Posted by Richard on  UTC 2020-07-10 10:55


Mediocre minds have mediocre thoughts; great minds surprise us with insights which we mediocre minds could never formulate, even if we had them. Shakespeare, Goethe, Heine and Rückert (here or here) all had great minds; each surprises us not only by the quality of thought but also by its quantity. Masterpieces are tossed off seemingly effortlessly and the great one moves on, leaving us mediocrities chewing our pencils.

Friedrich Rückert wrote 536 poems in his series of Kindertodtenlieder in less than six months; each one of them, almost without exception, is a jewel of some type. Their are few collection of poems in German or English that have similar dimensions and quality.

FoS image, size 708x908

Friedrich Rückert (1826) by Karl Barth (1787–1853). Image: Coburg, Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg.

At the beginning of last year on this website we published an article on Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder. The piece was written with three aims: to show that there were many more poems in this collection than the Mahler fans suspected, to try and recover the structural integrity of the collection from the damage done to it by successive editors and to show just how good a poet Friedrich Rückert was.

Short of producing his own new edition of the Kindertodtenlieder your author had to select some and leave others. Out of the six hundred or so poems, about ninety were chosen, translated and interpreted.

Reader David Bannon wrote to point out one particular poem which had impressed him and which had been left out of our collection: Über alle Gräber…. It is indeed an exceptionally fine poem and deserves notice.

Here is the poem with our characteristically pedantic translation into English and some analysis. David also recently made a more poetic translation of the work and produced a video with both English and German texts read aloud. 'At last!' our readers cry, 'someone with a bit of feeling, not just Dr Dryasdust counting syllables.' Readers will find it below, after the dry stuff.

Friedrich Rückert, Über alle Gräber…

Über alle Gräber wächst zuletzt das Gras,
Alle Wunden heilt die Zeit, ein Trost ist das,
Wohl der schlechteste, den man dir kann ertheilen;
Armes Herz, du willst nicht daß die Wunden heilen.
Etwas hast du noch, solang es schmerzlich brennt;
Das verschmerzte nur ist todt und abgetrennt.

All graves are covered by grass in the end,
all wounds are healed by time, which is a comfort,
albeit the worst comfort you can be given;
[because,] poor heart, you don't want the wounds to heal.
As long as they still burn painfully you possess at least something;
[but] that which is forgotten is dead and left behind.

German text from Friedrich Rückert, Kindertodtenlieder und andere Texte des Jahres 1834, Bearbeitet von Hans Wollschläger und Rudolf Kreutner. ©Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2007. Poem 167, p. 198.


Six lines, two sentences. Each sentence consists of two sections divided by a semicolon. We should actually write 'joined' by a semicolon, for we can think of each of these as a sort of hinge which articulates the two sections on either side of it. We can picture it thus:


Two conjunctions have been inserted into the translation [in square brackets] in order to reinforce the hinge effect of the semicolons: 'because' and 'but'. Rückert's German doesn't need these explicitly; he can rely on the readers of his time interpreting these two semicolons correctly. Your author has added a comment on this use of the semicolon at the end of this article.

Analysis and interpretation

The poem opens with two proverbial sayings, typical attempts to give solace to the grieving. We can expect that Rückert, in his despair at the loss of his two small children, received plenty of such comfort from relatives and friends.

But this is cold comfort, as Rückert realised and as any grieving person today will realise; the last thing the bereaved person wants to do is to distance him or herself from the deceased. The longing of grief is the longing for reunion, not separation – the lost one should return, not disappear. That is why Rückert characterises such comfort as the worst sort that can be given to someone grieving.

The semicolon as hinge: the argument builds up statement by statement until, at the semicolon, the argument is negated: the bereaved does not want the wounds to be healed, for that would be the final separation, the definitive loss. That section is closed off with the full stop after heilen.

At this point the reader becomes aware that the argument is directed towards the heart, the 'you', as opposed to the understanding, which takes on the role of the narrating voice. In terms of reason and understanding the comforting statements are true; but we are here talking to the heart, not the intellect.

There is a fatal attraction for English speakers to take Rückert's du/dir as 'you', the modern colloquialism for 'one'. This is a mistake. If Rückert had intended this generic 'you' he would have used man. That he used du/dir, and the familiar form at that, means that he is addressing his thoughts to a real intimate, in this case no less an intimate than his own heart, thereby establishing a dialogue between head-intellect and heart-emotion.

Reader, you didn't really think that trying to keep up with the workings of the mind of a poetic genius would be a simple task, did you?

The second sentence presents the justification of the heart's emotional position. Summarising in modern parlance: the heart does not wish for 'closure' because that would mean that the object of grief had been abandoned. Unkind observers often use the cliché of the bereaved 'wallowing in grief', not understanding that no grieving person is capable of the treachery of forgetting the lost one.

