The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 105/Friedrich Rückert


The last of the grand old generation of German poets is dead. Within ten years Eichendorff, Heine, Uhland, have passed away; and now the death of Friedrich Rückert, the sole survivor of the minor gods who inhabited the higher slopes of the Weimar Olympus, closes the list of their names. Yet, although with these poets in time, Rückert was not of them in the structure of his mind or the character of his poetical development. No author ever stood so lonely among his contemporaries. Looking over the long catalogue, not only of German, but of European poets, we find no one with whom he can be compared. His birthplace is supposed to be Schweinfurt, but it is to be sought, in reality, somewhere on the banks of the Euphrates. His true contemporaries were Saadi and Hariri of Bosrah.

Rückert's biography may be given in a few words, his life having been singularly devoid of incident. He seems even to have been spared the usual alternations of fortune in a material, as well as a literary sense. With the exception of a somewhat acridly hostile criticism, which the Jahrbücher of Halle dealt out to him for several years in succession, his reputation has enjoyed a gradual and steady growth since his first appearance as a poet. His place is now so well defined that death—which sometimes changes, while it fixes, the impression an author makes upon his generation—cannot seriously elevate or depress it. In life he stood so far aloof from the fashions of the day, that all his successes were permanent achievements.

He was born on the 16th of May, 1788, in Schweinfurt, a pleasant old town in Bavaria, near the baths of Kissingen. As a student he visited Jena, where he distinguished himself by his devotion to philological and literary studies. For some years a private tutor, in 1815 he became connected with the Morgenblatt, published by Cotta, in Stuttgart. The year 1818 he spent in Italy. Soon after his return, he married, and established himself in Coburg, of which place, I believe, his wife was a native. Here he occupied himself ostensibly as a teacher, but in reality with an enthusiastic and untiring study of the Oriental languages and literature. Twice he was called away by appointments which were the result of his growing fame as poet and scholar,—the first time in 1826, when he was made Professor of the Oriental Languages at the University of Erlangen; and again in 1840, when he was appointed to a similar place in the University of Berlin, with the title of Privy Councillor. Both these posts were uncongenial to his nature. Though so competent to fill them, he discharged his duties reluctantly and with a certain impatience; and probably there were few more joyous moments of his life than when, in 1849, he was allowed to retire permanently to the pastoral seclusion of his little property at Neuses, a suburb of Coburg.

One of his German critics remarks that the poem in which he celebrates his release embodies a nearer approach to passion than all his Oriental songs of love, sorrow, or wine. It is a joyous dithyrambic, which, despite its artful and semi-impossible metre, must have been the swiftly-worded expression of a genuine feeling. Let me attempt to translate the first stanza:—

"Out of the dust of the
Town o' the king,
Into the lust of the
Green of spring,—
Forth from the noises of
Streets and walls,
Unto the voices of
He who presently
Flies is blest:
Fate thus pleasantly
Makes my nest!"[1]

The quaint old residence at Neuses thus early became, and for nearly half a century continued to be, the poet's home. No desire to visit the Orient—the native land of his brain—seems to have disturbed him. Possibly the Italian journey was in some respects disenchanting. The few poems which date from it are picturesque and descriptive, but do not indicate that his imagination was warmed by what he saw. He was never so happy as when alone with his books and manuscripts, studying or writing, according to the dominant mood. This secluded habit engendered a shyness of manner, which frequently repelled the strangers who came to see him,—especially those who failed to detect the simple, tender, genial nature of the man, under his wonderful load of learning. But there was nothing morbid or misanthropical in his composition; his shyness was rather the result of an intense devotion to his studies. These gradually became a necessity of his daily life; his health, his mental peace, depended upon them; and whatever disturbed their regular recurrence took from him more than the mere time lost.

When I first visited Coburg, in October, 1852, I was very anxious to make Rückert's acquaintance. My interest in Oriental literature had been refreshed, at that time, by nearly ten months of travel in Eastern lands, and some knowledge of modern colloquial Arabic. I had read his wonderful translation of the Makamât of Hariri, and felt sure that he would share in my enthusiasm for the people to whose treasures of song he had given so many years of his life. I found, however, that very few families in the town were familiarly acquainted with the poet,—that many persons, even, who had been residents of the place for years, had never seen him. He was presumed to be inaccessible to strangers.

