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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 Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853)

AMONG the poets of the romantic movement in German literature,—idealists who sought the blue flower, and reviving the native literary past, found their inspiration in mediæval mysticism or Catholicism, or in the airy fields of pure imagination,—Ludwig Tieck occupies an honorable place. Indeed, he is often referred to as the father of the older romanticism in Germany,—that of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Certainly he was foremost in developing and applying principles earlier laid down by Goethe and Schiller. His many-sided literary and intellectual activity was remarkable. As poet, story-teller, translator, critic, essayist, and editor, he did work all of which was able and interesting, and some of it of rare and high merit. Tieck was a scholar with a touch of genius; a poet, as Carlyle said of him long ago, “born as well as made.” He belonged in the circle of which Novalis, Brentano, and the brothers Schlegel were other members, and his position in it is not far from the center.

Johann Ludwig Tieck was the son of a rope-maker, and was born at Berlin, May 31st, 1773. He attended a good gymnasium, and prosecuted his studies further in Halle, Göttingen, and Erlangen; giving special attention to history, philology, and literature, ancient and modern. He then returned to Berlin, and began his career as a writer, first publishing tales and romances which showed the influence of the Storm and Stress atmosphere: ‘Peter Lebrecht’ (1795) and ‘William Lovell’ (1795–6) are novels typical of this phase, which does not stand for Tieck’s most representative work. This found its expression in his use of the mediæval legends and fairy tales. In this genre he was pre-eminently successful: however light and fantastic, the conception is poetical; and delicate fancy mingles with playful irony to make his prose stories delightful reading. A wonder-tale like ‘The Fair-haired Eckbert’ is a little masterpiece. The unfinished ‘Sternbald’s Travels,’ the ‘Blue Beard,’ and the ‘Puss in Boots,’ are further well-known examples of his adaptation or rehabilitation of popular traditions. The old märchen becomes another but a very beautiful thing in his hands. In the ‘Phantasus’ (1812–17) are gathered tales, sketches, and plays, mostly of this sort, but with less of mysticism and more of satiric intent. Tieck’s revival of folk traditions pleased the public, while it revealed his own romantic tendencies; he was hailed as a leader of that movement, and with over-generous laudation, compared favorably with Goethe himself.

Tieck resided in Jena from 1799 to 1800, on terms of friendship with the brothers Schlegel, Novalis, Brentano, Fichte, and Schelling, making the acquaintance too of the literary gods, Goethe and Schiller. In 1801, in company with Frederick von Schlegel, he moved to Dresden; but the next year settled on a friend’s estate near Frankfort-on-the-Oder. He made many journeys to Italy, as he did to various German cities, in order to consult the libraries. Poetry, translation, fiction, criticism, and drama, came from him rapidly. His services as a translator were conspicuous. He made a masterly rendering of ‘Don Quixote’ in 1799–1801, translated the ‘Minnesongs’ in 1803, and in his ‘Old English Theatre’ in 1811 gave a German version of the plays doubtfully ascribed to Shakespeare, who was a lifelong object of Tieck’s devoted study. In the same year appeared the Schlegel-Tieck translation of the dramas of the greatest of English poets, Tieck editing and completing the mighty work done by August von Schlegel; the version remains the standard one in that tongue, and puts all German lovers of Shakespeare under a lasting obligation to the collaborating authors. It is now known, however, that much of the actual translating of the dramas not done by Schlegel was the work of Tieck’s gifted daughter, Dorothea. But his name will always be associated with this great Shakespeare version.

Tieck left his country residence in 1819, settling in Dresden; where he became a director of the court theatre, and drew around him a group of admirers who swore by his views, and were antagonized by a counter party. His literary activity during the Dresden sojourn was constant and fruitful, many of his strongest novels and most alluring tales being composed between the date of his arrival and his removal to Berlin in 1841, on the invitation of King William IV. Such productions as ‘The Pictures,’ ‘The Betrothal,’ ‘The Travelers,’ ‘Luck Brings Brains,’ ‘The Old Book,’ ‘The Scarecrow,’ ‘The Revolt in the Cevennes,’ ‘Witch’s Sabbath,’ and ‘Vittoria Accorombona,’ are prominent among them; and several volumes of critical studies and a sort of biography of Shakespeare swell the list. Tieck’s collected poems appeared in 1821: they contain many charming lyrics, but as a rule they are reflective and cultivated rather than creative. He was in his prose fairy tales in the broad sense a poet; that is, a writer of imaginative literature (what the Germans call dichter), and found in those tales his truest medium. The faults of Tieck’s idyls and fantasies are those of construction: he lacked condensation and the sense of plastic form. His work as editor, in rehabilitating the literary past, or in introducing comparatively unknown figures, continued to be vigorous,—one of his main services being the editing of the complete works of the great dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. Tieck was one of the most fecund and polydextrous writers of his time.

He lost his wife (who was the child of a clergyman) in 1837, his daughter Dorothea in 1840; and for the remaining dozen years lived in dignified retirement, confined much through illness but surrounded with comforts and honors. It was during his residence in Dresden that Tieck’s fine dramatic powers as a reader were revealed to select circles: when he went on a visit to Weimar, Goethe listened enchanted to his recitations. Tieck’s death occurred at Berlin on April 28th, 1853. A twenty-volume edition of his works was published there, 1828–46: a valuable and reliable biography is that by Köpke (1855).

Thomas Carlyle in 1827 made Tieck and other German literary leaders known to the English public by publishing his ‘German Romance.’ The poet’s sister, Sophie von Knorring, was a literary woman of repute; and his brother, Christian Frederic, a distinguished sculptor.

Ludwig Tieck’s was a complex nature, that felt keenly, and in turn affected, the thought tendencies of his time. Owing to this sensitiveness to the varied culture to which he subjected himself, he differed much at different points in his development: now he is rationalistic and skeptical, now sentimental and rhapsodical. He played a considerable rôle in that most interesting romantic revival in German, which was only a part of the larger European return to romanticism in reaction from the classicism, narrow formality, and prosing, of the eighteenth century. His most lasting contribution to the literature of the fatherland will be found in his noble translations, and the fantasies he wove out of the raw stuff of the old traditions and folk legends.