Andreas Gryphius: Rooted in Darkness. The Paradoxes of Faith and The Phoenix Vision

A Sequel to Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664): A Modern Voice

Essay, 2017

23 Pages


Table of Content


The Fractured Mind: Its Role in Greif’s Poetry

The Salvation of “Constancy”: Durable Stability or The iconoclastic Assurance of the Pioneering Mind ?

Self Determination: Resilience in Discord

The Phoenix Vision: Greif’s Paradox of Faith


Part I of this project enabled access to Andreas Greif[1] ’s poetry[2] for readers of English through the medium of translation focussing on his most anthologised poems. Part II is intended to support the venture by deepening access to Greif’s poems with some more translations with commentary, focussing on the root of his poetry : a mind almost trapped in the caesura, wracked upon antitheses of vision and experience.

Its justification now ,apart from 2017 being the 500 anniversary of Luther’s edicts, is the conviction that in Andreas Greif (Gryphius), transfixed by his direct experience of the Thirty Years’ War, we are confronted with the most remarkable Lutheran[3] poet and one of the most challenging Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. He is on a par with Huygens in Dutch and with John Donne, Donne’s contemporaries, and with John Milton in English and his poetry can highlight aspects of theirs. The translations below seek to indicate that while again asking English language readers to infer through these shadows[4] the power of the light that produced them.

Since they are primarily for readers of English who do not read German with ease, the German originals serve little purpose in this essay[5]. These are, if required, also available in “Andreas Gryphius: Gedichte”, Reclam edition,[6] for example. Though striving for integrity, my versions are not model pieces inviting recognition as distinguished translations from the German into English.

Again, translations cannot revive the freshness, intricacy, intensity and impact of their originals[7]. They offer blurred reflections of the original masterpieces in a different medium like distortions in running water. These translations display the immediacy of my current responses to the poems which are in essence critical interpretations, though addressing only a few poems of his massive opus which includes prose, drama, his writings in Latin and his translations from other languages.

They present an English take on The Thirty Years War’s[8] major European poet, whose suffering of disruption, violence and bereavement precipitated his discovery of an inner voice sanctioning survival. The immediacy of his responses speaks to our own unsettled times. His voice delineates the struggle for sanity against debilitating despair, resignation and dismay at the raging carnage, pillage, theft and devastation: the traumas of those decades. These extremes shape the uniqueness of Greif’s poetry which makes it readable in our time, recalling the international upheavals of the Thirty Years War in religion, politics and commerce which changed the map of Europe, destroyed families, burned down cities, wiped out agriculture and, in some areas, decimated the population. Thus the translations offer a glimpse the Thirty Years War, a war of mercenaries, with the widespread devastation of homelands and the inner agony and breakdown these conflicts engendered Further propositions are latent in the language employed. It exploits interlocking roots in the Anglo-Dutch- Protestant interaction in the centres of diplomacy, printing, translation generated between England and Holland in the 16th and, most relevantly, 17th centuries[9], in Amsterdam, Utrecht and Leiden which bind Donne and Gryphius into the same tradition. Greif’s years long studentship at Leiden University in the Netherlands of the Golden Age is the moment of contact. Leiden University, albeit Calvinist, was an international sanctuary, drawing from the European Atlantic coast to the Polish plains, offering a momentary asylum from battle. It gave Greif the time, the contacts, the freedom and the distance crucial for him as an active poet[10].

Leiden University had been a literary and philosophical melting pot for a century before Greif, active since the time of Sir Philipp Sydney[i][11]. Shakespeare had appeared in Dutch translation as early as 1621, part of the ambience of the Dutch Golden Age referred to above. The free, now relatively peaceful, independent northern Netherlands, a Protestant bulwark, had gathered refugees from other European centres then visited by conflicts, bigotry, warfare and butchery.

They were thus the ignition point for firing up ideas and art coming from traditions as diverse as those of the Jesuits in the South and the Dutch Calvinists in the North with figures like Justus Lipsius[12], Pieter C. Hooft[13], Descartes[14], all active in Holland, who were formative and available presences for Greif, influenced by Vondel himself[15], and, indirectly, by Huygens[16], John Donne’s translator.

These versions therefore use rhythms, structures and dilemmas of expression present in English 17th Century literature and echoed in Dutch and German at a time when the languages were closer. This enhances the English contemporaneity of Greif’s poetry from Silesia, Germany, Poland and Holland which is saturated with the upheavals of the age. The perturbations registered in and by his art create perspectives and display affinities to John Donne’s verse, or in that of John Milton, and even Dryden[17]. They imply but do not establish that, say, Shakespeare[18] [ii] or Donne[19] influenced Greif, whose polyglot genius, like Milton’s, profited from very many writers and thinkers. But they had similar issues. Donne had been a Jesuit before becoming an Anglican. Greif, always a Lutheran, was nevertheless deeply influenced by the impact of Jesuit drama[20], his Jesuit teachers and companions. There had thus been shared background which produced comparable experience in writers of two generations..

