19C German Literature
19C german literature


Fig 1. Novalis, aka Baron Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg (1772 - 1801)

The foundations of 19th Century German Literature
During the first half of the 18th century a controversy concerning poetic theory took place between proponents of rigid French classicism in drama and those who championed the merits of religious epic poetry.  The creative production of both factions remained insignificant.  The uselessness of the controversy was demonstrated by Gotthold Lessing, who introduced a new concept of tragic experience.  He replaced courtly tragedy with bourgeois drama and repeatedly praised William Shakespeare for his craftsmanship.  Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm (1767; Eng. trans., 1930) remains the unsurpassed masterpiece of German comedy; his Nathan the Wise (1779; Eng. trans., 1955) is a stirring call for religious tolerance.  In his critical writings Lessing created a German prose style of clarity and wit.

Christoph Martin Wieland added grace and playfulness to the language and flavored his verse and prose with subtle irony. Oberon (1780; Eng. trans., 1798) is his best-known epic poem; The History of Agathon (1766; Eng. trans., 1773) emphasizes the psychological growth of character. Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock created in his Odes (1771; Eng. trans., 1848) a new poetic language of dynamic expression.  He influenced the young Sturm und Drang generation with his religious fervor and patriotic zeal.

Sturm und Drang (1770-85)
This movement praised original genius, demanded a poetry of strong passions, and found new models in Shakespeare's plays and in simple folksongs.  Johann Gottfried von Herder disseminated these ideas among youthful writers who included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schiller.  The first novel of this movement, Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, brought its author international acclaim and disseminated the tenets of romanticism throughout Europe. The literary aim of German romanticism during this period was the presentation of passion, regardless of considerations of traditional form.  In later works, however, Goethe strove to endow his creations with the advantages of self-discipline. Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795; Eng. trans., 1824), the classic bildungsroman, was the outcome of this aim.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Fig. 2 Johann Wolfgang von Geothe (1749 - 1832)

   Die Geschwister, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Second Golden Age
In Weimar during the early 19th century Goethe and Schiller collaborated in creating works of enduring merit. Their goal was to integrate the ancient classical tradition into German romanticism.  In Jena, August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel, the mystic Novalis, and the poet Ludwig Tieck formed the first romantic circle.  This was followed by other groups in Berlin and Heidelberg, whose members included Achim and Bettina von Arnim; Clemens Brentano; Joseph, Freiherr von Eichendorff; and Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann famous as lyric poets and storytellers.  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm stimulated interest in early Germanic traditions, with the publication of of Grimm's Fairy Tales (2 vols 1812 - 1815). Two other writers of this period stand apart: Friedrich Holderlin, whose poems achieved a synthesis of ancient Greek forms and modern sensibility, and Heinrich von Kleist, who expressed his chaotic view of the world in passionate dramas and powerful short stories.

Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm
Fig. 3 Jacob (1785 - 1803) & Wilhel Grimm (1786 - 1859)

After 1830 the grandiose period of German literature came to an end.  The so-called Biedermeier poets reacted by withdrawing into the realm of the family and idyllic nature.  This resignation was replaced in the poems of Heinrich Heine by new political directions and a realistic outlook.  Many writers had to go into exile after the revolution of 1848, among them Karl Marx and Carl Schurz. Throughout the 19th century the forms introduced by Goethe and Schiller prevailed: in poetry, the Lied derived from folksongs; in drama, the historical tragedy in blank verse; in prose, the novella, an artistically structured story centered on an extraordinary event.  Annette Elisabeth von Droste-Hulshoff and Eduard Morike were the leading poets; Franz Grillparzer and Christian Friedrich Hebbel, the dramatists; Jeremias Gotthelf, Gottfried Keller, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Wilhelm Raabe, Adalbert Stifter, and Theodor Storm, the storytellers. Far ahead of his time was Georg Buchner, who rejected bourgeois values and wrote such plays as Woyzeck (1850; Eng. trans., 1957), in which he anticipated modern styles. The ideas of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who rejected the idealistic philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer, dominated German thought throughout the earlier part of the 20th

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