1902 Encyclopedia > Germany > [German Literature] The Period of Decay

(Part 36)


The Period of Decay

The period at which we have now arrived is in many respects the most dismal in German history. From 1618 to 1648 the country was desolated by the Thirty Years’ War, a struggle which—as Gustavus Adolphus, its greatest hero, declared—absorbed into itself all the other wars of Europe. It completed the disintegration of Germany, blurred every great national memory, fastened upon the people hundreds of petty despotisms, reduced the population by more than half, caused a whole generation to grow up in ignorance, accustome all classes to an almost incredible brutality of manners, and put an end to the material prosperity which had been steadily growing during the 16th century. It is not surprising that pure literature drooped and nearly died out during the time which followed this tremendous war, for the conditions of pure literature were almost wholly wanting. Had a man of high genius arisen, the buds of his fancy must have faded for lack of light and air.
The only species of literature for which the conditions were favourable was the religious lyric. Under the pressure of grinding care, with no hope that a better day would dawn for them in this world, meditative and gentle spirits devoted their thoughts to another life; and many of them linked themselves to the truest poet of the previous century by giving musical voice to their spiritual fears and joys. Their prevailing tone in regard to "things seen" is one of profound melancholy; but all the brighter are the strange lights from the invisible which break through the gloom. The greatest of these writers is Paul Gerhardt (1606-75), many of whose hymns—such as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, O Welt sieh hier dein Leben—penetrate to the essence of Christianity as the religion of humility, of sacrifice, and of sorrow. He has worthy associates among the Protestants in Johann Rist (1607-67), Joachim Neander (1610-88), and Louise Henriette of Brandenburg, wife of the Greek Elector (1627-67). Some of the wiser Jesuits also attempted the lyrical expression of religious feeling ;and of them, Friedrich von Spee (1592-1635), fell little short of the best among his Lutheran rivals. Spee was a man of admirable moral as well as literary qualities. Asked by the elector of Mainz how it happened that at the age of forty his hair was white, he answered, "It is because I have accompanied to the stake so many women accused of witchcraft, not one of whom was guilty."

The standard of pure speech set up by Luther in his translation of the Bible had not been maintained by later writers. The innumerable dialects of Germany are an almost inexhaustible fountain for the renewal of the youth of her literary language ; but when the literary language was less fixed than it is now, they were also a temptation to barbarism. In addition to the evils of excessive provinciality, the written speech had suffered from a too generous importation of Latin, Spanish, and French words. In the early years of the 17th century the prevailing laxity suggested to an enlightened prince, Louis of Anhalt-Köthen, that it would be desirable to introduce into Germany institutions resembling the Italian academies. Accordingly, in 1617, the "Fruchtbringende Geselllshaft" ("The Fruit-bearing Society") was established,—union which took the form of an order, with a palm tree for its emblem, and the words "Allas zu Nutzen" ("Everything for use") for its motto. It immediately became fashionable for members of the highest classes of central Germany to belong to this society ; and at a somewhat later time other societies were started imitation of it. Of these the most famous was the "Order of the Pegnitzschäfer" ("Shepherds of the River Pegnitz") in Nuremberg, which to some extent took the place of the school of meistersänger on which honour had been reflected by Hans Sachs.

