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The Interdependence of 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
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
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
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 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
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
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