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German Literature: The Renaissance (1600-1740)

Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

The 17th century in Germany presents a complete contrast to its predecessor; the fact that it was the century of the Thirty Years’ War, which devastated the country, crippled the prosperity of the towns, and threw back by many generations the social development of the people, explains much, but it can hardly be held entirely responsible for the intellectual apathy, the slavery 789to foreign customs and foreign ideas, which stunted the growth of the nation. The freedom of Lutheranism degenerated into a paralyzing Lutheran orthodoxy which was as hostile to the “Freiheit eines Christenmenschen” as that Catholicism it had superseded; the idealism of the humanists degenerated in the same way into a dry, pedantic scholasticism which held the German mind in fetters until, at the very close of the century, Leibnitz set it free. Most disheartening of all, literature which in the 16th century had been so full of promise and had conformed with such aptitude to the new ideas, was in all its higher manifestations blighted by the dead hand of pseudo-classicism. The unkempt literature of the Reformation age admittedly stood in need of guidance and discipline, but the 17th century made the fatal mistake of trying to impose the laws and rules of Romance literatures on a people of a purely Germanic stock.

There were, however, some branches of German poetry which escaped this foreign influence. The church hymn, continuing the great Lutheran traditions, rose in the 17th century to extraordinary richness both in quality and quantity. Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), the greatest German hymn-writer, was only one of many Lutheran pastors who in this age contributed to the German hymnal. On the Catholic side, Angelus Silesius, or Johann Scheffler (1624-1677) showed what a wealth of poetry lay in the mystic speculations of Jakob Boehme, the gifted shoemaker of G?rlitz (1575-1624), and author of the famous Aurora, oder Morgenr?te im Aufgang (1612); while Friedrich von Spee (1591-1635), another leading Catholic poet of the century, cultivated the pastoral allegory of the Renaissance. The revival of mysticism associated with Boehme gradually spread through the whole religious life of the 17th century, Protestant as well as Catholic, and in the more specifically Protestant form of pietism, it became, at the close of the period, a force of moment in the literary revival. Besides the hymn, the Volkslied, which amidst the struggles and confusion of the great war bore witness to a steadily growing sense of patriotism, lay outside the domain of the literary theorists and dictators, and developed in its own way. But all else—if we except certain forms of fiction, which towards the end of the 17th century rose into prominence—stood completely under the sway of the Latin Renaissance.

The first focus of the movement was Heidelberg, which had been a centre of humanistic learning in the sixteenth century. Here, under the leadership of J.W. Zincgref (1591-1635), a number of scholarly writers carried into practice that interest in the vernacular which had been shown a little earlier by the German translator of Marot, Paul Schede or Melissus, librarian in Heidelberg. The most important forerunner of Opitz was G.R. Weckherlin (1584-1653), a native of W?rttemberg who had spent the best part of his life in England; his Oden und Ges?nge (1618-1619) ushered in the era of Renaissance poetry in Germany with a promise that was but indifferently fulfilled by his successors. Of these the greatest, or at least the most influential, was Martin Opitz (1597-1639). He was a native of Silesia and, as a student in Heidelberg, came into touch with Zincgref’s circle; subsequently, in the course of a visit to Holland, a more definite trend was given to his ideas by the example of the Dutch poet and scholar, Daniel Heinsius. As a poet, Opitz experimented with every form of recognized Renaissance poetry from ode and epic to pastoral romance and Senecan drama; but his poetry is for the most part devoid of inspiration; and his extraordinary fame among his contemporaries would be hard to understand, were it not that in his Buch von der deutschen Poeterey (1624) he gave the German Renaissance its theoretical textbook. In this tract, in which Opitz virtually reproduced in German the accepted dogmas of Renaissance theorists like Scaliger and Ronsard, he not merely justified his own mechanical verse-making, but also gave Germany a law-book which regulated her literature for a hundred years.

