Hardly a month after Goethe’s arrival at Weimar he passed on to the Duke, with warm approval, Wieland’s suggestion that the vacant post of Generalsuperintendent of the clergy and the schools of the duchy be offered to Johann Gottfried Herder. The Duke agreed.
Born at Mohrungen in East Prussia (August 25, 1744), Herder was, by geography and Baltic mists, akin to Immanuel Kant. His father was a poor schoolmaster and Pietist cantor, so that the boy had all the uses of adversity. From the age of five he suffered from a fistula in the right eye. Soon required to add to the family income, he left school to become secretary and servant to Sebastian Trescho, who made ¿ good living by writing handbooks of piety. Trescho had a library, which johann consumed. At eighteen he was sent to Königsberg to have the fistula removed, and to study medicine at the university. The operation failed, and the dissection classes so upset the youth’s stomach that he turned from medicine to theology.
He formed a friendship with Hamann, who taught him English, using Hamlet as a text; Herder learned almost all the play by heart. He attended Kant’s lectures on geography, astronomy, and Wolff’s philosophy; Kant liked him so much that he excused him from the fees charged for the courses. Herder supported himself by translating and tutoring, and from the age of twenty to twenty-five he taught in the cathedral school at Riga. At twenty-one he was ordained a Lutheran minister; at twenty-two he became a Freemason;63at twenty-three he was appointed adjutant pastor in two churches near Riga. He broke into print at twenty-two with a volume Über die neuere deutsche Litteratur; he added a second and third tome to it a year later; Kant, Lessing, Nikolai, and Lavater were impressed by the young author’s learning, and they commended his appeal for a national literature liberated from foreign tutelage.
Herder anticipated the Werther fashion by falling hopelessly in love with a married woman; he suffered so severe a physical and mental depression that he was given a leave of absence with promise of re-employment at a better salary on his return. He borrowed money, left Riga (May 23, 1769), and never saw it again. He went by ship to Nantes, stayed there four months, and passed to Paris. He met Diderot and d’Alembert, but he was never won to the French Enlightenment.
His bent was aesthetic rather than intellectual. In Paris he began to collect primitive poetry, and found in it more delight than in the classic literature of France. He read Macpherson’s “Ossian” in a German translation, and pronounced these skillful imitations superior to most modern English verse after Shakespeare. He began in 1769 those essays in artistic and literary criticism which he called Wäldchen (groves); three volumes of these he published in his lifetime as Kritische Wälder (Critical Woods). In February, 1770, he spent fourteen days in fruitful contact with Lessing at Hamburg. Then he joined the Prince of Holstein-Gottorp as tuter and companion, and traveled with him through western Germany. In Cassel he met Rudolph Raspe, professor of archaeology and soon to be author of Baron Münchausen’s Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785). Raspe had called the attention of Germany to Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in the year of its appearance (1765). Herder was strengthened in his belief that poets should abandon the Win-ckelmann-Lessing call for imitation of Greek classics, and should rather cling to the popular sources of their nation’s traditions in folk poetry and ballad history.
Passing with the Prince to Darmstadt, Herder met its “Circle of Sensitives,” took kindly to their exaltation of sentiment, and especially appreciated the sentiments of Caroline Flachsland, the orphaned sister-in-law of Privy Councilor Andreas von Hesse. He was invited to preach in a local church. She heard him and was moved; they walked in the woods; they touched hands and he was moved. He proposed. She warned him that she lived on the charity of her sister, and could bring him no dowry; he replied that he was heavily in debt, had only the dimmest prospects, and was committed to accompany the Prince. They pledged each other no formal troth, but agreed to love each other by mail. On April 27, 1770, his party left for Mannheim.
When it reached Strasbourg Herder, though he longed to see Italy, left the Prince. The fistula in his lachrymal gland blocked the tear duct to the nostril, causing constant pain. Dr. Lobstein, professor of gynecology at the university, promised that an operation would clear up the matter in three weeks. Herder submitted, without anesthetics, to repeated drilling of a channel through the bone to the nasal passage. Infection set in, and for almost six months Herder was confined to his hotel room, discouraged by the failure of the operation, and gloomy with doubts of his future. It was in this mood of suffering and pessimism that he met Goethe (September 4, 1770). “I was able to be present at the operation,” Goethe recalled, “and to be serviceable in many ways.”64 He was inspired by Herder’s view that poetry arose instinctively among the people, not from “a few refined and cultivated men.”65 When Herder left, his funds quite exhausted, Goethe “borrowed a sum of money for him,” which Herder later repaid.
Reluctantly he accepted an invitation from Count Wilhelm zu Lippe, ruler of the little principality of Schaumburg-Lippe, in northwest Germany, to serve him as court preacher and consistory president in his modest capital, Bückeburg. In April, 1771, Herder left Strasbourg, visited Caroline at Darmstadt and Goethe at Frankfurt, and reached Bückeburg on the twenty-eighth. He found the Count an “enlightened despot” of a rigid disciplinarian cast. The town was provincial in everything but music, which was well supplied by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. Herder resigned himself to isola tion from the mainstream of German thought; but the books that he issued from his foot of earth powerfully affected that stream, and shared in forming the literary ideas of Sturm und Drang. He assured German authors that if they were to seek their inspiration in the roots of the nation and the life of the people they would in time outshine all that the French had done. In philosophy and science this prediction was verified.
His Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (Treatise on the Origin of Language, 1772) won the prize that had been offered by the Berlin Academy in 1770. While sincerely professing piety, Herder rejected the notion that language was a special creation of God; it was a human creation, naturally resulting from the processes of sensation and thought. Originally, he suggested, language and poetry were one as expressions of emotion, and verbs, expressing action, were the first “part of speech.”—Another volume,Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte (One More Philosophy of History, 1774), presented history as “the natural philosophy of successive events.” Each civilization was a biological entity, a plant with its own birth, youth, maturity, decline, and death; it should be studied from the standpoint of its own time, without moral prepossessions based on another environment and age. Like the Romantics in general, Herder admired the Middle Ages as the age of imagination and feeling, of popular poetry and art, of rural simplicity and peace; by contrast, post-Reformation Europe was the worship of the state, of money, urban luxury, artificiality, and vice. He criticized the Enlightenment as the idolatry of reason, and compared it unfavorably with the classic cultures of Greece and Rome. In all the historic process Herder, like Bossuet, saw the hand of God, but sometimes the eloquent pastor forgot his theology, and thought that “the general change of the world was guided far less by man than by a blind fate.”66
His loneliness moved him, despite his meager income, to ask Caroline and her brother-in-law might he come and make her his wife. They consented, and the lovers were married at Darmstadt on May 2, 1773. They returned to Bückeburg, and Herder borrowed money to make his rectory a pleasant home for his mate. She gave him a lifelong service and devotion. Through her a coolness that had developed between Herder and Goethe was ended, and when Goethe found himself in a position to recommend the pastor to a more remunerative post, he was happy to do it. On October 1, 1776, Herder and Caroline arrived in Weimar, and moved into the house that Goethe had prepared for them. Now only one member had yet to come of the quadrum-virate that was to make Weimar’s fame.