Goethe spoke for a small minority; the great majority of the German people clung to their Christian heritage, and they hailed as divinely inspired the poet who sang their faith. Six years after Handel stirred at least Ireland with the heavenly strains ofMessiah,Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock won the heart of Germany with the first fervent cantos of Der Messias (1748-73).
Born in 1724, Klopstock antedated Lessing by five years, survived him by twenty-two. Lessing, the son of a clergyman, became a freethinker; Klopstock, the son of a lawyer, took as a main mission of his life the composition of an epic poem on the life of Christ. He was so aflame with his theme that he published the first three cantos when still a lad of twenty-four. These unrhymed hexameters won so grateful an audience that when, a year later, he proposed to his cousin, letters came to her from various parts of Germany urging her to accept him; she refused. But Frederick V of Denmark, on the recommendation of his minister Johann von Bernstorff, invited Klopstock to come and live at the Danish court and finish his epic at four hundred thalers a year. On his way to Copenhagen the poet took kindly to a Hamburg admirer, Margareta Moller; in 1754 he married her; in 1758 she died, breaking his heart and darkening his verse. He commemorated her in the fifteenth canto of The Messiah, and in some of the most moving of his odes. He stayed in Copenhagen twenty years, fell from favor when Bernstorff was dismissed, returned to Hamburg, and in 1773 published the final cantos of his massive poem.
It began with an invocation echoing Milton; then through twenty cantos it told the sacred story from the meditations of Christ on the Mount of Olives to his ascension into heaven. After taking almost as long to write his epic as Jesus had taken to live it, Klopstock concluded with a grateful Te Deum:
Lo, I have reached my goal! The stirring thought
Thrills through my spirit. Thine all-powerful arm,
My Lord, my God, alone hath guided me
By more than one dark grave, ere I might reach
That distant goal! Thou, Lord, hast healed me still,
Hast shed fresh courage o’er my sinking heart,
Which held with death its near companionship;
And if I gazed on terrors, their dark shapes
Soon disappeared, for thou protectedst me!
Swiftly they vanished.—Savior, I have sung
Thy Covenant of Mercy. I have trod
My fearful path! My hope hath been in Thee!83
The Messiah was welcomed by orthodox Germany as the best poetry yet written in the German language. Goethe tells of a Frankfurt councilor who read the first ten cantos “every year in Passion Week, and thus refreshed himself for the entire year.” As for himself, Goethe could enjoy the epic only by “discarding certain requirements which an advancing cultivation does not willingly abandon.”84 Klopstock poured his piety so profusely into his verse that his poem became a succession of lyrics and Bachian chorales rather than the fluent narrative that an epic should be; and we find it difficult to follow a lyric flight through twenty cantos and twenty-five years.
As Voltaire generated his opposite in Rousseau, so Lessing, by his skepticism, rationalism, and intellectualism, made Germany feel the need of writers who would, in contrast, recognize the place and rights of feeling, sentiment, imagination, mystery, romance, and the supernatural in human life. In some Germans of this period, especially women, the cult of Empfindsamkeit (sensibility) became a religion as well as a fashion. Darmstadt had a “Circle of Sensitives” whose members made a principle and ritual of sentiment and emotional expression. Rousseau was the Messiah of these spirits. His influence in Germany was far greater than Voltaire’s; Herder and Schiller acknowledged him as a fountainhead; Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason was suffused with Rousseau; Goethe began with Rousseau (“Gefühl ist Alies”), went on to Voltaire (“Gedenke zu leben!”), and ended by knocking their heads together. From England, meanwhile, came the poets of feeling, James Thomson, William Collins, Edward Young, and the novelists of feeling, Richardson and Sterne. The Reliques of Percy and the “Ossianic” poems of Macpherson aroused interest in medieval poetry, mystery, and romance; Klopstock and Heinrich von Gerstenberg brought to life the pre-Christian mythology of Scandinavia and Germany.
