1902 Encyclopedia > Ludwig Tieck

Ludwig Tieck
German Romantic writer

LUDWIG TIECK (1773-1853), the most conspicuous figure of the German romantic school of literature, was born at Berlin on 31st May 1773. His father, a rope-maker, was dry, sarcastic, and matter-of-fact; his mother, gentle and pious, with a leaning to mysticism. Tieck partook of both characteristics: half his work and half his genius seem a sceptical commentary on the other half. He emancipated himself from the prosaic influence of his father’s house by a passionate study of Shakespeare. After a brilliant career at school he repaired in 1792 to the university at Halle, and, returning to Berlin in 1794, devoted himself to authorship, in which he had already made experiments. As is so commonly the case with young writers of genius, his first tales (Abdallah, William Lovell) partook too largely of the melodramatic, and have little permanent value. But the romantic school of Germany, a movement comparable to the Lake school of England, was already in the air, and Tieck was deeply sensitive to its influence. He was strongly fascinated by two of its aspects in particular—the reaction in favour of German mediaeval art and the revived interest in fairy tales and folk-lore in general. Inspired by his friend Wackenroder, a youth of pious ardour and most pious simplicity, he wrote his unfortunately unfinished romance Sternbald’s Travels, a very gospel for the artist, at once the complement and the antitype of Wilhelm Meister. His studies in popular literature resulted in the entertaining adaptation of Blue Beard entitled Peter Lebrecht and several kindred works. Fair Eckbert, his masterpiece, and the masterpiece of all romantic fiction, came to him, he said, by inspiration. He may well be believed: no artifice could have created the pervading sensation of dreamy solitude or the intense thrill of the catastrophe. The happy idea of dramatizing popular legend led to the production of a greatly improved Blue Beard, and subsequently of Puss in Boots, a satire on Kotzebue and Iffland, such an alliance of broad humour and dainty irony as we might expect to find in the lost Middle Comedy of Athens.

It might almost have been better if Tieck had continued to walk in his own way. His was a susceptible nature, too sensitive for perfect independence. In 1798 he made the acquaintance of the Schlegels, and was drawn into their circle. Novalis, undoubtedly the greatest genius of the romantic school, was for a time a compensation to him for the death of Wackenroder, whose essays on art he edited with additions of his own. But Novalis himself soon died, and the influence of the Schlegel circle, with its bickerings and its "chopping and changing of ribs," was not wholly salutary either in a moral or a literary point of view. August Schlegel inspired Tieck with a passion for the Spanish drama. He also spent much time on a translation of Don Quixote, certainly a masterpiece, and rendered Ben Jonson’s Silent Woman, having previously adapted Volpone. One important production of his own nevertheless belongs to this period, the romantic drama of Genoveva, enthusiastically admired by so clear-headed and impartial a judge as Bishop Thirlwall. He also produced his delightful miniature drama of Little Red Riding Hood, and was working with great spirit on The Emperor Octavian when he was suddenly attacked by rheumatic gout, which tormented him more or less for the remainder of his life. Between pain and unpleasant literary disputes his activity was long greatly impeded. The narrowness of his means also troubled him. He had married the daughter of Pastor Alberti, and, although he was an amiable man and nothing is alleged against his wife, his household does not seem to have been entirely comfortable. He lived alternately in Jena, Berlin, and Dresden, where he became very intimate with Steffens, and wrote his powerful but dismal tale, The Runenberg. The Emperor Octavian was completed in 1804, with less success than had been hoped. In the following year Tieck repaired to Italy, nominally to visit the baths of Pisa; but he made this medical injunction the plea for a long stay in the country. The effect of Italian scenery, plastic art, and new impressions in general was to wean him from much of the mysticism in which he had hitherto indulged, and to direct him to the criticism of life. The transition to his new manner is indicated by the additions to his former tales and dramas, which, after several years spent in wandering and in sickness, he published in 1812. The Elves, The Philtre, and The Goblet are tales, distinguished the last two more especially, by brilliant colouring and elaborate art. Fortunatus, a drama in two parts, added in 1816, wants the spirit of its predecessors, but is pervaded by a quiet sarcastic humour exceedingly enjoyable. Plays and stories were set in a framework of aesthetic conversation and the entire collection was entitled Phantasus. By this publication Tieck settled accounts with the romantic school, and could no more be regarded as its leader.

