Joseph von Eichendorff Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Although Joseph von Eichendorff’s reputation is based almost exclusively on the lyrical talents which both his poetry and novellas attest, his poems themselves compose but a small portion of his entire literary production. Epic poems such as “Robert Guiscard” and “Julian” are included among his more eloquent lyrical poems. His first prose work and the first of his two full-length novels, Ahnung und Gegenwart (1815; presentiment and the present), contains fifty poems which reinforce an already impressionistic, lyrical style. His second novel, Dichter und ihre Gesellen (1834; the word Gesellen is ambiguous: The title means both “poets and their companions” and “poets and their apprentices”), is more tightly constructed and reveals a writer somewhat less conditioned by his proclivities toward poetry. His nine novellas, highlighted by Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (1826; Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing, 1866) and Das Marmorbild (1819; The Marble Statue, 1927), do not belie the lyricist and are strewn with some of Eichendorff’s most appealing and musical verses. The strength of his narrative work lies not in plot but in allegorical content, landscape descriptions, dream content, and poetic language. Eichendorff’s attempts at drama include Krieg den Philistern (published 1824; war on the Philistines), the comedy Die Freier (pb. 1833; the suitors), historical plays such as Der letzte Held von Marienburg (pb. 1830; the last hero of Marienburg), and a dramatic fairy tale. Among his translations are one-act religious dramas of Pedro Calderón de la Barca, some of the farces of Miguel de Cervantes, and Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor (1335). Eichendorff is recognized also for his accomplishments a a critical historian of German literature and Romanticism, particularly in Geschichte der poetischen Literatur Deutschlands (1857; history of the poetic literature of Germany). He also wrote numerous treatises on history, politics, and religion.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Joseph von Eichendorff’s reputation as a master craftsman among German lyrical poets is beyond dispute. No literary history fails to list him in the first rank of German Romantic poets, and such noted poetic successors as Heinrich Heine, Theodor Storm, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal enthusiastically acknowledged his major contributions to the genre. Well into the twentieth century, his work continued to be acclaimed by such literary connoisseurs as Thomas Mann and Werner Bergengruen. He has been called “the last knight of German Romanticism,” and his works are said to represent both the climax and the crisis of German Romanticism. The popularity of many of his lyrics has transformed them into veritable folk songs. Four of Eichendorff’s most memorable poems, “Das zerbrochene Ringlein” (“The Broken Ring”), “Der frohe Wandersmann” (“The Happy Wanderer”), “Mondnacht” (“Moonlit Night”), and “Sehnsucht” (“Yearning”), were set to music by Robert Schumann; others were used by Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Hans Pfitzner, and Othmar Schoeck. His novella Das Schloss Dürande (1837; the castle Dürande) was the basis for an opera by Schoeck. Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing is one of the most widely read German novellas of the nineteenth century and is often regarded as the quintessential Romantic novella.

Somewhat less generally conceded, however, is Eichendorff’s status as a religious...

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The Search for God

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

In his poem “An die Dichter” (“To the Poets”), Eichendorff paints a very graphic picture of the ethical responsibilities of the poet: As the “Heart of the World,” wandering in the footsteps of the Lord, he is to save his fellowmen and set them free, for he has been given the power of the word that boldly names the darkness. To name the darkness is to tell the truth and to warn of the dark forces that threaten him who is caught unaware; the nature of that darkness Eichendorff discusses elsewhere. That the poet has an active role in the search for God is obvious in many poems, from the six sonnets produced early in his career, in which he speaks of various aspects of poetry and the poet, to much later ones, such as “Der Dichter” (“The Poet”), in which only the poet, in a mysterious fashion, is the recipient of the deepest beauties of life and the benefactor of the joy that God places in his heart. According to Eichendorff, the poet has special access through God to the truth and beauty of his religion, which he transforms into images and poetry which are reflections of that religion. One is reminded thereby of Friedrich Hölderlin’s dictum: “That which endures is produced by poets.” The poet’s concern is religion within the larger context of human experience. For Eichendorff, poetry is a virtual spiritual personification and a governing spiritual principle of the life of humankind. The guidance of the poet is therefore essential for ordinary mortals; he is to use his divining rod to locate the living waters of his faith and to articulate them with his songs for the benefit of humankind.

Earthly Indulgence and Temptation

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Eichendorff’s frequently uttered admonition “Hüte dich, bleib wach und munter” (take care, stay awake and lively) is directed against two dangers, that of sensual and aesthetic excess, which he saw as the lure of Romanticism, and that of sterile, middle-class domesticity and the Philistine life. These two hazards are the substance of “Die zwei Gesellen” (“The Two Companions”). The first comrade succumbs to the snares of domestic bliss and is soon imprisoned by hearth and home; the second is seduced by the bewitching sirens of the deep, the enticements of abandoning oneself to eroticism and hedonistic self-indulgence. Interestingly, Eichendorff felt moved to treat the second danger at greater length; he apparently considered it the greater threat and articulated warnings against it more frequently in his poetry, most likely since it was this very indulgence which Romanticism tended to encourage. It is part of the poet’s general protest against introversion of the personality. For the narrator of the poem, however, both extremes are distant from God, and he implores God that he be led to him.

