1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bürger, Gottfried August
BÜRGER, GOTTFRIED AUGUST (1748–1794), German poet, was born on the 1st of January 1748 at Molmerswende near Halberstadt, of which village his father was the Lutheran pastor. He was a backward child, and at the age of twelve was practically adopted by his maternal grandfather, Bauer, at Aschersleben, who sent him to the Pädagogium at Halle. Hence in 1764 he passed to the university, as a student of theology, which, however, he soon abandoned for the study of jurisprudence. Here he fell under the influence of C. A. Klotz (1738–1771), who directed Bürger’s attention to literature, but encouraged rather than discouraged his natural disposition to a wild and unregulated life. In consequence of his dissipated habits, he was in 1767 recalled by his grandfather, but on promising to reform was in 1768 allowed to enter the university of Göttingen as a law student. As he continued his wild career, however, his grandfather withdrew his support and he was left to his own devices. Meanwhile he had made fair progress with his legal studies, and had the good fortune to form a close friendship with a number of young men of literary tastes. In the Göttingen Musenalmanach, edited by H. Boie and F. W. Gotter, Bürger’s first poems were published, and by 1771 he had already become widely known as a poet. In 1772, through Boie’s influence, Bürger obtained the post of “Amtmann” or district magistrate at Altengleichen near Göttingen. His grandfather was now reconciled to him, paid his debts and established him in his new sphere of activity. Meanwhile he kept in touch with his Göttingen friends, and when the “Göttinger Bund” or “Hain” was formed, Bürger, though not himself a member, kept in close touch with it. In 1773 the ballad Lenore was published in the Musenalmanach. This poem, which in dramatic force and in its vivid realization of the weird and supernatural remains without a rival, made his name a household word in Germany. In 1774 Bürger married Dorette Leonhart, the daughter of a Hanoverian official; but his passion for his wife’s younger sister Auguste (the “Molly” of his poems and elegies) rendered the union unhappy and unsettled his life. In 1778 Bürger became editor of the Musenalmanach, and in the same year published the first collection of his poems. In 1780 he took a farm at Appenrode, but in three years lost so much money that he had to abandon the venture. Pecuniary troubles oppressed him, and being accused of neglecting his official duties, and feeling his honour attacked, he gave up his official position and removed in 1784 to Göttingen, where he established himself as Privat-docent. Shortly before his removal thither his wife died (30th of July 1784), and on the 29th of June in the next year he married his sister-in-law “Molly.” Her death on the 9th of January 1786 affected him deeply. He appeared to lose at once all courage and all bodily and mental vigour. He still continued to teach in Göttingen; at the jubilee of the foundation of the university in 1787 he was made an honorary doctor of philosophy, and in 1789 was appointed extraordinary professor in that faculty, though without a stipend. In the following year he married a third time, his wife being a certain Elise Hahn, who, enchanted with his poems, had offered him her heart and hand. Only a few weeks of married life with his “Schwabenmädchen” sufficed to prove his mistake, and after two and a half years he divorced her. Deeply wounded by Schiller’s criticism, in the 14th and 15th part of the Allgemeine Literaturzeitung of 1791, of the 2nd edition of his poems, disappointed, wrecked in fortune and health, Bürger eked out a precarious existence as a teacher in Göttingen until his death there on the 8th of June 1794.
Bürger’s character, in spite of his utter want of moral balance, was not lacking in noble and lovable qualities. He was honest in purpose, generous to a fault, tender-hearted and modest. His talent for popular poetry was very considerable, and his ballads are among the finest in the German language. Besides Lenore, Das Lied vom braven Manne, Die Kuh, Der Kaiser und der Abt and Der wilde Jäger are famous. Among his purely lyrical poems, but few have earned a lasting reputation; but mention may be made of Das Blümchen Wunderhold, Lied an den lieben Mond, and a few love songs. His sonnets, particularly the elegies, are of great beauty.
Editions of Bürger’s Sämtliche Schriften appeared at Göttingen, 1817 (incomplete); 1829–1833 (8 vols.), and 1835 (one vol.); also a selection by E. Grisebach (5th ed., 1894). The Gedichte have been published in innumerable editions, the best being that by A. Sauer (2 vols., 1884). Briefe von und an Bürger were edited by A. Strodtmann in 4 vols. (1874). On Bürger’s life see the biography by H. Pröhle (1856), the introduction to Sauer’s edition of the poems, and W. von Wurzbach, G. A. Bürger (1900).