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  • By Rosa Tennenbaum

1797, The"Year of the Ballad"—In the Poets’ Workshop

The year is 1797. Eight years after the beginning of the French Revolution, all hopes which had initially been placed in this uprising were dashed by the bloody terror of the Jacobins and the guillotine. The attempt to bring the American Revolution back to Europe had failed.

In answer to this failure, Friedrich Schiller, the great German poet and dramatist, had already shown, in 1795, in his letters On the Aesthetical Education of Man, how the natural state, which depends solely on raw power, can be replaced by a state of reason, which takes into account the dignity of the free man. This aim could only be attained through the education of man into a self-conscious, responsible citizen, and only the fine arts could lead him there, because they alone address man in his entirety, and set into motion simultaneously his sensuous and his spiritual nature. Schiller himself, and with him Johann Wolfgang Goethe 1 and a few others, answered this challenge and broadened the “realm of beauty”—through which we necessarily must pass to reach the “realm of freedom”—with ever more poetic and dramatic works, which he laid before his public. His extensive correspondence, especially that with his poetic friend Goethe, is an eloquent testimony to the great extent to which he struggled for self-perfection, and strove for the ever-finer development of his aesthetical works.

An animated exchange of ideas had developed with Goethe, over the previous three years, since their unexpected, fortunate meeting at the Society for Natural Research in Jena, on July 20, 1794, which was extremely fruitful for both and had a lasting influence on both their developments. They discussed their own works as they created them, exchanged books and articles by others, and saw to it that the other was informed about the current debates in the fields of literature, philosophy, and politics; and, they even shared their daily worries, troubles, and joys.

Goethe’s new poetic project, his epic poem “Hermann und Dorothea,” which he deliberately composed in hexameter, the ancient meter of Homer, powerfully rekindled the interest of both poets in the Greek classics. From the beginning of the year 1797, both devoted themselves more intensively to the study of the “great ancients,” above all Homer and Sophocles. Out of these activities there developed a fascinating dialogue on the essential questions of everything literary, on content and form: The artistic style which the author chooses, must be based “on the essence of things” (Goethe); and, that different themes require different poetic forms.

Out of these discussions there developed what Goethe called “our study of ballads.” The ballad unites epic, lyric, and dramatic elements, and is best suited to test all three forms in the limited space of a poem. In the notes for the “West-Östliche Divan” Goethe writes: “There are only three truly natural forms of poetry: the clear narrative, the enthusiastically excited, and character development: epics, lyric, and drama. In the smallest poem we will find them often united, as we see in the most treasured ballads of all peoples.” And elsewhere: “By the way, by choosing some of these poems, all of poetics could be set forth, because here the elements are not yet divided, but are, as in a living original form, united.”

Ballads could thus serve as a field for experimentation, to sound out the possibilities and artistic functions of each poetical form. Schiller and Goethe critically tested whether each poem “had been organized and thought out with complete prudence” [Schiller to Christian Gottfried Körner, Oct. 29, 1798]. And they poetized with such joy, that Schiller finally named the year 1797, “the year of the ballad.”2 The two poets soon found themselves in a downright competition: Between the end of May and the middle of September, Goethe composed five and Schiller six great ballads (not

counting the “Shepherd” ballads, with which Goethe had started the process).

Guided by the correspondence between Schiller and Goethe and their closest friends Wilhelm von Humboldt3 and Christian Gottfried Körner4, we may watch as the poems are composed, and see how they are received by contemporaries. Let us, then, employ the method of analysis situs to look over the shoulder of the poets.

In the Poet's Workshop

To finish his epic poem “Hermann und Dorothea,” Goethe had escaped from his numerous duties as minister at the Duke’s court in Weimar, to Schiller in Jena. On May 23, 1797, he sent Schiller the following little note: Herewith I send you another small poem, in the hope that you may find it good and enjoyable. Otherwise things are going so well with me that Petrarch’s reason would have every cause to give me a long sermon.

