1902 Encyclopedia > Karl Theodor Körner

Karl Theodor Körner
German poet and soldier
(1791-1813)




KARL THEODOR KORNER, (1791-1813), German patriot and poet, was born at Dresden, September 23, 1791. His father, a prosperous lawyer, made his house in Dresden a centre of literary, musical, and artistic society, and was an intimate friend of Schiller; and his mother, a daughter of the copper-plate engraver Stock of Leipsic, enjoyed Goethe's friendship through life, and in her later years claimed it for her son. Theodor Körner was at first so delicate a child that his parents made the paternal vine-yard—the same in which Schiller sat and wrote Don Carlos a few years before—his summer schoolroom. They pre-scribed for lessons, gymnastics, riding, swimming, fencing, and the like, till the delicate boy grew into a young athlete, with a joyous, affectionate disposition which won the hearts of all who knew him. Partly at the Kreuzschule in Dresden, but chiefly with private tutors at home, Körner now studied languages, history, and mathematics. He was an adept at various kinds of fine wood-turning, could sketch, and play the guitar; but his happiest hours were spent over the volumes of Goethe and Schiller—the household gods ; and under their influence the boy began to write verses which his parents forbore to praise, but which displayed, even then, much of the facility and grace of his later poems. At the age of seventeen he went to the school of mines in Freiberg, and worked enthusiastically for two years at mathematics, mineralogy, and chemistry. The poems he wrote during this period were collected and published under the title Knospen. From Freiberg Körner went to the university of Leipsic, where for some months he studied philosophy, history, and anatomy. He founded there a poetical association, and became a member of the "Macaria" and more than one student club ; but he was unfortunately drawn into the hostilities then rife between two parties in the university, and, after fighting several party duels, was at last forced to leave the town to escape the results of a street fray in which he took part. From Leipsic he went to Berlin, and then to Vienna, with letters to his father's old friends, the Prussian ambassador Von Humboldt and Friedrich Schlegel. Two little pieces which he wrote for the stage, Die Braut and Der grüne Domino, were acted at the Vienna Court Theatre in July 1812 with great success ; and, with the consent of his parents, he gave up all his former plans, with the hope of being able to make a living by literature alone. His other works followed with astonishing rapidity. In some fifteen months appeared some dozen dramatic pieces and the librettos of a few operas (Das Fisckermädchen, Der vierjährige Posten, and Die Bergknappen), besides many short poems. One after the other all his plays were received at the Vienna Theatre with applause. Zriny, founded on an heroic incident in Hungarian history, was the favourite with the public ; but Goethe praised Die Braut, Der grüne Domino, and Die Sühne. In January 1813, at the age of one and twenty, Körner was appointed poet to the court theatre in Vienna. With the preparation of the libretto of an opera, Die Rückkehr des Ulysses, for Beethoven, and with the writing, printing, and stage preparation of his plays, the young poet's hands were now full; very busy and very happy he describes himself in his letters. His betrothal to a young Viennese lady, known now only as the " Toni " of his correspondence, was another source of happiness; but this bright career came suddenly to an end. In the early spring of 1813 there was published the Fatherland's Gall to Arms in the Struggle for Liberation, and Körner was one of the first to answer the summons. He left Vienna in March, and at Breslau joined the Prussian free-corps then forming under the command of Liitzow. When the corps was solemnly consecrated in the village church at Rogau a few days later, the service was opened with a chorale, set to Körner's words, " Dem Herrn Allein die Ehre "; and almost immediately afterwards, when Peters-dorf was sent on a mission to Dresden, to try to unite the Saxons in the common cause, the young poet was sent with him, and on this occasion published his spirited prose Address to the People of Saxony. Here Körner saw his parents and friends for the last time. In April he was made lieutenant by the vote of his comrades ; and a little later, having left the infantry, he was made adjutant to Liitzow himself. At Kitzen, near Leipsic, during the three weeks' armistice, he was severely wounded through the treachery of the enemy, but after several adventures escaped to Carlsbad, where he remained till he was well enough to resume his former post. Liitzow's free-corps was in almost daily action when the young adjutant was welcomed back. His cheerful zeal and self-denying helpfulness had endeared him to all his comrades, and it was hi? wild war songs, sung by many voices to old national melodies round the camp fires at night, that helped to spread that fervour in the corps which made it peculiarly terrible to the enemy. The poems written by him at this time are published under the title Ley er und Schwert. They include the lines " Abschied vom Leben." which were composed during the night when he lay wounded in the wood by Kitzen. The letters written by Körner to his parents at this time are tender and thoughtful—often aflame with patriotic fervour, but with now and then a ring of intense sadness which forebodes the end. This was very near. His last poem, " Das Schwertlied," was scribbled in his pocket-book at dawn on the 26 th of August, when the corps was prepared for action; and he was reading it to a friend when the order to attack was given. It is the wildest of all his war-songs, a love-rhapsody to his sword,—the soldier's bride; and it was this poem that suggested the refrain of Mrs Hemans's beautiful verses to his memory. In the engage-ment that followed, on the high road between Gadebusch and Schwerin, Körner, as adjutant, fought at Liitzow's side. The French were in great force, but were overcome and fled. Among the hottest in pursuit was Körner, who was mortally wounded, as he rode through a wood, by a shot from one of the fugitive tirailleurs who lay hidden there. He was buried with full military honours under an old oak on the road from Liibelow to Dreikrug, by the village of Wöbbelin, where there is now a monument to his memory.





Körner's position in the literature of his country is a peculiar one. He was not quite two and twenty when he died, and his works are necessarily but first-fruits—might all be included in the modest title Knospen—plentiful indeed, and full of promise of flowers to come. His earlier poems were hardly more than graceful and pleasing, and even his popular dramas scarcely entitle him to a igh place in the literature of his country. It was with the war that Körner's true inspiration came. Had he lived a life- time, he could never have excelled the productions of those few impassioned weeks ; but the homage which all Germany paid, and still pays, to the young poet's memory is due, not to his lyric genius alone, but to his bright youth also, and heroic death. His works have passed through many editions. That published in one volume, with a preface by Karl Streckfuss (Berlin, 1879), includes a sketch of his life, extracts from his letters, a few English transla- tions of his poems, and stanzas to his memory by German and English poets, of which last Felicia Hemans is the chief. There is an indifferent English translation of the life of Körner by his father, with selections from his works, by G. F. Richardson, 2 vols., 1827. (F. M.)







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