Particularly during his student days in Heidelberg, where he was associated with the Romantic movement, Eichendorff concentrated on such poems as “Die Zauberin im Walde” (“The Sorceress in the Forest”), in which the demoniac power of a godless nature and physical beauty are the undoing of a naïve and undisciplined youth. The reader is introduced here to the evil charms of a sultry world where the fresh breezes of God’s spirit can gain no entrance. In the poem “Zwielicht” (“Twilight”), the diminishing light of day permits a precarious state in which the usual clear contours are lost and distortions in human relationships are possible. Without the light, which for Eichendorff always means the light of the world, Christ, and consequently also his love, the world is in jeopardy and can be lost in darkness. That God provides the only refuge from earthly sorrows and temptations is clear in “Das Gebet” (“The Prayer”). The pilgrim moving through life, encountering its pleasures and enchantments, experiences through them sorrow as well as joy and has as his only recourse prayer, which overcomes all the evil bewitchments of life when it victoriously reaches God.

Poems of Movement

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Eichendorff’s poems are poems of movement; when there are no wandering musicians, there are flowing streams, moving clouds, or rustling forests, and always there is at least the flow of song. The two possibilities for movement away from God against which the poet cautions have already been discussed. If one decides to follow either of these choices, he follows, according to Eichendorff, “earthly ponderousness”; if he chooses instead to move toward God, he is reacting to “intimations of Heaven” and he opens himself to God’s light and love. Eichendorff speaks about the two influences operating on man as centrifugal and centripetal forces and sees human life as a constant battleground on which these opposing powers are raging. Centripetal force draws man away from himself and toward God as the true center; like the sun, which provides energy for physical life, the divine love of God reaches out to man and promotes spiritual growth. Man is free to accept that love and prosper or succumb to centrifugal forces and perish in the abyss of his own earthliness. The movement, then, that is always present in his work can usually be recognized as either of these choices and thus a descent into the darkness of the base individual self and spiritual death or an ascent upward toward the heavenly source of love and eternal salvation. When Eichendorff speaks of love, however, it need not be of divine love; its uplifting power may also be that of human love, which by itself has none of the redeeming features of divine love and which leads to an ever-diminishing world of the self if it is not touched by the light and love of God. Such ill-starred love is treated in poems such as...

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Recurring Messages and Imagery

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Eichendorff is sometimes criticized for his repetitiousness and lack of originality, but such objections lose their force with the realization that the poet, in service to his well-defined worldview, is constantly and deliberately reiterating, rephrasing, rearranging, and recombining his relatively few basic concepts in the manner of any dedicated teacher following the tradition of repetitio est mater studiorum. Eichendorff is not the aesthete who expresses himself in random variety, casting up beautiful images in a kind of verbal “light show” but rather the pedagogue who is “preaching with other means” the established religious convictions to which his ego and his poetic talents are subordinated and with which...

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Technical and Stylistic Devices

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Neither in style nor in content does Eichendorff’s poetry initially appear to be strikingly innovative; just as the poet’s worldview has survived the test of time, so his poetic forms are well-practiced and time-honored. For the quintessential poet Eichendorff, however, perhaps more than for poets generally, the poem is itself the message; the “how” of its delivery is as important as the “what” of its content and serves as an additional aspect or reinforcement of the thought contained within it. Oskar Seidlin demonstrates in his study of “The Two Companions,” for example, how intimately and intricately the structure, rhythm, and sounds of the poem are linked to the discourse.

Eichendorff is far more than a facile technician; the standard technical devices he uses are painstakingly chosen to complement the ideas in question, but the full subtleties of such an interrelationship of form and content are exposed only after thorough analysis. With justification, one can say that much of the poet’s art conceals itself. Since Eichendorff is a master of Liedform (song form), in which the entire poem is one organic, melodic unit, his sense of style has been compared to that of Schumann. The cyclical structure the poet often employs involves not only a rephrasing of the initial message at the conclusion of the poem and therefore a full-cycle realization of the essential meaning, but also a counter-reflecting of individual parts internally, so that a wheels-within-wheels effect is created throughout the entire structure. Eichendorff’s sonnets and ballads as well as his songs are best rendered orally, so that the sounds of nature he so frequently uses, the liquid rhythms, and the eloquent, poignant melodies, are clearly communicated.

The strength of Eichendorff’s work rests therefore not upon superficial novelty but rather upon the quality of his expression and the integrity and skill with which he executed his mission as an artist. What is unique and extraordinary in Eichendorff’s writing is the fervor of his belief in the interrelationship of his poetry and his faith and the consistency and emotive power with which he demonstrated that belief in practice. The journeys into “the wide world” which feature so prominently in his work become particularly inviting when it becomes clear that they are ultimately excursions of the soul into regions that promise spiritual nourishment.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Goebel, Robert Owen. Eichendorff’s Scholarly Reception: A Survey. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993. A critical study of Eichendorff’s work and the German academic culture of his time. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Lukács, Georg. German Realists in the Nineteenth Century. Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast. Edited by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993. Seven essays on major nineteenth century figures in German literature, including Eichendorff, concerning the role of literature in history, society, and politics.

Purver, Judith. Hindeutung auf das Höhere: A Structural Study of the Novels of Joseph von Eichendorff. New York: P. Lang, 1989. In this comprehensive study of Eichendorff’s novels in English Purver argues that the theological and didactic intentions in Eichendorff’s work are vitally important.

Radner, Lawrence. Eichendorff: The Spiritual Geometer. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Studies, 1970. Radner provides a comprehensive critical interpretation of Eichendorff’s works.

Schwarz, Egon. Joseph von Eichendorff. New York: Twayne, 1972. A short biography with a bibliography of Eichendorff’s work.