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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 Clemens Brentano (1778–1842)

THE INTELLECTUAL upheaval in Germany at the beginning of this century brought a host of remarkable characters upon the literary stage, and none more gifted, more whimsical, more winning than Clemens Brentano, the erratic son of a brilliant family. Born September 8th, 1778, at Ehrenbreitstein, Brentano spent his youth among the stimulating influences which accompanied the renaissance of German culture. His grandmother, Sophie de la Roche, had been the close friend of Wieland, and his mother the youthful companion of Goethe. Clemens, after a vain attempt to follow in the mercantile footsteps of his father, went to Jena, where he met the Schlegels; and here his brilliant but unsteady literary career began.

In 1803 he married the talented Sophie Mareau, but three years later his happiness was terminated by her death. His next matrimonial venture was, however, a failure: an elopement in 1808 with the daughter of a Frankfort banker was quickly followed by a divorce, and he thereafter led the uncontrolled life of an errant poet. Among his early writings, published under the pseudonym of ‘Marie,’ were several satires and dramas and a novel entitled ‘Godwi,’ which he himself called “a romance gone mad.” The meeting with Achim von Arnim, who subsequently married his sister Bettina, decided his fate: he embarked in literature once and for all in close association with von Arnim. Together they compiled a collection of several hundred folk-songs of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, under the name of ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ (The Boy’s Wonderhorn), 1806–1808. That so musical a people as the Germans should be masters of lyric poetry is but natural,—every longing, every impression, every impulse gushes into song; and in ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ we hear the tuneful voices of a naïve race, singing what they have seen or dreamed or felt during three hundred years. The work is dedicated to Goethe, who wrote an almost enthusiastic review of it for the Literary Gazette of Jena. “Every lover or master of musical art,” he says, “should have this volume upon his piano.”

The ‘Wunderhorn’ was greeted by the German public with extraordinary cordiality. It was in fact an epoch-making work, the pioneer in the new field of German folk poetry. It carried out in a purely national spirit the efforts which Herder had made in behalf of the folk-songs of all peoples. It revealed the spirit of the time. 1806 was the year of the battle of Jena, and Germany in her hour of deepest humiliation gave ear to the encouraging voices from out her own past. “The editors of the ‘Wunderhorn,’” said their friend Görres, “have deserved of their countrymen a civic crown, for having saved from destruction what yet remained to be saved;” and on this civic crown the poets’ laurels are still green.

Brentano’s contagious laughter may even now be heard re-echoing through the pages of his book on ‘The Philistine’ (1811). His dramatic power is evinced in the broadly conceived play ‘Die Gründung Prags’ (The Founding of Prague: 1815); but it is upon two stories, told in the simple style of the folk-tale, that his widest popularity is founded. ‘Die Geschichte vom braven Casperl und der schönen Annerl’ (The Story of Good Casper and Pretty Annie) and his fable of ‘Gockel, Hinkel, und Gackeleia,’ both of the year 1838, are still an indispensable part of the reading of every German boy and girl.

Like his brilliant sister, Brentano is a fascinating figure in literature. He was amiable and winning, full of quips and cranks, and with an inexhaustible fund of stories. Astonishing tales of adventure, related with great circumstantiality of detail, and of which he himself was the hero, played an important part in his conversation. Tieck once said he had never known a better improvisatore than Brentano, nor one who could “lie more gracefully.”

When Brentano was forty years of age a total change came over his life. The witty and fascinating man of the world was transformed into a pious and gloomy ascetic. The visions of the stigmatized nun of Dülmen, Katharina Emmerich, attracted him, and he remained under her influence until her death in 1824. These visions he subsequently published as the ‘Life of the Virgin Mary.’ The eccentricities of his later years bordered upon insanity. He died in the Catholic faith in the year 1842.