The intensity of the Jesuit expansion into creative literature, evidenced by “Angelus Silesius”[21] - Johann Scheffler - who went to the same school as Greif in Wroclaw (then Breslau) marked both writers. Silesia itself, unique, with its complex island of Protestants in a Catholic world, was in itself a formative influence,[22] perhaps hard for an English reader to appreciate, but a part of Greif’s identity.

More generally, the growth of mysticism vied with the spirit of liberation released by the direct access to the words of Christ as registered in the Lutheran and King James’ Bibles, present and read in the respective native tongues. Bacon’s Novum Organum together with advances in optics, astronomy and mathematics had already pitted the experimental search for knowledge against strong pillars upholding established belief, thus promoting insecurity and instability. Descartes had introduced his method, which by dividing body and soul, liberated medicine and anatomy. All this was still fresh Thinkers and writers while people throughout Western Europe simultaneously writhed under the impositions of war, starvation and pestilence.

The age had arrived in chaos at an implacable crux. Minds twisted and turned to try to cope as Greif’s verse, like Donne’s, demonstrates. Struggling with unstable and disparate models for trying to live with equanimity or constancy, to comprehend or to endure life, meant that poetry had to create fresh and similar forms for the endeavouring to find constants. A repetitive struggle to find an inner space to be at rest in, was a feature of seventeenth century European Baroque writing in Latin, English, Dutch, Spanish, French and German. The conceits of wit, the rebounding and rugged rhythms, the caesurae of disruption, were neither luxury nor affectation in John Donne and Andreas Greif: they were, on the contrary, symptoms of the strain imposed by multiple co-present rifts and fractures in the contemporary moulds for containing and perceiving life. There was no clear way out. Greif was one of the key poets of these dilemmas, this aporia of the age.

These considerations receive further detailed analysis, discovery, and speculation in a future essay. They are mentioned here because they influence the nature of the translations readers will see. They are part of the case for Greif’s extraordinary status as a key religious poet of his century. He tried to maintain inner and outer constancy of belief with sensitivity, integrity, and hope in the fierce seventeenth century tides of dissolution and suppression which resemble the even more destructive surges of our time.

The Fractured Mind: Its Role in Greif’s Poetry

In the antitheses of Greif’s world there are central foci in his struggle for coherence, even sanity, amidst chaos. Among the negative phenomena he observes is the loss of faith and the loss of sanity through devastation. In this he goes beyond Bunyan’s[23] personifications: The Slough of Despond or Giant Despair. In Greif the banality of these abysses is threatening in its everyday immediacy and efficient destruction, they are not targets to overcome in euphoria but threats to life and health.

Greif’s sonnets speak to intense moments of individual tragedy related to the warfare he and his family were subjected to. They offer insights into the suffering of third persons that are not frequently found outside of dramas. The sonnets are populated by personae confronted with ultimate catastrophes.

An example of the many poems of this nature is the poem below on Greif’s grandmother’s grave. Its dramatic intensity is the narration of the progressive dissolution of all inner resilience and coherence in the face of repetitive destruction, the progressive annihilation we are offered on TV in Syria. The subject of the poem is the surrender of the fractured mind to death amidst carnage and devastation, the loss of any hope of coping, the sudden absence of faith.


[1] Andreas Gryphius/ Andreas Greif. For the purposes of Part I , increased access to Gryphius as a major poet, his original name, Andreas Greif” is used because it is easier for the English reader to approach while keeping an accurate German version.

[2] These poems are mostly online with:- Projekt Gutenberg DE: file://G:/dvd12/namen/gryphius.xml (Bertelsman)

[3] Martin Luther, (1483-1546). Luther’s life and work divided Christianity into antitheses exploited by the imperial and authoritarian politics of the Hapsburg dynasty. The fault lines of this conflict or revolution can be felt today. Luther’s revolution, anti-imperial in essence, still played a role in the conflicts from 1618-1648. His edicts were posted in Wittenberg in 1517.

[4] See Koos Daley: “Traduttore, Traditore: Huygens as translator of Donne’s Poetry”. Adams State College, Colorado. I have found Koos Daley’s work invaluable on the problems of translation, on the links between the Netherlands and English Metaphysical and religious poetry (Donne and Huygens) on Greif (Gryphius). See also “A Crowne of Prayer and Praise”: Donne and Huygens at Prayer.

