The Romantic School … Part Four
This writer, Johann Heinrich Voss, is altogether unknown in France, and yet there are few to whom the German people are more indebted for their intellectual development. After Lessing, he is probably the greatest citizen in German literature. He certainly was a great man, and deserves more than a mere passing mention.
The biography of this man is that of nearly all German authors of the old school. He was the son of poor parents, and was born at Mecklenberg in 1751. He studied theology, but did not pursue it as a career. When, however, he became acquainted with poetry and Greek, he devoted himself zealously to both. In order not to starve he took to teaching, and became schoolmaster at Otterndorf, in Hadeln. He translated the ancients, and lived to the age of seventy-five, poor, frugal, and industrious. He enjoyed an excellent reputation among the poets of the old school, but the poets of the new romantic school were continually plucking at his laurels, and they scoffed not a little at the honest, old-fashioned Voss, who, however, went on in his straight-forward way, picturing the life on the lower Elbe, sometimes even writing in the Platt-Deutsch dialect.
He selected no medieval knights or madonnas as the heroes and heroines of his works, but chose for his theme the life of a simple Protestant parson and his virtuous family. Voss was so thoroughly wholesome, so bourgeois, so natural; while they, the new troubadours, were so morbid and somnambulistic, so high-flown and aristocratic, and altogether so unnatural. To Frederic Schlegel, the intoxicated poet of the dissolute, romantic Lucinde, the staid and sober Voss, with his “chaste Louise” and his “aged and venerable parson of Grunau,” must have been very obnoxious. August Wilhelm Schlegel, who never was so sincere as his brother in his glorification of profligacy and of Catholicism, harmonised much better with old Voss, and between the two there existed only the rivalry of translators, a rivalry which has been very beneficial for German literature.
Even before the rise of the new school, Voss had translated Homer; now, with an unprecedented industry, he translated the other heathen poets of antiquity, while August Wilhelm Schlegel translated the Christian poets of the romantic-Catholic period. Secret polemical motives inspired them both. Voss aimed to advance classic poetry and modes of thought through his translations, while A. W. Schlegel sought, through good translations, to make the Christian-romantic poets accessible to the public for imitation and culture. In sooth, this antagonism manifested itself even in the forms of speech used by the two translators.
While Schlegel became ever more fastidious and finical in his style, Voss grew more brusque and rugged. The language in the latter’s later translations is as rough as a file, and at times almost unpronounceable. If one is liable to slip on the smooth, highly-polished, mahogany-like surface of Schlegel’s poems, there is equal danger of stumbling over Voss’s versified blocks of granite. In a spirit of rivalry, Voss finally attempted a translation of Shakespeare, a work which Schlegel had accomplished so successfully in his earlier years. In this undertaking Voss fared very badly, and his publisher still worse; the translation was a total failure.
If Schlegel’s translation, perhaps, reads too smoothly; if his verses sometimes give the impression of whipped cream, and leave the reader in doubt whether it is to be eaten or be drunk;—Voss’s, on the other hand, is as hard as stone, and reading his verses aloud makes one fear a dislocation of the jaw-bone. But that which especially distinguished Voss was the energy with which he battled against all difficulties; he not only wrestled with the German language, but also with that aristocratic Jesuitic monster, which at that period raised its unsightly head from amidst the dark forest depths of German literature: and Voss dealt the monster a telling blow.
Herr Wolfgang Menzel, a German author, who is known as one of the bitterest opponents of Voss, dubs him “a Saxon boor.” Notwithstanding the unfriendly sense in which this epithet is applied, it is nevertheless very fitting. In truth, Voss is “a Saxon boor,” just as Luther was one: he lacks all that is chivalrous, courteous, and gracious; he was every inch one of that rude, rough, sturdy race, to whom Christianity could be preached only by fire and sword, and who only submitted to that religion after losing three battles, but who in their customs and ways still retain much of the old Norse pagan doggedness, and in their material and intellectual combats show themselves as valiant and as stubborn as their ancient gods.
When I contemplate Johann Heinrich Voss in his polemics and in his whole manner, I seem to see before me the ancient one-eyed Odin himself, who has left Asgard and has become a school-teacher in the province of Hadeln, and there teaches Latin declination and the Christian catechism to the little flaxen-haired Holsteiners; in his leisure hours he translates the Greek poets into German, and borrows from Thor his great hammer to beat the verses into shape; but after a while, becoming tired of the tedious work, he takes the hammer and cracks poor Fritz Stolberg on the head.
