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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 Charles Harvey Genung

By Hans Sachs (1494–1576)

BETWEEN the brilliant age of Walther von der Vogelweide and the classic period of Goethe, the most national as well as the most winsome figure in the annals of German literature is Hans Sachs. He was a complete abstract of what his time actually contained, although he lacked the prophetic vision to see that he was living at the dawn of a new era. He represented the sixteenth century, and combined in himself all the homely virtues and amiable limitations of the burghers, who constituted the democracy in which the modern world took its rise. He was born on November 5th, 1494, at Nuremberg. His father was a tailor, and from the first Hans was destined for a trade. In his seventh year, nevertheless, he was sent to a Latin school, and passed through a rigid course of instruction. The knowledge thus acquired kept alive his sympathy with the Humanists, although he was himself deflected into the intellectually reactionary movement of Luther. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and it was from a linen-weaver that he received his first lessons in the mastersinger’s art. In 1511 he went forth upon his travels as a journeyman; but upon his return five years later he settled in his native town, and there lived to celebrate his eighty-first birthday. He died on January 19th, 1576. During these sixty years he seems never to have left Nuremberg. His life ran the honorable, uneventful course of a citizen diligent in business and prosperous. He became master in his guild in 1517. In 1519 he married Kunigunde Kreuzer, who was so entirely a woman of human mold that in ‘The Bitter-Sweet of Wedded Life,’ Sachs is obliged to describe her by antitheses,—she was all things to him, at once his woe and weal; but the simple pathos of his sorrow when she died, in 1560, is very touching. Untrue, however, to the cautious principles that Wagner has put into his mouth, the real Sachs married, one year and a half after his first wife’s death, a widow of twenty-seven, whose charms he celebrates in song with refreshing frankness. He was then a hale and healthy man of sixty-eight. He continued to write with unremitting energy until 1573. His mastersongs numbered between four and five thousand; of tales and farces there were some seventeen hundred, besides two hundred and eight dramas. These writings filled thirty-four manuscript volumes, of which twenty have been preserved. Three volumes of a handsome folio edition of his complete works appeared before his death, and two more afterwards. This in itself is an evidence of the high esteem in which he was held. No citizen of Nuremberg except Dürer ever won more honorable distinction in the annals of that ancient city than

  • “Hans Sachs, the Shoe-
  • Maker and Poet, too.”
  • The rise of cities, and of the bourgeoisie, had placed Germany in the front rank of commercial nations. For the products of the Orient, coming by way of Venice to the west, Nuremberg had become the mart and dépôt. With material wealth came luxury for merchants as well as nobles, and a higher cultivation in the arts of living. Through the Humanistic movement and the Reformation, Germany also assumed the spiritual leadership of Europe. Everywhere there was a deepening of the national consciousness. Of all these elements in their clearest manifestations, Hans Sachs was the representative. He was the type of the well-to-do, patriarchal citizen of the wealthiest among German cities. He had had glimpses of the austere charms of scholarship, and had himself translated Reuchlin’s ‘Henno’ and Macropedius’s ‘Hecastus.’ The Humanists therefore, although their successors despised the cobbler-bard, spoke to him in an intelligible tongue. And he stood in the forefront of the Reformation. Finally, Sachs was wholly and quintessentially German. In him that “incomprehensible century” found its most complete and characteristic expression.

    And yet, although it was in the full flower of that municipal democracy that the seed of our modern civilization lay, Hans Sachs was a mediæval man. It is in this respect that he, and even Luther, were inferior to men like Dürer, Hutten, and Reuchlin. The Reformation was a matter of ecclesiastical administration: it marked no important intellectual advance. The man of the sixteenth century was interested in the Here and Now; he delighted in his daily life, and it presented no problems; theology was accepted as a fact, and no questions were asked. It was only in the souls of the Humanists that the future lay mirrored; and it was through them that the revival of the eighteenth century was made possible. Sachs was the last of a passing generation. He did indeed advance the German drama until it far surpassed the contemporary drama of England; but he left behind him only the banal imitator of the English, Jacob Ayrer: while in England, before Sachs died, Shakespeare had been born. In Sachs the literary traditions of three centuries came to an end. Walther von der Vogelweide had lived to deplore the gradual degradation of courtly poetry: the peasants’ life and love became the poet’s theme. In the years that followed, it sank into hopeless vulgarity. From this it was rescued by Sachs. But the world meanwhile had traveled a long road: poetry had left the court and castle for the cottage and the chapel; the praise of women was superseded by the praise of God. It is a striking contrast between the knightly figure of Walther, with the exquisite music of his love lyrics, and the dignified but simple shoemaker, with the tame jog-trot of his homely couplets. But Walther was chief among the twelve masters whose traditions the mastersingers pretended to preserve; and the mastersong itself was the mechanical attempt of a matter-of-fact age to reproduce the melodious beauty of the old minnesang. Thus Hans Sachs, the greatest of the mastersingers, was in a sense the last of the minnesingers; and German literature, which had waited three centuries, had two more yet to wait before it should again bloom as in those dazzling days of the Hohenstaufen bards.