Tieck’s power of original composition failed him for some years. He devoted himself especially to antiquarian and dramatic studies. In pursuance of the latter he visited England saw Kemble and Kean on the stage, and renewed acquaintance with Coleridge, whom he had known in Italy The friendship of Solger was highly important to him, and helped him to the clear definite principles of composition and criticism in which he had previously been deficient. The period of reflexion gradually worked itself into a period of productiveness, beginning with his charming novelette of The Pictures, translated by Thirlwall. It was followed by a series of similar works extending over nearly twenty years, very unequal in value, but in their best examples belonging to a very high class of art. Their great peculiarity is the blending of narrative with disquisition and comment, so thoughtful and ingenious that, interesting as the action commonly is, the interruption is not resented. They have usually a strongly marked ironical element, as though the writer were only half in earnest, a self-criticism of which a great creative genius would have been incapable, but which bestows unusual piquancy on productions of the second order. The Pictures, already mentioned, is a fine instance of the masterly conduct of a story, and contains a very original figure, the shrewd, sottish, graceless old painter Eulenböck, who, with talent enough to have made a name and a fortune, gains a precarious livelihood by forging old masters. The Betrothal, also translated by Thirlwall, is a severe satire on hypocritical pietism. Among the best of the other novelettes in this style may be mentioned The Travellers, one of the most perfect specimens of the author’s irony; Luck brings Brains, a fine study of the power of a weak character to rise to its opportunities when elevated by a sense of responsibility; and The Superfluities of Life, an anecdote delightfully told. The Old Book and The Scarecrow, two of the most fantastically imaginative, resolve themselves into literary satire. The motive of the latter was borrowed by Hawthorne in his Mother Rigby’s Pipe. Of fictions with an historical basis, the most popular are those derived from the lives of poets—A Poet’s Life, of which Shakespeare is the hero, and A Poet’s Death, relating the sad history of Camoens. The Revolt in the Cevennes is an historical romance of considerable compass; but Tieck’s masterpiece in this department is his Witches’ Sabbath, a tale almost unparalleled in literature for its delineation of heart-breaking, hopeless misery. The Young Carpenter (1836, but commenced much earlier) can hardly be assigned to any of these classes. It has a strong affinity to Wilhelm Meister, and may be compared with Sternbald, both for its resemblance and its contrast. Finally, in Vittoria Accorambona (1840) Tieck takes yet another new departure, indicating affinities with the modern French school of fiction. The novel has been translated into English, but is probably best known to English readers by Mrs Carlyle’s half-earnest half-mocking admiration of the hero Bracciano, a Blue Beard on the highest principles, and her wish that she could have lived two hundred years before, "to have been—his mistress, not his wife."

These novels were all written at Dresden, where Tieck had settled in 1819. He enjoyed especial favour at court, took an active part in the direction of the royal theatre, and gained a new description of celebrity by his semi-public readings from dramatic poets in the court circle. According to the almost unanimous testimony of his hearers, he was the finest dramatic reader of his age. His daughter Dorothea, who united her father’s literary talent to her grandmother’s mystic piety, was of great assistance to him, especially in the translation of Shakespeare which passes under his name. Schlegel had translated seventeen plays. Tieck had undertaken to translate the remainder, and it has been generally supposed that he kept his word. In fact the translation was almost entirely executed by Dorothea Tieck and Count Wolf Baudissin, Tieck contributing hardly anything but his advice and his name. The truth slips out quite innocently in the pages of his biographer Köpke, and is fully told by Gustav Freytag (Im Neuen Reich, January 1880). During his residence at Dresden he collected his critical writings, produced his excellent translation of the English dramatists anterior to Shakespeare, and edited the works of Novalis, Kleist, Lenz, and other contemporaries. In 1842 he accepted the invitation of Frederick William IV. to settle in Berlin, where he had already been to conduct the representation of the Antigone with Mendelssohn’s music. He found himself but little in his element in the city of his birth, and the dramatic representations directed by him, including revivals of some of his own plays, were rarely successful. In 1851 his health failed entirely, and he withdrew altogether from the world. He died on 28th April 1853.

Though not a writer of the highest rank, Tieck is nevertheless a most original genius, very unjustly neglected by his countrymen. The best of his compositions in the taste of the romantic school are absolute masterpieces; and his later productions, if imperfect, occupy a unique position in literature. He may he compared to Wieland, whom he decidedly surpasses, and to Ariosto, whom he would have more than rivalled if he had been capable of a great sustained effort. His susceptibility and self-distrust checked his genius, but at the same time gave it that peculiar ironic flavour which constitutes its special distinction. He is like an cxquisite side dish, not sufficiently substantial for a full meal. The attempts to extract a moral significance from the stories in Phantasus seem entirely thrown away; the purpose of his later writings, when there is any, is always definite. Perhaps the soundest criticism upon him, at bottom, is Heine’s in his Romantic School, though written at a time when it was his cue to show the works of that school as little quarter as possible. Carlyle’s criticism is excellent, but only refers to the Phantasus.

The principal contribution to Tieck’s biography is the delightful book of Rudolf Köpke (Leipsic, 1855) chiefly drawn from his oral communications and containing his opinions on a number of subjects. Particulars of his residence at Dresden, more especially of his connexion with the theatre, are given in the memoirs of Friesen (Weimar, 1871). Tales from Phantasus have been translated in Carlyle’s Specimens of German Romance, and are reprinted in his miscellanies. A greatly inferior version, in some places inscrupulously altered from Carlyle, was published in 1845 with an elaborate preface signed by J. A. F., who does not, however, appear to have been the translator. Several of Tieck’s other works have been translated into English, but the only remarkable rendering is Bishop Thirlwall’s of The Pictures and The Betrothal. A complete chronological list of his writings is appended to Köpke’s work. (R. G.)

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