The Era of Genius
in German Literature
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."
Gero von Wilpert, Sachwörterbuch der Literatur, Stuttgart 1969, S.
(translation: Benedikt Wahler)
What are the
origins of Sturm & Drang ?
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
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
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.
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,
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
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 ?
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
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 ?
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...
we will follow them (and our parents) as well on that path, we'll know
better in a few years...
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@ WERTHERsWELT :
Sturm & Drang (German) - Sturm & Drang (English)
Genie (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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by: Benedikt Wahler
copyright 1997 - 2007by Benedikt Wahler