It fortunately happened that one of my friends knew a student of the Oriental languages, then residing in Coburg. The latter, who was in the habit of consulting Rückert in regard to his Sanskrit studies, offered at once to conduct me to Neuses. A walk of twenty minutes across the meadows of the Itz, along the base of the wooded hills which terminate, just beyond, in the castled Kallenberg (the summer residence of Duke Ernest II.), brought us to the little village, which lies so snugly hidden in its own orchards that one might almost pass without discovering it. The afternoon was warm and sunny, and a hazy, idyllic atmosphere veiled and threw into remoteness the bolder features of the landscape. Near at hand, a few quaint old tile-roofed houses rose above the trees.

My guide left the highway, crossed a clear little brook on the left, and entered the bottom of a garden behind the largest of these houses. As we were making our way between the plum-trees and gooseberry-bushes, I perceived a tall figure standing in the midst of a great bed of late-blossoming roses, over which he was bending as if to inhale their fragrance. The sound of our steps startled him; and as he straightened himself and faced us, I saw that it could be none other than Rückert. I believe his first impulse was to fly; but we were already so near that his moment of indecision settled the matter. The student presented me to him as an American traveller, whereat I thought he seemed to experience a little relief. Nevertheless, he looked uneasily at his coat,—a sort of loose, commodious blouse,—at his hands, full of seeds, and muttered some incoherent words about flowers. Suddenly, lifting his head and looking steadily at us, he said, "Come into the house!"

The student, who was familiar with his habits, led me to a pleasant room on the second floor. The windows looked towards the sun, and were filled with hot-house plants. We were scarcely seated before Rückert made his appearance, having laid aside his blouse, and put on a coat. After a moment of hesitation, he asked me, "Where have you been travelling?" "I come from the Orient," I answered. He looked up with a keen light in his eyes. "From the Orient!" he exclaimed, "Where? let me know where you have been, and what you have seen!" From that moment he was self-possessed, full of life, enthusiasm, fancy, and humor.

He was then in his sixty-fifth year, but still enjoyed the ripe maturity of his powers. A man of more striking personal appearance I have seldom seen. Over six feet in height, and somewhat gaunt of body, the first impression of an absence of physical grace vanished as soon as one looked upon his countenance. His face was long, and every feature strongly marked,—the brow high and massive, the nose strong and slightly aquiline, the mouth wide and firm, and the jaw broad, square, and projecting. His thick silver hair, parted in the middle of his forehead, fell in wavy masses upon his shoulders. His eyes were deep-set, bluish-gray, and burned with a deep, lustrous fire as he became animated in conversation. At times they had a mystic, rapt expression, as if the far East, of which he spoke, were actually visible to his brain. I thought of an Arab sheikh, looking towards Mecca, at the hour of prayer.

I regret that I made no notes of the conversation, in which, as may be guessed, I took but little part. It was rather a monologue on the subject of Arabic poetry, full of the clearest and richest knowledge, and sparkling with those evanescent felicities of diction which can so rarely be recalled. I was charmed out of all sense of time, and was astonished to find, when tea appeared, that more than two hours had elapsed. The student had magnanimously left me to the poet, devoting himself to the good Frau Rückert, the "Luise" of her husband's Liebesfrühling (Spring-time of Love). She still, although now a grandmother, retained some traces of the fresh, rosy beauty of her younger days; and it was pleasant to see the watchful, tender interest upon her face, whenever she turned towards the poet. Before I left, she whispered to me, "I am always very glad when my husband has an opportunity to talk about the Orient: nothing refreshes him so much."

But we must not lose sight of Rückert's poetical biography. His first volume, entitled "German Poems, by Freimund Raimar," was published at Heidelberg in the year 1814. It contained, among other things, his famous Geharnischte Sonette (Sonnets in Armor), which are still read and admired as masterpieces of that form of verse. Preserving the Petrarchan model, even to the feminine rhymes of the Italian tongue, he has nevertheless succeeded in concealing the extraordinary art by which the difficult task was accomplished. Thus early the German language acquired its unsuspected power of flexibility in his hands. It is very evident to me that his peculiar characteristics as a poet sprang not so much from his Oriental studies as from a rare native faculty of mind.

These "Sonnets in Armor," although they may sound but gravely beside the Tyrtæan strains of Arndt and Körner, are nevertheless full of stately and inspiring music. They remind one of Wordsworth's phrase,—

"In Milton's hand,
The thing became a trumpet,"—

and must have had their share in stimulating that national sentiment which overturned the Napoleonic rule, and for three or four years flourished so greenly upon its ruins.

