Germany, a Companion to German Studies

By Jethro Bithell | Go to book overview

CHAPTEK VIII

GERMAN LITERATURE FROM 1748 TO 1805

GERMAN literature from 1748 onwards presents a series of kaleidoscopic pictures made up of the diverse elements associated with 'classicism', 'romanticism', and 'realism' -- words convenient as labels, even though the three varieties of art and outlook they indicate are neither entirely constant nor entirely different in their components. As the picture changes, the clearer, colder tints of classicism, the more glowing or sombre, intense or delicate hues of romanticism, the harder colours of realism, mingle in varying proportions. Each type in turn gains or loses ground, dominates the picture for a time, or becomes obscured, but is never entirely absent or in sole possession. Surveying the rapid changes during the century after Bodmer's essentially 'romantic' attack upon the Renaissance 'classicism' then in vogue, we see how the romantic elements gain ground till they outrival the classical at the time of the Sturm und Drang, then suffer a short eclipse, but predominate again during the 'Romantic Period', and to the end contribute appreciably to the general effect; we see, too, how the classical elements, purer ones supplanting those of the Renaissance and rococo kind, attain predominance towards the end of the eighteenth century, and afterwards make their presence felt sporadically; and how the realistic elements, hardly noticeable at first, become conspicuous during the Sturm und Drang years, catch the eye from time to time during the periods of classical and romantic supremacy, and finally become themselves predominant during the period of 'Poetic Realism'.

Eight years passed before Bodmer and his supporters could point to a German achievement illustrating adequately the vital truth of their principles. But in 1748 there appeared in the Bremer Beiträge the first three cantos of Klopstock Messias, whose youthful author had set out to supplement Milton Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Here was a sublime theme treated with religious fervour by a poet of bold imagination. On steadily flowing hexameters the reader was borne first up to Heaven to hear mankind's redemption planned, then down to Hell to see the counter-plotting of Satan and his fellows, then up again to Earth to

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