Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Early Reception of Herder's Volkslieder in Britain


Johann Gottfried Herder's Volkslieder -first published in two parts in 1778 and 1779 - was an attempt at a multicultural anthology of songs - only texts, but not tunes - of different nations. This collection was very influential not only in Germany but also in parts of Europe, for example the Baltic (see here in this blog) and Scandinavia. But it had barely any influence on British scholars and writers.

In fact Herder's relationship to Britain is a very interesting topic. On one hand English and Scottish texts made up the greatest part of what he worked with. Shakespeare's Hamlet had been a major inspiration (see Müller, Erinnerungen I, p. 70). His anthology is built around translations from MacPherson's Ossian and Percy's Reliques. Herder was also familiar with Ramsay, Addison and others as well as with popular song collections like d'Urfey's Wit and Mirth. "Der Anblick dieser Sammlung gibt's offenbar, daß ich eigentlich von Englischen Volksliedern ausging [...]", he wrote later in his Volkslieder (II, p. 27). In fact Scotland was even a kind of dreamland for him: "zu den Schotten! zu Macferson [...] eine Zeitlang ein alter Kaledonier werden" ( Briefwechsel, p. 17):
"[...] und dann nach Wales und Schottland und in die westlichen Inseln, wo auf einer Macpherson, wie Ossians jüngster Sohn sitzt. Da will ich die celtischen Lieder des Volks in in ihrere ganzen Sprache und Ton des Landherzens wild singen hören [...]" (Letter to Merck, 28.10.1770, in Briefe I, p. 277; Wagner I, No. 4, p. 14).
Besides that the works of English scholars like - to name only one - Thomas Blackwell's Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer (1735, at the Internet Archive) were of prime importance for him (see Gaier in HW 3, p. 850; for others see f. ex. Beers, pp. 387-9). One may say that Herder would not have been able to develop his ideas about what he regarded as Volkslied without knowledge of the relevant discussion in Britain that was already going on there for several decades. He borrowed the whole concept and applied it for his own project.

But on the other hand the Volkslieder were more or less ignored there. The first problem was of course that "until the turn of the nineteenth century, Herder's work was basically unknown in England" (Gelbart, p. 105). Before 1800 he was only rarely mentioned in the press or in literary magazines. Only one translation became available to British readers, a minor piece about Ulrich van Hutten, but for some reason this was assigned to Goethe (1789, [ESTC T96229]). Only towards the end of the century a kind of "rage for german literature" (quoted in Jefcoate, p. 86) was noted. A new generation of young writers took note of what happened in Germany but still others like Bürger, Goethe and Kotzebue (see Jefcoate, pp. 88-91; see also Stokoe 1926; Beers 1899, pp. 374-424) were much more successful in Britain than Herder. 

His Vom Geist der Ebräischen Poesie was reviewed in the Monthly Review in 1798 (pp. 642-50) and a part of this important work was translated into English and published as Oriental Dialogues in 1801 (at the Internet Archive). The same year William Taylor, an influential promoter of German literature in Britain, mentioned Herder in an article with the title Anecdotes of German Authors and Authoresses residing at Weimar in Saxony in the Monthly Magazine (11.1, 1801, pp. 145-6) but that was not particularly informative. 

1801 saw also the publication of the translation of his opus magnum, the Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784-1891) as Outlines of the Philosophy of the History of Man ([ESTC T112944], at the Internet Archive). Interestingly the editor Thomas Churchill noted in the introduction one major problem with Herder's works (p. iii) : "Every one, who is acquainted with Herder, must be aware of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of transfusing his spirit, his 'words that burn,' into another language". 

Nonetheless this book was widely discussed in Britain. There were several interesting reviews (see Jefcoate, p. 85), for example in the Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature (30, 9-12 1800, pp. 1-10, 169-75) and in the Monthly Review (41, August 1803, pp. 403-420). A second edition came out in 1803. But this was an exception. Only very few translations followed until the end of the 19th century, for example the Treatise upon the Origin of Language in 1827 (at Google Books) and the Cid in 1828 (see Morgan 1922, pp. 245-6). Only in the 1880s a short but good biography appeared, Nevinson's A Sketch of Herder And His Times (1884, at the Internet Archive). All in all the reception of Herder's work in Britain left a lot to be desired. 

