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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 Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811)

HEINRICH VON KLEIST is a tragic figure; an unhappy man born in an unhappy time. Endowed with supreme poetic powers which in a more fortunate age might have made him chief among the poets of Germany, he stood beneath the overmastering shadow of Shakespeare; he was hampered by the dominating genius of Goethe and Schiller; he was embittered by the neglect of his contemporaries, and finally was crushed by the ignominy of national disaster and disgrace. Born of a noble family, Kleist fell heir to all the inconveniences of rank; he was poor, but precluded by birth from any except a military or an official career. At strife with himself, richly gifted for one calling but obliged to adopt another, he consumed the energy of his younger years in an endeavor to attain a clear intellectual vision. It was the same struggle that took Alfieri’s youthful strength, and caused Byron to bid farewell to his native land. But when at last Kleist had almost worked out his spiritual problem and had discovered the true sources of his strength, his country’s liberties were crushed at Jena. “More deeply than most of his contemporaries,” says Kuno Francke, “did Kleist feel the agony of an age which saw the creation of centuries sink into dust.” And national dishonor followed close upon military defeat. Although the distant mutterings were already audible of the storm which was to sweep the French from German soil, Kleist was destined never to see the glorious outcome of that struggle. Hopeless but resigned, he fell by his own hand before the national uprising had taken shape. In less than two years after his death, the ultimate triumph of Germany had become assured by the victory at Leipsic. It was on the anniversary of Kleist’s birthday that the battle was won. He would have been thirty-six years old.

The story of Kleist’s life may be briefly told. He was born on October 18th, 1777, at Frankfort-on-the-Oder. An orphan at eleven, he was educated by a clergyman in Berlin, and at the age of sixteen entered the guards and served in the Rhine campaign. When he left the army he took up the study of law, and obtained a position in the civil service which he lost after the battle of Jena. It was then that his genius was developed, and the next five years were those of his greatest productivity; but meanwhile an ignominious peace destroyed all his hopes for Germany. The despair of the poet without an audience, and of the patriot without a country, brought him to his last act. With Henriette Vogel, the high-strung wife of a Berlin merchant, he went to Potsdam; and in accordance with their romantic agreement, on November 21st, 1811, he shot first her and then himself. A simple stone marks the spot where the greatest of Prussian poets lies buried.

The works which Kleist has left behind are of the highest importance in German literature. His dramas hold the stage to-day beside those of Goethe, of Schiller, and of Lessing. The characters he has created have become indispensable members of that immortal company which peoples the imagination of the German race. Potentially he was the greatest dramatist that Germany has produced. Although he grew up among the extravagances of the Romantic school, Kleist was a realist. He had indeed sought in the realms of fancy, relief from the oppressive reality, and so it is that upon his most realistic pictures there falls a ray of weird light from dreamland; but as in all great works of art, realistic treatment is combined with ideal thought, so in Kleist. Each figure, each event, embodied itself before him in its actual material form; and what he saw he was able to draw with a firm and sure hand. His characters move with heavy tread; they are robust living creatures: but they pursue high aims, are moved by noble impulses, and are significant of lofty thoughts that can find expression only in symbols. If they are sometimes lightly clad in romantic garb, these garments are but transparent robes from the Erlking’s chest, which only heighten the convincing reality of the figures they enwrap. Kleist’s power of plastic presentation was not surpassed by either Goethe or Schiller. He painted “the thing as he saw it, for the God of things as they are.”

Fate was the dominant note in Kleist’s philosophy. The strands of his destiny were woven by the Norns, and no effort of the will could break the rope by which they had bound him. In all his works this inevitable succession of events reappears. It is fate not as a force from without but as a power from within, placed there at birth, relentless, from which there is no ultimate escape; even the struggle against it is only a part of the predestined plan, foredoomed to defeat. So Kleist struggled; so his characters struggle, but with this difference: these win a spiritual triumph, none ends as he ended. The poet saw the way, but the Prussian nobleman could not follow. The characters in his dramas are involved without fault of their own in their tragic situations. In ‘Das Käthchen von Heilbronn’ (Kitty of Heilbronn) it is love, represented as an irresistible possession of the soul, that takes the form of fate. Not cruelty nor insult can shake Käthchen in her childlike devotion. So in the wonderland of ‘Penthesilea,’ in which the whole genius of Kleist is revealed, the heroine is relentlessly impelled to kill the man she loves, for the queen of the Amazons may not know love; then, by no act of violence but by a supreme effort of the will, she joins her lover in death. In the ‘Prince of Homburg’ fate takes the form of military discipline and obedience. The prince secures his spiritual triumph by recognizing at last the justice of the death sentence, and by urging its execution. It was the failure of this play to obtain a hearing that put the last bitter drop into the poet’s cup of sorrow. This and the ‘Hermannsschlacht’ (Hermann’s Battle) were not published until after Kleist’s death, and they are his greatest works. The ‘Battle of Hermann’ is the embodiment of exuberant joy at the thought that now all other considerations may be laid aside, and that pitiless vengeance may at last be exacted. Kleist firmly believed in the ultimate overthrow of French domination, and he symbolized his belief in the splendid figure of the old Teutonic hero who threw off the Roman yoke. This is the most joyous note that Kleist ever struck. In all else the tragedy of his own life threw its shadow upon his work. Nothing in his external circumstances served to assist him in the attainment of his true ambition. Only one of his plays ever received so much as a respectful hearing during his lifetime; and for fifty years he lay in a forgotten grave.

One comedy appears in the brief list of Kleist’s works: ‘Der Zerbrochene Krug’ (The Broken Jug). It is the most compact and effective one-act comedy in German literature. This vivid picture of a village judge sitting in judgment upon a crime which he has himself committed has been likened to a Dutch genre piece; its popularity is undiminished to-day. In prose narration also Kleist showed himself a supreme master; and his masterpiece is ‘Michael Kohlhaas,’ a tale of popular rebellion in the sixteenth century. It moves before the reader with the stern vividness of actual event. Kohlhaas’s keen sense of justice, at first a virtue and guaranty of good citizenship, makes him at last a rebel and a scourge. It is a story of the most substantial realism; but this ordinary horse-dealer is at heart an idealist, carrying within him the picture of an impossible world in which absolute justice reigns. His acts are the inevitable outgrowth of this ideal. The tale is told with thrilling simplicity, objectivity, and strength; there are no superfluous trappings of historical romance; the characters triumph by their own force.

Slowly Kleist has won the place which he is destined to occupy in German literature, and to which the aged Wieland long ago assigned him,—beside Goethe whom he revered and Schiller from whom he revolted. As in the case of Byron, the imagination cannot refrain from the futile inquiry: What might he not have achieved, had he lived past the crisis? With the dawn of a happier time, Kleist’s genius might, so far at least as the drama is concerned, have made good his audacious boast that he would one day tear the laurels from Goethe’s brow.