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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 Karl Leberecht Immermann (1796–1840)

GOETHE, as early as 1823, speaking of Immermann, praised his talents highly. “We shall see,” he said, “how he develops: if he be willing to take the trouble to purify his taste and to follow as regards form those models which are recognized as the best. His originality has its value, but all too easily it may lead him astray.”

When Goethe passed this cautious judgment, Immermann was in his twenty-seventh year; he had published only a few youthful dramas and a volume of poems, which had enrolled him among the Romanticists; many years of ideal striving still lay before him ere his versatile talents found their proper sphere. He spent his life in writing dramas, now for the most part forgotten; and at last won his permanent place in literature by two novels: ‘Die Epigonen’ (The Epigoni), and the more widely known ‘Münchhausen.’ The year following the publication of the latter, he died.

Immermann was born at Magdeburg on April 24th, 1796. He took up the study of law at the University of Halle; but when all Germany rose in the wars for freedom he abandoned his books and enlisted in the army. Illness prevented him at first from taking an active part in the campaign; but after the return of Napoleon from Elba, Immermann fought at the battles of Ligny and Waterloo, and under the command of Blücher entered Paris with the allied troops. He left the army with an officer’s rank, and for the next two years diligently pursued his law studies at Halle. In 1817 he entered the service of the Prussian State. It was during these two years that he attended the theatrical performances of the Weimar troupe, and received those impressions which shaped his career as dramatist and dramaturgist. In his profession he distinguished himself, and in a few years became a judge on the bench of the criminal court at Magdeburg. In 1826 he was transferred to Düsseldorf, where he brought a literary element into the circle of eminent artists already gathered there. Here for the first time his aspirations as a dramatist began to conflict with his professional duties. He obtained a release for one year, with permission to undertake the direction of the City Theatre. In spite of the enthusiasm with which he devoted himself to this task, and the excellent artistic results he secured, the enterprise failed through lack of public support; but as a theatre director he had proven himself a worthy follower in the footsteps of Goethe.

Goethe’s influence is frequently observable in Immermann’s works. His ‘Merlin,’ which he has himself called “a tragedy of negation,” has strong traces of the ‘Faust’ spirit; but it is more purely allegorical, treads the earth less firmly, and as Kuno Francke says, its keynote is one of “discord and destruction,” whereas that of ‘Faust’ is one of “hope and endeavor.” In Immermann’s first romance, ‘The Epigoni,’ published in 1835, we have an echo of Goethe’s ‘Wilhelm Meister.’ It portrays certain aspects of the age, with its vices and its aspirations. It is designed to show the disastrous effects of modern civilization, with its changes in the methods of industrial production. The author declares that “with storm-like rapidity the present age is moving on towards a dry mechanism.” He calls the time “an age of the afterborn” (hence the title), and adds: “Of misfortune there has been enough at all times. The curse of the present generation is to be miserable without any particular misfortune.” There is a pessimistic coloring in his portrait of the time, and he never found the solution as Goethe did.

Of Immermann’s numerous dramas, the most important after ‘Merlin’ is ‘Das Trauerspiel in Tyrol’ (The Tragedy in the Tyrol), published in 1828. It is the story of the heroic patriot Andreas Hofer. But the work with which in the public mind Immermann’s name is most intimately associated is his second and last romance, ‘Münchhausen, eine Geschichte in Arabesken’ (Münchhausen, a Story in Arabesques), published in 1839. It consists of two loosely connected stories, of which the love idyl of peasant life in Westphalia with its survivals of patriarchal traditions—sometimes separately published with the title of ‘The Oberhof’—is full of genuine poetic feeling and fineness of character-drawing. Here, as in ‘The Epigoni,’ there are master strokes of satire, and a wealth of grotesque humor which sometimes suggests the incredible tales of the hero’s grandfather. This book is the author’s ripest work.

Immermann married in 1839 the daughter of Chancellor Niemeyer, and it was under the inspiration of this new happiness that he undertook to give a form of his own to the love epic of ‘Tristan and Isolde.’ At the same time he began writing his memorabilia. Both works remained unfinished. Immermann died on August 25th, 1840, at Düsseldorf. He was not a seer, and so fell short of being a great poet. The features of the age were plain to him, and he depicted them with the pen of a keen satirist; but he could not see what lay behind, nor point out the ailment which caused them to be distorted. He stood in opposition to his time; he sought his themes in remote realms. Merlin is not a modern like Faust; and Immermann was not, like Goethe, able to point the way humanity should go. But although the remote mediæval traditions which still obtain at the Oberhof lie far from the pathway of modern progress, there are a strange beauty and pathos in this delightful Westphalian idyl which render it a classic of the world’s literature.