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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 Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170–c. 1230) and His Times

WALTHER VON DER VOGELWEIDE is the greatest lyric poet of Germany before Goethe, and the first supremely great lyric poet that the nations of modern Europe produced. There is a musical cadence in the very name that is like a chord struck by the minstrel on his lyre as the prelude to a lay of love. But Walther was not a Minnesinger only: he could tune his instrument to sterner themes, swaying the popular passions and moving the hearts of princes; great political movements were checked or speeded by his powerful rhymes. He was thus not only the chief literary figure of his time, but he became also an important political force. In him too, as in his great contemporaries Wolfram von Eschenbach and Hartmann von Aue, the deep religious spirit of the age found expression. Gottfried von Strassburg pictured the courtly graces, the manly accomplishments, and the extravagant ideals, of chivalry at its height.

These men, with the legion of lesser Minnesingers, shed radiance upon the reign of the greatest of mediæval emperors, Frederick II.; than whom no more enlightened prince had sat upon a European throne since the days of Alfred the Great and Charlemagne. Over all that wonderful age lies the fairy charm of poetry and romance. The court of Frederick recalls the fabled glories of the emperors of Trebizond; it shines through the mists of nearly seven centuries like an imperial city gleaming in a golden atmosphere. With the brave, bold, broad-minded characteristics of the Hohenstaufen house, Frederick united the rarest natural gifts,—learning, wisdom, foresight, and a passionate love of art and science. According to the picture that Raumer draws of him in the ‘History of the Hohenstaufen,’ he was a warrior and statesman, a poet and a naturalist, and a protector of learning and the fine arts. He mastered the languages of the six dominions that were united under his imperial sway: Greek, Latin, Italian, German, French, and Arabic. He promulgated the Sicilian Constitutions,—a book of laws far in advance of his times. He collected a vast library in many languages, and on the greatest variety of subjects. He made Greek works more accessible by having them translated into the vernacular. Copies were sent to the University of Bologna, although that institution stood in political opposition to him. In 1224 he founded the University of Naples, and many students were assisted from his own private purse.

After his coronation in 1215 he attached to himself Nicolà da Pisano, who was the first to shake off the conventionality of Byzantine art. Through neglect or destruction the imperial art collections have been lost; but the beautiful coins of Frederick’s reign, and the splendid remains of palaces and castles, testify to the inspiring interest that the Emperor took in the arts. The bridge at Capua with its tower he designed himself. Mural paintings adorned at least one of his castles,—that of Foggia,—and the mosaics of Palermo we owe in a sense to him. It was he that gave an impulse to the study of natural history by founding a zoölogical garden, which, through his relations with Oriental princes, he was able to stock with exotic animals; and he caused a translation to be made of Aristotle’s work on zoölogy. He himself wrote a book on falconry, which has intrinsic value aside from the interest which attaches to its age and origin. And since he was a poet and wrote love lyrics, singers and poets were gathered at his romantic court. His sympathies were, it is true, far more Italian than German: his efforts in behalf of the Italian tongue were soon to be crowned by the immortal work of Dante; but he was liberal-minded enough to treat the German language in the same way. Germany, to be sure, already had a literature, but the indifference of such a man as Frederick could have done much to check its development. The first State document in German, however, was issued by him when the Peace of Mayence was proclaimed in 1235. In this care for the popular languages of his dominions he resembled his great predecessors, Charlemagne and Alfred. He made himself the center of intellectual activity throughout his broad realm.

It was this age also that saw the rise of the great Dominican and Franciscan orders, and of the Order of Mendicant Friars; it witnessed the career of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. At the north the court of the Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia became a rallying-point for minstrelsy and song; the historic contest of the singers on the Wartburg is a poetic memorial of those romantic days. Much that is best in our traditional romance had its rise then. From the time of the migrations down, rugged men of action had been making history which the poetic mind of the people transmitted into legend, until in this more cultivated age that vast fund of history and legend received its artistic form from the shaping genius of the great poets.

It was in the twelfth century that the Nibelungenlied was put into the strophes in which we read it. The crusade of Frederick Barbarossa in 1189 gave a powerful impulse to the intellectual activity of Germany. Contact with the Orient had introduced greater luxury and a higher refinement into the arts of living. The barbarian hordes which had overthrown the Roman empire had now taken their place among the leaders of European civilization. This was the long misunderstood and misrepresented thirteenth century, whose glories were soon transfigured in legend, obscured by the rise of democracy, and at last forgotten utterly in the wars of the seventeenth century. Honest ignorance, and the zeal of bigotry, finally succeeded in fastening upon it the name of the Dark Ages! The darkness lay elsewhere; for although we look back upon those dazzling days through the beautifying medium of many centuries, which shows them stripped of their sordidness and sorrow, it is certain that the early thirteenth century was the most brilliant period in German literary history until Goethe took up the Minnesingers’ lyre, and evoked new harmonies at the old Thuringian court.

