Jean Paul’s “Death of an Angel”
Excerpt from “The Dream of the Lilybell, Tales and Poems; with translations of “Hymns to the Night” from the German of Novalis, and Jean Paul’s “Death of an Angel,”‘ by Henry Morley. 1845.
The Death of an Angel
As the Angel of the last hour, whom we so cruelly call Death, is sent to us the softest, kindest of the angels, that mildly and gently he may pluck from life the sinking heart of man, and bear it in warm hands, unhurt, from the cold breast to the high summery Eden. His brother is the Angel of the first hour, who twice kisses man, for the first time that his life here may be commenced, the second time that he may wake above without a wound; and enter smiling into the other world, as into this with tears.
When the battlefield stood full of blood and tears, and the Angel of the last hour drew from them trembling souls, his mild eye melted, and he said, “Alas! I also will die as a mortal, that I may learn what his last pangs are, and still them when I take his life away.” The unmeasured circle of the angels that love each other there above stood around the merciful Angel, and promised the beloved one that after the moment of death they would surround him with their beams, that he might know that it was Death had come; and his brother, whose kiss opens our rigid lips, as rays of morning the cold flowers, rested tenderly upon his breast and said, “When I kiss thee again, my brother, then art thou dead upon the earth, and once more ours.”
Full of emotion and love, the Angel sank down upon a battlefield where but one fair, fiery youth lay yet convulsed, and raised his shattered breast; the hero thought only of his betrothed, her hot tears that he could no longer feel, and her grief passed dimly over him as a distant battle cry. Oh, then, quickly the Angel covered him, and rested in the form of the loved one on his breast, and with a hot kiss drew the wounded soul out of his broken heart; and he gave the soul to his brother, and his brother kissed it in heaven the second time, and then it smiled already.
The Angel of the last hour entered as lightning into the deserted form, glowed through the corpse, and with the strengthened heart once more drove round the heated streams of life. But how was he affected by this new embodiment! His eye of light was dipped in the whirlpool of the new nervous spirit; his thoughts, once flying. waded wearily now through the misty circle of the brain. On all he saw the soft, moist halo of colors that hithereto had hung over every object with the autumn’s shades, was now dried up, and through the hot air things pierced him with their burning, paining color spots, every feeling became darker but nearer to himself, and seemed to him Instinct, as to us do those of brutes; hunger tore him, thirst burned him, pain cut him deeply. Oh, his distracted breast arose bleeding, and his first breath was his first sigh for the deserted heaven. “Is this the death of man?” he thought; but as he saw not the promised sign of death, no angel, and no glory-beaming heaven; he knew full well this was but man’s life.
At evening, the Angel’s earthly powers faded, and a crushing ball of earth seemed rolled upon his head, for Sleep had sent its messengers. The pictures in his soul left their sunshine for the light of a dull hazy fire; the shadows that the day had cast upon his brain, confused and colossal, moved through one another; and a spreading, unbounded world of fancy was cast over him; for the Dream sent its messengers. At length the shroud of sleep was wrapped in double folds around him, and, sunk into the grave of night, he lay there lonely and still, even as mortals. But then came’st thou on thy pinions, heavenly Dream, with thy thousand mirrors before his soul, and showed’st him in every mirror a circle of angels, and a heaven filled with their beams of glory; and the earthly body, with all its stings, seemed to fall from him. “Ah!” said he, in vane rapture, “my sleeping then was my departure!” But as he awoke again, his heart blocked up, and filled with heavy human blood, and he beheld the earth and the blood, he said, “That was not Death; it was Death’s picture only, although I saw the glorious heaven and the angels.”
