The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

German Romanticism

BEFORE

1797–99 Best known as a poet, Friedrich Hölderlin writes the lyrical and tragic two-part novel Hyperion. The book reflects the typically German Romantic fascination with ancient Greek culture.

AFTER

1821 Heinrich von Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg is staged for the first time – 10 years after the author’s death by suicide. The patriotic play, in which the prince fails to follow orders and faints in a dream scene, has been edited so as not to offend the Prussian elite.

1827 The Book of Songs by Heinrich Heine is published. A five-section collection of Romantic poetry that wins Heine fame, many of the poems were later set to music by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.

German Romanticism came after, and was a reaction to, Weimar Classicism; its proponents rejected calm restraint and cared only about the artist’s perceptions. Romantic literature in Germany looked to the medieval past as a period of intellectual simplicity that could be re-created. It also explored the supernatural, the uncanny, and the fantastical as realms of the imagination – the Romantics wanted the world to become dream-like, and for dreams to be so realistic they resembled the world. German Romanticism tended to be less serious than British Romanticism, and often made use of playful wit.

"He puts their eyes in a bag and carries them to the crescent moon to feed his own children..."

“The Sandman”

Dark revelations

Nachtstücke by E T A Hoffmann (1776–1822), from Königsberg in Prussia, is a collection of eight short stories that combine a spirit of light-heartedness with darker themes of human irrationality. The stories are written in a simple and populist tone, accessible to all, and not self-consciously intellectual. Hoffman was a musician, rather than a writer; Nachtstücke (“Night Pieces”) is a musical title, and one of many German Romantic texts that were adapted into songs or operas.

The most famous of the stories is “The Sandman”, in which this traditionally sympathetic figure, who blesses children with their dreams, is revealed as a monster who instead plucks out their eyes. The Gothic and fantastical tales offer a disturbing insight into the human psyche and the individual’s struggle to feel at ease in society.

See also: The Robbers • The Sorrows of Young Werther • Lyrical Ballads • Faust • Frankenstein