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Annette von Droste-Hülshoff 1797-1848

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(Full name Anna Elisabeth Franziska Adolfine Wilhelmina Luisa Maria, Freiin Droste-Hülshoff) German poet and novella writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Droste-Hülshoff from 1969 through 2001. For additional information on Droste-Hülshoff's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 3.

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff overcame frequent, debilitating illness and the restraints of a conservative family to become what many consider Germany's greatest woman poet. Droste-Hülshoff pursued her poetic calling throughout her life, beginning very early in childhood, and published one novella and two collections of poetry during her lifetime. She also left a substantial body of finished and unfinished works that were published in the decades after her death. Her works are characterized by her interests in religion and social justice, even as they are marked by a deep interiority. Though her travels led her to meet some of Germany's cultural elite, she was primarily homebound. Like Emily Dickinson, to whom she has been compared, Droste-Hülshoff was able to enlarge her world through extensive writing, producing a body of work that engaged Catholic religious traditions, German folklore, and Romantic literary ideas with independence and originality.

Biographical Information

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born Anna Elisabeth Franziska Adolfine Wilhelmina Luisa Maria, Freiin Droste-Hülshoff on January 10, 1797. Her aristocratic parents were Clemens August and Therese Luise von Droste-Hülshoff; she had an older sister, called Jenny, and two younger brothers, Werner and Ferdinand. Hers was a distinguished and ancient family, living in the castle of Hülshoff in Westphalia (near Münster). She was born quite prematurely and was not expected to survive. Instead, she lived in varying degrees of poor health, often under the shadow of seemingly imminent death, for most of her life. The wet nurse who kept her alive, Maria Katharina Plettendorf, became her intimate friend and a mentor in care-giving, Droste-Hülshoff's vocation apart from her writing. Droste-Hülshoff began writing poetry by the time she was seven. Initially her family, especially her mother, was very encouraging, proud of the apparent talent and intelligence of the child. Therese Luise provided an extensive education for all her children, well beyond what even other aristocratic families typically arranged, and Annette and Jenny took the same course of study as their brothers. Annette also read widely in the classics and German poetry on her own. Droste-Hülshoff's talents and education, however, were not to be used beyond the home. By the age of 12, the young poet had an offer to publish, but her family turned it down. Within a few years, her mother moved from being Droste-Hülshoff's primary supporter to being one of the major hindrances to her development as an author. Still, she received some encouragement from the elite friends of her family. As a young girl she met Princess Gallitzin, a major patroness of the arts who brought some elements of contemporary German culture to Münster. In her teen years she met Anton Matthias Sprikmann, a lawyer who moved in literary circles; Sprikmann took on the role of Droste-Hülshoff's mentor. She penned one of her first major writings in 1813, the play Bertha, though she never completed it. That year she also came to Bokendorf, the home of her maternal Haxthausen family, who also encouraged her writing, especially her religious poetry. While there she met Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, who asked for her help in collecting the folktales that would later be known as Grimm's fairy tales. Droste-Hülshoff was willing, but it is unlikely that she ever did much work with them. Nonetheless the meeting was likely significant in stimulating her interest in Westphalian history. Despite serious illness, she also wrote the epic poem Walther (completed 1818), the novel fragment Ledwina, and part one of Das geistliche Jahr (The Spiritual Year; not published in full until 1851) in this early productive period. From 1820 to 1825, Droste-Hülshoff wrote very little, a self-imposed silence many biographers attribute to a difficult romantic entanglement at Bokendorf. She found herself drawn to the young poet Heinrich Straube as well as to his friend August von Arnswaldt. When the two men discovered her divided affections, they wrote jointly to her Bokendorf family, portraying her as a conceited flirt. The Haxthausen family cut off their relations with her, and Droste-Hülshoff was grief-stricken over the loss of family and her good friend Straube, and over the blow to her reputation and self-image. The event moved Droste-Hülshoff toward the deep introspection that characterizes most of her later works. After five years of solitude, she began visiting and writing again, traveling along the Rhine. In Bonn, her cousin Clemens von Droste-Hülshoff introduced her to August Wilhelm von Schlegel, a leading German Romantic. In Cologne she befriended Sibylla Mertens-Schaafhausen, a fellow female writer; when Mertens-Schaafhausen moved to Bonn she introduced Droste-Hülshoff to Adele Schopenhauer, the sister of the well-known philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Adele Schopenhauer and her mother, Johanna, both read and critiqued Droste-Hülshoff's work, advising and encouraging her through an extensive correspondence. The author's travels and her widening circle of acquaintance stand in contrast to the increasing isolation of her home life. The death of her father in 1826 led to her removal, along with her mother and sister, to Ruschhaus, a home in the country, as her brother took over the castle. She dealt with bouts of serious illness, and when she was well she fulfilled the role of caretaker for sick relatives. She continued writing poetry, having decided by 1834 to publish an edition of her epic poems, which would eventually include “Das Hospiz auf dem grossen Sankt Bernhard” (“The Hostel on the Great Mountain Saint Bernhard”), “Des Arztes Vermachtnis” (“The Legacy of the Physician”), and “Die Schlacht im Loener Bruch” (“The Battle in the Loener Marsh”). The 1838 publication Gedichte (Poems) included these and several other poems, as well as parts of Das geistliche Jahr. She completed Das geistliche Jahr in 1840, along with the one-act satiric comedy Perdu! oder Dichter, Verleger und Blaustrümpfe (Lost! or, Poets, Publishers and Bluestockings), a reflection on the Münster literary community. In the meantime she had been pursuing her interest in Westphalian history and folklore, encouraged by Levin Schucking, who was also working on the subject, leading to the completion of her first major prose work, Die Judenbuche (The Jew's Beech Tree) in 1841. The novella was published serially in the magazine Morgenblatt in 1842. Other works from this project include the unfinished “Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande” (“With Us at Home in the Country”) and the nonfiction work Westphälische Schilderungen aus einer Westphälischen Feder (Westphalian Descriptions from a Westphalian Pen). Some of her most polished and mature poems were published in her second collection of poetry, Gedichte, in 1844. This collection included the intruiging verse epic Der Spiritus familiaris des Roßtäuschers (The Familiar Spirit of the Horse Dealer), another foray into folk tales. Throughout this time Schucking was her most important literary supporter, encouraging her and offering useful critiques of her work, and assisting her in placing her work for publication. Schucking, however, was an impoverished liberal who was highly critical of the aristocracy from which Droste-Hülshoff had her origins. When he published a novel attacking the aristocratic upper classes (in English, the title was Of Noble Birth) in 1846, Droste-Hülshoff ended the friendship. By that time, she had nearly finished writing. Though she had published a few poems and started a new prose work, Joseph, after the second Gedichte, she became increasingly ill and weak. In 1847 she traveled to Meersburg, hoping the southern climate would better suit her. She also became increasingly agitated by the unrest in Westphalia, which erupted in revolution in March of 1848. She died May 24, 1848, in Meersburg and was buried there.

Major Works

Though Droste-Hülshoff's greatest strengths and largest body of work lay in her poetry, she has become known primarily for the one novella she completed, Die Judenbuche. The novella tells the true story of a murder in Westphalia. The murderer, Friedrich Mergel, is in a sense the hero of the story, as Droste-Hülshoff promotes the readers' understanding of the social and psychological circumstances leading to his crime. She emphasizes the evils to which Mergel was subject as a young man and the bad influences within his own family, making the crime novel a work of social criticism as well. The novella is also a mystery that Droste-Hülshoff never clarifies: a second murder occurs, but though Mergel is a suspect the murder is not solved, and decades later when a man appears in Mergel's hometown and hangs himself on a beech tree, some believe he is Mergel, though he had identified himself as Mergel's friend. The engaging crime story, combined with serious questions about free will, justice, and society, became one of Droste-Hülshoff's greatest successes. More than a century following her death, several prose fragments have also become a central part of Droste-Hülshoff's corpus, most notably Ledwina. Though Droste-Hülshoff renewed her efforts on Ledwina after her writing break of the early 1820s, she was unable to bring herself to finish it. It is a largely autobiographical work, made up of several narrative threads that never quite come together. Nonetheless critics have seen the fragment as a significant indicator of Droste-Hülshoff's style, common motifs, and interests. Among her poetry, the lengthy cycle of poems that make up Das geistliche Jahr stand among her most coherent works. The poems reflect her deep Catholic faith, but they are also original reworkings of familiar forms and traditional themes, emphasizing the individual experience of faith. Her best poetry is generally considered to be the poems included in the second Gedichte of 1844. Among these are her “farewell” to Schucking on his marriage in 1843, “Lebt wohl,” and several innovative nature poems, such as “Am Thurme” (“On the Tower”), “Im Moose” (“On the Moss”), and “Das Spiegelbild” (“The Reflection in the Mirror”). The 1844 Gedichte is divided into five sections that reveal her interest in nature and folk themes—Zeitbilder (Pictures of the Times), Heidebilder (Pictures of the Heath), Fels, Wald und See (Rock, Forest, and Sea), Gedichte vermischten Inhalts (Miscellaneous Poems), and Scherz und Ernst (Fun and Seriousness).

Critical Reception

Although some critics have called Droste-Hülshoff Germany's greatest woman writer, she was not always well-received. As the author's mother anticipated, reactions to a woman writer were mixed at best. Many women wrote under pseudonyms in her time, but Droste-Hülshoff published openly, fortunate to have well-placed supporters in the literary world. As Maruta Lietina-Ray has observed, early critics were generally positive about the quality of Droste-Hülshoff's work but tended to downplay the author's talent, suggesting that her best writing came about accidentally, independent of—even in spite of—Droste-Hülshoff's labors. For her part, Droste-Hülshoff was well aware of the limitations placed on women authors, making it a common theme in her writing. As a result, feminist critics have responded strongly to her work. Though contemporary critics have disagreed as to Droste-Hülshoff's own proto-feminist tendencies—she published despite her mother's objections, but she was strongly conservative throughout her life and took a traditional feminine role in her family—the significance of her work as a pioneer in women's authorship is a continuing object of study. Scholars have also found that Droste-Hülshoff's struggles to assert herself in a masculine profession are well documented in her work, both overtly and metaphorically. Many scholars have noted the motif of the double or mirror image in much of her work, a mark of the divided self Droste-Hülshoff had to create in order to be both a traditional woman and a writer. Others have suggested that the fragmentary, ambiguous nature of many Droste-Hülshoff texts is another reflection of her ambivalence about pursuing a vocation that was, in her time, so clearly marked as masculine. Some critics have argued that Droste-Hülshoff was hindered by her inability to get past this ambivalence, though others—notably the German scholar Gertrud Bauer Pickar—say that the author's mastery of ambiguity was one of the great achievements of her art.

Principal Works

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Gedichte [anonymous] (poetry) 1838

*Die Judenbuche [The Jew's Beech Tree] (novella) 1842

Gedichte (poetry) 1844

Westphälische Schilderungen aus einer westphälischen Feder (nonfiction) 1845

Das geistliche Jahr [The Spiritual Year] (poetry) 1851

Letzte Gaben (poetry) 1860

Perdu! oder Dichter, Verleger und Blaustrümpfe (drama) 1884-87

Samtliche Werke. 4 vols. (poetry and novella) 1925-30

Die Briefe der Annette von Droste-Hulshoff. 2 vols. (letters) 1944

Historisch-kritische Ausgabe. Werke, Briefwechsel. 14 vols. (poetry, novella, fragments) 1978-94

*Published serially in J. C. Cotta's Morgenblatt fur gebildete Leser in April and May 1842.

†Includes the verse epic Der Spiritus familiaris des Roßtäuschers and the prose sketch Joseph.

‡Completed in the fall of 1840 and first published as part of the collected edition, Gesammelte Werke.

Joyce Hallamore (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: Hallamore, Joyce. “The Reflected Self in Annette von Droste's Work: A Challenge to Self-Discovery.” Monatshefte: Fur Deutschen Unterricht, Deutsche Sprache und Literatur 61, no. 1 (1969): 58-74.

[In the following essay, Hallamore traces the themes of introspection and self-examination in Droste-Hülshoff's work. Hallamore finds that Droste-Hülshoff's artistic exploration of these themes grows in complexity and assurance, particularly in the final years of her career.]

Herr! gib mir, daß ich sehe!


The personality of Annette von Droste presents a double image. The public image is that of the little spinster living as a social being in her secluded retreats and reflecting, in an unproblematic manner, the traditions and values of her aristocratic heritage, her orthodox Christianity, and her close emotional link with her Westphalian origins. The private image, that of the poet, is an infinitely complex one, and the woman who walked the moor in solitary hours, escaping the trivia of social life, is revealed as a victim of tragic contradictions—unfulfilled desires and passions condemned by her conscience.

Annette von Droste had no illusions about herself. She early practiced self-analysis through her poetry and gained an honest self-appraisal by continually subjecting herself, almost ruthlessly, to a study of her problematic personality. In terms of daily living this excessive self-awareness may have bordered on the pathological; in terms of creative self-expression, on the other hand, it provided the driving force toward self-identification with nature in her nature lyric and ballad, toward self-realization in her confessional poems, and toward the acute portrayal of the problematic character in the narrative works.

Metaphorically speaking, the poet Annette von Droste lived the greater part of her existence before a mirror, to her great discomfort. Troubled by the Westphalian gift of second sight (Vorgeschichte), she possessed also the often unsettling ability to assume a double position in relation to herself, acting at once both as observer and observed, without the compensating ability to reconcile, by humour, the disparities inherent in this dual role. Thus, in the poem “Am Turme,” the passions which are displayed by the maenad in her nature are offset by the cool and somewhat bitter appraisal of the situation by the woman who recognizes the limitations of her lot and the irony implicit in this explosion of secret desires. This tendency to take stock of herself in her work persists throughout her life, and in subjecting herself to this scrutiny she makes use of the most varied literary devices, ranging from the artistically quite obvious, even naive, to the most obscure, subtle and even baffling.

This study will confine itself to a single aspect of this many-faceted problem, namely to the poet's actual self-confrontation and, as an extension of this theme, to her treatment of the problem of self-discovery when, by taking the further step backward to apparent complete detachment in her narrative works, she stands, as it were, outside the problem altogether and becomes the observer of another's comparable dilemma.

Droste's attempts to take a distant view of herself by the relatively simple method of consciously creating an objectified self-portrait in the figure of another proved unproductive. The portrait of Ledwina remained only an interesting fragment, as did that of her forerunner, Berta; Sophie in Bei uns zu Lande is lost in the broader canvas of Westphalian life; Frau von Thielen in the one-act comedy Perdu is presented in a restricted context. All four reveal isolated elements of the Droste personality, and of these only the very early Ledwina searches beneath the surface impressions and indicates, if only obscurely, the path which the poet is destined to follow. Yet salient characteristics of the Droste nature emerge with singular clarity. In Ledwina's preoccupation with death and her terrifying gift of second sight are reflected Droste's own morbid fears and the troubling awareness of her psychic gifts. Berta suffers from and yet finds solace in her withdrawal from her fellowmen into a world of dreams. In the eighteen-year-old Sophie are combined Droste's almost plantlike hypersensitivity to external stimuli and the feverish receptivity of the visionary to tales “von blauen Wundern,”—qualities which, however, are carefully hidden from public notice by an almost painfully correct social decorum. In Frau von Thielen, in an ineffectual effort at comic relief, Droste ridicules her own artistic arrogance which prevents her from making any concessions to her reading public.1

The concentrated effort to probe her own psyche in all its manifestations began with Das Geistliche Jahr. The origins of the cycle are derivative: In religious terms the poems fall into the tradition of the erring Christian's penitential confessions; socially they had their beginnings in the desire of a carefully reared adolescent to please a pious grandmother. What was beginning to develop from these roots seems already to have surprised the young author, who wrote in her foreword of 1820 to her mother: “Für die Großmutter ist und bleibt es völlig unbrauchbar so wie für alle sehr fromme Menschen, denn ich habe ihm die Spuren eines vielfach gepreßten und geteilten Gemütes mitgeben müssen, und ein kindlich in Einfalt frommes würde es nicht einmal verstehn” (Werke, p. 470).2

The portrait which emerges in the completed cycle of 1839 is a twofold one. In the main the poet assumes a position in which subjective utterance and detached appraisal interplay; while confessing her private failings, she sees herself also as a representative of erring humanity and indeed as its mediator. In moments of greatest intensity, however, when the rights of the poet in her assert themselves, she loses this distance. In such poems—perhaps five or six of later origin—her personality dominates in spite of the religious context in which it is viewed. Here Droste is confronted by her unique self, and the illumination is both sudden and inexorable. Such an experience is the substance of the poem “Am fünfzehnten Sonntag nach Pfingsten” (Werke, p. 572). Pride has made her withdraw from her fellows (and so to become “eine Aussätzige,” as in the parable of Luke 17), and reject mediation and succour, “indes dein düstrer Blick sich stolz nach innen kehrt …” Her intellectualism has created an obstacle not only to full surrender to God but also to self-identification with His creatures and their world. Introversion is indeed a sin of pride. Thus she hurls the charges against herself. Ironically it is her intellect which compels her to tear down her own defences and to force a self-appraisal which, according to an earlier admission, she instinctively fears:

Sieh, meine Brust ist ein verschloßnes Tor,
Zu matt bin ich, die Riegel zu bezwingen,
Doch siehst du, wie ich angstvoll steh davor …

(“Am ersten Sonntag nach Ostern,” Werke, p. 530)

The Walter fragment provides a definition of this fear: “Es ist ein furchtbar Etwas, das sich müht, / Sich zwischen ihn und seinen Gott zu stellen” (Werke, p. 16). The manifestations of this “furchtbar Etwas” are legion in her work.

Throughout this cycle of poems God's sustaining hand is visible; in the great poem “Das Spiegelbild” (Werke, p. 164) it is quite another matter. Here the perspective of the self-view is not upward in the hope of redemption and grace, but downward into the frightening depths where a half-hidden alter ego exists and now threatens to assert itself. Emil Staiger writes of this poem: “Nur insofern gebührt ihm dennoch der höchste Platz in der Sammlung 1844, als die Droste hier ein einzigesmal den dämonischen Abgrund dort erblickt, wo sein ursprünglicher Ort ist, in sich selbst.”3 Walter Silz points to the frantic intensity of the confrontation, the eruption of the terrifying other self and the “sudden plunge into metaphysical depths.”4 Walter Muschg regards the poem as the ultimate expression of Droste, the visionary: “Es ist das größte Selbstbildnis der Droste, sie hat darin ihr magisches Sehertum gedeutet und verewigt.”5

The chilling effect of the poem derives from the total concentration of the viewer on the reflected self. Droste stands here as if transfixed and under an hypnotic spell. Time stands still; there is indeed no time other than this of the moment of truth. There is no world outside this experience, no God to whom she can turn for succour, no humanity into which she can lose herself as a fellow-sufferer. She is unique; she is totally vulnerable, and she cannot retreat. The experience has all the qualities of the nightmare in the singleness of the climactic moment of horror and the accompanying terrible sense on the part of the dreamer of being rooted to the spot. Her senses are abnormally acute and feverishly penetrating. The self-portrait comes to life as it never could before an ordinary mirror, for no sane human being—whether woman or man—stands in real life before a mirror so totally devoid of every vestige of self-persuasion as does Droste in this poem. Implacably she dissects the totality of this reflected face—feature by feature—into the revealed character of its parts: She reads from these pride, cynicism and disdain toward man, and all this with only a suggestion of a childlike vulnerability. At one point she attempts to dispel this image, not by denying it reality, but by regarding this other self as a phantom which to the Westphalian can possess its own uncanny existence. But she cannot thus break through to the world where things have their interrelationships in time and space and so set up a situation of separation—reality and unreality, subjective “Ich” and alien “Du.” She must see the situation as it is through to the end. This creature could indeed come to life. Here the state of static observation ends, and the poem reaches its climax in an imagined meeting of the two on the “Grund” of life. If this meeting were to occur—and we feel that this could happen here and now—the poet still will not retreat but will be ready to accept her dark alter ego, weeping both for it and for herself in the realization of the tragic fate that binds them inextricably together.

As Walter Silz observes: “This way lay madness. That Droste continued to live and work proves that she did not remain at this nadir of despair. Though she never lost the sense of the ultimate ‘Fragwürdigkeit’ of life and its deeply disturbing background, she turned away to seemingly more soluble ethical problems of man in relation to his setting and his fellows.”6

Droste herself realized that madness could result from the despair of such revelations, and indeed she confesses that she often had fears for her sanity. In “Das Fräulein von Rodenschild” (Werke, p. 349) she takes this next step to the dissolution of a personality; significantly, however, she relates the horror story as another's fate though the self-portrait is unmistakable. In a visionary experience, the protagonists—self and other-self—meet at midnight in mortal combat in the familiar interior of the ancestral home. The sleepless girl has witnessed the apparition slip down the staircase from the balcony to the courtyard. There its presence was acknowledged with the respect due the mistress of the estate by the servants assembled in the courtyard to observe, according to Westphalian folk custom, “die hochheilige Osternacht.” With the same uncanny clarity of perception as was evident in “Das Spiegelbild” the Fräulein recognizes herself from long familiarity with her image in the mirror:

Hab ich nicht so aus dem Spiegel geblickt?
Das sind meine Glieder—welch ein Geblend!
Nun hebt es die Hände, wie Zwirnes Flocken,
Das ist mein Strich über Stirn und Locken!
Weh, bin ich toll, oder nahet mein End?

Like her counterpart in “Das Spiegelbild” she is irresistibly drawn to this apparition and must confront it: “Du sollst mir stehen! ich will dich fahn!” Believing the phantom to have returned and disappeared into a far room of the house, she strains to catch sight of it at a chink in the door. Suddenly beside her there appears a light—no larger than that of a glow-worm—which grows in volume and rises to her own height:

Und Arm an Arme, auf Schrittes Weite
Lehnt das Gespenst an der Pforte Breite,
Gleich ihr zur Nachbarsspalte gebeugt.

There follows the terrible scene of the duel, a cautious but determined thrust and counter-thrust of the two personalities:

Sie fährt zurück—das Gebilde auch—
Dann tritt sie näher—so die Gestalt—
Nun stehen die beiden, Auge in Aug,
Und bohren sich an mit Vampires Gewalt.
Das gleiche Häubchen decket die Locken,
Das gleiche Linnen, wie Schnees Flocken,
Gleich ordnungslos um die Glieder wallt.
Langsam das Fräulein die Rechte streckt,
Und langsam, wie aus der Spiegelwand,
Sich Linie um Linie entgegen reckt
Mit gleichem Rubine die gleiche Hand …

Suddenly there is a stirring of a draught of air and the fateful blow is struck. The girl is conscious of an intense stab of pain, whether from cold or heat she cannot determine. The phantom “dämmert—zerrinnt—entschwand.” The victim is left to bear the tragic marks, both spiritual and physical, of this encounter. A period of mental illness follows—“Vor Jahren hats eine Weile gesiecht.” The person who later presents herself to the world has the characteristics of a schizophrenic: She is “schön und wild” at the height of the dance, cold as glimmering iron, yet superficially gay. Her withered hand she keeps concealed in a glove. The people call her “das tolle Fräulein” and seem to regard her madness as more interesting than disturbing. The fact that the encounter took place on the stroke of Easter morning lends obvious metaphysical undertones to the theme as sin and redemption, death and life. The sudden and unmotivated eruption of the demonic, however, shakes the whole foundation of man's ethical existence, as Benno von Wiese observes. He faces a “Doppel-Ich, das in der Fragwürdigkeit und Bodenlosigkeit seiner Erscheinung gleichsam alles Erscheinende ins Fragwürdige und Bodenlose zieht.”7

For Droste madness can, however, result from the reverse of the situation of self-encounter, from a state of tormenting uncertainty about the nature of one's own being and the rationality of life. This is the theme of “Des Arztes Vermächtnis,” where the agony of loss of identity is also the doctor's cruel legacy to his son. The father recalls at the beginning of his confession his original innocence and describes his present haunted state:

Ach! damals hatte fremde Sünde nicht
Gelegt auf meinen Nacken ihr Gewicht.
Klar war mein Hirn, die Seufzer durften ruhn:
So wars, so wars, und anders ist es nun.
Der dunkle Mann—das Bild, das mich umkreist—
Ich sage nichts, mein Sohn, was du nicht weißt.
Zu Nacht mein Auge fand das deine offen,
Dein sorglich Ohr mein Ächzen hat getroffen,
Wenn Mißgeschick in Sünde mir zerfleußt …

(Werke, p. 715)

The blindfolded state in which the well-intentioned young doctor is transported to the hidden cave and, as a result of forces which he cannot identify, becomes unwittingly the pawn in a dark conspiracy, is symbolic of his condition in life. He is destined to search to the brink of madness for his lost identity. The son inherits this spiritual burden. He recognizes the implications of this at his father's death:

                                                                                                                        Nicht fern,
Inmitten des Gemachs am Boden liegt
Der Knabe: unaufhaltsam strömt sein Weh
In glühnden Zähren; krampfhaft Schluchzen schüttelt
Die junge Brust; er windet sich, er stöhnt,
Dann springt er auf; ein fromm erzognes Kind,
Kniet er im Winkel, und sein wimmernd Flehn
Steigt Lavaströmen gleich empor, doch halb
Ists Wahnsinn, halb ein kindlich treu Gebet.
Den Himmel möcht er stürmen; alles will
Er, alles opfern: jede Jugendlust,
Will Jahre kranken, selbst das junge Dasein
Ist nichts um diesen Preis. O, hätt er Macht,
Er wagt' es, Gott zu diesem Tausch zu zwingen!

(Werke, p. 742)

The problems which one encounters in Droste's narrative poems do not, in general, probe these metaphysical depths—as Silz has indicated. She was quite naturally drawn to the ballad; it had been made popular by the Romantics and its traditional mystical themes lay close to the temperament of the Westphalian. Then again, Droste was a born storyteller as Schücking in his Lebensabriß attests. One might expect the poet to use this medium as a release from the tensions which assailed her, by moving temporarily within an area which both in content and expression lay at some distance from herself. The unequal quality of her production in this field suggests this may often have been the case. However, when one looks at the most important of these products one recognizes that similar troubling questions are being raised as plague the poet herself, that the specific problem of self-recognition lies at the centre of the work, and that indeed she employs the device of the divided or reflected self, even literally of the “Spiegelbild,” to underscore the psychological dilemma.

“Die Schlacht im Loener Bruch” already provides interesting insights into possible treatments of the problem, though these are not as yet fully realized. The rich lyrical colouring of the work detracts from the dramatic impact, and underlying meanings are often more clearly expressed through nature than in the record of events. The work opens on a lyrical note of nostalgia for the homeland, and the conclusion sinks the human history of Christian back into the obscure past of the region and indeed into its soil. The first mirror motif is purely lyrical and uncomplicated in statement: In the tranquility of evening a group of little girls (“nichts wußten sie von Furcht und Scheu”) are indulging a childish whim by skipping stones over the calm surface of a heath-pool and floating on the water the flowers they have plucked. Nature reciprocates with a gracious gesture by providing in the water a mirror before which they can set their caps in innocent self-approval. The onsurge of warring soldiers breaks this calm, and the girls take flight like a flock of startled birds. Almost immediately the second mirror image occurs: The face of the battle-obsessed Christian, “der tolle Herzog,” is reflected in the pool as, in the sweat of flight before Tilly's army, he leans down to slake his thirst:

Nie sah man in so jungen Zügen
So tiefen Grolles Spuren liegen;
Ja, als er ob der Welle beugt,
Wo ihm sein Bild entgegensteigt,
Man meinte, diese Zweie gleich,
Sie müßten fassen sich am Teich.

(Werke p. 750)

The poet seems not yet to realize the potentialities of this theme and makes no comment on the effect of this self-image on Christian. The reader is free variously to interpret it: Christian sees only the enraged face of an enemy and is spurred on to greater fury; he recognizes in his reflection only his own harassed state, physical rather than psychological; in the obsession of the moment he is incapable of self-recognition and the comment is that of the author. A decision as to Droste's exact meaning in this ambiguous passage is unimportant. Conclusive is the gesture of determination to continue the chosen course: “Nun faßt den Zaum die Eisenfaust, / Und nun voran!” Implicit in the passage, however, is the idea that nature did provide here the possibility of self-appraisal which was rejected.

In a later scene nature assumes demonic proportions and engulfs the struggling opponents of the two armies in just such an encounter as is suggested in the earlier lines: “Man meinte, diese Zweie gleich, / Sie müßten fassen sich am Teich,” and one is tempted to believe that this scene is consciously linked in the poet's mind with the preceding one:

Doch mancher an des Schlundes Rund
Noch hat zum Kampfe sich gewandt
Und zog mit letzter Kraftgewalt
Den blut'gen Feind vom sichern Halt;
Dann wütig kämpfend in dem Schlamm,
Sie rangen wie zwei Wasserschlangen,
Die sich in grimmer Lieb umfangen.
Zuletzt nur noch des Helmes Kamm
Sah aus den Binsen, und der Schlund
Schloß zuckend seinen schwarzen Mund.

(Werke p. 806-7)

Christian himself escapes this physical fate but suffers a worse one; he becomes a fugitive, ein Unbehauster.

Droste's application of the mirror motif in recounting the history of the parallel figure of Johannes May shows no great originality, for she draws on a theme traditionally linked with demonology. The naiveté of the device is, however, in keeping with the character of the uncomplicated and superstitious Landsknecht. During the pillaging of a small church May snatches a crucifix from under the nose of a greedy companion and, to his horror, sees a face reflected in its shining surface:

“Der Teufel—Teufel—sah mich an!”
Dann auf sich rafft er, taumelt weg,
Wie Blinde wanken übern Steg.
Der Kamerad vergaß ihn schon,
Das Kruzifix nimmt er zum Lohn.
“Ha, Spiegelbild!” und klirrend bricht
Es an der Jungfrau Angesicht.

(Werke, p. 763)

The significance of the mirrored image for Johannes May and Christian rests obviously on two different levels of self-awareness. May, the rough extrovert, reacts as the primitive man on what may be regarded as Lessing's first level in the education of mankind: He recognizes in the image of the devil the certainty of divine wrath and punishment, and he later acts to redress his sin. Christian, a character essentially divided in himself, has become the creature of his passions and these, fortified by environmental and parental influences, provide a defensive armour against all self-probing. Thus he rejects the opportunity of a self-confrontation and self-liberation. The unredeemed man and the penitent later meet in a moment decisive for the ethical problem. The boldly hewn portrait of Christian kneeling over the dying May is also one of the artistic highlights of the work:

Den tollen Herzog kann man sehn
Im Moose knieen—wahrlich, nie
Tat er so fromm, als nur vielleicht,
Den Sporn zu schnallen morgens früh;—
Um seinen Arm der Mantel bauscht.
So ruhig wie ein Felsenriff,
An dem sich ächzend reibt das Schiff,
Dem Wort des Sterbenden er lauscht.

(Werke, p. 791)

“Was er vernahm, es ward nicht kund.” Certain only is that Johannes May warns Christian of the consequences of his actions: “Laß ab, laß ab! auch Petrus hat / Dreimal verleugnet seinen Herrn, / Bevor der Hahn gekräht …” But Christian's reaction is disbelief as the cock crows: “Wer hätte das geglaubt!” Yet, although this moment marks the ultimate rejection of ethical responsibility, Droste—as so often in her pity for humanity—would offer Christian a final chance of redemption: “Christians verstörter Sinn ging endlich wohl in Klarheit auf.”

For Droste in her narrative work the device of dividing the dual personality into two seemingly separate and distinct figures proved artistically much more productive than was the somewhat limited potential of the mirror image with its accompanying danger of repetitiousness. One can sense her feeling her way toward this method in the Christian-May duality. The mirror motif offered great possibilities of expression for the lyric but could well develop into a mannerism when injected into essentially narrated situations. Both the ballad “Die Schwestern” and the Novelle Die Judenbuche owe their great impact to the fact that Droste has made this distinct division and that the reality of self and other-self are yet held in a perfect balance of credibility. Within Droste's narrative work these two represent the high point in the exploration of the problem under study.

The ballad “Die Schwestern” is, next to Die Judenbuche, the most baffling of Droste's works due to the constant shifting in the relative positions of the surface stratum of external reality and the subterranean of the psychological. As in Die Judenbuche much is left inconclusive because of the gaps which the narrator leaves in the story, yet the central problem is clearly apparent when one probes beneath the ambiguities of the plot. The key to its deeper meaning is to be found in the complexities of the Gertrude-Helene relationship, and I believe that this can be understood only when read in the light of Droste's comparable statement on the dual character in her great novelle.

The superficial story tells of the anguished search of an older sister for the young Helene, whom she permitted, against her better judgment, to go to the city where she succumbs to its temptations. The course of Helene's degradation is only hinted at in a series of disconnected pictures: Her departure is recalled by her anxious sister; later during the search Gertrude believes she sees her alight from a fine carriage and disappear into an imposing mansion; after ten years her body is found floating in the water of a port city and is identified by Gertrude. Gertrude, now totally deranged, takes her own life. So much for the external events. The real meaning of this unsettling work must be sought on a much deeper level. At no point in the story can we detach these two figures from each other: Helene's “separateness” resulted from Gertrude's act of acquiescence, and the sole purpose of the sister's existence thereafter is centered in the reunion. A concrete and rather uncanny link remains throughout in the dog Fidel who had accompanied Helene and later, for no plausible reason, had returned to the sister; the dog is present throughout the search. Fidel's instinct proves to be truer than that of Gertrude when Helene is briefly sighted entering the mansion, and it is the dog who in the end leads Gertrude to a true identification of Helene's decomposed body.

The motif of the dog is an unnecessary and artistically very dubious element in the work if we read it, as has been customary, as the account of the fates of two personalities, joined only through the anguished search of the guilt-ridden Gertrude. Fidel links the two on the deeper level of meaning, and his return to Gertrude is a return to the essential self in the duality. Helene's degeneration from the piously reared young girl to whore is the outward symbol of the spiritual decay of Gertrude, who at the beginning told her beads and prayed her Vater unser. Her faith is not strong enough to sustain her against the irrationality of life. In a series of snapshots, shattering in their candour, we follow the record of her decline until:

Am Hafendamme geht eine Frau,
—Mich dünkt, wir müssen sie kennen,—
Ihr Haar einst schwarz, nun schillerndes Grau,
Und hohl die Wangen ihr brennen.

(Werke, p. 411)

A recognition by Gertrude that, in the finding of Helene's body, she is confronting her other-self can no longer offer a resolution of the dichotomy in self-acceptance. The fate of the tortured Gertrude extends beyond ethical and physical destruction as represented in Helene into the realm of madness. In her last days, as though under the hypnotic spell of the water, she oscillates between pity at the sight of her alter ego in the calm sea surface—in which significantly she recognizes only Helene—and the furious outrush of suppressed evil when the storm rages:

Doch schlief die Welle, dann sah ihr Gesicht
Man über den Spiegel sich beugen,
Und zeigte er ihr das eigne Bild,
Dann flüsterte sie beklommen:
“Wie alt sie sieht, wie irre und wild,
Und wie entsetzlich verkommen!”
Doch wenn der Sturm die Woge gerührt,
Dann war sie vom Bösen geschlagen,
Was sie für bedenkliche Reden geführt,
Das möge er lieber nicht sagen.

(Werke, p. 414)

Her end is an attempt at self-extinction. From a ship the sailors witness her wild rush to her death: “Zur Brandung, wo sie am hohlsten ist, / Und kopfüber gefahren vom Riffe.”

Benno von Wiese points to the “ausweglose menschliche Lage” revealed by these human fates and adds: “Unausgesprochen schwingt hier mit, daß dort, wo menschliches Begreifen und menschlicher Maßstab notwendig in seiner Enge und Begrenztheit versagen muß, nur noch der Ausblick in die göttliche Gnade und Gerechtigkeit offensteht, deren Wege ebenso unergründlich sind wie die Furchtbarkeit eines den Dämonen verfallenen Menschenschicksals.”8 Heselhaus in his study of “Der Spiritus familiaris des Roßtäuschers” offers the possibility of approaching the work from the broader perspective of the contemporary social scene and thus supplies a revealing further dimension to its interpretation. He points to the fact that after the breach with Schücking Droste turned again, now in a different spirit than earlier, to the Zeitgedicht, partly because she saw in Schücking's “betrayal” an expression of the growing liberalism in morals and attitudes of the 'forties and regarded her personal fate in the broader context of a social revolution. These poems now address the public “ernst, mahnend und hadernd mit Prophetenton.”9 “Die Schwestern,” when read in the context of the concerns of the writers of Jungdeutschland, especially with the nature of die Zerrissenen, he regards as “unerhört zeitnah.”10

In Die Judenbuche Droste's technical sophistication in the use of devices to express the dichotomy of a personality reaches its height. She extends and combines familiar motifs into a complex fabric in which reality and illusion intermingle to such a degree that no one interpretation seems to exhaust the possibilities of the underlying meaning of the work. “Zauberspiegel” und “Spiegelbild” reflect the two extremes of Friedrich Mergel's existence. Character and counter-character appear as later in “Die Schwestern” as two distinct entities, linked by fate, by blood relationship, and here also by a physical likeness. Thus: Friedrich—Simon; Friedrich—Johannes. The apprehensions of the ignorant, confused Margreth revealed in what may be seen as the prologue to the main events already strike the note of foreboding in these relationships. First, with the clarity almost of second sight, she recognizes Simon as a devil-figure: “Und bald sah Margreth den beiden nach, wie sie fortschritten, Simon voran, mit seinem Gesicht die Luft durchschneidend, während ihm die Schösse des roten Rocks wie Feuerflammen nachzogen. So hatte er ziemlich das Ansehen eines feurigen Mannes, der unter dem gestohlenen Sacke büßt …” and Friedrich as a victim following “seinem Führer”: “… die Blicke fest auf denselben geheftet, der ihm gerade durch das Seltsame seiner Erscheinung anzog, erinnerte er unwillkürlich an jemand, der in einem Zauberspiegel das Bild seiner Zukunft mit verstörter Aufmerksamkeit betrachtet.” (Werke, p. 893)

The encounter with Johannes next evening in the half-light of the cottage brings no such startling illumination. Johannes' existence confirms her suspicions of Simon and shatters her hope for her son's future. But a deeper, indefinite fear is at work in her. There is something eerie and ominous in the resemblance of this desolate creature to her son: “… nein, das war ihr Kind nicht! und dennoch …” In terror she cries out “Friedrich! Friedrich!” as if to call back into reality the receding figure of the boy “mit [den] zarten, fast edlen Zügen und langen blonden Locken …” (Werke, p. 893).

Friedrich immediately establishes his intended relationship to Johannes. With a flourish he hands him his makeshift violin, thereby casting off the state of childhood and assuming the rôle of patron. By his arrogant bearing toward the bedraggled and pitiable Johannes he discards for good his own torn and tattered exterior. He walks straight up to his “verkümmertes Spiegelbild … seinerseits mit einer Haltung bewußter Würde und Selbstverständlichkeit, die in diesem Augenblicke den Unterschied zwischen beiden sonst merkwürdig ähnlichen Knaben stark hervortreten ließ” (Werke, p. 896-7). At the end of the story it requires the physical evidence of a scar to distinguish between the two.

Unwittingly Margreth had pre-conditioned her son to become a pathetically easy prey to Simon's cunning. The boy's inherent receptivity to spiritual values had been both blunted and perverted by environmental influences. In his world no clear line of demarcation separated right from wrong: thievery was justified—under certain conditions; murder was evil only when committed against the respected class; officials of the law when thwarting personal advantage were the common enemy; Jews lay outside any concern for justice. This twisted ethical code which Margreth shares with her fellows conflicts strangely with her pious observances. Simon, with devilish cunning, knows how to capitalize on the boy's confusion of spirit, in which he recognizes an uncertain religious faith combined, however, with a deep-seated fear of demonic forces. At the scene of the death of Hermann Mergel Simon threatens Friedrich with the ghost of his father. The boy's convulsive seizure of Simon's arm seals an unwilling pact: “‘Ohm, Ohm!’ keuchte Friedrich.—‘Was fällt dir ein? Du wirst dich doch nicht fürchten? Satan von einem Jungen, du kneipst mir den Arm! Laß los, los!’” (Werke, p. 895).

The Simon-Friedrich relationship dominates the first part of the story and reaches its climax in Friedrich's decisive confrontation with this force—in the early morning when Friedrich is preparing to go to confession. Simon's fate rests on his ability to obstruct the youth since they have been inseparably involved in the forester's death. The devil Simon, by an ingenious re-interpretation of the Ninth Commandment, is the victor: “Friedrich ging an diesem Morgen nicht zur Beichte” (Werke, p. 913). Here Simon's outward role in the story ends.

The “Zauberspiegel” continues, however, to hold Friedrich in its spell. Now Johannes, absent from the external account since the “prologue,” reappears to serve as a foil to Friedrich's vanity. Johannes' petty thievery (in what ironic disproportion to the publicly accepted thievery of the “Blaukittel”!) marks the turning-point in Friedrich's success-story. He is publicly mocked and degraded. The result is the murder of the Jew. The terror of flight and the physical tortures of the ensuing years inseparably join the two in a common misery. All differences are obliterated.

The broken man who returns, after long absence, on Christmas Eve bears the physical features of his miserable mirror image. He has been stripped of all surface splendour and only the reader witnesses his unresolvable torment of spirit when he falls to his knees and tries to join in the Christmas prayer of the villagers: “Erlös uns von der Hölle!” He can only sob and weep. Of the significance of such tears in Droste's work Höllerer writes: “Das Weinen steigert sich in Angst und tiefste Verzweiflung und in ein vergebliches Ringen um das Himmlisch-Heilige.”11 There is no real hope of redemption. No outward problem, however, attaches to this man's return: He is taken to be the simple-minded Johannes; Friedrich's innocence of the murder of the Jew has been accepted on the basis of the apparent confession of another; the story of Friedrich is no longer of prime interest to the village. Benno von Wiese attributes Friedrich's acceptance of the role assigned to him as conscious duplicity.12 It is true that only as Johannes could his wish to be buried in a Christian cemetery be fulfilled—or so he must believe on his return. Staiger places the emphasis elsewhere and where it belongs: “Auf der Flucht, solange Friedrich als das bestehen will, was er bisher gewesen, geht Johannes unentwegt an seiner Seite. Wie Not und Alter den Trotz erschüttern, hört die Zwienatur auf, und der Doppelgänger—denn anders kann dies nicht ausgedrückt werden—verschwindet. Im Grunde hat sich Friedrichs Wesen aufgelöst; der unheimliche Glanz ist verblaßt, das Elend der Kreatur zurückgeblieben und das Geschöpf, das am Weihnachtsabend heimkehrt, gleicht an Leib und Seele völlig dem Johannes.”13

Droste preserves the physical identity of Friedrich by the unobtrusive reminders of a past which appear like the faint lines of the original in an over-painted portrait, such as the anguished “Also ganz umsonst!” on learning that another confessed to the crime, and in the casual linking of the old man's time-killing hobby of carving spoons with Friedrich's cunning use of an innocent pastime when acting as spy to the “Blaukittel.” These connections go unnoticed by the people, yet serve the important artistic purpose of sustaining the identity of Friedrich in this figure. Far more significant and infinitely subtle is the author's method of preserving the features of Johannes in this ambivalent portrait by seeming to accept the people's identification and strictly avoiding personal comment. This detachment extends indeed to the use of such phrases as “sagte Johannes,” “seufzte Johannes,” etc. in the dialogue.

In the suicide at the beechtree the Friedrich-Simon and Friedrich-Johannes dualities simultaneously reach their fated climax. Friedrich's terror before the demonic forces displayed at the scene of his father's death is a vital factor in the awesome fascination which the scene of his crime exerts upon him; his death and the decomposition of his body mark the physical end of his existence as Friedrich. That his identity is established by a scar—never mentioned in the course of the story—is significant. The people can now revise their earlier version of his life-history. But they are really no nearer to the truth.

Annette von Droste began work on Die Judenbuche in 1837. The preceding year Georg Büchner had died at the age of twenty-three, leaving among his unpublished works the drama Woyzeck. As writers the two appear to share few common features, yet striking analogies exist both in the feeling and the form of the two works. Common to both is the deep pity for the victims of society and the awareness of the terrifying undercurrents at work in man's nature. Both works tell the story of a fated man's life in a succession of high-lighted scenes which serve as symbolic “stations” on the way to disaster. Each work reveals, in the words of Woyzeck, the truth: “Jeder Mensch ist ein Abgrund, es schwindelt einem, wenn man hinabsieht.”

Droste's characters occupy a bleak and unsympathetic world. Self-encounter is experienced in utter isolation or in the dramatic confrontation with another who represents “den dämonischen Abgrund” of his being: Isenburg-Rinkerad in “Der Tod des Erzbischofs”; the horsedealer-“der Schlapphut”; the doctor-“der Dunkle”; Friedrich Mergel-Simon, in the confession scene. The devil as hidden persuader is always close at hand. Environment provides no foundation for ethical firmness of character (Die Judenbuche); may indeed support egocentric desires (“Die Schlacht”) or produce conditions which lead to reckless and irresponsible action (“Der Roßtäuscher”). Efforts at succour may result in self-alienation and madness (“Des Arztes Vermächtnis”) and self-sacrifice in suicide (“Der Graf von Thal”), or the rush of fateful events may reduce the rôle of the one privately most involved in the greater conflict to that of a minor character, as is the case of Isenburg's wife in “Der Tod des Erzbischofs.” Neither love nor marriage provides a solution to the problem of alienation. Both are treated in almost every instance not as purely personal relationships but as conditions which themselves are vulnerable to irrational tensions. Romantic love as a central theme is totally absent.

In this world of seeming irrationality Droste, the woman, was sustained by Droste, the poet. This fact is particularly apparent in the course of her love for Levin Schücking. In the close association of the Meersburg months of 1841-42 she experienced through this love a release of poetic inspiration which in its insistence amazed even the poet herself. In the centre of this flood of lyric are the love poems to Schücking—five in all addressed directly to him, though evidences of the new vitality and eager responsiveness this love inspired are everywhere apparent. The Schücking-poems again reveal Droste's constant self-awareness but here to a degree and in a quality never before realized, as Heselhaus notes: “Kaum jemals wieder erreicht Annette eine solche Gelöstheit des Gefühls und nirgends ist die Spiegelung des eigenen künstlerischen Selbst so unvergeßlich gelungen. Im Gegenüber mit dem geliebten Du gewinnt das lyrische Ich der Droste jene kristallklare Hellgesichtigkeit, die das Geheimnisdunkle und das Dumpfe, das lastend um ihre Seele steht, auflöst und befreiend die Dichterin ihres Selbst inne werden läßt.”14

This clairvoyance is in striking contrast to the state of total self-surrender to the personality of the lover which Marianne-Suleika confesses:

Ja! mein Herz, es ist der Spiegel,
Freund, worin du dich erblickt.

(“Suleika”: Wie mit innigstem Behagen)

With Droste the state is that of a “Gegenüber” with a constant awareness of self and of the otherness of the beloved. Though they are held together by a magnetic force, they have been set high “auf feindlich starre Pole” as male and female; they are Castor and Pollux, whose love radiates as a “Zwillingsflamme.” They share the same small joys, yet each from the individuality of his own temperament—as when they watch the waterfowl diving in the lake:

Sieh unten auf dem See im Abendrot
Die Taucherente hin und wieder schlüpfend;
Nun sinkt er nieder wie des Netzes Lot,
Nun wieder aufwärts mit den Wellen hüpfend;
Seltsames Spiel, recht wie ein Lebenslauf!
Wir beide schaun gespannten Blickes nieder;
Du flüsterst lächelnd: immer kömmt sie auf!—
Und ich, ich denke: immer sinkt sie wieder!

(“Die Schenke am See,” Werke, p. 122)

In “Lebt wohl” (Werke, pp. 259-260) Droste gives her blessing to the departing Levin and his young wife on the conclusion of their visit in Meersburg on May 30, 1844. In so doing she assesses her own solitary state, yet her focus is not on her personal loss but rather on what remains in her nature as constant and inviolable. She can now affirm with sorrow and gratitude her essential self, the creative individual in whom reside those qualities which she has so often feared, and accept her isolation as a poet, “verlassen, aber einsam nicht”—

Solange mir der frische Wald
Aus jedem Blatt Gesänge rauscht,
Aus jeder Klippe, jedem Spalt
Befreundet mir der Elfe lauscht.
Solange noch der Arm sich frei
Und waltend mir zum Äther streckt,
Und jedes wilden Geiers Schrei
In mir die wilde Muse weckt.


  1. In a letter to Schücking (8 January, 1844) she writes: “Es mag mir mitunter schaden, daß ich so starr meinen Weg gehe und nicht die kleinste Pfauenfeder in meinem Krähenpelz leide, aber dennoch wünsche ich, dies würde anerkannt.” Die Briefe der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Gesamtausgabe, ed. Karl Schulte Kemminghausen (Jena 1944), vol. 2, p. 260.

  2. References to quotations will be taken from: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Sämtliche Werke, ed. Clemens Heselhaus (München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1955).

  3. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, 2. Aufl., (Frauenfeld 1962), pp. 92-93.

  4. “Problems of ‘Weltanschauung’ in the works of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], LXIV (1949), p. 684.

  5. Studien zur tragischen Literaturgeschichte, (Bern 1965), p. 174.

  6. “Problems of ‘Weltanschauung’,” pp. 684-685.

  7. “Die Balladen der Annette von Droste,” Jahrbuch der Droste-Gesellschaft, 1947, p. 35.

  8. Ibid., p. 48.

  9. Der Spiritus familiaris des Roßtäuschers in der Handschrift der Dichterin, (Münster 1951), p. 19.

  10. “Die späten Gedichte der Droste,” Zeitschrift für Deutsche Philologie 70, 1948/49, p. 89.

  11. Zwischen Klassik und Moderne, (Stuttgart 1958), p. 317.

  12. Die deutsche Novelle I, (Düsseldorf 1956), p. 173.

  13. Staiger, op. cit., pp. 62-63.

  14. Annette und Levin, Schriften der Droste-Gesellschaft, VIII (Münster 1948), p. 5.

Clifford Albrecht Bernd (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6752

SOURCE: Bernd, Clifford Albrecht. “Clarity and Obscurity in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Judenbuche.” In Studies in German Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Festschrift for Frederic E. Coenen, edited by Siegfried Mews, pp. 64-77. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, Bernd assesses the influence of Novelle: Die Schwester, by Droste-Hülshoff's friend and mentor Levin Schücking, on her purposeful use of obscurity in Die Judenbuche. Bernd proposes that the narrative ambiguity drives the readers' awareness of life's inherent mysteries.]

Much that is illuminating has been written on one of the most dense pieces of German narrative in the nineteenth century: Die Judenbuche by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.1 But a remarkable clue to the understanding of this elusive Novelle has, it seems, gone unnoticed. I am speaking of the impact that Levin Schücking's concept of narrative form had on the inception of Droste's Novelle. Schücking was, for a long time, Droste's closest friend. This, of course, has often been stated in the biographical studies of her. Again and again we read about the hopeless love affair, and of how some of her verse reflects the love she felt for him.2 But true as this may be, there exists another good reason for referring to Schücking when we speak about Droste and her literary legacy, and that is that a study of his narrative prose (a real desideratum in German literary scholarship3) helps us to comprehend more fully her narrative intentions. The similarity of form in Schücking's Novelle: Die Schwester, first published in 1848, and Die Judenbuche, which appeared in 1842, is striking indeed.

The publication dates could, of course, suggest that, should there be a similarity between the two Novellen, then Schücking learned more from Droste than she from him. But taking into consideration the fact that he was her almost constant companion while she wrote the Judenbuche, the six years which separated the publication of the two works do not mean much; and who influenced whom is, after all, merely an academic question. Far more important is the existence of the conspicuous parallels, for they alert us to the fact that both works—the products of two literary minds who worked so closely together—complement each other: The discovery of certain elements of form in one work makes us more sensitive to the appearance of similar elements in the other, and the finding of similarities in the latter confirms our discoveries in the former.

It would, naturally, far exceed the limitations of space in this essay, were we to analyze in any detail Schücking's Die Schwester. Such an analysis would also not be too convincing because there are few readers, if any, who are acquainted with that text or who could even locate it without great difficulty;4 consequently, the reader would hardly be able to verify the conclusions drawn. I shall content myself, therefore, with the statement that again and again in Schücking's Novelle the theme of alternating clarity and obscurity boldly asserts itself, and that this theme must be taken as the governing principle of form which injects meaning into all the elements which make for the composition of that narrative.

The purpose of the following statements will be to try to show that a similar tension between clarity and obscurity also reigns throughout Droste's Judenbuche. Above all, this becomes apparent in the viewpoint of the narrator. At times he seems to reveal everything to the reader; but, in other instances, he appears to lose this ability and can make only superficial observations. He alternates correspondingly between two perspectives: he can stand directly in the stream of events, or he can stand above the Novelle as a whole. Secondly, this paradoxical relationship of simultaneous clarity and obscurity manifests itself in concrete objects. For example, an object, described on the one hand with precise clarity, escapes the grasp of the narrator and becomes veiled by the darkness of the night or the forest, by the blurring effect of the moonlight or even by the limited perception of the human mind itself. All-knowing perspective and very precise description on the part of the narrator serve to give the reader a secure feeling of having a certain knowledge; but this sense of security is destroyed when the narrator no longer appears to be omniscient or when the real world seems to dissolve into a blurred world of deception. As a result, the reader remains a captive within this alternating force-field of omniscience and ignorance.

Let us turn to the text itself. At the opening of the Novelle the first thing which comes to our attention is the poem, which stands, as it were, distinct from the rest of the work as far as form is concerned. Since the motto is, with respect to content, an integral part of the Novelle, we shall consider it also as being uttered by the narrator, or at least as an element within the narrative situation. The perspective of the poem is omniscient. The narrator addresses the reader—“Du Glücklicher, geboren und gehegt / Im lichten Raum, von frommer Hand gepflegt” (882)5—and begs him to be understanding. The reader should not judge this “arm verkümmert Sein”. As is apparent from the poem, the narrator is familiar with this poor creature, who as yet remains anonymous. The narrator hints that this creature will commit some action of which we should take a tolerant viewpoint; therefore he seems to know both what this action is and the mitigating circumstances which are behind it. Indications of the underlying causes are found in the phrases: “beschränkten Hirnes Wirren”; “eitlen Blutes Drang”; “jedes Wort, das unvergessen / In junge Brust die zähen Wurzeln trieb.” (882) Consequently, the reader knows the underlying causes, yet he has no idea of what will happen nor of who is to do it; nor is it made clear whether the narrator himself possesses this knowledge, even though his perspective is one of an all-knowing, all-seeing speaker. As a result of this cloudy glimpse into the future, the tension in the Novelle becomes apparent. The reader's frame of mind becomes questioning, expectant.

The suspense is eased somewhat by the concrete facts in the first sentence: “Friedrich Mergel, geboren 1738. …” (882) This may be the figure whom the reader should observe so objectively. Yet again he is unsure, for the narrator ignores this figure and, instead, goes on at length about the village, the area, and the people. Nevertheless, the reader retains his confidence in the narrator, for the latter seems to be omniscient as he gives his panoramic description of the land and the customs. Suddenly the narrator makes an admission: “Es ist schwer, jene Zeit unparteiisch ins Auge zu fassen; sie ist seit ihrem Verschwinden entweder hochmütig getadelt oder albern gelobt worden, da den, der sie erlebte, zuviel teure Erinnerungen blenden und der Spätergeborene sie nicht begreift.” (883) Here the viewpoint is the same as in the poem; that is, the period to be described lies far in the past for the narrator, since he is familiar with both those critics who lived in a former age and those who lived later. Because of the superior viewpoint of this narrator, the reader expects a statement of the narrator's position, a proof of his own objectivity, but no such statement follows. The narrator rather avoids taking a definite stand and falls back instead on a very general phraseology: “Soviel darf man indessen behaupten. …” (883) What he goes on to say—“daß die Form schwächer, der Kern fester, Vergehen häufiger, Gewissenlosigkeit seltener waren” (883)—is also extremely vague and general. The reader cannot be sure what is meant by “Form” and “Kern,” whether it refers to the customs, to the individual or to the people as a whole. In any event, the expected claim and proof of objectivity does not come; on the contrary, the narrator penetrates deeply into the realm of subjectivity when he goes on to speak of “Überzeugung,” “seelentötend” and “das innere Rechtsgefühl.” The fact that he refuses to claim an objective viewpoint (even though he seems to in so many words), and even tends toward a subjective one, gives rise again to a tension within the reader and to the question as to whether the narrator can be trusted implicitly. If he is omniscient, then we can trust not only what he sees, but also what he thinks; if he is not, we must be on guard against any subjective conclusions made by him.

The narrator continues his description as if the whole area were spread out before his eyes. He has knowledge of the wood-poaching, as well as of the co-operation between the poachers and the river-boatmen. Even the individual inhabitants of the village are visible to him: “Die Zurückgebliebenen horchten sorglos …”; “Ein gelegentlicher Schuß, ein schwacher Schrei ließen wohl einmal eine junge Frau oder Braut auffahren; kein anderer ach ete darauf.” (884) But a curious limitation of the narrator's omniscience manifests itself here: his whole description of the poaching is as if it is seen from the village. He neither penetrates into the forest nor describes the actual events taking place there. This fact is important, for of all the incidents taking place in the forest—Hermann Mergel's death, the murders of Brandis and Aaron, Friedrich's death6—the narrator does not directly observe any of them, nor does he seem to know more about them than the reader. The forest exercises its power of concealment even upon the narrator.

Now the narrator touches upon Friedrich Mergel again—“In diesen Umgebungen ward Friedrich Mergel geboren …” (884)—but, as before, he digresses into a more general description: this time of the house and Hermann Mergel. From his omniscient perspective he is able to relate the highpoints of Hermann's past life, yet suddenly he loses this ability and is forced to make a conjecture about Hermann: “Ob nun den Mergel Reue quälte oder Scham. …” (885) The limitation of the narrator's perspective becomes even more pronounced as he describes Hermann's second marriage. His statements become less definite. For example, he ventures a guess about Margreth's reasons for marrying Hermann: “Wir glauben den Grund eben in dieser ihrer selbstbewußten Vollkommenheit zu finden.” (886) Obviously, the narrator is not positive about this statement.7

Apparently he also knows very little firsthand information about the past married life of the Mergels, for he often relies on reports of others: “… sah man sie abends aus dem Hause stürzen …”; “Es hieß …”; “… denn Margreth soll sehr geweint haben …”; “… man meinte sogar. …” (886) But, at the same time he knows that Friedrich was carried “unter einem Herzen voll Gram,” (886) a statement which indicates complete insight into the people.

The narrator continues in this rather paradoxical manner, speaking, at times, with complete authority and all-penetrating insight as he describes the very thoughts and feelings of the characters: “… [Friedrich] lag aus Furcht ganz still” (887); “Friedrich dachte an den Teufel …” (888); “… nun begriff er … aus den Reden …” (888); “Die Mutter war ihm ganz unheimlich geworden …” (889); “… eine mit Grausen gemischte Zärtlichkeit …” (890); “… bei Friedrich wuchs dieses Gefühl …” (890); “Es war ihm äußerst empfindlich. …” (890) The narrator reveals not only Friedrich's but also Margreth's inner emotions: “Der armen Margreth ward selten so wohl …” (891); “Sie war ärgerlich und ängstlich und wußte …” (895) At one point the narrator is not only omniscient, he is also omnipresent; in other words, he can observe Friedrich from a distance, while at the same time revealing Friedrich's feelings: “… und wie Friedrich so langsam seinem Führer nachtrat, die Blicke fest auf denselben geheftet, der ihn gerade durch das Seltsame seiner Erscheinung anzog. …” (893) The narrator's insight is indicated here by the fact that he knows just what attracts Friedrich to Simon.

But, along with this wealth of revealing observations, the narrator also betrays a certain reservation toward his statements. Again he must rely on reports of others: “Friedrich hatte seinen Vater auf dem Stroh gesehen, wo er, wie man sagt, blau und fürchterlich ausgesehen haben soll.” (890) This reservation is likewise emphasized by the use of the verb “scheinen,” which indicates he no longer has the all-knowing insight into the characters he knew so thoroughly a moment ago: “… [Friedrich] schien ungern daran zu denken.” (890); “Simon schien dies zu überhören.” (892); “Simon schien nachdenkend, der Knabe zerstreut. …” (893)

We have just cited several instances in which the narrator betrays an ambivalent viewpoint in relation to this subject; he can stand far above the story or he can be caught within it and be blinded by his very nearness to the events. The same tension between obscurity and clarity also comes into focus when we become aware of the dates in the story. The times given seem to be in themselves reasonably clear and exact—some extremely so—and they allow the reader to place all important events at least within the proper year, sometimes within the exact month. On two rare occasions even the day is given,8 and thus the reader has the comfortable feeling that he knows when all took place; he is impressed by the chronicle-like exactness and objectivity of the narrative. Yet, on a closer examination, the dates turn out to be far less exact than they seem. Only two events can be placed to the exact day or even to the approximate time: the murder of Brandis occurred on the eleventh of July, 1756, sometime after four o'clock in the morning. (902; 909) The second such event is Friedrich's return on Christmas Eve of 1788. (926) Another series of events can be only approximately fixed according to date: the death of Hermann Mergel—January 6? (“um das Fest der heiligen drei Könige” [886]) 1746 or 1747? (“Friedrich stand in seinem neunten Jahre”—was he born before or after Jan. 6, 1738?); Friedrich insulted by Aaron, Aaron's death—October 1760 (914); Friedrich's flight—probably in October 1760 also; Friedrich's death—September 1789 (936).9 Concerning Aaron's death, we know from the report given that it took place soon after ten o'clock on the evening of the wedding (920). Yet we cannot determine the date any closer than the month of October 1760. This fact is strange, especially when we consider that the event was probably the most important one in Friedrich's life. By way of contrast, the death of Brandis, which we can place to the year, month, day and approximate hour, has no lasting effect on Friedrich's character; the last words in connection with this event and Friedrich's guilt feelings are: “Der Eindruck, den dieser Vorfall auf Friedrich gemacht, erlosch leider nur zu bald.” (913) A third series of events can be placed only within the proper year: Friedrich's birth—1738 (882); Simon's visit—1750 (“Er war zwölf Jahre alt …” [890]). Such is the ambiguous nature of the dates in the narrative. They are clear and at the same time obscure.

Parallel to the dates, in revealing the web of clarity and obscurity, are the names of places and persons. They are frequently indicated only by the first letter. The villages are designated as follows: “Dorf B.” (882, 883, 902, 924) or simply “B.” (915, 920); “M.” (906); “S.” (920); “L.” (924); “P.” (925, 930, 932). That does not mean, however, that all the village names are thus abbreviated; compare for example: “Brede” (890, 895) or “Heerse” (930). Also the forest and its various sections are designated always with the full name: “Brederholz” (890, 893, 894, 924, 935); “Telgengrund” (892); “Roderholz” (892); “Teutoburger Wald” (892, 893); “Mastergrund” (905); “Masterholz” (906). With the names of the characters the narrator is much more specific; from a rather impressive number of characters (seventeen), he abbreviates the names of only two, namely, Herr and Frau von S.

The first explanation of the abbreviated names which comes to mind is that Droste wanted to protect the people and places she used in her Novelle. Two passages in her letters might be cited to strengthen this claim: “Schlimmer ist es, daß die Leute hierzulande es noch gar nicht gewohnt sind, sich abkonterfeien zu lassen und den gelindesten Schatten als persónliche Beleidigung aufnehmen werden” (to Schlüter, Dec. 13, 1838);10 “… aber ich fürchte, meine lieben Landsleute steinigen mich, wenn ich sie nicht zu lauter Engeln mache” (to her sister, Jan. 29, 1839).11 Another argument in support of this appears in the fact that Droste, when speaking of towns farther removed from Westphalia, has no qualms about giving the full names: “… bis Freiburg im Breisgau” (930); “… nach Amsterdam. …” (931)

Doubtless, Droste was concerned with the reactions of her countrymen, but this cannot be the reason for the abbreviations. Consider the example “Herr von S.”: in this case the abbreviation is useless, since the actual name was “Herr von H.,” as we learn from Haxthausen's report.12 What can be the sense of abbreviating a name which is already fictitious? As for the names of the villages, their initial letters seem to indicate geographical realities, and one is therefore tempted to find these just because the initial letter is given. In most instances, however, these attempts to determine the village fail, and this is the case, as we might now expect, for “Dorf B.” This village has combined characteristics of two small towns in Westphalia, namely Bellersen and Bökendorf. In short, Droste did not adhere to geographical reality.13 In addition, “Dorf B.” and “Brede,” geographically distinct and separated at first, intermingle in the course of the Novelle, particularly after Friedrich's return from slavery.14 Heitmann brings out this point, citing the fact that Friedrich returns from Turkey to “Dorf B.,” yet as Johannes he should go to Brede, his hometown. Nevertheless, he is recognized and welcomed as if it were his home; and it seems as if both Johannes and Friedrich had come from the same village, even though at the beginning of the narrative the towns were clearly separated by a long trek through the Brederholz.15 This is a prime example of clarity receding into a blurred ambiguity.

The abbreviated names serve the same function as do the dates: namely, to create a tense atmosphere of ambiguity, while at the same time giving the appearance of reality. Just as the dates are fictitious, so are the names of the characters. The geographical names do not allow a precise definition of the scene, either in reality or within the Novelle itself. In some cases the full name of the village is given—e.g., Brede (890, 895), Heerse (930)—but these names indicate relatively unimportant places, just as the more precise dates define only prelusive events. The same is true for the forest names, none of which are abbreviated; yet they designate only broad areas of forest and thus afford no precise point of reference. Therefore, the names in general do not, under closer scrutiny, provide the link with reality which is supposedly present in a true story.

The abbreviations of these names do, however, indirectly strengthen the impression of reality, as Heitmann observes: “Die Abkürzung derselben [Ortsnamen] erweckt den Eindruck, als habe die völlige Enthüllung der Wirklichkeit Bedenken, insinuiert also dem Leser geschickt die Wirklichkeit des Erzählten.”16 Therefore, the reader accepts these abbreviations as being necessary to protect the anonymity of the real people and places appearing in the narrative. Thus he finds himself in the peculiar position of reading what is supposed to be a true recounting of events and yet not knowing exactly where or when these events took place.

The dialogue is another means which helps convey the over-all atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty. Lore Hoffmann terms them “ein Frageund Antwortspiel,” in which everyone tries to bring out the secrets of the other without giving away his own.17 Most often the dialogues lead to no definite end or spoken conclusion; rather they end, like the two trials, abruptly and unsatisfactorily. The characters fail to convey content to each other, and indeed this is the very thing they are striving to avoid. Benno von Wiese, significantly, deems this element important: “Gespräche sind bei der Droste keine Brücken von Mensch zu Mensch, sondern fast immer … in eine Atmosphäre des Unheils getaucht.”18

We can say that the conversations of Friedrich as a young boy with his mother are without ulterior motives, but they do end unsatisfactorily, in that the questions of both remain unanswered. For example, early in the narrative Friedrich asks why his father is not coming home; Margreth answers evasively: “Ach Gott, wenn der alles hielte, was er verspricht! Mach, mach voran, daß du fertig wirst!” (887) Later Friedrich queries: “Aber wenn nun der Vater kommt?” to which Margreth bitterly replies: “Den hält der Teufel fest genug!” (887)—an answer which, of course, leads Friedrich to ask about the devil: “Wo ist der Teufel, Mutter?” (887) His question is cut short by the impatient, threatening reply: “Wart, du Unrast! Er steht vor der Tür und will dich holen, wenn du nicht ruhig bist!” (887) The whole situation is very real; Margreth's bitter answers are typical of an impatient, almost desperate mother. She clearly wants to avoid becoming involved in an explanation of evil, and therefore she completely evades the simple, yet probing questions of her child.

Later the situation is reversed; Margreth, now the inquiring one, tries to extract a promise from Friedrich to stay out of trouble: “Fritzchen, … willst du jetzt auch fromm sein, daß ich Freude an dir habe, oder willst du unartig sein und lügen, oder saufen und stehlen?” (889) Only the last word of the question—“stehlen”—seems to strike a chord in Friedrich, for he evades her question with the simply reply: “Mutter, Hülsmeyer stiehlt.” (889) Thus the mother's question remains unanswered.

Friedrich is finally forced to his last question—“Mutter, lügen die Förster?” (889)—by Margreth's prejudiced viewpoint. The boy simply cannot understand why Hülsmeyer is not guilty of stealing, since he has seen it and Brandis claims the same. Margreth will not answer his question directly; moreover, she is well aware that Friedrich will not understand the reply she does give, in which she utters the rationalizations of those in the village who would justify their illegal acts. The main characteristic of both these encounters is that of evasiveness. Friedrich, even at this young age, shows a tendency to avoid answering questions: a tendency which shows itself much stronger in his encounter with Brandis.

With the introduction of Simon we can begin to speak of ulterior motives. During his visit with Margreth all his questions are of one purpose—to see whether Friedrich will qualify as a look-out for the wood-poachers. Consider his questions: “Du läßt ihn die Kühe hüten?”; “Aber wo hütet er?”; “… auch des Nachts und früh?” (892) Even Margreth is somewhat puzzled by his last question, for she replies: “Die ganzen Nächte durch; aber wie meinst du das?” (892) But Simon, purposely, ignores her query: “Simon schien dies zu überhören.” (892) The fact that Friedrich herds cows all night in the woods makes him ideally suited for Simon's purposes, yet it is important to remember that the reader cannot know of Simon's illegal activities at this point (or at any point, for that matter; Simon is never mentioned directly in connection with the wood-poaching). The narrator allows this part of the conversation to remain a mystery.

Simon's words with Friedrich, as they enter the forest, are equally puzzling, but they have again the same goal. Simon wants to see whether Friedrich drinks or is excessively pious, both of which would make it risky to entrust him with any knowledge of secret dealings. But Friedrich is no longer the innocent child, and his reactions here show already a certain slyness. At one point he even lies when he claims that he falls asleep when his mother prays in bed (894). Since, as his mother said earlier, he herds the cows all through the night (892), he could not be present when she prays in bed in the evenings. Here Friedrich is being evasive, while Simon's questions stem from motives which are hidden both from Friedrich and the reader. The loss of Friedrich's childish directness is subtly indicated by the description of him: “Der Knabe lachte halb verlegen mit einem durchtriebenen Seitenblick.” (894) This is the first time we see Friedrich acting unnaturally, but it is only the beginning of a long development, the culmination of which is seen in the complete emergence of Friedrich in another character, namely Johannes Niemand.

The encounter between Friedrich and Brandis is, perhaps, the most confusing of all in the Novelle. There are two reasons for this: first of all, Friedrich is desperately trying to cover up, and his behavior is therefore intended to lead astray. Secondly, the confusion stems from the fact that a great deal was purposely cut out of the original conversation, so that much of what remains is actually impossible to understand correctly without knowledge of the original draft.

Among these ambiguities is Friedrich's first action—stoning and cursing his dog. Heitmann gives a logical reason for this, namely that it is only a pretext for Friedrich's loud whistling—which in turn must have been a prearranged signal.19 The original draft corroborates Heitmann's explanation, for there Friedrich continues to complain about Fidel in a very loud voice, which would alert the poachers even more. Brandis realizes this and orders him to speak more softly.20 But Friedrich speaks even louder, until a very stern glance from Brandis quiets him. That is, then, the origin and effect of the glance in the Novelle: “Ein Blick begleitete diese Worte, der schnell wirkte.” (904) Also, the line—“Herr Brandis, denkt an meine Mutter!” (904)—is more understandable in the original, whereas here it is, to say the least, unexpected. The original context reads thus: “Herr Brandis, denkt an meine Mutter, … bringt sie nicht ins Elend um einen Erlenzweig nicht. …”21 Had Heitmann known this version, he would not have given his proposed explanation, namely: “Friedrichs Worte ‘Herr Brandes, denkt an meine Mutter!’ sind der Ausdruck einer momentanen Angst des Achtzehnjährigen vor dem starken, rauhen Manne. Auch will die Dichterin hier eine gute Seite in Friedrichs Charakter hervorheben. …”22 Actually, Friedrich is only continuing under the guise of pretending that Brandis is angry because of the damage to the young shoots. Knowledge of the original also refutes a second claim of Heitmann's: “Die ganze Schimpfrede ist nicht recht motiviert.”23 In the original it is very well motivated, because Brandis accuses Friedrich's mother of lying to his wife, and in return Friedrich insults Brandis and his mother: “… meine Mutter ist besser als die Eurige war, die drey Wochen vor eurer Geburt Hochzeit machte.”24 The reason for Brandis' rage is evident, and also the reason for Friedrich's next comment: “Herr, … Ihr habt gesagt, was Ihr nicht verantworten könnt, und ich vielleicht auch.” (904)

Even the connection of Friedrich with the poachers is obvious in the original, for Brandis voices his suspicious directly: “… meinst du ich sehe nicht, daß du die Schildwache machst bey deinen Kumpanen … ?”25 Droste obviously intended to heighten the suspense and confusion by leaving this out.

Paralleling the intermingling of clarity and obscurity in the narrative composition, and further adding to its aesthetic portrayal in the Novelle, is the interplay of light and darkness. Just as the changing perspective of the narrator gives us now a clear, now a blurred picture of reality, so does the shifting of light and darkness affect the perception of reality.

Of course, the darkness—whether caused by the time of day or by the depths of the forest—serves the purpose of concealment. It incites the characters to those actions they would not attempt in sunlight—murder and wood-poaching as examples. However, in so doing, the darkness also reveals the true character of the persons involved; it acts as a catalyst to bring to the fore those emotions which normally remain buried within the individual. Paradoxically, it is not only the darkness which hinders the perception of reality, but also that which should bring clarity—the light itself.

The importance which the narrator attaches to the elements of light and darkness is attested to by the fact that the main events are set in darkness or twilight; this background alone lends an uncanny atmosphere to the Novelle. The one exception to this is the discovery of Friedrich's body, and that this takes place in broad daylight seems to parallel the nature of the event as a final revelation. However, that is not the case. What seems to be most clear—the identification of the murderer in broad daylight—is anything but clear. Actually, it remains veiled in darkness, as Henel has shown.26

The shifting of light and darkness is illustrated most clearly, doubtless, in the passage describing Simon's and Friedrich's trek through the Brederholz. As they approach the woods, the light gradually disappears, and correspondingly the number of adjectives of darkness increases: “einen sehr dunkeln Grund” (893). There is some light from the moon, but it is weak: “seine schwachen Schimmer.” (894) This light does not help to reveal the objects, but rather just the opposite: “… seine schwachen Schimmer dienten nur dazu, den Gegenständen, die sie zuweilen durch eine Lücke der Zweige berührten, ein fremdartiges Ansehen zu geben.” (894) This light conceals rather than reveals the nature of the objects; they lose their distinct outlines, not in the darkness but in the light itself: “Es kam ihm vor, als ob alles sich bewegte und die Bäume in den einzelnen Mondstrahlen bald zusammen, bald voneinander schwankten.” (894)

A decided change of light occurs as the pair enters the clearing; all the objects emerge into clarity, and the description becomes correspondingly more precise: “Jetzt schien sich in einiger Entfernung das Dunkel zu brechen, und bald traten beide in eine ziemlich große Lichtung.” (894) The very word “Lichtung” conveys the impression of light. The moonlight is now strong: “Der Mond schien klar hinein und zeigt, daß …” (894) It no longer conceals; it now has the power to reveal (“zeigte”) the work of the poachers. A felled beech tree is described in detail: “… denn eine Buche lag quer über dem Pfad, in vollem Laube, ihre Zweige hoch über sich streckend und im Nachtwinde mit den noch frischen Blättern zitternd.” (895) Everything has become distinct now; even the leaves of the beech tree are seen to be still fresh. Friedrich can even see that the oak tree in the middle of the clearing is hollow. The contrast of this precise picture with the blurred, nightmarish world of the previous scene is striking, and the effect of the shift is very similar to that of the narrator's changing perspective. Both give the impression of looking through a lens system which is constantly going in and out of focus.

It is interesting to note a recurring formulation which the narrator uses when speaking of the effect of light. We have already seen the first instance: “… seine schwachen Schimmer dienten nur dazu, den Gegenständen … ein fremdartiges Ansehen zu geben.” (894) Again almost the same formulation occurs in the scene with Johannes: “Der Schein spielte auf seinen Zügen und gab ihnen ein widriges Ansehen von Magerkeit und ängstlichem Zucken.” (896) The last occurrence of the formulation is in reference to Simon: “… und die vom Mondschein verursachte Blässe des Gesichts gaben ihm ein schauerlich verändertes Ansehen.” (912) The light does not reveal, but rather it conceals the object, gives it an unreal aspect. Only in the case of Johannes does it reveal what is probably the true appearance of his face, yet the narrator calls it, nevertheless, “ein widriges Ansehen.” Strangely enough, the first sign of recognition comes to Margreth after she approaches Johannes; at this moment he looks up to her, and therefore his face must now be enveloped in the surrounding darkness of the kitchen.

Typical, too, is the scene in which Friedrich and Simon argue about confession (not mentioned by chance in this Novelle, for in the confessional sins are revealed to the priest; and at the same time concealed from everyone else). When Simon first appears, he is illuminated (although not clearly revealed) by the pale moonlight (912). Yet when the light is most important and could be most revealing—namely, when Simon swears he is innocent—the sky clouds over and Simon's face remains in darkness: “Er hätte viel darum gegeben, seines Ohms Gesicht sehen zu können. Aber während sie flüsterten, hatte der Himmel sich bewölkt.” (913) The answer to the question of Simon's guilt, which could have been perhaps revealed by his facial expression, is characteristically left enveloped in darkness.

Climaxing the portrayal of the tension between clarity and obscurity in Droste's Judenbuche, as well as in Schücking's Die Schwester, is the forest. The impenetrable darkness of the “Teutoburger Wald” provides, it may be said, a cover under which the more violent side of man comes to the fore. The name itself calls immediately to mind connotations of a primitive, violent past. Thus, the forest brings on the one hand an element of clarity to the Novelle—by encouraging, like a catalyst, inherent characteristics of the people which would normally be hidden by the veneer of society: “Seine Lage [Dorf B.] inmitten tiefer und stolzer Waldeinsamkeit mochte schon früh den angeborenen Starrsinn der Gemüter nähren.” (883) It encourages not only such inherent traits, but also certain criminal tendencies—i.e., poaching and murder. Then, like a mute witness, it attests to this violent side of man by revealing the evidence—devastated strips of forest, the bodies of Brandis, Aaron and Friedrich.27 Nevertheless, the forest guards part of its secret jealously; only the results are revealed. How and by whom these crimes are carried out remains unknown. All efforts to solve this final unknown element are of no avail, as we see from the outcome of the trials. The reader, knowing so much and yet so little, is forced to make assumptions of his own on the basis of the evidence presented.

Thus the forest, like the darkness, fulfills the same double function of revealment and concealment. The manner in which it effects this is even parallel to that of darkness, since darkness, of course, is the dominant characteristic of the forest. However, the forest differs from the darkness in that the former seems to reveal its secrets actively and according to a will of its own. In the deaths of Brandis, Aaron, Friedrich, even of Hermann Mergel, the forest is the ever-present setting, the cover under which these things take place. In each case the forest seems to guard its secret completely for a time; then at a certain point it chooses to reveal the evidence to the eye of man. All of the bodies are found, not as the result of an intensive search, but rather by accident.

The circumstances surrounding the discovery of Brandis, Aaron and Friedrich have, in addition to the element of chance, a paradoxical aspect. All the bodies are hidden by something which is very much a part of the forest—“Brombeerranken” (910); “dürres Laub” (921); “die Buche” (935)—yet the forest itself is instrumental in bringing about the discovery. Brandis is found because the bushes happen to catch on a forester's “Flaschenschnur” (910). Aaron is found because his wife, who has given up the search, takes shelter from a storm under the beech tree where her husband's walking stick lies. Friedrich is discovered only because young Brandis happens to retire from the heat and seek refreshment under the beech tree where Friedrich's body is concealed.

How well the forest fulfills its role in the interplay of revealment and concealment may be seen, too, in the way it quickly brings into full view the figure of Brandis, and just as quickly again hides him from sight: “Hier sank ein Zweig hinter ihm, dort einer; die Umrisse seiner Gestalt schwanden immer mehr. Da blitzte es noch einmal durchs Laub. Es war ein Stahlknopf seines Jagdrocks; nun war er fort.” (905) Only moments before the same forest played the reverse role as it gradually revealed Brandis to Friedrich's eye: “In demselben Augenblicke wurden die Zweige eines nahen Gebüsches fast ohne Geräusch zurückgeschoben, und ein Mann trat heraus. …” (903)

No discussion of clarity and obscurity, revealment and concealment, in the Judenbuche would be complete without mentioning the Hebrew inscription, which is referred to twice: once with its message concealed (925) and the other time with its meaning revealed (936). At the first instance the reader of the German text is confronted with a set of Hebrew letters which he cannot understand; later, at the end of the narrative, the words are translated into the language of the story, into German. Why this linguistic change? The narrator could just as easily, the first time, have stated that the inscription was written in Hebrew and then translated it right then and there. But this he did not choose to do. Deliberately, therefore, by employing a tongue foreign to his readers, he conceals from them what the message is about. Nevertheless, it may likewise be said that it is not his intention to conceal the message either, for later on he plainly reveals it with his translation. We have at hand, therefore, but one more artistic, linguistic device for rendering visible the narrator's uncomfortable realization that the forces controlling the world in which he and we live are clear, and at the same time obscure.28


  1. For an extraordinarily intelligent discussion of the more recent criticism see the essay by Heinrich Henel: “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Erzählstil und Wirklichkeit,” Festschrift für Bernhard Blume: Aufsätze zur deutschen und europäischen Literatur, ed. Egon Schwarz, Hunter G. Hannum and Edgar Lohner (Göttingen, 1967), pp. 146-172. The cogency of Mr. Henel's argument has opened up, I believe, new vistas to Droste scholarship.

  2. See e.g., Clemens Heselhaus, Annette und Levin. Schriften der Droste-Gesellschaft, VIII (Münster, 1948), p. 5: “Als das tiefste und symbolischste Ereignis im Dichterleben der Droste will mir das Schücking-Erlebnis erscheinen, das sich in jenen fünf Gedichten spiegelt, welche die Dichterin direkt an Levin Schücking gerichtet hat.”

  3. This becomes all the more a necessity when we take note that Friedrich Hebbel, hardly a critic of unsound judgment, once stated: “Viele ringen um den Preis der modernen Novelle; wir möchten ihn Schücking zuerkennen.” See Friedrich Hebbel, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Richard M. Werner, XII (Berlin, 1913), 252.

  4. The first publication was in Urania, Taschenbuch auf das Jahr 1848. It reappeared, with a different title: Die Wilddiebin, in Levin Schücking, Familiengeschichten (Prag, 1854), and in the author's Gesammelte Erzählungen und Novellen, VI (Hannover, 1866). Using the title of the first publication, Paul Heyse and Hermann Kurz included the Novelle in their Deutscher Novellenschatz (München, 1871-1874), XV, 169-291.

