Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Consolatory Dialogue in Devotional Writings by Men and Women of Early Modern Protestant Germany

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Consolatory Dialogue in Devotional Writings by Men and Women of Early Modern Protestant Germany

Article excerpt

!!! BEGIN-AUST The genre of consolation has attracted little attention from scholars of early modern German literature. This article examines dialogue as a form that is conventional to the genre but capable of diverse variation. Examples offer insight into important aspects of private life, showing relatively ordinary men and women writing to console themselves or others on the death of a close relative or friend. The texts combine arguments from classical philosophy and Protestant doctrine with elements from the arts of music, poetry, and rhetoric that help to articulate grief and regulate gradual progress towards the acceptance of bereavement. !!! END-AUST

We should [...] often hold converse with

ourselves [...] and say: 'What? Shall we some

day cease grieving, or shall we consort with

unceasing misery to the very end of our life?'

(Plutarch, 'A Letter of Condolence to


Dialogue is one of the most frequently used forms in the long tradition of literary consolation. (1) Others include the treatise, the handbook, the epistle, and the public address (which may be a brief epicedium, a funeral speech, or, in early modern Protestant Germany, a Leichenpredigt). But these other forms often contain traces of dialogic structures, such as apostrophe or direct address, which bring them to the verge of dialogue proper. The great dialogues that stand as landmarks in the consolatory tradition arise from various causes of grief, and take place between various kinds of interlocutors. (2) In the Book of Job, for example, Job suffers multiple bereavements, which call forth consolation from three friends, and ultimately from God himself; in De consolatione philosophiae, the exiled Boethius, imprisoned and under sentence of death, is consoled by the personification of wisdom, Dame Philosophy; the protagonist of The Pearl, a late fourteenth-century English text, is consoled in a vision by the very daughter whose death he is mourning. In contrast to these great works, the many consolatory dialogues composed in early modern Germany usually do not confront the profound uncertainties of human existence that become acute in times of crisis, but confine themselves to addressing bereavement caused by death: while the role of the comforter may be filled by a similarly wide variety of personae, the bereaved mourns the loss of a child, wife, husband, parent, or other close relative. The dialogic structures of consolation become a resource that ordinary members of the educated classes use for the containment and alleviation of private grief. Although these structures were established conventions of consolation even in biblical times, in the Psalms and the Book of Job, in the private bereavements of early modern Germany they reapproach the natural patterns of sympathetic friendship in which conventions first originated. Brian Vickers notes that the etymology of the Greek term for the entire consolatory genre, logos paramuthetikos, implies 'to talk to, stand by someone, with the intention of relieving or soothing their suffering'. (3) This fundamental paradigm of grief and consolation clearly underlies a German funeral poem of 1685. A court official addresses a colleague on the death of his wife (in the slightly formal but nevertheless friendly third person singular), and reminds him of a recent occasion when their roles were reversed:

SO Spielt die Zeit mit uns; Es sind nur wenig Wochen/

Da schon die Toden Reih an meine Kinder kam/

Und mir ein liebes Paar aus meinen Augen nahm/

Weswegen Er/ Mein Freund/ mir trostlich zugesprochen.

Und nun ist dieses Loss auf Seinen Schatz gefallen. (4)

This is only one example of how real intimacy flows into the ancient literary conventions of consolation still current in the day-to-day life of early modern Germany.

Dialogue and its structure interweave with other conventions of the consolatio mortis. …

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