Literature At The End Of The Eighteenth Century
Poets Of The War Of Liberation
The Reaction Against Romanticism
Read More Articles About: German Literature
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The name of Friedrich von Schiller is inseparably associated with that of his great friend. While the strong and healthy Goethe lived to his eighty-fourth year, the frail Schiller passed away in his forty-sixth. Yet he had accomplished a vast amount of work in both poetry and prose which the world will not willingly let die. He was pure and noble in heart and won the affectionate regard of his countrymen. He was born at Marbach in the Duchy of Würtemberg in November, 1759, His father was a Major and overseer of the Duke's gardens. The son was trained to be a military surgeon, but early showed his dislike for the army and his predilection for literature. Under the influence of the "Storm and Stress" period he composed at nineteen his first drama, "The Robbers," full of faults yet showing unregulated genius. The hero, Karl Moor, had been defrauded by his brother and ill-treated by the world. Therefore he became the chief of a band of robbers who revenge themselves on society. They commit many crimes, but at last Moor, on whose head a price is set, surrenders to a poor workman. Schiller was still a pupil in the medical school, and the Duke, learning that he was the author, forbade him to write except on medicine. When the dramatist slipped off to see his play he was imprisoned for two weeks. On his release he left the duchy altogether. But the popularity of the play went on. Schiller wrote more, attacking in the same revolutionary style the despotism and vices of the petty German courts. In "Love and Intrigue" he rebukes the sale of Hessian soldiers by their rulers. His tragedy, "Don Carlos," founded on the gloomy story of the son of Philip II of Spain, showed change in dramatic method. There is less extravagant declamation. The wayward Don Carlos falls a victim to the Inquisition and a court intrigue, while his magnanimous friend, Marquis Posa, dies for him in vain.
In 1789 Schiller was called to Jena to be professor of history. He wrote his "Rise of the Netherlands," and "History of the Thirty Years' War." After a few years he became acquainted with Goethe and in 1794 they became fast friends. The older poet declared that Schiller "created for him a second youth and made him again a poet, which he had almost ceased to be." The loving intercourse was equally beneficial for the younger; it made him more artistic, so that his poems became perfect in form without losing energy and warmth. Schiller published a literary journal to which Goethe contributed. The two friends competed in ballad making, and Schiller's ballads of this period are his best in strength of conception and dignity of style. They generally represent the conflict between the higher and the lower in man, and call upon the will to assert itself against circumstances. Such are "The Diver," "The Fight with the Dragon," "The Security." Others are remarkable tales from ancient history, as "The Cranes of Ibycus," "The Ring of Polycrates," dealing with the moral government of the world. His lyrical masterpiece is "The Song of the Bell," which describes the course of human life in connection with the casting and founding of a bell. The charm is enhanced by frequently varying the meter to suit the different aspects of the theme. This poem is nobly imitated in Longfellow's "Building of the Ship." Schiller's exultant "Hymn to Joy" was set to music by Beethoven.
In this period Schiller wrote a noble series of historical plays. His study of the Thirty Years' War had made him familiar with the grand figure of Wallenstein, who was drawn on by belief in his destiny to betray his Emperor. The trilogy relating to him consists of "Wallenstein's Camp," "The Piccolomoni," and "The Death of Wallenstein." In the first the devotion of the disorderly soldiers to their great leader is realistically shown. In the second the interest lies in the struggle in the soul of Max Piccolomini between his love for the beautiful Thekla, Wallenstein's noble daughter, and his loyalty to the Emperor. To end the struggle he dashes against the host of Swedes and falls. In the third Wallenstein is led by his self-deceiving belief in astrology to trust implicitly Max's father, Octavio, by whom he is betrayed. In the tragedy of "Mary Stuart," as in some others Schiller sacrifices truth of history to dramatic exigencies. The imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots is so carried beyond propriety by her unexpected liberty that on meeting Queen Elizabeth suddenly in the garden of the castle she insults her so as to bring upon herself the death sentence In "The Maid of Orleans," the heroine is not the peasant girl of history, who is burnt at the stake, but an ideal warrior maid who dies on the battle-field, because she has yielded for a moment to love for the English Talbot. His "William Tell" is a dramatic masterpiece, full of local color and noble patriotism. In this final tragedy Schiller renews his youthful energy and love of freedom and combines with them the highest art. It may be regarded as an emphatic protest against the despotism of Napoleon. Yet the author died at Weimar May 9, 1805, before he had seen the lowest degradation of his native land.