  5. This and subsequent numerals refer to pages in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Clemens Heselhaus (4. erw. Aufl. München, 1963).

  6. Heinrich Henel, p. 146, persuasively argues against the acceptance of previous critics' unquestioning belief that the character who is found dead at the end of the Novelle should be Friedrich. For our discussion here it is not important to know whether the character is Friedrich or not. We merely use the name Friedrich because the Gutsherr refers to him as such, and because of lack of proof that another name would be more accurate.

  7. This becomes all the more apparent when we compare the Novelle with its first draft. We learn that in the first draft Hermann's sudden marriage is well motivated, but that later Droste cut out many details, and unclear motivation replaced the earlier clear one. See Karl Schulte-Kemminghausen, Die Judenbuche von Annette von Droste-Hülshoff mit sämtlichen jüngst wieder aufgefundenen Vorabeiten der Dichterin und einer Handschriftenprobe (Dortmund, 1925), p. 94. See, too, Heinrich Henel, pp. 161-162.

  8. The first such date must be taken from two sources in the Novelle: “Es war im Juli 1756 früh um drei.” (902) The exact day is given later in the testimony of the foresters: “Brandis habe sie am zehnten abends zur Runde bestellt …” (909) The second such date is obvious: “Es war am Vorabende des Weihnachtsfestes, den 24. Dezember 1788.” (926)

  9. See note 6.

  10. Die Briefe der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, ed. Karl Schulte-Kemminghausen, I (Jena, 1944), 313.

  11. Ibid., 339.

  12. Karl Schulte-Kemminghausen, pp. 61-71.

  13. Felix Heitmann, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff als Erzählerin. Realismus und Objektivität in derJudenbuche’ (Münster, 1914), pp. 8-9.

  14. See note 6.

  15. Felix Heitmann, p. 9.

  16. Ibid., p. 54.

  17. Lore Hoffmann, “Studie zum Erzählstil der ‘Judenbuche’,” Jahrbuch der Droste Gesellschaft, II (1948/50), 142.

  18. Benno von Wiese, Die Deutsche Novelle von Goethe bis Kafka, I (Düsseldorf, 1956), 166.

  19. Felix Heitmann, p. 10.

  20. Karl Schulte-Kemminghausen, p. 178.

  21. Ibid., p. 179.

  22. Felix Heitmann, pp. 10-11.

  23. Ibid., p. 11.

  24. Karl Schulte-Kemminghausen, p. 182.

  25. Ibid.

  26. See note 6.

  27. Ibid.

  28. The author of this essay wishes to express his gratitude to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia for generously supporting his research on the genesis of Die Judenbuche.

Jane K. Brown (essay date October 1978)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7431

SOURCE: Brown, Jane K. “The Real Mystery in Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche.Modern Language Review 73, no. 4 (October 1978): 835-46.

[In the following essay, Brown interprets Die Judenbuche as a critique of language and its power to obscure as well as clarify. She describes the mystery of the story as an epistemological question rather than a criminal who-done-it, with its ambiguity emphasizing not merely the complexity of the moral issues in the story, but the difficulty of rendering them in language.]

The greatest German literature of the nineteenth century is a literature of understatement; the Novelle especially always means much more than it says. This tendency rests, I think, on the Romantics' faith in the power of language to communicate some kind of transcendent truth. Even today when we interpret these texts we implicitly make a similar assumption: the text has a meaning beyond the words on the page, often even beyond the meaning its author intended it to have. Thus we typically assume, for example, that the mystery in Die Judenbuche can be explained. Normally such would be the case in a nineteenth-century Novelle. Yet the lack of critical consensus with regard to Droste-Hülshoff's masterpiece suggests that we might be dealing here with a text where the power of language cannot be taken for granted. This essay will show that Die Judenbuche consistently foils interpretations based on such an assumption and that, indeed, the greatness of the work lies in its attack on the free use of language as an epistemological tool. As we shall see, the Novelle is deliberately arranged so that none of the reader's normal aids in reading is helpful in the expected way. The title, generic considerations, the epigraph, the narrative technique, motivic and symbolic connexions all interfere with, rather than aid, the process of interpretation.

What is the real mystery, the real issue in Die Judenbuche? The title promises that Jews and a particular tree will be important in the story. True, a Jew probably dies beneath the beech-tree in question, but he is only one of three people who seem to die there. Furthermore, the episode dealing with the Jew's murder receives relatively little attention: it takes but a week (and some twelve pages), while the previous section which reaches its climax in the death of the forester Brandis covers eighteen years (some thirty-two pages). It is also true that the Jews buy the beech and cut a Hebrew charm into it, but we do not receive a translation of the charm until the very end of the Novelle. When we finally do, it does not seem especially magical or even interesting—it simply says, ‘Wenn du dich diesem Orte nahest, so wird es dir ergehen, wie du mir getan hast’. No invocation, no incantation, no hocus-pocus.1 Eventually the charm seems to take effect and bring Friedrich to his death in the beech-tree. But he has evidently died spiritually long before his return, since he comes back to the village under the alias of his double, Johannes Niemand. If Friedrich has for all practical purposes become the insignificant, humble Johannes, whose name translates ‘John Nobody’, the power of the charm must be hollow indeed. The Jews, then, are not part of the mystery; the title has misled us.

Let us now examine the importance of the beech-tree. The tree is located in the Brederholz, and the Brederholz is in fact more important in the narrative than the beech-tree. Friedrich's father is found dead there; Uncle Simon tells Friedrich there—but beneath an oak-tree, not under the beech—that his father is damned; it is evidently there that Friedrich sends the forester Brandis to his death, apparently at Simon's hands; there the Jew Aaron meets his murderer; there Friedrich finally meets his death. However, if we look more closely, the Novelle actually narrates only the scene between Simon and Friedrich. The four deaths, which are the four nodes of the plot, are not narrated; instead, the four bodies are found near the tree. Thus the tree is indeed significant, but in an unexpected way: it does not locate the decisive actions in the plot, rather it is associated in each case with the avoidance of decisive action and clarity in the narrative.

In fact, the title is not even Droste's. She sent the Novelle off without a title; Hermann Hauff added this one when he published the story for the first time in Cotta's Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser in 1842. It thus represent's Hauff's reading of the work—his attempt to organize its material for himself. This interpretation is apparently that of the Baron von S. at the end of the Novelle; it implies that Friedrich murders the Jew Aaron under the beech-tree, escapes human justice, but is magically drawn back to commit suicide in the same tree by an inscrutable divine or natural justice. The tree had something of this significance in Droste's source, Geschichte eines algierer Sklaven, by her uncle August von Haxthausen. It is therefore of special interest for us that Droste did not herself choose a title which pointed to this kind of reading of the work.2 Similarly, she did not use her working title, Friedrich Mergel, for the final version. That title would have encouraged the reader to see the development of Friedrich into a murderer and suicide as the central issue in the story.3 It is thus important that Droste did not choose a title and that the one Hauff chose does not offer us the kind of aid to understand the story that one normally expects.

The external organization is provided by the biography of Friedrich Mergel, son of a drunkard in the lawless grimy village of B. The father, Hermann, is found dead in the Brederholz when Friedrich is nine; when he is twelve his mother hands him over to her satanic brother Simon, who leads him into evil ways. At eighteen Friedrich sends the forester Brandis into an ambush of sorts, where he knows his uncle and friends are likely to murder him for interfering with their timber thieving. Some years later Friedrich is publicly humiliated by the Jew Aaron, to whom he owes money; Aaron is found dead a few days later and Friedrich has disappeared when the police search for him. The local Jews buy the beech-tree under which Aaron was found and cut their Hebrew charm into it. Later another Jew, the thief Lumpenmoises, admits to having murdered an Aaron, and Friedrich is assumed to be clear of guilt. After twenty-eight years Johannes Niemand returns to the village: he had been the village nobody, looked almost exactly like Friedrich (he is probably his first cousin) and had fled with Friedrich. He is eventually found hanged high in the beech-tree. An old scar is claimed to show that the corpse is actually Friedrich's after all. On the basis of this identification the local baron decides that he shall not be buried in consecrated ground.

The problems associated with the title would already suggest that the Novelle cannot properly be read simply as a study in how Friedrich came to murder a Jew and was subsequently punished. Since four bodies are found by the tree, there cannot be a simple causal relationship between Aaron's death and Friedrich's. Rather, the Novelle is set up so that an explanation must be found for all four deaths, yet each of the deaths raises unsolved problems. Hermann Mergel, it is assumed, dies coming home drunk in a snowstorm; no investigation is made. But why does his wife Margreth, whose husband was the bane of her existence, feel such terrible guilt that she and her brother must discuss the event all night and resolve to make a pilgrimage? Little Friedrich has already heard knocking some time before Hermann is brought home dead. What was that? Margreth does not want to understand that someone might be at the door even the second time. Are we to understand the first knocking as an example of Vorgesicht, which is given a rational explanation the next time it appears in the story—as are the other apparently supernatural events—or are we not rather to understand that there might be complications in the apparently simple story of Hermann Mergel's death?4

The forester Brandis is evidently murdered by Simon. But some guilt falls upon Friedrich, who knowingly separates Brandis from his men and sends him in the wrong direction. Immediately after the act Friedrich is uneasy. Does this mean that he knew Simon and his men were likely to be there and would give him a hard time? Probably. But did he know they would kill him? Was it his job to send Brandis into an ambush, as one critic has suggested?5 The son of the murdered man finds Friedrich hanging in the beech-tree at the end: is Friedrich's death to be understood as punishment for this first crime?

The charm cut into the tree appears to tie the second murder to Friedrich's grotesque end, but it is highly questionable whether Friedrich has really committed it. A perfectly plausible, though unsubstantiable, alternative explanation for Aaron's death is offered—that the other Jew, Lumpenmoises, killed him. And when Friedrich, alias Johannes Niemand, hears the Lumpenmoises story of the murder after his return from Turkey, he says that his flight was in vain. It is hard to believe that the exhausted and repentant sinner means to say that he would have happily stayed as the undiscovered murderer. Whether or not he actually had murdered Aaron, Friedrich had to flee, because his other crimes were sure to be discovered in the course of the investigation. Thus it is even harder to know in the case of Aaron than in that of Brandis who has done what for what reason.

The final death is the hardest of all to understand. Evidently Friedrich hangs himself in the tree—deliberately? In control of his faculties? Is his suicide to be understood as a result of the charm of the Jews? Or, as Henel properly asks, is his death really a suicide at all?6 Otherwise the narrator has not given us the least hint whether Heaven would be on the side of the Jews or not in this Novelle; in any case it is not absolutely clear that Friedrich is really the murderer the charm intends to punish. Is it the genius of the Brederholz avenging whichever murder on its territory Friedrich is responsible for, or perhaps visiting the crimes of Hermann on both the father and the son? We are invited to believe that the Brederholz is haunted by the spirit of Hermann Mergel. However, the narrator does not extend this invitation with great conviction: unreliable boys and bumpkins report the ghost's presence, and Herr von S.'s servants mistake Aaron's murder for a visitation of the ghost. Like the other three deaths, Friedrich's raises more problems than it solves. The more we find out, the more difficult it becomes to relate the pieces of the plot to each other.7

Superficially the plot of Die Judenbuche resembles that of the fate-dramas so popular in Droste's youth. Droste is known to have admired the most popular of these, Die Schuld, by Adolf Müllner. Can the inexplicable plot of Die Judenbuche, with its blind motifs and unexplained passions, be illuminated by comparison to fate-tragedy? Die Schuld begins with a hero who is inexplicably unhappy with his new wife. She is the former wife of his best friend who accidently shot himself while hunting. Soon we are told that the two of them were already in love before the first husband died. Then the father of the first husband arrives from the New World: we learn in quick succession that the best friend was probably murdered, that the hero and the best friend were really brothers, that the hero had been given away as an infant by his mother to prevent fulfilment of a gypsy's curse that he would kill his older brother. Finally the hero admits to being the murderer and explains the tension between the two at the time of the murder. To pay his debt he commits suicide. The pattern in this play is typical, and it is easy to see how Droste's Novelle fits into it. The hero's criminal course is prepared before he is born—by the mother's crime and the curse in Müllner, and by the father's drunken excesses in Droste. The hero commits a crime under mitigating circumstances—Friedrich has a terrible upbringing and both times that he may be responsible for a murder his justifiable anger is documented as in Müllner. The hero's conscience and personified or symbolized fate (the father, the tree) eventually bring him to bay and he commits suicide. Even the motif of the return from a great distance, typical of fate-drama, is present in Friedrich's return from slavery in Turkey.

Specific verbal parallels between the two works have been detailed elsewhere and need not interest us here (see Rölleke, pp. 182 f.). What is of interest for us is that fate-drama provides a plot-structure which explains and relates a series of crimes to one another. It is particularly useful then to consider any problems in the interpretation of causality in Die Schuld. In the 1828 edition of his plays, Müllner reprints a highly laudatory review of the first performance of Die Schuld in Vienna in 1813. He cannot resist, however, a few annotations where he thinks the reviewer has misunderstood him. One of these is important here. When the reviewer describes the gypsy's prophecy that the hero will kill his brother and says this determines his fate, Müllner objects:

Das war meine Meinung nicht. Ich wollte weder einem unchristlichen, groben Fatalismus das Wort reden, noch ein ekelhaftes Zigeunerweib auf den delphischen Dreifuß erheben: sondern bloß das aus blindem Zufall, menschlichen Fehltritten und menschlicher Bösartigkeit gewebte Causalitätsband sichtbar machen, wodurch das Verbrechen eines Menschen mit den gleichgültigsten Begebenheiten vor seiner Geburt zusammenhangen kann.8

Müllner then demonstrates how the prophecy was supposed to undercut itself for the attentive spectator. He concludes, however, that he must have done something wrong, since the reviewers in Vienna and in Stuttgart both misunderstood this passage. For us, however, this footnote outlines an important divergence in the criticism of Die Judenbuche. Did Droste perhaps get the idea from Müllner of showing the causality generated by chance occurrences in combination with background, and did she therefore include the lengthy descriptions of Friedrich Mergel's milieu? And if so, does the described causality fully account for the arbitrary course of events in Die Judenbuche any more than it does in Die Schuld?

This problem in understanding uncovers the potential ambiguity of fate-drama, an ambiguity which Droste then exploited. Exactly how she went about it becomes obvious upon reading the opening of the review of Müllner's play. It begins:

Die Tragödie [the reviewer later explicitly includes Die Schuld in this class] schließt das Innerste des Menschen auf, und die Geheimnisse seines Busens bringt sie an den Tag; sie zeigt den ganzen Adel seines Wesens, wenn er als freies Opfer der Tugend fällt, und hält gerechtes Gericht über ihn, wenn er gegen die ewigen Gesetze derselben ankämpft, indem sie ihn als ein abgerissenes Glied der sittlichen Weltordnung den Untergang finden läßt. Reuig erkennt er seinen verderblichen Wahn und seine sträfliche Verirrung, und versöhnt sich mit dem Ganzen durch den Tod, ein allgemeines, furchtbar warnendes Beispiel der Menschheit.

(Müllner, ii, 193 f.)

This statement may be true enough about Müllner, except for the implicit exaggeration about the quality of the play; it does also describe the externals of Die Judenbuche. But how inappropriate it really is in relation to all other aspects of the Novelle! Opening the innermost recesses of the human heart is exactly what Die Judenbuche refuses to do. We never find out what is really going on inside the characters, or outside of them, for that matter. The plot that is outlined here fails, in Die Judenbuche, to do just those things which are so triumphantly attributed to Müllner's play. Where the characterization and rhetoric of the Schicksalsdrama provide explanations, Die Judenbuche does not. Furthermore, Die Schuld, like all fate-dramas, has an analytical structure—all of the killings except for the final suicide take place before the drama begins. A remnant of this structure may be observed in the refusal to narrate any of the deaths in Die Judenbuche; like those in Die Schuld, they are not presented to the reader. Basically, however, Droste's story proceeds diachronically rather than analytically. The effect then of the verbal, motivic, and structural parallels to Die Schuld is to focus the reader's interest in the problems of analysis and explanation; yet at the same time they also emphasize the difference between the two works. In Die Schuld the characters are provisionally deprived of vital information; in Die Judenbuche comparable information is permanently withheld from characters and readers alike.

Thus far we have examined the title and the plot-structure of the Novelle. Neither has yielded the interpretative help the reader might expect from them. However, as we have seen, neither the title nor the plot-structure is Droste's, in the strictest sense of the word. Perhaps the mystery will come to light when we examine what Droste herself has done to the material. Surely the epigraph should give us some idea of where to look. Yet we shall see that the interpretative help which the reader might reasonably expect from the epigraph also fails to materialize. The epigraph will tell us more about what not to see in the Novelle than about what to see in it.

The brief poem appears to be a version of ‘Let him who is without guilt cast the first stone’. The specific application to the story appears to depend on the central three lines:

Wer wagt es …
Zu wägen jedes Wort, das unvergessen
In junge Brust die zähen Wurzeln trieb,
Des Vorurteils geheimen Seelendieb?

The lines suggest that we should not judge Friedrich too hastily; the prejudices he imbibed in his youth must be seen as mitigating circumstances. But prejudice in the sense suggested by the title and epigraph is not the real issue at all. Only at one place in the narrative do we see Friedrich being taught any prejudices: on the day after his father's death his mother Margreth tells him that it is permissible to steal from Jews and foresters. Yet Friedrich's important crime is murder, not theft, and there is no evidence that the prejudices of the villagers condone murder.9 Prejudice, at least in the sense the title and epigraph suggest, is thus not the explanation really offered by the Novelle.

If prejudice is not the significant issue in the Novelle, what is? By beginning with Hermann Mergel's dreadful career, the narrator seems to suggest that the reader should look there to understand the roots of Friedrich's wickedness. The older Mergel was indeed a terrible devil, as all the townspeople knew, including his wife Margreth. Yet if we look more closely, it is Margreth who connects him with the devil—‘Den hält der Teufel fest genug!’10—and her brother Simon tells Friedrich that Hermann has gone to the devil (p. 895); the narrator, however, is less clear about old Mergel. He only notes ironically that ‘[er] allerdings Trostes bedurfte’ (p. 885) and confines himself to the same indirect formulation after reporting the death of Mergel's first wife as the apparent result of his drunken brutality. Furthermore, Hermann is consistently kind to little Friedrich, so that Friedrich remembers him with real tenderness which even grows as the years pass (p. 890).11 Thus the narrator's view of Mergel is much more charitable than that of Mergel's fellow-villagers. Indeed, the villagers are proud and stubborn by nature. These emotions, corollaries of their lack of charity, are emphasized from the beginning of the story: ‘Das Dorf B. galt für die hochmütigste … Gemeinde … seine Lage inmitten tiefer und stolzer Waldeinsamkeit mochte schon früh den angeborenen Starrsinn der Gemüter nähren’ (p. 883). The negative description of the area and the inhabitants corresponds closely to the description of the Paderbörner in Bilder aus Westfalen and thus appears to justify the all too easily ignored sub-title of the Novelle, ‘Ein Sittengemälde aus dem gebirgichten Westfalen’. The issue in the Novelle would seem to be the lawless pride of the Paderbörner, and the epigraph would refer then not to specific prejudice, but to charity in viewing all other people, and would be addressed to Droste's fellow-Westphalians.

This new interpretation of the epigraph can only hold, however, if it applies to the plot in a more detailed way than we have seen thus far. Pride clearly is one of Friedrich's sins, but it is not one inherited from his father. Interestingly enough, his poor mother, who enjoys—or at one time at least enjoyed—the respect of the village, passes this sin on to her son. Although Margreth is never openly accused of pride, the narrator offers us sufficient information to reach this conclusion ourselves. We are first told that Margreth is a ‘brave, anständige Person’ (p. 885) and had been a village beauty in her youth. This being so, the reader may wonder, why has she never married?12 We are offered a reason for her acceptance of Mergel, her ‘selbstbewußte Vollkommenheit’ (p. 886), a euphemism for pride, as Margreth herself learns too late. Contrary to the expectations aroused by our previous knowledge of the couple, Hermann seems to be much kinder to Friedrich than Margreth is. Hermann always brings him presents, we are told, but we never see Margreth say a single kind word to the child, nor are we ever told that Friedrich entertains (or should entertain) any warm feelings for Margreth as he does for his father. The last influence which drags Friedrich into wicked ways is that of Simon, Margreth's brother, not a Mergel. As we have already seen, in some mysterious way Margreth is guilty of the first death in the Brederholz, as Friedrich is for at least two of the later ones. Finally, although Margreth apparently considers herself to be pious and good until the very end of the Novelle, she inexplicably goes to ruin. Strangely then, the pious mother embodies the cardinal sin of the village more clearly than others in the Novelle.

The villagers, Friedrich, and Margreth are still not the only figures indicted for pride in the story. Most remarkable of all, the reader himself is accused of the same kind of blind pride in the second paragraph:

Es ist schwer, jene Zeit unparteiisch ins Auge zu fassen; sie ist seit ihrem Verschwinden entweder hochmütig getadelt oder albern gelobt worden, da den, der sie erlebte, zuviel teure Erinnerungen blenden und der Spätergeborene sie nicht begreift.

(p. 883)

‘Hochmut’, Friedrich's sin (p. 913), is here attributed to the reader! The reader's pride and scorn arise from his inability to understand the past. With this explanation we can now see the significance of the opening lines of the epigraph,

Wo ist die Hand so zart, daß ohne Irren
Sie sondern mag beschränkten Hirnes Wirren.

Pride in this story is above all an assertiveness that disrupts the delicate process of understanding as, on a moral level, it disrupts Friedrich's or Margreth's relation to accepted norms of behaviour. It will be evident that the level on which we are reading the epigraph has shifted: we can no longer see it as shedding light on what the Novelle will say, on how to understand what happens in the story; instead we must interpret it as telling the reader how to read the work. But its message is negative: it tells us to exercise great caution in assigning guilt, in interpreting motivation, in believing or not believing what the narrator reports.

Evidently the central issue in the Novelle is epistemological, not moral.13 We have already seen that the tree of the title is associated above all with events that are not told, with suppression of narrative. Thus this symbol points not so much to a particular idea or event, but to a particular relationship of the narrator to the event, again an epistemological rather than a moral issue. We have also seen that the work is really a detective story in which none of the crimes is solved. It follows, then, that close attention to the narrative stance and to the relationship of the narrator to the reader may bring us closer to the centre of the Novelle.

The external structure of the narrative suggests that the narrator feels incapable of organizing what is seen. The narrative begins with great hesitation and, in a sense, remains hesitant throughout. In the first chapter the narrative begins four times. The opening quickly slips from Friedrich to generalities about the area. The narrator returns with another paragraph beginning with Friedrich's birth (p. 884), only to retell the story of Friedrich's father. He finally returns to Friedrich's birth, but skips suddenly to his ninth year (p. 886), where a connected narrative finally begins. Throughout the rest of the first chapter the pace keeps shifting abruptly from summarizing narrative to long periods of scenic presentation. Similarly, the chapters succeed one another in abrupt jolts with no attempt made to fill the temporal gaps between them. Even more disquieting than the failure of the external structure to organize the narrative are repeated shifts in viewpoint. In the first chapter the narrator gradually narrows his viewpoint so that finally we see everything as it relates to Friedrich and to some extent through his eyes. This perspective continues into the second chapter, but three pages into the chapter it suddenly switches to that of Herr von S., the local baron. The last chapter is told from a more general impersonal perspective and Friedrich is constantly referred to as ‘Johannes’. Thus after the first chapter the narrator moves further and further away from Friedrich.14

To the extent that there is a ‘narrator’, he fails in important ways. He almost always reports hearsay—formulations like ‘man sah’, ‘galt für’, ‘schien’, ‘zeigte’, ‘man meinte’, ‘soll getan haben’ predominate, especially in the beginning, where he tries to communicate motivations and reactions, not strictly objective facts. Like the characters, the narrator is forced to speculate and to draw conclusions about what happens or about the significance of events. In almost the only first person incursion in the narrative, he cuts off our hopes for enlightenment with the words ‘Denjenigen, die vielleicht auf den Ausgang dieser Begebenheit gespannt sind, muß ich sagen, daß diese Geschichte nie aufgeklärt wurde’ (p. 911). It is remarkable to have a narrator with such limited access to the facts without at the same time having a well-developed narrative persona or a frame. Early on the narrator comments ‘Es ist schwer, jene Zeit unparteiisch ins Auge zu fassen’ (p. 883); nevertheless he advances no claims or credentials regarding his own ability to do so. Ordinarily the existence of the narrative persona ironically preserves for the author the omniscience which he denies his narrator. Droste, however, renounces omniscience; above all the Novelle tries to demonstrate its impossibility.15 Indeed, she emphasizes this impossibility with heavy irony when she makes the narrator comment on the unsolved murder of Brandis: ‘Es würde in einer erdichteten Geschichte unrecht sein, die Neugier des Lesers so zu täuschen. Aber dies hat sich wirklich zugetragen; ich kann nichts davon oder dazutun’ (p. 912).

The narrator's reserve, even about the things he apparently does know, further interferes with the reader's understanding. In a quasi-detective story of this sort, one might expect the narrator's reserve to create suspense, but this happens in only one case in this Novelle, in the narrator's failure to translate the Hebrew charm before the last page. And because the reader cannot know for certain how Aaron dies, and because the story gives no reason to believe that the charm would be effective, the translation at the end does not function as a final pointe. Sometimes things are reported or not reported in peculiar ways with no obvious narrative goal. Margreth's brother Franz brings Hermann Mergel's corpse home, but a few years later when Simon arrives, we are told he is Margreth's only brother. Instead of elaborating on or even reporting Franz's death, the narrator leaves us wondering whether we have read correctly or why we need to know that Franz was dead. There are also inexplicable blind motifs associated with Hermann's death. We can only speculate whether someone was there the first time Friedrich heard knocking as well as the second time; we can scarcely even speculate on what the stranger anxiously seeks when he comes into the bedroom twice after Margreth is called out.

It would not be correct, however, to limit the narrator's ‘failures’ only to his lack of knowledge and his reserve. For despite his putative lack of knowledge he willingly takes a position about the characters. In the opening paragraphs we are overwhelmed by a flood of negative formulations—the village is badly built and grimy, the villagers are limited, stubborn, sly, proud, the laws are confused, inadequate, ignored. The introduction to the wedding is another good example of the narrator's negative attitude towards his subject-matter, where the excellent harvest results only in drunkenness, brawling, laziness, and ill-advised marriages. The narrator, too, suffers from the pride that the epigraph warns the reader to avoid! Thus the narrative stance invites the reader to make judgements without sufficient knowledge. But this is just what the epigraph and the early statement about the difficulty of judging the earlier times tell the reader not to do. In effect, the Novelle is deliberately working against itself; the reader is effectively warned that the act of writing imposes interpretations.

The last organizing or structuring principle that is systematically frustrated is the use of significant motifs—of parallels and symbols. Both Silz and Rölleke point out repetitions in the Novelle to which they attribute organizing significance.16 The most important one is the parallel searches of Friedrich's room after his two disappearances—after the death of Aaron and after his own death. The first time searchers find Friedrich's good clothes and his silver watch—a reminder of his vanity, perhaps, that led to his deed. The second time they find only four waistcoat buttons and five Groschen. But how can it be seriously argued that the parallel concerns with clothing alert the reader to the underlying retributive connexion between Friedrich's two disappearances and hence between Aaron's and Friedrich's deaths? Did Friedrich save the buttons to remind him of his now renounced sin of pride, or has he preserved them as the last remains of his former magnificence? There is no hint of how this parallel is to be understood.

The five Groschen are even more confusing. The Aaron murdered by Lumpenmoises (who, it will be remembered, may or may not be the Aaron of our story) had only six Groschen about him, to the murderer's great disappointment. Years before, nine-year-old Friedrich had told his mother that one of the villagers had robbed Aaron of six Groschen. Evidently Aaron carried only six Groschen with him as a matter of prudence. Now, the five Groschen found in Friedrich's room the second time—the only other mention of Groschen in the story—invite the reader to see a relationship to the six Groschen that the villager stole from Aaron and that Lumpenmoises took from whichever Aaron he murdered. He must also wonder what happened to the odd Groschen.17 Once again, the text provides no way of relating the incidents. If the two Aarons who lost six Groschen are the same person, then the five Groschen at the end are irrelevant; if the two Aarons are different, then it was at best deliberately misleading to mention that the second Aaron's murderer found precisely six Groschen on the corpse. The parallel simply does not yield any information.

The most interesting ‘failure’ of a symbolic motif is the beech-tree. Let us consider how the narrator identifies where the deaths take place. We are first told that Hermann Mergel was found dead in the woods, and later in passing we learn that it was in the Brederholz (p. 890). The next description of the Brederholz mentions a broad beech, but focuses on an old oak, under which Simon tells Friedrich his father is damned. The Brederholz and the beech-tree are explicitly identified every time they are relevant from the death of Aaron to the end, although we are only told that Aaron probably died under the tree. We are not told explicitly that Brandis is murdered in the Brederholz, but his death is indirectly tied to the beech-tree by the close triple repetition of beech in Friedrich's exchange with Brandis when he sends him astray: ‘“… die sind dort an der Buche hinaufgegangen.”—“An der Buche?” sagte Brandis zweifelhaft, “nein, dort hinüber, nach dem Mastergrunde.”—“Ich sage Euch, an der Buche …”’ (p. 905). The reader is invited by analogy to associate Brandis's death with the Brederholz and with the other three deaths, the more so since Brandis's son finds Friedrich in the Brederholz at the end. What has Droste actually done here? Normally symbolic objects acquire significance through repetition in association with particular complexes of objects, emotions, or ideas. In accordance with this technique one would expect a close early association of the beech with the Brederholz. But Droste almost seems to avoid this association by staging the highly dramatic scene between Simon and Friedrich beneath an oak. The title would especially lead one to expect the beech to be the centre of the symbolic complex and the Brederholz to be an identifying complement, yet the reverse seems to be the case. Finally, the last thing one would expect would be to have to guess or to piece together the location of the one crime (the murder of Brandis) for which guilt can definitely be attributed to the person punished in the symbolic tree. The organizing function of the symbol has been suppressed, just as narrative of events that took place in the vicinity of the tree was suppressed, just as the organizing function of everything else in the narrative was suppressed. The reader is welcome to organize his own understanding of the events in the Novelle around the tree, he is welcome to locate Brandis's murder there, he is welcome to understand the deaths in terms of one another; but all of these understandings remain the reader's only. The true meaning of the tree for the Novelle then is its insignificance as a symbol, its refusal to organize the story into a readily interpretable unity.

In order for such a repeated motif to be useful in interpretation it would be necessary for the situations which it connects to reflect one another, for there to be real correspondences; but in Die Judenbuche such reflection is absent. Yet in a different sense it remains possible to speak of reflection. Consider how the reflection functions in the poem ‘Das Spiegelbild’. The poet looks into a mirror and meditates—mostly with horror—on her own reflection. The speaker is shaken above all by the existential differentness of the reflection—‘Phantom, du bist nicht meinesgleichen!’ (l. 7), ‘Es ist gewiß, du bist nicht Ich, / Ein fremdes Dasein …’ (ll. 29 f.). Here is the same discontinuity observed in the parallels in the Novelle, yet their very existence makes us want to put them together. Here, too, the poem displays a corresponding ambivalence: ‘Nur leise zittern würd ich, und / Mich dünkt—ich würde um dich weinen’ (ll. 41 f.). This ambivalence in the poem suggests, finally, that the parallels can be interpreted. They make the reader see the impossibility of extracting meaning from the parallel.

Just as the tree is a kind of empty symbolic centre, so, too, the Hebrew charm the Jews cut into the beech-tree is an empty linguistic centre. It appears once in the original Hebrew script, then it is repeated at the end, this time in German. It is supposed to be especially significant language on at least two levels: it is supposed to bring about Friedrich's death, and it is supposed to sum up the retribution theme in the story. As we have seen, however, we cannot be convinced that the charm is in any way responsible for Friedrich's death, nor that retribution is the important theme in the Novelle. Yet there the charm sits, as an apparently neat ending which explains everything. There is, however, one other sentence in a foreign language in the Novelle, and it appears in the very next paragraph after the first appearance of the charm. It is the rather less exotic quotation from the rationalist Boileau: ‘Le vrai n'est pas toujours vraisemblable’ (p. 925). Here is the real centre of the story, couched in the negative terms appropriate to the negative approach of the narrator, and typically displaced from the centre of attention by the more colourful, only apparently more significant, Hebrew charm.

The line is not quoted accurately: in Boileau it actually reads ‘Le Vrai peut quelquefois n'estre pas vraisemblable’.18 Boileau uses the line to argue for clarity above all; it appears between a plea for clear exposition and insistence upon a clear dénouement in which ‘D'un secret tout à coup la verité connuë / Change tout’ (ll. 59 f.). In Die Judenbuche, by contrast, the line marks the point at which the apparent clarity of events is called into question. Henel has pointed out that Droste probably knew the parallel citation of Boileau in Hoffmann's Das Fraulein von Scuderi (Rölleke, p. 159, note 100). When the line is cited in Hoffmann, the reader and two of the characters already know the solution to the mystery. The person who cites Boileau does not, and he uses the line to defend an incorrect interpretation of the facts. Thus Hoffmann ironically points to the true significance of Boileau's statement, which sets the probable above the true, interpretability above incommensurability, whether or not the interpretation can be correct. In Hoffmann there is still an enormous difference between the probable explanation for the murder and the true but bizarre explanation. But in Die Judenbuche there is no clear contrast: Lumpenmoises's greed and Friedrich's anger are both all too human, all too probable motivations for the murder. The true can no longer be distinguished from the merely probable, the interpretable from the incommensurable. The clarity of Boileau's statement is thus no more effective than the magic of the Hebrew charm; all words are hollow.

The mystery of Die Judenbuche, then, is not ‘who did it?’, nor even ‘who did what?’, nor even ‘what happened?’. It is much more: ‘how can we possibly say it?’. Poetic language, language which attempts to organize perceptions, which attempts to make the inarticulable comprehensible, language organized into plot, point of view, symbol—such language is highly suspect. It is arbitrary, we learn, placed there by the poet, and has no more claim to truth than the courts and other forms of human judgement which fail so miserably in the Novelle. Even the most special kind of language—the magical charm in the venerable language of the Bible—yields to the sobriety of the simple French. In these two phrases we have two voices that say, on the one side, ‘language is difficult to decipher and magical’ and, on the other, ‘language is clear but powerless’. The reader of the Novelle—and, I think it can be shown, even more so of the poems as well—is always caught between these two voices, which simultaneously call upon him to look for significance and to see that there is none. Droste herself describes her own characteristic understatement most clearly when she caricatures herself in the comedy Perdu!:

Ein bedeutendes Talent, wenn Sie wollen; aber es scheint ihr auch so gar nichts daran gelegen, ob sie verstanden wird oder nicht. Mit ein paar Wort, mit einer Zeile könnte sie das Ganze klar machen, und sie tuts nicht.

(p. 1096)


  1. In the earlier versions of the text the charm is more magical and more violent. In MS 6, for example, it reads: ‘Wenn der Mörder sich diesem Ort naht soll er binnen drey Tagen eines schlimmen Todes sterben’ (Die Judenbuche von Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Mit sämtlichen jüngst wieder aufgefundenen Vorarbeiten der Dichterin und einer Handschriftenprobe, edited by K. Schulte-Kemminghausen (Dortmund, 1925), p. 260). It is typical of Droste's revisions to make the text more problematic.

  2. Haxthausen's Geschichte eines algierer Sklaven is most readily available in the excellent apparatus to Heinz Rölleke's edition of Die Judenbuche (Bad Homburg, 1970), pp. 90-104. Rölleke shows that Haxthausen deliberately tampered with the facts to make the tree more significant (p. 169), and that Droste knew where her uncle's text was inaccurate.

  3. In Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's ‘Die Judenbuche’: A Study of its Background (Boulder, Colorado, 1968), L. Tusken argues that Die Judenbuche amalgamates two separate works, one based on the Haxthausen story, the other a different murder story entitled Friedrich Mergel. My alternative titles correspond to Tusken's division of the work.

  4. Heinrich Henel offers an excellent analysis of the ambiguities of this scene in ‘Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Erzählstil und Wirklichkeit’, in Festschrift für Bernhard Blume: Aufsätze zur deutschen und europäischen Literatur, edited by E. Schwarz and others (Göttingen, 1967), pp. 146-72. See especially pp. 155 f. I am in complete agreement with Henel's conclusions, although I think arguments about specific passages are sometimes overstated. Part of the intention of this essay is to offer different kinds of evidence to reinforce these conclusions. Although subsequent critics do subscribe to Henel's elegant argument that the Novelle deals with the impossibility of ‘richtiges Erkennen’, they then move back to a content-oriented—usually religious—interpretation (e.g. Freund, McGlathery, Rölleke).

  5. I do not see any unambiguous evidence for Rölleke's assumption (p. 153) that Friedrich's job was to send Brandis into a trap, rather than simply to warn the Blaukittel of the foresters' approach.

  6. Henel, p. 159. He points out that the body is so high in the tree that a ladder is necessary to get it down. In Droste's source the body hangs so low that its feet scrape the ground.

  7. Each time Droste mentions Die Judenbuche in the correspondence it appears in connexion with unclear situations where conclusions can only be guessed at from highly mediated evidence (see Die Briefe der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, edited by K. Schulte-Kemminghausen, 2 vols (Jena, 1944), i, 212 f. and 366 f.). In the second case it is clear that this situation reminds her of Die Judenbuche.

  8. Müllners dramatische Werke. Erste rechtsmäßige und vom Verfasser verbesserte Gesammt-Ausgabe, 8 vols (Braunschweig, 1828), ii, 196.

  9. Friedrich is indeed involved with Simon's band of timber-thieves, but this issue is entirely secondary to the murders as the Novelle is structured.

  10. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Sämtliche Werke, edited by C. Heselhaus (Darmstadt, 1966), p. 887. All further references to this edition will be included in the text.

  11. See also Rölleke, p. 150, who points out that the family was not totally impoverished until after Hermann's death. Evidently he does more for them than we would at first think.

  12. Two different explanations were given in two of the earlier versions, but both were eliminated. See Schulte-Kemminghausen: ‘… sie [gehörte] zur Klasse jener Frauen, die Jeder rühmt und Keiner mag’ (p. 94); we also learn of her unrequited love for a notorious poacher, who was sent off to the army, became a drinker and eventually disappeared (p. 163). The early versions consistently show Margreth in a more openly negative light than the final one.

  13. Compare Henel, p. 150: ‘Das Ethos der Novelle ist also nicht die Verkettung von Schuld und Sühne, sondern die Einsicht, daß Verstand und Vernunft des Menschen ohnmächtig sind, die Wirklichkeit zu erfassen und die Wahrheit zu erkennen.’

  14. See also E. Chick's distinction of five narrative voices in ‘Voices in Discord: Some Observations on Die Judenbuche’, German Quarterly, 42 (1969), 147-57.

  15. Henel, pp. 154 f., reaches the same conclusion on the basis of false statements made by the narrator.

  16. W. Silz, ‘Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Die Judenbuche’, in Realism and Reality (Chapel Hill, 1954), p. 40, and Rölleke, pp. 219 f.

  17. Originally the searchers were to find six Groschen (Schulte-Kemminghausen, p. 257); thus we may conclude that Droste was intentionally playing with this parallel. This is a particularly clear example of the tendency of the final version to be less clear than the manuscripts.

  18. L'Art poétique, Chant iii, l. 48.

Gertrud Bauer Pickar (essay date winter 1978)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8173

SOURCE: Pickar, Gertrud Bauer. “‘Too Manly Is Your Spirit’: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.” Rice University Studies 64 (winter 1978): 51-68.

[In the following essay, Pickar finds that in her life and works Droste-Hülshoff identified with masculine positions, in contrast to the strongly traditional roles her family compelled her to assume. Pickar contends that, in her female characters, Droste-Hülshoff reveals a strong ambivalence and conflict over appropriate roles for women and the possibility of legitimate women's authorship.]

In 1961, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848) was included in the first volume of German Men of Letters, an honor which in the series' subsequent five volumes has been accorded only two other women.1 It is rightfully bestowed upon her as the author of some of the finest poetry and narrative prose of the nineteenth century and as the first woman of literary stature in modern German literature. There is, moreover, an ironic justice in the inclusion among those “men of letters” of a woman who lamented in one of her best known and highly personal poems, “Wär ich ein Mann doch mindestens nur” (“If I were at least a man!”),2 and who as a seventeen-year-old wrote the following lines in the thinly veiled autobiographical epic fragment Berta, criticizing her own temperament:

Zu männlich ist dein Geist, strebt viel zu hoch
Hinauf, wo dir kein Weiberauge folgt;
Das ist's, was ängstlich dir den Busen engt
Und dir die jugendliche Wange bleicht.
Wenn Weiber über ihre Sphäre steigen,
Entfliehn sie ihrem eignen bessern Selbst.(3)

In the process of achieving literary acclaim, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff has been assessed on varying bases and from widely divergent points of view. She has been classified a realist, a romantic, a pre-Impressionist, and a forerunner of Heimatkunst and of naturalism; she has been categorized both as typical and as atypical of the Biedermeier art of her day.4 She has been proclaimed and accused of being a political conservative and of affiliation with the Jung Deutschen.5 Her works have been probed for their social criticism, their folklore, their Catholic, Protestant, or pietistic biases, their traditional religious attitudes or their expression of personal faith (or the loss thereof); she has even been ranked among the “great religious men” of her time.6 Critics have pronounced her to be “totally Germanic,”7 typically nordic,8 and representative of the inherently Germanic tension between the “nordic” and “phälian” characteristics of her heritage.9 She has been proclaimed a natural scientist, worthy to be ranked with Goethe.10 Even her health and physical characteristics have been given literary significance. She has been described as having “a psychic constitution, which is typical for the tubercular”;11 her detailed nature studies have been attributed to her myopia,12 and her sensitivity to her regional environs has been explained by her possession of “an extraordinary equipment for sensory perception, a hypersensitive ear, an all but prehensile eye, a skin-sense that reacted to subtle variations of atmosphere,” and a “tactile sense” which was “exceptionally acute.”13

On the other hand, although there has been no thorough examination of her works as the product of a woman author per se, there has been a persistent tendency through the years to discuss her works and their literary merit in terms of masculine and feminine features. Literary appraisals of her works, not just during her own lifetime, but also up into the most recent secondary literature, have continued to show far more frequently than one would suspect a clear feminine bias. As early as 1844, a critic in the Allgemeine Zeitung noted that her poems were “completely feminine in their innermost center, in their essence, and yet at the same time paired with the most masculine power of expression” and commented upon the absence of any coquetry of feeling and the fact that everything was “internally healthy.”14 A few years later, Landois, who referred to her as “this true daughter of Westphalia,” described her as a “gracious, benevolent fairy,” who scattered the richest treasures on the modest fields of her homeland, even though she often disturbed the reader by enticing him in “feminine caprice” into dark and mystifying enigmas.15 Frequently the judgment is expressed in comparative terms that reveal the social and sexual values of their source. Thus Friedrich Engels's own conservatism on the women's issue comes clearly to the fore in his essentially positive review of her poetry: “Aber wenn der Pietismus den Mann … lächerlich macht, so steht der kindliche Glaube dem Fräulein von Droste gut. Es ist eine mißliche Sache um die religiöse Freisinnigkeit der Frauen. Die George Sands, die Mistreß Shelleys sind selten; nur zu leicht zernagt der Zweifel das weibliche Gemüt und erhebt den Verstand zu einer Macht, der es bei keinem Weibe haben darf.”16 Nearly a century later, Friedrich Gundolf noted that Droste combined “the purity of a priestly nature with the linguistic power of an extremely highly educated woman” and commented that she, because of “her honest character and her binding faith,” was protected from “the dangers of trying to please by literary accommodation and those of cultural-political ambition, to which Bettina von Arnim succumbed,” a statement which clearly indicates the role perceived as proper for a woman author.17

A related and persistent phenomenon is the perception of male and female characteristics in style and content in her works. Joachim Müller ascribed to Droste a unique place in German literature “in her austere and disciplined form, in her hard and masculine posture”18 and Walter Silz spoke of her “feminine affection for what is small and ‘heimlich.’”19 Heinz Kindermann, in discussing her early literary dependency upon “the masculine model of Stolberg,” concludes at one point that the last lines of “Unruhe,” a poem he finds similar to Stolberg's “Ozeans Unendlichkeit,” already indicate Droste's “entire poetic profile,” which he perceives as deriving “its total strength of spiritual mastery of the world from her feminity.”20 Similarly, Franz Heyden, in discussing Droste in his volume on German poetry, speaks of “the bonds of origin, of blood, of unfulfilled femininity” and sees her works as uniting “masculine and feminine yearning.”21 Rudolf Ibel, in trying to summarize the bases of Droste's unique creativity, determined its deepest source to be “her virginity,” concluding that her virginity allowed her “dimensions of experience beyond the limits of a man, which could scarcely be granted a woman who had the physical fulfillment and physical and spiritual balance found in motherhood.”22 In his early work, even the acknowledged Droste scholar Clemens Heselhaus wrote of “this woman who was talented like a man” (“diese männlich begabte Frau”) and assessed her conservatism as a reflection of the concern with preservation inherent in her own “great maternalism.”23 Droste is described in quite similar terms in the popular Rowohlt monograph published in 1967. There Peter Berglar noted that her response to the pressure of time and environment was “a totally feminine reaction” and asserted that she threw herself, a “maelstrom of feminine creative power,” against the barriers and structures of a world dominated by men and fathers, breaking through them, in a fashion “until then unheard of and never before given poetic expression.”24 Berglar also continues uncritically the tradition of attributing to Droste's encounter with Levin Schücking her literary achievement, while preserving essentially intact the socially acceptable image of her as friend and mother-surrogate for this younger man: “It was this horrible thorn of knowledge of the hopelessness of her love, at times accepted heroically and at other times painfully suppressed, which enabled Droste to attain the ultimate in art.”25 Berglar leaves it, however, to Emil Staiger to project from his own personal perspective the discomfort that Schücking might have experienced in such a situation:

Wie sollte er der alternden Frau begegnen, wenn sie, verwirrt von seiner Nähe, die Tonart der Liebe sacht vertauschte, ihre Würde vergass und sich zum schwärmenden Mädchen machte, als meinte sie das Leben von neuem beginnen zu können?26

In all fairness to the critics, it must be noted that the designation of male and female characteristics was one with which Annette herself was familiar. Her friend and mentor Schlüter referred to her “masculine soul” in a letter to her (March 27, 1835), and Levin Schücking described her in just such terms in his correspondence to her:

Sie dagegen haben zu weiblicher Beobachtungsgabe einen männlich klaren, ordnenden Verstand bekommen; einen Geist, der mit dem weiblichen Interesse für das Einzelne, Geringe, die Miscelle par.-männlichen Aufschwung von diesem Einzelnen zum Ganzen, von der Miscelle zum System möchte ich sagen, verbindet.27

It is in a sense appropriate that the criticism the young Droste directed toward her semi-autobiographical figure Berta—who exhibited features and desires better suited to a man and clearly inappropriate for a woman—should be reflected in the critical attitudes toward Droste's own literary production. Ironically the term “masculine” is frequently used in the positive assessment of certain features of the literature which she created in part out of her own drive for self-expression and self-realization in the otherwise highly structured and regulated existence she led as a proper member of the landed gentry. It focuses anew upon the interrelationship between her life and her poetry with all the correlative sex-role implications, and indicates the resolution of a problem which in varying form was to remain with her throughout her life. It is only fitting that the charge of masculinity in a non-pejorative sense should come to be associated with her works—with that part of her life which, as will be shown later, was to provide a surrogate existence for her, a realm of freedom and vicarious experience, which in turn permitted her to maintain outwardly a life of appropriate decorum.

The difficulties that faced Droste are clearly in evidence in biographies of her life, and although Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's literary place is assured now on the basis of the literary value of the works themselves, that recognition was not easily gained. Despite her statement in 1843 to her friend Elise Rüdiger that she sought fame only in the following century28—a remark which can be understood in part as a rejection of the popularity-seeking she perceived in other writers she knew and in part as a hope that proper acclaim for her own works could yet be forthcoming—she showed herself throughout her life to be sensitive to the reactions of others and deeply concerned with the reception of her work, as well as with her own literary development. She had to struggle hard and long both for the publication of her works and for literary recognition.

Writing in 1815 to her mentor Matthias Sprickmann, himself earlier affiliated with the Göttinger Hainbund, Droste commented that she felt her skill improving; she noted the favorable reaction she received when reading her works to friends at the request of her mother, but added her concern that “these people understand so little about it, for they are usually women, from whom I have seen little proof of pure and sound taste.”29 On another occasion she mentioned the unwelcome praise and criticism from those whose judgment she did not respect, commenting that she often did not know whether she was more disturbed by their praise or their criticism, and adding, “As for the praise, I have had to lean hard upon my own judgment, not to strike out some insignificant and just passable passages, which have become completely repugnant to me because of inappropriate praise.”30

Although her poetic talent was recognized early in the family—her uncle is reported to have announced when Annette was seven that a second Sappho was budding in her31—their pride in her accomplishments waned as her interest in literary expression continued and as her works strayed from subjects and forms they considered suitable. When Droste's first book was published under the name of Anna Elisabeth v. D. … H. …, she ruefully recorded the reaction of her family, the condemnation of the work as “pure rubbish, … unintelligible, confused,” and their questioning, “how a seemingly sensible person could have written such stuff.” “Now they all open their mouths up wide and can't comprehend how I could so embarrass myself,” she related to her sister. Of even greater concern to her was the fact that only a limited number of copies were sold and that her poetry received almost no critical notice.32 In a subsequent letter she reports having read only two of the reviews, those of Levin Schücking and Henriette von Hohenhausen, commenting, “both of them were brilliant enough, of course, but they won't do the job, since one is by a female, the other by an acquaintance.”33 These concerns were to remain with her. Writing to her sister two years later (June 30, 1841), she reported, “I receive one excellent review after another; this one is already the sixth and some of the others are even more favorable than this one, and yet, despite it all, the book is selling so poorly. …”34 She also mentioned the remarks of a certain “Engel” who commented favorably upon her work35—it was Friedrich Engels, who also took the opportunity in his commentary to chastise the German reading public for not taking the time to appreciate poetry such as hers.36

In literary matters, the otherwise docile and compliant Droste could be adamant about her intentions and desires; she opposed Levin Schücking's well-intended improvements and alterations with a decisiveness not sufficiently appreciated by critics, who prefer to see her as “oddly deferent to the opinions of others about her works.”37 On one such occasion in a letter to Schücking, she requested in unequivocal terms that he not alter her texts:

Levin, I would gladly do anything I can for you; now give me a promise in return, and indeed a serious, inviolable one, your word of honor, as you would give it and keep it to a man, that you will not arbitrarily change even one syllable of my poems. On this point I am infinitely more sensitive than you yet know and would especially now, after having warned you so urgently, at most try to compose myself outwardly, but I would never forgive you and could not forestall an inner cooling toward you.38

The added emphasis that he give and keep his word as if to a man indicates the seriousness of her demand and implies as well her perception that a promise made to a woman was considered less binding. In the same letter, she commented further, “It may occasionally harm me, that I go my own way so inflexibly and do not permit the smallest peacock feather in my crow's pelt, but nevertheless I wish this would be recognized.”39 Although she would on occasion offer alternative versions for him to choose, the words were to be hers at any expense.

The publication of Droste's novella Judenbuche in the Cotta journal Morgenblatt in 1842 represented a major breakthrough for recognition of her as a significant author. Even here, though, her pleasure was diminished by the suggestion that the work had been written by Schücking. She requests in her letter to Levin that the alternative passages she had mailed him be shown in her handwriting to end such rumors.40 With the publication of her second volume by Cotta in 1844, however, her reputation was assured.

If one were to review her life, it is clear that the greatest problem she had to overcome in her development as an author was one she quite literally inherited, for the impact of her sex, her upbringing, her religion, and her social and economic status is undeniable. Critics have long pointed to these restraints upon her freedom and upon her poetic development and have described these factors as handicaps to her poetic calling.41 Even some of the friends permitted her, such as Schlüter, have been judged to have exerted a harmful influence upon her artistic growth.42

The facts are irrefutable—she was indeed at the beck and call of her mother throughout her entire life and had to give her an accounting of her behavior even when she was away. Extensive demands on her time, her energy, and her health, which was frail at best, were made by her family, whose membership was extensive—there were over eighty relatives on her mother's side alone. Her letters document both her allegiance to family and its control over her life and her activities. A few examples should suffice: she had to ask her father's permission to enter into correspondence with a woman to whom she had been introduced;43 her mother forbade her contact with Ferdinand Freiligrath in person or by mail (and Annette apparently never challenged that decision); at forty, she still needed her mother's permission to publish her first poems semi-anonymously; when Schlüter wanted to publish some of her religious poetry, she had to ask her mother first,44 and she subsequently requested a minor change in them in response to family discomfort.45 She wrote August von Haxthausen in 1841 she would take up her work on Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande again, only if her mother, to whom she intended to read the finished portions, approved of those pages and of her continuing with the project. She was concerned that her family was so clearly identifiable in the character descriptions and in fact never did complete the work.46 The family was upset with her work Die Schlacht im Loener Bruch, because it was too sympathetic toward the historical figure Christian von Braunschweig and did not clearly enough side with the Catholics. Against her better judgment she yielded to family pressures and attempted to write a comedy47 which was never judged successful and brought her only the ire of the literary circle in Münster which she had satirized.48

Droste was always acutely aware of her family's feelings and of any discomfiture her relatives experienced as a result of her literary activities. From remarks her mother addressed to her sister Jenny, Droste readily perceived how it pained “the members of her class, ‘that a girl of nobility expose herself so to public opinion.’”49 There is no doubt that her position as an unmarried woman of the upper class was expected to be one of seclusion, which, as Ronald Schneider has pointed out, included also the avoidance of literary publicity.50

Droste, however, had another reason for trying to avoid arousing the family's displeasure—not only did she dislike any disharmony in the house,51 she also sought to project jealously the degree of literary and mental freedom she had managed to wrest from the social commitments of family and position. She wanted to jeopardize neither her work's poetic integrity nor the time she could devote to writing. On one occasion she expressed her concern that Münster gossip about her and Levin Schücking might necessitate her giving up that relationship. She attempted to forestall such gossip not only because the relationship was so important to her but also because it could cost her “the freedom gained only through struggle, so slowly and with such effort … (inasmuch as I can call the passive indulgence of my family toward my way of life freedom).”52

Fortunately, her family as a whole also remained ignorant of her “Westphälischen Schilderungen aus einer westphälischen Feder” (“Westphalian descriptions from a Westphalian pen”) which appeared anonymously in Guido Görres's publication Historisch-politischen Blättern in 1845 and which predictably caused quite a stir at the time. She did feel the full hostility of her family, however, after Schücking's novel Die Ritterbürtigen appeared in 1846. It was critical of the Westphalian nobility and she was suspected of having betrayed her heritage and her class by having told “in-house” stories to her friend. Her reaction was vehement and directed not against the family but against Levin Schücking. She referred to his work as “Giftmischereien” (“mixtures of poisons”) and stated, “Schücking has treated me like my most gruesome mortal enemy,” and she condemned all those who sought rapid success—“O God, how far can authorial vanity and the mania to create an effect in the world lead!”53

One incident, however, which has been cited to indicate the strength of her family ties and the control of the family over her, deserves special attention because of the light it sheds upon the manner in which she met the demands of her position as an accommodating and dutiful daughter of the house, sensitive to the pressures of family, position, and social expectations, while maintaining a degree of independence and not sacrificing what was important to her as a publishing author. In the autumn of 1845, her brother Werner requested that she no longer contribute to the literary supplement of the Kölnische Zeitung since it was attacking Catholicism. It was his duty to inform her of the situation, he wrote, because it was now a matter of honor for her to desist from further interaction with that paper. In her response, Droste promised to submit no further materials, but added that she would prefer not to break officially with the paper. If pressed for more contributions, she would simply reply that she was working on a larger project which permitted her no time for other items. In addition, she indicated the possibility that poems submitted earlier to Schücking might yet appear in that paper. These, however, she assured her brother four times, were quite proper—she referred twice to them as “very moral” (once with the additional comment that two poems even had religious content), remarked that they were “for me in any case, thoroughly honorable poems,” and concluded by noting that even their mother agreed in this appraisal of the poems.54

Droste further suggested discontinuing her contributions to all the papers, taking as her own position her brother's view that since most of them had taken a turn for the worse, the association with them in the future promised little honor, and adding a reason for ceasing to publish in the “good ones” as well, an argument she knew he would find convincing: they demanded greater learning and rhetorical skills than she possessed and often led to feuds, in which it would be improper for a woman to be entangled. As one reads further, her own reasons become clearer—she wished to retrieve the poems quietly, rather than to inform the publishers of her decision, to avoid their ire. She did not wish to risk antagonizing them and drawing thereby “a few dozen sharp, satyrical pens to my throat …, who will certainly be clever enough to attack me not from the Catholic side, but from the purely poetic side, in order to ruin if possible my literary reputation.”55 Indirectly her own concern, one quite different from her brother's, emerges: it was not the anti-Catholic bias of the paper that bothered her, but her own reputation as author. She wanted the poems back because she was not satisfied with their quality: “they were made in too great a hurry and while I was in physically poor health and are complete failures, and … a poor poem can do more harm to one's reputation than twenty excellent ones can repair.”56 She complied with Werner's request, but in her own manner and for her own reasons.57

Thus Annette von Droste-Hülshoff maintained her position as dutiful and loving daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, and friend, collecting seals and other small items, tending the family sick, attending to house chores, visiting back and forth, and maintaining a voluminous and gossipy correspondence with family and friends—and eking out moments and hours for herself and her inner life of fantasizing and of writing, two activities so intimately interrelated in their purpose and function for Droste. Hers was to be an inner emancipation, a compromise situation not so unlike the inner emigration that was an alternative for those who chose a passive route in face of restrictive political rule.58

Her own literary works attest to the fact that the resolution was not quickly nor easily attained. The sentiment expressed in the passage from Berta cited in the opening paragraph of this paper is reaffirmed in additional passages in that work and finds poetic expression in her poem “Unruhe,” written around her nineteenth birthday. She clearly identifies the attitudes and frustrations expressed in it as hers in a letter to Sprickmann, where she wrote of the poem, “it depicts completely the real condition of my soul, at that time and now as well, even though this almost feverish disquietude has diminished somewhat with the disappearance of my indisposition.”59

The poem is characterized by a conscious desire for adventure, for freedom:

O, ich möchte wie ein Vogel fliechen,
Mit den hellen Wimpeln möcht' ich ziehen,
Weit, o weit, wo noch kein Fußtritt schallte,
Keines Menschen Stimme widerhallte,
Noch kein Schiff durchschnitt die flücht'ge Bahn.(60)

and for escape from the confines of the life she is assigned to live:

Rastlos treibt's mich um im engen Leben,
Und zu Boden drücken Raum und Zeit.(61)

The conflict between expectation and yearnings is most poignantly expressed in the lines:

Fesseln will man uns am eig'nen Herde,
Uns're Sehnsucht nennt man Wahn und Traum.(62)

Resignation, however, is the only alternative she sees to the pains of frustration:

Stille, stille, mein törichtes Herz!
Willst du denn ewig vergebens dich sehnen,
Mit der Unmöglichkeit hadernde Tränen
Ewig vergießen in fruchtlosem Schmerz?(63)

The words “törichtes Herz,” “ewig vergebens,” “Unmöglichkeit,” and “fruchtlosem Schmerz” indicate clearly her incipient acceptance of the hopelessness of pursuing her aspirations and desires for a different life. She must be satisfied with the small pleasures about her and leave to the sea the powerful images of freedom which can never be hers: “Sei ruhig, Herz und lerne dich bescheiden,” she tells herself.64

The form the resolution of the conflict was ultimately to take was one tenuously supplied already in Berta, where the heroine finds relief and release in playing the harp:

Ja, meine Harfe ist mir jetzt mein alles,
In Lust und Trauer treue Freundin mir.
Wenn dann der Schmerz die Seele mir durchzittert,
Dann spielt mein Finger in der Harfe Saiten,
Und ihr entschwebt ein klagender Gesang.(65)

From her mother she had learned both needlework, for Droste the traditional “appropriate” womanly activity,66 and music—which she tellingly refers to as “das Reich der Töne,” a description which in itself contains the promise of autonomy, of flight into another domain, another realm. For Berta, the latter proved to be the compelling force in her life:

Durch sie [die Musik] ward mir der Harfe süßer Trost,
Die leise Sprache meiner Silbersaiten,
Die bald mit ihrer sanften Harmonie
mich ganz hinwegzog von dem hellen Rahmen.(67)

Music provided her with an escape from the restricting confines of the reality about her:

Mit süßem Zauber meinen Geist einführend
Der kalten Wirklichkeit beengten Schranken
Ins helle Reich der goldnen Phantasie
Und dorthin, wo uns ewiger Lichterglanz glühet.(68)

“Am Turme,”69 written in the winter of 1842-43 and perhaps Droste's best known poem, restates in a controlled and succinct poetic form the conflict between personal longings and social conventions, expressed earlier in “Unruhe” and Berta, both indicating the continuing presence of the problem for Droste and clearly linking it to the sex-roles of her day. Written in the first person, it vividly expresses the personal yearnings of a young woman, who is standing high in a tower, overlooking the water, and letting the wind toss her hair:

O wilder Geselle, o toller Fant,
Ich möchte dich kräftig umschlingen,
Und, Sehne an Sehne, zwei Schritte vom Rand
Auf Tod und Leben dann ringen!(70)

Looking at the waves below, she wishes she could spring into the surf, “Und jagen durch den korallenen Wald / Das Walroß, die lustige Beute!”71 Spying a boat, she wishes she could be on a battling ship, “Das Steuerruder ergreifen / Und zischend über das brandende Riff / Wie eine Seemöve streifen.”72 In the last stanza, she mentions yet other active lives she wishes she could pursue: “Wär ich ein Jäger auf freier Flur, / Ein Stück nur von einem Soldaten, / Wär ich ein Mann doch mindestens nur.”73 The poem concludes with a poignant description of the contrasting fate allowed her:

Nun muß ich sitzen so fein und klar,
Gleich einem artigen Kind,
Und darf nur heimlich lösen mein Haar
Und lassen es flattern im Winde!(74)

The yearning for freedom and adventure expressed earlier in “Unruhe,” is linked here far more clearly to a series of male activities—hunting, fishing, fighting, and sailing—which are unequivocably associated, even in the poem, with being a man, hence the impossibility of her partaking in any such active life. Her role as a woman—to remain docile and childlike—is clearly understood; only in private, only in secret, can she dream of a different existence and feel the fury of the wind in her hair. She can only imagine the life of a man, filled with excitement and activity—but in that imagination lies the potential of the vicarious experience, and this indeed appears to have been the solution Annette found, one which for her was bound intimately to literary creation. In writing her poetry, she was able to create worlds filled with battle, boar hunts, shipwrecks, feuds, assassinations, conquests, and rescues, to move at will into the past or to faraway lands; there she could evoke the demonic forces of nature or witness supernatural apparitions and incidents, as well as capture quieter moments of lyrical nature description or of introspection.

That poetry had indeed become for her the source of comfort, of release, and vicarious life, and the means for reconciling external expectations and inner drives, is clearly expressed in the poem “Lebt wohl,”75 written in 1844 after she had said farewell to Schücking and his bride. It is one of the last and most expressive testimonies to the power of her fantasy and the relief it offered her, and it repeats and reaffirms the thoughts expressed in “Am Turme.” Although she may be deserted, she will not be alone as long as the poetic vision and the means of poetic expression are hers—

So lange noch der Arm sich frei
Und waltend mir zum Äther streckt
Und jedes wilden Geiers Schrei
In mir die wilde Muse weckt(76)

she states triumphantly. As long as she can write, and in writing soar above the world, the expanses of territory and all the experiences it can offer are hers. The drive for freedom, for adventure, for self-expression had thus become sublimated in her artistic production in a manner which proved to be decisive for her, both in her life and in her literary works, and which permitted her to live in an uneasy peace with the social structures of her day.

Substantiation of this solution can be found in her works, where, not surprisingly, the role accorded female figures is essentially passive. The acceptable behavior ranges from submission and acquiescence to verbal intercession, since the only action permitted a woman in keeping with her role is a verbal one—she may pass on information to someone who can act: a man. (The latter course of action, however, may be totally ineffective and can on occasion lead to serious repercussions for the woman.)

Indicating her belief in Berta's statement, “Nur wenige sind ihres Schicksals Herr, / Das Weib wohl nie und selten nur der Mann,”77 Droste's works indicate that the range of options for the woman in such situations is limited—she can retreat as did Cordelia's nun, first into the private rooms of her home and then ultimately to the convent; she may find release through death—either violently as did the wife in “Der Graf von Thal” or as an answer to prayer, as Theatilde did; or she may continue to suffer, preferably in silence. (Judging from the texts, one of the most desirable characteristics in a woman, especially a wife, seems to be her silence.)

A woman who exhibits any behavioral pattern except acquiescence or any action beyond verbal communication is clearly treated as a negative figure, and, not surprisingly, exceedingly few such figures appear in Droste's works. One notes only Helene in the ballad “Die Schwestern,” who leaves the innocence of the country for the city; Laurette in Berta, spoiled by life at the court; Theodora of “Des Arztes Vermächtnis,” who chose to follow her passion, and not the husband selected by the family; and Cäcilia in Walter. The latter, self-conscious and self-confident, motivated by the desire for wealth and power, governed by her mind and not her heart, cool, composed, and scheming in her behavior, and experienced in love, is proud, capable, and calculating, and presents by far the most detailed portrayal of an evil woman in Droste's works. Incidentally, not just those women who are aggressive by nature are singled out for criticism, but also those who become independent by accident. Thus widows, too, are perceived as losing some of their femininity, since dealing directly with the world tends to harden them—“Das Regieren tut überall keinem Weibe gut” (“Governing has never become a woman”), one of the figures in Ledwina states unequivocably.78

Though not as obvious as the character portrayals and the depiction of situations and problems faced by women, the ramifications of Droste's views and her resolution of her conflicts are visible in the structural and stylistic characteristics of her works. While more subtle in nature, they are of singular importance. The frequent identification of the narrative or lyrical ego as masculine has been noted by critics, as has the usual identification of narrative perspective with a male figure and the preponderance of masculine characters in her works. The association between these features and Droste's own identification of all activity, including artistic creation, with the male, has not been clearly stated. They are, however, clearly related, not only to her identification of herself with the male figures in her works, but also to her own perception of her creative talent and its artistic expression as essentially masculine. Her own ambivalent attitude toward women writers and critics, her struggle to define and defend the role of the poet (or author), and on some occasions, even of the woman poet, and toward the writing profession in its entirety are similarly related to these concepts. For her, however, the form of her artistic expression and the personal release it provided represented the solution to what had appeared to be an irreconcilable inner tension, and one which ultimately brought her fulfillment, and even the recognition she sought.


  1. Brigitte E. Schatzky, “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” pp. 81-97, in German Men of Letters, ed. by Alex Natan (London: Oswald Wolff, 1961). In the second volume (1963) Gertrud von le Fort was included, in the fourth (1966), Ingeborg Bachmann.

  2. The line occurs in the poem “Am Turme,” Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Sämtliche Werke, ed. by Karl Schulte Kemminghausen (München: Georg Müller, 1925), vol. I, p. 71.

  3. “Too manly is your spirit, striving far too high into heights where no woman's eye can follow. It's this that constricts your breast with such anxiety and makes your youthful cheeks grow pale. If women climb beyond their sphere, they flee their own, better selves.” Werke, vol. IV, p. 201. Berta. Trauerspiel in swei Aufzügen was not completed, although notes indicate a third act was planned. This passage, which also appeared in Schatzky's article, is frequently cited as an example of the young Droste's anguished desire for freedom. Such passages cannot be dismissed as simply as Emil Staiger wishes by viewing them as the expression of a fleeting concern and deprecating their significance by noting their frequent citation in earlier literature, “especially by representatives of women's emancipation.” Emil Staiger, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, third ed. (Frauenfeld: Huber, 1967), p. 20. Droste's works give indication of her continuing concern with the conflict between personal inclination and prescribed behavior in direct statement, depicted situation, and attempts at alleviating the problem.

  4. Friedrich Sengle, “Zum geschichtlichen Ort Annettes von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848),” in Sprache und Bekenntnis. Hermann Kunisch zum 70. Geburtstag (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1971), pp. 235-247. For the most succinct introduction to the discussion of the literature on Droste, see Ronald Schneider, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1977) (Sammlung Metzler, no. 153). Cf. also Clemens Heselhaus, “Statt einer Wirkungsgeschichte, Die Aufnahme der postumen Werke der Droste,” Jahrbuch der Droste-Gesellschaft 5 (1972): 23-40, and Günter Häntzschel, “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” in Jost Hermand and Manfred Windfuhr, eds., Zur Literatur der Restaurationsepoche 1815-1848 (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1970), pp. 151-201.

  5. Cf. Clemens Heselhaus, “Die Zeitbilder der Droste,” Jahrbuch der Droste-Gesellschaft 4 (1962): 79-104; Wilhelm Gössmann, “Das politische Zeitbewusstsein der Droste,” Jahrbuch der Droste-Gesellschaft 5 (1970): 102-122; Wilhelm Gössmann, “Konservativ oder liberal? Heine und die Droste,” Heine-Jahrbuch 15 (1976): 115-139; and Artur Brall, Vergangenheit und Vergänglichkeit. Zur Zeiterfahrung und Zeitdeutung im Werk Annettes von Droste-Hülshoff (Marburg: N. G. Elwer, 1975).

  6. Cf. Klemens Möllenbrock, “Die religiöse Existenz Annettens von Droste im theologischen Gesamtbild der Zeit,” Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift 14 (1936): 441.

  7. Adolf Bartels, as quoted in Karl Schulte Kemminghausen, “Der Weg zur Droste. Eine Rückschau,” Westfalen 23 (1938): 135.

  8. Josef Karp, “Das Droste-Problem,” Der Gral 21 (1926-27): 588.

  9. Joachim Müller, Natur und Wirklichkeit in der Dichtung der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Münster: Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1941). In his introduction he announces his intention to show how “racial presuppositions are poetically realized” by penetrating “into the center of Droste's poetic nature.” He claims thereby that “the nature of the feeling for nature and the image of the world” found in her poetry would also “reilluminate the racial potential within the Phalic-Nordic type,” p. 8.

  10. H. Landois, Annette Freiin von Droste-Hülshoff als Naturforscherin (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1890), p. 10. Cf. Josefine Nettesheim, “Wissen und Dichtung in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts am Beispiel der geistigen Welt Annettes von Droste-Hülshoff,” Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift 32 (1958): 521.

  11. Peter Berglar, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1967), p. 82.

  12. Cf. Schatzky, “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” p. 91.

  13. Walter Silz, “The Poetical Character of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848),” PMLA 63 (1948): 979.

  14. Cf. Berglar, Annette von Drost-Hülshoff, p. 167.

  15. Landois, Annette Freiin von Droste-Hülshoff, pp. 11, 12, and 14.

  16. “But whereas Pietism makes a man appear foolish, childlike faith is most suitable for Miss von Droste. Religious free thinking is a precarious matter for women. Those like George Sand and Mistress Shelly are rare; doubt corrodes far too easily the feminine temper and raises reason to a power which it ought never command in a woman.” Quoted in Karl Schulte Kemminghausen, “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff und Fr. Engels,” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Friedrich Schiller-Universität Jena 5 (1955-56): 440.

  17. Friedrich Gundolf, Romantiker, Neue Folge (Berlin-Wilmersdorf: Heinrich Keller, 1931), pp. 184f.

  18. Müller, Natur und Wirklichkeit, p. 1.

  19. Silz, “Poetical Character,” p. 981.

  20. Heinz Kindermann, “Die Droste und der Göttinger Hainbund,” Westfalen 23 (1938): 125.

  21. Franz Heyden, Deutsche Lyrik (Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig: Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt, 1929), p. 208.

  22. Rudolf Ibel, Weltschau deutscher Dichter (Hamburg: Christian Wegner, 1948), p. 331. Perhaps the worst form of such sexist interpretation is found in Willi Fehse's Von Goethe bis Grass. Biografische Porträts zur Literatur (Bielfeld: Ernst und Werner Gieseking, 1963), where Grecian hyperboles: “Annette was like Pallas Athene. She guarded the heavenly fire and had, at the same time, as much earthiness in her breast as anyone of her sex” (p. 63) are combined with a personal conviction as to the natural role of woman: “Several times the fulfillment of her natural woman's calling was denied her” (p. 63). In this context his assessment of her works: “Annette's poems are bound to her maidenhood and her womanhood, to her religion and her home” (p. 65), is not surprising.

  23. Clemens Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Die Entdeckung des Seins in der Dichtung des 19. Jahrhunderts (Halle [Saale]: Max Niemeyer, 1943), pp. 45 and 64.

  24. Berglar, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 11.

  25. Ibid., p. 114.

  26. “How was he to interact with this aging woman, when she, confused by his proximity, gradually changed the (musical) key of love, forgetting her dignity and turning into a gushing girl, as if she thought she could begin life anew?” Staiger, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 73.

  27. “You on the other hand have received, in addition to the feminine talent for observation, a manlike clear and organizing intellect, a mind, which combines, I would say, the womanly interest for the individual, the insignificant, the miscellaneous, with a manlike movement from the specific to the general, from the particular to the system.” (Schücking's letter to Droste, Dec. 20, 1840, Briefe von Annette von Droste-Hülshoff und Levin Schücking, ed. by Reinhold Conrad Muschler [Leipzig: Grunow, 1928], p. 20.)

  28. “My decision is firmer than ever, never to work for pure effect, to follow no fashionable style, to have no other guide than eternally true nature in the maze of the human heart and to turn my back completely on our blasé time and its conditions. I do not wish and do not want to become famous now, but after a hundred years I would like to be read” (Briefe II, p. 191).

    In a letter to Schücking, she also spoke of becoming famous posthumously but made no prediction as to her eventual fame: “I wish we could spread out our posthumous fame behind us like the tail of a peacock and gaze upon it; but there would surely be many who would be able to see only a pathetic goosetail or nothing at all!” she noted humorously (Briefe II, p. 168).

  29. Briefe I, 14. Her attitude toward women authors is a highly ambivalent one. She herself appears to accept and even to promulgate the view of women as essentially less apt and less qualified for the role of author, an attitude under which she herself suffered, although some of her remarks do indicate that the social conditioning, rather than any innate deficiency, is responsible. Concerning humorous writing, for example, she writes, “In my opinion humor suits only the fewest and least of all the pen of a woman,” and, attributing this in part to the “almost too tight constrictions of social mores,” concludes, “nothing is more pathetic than humor in tight shoes” (Briefe I, pp. 372f.).

    Negative views of woman authors abound in her comedy Perdu! oder Dichter, Verleger und Blaustrümpfe, as well, but here it appears as if she were, tongue in cheek, presenting the views others espouse rather than expressing her own views. Thus she has Willibald, whom she designates as a poet of mediocre quality, comment that one must be a man to comprehend poems in their deepest sense (Werke III, p. 207). Sonderrath (Freiligrath) voices a complaint about over-educated women, which Droste must have heard frequently herself, “Nun, nun, die überbildeten Damen stehn mir doch auch ellenlang zum Halse hinaus” (“These over-educated ladies are already coming out of my ears”) (Werke III, p. 254).

  30. Briefe I, p. 29.

  31. Amanda Sonnenfels, Dichterinnen und Freundinnen unserer grossen Dichter (Berlin: Arthur Tetzlaff, 19[07]), p. 271.

  32. Briefe I, p. 337. (Jan. 29, 1839).

  33. Briefe I, p. 357.

  34. Briefe I, p. 536.

  35. Briefe I, p. 548.

  36. Schulte Kemminghausen, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift, p. 440.

  37. Silz, “Poetical Character,” pp. 978f.

  38. Briefe II, p. 259.

  39. Briefe II, p. 260.

  40. Ibid.

  41. Silz, “Poetical Character,” p. 978.

  42. Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 100.

  43. Briefe I, p. 40.

  44. Briefe I, p. 200.

  45. Briefe I, pp. 291f.

  46. Briefe I, p. 547.

    “It seemed good to me,” she wrote, “and yet I lost suddenly all my courage, because I recognized my dear parents in it so clearly. … That was really not my intention. I only wanted to borrow a few traits and otherwise hold to the general character of the region. Now, I fear, everyone will take it as a portrait, and will treat every frailty, every humorous feature, which I expose to the public, as a horrid sacrilege” (Briefe I, p. 547).

  47. Droste complained that her family tried everything to convince her that her true talent lay in the humorous mode and that each time she heard their comments, she felt both vexed and indecisive. (Briefe I, pp. 372f.) Later, lamenting her lack of literary productivity, she confessed, “it is due in part to the fact that I, having tired to the point of nausea of hearing for twenty years repeatedly how I ‘mistook my own talent,’ have come to a decision, which itself is fundamentally repugnant to me, that is, to undertake a venture into the comical. So I push away every inclination to do something else energetically and still shy away from that intended work, like a child from a switch.” (Briefe I, p. 406)

  48. Her own views of the literary circle expressed in her letters to her sister and her friends were far less harsh than a reading of the play indicates (Briefe I, pp. 335ff, for example).

  49. Winfried Woesler, “Die Droste und das ‘Feuilleton’ der ‘Kölnischen Zeitung,’” Kleine Beiträge zur Droste-Forschung 1971, ed. by W. Woesler (Lahnstein: Nohr; Münster: Stenderhoff in Komm., 1970).

  50. Schneider, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 20.

  51. Cf. Woesler, “Die Droste und das ‘Feuilleton,’” p. 29.

  52. Briefe I, p. 542.

  53. Briefe II, p. 473. Doubtless another factor to be acknowledged here was her feeling of having been betrayed on a personal basis in this matter, as well as in others, by Schücking.

  54. Woesler, “Die Droste und das ‘Feuilleton,’” p. 27.

  55. Ibid., p. 26.

  56. Ibid., p. 27.

  57. Droste was not above such subterfuges in her letters, if the goal was important to her. In Meersburg she wrote her mother two letters that seriously and intentionally misrepresented her role in procuring the position for Schücking in Meersburg, her relationship with him, and the time she spent with him. She indicates when her letters are intended for the addressee; when privacy in correspondence becomes difficult, she reacts accordingly. On one occasion, for example, she requested that Schücking return to the formal Sie in addressing her—she would not want to burn all his letters because of the indiscreet du's (Briefe II, p. 45).

    W. Gössmann pointed out the game-playing in Droste's letters in his article “Konservativ oder liberal?” where he states that anyone who reads her works with a critical eye to her language cannot overlook the high degree of pretense or disguise, of a kind of hide-and-seek, which became practically a habit for her (p. 122).

  58. Although he utilizes the term to describe her attitudes toward issues of political involvement, Gössmann is the first to apply the concept of “inner emigration” to Droste and to associate it with the importance of inner independence for her.

  59. Briefe I, p. 16.

  60. Oh, I'd like to flee like a bird,
    With bright ship's pennants travel,
    Far, oh far, where no footstep has yet echoed,
    No man's voice reverberated,
    No ship traversed the transitory course.
  61. Restlessly it spins me about in my confined life,
    And time and space press me to the ground.
  62. They want to fetter us to our own hearth,
    Our longings they call delusion and dream.
  63. Be still, be still, my foolish heart!
    Do you want to long in vain forever,
    To shed for this impossibility quarrelsome tears
    Eternally in fruitless pain?
  64. “Be quiet, heart, and learn to acquiesce.” Werke IV, pp. 48f.

  65. Yes, my harp is now everything to me,
    A true friend in joy and sorrow.
    When my soul trembles in pain,
    My fingers play in the harp strings
    And from the harp a plaintive song soars.

    (Werke IV, p. 211)

  66. Needlework is a major conversational topic among the girls in Berta, and is recommended to Berta as a healthier and more suitable pastime than her harp.

    In other works as well, sewing or embroidery is presented as the appropriate domestic occupation for the women figures. In the summary of the opera Der Galeerensklave which Droste intended to write, Charlotte is busily sewing when she is first introduced (Werke IV, p. 331), and as the fifth scene opens Annette is seated at an embroidery frame (Werke IV, p. 338). Similarly the narrator Bernjen, in Joseph, reminiscing fondly about his friend Mevrouw van Ginkel, recalls her sitting behind the tea table, “sich mit den Schnökeln eines Stickmusters abmühend” (Werke III, p. 184).

  67. Through its music the harp became sweet solace for me,
    The soft language of my silver strings
    Which with their gentle harmony
    Drew me away from the bright [embroidery] frame.
  68. With sweet magic leading my spirit
    From cold reality's restrictive bounds
    Into the bright realm of golden fantasy
    And there, where eternal brilliance glows.

    (Werke IV, p. 208)

  69. Werke IV, pp. 71f.

  70. Oh wild companion, oh crazy fool,
    I would like to embrace you mightily
    And, sinew on sinew, two steps from the brink,
    Wrestle to the death.
  71. And through coral forests hunt
    The walrus, that carefree prey!
  72. To grasp the steering rudder
    And sweeping above the surging reef
    Streak like a sea gull.
  73. If only I were a hunter out in the open
    A little bit of a soldier
    If I were at least a man!
  74. Now I must sit so politely and serenely
    Just like a well-behaved child
    And may only secretly loosen my hair
    And let it flutter in the wind!
  75. Werke I, p. 357.

  76. As long as my arm still stretches
    Free and commandingly to the aether
    And every wild hawk's cry
    Awakens in me the wild muse. …
  77. But few are master of their destiny,
    Never the woman and only seldom the man.

    (Werke IV, p. 220)

  78. Werke III, p. 43.

Larry D. Wells (essay date April 1979)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7870

SOURCE: Wells, Larry D. “Indeterminacy as Provocation: The Reader's Role in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche.Modern Language Notes 94, no. 3 (April 1979): 475-92.

[In the following essay, Wells maintains that the indeterminacy, or ambiguity, of Die Judenbuche functions to engage and guide the reader's response to the text. Wells gives special attention to the main character's suicide in describing how Droste-Hülshoff compels readers to consider her critique of social and religious norms.]

