Henry Woodd Nevinson.

A sketch of Herder and his times online

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"The history of Literature is the great Morgue, where every man seeks
his dead, those whom he loves or to whom he is related. When amongst
the rows that lie there unnoticed and unmeaning I chance upon a Lessing or
a Herder, with faces so human, so sublime — then my heart throbs within me.
How can I go past without hurriedly kissing those pale lips ? " — Heine.

" If Herder was not a poet, he was a poem." — JEAN PAUL.

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[All Rights Reserved.)

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" I praise the loyalty o' the scholar — stung by taunt
Of fools, * Does this evince thy Master, they so vaunt ?
Did he then perpetrate the plain abortion here ? ' —
Who cries, ' His work am I ! full fraught by him, I clear
His fame from each result of accident and time,
And thus restore his work to its fresh morning-prime :
Not daring touch the mass of marble, fools' deride,
But putting my idea in plaster by its side,
His, since mine ; I, he made, vindicate who made me !' "




I have written this hook as a supplementary note
to Carlyle's Essays on German Literature, in the hope
that it may he helpful to some readers of those
Essays, as I think it would have heen helpful to me
when I first read them many years ago.

I have depended chiefly on the following autho-
rities : —

(1.) Keminiscences of Herder's life collected by
his widow, Maria Carolina von Herder (Br inner ung en
au8 dem Lehen Joh. Gottfrieds von Herder. Tiibingen,
1820). These Reminiscences were edited hy Johann
Miiller, the historian, and his brother George. Though
they are necessarily imperfect and fragmentary, they
give the most vivid picture of Herder's life that has
yet been made. They are in two small volumes.

(2.) Herders Lehenshild, This is a collection by
one of Herder's sons of the original authorities for the
earlier part of the Reminiscences ; also of Herder's
early unpublished works and correspondence. It is
invaluable as far as it goes, but stops abruptly with
the return from Strassburg (1771).


(3.) Aus Herders Nachlass (three volumes, edited
by Diintzer and Perdinand Gottfried von Herder,
1857) : a collection of Herder's correspondence with
several of his friends, such as Jean Paul, Lavater,
and the rest, also the letters from Goethe. A short
and useful account of each friendship's history is pre-
fixed to the several collections. The third volume
contains Herder's correspondence with Karoline
Elachsland before their marriage.

(4.) Von und an Herder (by the same editors,
3 vols. 1861) : a similar collection to the last, con-
taining the correspondence with Gleim, Heyne,
Nicolai, &c., and the letters from Einsiedel and

(5.) Eeise nach Italien (edited by Diintzer, 1859) :
the correspondence between Herder and his wife
during his visit to Italy.

(6.) Aus dem Herderschen Hause (published
1881) : an account, by Georg Miiller, of his visits to
the Herders in Weimar.

(7.) Knehels Nachlass (2 vols. 1840) : containing
the letters from the Herders to Knebel.

(8.) Hamanns Schriften tmd Brief e (4 parts,
1872-4) : containing some of Herder's correspondence
with Hamann.

(9.) Goethe. Brief e an Frau von Stein (1848):
useful for the history of Herder's first eight years in

(10.) Goethe. Briefwechsel mit F. H, Jacohi
(184G) : especially for the dispute on Spinoza.


(11.) Goethe. BicUung tmd Wahrheit aus meinem
Lehen and the Annalen.

(12.) In the last chapters I have drawn occasion-
ally from Goethe's Briefwechsel mit Schiller,

(13.) Herder nach seiner Lehen (hy Eobert Haym,
Leipzig, 1877-80). Only the two first parts of this
great work, taking us to the departure from Biicke-
burg for Weimar, had yet appeared when I finished
this book. Por the history of this earlier period I am
greatly indebted to Haym's wonderful thoroughness
and unwearied research.

(14.) I have read the so-called Biographies of
Doering, Neumann, and Hing, but found them to be
little more than new arrangements of the Bemi-
niscences, with the vitality left out. Eing's is the best
of the three.

(15.) In considering Herder's works I have used
the edition prepared by his widow, Heyne, and the
MiiUers (Tubingen, 1805-20), as being on the whole
the best, in spite of all faults, and the only edition
with much pretence to completeness. Diintzer has
been slowly bringing out a very excellent edition,
with historical prefaces to the various works, and
notes on the text ; but it is still far from complete.

