Although most of Friedrich Schiller’s verse was written for a highly intellectual audience, it also enjoyed popular success. His “thought poems” laid the groundwork for the ensuing development of the poetry of ideas and brought him rightful recognition as Germany’s most important eighteenth century composer of philosophical lyrics. On the other hand, his didactic purpose and his capacity for evoking moods akin to those of folk literature, especially in his ballads, made Schiller also a poet of the common people.
Schiller’s poems and other writings were quickly recognized for their quality by the German literary establishment and were published in the significant periodicals of the time. Supported by Christoph Martin Wieland and Johann Gottfried Herder, Schiller became an important force among the artistic giants in Weimar, even prior to his friendship with Goethe. During the decade of their poetic collaboration, Schiller joined Goethe in shaping literary attitudes, approaches, and forms that influenced German poets and determined the nature of German letters from that time onward.
Even in his own time, however, some of Schiller’s poetic works were highly controversial. The “Epigram War” that he and Goethe waged against their critics was evidence that his works were not universally well received. During the years after his death, Schiller’s reputation in critical circles waned in direct relationship to the increased advocacy of realism and, eventually, Naturalism. Near the turn of the century, a Schiller renaissance began on two levels. Writers such as Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who advocated a return to classical literary values, praised Schiller for his poetic models of idealism and beauty. Among the common people, such poems as “Das Lied von der Glocke” (“The Song of the Bell”) were memorized in school, exposing a new generation of German youth to Schiller’s thought. Although he was overshadowed by Goethe in pure poetic endowment, Schiller’s impact on the whole of German literature is such that the renowned Thomas Mann called his works the “apotheosis of art.”