Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Friedrich Schiller

German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller was born November 10, 1759.  Fourteen years later, and shortly after Walter Scott was born, the Duke of Swabia, for whom Schiller's father served, agreed to send the elder Schiller's sons to the ducal academy.  Thus, this talented future poet received a first-rate education.  Through his writings and thought, and later through his friendship and dialogue with Goethe, the two German poets forged what became known as the Weimar Classicism.  German thought and literature became extremely popular in Scotland, and influenced Walter Scott and his crowd.

“I do not know anything of a play of mine, my dear friend, unless it be a sort of half-mad German tragedy which I wrote many years ago when my taste was very green and when, like the rest of the world, I was taken in with the bombast of Schiller.”

- Sir Walter Scott to Lady Abercorn  from Sir Walter Scott, "Familiar Letters".
Walter Scott was "young and green" in 1788, when according to biographer John Gibson Lockhart, he and his cronies took a strong interest in German literature.  As Lockhart relates, 'The German class, of which we have an account in one of the Prefaces of 1830, was formed before the Christmas of 1792, and it included almost all these loungers of the Mountain. In the essay now referred to Scott traces the interest excited in Scotland on the subject of German literature to a paper read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, on the 21st of April, 1788, by the author of The Man of Feeling. "The literary persons of Edinburgh," he says, "were then first made aware of the existence of works of genius in a language cognate with the English, and possessed of the same manly force of expression; they learned at the same time that the taste which dictated the German compositions was of a kind as nearly allied to the English as their language: those who were from their youth accustomed to admire Shakespeare and Milton, became acquainted for the first time with a race of poets, who had the same lofty ambition to spurn the flaming boundaries of the universe, and investigate the realms of Chaos and Old Night; and of dramatists, who, disclaiming the pedantry of the unities, sought, at the expense of occasional improbabilities and extravagance, to present life on the stage in its scenes of wildest contrast, and in all its boundless variety of character.... Their fictitious narratives, their ballad poetry, and other branches of their literature, which are particularly apt to bear the stamp of the extravagant and the supernatural, began also to occupy the attention of the British literati. In Edinburgh, where the remarkable coincidence between the German language and the Lowland Scottish encouraged young men to approach this newly discovered spring of literature, a class was formed of six or seven intimate friends, who proposed to make themselves acquainted (p. 185) with the German language. They were in the habit of being much together, and the time they spent in this new study was felt as a period of great amusement. One source of this diversion was the laziness of one of their number, the present author, who, averse to the necessary toil of grammar, and the rules, was in the practice of fighting his way to the knowledge of the German by his acquaintance with the Scottish and Anglo-Saxon dialects, and of course frequently committed blunders which were not lost on his more accurate and more studious companions." The teacher, Dr. Willich, a medical man, is then described as striving with little success to make his pupils sympathize in his own passion for the "sickly monotony" and "affected ecstasies" of Gessner's Death of Abel; and the young students, having at length acquired enough of the language for their respective purposes, as selecting for their private pursuits, some the philosophical treatises of Kant, others the dramas of Schiller and Goethe. The chief, if not the only Kantist of the party, was, I believe, John Macfarlan of Kirkton; among those who turned zealously to the popular belles-lettres of Germany were, with Scott, his most intimate friends of the period, William Clerk, William Erskine, and Thomas Thomson....'

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