Franz Grillparzer Biography | Poet
FRANZ GRILLPARZER (1791-1872), the greatest dramatic poet of Austria, was born in Vienna, on the 15th of January 1791. His father, severe, pedantic, a staunch upholder of the liberal traditions of the reign of Joseph II., was an advocate 597of some standing; his mother, a nervous, finely-strung woman, belonged to the well-known musical family of Sonnleithner. After a desultory education, Grillparzer entered in 1807 the university of Vienna as a student of jurisprudence; but two years later his father died, leaving the family in straitened circumstances, and Franz, the eldest son, was obliged to turn to private tutoring. In 1813 he received an appointment in the court library, but as this was unpaid, he accepted after some months a clerkship that offered more solid prospects, in the Lower Austrian revenue administration. Through the influence of Graf Stadion, the minister of finance, he was in 1818 appointed poet to the Hofburgtheater, and promoted to the Hofkammer (exchequer); in 1832 he became director of the archives of that department, and in 1856 retired from the civil service with the title of Hofrat. Grillparzer had little capacity for an official career and regarded his office merely as a means of independence.
In 1817 the first representation of his tragedy Die Ahnfrau made him famous, but before this he had written a long tragedy in iambics, Bianca von Castilien (1807-1809), which was obviously modelled on Schiller’s Don Carlos; and even more promising were the dramatic fragments Spartacusand Alfred der Grosse (1809). Die Ahnfrau is a gruesome “fate-tragedy” in the trochaic measure of the Spanish drama, already made popular by Adolf M�llner in his Schuld; but Grillparzer’s work is a play of real poetic beauties, and reveals an instinct for dramatic as opposed to merely theatrical effect, which distinguishes it from other “fate-dramas” of the day. Unfortunately its success led to the poet’s being classed for the best part of his life with playwrights like M�llner and Houwald. Die Ahnfrau was followed by Sappho (1818), a drama of a very different type; in the classic spirit of Goethe’s Tasso, Grillparzer unrolled the tragedy of poetic genius, the renunciation of earthly happiness imposed upon the poet by his higher mission. In 1821 appeared Das goldene Vliess, a trilogy which had been interrupted in 1819 by the death of the poet’s mother—in a fit of depression she had taken her own life—and a subsequent visit to Italy. Opening with a powerful dramatic prelude in one act, Der Gastfreund, Grillparzer depicts in Die Argonauten Jason’s adventures in his quest for the Fleece; while Medea, a tragedy of noble classic proportions, contains the culminating events of the story which had been so often dramatized before. The theme is similar to that of Sappho, but the scale on which it is represented is larger; it is again the tragedy of the heart’s desire, the conflict of the simple happy life with that sinister power—be it genius, or ambition—which upsets the equilibrium of life. The end is bitter disillusionment, the only consolation renunciation. Medea, her revenge stilled, her children dead, bears the fatal Fleece back to Delphi, while Jason is left to realize the nothingness of human striving and earthly happiness.
For his historical tragedy K�nig Ottokars Gl�ck und Ende (1823, but owing to difficulties with the censor, not performed until 1825), Grillparzer chose one of the most picturesque events in Austrian domestic history, the conflict of Ottokar of Bohemia with Rudolph von Habsburg. With an almost modern realism he reproduced the motley world of the old chronicler, at the same time not losing sight of the needs of the theatre; the fall of Ottokar is but another text from which the poet preached the futility of endeavour and the vanity of worldly greatness. A second historical tragedy,Ein treuer Diener seines Herrn (1826, performed 1828), attempts to embody a more heroic gospel; but the subject—the superhuman self-effacement of Bankbanus before Duke Otto of Meran—proved too uncompromising an illustration of Kant’s categorical imperative of duty to be palatable in the theatre. With these historical tragedies began the darkest ten years in the poet’s life. They brought him into conflict with the Austrian censor—a conflict which grated on Grillparzer’s sensitive soul, and was aggravated by his own position as a servant of the state; in 1826 he paid a visit to Goethe in Weimar, and was able to compare the enlightened conditions which prevailed in the little Saxon duchy with the intellectual thraldom of Vienna. To these troubles were added more serious personal worries. In the winter of 1820-1821 he had met for the first time Katharina Fr�hlich (1801-1879), and the acquaintance rapidly ripened into love on both sides; but whether owing to a presentiment of mutual incompatibility, or merely owing to Grillparzer’s conviction that life had no happiness in store for him, he shrank from marriage. Whatever the cause may have been, the poet was plunged into an abyss of misery and despair to which his diary bears heart-rending witness; his sufferings found poetic expression in the fine cycle of poems bearing the significant title Tristia ex Ponto (1835).