It was of an age such as this that Walther von der Vogelweide was the chief literary figure and a great political force. The rapid development of chivalry during the crusades had brought with it the Minnedienst,—the service and homage paid to women. Love and war were the essence of life, and both were the inspiration of song. The conception of love was deepened, idealized, refined. Love became an ennobling and purifying influence. It is the chivalrous homage of a vassal for a queen to whom he devotes his service and his life,—a conception unknown in the ruder days when Siegfried conquered Brünnhilde, and men won women sword in hand. In the expression of this homage there was often much euphuistic exaggeration, which weakened the directness of its appeal; but in Walther von der Vogelweide the note is always genuine, true, convincing. One of the earliest examples of supersensual love in European literature is in Walther’s lines:—

  • “Would you know what may be the eyne
  • Wherewith I can see her whate’er befalls?
  • They are the thoughts of this heart of mine;
  • Therewith I can see her through castle walls.”
  • Walther’s poems not only reveal the character of the man, but they tell the story of his life. They do not, however, give us the date or place of his birth. He was probably born in the Tyrol in 1170. At Bozen, on the borderlands between the German and Italian dominions of the Hohenstaufen emperors, Walther’s heroic statue stands. His earliest song of which the date is known belongs to the year 1198, and already shows the mature artist. For forty years, he says, he sang of love: it is no wonder, then, that in the end his love lyrics lost some of the red blood of youth. The year 1198 marked an epoch in his life. He had been attached to the Austrian court of the Babenbergers, and it was in Austria that he had learned “to sing and to say.” In 1197 the Emperor Henry VI. died, when his son, afterwards Frederick II., was but three years old. The political confusion reached its highest point. Walther seems to have become for a time a wandering minstrel, as did Wolfram also. The former sided with Philip of Suabia, brother of Henry, and sang at his coronation; the latter took the part of the rival King Otto. Philip triumphed; and at the court of Hermann of Thuringia, who had submitted to Philip, Walther was welcomed. It was there that he met Wolfram von Eschenbach. That was a picturesque moment in the annals of German literature, when the two greatest poets of the age came together within the borders of that illustrious little principality, where nearly seven hundred years later Goethe met his only rival and won his friendship. From the inexhaustible youthfulness of Walther, Wolfram derived his inspiration to finish the immortal ‘Parzifal’; and to Walther, Wolfram seems to have imparted some of his ethical earnestness and deep religious fervor. The contest on the Wartburg took place, according to tradition, in 1207. Two years later there came a change over the political face of Europe. Frederick II., having attained his fifteenth year, asserted his claim to his father’s crown. He appeared at Coire, and made a triumphant progress down the Rhine. Hermann joined him, and Walther hailed him in a burst of lyric joy. And the homeless singer had a personal end in view. This is his pathetic and naïve petition:—

  • “Fain, could it be, would I a home obtain,
  • And warm me by a hearth-side of my own.
  • Then, then, I’d sing about the sweet birds’ strain,
  • And fields and flowers, as I have whilome done;
  • And paint in song the lily and the rose
  • That dwell upon her cheek who smiles on me.
  • But lone I stray—no home its comfort shows:
  • Ah, luckless man! still doomed a guest to be!”
  • Frederick fulfilled his wish; and the poet broke out into the well-known song of jubilation, “I have my grant! I have my grant!” But he was never directly attached to the person of Frederick: he returned to the liberal court of Leopold VII., the Glorious, at Vienna, and again sang a mendicant minstrel’s song:—

  • “To me is barred the door of joy and ease:
  • There stand I as an orphan, lone, forlorn,
  • And nothing boots me that I frequent knock.
  • Strange that on every hand the shower should fall,
  • And not one cheering drop should reach to me!
  • On all around the generous Austrian’s gifts,
  • Gladdening the land, like genial rain descend.
  • A fair and gay adornèd mead is he,
  • Whereon are gathered oft the sweetest flowers:
  • Would that his rich and ever generous hand
  • Might stoop to pluck one little leaf for me,
  • So might I fitly praise a scene so fair.”
  • And when the great poets begged in song, the princes granted. Walther fared sumptuously at Vienna, honored among the noblest of the land.