The work of Opitz as a reformer was furthered by another institution of Latin origin, namely, literary societies modelled on the Accademia della Crusca in Florence. These societies, of which the chief were the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft or Palmenorden (founded 1617), theElbschwanenorden in Hamburg and the Gekr?nter Blumenorden an der Pegnitz or Gesellschaft der Pegnitzsch?fer in Nuremberg, were the centres of literary activity during the unsettled years of the war. Although they produced much that was trivial—such as the extraordinary N?rnberger Trichter (1647-1653) by G.P. Harsd?rffer (1607-1658), a treatise which professed to turn out a fully equipped German poet in the space of six hours—these societies also did German letters an invaluable service by their attention to the language, one of their chief objects having been to purify the German language from foreign and un-German ingredients. J.G. Schottelius (1612-1676), for instance, wrote his epoch-making grammatical works with the avowed purpose of furthering the objects of the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft. Meanwhile the poetic centre of gravity in Germany had shifted from Heidelberg to the extreme north-east, to K?nigsberg, where a group of academic poets gave practical expression to the Opitzian theory. Chief among them was Simon Dach (1605-1659), a gentle, elegiac writer on whom the laws of the Buch von der deutschen Poeterey did not lie too heavily. He, like his more manly and vigorous contemporary Paul Fleming (1609-1640), showed, one might say, that it was possible to write good and sincere poetry notwithstanding Opitz’s mechanical rules.

In the previous century the most advanced form of literature had been satire, and under the new conditions the satiric vein still proved most productive; but it was no longer the full-blooded satire of the Reformation, or even the rich and luxuriant satiric fancy of Fischart, which found expression in the 17th century. Satire pure and simple was virtually only cultivated by two Low German poets, J. Lauremberg (1590-1658) and J. Rachel (1618-1669), of whom at least the latter was accepted by the Opitzian school; but the satiric spirit rose to higher things in the powerful and scathing sermons of J.B. Schupp (1610-1661), an outspoken Hamburg preacher, and in the scurrilous wit of the Viennese monk Abraham a Sancta Clara (1644-1709), who had inherited some of his predecessor Murner’s intellectual gifts. Best of all are the epigrams of the most gifted of all the Silesian group of writers, Friedrich von Logau (1604-1655). Logau’s three thousand epigrams (Deutsche Sinngedichte, 1654) afford a key to the intellectual temper of the 17th century; they are the epitome of their age. Here are to be seen reflected the vices of the time, its aping of French customs and its contempt for what was national and German; Logau held up to ridicule the vain bloodshed of the war in the interest of Christianity, and, although he praised Opitz, he was far from prostrating himself at the dictator’s feet. Logau is an epigrammatist of the first rank, and perhaps the most remarkable product of the Renaissance movement in Germany.

Opitz found difficulty in providing Germany with a drama according to the classic canon. He had not himself ventured beyond translations of Sophocles and Seneca, and Johann Rist (1607-1667) in Hamburg, one of the few contemporary dramatists, had written plays more in the manner of Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick than of Opitz. It was not until after the latter’s death that the chief dramatist of the Renaissance movement came forward in the person of Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664). Like Opitz, Gryphius also was a Silesian, and a poet of no mean ability, as is to be seen from his lyric poetry; but his tragedies, modelled on the stiff Senecan pattern, suffered from the lack of a theatre, and from his ignorance of the existence of a more highly developed drama in France, not to speak of England. As it was, he was content with Dutch models. In the field of comedy, where he was less hampered by theories of dramatic propriety, he allowed himself to benefit by the freedom of the Dutch farce and the comic effects of the English actors in Germany; in his Horribilicribrifax and Herr Peter Squentz—the latter an adaptation of the comic scenes of the Midsummer Night’s Dream—Gryphius has produced the best German plays of the 17th century.

The German novel of the 17th century was, as has been already indicated, less hampered by Renaissance laws than other forms of literature, and although it was none the less at the mercy of foreign influence, that influence was more varied and manifold in its character. Don Quixote had been partly 790translated early in the 17th century, the picaresque romance had found its way to Germany at a still earlier date; while H.M. Moscherosch (1601-1669) in his Gesichte Philanders von Sittewald (1642-1643) made the Sue?os of Quevedo the basis for vivid pictures of the life of the time, interspersed with satire. The best German novel of the 17th century, Der abenteurliche Simplicissimus (1669) by H.J. Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (c. 1625-1676), is a picaresque novel, but one that owed little more than its form to the Spaniards. It is in great measure the autobiography of its author, and describes with uncompromising realism the social disintegration and the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. But this remarkable book stands alone; Grimmelshausen’s other writings are but further contributions to the same theme, and he left no disciples worthy of carrying on the tradition he had created. Christian Weise (1642-1708), rector of the Zittau gymnasium, wrote a few satirical novels, but his realism and satire are too obviously didactic. He is seen to better advantage in his dramas, of which he wrote more than fifty for performance by his scholars.

