Leaving a Literary Legacy
Class of 2014
(1/2014) Anyone familiar with the world of poetry, who has studied the German language, or who has visited the Goethe-Institut in Washington, D.C. has probably heard the name Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe. His German works are the equivalent to Shakespeare’s literary contributions. However, who among you is familiar with the name Karl Theodor Körner?
I’m sure very few hands just went up, if any at all.
An acquaintance of Goethe’s, Körner was born in Dresden, Germany in 1791, and, like myself, his birthday is September 23. Though once a sickly youth, Körner soon grew to be quite the symbol of manliness becoming adept at
music, dancing, fencing, and horsemanship. (Being of German heritage and sharing a fondness for literature and horses myself, it’s hard not to draw parallels. Perhaps there’s something to be said for sharing a birthday.)
A rather relatable character, Körner did not desire to study law as his father wished him to. Instead, Körner went to Freiberg where he studied mining and geology. Like any indecisive youngster, Körner
discovered that mining was not what he wanted to do with his life and in 1810 he transferred to Leipzig and from Leipzig to the University of Berlin, where he remained and published his first set of poems, Die Knospen, "The Buds."
And dare I lay my offering at thy shrine,
And dare my muse with mingled hope and fear
Breathe all her secret longings in thine ear?
The humble tribute wilt thou not decline?
(An excerpt from "With the Buds.")
From Berlin, Körner made his way to Vienna, where his poetic contributions began to flourish. His poems were increasingly more patriotic, so when the drums of war began beating in 1813, it was only natural for Körner to
answer their call.
The storm is out; the land is roused;
Where is the coward who sits well housed?
Fie on thee, boy, disguised in curls,
Behind the stove, ‘mong gluttons and girls!
A graceless, worthless wight though must be;
No German maid desires thee,
No German song inspires thee,
No German Rhine-wine fires thee.
Forth in the van,
Man by man,
Swing the battle-sword who can!
(An excerpt from "Man and Boys.")
The Napoleonic Wars were a time of great German patriotism when Friedrich Wilhelm III, King of Prussia, gathered the many small Germanic nations under one flag to rise against French occupation. Literary figures like Körner were an integral tool in developing a united German identity. Now
it was time for Körner to participate directly in the battlefield as a lieutenant of the Lützow Free Corp. That is not to say that the war stopped his literary efforts. On August 26, 1813, mere hours before his death, Körner
wrote a final patriotic piece titled, "The Song of the Sword," which he read aloud to his companions:
Sword, on my left side gleaming
What means thy bright eye’s beaming?
It makes my spirit dance
To see thy friendly glance.
"A valiant rider bears me;
A free-born German wears me:
That makes my eye so bright;
That is the sword’s delight."
The Prussian cavalry pursued enemy lines into a thicket of woods and directly into the line of fire. Sharpshooters hidden in the brush showered the cavalry with bullets. One of them found its mark through the neck of Körner’s horse and continued through the abdomen and backbone of the
rider. Körner’s comrades carried him to a quiet spot in the woods, but he never regained consciousness after the delivery of this mortal wound. He passed away minutes later.
The deep wound burns, -- my parched lips coldly quiver, --
I feel, by my faint heart’s unsteady beating,
That the last pulse of my young life is fleeting, --
God, to they hands my spirit I deliver!
How sounds of coming death all harslily sever
The fair dream-music, whore bright forms were meeting!
Yet, courage! what hath give my heart true greeting,
I shall yet keep to dwell with me forever!
An all towards which my worship here ascended,
What my hot youth, with fieriest zeal defended,
Now viewed in Freedom, --once with Love all blended,
I see, as a light seraph, o’er me flying, --
And whilst each fainting sense is slowly dying,
It wafts sweet airs with Heaven’s morn-frao-rance sighing!
("Leave-Taking from Life")
It seems fanciful that such a romantic character existed, living and dying in the very dramatic fashion in which he once wrote. Though few people now know his name, Körner was once very popular and successful throughout the Germanic states. His poems, prose, dramas, and tragedies gained
recognition in the Austrian capital, and he was appointed poet of the Court Theatre. When he joined the cavalry, his fellow soldiers already knew his name and revered him for his works.
Körner’s legacy illuminates the power of words. They can quite literally bring together countries or tear them apart. They can build a reputation or destroy one. I think this is a lesson all of us can apply in our daily actions. Though we might not have the opportunity to say, gather the
Germanic states into a unified country, we do have the opportunity to say a kind word to someone. When is a better time to take advantage of that opportunity than this fresh New Year?
Read other articles by Nicole Jones