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Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock

Portrait of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock


Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock was born at Quedlinburg in 1724. His father was an official under the Government--a clever, upright, crotchety man, given to a belief in ghosts and the devil, with whom he considered himself to have had many personal encounters, but a man who brought up his ten children to be honest and hardy, religious and patriotic. Klopstock was educated at a celebrated school at Schulpforta, where he remained till he was twenty-one, and where he already conceived the idea of his great epic the "Messiah." The thought that France and England had so far surpassed Germany in literature, filled him even as a boy with indignation, and he solemnly resolved that he would produce some great work which should do his country honour. Various subjects, such as the story of King Arthur, or of the early German hero, Henry the Fowler, floated before his mind, but at last it flashed on him that the work of Redemption was the noblest subject on which the human pen could be employed. Not long afterwards 324 Milton's "Paradise Lost" fell into his hands; he read it with rapture, and was more than ever confirmed in his choice of a theme. From Schulpforta he went to Leipsic, where he soon became intimate with the set of young men who were bringing out the "Contributions from Bremen." They urged him to join them, but he declined from modesty, until one day one of his friends named Schmidt drew out of a chest full of linen a manuscript, which proved to be the first three cantos of the "Messiah." Schmidt instantly carried them off to Cramer; the friends read them with delight, and insisted on publishing them in the "Contributions" for 1748. Several of his odes also appeared in the same volume, and the young Klopstock found himself suddenly famous all over Germany. In 1750 he was invited to Zurich, and was honoured and caressed to the utmost in what was then the most literary town in Switzerland. Throughout life he was a man of singularly pure and amiable character, and at this time he had much wit and liveliness, with a keen enjoyment of athletic sports, especially of skating, which from his example and praises became quite a rage in Germany during the next twenty years. The consciousness of the great work in which he was engaged gave him however, as Goethe tells us, a certain dignity and self-control of manner which in later years, when the vivacity of youth was gone, increased to a sort of measured diplomatic courtliness. It was about this time that he wrote most of his love poems and odes, inspired by a hopeless passion for Fanny, the sister of his friend Schmidt. But ere long he consoled himself. It was in 1751 that Count Bernstorff, then prime minister to the King of Denmark, 325 invited him to reside at Copenhagen, and offered him a pension, which should enable him to complete the "Messiah" undisturbed by pecuniary cares. Klopstock accepted it, and on his way northwards made the acquaintance at Hamburg of a certain Meta Moller, the daughter of a merchant, a clever, ardent-minded girl, who was a correspondent of Richardson and Young, and had already conceived a great admiration for the author of the "Messiah." A correspondence ensued, which terminated in 1754 in a marriage. Nothing could be happier than this union, but it lasted little more than four years, when Meta died in childbirth. Her death was a terrible blow to Klopstock, and for a time seems to have diverted his thoughts altogether from his great work. Ten cantos had already been given to the world, but during the next nine years, when Klopstock was a man between thirty and forty, only minor poems appeared, chiefly of a religious character.

After Meta's death he lived in Count Bernstorff's house, but he was in the habit of spending long periods of time among his friends in or near Hamburg; and on the retirement of Bernstorff in 1770, he removed there altogether, and took up his abode in the house of a Herr von Winthem, who had married Meta's niece. Hamburg was at this time a sort of literary capital of Germany, and more particularly of its northern half, as Weimar became some years later. Lessing and Klopstock, then the greatest names in German literature, made it their residence; Herder visited it occasionally; and a number of lesser lights, such as Voss, Claudius, Reimarus, the Stolbergs, &c. gathered round the chief luminaries. Klopstock 326 enjoyed a sort of reverence not unlike that paid to Dr. Johnson in England, but in some respects more flattering, as he was a man of whom it was much easier to make a popular, and especially a ladies' hero. Here the "Messiah" was at last completed in 1773; a complete edition of his odes and lyrics was brought out; and here he devoted the autumn of his long life to the study and purification of the German language and its grammar. He had always been a passionate lover of his country, but this did not prevent him from taking the keenest interest in the American War of Independence and the opening of the French Revolution. He was among those who, like our own Wordsworth, hailed its earlier years with eager sympathy and the hope of a coming brighter era for humanity, and who afterwards underwent the bitterness of profound disappointment. The National Assembly had marked their recognition of his friendship for the French people by according him the rights of a French citizen; but when the terrible massacres of 1793 took place he sent back to them his diploma.

