lebend leidiger als todt,
Miswuchsen und misriethen.
Among other comfortings they want to comfort me that there are children of desperation who live, more suffering than the dead, deformed and badly raised.
Die Tröster wissen nicht, wie weh
Sie meinem Herzen thaten.
Mein frischer Hirsch, mein schlankes Reh
Ich denken, daß ihr konntet je
Miswachsen und misrathen!
[KTL 168]
The comforters do not realise how much they hurt my heart. I think of my young stag, my slim deer, that could have ever been deformed and badly raised!

Ultimately, only Rückert can be his comforter, but his pain is so great that consolation appears to be impermissible. This is a common feeling among the grieving, that a diminution of grief is considered by the grief-stricken to be a kind of impious betrayal of the dead person – in other words, piety demands the maintenance of grief. Rückert expresses this psychological observation with a poem of characteristic linguistic fireworks:

Das sei mein Trost allein:
Untröstlich will ich seyn.
That is my only consolation: I shall be inconsolable.
O sprecht nur Trost mir ein!
Ihr tröstet mich mitnichten;
Ich muß in meiner Pein
Auf jeden Trost verzichten.
Das sei mein Trost allein:
Untröstlich will ich seyn.
Oh only console me! You console me by no means; in my pain I have to do without all consolation. That is my only consolation: I shall be inconsolable.
O sprecht nur Trost mir ein,
Das Weh in mir zu schwichten!
Wird es entschlafen? Nein,
Es wird empor sich richten.
Das sei mein Trost allein:
Untröstlich will ich seyn.
Oh only console me, to appease my pain! Will it go to sleep? No, it will rise up. That is my only consolation: I shall be inconsolable.
O bringt nur Trost herein,
Die Nacht in mir zu lichten!
Es wird auf jeden Schein
Das Dunkel sich verdichten.
Das sei mein Trost allein:
Untröstlich will ich seyn.
Oh only bring in consolation, to illuminate the night in me. The darkness will become denser with every beam of light. That is my only consolation: I shall be inconsolable.
Ja, tröstet mich nur fein
Mit vielen Trostgeschichten!
Und stimmen sie nicht ein,
Will ich den Streit schon schlichten:
Da sei mein Trost allein:
Untröstlich will ich seyn.
Yes, console me elegantly with many comforting stories! And if they do not agree, I shall settle the dispute: There is my only consolation: I shall be inconsolable.
Helft, alle groß und klein,
Mit Trost mich auszurichten!
Trost such' ich mir zur Pein,
Trost, um ihn zu vernichten.
Das sei mein Trost allein:
Untröstlich will ich seyn.
[KTL 173]
Help, large and small, with comfort to sort me out! Consolation I take as a burden, consolation, in order to destroy it. That is my only consolation: I shall be inconsolable.

On occasion there are brighter days, though, when, through the application of simple faith and hope, the prospect of a reunion beckons, not just with the dead Luise and Ernst but with the whole family.

Rückert's vision of that reunion is a difficult one for the literal-minded rationalist to accept – if only for the problem of ageing in heaven: infants and children will never be adults; the old will never be rejuvenated. How far back, too, will the reunion of the entire Rückert clan go? But we cannot begrudge him the comfort of imagining his family, about whom he cared so much, at some point in the future being made whole once more, 'purged of all defects'. This poem is concerned with the loss of little Luise – Ernst seems not to have died yet:

Großvater ist gegangen,
Eh' er dich könnt' umfangen.
Ihr wäret, um zu wandern
Das eine hier zum andern,
Zu jung, zu alt von Jahren.
Your grandfather died before he could embrace you. You two would have been too young and too old to walk to each other.
Da ist er hingefahren,
Wo Näh und Ferne schwindet,
Und sich Getrenntes findet;
Da seid ihr zwei vereinigt,
Von Erdenweh gereinigt.
He has gone where near and far disappear and the separated find each other; There you two are united, purged of earthly suffering.
Von ihm hier abgefodert,
Bist du emporgelodert;
Könnt' ich dich vorenthalten
Den Fordrungen des Alten?
Du magst an ihn dich schmiegen,
Ihm auf dem Knie dich wiegen,
Und von dem Sohn ihn grüßen,
Der hier hat missen müßen
Die Tochter auf der Erde,
Daß jenem droben werde
Die Enkelin, die Krone
Von seinem ältsten Sohne.
He called to you and you flamed upwards; could I keep from you the request of the old one? Now you can cuddle up to him, be cradled on his knee and give him greetings from his son, who now on earth has to miss the daughter, so that the granddaughter will be over there, the crown of his oldest son.
Mag er mit dir sich kränzen,
Und seine Augen glänzen
Vor Lust, dich zu erkennen;
Du brauchst dich nicht zu nennen,
Er sieht in dir das treue
Abbild, das jugendneue
Von der, die, ihm erkoren
Zur Braut einst, mich geboren;
Der Gattin Jugendglieder
Bringt ihm die Enklin wieder.
May he crown himself with you and may his eyes sparkly with joy to recognise you; you will not need to name yourself, he will see in you the true image, the youthful new image of her who once became his bride and who bore me; the youthful limbs of the wife are brought to him once again by the granddaughter.
So sei mir aufbehalten,
Mein Jüngstes, bei dem Alten!
Und ordnet vor die Kreise,
Bis wir familienweise
Uns finden all zusammen
Dorthin, woher wir stammen,
Gereint von allen Makeln,
In sel'gen Tabernakeln.
[KTL 330]
So my youngest will be kept by the old one! And ordered within the circles until we all as a family meet there, whence we came, purged of all taints in the blessed tabernacle.

Ultimately, Rückert's Christian cornerstones – faith, hope and love – stood firm during the crisis. The shared trajectory between the Kindertodtenlieder and the Book of Job also reaches a shared conclusion. On Easter Monday, 1 April 1834, for the first time following that terrible quarter-year, Luise Rückert attended a church service:

On the second day of Easter I went for the first time again to church. Everything that had happened in the last quarter-year lay heavy on my heart during the singing of the hymn, so much so that I thought that my powerful weeping would drive me from the church. But the sermon was a real resurrection sermon and my earnest prayer during my attack of weeping, that God would put the right words of consolation for me in the mouth of the preacher was answered. The text was from Job; words that have comforted me often since then: 'For I know that my redeemer liveth' and he will wake me up out of the earth, etc.

Am 2ten Ostertag gieng ich zum erstenmal wieder in die Kirche. Was alles in diesem ¼jährigen Zwischenraum sich begab, fiel mir beym Singen des Liedes recht aufs Herz, so daß ich meinte das heftige Weinen werde mich aus der Kirche treiben. Aber die Predigt war eine rechte Auferstehungspredigt, und mein heißes Gebet, bey den heftigen Thränen vorher, daß Gott dem Prediger doch das rechte Trostwort für mich, heute in den Mund legen möge, hat er erfüllt. Der Text war aus Hiob; die Worte die mich schon seither oft getröstet haben: 'Ich weiß daß mein Erlöser lebt und er wird mich hernach aus der Erde auferwecken' etc.
[KTL 556]

The 'right words of comfort' came from the Book of Job, 19:25, 'For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth', in the King James Version; the Luther Bible of 1545 says much the same. Luise's version is not quite what Job said, but this is not a Bible class and her general understanding of the passage is not too far out, though slightly more optimistic.

As Rückert's grief ebbed and his mood began to lift, he was able to take a longer term view of the loss of his two children and the place of that loss in the greater whole. Addressed to Ernst, for example, he can now write:

Du hast fünf Jahre lang
Mir viele Lust gemacht,
Nun hat dein letzter Gang
Mir diesen Schmerz gebracht.
Five years long you made me very happy, now your last passage has brought me this pain.
Und sollt' ich jene Lust
Vergessen vor dem Schmerz?
Sie bleibt in meiner Brust,
Und dankbar Gott mein Herz.
[KTL 492]
And should I forget that happiness when faced with the pain? It remains in my breast and thankful God my heart.

