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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 Kuno Francke (1855–1930)

By Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803)

IT was in 1748, the same year in which Frederick the Great, in the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, achieved his first political triumph, that Friedrich Klopstock, in the first three cantos of his ‘Messias,’ sounded that morning call of joyous idealism and exalted individualism which was to be the dominant note of the best in all modern German literature. The magic spell which the name of Klopstock exercised upon all aspiring minds of the middle of the eighteenth century has been vividly described by Goethe, in Werther’s account of the thunder-storm which he and Lotte observed together. “In the distance the thunder was dying away; a glorious rain fell gently upon the land, and the most refreshing perfume arose to us out of the fullness of the warm air. She stood leaning upon her elbow; her glance penetrated the distance, she looked heavenward and upon me; I saw her eyes fill with tears; she laid her hand upon mine, and said—‘Klopstock!’ I at once remembered the beautiful ode ‘Die Frühlingsfeier’ (The Spring Festival) which was in her mind, and lost myself in the torrent of emotions which rushed over me with this name.”

On the other hand, Schiller has well expressed the limitations of Klopstock’s genius, when in trying to define his place among modern poets he says: “His sphere is always the realm of ideas, and he makes everything lead up to the infinite. One might say that he robs everything that he touches of its body in order to turn it into spirit, whereas other poets seek to clothe the spiritual with a body.” It is undoubtedly this lack of plastic power, this inability to create living, palpable beings, which prevented Klopstock from attaining the high artistic ideal which his first great effusions seemed to prophesy. The older he grew, the more he withdrew from the actual world, the more he surrounded himself with the halo of superhuman experiences, the more he insisted on describing the indescribable and expressing the inexpressible; until at last the same man whose first youthful utterances had set free mighty forces of popular passion, was intelligible only to a few adepts initiated into the mysteries of his artificial, esoteric language.

And yet it is easy to see that it was precisely through this exaggerated and overstrained spirituality that Klopstock achieved the greatest of his work. He would never have produced the marvelous impression upon his contemporaries which he did produce, had he attempted to present life as it is. That task had been done by the realistic comedy and novel of the seventeenth century. What was needed at Klopstock’s time was a higher view of human existence, the kindling of larger emotions, the pointing out of loftier aims. A man was needed who should give utterance to that religious idealism, which, though buried under the ruins of popular independence, was nevertheless the one vital principle of Protestantism not yet extinct; a man who, through an exalted conception of nationality, should inspire his generation with a new faith in Germany’s political future; a man who, by virtue of his own genuine sympathy with all that is human in the noblest sense, and through his unwavering belief in the high destiny of mankind, should usher in a new era of enlightened cosmopolitanism. It was Klopstock’s spirituality which enabled him to assume this threefold leadership; and the immeasurable services rendered by him in this capacity to the cause of religion, fatherland, and humanity, may well make us forget the artistic shortcomings by which they were accompanied.

Klopstock led German literature from the narrow circle of private emotions and purposes to which the absolutism of the seventeenth century had come near confining it, into the broad realm of universal sympathy. He was the first great freeman since the days of Luther. He did not, like Haller, content himself with the sight of an independent but provincial and primitive life, as afforded by the rural communities of Switzerland. He did not, like Gellert, turn away from the oppressed and helpless condition of the German people to a weakly, exaggerated cultivation of himself. He addressed himself to the whole nation; nay, to all mankind. And by appealing to all that is grand and noble; by calling forth those passions and emotions which link the human to the divine; by awakening the poor downtrodden souls of men who thus far had known themselves only as the subjects of princes to the consciousness of their moral and spiritual citizenship,—he became the prophet of that invisible republic which now for nearly a century and a half has been the ideal counterpart in German life of a stern monarchical reality.

From the æsthetic point of view, Klopstock is above all a master of musical expression. His odes—in which he celebrates nature, friendship, freedom, fatherland—remind us of Richard Wagner in the boldness of their rhythmic effects and in their irresistible appeal to passionate emotion. Even his great religious epic ‘Der Messias’ (The Messiah) is not so much an epic as a high-pitched musical composition. Reality of events, clearness of motive, naturalness of character, directness of style,—these are things for which in most parts of the poem we look in vain. Throughout its twenty cantos we constantly circle between heaven, hell, and earth, without at any given moment seeming to know where we are; and instead of straightforward action we often must be satisfied with a portentous glance, an effusive prayer, or a mysterious sigh. But these defects of the ‘Messiah’ as an epic poem are offset by an extraordinary wealth of lyric motives. Indeed, the narrative part of the poem should be looked upon merely as the recitative element of an oratorio, connecting those passages with each other in which the composition rises to its height,—the arias and choruses. Nearly every important speech in the ‘Messiah’ is a lyric song, and at least one entire canto—the twentieth—is given over to choral effects: from beginning to end this canto is a succession of crowds of jubilant souls thronging about the Redeemer, as he slowly pursues his triumphal path through the heavens, until at last he ascends the throne and sits at the right hand of the Father. It would be hard to imagine a more impressive finale than this bursting of the universe into a mighty hymn of praise echoing from star to star, and embracing the voices of all zones and ages; and it is indeed strange that a poet who was capable of such visions as these should have been taken to task by modern critics for not having confined himself more closely to the representation of actual conditions.

Klopstock was a true liberator. He was the first among modern German poets who drew his inspiration from the depth of a heart beating for all humanity. He was the first among them greater than his works. By putting the stamp of his own wonderful personality upon everything that he wrote or did,—by lifting himself, his friends, the objects of his love and veneration, into the sphere of extraordinary spiritual experiences,—he raised the ideals of his age to a higher pitch; and although his memory has been dimmed through the greater men who came after him, the note struck by him still vibrates in the finest chords of the life of to-day.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock was born at Quedlinburg on July 2d, 1724. During his school-days at Schulpforta he conceived the plan of the ‘Messiah.’ The first three cantos were published anonymously during his university career at Leipzig in 1748, and made a deep impression upon Germany. Frederick V. of Denmark invited him to Copenhagen and offered him a pension to enable him to finish the poem. He accepted. The last cantos appeared in 1773. With Klopstock a new era in German verse began, for he abandoned the formal mechanical rhyming for the rhythmic swing of classic measures. It is in his odes that he reaches the height of his poetic genius. He died in Ottensee near Hamburg, on March 14th, 1803.