Yet to these years we owe the completion of two of Grillparzer’s greatest dramas, Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (1831) and Der Traum, ein Leben (1834). In the former tragedy, a dramatization of the story of Hero and Leander, he returned to the Hellenic world of Sappho, and produced what is perhaps the finest of all German love-tragedies. His mastery of dramatic technique is here combined with a ripeness of poetic expression and with an insight into motive which suggests the modern psychological drama of Hebbel and Ibsen; the old Greek love-story of Musaeus is, moreover, endowed with something of that ineffable poetic grace which the poet had borrowed from the great Spanish poets, Lope de Vega and Calderon. Der Traum, ein Leben, Grillparzer’s technical masterpiece, is in form perhaps even more Spanish; it is also more of what Goethe called a “confession.” The aspirations of Rustan, an ambitious young peasant, are shadowed forth in the hero’s dream, which takes up nearly three acts of the play; ultimately Rustan awakens from his nightmare to realize the truth of Grillparzer’s own pessimistic doctrine that all earthly ambitions and aspirations are vanity; the only true happiness is contentment with one’s lot, “des Innern stiller Frieden und die schuldbefreite Brust.” Der Traum, ein Leben was the first of Grillparzer’s dramas which did not end tragically, and in 1838 he produced his only comedy, Weh’ dem, der l�gt. But Weh’ dem, der l�gt, in spite of its humour of situation, its sparkling dialogue and the originality of its idea—namely, that the hero gains his end by invariably telling the truth, where his enemies as invariably expect him to be lying—was too strange to meet with approval in its day. Its failure was a blow to the poet, who turned his back for ever on the German theatre. In 1836 Grillparzer paid a visit to Paris and London, in 1843 to Athens and Constantinople. Then came the Revolution which struck off the intellectual fetters under which Grillparzer and his contemporaries had groaned in Austria, but the liberation came too late for him. Honours were heaped upon him; he was made a member of the Academy of Sciences; Heinrich Laube, as director of the Burgtheater, reinstated his plays on the repertory; he was in 1861 elected to the Austrian Herrenhaus; his eightieth birthday was a national festival, and when he died in Vienna, on the 21st of January 1872, the mourning of the Austrian people was universal. With the exception of a beautiful fragment, Esther (1861), Grillparzer published no more dramatic poetry after the fiasco of Weh’ dem, der l�gt, but at his death three completed tragedies were found among his papers. Of these, Die J�din von Toledo, an admirable adaptation from the Spanish, has won a permanent place in the German classical repertory; Ein Bruderzwist im Hause Habsburg is a powerful historical tragedy and Libussa is perhaps the ripest, as it is certainly the deepest, of all Grillparzer’s dramas; the latter two plays prove how much was lost by the poet’s divorce from the theatre.
Although Grillparzer was essentially a dramatist, his lyric poetry is in the intensity of its personal note hardly inferior to Lenau’s; and the bitterness of his later years found vent in biting and stinging epigrams that spared few of his greater contemporaries. As a prose writer, he has left one powerful short story, Der arme Spielmann (1848), and a volume of critical studies on the Spanish drama, which shows how completely he had succeeded in identifying himself with the Spanish point of view.
Grillparzer’s brooding, unbalanced temperament, his lack of will-power, his pessimistic renunciation and the bitterness which his self-imposed martyrdom produced in him, made him peculiarly adapted to express the mood of Austria in the epoch of intellectual 598thraldom that lay between the Napoleonic wars and the Revolution of 1848; his poetry reflects exactly the spirit of his people under the Metternich r�gime, and there is a deep truth behind the description of Der Traum, ein Leben as the Austrian Faust. His fame was in accordance with the general tenor of his life; even in Austria a true understanding for his genius was late in coming, and not until the centenary of 1891 did the German-speaking world realize that it possessed in him a dramatic poet of the first rank; in other words, that Grillparzer was no mere “Epigone” of the classic period, but a poet who, by a rare assimilation of the strength of the Greeks, the imaginative depth of German classicism and the delicacy and grace of the Spaniards, had opened up new paths for the higher dramatic poetry of Europe.
Grillparzer’s S�mtliche Werke are edited by A. Sauer, in 20 vols., 5th edition (Stuttgart, 1892-1894); also, since the expiry of the copyright in 1901, innumerable cheap reprints. Briefe und Tageb�cher, edited by C. Glossy and A. Sauer (2 vols., Stuttgart, 1903). Jahrbuch der Grillparzer-Gesellschaft, edited by K. Glossy (the publication of the Grillparzer Society) (Vienna, 1891 ff.). See also H. Laube, Franz Grillparzers Lebensgeschichte (Stuttgart, 1884); J. Volkelt, Franz Grillparzer als Dichter des Tragischen (N�rdlingen, 1888); E. Reich, Franz Grillparzers Dramen (Dresden, 1894); A. Ehrhard, Franz Grillparzer (Paris, 1900) (German translation by M. Necker, Munich, 1902); H. Sittenberger,Grillparzer, sein Leben und Wirken (Berlin, 1904); Gustav Pollak, F. Grillparzer and the Austrian Drama (New York, 1907). Of Grillparzer’s works, translations have appeared in English of Sappho (1820, by J. Bramsen; 1846, by E. B. Lee; 1855, by L. C. Cumming; 1876, by E. Frothingham); and of Medea (1879, by F. W. Thurstan and J. A. Wittmann). Byron’s warm admiration of Sappho (Letters and Journals, v. 171) is well known, while Carlyle’s criticism, in his essay on German Playwrights (1829), is interesting as expressing the generally accepted estimate of Grillparzer in the first half of the 19th century. See the bibliography in K. Goedeke’s Grundriss zur Geschichte der deutschen Dichtung, 2nd ed., vol. viii. (1905).
(J. G. R.)
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