Sturm & Drang
The Era of Genius in German Literature

"Sturm und Drang is the name of an epoch in German literary history that endured from 1767 to 1785 and is also called time of genius or contemporary period of genius denoting the glorification of the 'genuine genius' as the original notion of a superior human being and artist, the true creator of art."
after Gero von Wilpert, Sachwörterbuch der Literatur, Stuttgart 1969, S. 747
(translation: Benedikt Wahler)


What are the origins of Sturm & Drang ?
In the second half of the 18th century the philosophical and literary scenery of the German-speaking Central Europe was dominated by the Enlightenment's ideas. As Immanuel Kant stated it in his classic definition it "man's egress from his self-imposed immaturity" is to be achieved by using one's Reason as the maxim of life.
This way of thinking is clearly reflected in the works of the Age of Enlightenment. Johann Christoph Gottsched had laid down a tight and narrow frame for the literature of that era in his "
Versuch einer Critischen Dichtkunst" of 1730 and demanded that writing always fulfil a purpose.
Literature was to form and advance the reader's morality, enlighten him and awake his Reason. Liberty - that had been the ultimate goal of Enlightenment - had given way to the new constraint of a confined set of rules that held authors on a short leash.
The three unities - place, time and action - an exalted use of language and the partition of peers and commoners into the genres of tragedy and comedy - those were the postulates hammered into the heads of wanna-be poets at countless "academies" everywhere.

But Lessing's work "Minna von Barnhelm" of 1767 proved that these bounds were too tight for socially critical literature apt to unveil the outrageous nature of these times (after all political education is enlightenment, too!).
Around 1770 the East-Pussian theologian, philosopher and linguist Johann Gottfried Herder taught at Straßburg University (young Goethe was there, studying law at the same time and came to know him). He told his students that poesy could not be learned - it demanded a genuine genius. Besides, he promoted the works of Shakes-peare and the renewal of ancient folk songs in the poetry of his time.
This reaction against the purely intellectual attitude of Enlightenment paved the way for overcoming the rule of reason and for unleashing an anbundance of emotions, phantasy and forces of the soul as the new poetic zeitgeist.
This forceful trend of renewal that sent shivers down the spine of literary Germany is characterized by its youthful-civic nature of "German Idealism": 'an abounding heart' and free-roaming feelings,
sensation and drive, emotio rather than ratio indicated their style. The upheaval of youth had found its literary equivalent, a new generation of German authors perceives Herder's theses as the echo of their own experiences and sensations.

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What are the features of Sturm&Drang ?

The young generation's ideal of character in late 18th century German literature is opposed to authority and tradition in political life just as well as in the literary and philosophical domain.
Due to the firm power and position of the absolutistic nobility in the countless German states this generation eventually cannot deliver any noteworthy success in the former.
In the latter though it succeeds at unfolding its full effect. The "young rebels" substituted a genuine genius' independence bringing his experiences and perceptions into an individual artistic form for a learnable "art according to rules" that was taught at numberous "Poets' Academies" to the plebs eager to write and create themselves. The established "good taste" of Englightenment with its rules taken from those of the antique plays of Greece and Rome thus lost its dominating force for the time being.
Pointing to their own abilites, the sheer force of mere ingenuity the young authors denounced the set of rules of old as a yoke born by slaves - something that their free mind had overcome. Those rules were replaced by the strength of passion, of intense emotions which were appreciated solely and put the characteristic and genuine ahead of "beauty". Literature was not to fit into pre-ordained forms - it was to reflect the world the way the Sturm&Drang generation experienced it in its youthful energy!
A new, comprehensive and empathic attitude towards nature blended with the funda- mental concept of their tragic literature: the genius - obviously doomed to perish in its conflict with the forces of coercion, culture and society - itself thus being an alter ego of that untamed nature.
The main form of Sturm&Drang literature is the drama, the play. The ever-repeating topic in the works of this generation is the mental quarrel and physical conflict of the relentless youngster striving for freedom, intentionally exceeding the limits of the existing order; a behavior presenting these characters in the light of revolutionaries and criminals.

