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 Romantic school in Germany had much in common with the Romanticists of France, whose views and practices, aims and doctrines have already been described. Yet they had peculiar features, due to nationality, circumstances, and above all philosophy, which had been so popularized_ by the labors of Kant, Fichte and Schelling, that it had become a fashion and indeed a craze. J. G. Fichte (1762-1814) who was professor at Jena, then the focus of philosophy for Germany, regarded the external world as the projected creation of the Ego or individual. Each man has or makes his own world. There is therefore an infinite variety of worlds and no uniform principle pervades them. This Transcendentalism, or rather wild idealism, had important moral and social consequences. It abolished at once the moral law, for no law could be made to bind the differing and opposing worlds. It made the individual superior to society, and his will superior to any agreements of others, for after all, what were they but creations of his mind? F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854), who also lectured at Jena, gave a poetical turn to the new doctrine by dwelling on the relations between mind and nature. He called his system Nature-philosophy; it was really an idealistic pantheism, such as may be seen in the philosophic poetry of Wordsworth. Some of his disciples insisted on the mystery of human life and the world, and thus assisted the movement toward the introduction of supernatural in literature.
The students trained under these philosophers found different modes of expression for their intellectual activity. Some in wild dramas and romances gave examples of the individual will opposed to the laws and conventions of society in whatever shape. From this substitution of individual caprice for moral law of any kind, others went on to declare opposition to spiritual progress and to glorify the flesh. Instances of this reversion to barbarism are not wanting in the Romantic literature of any country. Byron and Shelley furnish examples in some of their works. Friedrich Schlegel is a German example of the same, and in one of his works has set forth his idea of "charming lawlessness," which is really moral dissoluteness. He insists upon being allowed this freedom in writing as in practice. On the other hand, there were refined, spiritual natures who sought for separation from the sinstained world, and longed for a perfect transfiguration. Such a person was the saintly Hardenberg, known by his assumed name Novalis (1772-18o i) . He concluded that the highest attainment of the human spirit is rest and that conscious activity is sin. The visible world is a chaotic dream, and actual life which calls constantly for exertion of the will is a disease of the spirit. He went on to hold that the true object of poetry is to represent the supernatural, miraculous and irrational. His poems and mystical prose writings still find admirers.
But there were other professors at Jena who were directly concerned with literature. The chief was August W. von Schlegel (1767-1845) who made the admirable poetic translation of Shakespeare, which has rendered the great English dramatist a German classic. Schlegel founded the "Athenaeum," a literary journal to propagate his views. He accompanied Madame de Staël in her tour in Germany. With his brother, Friedrich, he promoted the study of foreign literatures, including the Sanskrit. Heine, however, has maliciously caricatured A. W. Schlegel, who was lacking in creative power. Friedrich was the first to attempt a complete history of the literature of the world.
The early Romanticists were not in sympathy with the world around them. They found it dull and formal and without the proper elements for the nourishment of the mind and spirit. Some of them in their search for what they missed went back to the Middle Ages, when chivalry and faith prevailed. They drew splendid pictures of the devout piety which was supposed to regulate all the affairs of life and produced the grand cathedrals with their splendid architecture, painting and sculpture, and their elaborate ritual. Others were attracted by the recent discoveries of the wealth of Oriental literature Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit. Others found satisfaction in English literature, making Shakespeare the god of their idolatry. Still another group were content with the early writers of their own land. Many mediaeval authors, who had been neglected, were now brought to light. In this search for the new and strange, or for the old and forgotten, some called attention to the folk-lore and folk-songs which had previously been considered outside of the pale of literature. The noble-hearted brothers Jacob and William Grimm, in addition to their scholastic labors, gathered the simple nursery tales which have since become household favorites in all lands. The merit of these simple stories once revealed, some writers, as Tieck, set to work to enlarge the stock. But there is generally an extravagance and pretentiousness in the modern inventions which distinguishes them from the simplicity and playfulness of the genuine antiques.
The Romanticists at first regarded themselves as disciples of Goethe in literature, for there was much in his writings that seemed to favor the new tendency, but they gradually 'separated themselves from his dominion. Where Goethe urged self-restraint, they clamored for free-will. They rejected the sense of order in literary form, and indulged in all manner of extravagant freaks. In this respect Jean Paul Richter, who preceded the Romanticists, was the chief offender.
The influence of the Romanticists was not confined to literature. It entered into practical life. Many of its adherents became so filled with enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, as reconstructed by their fancy, that they sought to revive mediaevalism in every direction. On art it had profound influence, which still remains. It deepened the sense of mystery in religion, and led many into the Catholic Church. It restored general appreciation of the life of the Middle Ages, and led to closer and fuller examination of its history with many marvelous results. It led to a universal recognition that there are elements in man and the world which cannot be definitely stated but can only be felt in their manifestations.
