Literature At The End Of The Eighteenth Century
Poets Of The War Of Liberation
The Reaction Against Romanticism
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Poets Of The War Of Liberation
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
When Prussia was crushed to earth under the iron heel of Napoleon it seemed impossible that she should ever recover her former status. But Baron von Stein (1757-1831), the great forerunner of Bismarck, was able in a few brief terms of office, in spite of the opposition of those with whom he had to work, to set in motion forces which liberated the country and started it on a new and more splendid career. His reputation as a clever financier had caused him to be recalled to the Prussian ministry after the disastrous battle of Jena, and he set about reorganizing all the departments of the government with such energy that Napoleon required his dismissal, but the work he commenced went on. German unity, which had long seemed to be a chimera, was made to appear feasible and the moral forces were roused in its behalf. Feudalism and serfdom were abolished and the people were roused to take an interest in governing themselves. The disastrous retreat of Napoleon from Moscow gave an opportunity for the new German spirit to manifest itself. At once a wave of enthusiasm passed over the land, the universities taking the lead in furnishing volunteers for the War of Liberation. The spirits of the people were cheered by the splendid lyrics of various poets, among whom the youthful martyr, Theodor Körner (1791-1813 ), takes the foremost place.
Körner, born at Dresden, went to the University of Leipsic, and afterward to Berlin and Vienna, where his dramas and the librettos to operas met such approval that he was appointed poet to the Court Theater. He was just engaged to be married when he heard the call to arms for the liberation of the Fatherland and responded. He was made lieutenant in the Prussian army and his wild war-songs sung to old national melodies round the campfires at night, spread such fervor in Lützow's volunteer corps, to which he belonged, that it became especially terrible to the enemy. They were afterward collected under the name "Lyre and Sword." His last poem, the celebrated "Sword Song," a love rhapsody to his sword, was written in a memorandum book at dawn of the 26th of August, 1813. In the pursuit of the French, who had been defeated, Körner was mortally wounded. Of his other pieces the most notable are "Lützow's Wild Chase," "Father, I Call Thee," and "Farewell to Life," written while he lay wounded.
Of much longer life, and equal patriotism, was Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769-1860). He was one of the pupils of Fichte, and became a professor of history at the University of Greifswald. His bold "History of Serfdom in Pomerania and Rügen" (1803), led to the abolition of that relic of barbarism. In "Geist der Zeit" (Spirit of the Time), (1807), he denounced the tyranny of Napoleon and called on the German people to unite in throwing off the hateful yoke. Great excitement followed, and the professor had to flee to Sweden. But his indefatigable pen kept up its activity, and numerous pamphlets excited hatred of the French domination. His poems and songs increased the popular enthusiasm, especially that famous one, "What Is the German's Fatherland?" When the liberation was effected, the poet returned and was made professor of history at the newly established University of Bonn, but his demands for constitutional reform offended the authorities and he was deprived of his chair. After twenty years' retirement, he was restored in 1840. He continued to lecture and write until his ninetieth year. His patriotic poems were collected in 1860, another of the famous ones being that "Song of the Fatherland" in which he thanks God for making iron that there might be weapons for freemen.
Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was another poet of the struggle against Napoleon, writing then under the name Freimund Reimar. Later he gave attention to Oriental studies and was made professor at Erlangen in 1826, and thence called to Berlin in 1841. Eight years later he retired to his estate at Coburg, where he continued to write inferior dramas and superior poems, many of the latter being translated or imitated from Oriental literature. He was master of thirty languages. His love of splendid imagery made Eastern poetry congenial to him, and his works exhibit a wonderful variety of lyrical forms from the most simple to the most complex. His most elaborate work is "Die Weisheit des Brahmanen" (The Wisdom of the Brahmans), (1836), in six volumes.
August Graf von Platen-Hallemund (1796-1835) was another poet who was affected by Oriental influences. He had been educated for a military career and served against France. He became proficient in many languages and wrote lyrics and other poems in the Oriental style, sonnets, and a long narrative poem on "The Abbasides" (1835). His fierce controversy with Heine afforded amusement at the time. He is considered the best classical poet of modern Germany, an aristocratic "sculptor of words and connoisseur of the sublime." He ridiculed the Romanticists in two comedies.
Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827) was a lyric poet who won the praise of the caustic Heine. Born at Dessau, he left his studies at the University of Berlin to take part in the War of Liberation, but returned in 1814. Later he traveled in Italy, and then became a teacher and librarian in his native town. He was cut off at the early age of thirty-three, but had already published several volumes of poems, edited a collection of the poets of the Seventeenth Century and translated "Modern Greek Popular Songs." His son, Friedrich Max Müller, has won fame by his philological labors in England. Two series of Müller's lyrics have had wide circulation from their having been set to music by Schubert : "Die Schöne Müllerin" (The Pretty Maid of the Miller), and "Die Winterreise" (The Winter Journey). In his "Songs of the Greeks" Müller gave voice to the sympathy of the German people for the Greeks in their struggle for independence against the Turks in 1822. The Greek Parliament afterward voted marble for the monument to Müller, erected at Dessau.
Two Austrian poets deserve mention, Zedlitz and Auersperg. Baron Joseph von Zedlitz (1790-1862), whose "Wreaths for the Dead" is a series of eulogies on noble men. His "Dungeon and Crown" treats of the last days of Tasso, who died before the day on which he was to be crowned King of Poets. Anton, Graf von Auersperg (1806-1876), chose to be known in literature as Anastasius Grün. His "Walk of a Vienna Poet" is his best work; he also wrote an epic, "Robin Hood."