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 Joseph Viktor von Scheffel (1826–1886)

A SUCCESS so splendid and so sustained as that which has attended ‘Ekkehard’ and the ‘Trumpeter of Säkkingen,’ has not before been witnessed in the history of German literature. It is safe to regard as final an emphatic popular verdict, which has not only stood unreversed but has annually been reaffirmed in the course of nearly half a century. The ‘Trumpeter’ was published in 1854, ‘Ekkehard’ in the following year; in 1895 the former reached its two hundred and sixteenth edition, the latter passed its one hundred and forty-third. This great and growing demand is the plébiscite of two generations; and the decision of this high court of appeal has gone in favor of Scheffel’s claim to a poet’s immortality.

Joseph Victor von Scheffel was born at Karlsruhe on February 16th, 1826; and there, sixty years afterward, he died on April 9th. He was another example of the young man of many capabilities who fails at first to find the right one. His father was an engineer, and the son’s talent for drawing was inherited; the poetic gift came from his mother, who, besides other works, had written a drama which was produced at the court theatre of Karlsruhe. But young Scheffel, through the persistence of his parents, was forced to study law and prepare himself for the career of a government official. After taking his degree he held several public positions, and practiced law at Säkkingen.

During the six years which he spent in this uncongenial employment it was his ardent desire to become a painter. At last in 1852 he abandoned his profession, and went to Rome. Fortunately, however, his friends and his own failures soon made it clear to him that he had mistaken the direction of his genius; and the man who three years later had completed the most popular German poem and the most popular German novel of the century, retired to Capri in the depths of despondency because he could not paint.

During the winter at Capri and Sorrento, he sought to comfort himself in his disappointment by shaping the memories of his Rhineland home into the half playful, half melancholy romance of the ‘Trumpeter of Säkkingen.’ The success of this poem was not immediate. Scheffel returned to Germany, determined to produce a scholarly work on the history of the Middle Ages. The ‘Monumenta Germaniæ Historica’ formed a part of his systematic studies; and in these his imagination was captivated by the Chronicles of St. Gall.

At St. Gall, and at the foot of the Hohentwiel, he spent his Easter vacation, writing the opening chapters of ‘Ekkehard.’ It was finished at Heidelberg early in 1855. Upon the novel and the poem together his fame was firmly established. This period of his greatest productivity was the happiest period of his life. His high spirits found expression in the rollicking student songs which appeared under the title of ‘Gaudeamus.’ These songs are now the permanent possession of the university youth of Germany, to whom they have doubly endeared the poet’s name. The volume has passed its sixtieth edition.

But these happy days fled swiftly. The severe mental strain of two years of uninterrupted literary creation left Scheffel a nervous wreck. He planned several more historical works; but in each case his painstaking preparations broke down his weakened health, and his task was left unfinished. The death of his sister in 1857 was a blow from which his spirits never recovered. The gay poet and convivial student became gradually a morose and disappointed man. He married in 1864 Fraülein von Malzen, the daughter of the Bavarian ambassador; but his shattered nerves and erratic habits made him an incompatible companion, and a separation followed two years later. He wrote many more tales and novels, but none ever attained the popularity of the first two works. The poet’s fiftieth birthday was celebrated by all Germany; and the Grand Duke of Baden conferred upon him a patent of hereditary nobility. The last years of his life were spent in melancholy retirement on his estate at Radolfszell on Lake Constance, where he had once been wont to play the generous but eccentric host. Soon after the attainment of his sixtieth birthday he died. On the great terrace of Heidelberg Castle stands his statue in bronze.

It is only by comparison with ‘Ekkehard’ and the ‘Trumpeter’ that Scheffel’s other works may be called unsuccessful. ‘Frau Aventiure’ (Lady Adventure) reached some twenty editions, and ‘Juniperus’ five. Both works are parts of a broadly planned attempt to portray the features of the olden time when the Nibelungenlied at last assumed its classic form. The scheme was never carried out, and the scholarly element in these detracts somewhat from their directness of appeal; but the graphic touch is not altogether lost. A lyric play called ‘Der Brautwillkomm auf Wartburg’ (Welcoming the Bride on the Wartburg) was likewise a product of these mediæval studies, as were also the ‘Bergpsalmen’ (Mountain Psalms). These psalms appeared in 1870. Ten years later came ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ (Woodland Solitude); which with ‘Der Henri von Steier’ (Henry of Styria), and an ancient tale of ‘Hugideo’ (1884), completes the list of the poet’s works.

In a century which began with Scott and ends with Sienkiewicz, a discussion of the historical novel as an allowable form of art would be academic. In Germany, Hauff’s ‘Lichtenstein’ (1826), modeled after Scott, was the first distinctively historical novel of importance. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer attained a high mastery of form in this genre; but it is to Scheffel that we must look for the one classic example and supreme achievement. In ‘Ekkehard’ he skillfully avoids the dangers of partisanship, in the delineation of well-known characters and in the interpretation of famous events, by seeking rather to show the thoughts, ambitions, and customs of the age in the daily life of convent and castle; while the onrush of history is heard only from afar,—coming for a moment, in the attack of the Huns, to the very gates of the monastery. The book is an authentic picture of the tenth century in Suabia. Even had such men and women, such conditions, such events, never had their actual counterparts, the work would be still instinct with life; for its vitality is in no wise dependent upon its historical setting. Scheffel in his own charming preface asserts that “neither history nor poetry will lose anything by forming a close alliance.” This depends, it is true, upon the genius of the man who makes the treaty; but in ‘Ekkehard’ men will long continue to enjoy the vivid and faithful presentation of a picturesque age, in which the elements of poetry and history are exquisitely blended.

The ‘Trumpeter’ is a romantic love tale full of playful humor and graceful trifling, sustained by a true and tender sentiment. Of course the humble trumpet-blower marries the high-born maiden in the end. In its rhythmic measures the poem reminds one of Heine’s ‘Atta Troll’; but it is kindlier and born of a serener mood than that brilliant piece of bitterness, in which the old Romantic School, expiring, laughed in frivolous self-ridicule. Gentleness, chivalry, and love are the themes of Scheffel’s Rhineland romance; and the satirical blows of Hiddigeigei are delivered with velvet paws.

Scheffel has himself declared that the ironical flavor of his poetry was the result of an underlying melancholy. The events of 1848, although he was an ardent advocate of a united Fatherland, failed to stir him; and the hopeless, reactionary period that followed made him a political pessimist. “My soul,” he said, “took on a rust in those days which it will never wear off.” His humor was a conscious concealment of an essentially melancholy disposition; and as the years wore on, he was less and less able to maintain his mental disguise. He lived in an atmosphere of mediævalism, and there is a natural touch of antiquity in his style which removes the last trace of pedantry from his historical pictures. His mild mockery and delightful drollery have an old-time flavor that mellows the effect; and his work is wholesome and refreshing through its pure and healthy sentiment.