Johann Georg Hamann, before 1781, was the Kapellmeister of the revolt against reason. Born, like Kant, in cloudy Königsberg, strongly imbued by his father with religious feeling, educated in the university, he labored in poverty as a tutor, and found solace in a Protestant faith resilient to all the blows of the Enlightenment. Reason, he contended, is only a part of man, lately developed and not fundamental; instinct, intuition, feeling, are deeper; and a true philosophy will base itself upon the whole nature and gamut of man. Language originated not as a product of reason but as a gift of God for the expression of feeling. Poetry is deeper than prose. Great literature is written not by knowledge and observance of rules and reasons, but by that indefinable quality called genius, which, guided by feeling, overleaps all rules.
Friedrich Jacobi agreed with Hamann and Rousseau. Spinoza’s philosophy, he said, is perfectly logical if you accept logic, but it is false because logic never reaches the heart of reality, which is revealed only to feeling and faith. God’s existence cannot be proved by reason, but feeling knows that without belief in God the life of man is a tragic and hopeless futility.
With this exaltation of feeling and poetry, the Teutonic soul was primed for such flights of imaginative literature as made the second half of the eighteenth century in Germany recall the fervor and fertility of Elizabethan England. Magazines of poetry multiplied, suffering their usual brief tenure of life. Johann Heinrich Voss, besides translating Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare, wrote a tender novel in verse, Luise (1783-95), which won the heart of Germany and stirred Goethe to rivalry. Salomon Gessner gained an international audience with his delicate lyrics and prose pastorals. Matthias Claudius touched a hundred thousand mothers with idyllic songs of domesticity, like his “Wiegenlied bei Mondenschein zu singen” (Lullaby to Sing by the Light of the Moon):
So schlafe nun, du Kleine!
Was weinest du?
Sanft ist im Mondenscheine
Und süss die Ruh.
Auch kommt der Schlaf geschwinder,
Und sonder Müh.
Der Mond freut sich der Kinder,
Und liebet sie.
Sleep now, my little girl!
Why do you cry?
Soft in the moonlight,
And sweet, is rest.
Then sooner comes sleep,
And without pain.
The moon rejoices in children,
And loves you.85
Gottfried Bürger had all the qualities of a romantic genius. Son of a pastor, he was sent to Halle and Göttingen to study law, but his dissolute life led to his withdrawal from college. In 1773 he won universal absolution of his sins by his ballad “Lenore.” Lenore’s lover goes off with Frederick’s army to the siege of Prague. Each morning she starts up from her dreams and asks, “Wil-helm, are you faithless, or dead? How long will you tarry?” The war ends; the troops return; wives and mothers and children greet them with joy and thanks to God.
Sie frug den Zug wohl auf und ab
Und frug nach allen Namen,
Dock keiner war der Kundschaft gab
Von alien, so da kamen.
Als nun das Heer vorüber war,
Zerraufte sie ihr Rabenhaar,
Und warf sich hin zur Erde
Mit wütiger Gebärde .
She questioned all in that parade,
And begged of each his name,
But there was none who gave her word,
None of all who came.
And when the soldiers all were gone
She tore her raven hair,
And threw herself upon the ground
In throes of wild despair.
Her mother tells her that “what God does is well done”; Lenore answers that this is a delusion, and she begs for death. The mother talks to her of heaven and hell; Lenore replies that heaven is to be with Wilhelm, hell is to be without him. All day long she raves. At night a rider draws up at her door, gives no name, bids her come with him and be his bride. She rides behind him on his black horse, rides all through the night. They come to a cemetery; ghosts dance around them. Suddenly the horseman turns into a corpse; Lenore finds herself clinging to a skeleton. While she hovers between life and death spirits wail these words:
Geduld, Geduld! Wenn’s Herz auch bricht!
Mit Gott im Himmel hadre nicht.
Des Leibes bist du ledig;
Gott sei der Seele gnädig!
Patience, patience! Even when the heart breaks!
With God in heaven quarrel not.
Of your body you are shorn;
God have mercy on your soul!86