Sonnets by Walter Benjamin


Free me from the time from which you have passed
And absolve me from within your presence
Like red roses in the hours of twilight
Draw back from the faded marriage of things

Truthfully homage a bitter voice
Gladly I forego and the red of lips
That were over-burned by the black glimmer
Of hair shading purple the brow of needs

And so the likeness may be denied me
To decry and praise as you showed to me
That path on which you royally carried

The banner whose emblem you did fathom
If just in me you’d raised your holy name
Imageless like an unending Amen.


Had you prophesied your death to the world
Nature would have hastened to you at death
Impelling with unrelenting command
Being to eternal forgetfulness

Gentle dawns would have lingered in heaven
On hours would have hung your body’s garment
Forests would have stained mourning all with black
Night would have sailed the sea in a calm boat

From stars would be made a nameless sorrow
Your gaze’s monument in heaven’s vault
And with thick brickwork darkness would avert

The light pressing onward of the new spring
In the still posture of stars the season
Looks upon your death’s reflecting cistern.


You blessed birth deeply hidden away
From you I emerged destined for that hour
Just as the night did glimmer in your eye
Faintly upon heaven’s winding stairway

To become the gleam gathering in your glance
Wherein all the unborn happily lay
Who so closely pressed their cheeks against mine
Floating in the azure like glowing clouds

It was written that never should my mouth
Give praise if not soaring high in your song
My head was but the last in the circle

That blazing prayer-hemmed was brought to crib
Yet how was it that you vanished from me
Leading away in your hand my young death.


It was his glances that did awaken
My solitary light on errant paths
And the stars of his eyes gave permission
To the secluded light of my bedroom

Passed away now are the boon companions
All the spirits break the silent mirror
Who in these heavens calmly transfigured
With each morning their vaporous laughter

If they stood and wept it was like laughter
Which fed itself on the fall of harsh tears
And proved even more fragrant than the rain

And from the fullness of their tears they spoke
The names of those things that were yet broken
In such manner as leaves in the garden.


No more do you ring forth in the swelter
Of green slopes all melting and dripping down
Bearing in their wings the song of the winds
The angel of emotion struck you dumb

O voice that with its own hand exalted
Your breath in the eternal clear coolness
Where now your fountain in a blessed cup
Exulting pours forth courage after God’s might

In the gray morning birdsong was wakened
And asked about the beloved’s sojourn
It presaged you in the still salvaged light

The beech trees in youthfulness overgrew thick
Till midday where your word once did tarry
Silence’s body breaks hours shatter.


Lost already in the high sea of pain
The wave of your life rolls on forgiven
The timid song of love most forsaken
Spills out from the hushed quiet mouths of fools

That in the forgotten murk like a thief
In mountainous ravines that gave you birth
Vanished among the crags if deafened ears
Eavesdropped on your pain in the heave of wind

Weeping that one day on a happy hour
You might incline to its rhyme and sad glance
Borrowed so from the song of a hot mouth

Yet you wove garlands of bitter strophes
Before they withered upon pallid waves
The death-god entwined them into black hair.


How can the sparkle of this day please me
When you do not walk with me in the woods
Where the sun flashes in the black branches
That once could revive your fathomless glance

And yet the teaching word pricks your finger
On my mind’s blackboard which loyally waits
For the sign – and for that timorous glance
I rise and sit watching by the wayside

But death is with you and I in the woods
Forsaken like bush and tree in the night
A wind blows over the wasted hillside

Suddenly midday’s light streams around me
Shining deep blue from the vault of heaven
Like enigmatic mourning of the eye.


See my life illumined in your refuge
Which was ready to provide out of love
Like your mother suffered to give you birth
It was spirit that grew thick inside her

The same one that in summer’s grass and stalks
Erects the fine beauty of its black head
Accusing me of winter’s bitter voice
Before whose countenance flow all my tears

In your body is mine own love engraved
In which all being is animated
That stands before you revealing the child

They bleed from wounds that castigate the world
But to me they are like a healing balm
You that balm that gives them efficacy.


Night dungeons those innermost of great walls
That is your abode in gentle sojourn
The blind proscription disperses the form
Greetings of the dear departed call you

And flowers shoot up in the brown forest
In which blazes the animating fire
All the new days flee away taking fright
Deathlessness churns cloud-like around the head

Over damp pastures your countenance spreads
For heroes’ peace sweetly swarms on it
Where hurrying remembrance does take its stride

The darkness listening to the downtrodden
The melody sinks mirrored in the blue
Still closer to land unsealed from the dawn.


If you’d come to visit me in my life
It would have been a slight effort for you
Just as one time you’d step inside a room
The close threshold always beckoning you

Then I ventured the word: O were I yours
And were enfolded inside you closely
My being as the finest of textures
Which you would grant when you dwelt all alone

There is room ’round you but for one people
Since you stilled the last longing about you
Melting into one pulse both south and north

And all has come to pass as you willed it
You seek me not over you I’ll not weep
Before your effulgence my light vanished.


Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin, the deeply influential philosopher and cultural critic, was born in Berlin in 1892, and became an important thinker in the Weimar Republic. He fled to Paris in 1938 to escape the Nazis, and when France fell in 1940, he tried unsuccessfully to cross the Spanish border, at which time he either committed suicide or was killed by a Stalinist agent.

Nirmal Dass

Nirmal Dass teaches and translates from various dead and living languages. He is currently completing a novel set in the Italian Renaissance.

Copyright (c) Nirmal Dass, 2016.