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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 Christoph Martin Wieland (1733–1813)

WRITERS of a certain class exercise a fruitful influence in their day, and form an important part in the contemporary literary development, yet with the lapse of time lose much of their claim on our interest. This is true of Wieland, whose services to the German language and literature were decided. Both in prose and verse he helped to make the tongue an artistic instrument of expression, lending it grace, definiteness, elegance: he gave it a sort of French refinement. He was largely active in reviving both classical and mediæval studies; he introduced Shakespeare to his countrymen, and by his keen, sane criticism did much for German culture. Wieland was a humanist at a time when taste and scholarship were sorely needed in the fatherland. He was a writer of lively wit and fancy, sometimes running into frivolity and sensuality. He initiated the historical culture-novel and psychological romance. He produced an epic, ‘Oberon,’ which had an immense vogue in his own and other languages, though now it commands little more than a formal regard. An English critic, writing at the beginning of the present century, could remark soberly with ‘Oberon’ in mind, that “the fame of Wieland is as wide-spread as that of Horace.” That such praise now seems excessive, must not blind us to the poet’s merits and genuine contributions to the literature of his country. Fashions in literature succeed each other almost as rapidly as fashions in dress.

Christopher Martin Wieland, by ancestry, education, and early habit, had a bias towards philosophical and religious thought, though the writings of his maturity were of a very different kind. He was the son of a country clergyman, and was born in the Suabian village of Oberholzheim, on September 5th, 1733. He was carefully instructed under his father’s direction, and showed literary precocity. When fourteen he went to school at Klosterbergen, near Magdeburg, where his exceptional abilities attracted attention. Next we find him living with a relative in Erfurt, and reading for the University. The family home was moved to Biberach during this preparation; and it was there he met and fell in love with Sophie Gutermann, afterwards the wife of De Laroche, who was the factotum of Count Stadion, in whose home Wieland was a constant visitor in after years. The intimacy became in time a platonic friendship, but made its deep impress upon Wieland’s ripening powers. The idea of his first poem, ‘The Nature of Things,’ written and published several years later, came to him while he was walking with Sophie.

He went to Tübingen in 1750, nominally to study law, but gave his main attention to philology, philosophy, and literature. Wieland was one of the army of young men in all lands who begin with the law, and are irresistibly deflected by their taste toward letters. Bodmer, the Swiss poet, was then a sort of Rhadamanthus in German literary affairs, and to him Wieland, fired by ambition, sent his unfinished manuscript epic ‘Hermann’; the result was an invitation to visit Bodmer at Zürich, and the young aspirant spent a number of months with the veteran, a cordial friendship being established between them. Wieland derived much benefit from this association; but left his friend and patron in 1754, other influences being at work in him. He lived for some time in Zürich and Bern, supporting himself by tutoring. At the University his writings, such as the ‘Moral Letters’ and ‘Moral Tales,’ had been of a philosophico-ethical and mystical nature, and under the Swiss influence they continued to be so for several years. His ‘Letters from the Dead to Living Friends,’ and other works of this period, are full of spiritual aspiration; and his tone in rebuking worldly pleasures is austere.

But this was not to be Wieland’s typical work. The impulse is explained by heredity and environment. He went to Biberach in 1760 as Director of Chancery; and as he began to mix in polite society, and especially to frequent Count Stadion’s house, he developed into a man of the world, and his writings reflected his experience. Wit, fancy, satire, and worldly wisdom took the place of pious mystic imaginings. The romance ‘Don Sylvio von Rosalva’ (1764), the culpably free ‘Comic Tales’ (1766), the romance ‘Agathon’ (1766–67),—described as the first modern romance of culture, and certainly one of his most characteristic and able productions,—exhibit this change of heart; and in the ‘Musarion’ the next year (1768) a middle ground is reached,—the author advocating the rational cultivation of the sensual and spiritual sides of man, avoiding alike the extremes of the ascetic and the worldling. His study of Shakespeare began at Biberach; and between 1762 and 1766 he published twenty-two prose translations of the plays, thus making the English poet an open book for Germans.

After a three-years’ stay in Erfurt as professor of philosophy, Wieland began in 1772 what was to be a life residence in Weimar. An interesting feature of this life is his connection with Goethe. Soon after Wieland’s arrival in the city, he listened in an evening company to the remarkable improvised verses of a young man unknown to him, and exclaimed, “That must be either the Devil—or Goethe!” It proved to be the latter. A warm friendship grew up between the two, in spite of the fact that Goethe had before attacked Wieland’s writings, and in ‘Gods, Heroes, and Wieland’ represented the other as an object of sport in hell. His literary activity in Weimar was prolific and many-sided; and here his most famous single work, the ‘Oberon,’ was done. He edited the German Mercury, many of his writings first appearing in that paper; he began a periodical called the Attic Museum; wrote some of his best things in the comic and satiric veins, among them ‘The Inhabitants of Booby-land’ (Die Abderiten: 1774), ‘New Dialogues of the Gods’ (1791), and ‘The Secret History of the Philosopher Peregrinus Proteus’ (1791); and translated Horace, Lucian, and Cicero, his last labor being expended on the Letters of the last-named classic.

His masterpiece, ‘Oberon,’ was brought out in 1780, and received with a favor rarely extended to any literary work. It is a romantic epic, interweaving the love story of the mediæval knight Huon with an amatory episode in the story of the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania. The poem is written in a skillfully handled stanzaic form, and in the original possesses vigor, melody, lively invention, picturesque description, and narrative movement,—qualities some of which are lost in the English rendering. Its manner and matter now seem a trifle antiquated. Wieland purchased in 1797 an estate named Osmannstädt near Weimar, and lived there until 1801; when, his wife dying, he returned to Weimar, and remained until his own death on January 20th, 1813. Personally he is drawn as sensitive and vain, but of pure private life, and of generous impulses. His character may be studied in his ‘Selected Letters’ (1815–16) and the biographies of Gruber, Loebell, Ofterdingen, and Pröhle. A most voluminous writer, his collected works number thirty-six in the edition of 1851–6.

Wieland was not a creative genius, nor a great reformatory force in literature. He never, in his most representative works, soared very high nor probed very deep. But he was a gifted writer in varied fields, whose influence was salutary, and who will always have a secure place in that particular corner of the Pantheon devoted to authors just below stellar rank.