Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

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 August, Graf von Platen (1796–1835)

IT is by reason rather of his exquisite perfection of form than of his poetic inspiration, that Count Platen maintained his distinguished place among the poets of Germany. The service which he rendered to German literature was this: that amid the mad rush of Romanticism towards banal sentimentality and fastastic formlessness, he stood firm to the ideal of pure and lofty thoughts cast in a chastened and classic form. The softer emotions rarely find voice in his verse; but human dignity, profound sorrow, manly independence, and fierce hatred of oppression, have thrilling utterance. He strove, like Goethe, to live in a serene atmosphere of intellect, disdaining popular tastes and vulgar sentiments. Truth was his Muse, and his poetry reflects her cold and crystal beauty.

Count August von Platen-Hallermund was born of a wealthy and noble family at Ansbach, on October 24th, 1796. He was educated at the cadet academy of Munich, and at the age of eighteen became a lieutenant in the Bavarian army. His part in the campaign of 1815 was a tame one, and garrison life was irksome to him. He spent most of his time on furlough, studying philosophy and philology at the universities of Würzburg and Erlangen. Schelling exercised an austere influence upon his thought.

In 1821 Platen came before the public as a poet, with his exquisite and inimitable ‘Ghaselen’ (Gazels),—poems in the Persian manner; and in another book of verse called ‘Lyrische Blätter’ (Lyric Leaves). In 1823 came a second volume of ‘Gazels.’ These poems elicited warm words of praise from Goethe, and attracted the attention of poets generally. It was the refinement of thought, and the easy precision with which a difficult verse-form was handled, that astonished and fascinated. For purposes of dogmatic classification Platen may be enrolled among the Romantic poets; but except in his choice of exotic material he has little in common with them. Limpid clearness and severe structural beauty distinguish even his earliest work, and these qualities were at last elevated by him into a gospel of art. Few poets have taken their calling more seriously, or held their gifts more sacred.

In 1824 Platen visited Venice; and the noble ‘Sonnets from Venice’ show how his talents were stimulated there. Thenceforth his life was exclusively devoted to scholarly pursuits and the work of poetic creation. He was filled with glowing indignation at the bungling of the later Romanticists, the lyrics of empty words, the novels of mass without matter, and the tasteless “tragedies of fate.” This indignation was concentrated in a comedy after the manner of Aristophanes, ‘Die Verhängnissvolle Gabel’ (The Fatal Fork). The cordial recognition which Platen received from Goethe, Uhland, and Rückert raised his already well-developed self-esteem to the fighting point. He became a poet militant, and so arose the unfortunate literary war with Immermann and Heine. A second Aristophanic comedy was directed against Immermann,—‘Der Romantische Œdipus’ (The Romantic Œdipus): Immermann had ridiculed the ‘Gazels’; and Heine, who had joined in the ridicule, was included in the satire. Heine’s reply, deliciously witty but bitterly personal, appeared in the ‘Reisebilder’ (Travel-Pictures).

The indifference with which literary Germany generally received Platen’s enthusiasm for dignity of thought and purity of form increased his wrath, and he left his native land in disgust. In Florence, Rome, and Naples he found more congenial surroundings. Goethe blamed him for not forgetting the pettinesses of German literary strife amid such scenes. Nevertheless these years were the happiest of his life. Ballads, lyrics, odes, and dramas swelled the volume of his contributions to literature. He wrote also a perfunctory ‘History of the Kingdom of Naples’; and a charming fairy epic, ‘Die Abassiden,’ written in 1830 but not published until 1834. His last drama was the ‘League of Cambray.’ The flaming ‘Polenlieder’ (Songs of the Poles), which gave restrained but powerful expression to his love of freedom, and his hatred of the Czar, were forbidden by the censor, and did not appear until after the poet’s death. It was this act of tyranny that elicited the glowing stanzas with which the series comes to an end.

Platen returned to Germany in 1832, and in the following year brought out the first complete edition of his works. His poems won new admirers constantly, and long before his death he had ceased to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In 1834 he went back to Italy; and on December 5th, 1835, he died in Sicily.

Platen was an alien in his native land. It was not only that he was rejected: he was not himself in touch with his time. Indeed, it is his chief merit that he checked the movement that threatened literary chaos. After his death, enthusiastic admiration went almost as far in the upward direction as indifference had sunk in the downward. To-day we recognize in Platen the “sculptor in words,” the master of form, the stickler for truth, and the sincere thinker, who, unable to reconcile himself to vulgar views of life, died disappointed and in exile, rather

  • “Than the yoke of blind plebeian hatred bear.”