Upon its installment publication in Cotta's Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser (1842), Droste's Die Judenbuche met with only modest success. Yet by the end of the century this tale of anti-Semitism, theft, murder, and retribution in the backwoods of eighteenth-century Westphalia had captivated a large audience of readers and literary scholars and established itself permanently as one of the generally acknowledged masterpieces of German literature.1 Much of the story's fascination stems from puzzling uncertainties in the text. Since darkness—both literal and figurative—casts an obscuring shroud over crucial moments in the life of the central character, Friedrich Mergel, great demands are placed upon the reader's inductive skills to supply explanations and certainty where the narrator does not. For example, not one of the four deaths in the story is depicted or clarified by the narrator, yet Friedrich's destiny revolves around them. In fact, Droste's narrator appears to deliberately avoid depicting climactic moments in favor of second-hand reportage.2 So many informational gaps necessitate the reader's active participation, for he cannot ignore them and still make much sense of events, much less divine the intention of the author. Yet in recent years some scholars have not only denied the reader's right to supplement these textual gaps, they even discount his ability to construe what evidence the text does provide. In some quarters there has been a tendency to capitulate before the uncertainties and regard them as stylistic and thematic expression of the story's intentional ambiguity. Such a view, it seems to me, neglects the essential role of textual indeterminacy in literature and its importance for the reading process.3 In this article we shall see that much of the aesthetic pleasure upon reading derives from the reader's role in discovering what the intentionally opaque narrative conceals, and that the many indeterminacies are the author's vehicle for provoking and guiding the reader's active Mitdenken and critical responses to 1) the narrative itself, 2) the crimes of Friedrich Mergel, 3) Mergel's society, and 4) the reader's own social and religious convictions.4

Much recent discussion has been kindled by Heinrich Henel's provocative assessment of the story's ambiguities.5 Henel is not alone in citing the less-than-omniscient narrative perspective as evidence that certain events remain unexplainable. He is the first, however, to maintain one cannot assume with certainty that Friedrich Mergel murdered the Jewish moneylender Aaron, or that Friedrich's remains are hanging in the beech tree at the tale's end.6 He notes that the story provides no eye-witness account of Aaron's death, and he questions the reliability of the Squire's identification of Friedrich's corpse. Like critics before him, Henel lists various other instances where the reader can only surmise, but is not presented conclusive proof. He also concurs with previous scholarship that much remains intentionally shrouded in darkness. But whereas others have explained the interplay of obscuring darkness and flashes of light and discovery as a stylistic feature creating tension,7 for Henel it comprises the essence of the work and Droste's statement on mankind's inability to know. The textual indeterminacies—ambiguities, circumstantial evidence, and constant demurrals by the narrator—underline the elusive nature of such intangibles as human guilt, reality, and truth. Or as Henel states the case: “Das Ethos der Novelle ist also nicht die Verkettung von Schuld und Sühne, sondern die Einsicht, daß Verstand und Vernunft des Menschen ohnmächtig sind, die Wirklichkeit zu erfassen und die Wahrheit zu erkennen.”8

Henel's analysis underscores the necessity of careful reading, but it is also problematic. He insists, for example, that the story is built upon cumulative circumstantial evidence, all of which collapses if uncertainty exists in any individual piece of evidence. In responding to this, Clemens Heselhaus has observed that the notion of Friedrich's guilt arises not from pieces of concrete evidence, but from suggestive behavior and contexts.9 Whether or not Uncle Simon's axe has a splinter missing in the same place as the weapon that killed the forester Brandis is important for the court investigation, but it does not change the reader's conviction that Friedrich sent Brandis into the hands of the wood poachers or that Simon probably wielded the lethal weapon. Droste has already let the reader infer Friedrich's involvement from his actions and behavior: “Längst vorher hat die Autorin durch das Verhalten Friedrichs die Vermutung oder sogar die Gewißheit davon suggeriert, was Henel als geläufige Auffassung des Lesers in Frage stellen will.”10 Nevertheless, in the very next sentence Heselhaus concedes that these suggestive contexts would not stand up in a court of law. Indeed as long as Henel insists upon verifiable proof, he apparently cannot be refuted by the text. Suggestive contexts, signs, and symbols open up interpretative vistas, but do not “prove” anything in a legal sense. Since in adhering to only factual evidence, Henel in effect rejects the overwhelming metaphoric level of the text, a fundamental problem of literary interpretation arises: how is one to mediate between the ascertainable “facts” insufficient for convicting Friedrich and the signs and symbols suggesting his guilt on the metaphorical level?

Henel's reading poses an additional dilemma. To be sure, the text contains many ambiguities. Much also suggests that Droste sensed the tenuous nature of circumstantial evidence and human perspectives. Yet in the prefatory poem the reader is admonished not to judge, lest he be judged, thereby implying that the reader's perspective may play a role in understanding the work, and that he can perhaps learn something from the story. Within the context of Henel's remarks this is impossible, for if the tale speaks of man's absolute inability to grasp reality and recognize truth, then how can Droste expect her reader to do any better in comprehending the “truth” and authorial intent behind her work? But as indicated, Droste not only wants her reader to understand, the ultimate efficacy of her text depends upon his ability to discover the truth that escapes persons in the story.

Droste's activation of the reader's response starts with the introductory poem. Here, before the story even begins, the reader is addressed, somewhat ironically, as “Du Glücklicher” and told via rhetorical questions that complex psychological and environmental factors shape human emotion and behavior.11 Limited mentality (“beschränkten Hirnes Wirren”), stunted spiritual development (“arm verkümmert Sein”), the vanity of youth (“eitlen Blutes Drang”), and both personal and societal prejudices (“jedes Wort, das unvergessen / In junge Brust die zähen Wurzeln trieb”) are cited as determinants of disposition and motivation, but indeterminacy arises, since they are not related to a specific person. The reader does not yet know to whom these characteristics pertain, though he suspects it must be somebody in the text to follow. He automatically fills a gap in his knowledge by making the obvious assumption, something he will have to do frequently throughout the story. The poem also provokes a particular reader stance. By addressing him as “Du Glücklicher, geboren und gehegt / Im lichten Raum, von frommer Hand gepflegt,” the author of the poem imposes a role upon the reader that may or may not fit. Has, for example, every reader enjoyed the guidance of a “pious hand?” Moreover, by cautioning to the effect that persons in glass houses should not cast stones (“Laß ruhn den Stein—er trifft dein eignes Haupt!”), the poem implies that in judging others the reader may also possess the same faults mentioned above. The reader is thus challenged to preserve his own unbiased integrity and enlightened moral status by not passing judgment, presumably in the case of someone in the story to follow.

Thus admonished, the reader moves on to the story and soon discovers factors cited in the poem to be characteristic of Friedrich Mergel and the isolated rural community in which he is born and raised. The representative par excellence of the region's shortcomings is Village B., since as the “hochmütigste, schlauste und kühnste Gemeinde des ganzen Fürstentums” (883) it blatantly manifests the biases, mentality, and perverted sense of law and justice that enable its inhabitants to condone and secretly cheer thievery by wood poachers. The fictional narrator's allusion to “Village B.” creates the impression of objective reporting of actual events with names abbreviated or changed to protect the innocent. Yet on the level of authorial intention,12 concealing the village name prompts the reader to wonder which real community may have served as Droste's model, especially if he knows that events in the story are in fact based upon actual past occurrences in this region.13 It is the reader's natural response to want to provide information the narrator refuses to reveal. Without doing this he cannot, for example, understand what the narrator tells about Friedrich's family background. In recounting Friedrich's father's two marriages, the narrator maintains the second-hand perspective of an objective outsider by qualifying his report with such phrases as “es hieß,” “soll sie gesagt haben,” “soll sehr geweint haben,” “man meinte,” and the recurring “sah man” (885f). Even conjectures suggest the cautious speculation of a narrator possessing only fragmentary information: “Ob nun den [Hermann] Mergel Reue quälte oder Scham” (885); “Wir glauben den Grund … zu finden” (886). Yet since much of the subsequent narrative supplies information only an omniscient narrator could possess, for example private conversations between two persons, this reporter's stance is only a fictional ploy.14 By having her fictional narrator withhold information and conceal events under the pretext of objective reporting, Droste challenges her reader to fill in gaps in the narrative by reading between the lines. She provides contexts and signs to assist him in doing this. Some of these may be subtle and discernible only upon repeated reading, but others are obvious. Any reader familiar with the eighteenth-century standard of morality and the sheltered upbringing of daughters in better families can surmise without too much difficulty as to what prompts the first bride to flee her marital home shortly after the wedding, “schreiend und blutrünstig” (885). And after Margreth's self-confident assertions before her marriage that any woman mistreated by her husband has only herself to blame, one can readily understand why she prefers that the neighbors do not see her furtively gathering herbs with which to ease the painful bruises from her drunken husband's blows. Such supplementing of the narrative makes sense within the context of the story, the description of Hermann Mergel, and the social mores of the time, but there are limits to the reader's freedom to construe the indeterminacies. Speculation, for example, that Margreth might be collecting herbs for the premature delivery of Johannes Niemand, the fruit of her incest with her brother Simon, ignores those hints the narrator does provide and creates confusion where none need exist.15 Margreth's startled reaction years later upon meeting Johannes for the first time and noting the astonishing similarity with her son Friedrich makes it quite clear that the boy is Simon's illegitimate son, but not hers.

In the case of Hermann Mergel's death, the narrator withholds crucial information by letting the reader experience events firsthand, as it were, through the eyes and ears of the nine-year-old Friedrich. By adhering to Friedrich's perspective and avoiding any commentary as to whether it was really Hermann pounding at the door earlier or just merely a loose board rattling, the narrator leaves the reader guessing. Whether or not Margreth did lock her husband out, thus allowing him to freeze to death, is not of vital significance for our understanding of later events. Still, the reader has been conspicuously forewarned that the narrator either cannot or will not provide information necessary for solving all the text's uncertainties. The reader is going to have to draw many of his own conclusions.

Nowhere does the text require more active supplementing of the narrative and filling-in of indeterminacies than in the scenes surrounding the death of Brandis. Since the narrator neither depicts the actual murder nor offers commentary on what transpires, understanding how Brandis dies depends upon the reader's ability to supply what has been intentionally left out. The wood poachers have enjoyed uncanny successes in spite of the many attempts of the foresters to trap them. Although the legal evidence later proves inconclusive, the context on the morning of Brandis' death literally forces the reader to infer that while tending Simon's sheep Friedrich whistles to warn the Blaukittel of the forester's approach and then feigns anger toward his dog to cover up his action.16 This is the substance of the accusation by Brandis, who, emerging from the thicket, sends his men on ahead and confronts Friedrich alone. After their heated exchange culminates in personal insults by Brandis, the forester sets out after his men. Friedrich, his seething rage hidden behind a cold glassy gaze, sends him off in the wrong direction. But as he watches Brandis disappear into the trees, Friedrich's facial expressions become restless, and he apparently considers calling him back, only to reject the idea with a resolute “Nein!” (905). This is the only time in the scene that the narrator conjectures as to what is going on in Friedrich's mind and wonders if he did not want to call Brandis back and ask him to keep his statements in confidence. This is deliberate obfuscation by the narrator. Since Friedrich has not furnished Brandis with any accusing or self-incriminating information—he admits he heard trees being felled but thought Brandis' men were at work—why should he fear any consequences? The reader has to reject the narrator's conjecture as erroneous. He may also begin to harbor misgivings about the narrator's reliability. Precisely because of the narrator's feigned lack of information, the reader now strongly suspects that Friedrich has intentionally directed the forester alone into the hands of the Blaukittel, perhaps thinking he would receive nothing worse than a severe beating. Later, Friedrich indicates as much to Uncle Simon (913). Thus the narrator's ostensibly limited perspective stands in marked opposition to the context and signs suggested by the text and challenges the reader to resolve the discrepancy.17

From now on the reader must constantly supply explanations which either Mergel's society does not possess or the narrator does not divulge, and from his ability to “outdo,” as it were, both the courts and the narrator, the reader can derive considerable personal satisfaction. Privy to the author's perspective, he can readily construe Friedrich's sickness on the morning of the murder as deception and the establishing of an alibi, even though the narrator says nothing to indicate Friedrich is not ill. During the court investigation of Brandis' death the reader learns that to establish his alibi the normally withdrawn Friedrich has either spoken with or nodded to every peasant along the path home after the encounter with Brandis. Again the narrator does not supply this explanation, the reader deduces it from court testimony and from the additional facts at his disposal. Friedrich testifies concerning his altercation with the forester “ziemlich der Wahrheit gemäß” (910), but he omits the end “das er geratener fand, für sich zu behalten” (910f). Earlier, he also related the same events to his mother with the exception of some “Kleinigkeiten” (906) he found better “für sich zu behalten” (906). He obviously tells neither his mother nor the court that he sent Brandis in the wrong direction. Aside from conspicuously contradicting his less-than-omniscient perspective, the narrator has supplied the reader with information the court does not have. Thus the investigation fails to solve the murder, not because mankind cannot ascertain the “truth,” as Henel maintains, but simply because the court does not know all the facts. Privileged information and the ability to interpret it place the reader in a position superior to that of the court and the society it represents.

The narrator demurs concerning the unsuccessful outcome of the court hearing: “Es würde in einer erdichteten Geschichte unrecht sein, die Neugier des Lesers so zu täuschen. Aber dies alles hat sich wirklich zugetragen; ich kann nichts davon oder dazutun” (912). This is not only a “Fiktion,”18 it is provocation of the reader raising severe doubts as to the narrator's reliability and integrity.19 For with the very next scene the narrator “tut etwas dazu.” In the predawn hours—roughly the same time of morning as the encounter with Brandis!—Friedrich is about to leave Simon's house to go to confession when his uncle appears in the doorway and inquires as to his destination. Upon hearing his nephew's intention, Simon advises against confession, twisting the Eighth Commandment to read that he who bears witness—not just false witness—against his neighbor is unworthy of the Sacrament. Friedrich, knowing the court has the murder weapon in its possession, wants to know where his uncle's axe is. Whether or not one trusts Simon's assurance that the axe is in the barn—I do not!—the report goes beyond the narrator's professed lack of information, inasmuch as the highly suggestive scene either misleads the reader to a false assumption of Friedrich and Simon's guilt or draws him to the obvious and correct conclusion that Simon did in fact kill Brandis. If the reader was not suspicious of the narrator before, he certainly should be now. If he is to solve the tale's ensuing indeterminacies, he must rely upon the events and signs themselves and not upon the perspective from which they are narrated.

Aaron's death presents the reader with a difficult challenge. Critics of Henel's persuasion do not deny that Friedrich may have killed the Jewish moneylender, but they insist it is impossible to state with certainty that he did.20 (There was, of course, no doubt on Droste's part as to his guilt: “Ich habe jetzt eine Erzählung fertig von dem Burschen im Paderbörnischen, der den Juden erschlug. …”)21 Henel is correct in observing that Aaron's public insult of Friedrich does provide a motive for murder but not proof.22 Moreover, although Friedrich flees the party, pursued by the irate Aaron and the hooting taunts of the wedding guests urging him to lay hand on the Jew, he does not necessarily follow their advice. And if shortly thereafter the Squire's two farmhands hear the cracking of brush in the Breder Wood, followed by sticks striking together and the lament “O weh, meine arme Seele!” (919), what does this really prove? It is, however, only logical that the reader's suspicion, like that of the Squire, falls on Friedrich, and such suspicions gain substance when the youth flees after Aaron's corpse is discovered. Still, as Henel insists, this is all circumstantial evidence. The reader has less information to go on than in the case of Brandis. Again an investigation proves inconclusive: “Die Untersuchung war kurz, gewaltsamer Tod erwiesen, der vermutliche Täter entflohen, die Anzeigen gegen ihn zwar gravierend, doch ohne persönliches Geständnis nicht beweisend, seine Flucht allerdings sehr verdächtig” (923). Even events themselves appear to conspire to cast a shadow of uncertainty over the outcome. Several months later the chief court official in another community writes the Squire that Friedrich may not have murdered the Jew after all, since in his presence a certain Lumpenmoises confessed having killed a Jew named Aaron but hanged himself before the interrogation could continue. But his report contains much conjecture: “Wissen Sie wohl, daß … Friedrich Mergel … den Juden mag ebensowenig erschlagen haben … Leider fehlen die Beweise … die Wahrscheinlichkeit ist groß … Aaron ist zwar ein verbreiteter Name usw.” (925). For the time being, the reader needs additional signs and information before he can resolve the indeterminacies surrounding Aaron's death.

On Christmas Eve, twenty-eight years after the above events, a bent and broken figure emerges from the Breder Wood and seeks refuge from the snow and cold in Village B. A family takes him in for the night—a contrastive parallel to the fate of Friedrich's father on a similar evening!—so he does not freeze to death. The next morning villagers recognize the old man as Johannes Niemand, Friedrich's double and former companion, and neither he nor the narrator does anything to dispel this impression. Yet blatant discrepancy prevails between what the reader knows but the narrator apparently does not. For if upon initial reading the reader does not already know or strongly suspect the pathetic survivor of decades in Turkish slavery is Friedrich, he certainly does the second time through the text.23 Since the reader then already knows the story's outcome, he can continually reject or modify the false impressions of both the Squire and the narrator. Thus when Johannes [Friedrich] recounts his travels and suffering to the Squire, the reader views the sequence from a double perspective. While the Squire listens to an account told from the viewpoint of the simpleton Johannes, the reader hears Friedrich telling his story in such a way as to feign Johannes' feeble-minded perspective. Such divergence of the reader's and the Squire's perspective characterizes the entire last section of the story and proves vital for the reader's understanding of the end.

Nearly one year after his homecoming Johannes [Friedrich] is dead. When he fails to return one day from delivering a message for the Squire, a search party looks for him but without success. Only when his half-rotted remains are later found hanging in a solitary beech tree in the Breder Wood do the villagers and the Squire learn what the reader has known all along. On the basis of a scar the Squire identifies the corpse as that of Friedrich Mergel. Although Henel would not exclude the possibility of error, (See above) there are strong indications that the Squire has identified the body correctly. Already prior to the end, signs suggest his true identity, at least to the reader with his superior vantage point. At first the old man avoids the Breder Wood, often making a wide detour around the spot of Aaron's demise, something Johannes would have no cause to do. Later the spot exerts an uncanny attraction upon him: “Es schien, er hatte sich immer um das Brederholz herumgetrieben” (934). He also whittles, just as Friedrich used to do and was doing on the morning Brandis was killed. Finally, after his disappearance the Squire finds among his few possessions four silver buttons belonging to Friedrich, pitiful reminders of the youthful village dandy with his silver timepiece. On the metaphorical level, several symbolically compelling coincidences also suggest Friedrich's identity and link the figure in the tree with both murders. The son of Brandis, the man Friedrich sent to his death, discovers the body. The corpse is also hanging in a tree purchased by the Jewish community to mark the place of Aaron's violent death. Finally, the tree bears a Hebrew inscription promising retribution for the crime: “Wenn du dich diesem Orte nahest, so wird es dir ergehen, wie du mir getan hast” (936).24 For Henel these signs remain shreds of circumstantial evidence.25 From the narrator's point of view he may be right, but for the reader, who must mediate between the sparse verifiable facts and the overwhelming metaphorical evidence, they are clues to discovery. If the beech does not contain Friedrich's body, then for the reader, who knows of Friedrich's complicity in Brandis' death and has every reason to believe he struck Aaron the fatal blows, whether intentionally or otherwise, the signs and the ending are mere capricious whims of the author. But of course they are not. With them Droste wants to provoke the reader's active participation and guide his critical response to the outcome, and in particular to society's final condemnation of Friedrich Mergel.

Friedrich Mergel has taken his own life.26 For Droste's contemporaries and for the Squire and his society suicide signifies despair before God and hence eternal perdition. For this reason the Squire orders the remains interred in the knacker's yard. Thus most critics assume Droste depicts Friedrich as losing the New Testament promise of forgiveness or salvation and falling victim to the Old Testament law formulated in the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth ethic of the Hebrew inscription.27 Yet here again indeterminacy arises. To be sure, Friedrich may have committed suicide out of melancholy, Lebensmüdigkeit, or general despair, but this seems rather unlikely, given his expressed desire for Christian burial (931). If one shares Allerdissen's belief in the avenging power of nature abused (see note 24), then perhaps the beech itself has exacted retribution. A further explanation, one consistently ignored by most critics and yet strongly suggested by both the spot of his demise and the uncanny attraction of the Breder Wood upon him, is that his suicide may have stemmed from an overriding need of personal expiation.28 If this be the case—and in light of the indeterminacy the reader should at least entertain this possibility—then the testimony of the child who saw him whittling a spoon shortly before he disappeared (“Er schnitt ihn [the spoon] aber ganz entzwei”—934) might well be read: “Er brach den Stab über sich.”

If the suicide did in fact issue from a desire for inner justice and personal atonement, then those who damn Friedrich would do well to recall the narrator's (and author's?) claim that persons acting out of conscience and conviction are never completely lost: “Denn wer nach seiner Überzeugung handelt, und sei sie noch so mangelhaft, kann nie ganz zugrunde gehen, wogegen nichts seelentötender wirkt, als gegen das innere Rechtsgefühl das äußere Recht in Anspruch zu nehmen” (833). If Friedrich has in fact shunned this society's “äußere[s] Recht” by refusing refuge behind false identity, external laws, and the statute of limitations,29 then the reader can but wonder why the act signifying his return to ontological status as Friedrich Mergel, a person acknowledging and atoning for crimes society was unable to ascertain and punish, should doom his remains to the nameless oblivion of the knacker's plot? The reader can, of course, share the common belief held by both the Squire and the story's critics that suicide always merits eternal damnation. But if he entertains the possibility of a redemptive act, he can then surmise that in condemning Friedrich, the Squire casts the stone of moral reprobation against which the introductory poem warns. The narrator again provides no help, recounting the Squire's actions but then claiming a reporter's objectivity: “Dies hat sich nach allen Hauptumständen wirklich so begeben im September des Jahres 1789” (936). This sounds suspiciously like the previous disclaimer concerning the unsuccessful outcome of the investigation into Brandis' death. Far from appeasing the reader, it challenges him to pursue the indicated discrepancy by searching between and behind the “Hauptumstände” for any signs or clues (“Nebenumstände”?) the author may have given him.

One such sign is the identifying scar. Some critics dismiss this scar as an extraneous motif either not previously introduced or else inadvertently omitted by Droste when revising the text. But is this really so? At the outset of her story Droste describes the region as so provincial that “eine Reise von dreißig Meilen selbst den Vornehmeren zum Ulysses seiner Gegend machte” (882). The Odyssey relates how Ulysses, upon returning home in the disguise of a beggar, identified himself to his faithful swineherd Eumaios by means of a scar. Friedrich has travelled far more than thirty miles on a journey which has taken him halfway around the world and back to his native Westphalia, where he too is ultimately recognized by a scar. Like Homer's hero, he has also undergone great suffering. Such parallels may seem far-fetched at first glance. However, the knowledgeable reader—and we assume Droste wrote for an educated audience with at least some of the literary background she herself possessed—will also recall that this same Ulysses tricked the Cyclops Polyphemos in the cave by claiming his name was “Nobody.”30 After his return to Village B. Friedrich also hides behind the identity of “Nobody,” namely that of his cousin and double Johannes Niemand. Thus an apparently insignificant literary allusion from the beginning emerges at the end not only as a vital key to identification but as a set of signs drawing associations with one of the great mythical sufferers of Western culture. Yet we must not forget that such subtle literary associations are accessible to the reader but not to the villagers. Whereas Ulysses regains true status and identity among his people, Friedrich does not. The scar that strips away his Nobody façade leads society in its ignorance to recondemn him, as it were, to Nobody status in the nameless burial plot. Yet to the reader the aura of myth suggests uncertainty and a possible deeper significance behind Friedrich's suicide and its condemnation. Is Friedrich perhaps to be regarded as a hero? Can one interpret his suicide as a retributive and redemptive act? Such questions the signs invite, though they still do not provide the indisputable “evidence” Henel requires. However, the rather unique time of Friedrich's death should encourage the reader to probe further.

Friedrich's greatest inner turmoil occurs during a period shortly before his disappearance: “Auch Johannes [Friedrich] schien unter dem Einflusse des nahen Äquinoktiums zu leiden; die ihn in diesen Tagen sahen, sagen, er habe auffallend verstört ausgesehen und unaufhörlich mit sich selber geredet, was er auch sonst mitunter tat, aber selten” (933). Given the story's all-pervasive chiaroscuro of obscuring darkness and occasional flashes of light and discovery, reference to an equinox can scarcely be ignored. What choice does one have other than to surmise the suicide occurred on the equinox itself, one of two days in the year when the cosmic forces of light and darkness attain momentary equilibrium? If this is not the case, then mention of an equinox can be dismissed as superfluous, since it then serves no purpose. But, of course, this propitious date is vital to final understanding of the story, for it implies Friedrich has also achieved a harmony, a resolution of the good and evil forces within himself. Moreover, discovery of his corpse in broad daylight suggests Droste does not want his act to remain shrouded in the nocturnal forest darkness and ambiguity surrounding the deaths of Hermann Mergel, Brandis, and Aaron, but rather to “come to light.” On the level of symbolic metaphor his death appears to resolve both murders by providing personal atonement for himself and certainty for the reader that he did in fact take Aaron's life. It disperses, as it were, the unresolved structural and symbolic tension of night and day, concealment and revelation, upon which the narrator's inadequate perspective, and hence the story's apparent indeterminacies, depend. We may seem to be reading arbitrary meaning into an indeterminate ending, but such portent signs scarcely allow the reader any other construal, so strikingly do they contradict the Squire's final action.31

The tell-tale signs serve as an instrument of the author's irony, whereby she creates the ultimate indeterminacy, the discrepancy between fact and symbol, while simultaneously providing for its resolution by the careful reader. Quite clearly the reader must be willing to look beyond reported fact and read the signs against the apparent thrust of the work. He must be ready to disagree with the Squire's view and also with the non-committal attitude of the narrator and construe denial of Christian burial as the failure of the Squire and his society to grasp the possible deeper significance of Friedrich's death. By now this should not prove too difficult, for throughout the story the author has caused the reader to rely less and less upon the narrator. In the final section Droste has also established a gap in perspective between reader and Squire. The Squire condemns Friedrich because Christian law and social custom demand it. Yet with so many signs and additional information at his disposal, the reader feels compelled to supplement the narrative one last time by taking a more critical look at the broader societal context of Friedrich's crimes. He finds that the same society that produced Friedrich and nurtured his vanity and criminality, casts him from its fold, not for his crimes per se, crimes of which its members are also guilty in spirit, but rather for violating an article of religious and social conviction. But just how valid can such convictions be, when the society espousing them condones thievery, encourages ostentation of the village-dandy variety, and considers all Jews “Schelme” (889), “Hund[e]” (925), and “Schwein[e]” (918)? The practices of this society attest to the futility of its preachments. Whether or not Friedrich senses this, we cannot say, but the reader has good grounds for viewing the suicide as Friedrich's personal expiation and his (and Droste's!) ultimate rejection of that society.

Our discussion of the reader's role has shown Droste's story to be more than a timeless work of art fulfilling itself in aesthetic and philosophical commentary on the human condition. It is religious and social criticism of the first rank, and to a much greater degree than previously acknowledged by scholars.32 Contrary to Henel's assertion, the reader cannot only know, he must know, for full realization of Droste's social commentary depends upon the reader's ability to reconcile the contradiction between narrative indeterminacy and authorially manipulated context and thus discover what the opaque reality of the story conceals. This process of discovery accounts for much of the reader's pleasure upon reading, especially since his greater insights imply a superior vantage point and hence a feeling of superiority vis-à-vis both the narrator and the society depicted in the text. This accords with what Iser views as the dialectical structure of reading, a process of personal discovery occurring only after we have “outstripped our preconceptions and left the shelter of the familiar.”33 In Die Judenbuche new awareness accrues to the reader to the extent that he either criticizes or rejects the social and religious norms Droste's story questions. Certainly for Droste's contemporary reader, Freidrich's suicide is a case in point. Simply entertaining something other than carte blanche condemnation of Friedrich's death would have required conscious modification or rejection of the prevalent view of suicide as an exclusively evil act. Only by suspending his own convictions in something as crucial to social and religious convention as the taking of one's own life, could the reader overcome the myoptic perspective of contemporary Westphalian society, while simultaneously refuting the charge implied by the prefatory poem that he possibly shares such prejudices and morally distorted vision. In the ability to effect such a change in reader consciousness, however brief or small, lies the ultimate efficacy of Droste's masterpiece as an important document of social and religious criticism in the German Biedermeier.


  1. Droste's story first gained wide popularity in Paul Heyse's Novellenschatz of 1876. Between 1876 and 1932 eighty separate editions reached virtually every sector of the German reading public. From 1902 to 1916 the Wiesbadener Volksbücher edition alone underwent numerous printings with a total circulation of 110 thousand copies. Droste-Bibliographie, Veröffentlichungen der Annette von Droste-Gesellschaft, No. 2 (Münster: Aschendorffishe Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1932), pp. 46ff. The Reclam paperback edition, first published in 1884, now totals five million copies. Walter Hage, “Die Prosa der Droste im Urteil des 19. Jahrhunderts,” Kleine Beiträge zur Droste Forschung, 3 (1974-75), 63.

  2. Felix Heitmann speaks of “Übergehen der Höhepunkte” and concludes that Droste leaves it up to the reader “die spannenden Momente herauszufinden und zu deuten,” though he does not indicate how this is to be done. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff als Erzählerin: Realismus und Objektivität in der “Judenbuche” (Münster: Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1914), pp. 15f.

  3. The concept of indeterminacy in literature is as old as literary analysis itself. Although the terminus technicus indeterminacy (Unbestimmtheitsstelle) first occurs in writings by the Russian structuralists in the 1920's, its application to German literary theory apparently begins with Roman Ingarden's Das literarische Kunstwerk (1931), the second (1960) and third (1965) editions of which contain only minor alterations. In Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1968), Ingarden speaks of the literary text as a “schematisches Gebilde” (p. 49) replete with inevitable indeterminacies and hence with potential “concretisations” by readers. These many indeterminacies are predicated by the fact that it is impossible for a literary text to include all possible information about every person, destiny, thing etc. in a finite number of words and sentences. A text is necessarily selective. Thus for example, Thomas Mann does not mention the color of Consul Buddenbrook's eyes, nor Shakespeare the size of Julius Caesar's feet, though every reader naturally envisions the Consul as having eyes and the Roman Emperor with feet. Ingarden then distinguishes between such unimportant potential indeterminacies and those belonging to the style and metaphorical structure of a work and suggesting particular “correct” reader concretisations of the text. Wolfgang Iser refers to this second type when viewing indeterminacy as a narrative device prompting specific reader actualisation of a text: “Als Umschaltestelle funktioniert Unbestimmtheit insofern, als sie die Vorstellungen des Lesers zum Mitvollzug der im Text angelegten Intention aktiviert.” “Die Appellstruktur der Texte—Unbestimmtheit als Wirkungsbedingung literarischer Prosa,” in Rezeptionsästhetik: Theorie und Praxis, UTB 303, ed. Rainer Warning (Munich: Fink, 1975), p. 248. Iser's essay first appeared in the inaccessible Konstanzer Universitätsreden, No. 28, 1974. For our purposes, “indeterminacy” refers to conspicuous gaps or ambiguities contributing to the uncertainty behind events in the story and requiring resolution by the reader. It does not refer to several inconsequential factual inconsistencies noted by Heitmann, pp. 12ff.

  4. Wolfgang Iser considers the concept of “Entdeckung” an essential part of the reading process and a “Kategorie des ästhetischen Vergnügens.” Der implizite Leser: Kommunikationsformen des Romans von Bunyan bis Beckett, UTB 163 (Munich: Fink, 1972), p. 9. Much theoretical basis for our approach to Droste's story can be found in Iser's essay “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach” in The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), pp. 274-294. This essay appeared in English first in New Literary History, 3 (1972), 278-299, and is reprinted in an expanded German version in Warning's Rezeptionsästhetik, pp. 253-276.

  5. Heinrich Henel, “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Erzählstil und Wirklichkeit,” in Festschrift für Bernhard Blume, ed. Egon Schwarz, Hunter G. Hannum, and Edgar Lohner (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), pp. 146-169.

  6. Henel, p. 158.

  7. Clifford A. Bernd, “Clarity and Obscurity in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Judenbuche,” in Studies in German Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Festschrift for Frederic E. Coenan, ed. Siegfried Mews (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), pp. 64-77.

  8. Henel, p. 150.

  9. Clements Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Werk und Leben (Düsseldorf: August Bagel, 1971), p. 153.

  10. Heselhaus, p. 153.

  11. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Clemens Heselhaus (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1966), p. 882. I cite from this edition since it is both reliable and readily available. Subsequent page references from this edition appear parenthetically in the body of this article.

  12. This distinction between narrator and author has become a literary axiom for the immense body of twentieth-century American and European scholarship dealing with theories of the narrative. Hannelore Link reiterates the fundamental position when she remarks that “der Erzähler ist in keinem Fall der Autor, er ist, im Gegensatz zu diesem, immer textintern, eine Figur, und als solche, wie die Personen der erzählten Geschichte, ein Geschöpf des Autors.” She then cites “Die Judenbuche” as her next example! Rezeptionsforschung: Eine Einführung in Methoden und Probleme, Urban-Taschenbücher Reihe 80, (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1976), p. 19. For the most part, Droste scholars ignore this distinction. Heselhaus, for example, uses “Dichterin,” “Autorin,” and “Erzählerin” indiscriminately (p. 148). Lore Hoffman makes such a distinction, but she continually refers to the “Erzählerin,” though nothing in the text indicates the narrator is a woman. “Studie zum Erzählstil der ‘Judenbuche’,” Jahrbuch der Droste-Gesellschaft, 2 (1948-1950), 137-147. In Droste's case caution is in order. In her poem “Der Hünenstein” one assumes the frightened Ich experiencing hallucinations on the heath to be a woman, only to discover at the end that it is a man.

  13. Heinz Rölleke provides extensive commentary on the story's background and genesis. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Die Judenbuche, Commentatio: Analysen and Kommentare zur deutschen Literatur, No. 1, ed. Wolfgang Frühwald (Bad Homburg: Gehlen, 1970), pp. 87-136.

  14. Henel notes this narrative inconsistency and offers an ingenious solution true to his thesis that the story is about man's inability to know. He finds the narrator occasionally viewing events from the author's perspective. But since even then things remain unexplained, the author's perspective proves inadequate for understanding things which must remain not only “unaufgeklärt” but also “unerklärlich” (Henel, pp. 154ff.). Henel, of course, fails to maintain the distinction between author and narrator.

  15. James M. McGlathery, “Fear of Perdition in Droste-Hülshoff's ‘Judenbuche’,” in Lebendige Form: Interpretationen zur deutschen Literatur; Festschrift für Heinrich E. K. Henel, ed. Jeffrey Sammons and Ernst Schürer (Munich: Fink, 1970), pp. 238ff.

  16. This may belabour the obvious, yet some critics have entertained other explanations. McGlathery even conjectures that Brandis may be protecting the Blaukittel and receiving money from them, pp. 233ff.

  17. Lore Hoffmann distinguishes between factual and poetic levels and finds what is hidden from the reader on the factual level to be given to him, or at least strongly suggested, on the poetic level, so that the reader remains in a state of “wissende[r] Unwissenheit,” p. 141.

  18. Heselhaus, p. 157.

  19. See Wayne C. Booth's discussion of unreliable narrators, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 339ff. and Iser, “The Reading Process,” pp. 289ff.

  20. McGlathery, 24lff; Winfried Freund, “Der Mörder des Juden Aaron: Zur Problematik von Annette von Droste-Hülshoffs Erzählung ‘Die Judenbuche’,” Wirkendes Wort, 19 (1969), 244-253.

  21. Letter to her sister of June 30, 1841. Quoted from Heselhaus, p. 153.

  22. Henel, p. 158.

  23. This bears out Iser's contention that upon second reading we not only understand more, we understand differently, though nothing has been formulated any differently in the text. “Die Appellstruktur der Texte,” Rezeptionsästhetik, pp. 235f.; “The Reading Process,” pp. 280f.

  24. Benno von Wiese considers the beech with inscription the central symbol of the story, a mythical tree with a magic inscription. Die deutsche Novelle von Goethe bis Kafka (Düsseldorf: August Bagel, 1962), pp. 170ff. Rolf Allerdissen shares von Wiese's view that the inscription refers not only to Aaron's death but also to the violation of nature (indiscriminate pillaging of the forests by the wood thieves) as symbolized by the beech. “‘Judenbuche’ und ‘Patriarch’: Der Baum des Gerichts bei Annette von Droste-Hülshoff und Charles Sealsfield,” in Herkommen und Erneuerung: Essays für Oskar Seidlin, ed. Gerald Gillespie and Edgar Lohner (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1976), pp. 211f. Allerdissen justifiably rejects von Wiese's designation “Baum des Bösen” because trees are supposedly neither good nor evil per se. Yet I question Allerdissen's assertion that Friedrich falls victim to the “Rache der Natur” (p. 212), since in actuality—and in Droste's story—nature possesses neither feelings nor emotions and hence cannot avenge itself. Man simply imbues nature with his own perceptions and anxieties. The inscription is not magical; nor does it draw Friedrich back to the spot of the crime and precipitate his suicide. After all, he is most likely unaware of the inscription, and even if he did discover it, he would have been unable to decipher its Hebraic message. Both Allerdissen and von Wiese neglect to distinguish carefully between causality and symbolic allusion, between fact and metaphor. The inscription does not belong to the causal chain of events; it is merely a poetic sign assisting the reader in establishing Friedrich's identity and sensing the symbolic implications of his death.

  25. Henel, pp. 157ff.

  26. For some critics not even this is a certainty. Henel wonders whether one can speak of suicide, since the body hangs higher up in the tree than a decrepit old man probably could have gotten by himself. He conjectures that members of the Jewish community may have discovered his identity and strung him up in retaliation for Aaron's death. Henel's conjecture makes no allowance for low-hanging branches, a possibility supported by the difficulty first Brandis' son and later the Squire experience trying to spot the body suspended and half-hidden “in der Judenbuche” (935—my emphasis).

  27. Rölleke, for example, writes: “Friedrich hat keinen Anteil an der christlichen Gnade … Es verbleibt allein der nur durch den Tod auslöschbare Rachespruch Jehovas in seiner ganzen im zweifachen Sinn un-menschlichen Strenge, unerbittlich Blut für Blut fordernd.” “Erzähltes Mysterium: Studie zur ‘Judenbuche’ der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift, 42 (1968), 420ff. See also von Wiese, pp. 170f.; Allerdissen, p. 213.

  28. Paul Ernst sensed this possibility half a century ago: “sie hat es hier mit großer Kunst verstanden, die Notwendigkeit einer Darstellung der Gewissenskämpfe zu vermeiden, mit solcher Kunst, daß wir überhaupt nichts von ihnen ahnen, bis wir am Schluß erfahren: der Selbstmörder war Mergel, nicht sein Doppelgänger, und rückschauend denken: welche Qualen muß der Mensch ausgestanden haben, hier, da und da, von denen wir nichts gewußt haben, als wir die Stellen lasen.” Der Weg zur Form: Abhandlung über die Technik vornehmlich der Tragödie und Novelle (Munich: Georg Müller, 1928), p. 89. More recently, Kent Tiffany has equated the homecoming and eventual outcome with possible spiritual rebirth and atonement. Droste-Hülshoff: Die Judenbuche (Waltham: Blaisdell, 1970), pp. xxi-xxii. The splendid insights of both Ernst and Tiffany have gone unheeded by Droste scholarship.

  29. Under the Carolina, the legal code in eighteenth-century Westphalia, evidence would have proven insufficient for convicting Friedrich. Janet K. King, “Conscience and Conviction in ‘Die Judenbuche’,” Monatshefte, 64, No. 4 (1972), 349-355. King cites the failure to adhere to one's convictions as the main moral fault in the story, but she fails to see that in the end Friedrich does obey the dictates of his conscience.

  30. The Odyssey, Book Nine. Gerard Oppermann's study, “Die Narbe des Friedrich Mergel: Zur Aufklärung eines literarischen Motivs in Annette von Droste-Hülshoffs Die Judenbuche,Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift, 50 (1976), 449-464, appeared after completion of this article. Although Oppermann discusses the Ulysses reference in terms of the story's structure and draws the mythic inference, he overlooks the fact that Ulysses was the first Nobody and hence fails to grasp the full potential of this motif. Otherwise, I concur with his conclusions. For more on Niemand, his relationship to Friedrich-Everyman, and Droste's possible sources for the name and motif see Larry D. Wells, “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Johannes Niemand: Much Ado About Nobody,” Germanic Review, 52, No. 2 (1977), 109-121.

  31. Given the intellectual and emotional climate, it would be surprising if Droste had not at least suggested an alternative view of Friedrich's suicide. In the first half of the nineteenth century suicide was not just a frequent literary motif—see for example Mörike's Maler Nolten, Vischer's Ein Traum, Kerner's Die Heimatlosen—; for many it was a way of life (and death). By 1842 the suicide craze engendered by Goethe's Werther (1774) and nourished by a fashionable German Weltschmerz tradition had grown to epidemic proportions in Europe. Friedrich Sengle, Biedermeierzeit: Deutsche Literatur im Spannungsfeld zwischen Restauration and Revolution 1815-1848, I (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1971), 221-238.

  32. Critics have noted that Friedrich's death occurs one year before the French Revolution and the overthrow of the ancien regime. Only recently has someone drawn provocative socio-political conclusions from this fact. Betty Nance Weber, “Droste's Judenbuche: Westphalia in International Context,” Germanic Review, 50, No. 3 (1975), 203-212.

  33. “The Reading Process,” p. 290.

Mary Morgan (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10952

SOURCE: Morgan, Mary. “The Great Achievement.” In Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: A Woman of Letters in a Period of Transition, pp. 183-218. Berne: Peter Lang, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Morgan concludes her study of Droste-Hülshoff's career with her later works, including Der Spiritus familiaris des Rosstäuschers and the Heidebilder poems. Morgan draws frequent parallels between Droste-Hülshoff and English Romantic poets to illustrate the German author's position in literary history.]


Late in the year 1842, after the publication of Die Judenbuche, Annette wrote to Schücking:

Ich habe soeben ein grösseres Gedicht beendigt von ohngefähr 600-700 Versen, “Der Spiritus familiaris des Rosstäuschers”, sieben Abteilungen, eine Grimmsche Sage zum Grunde; sie gefällt sehr.1

Commentators have had some difficulty in determining the Gattung of this exceptional work; the Winkler editors seem to favour its classification as ‘balladenhaftes Versepos’.2 This is one reason why I have not dealt with the poem either in the chapter on the Epics or in that on the Ballads, a second and more cogent reason being that it seems to me to belong to the highest achievements of Annette's mature years and so more fittingly discussed with Die Judenbuche and the Heidebilder.

We have several times stressed the fact that Annette has ‘eine ursprüngliche und innere Verwandtschaft’ with the English Lake Poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, always considered as ‘Frühromantiker’,3 who set before themselves a ‘realistic’ programme, namely, to seek for truth in

den Dingen der Natur und im Kern des menschlichen Herzens

—the latter especially in the hearts of simple people, peasants who live close to Nature.4

Josefine Nettesheim draws parallels between the Spiritus familiaris des Rosstäuschers and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, noting the Catholic atmosphere of both poems; though in the case of Coleridge it is the ‘Romantic-mediaeval’ revival, sensitively felt as ‘poetic’, like Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, while with the Droste there is the depth of genuine faith, although we know from other sources that she was not superstitious, inclined rather to scepticism, but only of all that she found unacceptable to her own spirit in the practices of some of her co-religionists. The central figure, the Horse-dealer, is a simple man of the people,5 like Coleridge's old sailor:

Stellen wir uns den greisen Rosstäuscher vor, wie er als Bettler im Lande umherzieht, beladen mit dem Schicksal seines Lebens, so haben wir die Gestalt des durch sein Schicksal zum Vagabunden gewordenen alten Matrosen in der Coleridge-Ballade, die den Gipfel der englischen Frühromantik darstellt.6

Nettesheim refers to the realistic details in the Ancient Mariner: description of the ice-bergs, the terrible experience of thirst, the foul creatures of the sea. Annette, too, has these realistic details: the steam rising from the limbs of the dying horse, the description of the Tempter—not a grotesque fantasy, but sinister in his very ordinariness, a common elderly carter, only mysterious in his sudden, opportune appearance and the lightning flash of his grey-lashed eyes. In both poems there are wonderful evocative passages—Coleridge's are more colourful; as often, Annette's pictures are cold, bathed in moonlight, or, in the account of the Horse-dealer's visit to the forest pool, deliberately repellent. Only once does she catch something of the English poet's delight in the moon's beauty:

Softly she was going up
And a star or two beside …

in the simple yet grand lines:

Und in der Fensterscheibe steht
Des Mondes bleiche Majestät.

Had Annette read The Ancient Mariner in 1842? Surely she must have done, considering Schücking's admiration for Coleridge. There seems to be one clear echo in her poem. Coleridge, describing the beautiful and ‘happy’ water-snakes that moved the Ancient Mariner to utter a pious and grateful prayer, breaking the evil spell which bound him, says:

… And when they rear'd, the elfish light
                    Fell off in hoary flakes.
… They coil'd and swam; and every track
                    Was a flash of golden fire.

Annette thus describes a sunbeam penetrating the forest and falling on the head of the Horse-dealer:

Durch das Gezweig ein Sonnenstrahl
          bohrt in des Horchers Scheitellocke,
Die aus dem dunklen Wulste glimmt
          wie Seegewurmes Feuerflocke.

Summing up, J. Nettesheim declares that The Ancient Mariner is not so successful as the Spiritus familiaris:

Der Spuk … wird trotz aller Realistik nicht glaubwürdig.. Die religiösen Gestalten wachsen, soweit sie christlich sind, nicht aus der lebendigen christlichen Gläubigkeit hervor, sondern sind, wie am Schluss von Goethes “Faust”, ein blosser Apparat. Das Hin und Her zwischen mythischen und Glaubensgestalten wirkt anorganisch.

Nettesheim does not explain how this comes about. I would suggest: The old sailors' superstition, that to kill an albatross is unlucky, is made into an enormous crime, for which the Mariner must do exaggerated penance. The central idea affords that link between Nature and religion spoken of earlier in the article by J. Nettesheim that we have been considering, and it expresses a ‘Christian’ value:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all—

but the example given seems clumsy and exaggerated by Christian standards. (This is not to derogate, of course, from the magical language of the poet in so many passages; though he can also be as banal as the worst of Wordsworth at times).

The Spirit …
(that) loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow,

and that Spirit's revenge, is mythology invented by Coleridge. Annette's Spiritus familiaris, on the other hand, is right in the old folklorist tradition of a man who accepts help from the Devil and imperils his soul.

She prefaces her poem with a long prose extract from the Deutsche Sagen published by the Brothers Grimm, relating to the popular superstition of the spiritus familiaris or ‘Galgenmännlein’, with the intent, surely, of inviting the reader to share the attitude of the erudite and enlightened in their researches into folklore, and henceforward to suspend disbelief, in order to appreciate the spirit of the poem that follows—and, of course, the lesson to be learned from it. The spirit of the poem, if we omit the implications of the Preface, is that of the Volksglauben in den Pyrenäen. Schneider sees the Preface as all-important for an adequate understanding of the poem:

Die Vorlage, die Grimmsche Sage … hat … nicht nur wichtige Konsequenzen für die Erzählform (Entlastung des Erzählers) und das intellektuelle Niveau des Textes (das sich der naiven Theologie der Volkssage bewusst und vorbehaltlos anpasst), es legt auch den allegoresehaften Charakter dieser Verserzählung fest.7

The whole poem, in short, may be taken as a ‘Sinnbild’.

So this work has its roots in what particularly fascinated the Romantics—can be compared in many respects, as J. Nettesheim has shown, with a great poem by an English Romantic—but in the treatment of the theme Annette shows complete originality. As in ‘Der Knabe im Moor’, she presents the ancient elemental fears of her countrymen in a ‘modern’ setting (i. e. with a background consciousness that this is folklore in an ‘enlightened’ age), and with realistic sensory detail; but here she goes beyond a mere simple narrative (although ‘Der Knabe im Moor’ has an underlying, particular Weltanschauung too): the whole story may be taken as an allegorical presentation of the Christian doctrine of grace.

As we have seen, recent Droste-Forschung has decided to classify this poem as a ‘balladenhaftes Versepos’. Schneider suggests ‘legendenhafte Verserzählung’.8 It is another example of the ‘mixed form’, the ‘Zwitterding’ censured by Emil Staiger9 but which has not disturbed more recent critics. The stanza and verse forms are quite original—Schneider10 sees some resemblance to the strophe of the Nibelungen saga, Heselhaus11 thinks it partly inspired by Freiligrath—the fact is that it has no exact counterpart in any previous literature. It is a particularly useful form of narrative verse: the long, eight-foot lines approximate to prose, and the four-foot rhyming couplet at the close of each stanza has an epigrammatic ring which is often used with great effect.

The entire construction of the poem is unlike any other ballad or narrative poem that Annette had produced so far. The opening is surprising: we are plunged into the middle of a situation without being told immediately who ‘er’ is, or what bad luck had dogged his footsteps so that all his honest work had been in vain. Gradually the story unfolds by means of a series of visual presentations: the Horse-dealer kneeling in the cold stable by his last, dying horse; the appearance of the Stranger, in homely and familiar garb,12 but with mysterious proposals as to how the Rosstäuscher may change his luck; then the empty stable in the moonlight, where the hay in the rack looks like touselled hair and the flickering lantern light is playing over the limbs of the dead horse. Each staga of the story is presented thus, in a series of vivid, sensory impressions,13 quite unlike the flowing, connected narrative of Coleridge's poem,14 or even her own earlier epics and ballads (allowing for the enigmatic lacunae of ‘Des Arztes Vermächtnis’). This impressionism had already appeared in the Heidebilder and was also used in Die Judenbuche, as we have already seen.

Realistic detail goes to the making of each one of these pictures. Coleridge, and in fact all of the English Romantics employ a detailed realism, especially in careful, loving description of Nature or vivid sense impressions: Coleridge's ‘one red leaf, the last of its clan’ (Christabel), Keats's ‘moss'd cottage trees’ (Ode to Autumn), and so many more. Mainly, however, these are details of beauty and delight; more rarely are the sights and sounds and scents and tactile impressions ugly and sordid. Coleridge indeed has his ‘slimy things’ which ‘did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea’, and Keats, the passionate lover of Beauty, is not afraid to describe the long-buried head of the murdered Lorenzo:

The thing was vile with green and livid spot,
And yet they knew it was Lorenzo's face.

(Isabella or The Pot of Basil)

These, however, are exceptions; and even in satiric poems, like Byron's Don Juan or Tieck's Der gestiefelte Kater, the Romantics avoided the scurrility of the previous century. In the Spiritus familiaris, perhaps in keeping with its dark and sinister theme, Annette has few passages that are evocative of beauty or grandeur, the lines about the moon already cited are one example; in the next scene or canto she has another:

Kein Wölkchen hängt am Riesenbau
          der dunklen Saphirkuppel droben,

with here a suggestion of colour (‘Saphirkuppel’) in a scene mostly composed of black, white and grey, palely illuminated by the moon or by the doubtful yellow of a flickering lantern. But she does not shrink from another kind of realism—the physically revolting. The German Romantics did not mind horror—‘Schauer’—but evil smells coupled with evil sights are rare with them. Annette's description of the ‘Kolkes Tintenbecken’ is the very antithesis of Coleridge's graceful water-snakes:

Ein wüster Kübel, wie getränkt
          mit schweflichen Asphaltes Jauche,
Langbeinig füsselnd Larvenvolk
          regt sich in Fadenschlamm und Lauche,
Und faule Spiegel, blau und grün,
Wie Regenbogen drüber ziehn.

More horrific still is the ‘dunkler Fleck, / vom Riesenauge, die Pupille’ in the midst of the pool, and the account of the drowned child lying deep below among the water weeds

Wo Egel sich und Kanker jetzt
An seinen bleichen Gliedchen letzt.

Not only do the descriptive passages show a close observation of the least sights and sounds of Nature, Annette's similes and metaphors in this poem are sometimes startlingly original and earthily realistic:

Tief tiefe Nacht, am Schreine nur
          der Maus geheimes Nagen rüttelt,
Der Horizont ein rinnend Sieb
          aus dem sich Kohlenstaub entschüttelt …

And (at the first turning to God of the Horse-dealer):

                                                                                          … glüh
          fühlt ers durch die Phiole ranken,
Die seinem Leibe angetraut
          wie nagend Krebsgeschwür dem Kranken.

It is this kind of realism (a multiplication and intensification of the scattered passages in English Romantic literature, of which two examples only have here been given) that makes Annette in some respects a forerunner of the Realists, of the Naturalists even; the latter were reproached for their over-stressing of the ugly, sordid and revolting side of life, a view, it was claimed, as one-sided as the idealistic or romantic outlook that they were striving to correct. But Annette's work as a whole has not this one-sidedness, although one's general impression of her through her work is of a sad, though not hopeless, cast of mind. In the poem under discussion, to offset the physical ugliness of the fourth ‘scene’ and the eerie horror of the whispering, scratching ‘Spiritus’ in the phial, there is a deep, human pity (which involves the reader) for the unfortunate and repentant Horse-dealer, unable to be rid of his incubus and avoided by his fellow-men. (Similarly the Ancient Mariner was cursed by his dying shipmates and had the corpse of the Albatross literally hung about his neck). Through an act of his own will, going out to meet the mercy of God, the Horse-dealer finally breaks the phial and banishes the demon by means of a nail from Christ's cross preserved in a shrine, to which he forces himself to go. His worldly good fortune deserts him at once; he is reduced to beggary, but finds his salvation at the moment of death—on Silvester Night, on the same spot where he had formerly bartered his soul.

Heselhaus15 has a fine analysis of this poem, whose realism he rightly stresses, pointing out also that the authoress uses the symbolism of an ancient tradition and Romantic theme to convey a theological and Christian truth, and that thus the realism of this poem is much more complex than is generally understood by the term. The ‘happy ending’ is itself ambiguous and far from the usual satisfactory ‘Biedermeier’ conclusion, Heselhaus thinks. For he suggests that the ‘sign of grace’ might be taken as a hallucination of a dying man. In view, however, of the complete lack of irony shown by the poetess in the final scene, and particularly in the two concluding lines, it seems much more likely that she intended the poem as a Christian affirmation of the power of grace, and that it is with justification that some commentators have set it over against the negative and ‘Old Testament’ conclusion of Die Judenbuche.16

To sum up, then: In this last ballad (or ‘balladenhaftes Versepos’ etc.) a subtle change has come over the authoress's technique. ‘Das Erdichtete, Geträumte und Phantastische’ is used as ‘Einkleidung’ (good ‘Biedermeier’ practice,17 but practised with what mastery!) for what she sees as the heart of Christian philosophy and truth. Without her earlier, genuinely ‘Romantic’ phase and the ‘discipline’ of further reading, study and work in collaboration with Levin Schücking, who was in touch with the latest trends in literature, and above all, the maturation of her own thought, this original achievement would not have been possible.


The twelve poems entitled ‘Heidebilder’ in the 1844 edition were all written, strangely enough, in Meersburg between October 1841 and July 1842. Perhaps the distance from her native heath (and the presence of Levin, with his Westphalian tongue and sympathy) enabled Annette to focus and clarify her ideas about that beloved landscape, existing now only in her verse and her prose; for the countryside around Schloss Hülshoff and the Rüschhaus today—well-drained fields and the out-creeping suburbs of Münster—is scarcely recognisable as that described in the Heidebilder and the Westfälische Schilderungen.

Nature is God's creation, God's book, as opposed to the dead learning of ‘the Schools’, Annette had found in the winter of 1841, when she wrote ‘Die Schulen’, contradicting her own desperation in that sad year 1820, when she could say:

Ich habe dich in der Natur gesucht,
Und weltlich Wissen war die eitle Frucht.

Das Geistliche Jahr: Am 1. Sonntag nach hl. drei Könige.

Nature is God's book then, but not the admonitory moral influence, the Presence, almost the Personality, that the young Wordworth sensed in his early adventures, described in The Prelude. Nature in itself is, rather, neutral, indifferent, as it is for Victor Hugo; it is human beings who endow it with Stimmung, who people it with unknown terrors, ghosts and demons. This was Annette's cool and rational view, the view which prevails finally in ‘Der Hünenstein’ and ‘Die Mergelgrube’, but through her imaginative power and her Westphalian blood, disposing her to a subtle sympathy with the moods and beliefs of her countrymen, she was able to identify with them as closely as Keats with his Sparrow picking about the gravel. So it is that she seems momentarily carried away—and the reader is, too—by the fears of supernatural horrors of the Boy on the Moor:

Vom Ufer starret Gestumpf hervor,
Unheimlich nicket die Föhre,
Der Knabe rennt, gespannt das Ohr,
Durch Riesenhalme wie Speere;
Und wie es rieselt und knittert darin!
Das ist die unselige Spinnerin,
Das ist die gebannte Spinnlenor'
Die den Haspel dreht im Gerühre!

‘Der Knabe im Moor’18

This identification, and (in this case) the resulting authentic Schauer, is consequent on that receptivity which is the predisposition to all her finest works.

Although ‘Der Knabe im Moor’ seems very different at first from the tendentious satire of many of the Zeitbilder, yet the same values subsist in it. Fears and dangers, whether real or imaginary, are dispelled by the cheering lamp that symbolizes the good Christian home and all that it stands for. Sengle19 sees in this poem a perfect example of the Biedermeier attitude to the ‘Schauerromantik’ and of Annette's skill in the ‘Modernisierung’ of the earlier genre.

The same mood prevails in ‘Der Heidemann’. Annette noted with some care that in this poem it is

nicht das bekannte Gespenst, sondern die Nebelschicht, die sich zur Herbst- und Frühlingszeit abends über den Heidegrund legt.20

Yet the fear of the Mother21 seems to be more than that the children should go astray or catch an illness in the rising mist; personified evil, of a supernatural character, seems to be dreaded, and the poetess shares that dread when she writes of how

Mit Hünenschritten gleitets fort

and again

Und plötzlich scheint ein schwaches Glühen
Des Hünen Glieder zu durchziehen.

When this is set beside ‘Der Hünenstein’ and we compare the near-panic of the imaginative visitor to the ancient grave, when he thinks he sees the pagan giant looming down upon him, and uses words so like those in ‘Der Heidemann’:

Schau, wie es durch der Eiche Wipfel glitt,
Durch seine Glieder zittern Mondenschimmer,

we are compelled to disbelievs the rational Annette and her gloss: ‘Der Heidemann’ was surely also ‘das bekannte Gespenst’. But the very ambiguity of the poem adds to its eerie atmosphere. That atmosphere is deliberately dispelled in ‘Der Hünenstein’ by the touch of bathos at the end, when the servant appears with the gentleman's umbrella, restoring him to the sanity of the everyday world. The shepherd in ‘Die Mergelgrube’ performs the same function.

Lotte Köhler rightly declares the Heidebilder to be a milestone in German poetry by reason of their celebration of bog-moor and heathland:

Die Romantik hatte Täler und Höhen besungen, den Rheinstrom und vor allem den Wald.22

Heselhaus23 likewise draws attention to Annette's originality in writing of the Westphalian Heide, a different landscape from Lenau's ‘Grünheide’ or Shakespeare's desolate heath. It is not merely scenery or background for ballads or human ‘Stimmung’; it not only provides in itself lyrical subjects (‘Der Weiher’), but is also closely bound up with human history (‘Die Krähen’) and speculations, discoveries and beliefs reaching back to pre-history (‘Die Mergelgrube’, ‘Der Hünenstein’). Wolfgang Kayser24 points out that Annette's ghosts are local ones (unlike Goethe's Erlkönig, taken from Northern mythology), bound to haunt the eerie moorland where they sinned and suffered in their mortal bodies. (The same belief in a ‘local haunting’ runs through Die Judenbuche).

The whole of Annette's Westphalian oeuvre is a remarkable contribution to the ‘Heimatkunst’, or regional art, then becoming widespread, and popularized somewhat later in the works of Keller and Stifter. Sengle25 writes:

Menschen ohne Heimatgefühl sind für die Westfalen Freiligrath und Schücking “arme Kosmopolitanen mit einem armen Surrogatgotte, dem Pan!” (Malerische und romantische Westfalen, Münster, 1842).26 Das ist nicht nur eine Absage an den polizeiwidrigen Pantheismus, sondern entspricht der Heiligung der Heimat, um die sich die Biedermeierkultur in allen deutschen Landschaften bemüht.

Lotte Köhler compares Annette's ‘dämonische’ Nature-poems with Mörike's elfin ones; the latter, for all their charm, have lost much of their elemental daemonic force. She also claims as something new Annette's description of minutiae in Nature: ‘der Fall der Beere’ (‘Die Jagd’). It was not new in English poetry: again we may see affinity with, if not the influence of, the English Romantics, with Coleridge's

… one red leaf, the last of its clan …


and with the neo-Romantic Tennyson's

The last red leaf is whirl'd away,
The rooks are blown about the skies,


… only through the faded leaf
The chestnut patters to the ground.

(In Memoriam)

What is original now is her bold use of any means -pictorial and auditory impressions, metaphors drawn from her wealth of acquired learning, homely and humble everyday experiences, folklore, etc.—to heighten her effects.

In ‘Das Hirtenfeuer’ the visual and auditory effects are particularly telling:

Hei, wie die Buben johlen,
Und mit den Fingern schnippen
Die Funken-Girandolen!
Wie ihre Zipfelmützen
Am Ohre lustig flattern,
Und wie die Nadeln spritzen,
Und wie die Aeste knattern.

A picture is intensified by a comparison: the young shepherd boys

                    spähn wie junge Geier
Von ihrer Ginsterschütte.

A commonplace action is not shunned:

Sie räuspern ihre Kehlen—

before breaking into the old shepherds' folk-song with its echoing

Helo, heloe!

Annette introduced two stanzas of a victorious hunting song at the culmination of the chase after the fox in ‘Die Jagd’ This both heightens the excitement and realism of the poem and intensifies the feeling for the life of the country people she knew so well.27 At the end of the last stanza of the song, which concludes the poem, two unrhymed lines are added, like the broken-off exultant shout of the huntsman as he deals with the dead quarry:

“Hängt den Schelm! hängt den Schelm!
Hängt ihn an die Weide,
Mir den Balg und dir den Talg,
Dann lachen wir alle beide.
Hängt ihn! Hängt ihn!
Den Schelm, den Schelm!—”

The folk-song (which she herself set to music) in ‘Die Mergelgrube’, sung by the knitting shepherd who rouses the dreamer in the loam pit from his macabre reflections, has the effect of changing the mood of the poem, of lightening it by way of the homely love-song, in preparation for the humorous contrast at the end, of peasant wisdom—or ignorance?—with informed culture. And once again, in ‘Die Schmiede’,28 the fresh song of the Huntsman affords a contrast with the grim and fiery scene in the smithy.

This introduction of folk-songs, in a different metre from that of the main poem, was popularized by the Romantics, who, however, generally favoured a mixture of prose and verse, as in many of Tieck's tales, and above all in Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen, following Goethe's practice, too, in Wilhelm Meister. But Scott's long narrative poems with songs introduced certainly offered Annette a precedent; she had already adopted this practice in her early Rittergedicht, Walther.29

A classical reference is introduced perfectly fittingly in ‘Der Heidemann’—by the narrator, not, of course, into the words of the Mother, presumably a cottage dweller—when the shepherds driving their flocks through the swirling mists on the moor are compared to Proteus driving his swimming herd of seals through the ocean. ‘Die Schmiede’ abounds in classical reminiscences, called up by the classical scene of the smith (of the ‘russigen Zyklopen’) at work. The poem, constructed with care,30 begins and ends with the old apple tree that leans over the smithy amid a rain of sparks from the forge and blossoms, inspiring the final rhetorical question from one familiar with Roman mythology:

Will Pluto hier am Blütenrain
Proserpina entführen?

Historic echoes are awakened through the Westphalian landscape in ‘Die Krähen’: the Thirty Years' War, mediaeval times and the far-off mythology of ‘Walhall’ and ‘Teut und Thor’. And in that remarkable poem, ‘Die Mergelgrube’,31 her poet's eye penetrates even below the surface of the earth and discovers fantastic and evocative beauty in crumbling clods and mineral fragments. As she broods on pre-history, Annette even forestalls the speculations of modern ‘science fiction’ writers with her picture of a future, desolate and burnt-out planet gazed upon by the last man on earth:

                                                  … die Natur
Schien mir verödet, und ein Bild entstand
Von einer Erde, mürbe, ausgebrannt;
Ich selber schien ein Funken mir, der doch
Erzittert in der toten Asche noch,
Ein Findling in zerfallnen Weltenbau.
Die Wolke teilte sich, der Wind war lau;
Mein Haupt nicht wagt ich aus dem Hohl zu strecken,
Um nicht zu schauen der Verödung Schrecken,
Wie Neues quoll und Altes sich zersetzte—
War ich der erste Mensch oder der letzte?

Although literary references occur fairly frequently in this group of poems—her reading formed part of Annette's everyday thought-process—the tendency is ever towards immediate realistic effects drawn from experience, rather than a falling-back on literary devices; similes and metaphors justify themselves by their aptness:

… Und die Heide steht im Lichte
Zahllos blanke Tropfen, die
Am Wacholder zittern, wie
Glasgehänge an dem Lüster.

‘Die Vogelhütte’

Probably this was why Heselhaus felt that ‘Die Lerche’ was out of place among the Heidebilder and so excluded it from his arrangement in the 1954 and 1966 editions. It was placed first of this group in the 1844 volume (and in the latest Winkler edition), though probably written last, in the summer of 1842. Charming as it is, it reads like a literary exercise in the rococo style—a poem of the Fancy, Wordsworth would call it—a sustained metaphor comparing the sun's rising to the grand levee of a Princess of the ancien régime. Annette and Schükking both seem to have considered it worth giving first place among the Heidebilder.

The short poem ‘Die Steppe’ is also a sustained metaphor, but treated with remarkable originality. In a sort of double vision, the poetess gazes out over the sand-dunes of the moorland and sees the latter simultaneously as a sea-scape: a distant shepherd becames a corsair

Im flatternden Kaftane,

a giant fir-tree is the mast of a ship and, in a second comparison with a spindle she uses a pure Westphalian expression:

Von seines Toppes Kunkel
Die Seile stramm wie Aeste,
Der Mastkorb, rauh und dunkel,
Gleicht einem Weiherneste!

It is to be noted that, although Annette frequently used odd provincial words or expressions, she never wrote in the dialect which she knew perfectly from earliest childhood.

In ‘Der Weiher’ perhaps the most musical as well as the most picturesque of her shorter poem-cycles, the metaphorical language tends to an unusual humanizing of natural phenomena; the Pond itself is asleep, lulled by the Reeds; the strands of water-weed speak in a strange figurative language that is also sensuous:

… des Teiches Blutverwandte, fest
Hält er all uns an die Brust gepresst,
Und wir bohren unsre feinen Ranken
In das Herz ihm, wie ein liebend Weib,
Dringen Adern gleich durch seinen Leib,
Dämmern auf wie seines Traums Gedanken.

Heselhaus32 drawa attention to the interesting mixture of styles, the astonishing variety (Schneider33 speaks of ‘Vieltönigkeit’) in the Heidebilder, and notes the new ‘strophenlose’ verses (‘Der Weiher’, ‘Die Jagd’, parts of ‘Das Hirtenfeuer’, ‘Die Mergelgrube’, parts of ‘Die Vogelhütte’). In these, sense determines the divisions, like paragraphs in prose. It is suggested that she was inspired by the similar practice of Mörike and Feodor Löwe, writing in Cotta's Morgenblatt in January and February, 1842. Mörike's Waldplage and Löwe's Auf der Jagd are ‘strophenlose’ poems. This free style contributes to the naturalness of the language and gives an impression of flowing ease, clarity and simplicity.

We may notice finally that here Annette's pictures have become much more full of light and colour, contrasting with the black, white and grey scenes of the epics and some of the ballads (‘Der Fundator’ and the Spiritus familiaris des Rosstäuschers, for example). ‘Die Vogelhütte’ is an uneven work on the whole—partly humorous, sometimes unfortunately banal—but these lines from the poem, with their sparkle and brilliance, make one think of a French impressionist painting:

Durch den Sand des Pfades eilend
Blitzt das goldne Panzerhemd
Des Kuriers; am Halme weilend
Streicht die Grille sich das Nass
Von der Flügel grünem Glas.
Grashalm glänzt wie eine Klinge
Und die kleinen Schmetterlinge
Blau, orange, gelb und weiss,
Jagen tummelnd sich im Kreis.
Alles Schimmer, alles Licht;
Bergwald mag und Welle nicht
Solche Farbentöne hegen
Wie die Heide nach dem Regen.

And ‘Das Haus in der Heide’ is a Westphalian version of a mediaeval illuminated manuscript.

The Heidebilder are Annette's happiest achievement, for the Schauer is no more than passing in every case, although it is in the Heidebilder that Annette expresses, in two admirable lines, the very essence of the morbid excesses of the Schauerromantik:

Wollüstig saugend an des Grauens Süsse
Bis es mit eis'gen Krallen mich gepackt.

‘Der Hünenstein’

This happiness and vitality make the Heidebilder favourite poems for inclusion in school books and popular anthologies today.

It is difficult to do justice to the work in a limited space. Each one of the Heidebilder deserves separate, detailed commentary; and in fact most have been well served in this way by expert critics. But their great merit for the ordinary reader is that they are readily appreciated: poet and reader communicate with a certain ease, and yet they are not banal (except for one or two passing moments); they stimulate the mind and imagination and offer a heightened experience, which is one of the chief ends and chief delights of reading or hearing poetry.


The same difficulty arises when we approach the study of other later lyrics, written at the same time or after the Heidebilder (1841-45). Nearly every one deserves a separate commentary, and different critics and anthology-compilers etc. have produced a fairly useful amount of literature on these poems to date.

They fall into one or two clear categories. There are first of all apparently straightforward descriptive poems like many of the Heidebilder and presented in much the same manner. Such are: ‘Das öde Haus’, ‘Das alte Schloss’, and ‘Am Bodensee’. Even in these, however, a change of tone is perceptible: the subjective-reflective mood, mostly absent from the Heidebilder, has already invaded these poems.34

‘Das öde Haus’ opens with the poetess in a favourite attitude, lying dreamily in the grass contemplating the scene before her and turning the thoughts which it inspires into poetry. So also she does in ‘Im Moose’, ‘Im Grase’, in ‘Die Verbannten’ even, and in ‘Die ächzende Kreatur’. A superficial reading of ‘Das öde Haus’ reveals at once resemblances to the methods of the Heidebilder: the same minute observation of detail, the kind of detail possibly never considered by most poets before Annette:

Das Dach, von Moose überschwellt,
Lässt wirre Schober niederragen,
Und eine Spinne hat ihr Zelt
Im Fensterloche aufgeschlagen;
Da hängt, ein Blatt von zartem Flor,
Der schillernden Libelle Flügel,
Und ihres Panzers goldner Spiegel
Ragt kopflos am Gesims hervor.

Artur Brall35 finds a deeper significance in this poem, which he examines closely. The ruined forester's cottage, falling to decay and gradually merging with the surrounding wilderness, is for him a symbol of the theme he has extracted from the whole of the Droste's work, more particularly of her last phase: emphasis on ‘Vergangenheit und Vergänglichkeit’. He finds here no contrast between the transient works of man and the ever-prolific activity of nature: both belong to what is decaying and transitory, although Annette refrains from a hackneyed complaint over the transitoriness of all things, but simply allows them to speak for themselves.

‘Im Moose’, the very next poem in the 1844 edition, presents a parallel situation at the beginning. Here Annette is stretched out on the moss at her creative twilight hour. Artur Brall considers this love of twilight, shared by some of her contemporaries (for example, the aging Eichendorff) as significant of the transitional period in European history and literature in which they lived: twilight is the ‘Uebergang von Tag und Nacht’ and a predilection for it

erscheint kennzeichnend für ein Zeitgefühl, das vor der Gegenwart, den Tag, zurückschreckt und die Verbindung mit der Nacht, der Zeit der Erinnerung und der Vergangenheit, nicht verlieren mochte.36

Indeed, most of the reflective poems, as one might expect from the poetess, so conscious of her advancing years and the loss of much and many who were dear to her in the past, are not only meditations during her often sleepless nights but are filled with memories, half-visionary (‘Durchwachte Nacht’, ‘Doppeltgänger’), of the past. ‘Im Moose’, which belongs to the category of more purely reflective poems, is intensely personal: it is a meditation on death, on how her own dissolution may come about, and at the same time it is full of an intense awareness of what her living senses are taking in at the present moment:

Ringsum so still, dass ich vernehm im Laub
Der Raupe Nagen, und wie grüner Staub
Mich leise wirbelnd Blätterflöckchen trafen.

In these later poems, whether they are reflective and visionary, like those mentioned, or energetic (‘Am Turme’) or biographical and self-analytic (‘Die Taxuswand’, ‘Das Spiegelbild’), Annette has abandoned the ‘Distanzierung’ effected by the fiction of a masculine ‘Ich’ in the Heidebilder (‘Die Mergelgrube’, ‘Der Hünenstein’ ‘Die Vogelhütte’), as well as such a completely objective presentation as in, for example, ‘Die Jagd’. Annette herself now speaks without disguise; if there is ever a partial veiling of the truth with regard to her own feelings, it is often from herself as well as from the reader. This is especially to be remarked in the case of the poems addressed to Levin Schücking.

The second great love of her life, in which a would-be maternal affection for Katharine Schücking's son tended to become ever more lover-like (not on the part of the young man, certainly) was to be the inspiration of some of her greatest work, and of some of the most unusual love-poems in any language. The Schücking story and the Schücking poems have inevitably aroused the greatest interest in biographers, critics and commentators.37 One or two examples at least must be discussed here in some detail, if only to bring out Annette's surprising originality in writing something quite different from any other kind of love-poem before or since.

Kein Wort, und wär es scharf wie Stahles Klinge
Soll trennen, was in tausend Fäden eins …

So Annette asserts triumphantly and happily in the opening lines of the poem entitled in the first draft, ‘An ….’ The poetess and her friend are so close in mind and heart that nothing can separate their ‘twin souls’, not even cruel words or bitter thoughts. (One may find this sadly ironical in the light of subsequent events). They are drawn together as by magnetic attraction; and perhaps some playing on the two ideas signified by ‘Pole’ is intended: the friends may have been placed by destiny ‘poles apart’, in opposite, hostile camps, as indeed they were to some extent, in rank, political views etc.—one meaning of the word—and the second meaning plays over the ‘magnetic poles’ which irresistibly draw objects into contact with the magnet:

Hat das Geschick uns, wie in frevlem Witze,
Auf feindlich starre Pole gleich erhöht,
So wisse, dort, dort auf der Scheidung Spitze
Herrscht, König über alle, der Magnet,
Nicht fragt er, ob ihm Fels und Stein gefährde,
Ein Strahl fährt mitten er durchs Herz der Erde.

This highly intellectual and scientific metaphor is, in fact, almost a ‘conceit’ in the manner of the English Metaphysicals of the Seventeenth Century, reminding us of Donne's

If they be two they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two …

In the next stanza she elaborates on their ‘twin’ characteristics, always with the same ambiguity:

Blick in mein Auge—ist es nicht das deine … ?

Is this meant to imply even physical likeness—both had the Westphalian ‘seer's’ eyes38—or that she and Levin see things in exactly the same way? Perhaps both meanings are implied. Even in their anger—and their close friendship did not exclude angry disputes—they resembled each other; how much more in happy moments shared in company!

Finally the poetess takes as types of perfect friendship the classical twin brothers ‘Pollux and Kastor’, through many allusions to the ancient story applying it to their own case. With a sudden, urgent appeal she addresses her friend, almost with a gesture of reconciliation; one can surmise that they had had some recent difference of opinion:

So reiche mir die Hand, mein Dioskur!
Und mag erneuern sich die holde Mythe,
Wo überm Helm die Zwillingsflamme glühte—

for, to the ancient Greeks the starry sign of Castor and Pollux over the ship's bows meant good luck.39

The ambiguities, the hidden depths in the poem, Annette's attitude of warm comradeship, of brotherliness, with passion suppressed but nevertheless lying beneath the surface, and the added tension of a love-hostility complex, surely make this work unique. Its interest lies above all in its complexity of thought and feeling, and the metaphorical language used is only subservient to this purpose; the rhyme-scheme is simple, the words used plain and non-evocative of sensuous charm. This is true of all the Levin poems. Only in ‘Die Schenke am See’ do we get a pleasant and intimate picture of Annette and Levin enjoying the delights of the Swabian inn, with its wonderful outlook over the lake and the view of the distant Säntis range and the ducks swimming and diving below in the evening light. But in spite of the lightness of tone there is even here a faint note of sadness, Annette contrasting her age with Levin's fresh youth (as she does more emphatically in the poem beginning ‘O frage nicht’), even in the veiled and apparently objective lines:

Schon fühl ich an des Herbstes reichen Tisch
Den kargen Winter nahn auf leisen Socken.

In ‘O frage nicht’ she tries to give an explanation to her friend of why the tears often rush to her eyes as she contemplates his fresh and joyous young being.40 It is not only that she mourns the loss of the childlike qualities of her own youth:

Dass ich so schrankenlos und überweis
So ohne Furcht vor Schelten und vor Rute—

but that she sees in him, as in a magic mirror41—once more, the mirror-image!—a picture of herself, and she grieves that he, too, must see early hopes and loves and enthusiasm disappear, as she had done:

Und all mein Hoffen, meiner Seele Brand
Und meiner Liebessonne dämmernd Scheinen,
Was noch entschwinden wird und was entschwand,
Das muss ich alles dann in dir beweinen.

This poem is far more about Annette than about Levin; it shows very clearly how she regarded him as her other self, projecting on him an image that did not, as appeared later, tally with the actuality. She had no need to weep for Levin in her mood of sadness.

In ‘Das Spiegelbild’, the poem on her mirror-image itself, Annette uses language curiously like that addressed to Levin, her ‘other self’, in ‘O frage nicht’. If her mirror-image were to step out of its frame, in spite of all the terrors that had gone before at such a prospect—for the old superstitions about the appearance of the ‘double’ were well known to Annette and used frequently in her work, as we have seen (perhaps most strikingly in ‘Das Fräulein von Rodenschild’); she may also have known of, or obscurely sensed, the belief in the soul appearing as one's double, reflected in a mirror,42—in spite, then, of these primitive fears, fascination and affection, too, would draw her to the phantom, and she would weep for it, as over herself, and as over herself as reflected in Levin in ‘O frage nicht’

A similar sadness runs through others of her poems to her younger friends, Elise Rüdiger and Philippa Pearsall, her ‘Gewählten’, friends of her choice, loved in part for their possession of what she felt to be slipping away from herself.

In May, 1844, Levin Schücking with his young bride Luise, formerly von Gall, paid a long visit to Annette in Meersburg. The visit stimulated a group of poems known as the ‘Mai-Gedichte’, which include ‘Die tote Lerche’, a poem that seems to foreshadow her own death, and a further ‘Levin’ poem, entitled in her own rough draft, ‘An einen Freund’. It was probably never seen by Levin in Annette's life-time, although she gave him other poems on this occasion, to take away for publication.43

A peculiarity of this poem was that it began in the ‘Ich’ form but that by the second stanza Annette had changed to the impersonal ‘Er’ form—her attempt, perhaps, at a ‘Distanzierung’ from Schücking. It was he who changed the whole poem to the ‘Ich’ form—thus printed in most later editions to date44—as clearly expressing Annette's intention.

The original confusion and ambiguity is eloquent testimony to the confused state of Annette's feelings at the time. The background to this poem is useful to know for a proper understanding of it; once this is known most of its obscurities are cleared up.

The first stanza sets out the situation which called forth this poem: some serious misunderstanding between Levin and Annette must have arisen during the stay of the two Schückings in Meersburg. A picture is vividly presented to us: the young man sulkily refusing to look at Annette, staring at the window-frame during their altercation; she pleading with him in the name of their old friendship:

Zum zweiten Male will ein Wort
Sich zwischen unsre Herzen drängen,
Den felsbewachten Erzeshort
Will eines Knaben Mine sprengen.
Sieh mir ins Auge, hefte nicht
Das deine an des Fensters Borden,
Ist denn so fremd dir mein Gesicht
Denn meine Sprache dir geworden?

For the second time a mere word has endeavoured to part them—surely in vain!—as if a boy's firework should try to blow up a rock-guarded, brazen fortess. The word must have been Annette's—spoken in jest?—but unintentionally offending Levin:

O, sorglos floss mein Wort und bunt,
Im Glauben, dass es dich ergötze,
Dass nicht geschaffen dieser Mund
Zu einem Hauch, der dich verletze.

This is perhaps Annette's frankest confession of her feelings for Levin:

… du, das tief versenkte Blut
In meinem Herzen …

as well as her most humble admission of faults of character in herself:

Dass manches schroff in mir und steil,
Wer könnte, ach, wie ich es wissen!

The sixth stanza, with its enigmatic metaphors and reference to the Phoenix, the ancient symbol of chaste love, may well be connected with some former discussion,—reflected in Das Stiftsfräulein45—about the possibility of a warm platonic friendship between a man and a woman. Clearly Annette expresses her firm belief in this; did Levin, with his young bride in the house, demur at all?

The conclusion of the poem again refers back to ‘Kein Wort’: this time Annette lovingly offers her friend both hands in token of reconciliation.

Yet, sadly enough, less than a year later she was writing to Elise Rüdiger:

Rüschhaus, 9ten April, 1845.

… Ob ich bald an Schücking schreibe? Eigentlich nein. Glauben Sie mir, er hat keine Lust, lebhaft mit mir zu korrespondieren, und Sie begreifen, dass ich mich ihm nicht aufdrängen mag …46

Of the great friendship these unique poems remain as memorials, and as examples also of great European ‘Bekenntnis’ literature.

Annette's later poems (from 1844 onwards) are all written in the quieter, reflective mood which followed in the wake of ‘Lebt wohl’ after her resolute parting with Levin. She had many opportunities for quiet reflection now, alone, lying tranquilly in the grass, the scene of the composition of so many of her finest lyrical poems (‘Im Grase’, ‘Im Moos’, ‘Das öde Haus’, ‘Die ächzende Kreatur’) or awake in her bed through a long sleepless night (‘Durchwachte Nacht’, ‘Doppeltgänger’) or in times of sickness or convalescence resting on her beloved sofa which she had celebrated years ago, in ‘Die rechte Stunde’ of 1835. Circumstances conditioned this kind of poetry, just as her extreme short-sightedness made her doubly observant of minutiae close to her: mineral fragments and bright dust, or the insect life on the grass blades around her as she lay in the Rüschhaus garden.47

Annette wrote nothing of significance after 1846, but the old rhyming habit never left her. In the month before her death she produced two perfectly regular seven-line stanzas to celebrate the birthday of her brother-in-law, Joseph von Lassberg—a ‘Gelegenheitsgedicht’ of no great poetic worth; but the old feeling for apt symbolism is there, too, for, like the dead lark of the earlier poem, the faintly-ringing silver bell that she sent with the verses as a birthday gift represents her own dying voice:

Was send ich meinem Grusse nach?
Ein buntes Glöckchen, arm und klein;
Wohl ist sein Stimmchen zart und schwach,
Doch ist es silberhell und rein;
Und wo du lässt es klingend rauschen,
Da wird das Ohr der Liebe lauschen,
Und, glaub es mir, das hört gar fein!