Goethe was always in high spirits when he stayed with Schiller, or when he hosted Schiller in Weimar. Then, there were long discussions concerning all questions of the poetic world, which resulted in the following weeks’ work being accomplished more quickly. These reciprocal visits increased. This is unfortunate for us today, because, during these visits, the exchange of letters, which gives us deep insight into their spiritual world and their workshop, becomes less informative. Goethe reached Jena on May 19, and was to leave on June 16; four long weeks about which we know relatively little. Schiller responded to Goethe on May 23:

Thank you for your dear note and the poem. The latter is so exceedingly beautiful, round and perfect, that, while reading it, I very distinctly felt how even a small work, a simple idea, when perfectly represented, can afford the highest enjoyment. It is perfect even down to the smallest requirements as regards meter. I was also amused to notice, from this little poem, the mental atmosphere in which I think you must have been living, for it is altogether very sentimentally beautiful! ...

The “small poem” has the title “The Treasure Seeker,” and has, as we see so often with Goethe, autobiographical characteristics. Goethe had ordered a lottery ticket in Hamburg and was hoping to win the first prize, a farm estate in Silesia. But he very soon came to realize that this was a useless undertaking. Reason, depicted in the poem by a beautiful youth, carrying a full, beautiful chalice, returns and disabuses the treasure seeker from his foolish superstition. Following this within two weeks are “The Legend of the Horseshoe,” “The Bride of Corinth,” and “The God and the Bajadere.” All three have religious themes as their content: “The Bride of Corinth” criticizes a bigoted, fossilized religiosity, which we today call fundamentalism; “The Legend of the Horseshoe” centers around the life of Jesus Christ; and, in “The God and the Bajadere,” Goethe takes up the New Testament motif of Mary Magdalene.

The letter exchange pauses again for two weeks, but we know, from the notes of Goethe’s diary, that during the visits with Schiller which occur every evening and are called by Goethe “my general pilgrimage,” the “study of ballads” is at the center of their discussions. Normally these visits would start at about four o’clock in the afternoon and last until late in the night. Schiller in the meantime had begun work on “The Diver.” Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was at that time travelling with his large family, praised this work:

To Schiller. Dresden, July 9, 1797. The great art in your Diver lies, I believe, in the distribution of the action into the different moments. You only rest where the reader expects it, and you hasten there where he himself is anxious about the outcome. A very beautiful modification of sentiment begins with the appearance of the daughter of the king, and the end is exceedingly moving. Some parts are great beyond all concept. Especially the description of the lower regions, the verse: “Long life to the king, etc.,” and then “Among specters, the singular sensitive breast, etc.” One feels overpoweringly the distance from all human, speaking and feeling beings. Splendid also is the description of the maelstrom itself, and very picturesque the resurfacing of the youth. Oftentimes you create a grand effect simply by choosing a fitting adjective. For example, the “rose-colored light,” “with busy diligence,” “the daughter with softness of heart,” etc., “the living soul.” The meter is excellent and very fittingly executed. ...As all descriptions in your Diver have such great truthfulness in them, I wished that you would remove the water newts and salamander from the bottom of the ocean. They are indeed amphibian, but never live at that depth, but rather in swamps. With the dragons you may be more liberal, as they are creatures of fable and fantasy.

Körner, Schiller’s long-time friend, was, however, critical:

To Schiller. Dresden, July 9, 1797. Sunday... A single adjective, “purple darkness,” took me aback, and this I also noticed in others. I know that the ancients made use of such an expression, but here I think it does not contribute to the description, but rather awakens irritating side ideas. ...Minna [Körner’s wife-RT] declares herself in favor of the purple darkness. In attacks of dizziness she often has the feeling that dark objects appear to her as violet. Of dizziness I know nothing. She also likes the richness of the expression, which I indeed acknowledge, but would not tolerate unless the adjective could be justified.

The different temperament of the letter writers is obvious: Humboldt judges profoundly philosophically, Goethe gives poetic advice, while Körner argues mostly practically. In Schiller’s answer to Körner, it becomes clear how consciously he chose and placed every single word:

Jena, June 21, 1797 ... With regards to “the purple darkness,” you need not worry. Though I thank Minna for sending me her experience of dizzy spells as a reinforcement, my Diver and I can make do without it. The adjective is by no means idle. The diver does indeed see, under the glass dome, green lights and purple shadows. This is also why, as he resurfaces from the deep, I have him conversely call the light rosy, because this phenomenon occurs after a previously green-lighted glow.

