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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Gottfried August Bürger (1747–1794)

THE BALLAD of ‘Lenore,’ upon which Bürger’s fame chiefly rests, was published in 1773. It constituted one of the articles in that declaration of independence which the young poets of the time were formulating, and it was more than a mere coincidence that in the same year Herder wrote his essay on ‘Ossian’ and the ‘Songs of Ancient Peoples,’ and Goethe unfurled the banner of a new time in ‘Götz von Berlichingen.’ The artificial and sentimental trivialities of the pigtail age were superseded almost at a stroke, and the petty formalism under which the literature of Germany was languishing fell about the powdered wigs of its professional representatives. The new impulse came from England. As in France, Rousseau, preaching the gospel of a return to nature, found his texts in English writers, so in Germany the poets who inaugurated the classic age derived their chief inspiration from the wholesome heart of England. It was Shakespeare that inspired Goethe’s ‘Götz’; Ossian and the old English and Scotch folk-songs were Herder’s theme; and Percy’s ‘Reliques’ stimulated and saved the genius of Bürger. This was the movement which, for lack of a better term, has been called the naturalistic. Literature once more took possession of the whole range of human life and experience, descending from her artificial throne to live with peasant and people. These ardent innovators spurned all ancient rules and conventions, and in the first ecstasy of their new-found freedom and unchastened strength it is no wonder that they went too far. Goethe and Schiller learned betimes the salutary lesson of artistic restraint. Bürger never learned it.

Bürger was wholly a child of his time. At the age of twenty-six he wrote ‘Lenore,’ and his genius never again attained that height. Much may be accomplished in the first outburst of youthful energy; but without the self-control which experience should teach, and without the moral character which is the condition of great achievement, genius rots ere it is ripe; and this was the case with Bürger. We are reminded of Burns. Goethe in his seventy-eighth year said to Eckermann:—“What songs Bürger and Voss have written! Who would say that they are less valuable or less redolent of their native soil than the exquisite songs of Burns?” Like Burns, Bürger was of humble origin; like Burns, he gave passion and impulse the reins and drove to his own destruction; like Burns, he left behind him a body of truly national and popular poetry which is still alive in the mouths of the people.

Bürger was born in the last hour of the year 1747 at Molmerswende. His father was a country clergyman, and he himself was sent to Halle at the age of seventeen to study theology. His wild life there led to his removal to Göttingen, where he took up the study of law. He became a member and afterwards the leader of the famous “Göttinger Dichterbund,” and was carried away and for a time rescued from his evil courses by his enthusiasm for Shakespeare and Percy’s ‘Reliques.’ He contributed to the newly established Musenalmanach, and from 1779 until his death in 1794 he was its editor. In 1787 the university conferred an honorary degree upon him, and he was soon afterward made a professor without salary, lecturing on Kantian philosophy and æsthetics. Three times he was married; his days were full of financial struggles and self-wrought misery; there is little in his private life that is creditable to record: a dissolute youth was followed by a misguided manhood, and he died in his forty-seventh year.

It fell to the lot of the young Goethe, then an unknown reviewer, to write for the Frankfurter Gelehrte Anzeigen in November, 1772, a notice of some of Bürger’s early poems. “The ‘Minnelied’ of Mr. Bürger,” he says, “is worthy of a better age; and if he has more such happy moments, these efforts of his will be among the most potent influences to render our sentimental poetasters, with their gold-paper Amors and Graces and their elysium of benevolence and philanthropy, utterly forgotten.” With such clear vision could Goethe see at the age of twenty-three. But he soon saw also the danger that lay in unbridled freedom. For the best that was in Bürger Goethe retained his admiration to the last, but before he was thirty he felt that their ways had parted. Among the ‘Maxims and Reflections’ we find this note:—“It is sad to see how an extraordinary man may struggle with his time, with his circumstances, often even with himself, and never prosper. Sad example, Bürger!”

Doubtless German literature owes less to Bürger than English owes to Burns, but it owes much. Bürger revived the ballad form in which so much of the finest German poetry has since been cast. With his lyric gifts and his dramatic power, he infused a life into these splendid poems that has made them a part of the folk-lore of his native land. ‘Lenardo und Blandine,’ his own favorite, ‘Des Pfarrers Tochter von Taubenhain’ (The Pastor’s Daughter of Taubenhain), ‘Das Lied vom braven Mann’ (The Song of the Brave Man), ‘Die Weiber von Weinsberg’ (The Women of Weinsberg), ‘Der Kaiser und der Abt’ (The Emperor and the Abbot), ‘Der Wilde Jäger’ (The Wild Huntsman), all belong, like ‘Lenore,’ to the literary inheritance of the German people. Bürger attempted a translation of the Iliad in iambic blank verse, and a prose translation of ‘Macbeth.’ To him belongs also the credit of having restored to German literature the long-disused sonnet. His sonnets are among the best in the language, and elicited warm praise from Schiller as “models of their kind.” Schiller had written a severe criticism of Bürger’s poems, which had inflamed party strife and embittered the last years of Bürger himself; but even Schiller admits that Bürger is as much superior to all his rivals as he is inferior to the ideal he should have striven to attain.

The debt which Bürger owed to English letters was amply repaid. In ‘Lenore’ he showed Percy’s ‘Reliques’ the compliment of quoting from the ballad of ‘Sweet William,’ which had supplied him with his theme, the lines:—“Is there any room at your head, Willie, or any room at your feet?” The first literary work of Walter Scott was the translation which he made in 1775 of ‘Lenore,’ under the title of ‘William and Helen’; this was quickly followed by a translation of ‘The Wild Huntsman.’ Scott’s romantic mind received in Bürger’s ballads and in Goethe’s ‘Götz,’ which he translated four years later, just the nourishment it craved. It is a curious coincidence that another great romantic writer, Alexandre Dumas, should also have begun his literary career with a translation of ‘Lenore.’ Bürger was not, however, a man of one poem. He filled two goodly volumes, but the oft-quoted words of his friend Schlegel contain the essential truth:—“‘Lenore’ will always be Bürger’s jewel, the precious ring with which, like the Doge of Venice espousing the sea, he married himself to the folk-song forever.”