(10. April, 1848)

Annette's poetical works have been charged with obscurity48 and with harshness, that is, lack of musical quality, although she was a competent musical composer.49 Faults and weaknesses do occur, as we have endeavoured to point out; often it is the sheer urgency to express ideas that dislocates or inhibits the choice of language. And in many of the writings at the peak of her achievement there is great harmoniousness. ‘Mondesaufgang’, parts of ‘Der Weiher’, and ‘Im Grase’ can stand comparison with any lyrical works for their musicality. What is obscure, too, yields readily to a little intellectual effort, which experienced readers of poetry are more willing to make today, perhaps, than were those of her public in 1838, accustomed to the simpler melodies of Romanticism and its immediate successors or the unmistakable emphases of Jungdeutschland. Of the three following passages, Annette's verse (at first sight, possibly, obscure) seems lucidity itself beside the two Twentieth-Century examples:

(i) … Gemüt, der Seele Iris du …
                    Du Tropfen Wolkentau, der sich
                    In unsrer Scholle Poren schlich,
                    Dass er dem Himmel sie gewöhne
                    An seinem lieblichsten Gedicht.

(‘Gemüt’—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff).

(ii) After the funeral, mule praises, brays,
                    Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
                    Tap happily of one peg in the thick
                    Grave's foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black
                    The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves,
                    Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep,
                    Shakes a desolate boy who slits his throat
                    In the dark of the coffin and sheds dry leaves,
                    That breaks one bone to light with a judgement clout …

(After the Funeral. In Memory of Ann Jones—Dylan Thomas, d. 1952)50

(iii) … Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
                    wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus
                    wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und
                    der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
                    er trifft dich mit bleiernder Kugel er trifft dich genau
                    ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
                    er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in
                                                                                                                                                      der Luft
                    er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein
                                                                                                                                            Meister aus Deutschland
                    dein goldenes Haar Margarete
                    dein aschenes Haar Sulamith.

(‘Todesfuge’—Paul Celan, d. 1970)51

These examples are adduced simply to point out that obscurity (sometimes combined with deliberate harshness, as in the Dylan Thomas passage) especially when consisting of evocative imagery and ideas stimulating to the thoughtful reader, need not be a reproach, although it may restrict the number of those who can genuinely appreciate this type of poetry.

In fact there are today signs that Annette's work is becoming appreciated for just those qualities which her contemporaries found somewhat repellent. For example, Paul Celan, from whom we have quoted above, showed a marked ‘elective affinity’ with her work; a recent writer on Celan52 indicates some traits in her poetry which reappear in that of Celan: renunciation of deliberately ‘musical’ verse (‘die Abkehr von liedhafter Sprache’), stress laid on the figurative use of inorganic substances such as stone, moorland, mud and sand, and her frank self-revelation (in Das Geistliche Jahr especially) under the symbolism of petrifaction of soul, together with anguish in a world shot through with death, as under a primaeval curse, and separated from God. Celan goes farther than Annette in expressing the despair of modern man; for Annette still longs for ‘life’ and has not abandoned hope, whereas

Celans Ruinenwelt kennt diese Sehnsucht nicht mehr.(53)

The voice of Celan is perhaps the authentic voice of modern agnosticism. But another poet who pays enthusiastic tribute to the Droste's greatest achievement, Rudolf Hagelstange,54 writes of her:

Und so ist diese christliche Stimme der Droste die Stimme eines modernen Christentums, das dem Leiden Christi näher steht als seinem Triumph, das sich der Endzeit näher weiss als das Gros der Selbstsicheren, die Reinhold Schneiders Wort nicht verstehen werden: dass es besser sei, in der Agonie als in der Narkose zu sterben.

Her very language, during those years which for Celan were the most poetically significant (1839-46), frequently looks to be pointing towards the ‘speech-exile’ of modern poetry. Her characteristic style, with succinct, pre-placed Genitive (‘… ihr Gestöhn des Mooses Teppich regte’—‘Der Hünenstein’), omission of the article (‘Unke kauert im Sumpf / Igel im Grase duckt’—‘Das Hirtenfeuer’), use of impersonal constructions and the often dislocated sentence (‘Mir überm Haupt ein Rispeln und ein Schaffen / Als scharre in der Asche man den Funken’—‘Die Mergelgrube’)—this style, once censured as imperfect, as ‘schroff’ or ‘spröd’, is described by Lotte Köhler55 (in spite of what she somewhat critically calls ‘die teils kühnen, teils missglückten Vergleiche und der abbrechende Ton’) as bringing

in der ungewöhnliche Kraft der dichterischen Sprache eine eigene Welt zur Erscheinung.

From this strange world Celan selects her ‘Steinlandschaft’ as being close to his own. Her bold language-innovations are not far from the forceful inversions of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.(56)

Neither Annette nor Hopkins reached the complete remoteness from everyday speech of the newest forms of poetic language: communication with both of these poets is still ‘easier’ than with Celan. Gerard Manley Hopkins has had considerable influence on English-speaking poets of our day; it seems that Annette's power, as an inspiration rather than a direct influence, is now being felt.

Meine Lieder werden leben,
Wenn ich längst entschwand

she asserted in 1820 (Am 5. Sonntag in der Fasten); and wrote to Elise Rüdiger in the summer of 1843:

Ich mag und will jetzt nicht berühmt werden, aber nach hundert Jahren möcht ich gelesen werden, und vielleicht gelingt's mir …57

Here, at the height of her powers, and also with growing public recognition (the same letter records flattering offers from publishers) she realised that her most original work was in advance of her age, that it belonged to the future.

Yet in her last group of poems she was content to fall back on traditional metres and stanza-forms, with no further exploration of ‘strophenlose’ verses, as in the Heidebilder, or unrhymed lines, as in the early Klänge aus dem Orient. The importance of form, as of tradition in other shapes, seems to have been borne in upon her during the last few years of her life. She never attempted some verse-forms. For instance, she never wrote formal elegies, like her friend Wilhelm Junkmann, though many of her poems are elegiac in tone. Nor did she attempt anything so grandiose as the Ode, the form popular in the Eighteenth Century, with Klopstock above all, and with the English and French Romantics. Her later poems fall into no special category, although the generous German definition includes them under ‘Lyrik’;58 they are as difficult to ‘pigeonhole’ as the Droste herself.

Conservative as Annette might be in keeping on the whole to traditional verse-forms, her free use of vocabulary is ‘modern’ in spirit. Any expressive terminology that comes to mind is employed when it suits her purpose. Like Wordsworth—and unlike the French académiciens—she does not believe in a special terminology for poetry or that some words may be, in themselves, unfit for it. Allusion has already been made to her copious and original use of metaphorical language and of language contracted to a ‘telegrammatic’ style. Her love of coining compound words, especially adjectives (a peculiarly German poetic trait, cf. Goethe's ‘wellenatmend’, ‘morgenschön’, Heine's ‘flammenstolz’)59 such as ‘duftbesäumt’, ‘florbeflügelt’, could lend itself to parody; and in fact Heselhaus quotes a contemporary parody, after the appearance of the 1844 volume of poems,60 commenting aptly that only what is really distinctive and original lends itself to caricature.

Every worthwhile new mintage is an enrichment of the language. Annette enriched its poetic potential further by her uninhibited, though stylistically effective, use of foreign words (Merle, Pleureuse—French; Giaur—Turkish; Kasteel—Dutch, etc.),61 of scientific and technical terms (Soldanella, Orchis, brassen), of classical expressions (Erebus, Ichor, Pharus, etc.) and above all of Niederdeutsch and Westphalian words (Brahm, Kolk, Kunkel, Topp, Schmele, and many more).

For good solid reasons she refused to write in dialect—a too narrowly-exclusive language, when deployed over long stretches, and associated (in classical comedy) with ‘low’ and humorous characters—not even in Die Judenbuche, as we have seen, although her uncle, in his Algierer Sklave, had put the exact dialect words that would have been used by Hermann Winkelhannes into his character's mouth. Von Haxthausen seems to look forward to the dialogue of Hauptmann's Vor Sonnenaufgang and Die Weber; in this respect Annette appears withdrawn from the Naturalistic stream of development and to have retained a more ‘classical’ outlook.


  1. [Droste-Hulshoff, Annette von] SK [edited by Karl Schulte Kemminghausen] Briefe II, p. 118. Letter of 27.12.1842.

    Der Spiritus familiari s des Rosstäuschers

  2. See Winkler I, Anmerkungen, p. 798.

  3. Cf. Josefine Nettesheim, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff und die englische Frühromantik (Jahrbuch der Droste-Gesellschaft I, 1947, pp. 129-151).

  4. Cf. Annette's declared intentions with regard to her own practice: ‘Sie wissen selbst …, dass ich nur im Naturgetreuen, durch Poesie veredelt, etwas leisten kann’ (Letter to Schlüter, 13 Dec., 1838—SK Briefe I, p. 317)—and: ‘So steht mein Entschluss fester als je, nie auf Effekt zu arbeiten, keiner beliebten Manier, keinem anderen Führer als der ewig wahren Natur durch die Windungen des Menschenherzens zu folgen …’ (Letter to Elise Rüdiger, 1843—ibid. II, p. 191).

  5. J. Nettesheim writes interestingly on the new social consciousness of the ‘Biedermeierzeit’ and Annette's interest in ‘ordinary’ folk in Die geistige Welt der Dichterin Annette Droste zu Hülshoff, Regensberg, Münster, 1967).

  6. Nettesheim, A. von Droste-Hülshoff und die englische Frühromantik.

  7. Schneider [Ronald], op.cit., p. 87.

  8. Ibid., op.cit., p. 86.

  9. E. Staiger, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Münster Presse, 1935), p. 33.

  10. Schneider, op.cit., p. 86.

  11. Heselhaus [Clemens], op.cit., p. 260.

  12. Compare with the treatment of Simon in Die Judenbuche: in the ‘factual’ narrative this figure has a mysterious, preternatural appearance; here, in a legendary tale, the diabolical messenger looks ‘ordinary’.

  13. Schneider—op.cit., p. 85—speaks of ‘die quasi-filmischen Sequenzen’. Annette, in fact, employs what today would be styled ‘film technique’; this, and Die Judenbuche, would make excellent films!

  14. Coleridge also deliberately aimed at imitating mediaeval naiveté, both in the simple ballad style and in the somewhat spurious marginal glosses. The Ancient Mariner is, after all, an artefact, a spendid ‘fake’. By means of her Preface Annette precludes, from the beginning, any suspicion of imposition.

  15. Heselhaus [Friedrich], op.cit., pp. 259-271.

  16. See e.g. Schneider, op.cit., pp. 88-89.

  17. Cf. Sengle, op.cit. II, p. 607 and p. 1079.

  18. This was probably the first of the Heidebilder to be written, in October 1841. See the Winkler edition, p. 760, where a likely source of its inspiration is given, a similar poem by a semi-anonymous contributor (‘B. H.’) to the Westfälische Merkur of 18.12.1837.


  19. See Part Two, 3. of this work, The Ballads, and Sengle, op.cit. II, p. 592ff. in this connection.

  20. Quoted by Heselhaus in his Notes to his edition of the Sämtliche Werke (1966), p. 1140.

  21. I assume that the Mother speaks alternately with the poet-narrator. Heselhaus (in Die Heidebilder der Droste, Jb. der Droste-Gesellschaft, 1959) seems doubtful as to whether it is the Mother or the poetic ‘Ich’ who is addressing the children.

  22. Lotte Köhler, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, in Deutsche Dichter des 19. Jahrhunderts, hrsg. von Benno von Wiese (Schmidt, Berlin, 1969), p. 241.

  23. Heselhaus, Die Heidebilder der Droste (Jb. der Droste-Gesellschaft, 1959.

  24. Wolfgang Kayser, Geschichte der deutschen Ballade (Junker und Dünnhaupt, Berlin, 1936), p. 247.

  25. Sengle, op.cit. I, p. 355.

  26. Cf. the attitude of Annette's old Rentier in her last prose fragment, Joseph. (See Part Two, 5 a), p. 150 of this work.

  27. Some spendid ‘scissor-cuts’ of hunting scenes by Annette are preserved at the ‘Fürstenhäusle’ Museum, Meersburg. On Annette as Artist, see Appendix 1 to this Chapter.

  28. Originally intended for inclusion in the Heidebilder but relegated, in the 1844 edition, to Scherz und Ernst. The latest, Winkler edition follows this plan.

  29. See Part One, p. 19 of this work.

  30. It was actually much worked over and altered. See Note to this poem in the Winkler edition, I, p. 780ff.

  31. Rudolf Hagelstange (Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, in Triffst du nur das Zauberwort, hrsg. von Jürgen Petersen (Ullstein, Berlin, 1967), pp. 56-66) has an excellent study of this poem, which he rightly sees as like nothing written by any of her contemporaries.

  32. Heselhaus, Die Heidebilder der Droste (Jb. der Droste-Gesellschaft, 1959).

  33. Schneider, op.cit., p. 103.

  34. How ‘modern’ this mood is will be apparent to any reader picking up any collection to lyrics by contemporary poets published within the last twenty years and making comparisons with Annette's late work.

  35. Artur Brall, Vergangenheit und Vergänglichkeit: Zur Zeiterfahrung und Zeitdeutung im Werk Annettes von Droste-Hülshoff (Marburger Beiträge zur Germanistik, Bd. 50. N. G. Elwert Verlag, Marburg, 1975).

  36. A. Brall, op.cit., pp. 13-14.

  37. e.g. C. Heselhaus, Die Schücking-Gedichte der Droste. Das Bekenntnis einer Dichterliebe (Schriften der Droste-Gesellschaft VIII, Münster, 1948, pp. 5-25), and, by the same, Annette und Levin (Münster, 1948). ‘Einsamkeit’, by Mary Lavater-Sloman (Artemis Verlag, Zürich, 1950) tells the whole story of Annette's life in novel-form, and, of course, deals at length with her relationship to Schücking.

  38. This had particularly struck Freiligrath in Levin's case. See Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Bagel, 1971), pp. 135-136.

  39. See for further commentary on this poem C. Heselhaus, Pollux und Castor, wechselnd Glühn und Bleichen (Jb. der Droste-Gesellschaft II, 1948-50, p. 331ff).

  40. Heselhaus discusses at length his reasons for believing that this poem is addressed to Levin and not to Elise Rüdiger, as some have thought. See ‘O frage nicht …’ An Levin Schücking oder an Elise Rüdiger (Jb. der Droste-Gesellschaft II, 1948-50, pp. 327-330). I find his reasons entirely convincing.

  41. Cf. Die Judenbuche, in HEW, p. 893.

  42. Discussed by Tymms in Doubles in Literary Psychology (Bowes & Bowes, Cambridge, 1949), p. 17, who cites Frazer (The Golden Bough II, pp. 28-29), as giving early sources of this and allied beliefs. - See also Note 18, p. 223 of this work.

  43. Heselhaus comments: ‘Bei der Durchsicht des Nachlasses für die “Letzten Gaben” kam Schücking wohl erst zur Kenntnis dieses Gedichtes; denn im “Lebensbild” (1862) teilte er zum erstenmal zwei Strophen aus diesem Gedicht mit (die 2. und 4.).’—In: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Bagel, 1971), p. 374.

  44. e.g. the ‘Meersburger Ausgabe’ (Hendel, Leipzig, 1925); Sämtliche Werke, ed. Heselhaus (Hanser, München, 1966).

  45. Cf. Part Two, 5., p. 151 of this work.

  46. SK Briefe II, p. 387.

  47. The handicaps of this short-sightedness have perhaps been exaggerated. Annette was capable of describing broad sweeps of landscape and distant scenes—as in Die Jagd, Die Steppe, etc.—And it needs good eyesight to observe the ducks swimming and diving far below on the Bodensee when so high up as Annette and Levin were, outside what is known today as the ‘Glaserhäusle’ (Die Schenke am See).

  48. e.g. by Levin Schücking in the Charakteristik. See p. 111 of this work.

  49. See Appendix 2 to this Chapter on Annette as a composer.

  50. In: ‘Flash Point’: an Anthology of Modern Verse, compiled by Robert Shaw (E. J. Arnold, Leeds, 1966), p. 128.

  51. See Paul Celan, ‘Ausgewählte Gedichte’ (Suhrkamp, 1977), p. 18. Given the key-fact that for Annette ‘Gemüt’ is the innermost soul, or poetic soul of man, the lines become clear: Gemüt is Heaven's gift to man, falling like dew into this mortal clod of clay to accustom it to heavenly things. All the meaning can be deduced from evidence within the poem itself. The same mainly applies to difficult passages in the Levin poems. But external glosses are necessary to assist elucidation of the modern poems—and even then much remains obscure—even when we know that Todesfuge is about the persecution and mass-murders of the Jews under Hitler, and that Ann Jones was a poor old washerwoman who died of cancer and was given a pauper's funeral in a Welsh village, much of what is said in the last two passages remains puzzling to the ordinary reader—partly through the stylized, fragmented language—far more ‘obscure’ than anything Annette wrote.

  52. Bernhard Böschenstein, Leuchttürme, IV Drostesche Landschaft in Paul Celans Dichtung, (Insel Verlag, 1977), pp. 273-296.

  53. Böschenstein, op.cit., p. 284.

  54. Rudolf Hagelstange, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, in Triffst du nur das Zauberwort, hrsg. von Jürgen Petersen (Ullstein, Frankfurt/M-Berlin, 2977) pp. 56-66. The above citation is on p. 66.

  55. Lotte Kühler, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, in Deutsche Dichter des 19. Jahrhunderts, hrsg. von Benno von Wiese (Schmidt, Berlin, 1969), p. 243.

  56. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems, ed. W. H. Gardner (O. U. P., 1949) p. 107.

  57. SK Briefe II, p. 191.

  58. ‘Lyrik … Gefühlsdichtung, bes. die liedhafte Dichtung, dann auch Balladen und Gedankendichtung.’—Brockhaus.

    Lyric—orig. a poem sung to music; a short, subjective poem expressing the highly personalised emotions of the poet.—Lyrical—pert. to the lyre … used of poetry which expresses emotion.’—Collins's English Dictionary.

  59. See E. A. Blackall, The Emergence of German as a Literary Language (C. U. P., 1959), esp. Ch. XV, The Golden Touch, p. 482ff. Annette appeared on the literary scene in time to inherit a wonderfully developed poetic diction.

  60. Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 145.

  61. She criticised Schücking for his lack of moderation in using foreign words in his writings. See SK Briefe I, p. 575.

Editions of the Droste's Works Used

Droste-Hülshoff, A. E. F. VON—Gesammelte Schriften, Hrsg. von L. Schücking, Bde. 1, 2-3. (Verlag der J. G. Cotta'schen Buchhandlung, Stuttgart, 1878-9).

Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von—Sämtliche Werke, hrsg. von Clemens Heselhaus (Hanser Verlag, München, 1966—a reprint of the 1954 edn.)

Droste-Hülshoff, A. von, Sämtliche Werke I: Gedichte, Epen, Prosa—Hrsg. von Günther Weydt und Winfried Woesler (Winkler Verlag, München, 1973).

Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von—Die Briefe (Gesamtausgabe), Bde. I & II. Hrsg. von Karl Schulte Kemminghausen (Eugen Diederichs Verlag, Jena, 1944).

Secondary Literature on Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and Other Works Consulted

Böschenstein, Bernhard—Leuchttürme von Hölderlin zu Celan (Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1977).

Brall, Artur—Vergangenheit und Vergänglichkeit: zur Zeiterfahrung und Zeitdeutung im Werk Annettes von Droste-Hülshoff (Marburger Beiträge zur Germanistik, Bd. 50. M. G. Elwert Verlag, Marburg, 1975).

Celan, Paul—Ausgewählte Gedichte (Suhrkamp, 1977).

Hagelstange, Rudolf—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (In: ‘Triffst du nur das Zauberwort’, hrsg. von Jürgen Petersen, Ullstein Verlag, Frankfurt/M - Berlin, 1967), pp. 56-66.

Heselhaus, Clemens—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Werk und Leben (Bagel Verlag, 1971).

Heselhaus, C.—‘Pollux und Castor, wechselnd Glühn und Bleichen’ (Jb. der Droste-Ges. II, 1948/50, p. 331ff.).

Hopkins, Gerard Manley—Poems. Preface and Notes by Robert Bridges; enlarged and edited by W. H. Gardner (Oxford, 1949).

Kayser, Wolfgang—Geschichte der deutschen Ballade (Junker u. Dünnhaupt, Berlin, 1936).

Köhler, Lotte—‘Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’ (In: Deutsche Dichter des 19. Jahrhunderts, hrsg. v. Benno von Wiese). See also under ‘W’.

Lavater-Sloman; Mary—Einsamkeit: das Leben der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Artemis Verlag, Zürich, 1950).

Nettesheim, J.—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff und die englische Frühromantik (Jb. der Droste-Ges. I, 1947, pp. 129-151).

Nettesheim, J.—Die geistige Welt der Dichterin Annette Droste zu Hülshoff (Verlag Regensberg, Münster, 1967).

Schneider, Ronald—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Metzler, Ed. 153. J. B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Stuttgart, 1977).

Schucking, Levin—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Eine Charakteristik (In: Vom Rhein: Leben, Kunst und Dichtung. Hrsg. von Gottfried Kinkel, Jg. 1847. Essen, 1847).

Sengle, Friedrich—Biedermeierzeit, Bde. I & II (J. B. Metzler, Stuttgart, 1971-1972).

Staiger, Emil—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Verlag der Münster-Presse, Horgen-Zürich/Leipzig, 1933).

Staiger, Emil—‘Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’ (Festrede bei der Jahrhundertfeier am 24. Mai, 1948 in Meersburg - Jb. der Droste-Ges. II, 1948-1950).

Tymms, Ralph—Doubles in Literary Psychology (Bowes & Bowes, Cambridge, 1949).

Brigitte Peucker (essay date July 1983)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7660

SOURCE: Peucker, Brigitte. “Droste-Hülshoff's Ophelia and the Recovery of Voice.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82, no. 3 (July 1983): 374-91.

[In the following essay, Peucker traces the Ophelia-type characters in works including Berta, Ledwina, and several poems. Peucker considers such figures as a type of muse or creative double for Droste-Hülshoff.]

“Und sollte er auch durch
Modergruft gehen; er findet
sicher unsägliche Schätze.”

—Novalis, Lehrlinge zu Sais

In the works of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, encounters with ghosts, madwomen, sisters, doubles, and reflections abound—as they did, typically, in the works of German Romantic writers. To come to terms with a demonic double or wild self, Droste-Hülshoff often makes use of the Gothic-tinged ballad, with its customary forays into the world of ghosts. In “Das Fräulein von Rodenschild,” for instance, a self whose unnaturalness is intimately related to the curse of second sight and of an overwrought imagination is forever marked by its confrontation with its ghostly double. Similarly, “Das Spiegelbild,” the poem most frequently favored by Droste-Hülshoff's interpreters and which to some extent retains the language of “Das Fräulein von Rodenschild,” brings to the foreground the poet's personal preoccupation with inner doubleness, a preoccupation that may ultimately be seen to concern the nature of the poet's imagination.1 For Droste-Hülshoff the Romantic double takes on a special function. It is more than an uncanny opponent or former or demonic self: the double is intimately connected with her creation of a personal muse, or “wild muse” as she calls it in “Lebt Wohl,” where “jedes wilden Geiers Schrei / In mir die wilde Muse weckt.”2

It is from a special instance of the mirrored double, the reflection mirrored by bodies of water, that Droste-Hülshoff creates her wild muse, a muse that animates the poet's close attention to process in nature. The reflection often has the appearance of a corpse floating in the water, an Ophelia whose ravings have ended and who becomes one with pond or stream. At no point in the poetry or in the letters does Droste-Hülshoff speak explicitly of this image as an “Ophelia figure”—and I do not wish to imply that she necessarily has Ophelia in mind. Rather I draw upon Bernhard Blume's article, “Das ertrunkene Mädchen,” and Gaston Bachelard's designation of the “Ophelia complex” as the symbol of female death.3 For Bachelard, drowning is “la mort bien féminine,” and water is the element of “la mort jeune et belle, de la mort fleurie.”4 As an image in Droste-Hülshoff's œuvre, the “Ophelia figure” predates the ghosts of the ballads and already explains the sense in which, for Droste-Hülshoff, the double is to be located in nature. As we shall see, if the double is to be recovered as a figure for the creative self—the wild muse—then it must be transformed, exorcized, and finally located in the natural world.

Droste-Hülshoff makes use of the following stratagem: the organic matter of the dead self that she finds reflected in the water becomes a part of the elements and the vegetation, but its spirit lingers on to haunt the scene, to inspire it like a genius of the place. Purging the self of the demonic other—Ophelia as madwoman—by projecting it into nature, and thus conveniently denying any complicity with that self, the poet can paradoxically reap a benefit of another kind. Having infused nature with her own imagination, she can say, in effect: “Nature has no voice but mine.” Yet further, the double as the spirit of the place allows her to be her own muse: hence the ease with which her poetic self can be animated by nature.

The image on which Droste-Hülshoff draws already harbors implicitly, potentially, the links between nature, femaleness, and poetic vocation; flowers and garlands, such as those with which Ophelia is bedecked (“la mort fleurie”), may serve not only as images of vegetative nature and as metaphors for woman herself (a conceit which Goethe plays upon in “Heidenröslein,” for instance), but also traditionally as metaphors for poems themselves (a time-honored trope that Mörike uses in his Klassische Blumenlese) and for poetic language (Shakespeare's Ophelia is said to speak “the language of flowers”). The thought that relates and sustains this cluster of images, anticipating the views of Freud and Otto Rank, is that death and the imagination are motivating projections—doubles—of one another. The awareness of mortality begets the counterassertion, the defiance, of poetic power; thus engendered, poetic consciousness then turns its attention, drawn into a fatal circle, back to its own wellsprings, and is pulled downward to the watery place from which it had arisen. Herein revealed, then, is the close alliance of the poetic impulse and the death wish, of which there will be more to say. But one must equally stress that the gift of the Ophelia figure to Droste-Hülshoff is renewal and vitality. When a heroine of Droste-Hülshoff's sees her own face rising to meet her in the water, what attracts her, as it attracted Narcissus, is partly the enabling reality of what she sees, the sense that what gazes back at her in nature makes her own vision possible. Thus, finally, in addition to keeping one's wild muse at a safe distance, the projection of a demonic self into nature is an escape from mere inwardness: turned inside out, the imagination ventures abroad. My aim is to trace these motifs through Droste-Hülshoff's œuvre and to develop their implications.

The Ophelia motif is first intimated in the early play Berta (1813), but takes more definite shape in Ledwina (1819-24), an autobiographical novel fragment. In a pastoral setting Berta begins with a song about a young girl who weaves a flower garland and then tosses it into the water. In her yearning, her “unbegreifliches Sehnen,” she gazes into the distance, “und dann in die silberne Welle” (ii, 381). In both Berta and Ledwina the pairs of sisters (a “wild” one and a “conventionally feminine” one) are similar and seem to personify Annette and her sister Jenny.

As with Berta, Ledwina's first scene is at the water's edge, and concerns a pale young girl who is associated with vegetative nature. The opening sentence of the novel links stream and mirror, a connection that is repeated several times. Later when Ledwina approaches the river and gazes into it, she becomes aware of her own reflection and, as her image is dispersed, she perceives herself, in astonishingly graphic terms, as a disintegrating corpse:

Ledwinens Augen aber ruhten aus auf ihrer eignen Gestalt, wie die Locken von ihrem Haupte fielen und forttrieben, ihr Gewand zerriß und die weißen Finger sich ablösten und verschwammen, … da wurde es ihr, als ob sie wie tot sei und wie die Verwesung lösend durch ihre Glieder fresse und jedes Element das Seinige mit sich fortreiße.

(ii, 267-68)

Ledwina draws back from the object of her reverie, but a similar vision occurs later in the novel, when she awakens from a dream to see the moonlight undulating on the white covers of her bed. The affinity of covers and shroud—and, by extension, of bed and coffin—is unmistakable, but what Ledwina notices especially is the resemblance of the light to waves, and thus she invokes the Ophelia image once more: “Die Idee einer Ondine ward zu einer im Fluß versunkenen Leiche, die das Wasser langsam zerfrißt …” (II, 291). As happens elsewhere in Droste-Hülshoff's work, the Ophelia figure which dissolves into nature, but which in later formulations lingers as spirit or ghost, replaces the living nature spirit—here the nymph Undine—that may have been there before her. (Or, in an opposite movement, the corpse may dissolve to become one with “jedes Element.”) Finally, in Ledwina, an actual drowning that takes place soon after the heroine imagines herself as a dissolving corpse proves to be unusually stimulating to her feverish imagination. Like the man of “Vorgeschichte,” who watches the preparations for his own funeral, Ledwina may, in a sense, be said to watch her own death by drowning, for the victim is later revealed to be her nurse's son, with whom Ledwina was nursed as an infant, and who is, in other words, her Milchbruder. Ledwina returns obsessively to the scene of this drowning, where she imagines the event vividly: “Es zog sie gewaltsam zu dem Ufer des Flusses, und tausend wunderbare Möglichkeiten, die nur für sie so heißen konnten, tanzten in greulichen Bildern um ihr brennendes Haupt” (ii, 304). This passage is couched in precisely the kind of language that Droste-Hülshoff resorts to in her letters when she describes the turbulent workings of her imagination: “Summen und gaukeln die Bilder vor mir wie Muckenschwärme” or “das Zuströmen ungeborener Ideen, die mir um den Kopf summen wie Bienenschwärme.”5 Even in the early work, then, the connection is clear between the motifs of death by drowning and poetic inspiration.

The Ophelia image is central to the ballad “Die Schwestern” (1841-42), where it reinforces the poet's preoccupation with sisters and doubles.6 This ballad portrays Droste-Hülshoff's ambivalent struggle to exorcise a wild self, even as she comes to recognize this self as the inspiration for her art. Composed of four temporally disconnected episodes, “Die Schwestern” tells the story of one sister, Gertrude, who exhausts her life hunting for the other, the fair Helene. Weighed down by the guilt she feels at having allowed her sister to become a “fallen woman,” Gertrude becomes deranged. In the third section of the poem, when she finds her sister's body floating up to the shore, “eine triefende Leich’ im Kies” (i, 239), Gertrude is already a madwoman with gray tresses and burning, sunken cheeks, while Helene's Ophelia-like, flowing hair is bedecked, not with flowers, but with shells and seaweed.

In this scene, then, the two sisters divide the identity of the drowned madwoman between them, and subsequently their identification is knit more closely still. In the fourth section of the poem, Gertrude's complete breakdown is suggested in the moment when she identifies her own reflection on the surface of the water as Helene:

Doch schlief die Welle, dann sah ihr Gesicht
Man über den Spiegel sich beugen,
Und zeigte es ihr das eigene Bild,
Dann flüsterte sie beklommen:
“Wie alt sie sieht, wie irre und wild,
Und wie entsetzlich verkommen.”

(i, 240)

What this lapse reveals, among other things, is the extent to which Gertrude identifies with her sister's guilt. Hence, when Gertrude hurls herself into the waves during a storm, her suicide is as much an effort to reconcile herself with a hidden self even in destroying it—simultaneously to accept and punish her own suppressed desires, her “wildness”—as it is an attempt to be reunited with Helene. So it is that the two sisters, the madwoman and the whore, repression and fulfillment, wildness of spirit and wildness of body, are finally reunited in the figure of Ophelia, the suicide in the water whose madness had in part expressed itself in bawdy songs.

It remains to ask how Droste-Hülshoff uses the Gertrude-Helene figure once she has exorcised it. Typically, Gertrude's madness endows her with a special relationship to nature: when the lake is calm, she is calm, but when “der Sturm die Woge gerührt” (i, 240), she is like one possessed. It is fitting, then, that upon her death Gertrude becomes a Naturgeist, and the woodland site of her grave—she is a “lost soul” and, like Ophelia, cannot be buried in sacred soil—becomes a “special place” in nature. The corpse of Helene, meanwhile (“ihr Haar voll Muscheln und Tange” i, 239), has long since begun to return to nature. Wild grasses and flowers spring from Gertrude's grave, but even as she becomes one with the ground, her spirit lingers to haunt it, like the “lost souls” who haunt the wilds in “Knabe im Moor”: “die unselige Spinnerin, … die gebannte Spinnlenor,” “die verdammte Margret,” and “der Geigemann ungetreu.” All three of these latter Romantic figures are converted, like Gertrude, into “ghosts” that do not rest in peace. In all their uncanniness and moral ambiguity, they and they alone animate an otherwise spiritless landscape. This is one crucial function of the drowned and the corpses that lie mouldering in the earth in Droste-Hülshoff's work: in them, mediated by her myth of Ophelia, Droste-Hülshoff finds metaphors through which she can regain access to nature. Her strategy, as we have said, is to project a wild self into the landscape by killing it off or burying it there, so that its body may return to the elements or its spirit linger. Either way, this self, safely distinct from the rational—or, at most, merely eccentric—self that lives in the world, becomes her muse.

In the last section of “Die Schwestern,” what earlier appeared to be an omniscient narrator is revealed to be a specific persona, namely, a hunter. Why, one may ask, should the poet distance herself from a situation which is so important in her writing by adopting a posture so remote from her own? Clearly the hunter, as narrator, is portrayed as one who is able to control or dominate his world by purging its wildness; the poet has killed off—hunted down—her wild selves, but in the process she has come to know them and thereby provided another, more stable and less guilt-ridden self with material for poetry. This is precisely the implication of the hunter's gesture when he picks a flower—the flower of rhetoric or poetic “posy”—from Gertrude's grave. The poem “Meine Sträuße” sheds further light on this image.

In order to demonstrate how the imagery connected with the drowning Ophelia may embody a modest poetics of the imagination for Droste-Hülshoff, it will be useful to place two passages side by side. The first is taken from “Der Spiritus Familiaris des Roßtäuschers” (1842) and contains the poet's darkest and rankest image of the mouldering corpse:

Da seitwärts durch Geröhres Speer erglänzt des Kolkes Dintenbecken,
Ein wüster Kübel, wie getränkt mit schweflichen Asphaltes Jauche,
Langbeinig füßelnd Larvenvolk regt sich in Fadenschlamm und Lauche,
Und faule Spiegel, blau und grün,
Wie Regenbogen drüber ziehn.
Inmitten starrt ein dunkler Fleck, vom Riesenauge die Pupille,
Dort steigt die Wasserlilj' empor, dem Fußtritt lauschend durch die Stille;
Wen sie verlockt mit ihrem Schein, der hat sein letztes Lied gesungen;
Drei Tage suchte man das Kind umsonst in Kraut und Wasserbungen,
Wo Egel sich und Kanker jetzt
An seinen bleichen Gliedchen letzt.

(i, 277-78)

The second passage is from another unfinished novel, Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande, which was written at about the same time as “Spiritus Familiaris” (1841-42). It is commonly acknowledged that in Bei uns zu Lande Droste-Hülshoff portrays herself as Sophie, who serves as a muse for the poet Wilhelm, another character in the novel. But since Wilhelm's poems, significantly, are called “Das Mädchen am Bache” and “Der Knabe im Rohr” (the original title of Droste-Hülshoff's “Knabe im Moor”), Wilhelm is thus the character in whom Droste-Hülshoff identifies her poetic self. To Wilhelm, then, this second passage is addressed: “bleib in deiner Heide, laß deine Phantasie ihre Fasern tief in deine Weiher senken, und wie eine geheime Wasserlilie darüber schaukeln” (ii, 354).

These two passages share the image of the pool or pond with a water lily emerging strikingly from its center. In the poem, the beauty of the water lily lures the unwitting to their deaths; the child's dissolving body, feasted upon by spiders and worms—absorbed into the natural world—bears witness to the water lily's lethal powers. In the novel, the same image of “die geheime Wasserlilie,” the origins of which are in the mysterious depths of the pond itself, represents the poetic imagination. The crucial circularity that strikes the reader concerning these figures pertains to the place of the imagination, that seems to be both inward and external. The child of the poem—actually a childish version of the central character, and in some ways resembling the child in Goethe's “Erlkönig”—is lured to its death and bodily decay in the water by an appeal to its imagination.7 Nevertheless, the imagination, or water lily, is plainly in the pond and arises from its secret depths. The ambivalences that are evident in this hesitation between inner and outer inspirations are many, but once again death and the imagination are seen to be motivating projections of one another. Seeking its origin, the imagination submerges—drowns—itself in the pool only to resurface as a water lily (belonging to the genus Nymphaea), a flower born from the watery depths where it constitutes at once the genuine beauty and siren call of nature, and feeds upon the corpses it has claimed for its own.

Having described the “Ophelia complex” of imagery, we can now begin to trace its ramifications in broader patterns and seemingly more tangential moments. The image of the drowned Ophelia lingers recognizably in “Der Weiher,” one of the Heidebilder (1841-42). The image of the “Wasserfei,” a mysterious presence with whom Droste-Hülshoff inspirits the pond, is carried over from regional folklore and linked to the flower world by simile: “Uns nur traut die holde Wasserfei / Sie, die Schöne, lieblicher als Rosen” (i, 41). More important, the last poem of the miniature cycle—that is, “Der Weiher”—evokes the two images of the corpse and flower in a variant of the “Spiritus Familiaris” passage: “O sieh doch! siehst du nicht die Blumenwolke / Da drüben in dem tiefsten Weiherkolke?” (i, 41). Once this question has been asked, the poem quickly modulates away from the flowers on the surface of the pond, first to frog and fish, and then to the “Wassermann” who haunts the foliage at the pond's edge, and finally to the ominous face at the bottom: “Mich dünkt, ich sah am Grunde ein Gesicht—” (i, 41). We do not exhaust the significance of these images when we say that the poet makes use of regional folklore to give her poetry a Gothic tone or an uncanny quality. She does this, to be sure, but when the complex of images around the Ophelia figure returns so persistently, and takes on such force, we suspect that for Droste-Hülshoff poetically—and, we assume, personally—something more is at stake. In “Der Weiher,” the corpse becomes the face at the bottom of the pond, the wild muse that haunts Droste-Hülshoff's landscape along with the toads, frogs, newts, and bats that might have escaped from the witches' cauldron in Macbeth.

“Am Bodensee” (again of the same period, 1841-42) is a reflective poem which to some extent naturalizes the uncanny, balladesque moments we have mentioned thus far; in a passage anticipating images such as those of C. F. Meyer's “Eingelegte Ruder,” the lake is seen as a repository of all the things that have been reflected in its surface. The lake harbors the past, specifically those who peopled the past, “Und nur ihr flüchtiger Spiegelschein / Liegt zerflossen auf deinem Grund” (i, 73). The poet personifies the lake as “alte Wasserfei,” and apostrophizes it in a moment of despair about her own death: “O, schau mich an! ich zergeh wie Schaum” (i, 74). This moment recalls Ledwina's image as it dissolves on the waves, together with various other decomposing bodies in the depths. But here, the thinly veiled wish for death in other poems is reversed and becomes an expression of anguish about its likelihood.

The characterization that Droste-Hülshoff bestows upon the lake has certain traits in common with herself. She suspects it of suffering from insomnia, ascribes dreams to it, and accuses it of restlessness. The “alte Wasserfei” in “Am Bodensee” is somewhat staid, yet one does not miss the demonic in her altogether, for the face at the bottom of the pond still has a representative in the form of a partly visualized voice: “Eine Stimme klaget im hohlen Grund, / Gedämpft, mit halbgeschlossenem Mund” (i, 73). Perhaps the subdued voice of the muse, trapped at the bottom of the lake, is complaining precisely because it has been subdued and suppressed, deprived of much of its power—just as nature in this poem is subdued and suppressed under the blanket of fog that envelops it.

As I suggested earlier, if the drowning Ophelia is at times the imagination, she may also at times denote poems themselves, connected to poetry as she is by means of their metaphor in common, the flower. It will be helpful at this point to refer to “Meine Sträuße.” This poem contains a catalogue of dried flowers and bouquets that seem to symbolize poems: associated in the memory with a person or place, each recalls one or another of Droste-Hülshoff's poems. Even if we acknowledge the relevance to this poem of the poet's recorded penchant for collecting objets d'art and natural objects, this catalogue is more than a description of one of her collections. We are persuaded that the “flowers” more specifically refer to poems by the first stanza, which stresses the fashioning of bouquets and garlands as “Zeichen,” or the elaborate signs of memories, over which the poet's soul then “undulates” or flows (“Ließ' drüber die Seele wallen”, i, 131). The phrasing of “Und diese Tange entfischt ich der See / Aus Muschelgescherbe und Kiese” (i, 132) vividly recalls the body of Helene, washed up on shore in “Die Schwestern.” (Here the seaweed metonymically represents at once the drowned woman and the poem which contains her.) Or again, there is an indirect reference to the situation of being “Im Moose,” a place of reverie in the poem of that name where Droste-Hülshoff envisages her own death as a dissolving into nature. “Meine Sträuße” once more brings together, in the following stanza, the body of imagery with which we have particularly concerned ourselves in this essay:

Und wenn ich grüble an meinem Teich,
Im duftigen Moose gestrecket,
Wenn aus dem Spiegel mein Antlitz bleich
Mit rieselndem Schauer mich necket,
Dann lang' ich sachte, sachte hinab,
Und fische die träufelnden Schmelen;
Dort hängen sie, drüben am Fensterstab,
Wie arme vertrocknete Seelen.

(i, 132)

A flower is plucked from the pond in response to an uncanny vision of a ghostly double that is mirrored there. The verb “fischen” reminds us of Ledwina's vision of herself as an Ophelia figure, escaping the parents who want to scoop her up in their nets. Although in this poem the act of picking the flower (it is the act of making a poem) is rhetorically and rather conventionally represented as a defense against death, what is nevertheless implied is that the poem comes into being as a result of the poet's projection of a dead self into the elements. The “arme, vertrocknete Seelen” to which the flowers are compared make sense when we recall the haunted place of Gertrude's grave, haunted by her “lost” soul. It was here that the hunter, the narrator of the poem, also picked “eine Schmele,” the poetic posy or ballad that is his narration of Gertrude's story.

Another passage of “Meine Sträuße” echoes yet another poem: “Und wie Blutes Adern umschlingen mich / Meine Wasserfäden und Moose” (i, 133) repeats imagery that may be found in the “Wasserfäden” section of “Der Weiher,” where the “Wasserfäden” (water plants) describe their relation to the pond:

… des Teiches Blutsverwandte, fest
Hält er uns an die Brust gepreßt,
Und wir bohren unsre feinen Ranken
In das Herz ihm, wie ein liebend Weib,
Dringen Adern gleich durch seinen Leib, …

(i, 41)

These passages again suggest an identification of the self with the pond, which in turn we have shown to be linked with the notion of the self as the drowned Ophelia. In “Meine Sträuße” the “Wasserfäden” represent poems like the other flowers, but do so even more vividly. These are poems which remain so much a part of Droste-Hülshoff that it is appropriate to describe them as “Adern,” as veins or arteries. But precisely because they are so much a part of her, they can be oppressive as well as satisfying; like the downward pull of the imagination, they both embrace and entrap her (“umschlingen mich”). This idea is expressed another way, albeit conventionally, in the poem “Herzlich,” when Droste-Hülshoff describes her poems as “meines Herzens flammendes Blut” (ii, 43; Erstdruck derLetzten Gaben,” 1860). By the same token, the metaphors used to describe the relationship of the “Wasserfäden” to the “Weiher” also consistently have to do with veins or arteries that pierce the heart, as we have seen above. Again, in such patterns one can see the outline of the corpse in the pond.8

Yet another poem, “Der Dichter. Dichters Glück”9 gathers together the images of water, corpse, flower, and poem once again, now explicitly in relation to its title subject. Here are the pertinent lines from Part II:

Locke nicht, du Strahl aus der Höh;
Noch lebt des Prometheus Geier.
Stille, stille, du buhlender See;
Noch wachen die Ungeheuer
Über deines Hortes kristallenem Schrein.
Senk die Hand, mein fürstlicher Zecher,
Dort drunten bleicht das morsche Gebein,
Des, der getaucht nach dem Becher.
Und du, flatternder Fadenstrauß,
Du der Distel mystische Rose,
Strecke nicht deine Fäden aus
Mich umschlingend so lind und lose!

This poem warns the imagination of the lure of the natural world, and recalls the attraction of the child to the water lily. Droste-Hülshoff's imagination does not, on the whole, strive upward into “die Höh”; we have seen that the poems in connection with the Ophelia figure manifest the downward pull of the imagination, the desire for descent. Just so, she does not linger over the myth of Prometheus in “Der Dichter. Dichters Glück,” but instead reformulates her central metaphor of descent or immersion. The water has already claimed one victim who has sought treasure in its depths. But the lake's treasure is not ultimately the goblet, but rather “das morsche Gebein,” reposed as it is beneath the glass of the reliquary—which is the lake itself. (“Schrein” is also used for Gertrude's coffin in “Die Schwestern.”) In this context, “mein fürstlicher Zecher” is the publicly acknowledged poetic self; the expression “senk die Hand” reminds the reader of the manner in which poems are made by dredging, as it were, in “Meine Sträuße”: “Dann lang' ich sachte, sachte hinab, / Und fische die träufelnden Schmelen” (i, 132). Indeed, in Part I of “Der Dichter. Dichters Glück,” it is said of the poet, in language that recalls the second death by drowning in The Tempest: “Ja, Perlen fischt er und Juwele / Die kosten nichts—als seine Seele.” But what the poet as pearl fisher removes from the pond with its corpse is again and always the poem, in the guise of jewel or flower. Just so speaks Ariel, Shakespeare's final symbol of imagination, concerning the transformations of poetry:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
          Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
          Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change.

(The Tempest, I.ii.401-405)

So it is for poets when they go, in the words of a more recent female poet, Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck.”10

We can now account for the link between the two stanzas of “Der Dichter,” quoted above, between the imagery of the lake and the “Fadenstrauß” that we recognize from “Meine Sträuße.” It is this bouquet that is the key to the stanza.11 Plucked from the water, holding the poet in bondage, this bouquet can be said to summarize everything we have seen concerning the poetics implicit in Droste-Hülshoff's most personal image, her self-projection into the drowning Ophelia. Ophelia, the maiden weaving garlands by the river, provides a fitting metaphor for the gathering of poetry from nature. First she is a female Narcissus, contemplating her own image—not in delight, however, but in terror as the image dissolves upon the water; the irregularity of it all must be rationalized, and she indicts herself as a madwoman who seeks union with her double in suicide. She then becomes the corpse lingering in the water, surviving to haunt it as a skeleton, or face, or else, simply and most pertinently, as a voice. She is a wild self who is sacrificed to nature, where she becomes the muse, or voice. As Hamlet's mother tells us, Ophelia's last moments were spent in singing: “She chanted snatches of old lauds” until she was submerged, pulled down “from her melodious lay to muddy death” (Hamlet, IV.vii.177; 183-84).

“Deswegen kömmt es mir aber vor,
als sähe ich mich im Sarg
liegen und meine beiden Ichs
starren sich ganz verwundert an.”


But what are we to make of a poet who creates for herself a “dead” muse, and whose poetry abounds with images of decay that are of a kind quite different, for instance, from those of the German Baroque with its pervasive threat of sin and retribution, or those of the Graveyard School, with its attraction to melancholy? Droste-Hülshoff's poetry is at its most genuine, its most disturbingly original, when it projects a negative landscape such as that in the passage quoted above from “Spiritus Familiaris.” This is a landscape not unlike that which Keats savors—only to reject—in the first stanzas of the “Ode on Melancholy.”12 Yewberries, the death moth, the downy owl—Keats rejects this landscape of suicide, because he perceives these images to be emblematic of diminished poetic energy, as though the poet's imagination has been enshrouded by a drink from Lethe's waters. This situation spells poetic death for Keats, and the rejected first stanza of his ode decries the strategy of building “a bark of dead men's bones” in order to uncover the intensity of existence, which for Keats must ever reside in the fruitfulness and vitality of nature. But just such a bark is precisely what Droste-Hülshoff builds, in the works we have noted and elsewhere. As Clemens Heselhaus points out: “Von ihren Toten hat die Dichtung der Droste den schweren, ernsten Klang und ihr Hineinversenktsein in die Heimaterde die heiligende und heilende Kraft.”13 Heselhaus' formulation, “Hineinversenktsein,” aptly describes what I take to be one of Droste-Hülshoff's most important strategies, one to which the topos of drowning belongs: in many of the poems she situates herself in a grave-like place, descending into the earth (or the water) with its dead.14

Ledwina's daydream, in which she imagines herself to be a corpse submerged under the waves of moonlight on her bed, is preceded in that highly autobiographical novel by a dream, a complete narrative sequence that sheds considerable light, in my view, on the lyrics that I have been discussing. In her dream, Ledwina is accompanied by a group of friends and relatives to what is supposedly a theatrical performance. On the way, the leader of the group, who becomes Ledwina's guide, informs her that they have entered a cemetery and warns her to walk with care, as there are several freshly dug and open graves. Ledwina surveys the scene and laughs aloud when it occurs to her:

… daß hier ihr Liebstes auf der Welt begraben liege. Sie wußte keinen Namen und hatte keine genauere Form dafür als überhaupt die menschliche, aber es war gewiß ihr Liebstes, und sie riß sich mit einem furchtbar zerrißnen Angstgewimmer los und begann zwischen den Gräbern zu suchen und mit einem kleinen Spaden die Erde hier und dort aufzugraben. Nun war sie plötzlich die Zuschauende und sah ihre eigene Gestalt totenbleich mit wild im Wind flatternden Haaren an den Gräbern wühlen, mit einem Ausdrucke in den verstörten Zügen, der sie mit Entsetzen füllte. Nun war sie wieder die Suchende selber.

(ii, 290)

When Ledwina attempts to read the gravestones, she cannot decipher them, though she knows instinctively that none of them is “der rechte”—presumably that of “ihr Liebstes” (ii, 290). The danger of sinking into one of the graves becomes clear to Ledwina, and she tries to avoid the mounds, but the “Zwang des Traumes” pulls her toward one of them (ii, 290).

As she falls into the grave, Ledwina hears the boards of the wooden coffin breaking and finds herself lying next to a skeleton. Ledwina immediately recognizes “ihr Liebstes,” embraces it, and only later examines its features, “für die sie selbst keine Norm hatte” (ii, 290). Snow begins to cover the scene, obscuring her vision, even though it is now morning. Still unperturbed, Ledwina grasps the skeleton's hand—which detaches itself from the rest of the skeleton—and presses it to her lips. Finally she buries her face in “den modrigen Staub” (ii, 291). When she looks up again, she sees that night has fallen once more; at her command the guide leaves her his lantern, and by its light she begins to caress the skeleton with heartrending tenderness. Suddenly a child carrying a basket of fruit and flowers appears at the grave, and Ledwina buys the basket and then adorns the skeleton with its flowers:

Da sie den Korb umschüttete, wurden der Blumen so viele, daß sie das ganze Grab füllten. Des freute sie sich sehr, und wie ihr Blut milder floß, formte sich die Idee, als könne sie den verwesten Leib wieder aus Blumen zusammensetzen, daß er lebe und mit ihr gehe.

(ii, 291)

Ledwina's highly suggestive dream points to a connection between death and poetic inspiration. Instead of entering the theater of life at the beginning of the dream, Ledwina enters the abode of death. The torches held by the company, reminiscent of Lessing's smiling youth, grow brighter as the cemetery with its fresh graves is entered, suggesting that this stylized landscape is the actual theater of the imagination. The markers and grave mounds form the backdrop for the drama which Ledwina herself enacts; she is warned by the guide, whose responses, like those of the conscious self, are always safely conventional, not to fall into the open graves. But Ledwina searches for “ihr Liebstes,” which she instinctively knows to be buried there. The sense of doubleness so often experienced by the dreamer, the feeling of being at one moment spectator, at another actor, significantly occurs when she recognizes the wild abandon and desperation of her search. When she sees herself “totenbleich mit wild im Winde flatternden Haaren an den Gräbern wühlen,” it is her wild poetic self who digs with such frenzy. Meanwhile the other self, the spectator, sides with the guide and perceives the danger of “Einsinken,” which she cannot, however, avoid.

The desire for descent (she is pulled down by the “Zwang des Traumes”) here disguised as an unwilling fall, is precisely the situation revealed in so many of Droste-Hülshoff's most authentic poems. Although “das Liebste” is a skeleton to which Ledwina can attach no specific identity, it must be noted from her happiness at their reunion that they have been together before. Ledwina's attempt to merge with “das Liebste,” as she presses her face into the mouldering earth, indicates a desire for death that is openly acknowledged by the dreamer. The guide tries to persuade her to leave the grave, but Ledwina vows to remain until she, too, shall be dead.

As one critic has argued with respect to the poetics of Romanticism in general, “All confrontations with death … are equally available as metaphors for beginnings.”15 It seems apparent that what the wild self of Ledwina's dream is searching for in the earth is, among other things, a metaphor for its own origin. To have exposed the link between the imagination and death occasions a good deal of anxiety in Droste-Hülshoff, but this anxiety serves a constructive purpose. The dreamer's desire to turn to “dust,” the desire for complete annihilation or for the most elementary possible form of existence, is transformed or sublimated as the desire to “revive” the skeleton by covering it with flowers, to use it—to recall the figure we have discussed—as the basis for making poems.16 Again the pattern is a circular one: the notion of death as the source of inspiration implies in itself the search for poetic life. In some sense the buried skeleton is the wild self that the dreamer attempts so frantically to resurrect, while the child who brings the flowers is a mute and regressive self, which nevertheless provokes creative activity.17

To this earlier self, nature implies generation and fruitfulness, but for Ledwina, who rejects the child's fruit while keeping its flowers, the earth is more notable for harboring the dead than for creating life. Whereas Keats rejects his deadly landscape as implying poetic suicide, whereas for him the moment that fills “all fruit with ripeness to the core”—the moment of plenitude—is the poetic moment, Droste-Hülshoff can make no such claim for poetic power. Nature in the imagery of Ledwina's dream is represented only by the falling snow, which itself suggests a gentle burial, a covering or shroud over the psychic drama that the dream has uncovered. And the flowers—the language—with which she animates this drama remains expressive of death rather than life. Ledwina's dream offers a paradigm, and, indeed, an explanation, for the poetic strategy of immersion (“sich hineinversenken”), which was already implied in the narrower group of images clustered around the figure of Ophelia. In part, the poet's desire for descent is the desire to bury herself within Mother Nature. Once one has begun to account for the form of this desire, the tendency to submerge the self becomes apparent elsewhere in Droste-Hülshoff's work.

For instance, in a rather conventional poem, “Die Sterne. Frage” (ii, 88-89), Droste-Hülshoff addresses the stars as emblems of the sublime mysteries which guide the Geist upward:

Er sieht
Von Lichtglanz umglüht
Euren mystischen Lauf,
O hinauf, hinauf,
Aus der Wirklichkeit finstern Schranken hinauf!

(ii, 89)

The echoes of Goethe in the poem's rhythm and subject matter never attain the magical, bewitching quality of “Ganymede,” and the reader is not surprised that Droste-Hülshoff herself chose not to publish the poem. But in the second stanza of this poem otherwise devoted entirely to the stars, there is a passage that does not properly belong to its theme. Here, the weak, derivative plea for illumination from the upper regions is suddenly reversed:

Doch schweigen
Die bleichen
Gestirn wie das Grab,
O hinab, hinab,
Zu des Geheimnisses Urquell hinab!

(ii, 89)

That this image has its origin in the conventional expression “schweigt wie das Grab” is probable, but what is remarkable is the downward pull that the idea of the grave has upon the imagination. Even though it is silent, the grave seems more genuinely to be felt as “des Geheimnisses Urquell” than the stars can ever be. For Droste-Hülshoff, then, the source of sublimity and poetic ecstasy is death; death would seem to be her imagination's proper subject, and to fascinate her as none other does:

Wie tiefberauschend ist dein Odem,
O Phantasie! was kömmt ihm gleich
Wenn über Mauerzinnen bleich
Du gleiten läßt den Grabesbrodem!

(Die Schlacht im Loener Bruch, i, 387)

In “Meine Toten,” the poet approaches the dead before setting out on an unspecified significant venture, which may well be the quest for poetic vision. Subverting the Wordsworthian situation of having come to consciousness on Mother Nature's breast, Droste-Hülshoff claims to have been awakened by the dead: “Ich bin erwacht an eurer Gruft” (i, 85). Reminiscent of the drowned women we have discussed, the dead smile at her “aus der Welle Kreis,” and they can be discerned likewise in the icy winter landscape: “Habt aus des Angers starrem Eis / Die Blumenaugen aufgeschlagen” (i, 86). Here the dead have nearly usurped nature; indeed, they have a generative energy that is denied to the natural world and that is more forceful even than the poetic speech it inspires: “So spricht kein Wort wie Grabesbrodem” (i, 86). The poet requests that she be invested with “truth” through the direct agency of the dead, and lowers her forehead to the grass in the manner of Ledwina burying her face in the grave. The poet of “Meine Toten” listens for the voice of the dead in the “Gräserhauch,” just as another poet might more conventionally wait for the breath of inspiration from Heaven (i, 86). As Böschenstein-Schaefer has pointed out, it is true in general for Droste-Hülshoff that “jene Landschaft, die für sie allein als idyllisch zu gelten vermag, sich als eine Totenlandschaft enthüllt.”18

Droste-Hülshoff wishes to distance herself from the realization that death so overtly inspires her, however, and it is therefore not surprising that she should conceive of her muse as a wild self, as a double, that is, which is so different from the conventional self that it can be kept at a distance, and even, if need be, repudiated. Otto Rank has argued that the double, originally created by the psyche as a scapegoat to ward off death, derives its uncanniness from the fact that latterly it comes to be understood by the psyche as a harbinger of death rather than as a defense against it.19 Droste-Hülshoff seems almost literally to anticipate this theory of the origins of the double when she repeatedly presents it as a corpse, or, in other poems, as a ghost. But the inspirational presence of death is too strong to be absorbed entirely by the double in her work. When Benno von Wiese describes “das Unheimliche” in Droste-Hülshoff's ballads, he quite rightly does not refer only to the ghosts and doubles which populate them, but rather describes an unlocalized, threatening, yet at the same time presumably compelling, force which he calls “das magische Es, das aus dem Dunkel unnennbar und formlos, aber auch wieder in nebelhaften Formen sich einhüllend, in die verständliche Wirklichkeit des Menschen einbricht.”20 It seems more than likely that this “magical” force, attractive yet repellent, whether disembodied or represented, is at bottom a death wish that the poet at once keeps at bay and exploits for its imaginative possibilities, like Faust raising the cup of poison to his lips. But like Faust's, Drost-Hülshoff's death-wish is aimed, not toward oblivion, but toward a richer and more vital existence. Submersion in water and descents into the earth are figurative expressions of the death wish, but are also expressions of the need to recover the poetic voice at its source.


  1. See Joyce Hallamore, “The Reflected Self in Annette von Droste's Work: A Challenge to Self-Discovery,” Monatshefte, 61 (1969), 58-74; Rudolf Haller, “Eine Droste-Interpretation: ‘Das Spiegelbild,’” GRM [Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift], 37 (1956), 253-61; Walter Silz, “Problems of ‘Weltanschauung’ in the Works of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], 64 (1949), 678-700; Christa Suttner, “A Note on the Droste-Image and ‘Das Spiegelbild,’” German Quarterly, 40 (1967), 623-29.

  2. Henceforth I will cite volume and page number parenthetically from the following edition: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Winfried Woesler (München: Hanser, 1966). “Lebt Wohl,” i, 433-34.

  3. Bernhard Blume, “Das ertrunkene Mädchen: Rimbauds ‘Ophélie’ und die deutsche Literatur,” GRM, 35 (1954), 108-19; Gaston Bachelard, L'eau et les rêves: Essai sur l'imagination de la matière, Ch. III, “Le complexe de Caron; le complexe d'Ophélie” (Paris: José Corti, 1942).

  4. Bachelard, pp. 111, 113.

  5. Letter to Chr. B. Schlüter, 4 June 1835; letter to Elise Rüdiger, 20 July 1845. Karl Schulte Kemminghausen, Die Briefe der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, 2 vols. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968). The former may be found in i, 154; the latter in ii, 411.

  6. As Joyce Hallamore has maintained (p. 67): “At no point in the story can we detach these two figures [the sisters] from each other: Helene's ‘separateness’ resulted from Gertrude's act of acquiescence, and the purpose of the sister's existence thereafter is centered in the reunion.”

  7. On the idea of the child as a Droste-Hülshoff persona, see Renate Böschenstein-Schaefer's “Die Struktur des Idyllischen im Werk der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” Kleine Beiträge zur Droste-Forschung, 3 (1974-75), 25-49.

  8. I believe that the male personification of “Weiher” is grammatically determined. For a Freudian reading of this cycle, see Böschenstein-Schaefer.

  9. This poem is not included as such in the Woesler edition. See Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Clemens Heselhaus (München: Hanser, 1966), pp. 254-56.

  10. Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-72 (New York: Norton, 1973).

  11. See Clemens Heselhaus (“Der Distel mystische Rose,” Droste-Jahrbuch, ii [1950], 38-47) who locates the entire significance of the poem in the “Distel mystische Rose,” not the “Fadenstrauß.”

  12. I refer to the original first stanza, which Keats rejected, and to the stanza with which he chose to open the ode, beginning “No, no, go not to Lethe. …” See Jack Stillinger, ed., The Poems of John Keats (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978), p. 374.

  13. Clemens Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Die Entdeckung des Seins in der Dichtung des 19. Jahrhunderts (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1943), p. 150.

  14. Among the “poems of descent”—which I shall not discuss here—belong, in my opinion, “Die Mergelgrube,” “Der Hünenstein,” “Im Grase,” and ultimately, “Im Moose,” which contains the strongest image of the disintegrating, dissolving self: “und noch zuletzt sah ich, gleich einem Rauch, / Mich leise in der Erde Poren ziehen” (i, 72).

  15. Leslie Brisman, Romantic Origins (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978), p. 19.

  16. Böschenstein-Schaefer (p. 47) suggests that this is the case.

  17. We have mentioned the child as persona, a cast-off, former self in “Spiritus Familiaris.” It occurs also in the poems “Doppeltgänger” and “Durchwachte Nacht.”

  18. Böschenstein-Schaefer, p. 47.

  19. Otto Rank, The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study, trans., ed. Harry Tucker, Jr. (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1971), p. 86.

  20. Benno von Wiese, “Die Balladen der Annette von Droste,” Droste-Jahrbuch, i (1947), 28.

Maruta Lietina-Ray (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3130

SOURCE: Lietina-Ray, Maruta. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and Critics of Die Judenbuche.” In Woman as Mediatrix: Essays on Nineteenth-Century European Women Writers, edited by Avriel H. Goldberger, pp. 123-31. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Lietina-Ray discusses the prevailing sexism of criticism on Droste-Hülshoff and Die Judenbuche. Lietina-Ray observes that criticism on Droste-Hülshoff's prose is often less respectful than that on her poetry.]

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff is acknowledged to be the most important German woman writer of the nineteenth century, and her novella “Die Judenbuche” (“The Jews' Beech Tree”) is recognized as a masterpiece. The novella has been translated into eight languages and is required reading in much of West Germany. Yet, though generally praised, it is frequently faulted for “errors” and “mistakes”; it is not accorded the autonomy of a work of art with its own artistic integrity or approached with the same respect shown works by German male authors. Most critics also refer to Droste in a patronizing way as “Annette,” although none refer to male authors in this fashion. The critical opinions expressed are so unusual that they raise the question of whether there is a difference in the way important women writers' work is critically received and whether the writers' sex does not influence both male and female critics. Drawing upon criticism published on Droste's “Judenbuche” over the past hundred forty years in Germany and the United States, this chapter will study the image of the woman writer and will concentrate on the consistency or change in critical views of a woman's work.

The novella begins with a poetic epigraph that introduces social prejudice as the theme of the story. The story is about everyday life in an isolated rural community, about the customs, mores, and relationships of the villagers and about the relationships between the villagers and the ruling aristocracy. The content is reflected in Droste's own title for the story, “A Portrayal of the Customs of the Hill Country of Westphalia.” This title was changed to “The Jews' Beech Tree” by the editor of the newspaper in which the novella was first published in 1842. Droste's own title was relegated to the position of subtitle and has remained such ever since. Unfortunately, most critics ignore the subtitle, which more appropriately indicates the content of the story. Thus, Clemens Heselhaus, for example, says that Droste's title has become “superfluous,” although “it very aptly states the intention of the author to simultaneously render a portrayal of the customs, practices, and mores.”1

The story focuses on Friedrich Mergel whose parents' notoriety rubs off upon him. When the Jew Aaron is murdered, the villagers suspect Mergel to be the killer. Droste's narrative provides no grounds for their suspicions, and it is only endemic social prejudice that makes Mergel into the murderer. By the same token, Johannes, an illegitimate look-alike for Mergel and probably his cousin, is regarded with equal but different prejudice as naive, innocent, simpleminded and incapable of doing evil. After the murder both Mergel and Johannes disappear, and the murderer is never brought to justice. The Jewish community purchases the beech tree under which Aaron's body was found and inscribes on the bark in Hebrew the sentence “When you approach this place, the same thing will happen to you that you did to me,” to stand as a living memorial of the murder.

The story resumes twenty-eight years later when a broken old man returns to the village. He is recognized as Johannes. Yet, when he subsequently commits suicide by hanging himself on the beech tree, the Baron, who acts as the local judge and jury, orders that people be told that the suicide is Friedrich and not Johannes, as everyone had thought. Even in death prejudice against Friedrich prevails.

Despite the fact that the true murderer is never positively identified, most critics of the story perceive it to be a murder mystery. Friedrich is taken to be the murderer, and the Baron's “identification” of the corpse is assumed to be infallible. The critics then proceed to analyze how and why Friedrich became a murderer. Having made these a priori assumptions, critics then complain that the remainder of the story dealing with the mores, practices and life of the Westphalians is extrinsic and irrelevant to the “murder” story.

Droste was inspired to write her story after reading an allegedly true account, written down by her uncle, of similar events, which occurred in Westphalia in the eighteenth century.2 It is the tale of a villager who murders a Jew, flees and is captured by slave traders, spends years as a slave in Algeria, returns to his native village and is pardoned but eventually hangs himself in the woods. This eighteenth-century story must be mentioned because it has become a major focus for the analysis of the novella. Heselhaus believes that precisely in its deviation from the source, the novella becomes a work of art.3 That this is indeed the case is confirmed by Droste herself in a letter written to a friend three years before the work was published. She emphasizes that the character of the murderer in the source is very different from the character of her (Droste's italics) Mergel.4 Thus, though acknowledging that her inspiration was drawn from the source, Droste differentiates between her work and the source and confirms that her work is the product of a conscious creative process.

Among the critics who were interested in comparing Droste's novella with its historical “model,” Walter Silz notes that Droste departed “radically from her ‘source,’” and Julius Schwering feels that “Annette is taking liberties” with the “model.”5 Heinz Rölleke also accuses Droste of “deviating” from the model, because she “cruelly” lets Mergel end up in the carrion pit, while in the model the suicide is buried in a cemetery.6 Reading such criticism one wonders why Shakespeare's or Brecht's plays are not similarly judged on their historical accuracy or faithfulness to their sources. In Droste's case, perhaps the critics are preoccupied with the “model” because of their inclination not to take the creativity of a woman writer seriously and to show how she has muddled the “truth.” Whatever the motive, these critics have denied the novella its artistic autonomy.

While much attention has been devoted to the source, which is essentially peripheral to the novella, little attention has been given to the story's poetic epigraph. The epigraph states that it is impossible for one human being to judge another fairly, and expressly forbids anyone to judge his inferiors. Most critics simply ignore the poem, probably because, as their interpretations suggest, the poem does not fit their inductive murder-mystery explication. If the poem is mentioned, it is dissociated from the rest of the novella. Thus Heselhaus wants to make the author of the poem different from the rest of the novella, because “if the two are not differentiated, one would have consequently to assume that Droste indeed has left open the question whether Friedrich Mergel is or is not involved in the murder.”7 The poem has nothing to do with a murder mystery, which is what Heselhaus wanted the novella to be. Therefore, the epigraph must be removed to make the story fit the critic's scheme.

In dealing with the content, critics also ignore the author's portrayal of the customs and mores of the Westphalians. Theodore Fontane in 1890 complains that the novella consists of two stories and too much material for its scope.

I feel that the story of the uncle [Friedrich's uncle, suspected father of Johannes], deserves to be made into the focus and the story about the Jews would then be omitted, but if Annette wanted rather to tell the latter tale, which also has much to recommend it, then the former with the uncle should have been only a minor incident, not a rival plot.8

Again, what Droste has written is not thought to be of central importance. Instead, the critic's personal wishes, how he would have written the story, are the basis for the criticism. Emil Staiger similarly asserted that the village wedding scene is superfluous and does not contribute to the murder story.9 If Staiger had studied the content of the work, he would have seen it as one of many village weddings in the novella and one that portrays the Baron's blindness to the true relationships among his villagers whom he does not really know. Since Droste has given the reader ample proof of the absence of intimacy between the Baron and his people, the Baron's identification of the body at the end of the novella should seem all the more questionable.

It is also noteworthy that many German critics never question the Baron's identification of the corpse. It would appear that they respect too greatly the social authority vested in the Baron. Robert Koenig states: “The Baron, together with his family, is an appealing personality. Unprejudiced, fair, and brimming with love for his neighbor, he is not only a circumspect guardian of order, but also a helpful friend and counselor to the villagers.”10 Erik Wolf states: “Authority as an ‘office’ is always right and must be maintained against insubordination.”11 In contrast to this, an English-speaking critic, Betty N. Weber, believes that Droste exposed the limitations of feudalistic protection. Though seemingly solicitous of its subjects, “rather than institute measures for preventing destitution, the aristocracy provides niggardly refuge for the casualties of the existing order.”12 That the novella ends in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, is a further indication to Weber of the underlying social injustice depicted in the novella.

That the Baron's word is to be trusted, while the narrator's, Droste's, is not, appears most clearly in discussions of the final scene, when the Baron looks intently at a scar on the body of the suicide before announcing that the suicide is to be called “Friedrich.” Nowhere before in the story has such a scar been mentioned, therefore, objectively seen, it cannot serve as a positive means of identification. Yet some critics persist in referring to it as the decisive factor in solving the mystery, while chastizing Droste for “forgetting” to include it earlier in the story. They overlook the fact that in an earlier fragment of the novella Droste did endow Friedrich with a scar but removed it in all later versions.13 This must have been done to conceal the identity of the murderer. The only critic who perceived the scar differently, as a topos of recognition going back to Ulysses, is Gerard Oppermann. He summarizes the attacks on Droste for “forgetting” to include the scar earlier and then says, “Is this objection justified or can ways and arguments be found to vindicate the writer in the eyes of her exegetes?”14 He is not simply offering a new interpretation of the novella but trying to find ways to show that Droste is acting deliberately and that the absence of the scar is not the result of sloppy writing. The appropriateness of Oppermann's argument is seen from the fact that Droste criticism is all too often ad hominem.

Exception is also taken to Droste because she is “merciless.” Ernest Feist finds that Droste's ending is devoid of the “mercy” that otherwise governs the “maternal heart” of the author.15 Thus it appears that for a woman writer certain attitudes and subjects are deemed suitable, others not; her literary work should reflect maternal instincts, justice, goodness and kindness. One marvels that the reverse demands are not made of male authors: reflection of paternal instincts, injustice, evil, and cruelty.

In addition to criticism directed at specific aspects of the novella, sweeping evaluations abound. Levin Schücking in 1862 calls it one of the “most excellent ‘Dorfgeschichten’ in German literature.”16 Julian Schmidt said that the atmosphere of the story bespeaks great talent, while the plot is maddeningly confused.17 Adele Schopenhauer feels it successfully captures reality.18 The contradictory nature of Droste criticism is exemplified by Fontane (1890) and Paul Ernst (1904). Fontane wrote that “pretty and noteworthy as it is,” he “would not rank it among the best works; although it exudes atmosphere and is very effective, still it lacks artistry and technique.”19 Ernst wrote that “Die Judenbuche” belongs among the most outstanding novellas ever written in Germany. Yet, he claimed that Droste did not write it; it wrote itself: “Now Annette belongs to those writers who only minimally consciously guide the creative process. … We have in Annette's work the result of an unintentional activity of artistic imagination.” Furthermore, Ernst says that Droste's “conscious artistic will” was very limited and therefore she should be called a dilettante. “Thus we have here a truly remarkable example of the independent existence of artistic form.”20 Rudolf A. Schroder similarly comments that it appears that “Annette” has attained the pinnacle of art almost in a semiconscious state, while others have to struggle step by step to reach such perfection.21

A brief look at the criticism of Droste's poetry—and Droste was primarily a poet—yields a very different picture. Commentators are generally more appreciative of its uniqueness and originality, and they make a genuine effort to understand what Droste is saying. Ironically, the very qualities—uniqueness, originality, individuality—for which her poetry is lauded call forth negative opinions when they appear in her novella, which is nevertheless considered among the best ever written in the German language. Since 1962 most critics of her poetry refer to the author as “Droste,” and of fourteen critics surveyed, only two men and two women still refer to her as “Annette.” They do so in the extreme, however, speaking even of “Annette-poems” and “Annette-research” (imagine: “Tom-novels, Tom-research” when speaking of Thomas Mann).

In summary, what then is the image of Droste the writer as reflected in criticism of her “Judenbuche”? Referring to her persistently as “Annette,” critics demonstrate a familiar, patronizing and disrespectful attitude. Criticism is frequently ad hominem. Droste is seen as an inept dilettante who cannot even retell the facts found in her source correctly. She has poor control of the novella form and poor technique. She is not feminine or maternal because she is cruel to her hero. She does not know her own plot and in fact does not even write the novella. It writes itself. She is seldom given credit for conscious creative artistry; yet the paradox remains that the novella is a masterpiece of German literature.

This general image of Droste as a bungling dilettante who is not responsible for the excellence of her novella remained constant from the 1840's until the mid-1960's, when some critics began to approach the work differently. Unlike their predecessors, who did not attend to the text but forced it into their own preconceptions about what Droste should or would have said, other critics now look at what has actually been written. It happens that for the most part these critics are American women, and their work has not yet had an appreciable impact on critics in Germany.22 Their approach to Droste's work does not seem a matter of “feminist” literary criticism but rather an outgrowth of their literary-critical training. Their methods are different from those of the German critics. Thus the critic's nationality or country of training seems to influence the type of criticism more than his or her sex. Americans of both sexes appear more open-minded and sex blind, while German critics of both sexes seem to approach Droste's work with less respect than that shown to male writers. It is unfortunate that there are no other nineteenth-century German women writers of Droste's stature, for a comparison of the critical reception of several women writers would prove revealing. One is left to wonder whether some German literary criticism is not governed by the critic's own social and cultural prejudice—against women in general and against aristocratic, neurotic spinster-poets who dabble in prose, that is, Droste, in particular.


  1. Clemens Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Werk und Leben (Dusseldorf: A. Bagel, 1971), p. 155. This and all subsequent translations from the German are mine.

  2. August von Haxthausen, “Geschichte eines Algierer-Sklaven,” Wünschelruthe. Ein Zeitblatt, ed. H[einrich] Straube and J[ohann] P[eter] von Hornthal (Gottingen), nos. 11-15, February 5-19, 1818, pp. 41f., 46f., 50f., 55, 59f.

  3. Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 158.

  4. Die Briefe der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, ed. Karl Schulte Kemminghausen, 2 vols. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968), I: 367.

  5. Heinz Rölleke, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: “Die Judenbuche” (Bad Homburg, Berlin, Zurich: Gehlen, 1970), p. 195, lists the critiques of Huffer, 1880; Redegeld, 1895; Franzos, 1897; Loewenberg, 1920; Keck, 1925; Ocke, 1927; Meisel, 1928; and Flaskamp, 1937. See also Walter Silz, Realism and Reality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954), p. 46. Robert Koenig, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Ein Lebens- und Literaturbild (Heidleberg, 1883), p. 22, quotes Julius Schwering.

  6. Heinze Rölleke, “Erzahltes Mysterium: Studie zur ‘Judenbuche’ der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” DVjs, [Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift] 42 (1968), 417.

  7. Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 152. Here Heselhaus is referring to the murder of the forester Brandis.

  8. Rölleke, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 189.

  9. Emil Staiger, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Horgen-Zurich and Leipzig: Münster-Presse, 1933), p. 60. This is offset by Edson Chick, “Voices in Discord: Some Observations on ‘Die Judenbuche,’” GO [German Quarterly] 42 (March 1969), pp. 147-57.

  10. Koenig, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 38.

  11. Erik Wolf, Vom Wesen des Rechts in deutscher Dichtung: Hölderlin. Stifter. Hebel. Droste. (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1946), p. 235.

  12. Betty Nance Weber, “Droste's ‘Judenbuche’: Westphalia in International Context,” Germanic Review 50 (1975), 210, n. 27.

  13. For discussion of the scar, see Maruta Lietina-Ray, “Das Recht der öffentlichen Meinung: Über das Vorurteil in der ‘Judenbuche,’” Zeitschrift fur deutsche Philologie, Sonderheft: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,Die Judenbuche.” Neue Studien und Interpretationen 99 (1979), 99-109. See also Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 153, and Rölleke, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 231.

  14. Gerard Oppermann, “Die Narbe des Friedrich Mergel: Zur Aufklärung eines literarischen Motivs in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's ‘Die Judenbuche,’” DVjs [Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift] 50 (1976), 449.

  15. Ernst Feist, “‘Die Judenbuche’ von Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” Monatshefte, 35 (December, 1943), 415.

  16. Levin Schücking as quoted in Rölleke, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 188.

  17. Julian Schmidt as quoted in Clemens Heselhaus, “Statt einer Wirkungsgeschichte: Die Aufnahme der postumen Werke der Droste,” Jahrbuch der Droste-Gesellschaft 5 (1972), 131.

  18. Adele Schopenhauer as quoted in Rölleke, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, 188.

  19. Fontane as quoted in Ibid.

  20. All Ernst quotations are from Rölleke, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, pp. 189-92.

  21. Rudolf A. Schroder as quoted in Rölleke, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, p. 193.

  22. For such criticism see: (1) Jane K. Brown, “The Real Mystery in Droste-Hülshoff's ‘Die Judenbuche,’” MLR [Modern Language Review], 73 (October, 1978), 835-45; (2) Janet K. King, “Conscience and Conviction in ‘Die Judenbuche,’” Monatshefte 64 (Winter, 1972), 349-55; (3) Betty Nance Weber, see note 12; and (4) Maruta Lietina-Ray, see note 13. By comparison, at a three-day Colloquium on “Die Judenbuche” sponsored by the Droste-Gesellschaft in Münster, West Germany in November 1978, only two of the fourteen lecturers deviated from the murder-mystery interpretation of the novella. The major papers read at the colloquium have been published; see note 13.

John Guthrie (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12657

SOURCE: Guthrie, John. “Poetry 1838-1845.” In Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: A German Poet Between Romanticism and Realism, pp. 44-76. Oxford: Berg, 1989.

[In the following essay, Guthrie gives a chronological review of a prolific period in Droste-Hülshoff's writing, depicting her development thematically and stylistically. Guthrie downplays any early feminist leanings or awareness in the poet's work.]

MüNSTER 1838-1840

The encouragement which came from various quarters in the two years after the appearance of her first volume of poetry—encouragement from Schlüter, from members of the literary circle in Münster—did not produce great results. These couple of years (until the winter of 1839 when she started working on the Geistliches Jahr again) are characterised by a notable amount of indecision on Droste-Hülshoff's part about what to write. She often wavered between prose and poetry, getting down to neither.

As far as poetry is concerned, there are four poems only, all to be included a few years later in her second volume of poetry, the first and third in the section Poems on Different Subjects, the other two in the section Light and Serious. The first of them, ‘Der kranke Aar’ (‘The Sick Eagle’) is an allegorical poem in dialogue form, a fable-like sketch in verse. Its original title, ‘Der weiße Aar’ (‘The White Eagle’) is thought by editors to contain an allusion to the national emblem of Poland, for the Polish Wars of Liberation and political suppression in Poland were widely discussed in Germany in the 1830s. When in 1843 Droste-Hülshoff reworked the poem for publication, she did her best to obliterate any political connotations which it might have had. She also set the poem to music. It is typical of her to turn a political subject into a personal one. She, not Poland, is the eagle with broken wings, not without ambition and pride, prevented by some other eagles (some other poets, perhaps) or some inhibition, from reaching the Parnassus. Though the exact implications of the allegory are far from clear, it is prescient in one regard, for it rightly implies that she has not yet reached full flight.

The second of these poems, ‘Der Teetisch’ (‘At the Tea Table’) seems formally descended from the lilting trochaics of Goethe's West-östlicher Divan or Heine's Atta Troll. But unlike Heine, who wrote a venomous little poem with the same title directed at one of his unfaithful loves, Droste-Hülshoff's is a mildly satirical account of the literary circle in Münster. It is a rather oblique portrayal of that group's habits (her views are more clearly expressed in letters she wrote to Sophie von Haxthausen, 27 January 1839, and to her sister Jenny, 29 January 1839).

During this period Droste-Hülshoff appears to have occasionally written into her friends' poetry albums, thereby continuing a habit she had begun much earlier and cultivating a widespread Biedermeier tradition. There are two such ‘Leaves from a Poetry Album’ (‘Stammbuchblätter’) which became formal poems but have come down to us grouped together. One is entitled ‘Mit Lauras Bilde / Im Namen eines Freundes’ (‘With Lauras Image / In the Name of a Friend’). This poem has more sophistication than earlier attempts of the kind, being a Petrarchan sonnet. Its subject is also Petrarch and his failure to reach his beloved Laura and the ultimate prize in poetry, symbolised by the myrtle leaf. He must content himself, the poet argues, with thorns and cyprus branches. Droste-Hülshoff rather boldly makes a parallel between herself and Petrarch. Once again the idea is the necessity of being content with less than the ultimate; it is a statement of personal modesty rather than an expression of the view shared by many Biedermeier writers that they were epigones. The second of the ‘Leaves from a Poetry Album’ is for Henriette von Hohenhausen. It is an eighteen-line meditation on the twin themes of closeness and distance, transiency and friendship, themes that hark back to the Baroque and the eighteenth century.

In the fourth of these poems, ‘Das Eselein’ (‘The Little Donkey’), thought by some editors to have been written in the winter of 1841-42, the poet's traditional symbol, Pegasus, becomes a more ordinary animal, a grey donkey grazing in the paddock. This is another allegory, evidently directed in the first place against Levin Schücking, with whom her relationship had become more intimate and whose penchant for involving himself in politics and using poetry as a weapon she could not reconcile with her own views. This poem also carries the more general message that poetry which is ‘improved’ with such aims in mind often ends up as inferior. This view of art as having an autonomous function is often voiced by Droste-Hülshoff. The poem lives through its humour, which is cheerful and bouncy, but it is typical of her admonitory parable that it is oblique and allegorical, rather than direct.


These months and beyond were productive. They saw the completion of Geistliches Jahr, the comedy Perdu! and several ballads for Freiligrath's journal, as well as Die Judenbuche and three chapters of Bei uns zu Lande. The first journey to Meersburg in September 1841, lasting until the following summer, with Schücking there as Laßberg's librarian from October to April, was important for Droste-Hülshoff's development as a lyric poet. She produced some five dozen poems, many of them published with Schücking's help in the months that followed, and many of them taken up in the edition of 1844. They include some of the finest she wrote.

