Joseph von Eichendorff, the most popular poet among the German Romanticists was born March 10, 1788. He spent his childhood at the castle of his parents at Lubowitz in Silesia. These childhood years in the beautifully situated castle became the reservoir for his outpouring of romantic lyricism until the end of his life. It is said that nobody did more to help Germans appreciate the beauty of nature, and German Wanderlust owes much to Eichendorff’s glorification of the wanderer. Eichendorff declares in his poem “The Happy Wanderer”:
When God, His graciousness bestowing,Sends man forth in the world so wide,He unveils Life, His wonders showingIn wood, field, stream, and mountain-side.The slothful, who at home are lying,Are not refreshed by dawn’s clear red;They only know of children’s crying,Of sorrow, pain, and need of bread.
Many Germans living in a motorized age still agree with him.
Although Eichendorff was a wanderer, he was not trying to wander away from something. All his pilgrimages are inward. He was a member of the old Silesian aristocracy, and one literary critic named him the “last knight of knights.” His feelings correspond to the experience of ordinary people, however, and folkloristic elements are always present in his work. The Napoleonic Wars overshadowed his childhood paradise in Silesia, and to shelter young Eichendorff from proximity to war his parents sent him to the universities of Halle and Heidelberg. In Heidelberg he met the two writers credited with starting the German movement of Romanticism: Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, who had published, in 1806, DES KNABEN WUNDERHORN, a major collection of German folksongs.
The romantically inclined Eichendorff became above all a lyricist, probably the most important one of the whole movement with the possible exception of Brentano. Eichendorff also wrote many prose pieces, but few are remembered now. Even his best known humoristic prose work AUS DEM LEBEN EINES TAUGENICHTS is mainly remembered for its lyrical qualities. His poems are always simple in theme and expression. He used a varied meter, and, refusing to develop a set pattern, adjusted the rhythm of language to the theme of the poem. His recipe for a poet was this: “. . . Rise early in the morning; write under an open sky, in beautiful scenery when the soul is alert and the trees are singing. . . .” All subjects dear to the Romanticist are present in his poems: worship of nature, homesickness, eternal roaming, moonlit nights, old chapels, deserted ruins, and moods of melancholy.
I wander through the quiet night;There glides the gentle moon so white,Oft breaking dark cloud-banks away,And sometimes in the valeAwakes a nightingale:Then once more all is still andgray. . . .
In one regard, however, Eichendorff differs from his fellow Romanticists: he had committed himself to Catholicism. He was opposed to the prevailing trend of his time of esthetical Catholicism, but there was never any doubt in his mind about his faith. Romanticism, which has been frequently interpreted as a substitution of adoration of nature for the adoration of God served Eichendorff only to display his belief in God’s orderly world:
The small child rests from...
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