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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 Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–1876)

IN times of political degradation the poets of Germany, turning from their own surroundings, have sought poetical material either in the glories of a dim past or in the exotic splendors of remote lands. Goethe, disquieted by the French Revolution, took up Chinese and Persian studies; the romantic poets revivified the picturesqueness of the Middle Ages; and during the second quarter of this century the Orient began to exercise a potent charm. Platen wrote his beautiful ‘Gaselen,’ Rückert sang in Persian measure and translated the Indian ‘Sakuntala,’ and Bodenstedt fashioned the dainty songs of “Mirza-Schaffy.” Freiligrath too, a child of his time, entered upon his literary career with poems which took their themes from distant climes. Among his earliest verses after ‘Moosthee’ (Iceland-Moss Tea), written at the age of sixteen, were ‘Africa,’ ‘Der Scheik am Sinai’ (The Sheik on Sinai), and ‘Der Löwenritt’ (The Lion’s Ride). Even in these early poems, we find all that brilliancy of Oriental imagery to which he tells us he had been inspired by much poring over an illustrated Bible in his childhood.

But Freiligrath, like Uhland and Herwegh, was a man of action and a patriot. The revolution of 1848 had brought fresh breezes into the stagnation of political life; and though they soon were stilled again, the men who had breathed that air ceased to be the dreamers of dreams that the romantic poets had been. They were conscious of a mission, and became the robust heralds of a larger and a freer time.

Freiligrath was a schoolmaster’s son; he was born at Detmold on June 17th, 1810, and much against his private inclinations, he was sent in his sixteenth year to an uncle in Soest to prepare himself for a mercantile career. The death of his father threw him upon his own resources, and he took a position in an Amsterdam bank. Here the inspiration of the sea widened the range of his poetic fancy. To Chamisso is due the credit of introducing the poet to the general public through the pages of the Musenalmanach. This was in 1835. In 1838 appeared the first volume of his poems, and it won instant and unusual favor; Gutzkow called him the German Hugo. With this encouragement Freiligrath definitely abandoned mercantile life. In 1841 he married. At the suggestion of Alexander von Humboldt, the King of Prussia granted him a royal pension; and as no conditions were attached, it was accepted. This was a bitter disappointment to the ardent revolutionary poets, who had counted Freiligrath as one of themselves; but the turbulent times which preceded the revolution soon forced him into an open declaration of principles, and although he had said in one of his poems that the poet was above all party, in 1844, influenced by Hoffmann von Fallersleben, he resigned his pension, announced his position, and in May published a volume of revolutionary poems entitled ‘Mein Glaubensbekenntniss’ (My Confession of Faith). This book created the wildest enthusiasm, and placed its author at once in the front rank of the people’s partisans. He fled to Brussels, and in 1846 published under the title of ‘Ça Ira’ six new songs, which were a trumpet-call to revolution. The poet deemed it prudent to retire to London, and he was about to accept an invitation from Longfellow to cross the ocean when the revolution broke out, and he returned to Düsseldorf to put himself at the head of the democratic party on the Rhine. But he was a poet and not a leader, and he indiscreetly exposed himself to arrest by an inflammatory poem, ‘Die Todten an die Lebenden’ (The Dead to the Living). The jury however acquitted him, and he at once assumed the management of the New Rhenish Gazette at Cologne.

It is a curious fact that during this agitated time Freiligrath wrote some of his tenderest poetry. In the collection which appeared in 1849 with the title ‘Zwischen den Garben’ (Between the Sheaves), was included that exquisite hymn to love: ‘Oh, Love So Long as Love Thou Canst,’ perhaps the most perfect of all his lyrical productions, and certainly evidence that the poet could touch the strings to deep emotions. In the following year both volumes of his ‘New Political and Social Poems’ were ready. Once more he prudently retired to London; his fears were confirmed by the immediate confiscation of these new volumes, and by the publication of a letter of apprehension. By way of reprisal he wrote his poem ‘The Revolution,’ which was published in London.

In 1867 the Swiss bank with which Freiligrath was connected closed its London branch, and the poet again faced an uncertain future. His friends on the Rhine, hearing of his difficulties, raised a generous subscription, and taking advantage of a general amnesty, he returned to the fatherland and became associated with the Stuttgart Illustrated Magazine. In 1870 appeared a complete collection of his poems; in 1876, ‘New Poems’; and in the latter year, on March 18th, he died at Cannstatt in Würtemburg.

The question which Freiligrath asks the emigrants in his early poem of that name,—‘O say, why seek ye other lands?’—was destined to find frequent and bitter answer in his own checkered career; but he never swerved from the liberal principles which he had publicly announced. His political poems were among the most powerful influences of his time, and they have a permanent value as the expression of the spirit of freedom. His translations are marvels of fidelity and beauty. His ‘Hiawatha’ and ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ together with his versions of Victor Hugo, are perhaps the best examples of his surpassing skill. His own works have been for the most part excellently translated into English. His daughter published during her father’s lifetime a volume of his poems, in which were collected all the best English translations then available. The exotic subjects of his early poems make them seem the most original, as for example ‘Der Mohrenfürst’ (The Moorish Prince) and ‘Der Blumen Rache’ (The Revenge of the Flowers); the unusual rhymes hold the attention, and the sonorous melody of the verse delights the ear: but it is in a few of his superb love lyrics that he touches the highest point of his genius, although his fame continues to rest upon his impassioned songs of freedom and his name to be associated with the rich imagery of the Orient.