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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 Friedrich, Baron de La Motte-Fouqué (1777–1843)

THE ROMANTIC school had many false and erratic tendencies, but it produced some of the most fanciful and poetic creations of literature. Fouqué was called the Don Quixote of the Romanticists, and his early romances of chivalry were devoured by the public as quickly as they appeared. But his fame proved to be a passing fancy; and his later works scarcely found a publisher. This was owing partly to a change in public taste, and partly to his mannerisms. His descriptions often deteriorate into tediousness, and the narrative is broken by far-fetched digressions. He was so imbued with the spirit of chivalry that he became one-sided, and his scenes were always laid in “the chapel or the tilt-yard.” Critics of his time speak of his mediæval romances as “full of sweet strength and lovely virtue.” Others say “the heroes are almost absurd, and do not arouse enthusiasm.” Heine asserts that Fouqué’s laurel is genuine; Coleridge places him above Walter Scott; Thomas Carlyle compares him to Southey, and describes him as a man of genius, with little more than an ordinary share of talent. Fouqué was introduced to romanticism by Wilhelm von Schlegel, and drew his first inspiration from Cervantes. Whatever his shortcomings, it cannot be denied that he succeeded in catching the spirit of chivalry. His knights may be unreal and quixotic, but he delineates his characters with the irresistible touch of a poet, and his work displays noble thoughts and depth of feeling.

Friedrich, Baron de la Motte Fouqué, was descended from a French family that had emigrated to Prussia, and his grandfather was a general under Frederick the Great. Fouqué was born at Brandenburg, February 12th, 1777, and was a thorough German at heart. He received a military education, and at the age of nineteen proved himself a brave soldier in the campaign of the Rhine. He served under the Duke of Weimar, and his friend, and comrade in arms was the wonderfully gifted but unfortunate Heinrich von Kleist. He was obliged to resign on account of ill health, and withdrawing to his estates he devoted himself to literary pursuits. Once again, however, in the exciting times of the war against Napoleon, his sword defended his country. He enlisted as a volunteer, and was afterwards honorably retired with the rank of major and decorated with the Order of St. John. One of his patriotic poems, ‘Frisch auf zum Fröhlichen Jagen’ (Come, rouse ye for the merry hunt), with reference to the rising against Napoleon, is still a popular song. In Halle, Fouqué delivered lectures on history and poetry which attracted much attention and admiration. In 1842 he was called to Berlin by Frederick William IV., but his literary efforts were at an end. He died in Berlin, January 23d, 1843.

At the beginning of this century, Fouqué was one of the most celebrated authors. At the present day, with a few brilliant exceptions, all of his plays, romances, and poems have been relegated to oblivion. There is one work, however, a gem in German literature, that has won for its author an enduring place in the memory of readers; and that is the charming and graceful narrative of ‘Undine.’ It affords an example of the writer’s best style of production; it breathes the fresh fragrance of the woods, and is animated by the beautiful thought that peoples the sea and air with nymphs and spirits. With exquisite tenderness Fouqué portrays the beautiful character of Undine. At first her nature reflects all the capriciousness of the elements, then, gradually growing more human through her love, her soul expands and she becomes an ideal of womanly love, devotion, and unselfishness.

The real and unreal are so perfectly blended in this story, that the suffering of Undine excites deep sympathy. Undine, the foster-daughter of a good old fisherman and his wife, is a water nymph, and as such is born without a soul. The knight Huldbrand von Ringstetten is sent by Bertalda in quest of adventure, and riding through an enchanted forest he reaches the fisherman’s hut, where he is detained by a storm. He falls in love with the laughing, wayward Undine, and marries her. At once the bewitching maiden gives up her wild pranks, grows gentle, and is devoted to the knight with all her heart; for through her marriage to a human being she receives a soul. Her uncle Kühleborn, a forest brook, tries to entice her back to her native element the sea.

The bridal couple go to their castle, where Bertalda joins them, doing much to disturb their happiness. Huldbrand, though he still loves his beautiful wife, cannot at times suppress an instinctive shudder, and he is attracted to Bertalda, whose nature is more akin to his own.

One day, while they are sailing on the Danube, Kühleborn manages to steal away a necklace with which Bertalda is playing in the water. Undine richly compensates Bertalda for her loss by a much rarer gift, but Huldbrand angrily upbraids her for continuing to hold intercourse with her uncanny relatives. In tears she parts from him, and vanishes in the waves. The knight marries Bertalda, but on the wedding-day, Undine, deeply veiled, rises from the sea to claim her husband, and with a kiss she takes away his life.

Heine says of ‘Undine’:—

  • “A wondrous lovely poem. The genius of Poetry kissed slumbering Spring, and smiling he opened his eyes, and all the roses and the nightingales sang; and what the fragrant roses said and what the nightingales sang, our worthy Fouqué put into words and called it ‘Undine.’”