On June 16, Goethe returned to Weimar with the intention of immediately departing for Italy, but his departure was delayed for two weeks. Humboldt had already left Jena at the end of April to begin an educational journey to Italy. However, the invasion of French troops into Northern Italy, and the ensuing war, forced both of them to change their travel plans. Humboldt went with his family to Paris, and Goethe only reached Switzerland.That both friends would leave Schiller’s circle for an extended time was bitter for Schiller, who was forced to stay at home because of his delicate health. He expresses this clearly in a letter to Goethe:

Jena, June 18, 1797. Sunday

Since your departure, I have already had a foretaste of the great loneliness into which I shall be thrown when you leave us altogether. Fortunately the weather is favorable, and I can spend much time outside ... however I have also been poetizing a little: a short after-piece to the Diver. ...The decision as to whether you are to go further than Switzerland is also of importance to me, and I shall be impatient to hear your decision. The greater the number of the relationships to which I have become indifferent, the greater is the influence which the remaining few have upon me, and that which is most decisive is your living presence. The last four weeks have done much in building up and settling matters in my mind. You are leading me ever further from the tendency of passing from the general to the individual (which in all practical, and especially in poetical matters is a bad habit) and lead me thus conversely from the single cases to grand law. The point from which you are wont to start is always small and narrow, but it leads me into broad regions, and therefore does my innermost nature good, for the other path which I, when left to myself, am so inclined to follow, leads from the broad into the narrow, and I have the unpleasant feeling of finding myself poorer at the end than I was at the beginning.

Farewell, I am longing to hear from you again soon.

Goethe answers immediately:

Weimar, June 21, 1797. Wednesday

The Glove” is a very happy subject and the execution successful; let us in the future at once make use of such subjects when they occur to us. Here we have the complete plain action without a purpose or rather with an opposite purpose, which is so peculiarly pleasing. ...We have, during the last four weeks, really made some good progress again, both theoretically and practically, and if my nature has the effect of drawing yours into the finite, I, on the other hand, gain through you the advantage of being occasionally drawn beyond my own limits, at least of not wandering long about one confined spot. ... I send you back your Glove, which certainly forms a good after-piece and pendant to your Diver, and by its own merit enhances the merit of the latter poem. Farewell, and let me hear from you soon.

Humboldt praised the poem in a letter to Schiller on July 9:

You gave The Glove, which in the hands of every other poet would have become only pretty and good, something great, by the magnificent descriptions of the animals. In this poem you create a monument for your favorite, the lion. Furthermore, the meter is inimitably beautiful, and the succession of very short and longer verses has a splendid effect.

Körner writes somewhat impatiently to Schiller on July 11:

I have again found great pleasure in your ballads. Especially The Diver is delightful, I also love The Glove very much, where especially in the verse-structure a unique art is employed. These poems are again a confirmation of my statement that you need only to follow your fantasy, without disturbing her by transcendental ideas, to convince yourself of your profession as a poet. Here is the object in all its clarity, liveliness and splendor. Such poems do not necessitate knowledge with specific ideas, they affect generally, and therefore satisfy the educated reader no less.

The work became ever easier. The two poets took undiluted pleasure, as Goethe expressed it, “in romping about in the world of the ballads.”5 The literary world, which as of no later than the Xenien had been at odds with the two poets, gossiped, and actually hoped, for an outright competition in which one would try to outdo the other. Their hopes were disappointed. Schiller and Goethe were not in a competition, but in a fruitful partnership which inspired both to new works. Goethe greatly treasured Schiller’s ballads, and defended them against all criticism, including that of Schiller himself. Thus, for example, he writes to Körner on July 20:

You have heard through Schiller that we romp about in the world of the ballads. His, as you already know, have turned out very well: I wish that mine in some degree might stand beside his: he is much more qualified in every sense for this form of poetry than I am.

