1902 Encyclopedia > Germany > [German Literature] The Century of the Reformation

(Part 35)


The Century of the Reformation

It is possible that if there had been no Reformation the Renaissance would have revealed itself in Germany in a great literary movement, as in France and England, or in a great artistic movement, as in Italy. The conditions of both movements were present in the labours of the humanist on the one hand, and of the Holbeins, Albert Dürer, and Lucas Cranach on the other. But the questions of the Reformation were too profound and agitating for the mind of the nation to turn seriously to any task save that which they imposed. Thus it happened that the young shoots of the Renaissance withered almost before they were in leaf. It was settled that Germany must wait until a much later time for the full exercise of her highest energies.
In literature not less than in religion Luther (1483-1546) was the commanding spirit of the age ; but he was so rather by ancient than by choice. For form for its won sake he cared little ; he studied it solely that he might the better produce the moral effect at which he aimed. It is hardly possible for any one to sympathize now with the violence and the dogmatism of his tracts, addresses, and sermons ; but they had the high merit of addressing the nation in a language it could understand. They are always clear, simple, warm with the glow of a passionate nature ; and amid their noise and fury an attentive ear will sometimes catch the still small voice of a spirit touched to finer issues than mere party warfare. "My husk may be hard," he himself said, "but the kernel is soft and sweet." We do extreme injustice to Luther if we do not recognize in him a strongly poetic element, —an element which had free play only in the best of his private letters, and his still popular hymns. By the highest of his literary achievements, his translation of the Bible, he made a truly splendid contribution to the spiritual life of his people. No body of literature has been so fortunate in its translators as the Scriptures ; and Luther’s renderings ranks with the best. Its absolute simplicity brings it to the level of a child’s understanding ; its strength and grace give it an enduring place as a work of art. Germany instantly felt its charm ; and for three centuries it has been to innumerable millions the supreme consoler and sanctifier, the power associated with their tenderest, most pathetic memories, the one link which has connected sordid lives with noble and sublime ideas. And for the first time it gave the nations a literary language. Up to this stage every author had written in the dialect with which he was himself familiar ; henceforth for the men of Swabia, of Bavaria, of Saxony, and of all other districts there was a common speech, which the writers of each state could use without any sense of inferiority to those of another. It is thus to Luther that the Germans owe the most essential of all the conditions of a truly national life and literature. The writer who deserves to stand next to Luther is Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523). An accomplished humanist, he effectively attacked the enemies of the new culture in the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum, of which he was one of the chief writer. This was before the special work of Luther began ;and at a still period he had assailed in a series of fine Latin orations the tyranny of Duke Ulrich of Würtemberg, who was accused of murdering a member of Hutten’s family. He had little real sympathy with Luther’s religious aims ; but he threw himself heartily into a movement by which it seemed possible to purge the state of the spiritual and secular ills which were in deadly antagonism to the progressive energy of humanism. His German writings are mainly short satirical poems and prose dialogues and addresses. Their style is direct, bold, and trenchant ; but they are now interesting mainly because of the spirit of freedom which breathes through them, the lofty political ideals of the writers, and his generous ardour for the popular welfare.

A far more voluminous author than Hutten or Luther was Hans Sachs, meistersänger of Nuremberg (1494-1576). He was, indeed one of the most prolific of German writers, having composed, according to this own calculation, more than 6000 poems. Although extremely popular in his own time, Sachs was almost forgotten after hid death. His memory was revived by Wieland and Goethe, and he is now universally admitted to have been the chief German poet of the 16th century. Every species of verse then known he freely cultivated, and there is no important element of his age which is not touched in one or other of his works. He had little of the culture of the schools, and many of his verses are excessively rude. But Hans had considerable force of imagination, sly humour, and, in his happiest moments, a true feeling for melody. His best works are his "Shrove Tuesday Plays." It is true he makes hardly more attempt than Rosenblüt to develop a dramatic action, but his characters have life, and in many individual scenes are artistically grouped. His didactic dialogues an satirical tales present a remarkably vivid picture of the ideas, controversies, and moral sentiments of his generation ; and some of his lyrics still live in the memory of the nations. The song in which he hailed the "Wittenberg Nightingale" gave fine utterance to the reverence of the Lutherans for their chief, in his hymn, Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz? He so happily met the spiritual need of the day that it was soon translated into eight languages, including English, French, and Greek.

If Hans Sachs was the most industrious poet of the century, Johann Fischart was beyond all comparison its greatest satirist. There was a distinctly Rabelaisian touch in this restless, bizarre, and effusive spirit,—a man of upright and manly character, keenly alive to the evils of his time, and continually opening fire at new points on his enemies. He was an enthusiast for the Reformation, and did it more lasting service among the middle class than half the theologians. His chief work was an adaptation of Rabelais’s Gargantua, which he rendered with an insight into its purpose, and a fulness of sympathy with its methods, unsurpassed even by Urquhart. In the poem, Das Glückhaft Schiff, he gives evidence of a faculty for stirring narrative verse, but his prose is richer, fuller, and more free. Considering how imperfectly prose style was then developed, he had an astonishing command over the resources of the language. He delighted in new and complicated word-formations, and by means of them often succeeded, while dealing with his main theme, in casting side lights on its subordinate branches. Even, he, penetrating and enlightened as he was, could not rise so far above his age as to condemn the burning of witches ; but hardly another popular folly escaped his glance. From the evil practices of hypocritical priests to the imprudence of astrologers and whether prophets every abuse found in him a watchful critic ; and nothing of the kind could be more admirable than the skill with which he excites contempt while professing to write in a spirit of respect and credulity. The secret of his power of lay also partly in his profound humanity, for his scathing satirist was at heart thoroughly genial ; his mockery had its root in an abiding faith in justice.