[5] These poems are mostly online with:- Projekt Gutenberg DE: file://G:/dvd12/namen/gryphius.xml (Bertelsman)

[6] Andreas Gryphius: Gedichte. Ed. Thomas Borgstedt. Philipp Reclam jun. Stuttgart: 2012

[7] See Koos Daley, op. cit., p 1: “The intrinsic failure of any translation of poetry did not deter seventeenth century translators. The phrase “intrinsic failure” is a valuable reminder of the troubled waters translators find themselves in.”

[8] The conflicts known as The Thirty Years War ( 1618-1638) ended by the Treaty of Westphalia, involved 11 European nations locked for diverse motives in savage fighting, mostly across Germany, laying waste the land.

[9] See Jaap Nieuwstraten, Historical and Political Thought in the Seventeenth Century Dutch Republic: The Case of Marcus Zuerius Boxhorn (1612-1653) publ Jaap Nieuwstraten, Naarlem (Netherlands) 2012 pp 3—45 for background information on Leiden University where Greif also studied and published his first book of lyrics.

[10] This is not to belittle the influence of Martin Opitz (1597-1639, of plague in Danzig) with his influential Buch der Deutschen Poeterey (124).

[11] See J.A. van Dorsten : Poets,Patrons and Professors: Sir Philip Sydney, Daniel Rogers and the Leiden Humanists, OUP: 1962

[12] Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) Flemish essayist and philosopher. Correspondent of Michel Montaigne. His influential De Constantantia appeared in 1584 and influenced the next century, including stoicism in Greif.

[13] Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft, poet, historian and playwright whose works Greif (Gryphius) knew.

[14] Rene Descartes, (1596-1650) was in Leiden from about1630 to 1649 before dying in Sweden in 1650.

[15] Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) Major Dutch poet and dramatist. See Clarence K. Pott , Holland-Germany Literary Relations in the Seventeenth Century: Vondel and Gryphius. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol 47, No.2 (April, 1948) University of Illinois Press. His plays influenced Greif’s dramas.

[16] See Reinder P Meijer : Literature of the Low Countries: A Short History of Dutch Literature in the Netherlands and Belgium. Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague/Boston 1978. In particular pp 136 -141 on Vondel who influenced Greif and pp142-148 on Constantjin Huygens, Lord of Zuilichen (1596-1687) (translator of Donne). Both men most probably had an influence on Greif in Leiden The latter most likely through his sons.

[17] See note 28 below.

[18] See Nicolai Kaminsky : Andreas Gryphius, Reclam Stuutgart:1998,pp 158-178, in particular p.168 and Stefan Kiedron’: Andreas Gryphius und DieNiederlande, University of Wroclaw, Wroclaw 1993.

[19] See Robert G. Collmer, Donne’s Poetry in Dutch Letters, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol2,No 1 ( 1965) pp.25-39, Penn State University press: 1965

[20] See Henry Schnitzler: The Jesuit Contribution to the Theatre, Educational Theatre Journal. Vol 4 No 4 9December 1952), p.289; The John Hopkins University Press:1952

[21] Johannes Scheffler (1624-1677.School in Wroclaw (Breslau) where he died; studied in Padua and Leiden, son of a Polish aristocrat. Converted Catholic mystic employed by a Lutheran nobleman

[22] See Herbert Schoeffler, Deutscher Osten im Deutschen Geist.9Das Abendland, Forschungen zur Geschicte europaeischen Geisteslebens, Vol 79 in the review by Paul Hankamer: Zeitsxchrift fuer deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, 79 Bd., H (1942) pp 79-83, S. Hirzel Verlag. http://

[23] John Bunyan, English Baptist, (1628-1688) , fought for Parliament (Puritans) against the Crown in the English Civil War (1642-1678). He wrote two major works Grace Abounding (1666) and Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)

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Andreas Gryphius: Rooted in Darkness. The Paradoxes of Faith and The Phoenix Vision
A Sequel to Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664): A Modern Voice
Saint Mary's University
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A second essay on Gryphius with translations from the German, offering an English perspective for readers of Gryphius as the major Baroque poet of the Thirty Years War in Europe who is a touchstone for examining poetry in English in the the Seventeenth Century.
Gryphius (Andreas greif) :an English perspective, Luther, Dryden, John Donne, Leiden University, Baroque, Metaphysical, John Milton, John Dryden, Huygens, The Netherlands, Lipsius, Montaigne, critical evaluation, Constancy, despair, devastation, civil war, Thirty Years War, ', Wroclaw, Silesia, Poland, Rome, catacombs, death of God, conceits, Copernicus, translations, self determination the loss of faith, contemporaneity with English verse, language and change, a fresh dynamic, parallels in our time, what do we read Gryphius for? Why read Gryphius? rugged rhythms, trapped in the caesura? an age in chaos, Jesuit influence? man of peace? John Bunyan
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Dr. Christopher Terry (Author), 2017, Andreas Gryphius: Rooted in Darkness. The Paradoxes of Faith and The Phoenix Vision, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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