« ZurückWeiter »
with the progress of the kindred arts, and the other departments of letters. No parade, however, is made of his learning; the results of investigation are given, not the processes. Elaborate in its style without being pedantic, rich in significant facts and instructive principles, and free from the details of minute criticism, the work of Gervinus has a higher artistic merit than is usually found in the productions of his countrymen.
We should do our author little honor by instituting a comparison between his labors and those of his predecessors in this department of literary effort. Less brilliant, indeed, than the author of "German Literature," he is, however, less prejudiced and less egotistical; is sounder in principle, more profoundly learned, and more classical in taste. He has written a purely historical, and not, like those who preceded him, an æsthetical work; he has also avoided the common fault of overrating the early poetry of the Germans, in comparison with that of recent times. He has contemplated the progress of poetry from a new point of view, showing what part his countrymen have taken in restoring the pure forms and unconscious spirit of those early days, when Homer, Pindar, and Sophocles sang from the pure love of song, and before the prevalence of philosophy throughout Greece, by developing the reflective powers of the national mind, had infused the sentiments of the schools into the measures of poesy.
In attempting to give our readers some account of this elaborate work, we shall follow quite closely in the track of the author, expressing his opinions rather than our own, and adopting even his language and illustrations when it suits our purpose, though with such modifications that it may not be proper to mark the passage as an extract.
The earliest German ballads have been lost; but there is sufficient reason for believing, that the infancy of this, as of every other nation, including even the degraded tribes of Africa and the rude natives of Kamtschatka, was delighted and instructed by songs. Tacitus alludes to old ballads, in which the earth-born Tuisco, and Mannus, his son, were celebrated as the founders of the German race; and makes mention of the barritus, or discordant chant accompanied by the clashing together of many bucklers, which inflamed the souls of the warriors on the eve of battle. The bards re
corded in song all public transactions, related in succession the names of their kings, and sang the praises of heroes like Hercules and Arminius. The gift of song does not appear, however, to have been confined to any distinct class of persons, but to have been enjoyed by the people at large. If there were wandering minstrels, who gained a livelihood by the use of the lyre, they were probably not numerous, and their vocation was held in but little esteem. Unlike the Grecian, the German warriors all joined in the battle chant and pæan. No priestly order, like the Druids of Gaul, taught in hymns the fables of their mythology; but, as in modern times, the whole people were the guardians of poetry and song, always more universally popular in this than in any other nation of modern Europe.
The poetry of the German bards can bear no comparison with that of the early Greeks. No song of Sirens was ever heard by the rude voyagers of the Suevian Sea. No Orpheus of the North ever softened the ferocity of Teutonic boars and bears, or drew after him the rocks and trees of the Hercynian forest. Nor could the Germans, situated in a temperate clime, and amid natural scenery of a mild and simple character, have breathed into their early poetry the fiery passions of the Arabians, inhabiting the burning sands of the desert, or the sublime conceptions of the Scandinavians, surrounded by their tempestuous seas, widely-spread snow-plains, and rugged mountains. In this central region, early fable and mythology received more of a historical and humane character; while, during the endless nights of the North, the imagination peopled the darkness with gigantic and superhuman shapes, and beneath the resplendent skies of the South, the fancy revelled in fictions the most fantastic and gorgeous. The life of the German being one of rapine and war, his songs were imbued with the spirit of revenge and daring, with the love of the ruder virtues, and the veneration of supernatural divinities, with praises of the steed, the bow, the shield, and the spear. War, in fact, was the burden of song in the heroic age, as love afterwards was in that of chivalry.
The regular growth of the early song and tradition of the Germans was checked by their numerous migrations, and their prolonged wars with the Roman Empire. Movements so stupendous must have absorbed all the interests - No. 122.
and energies of the barbarian tribes who took part in them. The foundations of society were broken up, whole nations changed their dwelling-places, ancient tribes were dissolved and new ones created, and the languages, laws, and usages of the people were either greatly modified or entirely destroyed. Amid this wild confusion of marching nations, the sweet voices of the ancient bards could no longer be heard. Tribes passed away whose exploits were never chronicled; heroes lived and died, unsung; and the names of few chieftains, except those of Attila and Theodoric, were rescued from unmerited oblivion by the lyre.
With the introduction of Christianity, the heathen bards, who had celebrated the exploits of Hermann and Velida, of Attila and Theodoric, gave place to the ecclesiastical poets, who reduced to verse the legends of the saints and the narratives of the New Testament. They used not the vernacular language of Germany, but the Latin tongue of the more enlightened South; and, instead of the alliteration of the bardic songs, introduced the rhyme of modern poetry. The love of letters was confined to the clerical order, even down to the expiration of the Frankish dynasty; but as the cloister was more serviceable in preserving the treasures of classic learning, and in promoting those abstract studies which require seclusion from the disturbing influences of society, than in the cultivation of the art of poetry, which is best learned in the midst of men and the stirring events of real life, we find at the present day not so much poetical, as linguistic merit in these effusions of the sacerdotal muse. It should be added, however, that the Æsopic fables of those times, particularly the "Reinhart Fuchs," are not destitute of poetical merit.
