Christoph Martin Wieland

The German poet and author Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813), sometimes called the German Voltaire, was a typical stylist of the German rococo period.

Christoph Martin Wieland was born on Sept. 5, 1733, in Oberholzheim zu Biberach in Württemberg. His father a pastor, had been influenced by the Pietistic movement of A. H. Francke. As a student, Wieland attended the University of Erfurt and then the University of Tübingen, where he studied law. His real interest, however, was literature.

While still at the University of Tübingen, Wieland wrote the epic Hermann; Zwölf moralische Briefe in Versen; and Anti-Ovid (1752). J. J. Bodmar's attention was attracted by this Pietistic literature, and he invited Wieland to Zurich in the summer of 1752. However, he was soon disillusioned by Wieland's "frivolity." Wieland remained in Switzerland as a tutor until 1760. An inner change had come over him by the time he returned to Biberach as town clerk. Instead of austere Pietism he now held a lighthearted philosophy of life. Thus in his prose translation of William Shakespeare's works (1762-1766), Wieland—who now responded to the elegant and playful tastes of the rococo—failed to grasp the depth of Shakespeare's genius. However, he excelled as a translator of Horace's epistles and satires, of Cicero's letters, and of the complete works of Lucian. Don Sylvio von Ros-alva, an imitation of Don Quixote, appeared in 1764, and his Comische Erzählungen was issued in 1765.

Wieland's novel Agathon (1766-1767) remains a psychological masterpiece. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing praised and recommended it as "a novel of classic taste." Its background is ancient Greece, but symbolically Wieland described his own artistic and spiritual development. Platonic philosophy is set against hedonistic irony, sex against Eros. In the end the hero gains only a Pyrrhic victory over sophism. His Musarion oder die Philosophie der Grazien (1768) can be considered a continuation of Agathon, but the conflict between sensuous delight and purity of character is here softened by a spirit of renuciation and a determination to seek pleasure.

In 1769 Wieland was appointed to a chair of philosophy at the University of Erfurt. In 1772 he published a political novel, Der goldne Spiegel oder die Könige von Scheschian. This volume, an enthusiastic defense of an absolute but enlightened monarch whose one aim is the happiness of his people, so impressed the Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar that she invited Wieland to become, with the title of Herzoglicher Hofrat, tutor to the princes Karl August and Konstantin in Weimar. Wieland remained in Weimar until his death.

In 1773 Wieland founded the journal Der Teutsche Merkur, later continued as Der neue Teutsche Merkur until 1810. In 1774 Die Geschichte der Abderiten, his best-known political satire, appeared. In it he blended mythology and philosophy and personal and social allusions to the contemporary scene in a vivid satire aimed at intellectual snobs and spineless sycophants.

Wieland's greatest literary achievement was Oberon: Ein romantisches Heldengedicht in zwölf Gesängen (1780). This verse narrative, in a romantic-heroic vein, was greatly admired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This epic of great rococo virtuosity was based on a 16th-century prose version of the Old French Huon de Bordeaux, into which Wieland wove Shakespeare's story of Oberon and Titania.

In 1797 Wieland purchased a small estate at Ossmannstädt near Weimar, but financial troubles forced him to give it up after six years. In 1800 he composed an epistolary novel entitled Aristipp und einige seiner Zeitgenossen about life and thought in 4th-century Greece. On Oct. 6, 1808, he was presented to Napoleon Bonaparte in Weimar. Wieland died on Jan. 20, 1813.

The formal elegance of Wieland's works has misled many critics and literary historians. They have misinterpreted his sensitive personality, his inner change from a pious protégé of Bodmer's to an Epicurean, and his change from a Platonist to a skeptic and satirist. Wieland's artistic and human vision strove toward ultimate reconcilation of pleasure-seeking materialism and spiritual integrity. His enlightened vision was rooted in a passionate belief in human progress and perfectibility.


Further Reading on Christoph Martin Wieland

An extensive treatment of Wieland in English is Derek M. van Abbe, Christopher Martin Wieland: A Literary Biography (1961). An older study of Wieland is Charles Elson, Wieland and Shaftesbury (1913). Extensive material on Wieland and his times is in W. H. Bruford, Culture and Society in Classical Weimar, 1775-1806 (1962). Useful background studies are J. G. Robertson, A History of German Literature, revised by Edna Purdie (1902; 5th ed. 1966); Ernst Rose, A History of German Literature (1960); and Ernest L. Stahl and W. E. Yuill, Introductions to German Literature, vol. 3: German Literature of the 18th and 19th Centuries (1970).

Additional Biography Sources

McCarthy, John A. (John Aloysius), Christoph Martin Wieland, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.