Famous German Poets
German writing is said to be very hard to translate into other languages due to its figurative character: especially the language of famous German poets and thinkers. Who are the most famous German poets and dramatists?
Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Faust I
Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born on August 28, 1749 in Frankfurt/ Main. He is considered as one of the most genius persons of his time and the father of German poetry. Goethe was not only an exceptional writer and thinker, but also statesman and researcher. The polymath had versatile knowledge in different scientific fields such as the theory of color or as a pioneer of the evolutionary theory. His first novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther ( = The Sorrows of Young Werther), in which the main figures commits suicide in the end, drew a series of imitators in real life.
His most famous work is called Faust – a personal confession of Goethe and masterpiece of German poetry. His desire for more and more knowledge and pleasure makes it impossible for Faust to enjoy his life. Deeply depressed, he concludes a pact with Mephistopheles – the devil. The clou: If Mephisto is able to bring Faust so far as to hold a happy moment, he will receive Faust’s soul.
Friedrich Schiller: Die Räuber ( = The Robbers)
Friedrich Schiller was born on November 10, 1759. He released his first and also most famous work called Die Räuber at the age of 32. Schiller was actually a physician, who wrote his thesis about the connection of the animalistic and spiritual nature of man. In 1779, he started working on his stage play Die Räuber, which was finished in 1981 and became a huge success after the premiere in 1982 in Mannheim. Until Schillers early death in 1805 due to tuberculosis, Schiller and Goethe remained close friends with each other.
The drama Die Räuber depicts the rivalry of two countless brothers: the intelligent robber Karl Moor, who is loved by his father and his coldly calculating brother Francis, who is jealous of Karl and trying to get their fathers heritage. The central motive is the conflict between sense and sensibility, while the central topic is the relationship between law and freedom.
Heinrich Heine: Buch der Lieder ( = Book of Songs)
Heinrich Heine was born on December 13, 1797. His most famous work is called Buch der Lieder from 1827, which was a great success to a broad public due to simple, everyday language. From 1831 on, one of the most famous German poets was getting into conflicts with the censorship, whereupon he moved to exile in Paris.
Buch der Lieder is a poetry collection with poems, that have been already published before. Most of them deal with unhappy love affairs. Interpreters see this as a mirror of Heines own experiences. He was said to be in love with his cousin Amalie and later on also with her seven years younger sister, who were both daughters of Salomon Heines.
Bertold Brecht: Die Dreigroschenoper ( = The Threepenny Opera)
Bertold Brecht was born on February 10, 1898. He was not only a dramaturge and founder of the “epic theatre”, but also a very well known poet. He already started writing for the school newspaper when he was a teenager. His mayor breakthrough came with his work Die Dreigroschenoper in 1928. He is also very well known for short poems, in which he is often referring to events of the outer world.
Until 1933, Die Dreigroschenoper was the most successful theatrical performance in Germany. The story spins around the competition and struggle for existence between two “businessmen,”: the head of the London bagger mafia (Peachum), who extorts the beggars and equip them with certain things to get the attention of by-passers , and a criminal (Macheath), who has good connections to the Chief of Police (Brown) of London. Die Dreigroschenoper is an edited version of the a Beggar’s Opera from 1728.
Friedrich Hölderlin: Hyperion
Friedrich Hölderlin was born on March 20, 1770. He was considered as one of the finest, but also most unhappy German poets. He lived in an unrealistic world, filled with longing for harmony and beauty, which – for him – seemed to be only realized in the Antique. He saw Germany’s turmoil with deep pain. His most beautiful work is a lyric novel called Hyperion. Holderlin died after 40 years of mental problems.
Hyperion is a novel written in letters. The correspondence between Hyperion and his German friend Bellarmin is an ode to nature itself, which is – according to Hölderlin – the salvation from war and loneliness.
Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter ( = The Rider on the White Horse)
Theodor Storm was born on September 14, 1817. The German poets deep melancholy and love and loyalty to his home Husum in north of Germany, characterize Storms novels.
The novel Der Schimmelreiter describes the life story of Hauke Haien, told by a schoolmaster of a village to a horseman in a guest house. The dikes in Nordfriesland, a place of action for history, play an important role in Hauke’s life. In the end, Hauke , his wife and child die a tragic death.
Rainer Maria Rilke: Die Sonette an Orpheus ( = Sonnets to Orpheus)
Rainer Maria Rilke was a born on December 4, 1875 in Prague. His purpose was to inspire the world around him with his condensations.
Die Sonette an Orpheus is a cycle of poems in 55 sonnets. The story spins around the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. While the first sonnet begins with a talk of orphic singing, the forest, and the animals, which gets transformed into a girl in the second sonnet. In the course of the second sonnet, the focus shifts from the girl to the world.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Nathan der Weise ( = Nathan the Wise)
Lessing was born on January 1, 1729 and is considered as one of the best German poets of all time. Before his creative period, most plays spin around very serious, religious topics or comedies, which weren’t germane for a longer period of time.
Nathan der Weise is a story about humanism and tolerance for the ideas of the Enlightenment and also Lessings last work. The classic drama takes place at the time of the Third Crusade (1189-1192) during a truce in Jerusalem. Nathan is a rich Jew, who comes back into his hometown after a business trip. He gets to know, that his daughter Recha was saved by a temple master when a fire broke out. This temple owner, a member of a Christian order, owes his life to the unexpected pardon of Sultan Saladin, who, on seeing the young man, remembered his late brother Assad. Nathan encourages the temple master to pay a visit to his daughter Recha and to thank her.
The most famous part of Nathan der Weise is the so-called Ringparabel. Sultan Saladin, who wants to test the liberality and wisdom of the Jew Nathan, asks Nathan about the “true religion.” Nathan answers him with the ring parable: A king had a ring, which had the ability of making his bearer “enjoyable in front of God and mankind.” In order to make his three sons equally heirs, the king made two duplicates of the ring, and handed everyone one ring over before his death. When – among them – a dispute arises over the real ring, a wise judge settles the dispute by calling each of the three “to activate the force of the stone in his ring”, which means, by practical humanity and fellow human behavior. The Sultan, deeply impressed, offered the Jew Nathan his friendship.
Gerhart Hauptmann: Die Weber ( = The Weavers)
Gerhart Hauptmann was born on November 11, 1862. The nobel prize winner, who appealed to the social conscience of his time, created a shocking naturalistic masterpiece with Die Weber.
The drama spins around the misery of the Silesian outworkers and their rebellion in 1844.
Theodor Fontane: Effi Briest
Theodor Fontane was born on December 30, 1819. He came from a Huguenot family, who settled in Prussia. His father was a pharmacist and Theodor Fontane followed the same path, but gave up his profession in 1849. He started working as a freelance employee in the office of a ministry and later on also worked as an editor in Berlin and since 1876 as Secretary of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. One of the most famous German poets works as a writer is Effi Briest.
Effi Briest is a social novel, which describes the life of Effi Briest, a 17 year old girl, who gets married to and old Baron called Innstetten. He treats Effi not only like a child, but neglects her in favor of his own career. During their marriage, Effi enters a fleeting love affair with an officer. When Innstetten discovers his love letters later on in the story, he is unable to forgive Effi. Forcibly arrested by an overthrowned honorary code, he kills the past lover in a duel and gets divorced. Effi is now socially ostracized and gets even rejected by her parents. Three years later, they are ready to receive Effi, who is now fatally ill.