Franz Mehring 1911

German Romanticism

Author: Franz Mehring;
Written: 1911;
First published: 1911 in “Deutsche Geschichte vom Ausgang des Mittelalters,” chapter “Die Französische Revolution und ihre Folgen,” section “Goethe und Schiller. Die Romantische Schule,” Berlin;
Translated: by Anton P.

In the days of the aging Goethe, the heyday and also the fall of the Romantic school of poets commenced. It reflected the dichotomy that foreign rule had created between the national and social interests of the Germans. National ideals could only be found in the Middle Ages, when the most pronounced class rule of the Junkers and priests had existed. So the Romantic poets fled into the “moonlit magical night of the Middle Ages,” but since the medieval ideals could not be restored in unmutilated glory after a revolutionary storm had swept across European soil, they mixed the feudal wine they had brought from the cellars of the castles and monasteries, with many drops of the sober water of the bourgeois Enlightenment.

Hence this school is not without credit worthy of recognition. It has rediscovered the treasures of medieval poetry, not only the courtly and knightly poets, but also the Nibelungs, a German national epic that can probably compete with the Homeric chants. Above all, the Romantic school of poetry unearthed the precious treasures of folk poetry; the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” a collection of old folk songs edited by Arnim and Brentano. In addition, we owe the Romantics an extraordinary expansion of our poetic scope; since they had no solid ground under their feet, they wandered off to the artistic treasures of all peoples and times and brought home many excellent things like Schlegel’s classic translation of Shakespeare.

Of course, not too much of the Romantics’ own poems has survived, least of all from Tieck, who was considered the real poet of the school and was placed next to Goethe or even above him. From Arnim and Brentano has probably survived this fairy tale and that novella, also some of ETA Hoffmann’s ghost stories, but above all the poetry of Eichendorff, who often wonderfully hit the tone of the folk song. The singers of the Wars of Liberation also belong to a certain extent to the Romantic school, Max von Schenkendorf with his Catholic direction, Ernst Moritz Arndt, who is worth mentioning less for his poems than for his highly anti-monarchical soldier catechism, and Theodor Körner, whose mediocre poetry, through his brave death on the battlefield, has gained a greater reputation than it can claim.

But the most ingenious poet of the Romantic school was Heinrich von Kleist (1776-1811), the son of an old noble family from East Elbia. According to their tradition, he was destined to become a Prussian officer from an early age, but this profession soon disgusted him, and at the age of twenty he said goodbye. The life he led from then on is a terrible history of illness. Doubts about his profession, infirmity of body and soul, the unjust coldness of his contemporaries, the obstacles that his own junior clan caused him, the pressure of foreign rule, the eternal concern for daily bread and finally suicide in the most terrible desperation: all that results in a harrowing picture.

In the midst of this misery, however, Kleist created a number of dramas that testify to a power of depiction that neither Lessing nor Schiller had possessed: “The Broken Jug,” a comedy that has no rival of its kind in German literature, “Das Käthchen von Heilbronn,” a knight play that is not free from the Romantic whitewash of the Middle Ages, but has nevertheless proven an indestructible vitality for several generations, as well as the “Hermannsschlacht,” a tendency drama that was actually directed against the French foreign rule, but worked with artistic means and with moving truthfulness depicts the struggle of the old Cheruscans against the Roman conquerors and their victory in the Teutoburg Forest, and finally the “Prince of Homburg,” a material from Prussian history, the only poetic glorification of the Hohenzollern House, a play which the court “rewarded” by starving the poet. Kleist could not get rid of the East Elbe Junker in him, but he was a Romantic poet, but the Junker defiance is ennobled with him as a struggle of law against the moral frailty of the world, as also in “Michael Kohlhaas,” the greatest of his prose stories.

Almost in everything, Heinrich von Kleist’s equal was the other poet of the Romantic school whose work remained alive to this day, Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862). He came from a Swabian town house and led the quiet life of the Swabian petty bourgeois man all his life. Before most of the poets of the Romantic school, he was characterized by his strict form and the clear knowledge of his poetic ability, but even Goethe missed the passion in him, and his ballads, on which his fame as a poet is mainly based, can compete with Goethe and Bürger in ballads. And if it is his merit to have revived political poetry, he also paid tribute to Romanticism in it, because the “good old rights in Swabia” for which he fought, was a feudal and historically outdated set of rights.