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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 Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825–1898)

FOREMOST among the German poets and novelists of our time stand the two Swiss writers Gottfried Keller and Konrad Ferdinand Meyer. Strongly contrasted as their lives were in external circumstances, and widely different as were the fields from which they chose their materials, in their artistic aims the two men had much in common. Keller’s life was a long battle with small things, and fame was slow in coming; Meyer has led a life of literary leisure, devoted to self-cultivation and indifferent to public recognition. But in the work of each of these poets there is the same perfection of form and fastidious polish of style. Keller is perhaps more rugged and vigorous; Meyer depicts life with the keen insight of a contemplative and poetic student of history. In both cases the treatment is realistic. Keller’s, however, is obviously the realism of actual observation and experience; Meyer’s is the realism of a plastic mind infusing life into the facts and forms of a bygone age. Together these two men are the chief ornaments of modern Swiss literature.

Konrad Ferdinand Meyer was born at Zürich on October 12th, 1825. His younger years were passed in Geneva and Lausanne, where he acquired command of the French language. For a time it was his intention to study law; but after a brief experience at the University of Zürich, he abandoned the idea. Moved solely by his own inclinations, and for years with no other purpose than the gratification of his own tastes, he devoted himself with scholarly ardor to the study of history. It is a curious instance of a blind impulse guiding genius into its proper course. Still unproductive, he went to Paris in 1857 to pursue his historical studies, and spent the following year in Italy. Since 1875 he has lived at his country home, at Kilchberg near Zürich. His life has been free from sordid cares, and filled chiefly with the joys of scholarly labor and poetic creation.

Meyer had reached the prime of life when he first entered the field of literature. His first public venture was a collection of ‘Ballads’ which came out in 1867, when their author was in his forty-second year. In 1870 came a volume of poems entitled ‘Romances and Pictures.’ But it was not until the appearance of ‘Hutten’s Last Days’—a highly original cycle of poems, half lyric, half epic—that Meyer began to attract attention. This was in 1871; and in the same year the idyllic ‘Engelberg’ was published. Herein also may be found the epic element which reveals the mind of a poet, whose chief intellectual delight is the study of history.

But it was the long array of his vigorous and brilliant stories that brought to Meyer the full measure of fame he now enjoys. ‘Der Heilige’ (The Saint), in which is told the story of Thomas Becket, is one of the most finished pieces of historical fiction in German literature. Next in finish of execution to this figure of Becket stands that of the somber and impressive Dante, into whose mouth, as he sits in the halls of Cangrande, is put the thrilling tale of ‘The Monk’s Wedding.’ This book, which appeared in 1884, and ‘The Temptation of Pescara’ (1889), may perhaps be singled out as the best of these historical romances; but the list of Meyer’s works is a long one, and none of them shows hasty workmanship nor flagging powers; and the public interest remains unabated.

Meyer is a master of clear objective treatment. He never interposes himself, nor intrudes historical information. As the reader accompanies the characters through their experiences, he has only to look about to see how things once appeared, and how men once behaved in the dead days which the poet is re-creating. The thing is presented as the author sees it in his plastic imagination, and the vividness of the impression it conveys is independent of all historical accessories and learned elucidation. Meyer died at Kilchberg on November 28th, 1898.