Context: Because of his knowledge of the German language, unusual among the British, and his familiarity with its literature and philosophy, Carlyle was frequently asked by editors to review books in German. In 1827, the editor of the Edinburgh Review sent him four books by Franz Horn that Carlyle bracketed in a single article in issue No. 92, in 1827. It was reprinted in the first volume of his collected essays. One title was a single volume, Outlines for the history and Criticism of Polite Literature in Germany during the Years 1790–1818 (Berlin, 1819). The other, in three volumes, was The Poetry and Oratory of the Germans from Luther's Time to the Present (Berlin, 1822–1824). As was his custom, Carlyle used the books as the basis for his own essay on the subject. But he was sufficiently faithful to his duties as reviewer to comment that the author's poor arrangement made the studies more a sketch of poets than of poetry. He also objected to Horn's belief that no mortal can be a poet unless he is a Christian, and criticized the author's affected style that forced epigrams like a "perpetual giggle." He remarked that the books were written in a style of "witty and conceited mirth." Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), whom he mentions, was a German mathematician and astronomer, and Baron Gottfried Leibnitz (1646–1716) was a universal genius excelling in philosophy and mathematics. After his brief, preliminary comment, Carlyle gets to his essay.
But our chief business at present is not with Franz Horn, or his book. . . . We have a word or two to say on that strange Literature itself; concerning which our readers probably feel more curious to learn what it is, than with what skill it has been judged of.Above a century ago, the Père Bouhours propounded to himself the pregnant question: Si un Allemand peut avoir de l'esprit? Had the Père Bouhours bethought him of what country Kepler and Leibnitz were, or who it was that gave to mankind the three great elements of modern civilisation, Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant Religion, it might have thrown light on his inquiry. Had he known the Nibelungen Lied, and where Reinecke Fuchs and Faust and The Ship of Fools . . . took its rise, . . . who knows but what he might have found, with whatever amazement, that a German could actually have a little esprit, or perhaps something even better? . . .