Andreas Gryphius 1616-1664
German poet, playwright, and translator.
Andreas Gryphius has been called the most significant poet and playwright of the German Baroque. The author of tragedies, comedies, poetry, funeral orations, and translations, Gryphius responded to the events of his lifetime—the devastation and horrors of the Thirty Years' War, the ravages of the plague, the exciting discoveries of foreign lands, and the findings of the new experimental science. His strong Christian faith and a belief in the divine right of kings is at the heart of many of his works. A devout scholar, Gryphius was known for his intellect in a wide variety of disciplines, including an expertise in eleven languages and an impressive knowledge of classical culture. However, his popularity among his contemporaries was largely based on his contributions to German drama.
Gryphius was born in October 1616 to Anna Erhard and Paul Gryphius, the Lutheran archdeacon of religiously volatile Glogau in Silesia, where clashes between Roman Catholics and Lutherans were frequent. When Gryphius was four, his father died; his mother later married Michael Eder, a teacher at the school Gryphius attended. In 1628 Gryphius's mother died, leaving the young Gryphius to follow his stepfather to Poland, where Eder had emigrated to escape the escalating religious turmoil. There, Gryphius married Maria Rissmann, whose fondness for music and literature may have inspired Gryphius's own appreciation of the ballet, opera, and theater. In 1632 Gryphius began studies in Fraustadt, a Polish town that offered Protestants refuge against the powerful Catholics in Germany. It was there that Gryphius first attracted attention as an outstanding scholar, speaker, and actor. Soon thereafter he published his first writing, a two-part verse epic entitled Herodis Furiae, et Rachelis lachrymae (1634; Herod's Rage and Rachel's Tears) and Dei Vindicis Impetus et Herodis Interitus (1635; The Attack of God the Avenger and the Death of Herod) about the Biblical villain Herod's slaughter of innocent children and (in part two) his ghastly death. Around this same time, Gryphius entered high school in the Polish city of Danzig, one of the most significant cultural centers in Europe, and was invited to tutor the sons of the wealthy and high-ranking Georg Schönborner, an imperial count palatine. Fond of the young Gryphius, Schönborner celebrated the publication of Gryphius's first poetry collection, Sonnete (Sonnets), in 1637 by bestowing upon the young poet the title of master of philosophy and naming him imperial poet laureate. Upon the death of his literary patron, Gryphius immersed himself in the study of law at the renowned University of Leiden, where he made the acquaintance of leading humanists and various administrative officials. Combining his studies with lectures on subjects ranging from metaphysics to poetics and from history to anatomy, Gryphius remained at Leiden until 1644, when he embarked on his “Grand Tour,” an educational journey through Europe that was an essential part of a young nobleman's instruction. Settling in Strasbourg, Gryphius wrote his most famous (and many claim his best) tragedy, Leo Armenius, oder Fürsten-Mord (1650; Leo Armenius; or, Regicide). Staying briefly in Stetin in 1647, Gryphius wrote his second play, Catharina von Georgien. Oder Bewehrte Beständigkeit (1657; Catharine of Georgia; or, Constancy Maintained). By this time Gryphius had gained renown as a playwright and had the benefit of close connections to high-ranking officials who offered him the position of legal envoy to Glogau's landed nobility. Accepting the responsibility as official functionary between the Protestants and the Catholics, Gryphius gained a wide reputation as a highly principled statesman. He married a second time in 1649 and had seven children, the eldest of whom, Christian, became a poet and later edited an edition of his father's works. By the late 1650s, the family, fleeing a new outbreak of the plague, took refuge at the Schönborner estate, where Gryphius wrote what has become the most popular of his tragedies, Großmüttiger Rechts-Gelehrter, oder Sterbender Aemilius Paulus Papinianus (1659; The Courageous Jurist; or, The Death of Paulus Papinianus). In 1662 he was awarded a distinguished membership in the prestigious German literary society Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (Fruit-Bringing Society) and granted the name “Der Unsterbliche” (the Immortal). He died of a heart attack in July of 1664.
Gryphius is considered a master of the seventeenth-century sonnet, and his early verses are regarded as among the best in the German language. Sonnets contains some of his most well-known compositions. Many of the verses—which center around war, death, the fleeting nature of humanity, Gryphius's deep concern for his native land, and his intense devotion for Protestantism—were revised through subsequent editions. As a playwright, Gryphius wrote in the German vernacular, composing primarily tragedies about royalty in serious, noble language echoing classical oratory. The central theme in all his plays is one of the basic tenets of Christianity—that through death of the physical body one can gain everlasting life in heaven for the soul. Deliverance, according to Gryphius, occurs in the afterlife; human life is transitory. He also concerned himself with the Christian doctrine of martyrdom; his favorite subject, in fact, was the martyr play, where the passive victim is set in extreme opposition to a malevolent oppressor. Many of his plays feature a chorus, or Reyen, which offers a moralizing summation of the dramatic events.
