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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 Johann Ludwig Uhland (1787–1862)

JOHANN LUDWIG UHLAND was born on April 26th, 1787, at Tübingen, where now his statue stands. Although the place itself is a dull little university town, the region round about is filled with romantic associations. Nearby are the ancestral castles of the Hohenstaufens and Hohenzollerns, of the family that dominated the brilliant period of Walther von der Vogelweide and of that under which the German empire regained her ancient luster. Through the valley runs the highway along which swept the armies of the Suabian emperors to their new dominions in Italy. It was amid these romantic memories that Uhland’s genius grew to maturity. In Tübingen he was educated, and there in 1810 he took his degree in law. For two years he practiced in the ministry of justice at Stuttgart. When in 1815 the question of a constitution was precipitated by the King of Würtemberg, Uhland burst into patriotic verse, and in that year he published his first collection of poems. He sprang at once into unbounded popularity. Goethe, who recognized that such popular enthusiasm implied merit somewhere, found it in the ballads; and when Uhland went into politics Goethe remonstrated: there were many men in Suabia, he said, capable of serving the State, but there was only one such poet as Uhland. Nevertheless the political career which the poet began in 1819, when he was elected to the assembly, was continued at intervals throughout his life. He received in 1829 the coveted professorship of German language and literature at the University of Tübingen; but since he was not permitted to take his seat in the Assembly at the same time, he resigned from his congenial post in 1833. He was one of the most prominent of the opponents to the royal Constitution. In 1839 he refused re-election; and lived in retirement until in 1848 he was elected to the National Assembly at Frankfort.

Aside from politics and poetry, Uhland was, like Rückert, a distinguished scholar. Schérer regarded him as one of the founders of the science of Romance philology; and his contributions to Germanistic studies are of permanent value. One exquisite monograph, in which the qualities of poet and of scholar are equally manifest, is still a standard classic: the essay on Walther von der Vogelweide, published in 1821, and dealing with the most fascinating theme in the whole range of German studies,—the greatest of the minnesingers, from whom descended the fairest traditions of that golden age to the wooden age of the mastersingers, to be at last rejuvenated and once more made fruitful by the Romantic poets, and chief among them by Uhland himself. If the politician, as Goethe feared, threatened to consume the poet, these scholarly pursuits served only to sustain and stimulate the genius of the singer. All these publications relating to old German and Romance philology have since appeared in eight volumes, under the collective title of ‘Schriften zur Geschichte der Dichtung und Sage’ (Contributions to the History of Poetry and Legend).

But it is the poet Uhland that the world knows and loves. He wrote some three hundred and fifty poems, fully half of them masterpieces, which have become an essential part of German culture. “It is inconceivable,” wrote Herman Grimm, “that they should ever grow old.” The first collection of poems, of 1815, was gradually enlarged in the subsequent editions. In 1875 they had reached their sixtieth edition, and this average of one edition annually has since been increased. His two plays, ‘Ernst, Herzog von Schwaben’ (Ernest, Duke of Suabia) and ‘Ludwig der Bayer’ (Louis the Bavarian), although spirited examples of the historical drama, could not retain their foothold on the stage. Uhland is probably the most popular German poet after Schiller. In him Professor Francke sees united the fine spirit of Walther von der Vogelweide and the epic impressiveness of the Nibelungenlied. He revealed to Germany her better self mirrored in her shining past.

As a lyric poet, Uhland stands in the foremost rank among the many singers of his tuneful race. After Goethe, he is with Eichendorff and Heine the favorite of the composers; and this is one of the surest tests of a poet’s lyric quality. The constant temptation which he offers to translators, only to lure them on to half-successes, is another test. No lyrics except Heine’s, and not excepting Goethe’s, have ever been so often attempted in English as Uhland’s. Through these innumerable versions, as well as through the universal medium of music, his poetry has become a part of the world’s lyric repertoire. Among the Romantic poets he occupies a peculiar place; he is as far removed from the intellectual kite-flying of Novalis and Brentano as he is from the massive might of Kleist and the austerity of Platen: but like Kleist he brought order into the lawlessness of Romanticism, and turned it “from caprice to poetry”; like Platen he insisted upon finished form and faultless measures. He rescued stately figures for us from the knightly past, and summoned spirits from the dreamland of ancient legend. Solemn haunting echoes of the past are borne to us in his verse across the centuries, and all these quaint and shadowy recollections of the age of wonders he has made a permanent part of our modern culture. His idea of the romantic may be inferred from his saying, “A region is romantic when spirits walk there.” But it is as if he saw the spirits and their legendary train pass over from afar, as one watches the play of changing color on the floating clouds of sunset; his feet the while are firmly planted on the earth. He never loses his foothold in reality. Nor does he glorify the past to the point of despising the present. He is genuine and sane. In him the romantic elements as we find them in Goethe are more perfectly manifest than in any other poet of the Romantic group. With fewest exceptions, his ballads and lyrics are little masterpieces of dramatic narrative and musical form. Uhland’s position in the history of German poetry is best defined in the apt paradox of David Strauss, who called him “the classic of Romanticism.”