Ludwig Lewisohn.

The spirit of modern German literature; online

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were weary of the dregs of romanticism in the
verse-tales of the time; they were filled with so-
cial compassion, and it seemed to them that they
were breaking very bravely with an outworn tra-
dition. "The poet," Arno Holz (b. 1863)
wrote, "should be no backward gazing prophet,
blinded by idols that he cannot grasp." He pro-
claimed himself "only a poet of doctrine" (Ten-



denz Poet), his vision of spring is in a great
modern industrial city, in the streets of Berlin he
found the themes for his eloquent and often
sonorous verses. He committed all the follies of
his enthusiasm and even wrote absurdities.

"To wretchedness a bite of bread

Is nobler than the whole of 'Faust.' "

Yet he had his share in arousing German versifi-
cation from the languid prettiness into which it
had fallen; his use of proper names in verse, his
adaptation of so stately a form as the ottava rima
to contemporary subjects (comparable to Mr.
Masefield's use of the rime royal) — these were
excellent services to the cause he had embraced.

The very finely gifted Karl Henckel (b. 1864)
(a social democrat of an even more pronounced
type than Holz), declared himself in a similar
spirit, "by his own choice a proletarian in the
realm of art." His verses throb with pity and
revolt and in his S>ong of the Stonebreaker, at least,
he wrote a masterpiece, quite brief but memorable,
of sociological poetry. Even the gentle and re-


flective Ludwig Jacobowski (1868-1900) de-
scribed an impossible proletarian child mangled
by a hungry dog and observed grimly:

"That happens when two mouths there are
With but a single bite between them."

And he wrote character sketches that recall Hen-
ley's London Types^ and visions of the half-world
that suggest Arthur Symons' London Nights, and
at least one long poem of the tragic fate of a
common modern man that is prophetic of all the
methods found in Mr. Masefield's remarkable nar-

These three poets and many others who shared
their ardors and their beliefs had moments of
purely lyrical inspirations. But primarily their
poetry was one of protest and revolt. Far from
them and the cities of their choice there had
ripened the most commanding lyrical figure of
their immediate time — Detlev von Liliencron

This poet was marvelously fitted for his task:
to liberate contemporary art from the passions of
the propagandist, to create a naturalistic type of


poetry for the modern world. Never was a man
more in harmony with himself. He accepted his
instincts and impulses without fear or reflection,
and it is but just to say that they were all virile
and magnanimous. Love and the sights and
sounds of his native moorlands and the battles
that made men and saved the fatherland — these
are his themes. Torn by no doubts or spiritual
conflicts he could identify himself wholly with the
objects of his imaginative contemplation and ren-
der them with the utmost completeness. By rea-
son of his masterful virility and sharpness of
vision one might be tempted to compare him to
Henley. But he has never Henley's note of
strain, of excess, of despair; at the core of his
work is a native, unacquired serenity.

Lamprecht has pointed out in the poetry of
pure naturalism the presence of "poetic impres-
sions of an intensity unachieved before, of a new
sense of reality, of an observation that penetrates
the intimacies of the phenomenal world in a man-
ner absolutely new." This matchless vision of
the concrete is the chief note of Liliencron's


style. The flicker of camp-iires, the creaking of
a saddle-girth, blue smoke over the roofs of men,
the rustle of a bird in the reeds, fog on a moor-
land — what other poet has rendered such things
with so brief and effortless a finality'?

It is, perhaps, worthy of note that Liliencron
had fought in two wars and had risen to a cap-
taincy in the Prussian army before, at the age of
forty, he published his first volume of verse. He
had thus seen some of the greater and graver pas-
sions at close range; he had been able to steep his
consciousness in the appearances of nature and
the characteristic gestures of life without the
literary craftsman's torturing desire for the im-
mediate translation of impression into art. Thus
I account, in part, at least, for the freshness and
clearness of mere sight, the simplicity and fru-
gality of method by which he etched the scenes
and figures that communicate his mood. For to
call his verses graphic is to employ a worn and
meaningless term. Art and nature seem in them,
for once, to have become identical and the nobler
sensations to have reached a supreme expression.


