Philosophy

Pieter Geyl

When Pieter Catharinus Arie Geyl (1887–1966), one of the Netherlands’ foremost historians, was interred in a concentration camp because of his ‘suspect general mentality,’ he wrote the following poem. The sonnet “contains my philosophy, and colors my historical thinking,” Geyl once remarked before reciting his piece to Ved Mehta, staff writer for The New Yorker.

The stars are frightening. The cold universe / Boundless and silent, goes revolving on / Worlds without end. The grace of God is gone.

A vast indifference, deadlier than a curse / Chills our poor globe, which Heaven seemed to nurse / So fondly. ‘Twas God’s rainbow when it shone / Until we searched.

Now, as we count and con / Gusts of infinity, our hopes disperse.

Well, if it’s so, then turn your eyes away / From Heav’n. Look at the earth, in its array / Of life and beauty. — / Transitory? Maybe, / But so are you.

Let stark eternity / Heed its own self, and you, enjoy your day, / And when death calls, then quietly obey.

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