Christian Morgenstern Biography

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Christian Morgenstern was born just as the Franco-Prussian War ended, and he died shortly before the outbreak of World War I. His life span covers a long interval of peace in the history of modern Germany. The lack of external political problems may have been responsible in part for his attention to that which ailed the country from within, particularly the crass materialism he perceived and the callousness of the upper class with regard to the plight of the worker.

Morgenstern was the only child of Carl Ernst Morgenstern, a landscape painter, and his wife Charlotte, né Schertel. Both parents came from artists’ families. Because of the frequent changes of residence necessitated by his father’s profession, Morgenstern’s education was erratic. He changed schools frequently and sometimes received private tutoring. After the death of his mother in 1881 of tuberculosis—a disease from which he also suffered, requiring frequent sanatorium visits—he was sent to his uncle’s family in Hamburg. This arrangement proved to be unsuitable, and when his father married again, Morgenstern was sent to a boarding school in Landshut. The strict, oppressive environment there, which included corporal punishment, was unbearable for him, and his bitter complaints to his father resulted in his removal from the school after two years. In March, 1884, he joined his parents in Breslau and attended a local Gymnasium for four years. Although Morgenstern’s schooling was not a positive experience, he began to write poetry and became acquainted with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and medieval German mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler. Shortly before entering a military academy in 1889, he met Friedrich Kayssler, who became an actor and Morgenstern’s best and lifelong friend. It quickly became obvious that Morgenstern was not suited for the military life; in 1890, he entered the Gymnasium in Sorau and, after his graduation in 1892, he became a student of economics and political science at the University of Breslau. The following two years brought some personal upheavals that culminated in his estrangement from his father. In the summer of 1893, his tubercular condition became more severe, requiring an extensive period of rest. He began reading Friedrich Nietzsche, to whose mother he sent his first book of poetry. Meanwhile, his father had divorced his second wife, remarried, and refused to finance his son’s furtherschooling. In the spring of 1894, Morgenstern left for Berlin.

Newly independent, Morgenstern was briefly employed at the National Gallery. He then began to contribute to a number of different journals, among them the Neue Deutsche Rundschau and Der Kunstwart. For the latter magazine, he wrote theater reviews. This activity brought him in contact with Max Reinhardt, the famous theatrical producer, who became one of Morgenstern’s friends. In 1895, his first volume of poetry, In Phanta’s Schloss, was published. Morgenstern characterized it as humorous and fantastic, but it contains lyrics with mythological and mystical elements engulfed in pathos. Even as a sixteen-year-old, he had written a poem on reincarnation, and during the winter of 1896-1897, he had several dreams that he transformed into a cycle of lyric poems. They became part of Auf vielen Wegen. Between 1897 and 1903, Morgenstern translated a large number of plays and poems by Henrik Ibsen, whom he met in 1898 on a journey to Oslo. Morgenstern always had a sense of urgency about his work—a conviction that his time was limited. He traveled extensively to Scandinavia, Switzerland, Italy, and within Germany, always writing, always battling his deteriorating health. While vacationing in Dreikirchen in the Tirol, in 1908 he met Margareta Gosebruch von Liechtenstern, to whom he became engaged in the same year and whom he married in 1910.

At this point in his life, Morgenstern was seriously ill and had to spend considerable time in hospitals and sanatoriums. After learning of the spiritualist and occultist research being done by Rudolf Steiner, the couple attended his lecture in January, 1909, on Leo Tolstoy and Andrew Carnegie. Steiner had written studies on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Nietzsche as well as on mysticism in Christianity. After having outlined his philosophy in Philosophie der Freiheit (1894; Philosophy of Freedom, 1964) and in his Theosophie (1904; Theosophy, 1954), he published a work in 1909 outlining his method of attaining a knowledge of the occult. Morgenstern became a member of his Anthroposophical Society in May, 1909, and attended Steiner’s lectures in Oslo, Budapest, Kassel, and Munich. During the last years of his life, Morgenstern’s longing for communication with a world beyond that of his present existence took shape in a number of poems of a meditative nature. Two weeks before his death, he determined that the last collection of his lyrics was to be called Wir fanden einen Pfad (we found a path). After being removed from a sanatorium in Gries to private quarters in Untermais, Morgenstern died on March 31, 1914.