One week after “The Glove” Schiller sent “The Ring of Polycrates” to Goethe. Goethe in the meantime had composed “The Sorcerer's Apprentice.” In this poem he sends the anti-Xenists packing. The Xenien were those small distichs in which Schiller and Goethe had, the year before, settled their accounts with all of educated society. These two-liners had provoked a veritable storm, and some of those addressed gave way to anger and answered small-mindedly with inscriptions which culminated in “To the slapdash cooks of Jena and Weimar”—referring to Schiller and Goethe. The small-minded were again ridiculed in Goethe’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” In the meantime, Goethe had started a new ballad with the title “The Cranes of Ibycus.” Three weeks later, during Schiller’s visit to Weimar, he hands the theme over to Schiller. This was not unusual; it would happen again later with the play Wilhelm Tell. From July 11 to 18, Schiller was the guest at Goethe’s house in Weimar. Both were happy with the outcome of this week-long reunion:

Goethe to Schiller. Weimar, July 19, 1797: As a farewell, you could not have given me anything more delightful or more beneficial than your visit of the past week. I think that I do not deceive myself, when I say that our being together was once again very fruitful and many things developed in the present and were prepared for the future, so that I depart with more contentment, for I hope to be pretty busy on the road, and on my return shall look forward to having your participation. If we continue thus getting through various works at the same time, and, while proceeding gradually with the larger ones, cheer and amuse ourselves with the smaller ones, many a thing can be accomplished.I herewith send you back your Polycrates, hoping that the Cranes will reach me soon ...

Schiller to Goethe. Jena, July 21, 1797.Friday

I can never leave you without feeling that something has been stirred up within me, and I should be glad if, in return for the great good I gain from you, I could help you in setting the wealth of your mind in motion. A relation of this kind, upon mutual perfectability, must ever remain fresh and active, and in fact gain in variety, the more harmonious it becomes, and the more that that contrast vanishes, which in so many other instances alone prevents uniformity. I venture to hope that we shall gradually come to understand one another in all such points as can be explained, and that in the case of those which, according to their nature, can not be understood, we shall remain close to each other in sentiment. ...The news I receive from you will bring a fruitful change into the simple existence to which I am now confined, and besides the news which you supply to me, will bring back to life within me the old subjects that have been discussed between us. And so farewell, and think of me, as you will always be present with us. My wife bids you a hearty farewell.

On July 30, Goethe started his journey, and would only return four months later. His poetic work was thereby interrupted. Schiller finished “Ritter Toggenburg” on July 31.Schiller was now under pressure to complete the Muses’ Almanac for the Year 1798, which was to be presented at the Michaelis fair in Frankfurt at the end of September. In addition to this, along with his own works, poems and articles had to be constantly reviewed and edited for publication in his monthly publication Die Horen. Work on the drama Wallenstein had to be continued, and work on a new great project, “The Song of the Bell,” was begun. The ballads were for amusement and relaxation, as many of the comments make clear.

Goethe’s attention was also not solely concentrated on the “story-telling poems,” as he often called them, but largely on Faust; he was composing such lyrical poems as “To Mignon,” and working on his mineralogical studies. At the same time he was sharing with Schiller studies of architecture and sculpture; various articles about Laocoon were exchanged and extensively debated, the whole aesthetical world was explored. Added to this were the daily duties of writing letters, receiving visitors, taking care of a large family, and so forth. On top of this, Goethe had to attend to many affairs of state.6 It was an enormous workload, which the two poets had to maintain every day. In the middle of August, the first version of “The Cranes of Ibycus” is ready. Because Goethe is travelling, this ballad is discussed exclusively in letters. We are therefore able to look into the workshop of the poets and follow the process of creation of this ballad, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful of the entire poetical type. It is a beautiful example of how Schiller and Goethe worked together, how the work proceeds, and, through the critique of the other, is changed and slowly takes its final form. Here Goethe gives fruitful advice; it was often enough, the other way around. In the middle of August, Schiller sends the ballad to Goethe:

Jena, August 17, 1797. Thursday

At last you receive the Ibycus. I hope that you are satisfied with it. I must admit that in looking more closely into the subject I found more difficulties than I had at first anticipated, however I think I have overcome most of them. The two main points upon which things depended, seemed to me in the first place to give the narrative a continuity which the raw fable did not possess, and secondly, to produce the proper mood for the effect. I have not been able to put the last touches to it, as I only finished last night, and it means a great deal to me that you read the ballad soon, so that I may still have the benefit of your suggestions. The most pleasant news would be to hear that I had met your wishes in all essential points.

