As I follow Longfellow’s journey through Europe in The Poems and Poetry of Europe, my next stop is German Language and Poetry. I am now in familiar territory! For this post, I am referencing Longfellow’s The Poets and Poetry of Europe, a collection of poetry from the rich histories of these European countries. Each chronological section of Europe is introduced by Longfellow with cultural and linguistic history that, in most cases, he observed personally during his travels.
For his essay on German Language and Poetry, Longfellow researched von J. G. Radlof’s Mustersaal alter Deutschen Mundarten, (Bonn: 1821-2), F.A. Pischon’s Leitfaden zur Geschichte der Deutschen Literatur, ( Berlin : 1843), and Denkm’ilerder Deutschen Sprache by von den fruhesten Zeiten (1833-43).
Longfellow takes us back to the earliest specimen of the ancient Gothic tongue of German, which is a translation of the Bible by Ulfila, a Bishop of the West Goths in the latter half of the fourth century. Only fragments of this translation remain. The celebrated Codex Argenteus, so called from the letters being overlaid with silver leaf, is now [as of 1837] in the library of the University of Upsala, contains the greater part of the Evangelists.
Of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries no literary monuments remain, at least, none well authenticated. According to Longfellow’s research, at the beginning of the eighth century, the Gothic language, in Germany, had assumed the two forms of: 1. Upper German (Ober Deutsch), spoken in the South of Germany, and embracing two dialects, the Frankish (sometimes called Althoch-deutsch, old High German), and the Alemannic or Swabian ; and, 2. Low German (Nieder Deutsch, Piatt Deutsch, Altsdchsisch) , spoken in the North, and the parent of the Anglo-Saxon, Frisic, Dutch, and Flemish. The Frankish was the language of the court of Charlemagne ; and the Swabian was carried to its greatest refinement by the Minnesingers, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. From the union of Upper and Lower German sprang High German (Hock Deutsch) (Poetry of Europe, 180).
I will begin my German journey with the poets of this High German language of the sixteenth century. The first post will focus on the works of Martin Luther, who made modern High German (Hock Deutsch) the permanent language. Speaking of his translation of the Bible, Martin says, “’ I have not a distinct, particular, and peculiar kind of language, but I use the common German language, in order that the inhabitants of both Upper and Lower Countries may understand me’”(185).
According to Longfellow, the sixteenth century is, perhaps, the darkest period in German poetry. The distractions of the Thirty Years’ War were fatal to literature. The old romantic spirit was entirely gone, and the little intellectual energy which remained was employed on the imitation of foreign models. The language, too, was much corrupted by the mixture of foreign words. Epic poetry had almost entirely disappeared; and lyric poetry, particularly that of the church, affords the most favorable specimens of the poetic talent of the age (185).
Martin Luther was born Nov. 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany. He studied law at the University of Erfurt, but circumstances afterwards led him to embrace the monastic life. His great distinction, of course, lies in the extraordinary influence he has exercised upon the religious state of the world; his poetical talent was shown in the department of sacred poetry. “He purified and adapted old German poems to the service of the temple, translated Latin hymns, and was the author of about forty pieces in German, all distinguished for their vigor, and highly esteemed down to the present day” (186).
Luther was a German professor of theology, author, composer, Augustinian monk, and an important figure in the Reformation. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1507 but came to reject several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He disputed their view of indulgences and, in his Ninety-five Theses, opened an academic discussion of this practice and efficacy. He would later be excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1520 and his writings would be denounced by the Catholic Church (239).
Martin Luther died in 1546, at Eisleben, and was buried in the castle church of Wittenberg. A collection of eight of Luther’s hymns was first published at Wittenberg in 1524; another, the following year, containing forty. I have included one of his most famous hymns here:
PSALM by Martin Luther
A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He’ll help us clear from all the ill
That hath us now o’ertaken.
The ancient Prince of Hell
Hath risen with purpose fell ;
Strong mail of craft and power
He weareth in this hour :
On earth is not his fellow.
With force of arms we nothing can ;
Full soon were we down-ridden,
But for us fights the proper Man,
Whom God himself hath bidden.
Ask ye, Who is this same?
Christ Jesus is his name,
The Lord Zebaoth’s Son :
He, and no other one,
Shall conquer in the battle.
And were this world all devils o’er
And watching to devour us,
We lay it not to heart so sore,
Not they can overpower us.
And let the Prince of Ill
Look grim as e’er he will,
He harms us not a whit
For why ? His doom is writ,
A word shall quickly slay him.
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Longfellow, Henry W. The Poets and Poetry of Europe: Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845.