Matthias Claudius Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Matthias Claudius 1740–1815

German poet, journalist, critic, and letter writer.

Now regarded primarily for his idyllic poetry, Claudius was known during his lifetime as editor of such newspapers as Der Wandsbecker Bote, to which he made numerous contributions. These pieces were collected in a series of eight books titled Asmus omnia sua secum portans (1775-1812), which greatly influenced the Sturm und Drang movement and, later, Romanticism. Although critical responses to Claudius have been decidedly mixed, his acquaintance with many of the leading literary figures of the day as well as what many are beginning to see as his innovations, particularly with fictional correspondence and the folk song, are generating a new interest in Claudius as an important writer of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany.

Biographical Information

Claudius was born on 15 August 1740 in Reinfeld in Southeast Holstein. His father was one in a line of seventeen Protestant pastors, and he instructed Claudius in classical languages, mathematics, and the Christian religion until his confirmation. From 1755 to 1759, Claudius and his brother Josias attended the Latin School in Plön, where they continued their study of Latin and Greek and began to learn Hebrew in order to pursue careers in theology. Afterward they studied at the University of Jena in Thuringia, where Claudius attended lectures by both the orthodox Christian and the philosophical schools represented there. However, neither Lutheran orthodoxy nor theological rationalism appealed to him and, ostensibly due to a chest ailment, Claudius decided against further pursuing theology and turned to the study of law. Claudius's professional studies failed to interest him, however, and he began to nurture his enthusiasm for literature; he joined the Teutsche Gesellschaft ("German Society"), an organization devoted to the study and improvement of German language and literature, through which he became acquainted with critic Jakob Friedrich Schmidt and writer Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg, who would later become a major figure in the Sturm und Drang and whose Tändeleien und Erzählungen Claudius would imitate.

In 1762, Claudius returned to Reinfeld without completing his studies. There, he befriended Gottlob

Friedrich Ernst Schönborn, a career diplomat who introduced Claudius to William Shakespeare and the Greek poet Pindar, and furthered his study of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, and Francis Bacon. During a short tenure in Copenhagen as secretary to Count Johann Ludwig Holstein, an advisor to the Danish crown, Claudius became acquainted with several members of the literary elite, including Klopstock. After another stay in Reinfeld, Claudius travelled to Hamburg in 1768, where he became active in literary circles and established many friendships, most notably with Johann Gottfried Herder. While in Hamburg, Claudius also met Polykarp August Leisching, a prominent relative of Klopstock who hired Claudius to assist in the editing of his two newspapers, the Hamburgische Neue Zeitung and its regular supplement Adreâ-Comptoir-Nachrichten. Shortly thereafter, Claudius was given sole editorship of the Adreâ-Comptoir-Nachrichten, which he infused with his own commentary, most often in the form of fictional correspondence and dialogues.

In 1771, Claudius left his position, possibly due to a falling out with Leisching, and became the editor of Der Wandsbecker Bote, a newly founded newspaper in nearby Wandsbeck. Appearing four times weekly, the paper consisted of three pages of news and one of feuilleton, which during the next four and a half years Claudius filled with poems by some of the most famous writers of Europe. Claudius also began to write for the paper in the guise of the Wandsbeck Messenger (later named Asmus), his cousin, and a silent character named Andres; through these characters Claudius wrote fictional letters, verse, reviews of recently published books, and criticism on topics such as philosophy, music, and politics.

During this time, Claudius met and married Rebekka Behn, the daughter of a local craftsman. Their growing family—Rebekka had twelve children—soon demanded that Claudius seek a new position through which he could financially support them. Despite its popularity in cultivated circles, the appeal of the Der Wandsbecker Bote was too narrow to support either Claudius or the paper itself and, shortly after Claudius left in June 1775, the publication ceased. In an effort to bolster his income, Claudius collected his works for publication, but despite its positive reception, Claudius continued to face financial troubles until, through Herder, he secured a post in 1776 with Baron Friedrich Karl von Moser, first minister of Hesse-Darmstadt. Claudius first served on the agricultural commission and was later appointed editor of its Hessen-Darmstädtische privilegirte Land-Zeitung, which included not only news on land management and governmental reforms but also some of Claudius's fictional contributions.