Several other cultivators of prose style deserve mention. Albert Dürer, whose paintings, drawings, and engravings gave to the age of transition between mediaevalism and the modern world its most perfect artistic expression, wrote several scientific treatises, one of which, on the proportions of the human body, is a masterpiece of calm, clear, and systematic exposition. Johann Thurnmeier, called Aventinus (1466-1534), Sebastian Franck (1500-45), and Aegidius Tschudi, of Glarus (1505-72), wrote histories which, as ordered narratives, rank considerably above mere chronicles. The autobiography of Götz von Berlichingen, if its style is without merit, has an enduring interest as a sketch of the rude lives of the petty nobles at the time when the old social order was breaking up under the influence of new ideas. Huldrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformation (1484-1531), could state an argument with logical precision, but his style is thin and weak in comparison with the nervous force of Luther. Johann Agricola (1492-1566) wrote some theological works on the Catholic side ; he is chiefly important, however, for a collection of German proverbs, which afford important evidence as to the currents of popular thought. Of a far higher class as a religious writer was Johann Arndt (1555-1621), who wrote the most widely read work of the 16th century, Vier Bücher vom Wahren Christenthum ("Four Books on True Christianity"). Soon after Luther’s death the doctrines of the Reformation lost nearly all vitality ; becoming the subjects of vehement controversy among contending theologians, they ceased to interest the masses, who turned to simpler and more congenial themes. Arndt, like Eckhart, Tauler, and Luther himself, being a man of religious genius, saw the futility of these noisy disputes, and brushing them aside went to the heart of Christianity as a power fitted to nourish spiritual feeling and to govern conduct. His work appeared in Magdeburg in 1610, passed through edition after edition, and was translated into eleven languages. It still has a place of its own, for beneath the forms of a past age there burns the fire of a true enthusiasm. Sebastian Franck, already mentioned as a historian, wrote some religious works in a spirit akin to that of Arndt ; but he lacked the intensity, the power of touching the popular mind, which was possessed by the later writer. Less practical in tendency, but incomparably deeper in philosophic thought, were the writings of the Görlitz theosophist, Jacob Boehme (1575-1624). Boehme is in many respects one of the most striking figures in the history of German speculation. A man of mild and humble temper, working in patient obscurity as a shoemaker, he spent his life in grappling with the vastest problems which perplex humanity. Starting from the dogmas of Christianity. He sought to ground them in the deepest reason ; and although he often appears to darken counsel by words, yet his writings contain many bold suggestions, which have profoundly influenced later philosophical systems. There are times when one feels that his struggling thought is imperfectly uttered only because it is not expressed in poetic forms. For Boehme was one of those thinkers who occupy the borderland between philosophy and poetry, a fact often perceptible in the concrete shape which the most abstract ideas assume in his hands. There is a touch of poetry in the very title of his first and best known, although not perhaps his best, book, Aurora.

The secular poetry of this period, if we except the works of Hans Sachs and Fischart, is without value. An ambitious didactic poem by Rollenhagen, Der Froschmäusler, gained a certain reputation ; but it stands far beneath Reineke Vos, of which it is partly an imitation. The religious lyrics of he age are, however, of high excellence ; they indeed, are the sole works in which a perfect marriage was effected idea and form in the epoch of the Reformation. In his grand battle-hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, in his pathetic verses Aus tieffer Not schrey ich su zu dir, and in other lyrics, Luther led the way ; and he was have seen, followed by Hans Sachs. Nicolaus Herrmann in his Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag, Paul Eber in his Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein, Philip Nicolai in his Wie schön leucht uns der Morgenstern, and several other writers not less distinguished, created, in moments of genuine inspiration, lyrics which must move men while religious instincts survive. The adherents of the Reformation everywhere opened their heart to these beautiful poems, for in them alone, not in creeds or sermons or controversial treatises, were the deepest emotions of the time freely poured forth. Next to the translation of the Bible, nothing did so much as the popular hymns to unite the Protestants, to stimulate their faith, and to intensify their courage.

During this century the drama made considerable progress. Besides the "Mysteries" and "Shrove Tuesday Plays," School Comedies," in imitation of Terence and Plautus, werer written and acted in the universities and public schools. Luther, with the large humanity characteristic of him when dogmatic disputes were not in question, encouraged these comedies, and was, indeed, friendly to dramatic effort of all kinds. To persons who complained that modesty was often offended by the actors he replied that if they carried out their principle they would have to refrain from reading the Bible. When the Jesuits began to agitate in opposition to Protestantism they detected at once, with their usual tact, the importance of this element in popular life ; and through their influence more attention was paid not only to the plays but to the manner in which they were represented. Towards the end of the 16th century Germany was visited by a band of English comedians, who went about acting in their own language. They appear to have produced deep impression ; and at least one of their importations, the clown , the "Pickelhäring" of the Dutch, survived in Hanswurst or Jack Pudding, who was for more than a century an indispensable character in every play designed to gratify the prevailing taste. In imitation of the English comedians, wandering companies, consisting largely of idle students, now began to be formed, and thrilled both rustic and city audiences with blood-and-thunder tragedies, and with comedies too coarse to deserve even the name of farces. About the middle of the century a theatre was built in Nuremberg, and Augsburg and other cities soon followed the example. Duke Julius of Brunswick (1564-1613) not only built a theatre in his capital but maintained a permanent company ; and he amused himself by writings for it comedies and tragedies in the approved style of the day. It is significant of the stage of literary culture reached by Germany that she enjoyed the barbarous productions of this scribbling while English audiences were appreciating "Hamlet" and Othello."

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