Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


 

German Patriotic Poetry


 

Among the varied notes of poetry that echo the deepest and sweetest emotions of men, there is one which must be placed beyond the pale of the exacter rules of criticism; and that comprises those small collections of patriotic verse which each nation clings to with a glorious affection, as the passionate expression of the feelings which stirred to the inmost depth its greatest and bravest hearts in the stirring periods of the national history—the embodiment in mighty music of the faith and the glory of its forefathers. For they are generally rude and rugged words bearing in them little of the finish of art, yet revealing such an intense deep fervour and devotion as stirs strangely even the most disinterested listener. The Germans have a larger stock of these ballads perhaps than any other nation in the world—fine bursts of patriotism, that paint in the clearest colours the affectionate character as well as the romantic history of that brave people. Once or twice in modern times the hard heel of the conqueror has descended upon the free, honest spirit and hardy patriotism of the "Fatherland," in an hour when its valour slept and its children were divided against themselves; and then was seen the wondrous spectacle of a United Germany, bound together by a mighty affection and impelled by a gigantic upheaving of something of the old Gothic spirit of its forefathers, rising in its might and inflicting a chastisement on its foes, undreamed of and unparalleled. Out of these periods of convulsion sprang the greater number of the patriot ballads,—many of them written by the greatest singers of the time, many by mere rude soldier poets, whose inspiration was the smoke of battle and who never wrote in any other strain.

The greatest of these uprisings was that of 1813, when the fearful might of the first Empire had stretched its tyranny from the Rhine to the Niemen, and the children of Frederic were groaning beneath the exactions of a conqueror, as terrible as Attila, as ruthless as Tamerlane,—a dark shadow, mysterious in its strength, that had deadened the limbs of Europe in its gloom for thirteen years—a wonderful time when the greatest trembled and the very crowds in the streets of Berlin wept on that sad day after the bitter peace of Tilsit, when the King of Prussia and his beautiful Queen—red-eyed with weeping—rode through the multitude to the palace, shorn of half their dominions and bound hand and foot in the fetters of remorseless France.

Then came the rising; and the songs of that period ring with a solemn majesty of wrath that makes the reader almost shudder. Listen to the following exhortation:—

Canst thou serve with the French so deceitful,
    Enslaved by a monster so foul;
When thy bearleader stirs thee for dancing,
    Canst thou dance and not utter a growl;
Shall his ring through thy nostrils be passed,
    On thy lips shall his nozzle be laid,
Till he make thee a hare from a lion,
    Till he change the war horse to a jade.

No longer! To arms! Clutch thy weapon!
    The delivering steel seize amain!
Arise, though thy vengeance be bloody.
    Quick, conquer thy freedom again!
Uncover thy far-flying banner,
    Let they sword flash its glittering fires,
And show thee at last, a free German,
    And worthy the fame of thy sires.

These words are strong and terrible even in the translation, what must they be in the original language. They are from the pen of Ernst Moritz Arndt—Father Arndt—"Der Deutcheste Deu[ts]che," as his countrymen affectionately called him—one of the giants of those days, perhaps the greatest—a brave, honest, loving heart, who trained himself by labour and more than a hermit’s abstinence for the struggle he foresaw—fought with a hero’s constancy for the "good cause,"—escaped oftentimes barely with his life—wrote songs, pamphlets, books, whose fire lives in the hearts of his children to this day—and lived to see his divided country free again— lived to see his ninetieth birthday celebrated with rejoicings all over Germany,—presents and congratulations sent by thousands of loving hands to "Father Arndt," the saviour of his Fatherland.

Others of this period were young Theodor Koerner—warrior poet indeed—who fell on the field of battle, and left many a stirring song behind him, and Max Von Schenkendorf, the sweetest of them all, whose love for the Fatherland was untainted with any personal hatred of the foe. In his "Soldier’s Evening Song," he says:—

Sleep sweetly e’en in yonder camp,
    Although ye be our foes;
We have no private cause for hate,
    Our blows are honest blows.

