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Eichendorff, Joseph von (1788-1857)

Joseph von Eichendorff

born: 10 March 1788
died: 26 November 1857
country: Germany

Joseph von Eichendorff was born on 10 March 1788 at Schloß Lubowitz, which had been the home of his aristocratic family for many generations. The Eichendorffs’ castle was near the Silesian town of Ratibor—one of those contested areas that changes nationality over the centuries. In the poet’s lifetime it was part of Prussia; after the treaty of Versailles it was ceded to Czechoslovakia, and since 1945 it has been Polish, although very near to the present German border. In what he considered to be the last golden years of the eighteenth century Eichendorff and his brother Wilhelm passed an idyllic childhood on the family estate: swimming, dancing, riding and hunting were combined with his home education and early poetic activity, and visits to the theatre in Ratibor were supplemented by holidays in Prague. At the age of thirteen he was sent to the Gymnasium in Breslau where he learned English and French (he later learned the Polish language of the region). In his late teens he studied law at university, first at Halle and then Heidelberg where he became acquainted with the recently published collection of folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which was to exert a lasting influence on his work.

At the age of twenty (1808) Eichendorff went on a Bildungsreise, a rather less grand German equivalent of the Englishman’s ‘Grand Tour’, but still requiring considerable means. On his itinerary were Paris and then Vienna—a city with which he was to have a continuing relationship over the years. In 1810 he returned to Lubowitz to help his father with the administration of the family estates which were already in financial difficulty, the economic fall-out of Europe at war. A visit to Berlin in 1809–10 was an artistic turning point: the young poet met Arnim, Brentano and Kleist, and heard Fichte give public readings. He began to write poetry prolifically. He then spent the years between 1810 and 1812 in Vienna, where he completed his legal studies and became close friends with Friedrich and Dorothea Schlegel, devout Roman Catholic converts, and a match for the poet’s own fervent beliefs. (Eichendorff was in Vienna about a decade too early for his path to have crossed with Franz Schubert, who had tentative links with this same circle.) All this time Eichendorff was writing some of his best-known lyrics; by 1811 he had completed his first novel Ahnung und Gegenwart, which contains four poems that were set by Schumann nearly thirty years later in his Liederkreis.

This was the time of the Befreiungskrieg when Germany and Austria threw off the yoke of Napoleon Bonaparte. Together with his lifelong friend from Vienna, Philippe Veit (stepson of Schlegel), Eichendorff enlisted in the Silesian infantry regiment known as the ‘Hunters of Lützow’ and became a commissioned officer (1813–15) who saw action in the field. After Napoleon’s surrender in 1814 he returned home and married Luise von Larisch, a local young lady of noble birth to whom he had been engaged since 1810. Their marriage was to last for forty years until Luise’s death. The poet’s novel Ahnung und Genewart was published in Nuremberg in 1815 with the support of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué but it made little impression at first. On Napoleon’s surprise return from Elba, Eichendorff returned to uniform and found himself posted to Aachen as part of a regiment that missed action at Waterloo by a single day. His posting in France (in Compiègne) lasted until the beginning of 1816 when he returned home.

The poet had been brought up to expect to live on his family estates in the cushioned manner of his childhood—the life of a ‘grand seigneur’ enjoyed by generations of his forbears. The disastrous financial circumstances of the post-Napoleonic era meant that his father’s death marked the end of the family’s tenure at Lubowitz—the estates were sold at first, and then in 1822, after his mother’s death, even the castle itself was auctioned and fell into a stranger’s hands. There was a certain amount of bitterness in Eichendorff’s contemplation of how social change had ruined his hopes and expectations, and this reinforced his already conservative disposition. He remained convinced all his life that he was a ‘Zu-spät-Gekommener’—someone who had ‘come too late’. In the following years he sought a way of life that enabled him to continue with his writing at the same time as earning his living. He took up a civil service job in Breslau (1816–19) but having sat further civil servant examinations in Berlin (which he passed with flying colours) he was promoted in 1820 to a senior post in Danzig, and later Marienwerder, where he distinguished himself as an administrator and wrote Aus dem Leben eines Taugesnichts—perhaps his most famous, and certainly his most witty, novella (published in Berlin in 1826).