These societies were associated with much pedantic folly, and from none of them proceeded any great work of genius ; but they did good service by at least protesting against unlawful forms of speech. One of the earliest writers who worked in their spirit was Weckherlin (1584-1651), who, being associated with the German embassy in London, became intimately acquainted with some of the many forms in which the English genius then revealed itself. He wrote a number of odes, idylls, and sonnets, with an evident desire to give them a careful artistic finish. To him belongs the doubtful honour of having introduced alexandrines into German poetry,—a measure totally unsuited to the national spirit, but which for more than a century was in generally use. The fame of Weckherlin was soon overshadowed by that of Martin Opitz (1597-1639). The beginnings of modern German poetry are often dated from the publication of his critical book, Die deutsche Poeterei, which appeared in 1624, and enjoyed an astonishing popularity. It became a sort of secular Bible to the "Fruit-bearing Society," of which Opitz was a member, and was regarded by several generations of verse-makers as an almost infallible guide. In regard to merely outward forms, it deserved its reputation, for Opitz was the first German writer who attempted sharply to distinguish the different species of poetry, to bring together some of the external laws which govern them, and to insist with emphasis that purity of style is essential to high literary effect. He altogether missed the fact, however, that poetry must be the expression of an emotional life ; it became in his exposition a mere handicraft, for excellence in which industry and familiarity with good models are alone necessary. The result is seen n his own lyrical and didactic poems, which are laudably correct in language and in metre, but are hardly once lighted up by the fire of intense feeling.

Opitz was born in Silesia ; and from this circumstance the writers who shared his tendency or came under his influence are known as the first Silesian school. By far the most distinguished member of this so-called school was Paul Fleming (1609-40), the only secular German poet of the 17th century of whom it can be confidently said that he was endowed with true genius. He did not live long enough to reveal his full capacity ; he confined himself to short rapid flights, and all lyrics are contained in a moderately sized volume, Geistliche und Weltliche Poemata. This single volume, however, comprises enough to secure for him an enduring place in literature. He moves freely over the whole range of lyrical poetry, but his charm is at once strongest and most delicate in his love verses, which sometimes recall the gaiety of Herrick, although a touch of sentimentalism distinguishes the German writer from the more worldly Englishman. A fine spirit of manliness is the note of Fleming’s sonnets ; and in several hymns he almost equals the religious depth of Gerhardt. Even in its artistic qualities his best work is higher than anything achieved by Opitz ; in its power of awakening human sympathies it stands alone in its era.

Another writer of the first Silesian school was Andreas Gryphius (1616-64), who sought to create a drama in accordance with the laws laid down by Opitz. He was the first German dramatist who divided his tragedies—of which he wrote five—into five acts ; but his characters are roughly conceived, and he produces his effects rather by violence and bombast than by the gradual evolution of a definite plan. His comedies, although also rude, have more life than his tragedies. In one of them, Peter Squenz, there are traces of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, of which Gryphius appears to have had some knowledge through a third writer. Friedrich von Logau (1604-55) applied the principles of Opitz in epigram. He had a decided talent for terse, emphatic expression, and a considerable number of the vast collection of his epigrams have a keenness of edge which must have made him a dreaded enemy. His prevailing tone is satirical, and the chief object of his satire is the moral corruption of his time. Joachim Rachel (1618-69) was another satirist who strove by means of polished verses to castigate popular vices; but he lacked force and invention. There was more vigour in the Scherzgedichte of Hans Wilmsen Lauremberg (1591-1659), who wrote in Platt Deutsch ; he, however, can hardly be claimed as a member of the first Silesian school. Philip von Zesen (1619-89), a writer of some versatility, wrought in the spirit of Opitz by warring against foreign words which had intruded into German,—a warfare in which his zeal was not always as wise as it was patriotic. He founded in Hamburg, in imitation of the "Fruit-bearing Society," an association (the "Deutschgesinnte Gesellschaft") inspired by his enthusiasm for Teutonic purity of speech.

While the admirers of Opitz were striving, with the best intentions, to introduce a correct poetic style, a movement of a very different kind originated among the "Pegnitzschäfer" of Nuremberg. The member of this society, conscious of the barreness of existing poetry, and not feeling in themselves the sources of a higher activity, turned for help to Italian literature. Instead of studying the great Italian poets they attached themselves to Marino and his extravagant school ; and the chief result was a number of fantastic pastorals, the writers of which seemed to have no other aim than to show how much silly affection the German language may be made to express. Their tendency was carried to its utmost development by the second Silesian school, whose leading representatives were Hoffmannswaldau (1618-79) and Lohenstein (1635-83). Hoffmannswaldau wrote odes, pastorals, and heroic epistles, which are marked by a childish foppery of manner, and whose tone affords startling evidence of the moral laxity of the society to which they were addressed. Lohenstein chiefly cultivated the drama, and he has the distinction of having written perhaps the worst plays ever accepted as literature by a modern community. They are so wild and bombastic that, even if presented as burlesques, they would now be condemned as ridiculously extravagant. The lyrics of this pretentious writer are not less crude and unnatural than his plays.