This was particularly the case with the Volkslieder. At the time of its first publication in 1778 nobody cared. It seems not even Joseph Ritson knew about Herder's work when he wrote his Historical Essay on National Song that can be found in the Select Collection of English Songs (1783, I, pp. xv-lxxii). Only in the '90s a few young writers interested in German literature took note. 


Most important in this respect was young Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818; see Wikipedia; summ. from Guthke 1958b, pp. 41-8 & 135-55; see also Thomson 2010; Mortensen 2004, pp. 77-94) who spent some time at the court in Weimar in 1792/3. There he even met Goethe and other popular German writers. He also became familiar with the Volkslieder while in Germany. Lewis was particularly interested in some of the the kaempeviser, the medieval Danish ballads translated into German by Herder. 

In 1591 Andersen Sørensen Vedel had published Et hundrede udvaalde Danske Viser (later editions: Kopenhagen 1619, at the Internet Archive; Christiania 1664, at NB, Oslo). An updated and expanded edition compiled by Peter Syv then appeared in 1695: 200 Viser om Konger, Kemper og Andre (a later reprint, 1739, is available at Google Books and the Internet Archive). This collection was introduced in Germany by Gerstenberg in 1767 in the Briefe über die Merkwürdigkeiten der Litteratur (No. 8, pp. 108-15) and it became an important source for Herder who included four of these ballads in the Volkslieder (I.2, No. 14, pp. 152-5; II.2, Nos. 25-27, pp. 153-60; see Møller, p. 31-7). 

Lewis was the first one to introduce Danish kaempeviser to English readers. His more or less free adaptations were derived from Herder's German translations. In The Monk, his famous and romance first published in 1795, we can find "The Water-King" (here here 2nd. ed., 1796 Vol. 3, pp. 17-20). "The Erl-Kings Daughter" appeared first in Monthly Mirror (2, 1796, pp. 371-2). But this didn't help to promote the Volkslieder in Britain because in both cases he failed - for whichever reason - to refer to his source. Only in the 4th edition of The Monk in 1798 - where he also added "The Erl-King's Daughter" (pp. 23-5) - he managed to name Herder's anthology as the source of the "Water-King" (p. 17). This was - as far as I know - the very first time that the Volkslieder were mentioned in British literature. 

The next project were the Tales of Wonder (2 Vols., 1801, at the Internet Archive), an anthology of supernatural ballads the concept of which was at least partly indebted to Herder. It can be seen as the first attempt in England to produce something like the Volkslieder (Guthke 1958b, p. 135). Lewis wrote original ballads himself and also commissioned some more from other writers like the young Walter Scott with whom he discussed this work (see Guthke 1957). But he also borrowed some from German writers like Goethe and of course Herder. 

In the first volume we can find several ballads based on Herder's translations of Danish and Nordic texts. First there was "Elver's Hoh" (I, No. VI, pp. 31-3; see Volkslieder I.2, No. 14, pp. 152-5): "My version of this Ballad (as also most of the Danish ballads in this collection) was made from a German translation to be found in Herder's 'Volkslieder'"). He also included once again "The Erl-King's Daughter" and "The Water-King" (Nos. X-XI, pp. 53-61). The latter, by the way, served as an inspiration for new ballads written by Lewis himself respectively Mr. Scott: "The Fire-King" and "The Cloud-King" (No. XII & XIII, pp. 62-78). He also added adaptations of two more Nordic songs - not from the Kaempeviser but from other sources - that also can be found in the Volkslieder (I.2, Nos. 15- & 16, pp. 156-74): "The Sword of Agantyr" and "King Hacho's Death Song" (Nos. VII & VIII, pp. 34-50). At least for the latter he referred to Herder's anthology as his source. 

