It is all vain

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It's all vain is a sonnet by the baroque poet Andreas Gryphius from the time of the Thirty Years' War (1637). The title takes up the introduction to the book Kohelet (Preacher) ( Koh 1,2  Lut ).

The poem in full

You see / wherever you see only vanity on earth.
What this one builds today / that one tomorrow travels:
Where there are cities and towns / there will be meadows /
where a shepherd's child will play with the herds.

What is blooming and splendidly will soon come about.
What is now throbbing and defying is ashes and legs tomorrow /
Nothing is / that is eternal / no stone / no marble stone.
Itzt the happiness laughs at us / soon the complaints thunder.

The fame of high deeds must pass like a dream.
Should the game of time / the easy man exist?
Oh! what is all this / what we respect precious /

as bad nothingness / as shadow / dust and wind;
As a Wiesen-Blum / whom one does not find against.
Still want to look at what is eternal / not a united person!

Modernized version of the original text

You see wherever you look, only vanity on earth.
What this one builds today, that one tears down tomorrow:
Where there are still cities now, there will be a meadow,
On which a shepherd's child will play with the herds.

What is now still in bloom will soon be trodden down.
What throbbing and defying now will be ashes and bones tomorrow,
nothing is that is eternal, no ore, no marble stone.
Now happiness is laughing at us, soon the complaints are thundering.

The high deeds of fame must pass like a dream.
Should the game of time, the easy man, pass?
Oh! What are all these things that we consider precious,

As bad nothingness, as shadow, dust and wind;
As a meadow flower that you won't find again.
Still not a single person wants to look at what is eternal!

Shape analysis

The poem consists of four stanzas: the first two are four lines each, the last two have three verses each. The external shape thus corresponds to that of a sonnet : two quartets and two terzets . The rhyme scheme is[abba abba ccd eed]. The quartets thus consist of an encircling rhyme , the terzets begin with a pair of rhymes and are rhymed in their third verse ( tail rhyme ). The meter is the Alexandrian , a six-part iambic verse with 12 or 13 syllables.


In the second verse there is a personification of vanity named in the first verse. Just as happiness is humanized in verse eight. A special feature of the Alexandrian is his middle caesura after the third stressed or sixth syllable. As a result, the individual verse is divided into two parts, so to speak, with the second part confirming or reinforcing the content of the first ( parallelism ) or being in contrast to it ( antithesis ). In this sonnet, verses seven and twelve are parallel, for example verse 12:

As bad nothing, as shadow, dust and wind

The value judgment “nullity” is negatively reinforced by the threefold expansion of the content “shadow / dust / wind” and the attribute “bad”. At the same time, the rhetorical stylistic device of accumulation can be found in this verse . However, the antithetical verses predominate (vv. 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9), some of which contain two or even three pairs of opposites, for example verse 2:

What he is building today, he will tear down tomorrow

The contrast here is between the pronouns and the verbs left and right of the caesura (of the comma). The present sonnet thus proves to be a typical Baroque poem, as the Baroque period was strongly shaped by the awareness of the contradictions and transience of man and creation.

Due to the strophic structure and supported by the rhyme scheme, the poem formally receives another caesura after the second stanza. The two quartets are embraced by the same rhyme [abba]connected with each other. The two terzets are connected by the respective final rhyme d of the third verse; In addition, the third stanza closes with a comma and syntactically changes into the fourth stanza. This suggests that the quartets and terzets also form a unit in terms of content.


The structure of the content corresponds to the external form shown. The present sonnet is an argumentative text. In verse 1, the lyrical I sets up a thesis that contains the same statement as the title of the sonnet: You see wherever you look, only vanity on earth , here the word vanity stands in its old meaning transience . The remaining seven verses of the two quartets contain a series of individual observations that all earthly activity is futile and perishable: buildings become ruins, cities will perish again - not even ore and stone are everlasting. The construction principle of these five example sentences is parallelism (what-where-what-what). As a result, the lyrical ego poses the rhetorical question of how man - who is only a "game of time" - can endure at all. The answer is self-evident, but in the end it is emphasized again by the lyric self. Man with all his actions is just a bad thing , only shadow, dust and wind . At the same time, the statement As a meadow flower that you won't find again! This is reminiscent of the biblical statement in Psalm 103: Man's days are like grass, he blooms like the flower of the field. But if the wind passes over it, it is gone. The place where she stood no longer knows anything about her.

That will be the case as long as he, in his vanity and arrogance, still thinks he is the greatest and most significant in the world. Only when he looks at “what is eternal” (soul, beyond, God) will he abandon his hubris . Only then can he win immortality.

In this final verse, the poet's Christian worldview is revealed. The text is intended to get the readers of his time to concentrate on the essentials of human life, the eternal life after death, and to renounce everything earthly (overcoming the world). This world negation results from the experience of the uncertainty of life in the Baroque era. The Thirty Years' War with all its horrors and consequences (death, plague, famine) brought Andreas Gryphius to this attitude, which is also expressed, for example, in his sonnet Tears of the Fatherland .

Web links

Wikisource: It's all vain  - sources and full texts
  • Horst Schädlich: It's all vain (PDF), interpretation and analysis pp. 2–5; Further reading selection p. 21. In: Teaching materials for the Lyrix project , German Philologist Association and Museum Service Cologne, March / April 2011, accessed November 28, 2015.