Wilhelm Müller Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wilhelm Müller 1794–1827

(Born Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Müller) German lyric poet, letter writer, novella writer, translator, literary critic, editor.

Müller's chief contribution to literature is his production of late Romantic lyric cycles possessing the simplicity of popular folksongs. Within the limits of this type of literature, Müller is significant primarily for his poems about Greece and for two lyric cycles about unrequited love. Müller's series of Lieder der Griechen (Songs of the Greeks), written in support of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey, is credited with gaining widespread European sympathy for the cause and was Müller's chief claim to fame in his own day. Today Müller is best known for the lyric cycles entitled Die schöne Müllerin (1820; The Pretty Maid of the Mill) and Die Winterreise (1824; The Winter Journey), which describe the wanderings forced respectively on a miller boy and a musician by unrequited love. The fame of each of these cycles as a whole rests primarily on the fact that Franz Peter Schubert set them to music. Certain individual poems from these cycles, however, such as "Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust" (1820; also known as "Wanderschaft") and "Am Brunnen vor dem Tore" (1824; also known as "Der Lindenbaum"), have had such a lasting appeal that they have become part of the German popular folksong tradition.

Biographical Information

Müller was born in Dessau, Germany, in 1794. He grew up very close to the Mulde River, and images of this river and of Dessau occur frequently in Müller's poetry. All of Müller's siblings died during his childhood, and he lost his mother when he was fourteen years old. Müller began writing poetry at this age, but did not sell anything for several years. After his father remarried, taking as his wife a fairly well-to-do widow, Müller was able, by means of the wealth of his new stepmother, to continue his formal education. At the age of eighteen, with the aid of the Duke of Anhalt-Dessau, Müller entered the recently-founded University of Berlin, where he studied literature, history, and philology. However, in the following year, he enlisted in the Prussian army in the War of Liberation against Napoleon, who was retreating from the disastrous invasion of Russia. During Müller's tour of duty he stayed

in Brussels where he was involved in a love affair that ended badly. After the war in 1815 Müller returned to his studies at the University of Berlin. The next two years were filled with writing his own verse (including his own part in a high-society parlor operetta of Die schöne Müllerin), with work on his translation entitled Doktor Faustus: Tragödie von Christopher Marlowe (published in 1818), and with work as a literary critic. During this period Müller also fell in love with Louise Hensel, who encouraged his writing career but did not return his affections. In 1817 Müller undertook a trip to Egypt with Baron von Sack to collect inscriptions, but circumstances brought about a prolonged stay in Italy and then a return to Dessau. There Müller began to write a travel book based on his experiences in Rome entitled Rom, Römer und Römerinnen (1820; Rome, Roman Men, and Roman Women). In addition to performing the duties of a public librarian, he wrote critical comments for many literary journals, edited ten volumes of seventeenth-century poetry, and published his first volume of poetry entitled Siebenundsiebzig Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten (1820; Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Traveling French Horn Player). This collection includes the lyric cycle of Die schöne Müllerin, which was an augmented version of the poems written for the parlor operetta during his years at the University of Berlin. In 1821 Müller entered into a love-match marriage with Adelheid von Basedow, who belonged to a prominent family in Dessau. Müller and Adelheid had a daughter, Auguste, and a son, Friedrich Max, who later compiled one of the most extensive collections of Müller's poems entitled simply Gedichte von Wilhelm Müller (1868). In his first year of marriage Müller wrote and published Lieder der Griechen (1821; Songs of the Greeks), a collection of poems about the Greek War of Independence from Turkey. Müller continued to publish poems about the Greeks in the following years: Neue Lieder der Griechen (1823; New Songs of the Greeks), Neueste Lieder der Griechen (1824; The Most Recent Songs of the Greeks), and Missolunghi (1825)—named after the place where Lord Byron died in 1824 while fighting for the Greek cause. Müller won much support in Europe for the cause of Greek democracy and freedom of speech, and he took advantage of that support to argue against the oppressive policies of the Prussian government as well. Müller also wrote Die Winterreise during his first year of marriage, sending it to the publisher in January 1822. In the years 1822 to 1824, Müller composed new poems (including additional poems for Die Winterreise) for the second volume of Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten (1824) as well as his poems for the Greeks, and he increased his production of critical writings substantially—partly to pay for increased expenses from his growing family and partly from an increase in requests from his publisher. In 1825, in addition to his usual work as editor, critic, and poet, Müller undertook the writing of a prose novella Die Dreizehnte, which was published a year later. Also in 1826 Müller published a second edition of Siebenundsiebzig Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten, and began his second novella Debora (1828). In 1827 Müller published his last volume of poetry Lyrische Reisen und epigrammatische Spaziergänge (1827; Lyric Journeys and Epigrammatical Walks). This volume contains many lyric cycles about places that Müller visited on his vacations in the years 1824 to 1826. Among the more significant cycles in this volume were Frühlingskranz aus dem Plauenschen Grunde, which emerged from his trip to Dresden in 1824, and Muscheln von der Insel Rügen, inspired by his trip to the island of Rügen in the Baltic in 1825. In March of 1826 Müller contracted whooping cough, and did not recover completely until late August of the same year. In 1827, in addition to work on Debora and the above-mentioned volume of poetry, Müller wrote various articles for seven journals and newspapers, submitted sixty-five articles for publication in the Konversationslexikon, and continued his work as an editor. However, Müller's health began to decline. He became ill in July of 1827, and his health was poor during his vacation—an almost two-month trip down the Rhine. Five days after his return home, Müller died of a heart attack in his sleep, just before his thirty-third birthday. Although his untimely death was surrounded by rumors of suicide or murder—rumors that have persisted over the years—no convincing evidence has appeared, and some scholars believe that Müller may have suffered from consumption and weakness brought on by exposure to whooping cough.