Lewis also used texts from the Volkslieder for another collection, the Romantic Tales first published in 1808 (4 Vols., at the Internet Archive). Here the reader could find "The Dying Bride" (II, p. 114-20) and he noted that this piece was "partly translated from a Lithuanian ballad, a German translation of which is to be found in Herder's Volks-lieder - the last seven stanzas are entirely new" (I, p. xiii, see Volkslieder I.1, No. 3, pp. 33-4). In fact this is a very free adaptation.. Also of interest in this respect are "Bertrand & Mary-Belle" and "The Lord of Falkenstein" (I, pp. 273-87). Lewis only noted that they were "in a great measure taken from some fragments of old German ballads". There is good reason to assume that these two pieces are also based on texts found in the Volkslieder but only forgot to name his source (Guthke 1958b, pp. 148-52; see Volkslieder, I.1, No. 16, pp. 79-82 & I.3, No. 2, pp. 232-4). 

Lewis was the first one and at that time the only one who made available English adaptations of texts from Herder's Volkslieder and also in some cases named it as his source. Here the reader at least learned about the origin of these pieces. The only other writer who during these years tried his hand at adapting a piece from this anthology was much less forthcoming and preferred not to mention where he had found the original German words. This was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834; see Wikipedia), writer, poet, critic, philosopher and more, who was interested in German literature and philosophy and also learned the language (see Stokoe, pp. 89-143).

He spent some time in Germany in 1798 and there he bought a copy of the Volkslieder (see Coleridge, Marginalia II, p. 1048). Two years later a little piece was published in a literary almanac, The Annual Anthology (II, 1800, p. 192; see also Coleridge, Complete Poetical Works I, 1912, p. 313). He called it "Something Childish, but very natural. Written in Germany": 
If I had but two little wings, And were a little feathery bird,
And were a little feathery bird,
To you I'd fly, my dear!
But thoughts like these are idle things
And I stay here.

But in my sleep to you I fly,
I'm always with you in my sleep,
The world is all one's own.
But the one wakes, and where am I?
All, all alone.

Sleep stays not though a Monarch bids,
So I love to wake 'ere break of day;
For though my sleep be gone,
Yet while 'tis dark one shuts one's lids
And still dreams on. 
No source is given but this was clearly an adaptation of a song from the Volkslieder called "Flug der Liebe" (I.1, No. 12, pp. 67-8). Herder was the first one to publish this text in a book and it would then become immensely popular in Germany (see Widmer in Liederlexikon), one of the songs even today nearly everybody knows of:
Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär
Und auch zwey Flüglein hätt',
Flög ich zu dir;
Weil es aber nicht kann seyn,
Bleib ich allhier.

Bin ich gleich weit von dir,
Bin ich doch im Schlaf bey dir,
Und red' mit dir:
Wenn ich erwachen thu,
Bin ich allein.

Es vergeht keine Stund' in der Nacht,
Da mein Herz nicht erwacht,
Und an dich gedenkt,
Daß du mir viel tausendmal
Dein Herz geschenkt. 
Coleridge's little poem was reprinted numerous times but - as far as I can see - only very rarely with a reference to Herder as the original source. In 1873 a writer in the Aldine (Vol. 5, p. 23), a journal published in New York, did point to Herder's text, quoted it in an English translation and felt justified to call the poet a "plagiarist". It should be added that Coleridge also read other works by Herder but apparently never returned to the Volkslieder (see Marginalia II, p. 1048). 

The third one in the trio of early British "Herderians" with some interest in the Volkslieder was of course Walter Scott (1771-1832; see Stokoe, pp. 61-88). He also learned the language and developed a fascination with contemporary German literature. Among his earliest works were translations of ballads respectively plays by Bürger and Goethe (see Mortensen 2014, pp. 140-50). His "interest in ballads had been in part inspired" by Herder's Volkslieder (Ferris 2012, p. 10) of which he owned a copy (see Catalogue Abbotsford, 1838, p. 172). He discussed the topic - as already noted - with M. G. Lewis and contributed some pieces for the latter's collections (see also Thomson at the Walter Scott Digital Archive; Scott, Essay, 1830). 

