Works of Frederick Engels, 1840


Written: in December 1839
First published: in the Telegraph für Deutschland No. 31, February 1840
Signed: Friedrich Oswald

Among the poetic offspring of the Restoration period, whose powers were not crippled by the electric shocks of the year 1830 and whose fame only became established in the present literary epoch, there are three who are distinguished by a characteristic similarity: Immermann, Chamisso, and Platen. All three possess unusual individuality, considerable character, and an intellectual power which at least outweighs their poetic talent. In Chamisso, it is sometimes imagination and feeling that predominate, and at other times calculating intellect; especially in the terza rimas the surface is altogether cold and rationalistic, but underneath one hears the beating of a noble heart; in Immermann, these two qualities oppose each other and constitute the dualism which he himself acknowledges and the extreme features of which his strong personality can bend together but not unite; lastly, in Platen, poetic power has abandoned its independence and finds itself at ease under the domination of the more powerful intellect. If Platen’s imagination had not been able to rely on his intellect and his magnificent character, he would not have become so famous. Hence he represented the intellectual in poetry, the form; hence also his wish to end his career with a great work of art was not granted. He was well aware that such a great work was essential to make his fame lasting, but he felt also that his powers were still inadequate for it and he put his hopes on the future and his preparatory work; meanwhile, time passed, he did not get beyond the preparatory work and finally died.

Platen’s imagination followed timorously the bold strides of his intellect, and when it was a matter of a work of genius, when his imagination should have ventured on a bold leap that the intellect could not accomplish, it had to shrink back. That was the source of Platen’s error in considering the products of his intellect to be poetry. His poetic creative powers sufficed for anacreontic ghazals and sometimes flashed like a meteor in his comedies; but let us admit merely that most of what was characteristic of Platen is the product of the intellect, and will always be recognised as such. People will tire of his excessively affected ghazals and his rhetorical odes; they will find the polemics of his comedies for the most part unjustified, but they will have to pay full respect to the wit of his dialogue and the loftiness of his parabases, and see the justification of his one-sidedness in the greatness of his character. Platen’s literary standing in public opinion will change; he will go farther from Goethe, but will come closer to Börne.

That his views, too, make him more akin to Börne is evident not only from a host of allusions in his comedies but already from several poems in his collected works, of which I shall mention only the ode to Charles X. A number of songs inspired by the Polish struggle for freedom were not included in this collection, although they were bound to be of great interest for a characterisation of Platen. They have now been issued by another publishing firm as a supplement to the collected works. [46] I find my view of Platen confirmed by them. Thought and character here have to be the substitute for poetry to a greater extent and more noticeably than anywhere else. For that reason Platen seldom feels at home in the simple style of the song; there have to be lengthy, extended verses, each of which can embody a thought, or artificial ode metres, the serious, measured course of which seems almost to demand a rhetorical content. With the art of verse, thoughts also come to Platen and that is the strongest proof of the intellectual origin of his poems. He who demands something else from Platen will not find satisfaction in these Polish songs, but he who takes up this booklet with these expectations will find himself richly compensated for the lack of poetic fragrance by an abundance of exalted, powerful thoughts that have sprung from a most noble character, and by a “magnificent passionateness”, as the preface aptly says. It is a pity that these poems were not published a few months earlier, ‘when German national consciousness rose against the imperial Russian European pentarchy [47]; they would have been the best reply to it. Perhaps the pentarchist, too, would have found in them many a motto for his work. [Allusion to K. Goldmann’s book Die europäische Pentarchie]