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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 Paul Fleming (1609–1640)

FEW names in that sterile period of German history which followed the century of the Reformation have won a lasting place in literature. In Gryphius the most gifted dramatist, in Opitz the greatest literary influence, and in Fleming the most genuine lyric poet of his time, the spirit of German letters still flickered; and Fleming, though humbly subordinating himself to the domination of Opitz, was nevertheless the genius in whom the spirit shone brightest.

Paul Fleming was born on October 5th, 1609, and the years of his brief life were those of universal disaster, when Germany was made the battle-ground of the contending nations. Fleming studied medicine in Leipsic, but meanwhile devoted himself so ardently to the development of his poetic gifts, that while still a student he received the Imperial crown of poetry. In 1630 he met Opitz, who, with a group of new German poets in his train, held the leadership of what is known to students as the First Silesian School. Fleming’s reverence for this skillful but mechanical versifier was unbounded. It was not until three days before his early death that Fleming seemed to catch a glimpse of his own superiority; in the touching lines which he composed as his own epitaph, he wrote, “No countryman of mine sang like me;” and certain it is that in his work is displayed more spontaneity and greater depth of feeling than in that of the more famous leader. There is a strain of lofty pathos in Fleming’s poetry that reminds of Schiller; and if it sometimes has a hollow sound, that lay in the character of the unreal time when the nations were fighting for moribund ideas, and when thought was sicklied o’er with the cast of pseudo-classical affectation. Brave men were exalted as gods and faithful officials as heroes, with the entire apparatus of mythological metaphor. And yet in Fleming’s verse is revealed a deep and genuine piety, a broad humanity, and a healthy patriotism. His religious poems, through which he strove to keep his mind fixed above the strife of parties and the demoralizing cruelty of that time of incessant war, are still favorites in the German hymnals of to-day. His love lyrics and sonnets, not always free from the affectations of his school, are yet the expression of true feeling and delicate fancy.

The destruction of Meissen and the death of Gustavus Adolphus were among the saddening experiences of Fleming’s early life, but it was not to escape the disquieting events at home that sent him on distant travels: it was rather passion for travel and a love of the exotic. This passion found gratification in the appointment he received as a member of a Holstein embassy to Russia and Persia, in the service of which nearly six years of his life were passed. It was a life full of adventure by land and sea; there were bloody encounters in Persia, and twice the party suffered shipwreck. It was an experience that greatly widened the scope of his poetic material, as the Oriental coloring of the poems written during those six years shows.

Fleming’s love life had its sorrows: the woman of his choice, during his long absence in the East, married another; he thereupon became engaged to a younger sister, who had in the meantime ripened into womanhood. They were to be married in Hamburg; but while he was awaiting her arrival, he fell sick and died, on April 2d, 1640, in his thirty-first year.

Fleming never won the high place in the estimation of the great contemporary public to which his genius entitled him; formalism prevailed, Opitz overshadowed him, the war crushed all but martial genius. Many of Fleming’s poems have been lost, but enough remain to justify the claim that he was the one genuinely inspired lyric poet of the period of the Thirty Years’ War.