But the only time Scott mentioned Herder's name was a reference to his "beautiful German translation" of "Sir Patrick Spens" that he added to the third edition of the Minstrelsy in 1806 (Vol. 1, p. 6; but see also Scott, Essay, p. 65). Here he also called the Volkslieder "an elegant work, in which it is only to be regretted that the actual popular songs of the Germans form so trifling a proportion", a complaint Herder surely would have agreed to. 

Otherwise there wasn't much. When Robert Jamieson included some Danish texts in his Popular Ballads and Songs (1806, at the Internet Archive) he didn't need to rely on Herder's adaptations as Lewis did but instead used the original sources and translated them anew (see f. ex. I, pp. 208-28; II, pp. 99-116; see also Møller, pp. 43-4). Even more original translations of kaempeviser can be found in the Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, the great anthology of "Teutonic and Scandinavian Romances" compiled by Jamieson in cooperation with Scott and Henry Weber. But here he at least added two German ballads taken directly from Herder, "Ulrich and Annie" and "The Maiden and the Hasel" (pp. 348-53; see Volkslieder I.1, No. 16, pp. 79-82 & I.2, No. 1, pp. 109-10 ).


Some years later the British readers could learn a little bit about Herder from the English translation of Madame de Staël's book about Germany (II, pp. 364-9). There are also some remarks about the Volkslieder, a not unhelpful summary of his thinking about popular poetry (pp. 366-7): 
"Herder published a collection entitled 'Popular Songs.' It contains ballads and detached pieces, on which the national character and imagination of the people are strongly impressed. We may studxy in them that natural poetry which precedes cultivation. Cultivated literature becomes so speedily factitious, that it is good, now and then, to have recourse to the origin of all poetry, that is to say, to the impression made by nature on man before he had analysed both the universe and himself. The flexibility of the German language alone, perhaps admits a translation of those naivités peculiar to that of different countries, without which we cannot enter into the spirit of popular poetry; the words in those poems have in themselves a certain grace, which affects us like a flower we have before seen, like an air that we have heard in our childhood: these peculiar impressions contain not only the secrets of the art, but those of the soul, from which art originally derived them [...]". 
An article in the Monthly Magazine in 1821 (pp. 35-8, 409-14) offered a short overview of Herder's life. The Volkslieder weren't mentioned but at least a translation of a "Fragment about Shakespeare" was added. Some more relevant publications appeared since the late '20. In 1827 Treuttel & Würtz, a French publishing house that was also busy in London, brought out an interesting anthology with the title Stray Leaves, Including Translations from the Lyric Poets of Germany, with Brief Notices of their Work (at the Internet Archive [wrong title]). The anonymous author wrote a short introduction to Herder (pp. 154-6) that also included a few remarks about the Volkslieder:
"His Volks-Lieder, or Popular Songs of all nations, translated into German, consist of the following [...] The translations are for the most part executed with facility, in corresponding measures. Such a garland of poetic flowers, in which are depicted the pains and pleasures, the love and hatred, the hopes and fears of almost universal humanity, in the affecting simplicity of national song, is interesting in the highest degree. The strains of the most distant zones here meet in harmony, and greet us from afar in the accents of home. Herder's passion for such anthologies is remarkable. Wherever he found a rare exotic of exquisite poesy, he immediately transplanted it, with evident delight". 
More important was William Taylor's Historic Survey of German Poetry, Interspersed with Various Translations, published in three volumes in 1830 (at the Internet Archive). Taylor (1765-1836; see Wikipedia), critic and translator - I have already mentioned him -, was at that time the most influential mediator of German literature in Britain. He included a longer chapter about Herder with English translations of original texts (II, pp. 9-42). The Volkslieder are represented by four songs, three of them from the Baltic (pp. 15-8):

John Bowring (1792-1872; see Wikipedia), well-known polyglot translator and editor, wrote a review of some Latvian song collections for the Foreign Quarterly Review (8, 1831, pp. 61-78). He had received these rare publications from Sir Walter Scott (see Catalog Abbotsford, p. 172). Here he also referred to the Volkslieder and added translations of Latvian and Lithuanian songs there as well as some of Herder's notes about Baltic popular poetry (pp. 73-5). 

