You will see wherever you look only vanity on this earth.
What one man builds today, another tears down tomorrow;
Where now cities stand, a meadow will be,
Upon which a shepherd%u2019s child will play with the herds.
What now blooms in magnificence, will soon be tread asunder;
What today pounds with defiance, tomorrow is ash and bone;
There is nothing which is eternal, neither ore nor marble.
Now fortune smiles upon us, but soon troubles will thunder.
The fame of great deeds must pass like a dream.
Why should the game of time, the simple human, persist?
Oh, what is all of this that we hold to be exquisite,
But wicked vanities, as shadow, dust and wind
But a meadow flower which one can find no more!
Yet not a single man wants to contemplate what is eternal.
Translation by Scott Horton
Summary, analysis and interpretation
The poem „Es ist alles eitel“ by Andreas Gryphius was written in 1637. It is a sonnet1 about mortality of all earthly - a motif called ‘Vanitas’. One main idea of the sonnet is that everybody is moving towards afterlife, in which everybody, no matter if poor or rich, is equal.
The sonnet consists of four stanzas. While the first two stanzas are composed of four lines – quatrains - , the last two only consist of three lines – terzets.
The subject of the first stanza is decay and the destruction of cities; the second stanza addresses mortality and the destruction of all that is beautiful. The third stanza, on the contrary, raises the question of what life actually is and how humans can deal with it. The final terzet gives a short reply to this question. This answer seems to be rather negative and draws the conclusion that nobody actually deals with what is made for eternity. Not the narrator is in the focus of the poem but rather the reader, who is directly addressed by the use of the second person.
The poem is written in iambic hexametres, a so-called ‘Alexandriner’. Hence, the lines are alternating between twelve and thirteen syllables. The sonnet’s rhyme scheme is abba-abba-ccd-eed; the quatrains’ rhyme scheme is also called embracing rhyme, the terzets’ one rhyming couplets.
The first stanza directly addresses the reader: “Du” (line 1) and puts emphasis on the in the heading mentioned vanity, which is so widespread that it cannot be overseen (“Du siehst, wohin du siehst […]”, line 1). The following lines make use of antitheses2 conveying the message that beauty only lasts for a short time and can be destroyed every minute. The expressions “heute” (today) and “morgen” (tomorrow) (line 2) stress this idea. “Bauen” (build) and “einreißen” (destroy) in line 2 underline the antitheses, which occur all over the poem, too. These two words can also be seen as an allusion to the Thirty Years’ War. The second quatrain is introduced by antitheses emphasising the mortality and destruction of all glory (“Was itz und prächtig blüht, soll bald zertreten werden”). The verb “zertreten” (to trample) stands for war, too. Like the previous line, line six starts with the word “Was” as well. The antitheses are continued so that this anaphora3 can be seen as a climax. “Was itzt so pocht und trotzt ist morgen Asch und Bein”: all that seems to be superior will disappear soon – another allusion to the ‘Vanitas’ and the ‘Memento Mori’-motifs. “Asch” and “Bein” (line 6) refer to war, decay and destruction. The first part of this sentence addresses the arrogant and proud part of society – princedoms – emphasising that they are not immortal: all are going to die, no matter if poor or rich. The double negation in line seven as well as the enumeration/hyperbole4 stresses this prediction claiming that nothing is forever: “Nichts ist […] kein […]”, “kein Erz kein Mamorstein”.
The last line of the second quatrain starts with a personification5: “[…] lacht das Glück […]”. This luck, however, is not consistent as it is followed by troubles that “donnern” (line 8) – another personification “donnern die Beschwerden” that highlights the association to war, violence and destruction. In the following terzet Andreas Gryphius states that glory vanishes just like a dream: “Der hohen Taten Ruhm muss wie ein Traum vergehn” (line 9). No matter how well glory and fame hide behind their vanity, they will fall into oblivion. By means of a rhetorical question the theatre is addressed depicting life as a play and humans as its actors. The question is raised if the “leichte Mensch” can stand the “Spiel der Zeit” (if humans can pass life). “Spiel der Zeit” is a metaphor6 for life highlighting that time is precious for our thoughts and lives. The author might also want to address the hypocrisy of the royal and princely courts that cannot perceive the miseries in the world anymore. The last line of this stanza begins with a sigh “Ach!” that raises the question for the meaning of life. Here, the reader is directly addressed with the pronoun “wir” (line 11).
The last stanza gives an answer to the question for the meaning of life, which is stressed by the anaphora “als”. In line 10 an alliteration7 (“Schatten, Staub”) as well as a hyperbole („Nichtigkeit, [...] Schatten, Staub und Wind“). can be found underlining the negativity of this stanza. “Schatten, Staub und Wind“ are three nouns associated with war. Shades (“Schatten”) can be a symbol for life, when thinking about Platon’s allegory of the cave. Platon refers to life as a shade that is almost invisible and can all of a sudden vanish, seeming as if it has never existed. The expression “schlechte Nichtigkeit” is another hint for this interpretation. Line 13 again starts with “als” highlighting this vanity. Another comparison to life can be found in the words: “Wiesenblumen, die man nicht wiederfind’t (line 13). On a large meadow there are numerous flowers, each flower is as insignificant as the life and later death of an individual. The last line of this final stanza can be seen as a conclusion claiming that nobody has yet perceived what might be there for eternity. If at all, only the spirit/soul can exist in eternity.
Typical for this period of Baroque violence and mortality are subjects of this poem. Gryphius wrote this poem in 1637, during the Thiry Years’ War (1618-1648). Hence, the poem is full of violence and the motif of ‘Vanitas’. The poem can be seen as a demand to reflect upon one’s own mortality – ‘Memento Mori’ motif. There are numerous antitheses, which are also characteristic for this literary period: today everything might seem perfect, but keep in mind that tomorrow everything could be gone. However, one should not get too depressed about these thoughts but enjoy life and remember that life goes on in the beyond.
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