That may not perhaps be said of the first group of them, five Zeitbilder (Pictures of the Times), placed at the beginning of the 1844 edition with five more. These are more programmatic than much else she wrote, and they prove that being a conservative writer does not mean being an apolitical one. ‘Die Schulen’ (‘The Schools’) is a two-pronged gibe at contemporary education, which rejected traditional methods of learning on the one hand or used them to excess on the other, and it is an attack on classroom learning in general which does not take nature as an authority. (In the 1844 edition Droste-Hülshoff significantly uses this poem as a lead-in to the Heidebilder). Also concerned with the theme of education and with the conflict between generations is ‘Alte und neue Kinderzucht’ (‘Bringing up Children, Old Ways and New’). This consists of two sketches, less programmatic than the title might lead one to expect. The first sketch is a dialogue between a patriarch and his son: the patriarch encourages his son to carry forth the tradition from one generation to the next. In the second sketch, an aged poet composes verses while observing his children. He is writing on the conflict between generations. Youth is overweening; things were different when he was a child. He is rudely interrupted by the sight of his son abusing his manuscript, then by having a jug of water poured over his head. It is clear from these two contrasting little sketches which type of upbringing Droste-Hülshoff preferred. It is typical of her to present her critique in a humorous way rather than vent her disapproval more directly. The unquestioning acceptance of the patriarchal model is telling.

A similar conflict between old and new pervades the poem ‘Vor vierzig Jahren’ (‘Forty Years Ago’). The quickening pace of modern life has caused us to neglect real values. Romanticism (like most movements in literature) produced much that was trivial, imitative, lacking in true feeling. But her contemporaries do not therefore have a reason to become blasé. We do not have enough regard for ideals, nor for things around the home. True love is scarce too; alienation between individuals is more common. We are beggar-like kings in the kingdom of the steppes. The new, post-romantic age is therefore greeted with caution.

The two remaining Zeitbilder are more directly political, though they are not clearly focused on a single political issue, ‘An die Weltverbesserer’ (‘To Those Who Would Improve this World’), originally entitled ‘Warnung an die Weltverbesserer’ (‘Warning to Those Who Would Improve this World’) issues a warning for revolutionaries who demand too radical changes. This poem shows its author's conservatism very clearly. It is an example of the political poetry of the time advocating the status quo. Similarly, ‘Die Gaben’ (‘The Gifts’) was written in defence of the dignity Droste-Hülshoff felt to be associated with the idea of monarchy. It is a spirited defence of the ability of the ruling classes to rule and a criticism of the abuse of that principle. It is directed at those who think they can usurp authority and take government into their own hands. But it is also a warning against arrogance in general. Formally this poem is of interest: its outstanding feature is a series of rhetorical questions, each comprising one stanza in the poem's central section. That is typical of these Zeitbilder. In general they are distinguished only by the rhetorical devices they use, their formal control of language. Their argumentation is strained and obscure, often difficult to disentangle. Equally, there is little that is really successful in the way of images. They are successful on their own terms, which are limited, but not in any wider sense as poetry, for although some of them make general as well as topical statements, they are too terse, rhetorical and cerebral to affect us deeply. They illustrate, on the one hand, that not only liberal writers but conservative ones as well were politically outspoken, even aggressive, at the beginning of the 1840s. But the bulk of the reading population in Germany was more interested in non-political literature. Despite some enthusiasm for them in the first two decades after her death, they never became popular poems.1

Written between October 1841 and July 1842 in Meersburg, the twelve Heidebilder are Droste-Hülshoff's first cycle of nature poems. In them, she presents a whole range of masterly poetic evocations of the atmosphere of the Westphalian landscape. It is, though, misleading to call them simply nature poems, for they evoke different aspects of the region, its history and archaeology, and a sense of what it is like for a community to live there. Some critics have seen them as a cycle of poems with a religious thrust to them, enhanced by the fact that they are twelve in number.2 But apart from one of them, ‘Das Haus in der Heide’ (‘The House on the Heath’), they are as secular as one could imagine them to be, and their collective title, pictures or views of the heath, carries with it the suggestion of a random selection, by no means clearly reinforcing the notion of a religious message. The poems have a strong narrative element. Sometimes this communicates casualness, as in the idea of a stroll through the countryside which is at the base of ‘Die Mergelgrube’ (‘The Marl-Pit’) or ‘Die Vogelhütte’ (‘The Bird-Hut’), on other occasions it is more dynamic, as in the poem ‘Die Jagd’ (‘The Hunt’), which gives us the enthusiasm and excitement of the hunt.

The tone of the cycle is set by the first poem, ‘Der Knabe im Moor’ (‘The Boy on the Moor’), in which the uncanny aspect of nature impinges on the consciousness of a young boy crossing the moor. The uncanny is evoked by the many references to folklore which sees the landscape as peopled by a variety of strange figures. But there is a dualism here: typical of Droste-Hülshoff is the affirmative resolution. The boy finds comfort in the warm glow of the lamp inside the home. This does not mean that the harrowing experience is forgotten. The temporal aspect of the poem alleviates the experience of the uncanny but does not obliterate it. The poem also offers some splendid examples of Droste-Hülshoff's use of onomatopoeia. There is an uneasy balance communicated by this poem; its language shows how the outside world both repels and attracts at the same time. Such onomatopoeic, oxymoronic phrases as ‘zischt und singt’, ‘rieselt und knittert’ illustrate this.

O schaurig ist's über's Moor zu gehn,
Wenn es wimmelt vom Heiderauche,
Sich wie Phantome die Dünste drehn
Und die Ranke häkelt am Strauche,
Unter jedem Tritte ein Quellchen springt,
Wenn aus der Spalte es zischt und singt,
O schaurig ist's über's Moor zu gehn,
Wenn das Röhricht knistert im Hauche!
Vom Ufer starret Gestumpf hervor,
Unheimlich nicket die Föhre,
Der Knabe rennt, gespannt das Ohr,
Durch die Riesenhalme wie Speere;
Und wie es rieselt und knittert darin!
Das ist die unselige Spinnerin,
Das ist die gebannte Spinnlenor'
Die den Haspel dreht im Geröhre!
(Terrible to walk on the moor,
When it's oozing with smoke of the heath,
The mists turn like phantoms,
And the shoots entwine the bush,
Beneath each footstep a little spring spouts,
When from each crevice comes a hiss and a hum,
Terrible to walk over the moor,
When the reeds crackle with your breath!
From the bank stumps are staring out,
The fir tree nods uncannily,
The boy runs, his ears pricked up,
Through giant reeds like spears;
And how it ripples and crackles in there!
It's the accursed spinner-girl,
It's the banished spinner-Jane,
Turning the reel in the reeds.)

The following poem, ‘Das Hirtenfeuer’ (‘Shepherds' Fire’) exudes a sense of the natural life close to the land. A group of lads starting a fire on the heath spot another fire. Each group calls to the other to join them. There are some powerful lines in this poem, lines which attest the strength of Droste-Hülshoff's visual and auditory imagination:

Unke kauert im Sumpf,
Igel im Grase duckt,
In dem modernden Stumpf
Schlafend die Kröte zuckt
Und am sandigen Hange
Rollt sich fester die Schlange.
(Red-bellied toad crouches in the bog,
Hedgehog bobs in the grass,
In the rotting tree-stump
The sleeping toad flinches
And on the sandy slope
The snake rolls itself tighter.)

The question of how realistic this sort of poetry is has often been discussed. Often it is held up as a model of poetic realism. Wolfgang Kayser has argued on the other hand that it is essentially impressionistic, creating atmosphere dependent on mood rather than close observation.3 There is some truth in this assertion as well. Her description of a toad crouching in the bog could no doubt be lent more realism, more accuracy of detail. But the line does much to communicate the flavour of the bog, the toad's habitation, and it does this through the quality of sounds. More detail would perhaps destroy the effect; mimesis is not Droste-Hülshoff's main concern. The absence of the article in the case of ‘toad’ and ‘hedgehog’ gives a sense of the archetypal, while its inclusion with the other fauna lends a sense of the particular and familiar. The tension between the two runs through the poem.

The strength of community feeling is also evident in ‘Der Heidemann’ (‘The Man of the Heath’). The ‘man’ on the heath is in fact the fog, which harbours potential dangers for children. Hence the poem begins in an admonitory fashion. This is not poetry for children though. There is simplicity in the message but complexity in the form. ‘Der Weiher’ (‘The Pond’) is reminiscent of the cyclical nature poems written in Eppishausen. The introduction evokes the peacefulness of the pond and the harmony of nature. A conversation between the reeds, the lime tree and the rushes ensues. There is a self-directed irony typical of Droste-Hülshoff in this poem, for the lime tree observes the poet on the bank ‘whispering wondrous song’. Yet the poem's final section is given over once more to children, who note the potential dangers beneath the calm surface of the scene.

The briefest poem in the cycle, and one of the most powerful, is ‘Die Steppe’ (‘The Steppes’), consisting of three eight-line stanzas in which the poet addresses the reader directly. A series of terse, rhetorical questions probes the reader's imagination. We are asked if we have stood on the beach and observed the merging of the sand and the sea. Then the poet asks whether a shepherd's barrow could be likened to a ship at sea with its cannons. The analogy continues; a pine tree becomes a mast. Once such analogies have been established, there is a confusion between levels of reality: the ‘crow's nest’ on the mast again becomes the bird's nest it in fact is. Such confusion of levels of reality in the optical sphere is central to Droste-Hülshoff's conception of nature. Through it the poem seems to ask the question: ‘what is real?’

The following poem ‘Die Krähen’ (‘The Crows’) gives us, literally, a crow's-eye view of the landscape. Landscape here is treated in the historical sense, for the crow-narrator recounts its observations of the Battle of Stadtlohn in which Christian von Braunschweig was defeated. It is therefore a pendant-piece to Die Schlacht im Loener Bruch. As we know from that epic, Droste-Hülshoff was not inclined to accept the ‘great-man theory’ of history. Her crow-narrator depicts the darker side of this historical event, sparing us no details of the scavenging that takes place after the battle. This poem shows the variety of the Heidebilder: in it an historical subject is treated as a recurrent problem and from an anecdotal, unanalytical point of view. ‘Die Schmiede’ (‘The Smithy’) seems at first glance like genre-painting: a splendid picture of a smithy which has little connection with the landscape. But the folksong it includes tells of a hunt across the moor, linking the smith's work with the world outside. Beyond that, the poem's classical allusions (to Mucius Scaevola, to the Cyclopes, to Pluto and Proserpina) suggest a wider theme, but their point is not made clear.

It is, however, ‘Das Haus in der Heide’ (‘The House on the Heath’) which introduces a religious note into an otherwise secular set of poems. In this poem a thatched hut on the moor merges with a vision of the Nativity. The poem has a childlike simplicity about it, typical of genre-painting in the poetry of the period and of the sentimental side of the Biedermeier. In ‘Der Hünenstein’ (‘The Standing Stone’) on the other hand we find the poet ‘voluptuously sucking at the sweetness of horror’ (‘Wollüstig saugend an des Grauens Süße’). The uncanny returns as a theme in this poem, which explores the two senses of the word ‘subterranean’: the archaeological excavation in which the poet is initially engaged and the grim past which lies buried here and can be summoned back at any time. Typically, the poem ends on a note of bathos: a lackey returns, and the poet's apparition is immediately dispersed.

While, as recognised above, ‘Die Jagd’ gives us the excitement of the hunt, it is important to take cognisance of the idyllic note on which the poem opens. The atmosphere is carefully evoked; its sudden disruption is dramatically presented. This is a formally varied and carefully structured poem, which as a presentation of the hunt, has few equals in German poetry. Droste-Hülshoff's fascination for the geography of the region is further revealed in ‘Die Mergelgrube’ (‘The Marl-Pit’). Here the poet descends beneath the surface of earth where she finds an infinite variety of colours. She has entered once again an uncanny, prehistoric realm in which she takes the anti-Enlightenment view that man is something very small when measured against the world at large. She does not know what her position is in the continuum of history. There is no blind optimism here. She is conscious of change in the natural realm, expressed in terms which could equally well apply to the social world: ‘Wie Neues quoll und Altes sich zersetzte’ (‘How new things sprung up and old ones decayed’). Her consciousness of death and decay is contrasted with the cheerful folk-song sung by a shepherd. This brings her back to reality; once again she is conscious of having descended into the world of the imagination.

The final poem in the cycle serves as a neat epilogue, because in it the poet reflects, with self-irony, on the writing of the Heidebilder. It is a long poem divided into four sections. In the first the poet seeks refuge from the rain; in the second she has retreated into her cell to write poetry; the third presents the moor after the rain, the sun's rays emerging from behind the clouds in a splendid descriptive passage. The final section once again brings that realisation of the temporal aspect of reality which had been submerged during her visit to the moor.

It can be seen from this brief survey of the Heidebilder poems that, although there is a common thread running through them all, there is ample variety as well. They all deal with different aspects of the landscape, and landscape in different senses. They are formally very different, too. No two poems have the same structure, and there is a multitude of distinct metrical forms. They are in many ways typical of Droste-Hülshoff's poetry and have figured prominently in anthologies for this reason.

The 1844 edition contains nine poems under the heading, Fels, Wald und See (Mountain, Forest and Lake), three of them (‘Die Elemente’, ‘Der Säntis’, ‘Am Weiher’) already published in the 1838 edition, five of them written in Meersburg during this period (three of these five were subsequently published in Cotta's Morgenblatt). The remaining poem, ‘Das öde Haus’ (‘The Barren House’) was still to be written in Rüschhaus. The group of five belongs amongst the finest poetry that Droste-Hülshoff wrote. They are all of them intensely personal poems, yet they go beyond her personal situation to capture important themes and aspects of the period. ‘Am Bodensee’ (‘By Lake Constance’) is a dialogue with the self which shows the other side of the Biedermeier Droste-Hülshoff. Here we find a restless, febrile mind hovering between waking and sleeping. Images of the past and of her surroundings besiege her imagination, but the figures evaporate, and she asks if her image too will be subject to such transience when she is dead, to be recognised only by the spirit of the mountain. It is a questioning poem which transforms the Alpine scenery into a landscape of desolation. Significantly, the homely lamp we encountered in ‘Der Knabe im Moor’ has disappeared from the fisherman's hut here.

‘Die Schenke am See’ (‘The Inn by the Lake’), addressed to Levin Schücking, shows how perception of the landscape is dependent on the observer. It is a memorial to her friendship with him, to their many walks through the area near Meersburg and her resultant poetic inspiration. But it is autumn; the poet senses the approach of the end, the differences between herself and her younger companion. Hence, the poem presents a series of contrasts. One of its most powerful images is the comparison between a duck's bobbing up and down on the surface of the lake and the course of human life. Her young companion interprets the bird's diving optimistically (‘immer kömmt sie auf!—’—‘it always comes up’) while the poet sees the reverse (‘immer sinkt sie wieder!’—‘it always goes down again’). These lines capture as poignantly as Goethe's ‘Herbstgefühl’ or Hölderlin's ‘Hälfte des Lebens’ a sense of conflicting attitudes to life at a crucial stage in it for the individual concerned. Unlike those two poems, however, Droste-Hülshoff's concludes with the reassurance of the mundane, the return home and the innkeeper's familiar greeting. It is an ambiguous ending, for we do not know whether her pessimistic feelings are temporarily or permanently allayed.

In ‘Im Moose’ (‘In the Moss’), the quietness of a forest retreat and the play of light induce a meditative state in which past, present and future merge. The poet has a vision of herself dead, her rotten clothes are removed by her relatives, but there is still a tear. She returns to the graveyard to pray but is absorbed once again by the earth. In the final stanza, the question of whether the light she has seen is the homely lamp of her own room or the eternal light of the sarcophagus is left open. This poem attests to the power of family relations, which go beyond the grave, and it shows the increasingly dominant rôle which these thoughts were playing in her mind.

Perhaps the best-known poem in this group in the present century is ‘Am Turme’ (‘By the Tower’). It is a powerful piece of poetic fantasising. Like the other poems in this group it is difficult to interpret it in anything but an autobiographical context. Although Droste-Hülshoff is here standing on the balcony of the castle tower in Meersburg, it is not Lake Constance of which she speaks but the sea in general, which the atmosphere of the lake inspires her to imagine. It is a poem about wanting to be someone else. She wants to let the storm blow through her hair like a Maenad's; she wants to plunge into the waves and chase the walrus like the pack of dogs she imagines the waves to be; she wants to take the rudder of a ship and fly over the reef like a seagull; she wants to be a huntsman, a soldier, and finally, a man. But alas she must sit at home and behave herself like a little girl. This poem certainly illustrates the conflict between the pressures of social and family life, which drove her in one direction, and the passion of a poetic imagination, which drove her in another. It is best seen in those terms, rather than as a statement that she wanted a sex change or as proof of a latent feminism in Droste-Hülshoff's poetry.4 It is wrong to take the final lines out of context and suggest that all she ever wanted to be was a man. There may have been times when she did want to be, but most of the time she was happy to be a woman. What she wanted to do, this poem is saying, is to let her hair down. It is concerned with freedom in a general sense.

This poem was translated several times in the nineteenth century, sometimes in a style which reminds the English reader very much of John Masefield.5 It deserves to be quoted in full here, together with a new translation:


Ich steh auf hohem Balkone am Turm,
Umstrichen vom schreienden Stare;
Und laß gleich einer Mänade den Sturm
Mir wühlen im flatterndem Haare;
O wilder Geselle, o toller Fant,
Ich möchte dich kräftig umschlingen,
Und, Sehne an Sehne, zwei Schritte vom Rand
Auf Tod und Leben dann ringen!
Und drunten seh ich am Strand, so frisch
Wie spielende Doggen, die Wellen
Sich tummeln rings mit Geklaff und Gezisch,
Und glänzende Flocken schnellen.
O, springen möcht' ich alsbald,
Recht in die tobende Meute,
Und jagen durch den korallenen Wald
Das Walroß, die lustige Beute!
Und drüben seh ich ein Wimpel wehn
So keck wie eine Standarte,
Seh auf und nieder den Kiel sich drehn
Von meiner luftigen Warte;
O, sitzen möcht' ich im kämpfenden Schiff,
Das Steuerruder ergreifen,
Und zischend über das brandende Riff
Wie eine Seemöwe streifen.
Wär ich ein Jäger auf freier Flur,
Ein Stück nur von einem Soldaten,
Wär' ich ein Mann doch mindestens nur,
So würde der Himmel mir raten;
Nun muß ich sitzen so fein und klar,
Gleich einem artigen Kinde,
Und darf nur heimlich lösen mein Haar,
Und lassen es flattern im Winde.


I stand high on the balcony by the tower,
Encircled by the screeching starling;
And like a Maenad I let the storm
Rake through my free-flowing hair;
O wild companion, o weird dandy boy,
I would like to entwine and hug you,
And breast to breast, two steps from the edge,
Engage in a deadly battle.
And down below I see on the beach, as fresh
As frisking hounds, the waves
Tumbling around with a bark and a hiss,
And the gleaming flakes flying.
Oh, I'd love to jump straightaway,
Into the midst of the romping pack,
And chase through the coral glades
The walrus, that happy prey.
And over there I see a banner flying,
As bold as somebody's standard,
I see the keel moving up and down
From my breezy vantage point;
Oh, I should love to sit on the battling ship,
And grasp that rudder,
And like a seagull fly with a whoosh
Over the surf on the reef.
Were I a huntsman on an open field,
Or just one piece of a soldier,
If only I were a man, at least,
Then surely heaven would help me;
But now I must sit, so prim and fair,
Just like a well-behaved child,
And I can only secretly loosen my hair,
And let it flutter in the wind.

‘Das alte Schloß’ (‘The Old Castle’) further shows the power of the poetic imagination. Sitting alone in the castle on the mountain side, there are so many strange goings-on around her, she does not know whether she is alive or dead. It is the perfect setting for a Gothic horror story. Yet her own sobriety, her belief that she can rise above decay in the physical and spiritual senses, enables her to distance herself from a potentially romantic pathetic fallacy. As the dune rises above the flat sand on the beach, so she remains aloof and steadfast.

The rest of the poems written in Meersburg during this period are a mixed bag and grouped therefore in the 1844 edition under the heading Gedichte vermischten Inhalts (Poems on Different Subjects). They may be divided thematically into groups: there are half a dozen addressed to friends and relatives, a slightly larger group of personal, that is, autobiographical poems, several more which are primarily reflective or poetological and a few more which are in the first place descriptive. It will be seen that these are not rigid groupings, as those suggested by some critics are,6 but that individual poems sometimes exhibit more than one tendency. It is the tension between the different types of poetry which often lends individual poems their intensity.

There are two poems addressed to Amalie Hassenpflug: ‘Locke und Lied’ (‘Lock of Hair and Song’) is an extremely personal poem addressed to her friend but within a poetological framework. Based on the postal exchange of a lock of hair and some poems, it shows how deeply connected are poetry and friendship in her life. ‘Der Traum’ (‘The Dream’) is a meditation on Amalie's doings; it is a reflection on a dream in which Annette has had a vision of them. Amalie is depicted in natural surroundings; like the last poem, the imagery is Anacreontic, with birds, leaves, branches and the theme of friendship dominant. The poem, ‘Gruß an Wilhelm Junkmann’ (‘Greeting to Wilhelm Junkmann’), published in the Morgenblatt on 20 April 1842, is a tribute to a fellow nature poet. It is also a reflection on the nature of poetic inspiration which comes in the form of religious revelation.

More significant are the two poems she wrote for Levin Schücking. They are fine examples of the combination of the autobiographical with the poetological. The poem beginning ‘O frage nicht …’ (‘O do not ask …’) shows how intensely she felt their relationship. As in the poem ‘Die Schenke am See’, their differences are made clear. She has a vision of her own precociousness as a child. Schücking appears to have been endowed with what Droste-Hülshoff thought was the remarkable capacity to reflect her inner nature. As we know, that was a great boon to her, but it also brought great sadness, and the poem ends on this note of shattered hopes. The poem, ‘Kein Wort …’ (‘Let no word, be it sharp as an edge of steel, / Separate that which is one in a thousand ways …’), is a further tribute to their friendship, seen in analogy with the bond between Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri. It is written on the brink of separation, but sadness is not its concluding note, for there is strength to be gained from the knowledge of deep friendship.

The poem entitled ‘Clemens von Droste’ is both about this favourite relative of Droste-Hülshoff's (the son of the musician in Bonn), a lament for him and a reflection on the special nature of her feelings for him, which, she protests, were stronger than those of others. It is thus an intensely personal poem on the theme of death, related to her own experience. It also contains a descriptive element, typical of which is the evocation of an event, in this case a funeral, and a contingent state of mind.

The more autobiographical poems include both descriptive and reflective elements. The poem ‘Das vierzehnjährige Herz’ (‘The Fourteen-Year-Old Heart’) can be read both as a ‘Rollengedicht’, in which an independent persona has been created by the poet, and as an autobiographical statement. It is a confession of a young girl's love for her father. ‘Meine Sträuße’ (‘My Bunches of Flowers’) is a first-person narrative of experiences, which contrasts life in the countryside with that indoors. Memories of adolescent friendships merge with visions of the abundance of nature, and the poem modulates to the meditative sphere in which the poet ponders her own reflection and solitude.

An autobiographical poem par excellence is ‘Die Taxuswand’ (‘The Hedge Wall’) in which Droste-Hülshoff reflects on the ‘Heinrich Straube affair’. It is a complex poem, obscure on first reading but strangely powerful after that. The poet has a vision of herself standing in front of a hedge, likened to her lover's face, then of her own wedding and of the borderline between paradise and the land of torment. Nature and personal experience merge; there is an attempt to come to terms with the past. Although the real ‘Du’ is not made clear, the sense of loss of the ‘Ich’ is. A less successful element of opaqueness is to be found in the poem ‘Brennende Liebe’ (‘Burning Love’), which has been called one of the Meersburg ‘love poems’ and would seem therefore to have autobiographical significance. But the identity of the ‘Du’ addressed is not made clear here; only the death at the end of the poem of this ‘Du’ seems to suggest that it is connected with Levin and his departure. If seen in autobiographical context, ‘Junge Liebe’ (‘Young Love’) is a telling poem, for it deals with a young girl's love for a boy who, unlike others she has known, is not connected with her family. Her desire is checked by thoughts of family repercussions; she is drawn back to her own family by contemplation on the possible harm that might come to them. It is easy to imagine Droste-Hülshoff herself in this situation. The poem is also a genre-painting: one can easily picture a Biedermeier girl having to reject a life of adventure for family reasons.

A reflective poem is ‘Abschied von der Jugend’ (‘Departure from Youth’). The situation is the Romantic motif of the wanderer at the crossroads. He is at the physical crossroads of the boundary of his homeland and at the metaphorical crossroads of youth and maturity, not knowing what the future holds. Eventually, indecision is cast aside, and he moves forward with God's blessing.

Poems like ‘Die Unbesungenen’ (‘Those for Whom No One Sings’), ‘Meine Toten’ (‘My Dead’) and ‘Der Todesengel’ (‘The Angel of Death’) are on the borderline between the autobiographical and the reflective. They reflect on an aspect of Droste-Hülshoff's inner life and lend it wider significance. The first is the most aphoristic, least descriptive, describing the power of the dead over us. There is a dualism in Droste-Hülshoff's conception of death, for she is both attracted and repelled by it. This is also clear from ‘the dead’ in the second poem, who sit in judgement upon her and are the source of truth. Such poems show her distance from Romanticism and eighteenth-century traditions of poetry. The potential cliché of ‘graveyard poetry’ is transformed into a realistic picture of a mind oppressed by the presence of the dead. ‘Der Todesengel’ reflects on a legend associated with premonitions of death. Fear of the self is at the centre of this poem: the poet shudders when she confronts her own image in the mirror, a typically Drostean image. But the poem does not refer to any particular incident in her life, and although it is written in the first person, it goes beyond the context of her own life.

Poems reflecting on other issues beside death are ‘Instinkt’ (‘Instinct’) and ‘Das Spiegelbild’ (‘Mirror Image’). The first of these poems begins in a meditative, self-exploratory way; the setting is the peaceful forest idyll. Observing nature around her (both flora and fauna) with characteristic acuteness, the poet then asks in a more general vein what is the motivating force behind human and animal behaviour. Yet the asking of these very questions drives her to castigate the age, for it seems to be the epoch in which she lives (especially one imagines, the developments in science) which has given rise to them. Here we see a Droste-Hülshoff divided by the developments taking place in her age. She would sooner have a tame poodle than know why it is tame. The poem contains a polemic against the analytical approach of her contemporaries. She is forced to ask questions which she does not wish to answer. ‘Das Spiegelbild’ is a poem of self-exploration of a different kind. Here she experiences a vision of the second self, which emerges from the mysterious and the unknown. Like death, it is both attractive and repugnant. In this powerful poem she gives new meaning to the Romantic idea of the double. A resemblance between herself and the double is at first denied by the poetic persona, but the final stanza brings an admission of sympathy. Though her double inspires fear as in the Romantic tradition, this new element of pity is an innovation. It suggests dependence on the normal self, rather than the reverse. It is of course a kind of self-pity, or pity for part of the self, but not of an indulgent kind. Rather it is an admission of the sympathy necessary for a cooler look at oneself.

More specifically reflective on aspects of writing poetry are ‘Poesie’ (‘Poetastery’) and ‘Mein Beruf’ (‘My Vocation’). The first poem uses the idea of a riddle about the nature of poetry. It is likened in turn to three types of precious stone, each with a different symbolic meaning. But all these analogies fail or reveal an aspect of the abuse of poetry. Hence it is likened to a goblet of Venetian crystal, which transforms poison into melody, then shatters, ephemeral in its impact. This negative poetological statement reflects the seriousness with which Droste-Hülshoff viewed the writing of true poetry. That seriousness is reflected positively, if also programmatically, with an allegorical sketch in which she is the pale, scentless flower in the desert, ignored by all but the pilgrim to whom she offers life-giving sustenance. In both of these poems Droste-Hülshoff sets herself apart from contemporary literature and the notion of simply writing for effect.

Finally, there are the descriptive poems in this batch, though several of them also have a moral side to them. ‘Neujahrsnacht’ (‘The Evening of New Year's Day’) describes the approach of night, with the poet observing a procession to church. It gives us a sense of the atmosphere associated with such festivities (on which she placed great importance) but also a sense of a community united by a common religious feeling. ‘Guten Willens Ungeschick’ (‘Clumsiness of a Good Will’) is partly autobiographical and reflective, the poet recalling a scene in which she attempts to assist a child collecting snailshells but in doing so inadvertently stirs up a bird's nest. The description of this scene is intended to illustrate the moral in the title. ‘Was bleibt’ (‘That which Remains’) begins with a description of childhood innocence at Christmas. This is then contrasted with students politicising in the streets. Once again the conservative, quietistic Droste-Hülshoff emerges here, the one who cherished true love and the home. Something of a riddle is presented by the poem ‘Vanitas Vanitatum’, which, if anything, shows how extremely private some of her poetry is. According to Schücking, the person at the centre of the poem is Hans Georg von Hammerstein (1771-1841), but neither the context nor the significance of his person is made clear. Another poem using the riddle as its means of presentation is ‘Das Liebhabertheater’ (‘The Amateur Theatre’), which also has the autobiographical context of theatre performances in Meersburg in the winter of 1841-2. This poem turns on the contrast between life and death and between illusion and reality. It is a cheery poem looking on the brighter side of these contrasts: one might compare it with Heine's more sardonic treatment of the theatre metaphor in his poem ‘Sie erlischt’.

Similarly derived from an autobiographical context is the poem ‘Ein Sommertagstraum’ (‘A Summer Day's Dream’). Four objects from Droste-Hülshoff's collections come to life during a storm: a manuscript, a Roman coin, an iron step, a shell. They engage in a vigorous conversation. It is a long and leisurely poem, pervaded by humour and wordplay, a faithful reflection of Biedermeier pastimes.

A poem which shows how very much Droste-Hülshoff was sometimes able to satisfy popular taste is ‘Die junge Mutter’ (‘The Young Mother’), which is based on a real event in Thurgau. News of the death of her baby is withheld from a young mother who is soon to die herself. Although the poem attempts to evoke the suffering of a human being, it comes dangerously near to ‘Kitsch’, using stock situations and characters, most tellingly perhaps the comparison of the woman with a nightingale and her young. It was far and away Droste-Hülshoff's most popular poem in nineteenth-century anthologies.7 It is not difficult to understand the reason for this choice. Like other poems in the group, Poems on Different Subjects, it was poetry about a woman written by a woman and reflecting prevailing ideas about women, antithetical to more recent, emancipatory ideas. It was read by women, for the anthologies in which such poems appeared were aimed at women.8 It is a fact of the popularisation of certain of Droste-Hülshoff's poems that this did not always go hand in hand with the quality of the poem in question. Another poem like this, tremendously popular in the nineteenth century but now embarrassing to read, is ‘Die beschränkte Frau’ (‘The Dim Woman’), a ballad-like presentation of a woman's blue-eyed devotion to her husband.


Three poems were written in Meersburg between April and July 1842. ‘Ungastlich oder nicht? / (In Westfalen)’ (‘Unhospitable or not? / (In Westphalia)’) is a spirited defence of her native region in which one Westphalian enjoins another to be proud of his heritage. It is informed by a cheerful, unhistorical, inoffensive nationalism. This poem was placed first in the group of Zeitbilder which opened the 1844 edition. Although the poem itself is far from provocative, this highlights the seriousness and topicality of local patriotism. ‘Der zu früh geborene Dichter’ (‘The Poet Born too Early’) is an allegory of Droste-Hülshoff's own poetic development: early discouragement from those around her followed by her own recognition of a divine mission and a harking back to youth as she nears the grave. The idea in the poem's title, repeated in its last line, is that of her own premature birth. It also expresses her conviction that she is out of place in her own age: her art would have thrived better in a later period of history. This is doubtful in one sense, for she was too fond of the past to have welcomed much change. On the other hand her poetry was only to become widely read many years after her death, and in that sense the poem is prophetic. What the poem really does is to illustrate the distance she sensed between herself and her contemporaries and to demonstrate the force of her conviction. Finally in this group, ‘Die Lerche’ (‘The Lark’) is descriptive and allegorical. A description of the dawn and the lark's awakening is followed by a monologue in which the lark proclaims herself as the princess of nature. Monologue alternates with description in the rest of the poem, description of the type we have seen in other poems, with close attention to the subtle changes of light and colour in nature and with verbs of motion and sound playing a key rôle. The centre-piece is a passage in which birds and insects join together to form a chorus while the lark assumes her place on her throne. Only the final couplet of this poem, which shifts to the past tense, departs from the excited tone of the rest of it, and although the couplet describes the lark's silence and disappearance, it too is affirmative of life, for the message is that the bird has performed its daily task of awakening nature. One can see this as an allegory of the poet's task, the poet who reflects the beauty of nature in a stable world.

RüSCHHAUS 1842-3

Different types of poems were written during this period, but they were types in which Droste-Hülshoff had already gained experience. In ‘Die Bank’ (‘The Bench’) the poet seeks solitude on a summer's day in a not very shady park and observes various people passing by. She feels a bond to exist between herself and an old man, or a young boy and his dog, evidently a reference to her deceased brother Ferdinand. These characters are not especially memorable or vividly portrayed; they exist principally in the mind of the poet, which finds itself half in the world of yesterday, half in the world of today. Thus the poem modulates easily into the visionary (if also obscure) regions of an allusion to Shakespeare's Macbeth (Banquo's vision). This is followed by a reference to friendship and betrayal in the veiled form of a metaphor (a wild bush bending in the breeze), which may be an allusion to Droste-Hülshoff's relationship with Schücking. But the poem ends typically on a note of contentment. The theme of friendship is also important for a poem Droste-Hülshoff wrote on the same piece of paper, ‘Sit illi terra levis’ (‘May the Earth be Light to Him’, an allusion to Tibullus' elegies), and dedicated to the family chaplain, who died in February 1841. It is a poem in praise of the warm bond she felt with him, attesting the importance of the religious sentiments he instilled in her. (Another poem written at this time entitled ‘Der Prediger’ (‘The Preacher’), inspired by the death of a favourite preacher in Münster, shows the power religious rhetoric had over her and others, and the fact that it is grouped as one of the Zeitbilder reveals its programmatic side). ‘Sit illi terra levis’ is typical for Droste-Hülshoff: an occasional poem gathers momentum until it brims with engaged feeling; a personal confession merges with a meditation on a general theme. Similarly, a poem directed to Katharine Schücking (Levin Schücking's mother, who had now died) speaks in fervent tones of a friendship which had meant much to Droste-Hülshoff. She had had two meetings with her in 1813 and 1829 and claims in this poem to have learned much from her, both on the literary and human planes. Thus we find here a combination of analysis of her own development with a memorial to a friendship. Two other poems written at this time are also dedicatory: ‘Nach fünfzehn Jahren’ (‘Fifteen Years Afterwards’) refers (with some poetic licence) to a meeting with Droste-Hülshoff's old friend, Sibylla Mertens-Schaafhausen. She is less in the centre of the poem than the idea of memory, the passing of time, reflection on an earlier friendship, the contrast between youth and old age, themes now increasingly preoccupying Droste-Hülshoff. The other dedicatory poem is an obituary for Henriette von Hohenhausen, a tribute to this woman's warm friendship, using the typically Drostean themes of nature and religion, but not having any wider significance.

By contrast, the poem ‘An die Schriftstellerinnen in Deutschland und Frankreich’ (‘To Women Writers in Germany and France’) is an admonitory piece, similar to the ‘Zeitgedichte’ we have seen before. Droste-Hülshoff very clearly distances herself from other contemporary women writers. Not for her the compromising path to fame followed by some, nor the enthusiasm for breaking down the barriers of class and sex; independence, truth to self and to ‘holy nature’, these are the values Droste-Hülshoff affirms. In a similar vein she warns in her poem, ‘Die Stadt und der Dom’ (‘The City and the Cathedral’) of the dangers of the patriotism associated with the movement for the completion of Cologne Cathedral. The poem's subtitle puts its argument in a nutshell: nationalism can result in the neglect of spiritual values, in a ‘caricature of that which is most holy’. This poem is prescient in an age in which nationalism was becoming increasingly important! Another poem commonly seen as one of the Zeitbilder because it was included in that group in the 1844 edition is ‘Die Verbannten’ (‘The Banished Ones’), but much of it is taken up with the description of nature. We find the poet once again meditating in pleasant surroundings, receptive to a range of sounds of insects and changing colours. What makes the poem topical is the emergence in the landscape of three allegorical figures, one after the other. They are the three forms of caritas (childlike love, marital devotion and love of God) which have been ‘banished’ from contemporary society. The reference at the poem's climax to Christ's Passion in place of a more positive image of divine love is meant to be taken as accusatory comment on an age devoid of spirituality. Such was Droste-Hülshoff's view of her own age.

Finally, a poem with the programmatic title ‘Dichters Naturgefühl’ (‘The Poet's Feeling for Nature’) makes the contrast we have already met between the poet's appreciation of nature and that of the philistine, which is limited and bookish.


Poems which are in one way or another dedicatory continued to preoccupy Droste-Hülshoff in this period. There is a poem written for Elise Rüdiger, ‘An Elise Rüdiger’ (‘To Elise Rüdiger’), at whose home in Münster, it will be remembered, Droste-Hülshoff attended meetings of the ‘Heckenschriftstellergesellschaft’. This woman had become increasingly important to Droste-Hülshoff in the years since her intimacy with Schücking had declined. It is totally in character for this poem to be built upon a biblical reference. The two women shared the same name-day, that of Saint Elizabeth, whose image threatened to drive a wedge between them but in the end strengthened their bond.

The landscape around Meersburg, as well as the landscape of her mind, is reflected in the poem, ‘An Philippa’, addressed to the English woman Philippa Pearsall, whose acquaintance Droste-Hülshoff made in Meersburg in February 1843. This poem would hardly interest us if it were not for the fact that it speaks of the closing of her horizons, that is, the approach of death. The critic Herbert Kraft has taken this to mean that she felt she had nothing more to say,9 but the irony of the poem is that through this very knowledge of the approach of the end of her life she gains poetic strength and power of imagination. This poem, like the one ‘Abschiedsgruß’ (‘Farewell Greeting’) is a poem for a departing friend, aware of the pain caused by that departure but still affirming life and her own mission. As such, these poems bear a strong thematic resemblance to one of the most famous of Droste-Hülshoff's later poems, ‘Lebt wohl’ (‘Farewell’), written for Schücking and his young bride, who visited her in May 1844. That visit, as we have seen, involved some disappointment and bitterness. But the poem Droste-Hülshoff wrote, shot through as it is with allusions to Byron's poems of departure,10 ends with affirmation of her poetic vision.

Another poem written at this time addressed to Schücking begins with the words, ‘For a second time a word / Would drive a wedge between our hearts’. It attempts to define the nature of the spiritual affinity which bound them together. Schücking did not live up to the standards of friendship and faithfulness on which Droste-Hülshoff placed so much importance, independently of him. The poem is therefore partly accusatory, but it ends on a note of reconciliation. Again, this is a private poem whose autobiographical significance is manifest. What makes it more than of passing interest is the intensity and skill with which it uses words. Though Schücking is not addressed by name in the poem ‘Halt fest!’ (‘Hold Tight!’) he is clearly its addressee. The values to which he is urged to hold tightly are the familiar ones of truth to self, friendship, religious belief and faith in divine guidance and conscience. The ‘Du’ of this didactic poem attains to a certain degree of generality.

Less significance can be attached to the poem, ‘An Frau Guido Görres’, which describes the landscape around Lake Constance again and enjoins its unidentified dedicatee to accept a number of poems as if they had been written for her. This poem, like much that Droste-Hülshoff wrote, contains literary allusions, here to the scene, ‘Night’ in Goethe's Faust (The lines ‘Wie hab ich schon so manche Nacht / Des Mondes Widerschein bewacht!’ echo Faust's famous address to the moon (lines 386ff.)). But there is no melancholy or self-pity here; Faustian sentiments are replaced with a spirit of enthusiasm and friendship. The same is true of the poem dedicated to a friend of Joseph Laßberg's, Freiherr von Madroux, containing an allusion to Brentano's quintessentially Romantic poem, ‘Was reif in diesen Zeilen steht, …’ (‘What is ripe in these lines, …’), but it too leaves behind all Romantic sentiments. A poem originally dedicated to Amalie Hassenpflug is ‘Spätes Erwachen’ (‘Late Awakening’) which speaks of Droste-Hülshoff's protected upbringing, her solitude and sorrow until she made the acquaintance of this woman. The identity of the ‘Du’ in this poem is never made clear to the reader, so that the poem remains on the level of the hermetically autobiographical. A longer poem, ‘Das Bild’ (‘The Picture’), also dedicated to Amalie Hassenpflug, exudes serenity. A real picture of Amalie is the springboard for this meditation on their friendship. The context is approaching old age and Droste-Hülshoff's certainty that their friendship will last beyond the grave. This leads her into a kind of pantheistic portrayal of nature which, perhaps unwittingly, bursts the framework of the conventional religious attitudes we find elsewhere in her poetry.

There are a number of ‘nature poems’ written during this period in Meersburg. ‘Das öde Haus’ (‘The Barren House’) contains that typical blend of detailed description with a supernatural sting in the tail. The poet dwells for a while on the description of an isolated house whose only inhabitants are insects and birds. Their damp and mouldy habitation is vividly evoked. Signs of previous human life are to be found here too: a pipe, the name of a dog, ‘Diana’, engraved on a leather strap. The poet's solitary mood leads her to imagine their presence; the poem ends on this uncanny note. Westphalian scenery is present in the poem ‘Grüße’ (‘Greetings’) which might be viewed as a companion piece to ‘Ungastlich oder nicht?’ In the pulsating rhythms with which she extols her native region she comes close to the incantatory power of Eichendorff's ‘O Täler weit, O Höhen, …’ but with a freshness and originality of her own. A characteristic note is the merging of memories of the landscape with memories of friends and relatives. The poem surges toward the vision of a mystical, pantheistic union with them and ends with the agonising recognition that the union is not at present possible.

A poem which combines nature, analysis of the self and the supernatural is ‘Gemüt’ (an untranslatable word referring to one's inward make-up and a non-violent, non-passionate and leisurely tendency of the emotions). In a draft of this poem she wrote the words de omnibus rebus, et aliquot aliis (‘of all things and more’) after the title. Here Droste-Hülshoff elaborates on a metaphor in an attempt to locate an aspect of her inner life: ‘Gemüt’, the soul's rainbow, is a drop of dew from a cloud which sinks into the pores of the earth (both of our skin and of clods of earth). It becomes a pearl of moisture on a leaf, then between blades of grass in the early morning, nestling like a child on the leaves of a branch and on a multitude of other surfaces and colours. It is able to refract all the colours of the universe and act as a mediator between heaven and earth. Even when the sun's light is hidden, the drop of dew is self-sufficient, incorporating a world of spirits. This is a quietistic poem bespeaking withdrawal and communion of the soul with nature. The context is religious, for the soul, like the drop of dew, receives its goodness from above. It is a key poem, and the key to it is the metaphor of the mirror, symbolic of the reciprocation between the earthly and the divine. The soul and its counterpart, the dewdrop, smile like the child in anticipation of pleasure, and the poem communicates this quite peaceful, loving attitude.

In ‘Doppeltgänger’ (‘Double’), analysis of the inner life reaches a level of consummate mastery. The poet lies awake at night; time stands still; sounds and light around her trigger off memories—a striking image is that of daguerreotype images moving across the ceiling, like youthful voices and half-forgotten, uncertain song. A vision she has of a child at her feet evaporates; she wishes for the grave but is plagued by memories. Perhaps the child she sees is her ‘double’, a vision of innocence and excitement, but in a more profound sense this is a presentation of the ‘second self’, of a mind divided against itself, without any sense of resolution being achieved. Compared with the frequent treatment of this literary motif by the German Romantics, Droste-Hülshoff's encounter with her double seems extraordinarily realistic.

Another poem concerned with the inner life in the context of nature is ‘Mondesaufgang’ (‘Moonrise’). Droste-Hülshoff may have had in the back of her mind some of the poetry of ‘Empfindsamkeit’ where the frequent companion of the soul is the moon, but her poetry has a realism not to be found in the poetry of that movement (one can visualise here the fireflies and moths). In a much more modern way, dark images arise in the subconscious; she finds herself alone with her guilt and suffering as she waits to be judged. Yet the moon and the light it reflects around her in its many familiar forms provides solace; the dangerous depths of the psyche are averted, and the poem ends on a soothing note. The pathos of talking to the moon in iambic pentameter and the hyperbole which sometimes accompanies it are perhaps no longer fashionable. What we should still continue to admire is the evocation of subtle changes of mood which this poem gives us. It takes its place in German poetry alongside Goethe's poem ‘An den Mond’.

Similarly, ‘Silvesterabend’ (‘New Year's Eve’) harks back in one respect to the ‘graveyard poetry’ of the eighteenth century. Here, she asks who will remember her when she is dead: many friends will not, but her mother will. It is a poem without especial profundity. The nearness of the grave is also present in ‘Die tote Lerche’ (‘The Dead Lark’) in which the poet witnesses the death of a bird and considers the demise of her own poetic powers and physical existence. This is a poem in which Droste-Hülshoff's poetic resilience is in evidence; despite the physical frailty to which she refers in the poem, she is able to shed tears without appearing sentimental.

A significant poem about her own vocation from this period is ‘Der Dichter—Dichters Glück’ (‘The Poet—Poet's Happiness’). The poet is able to transform, to create roses from thistles, but the cost is the tremendous sacrifice of his or her soul. In some editions printed with the four stanzas of this poem are a further two, thematically related, yet also distinct in character, consisting of a series of enigmatic images. Transformation seems to be the key thought here again, transformation from thistle to rose. Here, the poet is the rose, whose healing properties are given to others. If these two ‘poems’ do belong together, as Heselhaus maintains,11 they are not perfectly integrated with each other.

There are a small number of historical and descriptive poems written during this period as well. A descriptive historical poem about a friend of Laßberg's, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, and entitled ‘Ein braver Mann’ (‘A Good Man’) fails to rise above the level of a private meditation. On the other hand, a longer poem, ‘Einer wie viele und viele wie einer / (Still Größe)’ (‘One Like Many and Many Like One / (Quiet Greatness)’) well illustrates (if nothing else) her view of history. It is not the outstanding individual, the instrument of Fate whom she admires or mourns, but the greater number of those not so well endowed, the little people, who seem to inspire her to write. ‘Der sterbende General’ (‘The Dying General’) depicts in dialogue form the last moments of a general after a battle. One may criticise this poem for not taking a stance against war, but what it seems to be saying is that even under such circumstances, humanity is possible. ‘Der Nachtwandler’ (‘The Night Wanderer’) is the description of the activities of the ghost of an old man who has evidently led a partly immoral life. It is a moralistic poem, of marginal interest. Another moralistic poem, hardly more successful, is ‘Das Ich der Mittelpunkt der Welt’ (‘I, Centre of the World’) in which the self as the origin of spiritual happiness is emphasised. This is a didactic poem which is thematically and stylistically related to Droste-Hülshoff's Zeitbilder. Similar comments apply to ‘Die Golems’ (‘The Golems’) which contrasts the life of the mindless, mechanical golem with that of a human being aware of spiritual values. It represents a criticism of her own age.

Droste-Hülshoff also wrote poems about her hobbies at this time, showing how very Biedermeier one side of her continued to be. ‘Meine Steckenpferde’ (‘My Hobbies’) moves freely between the two meanings of the word, ‘hobby’ and ‘hobby-horse’. The poem is a type of riddle: the hobby referred to is collecting clocks.

RüSCHHAUS 1844-5

The return to Rüschhaus produced a small amount of fine poetry. ‘Im Grase’ is one of Droste-Hülshoff's most powerful poems, with its series of complex, ambiguous images. It opens on a note reminiscent of Werther's famous letter of 10 May, the speaker luxuriating in the grass. Her thoughts turn to a peaceful image of the grave, however, to memories of the dead, to thoughts of love, desire and time, all lost, vanished. After the third strophe with its series of images of transience, the poem rises to a climax. It is at this point that her thoughts turn to her own ‘vocation’ and the freedom she finds in the writing of poetry. The free bird's flight and the soul's with it symbolise her vision. There is a suggestion of anapaests in the poem's metre, but it does not adhere to any regular metrical pattern. Rather, it has two types of rhythm,12 the one fast and free-flowing, suggesting the passing of time, the other slower, halting, more ponderous, suggesting permanence. The tension between the two rhythms gives the poem its power. There is a rising and a falling in it which imitates the movements of nature and the human mind.


Süße Ruh', süßer Taumel im Gras,
Von des Krautes Arom' umhaucht,
Tiefe Flut, tief, tief trunkne Flut,
Wenn die Wolke am Azure verraucht,
Wenn aufs müde schwimmende Haupt
Süßes Lachen gaukelt herab,
Liebe Stimme säuselt und träuft
Wie die Linden blüt' auf ein Grab.
Wenn im Busen die Toten dann,
Jede Leiche sich streckt und regt,
Leise, leise den Odem zieht,
Die geschloßne Wimper bewegt,
Tote Lieb', tote Lust, tote Zeit,
All die Schätze, im Schutt verwühlt,
Sich berühren mit schüchternem Klang
Gleich den Glöckchen, vom Winde umspielt.
Stunden, flücht'ger als der Kuß
Eines Strahls auf den trauernden See,
Als des ziehnden Vogels Lied,
Das mir niederperlt aus der Höh',
Als des schillernden Käfers Blitz
Wenn den Sonnenpfad er durcheilt,
Als der flücht'ger Druck einer Hand,
Die zum letzten Male verweilt.
Dennoch, Himmel, immer mir nur
Dieses eine nur: für das Lied
Jedes freien Vogels im Blau
Eine Seele, die mit ihm zieht,
Nur für jeden kärglichen Strahl
Meinen farbig schillernden Saum,
Jeder warmen Hand meinen Druck
Und für jedes Glück einen Traum.


Sweet rest, sweet rolling in the grass,
Enveloped by the herb's aroma,
Deep stream, deep, deep drunken stream,
When the cloud disappears into the azure,
When onto the tired swimming head
Sweet laughter magically falls,
Dear voice whispers and falls in drops
Like lime blossoms on a grave.
When inside one's breast then the dead ones,
Each corpse, stretches and moves,
Softly, softly drawing breath,
Twitching the closed eyebrow,
Dead love, dead desire, dead time
All the wealth, buried in dust,
Touch each other with timid sound
Like the little bells tingling in the wind.
Hours, more brief than the kiss
Of a beam on the lake that is mourning,
Than the song of a bird on the wing,
Which drops down like pearls from above,
Than the glittering beetle's shell
As it speeds on the path of the sun,
Than the brief clasp of the hand
That bids farewell for the very last time.
Yet heaven, forever unto me only
This one thing, only this: for the song
Of each free-flying bird in the sky
A soul which flies with it,
For each meagre beam
My coloured, glistening hem,
For every hand, my warm clasp
And for every bit of joy, a dream.

This poem, though it has death as one of its main themes, breathes the life of real experience. Here we have a number of Droste-Hülshoff's central themes drawn together and successfully combined: the initial apostrophe to nature, the meditative tone, the evocation of death in a personal sense, of memories and time and then of transience in general. The images of transience are drawn from nature and are real, but they are also metaphorical. The ‘stream’ of the third line is both real water and the stream of consciousness. Counterbalancing this transience in life and nature is the affirmation of the poetic vocation in the poem's last strophe, its climax. Both formally and with respect to its content, this poem is suffused with the musicality of nature and of her own inner life.

‘Durchwachte Nacht’ (‘Sleepless Night’) is equally fine. Like Mörike, who writes about the period between sleeping and waking, Droste-Hülshoff delicately evokes a psychological state we are all familiar with. She enables us to sense the slow passing of the hours, subtle changes in the environment of which we are normally unaware. The supernatural, that inevitable companion of the midnight hour, is for Droste-Hülshoff never a fact by itself; it is always referred to with a question mark, stressing the psychological aspect. And Droste-Hülshoff's references to it, though here only passing ones, are frequently humorous. In fact this whole poem, which deals with the potentially disturbing phenomenon of insomnia, is informed by a gentle humour, the banal thought of the inevitable return of day. It has been said to show the greatest symmetry of form of all of Droste-Hülshoff's poem.13

We have already had occasion to refer to the poem ‘Das erste Gedicht’ (‘The First Poem’). It was written in March 1845 and is a personal reminiscence of childhood activities, of marginal poetological significance, irritatingly obscure. For Elise Rüdiger's birthday in March 1845 she wrote another dedicatory poem. Around the same time she tried her hand at a longer poem, ‘Volksglauben in den Pyrenäen’ (‘Popular Beliefs in the Pyrenees’). It might be compared with Heine's Atta Troll as an example of the vogue for writing about the Pyrenees in this period, but whereas Heine's intention is a satirical depiction of Germany, Droste-Hülshoff's is an attempt to think herself into another mentality. The landscape of the Pyrenees barely enters into this series of poems, however, and there is a moralistic thrust behind each of them. Each of the six sections illustrates a popular superstition. By the use of ‘style indirecte libre’ (and a variety of different verse forms) Droste-Hülshoff does this from the point of view of six different characters. In the first (reminiscent of ‘Der Schloßelf’), a mother convinces herself that her child's fever has resulted from her waiting for the New Year's Eve fairy which brings good or bad luck, depending on what it finds. In ‘Münzkraut’ (‘Moneywort’) a widow attempts to invoke the powers of this herb to help her feed her children, then turns to the Madonna with her problems; we pity her. The third section describes for us the equivalent of the werewolf for the region and a sense of its sinister power. ‘Maisegen’ (‘Blessings of May’) gives us a hymn in praise of spring, ‘Höhlenfei’ (‘Cave Fairy’) recounts a popular legend about a fairy which wreaks revenge on a usurer, and the final section, ‘Johannistau’, relates the healing power of the morning dew on St John's Day for a blind person. This series of poems derives partly from the didactic strand of Droste-Hülshoff's poetry, partly from that impulse to depict popular beliefs and customs which we have seen in respect of her own region.

A didactic poem with a significant element of parable from this period is ‘Das Wort’ (‘The Word’) which bears the date of composition, 9 May 1845. The word, the poem argues, is like an arrow in its speed, like a grain in the way it falls from the hand and is difficult to find but then grows throughout the land, like a spark which is extinguished on a damp day but starts up a fire on a warm one. Words are the poet's tool, the basis of hope and despair. It is fitting that this poem ends singing the praises of the Creator, from whom these words come. Thus does Droste-Hülshoff endorse her poetic vocation once again within a Christian framework.

POEMS 1844

The 1844 edition collected the majority of the poems we have discussed, opening with the Zeitbilder and being followed by the Heidebilder and the poems comprising the section Fels, Wald und See. The largest section of poems in the edition is made up by poems ‘on different subjects’ (Gedichte vermischten Inhalts). These are followed by the section Scherz und Ernst, which includes such poems as ‘Dichters Naturgefühl’, ‘Der Teetisch’, ‘Die Schmiede’. Then come the ballads, including those already published separately and ‘Der Graf von Thal’ from the 1838 edition. A longer ballad, ‘Der Spiritus familiaris des Roßtäuschers’, leads over to the three epics from the 1838 edition, which conclude the volume.

Since the publication of her story, Die Judenbuche, in April and May 1842, Droste-Hülshoff's name had been getting around. Publishers were beginning to compete for her work. It is no small indication of this that she received an offer from the renowned publisher J. C. Cotta, helped to a large extent by the fact that Schücking had established himself as editor of Cotta's newspaper, the Allgemeine Zeitung, in Augsburg and acted as a go-between for Droste-Hülshoff. Schücking was convinced that the poems would make history in a period which was more geared to political poetry than to lyric verse.

The volume appeared in October 1844, by which time its author had already received a substantial honorarium enabling her to purchase the ‘Fürstenhäuschen’ in Meersburg. Contemporary reviews were influenced to a large extent by expectations regarding women's writing in general: a luke-warm attitude to emancipatory tendencies (not that there were many in Droste-Hülshoff's poetry itself) and a fairly rigid idea of how a woman was supposed to write. The reviews often begin with general statements about these matters. Thus a writer like Droste-Hülshoff, who did not conform to the general picture of a woman writer, was very often thought to be ‘masculine’. But reviewers did not have to be very perceptive to notice Droste-Hülshoff's originality, in relation both to other women writers and to men. There are many positive remarks in the reviews.


The conditions in Abbenburg, her commitment to caring for her relatives there and Droste-Hülshoff's own worsening health were not conducive to the writing of poetry. She experienced depression there, unable to work but eager to write. It is not surprising that only a handful of poems were written during that summer, none of them masterpieces. One of them uses as its point of departure the Horatian notion of carpe diem, urging the reader not to indulge his nostalgia but to adopt a positive attitude to life. Here we have a typically Biedermeier reworking of Horace, for the values extolled are the innocence of a child's smile, friendship, the serenity of old age. ‘Unter der Linde’ (‘Beneath the Lime Tree’) initially reverts to the Romantic idiom of the idyllic enjoyment of nature but moves into the Drostean regions of personal reminiscences and phantasising about an unidentified figure. ‘Gastrecht’ (‘Right to Hospitality’) harks back to the tone of some of her earlier oriental poetry, with a long narrative about a Muslim chief. The poem ‘Auch ein Beruf’ (‘A Profession Too’), probably dedicated to Amalie Hassenpflug and originally having the title ‘Der Abschied’ (‘The Departure’), is not very obviously about being a poet. It seems to talk of the nature of female friendship, of ambition, of the necessity of perseverance, and of the inevitability of departure, blending dialogue and narrative.


  1. See Haverbusch, ‘Die Droste in Anthologien …,’ in Woesler, [Winfried,] ed., Modellfall der Rezeptionsforschung [(Frankfort, 1980)], vol. II, pp. 1052-6.

  2. For example, Wilhelm Gössmann, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Ich und Spiegelbild. Zum Verständnis der Dichterin und ihres Werkes (Düsseldorf, 1985).

  3. See Wolfgang Kayser, ‘Sprachform und Redeform in den “Heidebildern” der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’, Jahrbuch des Freien Deutschen Hochstifts, 40 (1936-40), pp. 52-91.

  4. The number of critics who take line 27 out of context is surprising. Gössmann not only does this, but seems incensed at critics who don't take Droste-Hülshoff's desire to be a man seriously enough.

  5. See Helmut Dees, Annette von Droste-Hülshoffs Dichtung in England und Amerika, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Tübingen, 1966.

  6. Ronald Schneider, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Stuttgart, 1977), pp. 94ff.

  7. See Haverbusch, ‘Die Droste in Anthologien …’, p. 1066.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Herbert Kraft, Mein Indien liegt in Rüschhaus (Münster, 1987), p. 185.

  10. John Guthrie, ‘“… kein weiblicher Byron”. Zur Byron-Rezeption der Droste am Beispiel von “Lebt Wohl”,’ Droste-Jahrbuch, 2 (1989).

  11. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Clemens Heselhaus (Munich, 1955).

  12. See Peter Schäublin, ‘Annette von Droste-Hülshoffs Gedicht “Im Grase”,’ Sprachkunst, 4 (1973), 29-52.

  13. Margaret Mare, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (London, 1965), p. 142.

Patricia Howe (essay date January 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8155

SOURCE: Howe, Patricia. “Breaking into Parnassus: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and the Problem of Poetic Identity.” German Life and Letters 46, no. 1 (January 1993): 25-41.

[In the following essay, Howe argues that Droste-Hülshoff's most widely read works present a false picture of the poet's identity, proposing that her collected works reflect a divided self searching, unsuccessfully, for unity. Howe explores some of the cultural forces driving Droste-Hülshoff to create a split self in her writing.]

This paper originates in an earlier one that surveyed lyrical portraits by women of themselves.1 In the mid-nineteenth century these portraits begin implicitly to confront problems of identity by revising images of women derived from poetry by men. In the discussion that followed that paper, the question arose how the apparent desire for an achieved identity in women's poetry about themselves relates to the contemporary notion of the decentred self. It seemed to me then that women poets had possessed a sense of identity for too short a time to contemplate the loss that decentering implies. It seems to me now that the relationship between the poet's quest for a sense of self and the theorist's abolition of self is not so easily dismissed. These two ideas, then, provide the starting-point for a brief consideration of how a poetic identity is constructed within a given historical and literary context. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff is a test case, because she is the only nineteenth-century woman writer who has been accepted into the so-called canon of German literature, and thus, at least in literary-historical terms, may be considered to have something like a poetic identity.

In the nineteenth century a woman writer has little choice, and sometimes little desire, but to construct her identity within the prevailing rhetoric of sexual difference, a difference that traditionally assigns her socially to the domestic sphere and aesthetically to the category of object. In the romance she is goal and prize; in poetry and painting she is icon. When such simple images fail, she becomes montage—an assembly of ideal parts, as in Dürer's view that the ideal female nude would consist of the head of one, the arms of another etc., or a creature of so many moods that she has no identity, as in Pope's poem To a Lady. Her function is her identity, and this function is generally to fill the amorphous gaps in the collective psyche. But, as a writer, she enters a tradition in which the poet functions in an oppositional relationship between self and world. The poet conquers a world that he experiences as object; his voice defines itself by its difference from others; he makes his contribution to what Shelley calls ‘one Great Poem perpetually in progress’ by discovering a unique space for his poetic utterance.2 He needs the clear voice that accompanies a strong sense of self. Even Keats, a poet much beloved of modern women poets, comes to regard his celebrated ‘negative capability’, his ‘poetical Character’ which ‘is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—’, as problematic, as a self that is too readily engulfed by other selves.3

If the need to maintain an oppositional stance is problematic for Keats and for the other ‘chameleon poets’ like Hölderlin and Hofmannsthal, it is a clear discouragement to women writers. For both literary tradition and social habituation discourage women from experiencing the self as active subject, as a seeing, speaking, desiring self. While ‘the masculine self dominates and internalizes otherness, that other is frequently identified as feminine, whether she is nature, the representation of a human woman, or some phantom of desire. … To be for so long the other and the object made it difficult for nineteenth century women to have their own subjectivity.’4 A gendered language like German may make this more obvious—the grammatically feminine subjects that provide much substance for poetry—‘die Liebe’, ‘die Natur’, ‘die Erde’, and ‘die Dichtung’, ‘die Poesie’ and ‘die Lyrik’, may present themselves readily, if subconsciously, to the minds of men as objects of desire and subjects of poetry. Thus the lyrical self establishes itself as masculine, and the teleological process at work in a notion like Shelley's great poem in progress ensures that it stays that way. This means that female poets can only participate in the masculine poetic tradition by creating a division within themselves.

This division is the literary version of a general condition. According to John Berger, the social image of woman ensures that all women experience it. He sees it as a projection of the masculine guardianship they have endured and absorbed:

To be born a woman has been to be born … into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within herself as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female.5

In the mid-nineteenth century this split is obvious, for example to Heine, probably the first to notice the omnipresent man in the writing of women:

O die Weiber … wenn sie schreiben, haben sie ein Auge auf das Papier und ein Auge auf einen Mann gerichtet, und dieses gilt von allen Schriftstellerinnen, mit Ausnahme der Gräfinn Hahn-Hahn, die nur ein Auge hat. …6

But women writers are themselves aware of the split in their identities, and of its deviation from the prevailing ideal of womanhood, the ideal of a one-dimensional self that is selfless, as suggested, for example, in a contemporary essay about Charlotte Stieglitz, who stabbed herself to death in order to rouse her mediocre husband from his depression to greater poetic heights: ‘Das echte Weib kennt das nicht, was man Egoismus nennt. Das Wesen der Weiblichkeit liegt eben darin, nicht sich selbst zu wollen.’7 Women with pretentions to step outside the domestic sphere, to think and above all to write, are ‘Zwitterdinge’, unwomanly half-creatures, like Luise Mühlbach's Aphra Behn, whose husband tells her:

‘Du wolltest nicht eine Hausfrau sein, welche in Küche und Keller wirkt und schafft, sondern ein Zwitterding, nicht Mann, nicht Weib, ein Wesen, welches das Antlitz eines Weibes hat und doch die merkwürdige Prätention macht, einen Geist besitzen zu wollen, der sich über den Beruf des Weibes emporhebt. Statt zu kochen, wolltest du verworrene romantische Bücher lesen, ja, ich glaube sogar, es spukte dir zuweilen die alberne Idee im Kopfe herum, selber Bücher zu schreiben. Ha, ha, eine Frau, welche Bücher schreibt, welch ein Wahnsinn.’8

In Ida Hahn-Hahn's novel Zwei Frauen another husband, at first entertained by his wife's claim to think, ends by explaining to her that biology is destiny:

‘Also du denkst bereits?’

‘Wie sollt' ich nicht denken? bin ich nicht Mensch?’

‘Freilich, Liebchen, freilich bist du das … aber nur beiläufig; hauptsächlich bist du Weib. Mensch, siehst du, ist ein ganz abstrakter Begriff, eine theoretische Person ohne Basis in der Wirklichkeit, ohne praktische Nutzanwendung auf anerkannte Zustände. Man muß sein Mann oder Weib, Beherrscher oder Diener, immer das, wozu man durch Organisation, Bedingungen und Verhältnisse bestimmt wird. Ein Mensch ist aber zu nichts bestimmt noch bestimmbar.’9

But thirty years before these overtly feminist writings, we have Annette's own youthful dramatic fragment, Berta oder die Alpen, in which Berta's well-adapted sister tells her:

Wenn Weiber über ihre Sphäre steigen,
Entfliehn sie ihrem eignen bessern Selbst;
Sie möchten aufwärts sich zur Sonne schwingen
Und mit dem Aar durch duftge Wolken dringen
Und stehn allein im nebelichten Tal.
Wenn Weiber wollen sich mit Männern messen,
So sind die Zwitter und nicht Weiber mehr …
Das gute Weib ist weiblich allerorten.(10)

These fictional statements reflect a prevailing belief in gender as fate. It becomes literary fate, creating a kind of catch 22 by which the female writer may be excluded indefinitely from Shelley's poem in progress. The ideal, one-dimensional woman does not in her singular sensibility unite the cultural trends of the age, and is thus automatically excluded from tradition. The woman with intellectual pretensions is a ‘Zwitterding’, that is, not a real woman. In order to accommodate the individual talent, where it happens to inhabit a female body, the literary establishment produces a neat piece of double-think. It appropriates poetic talent, wherever it occurs, as masculine intellect, but separates it from feminine sensibilities. Women's writings thus lose the ‘Stigma der weiblichen Hand’, which automatically undermines or compromises their value, while women retain their social identity.11 This, of course, merely creates a higher order of ‘Zwitterding’, expressed in the double image of Droste-Hülshoff as masculine force allied to feminine delicacy, which originates in Levin Schücking's Lebensbild, and has lasted until the present day.12 The same variegated laurels are heaped on her contemporary Betty Paoli, and later on Louise von François and Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach.13 In modern criticism the divided image of Droste-Hülshoff remains, and with it the sense of deviance from the one-dimensional feminine ideal, deviance that is conveniently interpreted as an aberration of nature, as proven, for example, by her lack of beauty. This culturally constructed pattern of womanhood raises the question of where and how the woman writer inscribes her split sensibility in her writing, and whether she can construct an identity within it?

Droste-Hülshoff's early poetic identity is explicitly, but problematically, feminine. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she does not seem to experience the problem of poetic identity as a struggle, any more than she experiences personal confinement as a need for female emancipation, possibly because both ideals are bourgeois in origin. But a woman writer needs neither a sense of struggle nor a commitment to feminism to feel the barriers to a personal sense of identity. The sense of a divided self translates itself for Droste-Hülshoff, as it does for Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, into ambiguity about where she belongs, into guilt, anxiety, constraint, a problematic view of herself in the context of her family, and a problematic experience as lyrical and fictitious self. Indeed, the early poetic self that she constructs seems to begin in defeat, represented as physical frailty and thwarted creativity. It emerges in particular forms of division or of doubling of the image of self.

From the beginning of Droste-Hülshoff's writing two forms of literary reduplication are present. In one form the self fragments into two or more contrasting selves, potentially facets of a single, complex personality. Together they hold out the possibility of completion. In the second, the self confronts its mirror image, a replication that restates what is already there. This replication raises the possibility of recognition. But equally both are threatening. In the first form each self lacks what the other has; they compete with each other, fearing that union must mean the end of one of them. In the second form, the confrontation with the mirror image may herald death or madness. In Berta oder die Alpen, Droste-Hülshoff's incomplete drama, and in Ledwina, an incomplete narrative, the fragmented female personality, represented by an assembly of female stereotypes, and the critical double, both appear. Both Berta and Ledwina feel themselves to be divided from the rest of their sex. They are artistic, neurotic, physically frail, imaginative, and unwilling to espouse the traditional role of the daughter given in a marriage of convenience to the most promising man. They are surrounded by other women whose simpler, more compliant attributes and ambitions suggest more traditional models of womanhood. But this form of doubling is artistically unfruitful; in the dramatic fragment, in particular, Droste-Hülshoff cannot move beyond the social role and identity of women; she constructs all her female figures within the rhetoric of sexual difference, so that conflict becomes diverted from contrasting but potentially complementary models of feminine identity into rivalry or war between the sexes. But, more interestingly, the central figures also have doubles that replicate their own qualities. Ledwina, in particular, is accompanied by a second, observing self, who in turn splits off into imaginary companions, some masculine, some feminine. Visions of drowning and of being entombed express her desire to be united with these other selves and these set a pattern for the construction of identity in later works.

Ledwina begins with the heroine's reflection in a river:

Der Strom zog still seinen Weg und konnte keine der Blumen und Zweige auf seinem Spiegel mitnehmen, nur eine Gestalt, wie die einer jungen Silberlinde, schwamm langsam seine Fluthen hinauf. Es war das schöne bleiche Bild Ledwinens, die von einem weiten Spatziergange an seinen Ufern heim kehrte …


A few sentences later this dissolves into a vision of death:

Ledwinens Augen … ruhten aus auf ihrer eignen Gestalt, wie die Locken von ihrem Haupte fielen und forttrieben, ihr Gewand zerriß und die weißen Finger sich ablösten und verschwammen, und wie der Krampf wieder sich leise zu regen begann, da wurde es ihr, als ob sie wie todt sey und wie die Verwesung lösend durch ihre Glieder fresse und jedes Element das Seinige mit sich fortreiße.


After a black dog has chased her into the river, and she has been rescued by a butcher wearing a sheep's carcase round his neck, the narrative returns to the realm of the social novel, of families, friendships and romances. But Ledwina's visions return as a dream, following a similar, but enhanced pattern. Ledwina walks in a torch-bearing procession through a cemetery to a theatrical performance. A companion illuminates the graveyard and warns her about the new graves:

Ledwinens Führer, ein alter, aber unbedeutender Bekannter, war sehr sorgsam und warnte sie vor jedem Stein. “jetzt sind wir auf dem Kirchhof”, sagte er, “nehmen sie sich in acht, es sind einge frische Gräber,” zugleich flammten alle Fackeln hoch auf, und Ledwinen wurde ein großer Kirchhoff mit einer zahllosen Menge weißer Leichensteine und schwarzer Grabhügel sichtbar, die immer regelmäßig eins ums andere wechselten, daß ihr das ganze wie ein Schachbrett vorkam, und sie laut lachte, als ihr plötzlich einfiel, daß hier ja ihr Liebstes auf der Welt begraben liege, sie wußte keinen Namen und hatte keine genauere Form dafür, als überhaupt die menschliche, aber es war gewiß ihr Liebstes, und sie riß sich mit einem furchtbar zerrißnen Angstgewimmer los, und begann zwischen den Gräbern zu suchen, und mit einem kleinen Spadten die Erde hier und dort aufzugraben …


At this point her identity begins to become unstable, just as her reflection dissolved in the river; she falls into a grave, just as she ran into the river, and there embraces her decomposing beloved:

… nun war sie plötzlich die Zuschauende, und sah ihre eigne Gestalt todtenbleich mit wild im Winde flatternden Haaren an den Gräbern wühlen, mit einem Ausdrucke in den verstörten Zügen, der sie mit Entsetzen füllte. Nun war sie wieder die Suchende selber … sie faßte eine der noch frischen Todtenhände, die vom Gerippe los lies, das schreckte sie gar nicht, sie preßte die Hand glühend an ihre Lippen, legte sie dann an die vorige Stelle und drückte das Gesicht fest ein in den modrichten Staub.


This time she ignores the man who wants to pull her out, saying she will stay there until she dies, but when she sees a child with a basket of fruit and flowers standing beside the grave, she buys the basket, throws out the fruit and re-creates her beloved in flowers:

deß freute sie sich sehr, und wie ihr Blut milder floß, formte sich die Idee, als könne sie den verweseten Leib wieder aus Blumen zusammen setzen, das er lebe und mit ihr gehe.


When Ledwina finally awakens from this dream she has a further vision of drowning:

Sie richtete sich auf und sah noch etwas verstört im Zimmer umher. Das Mondlicht stand auf den Vorhängen Eines der Fenster, und da der Fluß unter ihm zog, schienen sie zu wallen wie das Gewässer, der Schatten fiel auf ihr Bett und theilte der weißen Decke dieselbe Eigenschaft mit, das sie sich wie unter Wasser vorkam. Sie betrachtete dies eine Weile, und es wurde ihr je länger, je grauenhafter, die Idee einer ONDINE ward zu der einer im Fluß versunknen Leiche, die das Wasser langsam zerfrißt.


The salient feature of her waking state and of her dream is the instability of the seeking self, the observer, and the beloved in the grave. The seeking self becomes an observing self, the observer is variously ‘ein alter, aber unbedeutender Bekannter’, ‘die Zuschauende’ and ‘ein Kind’, the dead beloved is first neuter ‘ihr Liebstes’ and ‘das Gerippe’, and finally ‘den Toten’ and ‘den verweseten Leib’. In the grave not only the body of the beloved, but also the cognitive processes of the seeker dissolve and disintegrate. She cannot match her knowledge of the beloved to the corpse in her arms; sensations contradict each other, as night becomes day and night again, and snow falls in a humid atmosphere. But the image of the grave as destroyer is contradicted by the reconstructed floral corpse,—incidentally one of the very few floralised male corpses in literature, a masculine Clarissa or Ottilie.14 The iconic image of the child with the basket of fruit and flowers turns the union of seeker and corpse into a kind of wedding. In a fragment like Ledwina it is difficult to say whether this union of unstable self with dissolving beloved conflicts or coincides with the social dimension of the novel, which treats the more mundane relationships of an aristocratic family. But the descent into the pit of a self in search of completion establishes a pattern for the pursuit of identity.

In these early works Droste-Hülshoff appears to create consciously feminine fictional selves whose anxieties relate to traditional roles. In later works the gender of the lyrical self fluctuates and with it the attitude of this self to its own gender. The pattern of Ledwina's vision is repeated in Die Mergelgrube, but the experience of being entombed is refracted through the double distance of two male personae, who remain separate and distinct characters. The poem begins in ungendered indeterminacy—addressing its first section to a ‘du’, then, in its second, speaking as ‘ich’; this indeterminate self digs its way into a marl-pit, where it undergoes a kind of death and resurrection. The pit that entombs life, but also preserves it, is consistently feminine; it is not only ‘die Mergelgrube’, but also a ‘fremde Wiege’ for ‘Findlinge’, used here in its dual sense of single rocks and of orphans, and a ‘staub'ge Gruft’ (I,1,50). The speaker identifies himself in the pit as a ‘Findling im zerfallnen Weltenbau’, then as ‘eine Leich’ and ‘eine Mumie’ (I,1,52). He is identified as ‘Herr’ when he emerges from the pit to talk to the second figure, a knitting shepherd. Assuming a masculine persona and using precise, almost scientific terminology allows the poet to re-invent herself, like someone obliged to write in a foreign language.15 But the fictionalisation of her experience of nature also obliges her to split the self into recognisable, stable entities, a self that goes down into the pit, experiences itself as a corpse and emerges, carrying the traces of life in a fossil; and the shepherd who observes and identifies him. Paradoxically, the male poetic persona through whom she registers her experience is an enabling device, but also a denial of her own experience, a denial she forces on herself, partly by including the male observer. If a woman emerged from the marl-pit to discuss Bertuch's Naturgeschichte with the shepherd, would he just go on knitting? Interestingly, when she writes a poem like ‘Im Grase’, in which there is no identifiable figure, only the unifying sensibility of the speaking self, a critic is tempted to include one and so turn her into an object in her own poem: ‘Allzu leicht ist man verführt, die Dichterin irgendwo in der Heide sitzen oder ausgestreckt liegen zu sehen. Der Leser in der Verführung, ein Fotograf zu werden.’16

The internalised observer reappears in poems that demand to be read as the expression of specifically female experience. Of these the best known is ‘Am Thurme’, a poem that some critics prefer to see as self-deceiving or atypical, in which the lyrical self apparently proclaims a wish to be part of the storm around her, a freedom that seems at least akin to that given to men. But the self of this poem fluctuates. In the first stanza she allows the storm to rummage in her hair like a maenad—the maenads dismembered Orpheus and thus created song, and by the last stanza they have had a similar effect on the lyrical ‘ich’. She begins boldly:

Ich steh' auf hohem Balkone am Thurm,
Umstrichen vom schreienden Staare,
Und lass' gleich einer Mänade den Sturm
Mir wühlen im flatternden Haare.


and continues with a challenge to a life or death struggle:

O wilder Geselle, o toller Fant,
Ich möchte dich kräftig umschlingen,
Und, Sehne an Sehne, zwei Schritte vom Rand
Auf Tod und Leben dann ringen!


In the second stanza there is the now familiar wish to plunge into the waves, and in the third to ride them in a fighting ship. But by the final stanza, this strong self has gone:

Wär ich ein Jäger auf freier Flur,
Ein Stück nur von einem Soldaten,
Wär ich ein Mann doch mindestens nur,
So würde der Himmel mir rathen;
Nun muß ich sitzen so fein und klar,
Gleich einem artigen Kinde,
Und darf nur heimlich lösen mein Haar
Und lassen es flattern im Winde!


The self divides. In the early stanzas she appropriates traditionally masculine activity. In the first four lines of this final stanza, she withdraws from this position into the oppositional stance that would deny her the freedom she envies; in the fifth and sixth lines the internalised masculine observer tells her that she must sit quietly like a child; in the last two lines she is the female self that evades the scrutiny of this observer. The image of the tower, which these re-duplicating selves inhabit, belongs to an incomplete phase in the formation of her sense of self, complementing that of the grave or pit. The tower contains her ambiguously, for in ‘Das alte Schloß’, for example, she cannot tell ‘ob ich lebend, ob begraben’ (I,1,85). In ‘Spätes Erwachen’ she recognises this containment as a fantasy of selfhood:

Verschlossen blieb ich, eingeschlossen
In meiner Träume Zauberthurm.


For, however much she asserts herself as a female poet, she is thrown back on her sense of being out of place, on the feelings of guilt and anxiety that largely replace the conscious sense of struggle felt by her overtly feminist contemporaries and successors. She repeatedly makes accommodations to a masculine poetic tradition, most interestingly in her poems about poets and poetry. In her earliest poem about her own poetry, with which she dedicates her ‘epic’ Walther to her four aunts, she writes essentially as a female self, who sees her poem as the child of her own marginal poetic existence:

Bedenkt sein arm und ungepflegt Entstehn,
Es ist aus Rom und London nicht gekommen,
Auch hat es Weimar nimmermehr gesehn,
In stillerer Kammer, klein und scheu entglommen,
Lernt' es von selbst das Sprechen und das Gehn.


Later she links her poetic self to tradition by using the word ‘der Dichter’ when she writes about the poet's vocation, and ‘die Schriftstellerinnen in Deutschland und Frankreich’ when she wants to give her female contemporaries a piece of her mind. This might be regarded as natural and unselfconscious but for the fact that what she expresses in the name of this grammatically masculine poet reflects her own experience. ‘Der zu früh geborene Dichter’ begins from an experience that corresponds to her own—indeed, the writer Gabriele Reuter assumes simply that she is writing about herself.17 It tells of a premature infant who, like Droste-Hülshoff, unexpectedly survives. He studies until he is hollow-eyed, and songs pour through his brain. He wins no palms, seems to waste his time with commonplace nature, to perceive his real task too late and to die before it is accomplished. At the end he sees death coming and says:

Die Scholle winkt, weh mir, ich bin
Zu früh, zu früh geboren.


But it is unclear why the poet is born too early as a poet. His sense of shame, of guilt at having wasted his life, perhaps even of having written the wrong kind of poetry, invoke no temporal or local context that explains the sense of being born out of time. The poem makes more sense as the experience of the woman poet, an extension of Droste-Hülshoff's own premature birth to a lifelong experience of unacceptability. And, indeed, this very unacceptability prevents her from writing it as a poem called ‘Die zu früh geborene Dichterin’, a title that would render her plight banal or her poem strident.

In other poems about poetry she sometimes assumes a masculine identity and exploits the grammatically feminine gender of poetry. In ‘Poesie’ and ‘Am zweyten Sonntag nach Pfingsten’ poetry is personified as female, as a fairy in the former, as a woman in the latter, which takes the lines from St. Luke's gospel: ‘Der eine sprach: “Ich habe ein Landhaus gekauft”. Der Andre sprach: “Ich habe ein Weib genommen, deshalb kann ich nicht kommen”’ (I,1,85), and makes of them a poem in which the poet's body is a house that must be cared for, and the woman is poetry at whose feet he lies. So far, so banal. But half way through the poem the poet hears a voice telling him that he is a fool, that the house is mortgaged and the woman ‘eine strenge Norne’ (IV,1,86), greedily swallowing his time. It urges him to abandon poetry and deal instead in spiritual investments. This strange mixture of poetic and spiritual language with the language of the counting-house seems to deny the worth of poetry, without really committing itself to religion. It is rather as if the poet takes fright before the masculine identity of poet that she has imposed on herself, as if the need to abandon poetry for spirituality is only a pretext; it is poetry, ‘die strenge Norne’ that induces guilt and anxiety rather than lack of belief or spirituality. ‘Mein Beruf’, in which she seeks to speak as a woman, shows the assumptions of those around her and the feeling of guilty intrusion they evoke:

‘Was meinem Kreise mich enttrieb,
Der Kammer friedlichem Gelasse?’
Das fragt ihr mich, als sey, ein Dieb,
Ich eingebrochen am Parnasse.


and the feeling of having to justify herself:

Bei der Geburt bin ich geladen,
Mein Recht soweit der Himmel tagt,
Und meine Macht von Gottes Gnaden.


She confronts the assumptions about gender at the end of the second stanza:

Jetzt ruft die Stunde: “Tritt hervor,
Mann oder Weib, lebend'ge Seele.”


But the task to which time calls this poet seems to be a moralistic one of rousing dreamers, the lustful, the drugged, and reminding them of their mothers. The mother appears as a figure inducing guilt. Moreover, and perhaps not surprisingly, the poet expects little praise and no fame for embracing this poetic task; the residue of her efforts is a flower without colour or scent, that stands in the desert ignored by snakes and lions, blessed only by pilgrims. This is not a denial of poetic identity but a limitation on its range and achievements, induced in part by guilt or a sense of impropriety. This poet is marginal; she is not part of a universal poem in progress.