In his sixty-seventh year he married for the second time, choosing the Frau von Winthem, who had meanwhile become a widow, and who survived him. He died in 1803, in his seventy-ninth year, retaining all the vigour of his faculties to the last, and was buried by Hamburg with royal honours.

The Messiah

The "Messiah," which as we have seen occupied twenty-seven years in its composition, is a poem in twenty cantos, written in hexameters except where certain choral songs occur in the unrhymed lyrical measures employed by Klopstock for his odes. The 327 action opens after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the Messiah withdraws from the people, and alone on the Mount of Olives renews His solemn vow to the Almighty Father to undertake the work of Redemption; it closes when that work is completed, and He sits down at the right hand of God. Around the central figure of the God-man are grouped an infinite variety of spectators and actors: angels and seraphs, among whom Eloa and Gabriel are especially appointed to attend on the Divine Sufferer; evil spirits who conspire against Him, but one of whom, Abbadonna, repents and at last obtains mercy; Adam and Eve and the patriarchs, who watch with profound interest and gratitude the reparation of the Fall; and the inhabitants of another world, like in nature to man, but unfallen, who are permitted to know what is taking place among their sinful kindred. Even the Father himself is introduced as speaking, and the scene is sometimes laid in the highest heaven. The earthly actors are the mother and disciples of Jesus, the Jews and the Romans who lead Him to death, and a number of those who have come in contact with Him in His ministrations, among whom the most clearly drawn are two female figures, both named Cidli: one, the wife of Gedor, is a reminiscence of Meta, and her death is an exact transcript of Meta's deathbed; the other is the daughter of Jairus, between whom and Semida, the youth of Nain, there exists a pure but ardent attachment, which at last finds satisfaction in heaven. The immense number of personages thus introduced produces a confusing impression; everything is described by one or other of them, and talked over at length; scarcely anything actually 328 takes place before the reader; there is an absence of local colouring and of character, and very few of the actors have any distinct individuality at all; while the effort to keep the whole tone of the poem at the highest possible pitch of intensity and awe gives rise to an overstrained inflation of both thought and style, which becomes in the long-run inexpressibly fatiguing. Yet Klopstock's poem has made for itself and for him a place in the literature of his country which does not depend on the number of readers it now attracts. Its subject is linked by a thousand invisible fibres to the whole Christian thought of centuries past, while its spirit of mercy, forgiveness, and tolerance, of Redemption in a word, is essentially characteristic of the later developments of Christianity. To treat such a theme worthily at all--to embody it in a form which, however full of defects, yet possesses a certain dignity and real genius--marks its author as a great poet, if not one of the greatest, and gives him a place historically even higher perhaps than he has a right to command as an artist.

Klopstock also wrote scriptural dramas, which, however, speedily fell into oblivion. Much finer are his odes, which indeed show the most fire and originality of any of his works; though some of these too suffer from their length and elaboration. He also recast, not always very successfully, many of the older hymns, and composed a number of his own, of which a good many are adopted into the hymn-books, though in general their style is too stilted and declamatory to be genuinely popular. As specimens we give one of his odes, one of his psalms, and a hymn: it is impossible within a short compass to 329 give extracts from the "Messiah" which could really convey any idea of the work.3737In this ode the translation follows the original line by line, imitating as exactly as possible the accent and number of syllables in each. In the psalm that follows it a little more licence in metre is taken, as the original has also a more condensed and regular rhythm.

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