Promotion in the civil service signalled a return to Berlin (where the poet and his family lived from 1831). He had returned to his former home in Silesia in 1828, and found it a desperately depressing visit. He had also wished to live in Koblenz, finding life in the Rhineland more comfortable than in Berlin. This was not to be, and he was to spend thirteen years in the Prussian capital in a very demanding and rather stressful job that curtailed his leisure time (although he was regularly in touch with such figures as Adelbert von Chamisso, Franz Kugler and Felix Mendelssohn at meetings of the famous ‘Wednesday Society’). From this Berlin period date Eichendorff’s novellas Viel Lärmen um Nichts (1832) and Dichter und ihre Gesellen (1834), each of which contributed a poem to Schumann’s Liederkreis. Aware that in a new age of secularization his own political feelings were not those of his Protestant employers he held back some of his other writings from publication at this time for fear of endangering his job.

The most important significant artistic event of these years was the appearance of the Gedichte, published in 1837 by Dunker und Humblot in Berlin. This gathered together all his poetry, including lyrics included in the novellas and in literary almanacs, as well as some of the poems dating back a quarter of a century that had remained in manuscript. The size and scope of this collection, and the quality of the writing (better received in 1837 than it had been in 1815) presented, at a stroke, the lifetime achievement of a great German poet. This was a real literary event, and the only thing that might have prevented someone like the young, left-leaning Schumann from buying the book hot off the press would have been the poet’s well-known conservative and religious affiliations. Schumann seems to have been sensibly oblivious to these scruples. What mattered to him was that this was wonderful poetry for a musician to set to music: in a letter to Albert Heintz (20 August 1845) Schumann urged this young Lieder composer to get to know the poetry of Eichendorff above all.

Eichendorff retired from the Prussian civil service in 1844. As far as composers of Lieder were concerned there was little of interest written after the publication of the Gedichte, although the poem for one of the most dramatic of all Eichendorff settings, Pfitzner’s In Danzig, dates from 1843. He had set about learning Spanish in Berlin and became a significant translator of that language, including the work of Calderon. The second edition of the Gedichte (1843), a copy of which was in Brahms’s possession, contains a supplementary section devoted to translations of Spanish poems. He also turned his hand to literary history and no longer constricted by the viewpoints of his employers he was able to give full rein to the expression of his beliefs; no one could doubt his integrity, and his disappointments with contemporary trends. The poet spent some time in Danzig with his daughter, and also lived near Dresden for a while. There he became friends with a Catholic convert from Hamburg by the name of Lebrecht Dreves; Dreves’s Gedichte were to appear under Eichendorff’s auspices in 1849, a volume of verse that includes the devotional Requiem that Schumann set as his Op 90 No 7 as a tribute to Lenau. The poet spent nearly a year in Vienna in 1846–7 to be near his brother; in that city of poets and musicians he was treated as more of a celebrity than at any other time of his life—something he found exciting but tiring.

There can be no doubt that the events of 1848, with the revolutions and upheaval typical of that year, disturbed Eichendorff greatly; he was by now not a particularly youthful sixty-year-old. Between 1850 and 1855 he moved back to Berlin. A visit to Karlsbad was undertaken in 1855 so that Luise Eichendorff could take the cure. On the way back the couple stopped in the Silesian (now Polish) town of Neisse, the home of their son-in-law, where Luise unexpectedly died. Eichendorff was persuaded by his family to stay in Neisse and he continued to work as best as he could, utterly lost without his wife. Thus it was that one of Germany’s greatest poets was born in present-day Poland, and also died there on 26 November 1857.

For many years after his death he was undervalued as a mild and inoffensive poet of stream, valley and forest, although his devotion to the Fatherland was lauded and exploited by less scrupulous politicians. Modern literary history places him in a far more important position, alongside figures like Novalis and Tieck. Recent scholarship (that of Gunther Schiwy for example, in Eichendorff, der Dichter in seiner Zeit, 2000) has revealed his Catholicism as less rigid and more ecumenical; his right-wing affiliations now seem lightened and modified by a knowledge of his satirical criticisms. His life, dull on the surface, seems to have had a Goethean dimension—a consistency whereby his work, considered as a whole, may be taken to be a remarkably accurate reflection of his epoch. The seeming simplicity of his poetic imagery disguises a passion for mystical emblems and ‘hieroglyphics’ whereby he creates a vocabulary that interprets God’s creation; this encourages his readers in their turn to interpret his work on a spiritual level. He takes his own circumstances, in having lost his parents and Schloß Lubowitz, and in always being someone who came too late to success, as symptomatic of the Fall of Man. The struggle of all men must be to place themselves on the road that will lead them back to paradise regained. If we owe the wringing out of every drop of atmosphere and feeling in Eichendorff’s poetry to a connection with his religion, each word formed on a wing and a prayer, it has been the Lieder composer and his singers who have benefited most.

from notes by Graham Johnson

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