Droste-Hülshoff seems to experiment with a number of strategies for healing the division in herself. One of these is projection; she sees friends as mirrors of herself, and where these are female friends this confirms her sense of self. But when she addresses Schücking as a twin soul, insisting, for example, on the physical similarity between them, she fails to see that this infringes absolutely the difference between men and women that her society and its poetry enjoin:

So, wenn ich schaue in dein Antlitz mild,
Wo tausend frische Lebenskeime walten,
Da ist es mir, als ob Natur mein Bild
Mir aus dem Zauberspiegel vorgehalten;


Not only are they alike, but he serves here as her reflection, one in which she can see everything she has lost:

Und all mein Hoffen, meiner Seele Brand,
Und meiner Liebessonne dämmernd Scheinen,
Was noch entschwinden wird und was entschwand,
Das muß ich Alles dann in dir beweinen.


Elsewhere she appropriates his feelings:

Blick' in mein Auge—ist es nicht das deine,
Ist nicht mein Zürnen selber deinem gleich?
Du lächelst—und dein Lächeln ist das meine. …


and unites their individual identities with a borrowed myth:

Pollux und Castor—wechselnd Glühn und Bleichen,
Des Einen Licht geraubt dem Andern nur. …


This intrusive, proprietorial insistence on seeing Schücking as a second self is a disastrous strategy, not merely because it reverses current expectations about gender and threatens the person thus appropriated, but because it is a projection that both precludes real recognition of either of them, and prevents her from exploring areas of experience outside the dominant masculine culture of which he is a part. Her farewell to Schücking begins with an old image of problematic containment, bidding him first:

Laßt mich in meinem Schloß allein,
Im öden geisterhaften Haus.


but ends with an image of flux that apparently reconciles her to the divisions in herself:

Laßt mich an meines Seees Bord,
Mich schaukelnd mit der Welle Strich,
Allein mit meinem Zauberwort,
Dem Alpengeist und meinem Ich …


In the last line this ‘ich’ becomes her ‘wilde Muse’, a voice that can articulate these areas of experience.

Recognition comes with steady confrontation of the split or fragmented self, most effectively as a reflection in a mirror. In lyrical portraits of women in mirrors the doubling of self may prove enabling, if the seeing subject survives the confrontation with the seen object, because it overcomes the sense of self as object. But such confrontation is hazardous. The abundant reflections in ponds, mirrors, rivers, eyes, in Droste-Hülshoff's work are alarming and alienating. ‘Das Spiegelbild’ offers a great, but unresolved confrontation. Said to have its origins in Freiligrath's ‘Die Rose’, ‘Das Spiegelbild’ retains from that poem the encounter with a ghostly, unacknowledged self, but takes it out of the context of convivial company in which ghost stories can harmlessly be told. In contrast to Freiligrath's dead masculine self, hers is an unstable, ungendered refugee from her dreams. As in many lyrical portraits, the poem traces the contours of a head, not to record their beauty or vivacity, but to test the mirror image for recognition and acceptance. The fading comets and the glassy stare, the childishly vulnerable but scornful mouth create a tension in the observing self between revulsion and compassion. The temptation to reject the image is finally counteracted by tentative acknowledgement, conditional upon the image stepping out of the mirror's frame, in effect ceasing to be reflection and uniting with the seeing self. Like the enclosed space of the tower, the image and the process it enacts, belong to the formation of personality and of a woman's poetic identity; it may be interpreted according to the Lacanian theory of the mirror stage of growth, in which the mirror offers the child a first idea of physical unity, the image of an imaginary self that is not yet tied to an identical self; the tower remains the repository of the imaginary. But it may also be interpreted as part of the woman writer's need to struggle with reflection, in either of its meanings, to achieve literary autonomy by coming to terms ‘with the images on the surface of the glass’,18 the traditional masculine projections of a female self. ‘Das Spiegelbild’ ends with the hope of individuation in the hypothetical embrace of ‘ich’ and ‘du’; and with the possible acceptance of a mirror image that does not conform to masculine ideals of female beauty or passivity. ‘Das Fräulein von Rodenschild’ and ‘Die Schwestern’ realise the hope of individuation by confronting the divisions in essentially female and implicitly sexual selves, but at a cost. ‘Das Fräulein von Rodenschild’ confronts her own image in a mirror, and emerges from the confrontation mad and with a withered hand:

Nun stehen die Beiden, Auge in Aug',
Und bohren sich an mit Vampires Gewalt. …


Langsam das Fräulein die Rechte streckt,
Und langsam, wie aus der Spiegelwand,
Sich Linie um Linie entgegen reckt
Mit gleichem Rubine die gleiche Hand;
Nun rührt sich's—die Lebendige spüret,
Als ob ein Luftzug schneidend sie rühret,
Der Schemen dämmert—zerrinnt—entschwand.—
Und wo im Saale der Reihen fliegt,
Da siehst ein Mädchen du, schön und wild,
—Vor Jahren hat's eine Weile gesiecht—
Das stets in den Handschuh die Rechte hüllt.
Man sagt, kalt sey sie wie Eises Flimmer,
Doch lustig die Maid, sie hieß ja immer:
‘Das tolle Fräulein von Rodenschild.’


‘Die Schwestern’ may complete what Ledwina began. It treats contrasting selves, identified as sisters, one of whom seeks sexual adventures while the other tries to restrain her. The adventurous sister eventually drowns, but the survivor lies on the drowned corpse in union with her, recognising her bond with her dead sister in a way that for Ledwina was diverted into an ambiguous union with a decomposed masculine beloved. But, again, recognition brings madness, death and burial in a thicket ‘wie eine verlorene Seele’ (I,1,275), and, while there is a view that women's madness is an escape from the constraints of the feminine role, this view fails here, as elsewhere, because ‘once madness has been posed as an escape, little detail can be given of the exact nature of the escape’.19

Projection and recognition remain problematic strategies because they confront the rhetoric of sexual difference within which the poet functions, unsupported by aesthetic, social or intellectual structures or developments. Narrative, on the other hand, makes these strategies more effective, for it provides for the dispersal of identity. In Die Judenbuche identity is dispersed by duplication, mirroring and projection until it is completely unstable. The customary interpretation of the work as a tale about justice means nothing unless the judgments that the reader makes about identity are correct. But the text shows that identity is precarious and difficult to establish. The problem of identity is again refracted through an ungendered narrator, whose claim to ignorance establishes a precarious narrative; this precariousness is confirmed by the fact that it is formally but not referentially complete. Its moral framework is unstable, for the emergence of ‘ein zweites Recht’ compromises the force of the first one. The decaying home of the Mergels provides the first image of destabilisation and Hermann Mergel's two marriages affirm it. In his two stereotypical wives, the silly young goose and the ‘brave, anständige Person’ (V,1,5), whose decline imitates that of the house, and in subsequent glimpses of a weeping bride, of the hysterical Frau von S, and of the widow who rapidly remarries, the narrative dismisses the feminine role and feminine role models. But it is not only women and laws that duplicate themselves and so relativise their significance. Hermann Mergel becomes ‘das Gespenst des Brederholzes’ (V,1,9); the ‘Blaukittel’ dress alike to evade identification; the confession of a member of the Jewish community to the murder of someone called Aaron, may double the number of victims, or the number of admissions of guilt, but it is not clear which. These chaotic duplications do not seem to fall into the categories of potential completion or recognition, but instead to blur the contours of identity.

The identity of Friedrich Mergel is most unstable, not merely when he, if it is he, returns from slavery in Turkey, but from childhood. Until he is twelve, he is his mother's son, but a son ‘den sie bereits gewöhnt hat, die Stelle einer Tochter zu ersetzen’ (V,1,11). His uncle's adoption of him sets up a series of mirrorings—of Friedrich in his uncle, of Friedrich in Johannes Niemand, of Johannes Niemand in the uncle. When his uncle deters him from going to confession he prevents confrontation and reconciliation with a more moral self. At eighteen Friedrich has two identities, those of ‘Dorfelegant’ and of ‘Hirtenbuben’ (V,1,16). As ‘Dorfelegant’ he also plays the part of master to Niemand's servant. These duplications and divisions do not amount to an individuated self, for one part fails—the moral self fails to confess the sins of the other, Niemand fails Mergel at the wedding, where the melting butter that reveals his crime could be said to prefigure the fateful scar. The second self is bound to the first—both Friedrich and Johannes leave the wedding, just as both leave the area after the murder of the Jew. The last person to see Johannes Niemand or Friedrich Mergel alive is a child who watches him carving a spoon and splitting it in two.

However, apart from the identities he constructs for himself or acquires through his mother and her brother, Friedrich retains an identity as his father's son, and this identity, largely imposed on him by society makes him an alien within his own community. The murdered Jew may be seen as a projection of this identity. If Mergel indeed kills Aaron, he destroys not merely a creditor, but a man whose social identity mirrors his own. The murder effectively destroys not only Aaron, but, in a different sense, Friedrich, for we cannot be sure who returns from Turkey, despite the insistence of Herr von S that it is Friedrich, identifiable by a scar of which the text and its readers hitherto knew nothing. The distortion of identity, whether through education to be a daughter rather than a son, or a petty criminal rather than a law-abiding citizen, or through the public scorn that identifies the son with his father, becomes the obliteration of identity in and through the murder, and in the judgement passed on the returning figure by Herr von S.

For Herr von S, whose word is law in his community, fails to understand or to respect the power of words. This power is signalled during the storm on the night of the murder, when Frau von S has the assembled inhabitants of the castle recite the opening passage of St. John's gospel: ‘Im Anfang war das Wort, und das Wort war bei Gott, und Gott war das Wort’ (V,1,30). But Herr von S deals carelessly and crudely with words; he refers to the villagers at various points as ‘Schweine aus unserem eigenen Stall’ (V,1,29), or ‘jede alte Schachtel im Dorfe’ (V,1,32); he disregards the need to record his own or others' words, acting hastily to arrest Friedrich: ‘Da der Amtsschreiber gerade abswesend war, so betrieb Herr von S selbst alles rascher, als sonst geschehen wäre (V,1,31). Nevertheless, at the end of the work, his word decrees that the man found hanging in the tree is Mergel, and that he will be cast into a common pit, in which individual identity is obliterated.

Ironically, with this text the daughter of the aristocracy who abandoned her early prose narratives for fear of offending her family, carries the problem of identity back into the world of patriarchy in which her own problematic sense of self originates. And it is taken in, to become the only German work by a woman that is regularly studied. But it may be something of a Trojan horse. For, while it appears to work within a masculine tradition that dismisses feminine roles as essentially private and trivial, and women as weak and fickle, it subverts this tradition by creating through a marginalised masculine figure a paradigm of female identity. Friedrich Mergel, or whoever it is who is consigned to the pit, is a ‘Zwitterding’, whose identity is culturally constructed and arbitrarily split into acceptable and unacceptable parts; who is hedged in by the double standards of ‘ein zweites Recht’; who passes from one owner to another; who leaves home, not as the traditional hero does, for fortune and adventure, but for servitude and returns to accept an identity that is imposed by society. It is a text that subverts its own realism by its gaps and inconsistencies, most noticeably in an ending that is closure without completion. The combination of gaps and closure mean that the authority of a narrator is first disclaimed and then mimicked, but when an interpretation of the tale is sought, the discrepancy between these narrative stances is ignored. The rounded form of the work, from the prefatory poem to the translation of the inscription encourages the reader to ignore its discrepancies and fill in its gaps.

To conclude what is essentially a brief look at a complex issue, it seems to me that Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's works record a search for completion and wholeness. The divided self, and its inseparable companion, the reflected, reflecting self, abound in her work. She is often accompanied by a second observing self. Her divided experience as a woman who writes, produces accommodations to a patriarchal world which deny herself as subject. Faced with this, critics impose on her a psychological and literary identity; Heselhaus orders her poems on strictly chronological lines, while she preferred an arrangement that showed the variety of her work;20 Gößmann sees her poetry and her poetic self oscillating between the poles of intoxication and disillusion, and attempts to integrate these.21 Brigitte Peucker clothes her in the borrowed identity of Ophelia,—not in fact mentioned in her works—, by drawing together a significant cluster of images and ideas, above all the idea of drowning in order to draw poetry from the depths of her being.22 Interesting as these are, she does not go mad or commit suicide, but experiments with ambiguous, sometimes unsatisfactory strategies for creating poetry out of the divisions in herself: confirming the self by projecting it on others; confronting a mirrored self at the risk of madness, mutilation or grief in ‘Das Spiegelbild’, ‘Das Fräulein von Rodenschild’ and ‘Die Schwestern’; relentlessly multiplying identities in Die Judenbuche, only to destroy them with arbitrary authority.

But the ultimate and most damaging division is that between the canonical Droste-Hülshoff, the author of Die Judenbuche and a few poems, and the totality of her writing, a division which suggests, if nothing else, that mere canonisation does not constitute an identity. She is clearly ‘zu früh geboren’, for within a few years of her death the images of fragmentation and division out of which she creates a series of incomplete or damaged selves, images of mirrors, watery graves and fossilised life, become implicated in new theories of creation and perception; and, in the twentieth century, women use montage to deconstruct traditional images of themselves.23 Too late for her, fragmentation is re-evaluated so that it becomes enriching and enabling pluralism, a means of overcoming one-dimensional ideals of womanhood, or, indeed, of manhood. As such, it might eventually create a broader tradition than the one to which she is admitted on the strength of some nature poems and a murder story, or, conversely, than attempts to place her in an equally narrow tradition of women's writing. The broader tradition requires the abandonment of the strangely narrow image-making process which represents the culture of an age by a single, autonomous self within a teleological process—the conflation of private and public domains and interests that gives us such notions as ‘The Age of Goethe’. As it is, she enters the so-called canon at the cost of a divided, not to say mutilated self-image and a partial poetic identity.


  1. Patricia Howe, ‘“Du sollst mein Bild in Reimen lesen”: on poems as portraits’, in: Women's Image of Women compared to Men's Image of Women in German Literature, Fifth Galway Colloquium 1991.

  2. See: Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence. A Theory of Poetry, Oxford 1973, p. 19.

  3. Letters of John Keats, 2 vols, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, Cambridge, Massachussetts 1958, p. 386.

  4. Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity, Princeton 1980, p. 12.

  5. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London 1972, pp. 46-47.

  6. Heinrich Heine, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Manfred Windfuhr, Hamburg 1982, vol. 15, Geständnisse, p. 18.

  7. Gustav Kühne, Weibliche und männliche Charaktere (1838), in Charlotte Stieglitz: Geschichte eines Denkmals, ed. Susanne Ledanff, Frankfurt a. M./Berlin 1986, p. 152.

  8. Luise Mühlbach, Aphra Behn, Berlin 1849, I, p. 244.

  9. Ida Hahn-Hahn, Zwei Frauen, Berlin 1845, I, p. 3.

  10. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Werke, Historisch-kritische Ausgabe, Tübingen 1984, ed. Winfried Woesler, VI,1,68. Further references to Droste-Hülshoff's works are taken from this edition and are given after quotations in the text.

  11. Konstanze Fliedl, ‘Auch ein Beruf. “Realistische” Autorinnen im 19. Jahrhundert’, in Gisela Brinker-Gabler (ed.), Deutsche Literatur von Frauen, II: 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Munich 1988, p. 77.

  12. Levin Schücking, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Ein Lebensbild, Hanover 1862; see, for example, his comments that she ‘unternimmt ein Werk, wie es von einer Frauenhand nie unternommen ist und in der Ausführung ist nicht der leiseste Strich, der die Frauenhand verriethe …’ (p. 101) and ‘Trotz aller männlichen Kraft bleibt sie streng innerhalb der Schranken der Weiblichkeit und des Frauenberufs, die Sitte zu hüten, eingedenk’ (p. 152). For an account of the way this division has been perpetuated in criticism, see Elke Frederiksen, ‘Deutsche Autorinnen im neunzehnten Jahrhundert. Neue kritische Ansätze’, in Colloquia Germanica, 14 (1981), 10.

  13. See Fliedl, p. 77 for examples.

  14. For an account of the floralised corpse and the absence from literature of masculine examples, see Lennard J. Davis, ‘The Dreadful Gulph and the Glass Cadaver: Decomposing Women in Early Modern Literature,’ in Genre, 23 (1990), 121-33. Davis is incorrect in suggesting that there are none, since they occur, for example, in the works of Thomas Mann.

  15. The experience of redefining oneself in a foreign language is described in Eva Hoffmann, Lost in Translation. A Life in a New Language, London 1991, p. 121: ‘It seems that when I write … in English, I am unable to use the word “I”. I do not go as far as the schizophrenic “she”—but I am driven, as by a compulsion, to the double, the Siamese-twin “you”. The necessity of writing within masculine discourse, so that she is ‘forced to speak in something like a foreign tongue’, is discussed in Sara Mills, Lynne Pearce, Sue Spaull, Elaine Millard, Feminist Readings/Feminists Reading, New York/London 1989, pp. 90-1.

  16. Wilhelm Gößmann, ‘Trunkenheit und Desillusion. Das poetische Ich der Droste’, in: ZdfP [Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie], 4 (1982), 511.

  17. Gabriele Reuter, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Berlin (undated), p. 8.

  18. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven 1979, p. 16.

  19. See Lynne Pearce and Sara Mills in Feminist Readings, p. 213.

  20. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Clemens Heselhaus, Munich 1966. This construction of a poetic identity according to strictly biographical chronology is discussed in Gößmann, p. 509. What the poet's own ordering of her work says about the security of her identity is not clear. Ingeborg Drewitz, in Bettine von Arnim, Romantik—Revolution—Utopie, Düsseldorf 1989, p. 144, makes the point that Bettine re-orders and supplements her correspondence with Goethe out of an irreducible sense of self, not out of a wish to present either herself or Goethe in a false light. The re-ordering shows self-confidence rather than self-doubt, ‘Sie benutzte den originalen Briefwechsel, stellte die Reihenfolge um, interpolierte und veränderte nicht nur die eigenen sondern auch Goethes Briefe, und schrieb neue Briefe hinzu, wo die Komposition es gebot. Das war nichts Ungewöhnliches. Die philologische Akribie, die den originalen Brief als Dokument der Persönlichkeit unangetastet läßt, war ihrer Zeit noch fremd, das Bewußtsein von der Persönlichkeit noch so ungebrochen, daß es ohne Empfindlichkeit fremdem Eingriff ausgesetzt werden durfte.’

  21. Gößmann, 506-27.

  22. Brigitte Peucker, ‘Droste-Hülshoff's Ophelia and the Recovery of Voice’, JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], 3 (1983), 374-91.

  23. For an account of the new importance of these images, see Gillian Beer, Darwin's Plots. Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and nineteenth-century Fiction, London 1983. For an account of the use made of montage in women's images of themselves, see Martin I. Gaughan, ‘Woman in Weimar—The politics of Representation’, in Women's Images of Women compared with Men's Images of Women in German Literature, pp. 68-88.

Patricia H. Stanley (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Stanley, Patricia H. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Poetic Vision Unmasked: The Importance of the Novel Fragment Ledwina.South Atlantic Review 61, no. 1 (winter 1996): 1-25.

[In the following essay, Stanley, in light of Droste-Hülshoff's biography, interprets Ledwina as a representation of the author's twin impulses toward creative openness and feminine containment. Stanley concludes that although Ledwina is unfinished, its themes and literary qualities make it a central part of Droste-Hülshoff's oeuvre.]


From 1862, when Levin Schücking published his biography of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, to the present, scant attention has been paid to Ledwina, the Westphalian poet's first attempt at prose. Begun in 1819, the intended novel was set aside for some time in 1821; “another attempt to continue” was made in 1825-26, but finally in 1837 Droste-Hülshoff “notes her regret” that she never completed the project (Guthrie 26). Although she described her text as gloomy (Morgan 57), haunting is a more useful adjective. The text is indeed incomplete by nineteenth-century standards, for there is no discernible plot line, but for a modern reader the atmospheric vignettes that distinguish the fragment display a contemporary open-endedness that stimulate the lingering “as-if” reaction that Wolfgang Iser describes as a constituent of fictionalizing acts:

the fictive in the text sets and then transgresses boundaries in order to endow the imaginary with that degree of concreteness necessary for it to be effective; the effect is to trigger the reader's need to close the event and thus to master the experience of the imaginary.


Stylistically the narrative, published in 1884 in Schücking's edition of Droste-Hülshoff's collected works, resembles Georg Büchner's Lenz (1835), another open-ended text of the same period, particularly with respect to revelations of inner turmoil. Ledwina, however, is a more personal document. Droste-Hülshoff's biographers acknowledge that the title character closely resembles the author, and indeed that members of the poet's family saw themselves “reflected and seen through so clearly that they urged her not to publish” what seemed to be intended as a roman à clef (Ward 476; Heselhaus 71). They might also have wanted to prevent the writer from portraying herself so accurately in Ledwina, who is as super-sensitive and unabashedly “unweiblich” as the author (Mare 253; Maurer 28). They need not have worried; Droste-Hülshoff was unable to develop a plot for Ledwina even years after an emotional crisis that may be reflected in the fragment and in any event affected her so deeply that she stopped writing—even family letters—between 1821 and 1825, as the gap in her collected works confirms (Heselhaus 68).

In the summer of 1820 when she was visiting relatives, Annette had an opportunity to continue a satisfying but—from her point of view—platonic friendship with the poet Heinrich Straube, then a law student at Göttingen. She was physically drawn, however, to another guest from Göttingen in her uncle' s home, the law student August von Arnswaldt. He paid a great deal of attention to her and even aroused the hopes of her relatives that a match might be made. (Straube, a poor man, was unacceptable as a suitor.) According to some biographers, Arnswaldt only acted the admirer at the request of his friend Straube to test Annette's feelings before the latter declared his love (Heselhaus 60; see also Guthrie 8). Annette, caught in the glow of what she thought was mutual attraction, ignored or entirely forgot that Straube and Arnswaldt were friends. She confessed her love to Arnswaldt and was rejected not only by him but by Straube as well. Although biographers' versions of the affair may differ in some details, all agree that the sternly worded “Abschiedsbrief” that Straube and Arnswaldt sent to Annette from Göttingen “hat sie … zutiefst erschüttert, in höchste Not getrieben und ihr Wunden geschlagen, an denen sie ihr Leben lang leidet” (Maurer 39). Surely, if Straube had realized how socially unsophisticated Annette was, he would not have permitted the cruel test. “Man kann sich vorstellen, daß Annette sich verraten, vergewaltigt, erniedrigt fühlte und daß sie in das Wirrsal ihrer Empfindungen niemandem Einblick gestatten wollte und konnte,” writes Ricarda Huch in a stylized biographical “Nachwort” to a collected edition of Droste-Hülshoff's poetry (712). According to Huch, for the rest of her life Annette avoided the cities of Hanover and Kassel whenever she traveled, in order not to come into contact with either Arnswaldt or Straube (712).

In addition to losing a valued friend in Straube, Droste-Hülshoff remained for some time alienated from members on the maternal side of her family, who thought she had behaved badly. She worked on Ledwina following this emotional crisis but eventually put aside the project because, as she explained in a letter, it upset her (Morgan 57).

Biographers and critics focus their attention on Droste-Hülshoff's only completed prose work, Die Judenbuche (1842), and her poetry, the genre she preferred and which was probably more readily accepted by family and a social order that “had no place for women with professional literary ambitions” (Friedrichsmeyer 173). It has been only briefly noted that the abandoned novel is a “Romantic/Realist hybrid” with a “scarcely-veiled eroticism, certainly recalling Novalis” (Morgan 33, 36); that its “depiction of the problematic inner life which we see beginning to clash with its surroundings” is influenced by the “tradition of ‘Empfindsamkeit’” (Guthrie 26); and that “the corrosive visionary quality” of dream imagery anticipates Georg Trakl and Expressionistic poetry of the early twentieth century (Ward 477). Ledwina does indeed partake of all of the above. The most important of its features is undoubtedly the evocative and—in this instance—prophetic dream sequence, which reminds us of the interest in dreams and the supernatural exhibited by English and German Romantics. It is no wonder that Ledwina upset Droste-Hülshoff, for the remembered dream in this text fragment surely challenged her to continue writing even as it intimated that a literary career might be unattainable. Although she proved the dream wrong, her success came late and did not entirely satisfy her, because it had necessitated that she alter her thematic interests, in effect don a mask. She reveals her resigned acceptance of the mask in “Das Spiegelbild,” a later poem. In Ledwina she unknowingly prefigures the resignation of her mature self in the deportment of Frau von Brenkfeld. At the same time she shows us the tenacity of her commitment to an artistic career in the alter ego figure of Ledwina. The novel fragment is thus of considerable value both as a testament to the efficacy of dreams in literature and as autobiography.1


Ledwina is a frail young lady who lives with her widowed mother, two sisters and a brother on an estate bordered by a river that flows so near the house Ledwina can hear its movements as she lies in bed. A photograph of Schloß Hülshoff near Münster confirms that the setting depicted is clearly autobiographical (Morgan 18).

Das Mondlicht stand auf den Vorhängen Eins der Fenster, und da der Fluß unter ihm zog, schienen sie zu wallen, wie das Gewässer, der Schatten fiel auf ihr Bett und theilte der weißen Decke die selbe Eigenschaft mit, daß sie sich wie unter Wasser vorkam. …

(Droste-Hülshoff, V, 1: 97; identified hereafter by page only)

Ledwina's mother has been a widow for eight years, overseeing an estate in somewhat straitened circumstances because of her husband's over-generous loans to people who could not make repayment when he died. She is a woman of great composure, the perfect hostess when unexpected and unwelcome visitors arrive, allowing herself only an instant of annoyance before greeting her neighbors, the Bendraet family. She is indeed so perfectly aware of what is required of her as a woman that she even represses the rebuke she might have voiced when her only son, recently returned from the University, expresses the view that widows—especially when they are left with young children—are an unpleasant phenomenon. They retain a harshness after they give up their authoritative role that does them no good, he says. Glancing at his mother, he is alarmed by her expression, but Frau von Brenkfeld “kämpfte gewaltsam gegen eine mehr wehmüthige als erzürnte Empfindung, die sie für Unrecht hielt, da Karl im Ganzen Recht und gewiß arglos geredet hatte,” and merely changes the subject (88-90).

Frau von Brenkfeld is apparently so accustomed to regarding her emotions as irrelevant, that she not only represses a retort to her son's outrageously insulting comment but actually believes that such a response would do him an injustice (“da Karl im Ganzen Recht und gewiß arglos geredet hatte”). And yet at some level of consciousness betrayed by a facial expression that alarms her son, she experiences distress. The narrator does not tell us how she looks but offers a long descriptive passage that allows the reader to understand why Karl's comment is so tactless. We read of the widow's efforts to rear her children, regain financial stability, and supervise profitable functioning of the property that Karl will inherit. By substituting for the truth of her feelings a conversational gambit, Frau von Brenkfeld restores teatime equanimity to her aristocratic family and assuages any distress her son might be feeling. Friedrich Nietzsche's observation some decades later that the female of the species prefers a lie to speaking the truth—and that the male prefers that she lie—seems to be anticipated here in all its efficacy.

In Jenseits von Gut und Bose (1886) he writes, “was liegt dem Weibe an Wahrheit! Nichts ist von Anbeginn an dem Weibe fremder, widriger, feindlicher als Wahrheit—seine große Kunst ist Lüge, seine höchste Angelegenheit ist der Schein und die Schönheit” (Werke 698). Frau von Brenkfeld's son, soon to be master of the household and, not incidentally, director of her future comfort, probably experiences what Nietzsche declares is a man's response to woman's instinct for the light touch that soothes:

Gestehen wir es, wir Männer: wir ehren und lieben gerade diese Kunst und diesen Instinkt am Weibe: wir, die wir es schwer haben und uns gerne zu unsrer Erleichterung zu Wesen gesellen, unter deren Händen, Blicken und zarten Torheiten uns unser Ernst, unsre Schwere und Tiefe beinahe wie eine Torheit erscheint.”

(Werke 698)

Nietzsche's descriptive language is introduced here, although it was written more than six decades after Ledwina, because it enhances our response to the family scenes in Ledwina and may also help us later to appreciate the ramifications of the dream sequence. When taken at face value Nietzsche's observation of the feminine act of averting the truth corresponds neatly to the teatime episode described above. Further, his insight regarding masculine acceptance of female artfulness provides a backdrop of explanation for the many instances of female self-abnegation in the milieu of this narrative. For example, Frau von Brenkfeld and her guests mention a peasant who stops talking in order to live amicably with an abusive husband. On the day he is buried fourteen years later she begins to talk again, consoled by the knowledge that her husband died without having had cause to quarrel with her (116). Another woman goes mad rather than contradict the customers ruined by her husband's bad debts who curse her, not him, as responsible for their situation (114). When Baron Warneck describes another peasant who was mute from birth and thus little better than an animal but with a few hundred Gulden to bring to her marriage, the young Clemens von Bendraet, as insensitive as Karl, remarks that he would certainly like to have a wife both monied and silent: “es ist unmöglich sich eine bequemere Frau zu denken” (116). The reader might have inferred that he was teasing if not for Frau von Bendraet's “Clemens, Clemens, wie redest du wieder in den Tag hinein” and the young man's slap at Baron Warneck's hand when the latter touches his cheek as he points out Clemens' blush of embarrassment (116).

Certainly it is admirable to accept censure that otherwise would fall on a loved one, or to hold one's tongue when argument is unavailing, and surely it is necessary to practice a social lie and appear hospitable, as Frau von Brenkfeld does. She is the epitome of graciousness seconds after turning “über und über roth vor Unmuth” when the Bendraet family appears (108). Her repressed anger at this interruption in her day, however, may be responsible for the stilted, impersonal dialogue of the two women, despite Frau von Brenkfeld's knowledge that her neighbor is deeply troubled and might appreciate an opportunity to discuss her family problems (118). Thanks to the omniscient narrator, the reader knows that Frau von Brenkfeld's rigidly superficial demeanor masks compassion, and we may feel sorry for this woman who, for whatever reason, cannot reveal her true feelings. She could have served as Nietzsche's model for the woman who has practiced the art of lying so thoroughly that she no longer wants to tell the truth. The intimacy shared by Ledwina and Therese stands in binary opposition to their mother's distancing demeanor.

Ledwina is a chronological series of generally dramatic vignettes over a two-day period that early on suggest the possibility of romantic developments, and biographers note a resemblance to the social novel of Jane Austen (Guthrie 26; Morgan 37), for there is much talk of marriage. Therese eagerly awaits the arrival of a friend of her brother who is expected to declare his intentions to her. Another friend, a Count Hollberg, arrives during the night. Ledwina, wakeful after an earlier nap, hears his approach and the drowning of his guide in the dark river below her room, and her screams arouse the household. Count Hollberg suffers an emotional collapse after breakfast with the family when he learns that the body of the guide cannot be found. He remains secluded in his room during the afternoon visit of the Bendraet family. The count, as psychically sensitive as Ledwina is physically frail, might have been intended initially as a romantic interest for Ledwina in Droste-Hülshoff's plan for the narrative, but the drowning of the guide immediately after an unsettling dream accentuates instead the morbidity of the young woman's conversations with Therese (her “scharfe Spitzen und dunkle Winkel”; see 93). A Gothic tone descends on the narrative that heightens our awareness of situations that diminish the worth of women even in this agreeably domestic setting. What one critic calls the “unfreedom of women in every phase of life” (Ward 477) is evident from the sisters' earnest talk. They wonder what to expect when their brother and Therese marry: whether Karl's wife will be friendly and wish to become a companion to Ledwina; whether Karl will permit his mother and Ledwina to remain in the family home with them; and whether Therese will be allowed to remain in contact with her family after she marries. The sisters accept without demur the lack of control they have over their own lives.

Droste-Hülshoff's future was likewise controlled by men in many of its external features. She, her sister, and her mother did indeed have to find another place to live when, after the death of her father in 1826, her brother Werner took over Schloß Hülshoff (Morgan 62). Man-made regulations also required that the poet's parents give their permission before any of her work could be published. After 1826 this duty passed to the mother, and the poet's literary career was then controlled by a woman, who, by withholding permission until 1838, anticipates the negative effect of another Nietzschean observation, this time an admonition. The following is, of course, only one of numerous possible interpretations of Nietzsche's words.

In the section “Unsere Tugenden” of Jenseits von Gut und Böse he speaks as “ein rechter Weiberfreund, der den Frauen heute zuruft: mulier taceat de muliere!” (Werke 699). The advice may seem inappropriate when applied to a mother presumably protecting her daughter, who, as an aristocrat, could be no more than a “dilettante poet” (Morgan 22). It is applicable nonetheless, for this mother—however kind her intentions—inhibited her daughter's development as a poet to an extent that we will never be able to ascertain (Guthrie 5). It is entirely possible that Droste-Hülshoff consciously cultivated the “masculine” sound of her writing praised by women friends (Friedrichsmeyer 171-74), hoping that an aura of masculinity would make her work more acceptable to her mother. According to Huch, “gegen den Willen ihrer Mutter würde sie aber nichts veröffentlicht haben” (731).

Droste-Hülshoff's friendly critics probably praised not so much the words themselves but her themes: “das Geheimnisvolle, Schaurige und Schicksalhafte … Annette war erpicht auf Gespenstergeschichten und wußte sie selbst so zu erzählen, daß ihren Zuhörern sich die Haare sträubten” (Huch 718). Many of the texts she was able to publish not only contained the fearsome, eerie plots and grim nature imagery usually produced by male writers, but had a masculine subject as well. The majority of her ballads published in 1844, including the lengthy “Der Spiritus familiaris des Roßtäuschers,” deal with masculine themes, and so do a number of shorter poems. A prose sketch is titled “Joseph.” A verse epic is titled “Walter.” Die Judenbuche, her only full-length narrative, is centered on masculine thoughts and actions. If she had been able to create another Gespenstergeschichte around the figure of Ledwina, she might have completed the novel; and it might have been impersonal enough then to be published along with the ballads and Die Judenbuche.

Biographies offer little information about the effect on Droste-Hülshoff of parental refusal to permit publication. One biographer refers to the poet's “phlegmatic temperament” and asserts that she had a disinterest in literary success that kept her from actively opposing her family with respect to publication (Guthrie 30). This view would seem to be somewhat in error, for the poet did obviously persevere, and for a very long time. As if to refute the diagnosis of a phlegmatic disposition (and confirm the efficacy of pursuing masculine themes), another biographer hears a triumphant tone in Droste-Hülshoff's letter to Levin Schücking in 1842 after the publication of Die Judenbuche and two poems:

Die “Judenbuche” hat endlich auch hier das Eis gebrochen und meine sämtlichen Gegner zum Übertritt bewogen, so daß ich des Andrängens fast keinen Rat weiß und meine Mama anfängt ganz stolz auf mich zu werden.

(Maurer 172)

From what we know of the poet's life it is obvious she did not possess the temperament of Madame Roland or Madame de Staël, the women Nietzsche specifically derides in Jenseits von Gut und Böse as strident, but surely she was not phlegmatic either. Based on what we know, this frequently ailing gentlewoman must have possessed as stubborn a strength of will as her alter ego, Ledwina. However she achieved it, Droste-Hülshoff finally overcame the resistance of her mother. Her persevering will is previewed for us in the dream sequence of Ledwina.

After tea, Ledwina goes to her room to rest and dreams she is walking with a large group of family and acquaintances who carry torches. As they approach the cemetery the leader of the group cautions everyone to be careful of the open graves. She laughs aloud as she realizes that her beloved lies buried here. She begins to search for the grave and at the same time observes herself as the searcher—“todtenbleich mit wild im Winde flatternden Haaren” (96). She falls into a grave, the boards of the casket break, and she realizes she is lying beside the skeleton of her beloved. She sits up and tries to find some recognizable features in the skull, but it is beginning to snow and she cannot see well. She caresses the skeleton, kisses its hand, and presses her face into the dust of the grave. Someone up above advises her to continue on with the group, but she says she will stay here until she, too, is dead. Suddenly a child with a basket of flowers and fruits stands above her. She buys the flowers, separating them carefully from the fruit, which she returns to the child. There are so many flowers that the grave is filled, and she has the idea that she can reconstitute the dead body with these flowers. She awakens as she carefully arranges them.

Because this dream occurs in a literary work, its interpretation is not so equivocal as that of a dream in real life. Literary dreams

are usually of a transparent symbolism because their author wishes them to be understood, but one cannot arrive at their meaning unless one knows the whole literary work or some details of the special episode to which the dream refers. Also in literary works, dreams usually express important contents which have been repressed and which specify the psychology of characters.

(Garma 27)

Although both Freud and Jung refer to dream images as “symbols,” they use the term differently. Freud gave a specific meaning to each image, making it a sign or an analogue; but Jung—who distinguished between “natural” and “cultural” symbols—“looked for a meaning that exceeded the obvious and immediate appearance of the image and accorded with the dreamer's experience” (Mattoon 97). A cultural symbol, like the Freudian symbol in general, has a fixed meaning within a given culture. A “natural” symbol, on the other hand, “could occur in the dream of anyone anywhere in the world, and it could carry either a relatively fixed or an individual meaning” (Mattoon 99). The cross is a cultural symbol for Christianity, and it has the same meaning in the arts. The skeleton, or the skull alone, much-depicted in Western art since the fifteenth century as a symbol of death, is a “natural” symbol. Because either image reminds us of our mortality, when it appears in a dream it may mean only death; but the skull, particularly, may also refer to life or thought (Cirlot 299). For that reason the skeleton can symbolize some aspect of life, depending on the context of the dream and the experiences of the dreamer. Based on my reading of Ledwina and my knowledge of Droste-Hülshoff's life, I regard the skeleton as only partly symbolic of death, mainly at the beginning of the dream. My interpretation is strongly influenced by Jung's insights, but there is some reference to Freudian dream theory.

The skeleton's impact as a symbol of death is initially reinforced by references to a cemetery and graves. Ledwina's fall into a grave is a symbolic variant of death in Freudian dream theory (but the grave opening could also symbolize a body cavity; Altman 24). To offset the death imagery, however, notice the literary symbolism of the burning torches carried by members of the walking party: an obvious source of light, the torches equate with morality and with intellect (Cirlot 187). Since the light comes from flames, there is also an element of transformation and regeneration (Cirlot 105). Flowers in general are symbolic of transitoriness (Cirlot 109), but they can also have the sexual meaning described below. A child symbolizes “formative forces of the unconscious of a beneficent and protective kind”; we dream of a child “when some great spiritual change is about to take place under favourable circumstances” (Cirlot 45). In this dream the child resembles the children who sell refreshments at the theater, and the latter image can be a symbol for the world of phenomena or, as in the Middle Ages, for this world and the next (Cirlot 340).

It is significant that the dreamer separates the flowers from the fruit in the basket and gives the fruit back to the child, for fruit symbolizes earthly desire (Cirlot 115). By giving back the fruit, the dreamer denies or renounces sexual desire implied by taking the flowers, or de-flowering the child (in Freudian dream theory, flowers can be male or female genitalia; see Altman 25). While it is true that the Greeks and Romans would strew flowers over a body as they bore it to the funeral pyre—and Droste-Hülshoff was well educated in the classics—the dreamer wants to give the body life by means of the flowers, so that it might leave the grave with her. Whatever eroticism is contained in the flowers, the fruit, the kissing and the caressing of the corpse is subordinate to the dreamer's wish to bring the skeleton back to life; certainly life includes sexuality, but there is no convincing evidence here of sexual desire. Falling snow suggests, rather, the purity of the dreamer's thoughts. Because the snow restricts her vision, however, it also suggests her inability to control the ramifications of her actions, whatever they might be.

The central image of this dream is the skeleton of Ledwina's beloved. She is not content with a dead beloved, and that is important, but what is more important is the fact that the beloved is not a person. It is a neuter concept: “Sie wußte keinen Namen, und hatte keine genauere Form dafür, als überhaupt die menschliche, aber es war gewiß ihr Liebstes” (96; my italics).

The translation of Ledwina in the anthology Bitter Healing. German Women Writers 1700-1830, identifies the skeleton as a man: “it was her beloved … she embraced and held him” (Ward 499). At least two biographers regard the skeleton as a person: “someone, her nearest and dearest” (Morgan 35); “one dear to her” (Mare 33). Heselhaus, however, who spends more time on Ledwina than other biographers, ignores the dream and thus loses an opportunity to bolster his discussion of the representations of “das Schicksal der Frau von Geist in der Restaurationszeit” in the novel fragment (74). Whether one reads “ihr Liebstes” or misreads “ihr Liebster,” the general conclusion reached will be the same. Consider, first of all, an interpretation that assumes the skeleton is that of a man.

Ledwina intends to return him to life. With this resolve she shows herself willing to face the ramifications of her action, the possibility that instead of remaining with her he might reject her and be lost to her again. Perhaps it is her youth and romantic inexperience that keeps her optimistic of a second chance for happiness with the beloved, for in 1820, although Droste-Hülshoff was twenty-three years old, she had had very little opportunity to meet anyone other than family members.

Optimistic Ledwina may be, as indicated by the presence of the child, but the beloved is not just a corpse, he is a skeleton, which suggests that he has been dead for quite some time (although his hands are still fresh to her touch, they fall off the skeleton). By attempting to bring a skeleton to life, the dreamer reveals that her love is so strong it will accomplish the impossible. When Christ raised Lazarus from the grave, he had been dead only a short time. When Christ himself arose from the grave, he had been dead for only a short time. Droste-Hülshoff's dreamer attempts a feat that would surpass the son of God and God himself. But anything is possible in a dream, even this blasphemous display of hubris, which exposes a determined will to happiness utterly uncharacteristic of the waking Ledwina. That is the general conclusion to this first reading of the dream.

Such a demonstration of willpower by a creation of her authorial self might well have contributed to the guilt feelings the devoutly Catholic Droste-Hülshoff expresses in the cycle Das geistliche Jahr. The 72 poems, published posthumously in 1851, were begun before the emotional crisis of 1820. A first grouping of 25 was initially intended as a gift, but Annette revised or rewrote these following Arnswaldt's rejection and presented the little book instead to her mother with an explanatory letter:

Fur die Großmutter ist und bleibt es völlig unbrauchbar, so wie für alle sehr fromme Menschen, denn ich habe ihm die Spuren eines vielfach gepreßten und geteilten Gemütes mitgeben müssen, und ein kindlich in Einfalt frommes wurde es nicht einmal verstehn.

(Sämtliche Gedichte 397)

There is no evidence that the mother replied to the letter or otherwise commented on the poems. In a letter to a friend Annette writes, “Der Zustand meines ganzen Gemütes, mein zerrissenes schuldbeladenes Bewußtsein liegt offen darin dargelegt, doch ohne ihre Gründe” (Heselhaus 50). The reasons are assumed to be betrayal of Straube's love together with “horror of loss of faith, to which she had exposed herself in constant theological discussions with Arnswaldt and Straube” (Mare 26). There is no way to tell when the dream sequence of Ledwina was written, but because it features a beloved lost to the dreamer, it is tempting to read “Liebster” and regard the dream as related—like the poems to the “Jugendkatastrophe.”

As a concept, however, “ihr Liebstes” remains ambiguous. It might signify the freedom of movement and activities that Ledwina has experienced within her family, all of which seems to be in jeopardy as her brother approaches marriage and management of the estate, including the fate of its unmarried women. Indeed, in the dream whatever the figure signifies, it is already dead. The dreamer is determined to reclaim what she lost. “Ihr Liebstes” might also be related to the spirited intelligence that the presently docile Frau von Brenkfeld once exhibited as head of a family and manager of an estate. Perhaps the dreaming Ledwina, like the narrator, admires this woman more than we know. Perhaps she realizes that her mother proved that a woman can effectively function in the male role of provider as she continues to carry out her own nurturing tasks. Perhaps “ihr Liebstes” is Ledwina's potential, her creative self, a unique composite of her feminine intelligence and empathy with her mother's strength—not only strength of purpose, perhaps, but also a constitutional wellness that the ailing Ledwina might envy.

Lulled by social custom—and perhaps by that womanly preference for evading the truth mentioned by Nietzsche—into an attitude of dependence, the waking Ledwina knows and accepts the fact that she will lose some of the advantages she now enjoys once her brother marries. Her life will be restricted to smaller quarters, most likely, with less opportunity for personal development. In her dream she is willing at first to die beside her already dead potential self. The lantern left beside the grave allows her to gaze at this other self, which she caresses. However, the sudden sight of the child with a basket of flowers triggers something—memory, instinct?—so stimulating that she forgets passivity and death. She buys the flowers and with absolute certainty that she can accomplish the reconstruction of her potential, she begins the task. This other self is to live again and go with her wherever she goes. In this reading, too, determination is foregrounded.

If the reader takes an autobiographical approach to the narrative and this latter interpretation of the dream and compares its imagery with “Das Spiegelbild,” published in the 1844 volume, it is obvious that “ihr Liebstes” is a far more dynamic representation of what the mature poet identifies as her mirror self. The lyrical “I” of the poem, according to Sara Friedrichsmeyer, seems to reject its mirror image,

but the poet is in fact emphasizing the disparity between the speaker and her reflection … The differences continue to be intensified, and soon the speaker acknowledges the woman in the mirror as a mysterious and powerful part of her own being.


The poem ends with an acceptance of the mirror image's existence “the speaker accepts … a deep schism in her identity … Tears did not have to fall—neither for the unlived part of her life represented by the mirror self nor about her own sad awareness that her survival required masks and repression,” this critic adds in terms that recall Nietzsche's reference to “Schein” noted above (Friedrichsmeyer 174). Tears do not fall in the dream sequence of Ledwina either. In this early appearance of a second self the dreamer rejects passive response to the sight of the skeleton. With childlike confidence she begins, instead, the task of reviving this most beloved part of herself.

Autobiographical considerations aside, since we have no evidence that Ledwina is artistic, we must look elsewhere within the text to fill in the blank created by neuter gender; and that “elsewhere” seems to be the figure of the mother. Hers is the only role that Ledwina would want to emulate. She does not envy Therese, who is about to receive a marriage proposal; and no matter how “unweiblich” she is, she does not appear to hold the men in her milieu in high regard. This latter aspect of the narrative is treated more fully below.

The question will remain unanswered whether Droste-Hülshoff—in depicting a character whose life is readily identifiable with her own—initially wrote “ihr Liebster” and—transferring her desire for Arnswaldt to the corpse, supposedly, of Straube—intended the dreamer's caresses to be read as “scarcely-veiled” eroticism, then changed her mind sometime after she recovered her composure following that dismal affair and neutered the image. Or did she realize as she originally composed the dream sequence that no matter how much she cared for Straube or Arnswaldt—or even Schücking, for we do not know when she wrote the words—it was the potentially creative self in a woman that was—and should be—most cherished. And creative need not necessarily equate with poetry or art but could be another way of naming the innate intelligence that Ledwina's mother brought to bear when compelled to take control of the family estate. The dreamer's caresses might then be seen as those of a nurturer and not erotic at all.


By choosing a neuter label rather than making the skeletal form female, Droste-Hülshoff practices a sleight of hand that might have been intended for family members and has continued to be so effective into the late twentieth century that we have not fully appreciated the import of the dream, either within the narrative itself or as an autobiographical marker. Perhaps, on that latter level, Droste-Hülshoff decided that the skeleton should not be a woman or a female child because those images, together with her tender caresses, might be too stark—given Annette's role as caregiver during childbirth—for family readers already alarmed enough by the sepulchral scene and annoyed by finding resemblances to themselves in the characters. But the skeleton could not be that of a man either, since it could be interpreted as a reference to Straube or even as eerie wish fulfillment, given the mannerisms her family considered “unweiblich” and her predilection for the supernatural. Yet Droste-Hülshoff seems to want to keep her reader at a facile level of participation by creating a verbal trompe l'oeil effect.

“Ihr Liebstes” could be intended as an optical trick that counts on a casual reader's expecting the dreamer, if she is going to embrace a skeleton, to embrace a masculine one. The eye sees “ihr Liebste-” and assumes, as the text's translator and at least two biographers did, that the ending consonant is “r.” And since all but one of the pronominal forms of neuter gender copy the masculine, it is easy to be misled. Such a reader may be unwilling to place beliefs and norms in the background and assume the role of the “implied reader,” that is, to “slip into the role mapped out by the text” (Iser 63) (in this case, to contemplate the significance of a neuter-gendered image, based on knowledge of the writer's life). The casual reader may regard the dream as sentimental, related to the loss of a lover, perhaps somewhat perversely erotic, given the setting, but soundly rooted in a male-female relationship that ended in death. Since Droste-Hülshoff's family was always her first audience, we can assume she created the optical illusion for them, expecting them to equate the dream with the Straube affair.

But of course the ending consonant is an “s,” as those who read closely notice, and perhaps Droste-Hülshoff hoped that some of her family members would read on this level and question her (so that she might discuss what was so important to her) or at least think about the significance of the “s.” The close reader, the “implied reader” whom Droste-Hülshoff wants to address in addition to—and perhaps more than—her family, has a double role to play, accepting—on the one hand—the figure of the skeleton as a tangible figure that is neither male nor female, and doubting that acceptance. “Ihr Liebstes” allows the writer to say what she needs to say, the casual (family) reader to read what is acceptable to him or her, and the close reader to ponder the meaning of the dream, the “aesthetic object” of this text (Iser 65).

Whether a reader correctly identifies the image or misreads, the impression remains that of a dreaming Ledwina who loves so deeply that she will somehow revive her beloved. The reader who reads “ihr Liebstes” rather than “ihr Liebster” can satisfy the need to “close the event” of this text fragment by contemplating the other (intelligently managerial) self that Frau von Brenkfeld exhibited in the past, as we are told, for we can no longer detect it. Recognizing what this woman represses in order to maintain harmony with her adult son, we come closer to appreciating, if not participating in, the restrictive conditions of life for a woman, even an aristocratic woman, in the early nineteenth century. We can admire the inner strength that Frau von Brenkfeld must have brought to bear in order to remain outwardly calm when Karl insults her. Ledwina reacts with her mother's aplomb throughout the dream, in a tacit compliment to the older woman.

Indeed, the vocabulary with which Ledwina recalls her actions is notable for its evocation of composed competence. After she buys the flowers the dreamer separates them from the fruit “ganz ordentlich und ruhig” and awakens in the process of “Aussuchen und Ordnen der Blumen” (97). This dreamer feels so equal to the task she has outlined for herself, despite the seeming finality of death, that she is a far more appealing heroine than her waking self, which is sickly and inclined to morbid thoughts. Therese chides her sister shortly before the end of the text, “warum suchst du gewaltsam Gegenstände auf, die dich erschüttern und krank machen müssen. …” A moment later, in spite of her effort to obey Therese, Ledwina slips back into morbidity as she alludes to the death of the guide. Therese murmurs, “Suchst du wieder das Trübe?” (120). What upset Droste-Hülshoff about this literary fragment and kept her from completing the novel might have been a disinclination to develop the figure of the waking Ledwina, once she had composed the dream sequence, unless she could somehow imbue her heroine with the confidence of her dreaming self. That “somehow” must have seemed unimaginable, given the contradictory messages of Droste-Hülshoff's childhood and youth, which praised and nurtured her particular creativity but then stifled its expression beyond the family estate. The writer's own compromise maneuver, the mask of masculinity she assumed, was not—apparently—to be the solution for Ledwina. The effect of that compromise on Droste-Hülshoff is anticipated in the resigned demeanor of Frau von Brenkfeld. The reader might well wonder how much the poet's mother recognized of herself and the future of her singular daughter in that figure.

Born into an old and aristocratic family where education was valued, Annette shared her brothers' lessons in addition to learning how to care for the needs of the tenants on the estate. Her mother encouraged her to sing and compose music as well as play piano; and her gift for poetic expression was applauded by both parents (Morgan 21-22). By the age of twelve she was so well known as a poet in Münster that she was invited to publish one of her poems for the benefit of an even larger audience, but her parents refused to give their permission. It was nearly thirty years later when she finally—somehow—obtained the necessary parental permission to publish. By then she apparently had no desire to resume work on Ledwina, a narrative that had caused discord because family members could see themselves in various characters. Perhaps it was enough at this time that she allowed herself to express the full force of her desire in the seemingly erotic actions of the dreaming Ledwina.

Droste-Hülshoff was, after all, far more attached to her family and its needs than the dreamer, who disregards advice to return to the group of family and friends. As an unmarried gentlewoman, and in spite of her own frequent illnesses, she was “on call,” as it were, to attend ailing family members and assist in their households whenever a child was expected. Most of her travels were for these reasons, and for these reasons “she was hindered from sustained creative writing” (Guthrie 18). Fortunately for us, she was prolific and wrote quickly when she did have time to write (Heselhaus 190). The volume published in 1844, for example, contains over 120 poems.


Droste-Hülshoff made a kind of peace with the restrictions of the paternalistic society into which she was born. In a way she outwitted that society, for she became a published and respected writer in spite of its strictures. Die Judenbuche was published in 1842, a volume of poetry in 1844; individual poems and prose pieces were published in journals (the poetry volume of 1838 was unsuccessful; see Morgan 103). Unfortunately, the independence of spirit she displayed as a mature woman did not manifest itself soon enough for her to find the courage to save her friendship with the poet. Considering the apparent depth of her feelings for Straube, it is sad that she did not respond to his letter. In a letter to her aunt Anna von Haxthausen, some months after the incident, she reported she could not write to him. That letter was found among his possessions after his death (Mare 21-23).

Biographers agree that Droste-Hülshoff possessed an “ausgeprägten traditionellen Familiensinn” (Gössmann 216). The rules of conduct that she did not even attempt to circumvent in 1820 must have caused her, in addition to sadness, the same sort of acute frustration that surely characterized her life as a published writer. Her literary ambition in and of itself separated her from other women of her class even within her own extended family. Once she did begin to publish she did not have the support of a widespread reading public that might have compensated for the familial displeasure she encountered despite her conciliatory mask.

Droste-Hülshoff's masculine mask was not uncomfortable. After all, her interests, particularly in the supernatural, and her reading preferences from childhood on (Sir Walter Scott's novels, Byron's chilling narrative poems, Schiller's Räuber), were not those of a lady. The adjective “unweiblich” appears in more than one biography. Droste-Hülshoff renounced her bold but unladylike “Entschluß, interessant sein zu wollen” in social settings after the “Jugendkatastrophe” of the Straube-Arnswaldt affair (Maurer 68), and it must have been refreshing to expend intellectual energy in the imagery of her ballads, the “Heidebilder,” even the lyrical poems. The ballad “Das Fräulein von Rodenschild” (1844), for example, as eerie as any work of Edgar Allen Poe, Georg Trakl, or Gottfried Benn, reveals how unflinchingly she faced the supernatural.

The mask was not uncomfortable, but it was restricting. When Droste-Hülshoff shed her mask in lyrical poetry, she expressed a yearning to be free of restrictions in terms that must have impressed her women readers, especially, with a poignant sense of the contrast between their regimented life style and that of the opposite sex. Consider the final strophe of “Am Thurme,” also from the volume of 1844, with its surreptitious act in defiance of the norm:

Wär ich ein Jäger auf freier Flur,
Ein Stück nur von einem Soldaten,
Wär ich ein Mann doch mindestens nur,
So würde der Himmel mir raten;
Nun muß ich sitzen so fein und klar,
Gleich einem artigen Kinde,
Und darf nur heimlich lösen mein Haar
Und lassen es flattern im Winde!

(Gedichte 78; my italics)

To illustrate the difference between this voice, which reveals the creative potential of a female poet qua social critic, consider an image in “Das Fräulein von Rodenschild,” the ballad of a lady who suffers from insomnia. She gets up late one night to go to the window but first “Ins Häubchen drängt sie die Locken jetzt” (Sämtliche Gedichte 252). It is midnight and probably no one is on the street below, but the lady covers her hair before leaning out the window and possibly being seen. From behind her mask Droste-Hülshoff records the act as the matter of course that it is for women.

“Das Fräulein von Rodenschild,” “Das Spiegelbild,” and Ledwina have in common the presence of a second self. In the two poems the other self is a mirror image; but the ballad is objective storytelling rather than lyrical, its focus the supernatural. When “das Fräulein” stretches her hand and touches the other hand the ghostly double disappears. These three texts also have in common a telling reference to hair. Ledwina surely contains the earliest depiction, for the dreamer sees herself “mit wild im Winde flatternden Haaren” (96), although she is in company. The free-spiritedness implied in the dream (where anything is possible) is rigidly held in check by the female figure of the ballad even—absurdly—in the middle of the night; it is only secretly indulged in “Das Spiegelbild.”

Realistically, one might say, Ledwina, like “das Fräulein,” removed her cap when she lay down to nap; her hair could thus remain loose in the dream. Given the behavior of “Das Fräulein von Rodenschild,” however, in a text as bizarre as Ledwina, would the mature Droste-Hülshoff have acknowledged convention and dressed Ledwina's hair if she hoped to please her family and publish the novel? Perhaps she did not complete the story in order not to have to compromise on this issue or any other and saved the fragment because it was a testament to what she could say about society and woman's role in it. Her potential voice was critical, but criticism—albeit in a metaphor—was not what her family or the public in general wanted to read. We may wonder whether she did not entirely trust the value of her own voice and vision, especially when a poet like Freiligrath “was taking the public by storm with his exotic and colourful verses” (Morgan 103).

The impetus to assume a masculine voice might have been the result of her mother's silence in 1820 upon reading the poems in which the lyrical “I” exposes its pain. Or Annette might have realized, as she worked on Ledwina, that her uncomplimentary portrayal of men could be unacceptable outside her family as well as within it. Whatever criticism of society or individuals published writers like Sophie Mereau or Sophie von La Roche included in their fiction was guarded; most narratives of the early nineteenth century “have in common a conciliatory ending: rebelliousness ends in acquiescence, morality and propriety are reestablished; the patriarchal system seems unchallenged” (Zantop 38).

The several men in Ledwina, either present or mentioned by others, whether gentlemen or peasants, are pompous, patronizing, unreliable, tactless, insensitive, emotionally unstable, manipulative, frivolous, selfish, injudicious, and bullying. Many of these adjectives may be applied to Ledwina's brother. With the possible exception of Baron Warneck, who is a world traveler and attempts to smooth over Clemens von Bendraet's remarks, the men present in the Brenkfeld drawing room are vapid, gossipy companions who make little effort to involve the young women in their talk. Therese later describes Clemens von Bendraet with these words: “Mir ist er sehr fatal” (118), which is translated as “I find him very awkward company” (Ward 523). Karl is equally “fatal,” but his sisters are obviously used to his supercilious manner and do not seem to realize that he and Clemens are remarkably similar. Karl himself, of course, is not aware of the resemblance either.

Droste-Hülshoff might have feared that her mother would forbid her to write altogether if she did not refine the intensity of her poetry and modify in prose her perspective on the relations between men and women. Her fear of her mother may be somewhat assumed by the notation beneath a facsimile letter from Droste-Hülshoff to her mentor, the philosophy professor Christoph Bernhard Schlüter: “Oftmals enthielten die Schreiben sehr persönliche Berichte Annettes, die die Mutter nicht erfahren sollte, wie sie besonders betonte” (Maurer, Plate 30). Like Frau von Brenkfeld, Droste-Hülshoff might have decided to repress the truth she recognized in her surroundings and compromise with reality by focusing on masculine themes in order to express herself publicly to some extent, because writing was obviously as necessary for her as it was later for Franz Kafka, who also suffered from parental silence. There might, indeed, have been an element of wishful thinking in the masculinization of her own voice, not just a wish to be a man of action but the wish to portray men as better and stronger than she would treat them in her own voice and based on her own experiences. She could eventually include Schücking in a disappointed point of view, for he did not “live up to the standards of friendship and faithfulness on which Droste-Hülshoff placed so much importance” (Guthrie 66). Her literary mentor and agent, he ignored her wishes more than once and to her detriment.2

Masculine writing, that is, writing on masculine themes, was the way to keep her own critical perspective in check; it was a way to pursue the literary career she wanted, and at the same time a way to create truths about male-dominated society that would be more acceptable to readers. Die Judenbuche is the monument to her ability to overcome the frustrated “I” and create “a masterpiece, dense and demanding” (Guthrie 78). The lyrical poetry, where her critical voice emerges, and particularly the cycle Das geistliche Jahr, with its unremitting self-criticism, are not as well known as the ballads and “Heidebilder,” perhaps because readers have not been able to relate to the humility of the “I” or the tormenting expressions of guilt.


Ledwina might have been as masterful a work as Die Judenbuche, for its uniquely haunting and provocatively open-ended style was later successfully incorporated in that Novelle. The sense of foreboding that permeates both narratives seems to be so naturally a constituent of the Westphalian landscape that it writes itself, but that illusion is one indication of the poet's gift, a gift that was not permitted full creative expression. If Droste-Hülshoff had completed Ledwina she would have given Germany a penetrating study of women to add to the inadequate library of works that might have been an influence on women by women in the mid-nineteenth century. Since she did not destroy what she had written of Ledwina, in spite of the fact that it upset her, we may assume that Droste-Hülshoff had a strong writerly investment in this evidence of her critical voice, which was fostered and then muffled by the most important woman in her life, her mother. The influence of Adele Schopenhauer was likewise both stimulating and inhibiting, for praise of the poet's masculine themes may have encouraged her to publish from behind a mask. Women were not the best advisors for Droste-Hülshoff, just as Nietzsche would have told her, because they wanted her to remain within familiar boundaries.

Perhaps Droste-Hülshoff abandoned the novel because she felt the same sort of sadness that overcomes Ledwina after seeing old Lisbeth mourning her drowned son, which suggests that although the poet obviously made peace with the mask of masculinity that enabled her to publish, she did not want to create a life of compromises for her alter ego. The fragment she could not destroy and could not complete is much more valuable than she realized, however, because its constituent open-endedness foregrounds the insidious nature of the social inequities that framed life in the nineteenth century. Closure is neither important nor even necessary in Ledwina, for it is the poet's presentation of the inequities that captures our attention and holds us spellbound in the moody confines of the von Brenkfeld estate. Her incisive, even mordant, depiction of characters almost entirely through the words they exchange is so successful that—although we, too, probably cannot decide how to save Ledwina from society and complete the novel—we want to engage in the dialogue “as if” we could be heard. Droste-Hülshoff's command of her art form is so compellingly proven in this unfinished text that it deserves to be featured in any study of the poet's work. Indeed, it is an extraordinary combination of literary finesse and autobiographical cogency. We can sense how necessary it was for Droste-Hülshoff to write—and thus how frustrating it must have been for her not to be able to write whenever she wished—when we realize what Ledwina means by “ihr Liebstes” in the dream sequence. The optical trick that keeps the confessional nature of this text safe from the casual reader is a harbinger of the complexities in Das geistliche Jahr that have tested the interpretive skills of past critics.


  1. The dream in Ledwina helps us to understand Droste-Hülshoff's literary career. Dream sequences in Romantic works such as Heinrich von Ofterdingen were equally significant for reader response to, for example, Novalis's mystical beliefs. The texts of Early Romanticism, indeed, owe much to writerly interest in what happens when we sleep. Consider the references to somnambulism, for instance, in Kleist's plays and stories.

  2. Suspecting that her opinions in the 1845 essay “Westphälische Schilderungen” would give offense, Droste-Hülshoff begged Schücking to retrieve the piece, which was to be published in a Munich journal. He ignored her plea. The piece was published anonymously, but it “caused some bad blood” (Guthrie 88). Soon after this unfortunate event (that would have demonstrated once more the negative effect of her own voice), Droste-Hülshoff stopped writing for journals (Guthrie 121; Morgan 175-76).

Works Cited

Altman, Leon L., M.D. The Dream in Psychoanalysis. Rev. ed. New York: Intl. UP, 1975.

Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage. 2nd ed. New York: Philosophical Library, 1983.

Cuddon, J. A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Droste-Hülshoff, Annette. Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe. Ed. Walter Huge. Vol. V, 1. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1978. 77-121.

———. Sämtliche Gedichte. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1988.

Friedrichsmeyer, Sara. “Women's Writing and the Construct of an Integrated Self.” The Enlightenment and its Legacy: Studies in German Literature in Honor of Helga Slessarev. Ed. Sara Friedrichsmeyer and Barbara Becker-Cantarino. Bonn: Bouvier, 1991. 171-80.

Garma, Angel, M.D. “Freudian Approach.” Dream Interpretation. A Comparative Study. Rev. ed. Ed. James L. Fosshage and Clemens A. Loew. New York: PMLA, 1987. 15-51.

Gössmann, Wilhelm. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Ich und Spiegelbild. Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1985.

Guthrie, John. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. A German Poet between Romanticism and Realism. New York: Berg, 1989.

Heselhaus, Clemens. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Werk und Leben. Düsseldorf: Basel, 1971.

Huch, Ricarda. Nachwort. Sämtliche Gedichte. By Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1988. 707-33.

Ingesmann, Lars. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff und ihr ‘Spiegelbild’: Versuch einer Interpretation.” Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift 35 (1985). 382-94.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Fictive and the Imaginary. Charting Literary Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Mare, Margaret. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.

Mattoon, Mary Ann. Understanding Dreams. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1984.

Maurer, Doris. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Ein Leben zwischen Auflehnung und Gehorsam/Biographie. Bonn: Keil, 1982.

Morgan, Mary E. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. A Biography. New York: Lang, 1984.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Werke in Drei Bänden. Vol. 2. Munich: Hanser, 1954.

Röbbelen-Draeger, Ingrid. “‘Wär ich ein Mann doch mindestens nur …’ Ein Dialog mit Annette von Droste-Hülshoff im Deutschunterricht.” Das Selbstverständnis der Germanistik. Aktuelle Diskussionen. Ed. Norbert Oellers. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1988. 301-09.

Ward, David. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848).” Bitter Healing. German Women Writers 1700-1830. Ed. Jeannine Blackwell and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990. 473-526.

Zantop, Susanne. “Trivial Pursuits? An Introduction to German Women's Writing from the Middle Ages to 1830.” Bitter Healing. German Women Writers 1700-1830. An Anthology. Ed. Jeannine Blackwell and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990. 9-50.

Frauke E. Lenckos (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Lenckos, Frauke E. “The Sublime, Irony and ‘das Wunderbare’ in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Poetry.” Colloquia Germanica 29, no. 4 (1996): 303-21.

[In the following essay, Lenckos explores how Droste-Hülshoff was able to enter into the sublime, a poetic genre long assumed to be available only to men. Lenckos suggests that Droste-Hülshoff's engagement with the sublime reflects her engagement with the poetic concerns of her peers as well as her ability to create a “natural” universe in poetry.]

The relationship between feminism and aesthetics, especially the nineteenth-century aesthetics of the sublime, has always been contentious. Recently, Barbara Claire Freeman has argued that in the nineteenth century “the genre of sublime poetry was effectively closed off to women.”1 In contrast, Anne K. Mellor advances the thesis that nineteenth century British women writers “domesticated” the sublime in gothic novels and travel journals.2 Similarly, Christine Battersby finds in the works of the German Romantic poet Karoline von Günderode reflections on and rebellion against Kant's idea of “das Erhabene” in his Kritik der Urteilskraft.3 Battersby considers the possibility that Günderode explored a “woman-centered philosophy” of the sublime.4

What all these critics agree on, however, is that the writing of sublime poetry in the nineteenth century “became in theory a masculine occupation.”5 Mellor assumes that women instead took to writing in the “lesser” genres, novels and travelogues, when they wanted to describe their encounters with the sublime.6 Freeman, however, contradicts Mellor and suggests that women of the period were not allowed to experience the sublime elevation of the self because of their submissive social status. She consequently assumes that they were also incapable of creating poetic paradigms of sublime expansion and transcendence for the benefit of the romantic imagination:

The genre of the sublime was effectively closed off to women. Dorothy Wordsworth, or any woman of her period, could not have written such a poem as “Tintern Abbey” … Wordsworth, the poet of the “egoistical sublime” that so provoked Keats, inherits as his birthright a self-assurance, entitlement, and confidence in his right to speak that no woman of his era could share.7

However, Freeman's statement that the ability to write in the sublime mode is exclusively the result of personal experience and a matter of male self-confidence is not entirely persuasive. She herself mentions John Keats who shared none of Wordsworth's supposedly male assertiveness, but still wrote poems imbued with a sense of both a sublime and a negative capability. Lord Byron, the British poet who greatly influenced the poetry of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,8 exhibited a similar ironic stance toward the sublime, creating in the sentimental impotence of his Don Juan a contrast to the sublime masterfulness of his Childe Harold. Since several of the most important male poets of the romantic age displayed a self-conscious attitude towards the sublime, women poets, too, can be said to have ventured into this aesthetic domain, despite the fact that they were also acquainted with feelings of personal powerlessness. However, like Keats, Byron, and Günderode, they regarded its gender implications with apprehension and reflected on common contemporary assumptions about the so-called innate “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics of the sublime, the beautiful, and the self.

In what follows I will argue that Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, a near contemporary of these poets, did not ignore the aesthetic debate that preoccupied the generation of poets she so much admired. Several of her most famous and powerful poems, “Am Thurme,” “Die Jagd,” and especially the poems written in 1844 on the shores of Lake Constance,9 contain sublime scenery, atmosphere, and a poetic self that matches this grandeur in scope and passion. Although it is open to discussion whether Droste-Hülshoff herself shared her poetic alter ego's confidence, I contend that, contrary to Freeman's conviction, the sublime could by the nineteenth century no longer be exclusively considered a “domain of experience.”10 Rather, by this time both the sublime and the beautiful had become identified with the realm of poetics to a degree that no writer could simply ignore their aesthetic implications. Instead, women poets like Droste-Hülshoff and Günderode engaged the sublime in order to claim for themselves, at least in poetic terms, similar modes of mental intensity, infinite capacity, and elation through the sublime within the poetic territory of the imagination as did their male peers.

If the sublime is defined as an aesthetic category of poetic (not actual) experiencing, then it follows that it was possible for women poets to explore this category in imaginary terms, especially because feminine writing was highly regarded in the nineteenth century when it subscribed to strict aesthetic and instructional purposes. I propose that women poets used the aesthetic discourse of the sublime as a site for demonstrating their literary and theoretical capabilities as matching those of their male contemporaries as well as for challenging some of its most important gender codes. Droste-Hülshoff's strategy in this respect differs from Günderode's, because she refrains from redefining the sublime as a “feminine” category. Instead, she either enters the sublime scene as a man (as when in what I term her “Dichtergedichte”11 she calls herself “Der Dichter” instead of “Die Dichterin”), or she leaves the gender of her poetic speaker unspecified (of these poems there are many, but this article will concentrate on “Lebt wohl,” “Meine Sträuße” and “Am Thurme”).

If it were possible for male writers to appropriate and finally govern the discourse of feminine sentiment and domesticity by “narrative transvestism,”12 then the woman poet, too, could perform the role of the sublime self and thereby claim for herself the (male) discourse of sublime transcendence. Droste-Hülshoff, as she assumes the first-person poetic voice of the male protagonist and abandons herself temporarily to a culturally defined male voice and sensibility, provides herself with access to a poetic territory that Freeman, Mellor and even Battersby imagine to be reserved for male poets. But Droste-Hülshoff contests this exclusivity as she rewrites the voices of her male speakers and redefines the standards that applied to the aesthetic of the sublime. Since (poetic) transvestism is an extraneous as well as a temporary state,13 it provides Droste-Hülshoff with the ability to clad herself in a male ego while retaining her identity as a female poet and to revert to her female personality at any given time.14 In this way, she ventures into the male imaginative realm of the sublime, demonstrates its volatility in regard to gender stereotypes, and finally claims it for the female poet.

Droste-Hülshoff's poetic transvestism carries important implications for an aesthetic category that rests on the very dichotomies of gender. Battersby has shown that Kant described the sublime other as female while excluding women from the cognitive process that confronted the human imagination with the sublime in nature or in sublime artifacts.15 Freeman has likened the failure of the imagination and the resulting mastery of reason to mechanisms of subjection and rape.16 Marjorie Garber proposes that

one of the most consistent and effective functions of the transvestite in culture is to indicate a place of what I call “category crisis” disrupting and calling attention to cultural, social, or aesthetic dissonances … by “category crisis” I mean a failure of definitional distinctions, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another: black/white, Jew/Christian, noble/bourgeois, master/servant, master/slave.17

Droste-Hülshoff, by either “cross-dressing” her poetic subject in the male gender or by leaving its gender unspecified, practices in her poetry the destabilization of the aesthetic categories of the sublime and the beautiful that Garber advocates in cultural practices. “Lebt wohl,” for example, fails to iluminate whether its poetic subject is male or female. The speaker's transport from a scene of domestic confinement to mountains and forests, the majesty of the sublime Alps, and the evocation of a female muse point to a male speaker. On the other hand, the lack of an outside audience, the plea to be heard, and the call for alternative modes of inspiration seem to favor the assumption that “Lebt wohl” has a female protagonist.

Similarly, nature in “Lebt wohl” initially reflects the attributes of the masculine sublime mentioned in Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft18 and Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.19 It displays majesty, grandeur, and power. However, nature is also the very image of weak, fickle, feminine beauty: the elves that populate the wood's every crevice and ravine. What further complicates the gendering in “Lebt wohl” is the fact that these elves are male; the conventional feminine traits of smallness and delicacy that constitute the category of the beautiful have been displaced on the masculine gender:

Aus jeder Klippe, jedem Spalt
Befreundet mir der Elfe lauscht.(20)

As “Lebt wohl” combines two aesthetic categories that should remain separate in order to be distinguished from and contrasted to each other, it dispossesses nature as well as the subject that inhabits it of a fixed notion of gender. Moreover, as the sublime and the beautiful mingle, the implicit superiority of the former is disputed to the advantage of the latter, supposedly less elevated category that is no longer confined to the feminine sphere. As the (feminine) beautiful is subsumed under the (masculine) sublime, the tone of the sublime is effectively lowered.

Droste-Hülshoff's assemblage of the sublime and the beautiful and the ensuing diffusion of their constituent characteristics actually allowed her to move into a related, but nonetheless distinct, symbolic space that I call the marvelous (“das Wunderbare”). In this endeavor, she is not alone. In fact, the nineteenth century abundance of fairy tales and poems with a marvelous subject matter written by women serves as evidence that when women evoked the sublime, they did so within the broader literary context of the marvelous. This allowed them to consider the sublime/marvelous as a poetic space of perception and cognition open to the female storyteller.

Like the sublime, “das Wunderbare” had in the eighteenth century been identified as an aesthetic category. Bodmer and Breitinger, who wrote an extensive treatise on this subject, included under its heading all literary products that we now regard as fairy tales and works of fantasy (as well as the Bible). As they also considered the marvelous as a rhetorical effect that both delighted and awed its readers,21 they determined that the sublime formed an integral part of the marvelous. I suggest that Bodmer's and Breitinger's insistence on the double function of the marvelous inspired Droste-Hülshoff not only to write sublime poetry, but also to imbue it with a sense of humor. In this way, she moderated the sublime lyric's demand for absolute severity with a sense of mischievousness and play.

As Droste-Hülshoff's poetry demonstrates how to avoid the antagonism that arises when women are either deemed incapable of a masculine sublime or creative of a feminine sublime, it also explains why the marvelous needs to be resuscitated when the question is raised whether women poets were amenable to the sublime. The marvelous demonstrates that women poets not only practiced a “subversive mimesis” of the sublime, but also integrated the sublime into the more open and playful marvelous, which then subsumed the sublime and the beautiful (without privileging one over the other). The affinity of the marvelous with folklore, oral tradition, and women's writing also functioned as an effective weapon against the elitism and solipsism that often accompanied the sublime poet and his claim to self-aggrandizement.

Droste-Hülshoff's examination of the darker aspects of the sublime thus involves not only the “othering” of femininity, but also the (supposedly feminine) suffering prostration of sentiment and self-pity that ensued from the (supposedly masculine) romantic self-exploitation of mental extremes. Apart from her play with gender, her critical stance is exhibited in an ironic oscillation between an exultation in her poetic powers (as when the maenad of “Am Thurme” battles the storms) and a condemnation of her personal powerlessness (as when she resigns herself to the sloth of obedience and social modesty in the same poem). Droste-Hülshoff continuously ironizes the collapse from the sublime to the dejection of feeling by revealing both as projections of the imagination, the self's fluctuating visualizations of its capabilities and its failures. In her Gedichte of 1844, especially the poems gathered under the heading “Scherz und Ernst,” irony represents the junction between sublime inspiration and pathetic dejection. Even Droste-Hülshoff's well-known poem “Am Thurme,” which imagines a poetic subject whose self-inflation surpasses the sublimity of nature, ends in an ironic, self-reflective wavering (“Schwebe”)22 between sublime omnipotence and sentimental impotence:

Wär ich ein Jäger auf freier Flur,
Ein Stück nur von einem Soldaten,
Wär ich ein Mann doch mindestens nur,
So würde der Himmel mir rathen;
Nun muß ich sitzen so fein und klar,
Gleich einem artigen Kinde,
Und darf nur heimlich lösen mein Haar
Und lassen es flattern im Winde!


As the speaker of “Am Thurme” moves between the ecstasy of her passionate longing (“Wär ich …”) and the lament of her powerlessness (“Nun muß ich sitzen …”), she ironizes the narrative of her own exorbitant demands and pretensions. For at the end of the poem, her self-portrayal as the “maenad” who battles the storm with her tresses transforms into the demure image of a child secretly undoing its braids. The lines “Nun muß ich sitzen so fein und klar, / Gleich einem artigen Kinde” resound with a sense of self-irony that serves as a critical comment on the mechanisms of sublime self-aggrandizement and the resulting collapse into indolence and dejection.

The last lines of “Am Thurme” have frequently been read as Droste-Hülshoff's protest against the social limitations imposed on women in the nineteenth century. But beyond their social significance they complement the aesthetics of the sublime with a psychological mobility that enables Droste-Hülshoff to shuttle between an egoistical sublime, a negative capability, and a self-conscious, ironical stance. This mobility, expressing itself in the accomplished manipulation of ambiguous personae, settings, and meaning, makes it possible for Droste-Hülshoff to preserve an ambiguous stance towards the sublime although its literary conventions demand an unconditional surrender on her part.

Her poem “Dichters Naturgefühl” from the “Scherz und Ernst” cycle represents a wonderful example of this technique. It pokes fun at the artistic pretense of the sublime poet and depicts his encounter with a dunce who inhabits nature with disinterested ease. By contrast, nature “fears” the lofty disgust of the poet and retaliates by sending a mosquito that chases the poet from his elevated place of superior observation:

In dessen wirbelndem Gehirne
Das Leben spuckt gleich einer Fey,
Der—hastig fuhr ich an die Stirne:
“Wie eine Mücke, schon im Mai?”
Und trabte zu der Schlucht hinaus,
Hohl hustend, mit beklemmter Lunge,
Und drinnen blieb der dumme Junge,
Und pfiff zu seinem Veilchenstrauß!


The mosquito symbolizes and parodies the uncontrollable aspect of nature that the poet imagines to have forced into a sublime mode suitable for his inspiration.23 As nature refuses to be contained as an aesthetic medium for the celebration of a superior poetic self, the poet is reduced to a vacuous, gasping fugitive from the natural powers he disturbed in his arrogance. The boy, by contrast, remains in nature. His admiration of natural beauty and his recuperation of this beauty for the social context he inhabits show that the boy is innocent of the poet's indulgence of the egotistical sublime. The boy's behavior suggests an immersion in a natural and social existence alien to the poet, who regards life exclusively in terms of an alternate pattern of self-centered submission to and control of the sublime in nature.

“Dichters Naturgefühl” sends out an ironic warning to consider the narcissistic implications of the poetic sublime. In this poem Droste-Hülshoff discusses the consequences that await the poet who ventures out into nature to commune with himself. The boy, however clumsy and ridiculous, is connected with his universe; he not only unreservedly enjoys nature and joins it in song, but he also communicates and shares his bliss by making flower wreaths and bouquets to delight others. Therefore, art is a shared experience for the boy, as he exchanges books with the maids and decorates his simple room with fairy tale images:

Der in den kargen Feierstunden
Romane von der Zofe borgt,
Beklagt des Löwenritters Wunden
Und seufzend um den Posa sorgt,
Der seine Zelle, kalt und klein,
Schmückt mit Aladdins Zaubergabe,
Und an dem Quell, wie Schillers Knabe,
Violen schlingt in Kränzelein!


In turn, nature and society welcome the boy. His world is the world of communal lore and storytelling; it forms the basis of his society and all who participate in it.

The poet, on the other hand, is exiled from both nature and the social circle that the boy inhabits. Unlike Wordsworth's protagonists, he looks down upon the “stupid boy” and other members of his class. The poet reveals himself as extremely judgmental and manipulative. Before he considers himself able to write about nature, he needs to fashion nature to his liking. Declaring his disdain for the desolate aspects of the early spring day, he orders nature to provide him with a well-behaved day. She shamefully complies. His punishment ensues when exactly this mildness awakens the first mosquitos.

It is impossible to ignore the intertextual references of “Dichters Naturgefühl.” First, Schiller is mentioned by name. Second, the poem evokes associations with English romanticism, Wordsworth, and the idea of the child's naive and superior understanding of nature. However, “Dichters Naturgefühl” makes light even of this romantic ideal. For the boy in this poem is in no way noble. He reads trash literature. Far from being an intuitive visionary, he seems unable to recognize any concept or order in human existence (“In dessen wirbelndem Gehirne / Das Leben spuckt gleich einer Fey”). As a consequence, “Dichters Naturgefühl” reveals the paradoxes of romantic self-consciousness in their entirety. The poem demonstrates the moments when sentiment contracts the poet's infinite poetic capacity and leaves him to contemplate instead the infinite and hardly endearing small-mindedness of human existence, whether intellectual or innocent. The result is pathetic, rather than elevating, comic rather than tragic. Any sense of sublime dilation has been effectively banished from this scene.

But Droste-Hülshoff's irony does not only have cryptic and subversive implications. Like allegory, it strives for an artistic truthfulness. For the poet's hollow cough and constricted lungs intimate that the sad state of his physical nature reflects the poverty of his own intellect and implies the absence of any poetic daring. His very humanity indicates how he will fare in his encounter with the sublime; and indeed, the presence of a mere fellow admirer and a mosquito suffice to disturb this poet's reveries. Almost imperceptibly, the poem thus appeals to our common sense as it raises the unspoken question whether, in the populated world of the nineteenth century, solitude is not impossible to come by and the demand for it a presumption on our fellow man. Simultaneously, “Dichters Naturgefühl” ridicules the selectiveness of sublime poets who find correspondence in only a few aspects of nature and filter out all others.