Goethe, who was visiting his hometown, Frankfurt, on his way to Switzerland, is excited by the work, but also detects with a clear mind where his friend should make changes to create a more perfect work:

Frankfurt, August 22, 1797. The Cranes of Ibycus turned out very well, the transition to the theater is very beautiful, and the chorus of the Eumenides in the proper place. Since this turn of events has been invented, the whole fable cannot exist now without it, and I would, if I were to treat it myself, include this chorus as well.Now, let me make some other suggestions: 1. The cranes as migratory birds should be a whole flock flying over Ibycus, as well as over the theater. They should appear as a natural phenomenon, and should be thus like the sun and other regular appearances. This would also take the appearance of the miraculous away, in that these do not need to be the same birds, they are perhaps only one part of the larger wandering flock, and the accidental creates, actually, in my view, the forboding and strange quality of the story. 2. Further, I would, after the fourteenth verse, 7 where the Erinyes withdraw, add a verse, in order to describe the state of mind produced by the content of the chorus upon the people, to pass over from the serious utterances of the good to the reckless amusement of the bad, and then to cause the murderer, indeed stupidly, harshly and loudly, but only audible to the immediate circle of his neighbors, to make his foolish exclamations. This would give rise to a fracas between him and those of the audience nearest to him, whereby the attention of the people would be drawn to him, and so forth. In this way, as well as by the flock of cranes, everything would be set naturally, and in my estimate the effect would be heightened, because the fifteenth verse, as it now stands, begins too loudly and importantly and leads one nearly to expect something different. If you would pay a little more attention to the rhyme, here and there, the rest will be easily managed. And I congratulate you upon this successful work.

Frankfurt, August 23, 1797. In addition to what I said yesterday about the ballad, I must today for the sake of greater clarity, add something: I wish that, as the middle is so very successful, you would add a few stanzas to the exposition, for in any case the poem is not too long. Meo voto the cranes would already be seen by the travelling Ibycus, as a traveller, he would compare himself with the travelling birds, as a guest, he would, with the guests, look upon it as a good presentiment, and when in the hands of the murderers, would then call upon the already known cranes, his travelling companions, as witnesses. Indeed if it would be considered advantageous, he could already have seen these flocks while on board the ship. You see from what I said yesterday that my intention is to make a long and broad phenomenon of the cranes, which I think would connect itself well to the entangled threads of the Eumenides. In regards to the end, I already told you my opinion yesterday. Otherwise, I have nothing further in my draft, that you could make use of in your poem.

Schiller answers delightedly:

Jena, August 30, 1797. ... A few minutes ago, to our unexpected and great delight, your last letter arrived. My heartfelt thanks for what you say about my Ibycus, and what can be complied with of your hints shall certainly be done. I have here again very distinctly felt how much is accomplished by a vivid knowledge and experience when one is creating. I only knew the cranes from a few parables, to which they are well suited, and this lack of a vivid view caused me to overlook the good use which could be made of this natural phenomenon. I will seek to give these cranes, which are after all the heroes of fate, a larger breadth and importance. How I should alter the transition to the exclamation made by the murderer is not immediately clear to me, even though I feel, that something is to be done there. But with the first good mood it may perhaps be found.