In an uplifting stanza addressed to himself, the faith and hope that was his crutch during the dark days of his bereavement are now replaced by an uplifiting religious positivism.

Du hattest ein viel zu großes Glück,
Das du nicht konntest ermessen.
Gott hat dir davon genommen ein Stück,
Nun weißt du erst, was du besessen.
Er ließ dir einen Theil zurück,
Nun mache dich würdig dessen.
[KTL 371]
You had much too great a happiness that you could not imagine. God has taken a piece of that which was yours. He left you a part behind, now make yourself worthy of that.

The destruction of reality

Bereavement and grief tear apart the socially constructed reality in which the subject lives. Everyday situations, events and behaviour that were once a massively present normality become suddenly quite alien – that is, as though they came from a different world. Everyday life is so sanitised and full of normalised routine that bereavement, when it strikes, makes this normality seem extraordinary in the all-consuming context of grief.

In our modern times the bereaved only has to turn on the radio or the television, open up a newspaper or visit a website to experience the shock of the everyday world carrying on with its sanitised ways as if nothing had happened.

The Rückerts, with the death of two small children in such a short space of time, must have felt this detachment from the world of the everyday very strongly. There is an abrupt jar as the tectonic plates of the reality of the everyday and the reality of death – the most abnormal normality of all – slide apart, a shock that manifests itself in the subjective as well as in the social sphere. As Rückert's diary of bereavement, the Kindertodtenlieder contain many examples of this jarring of reality.

Subjective reality

At a personal level, the bereaved struggles to maintain the sane normality of everyday life. Time is ultimately here the great healer, but for those who lose this struggle, madness awaits.

Here, in a poem written after the death of Luise, Rückert gives us an example of a painful attempt to participate in everyday life, 'just as before', after the massive reality shift resulting from her death has rendered everyday reality quite alien:

Daß ich trinken soll und essen,
Essen, trinken, nach wie vor,
Und dabei vergessen,
Daß ich dich verlor!
That I have to drink and eat, eat and drink, just as before, and forget during that, that I have lost you!
Doch das Stühlchen, wo du saßest
Mir zur Linken, stehet leer,
Issest, wie du aßest,
Mir vom Mund nicht mehr.
Yet the small chair where you sat at my left-hand side is empty, you no longer eat, as you once ate, from my mouth.
Hingesetzt ist dir der Teller,
Und darauf das Tüchlein rein;
Auch vom Sonntagskeller
Steht dein Gläschen Wein.
The plate is there and upon it the clean napkin; there is also a glass of wine from the Sunday wine cellar.
Immer blick' ich, daß dein Händchen
Heben es und leeren soll,
Aber bis zum Rändchen
Steht es fest und voll.
I keep seeing that your little hands should lift it and empty it, but it remains full and unmoved.
Voll ja muß ich alles sehen,
Was mir leerer wäre gut,
Voll mein Herz voll Wehen,
Und im Auge Flut.
[KTL 89]
I have to see everything fully, yet emptier would be better, my heart is full of anguish and in my eyes there is a flood.

Throughout this poem runs a characteristically Rückert-like modulation of the theme of full and empty – leer / leeren / Voll / leerer / Voll / voll / Flut – one that is difficult to render properly in translation.

Rückert describes the situation in which he finds himself in terms with which today's bereaved persons and today's bereavement counsellors could identify perfectly:

Ich möchte wissen, was mich freute!
Mir ist entrissen, was mich freute.
Das Haus ist leer; im öden Raume
Muß ich vermissen, was mich freute.
Das Maal ist traurig; nicht mehr theil' ich
Mit dem den Bissen, was mich freute.
Im Garten blüht nicht unter Rosen,
Nelk' und Narzissen, was mich freute.
Mich freut kein Licht; es ruht versunken
In Finsternissen, was mich freute.
Kein Blumenbett; es liegt entschlafen
Auf hartem Kissen, was mich freute.
Tod hat den Riß, den unheilbaren,
In das gerissen, was mich freute.
Und nur Erinnerungen malen
Mir leidbeflissen, was mich freute.
[KTL 148]
I'd like to know what used to make me happy! The house is empty, in deserted rooms I have to miss what made me happy. The meal is sad; I no longer share with the bite that used to make me happy. In the garden nothing that used to make me happy grows among roses, carnations and narcissi. No light cheers me; what used to make me happy rests sunken in darkness. No flower bed; what used to make me happy lies dead on a hard pillow. Death has ripped the unhealable rip in that which used to make me happy. And only memories paint passionately for me that which used to make me happy.

The world of his poetry now appears as a dream world, separate from the massive reality of the children's deaths. His public poetry inspired by his family life is now only yet another source of bitterness for him:

Ich fürcht’, es war Entweihung
Der stillen Häuslichkeit,
Daß ich sie der Beschreiung
Liebloser Welt geweiht;
In manchem Lied, gedichtet
Aus meiner Kinderwelt,
Die wie ein Traum vernichtet
Jetzt auseinander fällt.
I feared it was a desecration of quiet family life, that I consecrated it to the fascination of a loveless world; in some poems written from my children's world, which now falls apart like a dream obliterated.
Und recht als wie zum Hohne,
Da sie zusammenbrach,
Kommt an mit Sündenlohne
Der neuste Almanach.
Das Honorar, das reiche,
Das man dem Vater gab,
Reicht, um der liebsten Leiche
Zu kaufen grad' ein Grab.

[KTL 23]
And just as though in mockery, since it collapsed, the latest almanac arrives with its wages of sin. The generous fee the father received is enough just to buy a grave for the corpse of the loved one.

Rückert, in 'live-blogging' the stages of his grief in his poetry gives us many examples of the shocking fission of everyday reality caused by grief. The poem that Mahler set to music as the first of his five settings is an example of the contradictions of subjective and objective reality when these two are torn apart. The poem is a meditation on light. The sun continues to rise, despite the death of a child in the night. Rückert distinguishes between the personal and the public realities:

Nun will die Sonne so hell aufgehn,
Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn.
Now the sun wants to rise brightly, as though nothing terrible happened in the night.
Das Unglück geschah auch mir allein,
Die Sonne, sie scheinet allgemein.
The calamity happened only to me, the sun shines for everyone.
Du mußt die Nacht nicht in dir verschrenken,
Mußt sie ins ewige Licht versenken.
You must not fold the night within you, but submerge it in the eternal light.
Ein Lämpchen verlosch in meinem Zelt,
Heil sei dem Freudenlichte der Welt!
[KTL 451]
Within my tabernacle a little lamp went out; praised be the joyful light of the world!

The easy and bald positivism of the religious conclusion of the 'light of the world' is puzzling in the context of the Kindertodtenlieder as a whole.

The poem seems to consist of two separate halves with two completely separate moods: the first two stanzas are tragic and insightful, the second two oddly hortatory. The glue that binds the two halves is the wordplay on light and darkness that penetrates them both. Mahler's choice of this piece for not just one of the five pieces in his settings but the very first of those pieces is baffling – just as baffling as the music of the setting itself. The composer's dreary tone for the first part is continued into the bright religious conclusion of the second part.

An important example of the fracturing of subjective reality comes from a poem describing an incident in Ernst's long-drawn-out illness.