Shortly afterwards, Rückert published "Napoleon, a Political Comedy," which did not increase his fame. His next important contribution to general literature was the "Oriental Roses," which appeared in 1822. Three years before, Goethe had published his Westöstlicher Divan, and the younger poet dedicated his first venture in the same field to his venerable predecessor, in stanzas which express the most delicate, and at the same time the most generous homage. I scarcely know where to look for a more graceful dedication in verse. It is said that Goethe never acknowledged the compliment,—an omission which some German authors attribute to the latter's distaste at being surpassed on his latest and (at that time) favorite field. No one familiar with Goethe's life and works will accept this conjecture.

It is quite impossible to translate this poem literally, in the original metre: the rhymes are exclusively feminine. I am aware that I shall shock ears familiar with the original by substituting masculine rhymes in the two stanzas which I present; but there is really no alternative.

"Would you taste
Purest East,
Hence depart, and seek the selfsame man
Who our West
Gave the best
Wine that ever flowed from Poet's can:
When the Western flavors ended,
He the Orient's vintage spended,—
Yonder dreams he on his own divan!

Goethe led
Star to be of all the sunset-land:
Now the higher
Makes him lord of all the morning-land!
Where the two, together turning,
Meet, the rounded heaven is burning
Rosy-bright in one celestial brand!"

I have not the original edition of the "Oriental Roses," but I believe the volume contained the greater portion of Rückert's marvellous "Ghazels." Count Platen, it is true, had preceded him by one year, but his adaptation of the Persian metre to German poetry—light and graceful and melodious as he succeeded in making it—falls far short of Rückert's infinite richness and skill. One of the latter's "Ghazels" contains twenty-six variations of the same rhyme, yet so subtly managed, so colored with the finest reflected tints of Eastern rhetoric and fancy, that the immense art implied in its construction is nowhere unpleasantly apparent. In fact, one dare not say that these poems are all art. In the Oriental measures the poet found the garment which best fitted his own mind. We are not to infer that he did not move joyously, and, after a time, easily, within the limitations which, to most authors, would have been intolerable fetters.

In 1826 appeared his translation of the Makamât of Hariri. The old silk-merchant of Bosrah never could have anticipated such an immortality. The word Makamât means "sessions," (probably the Italian conversazione best translates it,) but is applied to a series of short narratives, or rather anecdotes, told alternately in verse and rhymed prose, with all the brilliance of rhetoric, the richness of alliteration, antithesis, and imitative sound, and the endless grammatical subtilties of which the Arabic language is capable. The work of Hariri is considered the unapproachable model of this style of narrative throughout all the East. Rückert called his translation "The Metamorphoses of Abou-Seyd of Serudj,"—the name of the hero of the story. In this work he has shown the capacity of one language to reproduce the very spirit of another with which it has the least affinity. Like the original, the translation can never be surpassed: it is unique in literature.

As the acrobat who has mastered every branch of his art, from the spidery contortions of the India-rubber man to the double somersault and the flying trapeze, is to the well-developed individual of ordinary muscular habits, so is the language of Rückert in this work to the language of all other German authors. It is one perpetual gymnastic show of grammar, rhythm, and fancy. Moods, tenses, antecedents, appositions, whirl and flash around you, to the sound of some strange, barbaric music. Closer and more rapidly they link, chassez, and "cross hands," until, when you anticipate a hopeless tangle, some bold, bright word leaps unexpectedly into the throng, and resolves it to instant harmony. One's breath is taken away, and his brain made dizzy, by any half-dozen of the "Metamorphoses." In this respect the translation has become a representative work. The Arabic title, misunderstood, has given birth to a German word. Daring and difficult rhymes are now frequently termed Makamen in German literary society.

Rückert's studies were not confined to the Arabic and Persian languages; he also devoted many years to the Sanskrit. In 1828 appeared his translation of "Nal and Damayanti," and some years later, "Hamasa, or the oldest Arabian Poetry," and "Amrilkaïs, Poet and King." In addition to these translations, he published, between the years 1835 and 1840, the following original poems, or collections of poems, on Oriental themes,—"Legends of the Morning-Land" (2 vols.), "Rustem and Sohrab," and "Brahminical Stories." These poems are so bathed in the atmosphere of his studies, that it is very difficult to say which are his own independent conceptions, and which the suggestions of Eastern poets. Where he has borrowed images or phrases, (as sometimes from the Koran,) they are woven, without any discernible seam, into the texture of his own brain.

