Madame de Staël: Of the principal Epochs of German Literature
Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 228-234.
German Literature has never had what we are accustomed to call a golden age, that is to say, a period in which the progress of science is encouraged by the protection of a sovereign power. Leo X in Italy, Louis XIV in France, and in ancient times, Pericles and Augustus, have given their names to the age in which they lived. We may also consider the reign of Queen Anne as the most brilliant epoch of English literature; but this nation, which exists by its own powers, has never owed its great men to the influence of its kings. Germany was divided; in Austria no love of literature was discovered, and in Frederic II (who was all Prussia in himself alone), no interest whatever for German writers.
Literature, in Germany, has then never been concentrated to one point, and has never found support in the state. Perhaps it owes to this abandonment, as well as to the independence consequent on it, much of its originality and energy.
“We have seen poetry (says Schiller) despised by Frederic, the favoured son of his country, fly from the powerful throne which refused to protect it: but it still dared to call itself German; it felt proud in being itself the creator of its own glory. The songs of German bards resounded on the summits of the mountain, were precipitated as torrents into the vallies: the poet, independent, acknowledged no law, save the impression of his own soul, no sovereign but his own genius.”
It naturally followed from the want of encouragement given by government to men of literary talents in Germany that their attempts were made privately and individually in different directions, and that they arrived late at the truly remarkable period of their literature.
The German language, for a thousand years, was at first cultivated by monks, then by knights, and afterwards by artisans, such as Hans-Sachs, Sebastian Bran, and others, down to the period of the reformation; and latterly by learned men who have rendered it a language well adapted to all the subtleties of thought.
In examining the works of which German literature is composed, we find, according to the genius of the author, traces of these different modes of culture; as we see in mountains strata of the various minerals which the revolutions of the earth have deposited in them. The style changes its nature almost entirely, according to the writer; and it is necessary for foreigners to make a new study of every new book which they wish to understand.
The Germans, like the greater part of the nations in Europe in the times of chivalry, had also their troubadours and warriors, who sung of love and of battles. An epic poem has lately been discovered called the “Nibelungs” which was composed in the thirteenth century; we see in it the heroism and fidelity which distinguished the men of those times, when all was as true, strong and determinate, as the primitive colours of nature. The German in this poem is more clear and simple than it is at present; general ideas were not yet introduced into it, and traits of character only are narrated.
The German nation might then have been considered as the most warlike of all European nations, and its ancient traditions speak only of strong castles and beautiful mistresses, to whom they devoted their lives. When Maximilian endeavored at a later period to revive chivalry, the human mind no longer possessed that tendency; and those religious disputes had already commenced, which direct thought towards metaphysics, and place the strength of the soul rather in opinions than in actions.
Luther essentially improved his language by making it subservient to theological discussion; his translation of the Psalms and the Bible is still a fine specimen of it. The poetical truth and conciseness which he gives to his style are in all respect conformable to the genius of the German language, and even the sound of the words has an indescribable sort of energetic frankness on which we with confidence rely. The political and religious wars, which the Germans had the misfortune to wage with each other, withdrew the minds of men from literature, and when it was again resumed, it was under the auspices of the age of Louis XIV, at the period in which the desire of imitating the French pervaded almost all the courts and writers of Europe.
The works of Hagedorn, of Gellert, of Weiss, &c, were only heavy French, nothing original, nothing conformable to the natural genius of the nation. Those authors endeavored to attain French grace without being inspired with it, either by their habitrs, or their modes of life. They subjected themselves to rule, without having either the elegance or taste which may render even that despotism agreeable. Another school soon succeeded that of the French, and it was in Germanic Switzerland that it was erected. This school was at first founded on an imitation of English writers. Bodmer, supported by the example of the great Haller, endeavored to show that English literature agreed better with the German genius, than that of France.
Gottsched, a learned man without taste or genius, contested this opinion, and great light sprung from the dispute between these two schools. Some men then began to strike out a new road for themselves. Klopstock held the highest place in the English school, as Wieland did in that of the French; but Klopstock opened a new career for his succession, while Wieland was at once the first and the last of the French school in the eighteenth century. The first, because no other could equal him in that kind of writing, and the last, because after him the German writers pursued a path widely different.
As there still exist in all the Teutonic nations some sparks of that sacred fire which is again smothered by the ashes of time, Klopstock, at first imitating the English, succeeded at last in awakening the imagination and character peculiar to the Germans; and almost at the same moment, Winckelmann in the arts, Lessing in criticism, and Goethe in poetry, founded a true German school, if we may so call that, which admits of as many differences, as there are individuals, or varieties of talent.
I shall examine separately poetry, the dramatic arts, novels, and history; but every man of genius constituting (it may be said) a separate school in German, it appears to me necessary to begin by pointing out some of the principal traits which distinguish each writer individually, and by personally characterizing their most celebrated men of literature, before I set about analyzing their works.
Tomorrow: Madame de Staël: On Wieland.
“Gunther Orders Hagen to Sink the Nibelung Treasure”
Peter Cornelius, 1859
The painting illustrates a scene from the 14th-century Middle High German saga, The Song of the Nibelungs [Nibelungenlied]. During the Napoleonic wars, the trappings of the Germanic medieval world – Gothic architecture, “old German” [altdeutsch] dress, northern tales and legends – came to embody the national longing for a unified German identity.
Therefore, it is not surprising that The Song of the Nibelungs, rediscovered in 1755 and praised by Goethe as worthy of a modern retelling, should have captured the imaginations of the Romantics. Such notable writers as Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Ludwig Tieck, and Friedrich Hebbel reworked the story in poetry, drama, and prose. New editions of the original poem were illustrated by Alfred Rethel, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and Peter Cornelius (1824-1874). By mid-century, the saga had achieved the status of a national epic.
“For me, the hoard of the Nibelungs is a symbol of all German power, joy and majesty, all of which lies sunken in the Rhine and remains for the fatherland to win or lose,” Cornelius wrote in a letter in 1864. It’s most famous adaptation, of course, was Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, “The Ring of the Nibelungs,” which was composed between 1851 and 1874.”