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German Literature

The Interdependence of Literature
German Literature
by Curtis, Georgina Pell

Germany, like the other Northern nations, had primitive war songs sung by the bards. Her mythology is akin to the Scandinavian, and like the latter she assigns a high place to women. Tacitus says: "It is believed that there is something holy and prophetic about them, and therefore the warriors neither despise their counsels nor disregard their responses."

This German paganism was eminently fanciful--it peopled the earth, air and sea with supernatural beings--the rivers had their Undines, the caverns their Gnomes, the woods their Sprites, and the ocean its Nixes. Besides these, there were a host of mythological figures--the Walkyres or bridal maidens, the river maids; and the white women, Hertha and Frigga. These legends have formed a rich treasure house from which later German authors have freely drawn for song or story. Before the Christian age Germany had no literature and the first national work that can be dignified by the name is a translation of the Bible into Moeso-Gothic by Ulphilas, a bishop of the Goths, in the fourth century A.D. This is a Catholic work that antedated Luther by a thousand years.

Bishop Ulphilas invented an alphabet of Runic, Greek and Roman letters, and this translation of the Bible remained the only literary monument of the Germans for four hundred years. The minstrel lays of this period were later collected by Charlemagne, of which two specimens have come down to us. Like the Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, old English, and old Saxon, they are in a measure called alliteration, that is, a repetition of the sound without the regular rhyme at the end of lines, or such as we call rhyme. This circumstance made Klopstock, at a later period, try to banish rhyme as not being correct according to ancient usage. One of these poems, the Hildebrand-lied, belongs to the time of Theodoric the Great. The songs collected by Charlemagne, were later remodelled and have come down to us as the Heldenbuch and the Nibelungen-lied. The intellectual light in Germany went out with the death of Charlemagne, except in the cloisters.

The Normans on the West and the Hungarians in the East menaced the country, and the only important literary work of the time is a poem written by a monk at the close of the ninth century. It is called "Ludwig's Lied;" and celebrates the triumph of Louis over the Normans. Roswitha, a nun in the tenth century, wrote some Christian dramas in Latin that are remarkable as coming from the pen of a woman in the Middle Ages.

The invasions of the Hungarians and Slavs in the eleventh century effectually prevented the blossoming of any literary effort, except for some poems known as the Lombard Cycle, in which the rude pagan legends of antiquity were blended with the dawnings of Christianity. But in 1138, when Conrad III became Emperor of Germany, his accession was followed by the Crusades, which spread a flame of enthusiasm and chivalry among the Germans.

In 1149 Conrad and Louis VII of France joined forces to lead a Crusade to the Holy Land, and thus the German and French nobility became intimately acquainted, and Provencal poetry soon began to have an effect on German literature.

Emperors and nobles held court and received their foreign guests with splendid display and hospitality. Poets and singers were welcomed, and the chivalric literature was soon taken up by the Suabian minstrels who became known as the Minnesingers.

From 1150 to 1300 was the golden age of Suabian literature and German chivalry. During this period numerous romances of chivalry were translated into German.

They have been divided into different classes, or cycles.

The first, and most ancient, have to do with Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Their origin is Anglo-Norman, and they were probably taken from old Welsh chronicles in an early age, and were known in Britain and Brittany before the poets began to put them in rhyme.

The most popular of these romances was the San Graal, or Holy Grail, a subject that has engaged some of the best poets of all countries. In this legend the Cup, which was supposed to have been used at the Last Supper, in some way is brought to Golgotha during the Crucifixion, and is used to preserve some of the blood that flows from Christ's side, when it is opened by the soldier's spear. Joseph of Arimathea is thought to have brought this precious Cup to Europe, and to have given it into the keeping of Sir Parsifal. Knowledge of its whereabouts was then lost, so that knights and heroes make it the object of long and fruitless quests.

The second cycle of romance has to do with Charlemagne, and is mostly in the form of translations from French literature.

The third, or classic cycle, relates to the great ones of ancient times, presented in the role of chivalry. These embrace stories of Alexander the Great, the Aeneid, and the Trojan war. During this period there were two classes of songs in Germany; the minstrelsy, most in favor with the nobility; and the old ballads, which were most popular with the people. The latter were gradually collected by different poets of the time, especially by Wolfram of Eschenbach and put into epic verse, in which form they have come down to us as the Heldenbuch (or book of heroes), and the Nibelungen-lied.

