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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 Rückert (1788–1866)

RÜCKERT was not only a great poet and fervid patriot, but a man of wide learning and solid scholarly attainments. His knowledge of languages was phenomenal, and his boast that for him “every language written by men possessed life” was not a gross exaggeration. His contributions to Oriental studies were voluminous and valuable, but they have inevitably been rendered obsolete or obsolescent by the restless advance of German scholarship; it is only in the inspired translations from Oriental literatures that we have results of permanent value. The ultimate analysis of Rückert’s manifold life labors reveals as the essential and indestructible part, his poetry. The parallel with Uhland is obvious. Both were scholars and pioneers in their chosen fields; both were active in the liberal movement in Germany; both were poets of the first rank, and have erected poetic monuments of enduring worth. Uhland was more racy of the German soil, and his ballads and lyrics have the touch of the autochthonous folk-song; his scholarship was Germanistic. Rückert’s studies were in Oriental fields, and in the Orient he found much of his poetic material; he was more exotic than Uhland, and yet he has left behind a mass of true German poetry which has endeared him to the hearts of German children. The still retiracy of wood and garden, nursery and home, he has sung most movingly. The larger ambitions for a united fatherland he has expressed most powerfully. That this poetic productivity, which continued unimpaired to the end of his long life, should have been but the lounging garment of the German professor when his talar was laid aside, is a remarkable evidence of the depth and strength and versatile beauty of Rückert’s mind.

Friedrich Rückert was born at Schweinfurt on May 16th, 1788. It was obvious at an early age that the study of philology and æsthetics was his vocation, and to these he devoted himself at the University of Würzburg. He became a private teacher, an official tutor, and eventually a university professor. His life was that of the typical German scholar; but he retained the freshness of the poet’s heart, and the expression quoted above—“Every language possesses life for me”—is characteristic: he infused vitality into all he taught.

All poets were patriots in the stirring first years of the nineteenth century. Rückert’s part in the national uprising is represented by his vigorous ‘Geharnischte Sonette’ (Sonnets in Armor), and the martial songs entitled ‘Spott- und Ehrenlieder’ (Songs of Praise and Derision). These were published in ‘Deutsche Gedichte’ (German Poems) in 1814, under the pseudonym of Freimund Reimar. After the declaration of peace, Rückert assumed the editorship of Cotta’s Morgenblatt in Stuttgart, and there formed the friendship of Uhland. In the autumn of 1817 he went to Italy; but Rome did not throw its powerful enchantment about him as it had around Goethe and Platen. Rückert stayed but one year. On his return he stopped in Vienna, where he received invaluable instruction in Persian from the celebrated Orientalist, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. Thenceforth the study of the Oriental languages and literatures became his chief occupation and life task. In 1826 he accepted the Oriental chair at Erlangen; and in 1841, shortly after the accession of Frederick William IV., he was called to the University of Berlin. The Frankish poet was never quite at home in the Prussian capital; but he held his position till 1848, when he retired definitely to the happy life of a gardener and scholar at Neuses, near Coburg. In this charming retreat he had established his poet’s-home shortly after his marriage with Luise Fischer in 1821; there he spent almost without interruption the last eighteen years of his life, and there he died on January 31st, 1866.

The most important poetic yield of Rückert’s Oriental studies was the book of Oriental lyrics called ‘Oestliche Rosen’ (Roses of the East), much admired by Goethe. His translations from the Indian, Hebrew, Persian, Arabian, and Chinese are permanent enrichments of the literature of Germany; the writings of Sa’dī, Firdawsī, and Kālidāsa he has transformed into German classics: and in this sense he is the greatest and worthiest successor of Herder and Goethe in their strivings toward the ideal of a universal literature.

Rückert’s resources seemed inexhaustible. Ripe wisdom, broad knowledge, deep sympathy, strong imagination, and absolute mastery of language and form, were all his. It was not unnatural that his virtuosity should mislead his Muse into mediocrity at times, but he says of himself:—

  • “Had I not written the verse you care nothing about,
  • The verses that really delight you had ne’er been thought out.”
  • Several historical plays remain to show that the drama was not his field. The lyric, the gnomic, the didactic, were his proper element. The glowing, joyous love-songs to his fiancée, which he published in the year of his marriage under the title of ‘Liebesfrühling’ (Springtime of Love), display his lyric quality in its highest degree. His pure and strong fancy enabled him to give poetic value to the commonplace and unimportant. The popular ‘Haus und Jahreslieder’ (Songs of the House and Year) show how Rückert was able to bring the most insignificant and unpromising subjects into poetic relations with fair and lofty thoughts. The singable quality of his verse was publicly praised by Goethe, and composers have borne frequent witness to their appreciation of it by setting the songs to music. Most famous perhaps is the simple, compact, tender, and untranslatable ‘Du bist die Ruh’ of Schubert (Thou art Rest). Goethe on his death-bed repeated Rückert’s solemn lines, ‘At Midnight.’

    But the stores of wisdom and learning which filled the poet’s mind received artistic expression in the finest didactic poem of German literature, ‘Die Weisheit des Brahmanen’ (The Brahman’s Wisdom). It contains a wealth of wisdom, wrought into finely fashioned forms. With an artist’s eye he could fathom the profound and gaze at the sublime, and he was able to proclaim his vision with the awing solemnity of an ancient prophet. With this poem Rückert established himself permanently in the German heart, into which he had first entered singing his lays of love and of war. He died before his lifelong dream of a united Germany had been realized. He had symbolized this dream in ‘Barbarossa,’ but had lost hope, for the ravens of discord and distrust continued still to circle round the mountain. It was only five years after Rückert’s death that a German emperor was crowned at Versailles.