German Poetry to 1800 Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Poetry as a pleasant distraction from life, as a conventional ornament for social occasions, as linguistic play or experiment, even as the sincere expression of heartfelt emotions, belongs to comparatively recent times. In its beginnings, humankind used the magical power of patterned, rhythmic speech to impose meaning and order on the world. Through poetry, humankind hoped to gain mastery of both the natural and the social environment. Certainly this was true of the Germanic tribes: The first writer to mention Germanic poetry, the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 55-120 c.e.), expressly refers to the Germanic custom of celebrating gods and heroes in song. Religion (humanity’s relation to God) and history (humanity’s relation to the community in time) were to remain poetry’s central domain for centuries to come. Thus, the historical and cultural context can never become a matter of indifference to those who care for poetry. What might appear to later generations as mere background was related strictly to the purpose and theme of poetry in its own day. In ancient times, few deeds were unaccompanied by the poetic word, and fewer still would be remembered were it not for poetry.

Germanic tribes lived on the shores of the North and Baltic seas as early as 2000 b.c.e. Some time after 500 b.c.e., when climatic changes forced most of them to migrate south, they divided into three distinct groups. The North Germanic tribes (Normans, Danes, Jutes) were those that stayed behind; the East Germanic tribes (Goths, Vandals, Burgundians) slowly drifted southward into present-day Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria; and the West Germanic tribes (Saxons, Franks, Angles, Swabians, Alemanni) moved into the middle of Europe, present-day Germany, northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The Germanic tribes had barely settled in their new environment when the Huns, a fierce Mongolian people, swept into Europe around 400 c.e. The impact of the Hunnish invasion was most directly felt by the East Germanic tribes. Pushed forward by the relentlessly advancing Huns, the Germanic tribes fell on an already tottering Roman civilization, gaining and losing power over the nations in their path with spectacular speed. The Vandals established kingdoms in Italy, Spain, and North Africa; the Goths, in Italy and Spain; the Burgundians, on the Rhine.

Origins to eleventh century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Two hundred years later, these tribes had all but disappeared, exhausted and decimated by their heroic exploits, absorbed by the cultures and people they had overrun, yet they disappeared only after leaving behind a lasting record of their remarkable feats. If history demands patterned, poetic order, it certainly demanded it here, in the face of the splendid achievements and the tragic end of the East Germanic tribes. Soon, the scop, the warrior-poet, sang in the lord’s hall of heroic courage and loyalty, of betrayal and revenge, of inscrutable fate and man’s fortitude when confronted with its cruel decrees. For centuries, this oral poetry informed and stimulated the imagination of the Germanic tribes until, several hundred years later, some accounts were finally given literary form.

Though naturally influenced by the tumultuous events around them, the West Germanic tribes underwent a gradual development. The most notable migratory action was that of the Angles and some of the Saxons, who, after the Roman forces had pulled out of Britain, began to settle there in the fifth and sixth centuries. On the Continent, historical progress took place under the steady ascendancy of the Franks. Clovis I (481-511) united all major West Germanic tribes, with the exception of the Continental Saxons, under Frankish leadership. When Clovis converted to Roman Catholicism, Latin culture quickly accompanied Christianity on its missionary journeys. The ensuing political and cultural unification was underscored by a growing linguistic unity among the tribes. Starting among the Alemanni of Germany’s southern highlands, a consonant shift spread through the West Germanic tribes, differentiating their language from that of their North Germanic neighbors as well as that of the Angles and Saxons. This language, Old High German, is considered the first distinct forerunner of modern German.

The unity of the West Germanic tribes reached its culmination under the rule of Charlemagne (768-814). Charlemagne was not only a brilliant political leader but also a farsighted patron of the arts; the earliest extant literary fragments in the vernacular date from his reign. Baptismal vows, creeds, and prayers give evidence of the importance that church and state placed on the vernacular in their concerted effort to convert the Germanic peoples to Christianity. Nevertheless, cultural life under Charlemagne and his Carolingian successors proceeded mostly in Latin. Of lyric poetry in Old High German, only two fragments of poems have survived. Both are religious in nature, though secular poetry did exist, as is indicated by an ecclesiastical injunction against the writing or sending of Winileodos (songs of friendship). The “Wessobrunner Gebet” (c. 780; “Wessobrunn Prayer”)...

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Eleventh to fourteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In an effort to weaken tribal independence in their realm, the Saxon emperors had relied increasingly on the prelates of the Church for the administration of the country. Unmarried, the higher clergy would obviously be less likely to form dynastic interests of their own and would be more inclined to give their unreserved loyalty to the man who had invested them with their office. In the course of a century, the Church in Germany had thus been transformed into an effective branch of imperial government. Under the Frankish line of the Salians, which followed that of the Saxons, this practice had finally overtaken Rome itself. Henry III (1039-1056) considered it simply one of his personal responsibilities to install and depose popes as he saw fit. Against this glaring political abuse of the Church, the Burgundian monastery of Cluny started a campaign that struck at the heart of the German Empire. The battle cry of Cluny was that all further lay interference in appointments to high ecclesiastical office should cease. Henry IV (1056-1106), politically dependent on a Church hierarchy willing to do his bidding, had no choice but to defy this religious reform. The confrontation lasted for about fifty years and ended in a devastating defeat of the imperial cause, resulting in a dramatic loss of German power without and German unity within.

