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...

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Patriotic Romantics

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The poetry of Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769-1860), Max von Schenckendorff (1783-1817), and Karl Theodor Körner (1791-1813) represents another dimension of German Romanticism. According to E. L. Stahl, The patriotic verse of these soldier-poets expresses the satisfaction of an urge to share in communal life. In the same way conversion to Catholicism fulfils religious Romantic longings, Patriotic activity and traditional religiosity cause the primary Romantic impulse to abate and new attitudes to prevail. The wanderer returns home and settles down to perform his acknowledged civic and domestic tasks. The age of “bürgerlicher Realismus” [Bourgeois Realism] begins with this change in outlook which was imposed on German writers by the social developments and the political events of the post-Napoleonic era.

Biedermeier and Vormärz

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Between 1830 and 1849, two distinct trends appeared within German poetry. The first, known as Biedermeier, was an introspective turn in response to the severe social and political repression exercised by Prince Metternich (1773-1859). The second, referred to as Vormärz, was an effort to politicize literature in the hope of effecting social and political reform. The public at large still preferred poetry to the popular novel, and in its various forms (verse epic, cycles, and ballads) its purpose was mainly to entertain and (from an ideological point of view) “distract.” Tomes of poetry, mostly traditional and derivative, depicted a charming poetic world of tranquil harmony. Against this numerically significant backdrop, the Young Germans, idealists and political activists, advanced their theory of prose. Between 1830 and 1848, social tensions grew and the political spirit turned more radical.

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) recognized that even the conservative patriotic verse of the Romantic poets could play into the interests of social and political liberals, since as an ideological instrument, poetry was capable of stirring great enthusiasm among the people. Interest in the “political poem” accrued because—viewed pragmatically—it was the most appropriate literary form for subversive agitation and propaganda. Heine derided the hackneyed declarations of freedom and the ponderously didactic reflections often found in the more cumbersome representatives of ostensibly political verse. Concerned with matters of immediate social and political relevance, this poetry was often subjected to the mechanisms of censorship in Metternich’s control. (The reports of his spies frequently referred to the danger posed by these political “folk poems,” an indication that the liberals had succeeded in part in redefining the readership of poetry as well as the genre’s objectives.)

Not all poets wrote within this mainstream of events. Two of note who remained relatively aloof from political affairs are Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1779-1848) and Eduard Mörike (1804-1875). Although they did not enjoy the recognition they deserved during their lifetimes, their poetry has come to be highly valued for its complexity and its moral intensity.

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, perceptive and intelligent, recognized the changed social conditions of her times, but family ties and the traditions of conservatism and Catholicism, coupled with a deep attachment to the countryside of her home region, Westphalia, exercised a strong authority in her poetry. Westphalia becomes the locus of her search for harmony and order between the individual and nature. In contrast to the Romantic nature imagery of forests and streams, one finds in Droste-Hülshoff for the first time in German literature the poetic treatment of the moors and heaths of her own Westphalia. The realism of her verse lies in its attention to minute detail both in nature and in human nature. The senses of sight and sound play important roles throughout her work. She felt the presence of a demoniac undercurrent in all of existence, and thus her poems are often ballads or at least balladesque. The Catholic Church provided a sanctuary for Droste-Hülshoff. She understood her role as author to be a “power by the grace of God.” Her confessional poems, such as “Geistliches Jahr” (“Spiritual Year”), show her coping with the dilemma of sin and the fall from grace.

Eduard Mörike

Eduard Mörike is often called the greatest German lyric poet...

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A change in styles

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The political poetry typical of the Vormärz virtually disappeared with the failed revolution of 1848. Complacency, disillusionment, and a conservative patriotism prevailed. Derivative didactic poetry predominated, represented by the work of the Munich Circle of poets, the most popular of whom was Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884). The more significant writers and poets of the genre known as Bourgeois Realism relied on the tradition of the Erlebnislyrik, or poetry of personal experience, such as that initiated by Goethe and practiced widely by the Romantics. This tradition, as well as that of the Stimmungsgedicht, or mood poem, ran its course in the period from 1850 to 1880.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

It is not customary to speak of lyric poetry in terms of realism, although one can consider it from this point of view, keeping in mind that the term “realism” has a range of meanings. Gottfried Keller’s (1819-1890) realism is to be found in the unpretentious experience of his Erlebnislyrik and in the restraint of emotion. Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863) and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825-1898) showed an exacting attention to poetic form and rejected the highly rhetorical declamatory mode of earlier lyric diction. The realism of Theodor Storm (1817-1888) resides in his affinity for the folk song and in the acoustic sensitivity of his poems. Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) used everyday speech and eschewed the predominant...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The publication of Moderne Dichtercharaktere (characters of modern poets) in 1885, an anthology showcasing the revolutionary bravado of the younger generation and its new aesthetic program, introduced naturalist poetry. Few of the original contributors, however, became significant poets, perhaps because the aesthetics of naturalism were not compatible with the conventions of lyric poetry.

