Walther von der Vogelweide is recognized as the single most important Middle High German lyric poet. According to Peter Wapnewski, he made two pioneering contributions to literary history. First, he moved German courtly love poetry from the sterile artificiality of conventional literature to a fresh personal expression, even inventing a corresponding lyric genre, the Mädchenlieder (songs to a common-class girl, sometimes also misleadingly called songs of “lower love”). Second, he gave a new nobility to didactic and political poetry. Kuno Francke goes so far as to see in Vogelweide’s love songs “the struggle for the emancipation of the individual” which eventually led to the overthrow of “the whole system of medieval hierarchy” and “an anticipation of this great emancipation movement, a protest of the individual against the dictates of society.” Peter Rühmkorf, in his Walther von der Vogelweide, Klopstock und Ich, deromanticizes the ultrapatriotic German image of Vogelweide and sees him primarily in individualistic terms as a “self” struggling for personal identity and recognition in a time of social crisis.
This much is certain: Whether addressing an emperor, a pope, or a high nobleman or lady, Vogelweide speaks with courage, authority, and clarity; he is not intimidated by any class distinctions. In his love poetry, he is not satisfied with a one-sided platonic relationship or an adulation of mere external beauty or high social status; for him, love is a shared affection, a reciprocal meeting of hearts and minds, an inner attitude, an important ennobling force in the lives of men and women. The scope of Vogelweide’s themes and the tone and manner of their treatment make it unmistakably clear that his office as a lyric poet went beyond courtly entertainment and included functions of political propaganda and ethical critique, functions which are performed today by the communications media. Yet Vogelweide, like other medieval lyric poets, composed and sang his own songs, and he was more highly praised by his contemporaries for his singing than for his lyrics.
High Courtly Love Poems
The poet’s third period, from 1203 to 1205, was characterized by poems of “high courtly love” which were traditional, rational, and sophisticated. Most of the poems of this period are united by a single theme: constancy and reciprocity. These are two sides of the same coin: The lady demands fidelity on the poet’s part and rebukes him for praising other women; the poet replies that he cannot continue praising only her if she refuses to reciprocate his love.
A highly optimistic poem called “Ir Sult sprechen” (“Speak a Welcome”) illustrates the poet’s praise of other women: He has seen many countries, and German ways please him the best. German men are handsome, and German women are like angels; whoever scolds any of them is mistaken (probably an allusion to the Provençal poet Peire Vidal’s castigations of German manners). Whoever seeks virtue and pure love should come to Germany. “From the Elbe to the Rhein and back again as far as Hungary live the best people I have ever known in the world. If I can judge good upbringing and beauty, by God, the women are nobler here than anywhere else.” Now a harsh note is struck: His lady reproaches him for praising other women and thus being guilty of inconstancy. As if enraged at the lady’s rebuke, he retaliates in the song “Staet ist ein Angest und ein Nôt” (“Constancy Is Fear and Torment”), harping ironically on constancy, naming it twelve times in two short stanzas, and finally...
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“Lower Love” Songs
The fourth group of songs (written after 1203 and therefore somewhat overlapping the previous group) overcomes this discord and enters a new phase of fulfillment with a woman of equal or lower rank. In “Herzeliebez Frowelîn” (“Little Maid So Dear”), whatever joy the poet experienced in this world was caused “by her beauty, her goodness, and her red mouth that laughs so lovingly.” He responds to those who criticize him for directing his love songs to a person of lower rank, claiming that “they don’t have any idea what love is, they have never experienced true love, since they love only for wealth or external beauty. What kind of love is that?” He reiterates his reason for having changed from “high courtly love” to this more satisfying relationship: “A Lover’s affection is nothing if it goes unrequited. One-sided love is worthless; it must be shared, permeating two hearts and none besides.”
The most famous of Vogelweide’s songs of “lower love” is “Unter der Linden” (“Under the Linden-Tree”), in which a naïve, common-class girl rejoices in her love experience under the linden tree, the crushed flowers still showing the place where the couple had lain. What he did with her no one will ever know except he and she and the little bird that sang the refrain “Tandaradei!” Equally masterful is the poem “Die welt was gelf, rôt unde blâ” (“The World in Red and Blue Was Gay”), also called the “vowel poem” since, in German, each stanza rhymes with one of the vowels a, e, i, o, and u; it is a highly graphic poem calling for the end of winter. One wryly humorous poem, “Wer kan nû ze danke singen” (“Who Can Please Everyone with His Song?”), lauds the poet’s broad range of experience, which makes it possible for him to sing a wide variety of songs, but observes that people still are dissatisfied.