The bride of the ascended hero observed not that in the breast of her beloved one only an angel dwelt; she still loved the erected temple of the departed soul, and still held joyfully the hand of him who was carried so far from her. But the Angel returned the love of her deluded heart with human love; jealous of her own proper form he wished not to die earlier than she, that he might love her all her lifetime, until one day in heaven she should forgive him the sin – that she had embraced upon the same breast an angel and a lover. But she died first – the early grief had bowed the flower’s head too low, and it remained on the grave. Oh, she sank before the weeping Angel, not as the sun that casts itself before admiring nature with magnificence into the sea, that its red waves may leap to heaven, but as the silent moon, that at midnight silvers a thin halo, and with that pale hero sinks unseen. Death sent before him his yet milder sister, Swoon; he touched the heart of the bride, and the warm face was frozen — the flowers on her cheeks closed up — the pale snow of winter , beneath which greens the spring of eternity, covered her brow, her hands.
Then burst the swelling eye of the Angel into a burning tear; and as he thought the heart freed itself with such a tear as with a pearl the sickly mussel; the bride moved her eyes, awakened to her last delusion, and drew him to her heart, and died as she kissed him. “Now am I with thee, my brother.” Then the Angel thought that his brother in heaven had given him the sign of the kiss of death; yet no beaming heaven was around, but the darkness of sorrow; and he sighed that that was not his death but only pangs of man for his companion.
“Oh, ye oppressed mortals,” exclaimed he, “ye weary ones, how can ye survive! Oh, how can ye grow old when the circle of youthful forms is broken, and at last is all destroyed when the graves of your friends descend as steps to your own graves, and when age is the silent empty evening hour of a cold battlefield! Oh, ye unhappy men, how can your hearts endure it!”
The body of the ascended hero exposed the mild angel to the cruelties of men; to his injustice, to the gnawings of sin and sorrow; along his form also was laid the stinging girdles of united septres, that presses land in agony, and which the great of the earth draw ever yet more closely; he saw the claws of crowned heraldic beasts fixed in the featherless prey, and heard the victims flap their powerless wings; he saw the whole globe surrounded by interlacing, and black glittering rings of the giant serpent vice, that buries and hides within man’s breast its poisoned head. Ah! then must his soft heart that an eternity long had rested only on the warm angels full of love, be pierced by the hot sting of enmity, and the holy soul of love must tremble at a deep disunion. “Ah,” said he, “the death of man gives pain.” But this it was not, for no Angel had appeared.
Now he became in few days weary of a life that we endure for half a century, and longed for his return. The evening sun attracted his kindred soul. The splinters in his shattered breast wearied him with pain. He went, with the glow of evening on his pale cheeks, into the churchyard, the green garden of life, where the coverings of the fair souls he had unclothed were gathered together. With painful longing he stood upon the bare grave of the inexpressibly beloved departed bride, and looked upon the fading sun. Upon this loved hillock he looked down upon his aching body, and thought here also would’st thou rest, thou failing breast, here thou would’st smart no more, held I thee not erect. Then softly he thought over the heavy life of man, and the pain of his wound pointed out to him the pangs with which men buy their honor and their death, and which gladly he had spared the noble hero’s soul. Deeply was he moved by the excellence of man, and he wept for endless love towards men who, amid the crying of their own necessities, amid descended clouds and long mists upon the cutting path of life, turn not their eyes from the high star of duty, but spread out in the darkness their loving arms for each tortured bosom that may meet them, around whom glimmers naught but hope, to set in the old world, as the sun to rise upon the new.
Emotion opened then his wound, and the blood, the soul’s tears, flowed from his heart upon the beloved mound; the perishing body sank sweetly bleeding to death after the loved one; tears of joy broke up the falling sun into a rosy waving sea; distant echoes played through the liquid splendour as though earth fled away at a distance through the sounding ether. Then shot a dark cloud, or a little night, before the Angel, and was full of sleep, and now a heaven of glories was opened and shone over him, and a thousand angels flamed. “Art thou here once more, thou sportive Dream!” he said. But the Angel of the first hour came to him through the glory, and gave him the sign of the kiss, and said “That was Death, thou eternal brother, and heavenly friend.” And the youth and his beloved whispered it gently after him.
Jean Paul Friedrich Richter