Information about authors living through the upheavals of the seventeenth century is notoriously incomplete, but the main outlines of Andreas Gryphius’s life are quite well established, even if some dates are under debate. Two years before the official outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, Gryphius was born on October 2, 1616, almost at midnight, a fact that seemed symbolically significant to him throughout his life. It is hard to argue with his perception that—from a superficial point of view—darkness seemed to dominate his era, that “brown night” he so often invokes. His hometown, Glogau, in the most northeasterly province of the Holy Roman Empire, had just been destroyed by one of the many great fires endemic to the period, and the Lutheran burghers quarreled with their Catholic imperial local official. His father was a local Lutheran pastor who died—many believe—because of the stresses of the war in 1621, and his young mother, remarried in 1622, died in 1628, leaving the boy to be reared by his stepfather, Michael Eder, and his family. Gryphius and his hometown experienced plundering soldiers, occupation, and exile, which interrupted his schooling several times but without lasting negative effect. In fact, he did very well in school, where he played lead roles in the Latin school dramas favored by progressive schools and excelled in mathematics and Latin. Indeed, in 1634, he had his first Latin verse epic published in Glogau, displaying his familiarity with the classical tradition more than his poetic talents. Still, this work and its sequel one year later anticipate some of Gryphius’s stylistic peculiarities. A flair for dramatic, dialectical juxtapositions, repeated questions and imperatives, and powerful rhythms is notable, as are the descriptions of bloody scenes of cruelty that recurred in his later German tragedies.
Time and again, Gryphius had to finance his studies by tutoring the children of the well-to-do—in Danzig for the admiral of the Polish fleet, Alexander von Seton, for example, and near Freystadt on the estate of George Schönborner von Schönborn, a high imperial official then retired. Gryphius showed a remarkable ability for attracting patronage and maintaining contacts and friendships over the years. After Schönborner’s death, he departed for the Netherlands with the two sons of his patron to study at Leiden (1638-1644), where he impressed many as one of the most learned men of his age. There he published another volume of his Sonette (1643), in which he included revised versions of his Lissaer Sonette (1637), while he had already brought out his Sonn-und Feiertags-Sonette in 1639 with the renowned publishing house of Elzevir. Although many of the poems obviously had been written earlier, the time at Leiden inspired revision on the basis of the latest theoretical requirements, revisions that did not always result in improvements in the power or liveliness of image or rhythm. The odes and epigrams included in...
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