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The Drama

It was at this time that dramatic poetry made its appearance in Germany; and just as lyrical and narrative poetry had first been awakened to life by the religious sentiment which thus made for itself a voice, so our earliest examples of this style also are religious--the mystery and morality plays. It is curious that the first beginning of the drama should 81 be in a convent, and the work of a nun, a certain Hrosvitha, who lived in the Abbey of Gandersheim, about 980. Her works, however, hardly concern our subject, as they were written in Latin, though one of them was afterwards translated into German for performance; and we do not encounter any further dramatic attempts till we reach the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when we meet with mysteries on the life of our Lord. No doubt these took their rise in the wish to set vividly before the people the chief incidents of Scripture history, and the mode of doing so is by some thought to have been derived from the symbolical games which ushered in the spring, or from the processions of returning crusaders, who often re-entered their homes in quaint and symbolical array. The Passion and Resurrection and the Lamentation of the Virgin form the subjects of the earliest mysteries, and to these ere long were added similar representations of scenes from the infancy of the Saviour, which were performed about Twelfth Night. At first they were written partly in Latin and partly in German, and a considerable portion consisted of action unaccompanied by words, while other parts were sung, not recited, but gradually the German element preponderates and the Latin disappears. Scenes from the Old Testament or the Apocrypha, which were held to typify events in our Lord's life, were introduced between the acts of the principal drama, and from the necessity of compression were generally given in a more vigorous and dramatic form than the original piece itself, which is often extremely prolix. The stories of Joseph and Samson, of David and Goliath, of Esther, of Susannah 82 and the Elders, were the favourite subjects of these entr'actes. Next the comic element found its way into these pieces, especially into those which were performed about Twelfth Night, a time of merry-making and often of licence. The first example of it, however, that is now extant, is in an Easter mystery of the fifteenth century, where the merchant who sells precious ointment, first to Mary Magdalene, and afterwards to the three Maries on their way to the grave, quarrels with his servant and his wife, and ends with striking the latter, who repays him by a sound rating. This element of grotesque fun afterwards became much more developed, but it never in Germany attained anything like the proportions that it assumed in France and Italy. On the whole the representation of these dramas was a serious, and in its way a religious, act. A city or a village, or perhaps some great guild, or the students of a university, undertook to give one of these mysteries. The performance, in the summer, frequently took place out of doors, in the winter, in the church or the guild-hall; it often lasted for more than one day, and people came to see it from far and near. The performers who personated such characters as those of our Lord, His mother, or His disciples, were expected to prepare themselves by religious acts for their work, and to abstain from all licence while it was in progress. Of course a more secular tendency gradually showed itself; still on the whole the drama was a plant of very late growth in Germany, and it was long before it attained as much importance in its purely secular shape as it possessed in the Middle Ages in its religious form. The 83 mystery has never quite died out there; many of us are probably aware that once in ten years a genuine ancient mystery is still performed in a little village of the Bavarian Tyrol.

The Popular Song

Another style of poetry sprang up in these centuries which had the most genuine life in it of any type that we have yet met with, and that has continued characteristic of the German people to this day. It is that of the "Volkslied," or popular song, and in these far-back days it holds somewhat the same place in German literature that the ballad does in our own. The narrative form of the ballad seems to have been less congenial to the German mind than to the English. We find, indeed, some poems on contemporary events--like that on the Battle of Sempach, by Halbsuten--but they are wanting in the life, terseness, and swing of the ballad. The German popular song, on the other hand, even in its rudest days, is full of freshness and vigour, often of sweetness and pathos, though lax and unpolished in form and marked by abrupt transitions and quaint similes. But it has the true breath of the people's life in it, which it deals with in its most varied forms--in songs of love, of dancing, of drinking, of wandering and parting, of spinning and weaving, and of the huntsman's and forester's crafts, which are some of the best of all. It furnished the type that, in Luther's hands, was refined and strengthened into the congregational hymn which became so powerful an instrument in the spread of the reformed religion; and at this period the best of its sacred poems are those which more or less partake of this character.

It was natural that poetry of this simple and direct 84 style should concern itself more with the great facts of the Christian faith than with the minor phases of spiritual experience; and, accordingly, we find most of the poems of this kind are composed for one or other of the chief festivals of the Church. That of Christmas was an especial favourite with the warm-hearted, child-loving Germans, and for it Tauler wrote the following symbolical little poem, which soon became one of these popular songs:--

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