Who are we, if not the people we love?
This post belongs to a series formerly known as “Frauenbild Fridays.” Click here to see the original post.
Well, fellow feminists, we’ve come to the end of our first song cycle, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben. Since this is a piece about a woman’s life and love, we can assume the last song features our protagonist on her deathbed, reflecting on a life well lived with her family and fulfilling career in the rearview mirror.
Wait, we forgot something– a woman’s life in this period wasn’t hers!
The last piece in Frauenliebe, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan,” translates to “now you have caused me my first pain,” and refers to the death of our protagonist’s husband. Of course! It’s not her death that ends her life but rather her husband’s. We should have known.
At first glance, the lyrics remind me of the now defunct Hindu practice of Sati, also known as “widow burning,” where some women would burn themselves alive on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands, either willingly or unwillingly. In Frauenliebe und -leben, our protagonist metaphorically resigns herself to death as her husband’s body lies in front of her. It is a dark and macabre image.
I adopt a critical eye immediately, so I’d like to take a step back and assess two things before I get all cynical. First, Chamisso wrote these poems in the aftermath of the Sturm und Drang era, a precursor to the Romantic period translating to “storm and stress.” Alongside the stereotypical themes of the time, such as nature and romantic love, the romanticization of death and strong, negative emotion also pervaded literature, art, and music.
It makes sense that folks of the 1800s were obsessed with death and dying. 1840 was a time in which death was much more normalized than it is in our culture equipped with modern medicine. In the 1800s, the global average of childhood deaths was a whopping 43.3%. Nearly half of all kids died before they even reached adulthood! Of course, it wasn’t smooth sailing once the surviving children reached adulthood– the average lifespan in the 1800s hovered between 30-40 years of age. Next time I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough, I’ll just remember that if I had lived two hundred years ago, I’d probably be dead by now!
The second factor I’d like to assess is a little squishier: love. When someone close to us dies, a tiny part of us also dies because we are part of each other. Through seven songs, we discovered our protagonist’s intense love for her partner and expanded upon her experience to center herself rather than her husband.
My grandma died nearly seven years ago, leaving behind a little gap in my heart. A grandparent is often the first acute death young people experience, and it was difficult to cope when my grandma died. I’m fortunate that those closest to me have lived long lives thus far, so I haven’t experienced the pain of losing a parent, sibling, best friend, or significant other. However, I can still imagine our Frauenbild doesn’t know how to go on without her closest confidant– it was hard enough for me to reckon with my grandmother’s death.
In short, I think Frauenbild’s grief is warranted, even if her outlook is antiquated and colored by the views of men at the time.
Let’s allow the lyrics to speak for themselves for a moment.
The poetry in this piece evokes the acute pain of loss. Even in the translation, we can feel the burden of grief our protagonist is grappling with. The broken iteration of Seit ich ihn gesehen as a postlude is quintessentially Schumann and makes me cry, I won’t deny it. The piece is a beautiful end to the cycle, but not to this woman’s story.
Although her husband is dead, I want to hear an epilogue where she continues to grow alongside her grandchildren. I want to read her memoir recounting her travels with friends. I want our protagonist to volunteer at a hospital or mentor young colleagues in her field. I want her to go on living.
The beauty of existing as a 21st-century American woman is finally becoming the main character in our own stories. For so long, we lived in service to God and husband. We existed only to produce more people, which is a powerful job but limiting when we see all the options available for men.
I savor my worth as a human not being tied to whether or not I’m beautiful, married, or a mother. My value doesn’t lie in producing sons who can go on to do something great; I can be something great myself. Women have only experienced this power in the mainstream sense for a generation. I won’t take it for granted and I won’t let anyone take it away from me.
The death of our Frauenbild’s husband may have been the end of her story, but it’s not the end of our modern twist. After my grandpa died in 1999, my grandma went on to retire as the English department chair at Le Sueur High School, travel around Europe with her friends, and remain an integral part of my childhood. I’m sure she missed my grandpa deeply, but I only remember her as a sharp-witted, independent woman who lived and loved joyously. Although the grief of losing a loved one leaves a hole that no one can fill, our protagonist’s life will continue because it is her own, just like my grandma’s.
Thank goodness– I can’t imagine being a sidekick in my own story.
Now you’ve caused the first pain
But it hits me.
You sleep, you soft, merciful man,
The sleep of death.
The abandoned one looks ahead,
The world moves on.
I have loved and lived,
I go without you.
I find joy in those around me,
The grief dulls every day,
Where there was lost happiness
New life grows.