At times his fine brusqueness of poetic manner
would degenerate into mannerism. But at his
best Liliencron is, in his field, consummate. He
can rise to a noble plainness of speech, a naked
pathos, that ally him to Wordsworth. And, in
truth, the British poet and the German naturalis-
tic lyrist set themselves the one aim: to interpret
life upon a basis of truth, to use the ordinary
speech of men, to wring poetry only from the im-
mediate vision of the world of concrete appear-

His form is perfect to the point of severity.
He ridiculed the false rimes of the romantics.
But except in the Sicilian stanzas to which he
gives new flexibility and warmth, his form is never
one made rigid by tradition. For his poetry is
an immediate translation of life into art. The
moods and passions create their own form and
rarely brook the interposition of an alien arti-
fice. Hence, too, the cadences of his blank-verse
sketches are quite new: from homely and almost
colloquial simplicity they rise to a grave and lofty
sweetness that fills the ear and the heart.


The influence of Liliencron on modern German
verse was both wide and deep. His trenchant
veracity, his scrupulousness of form swept out of
German verse all imagery that had not been in-
tensely seen, all the too easy jiqgle of the last
post-romantic versifiers. It also superseded the
cool perfection of the Munich school. The poets
girded their loins and practiced their art with a
new sincerity and virile strength.

Nearest to Liliencron stands Gustav Falke
(b. 1853), who started out, indeed, entirely
under the spell of the older poet. But his blank-
verse sketches are not so sinewy nor so lofty as
Liliencron's and his modernism is less convinc-
ing. He has not, of course, his friend's incom-
parable single-mindedness in the acceptance of
life — the heroic, I am tempted to say, the Homeric
nature. But the very divisions and conflicts in
Falke's soul enabled him to utter the one note that
Liliencron lacked: the singing lyric cry that is
always born of some dissonance between the poet
and his world, some yearning for the unattain-
able. Falke's brief lyrics are, to be sure, like all


German lyrics of their type, ultimately indebted
to the folk-song for simplicity, delicacy of rhythm
and a tragic implication of style. Unlike the ro-
mantics, however, he discards the archaism and the
mannerisms of popular poetry. The songs have
thus become his very own and in the impulse that
shaped them there is the naturalist's exactness of
vision and his sincerity. Hence, in them, lyrical
loveliness of the most poignant kind is blended
with a self-disciplined sobriety of emotion. They
are not very many in number; they are perma-
nent contributions to modern art.

Under the influence of Liliencron even the born
romantics gained conciseness and concreteness of
expression and form. Such an one is Carl Bussc
(b. 1872), a lyrical soul akin to Eichendorff or
Moricke, His are the old eternal subjects of the
romantic folk-tradition. But the phenomena of
nature which he uses as symbols of his mood and
thought are grasped with a beautiful exactness in
form and color and yet lose none of their romantic
magic and power of evocation. His verse is del-
icately musical and always of an unobtrusive per-


fection : the mind holds it long after the book is
closed and sees his exquisite lyrical landscapes
arise and blend with the dawn and dusk of the

Closely united to Liliencron and Falke by per-
sonal friendship and common aims was the
brilliant and interesting Otto Julius Bierbaum
(1865-1910). His was a joyous and more defi-
nitely pagan nature than Liliencron's; he had a
far more conscious devotion to beauty. He was,
indeed, an epicure of the beautiful and had none
of his friend and master's homeliness and severity.
Yet his verse, too, although it reaches out toward
a later school and method, is naturalistic at bot-
tom. His landscapes and his sanely sensuous ad-
ventures are never conventionalized in substance ;
nor are his moments of deep self-recollection (Oft
in the silent night) ^ nor those others in which he
grasps with a haunting lyrical beauty a perma-
nent spiritual problem (The Black Lute). But
with his blithe delight in life, his vineleaves and
lilacs and roses, his Josephines and Jeanettes, he
would seem a very modern and very charming


Herrick. But in his wonderful dancing song
there is a tremor of the nerves that only our own
age could have produced and understood; in his
evening-song which deliberately uses, as Lamp-
recht has observed, the mood and even the meter
of elder poets, nature is seen and interpreted with
the naturalist's unprecedented keenness of sight.
With Bierbaum we have come a far way from
the sociological verses of Holz and Henckel. Yet
these men are all contemporaries, and the revolu-
tionaries of the lyric have themselves, in their
maturer years, abandoned the doctrinal natural-
ism of their youth. But this wide movement in
German poetry which I have represented by
Liliencron and Falke, Bierbaum and Busse, is un-
afraid of the details of the actual, shaping them
net according to a traditional convention of poetic
mood and purpose, but interpreting them with an
immediate passion that is no less beautiful and —
if you will — uplifting, for its loyalty to the truth
of the outer and the inner life.