Schiller takes Goethe’s advice, except for one demand which does not agree with his poetical temperament. He sends the revised work with an extensive letter to Goethe:

Jena, September 7, 1797. ... In accordance with your advice, I have made essential alterations to the Ibycus. The exposition is no longer so meager, the hero of the ballad is more interesting, the cranes also fill the imagination more and draw sufficient attention to themselves so that, at their last appearance, they are not entirely forgotten by what has gone before.But in regards to your suggestion, it was impossible for me to grant your wishes completely—If I allow the murderer’s exclamation to be heard only by the spectators nearest to him, and a commotion to be created among them, which itself would only gradually spread to the whole, I burden myself with a detail, which, considering the impatient advance of expectation, would hinder me very much, weaken the whole, divide the attention, and so forth. My execution should not, however, border on the miraculous; of this I had no intention even in my first concept of it, only I had left it too indefinite. The mere natural coincidence must explain the catastrophe. This coincidence leads the flock of cranes to fly over the theater, the murderer is among the spectators, the play, it is true, has not really moved him or made him remorseful, that is not my opinion, but it has reminded him of his crime, and of that which occurred there, his mind is struck by that and the appearance of the cranes must therefore at this moment take him by surprise, he is a rough, stupid fellow on which the momentary impression has full power. The loud exclamation is, under these circumstances, natural.

Further, as I imagine him sitting high up, where the common people have their seats, he will be able, firstly, to see the cranes earlier, before they have flown over the middle of the theater, by which I gain that the exclamation can precede the actual appearance of the cranes, upon which a great deal depends here, and that therefore their actual appearance gains importance. And, secondly, I achieve by having him call from above that he can be better heard. For, in this case it is not at all inconceivable, that the whole house will hear him shout, even though not all might understand his words.

I have devoted an extra verse to the impression itself which his exclamation creates, but the actual discovery of the deed as a consequence of this shouting, I intentionally did not want to depict more intricately, because as soon as the way has been opened to discover the murderer (and that is done by the exclamation along with the embarrassed fright following), the ballad is finished, the rest is nothing more for the poet.

I have sent the ballad in its altered form to Böttiger in order to hear from him whether there is anything in it that is opposed to the customs of the ancient Greeks. ...

Karl August Böttiger was the principal of the Gymnasium, the secondary school in Weimar, and himself a distinguished classical philologist. Goethe had already asked him in July for further information about the myth of the Greek singer Ibycus.

Böttiger answers at once:

To Schiller. Weimar, September 8, 1797. The Cranes of Ibycus, which herewith fly back to their master and lord, have only now become very respectable, god-sanctified birds. I gladly confess that it seemed for a long time somehow puzzling to me, how, out of this basically not very worthwhile material, a good ballad could be made. But, by your fortunate introduction of the dreaded chorus of the Eumenides, and the imitation of Aeschylus’ song of revenge, which strides forth in Aeschylean sublimity, the demand of the supernatural has been satisfied completely, and the incomprehensible light-dark quality, which has such a charming effect in the ballad, has been achieved splendidly.You are calling upon me to tell you if this scene, transposed to Corinth, has everywhere the taste of their time and their century, and I can only answer that rarely in the reading of the ancients themselves have I had such a pure impression of the surroundings of antiquity as in this poem. From the spruce grove of Poseidon, to the circling chorus and the steps of the theater, everything is as genuine, as true, as if you had seen all of it in a magic mirror.

Humboldt, who felt quite at home in the world of Greek antiquity, was also excited by the Cranes. Körner, on the other hand, thought that they were too dry and he had a fierce debate with Humboldt about it.

Humboldt to Schiller. Paris, December 7, 1797. Thursday There is a greatness and a sublimity [in the Cranes], which is again completely their own. Especially from the moment the theater is mentioned, the depiction is godly. The painting of the amphitheater and the congregation is lively, great and clear, already the names of the peoples transpose one to such happier times, that I know of scarcely anything more magnificent for the fantasy. And then the chorus of the Eumenides, as it appears in its frightful greatness, wanders around the theater, and finally disappears, horrible even then. Here the language is at once so uniquely yours, and so appropriate for the task, that I can not deny that I felt, in the chorus, something greater and something even higher than in the Greek of Aeschylus, as closely as you have followed him. Already this language, this verse-style, even the rhyme scheme make that which is otherwise unique to modern works unite with antiquity. The sublimity for fantasy and heart, which is so unique to Greek expression, achieves here, I believe, an increased greatness for the mind. ...The Ibycus has ... an extraordinary substance; it moves deeply; it shakes one; it fascinates, and one must come back to it again and again. Surprisingly beautiful are the transitions, and you succeeded very well in the difficult narration of the development.

