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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 Matthias Claudius (1740–1815)

MATTHIAS CLAUDIUS, best known as “the Wandsbecker Bote” (the Messenger from Wandsbeck), was born at Reinfeld in Holstein, August 15th, 1740. He was of excellent stock, coming from a long line of clergymen. It was said that scarcely another family in Schleswig-Holstein had given to the church so many sons.

There is but little to record of the quiet boyhood passed in the picturesque stillness of the North German village. At the outset the education of Claudius was conducted by his father, the village pastor. From beginning to end his life was simple, moderate, and well ordered. After finishing his school days at Ploen, he entered the University of Jena (1759), with the intention of studying theology, in order to follow the traditions of the family and enter the ministry. This idea he was soon obliged to relinquish on account of a pulmonary weakness, and he turned instead to the study of jurisprudence. His strongest attraction was towards literature. He became a member of the literary guild in Jena; and later, when he had attained fame as the “Wandsbecker Bote,” he was intimately associated with Voss, F. L. Stolberg, Herder, and others of the Göttingen fraternity. His first verses, published in Jena in 1763, under the title “Tändeleien und Erzählungen’ (Trifles and Tales), gave no indication of his talents, and were no more than the usual student efforts of unconscious imitation; they have absolutely no poetic value, and are interesting only as they indicate a stage of development. In editing his works in later years, Claudius preserved of this early poetry only one song, ‘An eine Quelle’ (To a Spring).

After leaving the university in 1764, he took a position as private secretary to Count Holstein in Copenhagen; and here, under the powerful influence of Klopstock, whose friendship was at this time the most potent element of his life, and in the brilliant circle which that poet had drawn around him, Claudius entered fully into the life of sentiment and ideas which conduced so largely to his intellectual development. Some years later, after a fallow period spent in the quiet of his father’s house at Reinfeld, he settled at Wandsbeck, near Altona (1771), where in connection with Bode he published the Wandsbecker Bote, the popular weekly periodical so indissolubly associated with his name. His contributions under the name of “Asmus” found everywhere the warmest acceptance. In 1775, through Herder’s recommendation, Claudius was appointed Chief Land Commissioner at Darmstadt; but circumstances rendering the position uncongenial, he returned to his beloved Wandsbeck, where he supported his family by his pen until 1788, when Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark appointed him revisor of the Holstein Bank at Altona. He died in Hamburg, January 1st, 1815, in the house of his son-in-law, the bookseller Perthes.

A collection of his works, with the title ‘Asmus omnia sua secum portans, oder Sämmtliche Werke des Wandsbecker Boten’ (The Collected Works of the Wandsbeck Messenger), appeared at Hamburg, 1775–1812. These collected works comprise songs, romances, fables, poems, letters, etc., originally published in various places. The translation of Saint Martin and Fénelon marked the pietistic spirit of his later years, and is in strong contrast to the exuberance which produced the ‘Rheinweinlied’ (Rhine Wine Song) and ‘Urian’s Reise um die Welt’ (Urian’s Journey around the World).

Claudius as a poet won the hearts of his countrymen. His verses express his idyllic love of nature and his sympathy with rustic life. The poet and the man are one. His pure and simple style appealed to the popular taste, and some of his lyrics have become genuine folk-songs.