Stefan Moeller: A favorite poem

The Song of the Bell
Das Lied von der Glocke
by Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805)

The “Song of the Bell” (“Das Lied von der Glocke”) by Friedrich Schiller is probably one of Germany’s best-known poems (and I believe longest) and a rich source of everyday German sayings. It inevitably had become part of my life way before I first read it, and only then I discovered the actual source of all the sayings. The section about marriage was read at my wedding by my best friend and has a particularly special meaning to me ever since. I read the poem regularly, always make new discoveries and hopefully one day will learn it by heart.

Stefan Moeller
Physicist, SLAC
San Jose



The Song of the Bell

WALLED in fast within the earth
Stands the form burnt out of clay.
This must be the bell’s great birth!
Fellows, lend a hand to-day.
Sweat must trickle now
From the burning brow,
Till the work its master honour.
Blessing comes from Heaven’s Donor.
While we our serious work are doing,
We ought to speak a serious word,
More easily our work pursuing,
When noble speech the while is heard.
Now let us earnestly be spying
What our weak powers can create;
I scorn the man who is not trying
On his own work to meditate.
This is the fairest of man’s graces:
The power to think and understand—
For in his inmost heart he traces
What he has fashioned with his hand.
    Wood that from the pine-tree came
    Keep right dry with zealous care,
    That the deftly governed flame
    Through the furnace hole may flare.
    Boiling copper’s thick—
    Get the tin now, quick!
    Let the substance, liquid growing,
    In a docile way be flowing.
What with the help of fire’s great power.
In this deep pit our hands have framed,
High on the belfry of the tower
In mighty tones shall be proclaimed.
In ages far beyond the morrow,
A voice for many shall ring out,
And it will mourn with those in sorrow
And join the choir of the devout.
What fate, forever changing, fleeting,
To mortals far below may bring,
Against the crown of metal beating,
As music of the bell will ring.
    Bubbles leaping, white and spry!
    Good! The masses flow at last.
    Mix them with the alkali,
    That they be more quickly cast.
    From all foam quite free
    Shall the mixture be,
    From the metal pure before us,
    Rise a perfect voice sonorous.