Körner to Schiller. Dresden, March 26, 1798. Monday With regards to the Cranes of Ibycus, I have been embroiled in a war with Humboldt. My reproach of dryness I can not take back; but it was never meant for the treatment, but the material itself. But I accuse Humboldt outright: He is not impartial with regards to this subject matter; such a description of Greek festivities puts him in seventh heaven. ... Exactly because the congregation of the Greek peoples and the tragic chorus appear so lively before our eye, we completely forget poor Ibycus, when his cranes come flying by. He is not a known name, whose mere utterance evokes an interesting picture. We have learned little of him; because as soon as he appeared he was murdered. We wish his murderers to be found and punished; but this interest does not rouse a very anxious expectation. And this expectation disappears altogether through the depiction, which captivates our attention so completely, that we forget everything else. A narrative poem—this is what I contend—requires a main character, and for him the strongest illumination. I miss this here and in "The Ring of Polycrates." In both poems the effect of the whole is weakened by this. Fate can never be the hero of a poem, but indeed a man who fights his fate.

The debate was intense and vehement. Goethe, Humboldt, and Körner were not only in close contact with Schiller, but also with each other. The waves would calm, and Humboldt and Körner remained close friends long after the early death of Schiller. Schiller followed these arguments, amused, but at the same time he took Körner’s objections quite seriously.

Schiller to Körner. Jena, April 27, 1798

Your critique of the Almanac has given Goethe great pleasure, he was preoccupied with it for a long time. However, in what you say about the Ibycus and Polycrates, which I don’t think is unfounded, he is not of your opinion, and has defended both poems emphatically against you and me. He considers your concept, from which you judge and criticize them, too narrow, and wants these poems to be seen as a new class, which expands poetry. The depiction of ideas, as they are treated here, are not foreign to poetry, according to him, and he wishes that such poems not be confounded with those which symbolize abstract ideas, etc. Be that as it may, while the type may be admissable, it definitely is not capable of the highest poetical effect, and it seems that it therefore must be assisted by something extraneous to poetry, to make up for that which is lacking.

In the meantime, the Muses’ Almanac had been finished. It contained, among other works, all the new ballads of Schiller and Goethe, and created “quite a sensation.” While the almanac was already at the printer, Schiller completed another great ballad, “The Walk to the Iron Foundry.” Beautiful and sublime is the theme, but light and ironic, and decidedly humorous, in its treatment; it is, in a manner of speaking, the reprise of the Year of the Ballad. This is the last ballad which was created in the year 1797. Even though two hundred years have passed since then, these poems speak to us very directly, and move us, genuinely and deeply. And if, in the hopefully not-too-distant future, there are again great poets, they will reach back to these works, as Schiller and Goethe reached back to classics of ancient Greece.

Published with permission from the author

—translated by Peter and Gabriele Chaitkin


1. Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), poet, naturalist, and minister with changing scope of duties in the Duchy of Weimar.

2. In a letter to Goethe on Sept. 22, 1797: “Further this is, in fact, the year of the ballad.”

3. Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), philologist, classical scholar, and Prussian statesman. He was the purest representative of the idea of classical humanism in the sense of the Weimar Classic. He became Minister of the Interior of Prussia in 1809. He introduced the legendary Humboldt education system, and founded the University of Berlin.

4. Christian Gottfried Körner (1756-1831), jurist and cameralist. He granted Schiller shelter in his home from 1785 to 1787, and helped his trusted friend repeatedly out of financial difficulties. Schiller composed the play Don Carlos, among other works, while living in Körner’s country house in Loschwitz, near Dresden. Schiller thought of these two years with Körner as among the happiest of his life.

5.Im Balladenwesen und Unwesen herumtreiben” is an untranslatable play on German words.

6. Goethe held different public offices at the court in Weimar throughout his activities. From 1779 on, he was a member of the cabinet, and over the years he held posts as finance minister, minister of mining, and minister for roads. He led the War Commission, supervised the University of Jena, was minister for Church and school matters, minister of construction, and for several decades, the director of the government-sponsored theater in Weimar.

7. Now the eighteenth verse, for Schiller followed some of Goethe’s suggestions.


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