At this point we can see that there was never a systematic reception of the Volkslieder in Britain. Only a few authors with knowledge of German were familiar with this anthology and some of them - particularly Lewis and Scott - seem to have been inspired at least a little bit by Herder's work. It was not exactly a book suitable for the English market and there was no way that this collection of mostly translations, many of them from the English, could be turned into something of comparable worth for a British audience (see also Bohlman 2011, p. 506). Therefore only a few texts were "translated" into English, the most successful of them as very free adaptations á la Lewis. These were in fact new works only loosely based on Herder's texts. 

Another problem was that for a long time German writers were neglected in Britain. Of course the romantics were interested in literature from Germany. But the "rage" didn't last long and only a few literary stars like Goethe, Bürger, Schiller and Kotzebue became popular and their works were translated into English (see Morgan, pp. 64-7, 154-84, 306-11, 443-66). The rest fared much worse and was rarely made available to English readers. Herder was one of them even though in his case one would have expected more. There was always a great interest for national songs and popular ballads on the British Isles and Herder would have fitted well there. But not even his theoretical works like the Briefwechsel about Ossian were translated. All in all the cultural exchange between German and England was in this case very one-sided and later it wouldn't get much better. 

Of course Herder would be mentioned in books about the history of German literature, like Gostwick's and Harrison's Outlines (1873). There is even a short comment on the Volkslieder (p. 234):
"By his 'Voices of the Peoples' - a series of free translations of the popular songs and ballads of several nations - and by his 'Spirit of Hebrew poetry' (1782) he awakened a cosmopolitan taste in imaginative literature [...] His best work - the popular songs and ballads of many nations - is divided into six books [...] The whole aim of his literary labours seemed to be to make the Germans forget the distinctive character of their own land and recognize themselves as citizens of the world." 
But the first critical discussion of this anthology in Britain can be found in Nevinson's biography (pp. 319-24), that is, by the way, still worth reading. Some paragraphs from the Briefwechsel about Ossian were translated for the chapter about Herder in Warner's Library of the World's Best Literature (XIII, 1902, pp. 7259-76, here p. 7261), an American publication. Of course Herder was regularly referred to by folklorists as a kind of great-grandfather of research into "folk-songs". But his most relevant texts were only recently translated into English (Bohlman 2016). This was really very late.