The most prominent and most prolific of the German Romantic novelists is Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853). He was born in Berlin and from boyhood showed passionate fondness for Shakespeare and the theater. On graduating from the University of Halle, he devoted himself to literature, his earliest work being melodramatic tales. His "William Lovell" (1775), is a wild story of seduction, murder and robbery. Next he made satirical farces out of "Puss in Boots" and "Blue Beard." Then coming under the influence of the Schlegels, he translated dramas from the Spanish and from Ben Jonson. In original work he was an interpreter of medieval life in the curiously constructed dramas "Genoveva" (1800), and "Emperor Octavian" (1804). For the sake of his health he went to Italy in 18o5, and made a long stay during which a change came over his spirit and manner of writing. -He dropped his medievalism and gave attention to artistic construction. Henceforth there is in his tales considerable resemblance to some of Hawthorne's weird short stories. It is probable that the American learned from the German something of his art of making nature exercise direct and conscious influence on the human spirit. Tieck's new manner was first shown in the collection called "Phantasus" (1812), in which plays and stories are brought together in a framework of aesthetic conversation. In later works with great ingenuity he blended with the story his comment, which is often ironical, here again resembling Hawthorne. In "The Pictures" there is a dissipated painter Eulenböck, who gets a beggarly living by forging old masters when he might have acquired fame and for-tune by original work. On the other hand in "Luck Brings Brains" a man of weak character is roused to proper exertion and realization of his powers by having responsibility thrust upon him. Two contrasted historical pieces are "A Poet's Life," referring to Shakespeare, and "A Poet's Death," to Camoens. More than once Tieck seems to have tried to make a story counterpart to "Wilhelm Meister." This may have been the case with "William Lovell," written in his youth, and more probably with "Sternbald's Travel" and "The Young Carpenter." In "Vittoria Accorambona" (1840), Tieck approaches the modern French school of fiction. Since 1819 he had been a resident of Dresden, where he was active in directing the royal theater and gave dramatic readings in the court circle. He translated the English dramatists before Shakespeare, and lent his name to the completion of Schlegel's poetic translation of Shakespeare. At the age of seventy he returned to his native city by invitation of the King of Prussia. He died in 1853.
Tieck's original powers seem to have been held in check by self-criticism, which produced self-distrust. He was never able to do any large work, but his small pieces often exhibit unmistakable genius. His want of self-confidence is shown in his ready submission to successive influences, while his genius enabled him to produce excellent work in each new style. His natural inclination was most in accord with a moderate Romantic tendency.
The weirdly beautiful tale of "Undine" is the immortal classic of the Romantic era. Its author, Baron Fried-rich de la Motte Fouqué (1777-1843) , was a valiant warrior as well as an industrious writer. His family name shows his French descent, and his Christian name was taken from the great Friedrich, of Prussia, whose godson he was, and in whose army his father and grandfather were officers. At the age of seventeen he himself commenced his military service, and ten years later he became an author. With the encouragement of the Schlegels he published various dramas under the name Pellegrin, then poems and a romance. By 1808 public favor shown to these warranted his putting his own name to his story of "Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer," the first of a series taken from the old Norse legends. Then came the chivalric romance of "The Magic Ring" (1811), and other tales and plays. The year 1814 was signalized by a story for each season, the spring number being "Undine," the autumn number "Aslauga's Knight," which Carlyle translated in his "German Romances," and the winter number "Sintram and His Companions." In 1813 the baron had buckled on his sword again, but after the battle of Lützen was disabled by illness and honorably discharged. Again he took up the pen and nearly every year till his death in 1843 issued a volume. For some years the German people eagerly waited for each new romance, then the fashion changed. The popular writer outlived his vogue. But "Undine" has never lost its charm, and the other remances of the year 1814 are often bound with it.
"Undine" tells how a water-nymph, of beautiful human form, desired to obtain a human soul. This could only be done by winning and retaining the love of a human being. She frequented the hut of two old fisher-folk on an island, and was treated as their daughter. By rendering help to a wandering knight she won his regard and was married to him. For a time their lives were happy, but his cousin, who had hoped to marry him, excited distrust of the gentle nymph, and when she is called by her former companions to rejoin them in the Danube, she plunges in the stream. Throughout the story there is an ethereal beauty, enhanced by the simple style, The super-natural is so exquisitely blended with the natural that the reader gladly accepts the whole as poetically true.
Far different in effect, and more widely improbable, are the gruesome tales of horrors presented by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822). The man himself was as different as possible from the moral, amiable Fouqué. Though clever in music and painting, and learned as a jurist, he was dissipated and reckless, malicious and sarcastic, and frequently brought disgrace on himself, and trouble on his friends. Yet he was powerful as a writer, and used his imaginative talent on frightful superstitions and myths. But these are so accompanied by brilliant descriptions, and stirring dialogue, that they allure even while they repel. "Der Elixire des Teufels" (The Devil's Elixir), shows revolting delusions; but among his smaller pieces "The Golden Top," and "Master Martin and His Comrades" are the most pleasing.