The temptation to use the stage as a pulpit from
which to proclaim one's personal sense of moral
and social values is, of course, a powerful one.
From the art of the theater, therefore, doctrinal
naturalism has never quite disappeared. As lately
as 1911 Hauptmann defended his technique and
his point of view in The Rats; in 1912 Schnitzler
plead in Professor Bernhardi for a subtler spirit
of tolerance. Nor would it be reasonable to as-
sert that the thesis play has not a legitimate though
humble place to fill. To lead men through the
persuasiveness of art, that, too, has its value, but
also its grave danger. Opinions perish: life and
nature remain and carry their spiritual monitions
that are too large and too subtle to be caged in
any specific form of thought. This truth, that
a work of art is likely to be ephemeral in pro-



portion to the explicitness of its polemical or di-
dactic purpose was soon recognized by the natural-
istic playwrights of the German theater. Their
strongest and best work rests in its own massive
truth. It draws import and beauty from the gift
of these moderns to see life immediately and as it
is; even as science has seen the processes of na-
ture as they are and not as some theological pre-
conception would have them be.

The one aim, then, of every serious playwright
of modern Germany has been to offer an imitation
or interpretation of human life. Hence it is
plain that the drama of Hauptmann and Halbe
and Schnitzler which has been called "static" and
"quietist" and other names in which is implied
a comparison with the traditional artifices of the
stage, should not be judged by the light of such a
comparison at all. It should be judged by its own
innermost intention which is, like the intention of
every other sound and living human art, to offer
what Matthew Arnold long ago demanded of the
highest poetry — a criticism of life.

I have used the expression: interpretation of


human life. And that is, in truth, just what Ar-
nold meant by his famous phrase. But I must
hasten to stress a distinction that is at the root of
the whole matter. We shall not understand the
drama of modern Germany — nor, indeed, the
novel — if we imagine that it interprets life by ap-
plying the measure of any anterior prejudice, any
rigid standard, any assumption of what it ought
to be. For "moral judgments," as Hauptmann
says in Gabriel Schilling's Flighty "are, of course,
only ways of avoiding thought and understand-
ing." Men live, inevitably, by embracing differ-
ent sets of values. These values, as they are em-
bodied in the practice of life, are set forth through
character in the German drama. But the play-
wright scrupulously refrains from assigning to any
such set of values an absolute or even a superior
validity. The meaning of life is not summed up
in a moral or a lesson or even a principle. The
meaning of life is — life I From the concrete and
particular human truth, if it be full and exact,
arise the reflections and emotions that reach into
eternity. Thus there are no heroes in the mod-


em German drama, and very few villains. But
many of the souls who people that stage illustrate
the struggle of all our modern world for new
values and ideals by which life can be made more
tolerable and more meaningful.

It is quite clear then why this drama has been
called "static" and "quietist" and even undra-
matic. Like the drama of every age it exhibits
character in action. But its aim is truth. And
violent and external action is not a note of our
civilization in its normal state. Even our gravest
conflicts, those that arise from the clash between
social and personal morality, are apt to be devoid
of loud activity and sudden catastrophes, of
events so involved as to arouse suspense of the
cruder kind, of moral differentiations so gross and
definite as to flatter the prejudices and soothe the
self-approbation of the romantic crowd. No, the
modern German drama stresses the moral and
spiritual atmosphere into which men are born, the
influences which make and often enslave them, the
struggle of the true personality to possess itself,
to become what it was really destined to be : in a


word, the supreme concern of this art Is with char-
acter — character which makes life and is fate.
And thus it happens that to each one of the nat-
uralistic playwrights of modern Germany, not to
Hauptmann and Schnitzler alone, will be granted
some day Hazlitt's noble and yet sober praise of
Hogarth, that "he has left behind him as many
memorable faces, in their memorable movements,
as perhaps most of us remember in the course of
our lives, and has thus doubled the quantity of
our observation."

