Annette von Droste-Hülshoff Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von - Essay

Annettevon Droste-Hülshoff


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff 1797-1848

(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

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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


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Joyce Hallamore (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Clifford Albrecht Bernd (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jane K. Brown (essay date October 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gertrud Bauer Pickar (essay date winter 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Larry D. Wells (essay date April 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Morgan (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brigitte Peucker (essay date July 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Maruta Lietina-Ray (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Guthrie (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patricia Howe (essay date January 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patricia H. Stanley (essay date winter 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Frauke E. Lenckos (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Kristina R. Sazaki (essay date summer 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gertrud Bauer Pickar (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elisabeth Krimmer (essay date 2001)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)