For Christmas Ernst had received a puppet theatre with cut-out cardboard figures of rustic folk at a rural wedding. The memory of that present would come to haunt his father, particularly the memory of his son listlessly attempting to play with it, as though it were a duty to be fulfilled:

Es hat dir die Weihnachtszeit
Mit andrer Pracht
Auch eine Bauernhochzeit
Zum Spiel gebracht.
For Christmas, among other things, you received a rural wedding scene to play with.
Gesellschaft bunt aus Pappe
Auf Holz geleimt,
Vom Strumpfe bis zur Kappe
Kein Schmuck versäumt.
A congregation of colourful figures on card glued on wood, from the socks to the hat, no detail missing.
Mit Knöpfen ihre Jacken
Reich übersät,
Und ihre rothen Backen
Recht aufgebläht.
Their jackets richly covered in buttons and their red cheeks puffed out.
Hier spielt man Baß und Geigen
Und Hackebrett,
Dort dreht man sich im Reigen
Halb plump, halb nett.
Here they are playing bass, violins and dulcimer, there they are dancing in rounds, some ungainly, some daintily.
Die meisten an den Tischen,
Auf Stuhl und Bank,
Sind da, sich zu erfrischen
Mit Speis' und Trank.
Most of them at the tables on chairs and benches are there to refresh themselves with food and drink.
Wer bringt zur Krankenkammer
Den Saus und Braus?
Wie seltsam nimmt beim Jammer
Die Lust sich aus!
Who brought this wild gathering to the sick room? In that misery, how strangely the joy takes its leave!
Doch mach' es dir noch heiter
Den Lebensrest!
Du armer siehst nichts weiter
Vom Lebensfest.
But try to cheer what remains of your life! You poor one won't see any more of the jollity of life.
Du hast, zum Tod gelagert,
Noch halb erweckt,
Die Händchen abgemagert
Danach gestreckt.
Stretched out for death, you half woke and reached for it with little shrunken hands.
Du spielst noch, weil du spieltest
Dein Lebenlang,
Doch ists, alsob du hieltest
Dein Spiel mit Zwang.
You played, because you played your entire life, but it is as though you played under duress.
Entlocken dir die Possen
Nicht einen Ton?
Du hältst den Mund verschlossen
Seit Tagen schon.
Don't the antics bring a word from you? You have already kept you mouth sealed for days.
Sie sehn mit starrem Lachen
Dir ins Gesicht,
Um lachen dich zu machen;
Du kannst es nicht.
The figures look at your face with fixed laughs, in order to make you laugh; you cannot do it.
Und nun den Blick, den starren,
Du zugethan,
Sehn lachend dich die Narren
Noch immer an.
[KTL 126f]
And now your rigid gaze has been closed, the clowns still look at you laughing.

In the bitter new reality of the sickroom, after Luise's death and with Ernst's death looming nearer every day, the happy world of Christmas, the happy rustical wedding scene was something that belonged to another world, another reality, altogether.

Rückert's feelings and experiences, recorded with unremitting honesty during five months of poetic live blogging, offer an insight into the processes of grief and recovery that has no literary parallel that I know of.

Social reality

The detachment of the subjective reality of the bereaved from the realities of the everyday world is bad enough, but on top of that come the fractures with the world of external social reality. In the Kindertodtenlieder, these fractures manifest themselves in two distinct ways, which Rückert records with analytical precision: social isolation and social disconnection.

Social isolation

Because of the illness in the Rückert family, friends and acquaintances avoid them as much as they can. We saw this happening during Schubert's last illness, when only a few hardy souls came to visit him.

Freunde viel und Freundinnen
Zählt' ich sonst mit Wohlbehagen
In der Stadt, die gegen mich
Jeder zarten Sorgfalt pflagen;
Doch für eigne Kinder jetzt
Hatten Sorge sie zu tragen,
Keiner durfte einen Schritt
In mein Haus zu setzen wagen,
Aus gerechter Furcht, das Gift
In sein eignes Haus zu tragen.
Keiner kam, um meinem Tod
Oder Leben nachzufragen,
Keiner, um aus Freundesmund
Mir ein Trostwort anzutragen,
Und mit mir zu klagen, als
Lag mein Liebstes auf dem Schragen.

[KTL 26]

I happily counted many friends in the town, who used to be tenderly considerate towards me; now, though, they have to worry about their own children and not one of them dares to risk a step into my house, from justified fear of carrying the poison back to their own house. No one came to ask about my life or death, none to give me some words of comfort from a friend's mouth and to lament with me when my dearest was laid out on the bier.

When emotional disaster strikes, people who in normal times can easily do without others find themselves isolated and alone:

In guten Tagen
Könnt' ich den Menschen leicht entsagen;
In bösen Stunden
Gern hätt' ich ihren Trost empfunden;
Allein sie ließen
Mich meinen Schmerz allein genießen.
[KTL 158]
In good days I could do without other people; in dark hours, though, I would have happily received their consolations. Except that they now leave me to enjoy my pain on my own.

In her memoir, Luise Rückert gives us an example of this need for other people. Ernst's suffering and long drawn out struggle for survival was a difficult test for his father. At the worst moments, thinking Ernst already dead, he would go outside and search out other people with whom he could share the shock of his own premature grief:

At one point Ernst was so weak that we, especially his father, thought that he would be dead any moment. Oh, and once more I had to listen to that sound, that heart-rending farewell to the world – then Rückert ran out, outside the house, and told the friends that he met that his son was dead. But not yet, the suffering would last a further eight days!

Auf einmal wurde er [Ernst] so schwach, daß wir, besonders der Vater meinte, er werde sogleich dahin seyn. O und noch einmal mußte ich den Ton, den herzzerreißenden des Lebewohls für diese Welt hören – dann lief Rückert weg, hinaus ins Freye, und seinen ihn begegnenden Freunden sagte er, der Knabe sey todt. Aber noch nicht, noch sollte das Leiden 8 Tage dauern! [KTL 554f]

Even when a welcome letter from a friend arrived, it only served to reinforce his sense of isolation.

Freundesbrief, zu guter Stunde
Kommst du, ob, in der du kämest,
Eine böse Stund' auch sei.
Denn ich fühlte mich verlassen
Von den Menschen; doch den Menschen
Stehts, mich zu verlassen, frei.
A letter from a friend, arriving at a good moment, though the moment at which you arrived was also an evil one. For I felt abandoned by people; yet people are free to abandon me.
Aber von mir selbst verlassen
Fühlt' ich mich, verlassen fühlt' ich
Mich von Gottes Gnadenhauch.
Du bist mir zum Trost geschrieben;
Wenn mich noch die Guten lieben,
Liebt ja wol mich Gott noch auch.
[KTL 404]
But I felt abandoned by my own self, felt abandoned by God's merciful spirit. You wrote to comfort me; when the good ones still love me, God still loves me, too.

Social disconnection

The Rückerts' social isolation was made much worse by the fact that the illness fell upon the children at Christmas and the New Year. Whilst others were celebrating, the Rückerts were nursing their children, the ill and the dying:

Sie feyern Freudenfeste
Und laden frohe Gäste,
Und haben uns, o Schaden,
Dazu nicht eingeladen.
You celebrate joyful occasions and invite happy guests, but unfortunately did not invite us among them.
Ich denke gar, sie nähmen
Uns auf nicht, wenn wir kämen;
Doch, ob wol aufgenommen,
Wir werden schon nicht kommen.
I think that if we arrived we would not be welcome; but, whether welcome or not, we won't come anyway.
Wir lassen sie beim Schmause,
Und feyern selbst im Hause
Ein Fest nach Gottes Plänen,
Ein stilles Fest der Thränen.
We'll leave you to your feast and make our own celebrations at home, a celebration of God's will, a quiet feast of tears.
Wir laden keine Gäste
Zu unserm Thränenfeste,
Die auch nicht kommen sollten,
Wenn wir sie laden wollten.
We shall invite no guests to our celebration of tears, who should not come anyway, even if we had invited them.
Wir laden zu erscheinen
Nur zwei, um die wir weinen,
Die kommen zu verklären
Mit Lächeln unsre Zähren.
We only invite the two about whom we are weeping, they come to heal our wounds with smiles.
Und wie die Todten zwischen
Die Lebenden sich mischen,
Die Spaltung ist gehoben
Von unten und von oben.
And as the dead are mixed in with the living, the separation is lifted, from below and from above.
Die Todten sind am Leben,
Das Leben im Entschweben;
Sich trennt, was sich gefunden,
Und bleibt in Gott verbunden.
The dead are alive, alive in floating away; what found itself is separated and remains joined in God.
Es tönt des Vaters Leier
Andächtig zu der Feier,
Und leis' im Duft verschwimmen
Der Kinder Engelstimmen.
[KTL 397]
The father's lyre sounds devoutly to the celebration, and the children's angelic voices fade in fragrance.

