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Romanticism’s Old German as Stepping-Stone to Goethe’s World Literature

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 20, 2013
pp. 247-263 | 10.1353/gyr.2013.0012

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So wie jetzt wurden die alten noch nie gelesen und übersetzt.” Ludwig Tieck’s claim, raised in the introduction to his edition Minnelieder aus dem Schwaebischen Zeitalter (1803), bears witness to the renewed attention the so-called Old German [altdeutsche] literature received around 1800.1 The rise of nationalism in the wake of the Napoleonic occupation and the quest for a German identity fueled the interest in the literary heritage that extended, as understood in the Age of Goethe, from the earliest monuments of the German language to the literature of the seventeenth century. Working against the backdrop of the Romantic project, several editions and collections, each varying in shape and design, aimed at incorporating the premodern literature into the poetic canon—among them Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812–15), Joseph Görres’s Die teutschen Volksbücher (1807), Ludwig Tieck’s edition of Minnesang poetry, and Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano’s collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1806–8), which was subtitled “die alten deutschen Lieder” and dedicated to Goethe. The classical Goethe, nonetheless, resisted all Romantic wooing and remained an uninterested bystander.2 The Romantics were, to his mind, once again following in his footsteps; in other words, they were venturing into territory he had explored before (in his Sturm und Drang phase) but long since left. A return, he seemed convinced, would mean a regression. Not until his aesthetic reorientation after the death of Schiller, and the start of his biographical projects, did Goethe reconsider his reservations. But when he immersed himself in Old German and engaged with the Romantics, he continually articulated his uneasiness with both: the literature of that period and the project of aiming to revitalize it. Goethe never felt compelled to systematize his views and the notes he produced in this regard react to specific occasions, writers, and texts. Indeed, most were not meant to be published and some took a seemingly whimsical tone. Nevertheless, they foreground another set of interrelated ideas pertaining to what Goethe in later years would term “world literature.” The principle that sets him on the twisted path leading from Old German to world literature is the same he had applied decades earlier when, as he explained in Dichtung und Wahrheit, the literary period into which he was born emerged “aus der vorhergehenden durch Widerspruch” (FA 1.14:283). Goethe uses the principle of contradiction liberally, when he draws clear lines of political, philological, and poetological distinctions between the Romantic project and the one he intuitively pursues. Goethe’s dispersed notes documenting his responses reveal how Romanticism’s Old German became a stepping-stone on the way toward world literature. Goethe’s review of Des Knaben Wunderhorn began to articulate both his infatuation and his frustration with the Romantic endeavor. The pattern is repeated, when Goethe received the first semi-scholarly edition of the Nibelungenlied and exchanged letters with the editor, the young lawyer turned philologist Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen. Goethe upended the positions taken in the preface to that edition, when shortly thereafter he developed a plan for an educational collection of poetry (Volksbuch). This sketch amounts to an early outline of world literature without using the word. From the Old German world, the Nibelungenlied repeatedly captured Goethe’s attention. While he studied it only briefly, he returned to it in several key passages on world literature, acknowledging the unwieldy, undeniable appeal of the epos, but also insisting that works with such particularities could hardly speak to other nations and thus be unfit for the dynamic, transnational, and forward-looking exchanges his concept of world literature sought to inspire.

Goethe launched his reassessment of Romanticism’s Old German with a sympathetic review of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This review, published in the Jenaische Allgemeine Literaturzeitung in January 1806, anticipates many of the positions Goethe would take toward Old German in the years to come. In particular, the review seeks to differentiate what the collection conflates: philology and poetics; the efforts, on the one hand, to preserve the poetic heritage within a “poetisches Archiv” and the attempts, on the other, to renew with poetic means the “Leben und Bildung der Nation” (FA 1...

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