As the century advanced, the German courts passed more and more under the influence of France. Pocket editions of Louis XIV. were to be found in all the little capitals, courtiers talked more French than German, and it was unfashionable not to know, or not to affect to know, contemporary French literature. It was, therefore, inevitable that some writers should turn away from the path of the second Silesian school, and complete for court favour by imitating the French style. This was done by Canitz (1654-99), Besser (1654-1729), König (1688-1744), and many other authors of the same class. These "court poets" took Boileau for their guide, and had, therefore, the negative merit of avoiding the absurdities of Lohenstein and Hoffmannswaldau. But they were, as a rule, tame, cold, and dull. In Canitz alone, who was a Prussian statesman and wrote for his pleasure, is there any evidence of original energy ; the others were professional versifiers who produced appropriate odes and sonnets at the bidding of their employers.

During the greater part of the 17th century Germany produced few prose works that can now be tolerated. Notwithstanding the effort of the purists, the language became more and more corrupt, and most writers were either artificial, or pedantic, or coarse. One of the small number whose power we can still feel was Grimmelshausen, whose Simplicissimus (1659) has qualities bordering upon genius. The hero is a peasant son, who tells his own tale. Torn from his parents during the Thirty Year’s War, he is brought up by a hermit ;afterwards in the service of a commandant, he makes himself notorious for tricks like those of Tyll Eulenspiegel ; he then becomes a soldier, rises to wealth and rank, but ultimately loses both, passes through many wild adventures, and retires from the world to a desert island, in which he devotes himself to religion. The value of the book consists in its graphic pictures of the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War,—pictures relieved by touches of rough, sometimes of the coarsest, humour. Another writer of great but insufficiently cultivated talent was Moscherosch, author of Gesichte Philanders von Sittewalt (1650), which is partly an imitation of the Sueños of Quevedo. It is made up of a number of visions or dreams, some of which, like passages of Simplicissimus, convey a vivid idea of the sufferings of Germany during her great struggle ; in the writer strikes with effect at popular follies, including the extravagances of the second Silesian school. Sigmund von Birden wrote a history of the house of Austria, which, although one-sided, is not without merit as a plain narrative ; and an ecclesiastical history by Gottfried Arndt has some interest as an attempt to do justice to heretics condemned by the church. A very good book of travels was written by Adan Olearius, describing the adventures of a mission to Persia, of which the author and Paul Fleming were subordinate officials. A Protestant pastor, Balthasar Schupp (1610-61), was the author of several didactic prose works, which, although rough in form, display native wit, pour wholesome ridicule on the follies and barbarisms of contemporary writers. Against these more or less valuably prose writings we mush set piles of enormous romances in the style of D’Urfé and Mademoiselle Scudéry. The favourite authors of these astonishing productions were Buchholtz, who wrote Hercules and Valisca, and Herculiscus und Herculadisla ; Anton Ulrich, duke of Brunswick, whose Octavia was loudly applauded by aristocratic readers ; and Von Ziegler, the writer of the Asiatic Banise, an incredibly foolish book which, published in 1688, took Germany by storm, and maintained its popularity for more than a generation. Lohenstein was also the author of a romance, dealing with the fortunes of Arminius and Thusnelda. It is hard to understand the interest which works of this class once excited ; they are barren of every imaginative quality, with no kind of relation to life, and grotesque in style. They were ultimately driven from the field by imitations of Robinson Crusoe, which, notwithstanding the charm of their model, display no more talent the romances. Various writers imitated Simplicissimus, but they succeeded only in reproducing in an exaggerated form its occasional brutalities. Abraham a Sancta Clara (1642-1709), a Vienna priest, whose real name was Megerlin, revealed considerable power of satire in his Judas der Erzschelm ("Judas the Arch-Rogue"), and in pamphlets and sermons ; but his naturally rich fancy was wholly uncontrolled, and his humorous passages are marred by a far larger number in which he is pedantic or vulgar.