Not to Hauptmann and Schnitzler alone!
Such plays as Max Halbe's Youth and Mother
Earth, Hirschf eld's The Mothers and Agnes Jor-
dan, Hartleben's Hanna Jagert and Else Bern-
stein's Twilight have permanently enriched the
drama of the language. Yet as time goes on those
two figures are seen to overshadow all the rest, and
to a national they have added a solid international
fame. Hauptmann has, of course, by far the wider
range and power ; he has the gift of verse and the
constructive imagination. But how admirably he
and his Austrian contemporary supplement each


other as naturalistic dramatists I One need but
keep in mind a small group of cither's character-
istic masterpieces: The Weavers, Drayman Hen-
schel, Michael Kramer, Rose Bernd and Light o'
Love, Living Hours, The Lonely Way, The Land
of the Soul. In Hauptmann's pictures of life the
colors are strong, somber and definite. Henschel
is a play of the bleakest winter, Rose Bernd of
a burning, passionate summer. His men and
women are impelled by hunger, by lust, by the
primitive will to power, by aspiration. They
have little eloquence of speech or grace of gesture,
but move us as by our own woes which are also
the unconquerable woes of all the world. The
disharmonies between themselves and the universe
are tragic and final. Humble souls that they are,
they perish of elemental needs and are crucified
in great causes. They are not beautiful, they are
not wise, they are not pure : they are only broken
and imperfect members of the family of man.
Yet what rare spiritual energies they can wring
from their confused and frustrated souls I Think
of the steadfastness of Hilse, of Henschel's dumb


righteousness, of Kramer's service to his chosen
cause, of the supreme vision in Rose Bernd's re-
pentance. This common human clay is so stained,
so dishonored by the hardships and conflicts of
the earth. Yet, at times, when fate strikes it,
there sounds a music as from another world. . . .
In Schnitzler's plays it is always either spring
or autumn. There are white lilacs or russet
leaves — each with their nameless pathos. The
people in his plays — these Germans of the south
— take life less sternly. They even discard it
more gracefully, though they love it with so wise
and warm a love. Most of them are extremely
civilized, members of an ever-increasing class in
the modern world. They have the power of see-
ing their passions objectively, of analyzing them;
they have the gift of musical and subtle yet con-
stantly natural speech. They seek the pangs that
give meaning to life and a sense of infinity in the
midst of impermanence. They will not avoid the
austerer passions and duties ; but they do not court
them. Reflection has mellowed and tempered
their innermost selves. — Imagine a fair, wide


street in spring. There are snow-drops and
hyacinths in tlie gardens and the window-boxes,
and at the end of the street is a park in full
foliace with a lake and old marble benches.
Through an open window you see a sweet-browed
woman at the piano. She is playing Mozart with
long, pale, sensitive fingers. Your eyes and hers
meet and you go in to kiss her hands because
death is sure and beauty and delight can make
the moment immortal. . . . This scene is not in
Schnitzler's plays. It is only my own halting
fancy. But into it, perhaps, has stolen something
of the spirit of the great Austrian.

Hauptmann and Schnitzler — what other mod-
ern dramatists have given us so much of the savor
of reality, of the living body and soul of man?
They have done so because they have not meas-
ured life by the rule of Greek or Christian, or
by any special set of rejections and acceptances:
because they have practiced the greatest of the
modern arts — the art of observation, and used
that fine modern faculty which Arnold long ago
called the imaginative reason.


The very richest results of that modern art of
observation cannot, perhaps, be found in the mod-
ern drama. For the drama has become a record
of spiritual culminations and our playwrights are
loth to strain our poetic faith by conventionaliz-
ing space and time in the Elizabethan fashion.
The chronicle play is quite dead. Thus the long,
level passages in human life during which forces
gather and passions are born lie beyond the range
of the theater. It is not strange then, that despite
the great and permanent addition to the drama
made in our time, the novel would still seem to be
the most representative art-form of our complex,
nervous, reflective modern world. We should be
quite thoroughly aware of that in America. No
playwright among us has approached, however
remotely, the power and importance of Edith
Wharton or Theodore Dreiser.