In previous years Rückert and his family would have participated in the rituals of the winter season: Christmas, New Year and Fastnacht, 'Carnival'. In the grief of loss, these celebrations have now become a form of mockery – they are aspects of another, everyday social reality which is now incomprehensibly alien to the new reality of sickness, suffering and dying.

Rückert cannot now understand how he could ever have taken part in such celebrations – a characteristic example of the dislocation of social reality caused by bereavement:

Sie haben nun ihre Possen
Getrieben, mir wars kein Scherz,
Das Neujahr angeschossen,
Jeder Schuß traf mein Herz;
You have all clowned about, it was no fun for me, you have all shot in the New Year and every shot hit my heart.
Gesichtchen todtenbleiche
Im Bettchen mir aufgeschreckt,
Im Nebenzimmer die Leiche
Haben sie nicht erweckt.
Startled little faces deathly pale in bed, in the next room the body they failed to wake up.
Ich kann es nicht begreifen,
Wie ichs einst mitgemacht,
Durch die Straßen zu schweifen
Jubelnd um Mitternacht.
I cannot understand how I once took part in this, roamed through the streets rejoicing at midnight.
Hier und dort sieht man brennen
Aus einem Fenster ein Licht;
Was drinnen für Bande sich trennen,
Das weiß man draußen nicht.
[KTL 56]
Here and there one sees a light burning in a window; what bonds are loosed within cannot be seen from the outside.

On New Year's Day groups of locals would go from door to door, playing trumpets, fiddles, drums and whatever else came to hand. As with today's carol singers, some reward was expected. Fireworks were a luxury few could afford at the time, so the tradition was to fire guns into the air. In Erlangen the church bells were being rung, too. At exactly this festive moment, the body of little Luise is lying in the house, not yet dead a day.

Da sind die Neujahrsgratulanten,
Die Thürmer und Stadtmusikanten,
Zum neuen Jahr sie wünschen Glück,
Und fordern ihr Sechsbatzenstück.
There are the New Year's greeters, the trumpeters and buskers, wishing happiness for the New Year and requesting their shilling.
Ihr Thürmer und Stadtmusikanten,
Ihr wünscht als Neujahrsgratulanten
Zu spät mir Glück ins neue Jahr,
Es starb mir noch im alten gar.…
[KTL 57]
You trumpeters and musicians, as New Year greeters you are too late wishing me happiness in the New Year, it just died in the old year.

Normal life at times such as New Year does not observe the pieties of death:

Der grelle Schrei der rohen Lust,
Der sonst zerriß mein Ohr,
Zerreißt mir nun das Herz in der Brust,
Seit ich mein Liebstes verlor.
[KTL 58]
The gaudy shouts of raw pleasure, which normally tore my ear, now tear my heart in my breast, since I lost my loved one.

Luise was buried at 9 o'clock on 3 January 1834. The burial would have been followed by the traditional Leichenschmaus, 'wake'. The tradition has its justification for the extended families of the elderly who have died, but for a three-and-a-half year old girl the ceremony was just too much for Rückert.

Und soll ich nicht der Sitte fluchen
Ein Fest zu feiern beim Begraben?
Man bäckt im Hause Mandelkuchen,
Weil wir der Tochter Leiche haben,
Und ofenwarm läßt ihn versuchen
Die Leichenfrau den kranken Knaben;
Er soll wol auch den Ort besuchen,
Den sie der armen Schwester gaben!
Und soll ich nicht der Sitte fluchen
Ein Fest zu feiern beim Begraben?
[KTL 59]
And should I not curse the tradition of having a party at a funeral? Almond cakes are baked in the house because we have the corpse of our daughter. Still warm from the oven the layer-out offers them to the sick boy to try; He should visit the place given to the poor sister! And should I not curse the tradition of having a party at a funeral?

The ancient traditions of the wake offended Rückert deeply. The thought of the oven-warm almond cakes baked for Luise's wake being proffered as a treat to the dying Ernst was too much to bear.

Once again, we are confronted with a textbook example of the fractured interface between the grief of the father and the wider social reality in which he lives. He characterises the wake for Luise as being the most horrible experience of that terrible time:

Gestorben seyn, muß eine Wonne seyn,
Zu sterben auch ist keine große Pein;
Als sterben schwerer ist es sterben sehn
Das was man liebt, doch wirds vorübergehn;
Wenn sie uns dann nur Ruhe ließen haben,
Wenn nicht das ärgste wäre, das Begraben;
To be dead must be bliss, to die is not a great suffering either; harder than dying is watching what you love dying, but that will pass; if only we had quiet for that, if only the worst wasn't the burying.
Wo von Zudrängern rückt, von Müßiggängern
Ein Heer einher, die Qual dir zu verlängern,
Die zur Hinrichtung macht den Leichenzug,
Bis endlich die Erlösungsglock' anschlug,
Daß man dein Liebstes nur trag' aus dem Haus,
Das du nun selber wünschen mußt hinaus,
Daß aus nur sei, nur aus
Das Gräßliche, der Leichenschmaus,
Was schauderhaft dein Innerstes empört,
Dir die Besinnung, dir die Andacht stört,
Die dieser Stunde wohl gehört;
Where a crowd of interlopers and time-wasters assembles, in order to extend the torture for you, a crowd who make up the cortège until the redemption bell rings; that they carry your loved one out of the house that you yourself only want to leave, that itself is so, whereas the most terrible thing, the funeral reception, which arouses with horror your inner being, robs you of the contemplation and the pious devotion that belong to this moment.
Als hätten wir für Thoren
Gezeugt nur und geboren,
Erzogen und verloren
Ein Kind, damit sie möchten fein versuchen
Die Kindtaufs- erst und nun die Leichenkuchen
Still, bete, Herz, damit du nicht mußt fluchen!
[KTL 60]
It is as though we have conceived, given birth to, brought up and lost a child, just so that idiots can enjoy sampling the baptism- and now the funeral-cake. Be still, pray, heart, that you will not curse!

The Rückerts had not only to get through the wildness of the New Year observances but survive the närrische Zeit, the 'crazy time' of the Carnival period that began (in many places) on 6 January, Dreikönigstag, 'Three Kings' Day / Epiphany'. The Carnival period ended on Fastnachtsdienstag, 'Shrove Tuesday', the day before Ash Wednesday, which fell on 12 February that year and which began the Lenten season of fasting and abstention.