Arno Holz

Arno Holz (1863-1929), an avid experimentalist, was the most accomplished poet among the German naturalist writers. His Buch der Zeit (1885; book of this time), a pithy, coarse, and “thoroughly modern” collection of poems, rejected the artifice and pretense of conventional poetic diction. Phantasus (1898, enlarged 1916, 1925, 1929, 1961) shows his indebtedness to Walt Whitman’s rhythms, his pathos, and his nontraditional use of form.

Detlev von Liliencron

Although unaffiliated with any literary movement, Detlev von Liliencron (1844-1909) realized in his verse many of the objectives of naturalist aesthetics. He achieved a naturalist effect in his combination of simple and precise perceptions, a technique which could just as well be called impressionistic in several instances. (Some critics have remarked that Liliencron’s poems are “impressionistic” insofar as they are snapshots of reality as viewed from the surface, evocative glimpses of life, strung together according to the principle of juxtaposition and showing disdain for conventional rules of grammar and syntax.) His poems display spontaneity, rich imagery, and sensitivity to rhythm. The evocative atmosphere of his poems creates a depth which haunts the imagination. Adjutanternritte (1883; rides of an adjutant), his first book of poems, proved to be his most lasting; the quality of his later work generally did not live up to its promise.

Turn of the twentieth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

While the naturalist poem per se remained more a concept than a reality, the abundance of poetry written around the turn of the twentieth century displayed a variety of forms, styles, and graces. There was the neo-Romantic balladry of Agnes Miegel (1879-1964), Börries Freiherr von Münchhausen (1874-1945), and Lulu von Strauss und Torney (1873-1956), generally traditional in form and content and conservative in ideology. There was also a revival of nature poetry in the vein of Heimatkunst (provincial art). At the same time, the style known as Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, emerged. With its penchant for the charming and the ornate, Jugendstil was naturally drawn toward poetry. Some of Stefan Zweig’s (1881-1942) poems can be considered representative of this style: They deal frequently with death, particularly its paradoxical relation to the centrifugal forces of life. Jugendstil experiences nature as a palliative for moroseness, pain, and suffering.

Around the same time, Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) and others were writing much satirical poetry, often with a political thrust, popular above all in the cabarets of large cities such as Berlin and Munich. The work of Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) was singular in the tenor of his keen, penetrating questions of reality. Then as now, his poems have proved to be enormously popular. The work of Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) met with great success during his own lifetime, but today Dehmel’s passionate vitalism is chiefly of historical interest. Erotic and sexual overtones dominate his later poems, and his equation of “poetic power” with “divine power,” influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, reveals a fundamental ideological interest of the time.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Of more lasting significance for modern poetry was Symbolism, which includes the works of Stefan George (1868-1933), Rilke, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929).

Stefan George

As Robert M. Browning has said, “modern poetry in the eminent sense begins in Germany” with Stefan George. George sought to retrieve the forces of creativity that the forces of materialism had either inhibited or destroyed. Through beauty, he sought to restore magic and majesty to art. Incorporating the tradition of Symbolism from the French poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Arthur Rimbaud, George was a language purist, striving for precision and perfection in his highly sculptured works. His aesthetics of...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Rilke’s work spans the period of German expressionism, although he should not be identified with it. The strident bravado of the new poetry of expressionism was chiefly concerned with shocking the complacent bourgeoisie. Moralistic pathos and visionary élan exploded the baser constraints on form and material, and the boldness of imagery challenged established perspectives and advocated novel and free modes of perception. Kurt Pinthus (1886-1975), editor of the influential anthology Menschheitsdämmerung (1920; twilight of humanity), wrote in 1915 that the new poetry surged forth “out of torment and scream, out of admiration and disdain, analysis and honortoward the essential, toward the essence not only of appearance,...

