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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 Theodor Körner (1791–1813)

NO nobler or more inspiring figure has appeared in literary and martial annals than that of Theodor Körner, the youthful hero and bard of the German wars for freedom. The romantic melancholy which attaches to the memory of those who die so young is in Körner’s case enhanced by the brilliancy of his literary achievements, and by his glorious death on the field of battle when he was not yet twenty-two. It would seem that the story of so short a span might soon be told; but into the last two years of this brief life were crowded a marvelous literary productivity and splendid martial deeds. Under the inspiration of a great time, Körner’s genius, enthralled at first by Kotzebue and then elevated by Schiller, rose at last to independent heights, which have given him a place among the great poets of his native land.

Körner was born in Dresden, on September 23d, 1791. His father was Christian Gottfried Körner, who, although he produced nothing himself, yet occupies a high rank in the history of German literature. He was for twenty years the intimate friend and adviser of Schiller; and the correspondence between Goethe and Schiller shows the elder Körner to have been a high-minded man of unusual intellectual powers. Thus under home influences of the most favorable kind young Körner grew to manhood. He studied at Freiburg and at Leipzig; obliged to leave the latter university in consequence of a duel, he went to Berlin for a brief time, and in 1811 to Vienna, where his remarkable career may be said to have begun. A volume of immature poems had appeared the year before under the modestly chosen title of ‘Knospen’ (Buds); but in Vienna his genius seemed suddenly to expand into the full flower. He enjoyed the friendship of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich von Schlegel. His poet’s soul received new inspiration from the love of Antonie Adamberger, to whom he became engaged. And now there came from his pen with astonishing rapidity, poems, prose tales, comedies, and tragedies. His dramas won instant and extraordinary success, and the poet found himself the center of admiration at the Austrian capital. He had scarcely attained his majority when he was appointed poet of the Court Theatre. Of his comedies, several still hold the stage. His serious dramas evince high dramatic power and an unerring stage instinct, but they reveal also a lack of knowledge of the world. His tragedies are entirely in the rhetorical iambic style of Schiller, but they are filled with Schiller’s idealism and ardor for the noble and the good. The greatest of his tragedies is ‘Zriny,’ and this play is still in the repertoire of all the larger German theatres. This glowing presentation of the heroic Hungarian general produced a profound effect, and brought to the surface that fervor of patriotism which had already begun to do its emancipating work in the oppressed lands of Germany.

But the final consecration of Körner’s genius came with the summons of the Prussian king to rally to the liberation of the fatherland. With the fresh laurels of literary fame within his grasp, with a life of love and happiness before him, Körner deliberately went to die in his country’s service, refusing to remain idly at home singing of the heroic deeds of others. He joined the famous Lützow Free Corps in 1813. Universally beloved by his comrades, he was elected to a lieutenancy by their unanimous vote and became the adjutant of the major. This enabled him to play a prominent part in the bold enterprises of that dreaded company. It was during these thrilling days that the martial and patriotic songs which make up the collection of ‘Leier und Schwert’ (Lyre and Sword) were composed. These, with the airs to which Carl Maria von Weber set them, became a powerful force in maintaining the martial spirit of Germany. In these songs Körner’s genius finds its highest expression; they are among the most inspired patriotic utterances that German literature has to show. A few hours before his death on August 26th, 1813, he composed the fiery ‘Song of the Sword.’ He was reading it aloud in the woods where the troop was stationed when the signal to advance was given. The attack was begun, and near the village of Lützow Körner fell mortally wounded. Only a few days later one of Körner’s friends, a noble and accomplished youth, rushed to his death in the forefront of battle with the words, “Körner, I follow thee!” This was the spirit with which he inspired his comrades; and with this same spirit his songs inspired the entire fatherland. Under an oak-tree in the village of Wöbbelin he lies buried, and an iron monument commemorates his twofold fame. Not his songs only, but the noble example of his life has made Körner a fine inspirational force. It was of him that Mrs. Hemans sang:—

  • “A song for the death day of the brave—
  • A song of pride!
  • The youth went down to a hero’s grave
  • With the sword his pride!”