The references to Carlyle are from the ordinary
small edition, except those from Frederick, which are
from the large edition in six volumes (1859-65).

Hettner's account of Herder {Liter aturgeschichte
des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts) appears to me both
brilliant and sympathetic.


I owe much to my sister's help and counsel.

The portrait is from a crayon-drawing by Bury, now
in the possession of Herder's grandson, Geheimerath
von Stichling, of Weimar, by whose kind permission
I obtained this photograph.

Maj 8, 18S8.


On page 7, last line of the verse, for come read comes.
Page 10, line 14, for Emmerien read Emmerich.
Page 24, line 20, for Kanter read Kant.
Page 53, line 26, for Indus read Ltidus.
Page 100, for Moser read Moser.
Page 113, line 23, for Philocrates read FMloctetes.




" Old-world pairs." — James Lee 's Wife,

Early in the last centuiy the Protestant inhabitants of Silesia,
long a foremost stronghold of the Hussite band, found their
treatment at the hands of their neighbours, who were actively
encouraged, no doubt, by the Catholic house of Austria, so
grievous to be borne, that many of them considered it better to
leave their native home, and wander out into other lands, where
they could live more conveniently in accordance with their
steadfast views of the Gospel and its truth. Amongst these was
a man of the name of Herder, of whose origin and previous
dwelling-place nothing further can be discovered. He had
probably been a small farmer in Silesia ; for, after proceeding
far up to the north-east from his native place, and raising his
Ebenezer, as he would have said, at Mohrungen, a little town
in East Prussia, he bought a house and field, and devoted him-
self henceforth to farming and the Gospel.

In 1701 the son of the Great Elector had been crowned,
under the title of Frederick I., at Konigsberg,^ which lies
some fifty or sixty miles to the north of Mohrungen and had

' Carlyle's Frederick, vol. i. p. 60.


been famous since the Reformation days of Markgraf Albrecht
for its university, and as the capital of East Prussia; a province
that was safely delivered from the rule of Poland by the Elector
John Sigismund of Brandenburgh in 1618,^ though several of
the inhabitants of that slowly-changing country still continued
to speak in the Polish tongue. It must have been during the
reign of this Frederick I., who died in 1713, that the Herder
from Silesia settled in Mohrungen, and married one of the
daughters of the land, who bore him a son, and they called his
name Gottfried. The little town, w^ith its cattle, farms, market-
gardens, and yarn- and linen- looms, supporting at that time
nearly two thousand souls in all, lies in a flat and sandy region,
with a lake of some extent to the south, and to the north a pool,
also dignified by the name of lake, but in reality little better
than a marshy mill-pond. Beyond a circle of some miles of
open ground the sight is bounded by the borders of a fon;st,
that stretches away again to other lakes and swampy flats.

Like most of the towns in this district, Mohrungen owes its
existence to the Order of German or Teutonic Knights, who
deemed the strip of land between the two lakes a suitable
position for one of their outposts against the heathen of eastern
Prussia. Accordingly, in 1280, a castle was built and fortified
with eight towers, but the hamlet that nestled confidingly at its
foot was not altogether happy in its protector ; for the order
waxed fat, and together with the allied King of Poland was
utterly defeated at Tannenberg in 1410,^ so that Molu'ungen for
the time fell into the hands of the enemy. Again, I'athcr more
than a century later, all the place, except the castle and the
Gothic church, with its ^' horned pinnacles," was burnt to the
ground by Sigismund of Poland in his rage against that
obstinate Markgraf Albrecht of Brandenburg.^ In 1697 tlio
town was for the second time burnt through some accident, so
that when Herder arrived from Silesia the natives would hardly
have recovered from their disasters, land would be at a dis-

' Carlyle'a Frederick, vol. i. p. 323. " Ibid. vol. i. p. 184.

=» Ibid. vol. i. pp. 244-254.

" WHENCE." 3

countj and such houses as had been rebuilt would be looking
their newest and brightest — though indeed a traveller tells us
that buildings in Mohrungen soon begin to look dim and mossy,
for the damp of the land is great.