In Germany, to be sure, great work has been
done in the drama. Not greater, I am sure, how-
ever, than in the novel. That form was slower,
no doubt, to throw off didactic intentions and
doctrinal ])urpose. Having done so, it rose at
once to an extraordinary height, and there are not
very many names in the imaginative literature of
our time that have a better claim on us than those
of Clara Viebig (b. i860), Gustav Frenssen
(b. 1863) and Thomas Mann (b. 1875).

Clara Viebig combines, in an unusual degree,
passion and objectivity, swiftness and steadiness
of mind. There is a white heat at the core of her
work. Yet when that work is at its best she ren-
ders life very fully, with all its homeliness and
all its soul. In style she is not the equal of either
Frenssen or Mann, but her language is always
strong and adequate. She checks her fine im-
petuousness of spirit and men and things stand
sharply before us in their nature as they are.

She has written no book that is weak. But
since I must select among her works I choose two
rather different products of her talent — Our


Daily Bread (1902) and The Watch on the
Rhine (1902).

Our Daily Bread is an intensive study, full,
close and massive, of the life of the Berlin poor.
The protagonist is a servant-girl and I cannot pay
the book a higher or a juster tribute than by say-
ing that, both in theme and development, it
scarcely suffers by comparison with George
Moore's Esther Waters. Clara Viebig, like the
eminent Irishman, tells an unvarnished tale. She
shrinks from no brutality and from no squalor.
But she docs not write in a brutal or a squalid
spirit, rather with a profoundly earnest sense of
the pitiableness of man and of the spiritual mean-
ing that suffering gives to the plainest and ugliest
facts. And, like George Moore again, she is
temperate. Her compassion gilds neither the
people nor the facts; she indulges in no false
heroics over the homespun stuff of life. But the
rugged and magnificent truth of her characters
and their habitations and of the interrelations be-
tween them! Having read the book, you are
teased by no social or economic panaceas, your


subtle sense of superiority has not been flattered,
your silly habit of moral indignation is in abey-
ance. For you have heard from these stem and
simple pages

"The still, sad music of humanity,

Nor harsh, nor grating, though with ample power

To chasten and subdue."

In The Watch on the Rhine she selects a
larger canvas. The real theme of the book is the
change from the separatist and provincial to the
national spirit which came over the German peo-
ple between 1830 and 1870. It is significant of
the processes of modern art that there are no his-
torical places and no public characters in the book.
We have one glimpse of Frederick William IV of
Prussia in his carriage. That is all. What
Clara Viebig shows is the smoldering soul of a
people: the long and sultry waiting, some flash
that relieves the national energy. Then again
the sense of insufficiency and frustration, until all
the flames burst forth and the great days dawn
and the book ends with an eternal name and
date — Sedan.


The scene is old Diisseldorf whose people, in
the words of Josephine Rinke's grandfather,
cared neither for nation or empire. They were
Diisseldorf burghers as they had been from of
old. Into the merry, easy-going life of the
Rhineland city comes the Prussian corporal
Rinke. His nature is narrow and dry and with-
out grace. Clara Viebig leaves us in no doubt as
to that. The children of the Rhine have all the
charm and attractiveness. But the dour Prus-
sian has one austere and magnificent virtue. He
can identify his will with a higher, super-personal
will and purpose; he can serve in a great cause
with complete effacement of self and stern self-
discipline. Something of that spirit passes into
his daughter Josephine, child of Prussia and of
the Rhineland. And when, after long years, she
rejoices that her lad was privileged to die on some
field in France to help give all Germans a com-
mon fatherland, her deep-souled and appealing
figure symbolizes the gift of Prussia to Germany
and to the world.

An even higher optimism animates the work of


the Holstein country parson, Gustav Frenssen.
Not the false optimism that refuses to see life as
it is, substitutes some foolish vision of how it
ought to be and builds moral Utopias that serve
only to betray their authors' parochial crotchets.

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Online LibraryLudwig LewisohnThe spirit of modern German literature; → online text (page 2 of 6)