The Joy and Sorrow of the Olden Times by J. V. von Scheffel

Die Lust und Leid aus Alter Zeit – by Joseph Victor von Scheffel

“The Joy and Sorrow of the Olden Times,” translated from German by Samantha Haddon

It rustles in the horsetails,
Suspicious gleams the sea;
For swimming with mourning in its eyes
An Ichthyosaur makes its plea.

Denouncing the debauchery of the times,
Since an alarming reverberation
Was trembling the earth 
In the Lias Formation. 

The Plesiosaurus of old,
Who revelled in prosperity, 
The Pterodactyl freshly tipsy
Flew careless in legerity. 

The Iguanodon, the lout,
More brazen each Period amidst;
Already it had in broad daylight 
The Ichthyosaurs kissed!               

All foreshadowed a world catastrophe
This excess cannot be sustained!
What shall out of the Lias become, 
What knowledge will be gained?

Thus lamented the Ichthyosaur, 
As there crashed a deadly thud, 
Its last sighs faded unheard
In smoke and scorching flood.

They died at the same hour
The entire dinosaur caste;
They owed too much to the Cretaceous
Which twas presently past. 

And to those who will sing
This deposited ode so trite, 
They’ve composed a fossil dedication
Upon a coprolite!

1826-1886. Joseph Victor von Scheffel

Listen to the poem below:

Die Lust und Leid aus Alter Zeit by Joseph Victor von Scheffel
Translated from German and recited by Samantha Haddon.
A bold and colourful digital illustration of the events depicted in the poem. Each scene is framed in a circle and rectangle, and each frame is connexted with another frame. Each and every gap of this portrait is filled with colour and silly prehistoric animals, like sea stars, tailed frogs, insects, ammonites, squids, and leaves. All text appears on a curling banner below the more important figures. The most prominent image is a crying Ichthyosaurus under a full moon (labelled Ichthyosaurus). Left of it is a "Plesiosaurus" with angry eyebrows tossing fish from a can into the air to catch with its mouth. To the right is a drowsy "Pterodactylys" with a bottle in one hand and a lit match in the other. Bottom left are two dinosaurs kissing on the beach. Bottom right shows the Ichthyosaurus surrounded by dead dinosaurus and shocked by a thunderstorm. Below the portrait is the word "Souvenir."
Guest art by Katrin Emery (Website: kemery.ca Instagram: @earth.sister Twitter: @KatrinEmery)
You can buy this print on her Etsy shop.

This poem was sung at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology field conference in 1948 by Rainer Zangerl. By request, it was published in the following year’s SVP news bulletin, which circulated to all members. Send us a request if you would like to read the poem in its original German. The English version featured here was translated for us by Samantha Haddon.


The natural history of this poem

The Lias Formation referenced in this poem refers to the Lias Group, a group of geological formations from the latest Triassic and Early Jurassic Periods (200 to 180 million years old). The word Lias itself is a derived from Middle English and referred to the limestone commonly seen in the United Kingdom. The Lias Group term is used not just in the UK, but also in Denmark, France, and Germany. The Lias Group was deposited in a warm shallow to deep marine environment ,and contains nearly all of the ancient organisms listed in the poem as well as ammonites, fish, and the occasional dinosaur skeleton. The one exception to this is Iguanodon, which is known from younger deposits of Early Cretaceous age (126 and 122 million years ago). Iguanodon is likely mentioned as it is one of the more famous European fossil reptiles, being one of the original dinosaurs found in the early 1800s that helped spark palaeontological science.

Joseph Victor von Scheffel

This black and white illustration could be of any white guy between 1800-1950. He has a mustache, his glasses are too tiny, he wears a high popped collar with a ribbon tied around it. Severe widow's peak. This guy just looks like Teddy Roosevelt.
Joseph Victor von Scheffel. Illustration by Anton von Werner, found on Wikipedia.

Joseph Victor von Scheffel was a writer and poet, well-known for his comedic poems about natural history. His father was a major in the Baden army and civil engineer, and his mother was an intellectual known for her “romantic disposition.” Joseph’s writing style was both romantic and nationalistic. His most popular novels were romanticized accounts of German history. He wrote several songs that, intended or not, became popular amongst beer-drinking students. This includes the “Joy and Sorrow of the Olden Times.”

Joseph may never have pursued a writing career if it hadn’t been for his disability. Joseph started out in a legal career, but by his late 20s his eyesight had deteriorated to the point that he had to quit. He was unable to pursue his backup career of being a teacher for similar reasons. Though Joseph had written some poetry while working for the government, his writing career began in earnest after he quit.


Further Reading

Poem source:

  • Society of Vertebrate Paleontology News Bulletin No. 26, 1949.

Natural History

  • The Jurassic Coast of Lyme Regis – LymeRegis.com

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