The bell with festive peal and cheering
Greets the belovèd tender child,
Upon his life’s first way appearing,
Still in the arms of sleep beguiled.
Deep in the womb of time there stay
His destinies, both dark and gay.
His mother’s gentle, loving care
Is watching still his morning fair.
The years fly swiftly—all is play.
Away from girls, impatient, tearing,
The boy starts wildly forth to roam,
He sees the world, and, after faring,
Comes back, a stranger, to his home.
In beauty and youth’s splendour glowing,
A vision from some heavenly height,
While blushes on her cheeks are growing,
He sees the maiden with delight.
And now a strange and nameless yearning
Has seized upon the young man’s heart,
From sports and wild companions turning,
With tearful eyes he roams apart.
And happy at her slightest speaking,
Her footsteps blushingly to trace,
He wanders over meadows, seeking
The fairest flowers his love to grace.
Oh, tender longing, sweetest hoping,
First love’s enchanting, golden days!
The eye can see the heavens oping,
A bliss the heart unhindered sways.
Would it might bloom eternally—
The time of young love’s ecstasy!
    See, how brown the blow-pipes grow!
    When this stick has been dipped in,
    And a glaze begins to show,
    Then the casting should begin.
    Now good fellows, quick!
    Prove the mixture thick!
    Hard and soft united duly
    Are a lucky omen truly.
For when the stern and mild are pairing,
The tender with the strong and daring,
The tone must ring out fair and strong.
Let him who binds himself forever,
To sound his heart and hers endeavour!
Passion is short, repentance long.
On the young bride’s tresses lightly
Lies the wreath of blossoms white,
When the church bells, ringing brightly,
To the festive hour invite.
Lovely festival—the ending
Of—alas!—life’s joyous May,
Beautiful illusions rending
With the veil and bride’s array!
Passion will fly!
Love must remain;
The flower must die,
The fruit to attain.
The man must go out
To stern hostile life,
For power and strife,
To plant and to toil,
To gain and to foil,
To wager and dare,
His luck to ensnare.
And now without end the blessings are streaming,
With goodly possessions the storerooms are teeming,
The rooms are expanding, the house has to grow.
And in it there moves
The good, modest housewife,
The mother of children,
Who wise and dear
Here rules in her sphere,
And teaches the girls
And wards off the boys,
While work without end
Her busy hands tend,
Enlarging her share
Through order and care,
Her sweet-smelling linen-chests filling with treasure,
By spinning her thread in the speediest measure.
Her neatly and smoothly kept closets are full
Of linen like snow and the shining fair wool;
And still adding glamour and charm to the best,
She never can rest.
And the father with happy eye
From his mansion’s high gable is counting
Blessings fair that before him lie—
Pillars and posts as high as the trees,
Barns that are bursting with treasures that please,
Granges with bounties swelling and bending,
Grain-fields waving in billows unending.
He boasts with noble pride:
Firm as the ground abide
My homestead’s splendours bright
Against misfortune’s might!
Covenants with powers of fate
Will—alack!—not always last,
And misfortune travels fast.
    Now the casting can begin,
    For the dented mould is fair:
    But before we pour it in,
    Let us say a pious prayer!
    Push the tendon hard!
    God shall be our guard!
    In the bell’s ear smoking, glowing,
    Waves of fiery brown are flowing.
Most wholesome is the force of fire,
When man can tame and guard its ire,
And from this heavenly force man takes
Good help for what he moulds and makes.
But frightful is this power’s abuse
When, from its fetters broken loose,
Upon its own track wantonly
It roams as nature’s daughter free.
Horror when unbound and growing
—Fiend that no resistance stays!—
Through the peopled city blowing
Sweeps along the monster-blaze!
Elements have ever hated
What the hand of man created.
From the cloud
Rain is pouring,
Earth restoring.
From the cloud, even so,
Lightnings glow!
From the tower hear the wail:
’Tis the gale!
Bloody red
Are the heavens;
Daylight ne’er such brightness shed!
Riot leavens
All the crowds!
Dense smoke-clouds!
Fiery pillar, flickering, glowing,
Down the street is swiftly going,
Like the wind so rapid growing.
Hot, as if in furnace baking,
Glows the air; the beams are breaking,
Windows rattle, posts are falling,
Mothers straying, children calling,
Beasts are moaning,
Crushed, and groaning.
All run, save and flee in fright,
Bright as daylight is the night,
Chains of eager hands are plying,
Pails are flying,
Arching water-spouts are playing,
Flames with hissing fountains spraying;
Howling wild the storm is straying,
Driving on the flame with roars.
Crackling in the dry grain-stores
Shoots the flame, through garrets sweeping,
Fast along the rafters creeping,
And, as if with monstrous blowing
It would sweep along in flight
The whole earth with all its might,
Rises, now gigantic growing,
To the sky.
Man stands by:
Hopeless, awestruck, he is yielding,
Sees the heavens their power wielding,
His own works to ruin going.
Now the homestead
Is burnt bare;
Savage storms are raging there.
Empty window-holes are staring
Horror-haunted,
And the sailing clouds undaunted
Peer inside.
Man—alack!—
Glances back
At the grave
Of the goods he could not save:
Then ventures forth with spirit brave.
However sadly he has fared,
Though raging fire has so bereft him,
The sweetest comfort still is left him:
He counts his dear ones: all are spared.
    Now ’tis resting in the earth,
    For the form contains its fill.
    Will there be a happy birth,
    To repay our care and skill?
    Is there a mistake?
    If the form should break?
    While our hopes are soaring high—
    Woe!—misfortune may be nigh.
Unto the sacred earth confiding,
We trust to her our hands’ own deed,
The sower trusts to her his seed,
Calm, with a blessèd hope abiding
That it shall grow as Heaven decreed.
Alas, we know that seed far rarer
In earth’s dark bosom buried lies,
And hope that to a lot still fairer
Out of the graveyard it will rise.
From the church
Tolls the bell
Grave and heavy
Funeral knell.
And the toll sonorous is attending
One more pilgrim on his last way wending.
Woe! It is the wife belovèd.
Woe! It is the faithful mother
Whom the shadow prince of harm
Drew from out her husband’s arm,
From her tender children’s sphere,