That was a famous affair. Frederick, Count of Stolberg, was a poet of the old school, and was remarkably popular in Germany, not, perhaps, so much on account of his poetic talents as for his title of count, which at that time counted for more in German literature than it does now. Fritz Stolberg, however, was a liberal man and had a noble heart, and he was a friend of those less patrician youths, who in Göttingen were seeking to found a poetic school. I recommend French literary men to read the preface to the poems of Holty, in which Johann Heinrich Voss describes the idyllic life of the band of poets of which he and Fritz Stolberg were members.
Time passed, and these two only were left of all that galaxy of youthful poets. When Fritz Stolberg, with great eclat, joined the Catholic Church, abjuring reason and the love of freedom, becoming a promoter of intellectual darkness, and by his aristocratic example drawing many weaklings after him—then Johann Heinrich Voss, the venerable man of three-score and ten, publicly entered the lists against the friend of his youth, and wrote the little book, Wie Ward Fritz Stolberg ein Unfreier?
In it he analysed Stolberg’s whole life, and showed how the aristocratic tendency in the nature of his old comrade had always existed, and that after the events of the French Revolution that tendency had steadily become more pronounced; that Stolberg had secretly joined an association of the nobility, which had for its purpose to counteract the French ideas of liberty; that these nobles entered into a league with the Jesuits; that they sought, through the re-establishment of Catholicism, to advance also the interests of the nobility: he exposed in general the ways and means by which the reactionists were seeking to bring about the restoration of the Christian-Catholic-feudal middle ages, and the destruction of Protestant intellectual freedom and the political rights of the commonalty.
Once, ere the era of revolutions, good fellowship existed between German democracy and German aristocracy; the former hoped for nothing, the latter feared nothing; but now as grey-beards, they faced each other, and fought a duel for life or death.
That portion of the German public which did not comprehend the significance and terrible necessity of this struggle blamed poor Voss for the ruthless revelation of confidential relations and private affairs, which, however, taken as a whole, conclusively proved the correctness of his charges. Then certain so-called aesthetic souls, far too exalted and refined for such petty gossip, raised an outcry, and accused poor Voss of being a scandal-monger.
Other good citizens, who feared that the curtain might be drawn from them, and their own miserable shortcomings be exposed, waxed indignant over the violation of the established rules of literary polemics, which strictly forbid all personalities and disclosures of private affairs. It so happened that Fritz Stolberg died soon after, and his death was attributed to grief; and when, immediately after his death, his Liebesbechlein was published, in which he assumes the true Jesuitic tone, and speaks of his poor deluded friend in terms of pious Christian forgiveness—then the tears of German compassion fell thick and fast, and the German Michel assumed his most lugubrious expression, and all this flood of sentimentality was turned into wrath against poor Voss; and most of the abuse heaped upon him came from the very ones for whose intellectual and material welfare he had battled.
When one gets soundly thrashed in Germany one can always count on the pity and tears of the multitude. In this respect the Germans resemble those old crones who never miss an opportunity of witnessing an execution, and who eagerly press to the front of the curious spectators, setting up a bitter lamentation at sight of the poor wretch, and even taking his part. The snivelling old women who attend literary executions, and put on such grief-stricken airs, would nevertheless be very much disappointed if the poor sinner was suddenly to receive a pardon, and they be sent trudging homeward without beholding the anticipated flogging. Their worst fury would then be directed against the one who had balked their expectation.
Meanwhile Voss’s polemical writings exerted a powerful influence upon the masses, and turned the current of public opinion against that predilection for medievalism which had been all the fashion. His writings aroused Germany; many declared for Voss personally; a greater portion supported his cause alone. The controversy waxed fiercer and fiercer; attacks and rejoinders followed in quick succession, and the last days of the old man were embittered by these quarrels.
He had to deal with the most dangerous opponents, the priesthood, who attacked him under the most-varied guises. Not only the Crypto-Catholic, but also the Pietists, the Quietists, the Lutheran Mystics; in brief, all the supernaturalistic sects of the Protestant church, no matter how decidedly they differed from one another in their creeds, yet they all agreed in their great hatred of Johann Heinrich Voss, the rationalist. This name is in Germany applied to those who hold that the claims of reason should not be put aside in matters of religion, in opposition to the supernaturalists, who to a greater or less degree discard reason in religion. The latter, in their furious hate of the poor rationalists, resemble the inmates of a lunatic asylum, who, although they will not believe in each other’s hallucinations, yet in a measure tolerate one another. But with all the fiercer hate do they turn against the man whom they consider their common enemy, who is no other than the physician who seeks to restore their reason.
To be continued…
Link to Part Five