Remembering “The Great War” Through a Poem

By Dr. William Ruleman, Professor of English

In memory of the first world war, which started one hundred years ago, I have been reading poetry written during that time. One poem I came across lately greatly affected me.  This is “Weltliebe” by the Austrian poet Alfons Petzold (1882-1923). Recent incidents in my own life, as well as in the world-at-large, gave this poem a special relevance for me.

The ideas it presents, while hard to feel and act upon (perhaps, at times, well-nigh impossible) are needed more than ever, I felt: For all too often, rage and hate are the moods that cloud our day. Yet although these moods may be justified, history shows us time and again that they are futile.

Petzold wrote this poem in the midst of a conflict that up till then had created the worst bloodbath that our world had ever faced. In hindsight, one might easily argue that it was also a conflict that Petzold himself could hardly hope to end by writing a poem. In fact, poor health held him back from taking part in his country’s cause, which he supported quite vehemently till the effects of the carnage became apparent. He died in poverty during the years that followed the Central Powers’ defeat.

Perhaps the least we can take from the poem is that, while there is much suffering in the world that we are helpless to end in any direct way, a spirit of love can still have its effect.

Perhaps he is hoping against hope. Yet he seemed to know that, whether his words would influence the course of world events or not, one still must hope. Hate offers no solutions; and though love (“the rare flower,” as Thomas Wolfe called it) may be frail, it is, in the end, all we have.

I have provided Petzold’s original along with my translation of it.


(by Alfons Petzold; translated by William Ruleman)

You have to love so every creature craves

The shy song of your being’s very presence,

So everyone who cries and groans and raves

Grows silent with your voice in acquiescence.

You have to love so all the lives entrapped

In states as stiff and chill as that of death

Will feel at once their veins grow warm and rapt,

Awakened, stirred to life, by your own breath.

You have to love so all the stars descend

To you because you lend a brighter light;

And then a mighty silence will attend

Your high humanity both day and night.


(Alfons Petzold)

So mußt du lieben, daß die Wesen lechzen

Nach deines Daseins schüchternem Gesang,

Daß alles stumm wird, jedes Schrein und Ächzen

Bei deiner Stimme leisem Klang.

So mußt du lieben, daß die Dinge lauschen,

Von ihrer toten Starrheit zugedeckt,

Darunter auf einmal die Adern rauschen,

Von deinem Atem aufgeweckt.

So mußt du lieben, daß die Sterne steigen

Zu dir herab, weil du der hellste bist,

Und zwischen Tag und Nacht ein großes Schweigen

Vor deiner hohen Menschheit ist.


Categories: Misc.

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