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A new freedom

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Expressionism was the first literary movement in Germany that made the anticlassicist tendency a mass phenomenon, but the disruption of old realities and old poetic conventions created at the same time a new freedom, or at least the perception that freedom (and novelty) were real possibilities. From then on, every poet had to decide what to do with this potential freedom. Since the time of expressionism, there has been no authoritative norm governing the production and reception of poetry which one could manipulate in order to shock and to draw attention to the work of art (“épater les bourgeois”) and to the possibility of new experiences. Expressionism broke with all norms and thereby created an utterly new situation (which,...

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The 1920’s through 1940’s

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Following the strong element of subjectivity evident in the poetry of expressionism, the 1920’s ushered in a new responsiveness to the factual and the objective. The human being was of such central interest to the poetry of German expressionism that nature as such found little room there. By the mid-1920’s, however, nature was once again a central theme of poetry, often perceived as the only medium through which objectivity and precision of detail could be achieved. As Alfred Döblin proclaimed in 1925: “Art is boring, we want facts, facts.” In part, this trend encouraged a revival of nature poetry, in German referred to as naturmagisch, focusing on the objective details of nature and celebrating their cosmic...

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Nature poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Both Langgässer and Eich worked in a circle of poets connected with a poetry journal called Kolonne (column), whose contributors included Peter Huchel (1903-1981), Hermann Kasack (1896-1966), and Georg von der Vring (1889-1968). In the works of these naturmagische poets, visible nature is considered “wondrous”; their realism is thus “magical” to the extent that their poetic diction is a kind of invocation. Lyric expression is thus an act of revelation as well as of interpretation.

Peter Huchel

Peter Huchel wrote nature poetry typical of the Kolonne group. Nature here appears not as a romantic object of poetic longing, for an elegiac tone is mixed with contemporary...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Topical poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The objectivity of another group of poets, including Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) and Erich Kästner (1899-1974), was directed toward social conditions. Their poems read like warnings of imminent catastrophe; their efforts to awaken the public rested on a faith in the social efficacy of the poetic word. In the 1920’s, this objective poetry was best represented by the song, the broadsheet, and the ballad. The work of Tucholsky falls into this category, as does that of Kästner and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956).

The epic quality of Brecht’s anti-Aristotelian theater figures in his poetry as well: It is distancing, descriptive, and critical rather than sentimental and empathetic. His poems break with the bourgeois tradition...

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The Nazi regime

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Poetry written in accordance with the ideology of National Socialism largely eschewed the principles of precise objectivity. Characterized by the frequent use of archaic words and phrases, it shied away from formal innovation. Josef Weinheber (1892-1945) studied the example of the classics and was concerned primarily with questions of form and aesthetics. He became well known with the volume Adel und Untergang (1932, 1934; nobility and decline) and was supported at the time of its publication by the Nazis. Some of his later writings reciprocated this support, and toward the end of the war, suffering from severe depression after having acknowledged his misguided affiliation with National Socialism, he took his own life....

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Appleby, Carol. German Romantic Poetry: Goethe, Novalis, Heine, Hölderlin. Maidstone, Kent, England: Crescent Moon, 2008. Contains a discussion of the themes that were basic to the literature of Romanticism, along with critical studies of the major poets and philosophers of the period.

Baird, Jay W. Hitler’s War Poets: Literature and Politics in the Third Reich. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. An analysis of the ideas that motivated Germany’s Nazi poets, including their interpretation of history and their hopes for the future. Also includes their life stories and assesses the influence of what are now recognized as...

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Postwar poetry and modernism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The situation for poetry after 1945 was at first ambivalent. On one hand, historical conditions presented German writers with an enormous challenge. On the other hand, the devastation, frustration, and overwhelming loss of orientation made a direct confrontation with the immediate past something to be avoided. Poets inherited a language corrupted in the Nazi era, and they recognized the need to replace it with a new idiom.

Under these circumstances, it is not hard to understand that, initially at least, issues of content mattered more than issues of form. The immediate task of assessing the relation of the present to the past rendered aesthetic considerations secondary. Historically, this phase was probably necessary,...

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Mid- to late twentieth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

A significant experimental phase of West German poetry, one which shared a skepticism of traditional metaphoric expression and poetic diction, wasconcrete poetry, best represented by Eugen Gomringer (born 1925), Franz Mon (born 1926), and Ernst Jandl (1925-2000). The term was introduced by Gomringer in analogy to concrete art, and by it he meant to distinguish a linguistically experimental literature which reflected and thematized its own raw material—that is, language. Applying the principles of functionality, clarity, simplicity, communicability, objectivity, and play, concrete poetry sought to reintegrate literature into social life. Using techniques of reduction and permutation, concrete poetry focused on the presentation of...

(The entire section is 805 words.)