Sehnsucht: Wikis


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Sehnsucht is a German noun translated as "longing", "yearning" and "craving"[1], or in a wider sense a type of "intensely missing". However, Sehnsucht is almost impossible to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state. Its meaning is somewhat similar to the Portuguese word, saudade. The stage director and author Georg Tabori called Sehnsucht one of those quasi-mystical terms in German for which there is no satisfactory corresponding term in another language. Sehnsucht is a compound word, originating from an ardent longing or yearning (das Sehnen) and addiction (die Sucht). However, these words do not adequately encapsulate the full meaning of their resulting compound, even when considered together.[2]

Sehnsucht took on a particular significance in the work of author C. S. Lewis. Lewis described Sehnsucht as the "inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what." In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress he provided examples of what sparked this desire in him particularly:

That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.[3]

It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call "home". In this sense it is a type of nostalgia, in the original sense of that word. At other times it may seem as a longing for a someone or even a something. But the majority of people who experience it are not conscious of what or who the longed for object may be. Indeed, the longing is of such profundity and intensity that the subject may immediately be only aware of the emotion itself and not cognizant that there is a something longed for.


The concept of Sehnsucht in Lewis' writings

The key ingredient of the experience, as Lewis treats it, is that this longing—never fulfilled—is itself sweeter than the fulfillment of any other human desire. Another feature is that it is so deeply personal that it does not occur to the one feeling it that others would have similar experiences and so is rarely communicated verbally. For most people it is something which cannot be put into words. Indeed the present description of Sehnsucht is itself inadequate and is only suggestive of it. Yet, though difficult to define, Lewis maintained that this is a universal experience.

In The Weight of Glory Lewis says

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Another feature of Sehnsucht, as we see in the preceding quote, is that one may have the impression that in childhood we were much closer to a grasp of the object of the Sehnsucht-longing whereas now we have only the remembrance of it, or even merely the shadow of a remembrance. There is regret in that we no longer know what we long for, if we ever did. So, for instance, in "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd we hear

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse,
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child is grown, the dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb.

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis focuses again on the apparent uniqueness of the object of each person's longing.

You have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw—but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported . . . All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want . . . which we shall still desire on our deathbeds . . . Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.

Thus, any attempt by the artist to evoke Sehnsucht in the viewer is likely to fail. We each may have such a remembrance but that which does the reminding will differ too much from person to person. As the above quote illustrates, Lewis personally identified the true object of Sehnsucht-longing with God and Heaven. As such it is a starting point for the Argument from Desire. It played a central role in his own conversion from atheism to Christianity as is described in the autobiographical Surprised by Joy.

To the reader who grasps Lewis' meaning and identifies Sehnsucht in his own experience it may come as a surprise to find so little explicit discussion of the Sehnsucht experience in other writers (that is, other than those who are discussing Lewis), whether labeled as "Sehnsucht" or not. (an exception is Sigmund Freud, and, arguably, many religious mystics.) On the rare occasions we do find it, the writers, especially poets, will more often convey the experience as personally significant but are seemingly unaware that it is a universal human experience; they describe their experience as if it were unique to them, with no hint that they expect their hearers to recognize similar feelings. For example, Pink Floyd above and the following passage from St. Thérèse de Lisieux's autobiography

Let me suppose that I had been born in a land of thick fogs, and had never seen the beauties of nature, or a single ray of sunshine, although I had heard of these wonders from my early youth, and knew that the country wherein I dwelt was not my real home—there was another land, unto which I should always look forward. ... From the time of my childhood I felt that one day I should be set free from this land of darkness. I believed it, not only because I had been told so by others, but my heart’s most secret and deepest longings assured me that there was in store for me another and more beautiful country—an abiding dwelling place. I was like Christopher Columbus, whose genius anticipated the discovery of the New World. And suddenly the mists about me have penetrated my very soul and have enveloped me so completely that I cannot even picture to myself this promised country … all has faded away.

See also


Additional references

  • Bruner, Kurt; Ware, Jim (2005), Finding God in the Land of Narnia, Tyndale House, ISBN 0-8423-8104-X 

External links Editing Sehnsucht (section) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

by Arthur Hugh Clough
Information about this edition

Whence are ye, vague desires,
Which carry men along,
However proud and strong;
Which, having ruled to-day,
To-morrow pass away?
Whence are ye, vague desires?
Whence are ye?

Which women, yielding to,
Find still so good and true;
So true, so good to-day,
To-morrow gone away.
Whence are ye, vague desires?
Whence are ye?

From seats of bliss above,
Where angels sing of love;
From subtle airs around,
Or from the vulgar ground,
Whence are ye, vague desires?
Whence are ye?

A message from the blest,
Or bodily unrest;
A call to heavenly good,
A fever in the blood
What are ye, vague desires?
What are ye?

Which men who know you best
Are proof against the least,
And rushing on to-day,
To-morrow cast away.
What are ye, vague desires?
What are ye?

Which women, ever new,
Still warned, surrender to;
Adored with you to-day,
Then cast with you away,
What are ye, vague desires?
What are ye?

Which unto boyhood’s heart
The force of man impart,
And pass, and leave it cold,
And prematurely old,
What are ye, vague desires?
What are ye?

Which, tremblingly confest,
Pour in the young girl’s breast
Joy, joy, the like is none,
And leave her then undone,
What are ye, vague desires?
What are ye?

Ah yet! though man be marred,
Ignoble made, and hard;
Though broken women lie
In anguish down to die;
Ah yet! ye vague desires,
Ah yet!

By Him who gave you birth,
And blended you with earth,
Was some good end designed
For man and womankind;
Ah yet! ye vague desires,
Ah yet!

The petals of to-day,
To-morrow fallen away,
Shall something leave instead,
To live when they are dead;
When you, ye vague desires,
Have vanished;

A something to survive,
Of you though it derive
Apparent earthly birth,
But of far other worth
Than you, ye vague desires,
Than you.

PD-icon.svg This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




From German Sehnsucht.



Sehnsuchts  or Sehnsüchte

Sehnsucht (plural Sehnsuchts  or Sehnsüchte)

  1. A yearning or longing.
    • 1902, William James, The Varities of Religious Experience, Folio Society 2008, p. 324 (footnote):
      An excellent old German lady, who had done some travelling in her day, used to describe to me her Sehnsucht that she might yet visit ‘Philadelphia’, whose wondrous name had always haunted her imagination.



  • IPA: /ˈzeːnzʊxt/


Sehnsucht f. (genitive Sehnsucht, plural Sehnsüchte)

  1. longing


Related terms


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