Translation note: in es schmerzlich brennt Rückert uses the full power of 'es' in German grammar to refer to a noun or clause of any number or gender, in this case the pain of the wounds; English grammar is much more restrictive on this point, meaning that it sounds odd in English to refer to the plural 'wounds' with the singular 'it … burns'. To avoid this awkwardness, your author has replaced Rückert's 'es' construction with a simple plural: 'they … burn'.

The German noun das verschmerzte [NB: lower case is in the ms.] is key to the understanding of the poem but needs careful translation. Its most literal translation would be the ugly neologism 'pained out', indicating that the suffering and grief has run its course and the well of sorrow is empty. Our translation grasps with no great conviction at 'forgotten'; 'abandoned' might serve, though. The natural corollary of this forgetting or abandonment is that the cause of the grief is no longer present; it is, as Rückert puts it, 'dead and left behind'.

Six lines, forty-eight words. The man's a genius.

David Bannon, Over all Graves

Here is the short video on this poem produced by David Bannon. The English is translated and read by him and the German is read by Florian Friedrich.

'Over all graves grass must grow,'
'time heals all wounds,' such is the solace,
the worst thing to say, as consolations go;
poor heart, not that, not a healed wound.
It is something, at least, this pain;
we amputate the numb and the dead.

David Bannon's translation of 'Over all Graves (Über alle Gräber)' was first published in Wounded in Spirit (Paraclete Press, 2018): 33. Translation ©2018 David Bannon. Used with permission. The video is also available on YouTube.

Addendum on the semicolon

In order to read Rückert's poem correctly and thus obtain the full sense which the poet seems to be intending we have to rediscover the lost art of the semicolon.

In modern English prose the semicolon has just about died out. In German, although some writers have a love affair with it – in Thomas Mann's case an unhealthy one – the situation is much the same; even a popular contemporary commentary [DE] has weaknesses. In English, only a very few writers know how to use it properly; even fewer readers know how to read it properly.

Nowadays, at one end of the scale we have the 'period purists', who think that text should be a collage of short statements separated by full stops; relationships between the statements come only from proximity: 'She knocked. No one answered. She looked through the window.' At the other end of the scale are the pretentious wafflers, who view the full stop as a mark of defeat. The middle ground is a battlefield on which ignorant armies clash by night over the exact rules for the use of the comma. The semicolon is quite overlooked in this uproar.

The fate of the semicolon has been sealed by modern empirical grammarians. They can't pretend it doesn't exist at all, but since whenever it is used, it is usually used badly, they can't extract a usage rule out of the mess. The best they can do is to propose what we might call a scheme of separation: ,[short] ;[longer] :[even longer] .[long]. We could round this scheme off with the paragraph, which would represent the longest stop of all. Even the German language authority, Duden, zigzags down this path. No writer has any idea of how to use the mid-length stops – ;[longer] :[even longer] – so they fade out of use.

'Rubbish!' the reader shouts, 'The colon is not a separator: it is actually a joiner, a punctuation mark with the role of a conjunction.' Absolutely correct: 'Three beings were present in the garden at that moment: a man, a woman and a snake.' It is a sign to the reader that what follows the colon is an expansion or detailing of the statement that preceded it.

The semicolon is not a separator, either; it is also a joiner, a punctuation mark with the role of a conjunction. The role is more subtle than that of the colon, hence harder to define and harder to use correctly. The semicolon, properly used, links what follows it to what precedes it not as an expansion but (usually) as a consequence (~ the conjunction 'because') or as a contradiction (~ the conjunction 'but'). Its effect is much subtler that that of the colon.

Rückert's poem gives us an example of each type, but let's take a simpler case: 'To err is human; to forgive divine'. The semicolon joins two parts that belong together.

The period purists would write 'To err is human. To forgive [is] divine.' Grammar demands that there is a verb in each sentence.

Most modern writers would be content with 'To err is human, to forgive divine.' It is frequently found in this form, though Alexander Pope was quite clear that only a semicolon would do; the comma has to do more grammatical heavy-lifting than it really should.

Those uncomfortable with commas might reach for a dash and write 'To err is human – to forgive divine.' Which, though inelegant, is not a bad solution.

Of course, a proper conjunction can always be used: 'To err is human but to forgive [is] divine.'

The problem is then the same for the conjunctioneers as it was for the full-stoppers: the now independent clauses both have to contain a verb. In such situations, as Pope, the great stylist, well knew, you cannot beat the expressive concision of the semicolon: 'To err is human; to forgive divine.'

This is why we have explicitly added the conjunctions that are implicit in Rückert's semicolons, over which most modern readers would skate.

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