Major Works

Müller's major works include Doktor Faustus: Tragödie von Christoph Marlowe, the series of Lieder der Greichen, Siebenundsiebzig Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten, and Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten. (The last two works are often referred to as Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten I and II.) Müller's translation, Doktor Faustus: Tragödie von Christoph Marlowe, was probably the work that acquainted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with Marlowe's tragedy, and so prepared the way for Goethe's famous Faust. Müller's series of Lieder der Griechen rallied many Europeans around the cause of freedom for the Greeks from the domination of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The series also served as a means for advocating freedom of speech in Germany, which was incompatible with the censorship practiced by the Prussian government. Müller's two volumes of Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten had a marked influence on the poetry of Heinrich Heine, especially the Lyrische Intermezzo and Die Nordsee. The poems are marked by simplicity, often center around the theme of wandering, and use characters from everyday life such as millers, hunters, shepherds, sailors, and maidens. From Müller's two collections, two cycles—Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise—were put to music by Schubert, who preserved the lyrics mostly unchanged in Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795 and Die Winterreise, D. 911. Die schöne Müllerin tells the story of a miller boy who follows a brook to a mill and falls in love with the miller's daughter who, in turn, is in love with a local huntsman. The miller boy wanders in despair until he finds relief in death in the brook. Die Winterreise tells the similar story of a young musician rejected by his beloved in favor of someone more wealthy. The protagonist wanders alone in despair through the winter, first dreaming of relief, then shaking off such self-deception, and finally following a hurdy-gurdy man who reconnects the young musician to the real world.

Critical Reception

Müller's poetry was highly regarded in his own day. His Lieder der Griechen were esteemed in the nineteenth-century, both for their impassioned support of the Greek struggle for independence and for their political value in advocating freedom of speech. Because of these poems, Müller became known as the German Lord Byron. Müller's two volumes of Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten were praised by Heinrich Heine for the purity, simplicity, and clarity of their rhythm, form, and meter, which gave to Müller's work the quality of "immediacy," and for freedom from the intellectual contrivance found in folksongs. These same qualities admired by Heine seem to have appealed to Schubert, who, it is reputed, came across Müller's poems unexpectedly while waiting for an appointment and, realizing their worth, immediately ran home with the book neither asking its owner's permission nor keeping his appointement. Furthermore, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow considered several of Müller's poems worthy of translation, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson probably used Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise as models for "The Window." However, Müller's work has been judged second-rate by others in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, his poetry often described as naïve, pathetic, shallow, and full of conventional imagery and clichés. Some scholars, though, have acknowledged that despite these apparently negative elements in his poetry, Müller was able to use his poems purposefully for his own ends. For example, Alan P. Cottrell has argued that one can find depth and sensitivity under the surface of conventionality in Müller's poems; and Susan Youens has claimed that Müller's naiveté is a deception that conceals quite complex writing. The more recent critics acknowledge that the majority of scholars now view Müller's poetry worthy of serious consideration.