The son Gottfried grew up under the eye of this resolute
exile, and at first intended to devote his life to the handicraft
of cloth-weaving, but, finding it none too profitable, he obtained
a post as bellringer or sexton in the Lutheran church, and clerk
in the services that were conducted for the benefit of those
amongst the townsfolk who could only speak the Polish tongue.
He was also appointed master over the girls in the elementary
school, a position for, which nature had suited him; for, in spite
of a certain sternness and inflexible regularity, he was fond of
children, and readily won the confidence and friendship of the
little maidens of Mohrungen. One of them indeed, when she
was a grey old woman, used to tell how Gottfried Herder in
the days that are gone would bring her cherries from his patch
of garden outside the town walls, and even carry her to school
in his arms. He seems to have held the school in his own
house, for we read that the chatter of the girls was disturbing
to any of the family who wished for quiet. In course of time,
Gottfried, having now established for himself a certain position
in life, cast his eyes upon Anna Elizabeth, daughter of Pels or
Pelz, blacksmith and armourer in the town, a cheerful, diligent,
and quiet girl, with manners and intellect above her station in
life, and therefore well able to assist him in the management of
his school. Their marriage rites were duly performed, and their
first child was born in September, 1739. She probably died in
infancy, for we hear no more of her. The second, Anna Luisse,
was born in 1741, and at the age of twenty married a butcher,
Neumann, but died after two years' unhappiness. Next came
the subject of this story, and after him Caroline Dorothea, born
in 1748, and at the age of eighteen married to a baker, Giilden-
horn, a man of little worth, who vexed her righteous soul with
his cruelties and immorahties, as will hereafter be seen. The
fifth and last child, Carl Gottfried, was born in 1752, and died



when he was three years old. This little register is apparently
still to be seen; written down by Gottfried Herder's own hand
on the blank leaves of his Arndt's " True Christianity," which
served as his family memorandum-book, a little prayer accom-
panying each entry after the pious fashion of those times. The
entry that especially concerns us narrates how that a son was
born to them on the 2oth of August, 1744, and was duly
christened two days after his birth under the name of Johann
Gottfried; so early did Herder's connection with the Church
begin. By the side of the entry his father, Gottfried, has
written the following prayer : " God, keep this child in thy
baptismal covenant, and lead and direct his path through thy
Holy Spirit, that we may find him with us all at some future
day before the throne of the Lamb, and go in together to the
feast of everlasting joy. God, help."


MOHRUNGEN, 1744 — 1762.

" One day I will
" Accomplish it ! Are they not older still
" — Not grown up men and women ? 'Tis beside
" Only a dream, and, though I must abide
" With dreams now, I may find a thorough vent
"For all myself."


Seeing that a child is the result from the combined characters
of his parents, and that the first few years of his life are little else
than the reflection of their influence, it will be worth while here
to try and form some clear picture of Herder's father and
mother, and see what manner of people they were. The warm
and imaginative spirit of the Silesian grandfather seems, as so
often happens, to have left out one generation, and to have
descended rather on the grandson than the son. Herder's father
was a pattern of strict regularity and unflinching industry,
doing his daily work in the house, the church, and amongst
the little girls in the schoolroom, with earnest cheerfulness,
and, for the most part, in silence. His son, in years long after,
used to tell of his strictness, and his little delight in words.

^^ If my father was pleased with me, his countenance bright-
ened, he laid his hand gently on my head, and called me his
Gottes Friede (the peace of God); that was my greatest and
sweetest reward. Strict and upright in the highest degree he
always was, but also good-tempered. I shall never forget his
earnest, silent face, and his bald crown."

His insight, probity, and unwavering love of truth seem to
have raised him almost to the position of an oracle among the
simple people of Mohrungen, who consulted him in any diffi-
culty or perplexed crisis of their ordinarily quiet lives, never


failing to receive the comfort of the best counsel so pure a soul
could give, either by word of mouth or even in a little treatise
on their case. Method may be said to have been the watchword
of his life ; however healthy his children might be, yet, at
certain times of the year, they were obliged to take a powder
against a disease that was supposed to afflict the young ; in
spring, too, they were dosed with blackthorn tea, and in autumn
with elder syrup. Of his kindliness we have already seen
examples. Here, then, was again the stuff which nature ordains
shall father a " man of genius," who is not to lose himself in
transient flashes of aimless insanity, but is to continue with set
purpose on his way, slowly mastering the most difficult task of
all, the recognition of the reality of life.