No progress was made during the 17th century towards the formation of a national drama. At the courts the Italian opera was the favourite entertainment, and the wandering companies of actors represented for the most part barbarous plays of their won devising, in which Hanswurst was generally the popular character. Occasionally a man of some talent found his way into these companies ; and one such actor, Velthen, showed so much insight as to include in his repertory some of the work of Molière. But the general tendency of what passed for the drama was from bad to worse, and the usual character of the plays to a considerable extent justified the hatred with which they were denounced by the clergy.

For a time it almost seemed as if Germany could never hope to emerge from the intellectual degradation into which she had sunk ; but in reality the higher forces of the nation were rallying in preparation for a new era. One of the first symptoms of revival was presented by the remarkable pietistic movement, which, although it ultimately led to the formation of the pettiest of petty sects, was in its origin noble both in aim and in method. Its originators were the ardent, generous, and eloquent Spener (1633-1705), and August Hermann Francke (1663-1727). The labours of these writers and preachers, who had close affinity to the mystics, not only gave more sincerity to religious forms, but did service to literature by quickening the popular intellect, and awakening emotions which could find no satisfaction in the tedious writings of the day. Of still greater importance were the beginnings of modern German philosophy. It was in this period that Germany gave birth to one of the most brilliant of her thinkers, Leibnitz (1646-1716). The prevailing style of the day—"Mischmasch," he called it—seems to have disgusted him with his own language, for nearly all his writings are in French or Latin. Nevertheless, he exercised a profound influence on the best minds of his generation. His monadalogy, his doctrine of the pre-established harmony, his theory of the best of possible worlds, while carrying on the central current of European thought, offered Germany new problems for solution, and helped to replace a rigid orthodoxy by a spirit of disinterested curiosity. The task of giving shape to his ideas was undertaken by Wolf (1679-1754), who had none of Leibnitz’s genius, and often crushed his fruitful suggestions under a burden of logical proofs. The disciple, however, so far taught in his master’s spirit as to exalt the claims of reason over mere authority ; he also encouraged habits of systematic thinking, and proved by his practice that serious writers had no excuse for clothing their doctrine in any other language than their own. Less philosophical than Leibnitz, and even than Wolff, Christian Thomasius (1655-1728) was an impressive popular thinker. He edited the first German periodical, a sort of monthly magazine, in which he vigorously attacked pedants and bigots. His style, although not pure or graceful, received glow and warmth from his moral earnestness. Through him literature became a great practical power, for it was mainly he who put an end to the burning to witches and to punishment by torture.

Even in poetry, before the close of this period, there were a few glimmerings of dawn. Wernicke, a man of cultivated and severe taste, published a volume of epigrams (1697) in which he thrust home at the follies of Lohenstein and his followers ; and that his mockery had effect was plain from the outcry of two noisy members of the school, Postel and Hunold. Günther (1695-1723), who died too soon for his genius, wrote lyrics in which the voice of nature was once more heard. "A poet in the full sense of the word," Goethe calls him ; and no one can realize how great was his achievement without making some acquaintance with his truly dismal predecessors. Brockes (1680-1747) had not Günther’s fine spontaneity, but he had the merit of giving simple expression to unaffected pleasures—a virtue for which historians of literature, remembering the formality of the court poets and the insincere posturing of the second Silesian school, readily forgive his occasional flatness and garrulity. He was the first German poet who displayed some knowledge of English literature. Although un-acquatined with Shakespeare, he directed his countrymen to Milton, Young, and Pope ; and he appended to his chief work, Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott, a fair translation of Thomson’s Seasons.

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