The next great event which materially influenced the literature of Germany was the beginning of the Crusades. This great struggle between Mohammedanism and Christianity, together with the extinction of the Celtic nations, and the discovery both of the New World and the passage by the Cape of Good Hope to the East Indies, brought to a close the dominion of barbarian heroism and classic culture over Europe, and ushered in the reign of Christian sentiment and modern ideas. The knowledge of foreign life and literature, introduced among the Germans by intercourse with the inhabitants of distant countries, elevated the character of the
clerical order, placed the lyre in the hands of some of the most famous heroes of the Crusades at the same time with the sword, and at length wrested from the priesthood the privilege they had enjoyed since the introduction of Christianity, of retaining among themselves exclusively the cultivation of letters. The poetical use of the vernacular tongue, instead of the Latin, was restored; and what was before read from the books of the learned was now heard from the lips of knights and princes.
Christianity, which at a later period exerted a powerful effect in developing the imagination and the understanding of the Germans, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries addressed itself almost exclusively to the cultivation of the feelings, and nourished the most pious and generous sentiments. The steel-clad knight devoted himself to the defence of the faith of Christ, the protection of innocence, the service of woman, the practice of arms, and the cultivation of poesy. He wore the cross as a badge of his faith; and bore the sword not only as a weapon of death, but as the symbol of his honor. Sentiment was the characteristic of the poetry, as of the life, of the Middle Ages. Love was the common theme of the almost innumerable songs of this period. The knights and nobles of Germany were devoted to warlike pursuits, it is true; they tilted for fame in the tournament, and courted death in battle; they lived by the toils of the chase, the spoils of war, and the gains of marauding; and yet, strange to say, scarcely a war-song is to be found in all the productions of the times. The neighing of the war-horse and the blast of the trumpet are not heard in their poetical effusions; but rather the cooing of doves, and the melting strains of enamoured birds. The productions of these Minnesingers (Love-singers) are, in truth, somewhat effeminate. Grimm called their art womanish. It did not portray, it must be acknowledged, the great and manly qualities of that stirring age. Entirely subjective in its character, it expressed in gentle words only the tender sentiments. It sung almost exclusively the delights and pains of love, the bloom of May and the desolateness of winter, the hopes of youth and the miseries of age, the promise of the future and the regrets of the past.
In manliness of character, as well as in originality of genius, the Minnesingers of Germany were decidedly inferior
The minstrels of the
to the Troubadours of Provence. South sang the honors of war, the duties of knighthood, and the loyalty of vassals, as well as the pleasures of love and the praises of the fair. The verse of Castelnau glows with enthusiasm for his rank and order; that of Boniface with hatred of jurists and prelates; that of Figuera with zeal against Rome and the Pope. Religious opinions, philosophy, romance, every thing, in fact, that was in life, appears in the poetry of the Troubadours. They directed public opinion; and, with true lyric feeling, lived in the present, as the epic poet does in the past. Men held in high esteem both their counsel and their praise; they dreaded the indignation expressed both by their lips and their songs. These minstrels entered the lists of love with princes for rivals, and even assailed the throne with political opposition. The comprehensive culture of the Troubadours gave rise to the greatest diversities of poetic talent, and to very marked differences in the value of their productions; but we can produce numerous specimens from the Minnesingers, which it would require a sharp eye and discriminating study to distinguish from each other. Poets of the former class are rich and varied, while the latter are fervent, in sentiment, the former being delighted with the mingled play of the emotions, while the others are content with the full utterance of a single feeling. The passion of the Troubadours is stronger and wilder, and has none of that German modesty, which presumes not even to mention the name of its beloved in song. Amid much that is frivolous, what is truly noble in them appears to greater advantage; and, when their lays do breathe the spirit of faithful love, one is more convinced of its genuineness than in the Minnesongs of the North, where vows and oaths are too often repeated with conventional heartlessness. Hence it was, that even Dante and Petrarch did not disdain to refresh their genius at the living fountains of the Valencian minstrelsy.
In the early part of the thirteenth century, while the poetry of chivalry was in its highest estate, was discovered the Lay of the Nibelungen." This is a collection of old heroic songs, which appear to have been originally composed by different individuals, but were afterwards compiled and wrought together by the skill either of Henry von Ofterdingen, or of some one of the minstrels who embellished with the