Some of Rückert's critics have asserted that his extraordinary mastery of all the resources of language operated to the detriment of his poetical faculty,—that the feeling to be expressed became subordinate to the skill displayed by expressing it in an unusual form. They claim, moreover, that he produced a mass of sparkling fragments, rather than any single great work. I am convinced, however, that the first charge is unfounded, basing my opinion upon my knowledge of the poet's simple, true, tender nature, which I learned to appreciate during my later visits to his home. After the death of his wife, the daughter who thereafter assumed her mother's place in the household wrote me frequent accounts of her father's grief and loneliness, enclosing manuscript copies of the poems in which he expressed his sorrow. These poems are exceedingly sweet and touching; yet they are all marked by the same flexile use of difficult rhythms and unprecedented rhymes. They have never yet been published, and I am therefore withheld from translating any one of them, in illustration.

Few of Goethe's minor songs are more beautiful than his serenade, O gib' vom weichen Pfühle, where the interlinked repetitions are a perpetual surprise and charm; yet Rückert has written a score of more artfully constructed and equally melodious songs. His collection of amatory poems entitled Liebesfrühling contains some of the sunniest idyls in any language. That his genius was lyrical and not epic, was not a fault; that it delighted in varied and unusual metres, was an exceptional—perhaps in his case a phenomenal—form of development; but I do not think it was any the less instinctively natural. One of his quatrains runs:—

"Much I make as make the others;
Better much another man
Makes than I; but much, moreover,
Make I which no other can."

His poetical comment on the translation of Hariri is given in prose:—"He who, like myself, unfortunate man! is philologist and poet in the same person, cannot do better than to translate as I do. My Hariri has illustrated how philology and poetry are competent to stimulate and to complete each other. If thou, reader, wilt look upon this hybrid production neither too philologically nor over-poetically, it may delight and instruct thee. That which is false in philology thou wilt attribute to poetic license, and where the poetry is deficient, thou wilt give the blame to philology."

The critics who charge Rückert with never having produced "a whole," have certainly forgotten one of his works,—"The Wisdom of the Brahmin, a Didactic Poem, in Fragments." The title somewhat describes its character. The "fragments" are couplets, in iambic hexameter, each one generally complete in itself, yet grouped in sections by some connecting thought, after the manner of the stanzas of Tennyson's "In Memoriam." There are more than six thousand couplets, in all, divided into twenty books,—whole forming a mass of poetic wisdom, coupled with such amazing wealth of illustration, that this one volume, if sufficiently diluted, would make several thousand "Proverbial Philosophies." It is not a book to read continuously, but one which, I should imagine, no educated German could live without possessing. I never open its pages without the certainty of refreshment. Its tone is quietistic, as might readily be conjectured, but it is the calm of serene reflection, not of indifference. No work which Rückert ever wrote so strongly illustrates the incessant activity of his mind. Half of these six thousand couplets are terse and pithy enough for proverbs, and their construction would have sufficed for the lifetime of many poets.

With the exception of "Kaiser Barbarossa," and two or three other ballads, the amatory poems of Rückert have attained the widest popularity among his countrymen. Many of the love-songs have been set to music by Mendelssohn and other composers. Their melody is of that subtile, delicate quality which excites a musician's fancy, suggesting the tones to which the words should be wedded. Precisely for this reason they are most difficult to translate. The first stanza may, in most cases, be tolerably reproduced; but as it usually contains a refrain, which is repeated to a constantly varied rhyme, throughout the whole song or poem, the labor at first becomes desperate, and then impossible. An example (the original of which I possess, in the author's manuscript) will best illustrate this particular difficulty. Here the metre and the order of rhyme have been strictly preserved, except in the first and third lines.

"He came to meet me
In rain and thunder;
My heart 'gan beating
In timid wonder:
Could I guess whether
Thenceforth together
Our paths should run, so long asunder?

"He came to meet me
In rain and thunder,
With guile to cheat me,—
My heart to plunder.
Was't mine he captured?
Or his I raptured?
Half-way both met, in bliss and wonder!

"He came to meet me
In rain and thunder:
Spring-blessings greet me
Spring-blossoms under.
What though he leave me?
No partings grieve me,—
No path can lead our hearts asunder!"

The Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan, (whose translations from the German comprise both the best and the worst specimens I have yet found,) has been successful in rendering one of Rückert's ghazels. I am specially tempted to quote it, on account of the curious general resemblance (accidental, no doubt) which Poe's "Lenore" bears to it.