The Heldenbuch relates the deeds of Theodoric and Attila and the outpouring of the Goths into the Roman Empire. In the Nibelungen-lied the hero is Siegfried, the Achilles of the North, the embodiment of beauty, courage and virtue. The same personages are met with in these German legends, as in the Scandinavian mythology, only in the latter they take on a more godlike form. The German Brunhild, in the Scandinavian story becomes a Valkyriur.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed the decline of the romanticists, the loss of most of the Southern culture, and all the literature of this time is at a low ebb, partly owing to the wars of the Germans against the Huns.

The fourteenth century was productive of one class of literature that was common to all Europe; namely, simple and humorous fables and satires. "Reynard the Fox" was one of the earliest of these fables, and remained a great favorite with the Germans, being finally immortalized by Goethe. The same author has made us familiar with a personage who figures in an interesting legend of the fifteenth century. Doctor Faust, or Faustus, is a magician who by unlawful arts gains a mastery over nature. This legend became the foundation of a number of stories and dramas, and was put into verse by Christopher Marlowe, the English dramatist.

The end of the sixteenth century saw a craze for Latin in Germany. The national tongue was neglected and national poetry was translated into Latin verse. German poets wrote in the same classic language, and the university lectures were all delivered in the same tongue. The seventeenth century saw the Thirty Years' War, during which all literary activity was completely paralyzed, and in the course of these thirty years a whole generation, especially among the lower classes, had grown up unable either to read or write. But after the Treaty of Westphalia matters began to improve, and a desire to cultivate the native language awoke. In 1688 German superseded Latin in the universities. Novels were published; and about this time appeared a German translation of Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" that became very popular. Poets wrote plays in the style of Terence, or copied English models; and even in the present day the Germans recall with pride the fact that the Shakespearean plays were appreciated by them during and after the Elizabethan age much more than they were by the English Nation.

Science under Leibnitz also began to take shape in this century, while Opitz wrote operas in imitation of the Italian style; and translations from the Italian Marini came into vogue. In the eighteenth century arose the Saxonic and Swiss schools of literature, neither of which was devoted to national works. Gottsched, the founder and imitator of French standards in art and poetry, is known as the leader in the Saxonic school at Leipsic, and an advocate of classical poetry.

Bodmer cultivated the English style, and retired to Switzerland with his friends, where they founded the Swiss school. The English lyric and elegiac poets had a wonderful influence in Germany. The followers of this school who were, or pretended to be, poets, began to write "Seasons" in imitation of Thomson; and the novels of the time were full of shepherds and shepherdesses. The craze spread to France, where the French Court took up the fad of living in rustic lodges, and Marie Antoinette posed as a shepherdess tending sheep. Each of these poets had numerous followers, of whom Rambler is known as the German Horace.

Frederick the Great preferred French works, and no one seems to have thought of starting a German school except Klopstock, who stands almost alone in the literature of his time and country. A man of lofty ideals, he believed that Christianity on the one hand and Gothic mythology on the other, should be the chief elements in all new European poetry and inspiration. Had he been encouraged by the German Court he would have been as powerful for good in German literature during the eighteenth century, as Voltaire was powerful for evil in France. Wielland, a friend of Klopstock, and a romantic poet, might have been the German Ariosto had he not abandoned poetry for prose. He tried to copy the Greek, in which he failed to excel. During this conflict in Germany between the French and English school, German literature was much influenced by Macpherson's Ossian, and Scotch names are found in a great many German works of this period. The literature of Germany attained its highest beauty and finish in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and its people may well be proud of the splendid names that adorn that period. The Gottingen School, which embraced Goethe and Schiller, includes love, philosophy and the classics for its theme, with a touch of the bucolic, modelled after Virgil, as in the "Louise" of Voss. But it remained for the Romantic School, founded by Novalis, the two Schlegels and Tieck, to oppose the study of the classic antique on the ground that it killed all native originality and power. They turned to the Middle Ages, and drew from its rich stores all that was noblest and best. The lays of the Minnesingers were revived--the true German spirit was cultivated, and the romantic German imagination responded readily, so that during the dark period of the French invasion, the national feeling was preserved pure and untouched by means of these stirring and patriotic songs of the past.

About the same time as the advent of the Romanticists in Germany appeared Walpole's "Castle of Otranto" in England, which is supposed to belong to the same school of literature and to have been influenced by the German. Scott was also numbered in this class; and it is from these old German legends of the Minnesingers that Richard Wagner has drawn the material for Lohengrin, Parsifal, and others of his magnificent operas. In one department German scholars have attained a high standard, and that is as historians of ancient classical literature.

Their researches into the language, religion, philosophy, social economy, arts and sciences of ancient nations, has brought to light much for which the student of literature will always be their debtor.

Authors Related Articles
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Gothic Literature
Chivalrous and Romantic Literature
Drama in Germany
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Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Philosophy

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