In outward appearance Herder was very much like his
father; but, as might be supposed, he derived his inmost
characteristics from his mother, who was a small, thin woman,
loving quiet, and inclined to reserve and thoughtful piety,
having a touch of true poetry and imagination besides, though
hardly enough to be the mother of a ()oet that should be great
for all time. She devoted herself with contented piety to the
unambitious duties of her station, the careful management of
her little household, the furtherance of her daughter s welfare
(devotion too little repaid), assistance when possible in the girls'
school, and the relief and comfort of the husband of her youth,
whom she survived nine years ; for she lived long enough to see
her son Gottfried already of mark in the eyes of the German
world. The rest of her life was not without its trials, and those
grievous: we read that she was seldom free from ]min, and
for several years almost entirely lost her hearing. This was a
sore trouble, for it was ever her greatest pleasure to go to the
church, and hear good counsel aud listen to the old hymns she
loved. Two years before she died, in 1770, a year full of
momentous issues for her son, she wrote to him as follows : —

^' My dearest Child, — Thou givest me many a wakeful hour;
if I wake up and think of thee, sleep takes to itself wings — and
yet I can do nothing but entrust thee to the great God. May
he give his angels charge over thee, that in their hands they

1762.] MOHRUNGEN. 7

may bear thee up ! and I have strong trust in Him ; He will not
let my petition be in vain ; me and mine hath he promised never
to leave nor neglect. As for me, trouble not thyself. The God
of ages is and abides my defence. If the Lord only grant me
grace that I may go into his house, then I have all ; joy in God
remains my greatest happiness. I always sigh when it comes
near Sunday, and I pray God that he may grant me the grace
to hear his word. Though I can work but little, yet I thank
God I can do what I myself require. I entrust all to Him ; my
cup of suffering will yet be one day full :

' He never hath forsaken one

In all his government;
No, what he doth and lets be done
That come to a good end.'

Let the words of Isaiah xliii., 1, 2, 4, be with thee on thy
journeying^ ('Fear not, for I have redeemed thee, I have
called thee by thy name ; thou art mine. When thou passest
through the waters I will be with thee ; and through the rivers,
they shall not overflow thee,' &c.). May the Lord write these
words deep in thy heart."

The day before her death she solemnly entrusted her Gott-
fried to the care of God.

We are thus enabled to gain a tolerably clear insight into
this modest little household out in marshy Mohrungen a hundred
and fifty years ago, and can see that simple, undoubting piety
would be the prevailing atmosphere. The house was close to
the church, and, when the regular work and vexations of each
day were over and done with, the whole family met together
and sang an hymn in the hush of the evening ; so that at an
early age Gottfried knew by heart not only the words of all the
hymns in the old German hymnbook, but all the tunes as well,
and a love of Church music, especially of the German choral^
remained with him all his life. This was a fit training for the
man who was to enter so deeply into the spirit of Hebrew

' Herder had then been to France and was travelling in the Rhineland.


From the first he was not as other children are. One who
knew him when he was four years old described the future
author of the Ideen as a fat, rosy-faced boy, creeping about the
threshold, always grave and always alone, though other children
might be not far off. The writer adds : ^^ I never saw him run,
jump, or shout : " which seems a pity, and proved the mis-
fortune of his life. When he was five years old, he was for the
first time afflicted with a weakness or fault in the fistula of his
eye, that continued to trouble him to the end, though it was in-
directly the cause of his life's turning-point — his meeting with
Goethe, who, in the very same year, when Herder first felt the
pains of his calamity (1749), had struggled into the world a
black and hardly breathing infant, far away to the south-west
in Frankfurt.