"I saw her once, a little while, and then no more:
'T was Eden's light on earth awhile, and then no more.
Amid the throng she passed along the meadow-floor;
Spring seemed to smile on earth awhile, and then no more,
But whence she came, which way she went, what garb she wore,
I noted not; I gazed awhile, and then no more.

"I saw her once, a little while, and then no more:
'T was Paradise on earth awhile, and then no more.
Ah! what avail my vigils pale, my magic lore?
She shone before mine eyes awhile, and then no more.
The shallop of my peace is wrecked on Beauty's shore;
Near Hope's fair isle it rode awhile, and then no more.

"I saw her once, a little while, and then no more:
Earth looked like Heaven a little while, and then no more.
Her presence thrilled and lighted to its inmost core
My desert breast a little while, and then no more.
So may, perchance, a meteor glance at midnight o'er
Some ruined pile a little while, and then no more.

"I saw her once, a little while and then no more:
The earth was Eden-land awhile, and then no more.
O, might I see but once again, as once before,
Through chance or wile, that shape awhile, and then no more!
Death soon would heal my grief: this heart, now sad and sore,
Would beat anew, a little while, and then no more!"

Here, nevertheless, something is sacrificed. The translation is by no means literal, and lacks the crispness and freshness of Oriental antithesis. Rückert, I fear, will never be as fortunate as Hariri of Bosrah.

When, in 1856, I again visited Germany, I received a friendly message from the old poet, with a kind invitation to visit him. Late in November I found him, apparently unchanged in body and spirit,—simple, enthusiastic, and, in spite of his seclusion, awake to all the movements of the world. One of his married sons was then visiting him, so that the household was larger and livelier than usual; but, as he sat, during the evening, in his favorite arm-chair, with pipe and beer, he fell into the same brilliant, wise strain of talk, undisturbed by all the cheerful young voices around him.

The conversation gradually wandered away from the Orient to the modern languages of Europe. I remarked the special capacity of the German for descriptions of forest scenery,—of the feeling and sentiment of deep, dark woods, and woodland solitudes.

"May not that be," said he, "because the race lived for centuries in forests? A language is always richest in its epithets for those things with which the people who speak it are most familiar. Look at the many terms for 'horse' and 'sword' in Arabic."

"But the old Britons lived also in forests," I suggested.

"I suspect," he answered, "while the English language was taking shape, the people knew quite as much of the sea as of the woods. You ought, therefore, to surpass us in describing coast and sea-scenery, winds and storms, and the motion of waves."

The idea had not occurred to me before, but I found it to be correct.

Though not speaking English, Rückert had a thorough critical knowledge of the language, and a great admiration of its qualities. He admitted that its chances for becoming the dominant tongue of the world were greater than those of any other. Much that he said upon this subject interested me greatly at the time, but the substance of it has escaped me.

When I left, that evening, I looked upon his cheerful, faithful wife for the last time. Five years elapsed before I visited Coburg again, and she died in the interval. In the summer of 1861 I had an hour's conversation with him, chiefly on American affairs, in which he expressed the keenest interest. He had read much, and had a very correct understanding of the nature of the struggle. He was buried in his studies, in a small house outside of the village, where he spent half of every day alone, and inaccessible to every one; but his youngest daughter ventured to summon him away from his books.

Two years later (in June, 1863) I paid my last visit to Neuses. He had then passed his seventy-fifth birthday; his frame was still unbent, but the waves of gray hair on his shoulders were thinner, and his step showed the increasing feebleness of age. The fire of his eye was softened, not dimmed, and the long and happy life that lay behind him had given his face a peaceful, serene expression, prophetic of a gentle translation into the other life that was drawing near. So I shall always remember him,—scholar and poet, strong with the best strength of a man, yet trustful and accessible to joy as a child.

Notwithstanding the great amount of Rückert's contributions to literature during his life, he has left behind him a mass of poems and philological papers (the latter said to be of great interest and value) which his accomplished son, Professor Rückert of the University of Breslau, is now preparing for publication.

  1. The reader may be curious to see how smoothly and naturally these dactyls (so forced in the translation) flow in the original:—

    "Aus der staubigen
    In den laubigen
    Frischen Lenz—
    Aus dem tosenden
    Zu dem kosenden
    Wer sich rettete,
    Dank's dem Glück,
    Wie mich bettete
    Mein Geschick!"

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.