When Johannes Scheffler, under the pen name and religious name Angelus Silesius (“The Angel,” or perhaps “messenger,” of Silesia) published Geistreiche Sinn-und Schluss-reime (sage rhymes and epigrams) in 1657, his audience was undergoing a crisis in identity in both language and religion. The seventeenth century was fiercely sectarian: For the first twenty-three years of Scheffler’s life, his homeland, like the rest of northern Europe, was locked in the Thirty Years’ War, ostensibly a religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant Germany. At the same time, a handful of German poets and intellectuals were attempting to forge the German language into a medium for poetry to rival that of France and Italy.
Both the Catholic-Protestant conflict and the struggle to establish German as a literary language met in Scheffler’s 1657 masterpiece, later retitled Cherubinischer Wandersmann (the cherubinic wanderer). The sectarian struggle is central to its publication history: Scheffler had probably written such verses from his university days but was first moved to publish in 1652, when he was serving as court physician to Duke Sylvius Nimrod at Oels. His work at that time consisted of anthologies of mystical prayer, and as required, he submitted them for approval to the court chaplain, Christoph Freytag. Freytag, a Lutheran like Scheffler (and like the duke of Oels), was horrified by what he considered the “superstitious,” Roman Catholic, and, worst of all, mystical nature of the prayers, including some by the Catholic Saint Gertrude. Freytag refused permission to publish. Whether this censorship precipitated Scheffler’s conversion, or whether Freytag correctly diagnosed an already Catholic-leaning piety in Scheffler, the young poet was received into the Catholic faith the following year, changing his name to Johannes Angelus Silesius.
The Cherubinic Wanderer consists of five books totaling more than 1,400 short poems (the 1675 edition added a sixth for a total of 1,676 poems) expressing different aspects of the mystical union of God and humanity. A handful are sonnets, but the vast majority are Alexandrine couplets, the extremely concise two-line form known as the epigram. Because the form of the Alexandrine couplet is tied to the content of The Cherubinic Wanderer—how it...
(The entire section is 959 words.)