A Poem for Dark Times

We surely live in dark times. This afternoon I remembered a poem that Bertolt Brecht wrote in the late 1930s. It was called “An die Nachgeborenen,” and it aimed not to console, but to provoke. Below is my loose translation from the German. (Here’s a recording of Brecht reading the original.)

To Future Generations

– I –
Really, I live in dark times!
Innocent words are foolish. An unfurrowed brow
Indicates apathy. He who laughs
Just hasn’t received yet
The terrible news.

What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many misdeeds!
He who quietly crosses the street
Is probably no longer within reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It’s true: I earn my living
But believe me: that’s only by accident. Nothing
That I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
I just happen to have been spared. (If my luck runs out, I’m lost.)

People tell me, Eat and drink! Be glad to have something!
But how can I eat and drink, if
I take what I eat from one who starves
And one dying of thirst needs my glass of water?
And still I eat and drink.

I would also like to be wise.
The old books tell us what’s wise:
To keep our distance from worldly disputes
To live out our brief life unafraid
And to make do without violence
To repay evil with good
Not to fulfill one’s desires,
But to forget them: that’s wise.
But I can’t do any of that:
Really, I live in dark times!

– II –
I came to the cities at a time of disorder
When hunger reigned there.
I came among the people at a time of upheaval
And I rose up in revolt with them.
So passed
The time given to me on earth.

I ate my food between battles
I lay down to sleep among murderers
I pursued love carelessly
And I looked upon nature impatiently
So passed
The time given to me on earth.

The streets led into the swamp, in my time.
My language betrayed me to the butcher.
There was little I could do. But the rulers
Sat more securely without me, or so I hoped.
So passed
The time given to me on earth.

Forces were weak. The goal
Lay at a great distance
It was clearly visible, even if I
Could hardly reach it.
So passed
The time given to me on earth.

– III –
You all, who will emerge out of the flood
In which we have drowned,
Remember
When you speak of our weaknesses
Also the dark time
From which you’ve escaped.

We did after all go, changing countries more often than our shoes
Through the class wars, in desperation
When only injustice was there and no indignation.

But at the same time we know:
Even hatred of lowliness
Distorts one’s features.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Alas, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, if the time should come
When man helps his fellow man,
Remember us
Charitably.

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