Among the Romantics whose fame has passed away was Clemens Brentano (1777-1842), who had some originality of thought and fancy, and with the aid of his brother-in-law, Achim von Arnim (1781-1831), made a collection of popular lyrics, "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Boy's Wonder Horn). Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838) was by birth and training a Frenchman, but in his literary activity, a German. In 1815 he was appointed the botanist of a Russian expedition which circumnavigated the globe, and after his return he had charge of the botanical gardens at Berlin. He wrote some tales after the romantic fashion and lyrics in which there is often true pathos. But he is best known by the story of "Peter Schlemihl" (1814), the man who lost his shadow. It was written for a friend's children, and has proved popular with children of all nations by its fun and lively incidents, while to older readers it may seem an allegory of the author's life. With the Romanticists may be associated Johann Heinrich Daniel Zschokke (1771-1848), who, though born in Prussia, lived most of his life in Switzerland, and devoted his historical labors to his adopted country. His "Pictures of the Swiss" and his romantic tales, "The Creole," "The Goldmakers' Village," "Jonathan Frock," had wide circulation. But his most celebrated work is "Stunden der Andacht" (1806), (Hours of Devotion), which consists of meditations on death and eternity.
The lovely collection of "Household Fairy Tales" has rendered the names of the brothers Grimm familiar in all parts of the world. Yet it was only an episode of their life-work. The elder, Jacob L. C. Grimm, was born at Hanan, in Hesse Cassel, in 1785, and William a year later. Jacob, at the University of Marburg, came under the influence of Savigny, the celebrated investigator of Roman law, and followed that scholar to Paris as his assistant for a year. He returned to become a librarian at Cassel, yet was employed occasionally in diplomatic duties at Paris and Vienna. The two brothers henceforth worked together in more than one library. They, with others, were dismissed from Göttingen in 1837 for signing a pro-test against the King's abrogation of the State Constitution, but in 1840 they were called to Berlin. Jacob was stout and robust, and worked without pause at his great "German Dictionary and Grammar." William, who had been equally robust in boyhood, lost his health in youth, and remained weak the rest of his life. When he married, his elder brother continued to live with him. William had greater love of poetry, and was fond of story-telling. The two brothers had begun to collect the old epics, ballads, and tales, when the younger suggested a collection of popular stories from books and from mouths of the people. The first edition of the "Kinder und Haus-Märchen" (Children's and House Stories) came out in 1812-15. Then they went on to a critical sifting of the oldest epic traditions of the Germanic races in their "Deutsche Sagen" (German Stories). This prepared the way for Jacob's great work on "German Mythology" (1835), which traced the Teutonic myths and superstitions as far back as evidence would allow. It also treated of the decay of these myths under change of religion and showed their fragmentary survival in traditions, stories, and proverbial expressions. William died in 1859, while the elder Jacob survived till 1863. Out of their lighter labors, so apparently trivial in their origin has grown, not only the vast literature of folk-lore, but the important science of comparative mythology. But the literary value of these stories really lies in their delightfully naïve style, which has captivated all readers. The tender-hearted brothers, whose affection and kindred tastes bound their lives so closely together, opened the doors of fairyland to the whole world.
William Grimm, in his preface to the Tales describes their character: "The sphere of this world is limited. Kings, princes, faithful servants, honest craftsmen, fishermen, millers, charcoal-burners, and shepherds, all the folk who live nearest to nature, appear in it; what lies beyond is strange and unknown. As in myths that tell of the Golden Age, all nature is alive; sun, moon, and stars are accessible, bestow gifts, or may, perhaps, be woven in garments; in the mountains dwarfs are digging for precious metals, in the sea the water spirits rest; birds, plants, and stones talk and express their sympathy; even blood speaks and cries out. This innocent familiarity of the greatest and the smallest has an inexpressible charm, and we could rather listen to the conversation between the stars and a poor child lost in the forest than to the music of the spheres."
Somewhat allied with the Romantic movement, was a class of plays known as Destiny dramas. The chief author of these was the eccentric poet, Friedrich Ludwig Zacharias Werner (1768-1823). It is said that his mother, at the time of his birth, was insane, and believed herself the Virgin Mary. Leaving the Prussian civil service, in 18o6, Werner traveled through Germany and Switzerland, visiting Goethe and Madame de Staël, who sent him on to Italy. At Rome he was converted to Catholicism, and in 1814 was ordained a priest, and be-came noted for half-mad pulpit eloquence. In his Destiny dramas, the heroes are shown to be guided by fate, either to the realms of light, or the abode of night and flames. Those who are born angels pass through some trials and are duly admitted to the destined heaven. Destined lovers find each other, no matter how widely separated. In most of these dramas Werner took the cheerful view of fatalism, but in the "Twenty-fourth of February" he shows a per-son destined to a succession of misfortunes on that day on account of a curse pronounced upon him by one whom he had offended.