Whom she bare him, fair and dear,
And then watched with mother’s zest
As they grew upon her breast.
Ah! The home’s most tender ties
Are unloosed forevermore;
In the shadowland she lies
Who was mother here before.
How they miss her faithful guiding,
And the care she used to give!
In the orphaned home presiding,
Loveless strangers soon will live.
    Till the bell shall cooler be,
    After labour take your ease,
    And as birds play in the tree,
    Each shall do what he may please.
    Youth, at rise of stars,
    Free from duty’s bars,
    Hears the evening bell, releasing:
    Master’s toil is never ceasing.
In the forest wild the wanderer
Homeward turns his steps with pleasure
To his dear and cheerful cottage.
Homeward trudge the sheep-flocks bleating,
And the herds
Of the sleek and broad-browed cattle
With their lowing
To accustomed stalls are going.
Now with grain
Heavy laden,
Reels the wagon:
And beneath
Sheaves, the wreath
Fragrant lies;
To the dance the flock of reapers
Gaily flies.
Streets and markets grow more quiet;
Round the bright and genial lamplight
All the household members gather,
And the town-gate closes, creaking.
Blackness spreads
O’er the earth;
But the steady townsman dreads
Not the night
Rousing wicked men from bed:
For the eye of law is ever bright.
Sacred order, blessings spreading,
Heaven’s daughter, freely treading,
Like to like thou bindest lightly,
Cities thou hast founded rightly,
And the wild man roaming blindly
Thou hast called to home-life, kindly.
To men’s homes thy presence giving,
Thou hast taught them gentle living,
Woven of all ties the deepest—
Love for fatherland thou keepest!
Busy hands, by thousands stirring,
Briskly one another aid,
And, while eager work is spurring,
All the powers are displayed.
Under freedom’s wing united,
Master and apprentice toil,
Each with his own place delighted,
Ready any scorn to foil.
Work adorns the burgher greatly,
Blessing is our labour’s prize;
Honoured crowns make princes stately,
But in work our honour lies.
Blessed peace, oh
Sweetest concord,
Tarry, tarry
With your kindness in this town!
May that day be never dawning,
When the hordes of war with terror
Raid across this quiet valley,
When the heavens
Which the lovely glow of evening
Gently paints,
Flash, alas, when towns are burning,
Fiery taints!
    Break the form now, stand me by,
    For its purpose is fulfilled;
    And rejoice, let heart and eye
    By the well-done task be thrilled.
    Swing the hammer, whack!
    Till the cope shall crack!
    For the finished bell shall rise,
    When the form in pieces lies.
In time the master, skilled and knowing,
Can break the form most prudently.
Woe! When in fiery torrents flowing,
The ore itself seeks liberty!
In blindest rage with thundrous roaring,
The bursting house it rushes through,
As if the jaws of hell were pouring
The flames that death and horror spew.
Where raw wild forces rage and blight,
Men can create no form aright;
And no true welfare can there be,
When mobs are by themselves set free.
Woe, when the tinder-heap is swelling
In hearts of cities, in the night,
The masses tear their chains, rebelling,
And free themselves with fury’s might!
Then riot, to the bell-ropes clinging,
Pulls till the bell begins to howl;
Devoted once to peaceful ringing,
She gives the sign for outrage foul.
Equality and freedom! screaming,
The burgher in once peaceful hands
Grasps weapons; streets and halls are teeming,
And everywhere swarm ruffian bands.
With jest and ribaldry unsparing,
The women like hyenas grow,
With panther’s fangs unbridled tearing
The flinching bosom of the foe.
There is no sacredness remaining,
Unloosed are ties of piety,
The bad in goodness’ place is reigning,
And every vice is swaying free.
A lion wakened is ferocious,
Destructive is the tiger’s bite;
But of all horrors most atrocious
Is man at his own madness’ height.
Woe unto those who to the yearning,
The ever-blind lend heaven’s torch!
It will not beam; to ashes burning,
The fields and cities it will scorch.
    Gladness God has given me!
    Now the kernel shells the mould,
    Rising smoothly, evenly,
    Shining like a star of gold.
    Dome and crest both beam,
    Like the sunlight’s gleam,
    And the blazon’s quaint device
    Shows performance skilled and nice.
    Come in and see!
    Now, fellows, let us close the ring,
    For the bell’s high christening:
    Concordia her name shall be.
    For concord, deepest brotherhood with all,
    The loving congregation she shall call.
This be the calling of the bell,
Wherefore she has been fashioned well!
With earthly life beneath her lying,
High she shall swing in heaven’s blue dome,
A neighbour of the thunder, flying
And touching on the starry home,
Her voice from heights celestial raising,
Like all the stars in heaven’s sphere,
That live and move, their Maker praising,
And leading forth the festive year.
Our bell, her metal voice devoting
Alone to grave, eternal things,
Shall ever feel, while she is floating,
The throbbing touch of time’s swift wings.
The tongue of fate, she shall be ringing:
Heartless herself and pitiless,
She shall accompany with swinging
Life’s game of constant changefulness.
And as her mighty peal sonorous
Within our ears at last shall die,
A lesson she will put before us,
That all things earthly must go by.
    Come now, with the ropes’ whole might,
    From her dungeon swing the bell,
    Till she rise to heaven’s height,
    In the realm of sound to dwell!
    Pull and lift—still more!
    See her move and soar!
    Joy unto this city bringing,
    Peace shall be her first glad ringing!



Friedrich von Schiller

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3 Comments

Filed under Favorite Poem

3 responses to “Stefan Moeller: A favorite poem

  1. What a read! Left me with strong sense of life at that time, values, dangers, the tangible efforts to make a bell, the sounds, vagaries , clangs Nd sweetness of the bell. Bravo if you memorize it all, like the wandering poets of old. Thanks for. Unique offering. Nancy meyer

  2. Kelly Cressio-Moeller

    Really wonderful in the original, too: a favorite section from our wedding.

    Ach! des Lebens schönste Feier
    Endigt auch den Lebensmai:
    Mit dem Gürtel, mit dem Schleier
    Reißt der schöne Wahn entzwei.
    Die Leidenschaft flieht,
    Die Liebe muß bleiben;
    Die Blume verblüht,
    Die fruchtmuß treiben.

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