As the poet of “Dichters Naturgefühl” fails the test of nature, he fails the task of poetry. As he flees the scene of sublime self-edification, he also abandons his role as romantic poet. Tieck's comedies thematized this “aus der Rolle fallen” as the typical stance of the self-conscious, ironic protagonist, who reflects critically on his role (as poet) in terms of aesthetic existence and artistic representation. As Peter Szondi explains:

Bei Tieck geschieht etwas anderes: die Rolle spricht über sich selbst als Rolle. Sie hat die Einsicht in die dramaturgische Bedingtheit der eigenen Existenz. Dadurch wird sie aber nicht reduziert, sondern potenziert. Durch ihr Selbstbewußtsein wird sie sich ebenso gegenständlich wie das gespaltene frühromantische Ich, dessen ästhetische Projektion sie ist. Durch diese Übersetzung des Selbstbewußtseins ins Ästhetische wird aber die Dramenstruktur mitbetroffen. Die Rolle ist sich bewußt nicht ihres im Drama dargestellten Seins, sondern ihrer dramatischen Existenz überhaupt.24

Similarly, Droste-Hülshoff's comic poem “Dichters Naturgefühl” shows us a poet who attempts, quite self-consciously, to stage the drama of his sublime experience. Like a director, he sets the stage and self-induces his inspiration:

Die Quellchen, glitzernd wie Kristallen,—
Die Zweige, glänzend emailliert—
Das kann dem Kenner schon gefallen,
Ich nickte lächelnd: “es passirt!”


In contrast to the sublime poet, who “happens” upon the scene of his sublime encounter and is completely overcome by an awe that tests the faculties of his reason, Droste-Hülshoff's “Dichter” critically observes, positions himself in relation to, and finally commands the sublime performance (“es passirt!”). His mental control belies his supposed enchantment with the spring day. It reveals this poet's awareness that the sublime scenario is in fact a theatrical setup.

The poet's ironic self-consciousness gives reason to examine the poetic pretense of a secret communion with nature and the ensuing inspiration of the imagination. In this respect, “Dichters Naturgefühl” comments on Droste-Hülshoff's other “Dichtergedichte,” the poems entitled “Der Dichter,” “Der Dichter—Dichters Glück” (published posthumously), “Der zu früh geborene Dichter,” and “Mein Beruf.” “Mein Beruf” and “Der Dichter” passionately defend the poet's rights and privileges, especially when he/she is accused of being an impostor:

“Was meinem Kreise mich enttrieb,
Der Kammer friedlichem Gelasse?”
Das fragt ihr mich als sey, ein Dieb,
Ich eingebrochen am Parnasse.
So hört denn, hört, weil ihr gefragt:
Bei der Geburt bin ich geladen,
Mein Recht soweit der Himmel tagt,
Und meine Macht von Gottes Gnaden.


Die ihr beym fetten Mahle lacht,
Euch eure Blumen zieht in Scherben
Und was an Gold euch zugedacht,
Euch wohlbehaglich laßt vererben,
Ihr starrt dem Dichter ins Gesicht,
Verwundert, daß er Rosen bricht
Von Disteln, aus dem Quell der Augen
Korall und Perle weiß zu saugen


The “Zaubergarten” imagery of “Der Dichter,” its metamorphoses of natural treasures into the glorious artifices of the imagination recall the crystal waters and enamel branches of “Dichters Naturgefühl.” In fact, “Der Dichter” could be addressed to the boy in “Dichters Naturgefühl.” He and the dilettantes of “Der Dichter” join forces in their failure to appreciate the immense efforts of the poet. They ignore his accomplishments because they prefer the literary and monetary products of the new mass culture.

Droste-Hülshoff's “Dichter” poems thus also serve as cultural critiques. “Der Dichter” and “Dichters Naturgefühl” depict the invasion of the romantic imagination by commercial interest. Gold is cherished more than poetry, “Der Dichter” asserts, because wealth rather than literary dreaming licenses the fantasies of the new audience. Instead of art, financial calculations inspire the leaps of the imagination and represent the incitement to fabulation. “Dichters Naturgefühl” demonstrates that the poets are not innocent of this development, since their wishfulness for fame and fortune leads them to cater to a mass market. The fact that “Kitsch” literature elicits from the boy identical feelings of elation and passion as did nature reveals to the poet the pretentiousness of his own romantic myth-making. He leaves feeling vacuous, because he realizes that the transformations of the romantic imagination can easily be misused as devices for falsifying emotion. This realization represents the most painful ironic insight of Droste-Hülshoff's “comic” poem. As the poet's sensibility can be corrupted into marketable sentimentality, the truthfulness of romantic authenticity in regard to the sublime is called into question. Since truth becomes a plaything, the poet retreats into an ironic oscillation which reflects this ambiguity; at times he represents the powerful, questing rebel who strives for divine inspiration and truth (“Der Dichter”), at others he acts the part of the sophisticated bon vivant who considers such ideals part of the past (“Dichters Naturgefühl”).

Here, Droste-Hülshoff again evokes Byron. She emulates his depiction of the spasmodic occurrences of sensibility to define the unremitting tension between her wish to write poetry fired by the sublime and her knowledge that the force of this poetry had by the nineteenth century been defused because of its participation in the marketplace of sentimental literature. Her cross-dressing therefore does not confine itself to “speaking” as “Der Dichter.” In addition, her protagonist actually performs the role of ironic Byronic poet as hero in her “Dichtergedichte.” Droste-Hülshoff, who set a song of Byron's to music and read his poems with great enthusiasm, re-enacted his alternating poses of passionate believer and disenchanted critic in order to create for her subject a poetic voice different from the traditionally acquiescent, one-dimensional, feminine one.

Droste-Hülshoff's adaptation of Byron's poetic selves demonstrates that her ambiguity in respect to the sublime is not merely grounded in a lack of feminine self-assertion, as Freeman claims. It is not that Droste-Hülshoff is unable to create “das Erhabene”; on the contrary, her poetry knows many sublime moments. “Am Thurme,” the poem mentioned earlier, with its images of violent storms, stormy seas, wars, and hunts recalls Kant's catalogue of the dynamical sublime,25 as well as his idea that violence is bound up with the notion of sublimity:

das, was in uns, ohne zu vernünfteln, bloß in der
Auffassung, das Gefühl des Erhabenen erregt, der Form nach
zwar zweckwidrig für unsere Urteilskraft, unangemessen
unserem Darstellungsvermögen, und gleichsam gewalttätig
für die Einbildungskraft erscheinen mag, aber dennoch nur
um desto erhabener zu sein geurteilt wird.(26)

Poems such as “Die Jagd” and “Durchwachte Nacht” evoke the mathematical sublime because of their great excess of imagery, movement, and expansion.27 After Droste-Hülshoff began to visit her sister at the Meersburg on Lake Constance, her poems summon up the sublime grandiosity of the Swiss Alps. Especially her late poem “Lebt wohl” addresses the “Alpengeist” and the splendors that issue “Aus jeder Klippe, jedem Spalt.” In a gesture that recalls the Faustian poet, the speaker of “Lebt wohl” extends her (writing) arm to the heavens, becoming one with the sublime spectacle before her:

Solange noch der Arm sich frei
Und waltend mir zum Äther streckt
Und jedes wilden Geiers Schrei
In mir die wilde Muse weckt.


The “wild muse” and the “vulture” recall the violent setting of “Am Thurme” and disperse the notion that “Lebt wohl” represents merely a poetic idyll. Beneath the evocation of natural harmony, beauty, and peace teem great loneliness, unhappiness and restlessness (“Verlassen … Erschüttert”). These feelings are transformed into creative energies initially as a matter of survival. As the speaker attempts to control the resentment she experiences because of her friends' abandonment, she remembers nature as the one friend that has never forsaken her:

Solange mir der frische Wald
Aus jedem Blatt Gesänge rauscht,
Aus jeder Klippe, jedem Spalt
Befreundet mir der Elfe lauscht.


Nature, however, can only inspire productivity that was there in the first place. As Droste-Hülshoff summons up the companionship of nature,

Allein mit meinem Zauberwort,
Dem Alpengeist und meinem Ich.


she also adds her “Zauberwort,” the spell that not only enchants nature, but the speaker herself. As she transforms a setting characterized by immense fatigue, dark desertion, and ghostly squalor into a magical garden of gentle waves, holy light, singing forest and adoring elves, she also transforms herself from a downtrodden, shattered, and passive mourner into a triumphant, jubilant creator.

The “Zauberwort” therefore breaks the spell of subjection that forces the imagination into the exclusive and impotent admiration of the sublime in nature. The poetic imagination is the element that turns the landscape into a scene of sublime splendor in the first place, “Lebt wohl” implies. Far from an inferior player in the drama of the sublime, the imagination acts as its producer and director. The imagination imbues nature with the very elements it then depicts in poetic terms as overpowering its faculties. The magic word is the expression of the ironic self-consciousness of this tour de force of the imagination on the poet's part. As mentioned earlier, Droste-Hülshoff shows both the elation and the collapse of the imagination to be the results of its encounter with the sublime; they represent the self's alternate fantasies of its potential and its limitations.

Droste-Hülshoff's ironic awareness of the capabilities of self-induced sensibility, and not her lack of self-assurance, thus constitutes the reason for her revision of the narrative of the supposed interaction between sensitivity and the sublime in her poetry. Poems such as “Dichters Naturgefühl” reflect her insight, shared by both male and female poets, that sublime sensitivity often promotes self-interest rather than the harmony between man and creation. As the serious poet strains the capacities of feeling, she becomes implicated in the pretenses of others that only fake them. For how can the difference between the poet's stimulation and the boy's fabrication in regard to the sublime ever be ascertained? This is the crucial question that pervades Droste-Hülshoff's poetry. In response, she writes the poem “Lebt wohl,” which instead of assuming a correspondence between creation and inspiration, strives for the representation of the self-sufficient inventiveness of the imagination. In Droste-Hülshoff's poetry, nature, like the artifice, appears as part of the creative process, and is no longer posited as a supposedly extratextual absolute.

“Meine Sträuße” represents a perfect example of the autonomous poetic space (“Eine Zauberhalle”), which replaces the depiction of the sublime in nature in Droste-Hülshoff's work:

So mochte ich still und heimlich mir
Eine Zauberhalle bereiten,
Wenn es dämmert dort, und drüben, und hier,
Von den Wänden seh ich es gleiten;
Eine Fey entschleicht der Camelia sich,
Liebesseufzer stöhnet die Rose


This space the speaker of “Meine Sträuße” furnishes with flower bouquets that evoke memories and their poetical renderings. Forget-me-nots recall a lost friend of spring, alp roses remind her of icy winters. Wreaths of ivy and vine bring to mind a fertile and happy autumn, heather and water weeds evoke summers spent in the moss at her favorite pond. In the tradition of Victorian flower poems, the bouquets also contain intertextual references to the Lake Constance poems “Lebt wohl,” “Am Bodensee,” and “Die Schenke am See,”28 to the nature and trance poems “Der Weiher,” “Im Grase,” and “Im Moose,”29 to the poems of twilight and waking, “Durchwachte Nacht,” and “Mondesaufgang,” and finally to fairy-tale poems, such as “Der Schloßelf”:

So oft mir ward eine liebe Stund'
Unterm blauen Himmel in Freien,
Da habe ich, zu des Gedenkens Bund,
Mir Zeichen geflochten mit Treuen,
Einen schlichten Kranz, einen wilden Strauß,
Ließ drüber die Seele wallen;
Nun stehe ich einsam im stillen Haus,
Und sehe die Blätter zerfallen.


Within Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's oeuvre, “Meine Sträuße” most persuasively performs poetic self-enchantment and self-intoxication and demonstrates the spell-binding effect of this process in minutiae. The poem moves from an initial position of death and decay (“Nun stehe ich einsam im stillen Haus, / Und sehe die Blätter zerfallen”) to one of animation. This move is also one from nature to art, from the everyday to the marvelous. By the end of “Meine Sträuße,” the camellia is home to a fairy, the rose utters sighs of love, and the weeds and mosses gather the poetic subject into an artful embrace. This is the emblem-come-to-life (the “Zeichen”) that lives and breathes the desires and dreams of its animator.

Her enchantment is of doubly potent character. For before transforming flowers into sprites and fairies, the spell returns them from the death they have already suffered. The poem mentions continually that the flowers it describes are already dead; they have shed their leaves, turned dusty and dirty, dried and decayed:

Und die fremden Schlacken zerfielen.
Dort hängen sie, drüben am Fensterstab,
Wie arme vertrocknete Seelen.


It employs a double vision that shows us the flowers both as the original, glorious beauties they were and their present, deplorable condition. In this way, “Meine Sträuße” proves the testing ground of the poetic powers of transition, as flower corpses turn into buds that bloom into radiant images and visions at once reminiscent and formative of poetic subject identity.

As the speaker states in the opening of the poem, her visions are composed of modesty and wildness (“Einen schlichten Kranz, einen wilden Strauß”), the two extremes of her life. The “modest wreaths” belong to days spent in love and with friends. The wildflowers, by contrast, are the emblems of her poetic solitude and creativity. The roses, woven into the autumnal wreath, bring back memories of love, while the wild camellia evokes the marvelous. As the wild weeds and mosses embrace the subject in this magical abode, they, in turn, enchant her, as they gather around her and mingle with her body. They transform her into a marvelous creature herself, an “Undine” who dwells among the animated underwater nature of her marvelous creations.

“Meine Sträuße” is no less than a poetic universe unto itself. It encompasses the dimensions of poetic creation. It surrounds the subject and obscures the boundaries between all entities. By the end of the last stanza, it is impossible to distinguish between the subjective world, the poetic world, or the real world where they are supposedly located: the total confusion of time and space pervades the entire composition. “Wenn es dämmert, dort, und drüben, und hier” is characterized by an extreme ambiguity in this respect. Is this the dawn of morning or the dusk of night? By “here,” does the speaker mean the magic hall she builds for herself or the silent house in which she found herself originally? Or does she mean by “here” the locations of her memories since the mosses and weeds have at this moment revived and embraced her? Where is the “there” and “over there?”

We are not to know. For this is the twilight of the marvelous, when boundaries vanish inexplicably and poetic subjectivity reigns for a marvelous moment. It is the time and place where even beauty and the sublime strike a balance, as the rose and the camellia form equal elements in the creative process. “Meine Sträuße” is one of Droste-Hülshoff's few poems where the process of mirroring leads not to disaster but to play and from play to a facilitation of the subject's quest for identity:

Wenn aus dem Spiegel mein Anlitz bleich
Mit rieselndem Schauer mich necket,
Dann lang' ich sachte, sachte hinab,
Und fische die träufelnden Schmehlen


“Meine Sträuße” ultimately demonstrates the possibility of the marvelous to open up a symbolic space different from that already predetermined by the sublime and the beautiful. It includes these aesthetic entities, but subjects them to Droste-Hülshoff's main project: the construct of a poetic subjectivity beyond realms of significance associated with the sublime. Droste-Hülshoff reinvents a marvelous identity that extends itself beyond the conventions of the sublime as it conceives itself as fashioned from “subversive mimesis”—evocations of memories, fantasies, and self-mythizations that remain posited as self-conscious products of the poetic imagination. Solely in this way, Droste-Hülshoff envisions the poetic quest for perfection.

For “Meine Sträuße” is above all a fantasy about poetic completion and self-sufficiency. No inspiration, no outside source lingers on the margins. Every image and every move in this poetic construct are self-conceived, put through the mimetic process before our very eyes. This poet is not dependent on sublime powers greater than her own; she not only creates the spirit of the camellia, she creates the camellia before her. Nothing about nature is natural in “Meine Sträuße.” A camellia is made of a flute, the sounds of trumpets and cymbals, many-colored lamps and veils, and bengal fire:

Gar weite Wege hast du gemacht,
Camelia, staubige Schöne,
In deinem Kelche die Flöte wacht,
Trompeten und Cymbelgetöne;
Wie zittern durch das grüne Revier
Buntfarbige Lampen und Schleyer!
Da brach der zierliche Gärtner mir
Den Strauß beim bengalischen Feuer.


Since nature is a precarious partner when it comes to the poetic representation of subjectivity, Droste-Hülshoff removes herself from the genre of sublime nature poetry to some extent. She finds refuge in the marvelous and in irony, two modes that offer themselves more easily to new readings and a rewriting of the sublime. Especially the openness and interpretability of the marvelous help her to build a magic utopia, a visionary realm of self-sufficiency and complete accessibility at once.

Within this new realm of marvelous subjectivity, the suspended or floating positioning (“Schwebe”) of Droste-Hülshoff's poetic “I” corresponds to the ambiguity of the autonomous space of art. It is as impossible to pin down the location of her subject as it is to draw the boundaries around her imaginary utopias. But the magic spell of poetry that animates the world around the poet-magician also ultimately displaces her from this central position. As “Meine Sträuße” shows, she becomes one with her creation as she finally dissolves into the magic she has created:

Und wie des Blutes Adern umschlingen mich
Meine Wasserfäden und Moose.


Although “umschlingen” indicates an embrace, the reference to the weeds and mosses as “blood veins” reveals that these plants, which themselves are mere poetic images and fantasies, have penetrated her body. More importantly, they have become the lifeblood that sustains her. By the end of the poem, the poetic subject herself has turned in essence into a bouquet, an emblem of her own poetic imagination. The body in Droste-Hülshoff's poems is, as always, the marvelous body poetic, made of the very images that emerge from it.

Droste-Hülshoff's poems “Meine Sträuße” and “Lebt wohl” demonstrate that she is intrigued by the Longinian notion of the sublime as a rhetorical effect, rather than as an element of nature, as befits a poet who enters the domain of the sublime because she is able to adapt herself to the male rhetoric of the sublime. As she completes her entry, she integrates this mode into her poetry of the marvelous. In both poems, therefore, the sublime spell of rhetorical magic transforms the poet as well as her text. In contrast to Wordsworth's wanderer who is rooted on the spot by his amazement at beholding the sublime, Droste-Hülshoff's poetic subject in “Lebt wohl” is shown to perform the dynamic sublime herself. She travels far and wide, encompassing the heavens with her extremities. She literally embodies the sublime as she towers over and embraces the now dwarfed landscape. In “Lebt wohl,” nature ceases to be the source of inspiration; contained by the all-encompassing poetic subject, it is reduced to the minor role of audience. In the place of nature, the poetic “I” arises, a colossal creation spanning whatever dimensions it fathoms for itself.

I have argued that Droste-Hülshoff's rewriting of the sublime, along with her irony and her interest in the marvelous, speak eloquently of her self-assertiveness within the territory of literary ambitions associated with the sublime. For her willingness both to refer to and rewrite the narrative of sublime immersion and hyperbolic emotionality reveal a daring spirit discontented with mere mimicry. Droste-Hülshoff employs the jargon of nature enthusiasm to undo the speciousness of mock-romanticism and to reveal the restless exercise of fancy as the lapse into the torpid self-obsession it often is. The rhetoric of emotional susceptibilities assists her in exploring the sublime for its own sake and to indicate its limitations; for perception of the sublime in nature, according to Droste-Hülshoff, should only inspire poetic creativity and not be applied to societal behavior. In this way, she shows that as romantic feeling is translated into social manners, a solipsism and social arrogance are indulged that counteract the poet's wishes for human interaction and communication.

Freeman's inability to recognize the sublime in the poetry of nineteenth century women might therefore be explained by the fact that its presence is quite often inundated with social, moral and gender issues and obscured by an ironic distance on the part of the female writer. This is certainly the case in Droste-Hülshoff's poetry of the sublime. While the scenery, mood, and transport of self bear testimony to her knowledge of Kant's sublime, she also distances herself from romantic ambitions to prolong the self's sublime transcendence indefinitely. Rather, her lyrical “I” splits in two, one the debased, battered social self, the other the triumphant, creative writer. It is the latter that represents Droste-Hülshoff's true sublime creation, the defeat of the powers that keep her down as a woman poet. Against these, she raises her arm in defiance, a rebel Childe Harold who practices poetic self-expansion and creates a “Zauberhalle” of sublime and marvelous poetry. But soon, her “Don Juan” side intervenes and chastises “Childe” for “his” enthusiasm:

Verschlossen blieb ich, eingeschlossen
In meiner Träume Zauberthurm,
Die Blitze waren mir Genossen
Und Liebesstimme mir der Sturm.


The “Zauberturm” in this late poem entitled “Spätes Erwachen” recalls the tower of sublime isolation of “Am Thurme.” Storm and lightning evoke the sublime elements of nature that “Lebt wohl” had considered better company than the unfaithful friends. The “verschlossen … eingeschlossen” carries echoes of the poetic “I” that concealed itself in the magic hall of “Meine Sträuße” with no companions but her magic spells. It is this self-admonishment that seems to support Freeman's claim that women poets of the nineteenth century were unable to sustain the sublime. The problem with this wish for an unadulterated feminine sublime, however, is that it repeats similar tendencies to absolutize the sublime moment that are criticized in the so-called masculine sublime.

But, as Droste-Hülshoff's poems attest, the sublime seems by necessity to be a category that demands absolute effort, excess, and exultation, even if it were rewritten as the feminine sublime. The sublime remains an antisocial ideal, based on the paradigm of solitary self-arousal. Into its dark side, Droste-Hülshoff's poetry provides an intuitive insight. Therefore, she celebrates the sublime for the benefit of poetic invention; but she also points to its failings for her purposes of the ironic subversion and ideological contestation of an aesthetic paradigm based on the inequalities of gender. Droste-Hülshoff's adaptation of a male voice which is in itself evocative of feminine sensibilities and wavers between sublime elevation and the beauty of pathos allows her to experiment with the sublime in a manner unprecedented in women's poetry.

Günderode, on the one hand, rewrites the fate of womanhood as a sublime tragedy; her seriousness remains unremitting. Droste-Hülshoff, on the other hand, ironizes the sublime and relieves the tension that governs all writing on this aesthetic category. Her contribution to the poetry of the sublime consists not in “domesticating” the sublime, but in venturing out to the geographies of the sublime, at least in imaginary terms. Her poetic selves, on the shores of the lake, the edge of the tower's precipice, and the wing of the vulture, encounter the sublime and draw from it their inspiration. Their trust in the “Zauberwort,” the very magic of poetry, however, assures that in Droste-Hülshoff's poems, the roving imagination need not always submit to the strict rule of reason. Instead, Droste-Hülshoff's magic conjures up smiles and even laughter, “Scherz” being the best companion for “Ernst” in her poetic compositions.


  1. Barbara Claire Freeman, The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women's Fiction, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1995) 8.

  2. Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 1993).

  3. Christine Battersby, “Stages on Kant's Way,” Feminism and Tradition in Aesthetics, ed. Peggy Zeglin Brand and Carolyn Korsmeyer (University Park: The University of Pennsylvania State Press, 1995) 103-05.

  4. Battersby 103-05.

  5. Mellor 6.

  6. Mellor 85-106.

  7. Freeman 8.

  8. Bertha Badt, “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, ihre dichterische Entwicklung und ihr Verhältnis zur englischen Literatur,” Breslauer Beiträge zur Literaturgeschichte ns 17.7 (1909): 19, demonstrates the poet's familiarity with the British poets, especially Byron and and Wordsworth.

  9. These are, for example, “Lebt wohl,” “Spätes Erwachen,” “Der Dichter—Dichters Glück.”

  10. Freeman 2.

  11. These are the poems “Der Dichter,” “Der Dichter—Dichters Glück,” “Der zu früh geborene Dichter,” and “Mein Beruf.”

  12. Madeleine Kahn, Narrative Transvestism: Rhetoric and Gender in the Eighteenth Century English Novel (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1991) 1-12.

  13. Kahn 26.

  14. Droste-Hülshoff showed her self-confidence by publishing under her proper name. She did not use a male pseudonym like many of her contemporaries.

  15. Battersby 92-94.

  16. Freeman 75.

  17. Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992) 16.

  18. Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft und Schriften zur Naturphilosophie (Wiesbaden: Insel, 1957).

  19. Ed. Adam Phillips (Oxford: Oxford UP: 1990) 105-06.

  20. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Historisch-kritische Ausgabe, ed. Winfried Woesler, I.1 (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1985) 325.

    The poems “Lebt wohl,” Der zu früh geborene Dichter,” “Mein Beruf,” “Dichters Naturgefühl,” “Am Thurme,” “Meine Sträuße,” and “Spätes Erwachen” are quoted from this volume. For page numbers of the respective poems see quotations. “Der Dichter” and “Der Dichter—Dichters Glück” are quoted from II.1:69 and 167 respectively.

  21. Karl-Heinz Stahl, Das Wunderbare als Problem und Gegenstand der deutschen Poetik des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt: Athenaion, 1975) 284-87.

  22. Bruna Bianchi, “Verhinderte Überschreitung. Phänomenologie der “Grenze” in der Lyrik der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” Ein Gitter aus Musik und Sprache: Feministische Analysen zu Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, ed. Ortrun Niethammer and Claudia Belemann (Paderborn: Schönigh, 1992) 17-34, talks about “Schwebe” in terms of Droste-Hülshoff's subject positioning. I use the term here to describe the poet's oscilllation between two poetic voices and roles.

  23. Droste-Hülshoff's “Dichtergedichte” use the masculine form of “Dichter.” My article follows her example.

  24. Peter Szondi, “Friedrich Schlegel und die romantische Ironie. Mit einer Beilage über Tiecks Komödien,” Ironie als literarisches Phänomen, ed. Hans-Egon Hass and Gustav-Adolf Mohrlüder (Köln: Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1973) 159-60.

  25. Kant 348-49: “… Orkane mit ihrer zurückgelassenen Verwüstung, der grenzenlose Ozean, in Empörung gesetzt …”

  26. Kant 330.

  27. Kant 333-39.

  28. Its fourth stanza shares with “Die Schenke am See” images of autumnal abundance, grapes, and the anticipation of winter and the departure of the younger friend.

  29. The sixth stanza alludes to lying in the moss, at the pond, contemplating her reflection; all key moments in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's poetry.

Kristina R. Sazaki (essay date summer 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6550

SOURCE: Sazaki, Kristina R. “The Crippled Text/Woman: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Ledwina.Monatshefte für Deutschsprachige Literatur und Kultur 89, no. 2 (summer 1997): 168-81.

[In the following essay, Sazaki considers the incomplete nature of Ledwina as a literary device highlighting the constraints on women in both domestic and literary realms. Sazaki observes that the text is not simply unfinished but also composed of seemingly unrelated narrative threads and stylistic modes, which make manifest the fragmented nature of women's experience.]

Wie war mein Daseyn abgeschlossen,
Als ich im grünumhegten Haus
Durch Lerchenschlag und Fichtensprossen
Noch träumt' in den Azur hinaus!
Nicht rede ich von jenen Jahren,
Die dämmernd uns die Kindheit beut—
Nein, so verdämmert und zerfahren
War meine ganze Jugendzeit.
Wohl sah ich freundliche Gestalten
Am Horizont vorüberfliehn;
Ich konnte heiße Hände halten
Und heiße Lippen an mich ziehn.
Ich fühlte ihres Hauches Fächeln,
Und war doch keine Blume süß;
Ich sah der Liebe Engel lächeln,
Und hatte doch kein Paradies.
Mir war, als habe in den Noten
sich jeder Ton an mich verwirrt,
Sich jede Hand, die mir geboten,
Im Dunkel wunderlich verirrt.
Verschlossen blieb ich, eingeschlossen
In meiner Träume Zauberthurm,
Die Blitze waren mir Genossen
Und Liebesstimme mir der Sturm.
Und alle Pfade mußt' ich fragen:
Kennt Vögel ihr und Strahlen auch?
Doch keinen: wohin magst du tragen,
Von welchem Odem schwillt dein Hauch?(1)

These lines from Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's poem “Spätes Erwachen” (1843-44) are a key to understanding her creative efforts. The poem focuses on the emerging sense of poetic self and the life-long search for a creative outlet. Space conquered by man, the “grünumhegte[s] Haus,” encloses the poetic self and prevents her from reaching her potential. Droste-Hülshoff often expressed societal limitations in terms of living quarters: be it house, villa, castle, tower, the poetic self/female protagonist remains physically entombed. Droste-Hülshoff perceptively articulates her frustration in Goethean terms. Her “freundliche Gestalten” hark back to Goethe's “schwankende Gestalten” in his dedication to Faust, but her figures stand in stark contrast to his. Whereas Goethe cannot avoid confronting his figures, “Ihr naht euch wieder, … / Ihr drängt euch zu!,”2 Droste-Hülshoff can barely even touch hers, who remain on the horizon. Natural phenomena could possibly counter this confinement and allow the poetic self access to creative language, but she cannot strike the right note.

This quandary forms the basis of Droste-Hülshoff's prose fragment Ledwina, begun sometime around 1820 and worked on intermittently until at least 1825. Confined in man-made space, Ledwina searches in vain for her identity. Her inability to give her own voice expression thus dictates the fragmentary ending of the text. Curiously, some critics have dismissed Ledwina because of its fragmentary form and “incompatible” narrative strands.3 Others have also criticized the fragment as an unsuccessful blend of romantic and realistic literary tendencies.4 In addition, Droste-Hülshoff's well-known “Jugendkatastrophe” has often been cited as the reason why this planned novel was never completed.5 Only recently have scholars begun to interpret Ledwina as a critique of the social order and a pursuit for poetic identity, highlighting the centrality of female identity in the text, woman's dual nature, her oppression in society, and her virtual enslavement within the patriarchal family.6 I maintain that the narrative styles and fragmentary nature of Ledwina are influenced by gender identification and are representative literary devices in Droste-Hülshoff's works. In this article I will read Ledwina as a crippled text and argue that Droste-Hülshoff uses the “crippled” imagery to embody woman's position in society and in the creative realm.

As a member of the landed gentry, Ledwina belonged to a social class in the nineteenth century that maintained a specific code of behavior. In his study on nineteenth-century Germany, Thomas Nipperdey explains how after 1815 the attitude toward women was that they lived for others, for the family; in other words, they married.7 In describing the process of the feminization of women, Nipperdey details the expectations placed upon such young women:

Dazu gehört dann eine eigentümliche Verschärfung aller Regeln für das Schickliche, für Arbeit und Aktivität, das Verbot, allein zu reisen, etwas selbst zu tragen, gelegentlich: schnell zu laufen, zu arbeiten, es sei denn an den obligaten “Handarbeiten” ohne eigentlichen Zweck; dazu gehört ferner das Überfeinerte: die Frauen sind zart, schwach, delikat, nervös, leicht kränklich, leiden zumal an Kopfschmerzen—und weil sie so angesehen werden, werden manche oder viele auch wirklich so.8

This new form of patriarchy severely limited women's physical movement and thereby their participation in society. Droste-Hülshoff struggled against this process for it hindered not only personal but creative expression. This struggle is uniquely revealed in Ledwina.

The motif of crippling permeates the text. The most obvious illustration can be found in the name “Ledwina” itself. As patroness of those who live in intense suffering to expiate the sins of others, Saint Lidwina is a model for the fictional character.9 According to tradition, Lidwina had been courted for her beauty and asked God to disfigure her.10 She broke a rib on the ice and spent the next 38 years bedridden with gangrene. Lidwina's female body—her physical beauty—had governed her early life and spirituality. She took a vow of chastity in her youth and prayed for disfigurement as a strategy to transcend the physical nature of her being as excessive physicality.11 She thereby combated the notion of woman as an aesthetic object of desire.

From the beginning of Droste-Hülshoff's text, Ledwina is clearly ruled by her body, just like her namesake. Here consumption threatens her physical well-being. She is pale, has cramps, and often finds herself out of breath. However, Ledwina is much more than just a Romantic heroine destined to die a tragic early death. Her physical suffering signals an inner struggle. For instance, while talking to her family, Ledwina grows pale “als Zeichen, daß ein Gedanke sie ergriff.”12 When discussing the possibility of marrying Clemens Bendraet, that is to say assuming her conventional place within patriarchal society, she tells her sister Therese she would “verkrüppeln an jeder Kraft des Geistes, alle Gedanken verlieren, die mir lieb sind, halb wahnsinnig, eigentlich stumpfsinnig würde ich werden” (119, emphasis added). “Der Körper regiert den Geist” (82) is Ledwina's painful acknowledgement of her condition. The body signals disease, and the disease is woman. Crippling is the physical sign of Ledwina's intellectual dilemma and is symbolic of the larger problem of woman's restricted position in society. Furthermore, if we are to understand this problem in its fullest sense, Droste-Hülshoff is telling us that beyond physicality we must consider intellect und creativity as vital aspects of female identity.

Physical mobility implies psychological independence. Ledwina's physical movement is constantly under threat. She is often chided for taking walks (82), and her mother sends her to bed as soon as she discovers Ledwina's feet are still wet from a stroll. After she awakens from a dream, Ledwina looks out the window, and her foot becomes tightly rooted to the spot as she gazes intently at the scene unfolding before her. She witnesses the guide Klemens drown but is unable to run for help. When she finally breaks away from the window, her knees give out, and she falls to the floor (98-99). Ledwina's momentary paralysis is the physical manifestation of her spiritual conflict, her inability to effect change. In general, Ledwina's sense of powerlessness overwhelms her to the point where even beauty is overshadowed. One example is when Therese watches her sleep and quietly enjoys the changing colors of the setting sun. For Ledwina, by contrast, the visions become far more ominous: “dies flimmernde Naturspiel [hätte] leicht zu einem finstern Bilde des gefesselt seyns in der sengenden Flamme [ausarten können], der man immer vergeblich zu entrinnen strebt, da der Fuß in den qualvollen Boden wurzelt …” (95, emphasis added).

The narrative structure mirrors Ledwina's physical crippling. While the text has an omniscient narrator, one narrative strand explores Ledwina's private side while the other captures the social arena into which she was born. Beginning with Ledwina's walk alone, the family conversation, the talk between the two sisters, and Ledwina's dream, the sections are irregularly divided and sometimes intertwine. The last sections concentrate on the social gatherings at the villa, and the fragment ends with a final gaze at Ledwina mournfully walking away. Clearly there is a social narrative which not only depicts the interactions between different people but also provides social commentary. The individual narrative, on the other hand, delves into Ledwina's psyche and personal discord. If we take a closer look at the points at which the narratives converge, we will see that they are punctuated by Ledwina's painful shifts to and from the social arena.

Ledwina is immobilized in social space and constantly tries to flee. For instance, when she goes into the living room where her family has gathered, Ledwina does not utter a word and seeks the shadowy side of the room, remaining there throughout the conversation (83-87). Upon entering the breakfast room, she finds everyone already seated at the table. She remains on the fringe of the conversation, eventually sneaking outside, “um einen sie überwältigenden so körperlichen als geistigen Druck zu verhehlen, vielleicht zu lindern …” (107). When visitors come, Ledwina is once again conspicuously quiet, so much so that no one notices until close to noontime that Ledwina has once again sneaked outside. Everyone knows where she is, though: “[man] tröstete sich, da man wußte, sie sey spaziren” (111). Ledwina reappears in time for lunch, but first she sits on the steps, “glühend und erschöpft” (111), literally containing her desires, her other self, before entering the dining room. The communal rooms in the house, the living room, dining room, and breakfast room, represent the social space in which everyone becomes a cooperative group with the exception of Ledwina, who remains separated from this closed community.

Ledwina's isolation, however, lays bare her inner turmoil. At the beginning of the text, she is alone at the river and can run like a gazelle in spite of her affliction. She considers these aimless roamings sweet, even if they are unsettling (82). At the end of the fragment, she recounts to Therese how she walked along the river after the servant had drowned—again upstream. The river represents the landscape of Ledwina's desire, and her course upstream becomes her path against social convention.13 The image of walking upstream structurally frames the text, magnifying the restrictive society located within it. In short, Ledwina's moments alone are her attempts to break out of the societal boundary.

The symbols of Ledwina's personal potential—the river and surrounding landscape—come under attack once she returns to the house. Her brother Karl, in his summary rejection of the area, “mir [kömmt] [die] Gegend hier besonders jetzt recht erbärmlich vor,” (90) exhibits a complete lack of understanding for his sister. What transpires beyond the borders of the villa, outside Karl's frame of reference, holds no importance or interest to him. As Karl paces up and down the room, mastering the physical territory,14 Ledwina is reduced to sitting on the dark side of the room. Here she contemplates her needlework, concealed in a drawer near her mother. Usually considered a creative act, needlework now becomes symptomatic of Ledwina's finite possibilities. Instead of running as she did when alone, she now yearns for her needlework, for “Ledwina hätte sich gern ganz still der Gesellschaft eingeflickt” (83, emphasis added). She is completely aware of the social restrictions placed upon her, and that the only acceptable activity for Ledwina within society is needlework. Later in the day, when nearly everyone else is involved in various other pursuits, Ledwina is depicted in front of the embroidery frame, being shown a new stitch. This frame is yet another metaphor of containment and restraint. One gentleman's remark to Ledwina, “[Sie] können doch Alles nachmachen” (115), reveals her needlework, that is to say her social activity, as insignificant and merely imitative.

The formality that governs social space is embodied in Ledwina's mother, Frau von Brenkfeld, who continually reminds us that the narrowly defined role of wife is disabling. Forced to contend with numerous debts and the ingratitude of her son, Frau von Brenkfeld's widowhood has metaphorically crippled her: “der Wittwenschleyer [war] aus einem Trauerflore zu einem Bleymantel geworden, der fast sogar die Ehre niedergebeugt hätte” (88, emphasis added). Her situation is underscored by her guarded speech. During her neighbor's visit, “[begann] ein sanftes leises Gespräch zwischen den beyden Frauen, die sich so gern gegenseitig getraut hätten, und es doch nie konnten, da vielfach drückende Familienverhältnisse eine gute arglose Seele zwangen, ihr Heil in der Intrigue zu suchen” (108). When Frau von Brenkfeld envisions her pitiful neighbor, an isolated mother and wife (118), she forlornly retreats to her room with her prayer book. Kept silent in the company of others, Frau von Brenkfeld's emotional outlet becomes prayer.

The curious travel anecdotes serve a similar function. There is one woman, a deaf-mute, who “manages” to marry only because she has financial worth (116). There is also the woman who stops talking for fourteen years in order to be able to live with her husband in peace (116). And let us not forget the woman who goes mad after families curse her because they had been ruined by her husband's bad debts. As a result, the woman loses her teeth and thus the ability to speak. In their role as wife, these women are dependent upon their husbands for validity and/or financial security. Droste-Hülshoff gives us images of women who physically suffer from the struggle between personal desires and social position, particularly within the confines of the family. The stories underscore Ledwina's views on marriage (“verkrüppeln”), and not just a marriage to Clemens Bendraet, as she explains to her sister: “Therese du wirst sehr glücklich seyn, das sage ich frey, und schäme mich nicht, wir suchen doch alle einmahl, wenn sch on meistens incognito, aber ich habe aufgehört, denn ich weiß, daß ich nicht finde” (93).

The anecdotes about the women invite further consideration. Before we hear the first story about the woman who has gone mad, two of the male guests, Warneck and Türk, muse about free thinking as a form of insanity:

Dann begann Warneck, “der Wahnsinn ist eine Sache, worüber geistliche und weltliche Gesetze verbieten sollten, nicht gar zu scharf zu grübeln und untersuchen ich glaube, daß nichts leichter zur Freygeisterey führt.” “Ich sollte eher meinen,” fiel Türk ein, “ins Tollhaus,” Warneck versetzte,—“Eins von beyden, und sehr leicht beydes zugleich.”


Warneck equates free thinking, or individuality, with madness, thus compelling the reader to associate these women with Ledwina. They are just as crippled as she. Their inability to speak, communicate, and express themselves denotes their psychological bondage. We can regard these nameless women as representatives of Ledwina's own anguish over her stifled creativity. Moreover, the anecdotes are related during social gatherings in which Ledwina is noticeably silent. Ironically, the mute women speak for Ledwina. Their own speechlessness highlights Ledwina's quandary even more. The dilemma expressed in the individual narrative takes on broader dimensions in the social narrative, creating yet another bridge between the two narrative strands.

The figure of Therese acts as perhaps the most important narrative connector.15 Initially described as an angel whose main concern is her future marriage (89, 93), Therese seems destined to integrate into society, to serve as a foil for the unconventional Ledwina. She also acts as an intermediary between Ledwina and the outside world, softening the harsh words of others and rescuing her from unnecessary attacks. She quietly reminds Ledwina of their mother's orders to drink plenty of tea. At lunch, when one of the guests wants to sit next to Ledwina, Therese seats Ledwina next to herself as if to protect her from these unwelcome guests. Indeed, Therese appears to function within both worlds. Not only is she comfortable alone with Ledwina, even when Ledwina shows signs of distress, but she also situates herself at the table. In other words, Therese places herself in the middle of the social arena. Yet all is not as it seems, for Therese leads a double life: “diese süße übertheuere Seele lebte ein doppeltes Leben, eins für sich, eins für andre, wovon das Erstere immer zum Kampf für das Letztere vortrat, nur daß es statt des Schwertes die Leidenspalme führte” (94). Her palm frond of the Passion, the symbol of martyrdom,16 likens her to Ledwina, who has undoubtedly assumed the role of sufferer. We also associate Therese with Ledwina because she too sneaks outside in order to vent her inner feelings, in her case to moan and cry. Therese's close relationship to her sister slowly draws her into Ledwina's world of understanding, one not dominated by patriarchal constraints. She begins to understand Ledwina's situation and to identify with it. Why, one might ask, does Therese only now become embroiled in Ledwina's inner conflict? Simply because she now stands on the threshold of marriage, at the point of either accepting her designated subordinate position in society or choosing an alternative.

The fragment offers an answer to Therese's predicament if we look to her saintly namesake for clues. Saint Teresa's early convent life was tormented by the need to be appreciated by others, hence to rely on others for confirmation, but she eventually saw the inadequacy of this endeavor. She went on to reform the Carmelite order by stressing the original Carmelite eremitic way of life, including the observance of solitude, silence, and prayer.17 Now the issue of speechlessness mentioned earlier takes on additional significance. Therese is confronted with women who have their ability to speak taken away, yet she recognizes that voluntary silence can be empowering. Since there is no positive solution for woman, no allowance for individuality and equality, Therese's only “choice” is to intentionally forsake her entrance into society.

At the end of the fragment, Therese comes across Ledwina, who is sitting in a position similar to the one Count Hollberg, Ledwina's doppelgänger, had assumed earlier:

die Arme übereinander auf den steinernen Tisch gelegt, und das Gesicht fest darauf gedrückt, da fiel [Therese] ein, wie sie den Grafen Hollberg am Morgen in ähnlicher Lage gesehn, bleich in der Ohnmacht, und alles was Carl über seine Krankheit gesagt, und sie erschrak vor der Aehnlichkeit, denn wie hätte sie sich je bey Ledwina das eingestehn sollen, was sie bey dem Grafen sogleich als unläugbar anerkannte.


Therese for the first time truly comprehends Ledwina's outsider position and embarks along the same path. It is no wonder, then, that when Ledwina thinks she sees more than just shadows among the trees, Therese does as well: “[Therese] sah bewegt vor sich nieder, da war es ihr selber, als sehe sie durch den Schlagschatten der Bäume, noch eine andre Gestalt lauschen …” (121). She positions herself in a new sisterhood with Ledwina, one that transcends blood and family ties and comprises the religious realm. Droste-Hülshoff illustrates that in her time and place martyrdom was one of only few ways to combat the feminine condition in society.

Our understanding of this female journey to self-discovery is ironically guided by Karl's excursion to the cave. When the guests first gather together and begin to tell stories, Warneck, the popular storyteller of the group, admits to having been in very few caves because they made him dizzy (112). Karl steps into the center of attention and tells of the time when he and five acquaintances toured a cave. They encountered a hermit living there, who believed himself to be the archangel Gabriel. He contended the cave was the tomb of Christ and protected it by granting entrance only to the apostles and holy women. The tour guide lied and told the hermit everyone was an apostle. Despite the strange nature of this encounter, it made no impression on Karl, who admits he forgot about it soon thereafter.

The cave, the penultimate symbol of the womb, is dark, enigmatic, and secretive.18 It is up to the person entering the cave to tap its resources and decipher its mysteries. Karl is doomed to fail in this endeavor, because his interests lie in conquering physical space, not in interpreting it. For example, Karl is only interested in mastering the family estate, just like he masters Ledwina's life, deciding where she will live and whom she will marry. He has no interest in her essential being. In this sense, we can read Ledwina as the cave. In fact, she once describes herself to Therese in terms of cave imagery: “[M]ein loses thörichtes Gemüth hat so viele scharfe Spitzen und dunkle Winkel, das müßte eine wunderlich gestaltete Seele seyn, die da so ganz hinein passte” (92). Karl's cave has corners, too, but he does not see them until the hermit crawls into one (113).

The cave not only represents Ledwina's confined body but her untapped creativity as well. In their seminal work on women writers of the nineteenth century, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar interpret Mary Shelley's account of a visit to the prophetess Sibyl's cave as “the story of the woman artist who enters the cavern of her own mind and finds there the scattered leaves not only of her own power but of the tradition which might have generated that power.”19 Similarly, if we regard the cave in Ledwina as the wellspring of female creativity, then Karl's entering the cave can be seen as the male encounter with the female imagination.

This encounter is facilitated by the hermit, who identifies one of the male visitors as Mary Magdelene, thereby recognizing the visitor's creative potential. This latest biblical allusion addresses especially well the issues of female identity and gender identification. Through her sexuality, Mary Magdelene stood apart from other women. She was constantly defined in terms of her physicality, finally finding acceptance on a spiritual level only through Jesus.20 Her appearance in the cave signals the synthesis of religion and creativity. With this new identity, the male visitor is given the chance to discover the feminine aspects of his own identity. Alas, he does not use the opportunity because for him the encounter is too horrifying.

The rest of the episode is left untold, because Karl and the men only begrudgingly went deeper into the cave: “[W]ir schämten uns umzukehrn, was im Grunde wohl jeder von uns lieber gethan hätte, denn wir waren alle erschüttert, von dem Anblick des Schrecklichsten was die Natur hat” (113). Why would Karl describe the hermit as the most frightful thing in nature? Surely he and his companions had encountered countless numbers of beggars who differed little in appearance from the hermit. What sets this hermit apart is his self-identification with the archangel Gabriel. As the messenger angel, the hermit heralds the mysteries of the cave, that is to say, the meaning of female creativity. However, Karl does not hear the message, just the hermit's unintelligible grunts beyond the scope of his understanding. “[Das] Schrecklichst[e] was die Natur hat” is in the end not really the hermit but his message that feminine creativity can exist in man.

Because the men do not recognize the potential of the cave, they devalue its importance. The cave accesses female creativity, which has no stature in patriarchal society, as Karl later explains:

[W]ie sich denn solche traurige Eindrücke, die unser eignes Schicksal nicht berühren, so leicht verwischen, so dachten wir in ein paar Tagen nicht ferner daran, als um den Fritz Herdring Marie Magdelene zu nennen, und so blieb von der ganzen gräulichen Geschichte nichts übrig, als ein fader Scherz.


The journey toward female creativity, and with that female identity, does not influence the fate of man and eventually becomes nothing more than a tasteless joke.

This journey has been anticipated from the beginning of the text. When Ledwina walks along the river alone, she stops and gazes into the water. The powerful images in this description are the main threads that weave the text together: water, reflection, identity, and dissolution:

Ledwinens Augen aber ruhten aus auf ihrer eignen Gestalt, wie die Locken von ihrem Haupte fielen und forttrieben, ihr Gewand zerriß und die weißen Finger sich ablösten und verschwammen und wie der Krampf wieder sich leise zu regen begann, da wurde es ihr, als ob sie wie todt sey und wie die Verwesung lösend durch ihre Glieder fresse, und jedes Element das Seinige mit sich fortreiße.


The ripples of the nearby rock dissolve Ledwina's image as she gazes into the water. She literally becomes fragmented, and the quest to recover her body, her creative self, occupies the rest of the text. We see here that although the river represents Ledwina's desires, it also poses a threat. Furthermore, the opening scene identifies the basic hurdle to Ledwina's creativity. Just as Karl later dominates the space of the living room, separating Ledwina from her sister and mother, so does the rock function to obliterate her identity. Like “[der] … aus dem Flusse ragender Stein, [der] bunte Tropfen um sich sprühte” (79), male domination and inflexibility will prove to hinder female creativity and independence.

If we read this episode at the river as the destruction of female creativity,21 Ledwina's later dream takes on primary significance. It unfolds in a church cemetery, where Ledwina is looking for her “Liebstes.” When the ground breaks beneath her feet and she falls into a grave, she indeed finds her “Liebstes,” a skeleton. After caressing the skeleton in the snow, Ledwina buys flowers from a child to decorate the dead body. The flowers multiply and fill the grave, giving Ledwina the idea she can reconstruct the body, “daß er lebe und mit ihr gehe” (97).

The dream has been interpreted among other things as a love scene between Count Hollberg and Ledwina, as evidence of Ledwina's preoccupation with death, and as a manifestation of Droste's own childhood dreams.22 The structural compatibility of the dream and the introductory river scene guides my understanding of the text. The dream picks up the earlier threads and represents Ledwina's continued search for her identity.23 Just as Ledwina's own fingers had broken up earlier in the ripples of the water, here again she is faced with a disintegrating body; the dead hand she clasps and kisses tears away from the skeleton. Whereas at the river “die Verwesung durch ihre Glieder [fraß],” (79) Ledwina now dreams, “sie könne den verweseten Leib wieder aus Blumen zusammen setzen” (97). The dissolution of the body symbolizes the confrontation between Ledwina and her creative image, and the flowers become her poetic tools.

Two other aspects of the dream, Ledwina's shifting perspective and the gravestones, support the idea that the skeleton is indeed Ledwina herself. While looking for her beloved, her perspective shifts repeatedly between that of spectator and objectified image: “[N]un war sie plötzlich die Zuschaunde, und sah ihre eigne Gestalt todtenbleich mit wild im Winde flatternden Haaren, an den Gräbern wühlen, mit einem Ausdrucke in den verstörten Zügen, der sie mit Entsetzen füllte, nun war sie wieder die Suchende selber” (96). Ledwina only momentarily becomes a spectator with the power of the gaze and just as suddenly returns to being an object of that gaze. Her vacillation accentuates her struggle to gain creative independence, and the process of objectification deprives her of agency and control, leaving her powerless as mere body like the skeleton in the grave. In this objectified position, she vainly tries to read the headstones, hoping to identify her beloved, in other words to form her own identity. She cannot, for the language engraved on the headstones is not her own. The inscriptions only provide external societal labels. They fail to identify her because they do not recognize female creativity.

Interpreting the dream as the quest for female identity highlights the image of the woman “mit wild im Winde flatternden Haaren” (96). It begs comparison with Droste-Hülshoff's “Am Thurme,” in which hair becomes synonymous with woman's condition: “Ich steh' auf hohem Balkone am Thurm, / Umstrichen vom schreienden Stare, / Und laß’ gleich einer Mänade den Sturm / Mir wühlen im flatternden Haare.”24 The poem unquestionably equates loosened hair with female emancipation and creativity. The final stanza reveals, however, that this must remain a fantasy: “Wär ich ein Jäger auf freier Flur, / Ein Stück nur von einem Soldaten, / Wär ich ein Mann doch mindestens nur, / So würde der Himmel mir raten; / Nun muß ich sitzen so fein und klar, / Gleich einem artigen Kinde, / Und darf nur heimlich lösen mein Haar, / Und lassen es flattern im Winde!” For Ledwina, the symbolic act of loosening her hair is also restricted to the private realm and remains in the dream. She wants to form her own image, to take control of the rudder as the woman in “Am Thurme” does, except Ledwina is unwilling to sit like a good little girl.

The idea of woman steering a course through water brings us back to the river in Ledwina. As mentionied earlier, the river represents Ledwina's landscape of desire but also reveals the hidden dangers accompanying desire and creativity. Two of Ledwina's visions evoke the symbolic elements of water, body, and identification. In the first vision, the light plays on the curtains which surround her bed in such a way that it appears to her as if she is a dead body lying under the water, which slowly eats her up (97). In her second vision, she imagines the lost guide as Jesus Christ,

wie ein Dornstrauch das blasse zitternde Gesicht noch an einem Theile seines Haars über dem Wasser erhielt während der Andere vom Haupte gerissen an den schwankenden Zweigen des Strauchs wehte, seine blutenden Glieder wurden in grausamem Takte von den Wellen an das steinigte Ufer geschleudert, er lebte noch, aber seine Kräfte waren hin, und er mußte harren in gräßlicher Todesangst bis der Wellenstoß das letzte Haar zerrissen. …


The two visions offer Ledwina divergent scenarios for the resolution of her conflict. In the first vision, it is clear that if Ledwina submits to her desires, that is her creativity, she will certainly die. Brigitte Puecker argues that Ledwina's symbolic death by drowning, as in the case of Ophelia, will lead to poetic inspiration and the drowning of the guide is in essence her own.25 This argument does not appreciate the religious significance of the text. The second vision conceptualizes creativity in Christian terms, the Passion of Jesus Christ, and posits martyrdom, that is the retreat into religion, as the one viable solution to the fragmentary nature of woman. This religious phantasm emphasizes Ledwina's special bond with her mother and sister. Both Frau von Brenkfeld and Therese find solace—and a sense of self—in religion, one with her prayer book and the other with her passion frond.

Along with spirituality, Droste-Hülshoff consistently rephrases narrative events in terms of the body. Count Hollberg functions continuously as Ledwina's doppelgänger. Hollberg is consumptive, “leichenblaß” (103), and becomes feverish shortly after his arrival, turning “schneeweiß” (105). The likeness to Ledwina, who constantly pales, is unavoidable.26 When Ledwina first sees Hollberg, he is being escorted along the river, the river that signifies her identity. When Hollberg is introduced to the family, he recalls everyone's name with the exception of Ledwina's. Here he hesitates but comes up with two possibilities: Lidwina or Ledwina. The count symbolically links Ledwina and Saint Lidwina, thus acknowledging her suffering as a chief aspect of her identity. Ledwina is unwilling to acknowledge either this connection or Hollberg's ill health, escaping from the room when the talk turns to his frail condition, because both scenes externalize her inner conflict (102-07). In essence, Hollberg confronts Ledwina with her own sickly bodily image, so that she can embark on her journey of self-discovery. However, Ledwina can hardly recognize herself in the male alter ego. Since woman traditionally has been imagined as muse instead of creator,27 Ledwina's journey is fractured, more circuitous, and hence longer. Here, as in her poem “Der zu früh geborene Dichter,” Droste-Hülshoff is compelled to dress the female creator in a male guise.28 Only after Hollberg collapses and Ledwina hears the stories about the cave and the woman who goes mad does she come to terms with her male doppelgänger. By duplicating his physical gestures, she prepares herself to find the beloved she has been seeking throughout the text, the unified image of herself. Only in this well-worn motif can one understand the arduous journey of female creativity.

Although this male guise offers entrance to the poetic realm, Ledwina remains a crippled text. The solutions Droste-Hülshoff proffers seem ambiguous. Ledwina's one answer, nature, proves extremely perilous, while the other, martyrdom, is problematic because it is reserved for the very few. This ambiguity, coupled with the fragmentation and crippling, is what captures the essence of woman's experience. Droste-Hülshoff depicts through form and imagery the real and oppressive confines of woman not only in Biedermeier society but also in the creative realm. The constant changing of narrative perspective underscores the inner strife of woman and her fragmentary nature. The motif of crippling designates the feminine condition is discord with society and links the two divergent narrative strands, thereby elevating the text beyond the romantic ideals of a dying heroine. What initially appears to be one woman's crippling is indicative of the feminine condition and mandates the fragmentary body of the text. Seen through this critical lens, Ledwina is clearly one of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's most powerful texts and deserves to be evaluated on its own terms.


  1. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, “Spätes Erwachen,” Historisch-kritische Ausgabe: Werke, Briefwechsel, Ed. Winfried Woesler, 14 vols. to date (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1978-) I/1: 322-23.

  2. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Faust I, vol. 3 of Goethes Werke: Hamburger Ausgabe in 14 Bänden, 11th ed. (München: C. H. Beck, 1981): 9.

  3. See for example Ronald Schneider, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, 2nd. ed. (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1995) 44-45; Ronald Schneider, Realismus und Restauration: Untersuchungen zu Poetik und epischem Werk der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Kronberg/Ts.: Scriptor, 1976) 103-05; Clemens Heselhaus, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Werk und Leben (Düsseldorf: August Bagel, 1971) 71.

  4. Schneider, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff 42; John Guthrie, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: A Poet between Romanticism and Realism (Oxford: Berg, 1989) 27.

  5. See for example Doris Maurer, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Ein Leben zwischen Auflehnung und Gehorsam/Biographie (Bonn: Keil, 1982) 28; Margaret Mare, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (London: Methuen, 1965) 18, 252; Artur Brall, Vergangenheit und Vergänglichkeit: Zur Zeiterfahrung und Zeitdeutung im Werk Annettes von Droste-Hülshoff (Marburg: N. G. Elwert, 1975) 35.

  6. See Elke Frederiksen and Monika Shafi, “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848): Konfliktstrukturen im Frühwerk,” Out of Line. Ausgefallen: The Paradox of Marginality in the Writings of Nineteenth-Century German Women, Ed. Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres and Marianne Burkhard (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989) 115-36; Patricia Howe, “Breaking into Parnassus: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and the Problem of Poetic Identity,” German Life and Letters 46.1 (1993): 25-41.

  7. Thomas Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte 1800-1866: Bürgerwelt und starker Staat, 3rd. ed. (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1985) 120.

  8. Ibid. 120.

  9. Beatified but never raised to the level of saint in the church, Lidwina is still known as Saint due to the cult that surrounds her in Holland. See Butler's Lives of the Saints, Ed. Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater, complete ed., vol. 2 (1956; Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1980) 98.

  10. While earlier biographies and the critical edition of Droste's works mention Ledwina asking God to disfigure her because of her beauty, Butler's does not. See F. G. Holweck, A Biographical Dictionary of the Saints (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1924) 611; Historisch-kritische Ausgabe V/2: 640; Butler's 95-98.

  11. This notion can be traced back to Genesis and the tradition which separates man into spirituality and woman into physicality. For a historical summary and commentary, see Maria-Sybilla Heister, Frauen in der biblischen Glaubensgeschichte, 2nd rev. ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986) 135-80.

  12. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe V/1: 84. All subsequent quotations from Ledwina are from this edition.

  13. Silvia Bonati Richter interprets this scene differently by arguing that water symbolizes transitoriness. See Silvia Bonati Richter, Der Feuermensch: Studien über das Verhältnis von Mensch und Landschaft in den erzählenden Werken der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Bern: Franke, 1972) 42.

  14. Examples include: “Karl, der immer die Stube auf und ab maß” (83); “Karl, für den, sobald er seine verlangte Auskunft hatte, das übrige Gespräch meistens todt war, indem er für sich fortspann, stand nun still” (87); “[E]r ging auf und ab, rauchte” (89); “Karl blieb stehen” (103); “‘O doch,’ versetzte Carl, indem er seinen verlegten Tabaksbeutel in der Stube umher suchte …” (104).

  15. Very little attention has been given to the figure of Therese. Richter mentions her in regard to religious light symbolism (52-53). Herbert Kraft sees her thus: “In die andere Figur [Therese] war projizierbar, was bei Ledwina allzuviel Hoffnung ausgedrückt hätte.” See his Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1994) 60.

  16. See “Palm,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967-1979 ed.

  17. See “Carmelite Spirituality,” “Carmelites,” “Carmelite Nuns, Discalced (DC),” “Carmelites, Discalced,” and “Teresa of Avila, St.,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967-1979 ed. We should not forget that Teresa entered the convent in order to avoid marriage, in her case most likely a bad marriage since she was not a virgin. See Victoria Lincoln, Teresa: A Woman. A Biography of Teresa of Avila (Albany: State U of New York P, 1984) 17.

  18. Barbara G. Walker, The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) 335-36.

  19. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979): 93-104; 660-61.

  20. Mary Magdelene, who gave her service to Jesus after he freed her from chronic nervous disorder, traditionally has been identified also as the repentant sinner although there is no Biblical evidence for this. See “Mary Magdalene, St.,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967-1979 ed.; and Heister 194-96.

  21. Kraft reads this scene thus: “Das Bild zestört die Gestalt, wird darin zum gesellschaftlichen Paradigma” (58).

  22. See Richter 49-51; Renate Böschenstein-Schäfer, “Die Struktur des Idyllischen im Werk der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff,” Kleine Beiträge zur Droste-Forschung 3 (1974/75): 46-48; Brall 30-31.

  23. Brigitte Puecker has pointed out that “the buried skeleton is the wild self that the dreamer attempts so frantically to resurrect.” See her “Droste-Hülshoff's Ophelia and the Recovery of Voice,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82 (1983): 388. According to Patricia Howe, “the descent into the pit of a self in search of completion establishes a pattern for the pursuit of identity.” Howe 31.

  24. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe I/1: 78.

  25. Puecker 374-91. She rightly views Klemens's death: “Ledwina may, in a sense, be said to watch her own death by drowning, for the victim is later revealed to be her nurse's son, with whom Ledwina was nursed as an infant, and who is, in other words, her Milchbruder” (377).

  26. Some descriptions of Ledwina include: “das schöne bleiche Bild Ledwinens” (79); “das ernste alte Gesicht der Bäurin [stand] über dem jungen bleichen der Herrin [Ledwina]” (81); “Ledwina … war bleich geworden” (84); and “Ledwina, deren Gesicht wieder ein weißer Flor überzog” (86).

  27. See Howe 26; Gilbert and Gubar 3-4.

  28. See Howe 34. For the full text of the poem see Historisch-kritische Ausgabe I/1: 127-29.

Gertrud Bauer Pickar (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10469

SOURCE: Pickar, Gertrud Bauer. “Narrative Perspective and the Narrative Presence in Droste's Words.” In Ambivalence Transcended: A Study of the Writings of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, pp. 163-234. Columbia: Camden House, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Pickar looks at Droste-Hülshoff's experimentation with narrative styles, suggesting that in giving up some of the ambiguity that marks some of her best-known work, her more coherent prose pieces hold less literary interest. In the context of a larger study on Droste-Hülshoff's developing mastery of an “ambivalent” voice, Pickar highlights the author's efforts to strike a balance between narrative control and narrative energy.]


“Es ist kein Roman, es ist unser Land”

(5, 1: 130)

Die Judenbuche was Droste's last prose work to be marked by a fluctuating narrative perspective and shifting narrative stance. Droste's other prose writings—Westphälische Schilderungen aus einer westphälischen Feder,1 Droste's contribution to the genre of Reisebilder or, to use Sengle's term, Reisebeschreibung;2Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande, a fictionalized diary with distinctly autobiographical content;3 and Joseph, an unfinished Kriminalgeschichte—give evidence of Droste's continued experimentation with narrative form and perspective and indicate her ultimate resolution of the shifting perspectives which so effectively contribute to the ambiguities that characterize Die Judenbuche.

Droste began writing about Westphalia in late 1838, attributing the impetus to Amalie Hassenpflug: “Die vielfachen, ich möchte fast sagen ungestümen, Bitten Malchen Hassenpflugs haben mich bestimmt, den Zustand unseres Vaterlandes, wie ich ihn noch in frühster Jugend gekannt, und die Sitten und Eigenthümlichkeiten seiner Bewohner zum Stoff meiner nächsten Arbeit zu wählen. …” She confesses to remaining uncertain as to the form, mentioning as a possibility that of Washington Irving's Bracebridge Hall, which she describes as “eine Reihenfolge von kleinen Begebenheiten und eignen Meditationen, die durch einen losen leichten Faden, etwa einen Sommeraufenthalt auf dem Lande, verbunden sind.” Though she finds this form “ansprechend,” because it gives “dem Schreibenden große Freiheit, bald erzählend, bald rein beobachtend und denken aufzutreten,” she expresses concern that this form, which Victor Joseph de Jouy followed in several works, might have been overused and counters with another possibility: “eine Reihe kleiner in sich geschlossener Erzählungen … die keinen andern Zusammenhang haben, als daß sie alle in Westphalen spielen, und darauf berechnet sind, Sitten, Charakter, Volksglauben, und jetzt verloren gegangene Zustände desselben zu schildern.” Such an alternative, she writes, is “schwieriger, bedarf weit reicherer Erfindung, und schließt alle Meditationen und Selbstbeobachtungen fast gänzlich aus,” yet it is also “weniger verbraucht, läßt höchst poetische und seltsame Stoffe zu … und hat den großen Vortheil in keinem Falle zu beleidigen …” (8, 1: 329, 330).

A month later in a letter to her sister, Droste again mentions her interest in writing “ein Art Buch wie Braçebridge-Hall,” focusing on “Westphalen mit seinen Klöstern, Stiftern, und alten Sitten,” as well as her concern that such a project would evoke the ire of her Landsleute. “Meine lieben Landsleute steinigen mich, wenn ich sie nicht zu lauter Engeln mache,” she writes, noting that they tended to take everything personally. If, however, she were to write a series of tales set in Westphalia, Droste suggests, “wird Keiner (wie hier die Leute mahl etwas schweren Begriffs sind) es auf sich beziehn, sondern nur auf die Personen der Erzählung.” Furthermore, this format, she notes, would allow her to move “von dem gewöhnlichen Gange der Dinge” to relate “Vorgeschichten und dergleichen, mit einem Tone der Wahrheit” rather than refer to them merely as “Volksglauben.” Yet in this discussion, as well, Droste returns to the first option—“die Form von Braçebridge”—calling it “bey Weiten die Angenehmste, sowohl zum Lesen als zum Schreiben, weil sie so mannigfaltig ist, und auch eigne Beobachtungen und Meditationen, kleine lächerliche Vorfälle, et cet zuläst. …” It was a mode Droste wrote, “was sehr amusirt, man öfter lesen kann, und auch mehr eignen Geist voraus setzt, als Erzählungen, die … doch selten Jemand zwey mahl liest …” (9, 1: 22-23).

In March 1841, Droste's plan was more definitive, and she wrote Schlüter of her decision, “ein ellenlanges Buch im Gechmacke von Bracebridge-Hall, auf Westphalen angewendet, zu schreiben,” in which “auch die bewußte Erzählung von dem erschlagenen Juden hinein kömmt.” She indicated that “der Aufenthalt eines Edelmanns aus der Lausitz bey einem Lehnsvetter im Münsterlande” would serve as the unifying factor for the work's three sections—the first, which she called the “stärkste Abtheilung” would be his visit there; the subsequent sections would focus on a visit with this family to relatives in the Paderborn region and then their return through the Sauerland with time spent with other families. This structure would enable her to present “alle normale Characktere, Sitten, Institute (z. b. Damenstifter, Klöster), Sagen und Aberglauben dieser Gegenden … theils gradezu in die Scene gebracht, theils in den häufig eingestreuten Erzählungen” (9, 1: 214-15). The repeated references to the Westphalian project found in her correspondence reveal not only her concerns regarding the most appropriate form but also the intertwined nature of the works it generated. Her plan to publish a single work with such scope, however, did not materialize.

After Die Judenbuche appeared in the Morgenblatt as an independent work in 1842, Droste continued with her Westphalian project. The three sections focusing on the regions of Münsterland, Paderborn, and Sauerland respectively—which characterized the project she referred to as “Bey Uns zu Lande auf dem Lande” in a 1841 letter (9, 1: 250) and which she had sent to Schücking in July 1842—were published as Westphälische Schilderungen in 1845. The “Aufenthalt eines Edelmanns aus der Lausitz bey einem Lehnsvetter im Münsterlande,” which she outlined earlier, remained a fragment; it was published posthumously in 1886 and bears the title once envisioned for the entire project.4

The two Westphalian works and the Joseph-project, begun 1844 and published posthumously in 1886, present the last stage of Droste's experimentation with prose narration. In these works Droste's narrative style is both formalized and regularized. Rather than attempting to synthesize or interweave the variant narrative stances, she institutes and maintains a clearly defined perspective that avoids both the potential for incongruities and the tendency toward obscurity which had earlier marked her prose. The phrase “aus einer westphälischen Feder” included in the title of Westphälische Schilderungen signals the narrative perspective used in the work and its unified form: the observatory perspective is maintained throughout, no shifts to a participatory stance occur. In the two unfinished works Bei uns zu Lande and Joseph, Droste utilizes dual narrators—one, associated with the frame, to whom a distanced, editorial role is assigned; and one to whom the internal text is attributed. As a result, the objective, chronicle-like aspect, evidenced in random remarks in Ledwina and constituting one part of the shifting narrative stance in Die Judenbuche, becomes the dominant style, and the use of fictive narrators, figures who are external to the events of the internal story, provides a unifying narrative perspective. These late prose works are thus characterized by a consistent narrative stance; absent is the protagonist-observer duality that marks her previous writings, together with the direct participatory quality they frequently display. Gone as well are the spontaneity of direct expression stemming from the participatory stance and the sense of immediacy, achieved in earlier works through on-site depiction of the situation, identification with a protagonist, or the direct response of the narrative voice—features arising from apparent narrator involvement through projection into the action or scene depicted. These later works thus both testify to Droste's ability to execute works with a consistent narrative perspective and reveal the impact of the new restrictiveness on the vitality of her prose.

When in April 1842 Levin Schücking sought a contribution from Droste for a volume, Das malerische und romantische Deutschland im 19. Jahrhundert to be edited by Ludwig Amandus Bauer, Droste assented readily. She turned to the Westphalian material that she had been working on and already in June 1842 wrote to Schücking that she had finished the contribution, which needed only copying (9, 1: 320). Several weeks later, she sent him the material, emphasizing that she had not “wie du mir riethest ‘hübsch zusammen gedichtet’ was mir doch für ein geschichtliches Werk zu gewagt schien”—but had instead held herself “streng an Thatsachen” (9, 1: 321).5 When the planned anthology did not materialize, Droste seemed relieved—“Das Schicksal des ‘19ten Jahrhunderts’ ist schwer zu beklagen,” she wrote Schücking—and was adamant that Schücking not publish the text elsewhere, claiming it was “zu scharf.” As rationale Droste drew a sharp contrast between publishing in an important historical work—“was strenge Wahrheit bedingt, nur von ernsten Männern gelesen wird, obendrein wahrscheinlich nie nach Westphalen gekommen wäre”—and “Journale, wo alle Laffen und Weiber drüber kommen,” a disparaging reference that indicates the low opinion Droste held of such Journale and their readers, who were more interested in the sensational than the factual. Droste was convinced that her work would be perceived as “tacktlose Impertinenz” and believed that the repercussions would be serious for Schücking, as well as for her, even if the contribution were to appear anonymously. Elaborating upon the consequences she anticipated and the reasons for her concern, Droste wrote that the publication would “unser Beyder hiesige Stellung gänzlich verderben, und mir wenigstens tausend Feinde und Verdruß zuziehn … da, selbst wenn Sie den Sündenbock machen wollten, meine Mitwirkung hier zu Lande gar nicht bezweifelt werden könnte, der vielen Anekdoten wegen, die grade nur mir und den Meinigen passirt sind. …” Here, too, the distinctions between the two types of publications play a role: “Unverschuldeter Verdruß ließ sich noch allenfalls tragen,” she continued, “aber hier würde er uns mit Recht treffen, denn wer giebt uns die Erlaubniß, Leute die uns nie beleidigt haben in ihrem eignen Lande zu höhnen, außer etwa unter der Aegide eines tiefernsten wissenschaftlichen Zweckes” (10, 1: 13; emphasis mine).

Perhaps because Droste recognized Schücking's entrepreneurial nature and his interest in advancing his career in the publishing world, she reiterated, two months later, her request that he “inhibit” the publication of the work (10, 1: 38). However, Droste was apparently determined that it should appear, and in a place appropriate for its historical nature, and in the summer of 1844, she submitted the material—“gegen das förmliche Versprechen strengster Verschwiegenheit betreffs der Urheberschaft”—to Guido Görres for his Historisch-Politische Blätter für das katholische Deutschland. There the work appeared anonymously in three installments in 1845, and, as Droste had predicted, its appearance provoked considerable controversy. Wilhelm Kreiten recalls a conversation with the publishers, Görres and G. Phillips, in which they described the severe reactions to its publication they in fact encountered, as well as Droste's warning.6 Ironically, neither Droste's mother nor her sister read the work during Droste's lifetime, and when Jenny von Laßberg read the work years later, she confessed: “Es gereut mich, daß ich ihn nicht eher gelesen, es wäre der armen Nette gewiß ein Trost gewesen, wenn ich ihr gesagt, daß ich nichts Tadelnswerthes darin finde” (5, 2: 511). She cited in particular the positive description of the Münsterland region, noting:

Ich begreife nicht, wie er solchen Spektakel erregen konnte, besonders im Münsterlande, das ja wunderschön, fast mit zu großer Vorliebe geschildert ist. … Was sie von Paderborn sagt, ist wohl scharf, aber nicht unwahr, und lange nicht so arg, als ich erwartete; dabei sagt sie ja über den Adel und die höheren Klassen eigentlich nichts ausdrücklich.

(5, 2: 511-12)

The work also met critical acclaim: a pre-publication notice of Droste's Letzte Gaben that appeared in Europa in 1859 referred to Westphälische Schilderungen as “die ‘meisterhaften Skizzen’ über Westfalen” but made no mention of Die Judenbuche (5, 2: 212).

In Westphälische Schilderungen7 Droste describes her homeland, discussing in turn the three distinct areas of Westphalia: the Sauerland, Münsterland, and Paderborn regions. In each section she presents the countryside, its natural features, including terrain and vegetation, and its inhabitants, their behavior, lifestyles, and customs, as they might appear to an informed, but uninvolved observer, the “westphälische Feder” already noted. Although the authorial “we” occurs already in the opening sentence—“Wenn wir von Westphalen reden, so begreifen wir darunter einen großen, sehr verschiedenen Landstrich”—and the communal “we” is occasionally reduced to a more specific first-person singular—“ich meine das des gleichen (katholischen) Religionscultus, und des gleichen früheren Lebens unter den Krummstäben …” (5, 1: 45)—the authorial presence remains unspecified and the narrative mode is non-participatory in nature. The observations of people and places are presented as those of a single traveler, who reveals himself as one intimately familiar with the countryside and its inhabitants, identifies personally with the region and shares its heritage, and draws from personal experience and observation in his description of the landscape, the villages, the huts and cottages, and the people themselves.

Unlike other narrator figures in Droste's works, the fictive narrator in Westphälische Schilderungen is divested of specific, identified, or identifiable personal characteristics. However, although he does not refer to himself as a man, several incidents, which he presents as personally experienced, contain references to his masculine identity. With a bit of humor, for example, the narrator reports:

Auch auf dem Felde kannst Du im Gefühl der tiefsten Einsamkeit gelassen fortträumen, bis ein zufälliges Räuspern, oder das Schauben eines Pferdes Dir verräth, daß … Du mitten durch zwanzig Arbeiter geschritten bist, die sich weiter nicht wundern, daß der “nachdenkende Herr” ihr Hutabnehmen nicht beobachtet hat, da er, nach ihrer Meinung, “andächtig ist”. …

(5, 1: 67)

When Droste's manuscript was published anonymously in the Historischpolitische Blätter, this feature and the cultural assumptions of her day led readers to believe that the author was a man. Indeed, the first printed reaction postulated that the individual who authored the contribution was “ein Westphale—ohne Zweifel dem alten Adel angehörend” (5, 2: 520).

Reflecting Droste's intent to appear impartial and “wissenschaftlich,” incidents personally witnessed or experienced by the author-narrator, which are presented in the narrative, are extracted from the personal, participatory realm and presented in distilled form, separated from any individualized or personalized context. In their depiction these incidents and events are universalized to the experiences of any stranger, or any traveler, and even passages of dialogue are presented not as unique occurrences but as typical of those which any traveler might encounter. The second-person-singular form of address, which appears in the cited passage and which is used with greater frequency as the narration progresses, is similarly not personalized; it serves as a form of address to any, totally undifferentiated member of the reading public. It is, however, a sign of the self-consciousness of the narrative act and serves to underscore the conscious intent behind the text.

The tone of the travel journal is conversational, and when the narrator states: “Haben wir die paderbornsche Gränze … überschritten, so beginnt der hochromantische Theil Westphalens” (5, 1: 49), readers are to feel that they are being guided along a path, long familiar to their guide. In the third chapter, the tone becomes more familiar, more intimate, and the frequent use of the familiar, second-person-singular pronoun draws the reader directly into the experience. On one occasion, the narrator, though relating a typical, hypothetical incident, adds a qualifying comment in an aside to the reader: “d. h. wenn Du nicht mit Geld klimpertest …” (5, 1: 64). Throughout the text, the narrator appears conscientious in his concern that the reader learn both the context of the incidents being related and the intent behind their inclusion. After relating a tale of the supernatural, the narrator notes, for example: “Wir geben das eben Erzählte übrigens keineswegs als etwas Besonderes … sondern nur als ein kleines Genrebild aus dem Thun und Treiben eines phantasiereichen und eben besprochenen Volkes” (5, 1: 61). On occasion the issue of veracity is addressed directly, and the narrator asserts personal knowledge of incidents no less unusual or amazing than those, like the healing of a horse, which he records in the journal: “Wir selbst müssen gestehen, Zeugen unerwarteter Resultate gewesen zu seyn” (5, 1: 60) or informs the reader: “Folgenden Vorfall haben wir aus dem Munde eines glaubwürdigen Augenzeugen” (5, 1: 61).

At times, however, a certain bias, evidenced by a critical or laudatory stance, enters into the account, revealing not only the narrator's personal familiarity with the subject matter, but also the subjectivity of his perception. The bias is perhaps most blatant in the contrast the narrator draws between the inhabitants of the Paderborn and Münsterland regions; not surprisingly, his remarks reflect Droste's own views and are in accord with those found in Bei uns zu Lande, particularly in the descriptions of courtship, marriage, and marital life. The narrator uses the situation of a traveler to differentiate between the Paderborner and the Münsterländer. In the Paderborn area—the narrative voice informs the reader—such a traveler can expect to be ridiculed, even mislead, if he had not tipped the boys generously in advance: “Noch vor einer Stunde … haben kleine, schwarzbraune Schlingel … auf deine Frage nach dem Wege, Dich zuerst durch verstelltes Mißverstehen und Witzeleien gehöhnt, und Dir dann unfehlbar einen Pfad angegeben, wo Du wie eine Unke im Sumpfe, oder ein Abrahams-Widder in den Dornen gesteckt hast. …” The narrator's description of these “Schlingel” as being “im halben Naturzustande, ihre paar mageren Ziegen weniger hüteten, als bei ihnen Diebs wegen Wache standen …” reveals the distance with which he views them. In the Münsterland the situation is quite different. The immediate response—“‘Herr!’ sagt der Knabe, und reicht Dir eine Kußhand, ‘das Ort weiß ich nicht’”—evidences a courteous and deferential attitude. The inability to provide the needed information, as the reader subsequently learns, is born of neither insolence nor ignorance per se, but of naive honesty and a certain insularity of dialect, for the boy moments later runs after the stranger to ask if he perhaps were looking for a village, whose name the boy then renders in the local dialect. Receiving an affirmative response, he then leads the traveler to the next crossroads, points out the way to the desired village, and swiftly disappears before he can be rewarded with a coin (5, 1: 64).

Reflecting personal bias and sentiment, as well, are the narrator's concluding remarks—specifically his regret that the times were changing and that the life style so lovingly depicted in his commentary would soon be lost. After posing the question “Müssen wir noch hinzufügen, daß alle diese Zustände am Verlöschen sind, und nach vierzig Jahren vielleicht wenig mehr davon anzutreffen seyn möchte?,” he responds: “Auch leider ‘nein’, es geht ja überall so!” (5, 1: 74). These views, which indicate a conservative sentiment and a certain nostalgia on the part of the narrator (features also present in the narrative frames of Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande and Joseph), are more readily identified with the narrator than are those found in Die Judenbuche. The degree of personal commentary, however, remains limited, the intrusions are relatively discreet, and the stance, reserved.

In Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande and Joseph, the fictive narrators are identified by name, gender, and position; their personal preferences and prejudices are openly presented. The consistency of narrative stance achieved in Westphälische Schilderungen aus einer westphälischen Feder is maintained, interaction between observatory and participatory positions is avoided, and the narrator roles are clearly delineated and strictly observed. In Bei uns zu Lande,8 the descriptions of persons and countryside, in nature not unlike those of Westphälische Schilderungen, are attributed to a specific and identified individual, and uniformity of narrative style follows their presentation as journal entries in the alleged “Handschrift eines Edelmannes aus der Lausitz,” mentioned already in the work's subtitle. The manuscript, ostensibly discovered in the archives of a manor house, is being offered to the public by a fictive narrator-editor, who describes himself as “Rentmeister meines guten, gnädigen Herrn” (5, 1: 126) in an introduction that serves as the frame of Bei uns zu Lande. The Rentmeister has no immediate personal or direct emotional tie to the document or its content. As the ostensible Herausgeber, he is in a position to praise the manuscript, which he claims presents an image of his Westphalians that is more accurate, and more acceptable, than that to be found in material being published in his day. Furthermore, since it was penned by an outsider, as he points out, the manuscript is free of regional bias.9 Even “der gnädige Herr,” to whom he had shown his “find,” reputedly commented, “von einem Westphalen geschrieben würde es weniger bedeutend sein, aus dem Munde eines Fremden sei es ein klares und starkes Zeugniß, was im Familienarchive nicht unterdrückt werden dürfe” (5, 1: 130).

In contrast, personal partiality is freely—even proudly—acknowledged by the fictive narrator-editor in the opening sentence: “Ich bin ein Westphale und zwar ein Stockwestphale,” to which he unequivocally adds: “Gott sei Dank!” (5, 1: 125). He is clearly in sympathy with the views of Westphalia and its people that are presented within the manuscript and depicts the area in idyllic terms,10 but he is also careful to note his own credentials—his education and extensive travels—as if to strengthen his own credibility when he waxes eloquent about the beauties of his Münsterland homeland (5, 1: 125-26). Like the narrative voice in Westphälische Schilderungen, he, too, is a conservative and decries the changes which have taken place in the intervening years. He notes, for example, “seit etwa zwei Jahrzehenden, d. h. seit der Dampf sein Bestes thut das Landeskind in einen Weltbürger umzublasen, die Furcht beschränkt und eingerostet zu erscheinen es fast zur Sitte gemacht hat, die Schwächen der alma mater, welche man sonst Vaterland nannte und bald nur als den zufälligen Ort der Geburt bezeichnen wird mit möglichst schonungsloser Hand.” He attributes this new tendency to the individual's desire to provide “einen glänzenden Beweis seiner Vielseitigkeit,” concluding, “es ist bekanntlich ja unendlich trostloser für albern, als für schlimm zu gelten” (5, 1: 125). The narrator-editor also describes his own life, his travels, and his return to Westphalia twelve years earlier in sufficient detail to award the reader a picture of his personality and attitudes and an understanding of the context in which he is offering the manuscript to the public. More significantly, the information he supplies both enhances the credibility of his positive assessment of the Münsterland region and substantiates his personal reliability as a documentor.