    Hans Sachs was a most prolific and many-sided poet. Before his twentieth year he had fulfilled the exacting conditions of the mastersingers, and had invented a new air, which, after the affected manner of the guild, he called ‘Die Silberweise’ (Silver Air). Sixty years of uninterrupted productivity followed, during which he filled sixteen folios with mastersongs. These he never published, but kept for the use of the guild, of which he was the most zealous and distinguished member. But the strait-jacket of form imposed by the leathern rules of the “Tabulator” impeded the free movement of the poet. The real Sachs is in the dramas and poetic tales. All are written in rhymed couplets. He read omnivorously; and chose his subjects from all regions of human interest and inquiry. He often treated the same theme in several forms. ‘Die Ungleichen Kinder Evä’ (Eve’s Unlike Children), for instance, he took from a prose fable of Melanchthon’s, and rendered in four different versions. It seeks to account for and justify the existence of class distinctions; and is perhaps the best as it is the most delightfully characteristic of all his compositions. It is one of the chief merits of Sachs that he purified the popular Fastnachtspiele (Shrovetide Plays). Of these plays Nuremberg was the cradle; and those of Hans Sachs are by far the best that German literature has to show. He shunned the vulgarity that had characterized them; and made them the medium of his homely wisdom, of his humorous and shrewd observation of life, and of his simple philosophy. Each is a delicious genre picture of permanent historic interest.

    As the Reformation advanced, there came a deeper tone into the poetry of Hans Sachs. He read Luther’s writings as early as 1521, and two years later publicly avowed his adherence in the famous poem of ‘Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall’ (The Nightingale of Wittenberg). It was a powerful aid in the spread of Lutheran ideas. The dialogue, so closely allied in form with the drama, was a popular form of propaganda in that age; and the four dialogues that Sachs wrote are among his most important contributions to literature. Their influence was as great as that of Luther’s own pamphlets; and in form they were inferior only to the brilliant and incisive dialogues of Hutten. One of them was translated into English in 1548. The city council, alarmed at the strongly Lutheran character of these writings, bade the cobbler stick to his last; but the council itself soon turned Lutheran, and Sachs continued his work amid ever-increasing popular applause.

    The impression made by Hans Sachs upon his time was ephemeral: his imitators were few and feeble; all literary traditions were obliterated by the Thirty Years’ War. Goethe at last revived the popular interest in him by his poem, ‘The Poetical Vocation of Hans Sachs’; and Wagner’s beautiful characterization in ‘The Mastersingers’ has endeared him to thousands that have never read a single couplet from his pen. There is a natural tendency to overestimate a man whose real worth has long lain unrecognized; but when all deductions have been made, there remains a man lovable and steadfast, applying the wisdom of a long experience to the happenings of each common day, exhibiting a contagious joy in his work, and avowedly working for “the glory of God, the praise of virtue, the blame of vice, the instruction of youth, and the delight of sorrowing hearts.” It is the manifest genuineness of the man, his amiable roguishness, his shrewd practical sense, that give to his writings their vitality, and to his cheerful hobbling measures their best charm. But the appeal is not direct; one must project oneself back into the sixteenth century, and live the life of Nuremberg in her palmiest days. That city was for Hans Sachs the world; in this concentration of his mind upon his immediate surroundings lay at once his strength and his limitations. He is at his best when he relates what he has himself seen and experienced. His humorous pictures have a sparkling vivacity, beneath which lurks an obvious moral purpose. The popularity of these simply conceited tales gives point to the description of the German peasant’s condition at the time of the Reformation as “misery solaced by anecdote.” It was such solace that Hans Sachs supplied in a larger quantity and of a better quality than any other man of his time. A grateful posterity, upon the occasion of the four-hundredth anniversary of his birth, erected to his memory a stately statue in the once imperial city; and his humbler fame is as indissolubly associated with Nuremberg as is the renown of his greater contemporary.

  • “Not thy councils, not thy kaisers, win for thee the world’s regard,
  • But thy painter Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Sachs thy cobbler-bard.”