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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 Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803)

HERDER does not belong to the few men of highest genius whose works have become the common property of mankind. As a poet he was receptive rather than creative. Of his verse only the ‘Volkslieder’ (Folk Songs: 1778–79) and ‘Der Cid’ (The Cid: 1803) have permanent value; and these are valuable not as additions to the store of original conceptions of poetic fancy, but as marvels of divinatory interpretation and sympathetic reproduction. As a prose writer, he lacked the clearness of thought and the precision of speech which are necessary elements of true literary greatness: even the best of his essays are made unpalatable by a constant wavering between diffuseness and abruptness, between vague generalities and dithyrambic effusions; and the most ambitious of his efforts, the ‘Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit’ (Philosophy of the History of Man: 1784–91), is a huge fragment.

Herder’s greatness, then, does not lie in the form of his writings. It lies in the suggestiveness of their substance. It lies in the wide range of his vision, in the wonderful universality of his mind, which enabled him to see the interdependence of all things and to divine the unity of all life. It lies, above all, in the manifold application of a single idea, an idea through which he became the father of the modern evolutionary philosophy: the idea of organic growth.

Herder once for all did away with the rationalistic fallacy of the eighteenth century, that the course of human history is nothing but a succession of individual acts by individual men. He once for all did away with the rationalistic fallacy that the great creations of the human mind are the result of conscious and deliberate effort. He once for all made the conception of national instincts and of national culture the basis of all historical inquiry. All the great achievements of human civilization—language, religion, law, custom, poetry, art—he considered as the natural products of collective human life, as the necessary outgrowth of national instincts and conditions. Man does not invent these things; he does not consciously set out to coin words, to establish a certain set of religious formulas, or to work out certain problems of artistic composition. At least, this is not the way in which the vital forms of a language, the great religious symbols, or the ideal types of art and poetry, are created. They are not created at all; they are not the work of individual endeavor: they are the result of accumulated impressions exercised upon masses of human beings living under similar conditions and similarly organized. In other words, they are engendered and conceived in the nation as a whole; the individual poets, artists, prophets, through whom they are given their audible or visible shape, are only, as it were, the most receptive and at the same time the most productive organs of the national body. They are the channels through which a national language, a national poetry, a national religion come to light.

Herder was not more than twenty-three years old when in the ‘Fragmente über die Neuere Deutsche Literatur’ (Fragments concerning Recent German Literature: 1767), he first gave utterance to this epoch-making idea. “There is the same law of change”—thus he begins the second ‘Fragment’—“in all mankind and in every individual, nation, and tribe. From the bad to the good, from the good to the better and best, from the best to the less good, from the less good to the bad—this is the circle of all things. So it is with art and science: they grow, blossom, ripen, and decay. So it is with language also.” A primitive people, like a child, stares at all things; fright, fear, admiration, are the only emotions of which it is capable, and the language of these emotions consists of high-pitched, inarticulate sounds and violent gestures. This is the first, prehistoric, infantile period in the history of a language. Then follows the period of youth. With the increasing knowledge of things, fright and wonder are softened. Man comes to be more familiar with his surroundings, his life becomes more civilized. But as yet he is in close contact with nature; affections, emotions, sensuous impressions have more influence upon his conduct than principles and thought. This is the age of poetry. The language now is a melodious echo of the outer world; it is full of images and metaphors, it is free and natural in its construction. The whole life of the people is poetry. “Battles and victories, fables and moral reflections, laws and mythology, are now contained in song.” The third period is the age of manhood. The social fabric grows more complicated, the laws of conduct become more artificial, the intellect obtains the ascendency over the emotions. Literature also takes part in this change. The language becomes more abstract; it strives for regularity, for order; it gains in intellectual strength and loses in sensuous fervor: in other words, poetry is replaced by prose. And prose, in its turn, after it has fulfilled the measure of its maturity, sinks into senile correctness and sterility, thus rounding out the life of a given national literature and making room for a new development.

Here we have the key of Herder’s whole life work. Again and again, in one way or another, he comes back to this conception of literature as a manifestation of national culture. During his voyage in 1769 from Riga to Nantes, he comes to understand the Homeric epics as the poetic outgrowth of a seafaring people.

  • “It was seafarers,” he writes in his diary, “who brought the Greeks their earliest religion. All Greece was a colony on the sea. Consequently their mythology was not like that of the Egyptians and Arabs, a religion of the desert, but a religion of the sea and forest. Orpheus, Homer, Pindar, to be fully understood, ought to be read at sea. With what an absorption one listens to or tells stories on shipboard! How easily a sailor inclines to the fabulous! Himself an adventurer, in quest of strange worlds, how ready is he to imagine wondrous things! Have I not experienced this myself? With what a sense of wonder I went on board ship! Did I not see everything stranger, larger, more astounding and fearful than it was? With what curiosity and excitement one approaches the land! How one stares at the pilot, with his wooden shoes and his large white hat! How one sees in him the whole French nation down to their King, Louis the Great! Is it strange that out of such a state of strained expectation and wonder, tales like that of the Argonauts and poems like the Odyssey should have sprung?”
  • In common with the young Goethe and Justus Moeser, Herder in 1773 published the fliegende blätter ‘Von Deutscher Art und Kunst.’ Here he applies the same principle to the study of old Scotch and English poetry, and of popular song in general. He tells how on his cruise in the Baltic and North Seas he for the first time fully appreciated Ossian:—