These and many other brave singers—treasured above all in Germanic literature—left behind them as an eternal legacy the beloved stories of that liberation time. Such as those of Schill, who marched out one morning in 1809 from Berlin, and died at Stralsund in a desperate attempt to raise the standard of Germany; and Hofer, who perished with his brave Tyrolese in the same year, in defence of his country’s right. They left behind them too, the vision of a United Germany, the central dream of the ballad music, and one which was not yet to be accomplished without much blood. Walther, the minnesinger, sang with a desponding heart in the dying days of the great Empire of old; these new bards stood upon the threshold of the new Empire, reviving his spirit, but singing hopefully of the time to come. Long after Germany had sunk back into her old lethargy and dission [sic], this grand vision was still cherished with an intense affection by the dreamers of the nation, finding its keenest life in the Universities, where many a fine ballad was added to the list; till the dark days of 1848 brought it to light again only to be crushed seemingly forever by the feudalism of Prussia. About that time the threats of the French ministry under M. Thiers, certain prophetic murmurings of that policy which sought to aggrandize France at the expense of Prussia, drew forth a fresh burst of ballad music from Arndt, who was still living, and others. Uhland, one of the Apostles of liberty in Germany, philosopher, scholar and poet—was living too, and wrote some of the greatest patriot poetry in the language. At length the iron might of Prussia in our own time opened a new prospect for German patriots. A united Germany with Prussia supreme and at its head was better than nothing. So in 1870, the old enthusiasm burst forth afresh, and more vehemently than ever. France had always stood in the way of German unification. A dark remembrance passed over Germany of the terrible days of the Empire, and a determination seized every heart that no Frenchman should again pass the Rhine. The whole people rose once more in their might, with a clear vision of a United Germany within their grasp and marched to battle with the old songs of the liberation upon their lips. Never in the history of the world was seen such an uprising of Teutonic might, and it was half due to the beloved ballads whose music spread like wildfire at the first approach of danger. The great dream was at last accomplished on that terrible day in August, 1870, when the eagles of the Empire lay trodden in the dust of Lorraine, and the dark shadow of Bonapartism fled from France forever, let us hope—like the awful spirit from him that was possessed of a Devil. The marvelous rejoicing of the time is strongly portrayed in the ballads to which that war gave birth. This is a verse from one of them:—

How long in whispered sorrow,
    How long with knitted brow,
My German Fatherland, thy name
    Was named—how proudly now!
All old disunion pas’d away,
    Shout, shout, from shore to shore,
We’ve found our Fatherland at last,
    We’ll never lose it more.

Another from Freiligrath:—

Up Germany! and God with thee!
    The die is cast! we go;
Heart-rending though the thoughts must be
    Of all the blood must flow!
Yet heavenwards let thy lances soar,
    Victorious shalt thou be
Grand, glorious, free as ne’er before;
    Hurrah, my Germany!

The character of the German people is deeply marked in these ballads. The strain running through them all is that of defence—duty to home a[n]d Fatherland:—

For wife and child, for hearth and home,
    For all things dear below,
To guard them all we gladly come
    And dare the furious foe!
For German speech and German right,
    And homely German life
For all we hold good, dear and bright,
    Hurrah! we court the strife.

How different the French verses of the same kind. In them all is victory, glory, ruin to the foe—the sanguinary fervour of the Marseillaise. Such, too, is the distinction between German and French courage,—the one grounded on duty and affection, the other on egotism—the one rapid and violent, like a flash of gunpowder; the other as Carlyle describes, burning long and steadily like the fire of the anthracite coal. The Frenchman fights well when glory is to be got by it—his onset is terrible; but short lived in case of repulse. When the eyes of the world are not upon him he is not worth much. The German is bidden to stand by the Rhine, his Jordan, the sacred river, until death in defense of wife and child and country—and he will stay there.

What a fine definition of true courage is that of Ernst Moritz. "A brave soldier will not boast himself for the sake of worldly fame, nor be puffed up with vanity, but faithfulness to his Fatherland will be his brightest glory, and a quiet courage his highest ornament. ["]

In many of the ballads there is a strong religious feeling, especially in those of Schenkendorf and Arndt, a spirit of devotion in perfect harmony with the character of their courage. For instance:—

Now rise up from your earthly couch,
    Ye sleepers, with the day!
Already all our tethered steeds
    Their early greeting neigh!
Our weapons glisten brightly
    In morning’s rosy breath,
As we wake from dreams of laurels
    And pass to thoughts of death.

O God, in grace abounding,
    Look down from heaven afar!
Thou callest forth our legions,
    Thou marshallest our war.
Uphold us by thy presence,
    This day beside us be;
For thine, O Lord, the banners are,
    And Thine the victory.

Strange and unusual is the pathetic spirit which runs through some of these. Instance the little verse translated thus:—

Dawn of day, dawn of day!
To death thou showest me the way:
For when the bugles loudly blow,
Full soon will I be lying low,
       With many a comrade true.

These songs are said to be as popular with the German soldiers as any— shewing, perhaps, the deep, true basis of the courage of those who sing them—men who fight and die, often looking upon the pathetic side of the matter.