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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 Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857)

THE POETRY of the Romantic School is the poetry of longing. It is filled with a spirit of passionate yearning that gives to it its pathos, and makes each poem seem the expression of an undefined but ardent wish. The poet’s soul is reaching out for that which no longer is, but which has been and may be again. Novalis has symbolized this yearning in the quest for the mysterious “blue flower.” Men longed for the glories of the past, and among the knights and minstrels of mediæval court and castle they sought for that blue flower whose odor is love. In the bleak unfriendliness of the foggy Northern clime, the sunny expansive beauty of the South, where the magnificence of ancient ages still shimmered through a mellow haze, drew all sensitive hearts to Italy. Goethe felt the strong attraction, and fled without leave-taking across the Alps, to recover his genius under Italian skies. He gave to this deep and universal longing for Italy its classic incarnation in the pathetic figure of Mignon. In the very year in which Goethe returned from Rome, Joseph von Eichendorff was born. He was the last and most ardent of the Romanticists, and all the restless longing of those times found in him its typical interpreter.

Eichendorff was born on the family estate at Lubowitz in Silesia, on March 10th, 1788. He was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, to which thereafter so many of his brother poets were converted. He studied law in Halle, Heidelberg, and Paris. At Heidelberg he took his degree, and at Heidelberg he came definitely under the Romantic influence through his association with Arnim, Brentano, and Görres. In Vienna, where he spent three years, he stood in close relations with Schlegel. His qualities of mind were essentially South German, for he was an Austrian by birth. He was on the point of entering the Austrian service when the famous appeal of February 3d, 1813, from the King of Prussia, roused every German patriot. Eichendorff enlisted as a volunteer in the Prussian army. Throughout that thrilling campaign of the wars for freedom he fought in the cause of the wider Fatherland. He became an officer in the “Lützow Corps,” which Körner has made famous in his verse. Scarcely had he obtained his dismissal after the first peace of Paris, when the news of Napoleon’s return from Elba summoned him to arms again. In 1816, however, he began his career, after a brilliant showing before the examiners, as an officer in the civil service of Prussia. Henceforth his life was outwardly uneventful. He married soon after his appointment. Intellectually he maintained relations with the finest spirits of his land and time. Having served the State in various capacities for more than a quarter of a century, he was dismissed at his own request in 1844, and retired to private life. He died at Neisse on November 26th, 1857. Heine had died early in the preceding year. With Eichendorff the last great poet of the Romantic School passed away.

It would be fruitless to catalogue the works of Eichendorff that are no longer read. His first independent effort was published at the end of the Napoleonic campaign, under the title of ‘Ahnung und Gegenwart’ (Presage and Presence). Stories, comedies, tragedies, and excellent translations from the Spanish followed, until now his works fill ten volumes; but of these, only his poems and his tale ‘Out of the Life of a Good-for-Nothing’ retain their full vitality to-day.

His poems possess enduring beauty. They are full of that profound longing for purer days and fairer realms, and of that dreamy lyric charm, that makes men young again. There is a breath in them of a vanished time; they sing of a golden age in which all men were idle and all women pure. The music of his verse has attracted many composers, from Mendelssohn, his friend, to Robert Franz in our own day. Eichendorff looked down upon the rhetorical ideality of Schiller and the symbolic naturalism of Goethe. He sang of the soul and its homesickness; of its longing for a lost inheritance.

The delightful ‘Life of a Good-for-Nothing’ appeared in 1824, and it remains to-day one of the most popular tales in German literature. It is the apotheosis of idleness and vagabondism. “In this little book,” says Brandes, “all the old charms of romance are shut up, as in a cage, to make music for us. There is the odor of the woods and the song of birds, the longing for travel and the joys of wandering.” The book describes the vagabond life of a child of genius, idle with a hundred aptitudes, pure with a hundred temptations, and amid a hundred dangers careless and irresponsible. This Good-for-Nothing illustrates in his roving life the romantic quest of the “blue flower.” He lives for pure pleasures and the joys of unremunerative art; his is the infinite longing which never can be stilled, but only rendered endurable by poetry, by music, and by moonlight on forest, field, and stream. The book is an exquisite idyl; it is full of strange adventures and all the romantic machinery of singular disguises, lofty and secluded castles, and mysterious beauties who throw flowers from shaded balconies; and yet it is essentially idyllic, and the beautiful lyrics which are scattered through its pages create an atmosphere of eternal summer in which we are made to forget the work-a-day world where men earn their daily bread and feel the salutary pressure of duty.

Eichendorff himself was a faithful public servant, and in the ‘Life of a Good-for-Nothing’ we have the confession only of what the author perhaps thought he would have liked to be, rather than of what he was. He was reverent and pious, and one of the most evenly balanced minds in all that circle of madcap poets. He has told us of those early days of the Romantic School and of the deep thrills which agitated the entire German people when Schelling, Novalis, the Schlegels, and Tieck began their life work in literature. And this work was done in the days when the sword of Napoleon hung suspended over Germany: in days when even the poet who was to sing the praises of the dolce far niente of Good-for-Nothingness was ready to give three years of his life for the defense of his native land. So far had literature and life lost sight of each other, and the men of vigorous action and solid achievement still sang sweetly of the blue flower and of the pleasures of idleness, leaving behind them a body of literature which, however unreal, will not lose its power to soothe and charm.