Since the Romantic period was, among other things, a revolt against the Age of Reason, it is frequently asserted that the Romantics were sentimental eccentrics. Eduard Mörike cannot be classified as such. He was a sensitive dreamer, a skillful poet, but above all a poet of simplicity. A contemporary critic called him “a human being in nightgown and soft slippers.” Although purists of the Romantic period praise Friedrich Hölderlin, Mörike was able to appeal to a larger public. Many of his poems became folk songs and the basis of folklore during his lifetime. Johannes Brahms, Franz Schumann, and Hugo Wolf set some of his poems to music, and most of these works are still to be heard in concert halls all over the world. Mörike was a master of classical meters, but he abhorred strict theoretical principles in his work. D. F. Strauss, his famous theologian contemporary, said of Mörike, “Thanks to his work, nobody can sell us rhetoric for poetry.” Describing the poet’s intuitive creativity, he stated that “Mörike takes a handful of earth, squeezes it ever so little, and a little bird flies out.”
Mörike made full use of the wealth of inflections that the German language offers. Some critics, however, object to a lack of composition in his poems. Frequently, past, present, and future are interwoven without proper sequence. Mörike himself was suspicious of a purely academic approach. In an epigram, he replied to his German critics: “You can see in his poems that he can express himself in Latin.” He was a representative of the Schwaebische Dichterschule (Swabian school), which had formed around poet Ludwig Uhland. Heinrich Heine, who detested the lack of cosmopolitan ambitions, attacked the school with satirical comments. Mörike always remained a native son, and some of his poems are written in Swabian dialect. He did not leave Swabia except for a few excursions into Bavaria, Tyrol, and Switzerland, and he disregarded the problematic speculations of his time, which caused Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to examine all aspects of nineteenth century knowledge and which made Hölderlin seek refuge in the idealistic world of Greece. Goethe tried to explore the unexplorable, while Mörike maintained a childlike vision and radiated in his poems an adoration of life without torturing his mind with a multitude of question marks. This attitude is demonstrated in his most frequently quoted poem, “Prayer”:
Lord, send what pleaseth Thee!Let it be weal or woe;Thy hands give both, and soEither contenteth me.But, Lord, whicheverThou giv’st, pain or pleasure,O do not drench me!In sweet mid-measure Lieth true plenty.
A prose translation of the same poem may serve to illustrate the simple choice of words that could not be employed in a poetical translation:
Lord, send what you willLove or sorrowI am happyThat both flow from your hand.Do not overload meWith joyOr with sorrowIn the middle lies sweet contentment.
Mörike, the seventh child in a family of thirteen, was born in 1804, the son of a medical doctor. A student of theology, he entered the Lower Seminary at Urach and continued his studies at the Higher Seminary. Although he came to dislike theological study, he nevertheless became a pastor in the small Swabian village of Kleversulzbach, chiefly because his mother felt that the ministry was the proper profession for any educated man. His father had died early, and his mother came from a vicar’s family. An attempt in 1828 to establish himself as writer and editor had failed. He admitted feeling “like a tethered goat” when he started his pastoral duties, and he preferred to write poetry instead of sermons. Frequently he had to borrow his Sunday sermons from a colleague. In 1838 he published...
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