New High Love
In his fifth period, that of “new high love” (from 1205 to about 1220), Vogelweide’s songs show more depth, maturity, and formal perfection. The “lady” seems to be of very high social rank, and the relationship is a conventional one. There is sadness at court; the times are unsuited for song; true love has died; and the whole world is beset with troubles. Song is tempted to wait for better times, as in “Die zwîvelaere Sprechent” (“The Doubters”). The exuberance of youth is over, and the poet articulates a positive attitude even toward the unequal relationship represented by conventional courtly love, as long as there is some reciprocation: “He is certainly also fortunate who observes her virtues precisely so that it moves his heart. An understanding woman should respond with affection.” This kind of love can motivate poetry: “Just a loving look from a woman gives joy to the heart. . . . But what is like the happiness where a beloved heart is faithful, beautiful, chaste, and of good morals? The lucky man who has won this does nothing wrong to praise it before strangers.” The importance of moderation is explained in “Ich hoere iu sô vil tugende jehen” (“I Hear You Speak of So Many Virtues”) and “Allerwerde keit ein Füegerinne” (“Coordinator of All Values, Lady Moderation”). One of Vogelweide’s very best poems and the crown jewel of this period is “Sô die Bluomen ûz dem Grase dringent” (“When the Flowers Spring Out of the Grass”), which compares a beautiful May day with a beautiful noblewoman in all her finery. If the poet had to choose between the two, the outcome would be: “Sir May, you would have to become March before I gave up my lady.”
Three poems can adequately represent the late songs (from 1220 to 1230). “Ir reinen Wîp” (“Ye Women Pure”) is a sort of literary testament: “For forty years or more I have sung of love and of how one should live” (note the educational function of the poet). In “Frô Welt” (“Lady World”), he renounces the world because, while her beauty is lovely to look at from the front, from behind she is so horridly shameful that he wishes to spurn her forever. In “Ein Meister las” (“A Wise Man”), he meditates on the transitory quality of life and says, “It is high time for penance, since I, a sick man, now fear grim death.” The poem ends in a vein of religious repentance, an emphasis found in several poems, including the long Leich.
About half of Vogelweide’s poems belong to the broad genre of Spruch (political or didactic) poetry. Vogelweide’s type of Spruch was formerly believed to have been a single-stanza spoken poem, but the melodies of some of them have been recovered, and it is now known that they were not recited but sung. Friedrich Maurer’s “song-theory” brought together in a single poem stanzas of the same “tone” or melody that had been variously scattered in the manuscripts. In Maurer’s view, each “tone” of a political song was invented in its own separate period, and thus stanzas belonging to one “tone” could be dated far apart in Vogelweide’s time, although some of them were written over a period of a few years. “Each tone,” Maurer asserts, “has its briefly extended time of origin, but especially its own theme and subject matter.” Poems with different melodies, even though thematically similar, are not contemporaneous. The advantages of Maurer’s theory are that it facilitates study of the gradual evolution of Vogelweide’s stanzaic art; it enriches interpretation by retrieving the overarching meaning connecting the stanzas of one “tone”; and it elucidates stanza-internal meaning by contrast and comparison. Maurer’s theory, however, has not been unanimously accepted by scholars. Paul Stapf, editor of a fine annotated edition and modern German translation of Vogelweide’s poems, rejects Maurer’s theory in favor of more accurate dating of the individual stanzas. Annette Georgi, in her study of the Latin and German Preislied, seems to follow Maurer.
The major controversy discussed in Vogelweide’s political poems is the struggle between the Empire and the Papacy during the period of turmoil following the election of two pretenders to the imperial throne in 1198. After the death of Henry VI, son of Frederick Barbarossa, the Hohenstaufen faction elected Henry’s brother, Philip of Swabia, to succeed him, while the opposing Guelphs elected Otto IV of Brunswick. When Philip was murdered, Otto succeeded him with the approval of Pope Innocent III, who later shifted his support to the Hohenstaufen Frederick II. During this time, the petty princes tried to stake their own areas of power at the expense of the Crown. In these controversies, Vogelweide supported first Philip, then Otto, and finally Frederick II, probably reflecting the successive allegiances of his princely patrons. In the poem “Diu Krône ist elter danne der Künec Philippes sî” (“The Crown Is Older than King Philip”), Vogelweide argues for Philip—his legitimacy based on the preestablished condition that the crown, which is older than he, fits him so well, a poetic allusion to the Hohenstaufen’s possession of the real Imperial crown (while his opponent Otto IV was crowned in the proper place, Aachen, and by the...
