Es ist alles Eitel; All is Vanity

[This page by Madeleine Brook]

Gryphius‘ wide range of interests and abilities is also evident in his poetry, which covered both religious and secular poetry. He is most renowned for his mastery of the sonnet form, though he was also adept in composing other poetic forms, such as the ode and epigram.

Es ist alles Eitel

DV sihst / wohin du sihst nur Eitelkeit auff Erden.

Was diser heute baut / reist jener morgen ein:

Wo itzund Städte stehn / wird eine Wisen seyn /

Auff der ein Schäfers-Kind wird spilen mit den Herden:

Was itzund prächtig blüht / sol bald zutretten werden

Was itzt so pocht und trotzt ist Morgen Asch und Bein /

Nichts ist / das ewig sey / kein Ertz / kein Marmorstein.

Itzt lacht das Glück uns an / bald donnern die Beschwerden.

Der hohen Thaten Ruhm muß wie ein Traum vergehn.

Soll denn das Spil der Zeit / der leichte Mensch bestehn?

Ach! was ist alles diß / was wir vor köstlich achten /

Als schlechte Nichtikeit / als Schatten/ Staub und Wind;

Als eine Wisen-Blum / die man nicht wider find't.

Noch will was Ewig ist kein einig Mensch betrachten!

All is Vanity

Look where you will, you see only vanity on earth.

What some build today others tear down tomorrow:

Where now stand towns there will be a meadow

On which a shepherd’s child will play with the herds:

What now splendid flowers shall soon be trodden down

What now struts and preens will be ash and bone tomorrow,

There is nothing can be eternal, no metal, no marble stone.

Now Fortune smiles on us, but soon hardships will threaten

The fame of great deeds must be like a fleeting dream.

Why should the plaything of time, the frivolous human, endure?

Oh! What is all this that we regard as precious

But worthless nothingness, than shadows, dust and wind,

But a wild flower that cannot be found again.

That which is eternal yet no human wills to see!

Together with another of Gryphius’ sonnets, ‘Thränen des Vaterlandes’ (‘Tears of the Fatherland’), this poem is the writer’s most iconic and well-known, even today. It contains a number of features characteristic of Gryphius’ meditational poetry. The title, ‘Es ist alles eitel’ (‘All is Vanity’) is taken from Ecclesiastes I,2, which is itself a meditation on the impermanence of human existence, and this, too, is taken as the starting point for Gryphius’ poem. Almost every line contains a stark contrast, frequently marked by a mid-line caesural break – construction is contrasted with destruction, urban settlements with pastoral idyll, life with death, today with tomorrow, and so on. A caesura in the poem as a whole is marked in lines 9 and 10 by a temporary switch from an ABBA rhyme scheme to a rhyming couplet and a rhetorical question which implicitly draws human life into the same impermanence as everything else. ‘Du’ (‘you’) is apostrophised at the beginning of the poem, but it becomes apparent that it does not automatically indicate the poet’s address to the reader per se, but aims higher: to God surveying his Creation. ‘Wir’ and ‘uns’ (‘we’/’us’) are placed in opposition to this as not the subject, but the object of impermanent fortunes or hardships – ‘we’, humanity, are not in control of existence. Gryphius maintains the symmetry of opposites with the contradiction of lines 7 and 14, declaring on the one hand that there is nothing that can be eternal and yet on the other hand there is only one eternal thing (i.e. God). The final line is both a cry of despair and an implicit plea: that which is the only eternal thing, and therefore the only object to which humanity may turn for existential security, is also that which humanity blindly refuses to either see or value appropriately.

Further Reading

Marvin S. Schindler, The Sonnets of Andreas Gryphius: use of the poetic word in the seventeenth century (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971)

Hugo Bekker, Andreas Gryphius: poet between epochs (Berne and Frankfurt a.M.: Herbert Lang, 1973)

Will Hasty, ‘The Order of Chaos: On Vanitas in the Work of Andreas Gryphius’, Daphnis 18 (1989), 145-57

Further Reading in German

Wolfram Mauser, Dichtung, Religion und Gesellschaft im 17. Jahrhundert: Die Sonnete des Andreas Gryphius (Munich: Fink, 1976)