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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 Jakob Bodmer (1698–1783)

IN the beginning of the eighteenth century, the political and intellectual life of Germany showed no signs of its imminent awakening. French supremacy was undisputed. French was spoken by polite society, and only the middle and lower classes consented to use their mother tongue. French literature was alone fashionable, and the few scientific works that appeared were published in Latin. Life was hard and sordid. Thought and imagination languished. Such writings as existed were empty, pompous, and pedantic. Yet from this dreary wasteland was to spring that rich harvest of literature which, in a brief half-century, made the German nation famous.

Klopstock, Wieland, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller—those were the great names that were soon to shine like stars in the literary firmament. But the lesser men who broke the ground and opened paths for their brilliant followers are almost forgotten.

Toward the middle of the century, there lived in Zürich a modest professor of history, Johann Jakob Bodmer by name (born July 19th, 1698), who spoke the first word for a national literature, and who was the first writer to attempt a scientific criticism of contemporary authors. His efforts were rude beginnings of a style that culminated in the polished essays of Lessing. It was Bodmer whose independence of thought and feeling first revolted from the slavish imitation of French culture that enchained the German mind. In his youth he had been sent to Italy to study commerce. This visit aroused his poetic and artistic nature. He forgot his business in listening to street singers, in imitation of whom he wrote Italian lyrics. He read French works on art, and wrote artificial French verses according to French models. With equal versatility he composed German poetry, copying Opitz, whom he esteemed a great poet. Nor did he hesitate to try his skill at Latin hexameters.

By chance a copy of Addison’s Spectator fell into his hands. He turned at once from French and Italian culture to admire English classics. The first German to appreciate Milton and Shakespeare (the latter he called the English Sophocles), he never wavered in his devotion to the English school. With his faithful friend, Johann Jakob Breitinger, a conscientious scholar, he started in Zürich a critical weekly paper on the plan of the Spectator. It was called Discoursen der Mahlern (Discourses of the Painters), and its essays embody the first literary effort of the Swiss as a nation. A little weekly coterie soon gathered about Bodmer to discuss the conduct of the paper; but much of the spirit and enthusiasm of these councils evaporated in print, the journal being subjected to a rigid censorship. Not alone art and literature came under discussion, but social subjects. All contributions were signed with the names of famous painters, and dealt with mistakes in education, the evils of card-playing, the duties of friendship, love and matrimony, logic, morality, pedantry, imagination, self-consciousness, and the fear of death. These discourses were chiefly written by Bodmer and his colleague Breitinger. The earlier papers, awkwardly expressed, often in Swiss dialect, masqueraded as the work of Holbein, Dürer, Raphael, or Michael Angelo. Although intended at first for Swiss readers only, the little weekly soon captured a German public. Its purpose was to kindle the imagination, and to suggest a parallel between the art of painting and the art of literature. Bodmer only dimly outlined what an infinitely greater mind defined with unerring precision some twenty years later in the ‘Laocoön.’ But the service of the older man to literature is not therefore to be undervalued. Bodmer created the function of analytic and psychological criticism in Germany. Hitherto no writer had been called to account for any literary offense whatever. Bodmer maintained that the man who demanded a hearing from the public must show good cause for this demand.

After two years the Discourses were discontinued; but Bodmer had gained great influence over the young writers of the time. He increased his reputation by translating Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ which he considered “a masterpiece of poetic genius, and the leading work of modern times.” He deplores, however, the low standard of public taste, which, delighting in inferior poets, cannot at once rise to the greatest works. Already there existed in Leipzig a sort of literary center, where Gottsched was regarded as a dictator in matters of taste. This literary autocrat praised Bodmer’s translation of ‘Paradise Lost’ more than the original poem, in which he condemned the rhymeless metre. A sharp controversy soon divided the literary world into two hostile parties, known in German literature as the “conflict between Leipzig and Zürich.” Gottsched followed Voltaire in considering the English style rude and barbarous; whereas Bodmer, with keener artistic perception and deeper insight, defended Milton and Shakespeare. The quarrel, in which Zürich prevailed, called the attention of Germany to the English literature, so closely affiliated to the German mind and taste, and hastened its liberation from the French yoke. Besides these services, Bodmer showed untiring zeal in rescuing from oblivion the beautiful poems and epics of the Middle Ages. In his essay ‘The Excellent Conditions for Poetic Production under the Rule of the Swabian Emperors,’ he directs public attention to the exquisite lyrics of the Minnesänger. It was he who revealed that hidden treasure of German literature, the Nibelungenlied. By his studies and translations of Middle High German, he opened the vast and important field of Germanic philology. To the end of his eighty-five years he was occupied with preparing selections from the Minnesänger, and his joy was unbounded when his half-century of work was crowned with success, and the first volume of these poems was placed in his hands.

Notwithstanding his true appreciation of poetry, he could not write it. He placed the religious above all other poetic productions, and valued the fable highly.

His hospitable roof in Zürich had an ever cordial welcome for all writers, and many were the poets who sojourned in the “Dichterherberge” (poets’ inn); among them Klopstock, Wieland, and Goethe. He held the esteem of the nation long after his own writings had been crowded into forgetfulness by the new men whose way he had prepared,—for the genius of Herder and Lessing may be said to have completed the work that was so courageously begun by Bodmer.