Eichendorff, JOSEF KARL BENEDIKT, FREIHERR VON, “the last champion of romanticism”, b. March 10, 1788, in the Upper-Silesian castle of Lubowitz, near Ratibor; d. at Neisse, November 26, 1857. Till his thirteenth year he remained on the parental estate under a clerical tutor; then he was sent with his brother William to Breslau where he attended the Maria Magdalenen gymnasium, at that time still Catholic. During those student years (1804) were written the first of Eichendorff’s extant poems; no doubt his poetical talent had already been awakened in his romantic home. In the spring of 1805 he matriculated at the University of Halle. Here, under the influence of Professor Steffens, he became a follower of the Romantic School of poetry, and at the same time became acquainted with Calderon, some of whose plays were performed by the ducal company of Weimar in the neighboring town of Lauchstädt. In later years he translated several autos sacramentals in truly poetical language. Eichendorff’s development was even more strongly influenced by his sojourn in Heidelberg (1807), where the triumvirate of romanticism, Görres, Arnim, and Brentano, had, in the “Einsiedler Zeitung”, taken the field against pedantry and philistinism. With the two last-named the young poet did not then cultivate a closer acquaintance—he certainly did so in 1809 at Berlin—but the lectures of the great Görres made a deep impression on him. Recommended by Count Loeben, Eichendorff’s first poems were printed in Ast’s periodical, among them the famous song “In einem kühlen Grunde”.
The first of his larger works, the novel “Ahnung and Gegenwart”, was written partly at home, in Lubowitz, where he spent several years after the completion of his studies, partly in Vienna, where he had gone to qualify himself for the Austrian civil service; his friendly relations with Fr. Schlegel and his adopted son, the painter Veit, kept awake the poet’s romantic enthusiasm.
In 1813, when Prussia and Austria were preparing for the War of Liberation, Eichendorff abandoned his poetry, his professional studies, and his preparation for the civil service, and joined the famous volunteers of Lützow at Breslau. Again, in 1815, when Napoleon had returned from Elba, he followed the call to arms, although he had just married (October, 1814) Luise von Larisch, and entered Paris with the conquerors. It was only in 1816 that the chivalric baron left the army and entered the Prussian civil service as a lawyer at Breslau. The next three years passed in quiet seclusion; their principal literary production is the story “Das Marmorbild”. He received his first appointment in 1820 on the Catholic board of education at Danzig; there he took a lively interest in the restoration of the Marienburg, a house of the Teutonic Order; later (1844) he wrote its history at the request of the Government. His tragedy “Der letzte Held von Marienburg” was suggested by this circumstance. At the same time appeared his most popular production, “Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts”. In the year 1831 he was called to Berlin as councillor in the ministry of public worship. In this high office he found many opportunities to be useful to the Church; but he also met with difficulties under a government which did not shrink from imprisoning the Archbishop of Cologne, Clemens August. When Eichendorff, who was a stanch Catholic, was asked to defend the measures of the Government in public, he asked for his dismissal, which, however, was not granted till 1844. The succeeding years were passed mostly in Berlin, where the poet was occupied more with literary and historical than with poetical work; after the death of his wife (1855) he lived with his family at Neisse. Two years later, having finished his swansong, the epic “Lucius”, he died.
What has established the fame of Eichendorff as a poet and has given him a place not only in literature, but also in the heart of the people, are his simple but heartfelt songs. Many of them have become Volkslieder (popular songs) in the truest sense of the word; almost all are fitted for singing owing to their spirit and their melodious language. There is hardly another German poet who has found so many composers for his songs. The great lyrical talent which made Eichendorff the master of the short story (“Ausdem Leben eines Taugenichts”, “Das Marmorbild”, “Schloss Durande”), was prejudicial to the novel “Ahnung and Gegenwart”, and to the longer story “Dichter and ihre Gesellen”, inasmuch as the action is neglected for discursive discussions. Lack of compression and of action has also been censured in the two dramas, “Ezelin von Romano” and “Der letzte Held von Marienburg”. Still, “Ezelin”, the tragedy of a consuming pride ruined through the very abuse of its gigantic strength, no less than “Der letzte Held”, in which Plauen fails on account of his exceeding magnanimity and bravery, amply testify to the dramatic talent of the poet. His best comedy “Die Freier” has been found very well adapted to the stage. In his later years Eichendorff devoted his genius more to the history of literature. His history of the poetical literature of Germany (Kempten, 1907), especially the description of romanticism, outlined as it is by one of its best representatives, is of lasting value, also the sketch of the German novel in the eighteenth century. His solid character and his strong religious faith raise “the champion of romanticism” far above his fellow-poets. Not only did his genius never lead him away from the duties which religion and custom imposed upon him, but he also knew how to distinguish between poetical ideal and reality, and to avoid the underlying want of truth to which the earlier romanticism had succumbed.