Weakened by the Darmstadt climate and disenchanted by the relationships with his bureaucratic peers, Claudius shortly resigned and, after a bout with pleurisy, returned to Wandsbeck, where Claudius spent most of his later life. There he continued to publish volumes of his collected writings, translated a number of works, and privately tutored the sons of the elite classes, including those of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. In 1788, he was named First Inspector of the bank in Altona, near Hamburg, by the Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark. In his declining years, Claudius maintained a number of correspondences and engaged in private study, particularly of contemporary works of German literature. He remained in Wandsbeck and received many visitors there until 1813, when the Napoleonic Wars forced him and his wife to spend the following year moving from place to place. After his return to Wandsbeck, Claudius's health slowly deteriorated. He died in Hamburg in 1815.

Major Works

Many critics have noted a marked difference in tone between Claudius's early and later works. Although many of his early poems comment directly or indirectly on contemporary social issues, the young Claudius is known primarily as a lyric poet; Tändeleien und Erzählungen (1763) draws extensively on folk songs in its portrayal of country life. The first two books of his Asmus omnia sua secum portans, oder Sammtliche Werke des Wandsbecker Bothen, which appeared in 1775, contain ninety-four pieces collected from his newspaper work; they differ widely in theme and form but most are infused with humor and idyllic pictures of rural life. In successive volumes of Asmus, however, Claudius's positive Christianity comes increasingly to the fore; the books gradually become less comic, contain fewer poems, and rely more heavily on prose pieces devoted to religion and politics. Claudius's later works comment extensively on contemporary events, with numerous treatises and correspondences, including Auch ein Beytrag über die Neue Politick (1794), in which he criticizes the French Declaration of Human Rights, and Von und Mit (1796), in which he disparages rationalistic theology. A recurring theme in such religious writings is humankind's selfimposed separation from God and the moral attitude engendered by the direct experience of God's power. The personal nature of religious revelation and the morality generated by a close relationship with God animate such later works as An meinen Sohn Johannes (1799) and Einfältiger Hausvater-Bericht über die christliche Religion an seine Kinder (1804), in which Claudius examines the instructive value of Christianity by a close reading of Bible stories interspersed with personal confessions of faith.

Critical Reception

Claudius was a highly respected and recognized figure in the literary avant-garde of Europe during the 1770s, and he formed a number of friendships—personally and through correspondence—with many of the leading writers of the day, including Schmidt, Gerstenberg, Klopstock, and Herder. His newspapers, particularly Das Wandsbecker Bote, were favorably regarded by the cultural leaders of Germany, and the collection of his work in the Asmus omnia sua secum portans was widely praised, most notably by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Wieland. As the times changed, exponents of the Enlightenment and Classicism largely ignored Claudius, but he was warmly received by many of the Romantics, including Philipp Otto Runge, F. W. J. Schelling, and Friedrich Schlegel, who asked Claudius to contribute to his Deutsches Museum; Austrian composer Franz Peter Schubert later immortalized Claudius by setting a number of his poems to music. But since the time of Claudius's first publication, literary critics have responded ambivalently to his writings. In 1796, German philologist and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt remarked to German writer Friedrich von Schiller that Claudius deserved none of his attention, and later anthologizers often felt the need to explain the inclusion of Claudius among the works of such figures as Schiller and Goethe. But recently, especially in Germany, a body of secondary literature has grown, as well as a number of reprints of his published works, newspapers, and letters. Critics have begun to discover the contributions Claudius made to the development of modern literature—his innovative use of fictional dialogue and correspondence, his mastery of the folk song and hymn, his satirical engagement with contemporary events—which has led to a reevaluation of the work of an often overlooked writer.