    Walther von der Vogelweide was the first patriot poet of German literature. The essential inner unity of the empire he perceived more clearly than perhaps any other man of his time. It was the consciousness of this national homogeneity that gave bitterness to his attacks upon the papacy. He resented foreign interference. The popes had always found it hard to hold this sturdy independent race in check; and now, when the papal power was at its height, the leading spirits of Germany were in open revolt against the exactions of Rome. All the great achievements of Frederick II. were accomplished in spite of the ban of excommunication. Walther, like Dante a few years later, was a stanch upholder of the empire; and neither Hutten, nor Sachs, nor Luther, was more vigorous in denunciations of Roman abuses than Walther the Minnesinger. In Walther’s time it was emperor and people against the pope; in Luther’s it was the people against emperor and pope: which marks the democratic change already begun in the thirteenth century. Walther inveighed as vigorously against the sectional strife of the German princes, and deplored the effect upon the fatherland in lines of thrilling patriotic fervor.

    The great world-events in Walther’s later life were the struggle between Frederick II. and the popes Innocent III. and Gregory IX., and the crusade which culminated in the conquest of Jerusalem. The Pope had excommunicated the Emperor for failing to keep his vow to institute a crusade, and Walther was outspoken in his urgency that this vow should be fulfilled. He was ever faithful to Frederick; but these doughty German singers were frank and bold for the thing that they thought right. There is a crusader’s song of Walther’s which would, taken literally, indicate that he had himself gone to the Holy Land. Probably however he did not. As the poet grew old his interest in purely worldly things decreased. His religious nature asserted itself, and some of his loftiest poems strike a profoundly devotional note. In Uhland’s fine figure: “The earthly vanishes,—as when the sun sinks the valleys are covered with shadows, and soon only the highest peaks retain their radiance.” Love became religion. The worship of Mary was closely associated with the homage paid to women, and all the Minnesingers have sung her praises. There was no irreverence in these chivalrous songs to the Virgin. She was the queen of the angels, to whom the knightly minstrels vowed allegiance. When Walther bade farewell to Dame World, whom he had served for forty years, he was preparing for his final resting-place:—

  • “Too well thy weakness have I proved;
  • Now would I leave thee,—it is time:
  • Good-night to thee, O World, good-night!
  • I haste me to my home.”
  • The enduring charm of Walther’s verse is due in large measure to his genuineness and to the moral elevation of his character: he was good as well as great. His roguish humor wins; his simplicity moves; the greatness of his soul uplifts. The emotions which he stirs are those of our common humanity in all ages. Several of his best poems have been rendered accessible to the English reader by the unsurpassed versions of Edgar Taylor, from whom some of the above citations have been taken, and who rendered also the following poem, written by Walther upon revisiting the scenes of his youth:—

  • AH! where are hours departed fled?
  • Is life a dream, or true indeed?
  • Did all my heart hath fashionéd
  • From fancy’s visitings proceed?
  • Yes, I have slept; and now unknown
  • To me the things best known before,—
  • The land, the people, once mine own,
  • Where are they? they are here no more;
  • My boyhood’s friends all aged, worn,
  • Despoiled the woods, the fields, of home,
  • Only the streams flow on forlorn:
  • Alas, that e’er such change should come!
  • And he who knew me once so well
  • Salutes me now as one estranged;
  • The very earth to me can tell
  • Of naught but things perverted, changed:
  • And when I muse on other days,
  • That passed me as the dashing oars
  • The surface of the ocean raise,
  • Ceaseless my heart its fate deplores.
  • Walther died about 1230 in Würzburg, and there in the minster he lies buried. Longfellow has perpetuated the pretty legend concerning his grave. It is said to have been provided in his will that the birds from whom he learned his art should be fed daily at noon upon the slab which covers his resting-place.