The scission of social reality caused by bereavement causes both parties, the bereaved and the non-bereaved, to fear and avoid contact. The non-bereaved have to cope with the difficult duty of expressing sincere condolences in the midst of their everyday normality; the bereaved have to find words that express their grief in some socially acceptable form. Rückert faced this latter problem. Once again, we are astonished at the psychological honesty of the Kindertodtenlieder, as Rückert expresses his fears of one encounter:

Daß ichs nicht verschweige,
Was beim ersten Ausflug
Auf die Schnabelweide
Ich am meisten fürchte,
Und im voraus leide!
Dort die Frau des Gärtners,
Die kennt all die meinen;
Sieht sie mit geschmolznem
Häufchen mich erscheinen,
Wenn sie dann wird fragen:
Wo sind die zwei Kleinen?

That I do not suppress what I fear most about the first trip out to the Schnabelweide, and what worries me already! There the gardener's wife, who knows all my children; when she sees me appear with the smaller crowd, when she asks: where are the two little ones?
Was soll ich drauf sagen,
Wenn ich nicht will weinen?
Von den Knaben allen
Grade war der kleinste
Ihr ins Aug' gefallen
Als der allerfeinste.
Und das Mädchen gar
War die einzig feine,
Drum schon, weil sie war
Unsre einzig Eine.
[KTL 118]
What can I say to her, when I don't want to burst into tears? Of all the boys the smallest claimed her attention as the finest of the boys. And the girl was alone the fine girl, particularly as she was our only girl.

Rückert's retreat from the society around him is so marked that he even wants to avoid a burial in the cemetery at Erlangen. The two youngest children had little social connection outside the family and in that sense did not belong there.

Nur wer gelebt in einer Volksgemeine,
Sollt' in derselben werden auch begraben;
So möchten sie ihr Fest zusammen haben,
Im Mondschein nun, wie sonst im Sonnenscheine.

Only those who live in a community should be buried in that community, too. In that way they all have their special occasions together, in moonlight now as otherwise in sunlight.

Euch aber, dich, mein Töchterlein, das kleine,
Und dich, o meinen nicht viel großem Knaben,
Statt daß sie hier euch euer Plätzchen gaben,
Bestattet wünscht' ich euch im stillen Haine.

You, though, my daughter, the little one, and you, my not much bigger boy, rather than make your places here I should like to have you buried in a quiet woodland grove.

Ihr wart noch unter Leute nicht gekommen,
Und müßt hier unter lauter Fremd' euch mischen;
Wie werdet ihr von ihnen aufgenommen?

You did not yet mix with people, and you would have to mix with all those strangers; how will you be received by them?

Hier ruht kein Ahn, mit Muth euch zu erfrischen,
Und euer Vater hat erst nachzukommen;
So nehm' euch Gott in seine Hut inzwischen!

[KTL 140]

No ancestors rest here, to refresh your courage, and your father is yet to come; so may God take you under his wing until then!

Rückert emerged from his grief a changed man. The personal and social tectonic plates have been shifted by grief. He returned to the social everyday reality with a deeper understanding of that reality – 'the cover had lifted'. He documents the change precisely:

Ihr nicht seid mir gestorben allein,
Es ist gestorben der Freudenschein,
Der mir die Welt umwoben,
Es ist gestorben der blendende Tag,
Der auf den Tiefen des Todes lag,
Die Decke hat sich gehoben,
Der Flitterglanz ist zerstoben.
Not just you have died, the happiness that wreathed my world has died, the blinding day has died, that lay on the depths of death, the cover has lifted up, the glitter has been scattered.
Nun seh' ich Betrübte fern und nah,
Wo ich sonst lauter Glückliche sah,
Die's waren oder mir schienen;
Ich sah sie so genau an nicht,
Nun blick' ich schärfer in jedes Gesicht,
Und les' in allen Mienen,
Daß etwas starb auch ihnen.
Now I see sadly near and far, where I once saw only happy people, they were or seemed to me to be so, now I look more closely at each face and read in every expression that something died for them, too.
Sonst hab' ich Trauerkunden gehört,
Es hat im Glücke mich nicht gestört.
Es waren nur leere Schalle.
Nun kann ich in keine Zeitung sehn.
So seh' ich die Todsanzeigen stehn;
Sonst ärgert' ich mich am Schwalle,
Nun muß ich sie lesen alle.
I used to hear mourning bells, which never dampened my happiness. It was just empty clanging. Now I cannot look in any newspaper. I see the death notices there; I used to be irritated by the quantity, now I have to read them all.
Ich höre wie sonst das Glockengeläut,
Bedeutender als es mir klang klingts heut,
Und ich frage, was es bedeute?
So übles hat mirs bedeutet schon;
Wem gilt nun heute der Trauerton?
Sonst meint' ich nur, man läute
Für lauter Täufling' und Bräute.
I still hear the ringing bells, but it means more now than it did then; and I ask, what it means? This bad thing had meant something to me, too; who are they ringing for today? I used to think that the bells only rung for baptisms and brides.
Mit Epheu ist mein Garten geschmückt,
Den haben auch sonst die Leute gepflückt
Aus der Stadt, und ich ließ sie pflücken,
Und fragte nicht, zu welchem Behuf?
Nun aber hab' ich zu fragen Beruf,
Auf welches Haupt sie drücken
Den dunkeln Kranz, den sie pflücken.
[KTL 381f]
My garden has a lot of ivy, which the people from the town used to gather, and I let them gather it and never asked for what purpose. Now, however, I have cause to ask on whose head they will lay the dark wreath which they plucked.

Rejoining the world

The Kindertodtenlieder are not just a record of a descent into the darkness of grief but an account of the ascent back to the light. Rückert blogged in verse on the way down and blogged in verse on the way up, too.

Time, the great healer, played its part, as did – eventually – the weather. After the unseasonable warmth of January and February 1834, March was exceptionally cold and windy, but eventually Nature's course reasserted itself and April finally gave way to a clement May, the month when Nature finally re-awoke, as did Rückert's mood.

The dark night of depression had lasted nearly four months, but even then, there were days when courage and optimism returned to our poet:

Still, nur still! die bösen Stunden gehen auch;
Lange standst du, kannst noch länger stehen auch.
Und wenn dichs zu Boden drückt, erliegest du;
So das Unerträgliche besiegest du.
[KTL 401]

Still, be still! the evil moments go away too; You have stood a long time and can stand longer too. And if it presses you to the ground, you will succumb; so you will vanquish the unbearable.

On a number of occasions in the Kindertodtenlieder Rückert wrote of the obligations he had towards the remaining family. He wrote some interesting and perceptive poems on the new dynamics of the family after the loss of its youngest members. For example, he noticed that the four remaining sons had started to behave more childishly as though trying to replace the two youngest siblings. [KTL 374/375]

We leave these matters all undiscussed, mentioning only an elevating spring lesson he draws from the return of the swallow:

Die Schwalb' ist angekommen,
Und in Besitz genommen
Hat sie ihr altes Nest.
Es hanget noch und schwebet
An seinem Ort, sie klebet
Mit neuer Kunst es fest.
The swallow has arrived and taken over its old nest. It is still hanging and swinging in its old place, she sticks it firmly back in place with fresh skill.
Sie läßt sichs nicht verdrießen,
Die Lücken rings zu schließen,
Und brütet freudenreich.
Wohlauf, du mein Gemüthe,
Nicht über Kummer brüte,
Und thu's der Schwalbe gleich!
[KTL 246]
She spares no effort to fill up the holes and breeds joyfully. There you are, you my heart, don't brood over sorrow, just do what the swallow does!

The lifting of the cloud of grief permits the return of a new positive attitude. Observing the spring flowers coming to life he feels gratitude for what he has had:

Wenn du stets beim Blühenden
Denkest ans Verblühte,
Wird nie frei vom mühenden
Kummer dein Gemüthe.
If flowering things always make you think of faded things, your mind will never be free of sorrow.
Oder wenn es dein Gemüth
Nimmer kann vergessen,
Denke doch: es hat geblüht,
Und ich habs besessen.
[KTL 450]
Or if your mind can never forget it, think on: it flowered and I possessed it.

