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  • Whimsy, Wit, and Humor: Satire in the Work of Matthias Claudius
  • Herbert Rowland

Among the several images of Matthias Claudius that have become prevalent in German literary history are what Reinhard Görisch in 1981 called “der fromme und einfältige Claudius,” “der idyllische Claudius,” and “der erbauliche Claudius” (Görisch 29–43). These images relate to the popular understanding of the poet who wrote frequently anthologized poems such as “Abendlied” (“Der Mond ist aufgegangen”) and “Ein Wiegenlied bei Mondschein zu singen” (“So schlafe nun du Kleine!”) as well as a number of devotional writings in prose, that is, the deeply and unproblematically devout Christian who shunned the public theatre in favour of the private joys of provincial, familial life and who occasionally raised a forefinger to convey truths that are still valid today. Awareness of works such as “Kriegslied” (“’s ist Krieg! ‘s ist Krieg! O Gottes Engel wehre”), which was evoked as recently as by Günter Grass in connection with the impending war in Iraq, has on the whole added little nuance to the view of the man and his work in the public at large and, one suspects, even among most Germanists. Beginning in the early seventies with the work of Koch and Siebke and Kranefuss, a small but active group of specialists has substantially revised the traditional notion of Claudius. Yet dismay is in order at the tenacity of older images of the poet – as evident in the annotated bibliography that has appeared annually since 1992 in the Jahrbuch der Claudius-Gesellschaft. Despite a certain amount of progress these images persist in professional circles surely in part owing to the unfortunate circumstance that much of the best recent work devoted to Claudius has been published in theses, Festschriften, and conference volumes as well as certain periodicals of similarly limited reach.

One can therefore scarcely overemphasize the fact that Claudius took part in the public discussion on a number of the key issues of his highly eventful, in part tumultuous time and that he entered the debate with satire in both verse and prose. Indeed, satire dominated his early work, remained prominent during the heyday of his career, and returned during his later years to play a significant role (see Rowland, Matthias Claudius: Language as “Infamous Funnel” 85–134). Claudius’s satire participates in all six of the subject categories of contemporary German satire identified by Günter Wellmanns: personal satire, literary satire, political and religious subjects, learned satire, moral satire, and satire of social class and profession (55–115). All but the last of these types are [End Page 111] represented by the texts scrutinized in this study, and certain works manifest more than one kind. As we shall see, Claudius’s satire also employs the epigram, fable, fictional letter, and many of the other satiric forms typical of the age (see Wellmanns 116–21; also Flögel). While uneven in quality, it is often far more successful than its relative obscurity would suggest. Writing from London in 1778, the (anonymous) German correspondent of the Deutsches Museum called Claudius “Deutschlands Yorick,” to which Wilhelm Röseler assented in his study of Claudius’s humor nearly a century later (Thayer 133).

Though noteworthy for its hyperbole, the comparison to Sterne is not at all without merit, for Claudius’s satire not infrequently exhibits that spirit of genial madness that one associates with the Englishman. Claudius certainly knew Tristram Shandy, for he reviewed the novel in the translation of Johann Joachim Bode, the publisher of Der Wandsbecker Bote and thus his superior (Sämtliche Werke 874), and he probably read A Sentimental Journey as well, which Bode also translated. I know of no evidence to suggest that he had more than a casual acquaintance with Swift; the Sir John Bickerstaf of the Hamburgische Adreβ-Comtoir-Nachrichten, which he edited from 1768–1770, is probably indebted to Swift’s Squire Isaac Bickerstaff only in his reincarnation in Addison’s and Steele’s The Tatler (Sämtliche Werke 1043, note to p. 734). While most of Claudius’s satire is more Sternesque in tenor – generally speaking of the urbane and sanguine Horatian kind – a significant portion of it nonetheless...


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