Literature At The End Of The Eighteenth Century
Poets Of The War Of Liberation
The Reaction Against Romanticism
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Literature At The End Of The Eighteenth Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The literature of Germany in the middle of the Eighteenth Century had shown many signs of social unrest and impending political revolution. This was especially evident in the drama. One of Klinger's plays "Sturm und Drang" (Storm and Stress), first acted in 1775, has given an appropriate name to the whole period. Many of these dramas, written by noblemen, revealed the deplorable condition of the down-trodden masses. They extolled liberty in hysterical speeches and urged revolt against tyranny and superstition. Yet while the feelings of the intellectual classes were deeply stirred, the people did not respond to the alarm. The threatening political storm seemed to pass over the land to take effect in France, from which much of the original impulse had come. The reason for this failure of political action undoubtedly lay in the divided condition of the Fatherland. Germany was broken up into some forty different States, varying in size and importance from the extensive territories of Austria and Prussia to petty principalities, the boundaries of which the ruler could traverse in a day's ride. The jealousies and absurd quarrels of these petty sovereigns and the rivalry of their subjects attracted and carried off the lightning which seemed about to dart from the lowering clouds.
Yet the great epic and lyrical poet, Klopstock, who survived a few years beyond the Century, had already roused a general enthusiasm for religion and the Fatherland. He was the first to direct the attention of modern Germans to the ancient hero Hermann or Arminius, who defeated the Roman legions in the Teutoburger forest. Hermann has now become the symbol of united Germany, but a full century was required to raise him to his destined elevation. The popular desire for unity steadily grew, but the people must pass through terrible trials, bloody wars and destructive commotions before a real union could be accomplished. The first of these afflictions was brought about by the agreement of the Emperor Leopold II and the King of Prussia to support the cause of Louis XVI against the revolutionary movement in France. This unfortunate coalition plunged all Europe into a conflict which destroyed the entire State system of the Continent. The Holy Roman Empire, which had prolonged into modern times the name, though not the glory, of the grandest political structure ever erected, was brought to an ignominious end when Francis II resigned the imperial crown at the bidding of Napoleon in 1806. During the struggle between France and Austria Frederick William III, King of Prussia, had selfishly held aloof, but he was destined to suffer in turn. When the Confederation of the Rhine, composed of the chief central and southern States of Germany, was formed under the protectorate of France, Frederick William, hoping for aid from England and Russia, declared war for which he was ill prepared. The first battle at Jena in October, 1806, laid Prussia prostrate at Napoleon's feet, and after a second battle at Friedland, the King was compelled to sign a treaty giving up the best part of his Kingdom and more than half his subjects. This national humiliation sank deeply into the hearts of the German people. The national spirit had already been roused by the lyrics of Klopstock and of his followers known as the Hainbund (Grove-alliance) ; they were students of Göttingen and had obtained this name by their dancing one night by moonlight around an oak tree and swearing to devote themselves to their native land. Under the wise and vigorous statesmanship of Stein and Hardenberg the Prussian system of education was remodeled, her people trained to be intelligent soldiers, and the whole country was regenerated. In a few years the War of Liberation, by which the French were driven out, called forth a grand outburst of patriotic song.
At the opening of the Century Goethe reigned supreme in the literary world. In his youth he had been deeply moved by the influences around him, but now he seemed to withdraw from the external world and find peace and comfort in the lofty regions of art. Yet in his heart he believed in a grand future for Germany and felt his duty to increase and promote the national culture. Before considering his career in detail, it is necessary to look at some of his predecessors. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) does not rank high as an original poet. Animated by a real enthusiasm for human happiness he was unable to give proper poetic expression to the deep feelings of his soul. But in his "Stimmen der Völker" (Voices of the Peoples) he brought together a splendid collection of the lyrics of many races, and thus prepared the way for the lyrical revival among his own countrymen. In his "Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit," (Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Humanity), he developed the idea of progress in the history of the world, and thus enlarged the scope of historical inquiry. He had the high honor of directing and stimulating the genius of Goethe at a critical stage, and had powerful influence on other leading writers. Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) is best known as the author of "The Messiah," an epic poem on the sufferings of Christ, in which he sought to surpass Milton, but failed to give the central figure distinct outlines. It has been pronounced an oratorio rather than an epic. His dramas are also failures from his want of sufficient knowledge of real life and stage craft. But in his lyrics his genius was shown in fiery patriotism, enthusiasm for humanity, and strong love for the grand phenomena of nature. Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-181'3) at the outset of his career was as religious and patriotic as Klopstock, but he passed into an Epicurean indifference. Of his numerous works the most pleasing is the romantic narrative poem "Oberon" which transports the hero on a fantastic errand to the court of the Caliph of Bagdad. In his later prose romances he discouraged enthusiasm and ridiculed the aspirations of his youth. Some of his stories treated themes of ancient Greek life in a thoroughly modern spirit. Gott-hold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781.) had more influence on the course of German literature. He produced dramas which still hold the stage, and wrote criticisms which have borne fruit in successive generations. In his "Laokoon" he defined the domains of art and poetry; by his work on the drama he abolished slavery to the French classical rules; and by his "Wolfenbüttel Fragments" he started the movement for higher criticism of the Bible. In his "Education of the Human Race" he showed that religions which may not be absolutely true may yet have value in leading toward higher moral ideals. The same idea is presented artistically in his finest work, the drama of "Nathan the Wise," the hero of which is an idealization of his friend, Moses Mendelssohn. It inculcates the duty of religious toleration.