Earlier we mentioned the impermissibility of comfort felt by people who are grieving. The splendour of Nature and the lesson of spring brush aside that inhibition – 'Life hopes afresh, and forgets what it lost':

Aus des Morgens Silberflor
Tritt die goldne Sonn' hervor
Lächelnd wie sie niederschaut,
Schaut die Welt zu ihr empor.
Alle Blumen blühen auf,
Aufwerts singt der Vögel Chor.
Das Gebet der Schöpfung steigt
Zu des Freudenschöpfers Ohr.
Out of the morning's silver blossom the golden sun appears, just as it gazes down smiling, so smiles the world back up at it. All the flower bloom, the choir of birds climbs singing. The prayer of all creation rises up to the creator's ear.
Alles Leben hoffet neu,
Und vergißt, was es verlor;
Und der Blick des Tages wärmt,
Was im Frost der Nächte fror.
Aufgeschlossen ist, o Herz,
Der Erhörung goldnes Thor;
Schleuß dich auf, und trag auch du
Neue Lebenswünsche vor!
[KTL 502]
All life hopes afresh and forgets what it has lost; and the day's gaze warms what was frozen in the frost of the night. The golden gate of answered prayers is opened wide, my heart; open yourself up and join in with new desires of life!

And at last, after Time, comes that other great healer, Sleep:

Daß ich also die ganze Nacht,
Von erquickendem Duft durchthaut
Bis ins Mark und die Knochen –
Daß ich also die ganze Nacht,
Unerweckt von des Seufzers Laut,
Noch vom Herzen mit Pochen –
Daß ich also die ganze Nacht,
Von Traumseligkeit angeschaut
Und zur Ruhe gesprochen –
That all night I was bathed in refreshing fragrance into my marrow and my bones – That all night I was awoken neither by loud sighs nor beating heart – That all night I was gazed at by blessed dreams and urged to tranquillity–
Daß ich also die ganze Nacht,
Ueberschattet von blühendem Kraut,
Nicht von Nesseln gestochen –
Daß ich also die ganze Nacht
Schlafen könnte, so lieb und traut,
Still und ununterbrochen,
Wie ihr beiden nun Tag und Nacht
Schlaft, vom kühlen Gemach umbaut,
Schlaft seit Monden und Wochen!
[KTL 215]
That all night, I was shaded by flowering plants and not stung by nettles – That I was able to sleep all night, so gently and so softly, still and uninterrupted, just as you two sleep, in your cool chamber, and have slept for months and weeks!

What a marvel the Kindertodtenlieder are! The collection has epic dimensions and speaks to the human condition in ways unlike any other poem collection I know. So why, with all these qualities, is it almost forgotten?

Friedrich Rückert

Biographical sketch

The biographer squints down like a scientist on the Brownian motion of the subject's life and slices it up into neat periods between collisions, each characterised by some defining quality. Let's do this quickly and sketchily for Friedrich Rückert.

A map always helps:

FoS image, size 708x945

Rückert country – in the middle of Europe, Germany and Franconia. Oberlauringen was one of the family homes, Ebern another one. Rückert studied in Würzburg. He met his wife Luise in Coburg and finally settled down in Neuses (now a suburb of Coburg). The Rückerts were living in Erlangen in 1833/34 when their two youngest children died and the Kindertodtenlieder were written. Image: FoS.

Rückert was born on 16 May 1788 and died, 77 years old, of colon cancer, on 31 January 1866. He had reached a good age for his time. Rückert's parents were solid middle class stock, his father was a lawyer. They were not nobility, not rich, but not poor either, and could afford the education that Friedrich received.

The Schubert fans on this website might care to contrast Friedrich Rückert's easy access to education, travel and employment with the narrowness of Schubert's perspectives as a young man with no material support beyond what came from his own ceaseless labour.

Whereas Schubert's immense productivity overwhelmed the slow processes of the music publishers of Vienna, Rückert's immense productivity found ready takers in the expanding market for magazines and almanacs.

Money – wonderful stuff!

Friedrich's intellectual gifts revealed themselves in his school days and flowered during the university studies in the five-year period between 1805 and 1810, principally at the University of Würzburg – a period he completed with great academic success.

As far as we know, Rückert's first poetic efforts appeared around 1808, when he was twenty – poetic scribbling would accompany him from then on throughout the rest of his life.

Despite this great educational promise, instead of following a path of academic drudgery for the rest of his life, the 23 year-old Rückert did what fiery young men often do: in 1811 he embarked on a period of turbulent Brownian motion that would last seven years.

There were many meetings, friendships and influences that buffeted the young Rückert during this period – far too many to detail here. One deserves mention, though: his German patriotism. For readers unfamiliar with that period in the history of continental Europe, the basis of that German patriotism probably requires some explanation.

The period between about 1810 and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Befreiungskriege, the 'Wars of Liberation', was a time when many German patriots, Rückert among them, longed for the re-emergence of the German nation. The neutered fragments of Germany with its many princelings that remained after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 had been humiliated by the French upstart Napoleon. Local political exigencies always trumped any feeling of broader German solidarity.

Sometime between the summer of 1809 and the autumn of 1810 – that is, in his early twenties – the patriot Rückert wrote a poem which bound him firmly to the cause of a re-united Germany, Der Mittelpunkt, 'The Middle Point':

Deutschland in Europas Mitte,
Und in Deutschlands Mitte Franken,
In des schönen Frankenlandes
Mitte liegt ein schöner Grund.
Germany in the middle of Europe, and in the middle of Germany is Franconia, in the middle of the beautiful Franconian region lies a beautiful plot of ground.
In des schönen Grundes Mitte
Liegt ein schöner schöner Garten;
In des schönen Gartens Mitte
Liegt der Allerschönsten Haus.
In the middle of the beautiful plot lies a beautiful beautiful garden; in the middle of the beautiful garden lies the most beautiful house.
Fragt ihr noch, warum ich immer
Mich um dieses Häuschen drehe,
Als um meines Vaterlandes
Allerschönsten Mittelpunkt?
[GG 38]
Do you still ask why I always return to this house as my fatherland's most beautiful middle point?

After Napoleon had finally been defeated, the Congress in 1815 brought restoration of the old dispensation; the resentments and aspiration of Germans came to nought and young Germans like Rückert had protested in vain. The problem would rumble along until Bismark solved it in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The tall, imposing figure of Rückert affected a Teutonic look – long hair, moustache and long, flowing coat – that would not have been out of place fighting alongside Hermann, the nemesis of Varus' three legions in the Battle of the Teutoburger Wald (around September 9 AD).

In 1815, his wild appearance almost caused him to be ejected from Stuttgart, then within the Kingdom of Swabia, one of those insecure Westphalian fragments always on the lookout for real or imagined troublemakers.

Two years later, the aesthetes of the German poets' colony in Rome, which Rückert visited in 1817, found the 'old German' appearance of the 29 year-old quite unsettling – almost as though he had turned up wearing an MGGA hat (Make Germany Great Again).

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Rückert in Rome in 1818. Friedrich Rückert (1818) by Franz Theobald Horny (1798-1824).

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Rückert in Rome in 1818. Friedrich Rückert (1818) by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872). Image: Akademie der bildenden Künste, Grafische Sammlung, Vienna.

Those who think of Rückert as an academic drudge or simply a poet of flowery-bowery kitsch should not forget what a stormy, revolutionary, patriot's heart beat within him. Rückert would not live to see the unification of Germany, which took place in 1871, five years after his death, following yet another French provocation.