The Rentmeister—who is ostensibly separated in time, if not in sentiment from the story he is presenting—clearly wishes the document to be accepted as authentic. His position as a trusted employee who resides on the estate, now owned by a different family, endows him with an aura of objectivity and credibility. The introduction he provides (which also supplies information about the subsequent fate and untimely death of the original author, garnered from two yellowed letters found together with the manuscript) not only explains the fragmentary nature of the work, but also serves as a postscript. Based upon these letters, the Rentmeister concludes that the diarist seems to have been “ein munterer und wohlmeinender Mann … billig genug für einen Ausländer, mit der so seltenen Gabe eine fremde Nationalität rein aufzufassen. …” (The Rentmeister, however, qualifies the term “Ausländer” by noting the author of the manuscript was “freilich nur halb fremd, denn das westphälische Blut dringt noch in's hundertste Glied.”) The information presented in the diary and extracted from the letters is further enhanced by the Rentmeister's own knowledge of subsequent events, gained through his personal contacts with the descendants of the family. He thus provides the reader with a brief history of the fates of the family members described in the internal text:

Zuerst der alte Herr, der sich beim Botanisiren erkältete … schwand hin an der leichten Erkältung wie ein Hauch; dann der junge Herr Everwin … der in Wien ein trauriges, vorzeitiges Ende fand, im Duell … Fräulein Sophie starb ihnen bald nach, sie war nie recht gesund gewesen und diese beide Stöße zu hart für sie—meines Herrn Mutter mußte die Geburt ihres Kindes mit dem Leben bezahlen. …

The Rentmeister had met the mother, the grandmother of his employer, who was in fact Anna's child and the only surviving member of the family: “eine steinalte Frau, aber lebendig, heftig und aller ihrer Geisteskräfte mächtig bis zum letzten Athemzüge” (5, 1: 129). The presentation of such information furnished in medias res in the alleged document not only clearly establishes the fictive narrator-editor's temporal distance, but also serves to collaborate yet further the reliability of the manuscript presented in the text—and hence the veracity of its contents—granting it an aura of authenticity, a quality which Droste consistently sought to achieve in her works. Indeed the Rentmeister insists in his last statement: “Es ist kein Roman, es ist unser Land …” (5, 1: 130). His words address explicitly the claim to authenticity already interwoven in the texts.

The manuscript itself is attributed to an “Edelmann aus der Lausitz, Lehnsvetter einer angesehenen seit zwanzig Jahren erloschenen Familie, deren Güter meinem Herrn zugekommen sind …” (5, 1: 128), and purports to be a record of his observations of his Westphalian relatives and their life and a description of his experiences while with them. Within the manuscript, the issue of narrative perspective is clearly defined and maintained: the ostensible author is an outsider and thus ideally suited to the role of observer. He functions both as observer and recorder and neither has nor assumes access to the unexpressed thoughts or feelings of the individuals. Describing his arrival at the home of his distant relatives in Westphalen and subsequently the lifestyle and activities of that family, he reports essentially what he sees, hears, and does, as well as his reactions to the events that he witnesses and the people he meets.

Although the Vetter is not directly involved in the fates of those with whom he is staying and becomes only minimally engaged in the life about him that he records, a gradual loss of detachment and increasing personal involvement with the individuals are discernible as the manuscript proceeds. This shift is perhaps most in evidence in his discussion of Sophie (another of Droste's modified self-portraits), in particular regarding signs of illness elicited by her singing: “Mir wird todtangst dabei und ich suche dem Gesange oft vorzubeugen” (5, 1: 143). Since he is ostensibly writing of his first-hand experiences and observations, his report lacks the temporal distance to events and individuals claimed by the narrator-author of the frame, although the Vetter's delay in recording his observations and experiences presumably allows the report to benefit from his subsequent reflection and hence be distilled, at least in part, from the immediacy of experience. His origin “aus dem Lausitz,” however, gives him a stranger's perspective, as well as the credibility alluded to in the frame, qualities the narrator-editor, as an acknowledged Westphalian, forfeits.

The motivation for the diary, as well as the temporal relationship of the journal to the events depicted, are clearly defined within the text, and the limited interplay between the author's roles as participant-observer and as diarist is unified by his reflections at the time of his writing and by the narrative nature of the writing process itself. Thus the reader learns that the Vetter, who is unaccustomed to the early hour at which his host family retires, is without his customary reading materials; as a result he decides to record, every evening before retiring, his activities and experiences in Westphalia, the home of his ancestors. He begins his diary some two months after his arrival in response to his own question: “Was soll ein ehrlicher Lausitzer machen, der um elf seine letzte Piquetparthie anzufangen gewöhnt ist?”; the answer seems so close at hand, he wonders why he had delayed so long: “Warum schreibe ich nicht oder vielmehr warum habe ich nicht geschrieben diese zwei Monate lang?” After he begins his diary, which constitutes the three extant chapters of Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande,11 the Vetter becomes convinced of the intrinsic worth of his project and views his journal not only as an escape from boredom but as a source of future enjoyment, commenting: “Ich weiß es wie mich einst freuen wird diese Blätter zu lesen, wenn dieses fremdartige Intermezzo meines Lebens weit hinter mir liegt,” adding “vielleicht mehr, als ich jetzt glaube, denn es ist mir zuweilen, als wolle das zwanzigfach verdünnte westphälische Blut sich noch geltend in mir machen” (5, 1: 131). The journal is thus not intended for publication, or for any eyes but his, a device which grants further credence to the text.

The first chapter, entitled “Der Edelmann aus der Lausitz und das Land seiner Vorfahren,” written from memory two months after the events described, presents the incidents of his difficult and wearisome journey, his arrival at the ancestral home, and his reception by his relatives. It is followed by descriptions of subsequent conversations and incidents at the family home, which also serve as an introduction to the nature of the people of this region. The Vetter records his own gradual adjustment to a different lifestyle and his acceptance of the family's offer to stay longer. The descriptions reveal the insight into the family and their ways he had gained in the intervening two months, for the Vetter freely admits his initial naiveté and recognizes the subsequent alteration in his own perception and manners. At the date of writing, for example, he understands the impression his elaborate and ostentatious clothing must have made upon his arrival: “Jetzt weiß ich dieses und es demüthigt mich nicht—hätte ich es damals gewußt, so würde ich es mich allerdings in einen kläglichen, innern Zustand von Scham und Zorn versetzt haben. …” In retrospect, the books that the Baron had shown him that first day appear in a new light: “ich dachte zu meiner Unterhaltung—jetzt weiß ich aber, daß es ein schlauer Streich vom alten Herrn war, der mir so heimlich auf den Zahn fühlte, wie es mit den adligen Künsten bei mir beschaffen sei—nämlich mit Latein, Oeconomia und Ritterschaftsverhältnissen …” (5, 1: 36). The confession of the relative naiveté of his first impression also serves to underline the sequential nature of the document and to support its claim of authenticity.

The following chapters are presented as having been written on subsequent nights. “Der Herr und seine Familie” is devoted to a description of the members of the family, their lifestyle, and incidents from their daily activities; and “Im Hof und Garten,” which remains incomplete, presents the events of a single day spent with the Hausherr. It also includes two of Droste's own poems, “das Mädchen am Bache” (assumed to be “Junge Liebe”) and “der Knabe im Rohr” (“Der Knabe im Moor”), which are attributed within the work to a young would-be poet, Wilhelm Friese. The reader remains aware not only of the Vetter's role as narrator—“Ich bin kein natürlicher Verehrer der Musik …” (5, 1: 142) or “Ich bin kein Arzt, aber …” (5, 1: 143)—but also his concern with his writing project: “Ich bemerke eben, daß ich den Fehler habe, mich in Stimmungen hinein und hinaus zu schreiben …” (5, 1: 144), and his determination to be accurate. His consciousness of both his relationship to the figures and theirs to him is evident in comments, such as those referring to Fräulein Anna, “in die man mich etwas verliebt glaubt” (5, 1: 143), or his cousin, “ich halte es für unmöglich diesen Mann nicht lieb zu haben” (5, 1: 144). He also analyzes the relationships within the family, noting, for example of Anna: “Den Onkel ehrt sie, weiß ihn aber nicht zu schätzen, der Tante wendet sie eine zornige Liebe zu, da sie das verwandte Element fühlt und vor Ungeduld überschäumt, es so beengt zu sehen” (5, 1: 143).

A comparison of Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande and Ledwina, both thinly disguised autobiographical accounts of Droste's family life, reveals striking changes in narrative formulation and perspective. It is an older Droste, now, who returns to the subject matter obliquely treated in her first work—her own family and her life as a young woman within that family. Although Droste claimed she had not intended to depict her family—“das war eigentlich nicht meine Absicht, ich wollte nur einzelne Züge entlehnen, und übrigens mich an die allgemeinen Charakterzüge des Landes halten,” she confessed that she herself recognized “meine lieben Eltern so deutlich darin … daß man mit Fingern darauf zeigen konnte. …” Indeed she offered that resemblance as the reason for not continuing with the project: “Nun, fürchte ich, wird es Jedermann gradezu für Portrait nehmen, und jede kleine Schwäche, jede komische Seite die ich dem Publikum preis gebe, mir als eine scheusliche Impietaet anrechnen …” (9, 1: 250). Droste, in the letter to her uncle, cites this concern as a reason for halting work on Bei uns zu Lande, and, although she did return to it again, she never completed the project12

By inserting an additional protagonist to serve as narrator in Bei uns zu Lande, Droste avoids the close association of the narrative perspective with the protagonist that characterizes Ledwina. Through this strategy, Droste's recollections of the life of her family are cast as the fictional eye-witness account of a visitor, and her family and she herself are presented as an outside observer might have described and judged them. As a result of Droste's use of fictional narrators and the format of the writings attributed to them, there are no shifts from an observatory to a participatory stance in Bei uns zu Lande and no deviation from the use of the narrative past or deployment of the experiential present tense. There is similarly no entry into the inner thoughts, dreams, or feelings of the individuals portrayed in the text nor any attempt at authorial omniscience; indeed, the text exhibits no intrusions that transcend the limitations of the given fictive narrator(s) to provide supplementary, elucidating, or corrective information. Explanatory and judgmental comments incorporated in the text are presented as simply those of the narrators. They are formulated into words that reflect their attitudes and perceptions, their personality, and their position; and the narrator-authors remain within the confines of their own personal limitations and the knowledge and insights appropriate to them. Nothing extraneous to their experience, nothing beyond their ken is depicted, and neither fictive narrator appears susceptible to flights of fantasy, dreams, or mental projections. As a result these texts—unlike both Ledwina and Die Judenbuche—manifest no variation in narrative perspective, no intrusion of unaffiliated views, and no inclusion of reflections attributable to a social consciousness that may conflict with or differ from the views or attitudes of the narrators.


“wörtlich der würdigen Frau nachgeschrieben”

(5, 1: 156)

The third work Joseph. Eine Kriminalgeschichte, an unfinished venture into the genre of criminal or detective story13 and again a frame story, is the only prose work besides Ledwina not related to Droste's Westphalian project. The first reference to the work appears in an 1837 letter to Wilhelm Junkmann, in which Droste enumerates her literary plans. Included on her list are “zwei Stoffe,” one of them is a “Criminalgeschichte,” which Droste describes as based upon an actual occurrence that had been related to her “von einer nahbetheiligten Person …, die einen furchtbaren und durchaus nicht zu erwischenden Räuber fast 20 Jahre lang als Knecht in ihrem Hause hatte” (8, 1: 228).14 The initial work on the manuscript is linked to an edition of six Erzählungen, which Droste and Elise Rüdiger discussed in 1844 and contemplated publishing with Cotta. Progress on the planned contributions to the joint venture was slow. In October 1844, Droste complained: “Mit den Erzählungen will es nicht recht voran, ich bin noch an der ersten,—recht schöner Stoff, aber nicht auf westphälischem Boden, und nun fehlen mir alle Quellen, Bücher wie Menschen, um mich wegen der Localitæten Raths zu erholen …” (10, 1: 234). In February 1845, Droste reported to Rüdiger that she was waiting for more information for the Joseph-project; in the meantime, she wrote: “Ich brüte jetzt über einem Stoff zur dritten Erzählung für unser Buch, um doch ans Werk zu kommen …” (10, 1: 259-60; Die Judenbuche was to be included as the first of her three contributions). Again in March she mentions the project—and the hope “jetzt auch endlich ernstlich an unsre gemeinschaftliche Arbeit zu kommen”—and asserts: “Meine Stoffe sind so weitläufig daß sie doch ein ziemlich dickes Buch ausfüllen werden …” (10, 1: 271). The project, however, never came to fruition, nor did Droste's later plans to write other prose narratives. A reference to a novella in 1847, from which Droste read aloud, appears to be the last mention of the work.15

The parenthetical insertion that introduces the text—“Nach den Erinnerungen einer alten Frau mitgetheilt von einem alten Moortopf, der auf seinem eigenen Herd sitzt und sich selbst kocht” (5, 1: 153)—defines its narrative genesis even more completely than does the subtitle of Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande. The emphasis on the source and the reliability of the events to be presented parallels that of Bei uns zu Lande and reflects Droste's interest in establishing narrative veracity and her commitment to literature that reflects the reality of the world it seeks to depict. From the outset, the roles of the two narrators are clearly established. Frau Konstanze von Ginkel, the protagonist-narrator, had experienced the events of the tale as a girl and in her later years related them to friend and neighbor Caspar Bernjen, the fictive narrator of the frame. Bernjen recorded her reminiscences during the period of their acquaintance, ostensibly transcribing them by memory after each conversation. Now, years later, he has decided to offer them to a contemporary readership as a record of the past, duly supplemented by his own introductory commentary. The work thus contains three distinct and separate fictive time levels: the events of Frau von Ginkel's past, the evenings of conversation and tale-telling that Bernjen and Frau von Ginkel shared, and most recently, the thoughts and commentary of the aged Bernjen that comprise the fictive present of the work's frame.

Bernjen, like the fictive author of Bei uns zu Lande, is separated in time, place, and person from the events of the story he has transcribed. His introduction, which constitutes the first portion of the narrative frame, indicates his relationship to Mevrouw von Ginkel, the setting for her story-telling, and the manner in which he recorded her tale. It provides as well an explanation for his decision now, after so many years, to make his record of her experiences public, “da meine gute Frau von Ginkel ohne Zweifel längst in ihren Pelzschuhen verstorben ist, mir ferner kein Umstand einfällt, der ihr die Veröffentlichung unangenehm machen könnte. …” Furthermore, he wished to help his youngest nephew—“der Gott sei's geklagt, sich auf die Literatur geworfen hat”—in his search for “einen Beitrag in gemüthlichem Stile” (5, 1: 156).16

Bernjen also uses the frame to present himself, giving his name, identifying himself as the neighbor to whom Frau von Ginkel is speaking, and indicating his position “an der linken Seite des Theetisches.” He describes himself as “einen ansehnlichen, korpulenten Mann mit gesunden Gesichtsfarben in den besten Jahren mit blauem Rock mit Stahlknöpfen und einer irdenen Pfeife im Munde” and signals his own orientation: “Es geht nichts über Deutlichkeit und Ordnung in allen Dingen” (5, 1: 156). This self-introduction is intended to lend the subsequent narration credibility and provides a certain concreteness to the narrative situation. The concern with reliability, fulfilled in Bei uns zu Lande by the stratagem of ostensibly presenting a manuscript retrieved from its resting place in the archives and by documenting its credibility, can be seen in Bernjen's unequivocal assertion that he had recorded his neighbor's conversations accurately and without elaboration of fact or style—they are thus to be read as a verbatim record of her recounted past. Her character, as presented by Bernjen, serves yet further to vouch for the reliability of her own remarks and thus for the veracity of the internal story.

Similar to the narrator in Westphälische Schilderungen and the Rentmeister in Bei uns zu Lande, Bernjen is not without personal bias. Indeed, his personality is distinctive and his view of the world colors his perception of Frau von Ginkel (and the events of her life) and affects the manner of his own presentation, for it is clear that, in addition to being genuinely fond of her, he also applauds the values she represents. His presence and his uniqueness provide a context for appreciating the story he offers and affect reader response. Not only had Bernjen's presence and his interest in his neighbor's past provided the impetus for Frau von Ginkel's reminiscing, but like the Rentmeister, he also believes in the intrinsic worth of personal journals and is convinced, in traditional Biedermeier fashion, that the account he recorded “in seiner einfachen Unscheinbarkeit mehr Aufschlüsse über Volk, Zeit und das Menschenherz gäbe, als Manches zehnmal besser Geschriebene” (5, 1: 156).

His own conservatism, reminiscent of that expressed by the narrators in the two previous works, is also reflected in his concern with the changing times and the accompanying loss of the innocence of a simpler life spent at home. An awareness of the passage of time dominates his commentary, beginning with his opening words “Die Zeit schreitet fort” and those of the second paragraph “in meiner Kindheit” and “in jener Zeit,” a perspective reiterated by the initial sentence of the third paragraph: “Jetzt ist es anders” (5, 1: 153). As Bernjen recalls the changes in the world about him—particularly the increased travel—that he has witnessed during his long life, his preference for the olden days when the motto “Bleib im Lande und nähre Dich redlich” was an actual way of life becomes apparent: “Ich habe mich nicht eben allzuweit umgesehen, doch immer weiter, als mir lieb ist” (5, 1: 153). He had, however, found two areas in which he was able to take pleasure: the Black Forest and the Netherlands. It was during his stay in the latter that he became acquainted with his neighbor, an elderly lady, whose story he was subsequently to put to paper. Although he assures the reader that he might well have recorded many things: “Wäre ich ein romantischer Hasenfuß gewesen und hätte ich die Gewohnheit gehabt, meine guten Augen … Nachts mit Tagebuchschreiben zu verderben, es stände doch jetzt wohl Manches darin, was ich gerne nochmals läse …,” he did commit himself to recording the story of her life. The extant text of Joseph presents the first of her tales—an incident “vielleicht die einzig wirklich auffallende in Mevrouws Leben” (5, 1: 156)—and indicates that the planned work was to contain several separate stories, divided by segments of the narrative frame. Frau von Ginkel, for example, after completing the story of the compulsive gambler, notes her guest's interest in her uncle and offers to tell of the catastrophe that befell him, “damit Sie sehen, was der … für ein Mann war.” She adds, as if an afterthought: “Aber da ist eine andere kuriose Geschichte hinein verflochten, die Mynheer gewiß interessiren würde, aber etwas lang ist.” The narrator, who had never seen his hostess “in so mittheilender Stimmung,” was determined, “diese zur Erweiterung meiner Menschenkenntniß um jeden Preis zu benutzen” (5, 1: 167) and assures her of his interest and time. The manuscript, however, breaks off, just as she is about to begin with her next narrative.

Frau von Ginkel, the narrator of the story proper, which is told in straightforward conversational style in first-person, is clearly identified and provided a personality as well as a history, and her narration is directed to a specific, identified listener whose presence is also indicated in the text—a feature unique to this work. (Westphälische Schilderungen, which also exhibits a unified narrative stance, is restricted to the observations and views of the narrator and includes no reference to his personal life and circumstances.) Occasional remarks in Joseph incorporate a reference to her listener, such as “Mynheer wissen wohl, der Ertrinkende hält sich an einem Strohhalm!” or “Mynheer, der Wille ist doch so gut wie die That” (5, 1: 160), thereby indicating Frau von Ginkel's awareness of his presence. In these remarks, Droste chooses to retain the Dutch form of address, Mynheer, which not only parallels the narrator's frequent use of Mevrouw in referring to Frau von Ginkel, bringing the flavor of the Netherlands to the reminiscences, but also emphasizes the original narrative situation. An earlier comment of Bernjens, too, serves as the impetus for Frau von Ginkel's tale. Alluding to an earlier reference he had made to his parents when he was in his forties, she comments: “Ich weiß, was es heißt, keine Mutter haben und den Vater im fünfzehnten Jahre verlieren” (5, 1: 157), and then proceeds to tell of the events which led to her own father's death.

The interaction of her roles both as protagonist—and thus participant in and observer of the events she relates—and as subsequent narrator is detectable throughout the text and integrated into it. While her account of her childhood is told in the narrative past, Frau von Ginkel's words that are addressed to her friend and neighbor Bernjen are cast in the present tense: “Ich weiß, was es heißt …” or: “Ich weiß nicht, ob es daher kommt. …” Furthermore, while the events recalled are presented essentially as she had experienced them as a fourteen-year-old girl (Stanzchen), they are on occasion illuminated or corrected by knowledge or perceptions garnered through the experiences of subsequent years. Comments of this nature, as well as occasional key conversations from her past, are given verbatim in her recounting and are also cast in present tense. The impact of her narrative role is discernible, too, in her reflections and editorializing comments that intrude into her recollection of the past. Comments such as “Ich wuchs indessen in ein paar hübschen Mansardenzimmern bei einer Gouvernante … heran …”; “Ich sah, so oft mein Vater auf die Börse ging, die Commis wie Hasen am Fenster spähen …” (5, 1: 158); and “Von dem, was zunächst geschah, kann ich nur wenig sagen. Ich verstand das Meiste nur halb, und es schien mir Alles wie Nichts nach dem, was geschehen” (5, 1: 163) reflect the narrative mode into which her memories have been cast. Others indicate knowledge acquired subsequently or insight garnered with the passage of time and experience: “Ich wußte … nicht, daß die arme Person, die in der That eine sehr schlechte Gesundheit und mit ihren 48 Jahren betrübte Aussichten in die Zukunft hatte, ihre ganze Hoffnung auf H. Steenwick setzte …” or: “Wenn ich bedenke, in welchem betrübten herzzerreißenden Tone sie dies sagte, so muß ich der armen Frau alle ihre Schwächen vergeben …” (5, 1: 160). Yet others reveal the platitudes of the day, accepted and assimilated by her in a lifetime of living: “Ein Spieler ist wie ein Betrunkener, wie ein Besessener, auf dem der Böse handelt wie eine zweite fremde Seele.” Such thinking also plays a role in the accepted interpretation of Herr Steenwick's drowning as accidental rather than intentional, allowing him “ein ehrliches Grab”: “So wurde denn angenommen, er habe, wie unglückliche Spieler häufig, sich zu viel Courage getrunken und sei so ohne Absicht dem Scheldeufer zu nahe gekommen” (5, 1: 166). Any bias exhibited in her story or editorializing comments incorporated within it are thus presented as hers and are consistent with her view of herself, her past, and the world as she perceived and experienced it.

Mevrouw von Ginkel's direct presentation of her early experiences in which her protagonist perspective is maintained, the illuminating commentary she provides in her role as narrator, and the description of the setting and situation that occasioned their telling are integrated in the narrative and cast her discourse within a specific social context. The possible interaction of recalled participation and “current” observation in her narration is structured by the narrative situation, defined by Bernjen, and is clearly divided into a remembered past and a present (of which he is part and which he, as the narrator of the frame, presents from a subsequent point in time). In Joseph the central dichotomy of protagonist and fictive narrator and the interaction between the participatory and the observatory roles are not divided by individual: Caspar von Bernjen has no personal knowledge of the events being narrated and is, technically speaking, at best only observer-listener of its oral narration. Instead, the dichotomy is contained within the person of Frau von Ginkel, where it is constituted by her experiences as the girl Stanzchen and by her memories and assessments as the elderly Mevrouw von Ginkel. The observatory stance is thus not identified with a non-participant whose experiences are separate from the events being depicted; the events and their location are distanced by time and place from their narration, not by person.

Furthermore, the potential discrepancy, distance, or tension resulting from the separation of participant and observer is muted by the integration of these roles in a single figure, who also serves as the narrator of her own story and in that role unifies and fuses within her tale the participatory and observatory aspect of her protagonist past and the observatory and narrative nature of her storytelling present. Similarly, the discrepancy between personal experiences and societal expectations, which so marks the conflicts between the participatory and observatory stances in Ledwina, is eliminated by the narrative perspective provided by the elderly Frau von Ginkel, whose life has been spent in total harmony with societal mores and expectations. The narrative frame provided by Bernjen further serves to internalize and submerge the theoretical duality within the text. The possible conflict or inconsistency of the protagonist-narrator role is thus reconciled by the nature of the narrative mode provided within the structure and content of the work itself. By having even the source of the observatory comments both personalized and identified with the protagonist, albeit with an older manifestation of that protagonist, Droste eliminates the tension and occasional confusion between observer and participant found in other works.

Neither within the frame constituted by his commentary nor within the internal story attributed to Frau von Ginkel is there any ambiguity of narrative stance. The central story of Joseph—Stanzchen's life in her father's home and the events, including the cashier's embezzlement, which led to her father's financial bankruptcy and his fatal hemorrhage—is presented in first-person in conversational tone, preserving the mood and form of the initial telling. Frau von Ginkel relates the events of her youth with a dispassionate tone—the events are far removed from her present, the agonies of that childhood dilemma, as well as the loss of her father, long put to rest. As a result the narrative never loses its distanced stance, even when her narration slips into the participatory mode and presents dialog verbatim. True to his promise, “daß ich nur wörtlich der würdigen Frau nachgeschrieben habe und mich sowohl gegen alle poetischen Ausdrücke als überhaupt gegen den Verdacht der Schriftstellerei … auf's kräftigste verwahre” (5, 1: 156), the fictive editor does not intrude within Frau von Ginkel's story.

As Frau von Ginkel concludes the tale that constitutes the text of Joseph, the narrative returns to the frame and the narrative situation: “Hier schien Mevrouw von Ginkel ihre Mittheilungen endigen zu wollen. Sie schüttete frischen Thee auf. …” In this portion, which appears to have been designed as a bridge between the first and second story, comments extraneous to her tale-telling, which Frau von Ginkel addresses directly to Bernjen during their evenings, are not recapitulated but rather are indicated by a phrase, such as “Mevrouw errieth meine Absicht und sagte,” “fuhr fort,” or “fügte … hinzu.” Bernjen's reactions and his attempts to encourage his hostess to yet further reminiscences are presented only in summary fashion: “Ich hingegen war in eine Stimmung gerathen …”; “So that ich einige blinde Fragen …”; “Ich versicherte, daß ich alle nöthigen Maßregeln getroffen …”; or “So betheuerte ich, daß ich nie nach dem Thee noch zu Abend esse …” (5, 1: 167). Convinced of his interest and his desire to learn yet more of the events her past and of the individuals she had known, Frau von Ginkel “fuhr … ohne weitere Bemerkungen in ihren Mittheilungen fort, nur zuweilen kleine Pausen machend, um mir einzuschenken oder ihrem goldenen Döschen zuzusprechen, wobei sie mich in so wohlwollender Weise zum Mitgenuß einlud, daß ich bei mir an die Friedenspfeife der Indianer denken mußte …” and Bernjen, indicating the format his transcription of the subsequent tales will take, notes he would indicate such interruptions “durch Absätze … und dem Leser die Ausmalung der kleinen Zwischenspiele überlassen werde.” The following words, intended as the opening for the next tale—“Also Mevrouw fuhr fort”: (5, 1: 168)—are the last of the Joseph-fragment.

Viewed in sequence, a development in Droste's use of narrative perspective becomes apparent. The fluctuations in narrative stance incorporated, but largely unstructured in Ledwina and so effectively used to enhance the thematic concerns of Die Judenbuche, are stabilized and codified in Droste's later prose. The temporal dimension, essentially absent from the narration in Ledwina, at times consciously accentuated to emphasize the narrative mode deployed in Die Judenbuche, is now regularized. The narrative voice, barely perceptible in the text of Ledwina (where it is neither developed nor consistent in format) and more defined in Die Judenbuche (where it is both refined and manipulated in accord with authorial intent) is identified and brought into conformity with intra-textual protagonists in these works. The narrative vision of the internal narrative voice becomes increasingly limited as it moves from the non-personalized narrator in Ledwina, to the unidentified narrator in Die Judenbuche and to these specific, identified protagonists who acknowledge an intentional limitation of narrative autonomy, preferring to maintain the fictive pretenses of “personal knowledge” and “actual experience.”

As a result the format is more consistent, but the works are also stylistically less interesting. The rich divergence and convolutions of narrative vision and stance so skillfully deployed in Die Judenbuche are replaced by a uniform, but “flatter” narrative style, consistent in execution, but virtually devoid of narrative play or irony and stripped of ambiguity and excitement. Although such narrative restrictions are inherent in the nature of these later prose works—a travel journal, a disguised family chronicle, and a detective story camouflaged as personal reminiscences—that fact itself does not account for the changes in Droste's narrative style. The absence of both fluctuation in narrative perspective and the alteration between the observatory and participatory modes in these works reflect less the choice of genre than a shift in the form and style of her prose. The shift appears to reflect a growing concern with credibility and concomitantly an effort to achieve an aura of realism for the events and individuals portrayed in her texts. Since Droste did continue to incorporate the direct participatory stance within her verse epics, such as Der ‘Spiritus familiaris’ des Roßtäuschers, composed during the period of work on her Westphalian project, as well as in her poems, such as “Durchwachte Nacht,” written subsequently to Joseph, the absence of participatory elements in Droste's last prose writings reflects a selection of structure and stance that excludes participatory features and emphasizes the “narrated” nature of the works.

Droste in these last prose works remains increasingly within the constraints of the narrative situation, avoiding comments which exceed the temporal framework or the knowledge of the fictive narrator, whether specified as in Joseph and Bei uns zu Lande or undefined as in Westphälische Schilderungen. In these works, as in the somewhat earlier Die Judenbuche, Droste appears more concerned with maintaining a perspective limited by social consensus, one which excludes the spontaneity and concomitant uncensored nature of expression associated with the participatory mode. Along with the removal of the inconsistencies, the breaks in narrative perspective, and the inappropriate intrusions or internally unjustified shifts of view, the vitality and freshness, which the apparent spontaneous intrusions of the participatory mode brought to the narrative text, are dissipated. The elimination of such direct presentation of the thoughts or reactions of a participant or involved narrator and the increasingly controlled and careful prose of these later works, however, results in a loss of the spontaneity and freshness, the variation and vitality used so effectively in Die Judenbuche. By avoiding the participatory mode and relying upon a disinterested observatory stance, Droste sacrifices much of the richness and vitality of her earlier works—the intensity is gone; the emotional impact muted. The feeling of being part of the events depicted is also lost for the reader, who is left with the sense of viewing the events “second hand,” forfeiting the sense of immediacy. In retrospect, the consistent narrative stance appears too consciously formulated, too carefully restricted, perhaps too contrived to be artistically successful. Droste's best prose works, just as her best verse epics, occur when she was able to incorporate and yet control the participatory, creative energies within the textual dimension of the work.


  1. The work is also known as Bilder aus Westfalen, the title under which it appeared in Letzte Gaben. Cf. also Woesler 1973.

  2. Sengle [Friedrich] (1972, 238), in discussing the interest in “Reisebeschreibung” during the Biedermeier period, includes Droste's considerations concerning Bei uns zu Lande, the title she had applied to her as yet undefined Westphalian project; cf. also Niethammer's analysis of the differences in concept and style between the contributions of Droste, Freiligrath, and Schücking for Das malerische und romantische Westphalen (1992a).

  3. Häntzschel urges that the fragment Bei uns zu Lande, as well as Westphälische Schilderungen, be viewed “innerhalb der Reisebilder-Mode ihrer Zeit,” rather than from the so often emphasized biographical perspective (1970, 190).

    Guthrie distinguishes Bei uns zu Lande as Reiseliteratur from the travel literature of that day, charging that Droste “did not share … the emergent universalistic impulse which motivated Romantic and Biedermeier writers to roam the world and write about their experiences” (1988, 353)—a position that fails to take into account that all the examples he cites were written by men or to acknowledge the difficulties which Droste, as a single woman with limited means, would have faced in such an undertaking (even if her health and the views of family were not deterrents).

    For a discussion of the early Reiseliteratur written by women, who began to enter this field in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, cf. Frederiksen 1989.

  4. Guthrie, in comparing Bracebridge Hall with the fragment Bei uns zu Lande, at times confuses the latter with the earlier, larger, still amorphous “Bei uns zu Lande” project (the genesis for both Die Judenbuche and Westphälische Schriften). Cf. Guthrie 1988, 351.

  5. Sengle suggests the work not be viewed “als Dichtung,” noting that Droste saw herself here “als gewissenhafte, ja im Sinne jener Zeit als wissenschaftliche Berichterstatterin über die volkskundlichen, wirtschaftlichen und geographischen Verhältnisse ihrer Heimatlandschaft” (1980, 634). In contrast, Emil Staiger describes the work as “eine meisterliche Prosa,” insisting “das Land wird ganz zum Bilde des Droste'schen Geistes” (1933, 61-62).

  6. For responses to the work's appearance in the Historisch-politische Blätter, see 5, 2: 513-49.

  7. Cf. also Woesler 1973 and R. Weber. For a discussion of the conception, writing, publication, and early reception of the work, see 5, 2: 504-13.

  8. Cf. R. Weber, Huge 1973, and Guthrie 1988. For a discussion of the conception, writing, publication, and early reception of the work, see 5, 2: 650-54; 676-80.

  9. This distinction is overlooked by W. Gössmann, who asserts: “Hier verbirgt sich die Dichterin hinter der Maske eines senilen Rentmeisters.” (There is also no textual support for his assessment of senility.) Gössmann, apparently confusing yet further the fictive author with the fictive editor, continues: “Mit ihm zieht sie sich auf das idyllische Münsterland zurück und überläßt in humoristischer Manier die große Welt sich selbst …” (1985, 175).

  10. Cf. Böschenstein-Schäfer's comments on elements of Droste's “idyllische Heimatlandschaft” in this work and in Westphälische Schilderungen.

  11. Droste's summary notes for the work (5, 1: 181-88) provide a sketch of twenty-four planned chapters, which were to incorporate materials in part similar to those found in Ledwina, such as the death of Clemens. Cf. Huge 1973 and 5, 2: 650-54.

  12. For a discussion of possible reasons for the work remaining unfinished, see 5, 2: 653-54.

  13. Die Judenbuche is viewed primarily as a novella, although critics have debated the genre issue, citing Droste's reference to it as Kriminalgeschichte or redefining it (as Henel does) as a Detektivgeschichte. Joseph, on the other hand, is generally considered to be a Kriminalgeschichte, the term with which Droste first identified the work and which serves as its subtitle, although family members used the term “Novelle” and Droste referred to both as “Erzählungen” in her letters.

    Cf. Huge's discussion with regard to both Die Judenbuche (5, 2: 231-32; 1980) and Joseph (5, 2: 723).

  14. For a discussion of Droste's sources, including her earlier visit to the Netherlands, cf. 5, 2: 715-17; 722-26.

  15. Cf. 5, 2: 723, 725-26, for a discussion of possible reasons for Droste's failure to finish the work, though ill-health may have been a decisive factor.

  16. The description of Bernjen's nephew and his search for publishable material is reminiscent of the young Levin Schücking.

Works Cited

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe. Ed. Winfried Woesler. [13 vols.] Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1978-.

Böschenstein-Schäfer, Renate. “Die Struktur des Idyllischen im Werk der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.” Kleine Beiträge zur Droste-Forschung 3 (1974/75) [1975]: 25-49.

Frederiksen, Elke. “Der Blick in die Ferne: Zur Reiseliteratur von Frauen.” Gnüg and Möhrmann 1989, 104-122.

Gössmann, Wilhelm. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Ich und Spiegelbild. Zum Verständnis der Dichterin und ihres Werkes. Düsseldorf: Droste, 1985.

Guthrie, John. “Washington Irving's Bracebridge Hall and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande.Modern Language Review 83 (1988): 351-63.

Häntzschel, Günter. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.” Zur Literatur der Restaurationsepoche 1815-1848: Forschungsreferate und Aufsätze. Ed. Jost Hermand and Manfred Windfuhr. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1970. 151-201.

Huge, Walter. “Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande: Studien zur Arbeitsweise der Droste am Beispiel eines unbekannten Entwurfes.” Kleine Beiträge zur Droste-Forschung [2] (1972/73) [1973]: 119-38.

Niethammer, Ortrun. “Abbruch einer Idylle: Die unterschiedlichen Konzeptionen Westfalens von Ferdinand Freiligrath, Levin Schücking und Annette von Droste-Hülshoff im Malerischen und romantischen Westphalen.” Niethammer and Belemann 1992a, 81-90.

———, and Claudia Belemann, eds. Ein Gitter aus Musik und Sprache: Feministische Analysen zu Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Paderborn: Schöningh, 1992.

Sengle, Friedrich. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848).” Biedermeierzeit: Deutsche Literatur im Spannungsfeld zwischen Restauration und Revolution 1815-1848. Vol. 3: Die Dichter. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1980, 592-639.

———. Biedermeierzeit: Deutsche Literatur im Spannungsfeld zwischen Restauration und Revolution 1815-1848. Vol. 2: Die Formenwelt. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1972.

Staiger, Emil. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Wege zur Dichtung 14. Horgen-Zürich: Münster, 1933.

Weber, Rosemarie. Westfälisches Volkstum in Leben und Werk der Dichterin Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Münster: Aschendorff, 1966.

Woesler, Winfried. “‘Westphälische Schilderungen aus einer westphälischen Feder’: Vorbereiten für eine kritische Ausgabe.” Kleine Beiträge zur Droste-Forschung [2] (1972/73) [1973]: 72-88.

Elisabeth Krimmer (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7985

SOURCE: Krimmer, Elisabeth. “A Perfect Intimacy with Death: Death, Imagination, and Femininity in the Works of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.” Women in German Yearbook 17 (2001): 121-40.

[In the following essay, Krimmer maintains that Droste-Hülshoff used the theme of death in her work to address and gain some control over the fragmented identity that characterizes much of her writing. Focusing on the works Bertha and Ledwina, Krimmer observes Droste-Hülshoff confronting death as both an imminent reality (because of her physical frailty) and a symbol for the potentially destructive power of the imagination.]

Mich graute, doch ich sprach dem Grauen Hohn,
Ich hielt das Bild in Reimes Netz gefangen
Und frevelnd wagt' ich aus der Totenkron
Ein Lorbeerblatt zu langen.

—Annette von Droste-Hülshoff

I shuddered but defied the fear,
Captured the image in the net of rhymes
And blasphemously I dared to reach
For laurel from the crown of death.(1)


In his essay on the social history of the Vormärz period, Dirk Blasius states that during the first half of the nineteenth century, death had an immediacy that is difficult for any person in the twentieth century to imagine (28).2 Whether or not this assertion is valid in general, it is certainly true for the life and works of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848). Death, both as a metaphor and as a very real and haunting event, played a crucial role in Droste's life and art. Her work abounds with characters who bear the signs of death, such as Bertha in Bertha oder die Alpen (Bertha or the Alps) or Ledwina in the eponymous prose fragment. In several poems, Droste envisions the death of the poetic “I,” as in “Die Mergelgrube” (“The Gravel Pit”) or in “Im Moose” (“In the Moss”). Often, too, the painful loss of close friends and relatives became a driving force for her writing. Droste dedicated several poems to deceased friends and family members, among them “Sit illi terra levis” for the family chaplain, “Clemens von Droste” for her friend and cousin, and “Katharine Schücking” for another friend and colleague. In a comment on her poetry edition of 1844 she even asserts that the poems to and about the dead are among the best of the whole book:

At first I had grouped together all poems to and about the dead, but it appeared dreadfully monotonous and gloomy. One would have thought that these are the worst poems in the entire book while really they are all among the better ones.3

(letter to Levin Schücking, 17 January 1844, X, I: 144)

The importance of this “perfect intimacy with death” (“vollkommene Befreundung mit dem Tode”), as she calls it in a letter to her friend Elise Rüdiger (7 August 1847, X, I: 426), is also expressed in the fact that she chooses the title “Meine Toten” (“My Dead Ones”) for one of her poetological poems.

Droste scholarship has long been aware of the frequency of death motifs in Droste's writing. Frederiksen and Shafi, for example, stress the “overwhelming plethora of death motifs and images” in the early works (120); Artur Brall speaks of “Droste's attachment to the world of the dead” (5); and Peucker calls Droste “a poet who creates for herself a dead muse” (385). In spite of this awareness, however, the connection between the death motifs and Droste's specific situation as a woman writer still awaits further investigation. In the present analysis, I want to examine the elective affinity between death and femininity in Droste's work, and to link this peculiar constellation to some striking aesthetic features in her writing. By noticing changes in Droste's use of the death motif one can also trace the author's changing attitude toward her role as a woman writer.


Droste's visions of death were not restricted to the literary realm but were informed by her actual experience. Thus, any attempt to explain the preponderance of the theme of death in Droste's work must take into consideration the conditions that characterized the lives of women in nineteenth-century Germany.4 For Droste and her contemporaries, death was literally ‘close to home’; it took place in the family residence, not in the secluded room of a hospital.5 It was even closer to home for an unmarried woman, like Droste, because it was expected of the spinster that she take care of her sick and dying relatives.

Consequently, because she had a large circle of relatives and friends, Droste spent a considerable amount of her time nursing the sick and assisting the dying.6 In her letters she vacillates between complaints about this chore and resignation to it. While she gives voice to her distress about “not having been able to do anything else but wander from one bed to the next for fourteen days,—a paralyzed woman in the one, a nearly suffocated man in the next” (letter to Clemens Schücking, 5 May 1842, IX, II: 288), she also professes to have come to terms with these obligations. “It is my destiny,” she writes to August von Haxthausen, “that I have to go from one sick person to the next—I like to do it and it does not hurt me either” (16 June 1846, X, I: 376).

However, the numerous illnesses from which Droste suffered after the death of a loved one suggest that, contrary to her own profession, death did hurt her. She became ill after the demise of her dearly beloved father, Clemens August von Droste, who died when she was 29, as well as after the death of her favorite brother Ferdinand, who died of consumption in 1829. The death of her wet nurse, Katharina Pettendorf, in February 1845 was followed by another of Droste's frequent illnesses. Often, the pain over the loss of a loved one was exacerbated by the untimeliness of the event. This was most apparent with regard to the death of her infant nephew Ferdinand in 1840 and her young niece Anna in 1841, but also true for the deaths of her cousin Clemens von Droste at age 38, and her friend Katharine Schücking at age 36.

In addition to her ties to all those close to her, Droste was very involved in the life of her parish. Almost all her letters to her sister Jenny von Laßberg contain reports of the most recent deaths in the nearby city of Münster and on the family estate, Hülshoff. Death in these cases is most frequently attributed to consumption and influenza. There are also numerous reports of the death of newborns and infants. The casual manner with which Droste treats these incidents should not lead us to assume that they did not affect her. For her these deaths—even though they were surely not as emotionally charged as those of her loved ones—created an existential web in which death was omnipresent.

Given this omnipresence of death, it is not surprising that from her early years on, Droste was plagued by a fear of dying. Because she was born prematurely, her parents feared that she would not survive the first week. Throughout her lifetime, she was troubled by a frail constitution, tormented by stomachaches, headaches, dizziness, difficulties in breathing, eye diseases, and other ailments. Often the symptoms were so grave that Droste anticipated her own death. As early as 1829, a list of her symptoms includes “52. Great anxieties, everlasting. 53. Great melancholy, with fear of an illness of the mind, thoughts of death, despairing about recovery, and a head full of deathbed scenes” (to her doctor Clemens Maria von Bönninghausen, 6 November 1829, VIII, I: 102). That this does not represent one particular moment of crisis but rather a constituent of her life is attested to in a letter to her teacher and friend Schlüter, where she mentions that for six years she has been convinced that the next equinox would take her away from this earth:

And do I not experience myself, twice every year, during the spring and fall equinox an utterly fatal period, full of pain and infirmity—I know that I am in God's hand, and I am not foolishly in love with life, but the conviction that I have entertained for six years that an equinox will take me away before you know it, may well contribute a lot to my grave mood.

(27 March 1835, VIII, II: 169)7

However, even for the young Droste, the preoccupation with death was not simply a matter of health and illness; rather, death, art, and femininity were entangled in a complex and intricate net. In order to set the stage for an understanding of this unusual trinity in her work, it is helpful to turn to a letter that the young Droste sent to her mentor Anton Mathias Sprickmann (1749-1833) in December 1814:

Your dear letter, my dear dear friend, has given me the happiest and—I am almost inclined to say—the only happy hour since your departure, for recently my life has really been pretty miserable; several circumstances worked in unison to put me into a mood of inner sadness, several deaths in our family. You probably don't know that my great aunt, the old Frau von Padberg, and her daughter, the young Frau von Padberg … both died on the same day after a very brief sick-bed. … The deceased actually inspired little interest during their lifetime and yet their deaths have touched me wondrously … it was a deep, dreadful sensation, Sprickmann, and I felt it for the first time. Shortly before their demise both deceased were at our house with their entire family, and the young woman entertained me with the story of one of her acquaintances who had recently been struck by a strange kind of madness wherein she took everything to be a deception. Frau von Padberg voiced her concern that these grand ideas may destroy her health and accelerate her demise. Oh! She did not foresee that the poor woman would stand by her corpse and in her madness would not recognize her friend. The speedy demise of all these people (for the sister of my mother has lost two most dear children all of a sudden) distinctly spoke the words “you too must die” to me, a sound that resonated in my breast and was only strengthened by the fact that I, as was believed, had caught an everlasting ailment due to too much intense singing. … [This ailment] often reminds me vividly and sternly of my near demise.

(VIII, I: 4-5)

In this letter, death, femininity and ‘grand ideas’ are entangled in a remarkable and surprising way. Droste explains that her strong emotional reaction to the deaths of the von Padbergs is not caused by pain about the actual loss of these women, whom she barely knew. Rather, her anxiety seems to be connected to the memory of a conversation about a deranged woman who appeared disconnected from reality because she had ‘grand ideas’ and could not separate perception from deception. We might infer that, for the young Droste, ‘grand ideas’ in a woman are potentially dangerous and may give rise to the deterioration of her health. One might even assume that to Droste, the death of the von Padbergs is a substitute for the death of the woman with grand ideas. Furthermore, by citing singing—a form of artistic expression—as a possible reason for her own dreaded demise, Droste links the related events to her own life and establishes a connection between art and death. And the death that is brought about by art, as this letter indicates and as further analyses will show, is always the death of a woman.

Droste's letter to Sprickmann indicates that the young writer had internalized the beliefs of her own time that barred women from creative endeavors.8 But Droste's development as a writer did not end here. By portraying this constellation over and over again, by turning it to and fro in her mind, she finally came to terms with it and proceeded from fragment to oeuvre. We might therefore wonder if by writing about death Droste managed to control her fear of dying.

In order to investigate whether writing can indeed counteract the fear of mortality, it is helpful to turn to Elisabeth Bronfen's study Over Her Dead Body. In her analysis of the complex interrelation between death, femininity, and textuality, Bronfen argues that aesthetic representations of death let us repress our fear of dying as they transform the tangible and threatening reality of death into an image. Furthermore, in addition to substituting a text for a body, aesthetic portrayals of death also imply the safe position of a survivor, namely the author of that portrayal. In depicting a death that occurred to somebody else's body—to the other—the artist/writer experiences a sense of power that serves to stabilize his own self.9 But as the other is not only a site of differentiation against which the self is defined, but also a site of identification; the death of the other cannot but remind the author of his or her own mortality.10 Thus, while representations of death are reassuring in that they transform flesh into text and death into the death of the other, they are also threatening insofar as the other comes to stand for the self (see Bronfen 191).

The comforting power of aesthetic representations of death is even more diminished if we take into account that this ambivalence is repeated in the structure of the sign itself. Every representation of death provides a substitute for what is lost and thus functions as a denial of loss. But by virtue of being a substitute, it also points to the indelible difference from the original referent, and thus is a reminder of precisely this loss (see Bronfen 30). Due to this uneasy conjunction of negation and acknowledgment that cannot but result in the return of the repressed, aesthetic representations of death are both an erasure of death and symptomatic manifestations of our fear of dying.

Moreover, while the control to be gained from representations of death is precarious for all writers, it is even more so for a woman writer. For in her case, the already ambivalent relation is compounded by the fact that the position of writer/survivor is traditionally coded as masculine (see Bronfen 121). Yet another complication is added if the artist in question is a woman. Drawing on Lacan's theories and on her own interpretation of Freud's analysis of the “fort-da”-game,11 Bronfen claims that every form of symbolization is based on maternal absence. “Symbolic play (representation) is both mastery over negation and grounded on negation … the site over which the grounding and mastering negation is negotiated is the maternal body” (27-28). The association between symbolization and maternal absence is reflected in the fact that in Western culture, the object represented is coded feminine, whereas the subject that represents is coded masculine.12 Within this paradigm, writing might indeed be understood as a figurative movement from the ‘decomposition’ of her body to the composition of his text: “the birth of the poet and his symbolic creation occurs over the effacement of … materiality-maternity-mortality” (Bronfen 376).

Consequently, a paradoxical situation arises for the woman author. If the use of language is predicated on the absence of what it denominates, i.e., if sema/the word replaces soma/the body,13 and if the body is associated with the feminine,14 the woman writer must do away with herself and assume a masculine position in order to be a writer.15 For “authorship, as the production of symbolic textuality, requires the death of the feminine, and all the values belonging to this cultural paradigm” (Bronfen 404). Thus, on a figurative level, a woman writing about death is always writing about her own death, insofar as the body that the word replaces is always already ‘her’ body.

In order to overcome this dilemma, women authors must develop strategies that allow them to write from a position of absence.16 As writer and written dead feminine body occupy the same site, women writers must inhabit this split as they simultaneously adopt the masculine position of author and draw inspiration from their own death.

Based on this theoretical framework, my reading of Droste's early works and her poetry investigates whether it is indeed the death of the female “I” that makes her poetry possible.17 But while I demonstrate the conflation of death, femininity, and art for the early Droste, I also show how the mature writer overcomes her fear of dying as she not only creates a male persona but also a dead muse for herself. In her late works, Droste ultimately derived creative power from a perfect intimacy with death.


That Droste's preoccupation with death is inseparable from her self-definition as an artist is especially evident in her early works. Both her drama fragment Bertha oder die Alpen of 1814 and her prose fragment Ledwina (between 1819 and 1826) feature heroines who bear the mark of death, and in both texts the fatal illness is associated with the heroine's vivid imagination and artistic talent.18

Bertha oder die Alpen was conceived as a tragedy in five acts with a traditional structure and verses in iambic pentameter. According to Droste's correspondence and her sister Jenny's diary entries, much of the fragment was written in November and December 1813, when Droste was sixteen years old. She kept the project alive for a few more years only to abandon it altogether in 1819. The play revolves around a love interest embedded in court intrigues. Bertha, the daughter of Count Adelbert Löwenstein, loves the traveling musician Eduard Felsberg, who reciprocates her love but cannot marry her because of his inferior social standing. Moreover, Bertha's father intends for her to marry Count Reihersdorf in order to secure the latter's support for his coup to overthrow the prince and take his place. As the men plot to eliminate Reihersdorf's rival, the manuscript abruptly breaks off.

Bertha oder die Alpen, which in many ways draws heavily on dramatic conventions of the Storm and Stress period, differs from its literary predecessors in that the character who represents unquenchable intellectual striving is a woman. But Bertha, who is portrayed as well-read and interested in poetry and philosophy, is also frequently described with the epithet “angel of death” (“Todesengel”) and counted among the “interesting skulls” (“intressanten [sic] Totenköpfen,” 144). Not surprisingly, it is Bertha's fantasy and artistic talent, symbolized by her harp, that are cited as cause of the weakness of her body: “Oh your harp oh it is killing you” (VI, I: 70). However, it is also made explicit that her artistic endeavors could not harm her, were she not a woman:

Wohl beut sie uns
Der süßen Freuden viel die Phantasie
Und ihre Tochter die Begeistrung doch
Zu der verzehrend wilden Flame die
Am innern Mark des Lebens zehret wächst
Die sanfte Wärme die das Herz belebt
Wenn nicht ein starker Geist sie treu bewacht
In ernste Schranken zwängend ihre Macht
Sie wirkt verschönernd in des Mannes Hand
Und wirkend bringt das Große sie hervor
Denn sieh nicht zu vergleichen ist dem Sinn
Des zarten Weibes wohl des Mannes Geist.

(VI, I: 122-23)19

The text establishes a triangular relationship between death, imagination, and femininity. Man, due to his association with intellect (“Geist”) remains unharmed by the destructive power of fantasy. Woman, in contrast, due to her lack of mind—i.e., her confinement to the realm of matter—is utterly consumed by the flame of imagination. For it is imagination's very essence to replace matter with mind as language emerges as the ‘murderer of the thing’ (see Bronfen 96). Significantly, and as though to affirm this correlation, the reader learns in the course of the drama that Bertha's vivid imagination is accompanied by her alienation from reality. The fading away of her body coincides with the dissolution of the outer world. Death becomes a metaphor for a state of being in which inner and outer life are disconnected, in which mind and matter are at war. Instead of living within the “narrow confines of cold reality” (“Der kalten Wirklichkeit beengten Schranken,” 78), Bertha seeks escape in her fantasies, which she calls her “criminal illusions” (130) and her “madness” (130). In Bertha oder die Alpen, fantasy does not connote creativity but is seen as a problematic substitution of an inner vision for the real world. Artistic talent in a woman is portrayed as a threat, not a gift. By substituting her “beautiful tender images” (“meine schönen zarten Bilder,” 70) for things, i.e., symbols for materiality, Bertha also denies what is associated with the feminine realm. Just as the symbol is the murderer of the thing, art is the murderer of Bertha.

Or rather: art would be the murderer of Bertha, if Annette von Droste-Hülshoff had finished the fragment. One might therefore speculate whether Droste was unable or unwilling to finish her drama precisely because finishing it would have implied the acknowledgment that art is indeed the murderer of Bertha. And we might also wonder if the older Droste's repeated declarations of her intention to subordinate her poetry to the higher goals of religion and morality are an attempt to domesticate her creativity and thus to deprive it of its destructive force.


The same formula, according to which femininity and creativity do not produce an oeuvre but result in madness and death, can also be found in Ledwina, another fragment by the young Droste. Ledwina, originally intended as a novella, was written intermittently between 1819 and 1826. It portrays the everyday life of an aristocratic family of the Biedermeier era, but interwoven with this realistic rendition of a social milieu is the motif of death.20 Both Ledwina's mother, Frau von Brenkfeld, and the old servant Lisbeth are widows. Lisbeth also loses her only son in the course of the novella. Ledwina, the female protagonist, whose name is taken from the patron saint of the sick, bears the mark of death. So does Count Hollberg, whom Droste presumably intended as Ledwina's love interest.21

That death is central to the conception of the story is confirmed in a letter by Droste to her friend Anna von Haxthausen on 4 February 1819:

Recently I wanted to write a novella and had the plan for it all laid out. In the very beginning of the story, the heroine already carried death and consumption within her and thus was extinguished little by little.

(VIII, II: 26)

Even though Ledwina is not explicitly described as an artist, she displays the same vivid imagination as Bertha. And just as in Bertha's case, Ledwina's imagination alienates her from her family and from the traditional female existence, embodied in the character of her sister Therese. However, more than in Bertha oder die Alpen, fantasy in Ledwina is perceived as ambivalent, giving rise to danger as well as to enticing beauty. Ledwina's imagination transforms the world around her into a magic land. The local countryside that her brother finds miserable becomes a wilderness. Where others see the river at night, Ledwina perceives ducal gondolas. But the more her imagination thrives, the more Ledwina herself fades away. Just as in Bertha, the motif of death appears wherever an accurate perception of the world by the poetic “I” becomes doubtful, and wherever the destabilization of identity is accompanied by the loss of reality.22

By transforming the reality around her into a dream, Ledwina transforms her own body into an ethereal essence. “Lost into alien realms” (“verloren in fremde Reiche,” 501), Ledwina loses her own self. And it is precisely her imagination, i.e., her transformation of matter into immaterial images, that causes her projected self-dissolution:

She stepped close to the bank and looked, alertly at first and then dreamily, into the river. A large rock protruding from the river spattered bright droplets about, and the little waves flowed and broke so delicately that the water here seemed as if veiled by a fine net and the branches inclining along the bank flitted away in its mirror like green butterflies. But Ledwina's eyes rested upon her own image, as the curls fell from her head and drifted away, her dress tore to shreds, and her white fingers disintegrated and floated apart, and as the cramp quietly began to yield, it was as if she were dead, and decay were dissolving, eating its way through her limbs, and each element were tearing away its own.


As soon as metaphor replaces matter, i.e., as water becomes a mirror, as the branches become butterflies, Ledwina herself loses her shape. The same mechanism is cited again, when in her mind's eye the curtains in Ledwina's room become a river. Her bed is transformed into a stream and her body becomes a corpse, slowly eaten up by water (500). Once reality loses its shape, Ledwina's body too disintegrates. We might argue with Bronfen that Ledwina accepts her exclusion from the realm of language even as this requires a fading of the self (see Bronfen 217).

Next to all these images of death through dissolution, a striking dream of death as interment stands out (498-500). In this fascinating and highly complex dream, Ledwina is on her way to the theater. But she never arrives there and instead finds herself in a graveyard. Significantly, Ledwina's original goal, the theater, the realm of art and signification, leads to a shortcut that brings her directly to the graveyard, the realm of death. Suddenly she realizes that what is most dear to her in the world is here in the graveyard. She starts to look for it but cannot find it as she neither knows its name nor can she read the inscriptions on the gravestones. It seems that Ledwina is not only unable to get to the theater, she is also exiled from the realm of language: ignorant of names and unable to read, while knowing at the same time that none of the inscriptions is in fact the right one. In her attempt to find the beloved, language is of no use but rather causes a split; for as Ledwina starts digging, her self is divided. She is the madwoman who churns up the earth frantically, searching for what is lost, the spectator who watches the scene from a distance, trying to read and yet unable to. And, one might speculate, she is also the dead body in the grave, which, while dead and buried, is still most dear to her. As she digs, the earth gives way. Ledwina falls into a coffin and comes to lie next to a skeleton, which she recognizes as her beloved. As she decides to stay there until she dies, a child from the theater comes offering flowers and fruits. She takes all the flowers, and the thought strikes her that she might be able to revive the decayed body by recomposing it with flowers. But at this moment she wakes up.

Paradoxically, it is only by rejoining the earth, reuniting with the dead, and thus dying herself, that resurrection becomes possible. By portraying a dead beloved Droste creates for herself a dead muse who is both “source and address of her poetic inspiration” (see Bronfen 395). By inhabiting the split, the dead beloved gives birth to poetry at the same time that poetry resurrects the beloved (Bronfen 398). In this dream, which leaves the awakened Ledwina feeling free and happy, a perfect intimacy with death brings about the recreation of life with flowers. But even though it is the death of the female “I” that makes poetry possible, poetry itself is redefined here. Ledwina's dream expresses the utopian ideal of a poetry that arises from nature itself, untouched by the duality of language. Ledwina's dream is Droste's dream, the dream of a poetry that is grounded in nature and that can thus achieve the reconciliation of art and matter, and of woman and artistic creation. By dissociating her work from language and mind and defining it as something sprung from the earth, Droste finds a way to conceive of death as inspiration and of art as female.

However, while readers may be captivated by the enticing beauty of Droste's utopian vision of poetry, they will also recognize that it shares the drawbacks of so many utopias in that it is impossible to realize. For neither poet nor poetess can do away with language. It should not surprise us therefore that Ledwina, too, remained a fragment. The problematic linking of death, art, and femininity was to accompany Droste throughout her entire life. Its destructive impact, however, lessened gradually as Droste developed strategies that allowed her to contain the dangers that lay in wait for the female writer. Eventually, the magic of fantasy displaced the fear of writing.


The reconceptualization of death and creativity sets Droste's later works apart from her earlier writings. In her later works, the anxiety of authorship, so characteristic of the young Droste, has been conquered through a variety of strategies that were instrumental in breaking up the fear-inspiring entanglement of death and creativity.

One such strategy that allowed Droste to domesticate her vivid creativity and thus to deprive it of its destructive force is to be found in what Kortländer called her “rejection of the autonomy of art.”24 Again and again, the older Droste declared her intention to subordinate her poetry to the higher goals of religion and morality.25 In her programmatic poem “Mein Beruf” (“My Vocation”), Droste justifies her writing with a reference to the immorality of her time. The poet is called upon to warn her contemporaries and to awaken them from their ethical numbness. The transgression of female authorship must thus be excused, as it is necessitated by the need for moral education.

Another strategy that Droste employed in her later writing was the introduction of a male persona. This device enabled her to contain her visions of death and dying within the realm of imagination. In the poem “Die Mergelgrube” (“The Gravel Pit,” 1841/1842),26 for example, a lyrical “I,” in search of interesting fossils, becomes immersed in fantasies of the end of the world. The “I” is clearly designated as male even though this is not apparent until the very last stanza. It is reasonable to assume that the change of gender is the reason why the “I” can imagine its own body as a corpse without actually bearing the mark of death. Preliminary to the fantasy of death is the disintegration of the perception of reality that also characterized Droste's early work. The transition to the dream world is even more compelling because it is preceded by a detailed description of the natural environment, a technique that Heselhaus appropriately named “hallucinatory realism” (6).27 Slowly, the inner world of the “I” covers the outer world and hides it. The fantasies that transform the landscape around the “I” into a desolate burnt area, and the “I” into a corpse are paralleled by the image of the petrifactions, which are themselves organic matter turned into lifeless substance. Interestingly, the process of petrifaction resembles the process of art, which also preserves life in lifeless form. Droste's hope of finding “a living animal in stone” may thus be read as a poetological statement.28

Death in “Die Mergelgrube” is significantly different from visions of death and dying in Droste's early work. First, the death vision is clearly marked as a temporary state from which the dreaming “I” is awakened in due time. Here, death does not initiate the dissolution of the “I.”29 Rather, death is always under control, as it is relegated to a self-induced state of dreaming. Secondly, a shift in focus has occurred. Attention is shifted away from the threatening influence of creativity on the woman writer. Instead, we detect a glimpse of the preserving power of death, and, we might add, of poetry, in the image of the fossil; a power, however, that is highly ambivalent because the decay of death is prevented through the stasis of art (see Bronfen 349 f.). Furthermore, it is a gain bought at a price, as it can only be realized if the female “I” is transformed into a male persona. Patricia Howe has pointed out the problematic aspect inherent in this strategy: while the male persona is an enabling device for Droste, it is also “a denial of her own experience” (32).

The artistic development that the “Mergelgrube” illustrates is also visible in several personal statements by the older Droste. Here too, the corroding and dissolving force of fantasy, so overpowering in her early work, appears alongside its constructive potential. In a letter to Elise Rüdiger, Droste follows the established pattern by identifying her overheated imagination as the cause of her illness (16 February 1847, X, II: 420). But while she is convinced that her fantasy must be contained if she is to recover, she is also aware that it is at the root of her artistic creativity:

My fantasy is only too active, and I have to fight against it with all my force—every uneven spot on the wall, yes every crease in my pillow, arrange themselves into, at times rather beautiful, constellations, and every accidentally spoken, somewhat unusual word, immediately becomes the title of a novel or a novella, with all major elements of the plot. You see how overly excited I am—God! If I could only write now (i.e., dictate), how easy it would be

(X, II: 423)

With these sentences, Droste clearly expresses her ambivalent attitude toward her own imagination.30 While she must control it so as not to endanger her own recovery, it is also an enticing ability and the source of her writing. For the older Droste, imagination is not just a dangerous talent but also a refuge and a “survival strategy of the female author in a restrictive reality and society.”31

The culmination of this development away from a fear of creativity as death-inducing to an understanding of poetry as death-defying is to be found in Droste's late poem “Im Grase” (“In the Grass”). In this poem, a half-conscious waking-dream is experienced as a moment of heartfelt bliss. The perception of nature is not replaced by a dream; rather, dream and reality are one. It is impossible to tell whether the sensual impressions of the poetic “I” in “Im Grase” are real or illusory (“süßes Lachen gaukelt herab,” line 6). Death and life are merged into one as the dead live and breathe inside the “I” and as grave and grass become one. Here, the most fleeting and transitory impressions are also moments of the most bewitching beauty: the sun ray that kisses the lake, the song of a passing bird, the sun ray as it is mirrored in the shell of a beetle, the pressing of a hand. Dreaming coexists with intense sensuality and receptivity. It seems as though “Im Grase” expresses a feeling that Droste herself describes in another letter to Elise Rüdiger. In this letter, Droste claims that the knowledge of her own transitoriness led her to the enjoyment of every passing moment of her life:32

But as God wishes! I am prepared in every hour and very grateful to my creator that he has given me through the permanent feeling of danger a perfect intimacy with death, and thus through this very same feeling, a doubly intense and conscious pleasure in everything, even the smallest pleasures of life

(7 August 1847, X, II: 426)

In “Im Grase” transitoriness and pleasure in life are reconciled. Unlike in Droste's early works, where fantasy and writing led to the death of the female “I,” art and poetry are now forces that defy death. Imagination no longer endangers the health of the female artist but rather facilitates the resuscitation of the dead loved ones through and in memory. The development that was indicated in Ledwina is now brought to fruition as Droste draws her inspiration from death. Loss is turned into repossession as poetry preserves the fleeting moments of beauty and thus functions as a counterweight to mortality: “Look, the songs may live though I disappeared.”33 It is the awareness of mortality that “begets the counterassertion, the defiance, of poetic power,” as Peucker pointed out (376). But this defiance is encumbered by a paradox. Even though “Im Grase” expresses a positive understanding of creativity, the poetic “I” vanishes. In spite of the intense sensuality that leads the reader to expect a feeling subject, the “I” in this poem is reduced to three pronouns. In all three cases, the “I” is grammatical object, not subject. It is only by taking this into account that we start to understand the melancholy happiness that this poem expresses. For while it is a comfort that the poem will survive the death of the (female) “I,” it is saddening to know that this death is a precondition for the existence of her song.


Droste's writing is characterized by a development away from the anxiety of authorship toward an affirmation of her own artistic potential. This development is traceable in the varying meanings with which death and creativity are invested at different periods in Droste's work.

In her early work, fantasy and creative expression on the part of the female protagonist connote disease, death, and madness. This connotation results from a definition of art according to which language is substituted for nature, i.e., (male) word/form for (female) matter. Since both matter and nature are defined as feminine, the creation of art is associated with the death of the woman. This fear-inspiring combination may be the reason why Droste's early works so often remained fragments.

The older Droste, however, learned to maintain a balance at the brink of the abyss. The poetic “I” in her later poems has learned to inhabit the split as it speaks from a position of absence. In her later texts, Droste devised strategies that were instrumental in circumventing this dilemma, such as the moral and religious justification of her work and the introduction of a male persona. Gradually, the destructive power of the death motif was subdued and poetry emerged as a counter-weight to mortality. However, the reduction of the subject position indicates that this balance was bought at a price. But even if Droste's perfect intimacy with death was a burden for the young writer, it was also a gift: a shining affliction that became the source of her perfect intimacy with art.


  1. “Der Todesengel” (I, 1: 173).

  2. For a history of human attitudes toward death, see Ariès. For a discussion of the complex relationship between death and femininity, see Bronfen and Guthke.

  3. All quotes from Droste's works (with the exception of Ledwina) are taken from Historisch-kritische Ausgabe. Werke, Briefwechsel. Ed. Winfried Woesler.

  4. For Droste's biography see Morgan, Sichelschmidt, Maurer, Gödden, and Lavater-Sloman.

  5. See Ariès's chapter on the “Invisible Death” in The Hour of Our Death.

  6. In addition to her dying relatives, Droste also rendered this charitable service to her friends Wilhelmine von Thielemann and Sybille Mertens-Schaaffhausen.

  7. Thoughts like these abound in Droste's letters; see, for example, her letter to Wilhelm Junkmann of 17 November 1839: “Bethen Sie für mich, daß ich nicht gar zu unreif weggenommen werde—es hat große Gefahr! Der heftige Blutandrang nach dem Kopfe nimmt von Jahr zu Jahr mehr Überhand, und ich zweifle kaum an einem plötzlichen Ende” (IX, I: 88).

  8. See Heinz, who points out that for Droste creativity is associated with feelings of guilt.

  9. See Bronfen: “The aesthetic representation of death lets us repress our knowledge of the reality of death precisely because here death occurs at somebody else's body and as an image” (x).

  10. See Bronfen: “Over her dying body the artist can recognise and give figure to his own mortality” (48).

  11. Bronfen argues on two levels. For Freud's grandson, the absence of his mother led to the production of symbolic representations. For Freud, the death of his daughter led to the production of his work on the death drive (15-38).

  12. Bronfen alludes to Teresa de Lauretis, who claims that the equation of feminine and object is the locus of a “rhetoric of violence” (50).

  13. Bronfen refers to this as the “structural violence of language's irruption as the murder of soma” (21). Her analysis relies on Lacan's definition of the symbol as “the murder of the thing” (27) when she claims that “in a sense any image is the death because the negation of the thing, for it signifies that something was thought or recognised, not as real but as an image” (27).

  14. See Bronfen: “Because culture so inextricably connects femininity with the body … a woman can gain a subject position only by denying her body” (143).

  15. Bronfen directs our attention toward a number of parallels between death and femininity when she claims that both “femininity and death cause a disorder to stability” (vii) and that “both femininity and death are ascribed the position of alterity … and serve as western culture's privileged topoi and tropes for what is superlatively enigmatic” (xii).

  16. Bronfen's approach is inconsistent in this respect. She does not distinguish female from male writers in her analyses of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. However, for her interpretation of texts by twentieth-century women writers, she introduces the concept of “writing from a position of absence” (405 f.).

  17. Not included in the analysis is Droste's cycle Im geistlichen Jahr. This cycle of religious poetry employs the motif of death in a very different fashion. Here termini such as “dead” and “extinguished” designate a state of sinfulness and alienation from God with almost schematic consistency. (see “Am ersten Sonntage nach h. drey Könige”: “Mein Herr und Gott, wo werde ich dich finden? / Ach nicht im eignen ausgestorbnen Herzen, / Wo längst dein Ebenbild erlosch in Sünden,” qtd. in Berning 47). For a more detailed analysis of the metaphor of death in Im geistlichen Jahr, see Häntzschel.

  18. Pickar also notes the link between illness and artistic expression in Droste's work (see Ambivalence 83-93).

  19. “It is true that fantasy grants us / Sweet pleasures manifold / Along with her daughter enthusiasm but / Into a consuming wild flame eating away / At the inner marrow of life grows / The soft warmth that enlivens the heart / If it is not kept in guard faithfully by a strong mind / Which forces her power behind serious bars / It is beautifying in the hand of man / And laboring brings forth greatness / For behold not comparable with the mind / Of a tender woman is the mind of man.”

  20. Critics have argued that the atmosphere of death allows for a combination of thirst for life and resignation vis-à-vis the reality of Biedermeier society (cf. Frederiksen 119). Todd Kontje called Ledwina “a coded critique of Restoration society” (130).

  21. Even in Count Hollberg's case, the disease is introduced to the family by a woman, Hollberg's “beautiful ingenious mother” (“schöne geistreiche Mutter”).

  22. See Pickar, who discusses Droste's problematic relationship to external reality (109-23).

  23. “Eine deutliche Absage an die Autonomie der Kunst” (Kortländer 109).

  24. Cf. the poems “Mein Beruf” or “Am zweyten Sonntag nach Pfingsten.” In both poems, poetry is opposed to redemption if it is not subordinated to the goals of religion. For Droste's understanding of her moral mission, see also Kalthoff-Pticar (38-54), Gössmann (65-75), and Berning (80 f.).

  25. See also Salmen (92) and Howe (32).

  26. “Die Mergelgrube” was written during a visit to Meersburg and is informed by Droste's extensive mineralogical knowledge.

  27. See also Bonati-Richner, who points out that Droste's descriptions of nature create a feeling of unreality in the reader (14).

  28. See the following statement by Droste in a letter to Wilhelm Junkmann: “Es wird mir zuweilen ganz wunderlich, wenn ich manche Stengel oder Muscheln genau in der Form, wie sie damals der Augenblick verbogen hat, wieder hervor treten sehe, gleichsam in ihrer Todeskrümmung—ich wollte ich träfe einmal auf ein lebendiges Thier im Stein” (26 August 1839, IX, I: 66).

  29. “Der Hünenstein” (“The Megalith,” 1841/1842) is yet another example of a poem that combines a vision of death with the introduction of a male persona. Here, the discovery of a megalithic grave gives rise to visions of the I being sacrificed according to heathen ritual. Again, the perception of nature metamorphoses into numerous images of death and dying: The heath is “a sick old man” (“siechen Greis”), the cover of the grave is described as a widow at the grave of the husband (“Wittwe an des Gatten Grab”) and the coal of the fire is gangrenous (“leichenbrandig”).

  30. Gertrud Bauer Pickar's study of Droste's ambivalence toward her own fantasy traces a development “from a troubling ambivalence toward fantasy and the fantasy experience to a growing awareness of the role of fantasy as a vital factor in her own creative process and wellspring for literary expression” (x).

  31. “Überlebensstrategie der weiblichen Autorin in einer sie einengenden Realität und Gesellschaftsordnung” (Frederiksen and Shafi 115).

  32. On transitoriness in Droste's work, see Brumm.

  33. “Sieh, die Leider durften leben, aber ich entschwand” (Lied zum fünften Fastensonntag).

Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from the German are my own.

Works Cited

Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. Trans. Helen Weaver. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Berning, Stefan. Sinnbildsprache: Zur Bildstruktur des Geistlichen Jahrs der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1947.

Blasius, Dirk. “Epoche—sozialgeschichtlicher Abriss.” Deutsche Literatur: Eine Sozialgeschichte. Ed. Horst Albert Glaser. Vol. 6. Hamburg, 1987. 14-31.

Bonati-Richner, Silvia. Der Feuermensch: Studien über das Verhältnis von Mensch und Landschaft in den erzählenden Werken der Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Bern: Francke, 1972.

Brall, Arthur. Vergangenheit und Vergänglichkeit: Zur Zeiterfahrung und Zeitdeutung im Werk Annette von Droste-Hülshoffs. Marburg: L. G. Elwert, 1975.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Brumm, Anna-Marie. “Time, the Bride, and the Double in the Poetry of ED and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.” Emily Dickinson Studies 61 (1987): 27-38.

Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von. “Bertha.” Historisch-kritische Ausgabe. Dramatische Versuche. 6.1 (1982). 61-224.

———. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe. Werke, Briefwechsel. Ed. Winfried Woesler. 14 vols. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1978-1994.

———. “Ledwina.” Trans. David Ward. Bitter Healing: German Women Writers from 1700 to 1830: An Anthology. Ed. Jeannine Blackwell and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990. 473-526.

Frederiksen, Elke, and Monika Shafi. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848): Konfliktstrukturen im Frühwerk.” Out of line/ausgefallen: The Paradox of Marginality in the Writings of Nineteenth-Century Women. Ed. Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres and Marianne Burkhard. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989.

Gödden, Walter. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Leben und Werk. Eine Dichterchronik. Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 1994.

Gössmann, Wilhelm. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Ich und Spiegelbild: Zum Verständnis der Dichterin und ihres Werkes. Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1985.

Guthke, Karl S. The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Häntzschel, Günter. Tradition und Originalität: Allegorische Darstellung im Werk Annette von Droste-Hülshoffs. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1968.

Heinz, Heide. Die schuldverseuchte Unterwelt: Zu Annette von Droste-Hülshoffs Geistlichem Jahr. Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1989.

Heselhaus, Clemens. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Werk und Leben. Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1971.

Howe, Patricia. “Breaking into Parnassus: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and the Problem of Poetic Identity.” German Life and Letters 46.1 (1993): 25-41.

Kalthoff-Pticar, Christa. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff im Kontext ihrer Zeit: Briefliche Zeugnisse zum Zeitgeschehen und zum Selbstverständnis der Dichterin. Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 1988.

Kontje, Todd. Women, the Novel, and the German Nation 1771-1871: Domestic Fiction in the Fatherland. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Kortländer, Bernd. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff und die deutsche Literatur: Kenntnis—Beurteilung—Beeinflussung. Münster: Aschendorffsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1979.

Lavater-Sloman, Mary. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Augsburg: Heyne, 1987.

Maurer, Doris. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: Ein Leben zwischen Auflehnung und Gehorsam. Bonn: Keil Verlag, 1982.

Morgan, Mary E. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff: A Biography. New York: Peter Lang, 1984.

Peucker, Brigitte. “Droste-Hülshoff's Ophelia and the Recovery of Voice.” JEGP 82 (1983): 374-91.

Pickar, Gertrud Bauer. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's ‘Reich der Goldnen Phantasie.” Gestaltet und Gestaltend: Frauen in der deutschen Literatur. Ed. Marianne Burkhard. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1980. 109-23.

———. Ambivalence Transcended: A Study of the Writings of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Columbia: Camden House, 1997.

Salmen, Monika. Das Autorbewußtsein Annette von Droste-Hülshoffs: Eine Voraussetzung für Verständnis und Vermittlung ihres literarischen Werkes. Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 1985.

Schneider, Ronald. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1977.

Sichelschmidt, Gustav. Allein mit meinem Zauberwort: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, eine Biographie. Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1990.

Further Reading

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Brumm, Anne-Marie. “The Poetry of Regionalism, Feminine Voices of the Nineteenth Century: Emily Dickinson and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.” Colby Library Quarterly 21, no. 2 (1985): 83-91.

Examines how the naturalist depictions of their local landscapes reflect both Dickinson's and Droste-Hülshoff's rejection of Romanticism.

———. “Religion and the Poet: ED and Annette von Droste-Huelshoff.” Dickinson Studies 59 (1986): 21-38.

Observes the importance of faith and religion in the lives and poetry of the two authors.

Chick, Edson. “Voices in Discord: Some Observations on Die Judenbuche.German Quarterly 42, no. 2 (March 1969): 147-57.

Contends that the lack of narrative coherence in the novella is a carefully controlled technique for highlighting the moral contradictions of the story.

Coenen, Frederic E. “The ‘Idee’ in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche.German Quarterly 12, no. 4 (November 1939): 204-09.

Interprets the novella as a critique of liberal political movements, from Droste-Hülshoff's aristocratic vantage point.

Cottrell, Alan P. “The Significance of the Name ‘Johannes’ in Die Judenbuche.Seminar 6, no. 3 (October 1970): 207-15.

Connects the name of the character Johannes Niemand with the gospel writer John the Evangelist.

Doerr, Karin. “The Specter of Anti-Semitism in and around Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Judenbuche.German Studies Review 17, no. 3 (October 1994): 447-71.

Calls for greater attention to the inherent anti-Semitism of the novella; suggests that critics have tended to gloss over negative depictions of Jews in emphasizing Droste-Hülshoff's importance as a woman writer.

Flygt, Sten G. “‘Durchwachte Nacht’: A Structural Analysis of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Poem.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 55, no. 2 (April 1956): 257-74.

Considers the relationship between the structure of the poem and its themes.

Friedrichsmeyer, Sara. “Women's Writing and the Construct of an Integrated Self.” In The Enlightenment and Its Legacy: Studies in German Literature in Honor of Helga Slessarev, edited by Sara Friedrichsmeyer and Barbra Becker-Cantarino, pp. 171-80. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1991.

Discusses Droste-Hülshoff as an example of the challenge women authors faced in embracing the integrated self of the Enlightenment.

Godwin-Jones, Robert. “Where the Devil Leads: Peasant Superstitions in George Sand's Petite Fadette and Droste-Hülshoff's Judenbuche.Neohelicon 10, no. 1 (1983): 221-38.

Contrasts the treatment of peasants in the work of Sand and Droste-Hülshoff, asserting that the differences are based on the authors' differing political views.

Guder, G. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Conception of Herself as Poet.” German Life and Letters 11, no. 1 (October 1957): 13-24.

Proposes that Droste-Hülshoff understood her poet vocation as primarily religious in nature, as a sacrifice contributing to the redemption of mankind.

Guthrie, John. “Byron's Influence on Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's ‘Lebt wohl.’” Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society 22, no. 1 (1992): 75-82.

Assesses the influence of Byron's farewell poem on Droste-Hülshoff's last work, suggesting that Byron's impact consists primarily in the poem's imagery.

Immerwahr, Raymond. “The Peasant Wedding as Dramatic Climax of Die Judenbuche.” In Momentum dramaticum: Festschrift for Eckehard Catholy, edited by Linda Dietrick and David G. John, pp. 321-36. Waterloo: University of Waterloo Press, 1990.

Argues for the coherence of the novella by demonstrating the peasant wedding's connection to the themes of moral degeneration and salvation.

Mare, Margaret. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965, 322 p.

Analyzes several of Droste-Hülshoff's major poems, including short poems and the epics; also contains a biography and brief mention of her prose.

McGlathery, James M. “Fear of Perdition in Droste-Hülshoff's Judenbuche.” In Lebendige Form: Interpretationen Zur Deutschen Literatur, edited by Jeffrey L. Sammons and Ernst Schurer, pp. 229-44. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1970.

Interprets the novella in light of the themes of salvation and the threat of damnation.

Mellen, Philip A. “Ambiguity and Intent in Die Judenbuche.Germanic Notes 8 (1977): 8-10.

Maintains that the ambiguous nature of the story serves the purpose of calling justice into question.

Peucker, Brigitte. “The Poetry of Regeneration: Droste-Hülshoff's Ophelia as Muse.” In Lyric Descent in the German Romantic Tradition, pp. 71-118. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Discusses the Ophelia figure in some of Droste-Hülshoff's works as a manifestation of the poet's struggles to find an authentic voice.

Pickar, Gertrud Bauer. “The Battering and Meta-Battering of Droste's Margreth: covert Misogyny in Die Judenbuche's Critical Reception.” Women in German Yearbook 9 (1993): 71-90.

Suggests that the misogyny of the narrator towards the character of Margreth colors critical interpretations of the novella.

———. “Perdu Reclaimed: A Reappraisal of Droste's Comedy.” Monatshefte für Deutschsprachige Literatur und Kultur 76, no. 4 (winter 1984): 409-21.

Argues for the importance of Droste-Hülshoff's play as an indicator of her identity as an author.

Silz, Walter. “Droste-Hülshoff, Die Judenbuche.” In Realism and Reality: Studies in the German Novelle of Poetic Realism, pp. 36-51. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1954.

Observes the novella's place in the transition from Romanticism to Realism and Naturalism; finds Droste-Hülshoff in anticipation of literary trends.

Suttner, Christa. “A Note on the Droste-Image and ‘Das Spiegelbild.’” German Quarterly 40, no. 4 (November 1967): 623-29.

Discusses how Droste-Hülshoff's poem demonstrates her awareness of and interest in the prevailing literary movements of her time.

Thomas, L. H. C. “Die Judenbuche and English Literature.” Modern Language Review 64 (1969): 351-54.

Proposes the influence on Droste-Hülshoff of some English texts and authors, particularly George Crabbe's The Village.

Tytler, Graeme. “The Presentation of Herr von S. in Die Judenbuche.German Quarterly 73, no. 4 (fall 2000): 337-50.

Counters the view that Herr von S. functions as a model of a good man, suggesting that the baron's moral failings contribute to the social problems portrayed in the story.

Weber, Betty Nance. “Droste's Judenbuche: Westphalia in International Context.” Germanic Review 50, no. 3 (May 1975): 203-12.

Relates the novella to the French Revolution and Droste-Hülshoff's political beliefs.

Wells, Larry D. “Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Johannes Niemand: Much Ado About Nobody.” Germanic Review 52, no. 2 (March 1977): 109-21.

Traces the character of Niemand to other “nobody” characters in German literature; focuses on the theme of self-knowledge.

Whitinger, Raleigh. “From Confusion to Clarity: Further Reflections on the Revelatory Function of Narrative Technique and Symbolism in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche.Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 54, no. 2 (June 1980): 259-83.

Attempts to reconcile the critical views that differ on the role of mystery and clarity in the novella; finds that factual ambiguity does not result in moral ambiguity.

Additional coverage of Droste-Hülshoff's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 3.

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