Alas, poor Yorick/Schillers Schädel

I heard on the radio recently that Schiller’s putative skull is being DNA’ed and compared to the DNA of Schiller’s descendants. Actually I wonder if there have been any new developments, as this was news last summer, and incidentally Schiller’s only available relations had to be exhumed too.

When Goethe wrote his famous lines, he was not in the charnel house at all, but had the first ‘Schiller skull’ at home, under a glass dome and on a blue velvet cushion. ‘I spotted it at once’ is poetic licence too:

Als ich inmitten solcher starren Menge
Unschätzbar herrlich ein Gebild gewahrte,
Daß in des Raumes Moderkält’ und Enge
Ich frei und wärmefühlend mich erquickte,
Als ob ein Lebensquell dem Tod entspränge.

The skull reminded him of the Aegean and the ancient Greeks, or so say my notes pencilled presumably in a lecture by Ilse Appelbaum-Graham in the late 1960s.

This skull was simply picked out of the mass by the mayor of Weimar in 1826 because it was the biggest and he thought Schiller must have had a bigger brain than the others.

Another skull was produced in 1911/1912 – the New York Times report of the time can even be found online.

The investigations have been presided over by the retired anthropologist Herbert Ullrich, author of Schädel-Schicksale historischer Persönlichkeiten, an anthropologist from Freiburg University with the Monty-Pythonesque name Ursula Wittwer-Backofen, and scientists from Innsbruck University who have not only been having trouble with Mozart, but have also examined Ötzi and thousands of 2004 tsunami victims in Sri Lanka. If I read the press right, any conclusions reached will not be released until May, when a film on the subject is to be shown on TV, presumably on May 12, the 208th anniversary of Schiller’s birth. To quote Time, in July 2007:

Besides trying to prove which skull is genuine, the Friedrich Schiller Code team will run a series of tests to corroborate the genetic analysis, search for traces of opiates or harmful heavy metals, and perhaps confirm contemporary reports that Schiller died of tuberculosis — thereby disappointing conspiracy theorists who claim he may have been poisoned by Freemasons. The poet himself probably wouldn’t have cared what fate befell his remains. “The Weavers of the Web — the Fates — but sway/ The matter and the things of clay,” he wrote in his philosophical lyric The Ideal and Life. “Safe from each change that Time to Matter gives/ … The form, the archetype, serenely lives.” And so it will, whichever skull takes the crown.

Here is the latest news from Reuters – more descendants have been exhumed, so presumably they drew a blank on the first ones:

“The remains of the bodies were in good enough condition for a DNA examination,” said Egon Moehler, a spokesman for the German city of Stuttgart, where the bodies of three relatives who died in the 19th century were unearthed.

To obtain DNA samples for testing, the city has opened the final resting place of the dramatist’s eldest son, Carl, his grandson Friedrich as well as the wife of his grandson.

My money is on neither skull being Schiller. Would William Hill offer odds on this one?

LATER NOTE: I thought I would add the German of Schiller’s poem, but it was difficult to locate because the translation was so free. Here’s the original, from Projekt Gutenberg-DE:

Nur der Körper eignet jenen Mächten,
Die das dunkle Schicksal flechten;
Aber frei von jeder Zeitgewalt,
Die Gespielin seliger Naturen,
Wandelt oben in des Lichtes Fluren
Göttlich unter Göttern die Gestalt.
Wollt ihr hoch auf ihren Flügeln schweben,
Werft die Angst des Irdischen von euch!
Fliehet aus dem engen, dumpfen Leben
In des Idealen Reich!

And here’s the translation quoted by Time, from a site on German Classics:

The Weavers of the Web–the Fates–but sway
The matter and the things of clay;
Safe from each change that Time to Matter gives,
Nature’s blest playmate, free at will to stray
With Gods a god, amidst the fields of Day,
The FORM, the ARCHETYPE, serenely lives.
Would’st thou soar heavenward on its joyous wing?
Cast from thee, Earth, the bitter and the real,
High from this cramp’d and dungeon being, spring
Into the Realm of the Ideal!

Apparently translated into English by Calvin Thomas, LL.D. no less.

Wikipedia, Bei Betrachtung von Schillers Schädel

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