Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn (1882–1955)

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 Ludwig Lewisohn (1882–1955)

By Detlev von Liliencron (1844–1909)

IN every ancient and highly developed literature it happens recurrently that the language of poetry once fresh and significant sinks into mere conventional verbiage and that both words and thoughts lose touch with their basis in reality. That happened in England at the end of the eighteenth century when Wordsworth announced his new theory of poetic diction and bade the poet write “with his eye on the object.” To a much smaller degree but very definitely the same thing happened in German literature between the death of Heine and the advent of the moderns. The late, post-romantic versifiers repeated the same forms and rhythms and barren tales indefinitely; the few lyrical masters of the period—Hebbel, Meyer, Keller—did not come into their own until years later. The poet who with one memorable and already classical volume brought back to German verse vigor and life and expressiveness was Detlev von Liliencron.

He belonged by birth to the minor nobility of Schleswig-Holstein. During a lonely boyhood he spent much time in the out of doors, untroubled by any literary ambitions. He wanted to be a soldier as befitted his birth and traditions, served as a lieutenant in some seventeen garrisons, took part in the campaigns of 1866 and 1870, rose to a captaincy in the Prussian army but was forced to resign on account of his wounds and his debts. He went to America and suffered many hardships, returned and tried the life of a subaltern government official. At this time—he was now forty—the literary instinct suddenly overwhelmed him and he published his famous ‘Adjudantenritte.’ He was always in difficulties, despite the devotion of his friends Richard Dehmel, the poet, and Emanuel Reicher, the eminent actor, and despite a pension granted him by the emperor. But he was always of a virile serenity and spiritual wholesomeness—a strong, humorous, soldierly man.

These biographical facts are of very great importance. It is not often that something very like a revolution in any modern literature has been accomplished by a man of Liliencron’s type, a man removed as far as possible from scholarship or letters in the narrower sense, essentially a man not of reflection but of action. What enabled him to do his work was his sheer temperament, his character, the peculiar endowment of his very senses. Untroubled by literary memories, not tormented for years by a desire for expression, he saw the world with consummate vividness and closeness and naïveté for forty years before he began to embody his impressions in verse. His observation had not been the calculating exercise of the modern realistic novelist or playwright: he had seen things with the eyes of a soldier, a hunter, a wanderer. The result might, of course, have been crude enough. But Liliencron was born with an entirely noble and incorruptible sense for style and form. He is utterly careless, utterly unmindful of any conventions in regard to choice of subject or mood or words: he is quite unconscious of the old distinctions of noble and ignoble, fit or unfit for art. His form is always of a final firmness and distinction.

The result is a body of lyrical work which, in its own way, stands alone in modern literature. One might compare Liliencron to Burns and, of course, Burns has a more piercing note and a more immortal note of pure song. But Burns did not have Liliencron’s magnanimous manhood. Or one might compare him to Henley, if Henley had had his serenity, his ultimate wholesomeness and virile strength. It is only to the works of such poets, however, that one can compare his wonderful straightforwardness and reality, his complete and immediate translation of experience and vision into art.

Unlike most moderns he is not, then, a poet of reflection or analysis at all. Love and war and the chase and (in his ballads) the historical legends and events of his native province—these are his themes. The wind of the North Sea is in his verses, the sun on his Saxon heaths, or the sounds and sights of the battles which he shared for the fatherland. Yet from the totality of his work, naïve and spontaneous as it is, there arises a final impression that is characteristic, above all others, of the life of modern Germany. Liliencron is an asserter, an affirmer of life—of its goodness and power and worth—of life as a whole—accounting energy above conformity, joy above sickly scruples, self-discipline above an outer yoke, the yea above the nay.

The influence of his work upon his countrymen was immediate and has proven permanent. No German poet of the thirty years that have just passed but has written more directly, concretely, and, in the highest sense, manfully, not only for the verse but for the character of Detlev von Liliencron.