Gryphius's first tragedy is generally acknowledged to be his best. Leo Armenius is set in the imperial palace of ninth-century Constantinople and revolves around the assassination of the emperor. Examining the issues of tyrannicide and the divine right of kings—potent questions for seventeenth-century Germans—Leo Armenius also demonstrates the transience of human existence, depicting man as a defenseless toy that is pummeled by life. Catharine of Georgia, Gryphius's second tragedy, is a martyr play that relates in gruesome detail the real-life story of the title character. Catherine of Georgia was the seventeenth-century queen of Armenian Georgia who was martyred after refusing to submit to the Shah of Persia's demands to renounce her religion and become his wife. Admonishing its audience against sinful eroticism, Cardenio und Celinde, oder Unglücklich Verliebete is Gryphius's version of a ghost story whose source is a seventeenth-century Spanish tale about a nobleman whose love for a beautiful woman turns tragic. Ermordete Majestät. Oder Carolus Stuardus König von Großbrittannien (1657; Murdered Majesty; or, Charles Stuart, King of Great Britain) was written in response to a shattering event in 1649, the beheading of England's Charles I on charges of being an enemy to his nation. In the play, Charles is depicted as a true martyr, refusing any and all rescue efforts. Religion appears in the form of the Reyen. The Courageous Jurist; or, The Death of Paulus Papinianus is considered one of Gryphius's most visibly horrific plays. Featuring the spectacle of severed heads and a heart ripped from its chest, The Courageous Jurist focuses on the emperor Caracalla, who, after killing his half-brother, attempts to use the heroic legal scholar Paulus Papinianus to testify as to the lawfulness of the murder. Papinianus chooses death rather than succumb to the deceitful and false emperor.
In general, Gryphius did not consider his comedies to be works of art. They do, however demonstrate the playwright's sharp powers of observation, his mastery of his native language, and his affection for the humbler classes of society. Absurda Comica. Oder Herr Peter Squentz (1658; Absurd Comedy; or, Mr. Peter Squentz) contains echoes of Shakespeare's comical Peter Quince of the play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream (although it is quite unlikely that Gryphius knew of Shakespeare's work). A slapstick spoof of the conceit of humankind, Absurd Comedy has become one of the most popular and frequently staged German comedies. Critics have suggested that the title character and his companions—itinerant, bumbling actors and pseudo-scholars attempting to produce Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe for an appearance of the king in their village—are caricatures of mankind and represent humanity's excessive pride. Gryphius's double comedy, Verlibtes Gespenste, Gesang-Spiel (1660; The Amorous Ghost; Operetta; enlarged to include Die gelibte Dornrose, Schertz-Spill [Beloved Dornrose: Farce]) in 1661, is comprised of light and comical plays about love affairs. The title characters, who engage in an illicit passion, eventually come to understand that this type of love is sinful. A satirical farce about two braggart ex-army officers, Horribilicribrifax Teutsch (1663; The Horrible Sieve-Maker) exposes the duo's weaknesses and at the same time criticizes would-be socialites of the German court.
During his lifetime, Gryphius was highly popular and esteemed as an exemplary public and literary figure. In the early eighteenth century, however, Gryphius scholarship began to wane in popularity. Critics have placed great emphasis on the fact that critical reception of Gryphius is very much dependent upon how expectations of literary pieces have changed throughout the centuries and that, especially with the rise of the Enlightenment movement, which emphasized reason and science, Gryphius's mixture of allegory, theology, and metaphysics became foreign matter to later audiences. Interest in Gryphius in the eighteenth century was considered antiquarian.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, however, a new field of learning emerged. Germanistik had as one of its goals the study and analysis of literary documents of Germanic peoples. Though Gryphius had rarely been read in the previous century, interest in his work increased after professor Georg Gottfried Gervinus, a major academic, made the astounding claim that “one finger of Andreas Gryphius is more poetic than all of Opitz” (referring to Martin Opitz, an influential seventeenth-century German poet). By virtue of the sheer quantity of Gryphius's works and his prominent position in society, Gryphius was from that time on assured a significant place in German literary history. By the early twentieth century, the rediscovery of German Baroque ushered in an entirely new critical approach—the study of the philosophical and spiritual intentions of the era. Discussion moved to the intense interpretation of the texts themselves, especially after the mid-twentieth century, as questions were debated regarding the author's views on the theological and political issues of his time, the autobiographical content of Gryphius's works, and the nature of modern-day readers' interest in Gryphius. Offering answers to the latter question, twentieth-century critics have commended Gryphius's works as timeless pieces exploring the vanity of human nature, celebrating those who resist evil, and honoring the faith that was so integral to the poet and playwright's life. Ultimately, many critics have concluded that Gryphius wrote poetry and plays centering on the hopes and tragedies that are part of the human condition. His plays have begun to be seen as not merely “bookish” but as works featuring spectacular staging fused with the theological and metaphysical themes that are typical of seventeenth-century plays. Gryphius is beginning to be recognized for his artistic manipulation of language and his mastery at making use of the ambivalence of language for his own ends. His growing modern reputation, however, has yet to surpass his reputation among his contemporaries—he was referred to both as “the Immortal” and “the German Sophocles.”