  • Henry A. Beers, A History of English Romanticism in the 18th century, Holt & Co., New York, 1899, at the Internet Archive 
  • Bohlman, Philip V.: Translating Herder Translating. Cultural Translation and the Making of Modernity. In: The Oxford Handbook of the New Cultural History of Music. Edited by Jane F. Fulcher, Oxford & New York, 2011, pp. 501-522 
  • Philipp Bohlman, Song Loves the Masses. Herder on Music and Nationalism, Oakland, 2017 
  • The Catalogue of the Library at Abbotsford, Edinburgh, 1838, at the Internet Archive 
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Complete Poetical Works Including Poems and Versions of Poems Now Published For the First Time. Edited, With Textual and Bibliographical Notes by Ernest Hartley Coleridge. In Two Volumes. Vol. 1: Poems, Clarendon, Oxford, 1912, at the Internet Archive 
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Marginalia II: Camden to Hutton. Edited by George Whalley, LOndon & Princeton, 1984 (= The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) 
  • Matthew Gelbart, The Invention of "Folk Music" and "Art Music". Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner, Cambridge 2007 (= New perspectives in Music History and Criticism) 
  • Joseph Gostwick & Robert Harrison, Outlines of German Literature, Williams & Norgate, London & Edinburgh, 1873, at the Internet Archive 
  • Karl S. Guthke, Die erste Nachwirkung von Herders Volksliedern in England, Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen 193, 1957, pp. 273-84 
  • Karl S. Guthke, Some Unidentified Early English Translations from Herder's Volkslieder, in: Modern Language Notes 73, 1958a, pp. 52-6 (jstor
  • Karl S. Guthke, Englische Vorromantik und deutscher Sturm und Drang. M. G. Lewis' Stellung in der Geschichte der deutsch-englischen Literaturbeziehungen, Göttingen, 1958b (= Palaestra. Untersuchungen aus der deutschen und englischen Philologie und Literaturgeschichte 223) 
  • Rudolf Haym, Herder nach seinem Leben und seinen Werken, Gaertner, Berlin, 1880 & 1885, 2 Vols., at the Internet Archive 
  • [Johann Gottfried Herder], Auszug aus einem Briefwechsel über Ossian und die Lieder alter Völker, in: Von deutscher Art und Kunst. Einige fliegende Blätter, Bode, Hamburg, 1773, pp. 3-70, 113-8, at the Internet Archive 
  • [HW =] Johann Gottfried Herder, Werke in 10 Bänden, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, Frankfurt/M., 1985-2000 (= Bibliothek deutscher Klassiker) 
  • Johann Gottfried Herder, Briefe. Gesamtausgabe 1763-1803, Böhlau, Weimar, 1977-2009 
  • Graham Jefcoate, Deutsche Drucker und Buchhändler in London 1680-1811. Strukturen und Bedeutung des deutschen Anteils am englischen Buchhandel, Berlin etc., 2015 (= Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens - Studien 12) 
  • Library of the World's Best Literature. Ancient and Modern. Charles Dudley Warner. Editor. Teachers' Edition. Thirty-One Volumes. Vol. XIII, Hill, New York, n. d. [1902], at the Internet Archive 
  • Heinrich Lohre, Von Percy zum Wuinderhorn. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Volksliedforschung in Deutschland, Berlin & Leipzig, 2002 (= Palelaestra XXII), at the Internet Archive 
  • Lis Møller, Travelling Ballads. The Dissemination of Danish Medieval Ballads in Germany and Britain, 1760s to 1830s, in: Dan Ringgaard & Mads Rosendahl Thomsen (eds.), Danish Literature as World Literature, London & New York, 2017, pp. 31-52 
  • Peter Mortensen, British Romanticism and Continental Influences. Writing in an Age of Europhobia, Basingstroke & New York, 2006 
  • Johann Georg Müller (ed.), Erinnerungen aus dem Leben Joh. Gottfrieds von Herder. Gesammelt und beschrieben von Maria Carolina von Herder, geb. Flachsland, Cotta, Stuttgart & Tübingen, 1830, 3 Vols. , at the Internet Archive 
  • Henry Nevinson, A Sketch of Herder And His Times, London, 1884, at the Internet Archive 
  • Lawrence Marsden Price, English Literature in Germany, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1953, at the Internet Archive 
  • Bayard Quincy Morgan, A Bibliography of German Literature in English Translation, Madison, 1922 (= University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature 16), at the Internet Archive 
  • Wolf Gerhard Schmidt, 'Homer des Nordens' und 'Mutter der Romantik'. James MacPhersons Ossian und seine Rezeption in der deutschsprachigen Literatur, 4 Bde., Berlin & New York, 2003-4 
  • Walter Scott, Essay on the Imitation of the Ancient Ballad (1839), in: The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border with His Introductions, Additions and the Editor's Notes, Vol. 4, Cadell, Edinburgh, 1849, pp. 3-78, at the Internet Archive 
  • F. W. Stokoe, German Influence in the English Romantic Period 1788-1818. With Special Reference to Scott, Coleridge, Shelley and Byron, New York, 1963 (first publ. 1926), at the Internet Archive 
  • Douglass H. Thomson (ed.), Matthew Gregory Lewis, Tales of Wonder, Peterborough, ON, 2010
  • Douglass H. Thomson (ed.), Walter Scott's An Apology for Tales of Terror (1799), at The Walter Scott Digital Archive (Edinburgh University Library) 
  • Karl Wagner, Briefe an Johann Heinrich Merck von Göthe, Herder, Wieland und andern bedeutenden Zeitgenossen. Mit Merck's biographischer Skizze, Diehl, Darmstadt, 1835, at the Internet Archive 
  • Tobias Widmer, Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär (2012), in : Populäre und Traditionelle Lieder. Historisch-Kritisches Liederlexikon (Deutsches Volksliedarchiv), last access: 15.10.2017

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