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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 Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827)

“I LOVE no lyric poet excepting Goethe so much as Wilhelm Müller,” wrote Heine; and indeed, as he himself gladly acknowledged, Heine owed to Müller many a tricksy lyric charm. Müller was born at Dessau on October 7th, 1794, and there he died on September 30th, 1827. In this brief space of thirty years he succeeded in leaving upon the hearts of the German people an impress of his poetic personality, that seems destined to last while songs are sung and nature still has charms. He died just as his genius was maturing. His spirit was preparing for higher flights when it passed from earth altogether. He is thus a poet for the young—for those who delight in “young love and old wine.” The heart of youth finds in Müller’s poems the expression of its own vague longings and undefined emotions; and the heart of the aged, if it has preserved its freshness, is quickened by the genial flow of his simple, passionate verse.

Müller, like thousands of spirits far less fine than his, was touched to patriotic issues at the time of the great uprising against Napoleon. He had begun the study of philology and history at Berlin when the wars for freedom broke out. During 1813 and 1814, following the call of the Prussian king, he served his country as a volunteer, as Kleist and Körner did. He then quietly resumed the study of Old German at the Berlin University. This taste for old Germanic lore reveals that tendency of mind which in his son, Professor Max Müller, has reached its scholarly fruition. In the father’s case these studies were placed first of all at the service of the Muses; through them he acquired that intimate knowledge of the essential qualities of early German culture, which enabled him so perfectly to catch the tone of the German folk-song. In the circle of young Berlin poets, his talent found stimulus and encouragement. In 1815 this group of friends issued the ‘Bundesblätter’ (Leaves of Union), and here are to be found the earliest poems of Wilhelm Müller.

In 1817 there came to Müller, as to Geibel later, the ardently desired opportunity of standing upon classic soil. He went to Italy, and the literary result of his trip was the graceful book published in 1820, and entitled ‘Rom, Römer, und Römerinnen’ (Rome, and Roman Men and Women). Upon his return in 1819, he was called to his native city of Dessau as a teacher of ancient languages. At the same time he held the post of librarian of the newly founded Ducal Library. His philological works were chiefly contributions to encyclopædias and other compilations. He translated Marlowe’s ‘Faustus,’ and Achim von Arnim wrote the preface; Fauriel’s collection of modern Greek folk-songs he also put into German. Perhaps the most valuable of his scholarly undertakings was the ‘Library of German Poets of the Seventeenth Century,’ in ten volumes.

But it is not upon these things that Müller’s fame rests. He was first of all a poet; and this became evident to the public at large when in 1821 he published ‘Gedichte aus den Hinterlassenen Papieren eines Reisenden Waldhornisten’ (Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Traveling Bugler). In the same year appeared the first of the famous ‘Griechenlieder’ (Songs of the Greeks), in which the profound sympathy of the German people with the Greek struggle for freedom found stirring expression. With his love for the heroes of ancient Greece he combined a splendid enthusiasm for Byron, Kanaris, and Marco Bozzaris. This uprising of Greece appealed to all poets, and the magic of Byron’s name seemed to make it peculiarly their affair. All the bards of the land of song burst into impassioned verse in defense of the classic country and Pierian spring which had been the original source of their own inspiration. The ‘Songs of the Greeks’ aided powerfully in rousing indignation against the Turks; and just as Greek admirers of Byron had sent marble to be used for the poet’s monument in London, so the Greek Parliament voted a ship-load of Pentelican marble for the monument which has been erected to Müller in Dessau.

If the ‘Songs of the Greeks’ are less well known to the world at large than two other series of Müller’s lyrics, this is primarily due to Franz Schubert. The two cycles of exquisite lyrics entitled ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ (The Pretty Maid of the Mill) and ‘Die Winterreise’ (The Winter Journey) caught the heart and ear of Schubert, and he wedded them to immortal music. We are made to share the fresh joy of the wandering miller, who, following the guidance of his beloved brook, finds the fickle beauty of the mill and loves her; and we share, too, his sorrow when her heart turns to the huntsman, clad in green, and her faithful lover buries his grief and love in the waters of the still singing brook. There is thus a dramatic interest that binds together these simple songs. In this cycle, as in the ‘Winter Journey,’ one feels the deep sustaining joy of the poet in all outdoor nature: it is symbolized in the loving intimacy between the miller and the brook, between the wanderer and the linden-tree. Taken with the music, the two cycles form little lyric dramas; the words can no longer be recalled without the melody, and these combined creations of Müller and Schubert are among the most beautiful and delicate works of art that have sprung from the lyric genius of Germany. And so, although no poet voice had a more vigorous ring when it sang in the cause of freedom, it is probable that Müller will be chiefly remembered as the singer of winter journeys and wanderers’ joys, of mill-stream melodies and the lays of love.