In 1818 the period of turbulence came to an end for the now 30 year-old Rückert. The interest in oriental languages that would come to define his later academic career and much of his later poetry began. In 1819 the turbulent Odysseus returned to his parents' house in Ebern, (now in northern Bavaria). Two years later, on a stay in nearby Coburg, he met his Penelope, Luise Wiethhaus-Fischer. They married in December of 1821.

For the next five years Rückert followed twin paths as a poet and orientalist, culminating in his appointment in 1826 as a full professor at the University of Erlangen. During that time he supplemented his income with the earnings from the sale of his poetic works, not just as books but in many of the magazines and almanacs which had a rapidly expanding readership, particularly female, during a time of rapidly increasing popular literacy. He and Luise founded a substantial family.

This period brings us to 1834, the moment of the catastrophe documented in the Kindertodtenlieder. Rückert was then 46 and went on to follow a substantial academic career until 1848, when he retired at 60 from his post at the University of Berlin to a house in Neuses, near Coburg – back his roots, if you like – where he remained until his death nearly 20 years later.

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Friedrich Rückert (1843) by Samuel Friedrich Diez (1803-1873). Image: ©Foto: Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Fotograf/in: Atelier Schneider.

The poetic scribbling that had started in 1808 never ceased during the sixty or so years that followed. During his long retirement he wrote several thousand poems in his Liedertagebuch, his 'Poetic Journal', hardly any of which he published. In this respect, his poetry strikes us as a kind of 'poetic thinking aloud', not really intended for others to read. From the middle of 1826 until the end of his life, Rückert's academic and poetic reputation grew. He was a frequent recipient of honours.

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Friedrich Rückert (1864) by Bertha Froriep (1833-1920). Image: © Foto: Nationalgalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Fotograf/in: Christa Begall.

Reception and obscurity

Rückert's clever mastery of German and so many forms of versification cannot be denied. He was a German patriot not just in the subjects of many of his poems but above all in his championship of German as a medium of poetry.

This language patriotism may surprise those who have read of his mastery of so many complex foreign tongues, but it is an undeniable fact that Rückert was at least writing German poetry in German – as opposed, for example to those great 'German' authors Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Wieland, the Weimar Viergestirn, 'Four Stars', and many of their predecessors with great names who were effectively writing Greek and Latin poetry in German. Today's Germanists will flutter their fans in horror at the sacrilegious thought that Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) wasted most of his considerable talent writing declamatory Pindaric Greek in declamatory German.

In Rückert's lifetime his Germanic German poetry was frequently misunderstood by contemporary authors. His easier and accessible pieces appeared in magazines and almanacs that were intended for a largely female readership, good reason for literary types to look down their noses at them. Even Rückert's playful internal rhymes could amuse and be appreciated by a non-specialist reader, one who did not care to count out the feet of hexameters, identify classic models – is this an ode or an elegy and if so, what kind of one? – and untangle classical allusions.

Paradoxically, the fiendishly clever poems that he also wrote were dismissed as simply being too clever by half. His work is full of paradoxes, but nevertheless, he was published, widely read and his works sold – yet another reason for the literary panjandrums to view him with distaste.

But after the sufferings of the economic 'pauperism' of the 1830s and the failed, bloody uprisings of 1848, the German Romantic vision of happy rustics cavorting in bucolic surroundings – think of the rural wedding scene which Ernst received as a Christmas present – suddenly had nothing more to say. It jarred with reality, much as it had done for the sick Ernst.

Hard, heavily political realism took over. For the new wave of German writers, Rückert had had his day, though there were still plenty of readers who continued to enjoy his lighter literary touch. It is one of the many, many Rückert paradoxes that Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder, the poetic diary of the awful reality of the loss of his children, was never published until after his death and even then in a completely mangled form.

Rückert was his own worst poetic enemy. During his life a backlog of thousands of unpublished poems built up, so that at his death his literary executors and the literary world were confronted with a mountain of manuscripts from a poet whose time had largely passed. Even if this mountain were to be published, what would be the point? Who would now buy it or read it?

In Schweinfurt in 1963 the Rückert-Gesellschaft, the 'Rückert Society' was founded and since that time has been plugging through the publication of Rückert's literary estate. We could argue that the society's noble efforts are pointless and have in the meantime been overtaken by the digital age: the society continues to churn out unaffordable short-run publications as though the internet had never happened.

Amongst other Rückert productions, so far they have managed to produce ten volumes of the Liedertagebuch, the latest one in 2015 covering the year 1855. Only eleven years more to go! At one every three of four years!

We have to wonder who, apart from academic libraries, will pay anything between 50 and 100 Euros for each of these works.

Rückert's manuscripts have disappeared into various archives, principally the Goethe-Schiller-Archive in Marburg and the Stadtarchiv Schweinfurt. The process is sad and the equivalent of a second interment of poor Rückert: the worthy ones have exhumed Rückert's manuscripts, are transcribing them slowly and then burying both of them again out of sight of the general public.

The publication history of the Kindertodtenlieder illustrates perfectly how the good intentions and well-meaning actions of Rückert's modern admirers have in fact contributed to the continuing neglect of his work and his descent into obscurity.

Burying the Kindertodtenlieder

Rückert finished the Kindertodtenlieder in July of 1834. The stack of manuscript pages (of varying size but most quite small) was given to his wife Luise sometime around June 1834. Rückert never touched them again after that. It was Luise who asked that the work should never be published. She sent the manuscript bundle to various friends and it circulated from hand to hand until after Rückert's death.

It is a major miracle that the manuscripts survived this wandering – however, we must assume that the order of the pages in the bundle was not necessarily preserved.

Having survived that peregrination, around five years after Rückert's death the manuscript bundle came into the hands of Heinrich Rückert (1823-1875), Friedrich's oldest son, who was then a professor of German History in Breslau. He published his father's Kindertodtenlieder in 1872.

That first edition of the Kindertodtenlieder must represent one of the greatest acts of philological barbarism in the history of German literature.

Heinrich took his his father's poems and rearranged them into four 'themes'. The themes are breathtakingly stupid: Lied und Leid, 'Song and Suffering', Krankheit und Tod, 'Sickness and Death', Winter und Frühling, 'Winter and Spring' and Trost und Erhebung, 'comfort and elevation'.

Readers who have plugged at great personal sacrifice through our small selection (about 80 out of 563 – say 14%) of samples from the Kindertodtenlieder will probably understand our bafflement at these ridiculous categories. In creating his categories Heinrich (and possibly the numerous previous readers of the manuscripts) shuffled the poems out of their original chronological order. It seems almost certain that the poems of the manuscripts that left Rückert's hands were in chronological order – how could it be otherwise?

Heinrich didn't number the pages before he shuffled them around. As will be clear to anyone who worked their way through the poems in this article, the chronology of Rückert's experience of his children's deaths is an essential thread on which the poems have to hang. We used the 'live blogging' analogy to describe this. Without that sequence, the poems are largely incomprehensible.

We hope that in this article, by reinstating as best we can some partial form of sequence in the work, we have made the poems comprehensible. We ourselves introduced some categories, but only as a way of coping with a subset of the material. In a full edition this would not be needed.

Interested readers looking for proof of the shambles that is the Kindertodtenlieder should glance at the references on the poems in our selection to the pages on which these poems appear in the critical edition of 2007. The critical edition has kept the poems in the order in which Heinrich first published them.

Thanks to Heinrich et al., poems that are quite clearly related are scattered through the collection, sometimes separated by several hundred pages. Luise and Ernst die many times over in Heinrich's edition. A particularly egregious example is the poem about the Rückert children awaiting the Christmas Eve celebration. The reader encounters this poem, which from its content must appear at or close to the beginning of the collection, only on page 350.