The effect of the rigorously ascetic revival on poetry proved, at least immediately, no less intimidating. Heavily dogmatic and didactic poetry dominated the second half of the eleventh century. However, it was the very same religious enthusiasm of Cluny that made another spiritual call possible, a spiritual call that was soon to overwhelm Cluny’s monastic objectives with a renewed worldliness. Unforeseen adventures arose from the fervent appeal to free the Holy Land from the Saracens, to organize a Crusade. For almost two centuries—the First Crusade began in 1096, the last ended in 1270—the European imagination was captivated by the ideal and the reality of the Crusades as nothing had captivated it since the Great Migrations half a millennium before. The joys of the world quickly crept back into poetry. Narrative poems were told for the sheer fun of telling tall tales of exotic lands. What these poems still lacked, however, was some organizing principle that would lift their episodic style to the level of a unified theme and ethos. This vacuum was soon to be filled by the new, ideal man of the Crusades, the Christian knight.

Knighthood, or chivalry, could trace its origins most directly to the political and economic conditions during and after the Great Germanic Migrations. At a time of rapid tribal expansion and in the absence of the...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

More directly indebted to French influence and the newly established ideals of chivalry are the court epics of Hartmann von Aue (c. 1160-1165 to c. 1210-1220), Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170-c. 1217), and Gottfried von Strassburg (fl. c. 1210). In contrast to the heroic epic, the court epic, or romance (so called because of its origins in the Romance languages), does not restrict itself to the praise of national heroes. Even great men of classical antiquity such as Aeneas and Alexander become heroes of courtly epics. Neither are the fates of nations the concern of romances. Instead, the romance is focused on an individual knight whose valor is tested against the temptations and afflictions of the world. To make these tests as representative as possible, a romance will prefer ideal knights in ideal settings to anything that might smack of mere reality.

The most famous and most popular locale of the German romance is the legendary court of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Hartmann von Aue introduced the Arthurian theme into the German language. His two Arthurian romances, Erek (c. 1190; Erec, 1982) and Iwein (c. 1190-1205; Iwein: The Knight with the Lion, 1979), closely follow court epics of the French poet Chrétien de Troyes in their devotion to the typical preoccupation of the French romance: the discussion and exemplification of ethical conflicts arising within the knightly code of values. Erec neglects his duties as a knight for love of his wife;...

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Lyric poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Lyric poetry, too, experienced an amazing surge of creativity under the auspices of the chivalric ethos. It was poetry devoted primarily to an extremely stylized, extremely idealized form of loving adoration of the “fair sex,” a love which in German was to be known as Minne, the practitioners of which would become known asMinnesänger. This lyric poetry reached its most elaborate form in the song of the troubadour, the canso d’amor (love song) of southern France. With ever new variations, the poet describes in his song the typical stages through which he courts a lady who is almost always of a higher station than himself and married to another man. Arduous periods of wooing and pleading are often...

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Fourteenth to sixteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

With the execution of the last of the Hohenstaufens at the hands of his enemies in Italy (1268), the fabric of medieval politics in Germany unraveled rapidly. The election of Rudolph of Habsburg (1273) ushered in an era in which imperial power forsook its claim to European leadership and restricted itself to the politics of dynastic self-aggrandizement. Of even greater importance for the future of medieval culture was the glaring failure of the Crusades in 1270. European nobility in all of its heroic posturing saw itself confronted initially with a serious loss of face and ultimately with an even more serious loss of legitimacy.

While knighthood had weakened itself in seven Crusades, its adventures in the East had...

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Sixteenth to eighteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

When Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his ninety-five theses against indulgences on a church door in Wittenberg, nobody, least of all Luther, could have predicted the repercussions this act would have for him and his country. Despair about the prevailing corruption of the Church was general, and there was nothing in Luther’s theses that had not been said before. Still, the object of his attack was chosen with the instinct of a true rebel.

In the granting of indulgences, the Church had given itself the power to remit some of the punishment a sinner had to expect after death even for those sins that had been forgiven in the sacrament of penance. This remittance of future punishment for past sins was usually tied to some...

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Baroque poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Soon, however, the frightening insecurities of life, made so obvious by the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, asked more from poetry than Opitz’s rationalistic disdain and stoic equanimity. Life could no longer be treated as a mere occasion for the making of good poetry. The resulting seriousness about subject matter also placed greater demands on the rhetorical form, straining it to the breaking point in the service of a poem’s passionate pleading. The period characterized by this new strain, this contorted urgency, is called the Baroque (a word of Portuguese origin describing the contorted shape of irregular pearls).

Andreas Gryphius

The poet most often identified with German Baroque poetry is...

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Eighteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The politics of continental Europe in the eighteenth century—until the French Revolution of 1789—were taken up with a series of dynastic struggles that led to several international wars: the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), and the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779). The absolute control which royal and princely families exercised over their states transformed any dynastic haggling among the intricately related ruling houses of Europe into an immediate and serious international power struggle. If these prolonged family feuds had a common concern, it was their desire to let no upstart join their illustrious ranks and...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Becker-Cantarino, Barbara, ed. German Literature of the Eighteenth Century: The Enlightenment and Sensibility. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2005. Essays ranging from historical contexts to dominant ideas in the works of major writers. Bibliography and index.

Beiser, Frederick C. The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Explains how early German romanticism differed from later romanticism. One chapter defines “Romantic Poetry,” which the writer insists dominates and defines the Romantic movement. An important reinterpretation.


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