Shakespeare took the place held by the classic poets as the idol as to form and style. This admiration of the English bard went hand in hand with the admiration of an England yet far in advance on the road to freedom.
Critics maintain that the voluntary neglectence of dramatical techniques and the three unities led to an arbitrarily frequent change of place of action in the works of Sturm&Drang, often exceeding the degrees of effectful staging (and "stageability").
The exalted, untamed and yet emotional and expressive language is full of exclama-tions, demi-sentences and forceful swear words and is inclined to fall into the domain of colloquial folk slang. There was to be no censure - the language of the ordinary people and the youth was brought on stage.

The young authors' aversion toward an aristocratic court culture as it was spread from France and their sympathy for notions such as nature, soul and folk were apparent already to their contemporaries. Thus they had succeeded in establishing an indepen-dent "youth culture" in literautre, proving with yet unheard of radical and energetic force, that the young generation was in upheaval.

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Why does Sturm&Drang deserve our special attention ?

Nowadays, the style and language of Sorrows of Young Werther or Kabale und Liebe may appear to many... probably even most of us artifical, twisted and just awkward.
But in complaing "what's that bullshit they're talking?!" we loose sight of what is hidden behind those words.
Though language and style has changed a lot over the last two centuries (I wonder what they'll say about your "phat" in 200 more years!), these works contain a message that is of enduring relevance to us. The story behind Sturm&Drang, its works and origins could very well be our own.
As it German name indicates it is the expression of a young generation's stormy and urging character. They didn't (want to) fit into the overly rational and seemingly emotionless world of their literary parents. Their experiences were full of a world of totally different things: love, fight, jealousy, oppression, a strife for liberty, upset, desire,... the entire span of emotional states that tumble down on you in your youth.
So, when we color our hair neon, have our arm tatooed, our tongue pierced or attend the LoveParade in stead of SAT prep courses; when our elders chanted "for peace", debated pseudo-intellectual theories on communism and exploitation, pretended to fuck... aehm bring about world peace with "free love" - when any generation upsets its elders then we're not too far from Sturm&Drang. This era is the literary testimony that on the way to finding and defining yourself rebellion plays an important role. In this particular sense Sturm&Drang is in fact highly modern... and maybe it's ourselves whom we discover in reading those works... Give it a try !

One more thing: what became of our young authors is sobering - they either died young, were imprisoned for their political ideas ... or slowly became themselves part of an "establishment" they had criticized. Over and out with rebel behavior and they smoothly integrated the oldfashioned rules into their works, even made up new strict rules for the sake of "aesthetics". Schiller got a tenure at Jena University, Goethe soon was tightly woven into the state bureaucracy signing death verdicts and selling citizens to fight in America - doing alll those deeds he had gravely and eloquently attacked only a few years earlier...

...whether we will follow them (and our parents) as well on that path, we'll know better in a few years...

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Sturm&Drang @ WERTHERsWELT :
Johann Wolfgang Goethe :
- A Biography

The Sorrows of Young Werther:
- A literary analysis

Friedrich Schiller:
- A Biography

Kabale und Liebe (German):
- Eine literarische Charakteristik

Related Wikipedia-articles:
Sturm & Drang (German) - Sturm & Drang (English)
(German) - Genie (English)
Immanuel Kant (German) - Immanuel Kant (English)
Johann Christoph Gottsched (German) - Johann Christoph Gottsched (English)
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (German) - Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (English)
Johann Gottfried Herder (German) - Johann Gottfried Herder (English)
Friedrich Schiller (German) - Friedrich Schiller (English)
Johann Wolfgang Goethe (German) - Johann Wolfgang Goethe (English)
Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz
(German) - Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (English)


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Sturm & Drang
provided by: Benedikt Wahler
URL: www.fortunecity.de/lindenpark/goethe/1/sturmdrange.htm
Latest revision: 23.09.1999
© copyright 1997 - 2007by Benedikt Wahler