Hans Wollschläger, the principal editor of the 2007 critical edition and, until his death in that year, one of the principal editors working on the Rückert-Gesellschaft's editions, then compounded Heinrich's philological barbarism with philological cowardice in his decision to leave Heinrich's sequence as it was 'in order not to load the text with even more interventions' [KTL 572].

The result is that the Kindertotdtenlieder are now published in a 'critical edition' – with all the authority which that appellation bestows and presumably now in perpetuity – in Heinrich's unreadable order. His blunder is thus perpetuated. As we have shown in our small selection, it would be possible to rearrange the poems in the collection in at least some rough order that would make the collection accessible and comprehensible to 'normal' readers.

In most cases there could be no philological certainty that one particular poem came before or after another particular poem. It is true that risks would be run in doing this – but they would have been risks worth running in the cause of restoring the Kindertodtenlieder to the place they deserve in German literature.

The 1872/2007 sequence is not sacred, it is not Friedrich Rückert's work, but Heinrich Rückert's work. Heinrich, the idiot who wisely remained anonymous in the 1872 publication. The Heinrich/Wollschläger sequence is a barbarism that deserves neither piety, respect nor politeness.

In this benighted 'critical-edition' the shoulder-shrugging resignation continues in the provision of the critical apparatus. This apparatus will be of interest to few readers, but dumping it in 38 page block of tiny type at the end of the book is a sign of resignation. It is a sign that no one really cares – the editors and publishers are just going through the motions.

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In accordance with long-standing philological tradition the elements of the apparatus should be on the same page as the relevant text. If they are at the end of the work then there should be at least some attention paid to usability.

The small-print block at the end is extremely tedious to use – because the editors seem to believe that no one is going to use it anyway.

The annotations in the apparatus are very few and far between and generally add nothing to the reader's understanding. Some philological rabbit has spent gruelling hours simply correlating words in autographs with words in printed editions.

Driving a stake through the heart

Just to pile on the misery, in 1993 Hans Wollschläger brought out an edition of the Kindertodtenlieder in Insel Verlag.

The sequencing defects were the same as those of the 2007 critical edition, but at least it was a relatively inexpensive and relatively compact (426 pages on thin stock) paperback that could be slipped into a roomy pocket. Admittedly, Wollschläger's incomprehensible foreword just added dead weight to the book, but you didn't have to read that, just carry it around.

But – one step forward, two steps back – within a few years this book went out of print – presumably in order to remove the competition for the critical edition of 2007 (currently 64 EUR). It is difficult to be sure whether the Rückert-Gesellschaft is really working in Rückert's interest or their own.

Advertisement for the restoration

Come on, you Germanists – you can do better than this! Whatever you may think of him now, Rückert was a major figure of nineteenth century German literature and his monumental Kindertodtenlieder a product of remarkable quality on so many levels. Now that the 2007 editors have done the boring job of manuscript fiddling, it is time for someone to take a stab at reinstating – if only in the most general terms – the chronology that is at the heart of the work: minimally 1-Luise – 2-Ernst – 3-The pair – 4-Recovery.

Once that is done, any half-competent television producer will realise that the script of a sixty-minute TV film has just written itself.

Come on, Reclam, what are you waiting for? Give us an inexpensive, carryable edition of the Kindertodtenlieder just as you gave us an inexpensive anthology of Rückert's work. Add a few footnote comments on difficult passages and the work would be the German train-travellers' carrying-book of choice, just as your Rückert anthology was for this train traveller:

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The Reclam Rückert anthology after a week or two of train travel. About 10 CHF for the book and about 10 CHF for all the sticky markers – the value of the poet measured in money being about the same as a few bits of sticky paper. Image: FoS.

German train carriages would be full of weeping women and moist-eyed millenial men, fearing for their mascara.

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Speaking of scraps of paper: this is Rückert's study in his house in Coburg-Neuses. He carried slips of paper with him at all times and noted down his thoughts upon them for later processing, exactly as was the case with Albrecht von Haller. On the left of the picture you can see the Zettelkasten, the pigeon-hole cupboard, which he used to store and sort his scraps. On the right of the windows on the back wall you can see the portrait of Ernst, still in its original gilded frame. Image: ©Literaturportal Bayern.

Eichendorff: the other Kindertodtenlieder

We appeal once more to the sturdy souls who have plugged through the poems in our selection: what did you think of them?

Some will reply that if Professor Dr So-Und-So thinks Rückert is better left forgotten, who are we to disagree? We suspect, however, that the majority of our readers have the self-confidence to form their own opinions.

Here to help them is a spine stiffener: another set of Kindertodtenlieder, this time by Joseph von Eichendorff, published in 1837. The set is titled Auf meines Kindes Tod and was written in response to the death of his youngest daughter Anna (20.10.1830 - 24.03.1832).

Some poems from the set were published individually in 1834 (that year in which the Rückerts were experiencing their own dark night of the soul). One reviewer thought the cycle was the 'most beautiful thing that Eichendorff ever wrote'.

There are ten poems in Eichendorff's cycle. After this long article on Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder, reproducing them all would be asking too much of the already frayed nerves of our readers – and translating them asking much, too much of your author.

Those who read German are free to read all ten (they are easily available online) and form their own opinion as to the comparative merits of Rückert's and Eichendorff's poems.

For non-German speakers, here is one of Eichendorff's poems translated and lightly commentated, poem number 6, Ich führt dich oft spazieren, 'I often took you out walking'. The basis for our selection? It's short:

Ich führt dich oft spazieren
In Wintereinsamkeit,
Kein Laut ließ sich da spüren,
Du schöne, stille Zeit!
I often took you out walking in the solitary winter, no sound was to be heard, you beautiful, quiet time!
Lenz ist's nun, Lerchen singen
Im Blauen über mir,
Ich weine still – sie bringen
Mir einen Gruß von dir.
The spring is here, larks are singing in the blue above me, I am weeping still – they bring me a greeting from you.

Eichendorff's technique in all his poetry is generally to set up list of words of 'nice' things, 'nice' feelings and 'nice' events, held together by an undemanding rhyme scheme.

This poem is no different. The winter is 'solitary', the time of year is 'beautiful', then we have 'spring' (in the poetic word Lenz), then 'larks' (what else?), blue sky (what else?) and weeping. The imagery of the poem is conventional and the final statement that the larks are bringing a greeting from the dead girl is fatuous – without any possibility of rescue through some metaphorical understanding.

No matter how sentimental Rückert's images may occasionally seem, there is always an inner logic to their use. Rückert has much more intellectual depth than Eichendorff.

If you compare Eichendorff's 10 poems with Rückert's 563 poems, or even just the 80 or so we have reproduced here, you will have to admit that Rückert is much the better poet and his Kindertodtenlieder have much more to say to the human condition in general.

However, Eichendorff only wrote 10 poems in his cycle and published them shortly after their composition. Rückert's 563 poems floated around unseen until Heinrich mangled them, by which time no one cared any more. That's the difference.


All sources are in German, unless otherwise noted. All translations ©FoS.

GG Rückert, Friedrich. Gesammelte Gedichte, 6 volumes, Erlangen, Heyder 1834-1838. All of these volumes and many other Rückert editions are online in the MDZ.
KTL Rückert, Friedrich. Ed. Rudolf Kreutner und Hans Wollschläger, Kindertodtenlieder und andere Texte des Jahres 1834, Historisch-kritische Ausgabe »Schweinfurter Edition«, Göttingen, Wallstein Verlag 2007.
Heinrich Rückert's first edition of the Kindertodtenlieder of 1872 is online and downloadable at MDZ.
It is also available in text form online from

Update 11.07.2020

An additional poem from the Kindertodtenlieder is discussed and analysed here: Über alle Gräber… .

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