German Poetry: 1800 to Reunification Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

German Romanticism can be said to have an early and a late phase. The early period is identified chiefly with August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845), his brother Friedrich (1772-1829), Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853), Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772-1801), Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). The early phase was more critical and theoretical than late Romanticism, which counted more poets among its adherents, including Achim von Arnim (1781-1831), Clemens Brentano (1778-1842), and Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857).

Walter Benjamin has maintained that the German Romantics confronted their times not primarily on epistemological terms, even though these were in fact significant (for example, the philosophy of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, 1762-1814), but instead primarily through the medium of art. Friedrich von Schlegel saw the potential of the new age in the spirit of poetry. His essay “Progressive Universalpoesie” (“Progressive Universal Poetry”) addresses a fundamental design of early Romanticism: the universal poeticization of life. Conceptually, Romantic poetry (in the broad sense) embraces all traditional genres of literary and philosophic discourse within its totalizing system. This view radically reformulated the mimetic possibilities of nature and privileged poetic perspective in new, epoch-making ways.

Novalis once wrote: Romanticism is nothing other than a qualitative sublimation.By giving the commonplace exceptional significance, the habitual an air of mystery, the familiar the dignity of the unfamiliar, the finite an infinite meaning—in so doing I romanticize.

Viewed against its cultural and sociohistorical context, a basic feature of early Romanticism is its systematic desystematization of what were perceived by the Romantics to be restrictive and rigid norms. Abhorring the profane and mourning the loss of life’s poetic qualities, the Romantics were among the first to recognize and react against the modern forces of social and economic alienation. They blamed the rationalization and instrumentalization of Enlightenment ideology for having emptied life of its poetry and in contrast projected the Middle Ages as the last great harmonious historical age.

The revolutionary ideas advanced in philosophy and aesthetics have their parallel in Novalis’s collection of poems Hymnen an die Nacht (1800; Hymns to the Night, 1897, 1948). Novalis suffered greatly at the deaths of his brother and his fiancé in 1797, and in 1799, he composed...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)