German Romantic Literature
The end of the 18th century and the early 19th century (1795 - 1830) marked an outburst of artistic, literary, and intellectual creativity in German speaking lands, this signalled the beginning of the German Romantic Movement. The early Romantic period coincided with Weimer Classicism (1772 - 1805), another movement that is denoted by the literary partnership between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Both Goethe and Schiller are highly prominent figures in German Literature. Unlike Weimer Classicism, however, the German Romantic movement went well beyond plays, essays, and novels. It influenced the music, art, poetry, and sculpture of the time. Prominent music composers of this movement include Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, among many others. Artists like Casper David Friedrich, Carl Rottmann, Phillip Otto Runge, are some of the notables of the Romantic period. Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a well-renowned architect of Germany, also produced work influenced by the Romantic movement.
The German Romantic movement stemmed from Classicism. The early Romantics thought of themselves as supplementing the Classical thought. However, as the movement grew, it became further removed from Classicism. Nevertheless, due to the influence of the Classical consciousness, the German Romantic movement, unlike its English counterpart, was more critical than poetic. It is referred to as the period of the amalgamation of art, philosophy, religion, and life. The aim of the Romantics was to attain and understand the infinite, without the limitations of a goal or an object. They believed that the finite appealed to the worldly mind whereas the infinite was for the subtler spirit. They wanted to explore boundless emotions and longing, unfathomed depths and unconscious; they found this notion of the infinite in distant pasts and far-away lands. Novalis, a distinct figure of the movement wrote, “at a distance, everything becomes poetic, everything becomes romantic”.
This Romantic movement however, is marked by a blurring between the different modes of expressions. Art became music, sculpture became paintings, paintings became poems. So, for having a better understanding of this movement, we recommend that you also look into its other aspects, that go beyond the written word. But, in the meanwhile, these are our 4 favourite German Romantic texts.
The Broken Jug
Heinrich Von Kleist
Heinrich Von Kleist is a German novelist, short story writer, journalist, and dramatist. His play The Broken Jug was written in 1806 and has continued to receive critical acclaim, long after his death. His work was heavily influenced by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He is best known for his short stories and plays. The Kleist Prize and the Kleist Theatre, both in Germany, are testimony to his legacy. His work inspired and influenced, Frank Kafka, a celebrated Czech author.
The broken Jug is a comedy inspired by the French playwright Molière. The play premiered in Weimer, Germany in 1808 and was staged by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is still considered among the masterpieces of German dramatic comedy. It has 13 scenes but unlike traditional plays, it is performed without a break. The play touches upon the themes of human feelings, and their frail nature. It depicts vivid characters with skilful dialogue and earthy humour. The play also comments on the fallibility of the justice system. Kleist, with his brilliant narrative, weaves the two themes together seamlessly and presents the audience with an engaging comedy.
Written in 1816, The Sandman is a short story by the German author E.T.A Hoffmann. The story is a timeless nightmare. It is considered to be a masterpiece among horror aficionados. The story influenced the German psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who used quotations from the story in his essay, The Uncanny. With its unreliable narrator, the narrative is an allegory describing the struggle between madness and rationality. The psychological suspense in the story, also makes the reader redefine the subjective and the objective.
Borrowing from a children’s story with the same title, Hoffmann takes the image of the Sandman and uses it to bring out the dark side of human nature. In the original children’s tale, The Sandman is a fairy that sprinkles dust in the eyes of children, so that they can fall deep into Slumberland, the land of sleep. He is a mystic creature used to encourage children to be quiet and obedient. Hoffmann viewed this as problematic and as a threat. Hoffmann’s Sandman, therefore, is a distortion of the fairy tale. His Sandman brings hot bags of burning sand. He also blinds young children and collects their eyeballs. The Sandman in Hoffmann’s story is a perversion of humankind, his only yearning is to cause hopelessness and sufferings. Despite its eerie and unsettling narrative, Hoffmann’s story leaves the reader perplexed about the human subconscious and its appetite for brutality.
Book of Songs
Written in 1827, The Book of Songs is Heine’s collection of poems about unrequited love. Regarded as Heine’s magnum opus, poems from this collection were later set to music by composers Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Heine is a lyrical poet who was famous outside of Germany. The collection is divided into 5 sections namely – Young Sorrows, Lyrical Intermezzo, Homecoming, From The Harz Journey, and The North Sea. All the sections have a melancholic undertone; they touch upon themes like loss, absence from home, disappointments, and self-pity. Heine is consumed by nature as he elaborately asserts to the villas, the gardens, the people, the oxen, the meadows, and the tress. These descriptions also highlight a keen sense of observation possessed by Heine and its use in his poetry.
However, his political ideologies were too radical for the Nazi government, they had, therefore, banned and burned his books. His ironic style of writing brought him both admirers and critics. Due to his Jewish background and unapologetic poems, his reputation in Germany after the second world war was tarnished. Heine spent many years in France, his international reputation therefore, is much more glorious and long-lasting.
George Eliot, in her collection of essays, describes Heine as, “nature has not made him of her sterner stuff - not of iron or adamant, but of pollen of flowers, the juice of the grape, and Puck’s mischievous brain, plenteously mixing also the dews of Kindly affection and the gold-dust of noble thoughts”.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Faust is a two-part tragic play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The first part was published in 1808, however in 1828, Goethe republished a revised version of it. The second part was published posthumously in 1831. The play is widely appreciated and is his most popular work. It is also considered to be one of the greatest works of German Literature.
In the first part of the play, Johann Faust, a German man makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles. He agrees to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly fulfilment. Through a brilliantly written play, Goethe shows that despite having everything possible in his human life, Faust continues to be an unfulfilled man. His tragedy is that he is unable to experience life in its entirety, with its failures and disappointments, and it is, therefore, that his life is not a satisfying one filled with love.
In the second part of the play, Goethe makes literary allusions to the Helen of Troy, Homer, Lord Byron, among others. He also uses references from the Roman Empire, imperialism in the 1820s, and the French empire. Goethe explores the notion of human fulfilment and delivers his understanding of it to the reader. The play leaves the reader with both, endless possibility and anxiety. It invites the reader to look inwards and consider their own notions of fulfilment.