The real successor of Simplicissimus in Germany was the English Robinson Crusoe, a novel which, on its appearance, was immediately translated into German (1721); it called forth an extraordinary flood of imitations, the so-called “Robinsonaden,” the vogue of which is even still kept alive byDer schweizerische Robinson of J.R. Wyss (1812 ff.). With the exception of J.G. Schnabel’s Insel Felsenburg (1731-1743), the literary value of these imitations is slight. They represented, however, a healthier and more natural development of fiction than the “galant” romances which were introduced in the train of the Renaissance movement, and cultivated by writers like Philipp von Zesen (1619-1689), Duke Anton Ulrich of Brunswick (1633-1714), A.H. Buchholtz (1607-1671), H.A. von Ziegler (1653-1697)—author of the famous Asiatische Banise (1688)—and D.C. von Lohenstein (1635-1683), whose Arminius (1689-1690) is on the whole the most promising novel of this group. The last mentioned writer and Christian Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau (1617-1679) are sometimes regarded as the leaders of a “second Silesian school,” as opposed to the first school of Opitz. As the cultivators of the bombastic and Euphuistic style of the Italians Guarini and Marini, and of the Spanish writer Gongora, Lohenstein and Hofmannswaldau touched the lowest point to which German poetry ever sank.

But this aberration of taste was happily of short duration. Although socially the recovery of the German people from the desolation of the war was slow and laborious, the intellectual life of Germany was rapidly recuperating under the influence of foreign thinkers. Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), Christian Thomasius (1655-1728), Christian von Wolff (1679-1754) and, above all, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716), the first of the great German philosophers, laid the foundations of that system of rationalism which dominated Germany for the better part of the 18th century; while German religious life was strengthened and enriched by a revival of pietism, under mystic thinkers like Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), a revival which also left its traces on religious poetry. Such hopeful signs of convalescence could not but be accompanied by an improvement in literary taste, and this is seen in the first instance in a substitution for the bombast and conceits of Lohehstein and Hofmannswaldau, of poetry on the stricter and soberer lines laid down by Boileau. The so-called “court poets” who opposed the second Silesian school, men like Rudolf von Canitz (1654-1699), Johann von Besser (1654-1729) and Benjamin Neukirch (1665-1729), were not inspired, but they had at least a certain “correctness” of taste; and from their midst sprang one gifted lyric genius, Johann Christian G?nther (1695-1723), who wrote love-songs such as had not been heard in Germany since the days of the Minnesang. The methods of Hofmannswaldau had obtained considerable vogue in Hamburg, where the Italian opera kept the decadent Renaissance poetry alive. Here, however, the incisive wit of Christian Wernigke’s (1661-1725) epigrams was an effective antidote, and Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747), a native of Hamburg, who had been deeply impressed by the appreciation of nature in English poetry, gave the artificialities of the Silesians their death-blow. But the influence of English literature was not merely destructive in these years; in the translations and imitations of the English SpectatorTatler and Guardian—the so-called moralische Wochenschriften—it helped to regenerate literary taste, and to implant healthy moral ideas in the German middle classes.

The chief representative of the literary movement inaugurated by the Silesian “court poets” was Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700-1766), who between 1724 and 1740 succeeded in establishing in Leipzig, the metropolis of German taste, literary reforms modelled on the principles of French 17th-century classicism. He reformed and purified the stage according to French ideas, and provided it with a repertory of French origin; in hisKritische Dichtkunst (1730) he laid down the principles according to which good literature was to be produced and judged. As Opitz had reformed German letters with the help of Ronsard, so now Gottsched took his standpoint on the principles of Boileau as interpreted by contemporary French critics and theorists. With Gottsched, whose services in purifying the German language have stood the test of time better than his literary or dramatic reforms, the period of German Renaissance literature reaches its culmination and at the same time its close. The movement of the age advanced too rapidly for the Leipzig dictator; in 1740 a new epoch opened in German poetry and he was soon left hopelessly behind.