Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock

Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) was the first modern German poet and the forerunner of Goethe. Klopstock's Iyrical poetry reveals the timelessness of his great genius.

Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock was born at Quedlinburg in Lower Saxony on July 2, 1724. From 1739 to 1745 he attended the Protestant School of Schulpforta, renowned for sound training in classics; from autumn 1745 to Easter 1746 he went to Jena University; and from Easter 1746 to 1748 he studied theology at Leipzig University.

The first three cantos of Klopstock's Messias (inspired by John Milton) appeared in 1748 in the fourth volume of the Bremer Beiträge. Messiasis a landmark in modern German writing: It destroyed Johann Christoph Gottsched's supremacy; it opened a new literary movement; and it made Klopstock world-famous.

Though Klopstock was not the first to strike a passionately lyrical and religious note in modern German poetry, he, with the proud surety of a born genius, ennobled the new High German lyrical language and hexametric verse form with dignity, grandeur, lofty themes, and emotions. Not since the days of Walther von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Gottfried von Strassburg (perhaps with the exception of Johann Christian Günther) had a German poet felt the divine mission of his creative work so intensely. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in Book X of Poetry and Truth, refers to the miraculous ascendancy of Klopstock as the author of the Messias and the "enthusiastic" odes. Klopstock's hexameters are not based on quantitative meter but are almost naturally adapted to German speech. His fragment Ü ber Sprache und Dichtkunst deals with the peculiar nature of the hexameter, by no means alien to German expression.

From 1748 to 1750 Klopstock was a tutor in Langensalza. From July 1750 to February 1751 he was Johann Jakob Bodmer's guest in Switzerland. Since they had little in common, a breach in their friendship was unavoidable.

In 1750 Klopstock composed the ode Der Zürchersee. This poem is not only enthusiastic feeling or description or meditation; all those expressions are blended into a unique artistic entity which mysteriously hovers between nature description and lyrical emotion and which foreshadows Goethe's dynamic Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) language.

After leaving Switzerland, Klopstock went to Quedlinburg, Hamburg, and finally Copenhagen (1751-1770) at the invitation of the Germanophile Danish king Frederick V. During these years he wrote Der Tod Adams (1757); Vaterländische Oden (1764-1768); volumes 1, 2, and 3 (altogether 15 cantos) of the Messias; and Hermanns Schlacht (1769), one of three semidramatic scenes (Bardiete) dealing with the destiny of Arminius. The other two Bardiete were Hermann und die Fürsten (1784) and Hermanns Tod (1787). In 1754 he married Meta Möller, who died 4 years later.

The grandiose dithyramb Die Frühlingsfeier, a lyrical rendering of a tempest, was originally composed in "free verse" (spring 1759). Goethe refers to it in Werther (letter of June 16). As in the Zürchersee ode, here, too, is a happy blending of reflection, lyrical emotion, and biblical images in the dynamic language of Sturm und Drang. In the end, heaven and earth unite in a mystic union, and the rainbow of peace rises over the horizon. These two poems mentioned are among the most inspired lyrical expressions in the German language.

The year 1773 witnessed the publication of Gottfried August Bürger's Lenore, Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen, and Johann Gottfried von Herder's edition of Von deutscher Art und Kunst. By the time the complete Messias (20 cantos, 1773) and Die deutsche Gelehrten-Republik (1774), based on a plan for the foundation of an academy of science, appeared, Klopstock had outlived his own fame.

From 1770 to 1803 Klopstock lived in Hamburg. After enthusiastically becoming an honorary French citizen in 1792 and at first intensely welcoming the French Revolution, he became disappointed and shocked by its aftermath. Klopstock died in Hamburg on March 14, 1803.


Further Reading on Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock

Klopstock is discussed in August Closs, The Genius of the German Lyric (1938; 2d ed. rev. 1962); Siegbert Salomon Prawer, German Lyric Poetry: A Critical Analysis of Selected Poems from Klopstock to Rilke (1952); and Richard Kuehnemund, Arminius, or the Rise of a National Symbol in Literature, from Hutten to Grabbe (1953). Recommended for background are Jethro Bithel, ed., Germany: A Companion to German Studies (1932; 5th ed. rev. 1955); Werner P. Friederich, An Outline-history of German Literature (1948; 2d ed. 1961); H. B. Garland, Storm and Stress (1952); Eric Albert Blackall, The Emergence of German as a Literary Language, 1700-1775 (1959); and Ernest L. Stahl and W. E. Yuill, eds., Introductions to German Literature, vol. 3: German Literature of the 18th and 19th Centuries (1970).