  • “Suddenly borne away from the petty stir and strife of civilized life, from the study chair of the scholar and the soft cushions of the salons, far removed from social distractions, from libraries, from newspapers, floating on the wide open ocean, suspended between the sky and the bottomless deep, daily surrounded by the same infinite elements, only now and then a new distant coast, a strange cloud, a far-off dreamland appearing before our vision, passing by the cliffs and islands and sandbanks where formerly skalds and vikings wielded their harps or swords, where Fingal’s deeds were done, where Ossian’s melancholy strains resounded—believe me, there I could read the ancient skalds and bards to better purpose than in the professor’s lecture-room.”
  • He considers popular song as a reflex of primitive life; in its wild, irregular rhythm he feels the heart-beat of a youthful, impulsive people; its simple directness he contrasts with the false rhetoric of modern book lyrics. The wilder—i.e., the fuller of life and freedom—a people is, the wilder—i.e., the fuller of life, freedom, and sensuous power—must be its songs. The further removed a people is from artificial thought and scientific language, the less its songs are made for print and paper, the richer they are in lyric charm and wealth of imagery. A savage either is silent, or he speaks with an unpremeditated firmness and beauty which a civilized European cannot equal; every word of his is clearly cut, concrete, living, and seems to exhaust what it is meant to express; his mind and his tongue are, as it were, tuned to the same pitch. Even in the apparent abruptness and incoherency of popular song Herder sees an element of beauty rather than a defect, inasmuch as it results from the natural attitude of the unperverted mind toward the outer world.

  • “All the songs of primitive peoples turn on actual things, doings, events, circumstances, incidents; on a living manifold world. All this the eye has seen; and since the imagination reproduces it as it has been seen, it must needs be reproduced in an abrupt, fragmentary manner. There is no other connection between the different parts of these songs than there is between the trees and bushes of the forest, the rocks and caverns of the desert, and between the different scenes of the events themselves. When the Greenlander tells of a seal-hunt, he does not so much relate as paint with words and gestures single facts and isolated incidents: they are all part of the picture in his soul. When he laments the death of a beloved one, he does not deliver a eulogy or preach a funeral sermon, he paints; and the very life of the departed, summoned up in a succession of striking situations, is made to speak and to mourn.”
  • And not the Greenlander only,—thus Herder continues,—not a rude and primitive people only, feel and sing in this manner. All the great poets of the world do the same: Homer, Sophocles, David, Luther, Shakespeare—they all reflect the life which surrounds them; they give us, as it were, instantaneous pictures of humanity as they saw it: and thus they become for us an epitome of their time and their nation. Herein, above all, lies the incalculable importance of Shakespeare for us of to-day. For Shakespeare more fully than any other poet has expressed the secret of our own life. He reflects the character of the Germanic race in its totality. He seems to have heard with a thousand ears and to have seen with a thousand eyes; his mind seems to have been a storehouse of countless living impressions. King and fool, beggar and prince, madman and philosopher, angels and devils in human form; the endless variety of individuals and class types; the sturdy endeavor, the reckless daring of a people hardened in the battle with wild elements, passionate but faithful, lusty and sensual but at the same time longing for a deeper truth and a purer happiness;—all this we see in his dramas in bold and striking outline, and in it all we recognize our own self heightened and intensified.

    A brief survey of Herder’s later writings makes it clear that the whole of his life was consumed in elaborating and amplifying this one idea of national life as an organic growth. In the essay ‘Von Aehnlichkeit der Mittleren Englischen und Deutschen Dichtkunst’ (Similarity of the Middle English and German Poetry: 1779), he held out the prospect of a history of civilization based upon the various national literatures, thus clearly formulating the problem which literary history has been trying to solve ever since. In the ‘Volkslieder’ (Folk Songs) of 1778 and 1779 he laid the foundation for a comparative study of literature, by collecting and translating with wonderful insight and faithfulness, popular songs and ballads from all over the globe. In the book ‘Vom Geist der Ebräischen Poesie’ (The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry: 1782–83) he considered the Psalms as poetic manifestations of Hebrew character. In the ‘Philosophy of the History of Man’ he represented the whole history of mankind as a succession of national organisms: each revolving around its own axis; each living out its own spirit; each creating individual forms of language, religion, society, literature, art; and each by this very individualization of national types helping to enrich and develop the human type as a whole. In the ‘Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität’ (Letters for the Furthering of Humanistic Studies: 1793–97), finally, he held up the ideal of perfect manhood to his own time and people, thus rounding out his life by applying his highest inspirations to the immediate demands of national progress.

    Herder’s influence on German culture cannot easily be overestimated. He was the first among modern thinkers to whom every individual appeared as a public character, as an heir of all the ages, as an epitome of a whole nation. He first considered man in the fullness of his instincts, in the endless variety of his relations to the larger organisms of which he is a part. He first attempted on a large scale to represent all history as an unbroken chain of cause and effect, or rather as a grand living whole in whose development no atom is lost, no force is wasted. Without him, Goethe would have lacked the most inspiring teacher and the safest guide of his youth. Without him, the brothers Grimm would have had no foundations whereon to build the science of folk-lore. Without him, the whole Romantic school would probably have been nothing but a repetition of the Storm and Stress movement. Without him, there would have been no Ranke. Without him, the theory of evolution would be without one of its most exalted apostles.