But in spite of the pain of his eye, his gravity and reserve,
Gottfried was not to continue creeping about the threshold by
himself any longer. His father no doubt supplied the elements
of learning, but was unable to proceed further perhaps for want
of power, more likely for want of leisure from those girls of his.
Gottfried accordingly must be sent to the town school, where
those of the Mohrungen boys, about thirty in number, who
were to learn something more than reading and writing, were
entrusted to the power of a Rector Grimm, an austere man, with
a nature like his name, as German biographers are fond of
noticing. In order to form some idea of the condition of
average education in Germany at that time, and the extent of
the school-reforms for which Herder had to fight so bitterly
in later years, we may stop to examine more closely the nature
of this man, who laid so many burdens, grievous to be borne,
on the hearts of the children in that East-Russian village ; and
even yet, for good or for evil, this species of schoolmaster is not
quite extinct, but recurs at intervals, like the reversions to the
zebra-stripes in the horse and its kindred.

Let us picture to ourselves then a man of between sixty and
seventy, with a face of deadly pallor, all the more startling in
contrast with his large black wig ; tall and broad-shouldered,
but lame, owing to a disease of the foot, which caused him

1762.] MOHRUNGEN. 9

much pain, and was in the end his death (in 1767) ; unmarried,
and with a liatred of women so bitter, that the sight of earthen-
ware plates adorned with bright little pictures of ladies in bits
of frilling and ribbons drove him into an uncontrollable passion ;
living a life of utter loneliness, avoiding intercourse with all
men as far as possible, though on occasion, it was said, he could
display considerable knowledge of the world. Such was the
outward character of the man who, having resigned his post in
the neighbouring village of Saalfeld on account of frequent
complaints against his excessive rigour, appeared before the
youth of Mohrungen, in 1752, as the chief apostle to them of
Apollo and the Muses. The store of culture which he opened
before their eyes consisted in a thorough knowledge of the
Latin grammar and of a few inferior Latin authors, a little
history and physical geography, a little Grreek and less Hebrew,
the two last subjects being reserved for the favoured few at the
top of the school. His method of imparting this knowledge to
the trembling thirty was simple and sufficient. The cane and
ruler were always close at hand, for without them he considered
school r^iscipline to be beyond the power of mortal man. What-
ever had to be learnt was driven into the youthful brain by
frequent repetition and bodily distress, nor was the smallest
point in the Latin grammar left to itself, till it had become, as it
were, part of the boy, to be thenceforth indelible. This process
of pressure began at seven o'clock each morning, and lasted till
five in the afternoon; and, if Grimm had had his own way,
would have continued all night, so great was his zeal. All the
while that lessons were being said the boys had to stand ; and
Herder himself tells us that, in order to increase this feeling of
respect, they were obliged to take off their hats whenever they
saw Grimm or even his house in the distance, and proceed
bare-headed for the rest of the way.

'' On the other hand," continues Herder, " he was glad
enough to show his pleasure in the industrious, and distin-
guished some few of us, of whom I was one, by taking us for
walks with him, and then we had to look for speedwell and
cowslips to make his tea, which he drank every day. I have


therefore always had a particular regard for these flowers, for
they remind me of those walks, the honour and reward of my
ever-memorable rector. At times, too, to one or other of the
boys, of whom he wished especially to mark his approbation, he
would give a cup of this tea in his own study, with one little
tiny lump of sugar ; this was a most honourable distinction."
In return for which distinction w^e hear that the boy had to kiss
the master's hand in the depths of his gratitude.

His severity became a by-word in the village. Even Gott-
fried, who was one of the poor man's favourite pupils and a
pattern-boy to the rest, seems not to have escaped from the
terror of the place, for he used to call the grammar of Donatus
'^ the Book of Martyrs," and old Cornelius Nepos ^^ the author
of Torment." A boy named Emmerien, who continued Her-
der's faithful friend, was at that time head of the school. Herder
apparently coming second to him, so that these two had full
opportunities of winnowing what little grain might lie in the
chaff-heaps of Latin grammar, inferior Latin authors, rudi-
mentary attempts on the New Testament and Homer, together
with Baumeister's Handbook to Logic and ^' the complete Dog-
matic"; certainly as barren a chaff or rubbish-heap as could
well be imagined. And yet in this old rector Grimm some-
thing may be discerned which calls for pity, something of the
sorrow of baffled strength, if it were worth while to read be-
tween the lines. This, at all events, is certain and sufficient,
nanaely, that he, too, had been young once ; that his mother

Online LibraryHenry Woodd NevinsonA sketch of Herder and his times → online text (page 1 of 41)