  • “Thus the bard of love departed;
  • And fulfilling his desire,
  • On his tomb the birds were feasted
  • By the children of the choir.”
  • By the side of Walther von der Vogelweide and the Minnesingers stood the epic poets Wolfram von Eschenbach, Hartmann von Aue, and Gottfried von Strassburg. Wolfram, if we omit the qualifying adjective “lyric,” must be called the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. Only seven of his lyrics have come down to us, but the tenderest ideals of love are expressed in the two epic songs from the ‘Titurel’ cycle. The full measure of his greatness is attained in the immortal ‘Parzifal,’ the finest courtly epic of German literature. It is not only a picture of the days of chivalry: it is the story of human life,—its struggles, aspirations, conflicting temptations, defeats, and final triumph. In a psychological sense it is the ‘Faust’ of mediæval Germany; and it reaches the same solution,—self-renunciation. The whole poem, in its moral exaltation, is akin to Dante’s. ‘Parzifal’ is the expression of the highest ethical ideals of Germany in the Middle Ages; and the author’s profound insight into the human heart shows him to have been the deepest thinker as he was the most powerful poet of his time. With Wolfram must be grouped Hartmann von Aue, because of the deep moral earnestness which both infused into their poetry. Wolfram planned his great work to fill the whole circle of religion and ethics; Hartmann was content with a few of its segments. The two epics ‘Erec’ and ‘Iwein’ do not rise above the commonplace level of the ordinary poetic tales of chivalry; but in the two shorter epic tales ‘Gregorius’ and ‘Der Arme Heinrich’ (Poor Henry), problems of the tortured human soul are treated with great simplicity and strength. For a sin unwittingly committed, Gregorius spends his life in severest penance, and receives at last the reward of his sincere atonement. ‘Poor Henry’ is the tale of a man of wealth and high position, who is suddenly stricken with a loathsome disease. Only the sacrifice of a young girl’s life can save him; but from the devoted girl with whose parents he has taken refuge he nobly conceals this secret. She learns it finally, however, and this sacrifice appears to her in the light of a Divine mission: but at the last moment Henry refuses to accept salvation at such a price; his soul is cleansed of the last trace of selfishness, and at that moment he is restored to bodily health as well. Longfellow preserves this story for English readers in his poem ‘The Golden Legend,’ which forms the second part of ‘Christus.’

    Of a very different order of mind from these two ethical poets was Gottfried, the Master of Strassburg. His ‘Tristan und Isolde’ is the perfection of art, without superior among the mediæval courtly epics of Germany; but it deals solely with the overmastering passion of a guilty love, in which by reason of the magic potion the lovers are victims rather than sinners. There is no psychological problem, no ethical ideal, but there is a wealth of artistic culture and polished poetry. In Tristan we have the richest picture of German chivalry in its full flower that has been painted in literature. Gottfried was the most cultivated poet of his time, but he lacked the moral elevation of his rivals.

    Of the host of the Minnesingers it is impossible to speak in detail. There is a mass of uncertain dates, picturesque names, legendary anecdotes, and beautiful poems. The lyric poetry of that age of song is wonderfully rich, but the name of Walther von der Vogelweide may stand as the symbol of the whole. Even in the testimony of his contemporaries he occupies the highest place. Gottfried did him homage; Wolfram praised him in ‘Parzifal,’ and in ‘Titurel’ called him “the exalted master.” Later poets looked up to him as their incomparable model; for Walther was fertile in the invention of elaborate and exquisitely musical measures. Some eighty new metres were original with him, from the simplest folk-song to the most majestic verse. A gradual process of petrifaction began when inspiration failed, and the traditions descended to lesser men. Thus rules came to be established, and the form was reverenced whence the soul had fled. This is doubtless the historic connection between the wooden age of the Mastersingers and Walther’s age of gold. The descent had begun even in the time of Walther, who deplored the peasant realism of his contemporary Nithart, whose so-called ‘Nitharte’ represented the triumph of vulgarity over the courtly. But the descent was not precipitate, for there are still exquisite specimens of the minnesang in the early fourteenth century; as for instance, the poem “I saw yon infant in her arms carest” of the Zürich poet Hadloub. But in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the courtly vanished before the vulgar; and it required all the indefatigable industry of the sound-hearted Hans Sachs to rescue German literature from hopeless coarseness. Walther’s name was still honored as a tradition, but it was only a name;—then darkness fell and that too was forgotten. The story of his rehabilitation is the same as that which relates the recovery of the Nibelungenlied. Bodmer turned the attention of Germans to their ancient poets; slowly the interest grew; at last the pioneers of German philology and the Romantic poets, especially Tieck,—who in 1803 published his edition of the Minnelieder,—restored the bards of the thirteenth century to their rightful place among the greatest singers of German song. And to-day every lover of pure lyric verse will echo with equal sincerity the sentiment of Walther’s younger contemporary, Hugo von Trimberg, when he enthusiastically exclaims:—

  • “Her Walther von der Vogelweide,—
  • Swer des vergaez’, der taet’ mir leide.”
  • (Sir Walther von der Vogelweide,—I’d be sorry for any one that could forget him.)