Friday, March 06, 2015

`Abominations Without Name'

Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), a German poet and dramatist, was born in Głogów, Silesia, in what is now southwestern Poland. He grew up during the Thirty Years’ War. Estimates of the deaths attributed to that conflict – one that began as a religious feud and finally engulfed most of Europe -- vary from 3 million to 11.5 million. Gryphius would have remained only a name to me until I read C.H. Sisson’s translation of “Thoughts on the Churchyard and the Resting-Places of the Dead,” included in Sisson’s 1987 collection God Bless Karl Marx! In Sisson’s version, the poem amounts to fifty eight-line verses of unrelieved horror, much like “Revelations” but more ghoulishly detailed. Gryphius describes the decomposition of the human body with loving precision in stanzas twenty-five and twenty-six: 

“The belly empty, hip and shin
And foot are nothing now but bones,
Hollow, misshapen, yellow green,
Broken and dry like shards or stones.
In thousand-shaped deformities
Deformity is recognized.
Here every quality’s disguised,
Young, old, poor, noble, lovely, wise. 

“And these are they against whom time
Has fully carried out its sentence;
There is no trace of flesh or slime
Mortality could take from them.
For more repulsive are those here
Who wrestle still with putrefaction,
On whom decay pursues its action,
Those who were with us till last year.” 

On it goes for another twenty-five stanzas in an almost clinical illustration of “dust to dust”: 

“Filth from the guts breaks through the skin
Where the maggots have bitten through.
I see the guts dissolving in
Pus, blood and water. It makes me spew.
The mildewed flesh that time has left
Is gobbled by a snaky mob
Of bluish worms which do the job
As if they revelled in the mess.” 

Gryphius seems to have “revelled in the mess,” though I have no way of knowing how faithful Sisson’s version is to the original. The ending -- “ take leave of the world, I may / Leave Death, and find Life where I go” – seems tacked on, a pious afterthought. Gryphius’ eyes are on the fate of the body, not the soul. The eighteenth stanza brings to mind recent events in the Middle East and elsewhere: 

“Are these the men who put aside
All trace of decency and shame,
Who brought from hell into the daylight
Abominations without name?
Who piled up crime on crime, who slit
Throats for fun, poisoning the world
Until the hour when they were hurled
With thunder and lightning into the pit.” 

This is from C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years’ War (1938): 

“The war solved no problem. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in [….] history of meaningless conflict. The overwhelming majority [….], the overwhelming majority [….] wanted no war; powerless and voiceless, there was no need even to persuade them that they did. The decision was made without thought of them. Yet of those who, one by one, let themselves be drawn into the conflict, few were irresponsible and nearly all were genuinely anxious for an ultimate and better peace. Almost all [….] were actuated rather by fear than by lust of conquest or passion of faith. They wanted peace and they fought for thirty years to be sure of it. They did not learn then, and have not since, that war breeds only war.”

1 comment:

Henry said...

About the only other modern poet to engage with Gryphius (so far as I know) is John Peck, who includes 'My Country Weeps: 1636' in Poems and Translations of Hi-Lo (1991) and his Collected Shorter Poems (1999) – a quick search on Google Books will find the poem in the Collected edition. Peck's essay in Agenda vol. 45 no. 2 (C.H. Sisson special issue, 2010) is among the best essays on Sisson's work.