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The thread of unity in Vogelweide’s political stance is his advocacy of a strong, united Empire. This explains why in a good number of his poems he opposed the Papacy, blaming Papal interference in the affairs of the Reich for the widespread disorder in Germany. In the poem “Künc Constantin der gap sô vil” (“King Constantine Gave So Much”), an angel cries “Alas, alas, three times alas” because of Constantine’s famous (forged) donation of temporal power to the Papacy, which poisoned all Christendom by striking at its civil head: “All princes now live in honor except that the highest one is weakened. . . . The clergy want to pervert secular law.” From the first, Vogelweide had blamed the Pope for appointing two Germans to one throne “so that they would destroy and devastate the realm” and had identified cupidity as the motive: “Their German silver flows into my Italian coffers.” Elsewhere Vogelweide minces no words about the negative influence of the clergy: “You bishops and noble clergy are misled. See how the Pope ties you with the devil’s ropes. If you tell us he has St. Peter’s keys, then tell us why he scrapes his words out of the Bible.” He then accuses the clergy of simony and of being the devil’s spokesmen. Certain lines most clearly identify the evil as seen by Vogelweide: “If [the Pope] is greedy, then all are greedy with him; if he lies, all lie with him; and if he deceives, they deceive with the same deception.” Vogelweide’s viewpoint is clear: Christendom is ailing because its highest religious authority, the Pope, undermines the chief secular authority, the Emperor; moreover, by the Pope’s high authority, the evil at the top contaminates all the parts.
An astonishing number of Vogelweide’s poems deal with complaints about inadequate financial support or a lack of respect from one patron or another, including the Emperor Otto, whose stinginess Vogelweide blames for his change of allegiance to Frederick. At first, the modern reader may be repelled by an impression of crass venality, but in time, he perceives the need of a poet struggling in a marginal, insecure existence for a basic livelihood and for minimal social acceptance in the feudal class system. Two poems treat of a misunderstanding with a noble patron because a subordinate official had failed to give Vogelweide the promised clothing. Two others describe a lawsuit against a certain Gerhart Atze for shooting Vogelweide’s horse on the grounds that its “relative” had bitten off Atze’s finger. Apparently, Vogelweide’s class status was at stake, but, whatever the outcome, Vogelweide avenged himself on Atze by poetic mockery. Other poems testify to the difficulties of being a dependent, wandering, unpropertied poet. One poem summarizes Vogelweide’s weariness with the wanderer’s life: “Tonight here and tomorrow there, what a juggler’s life that is.” The reader rejoices with Vogelweide when he finally receives from Frederick the small property that gives him a home of his own: “I have my fief, all the world, I have my fief! Now I do not fear the frost on my toes.”
One of the most poignant poems Vogelweide wrote is the famous “Elegie,” consisting of three stanzas all beginning with “Alas.” The second stanza deals with the sad state of the Empire and the “ungentle letters” from Rome (excommunicating Frederick II in 1227); the third is a call for a crusade, and contains a primitive but striking image of fallen earthly reality: “The world is beautiful on the outside, white, green and red, and within black in color, dark as death.” In the first stanza, Vogelweide looks back on his life with elegiac poignancy like a reawakening Rip van Winkle: “Alas, where have all my years vanished? Did I dream my life, or is it true? Was all I dreamed existed really nothing? . . . My former playmates are tired and old. The meadow has been plowed, the forest has been cleared: If the river didn’t flow as it once did, truly my sorrow would be great.”
Berleth, Richard J. The Orphan Stone: The Minnesinger Dream of Reich. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. See index for Berleth’s use of Vogelweide’s lyrics in this study of the relationship of the German political scene and German lyric poetry. Mixes biographical, literary, and the broader political elements of Vogelweide’s career and output.
Garland, Henry, and Mary Garland. Oxford Companion to German Literature. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. Encyclopedic reference work with brief but informative section on Walther. Contains several important bibliographic references.
Gibbs, Marion E., and Sidney Johnson. Medieval German Literature: A Companion. New York:...
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