"Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen" - Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff

26 November 1857, the German poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff died on his estate in Nysa (Neisse) in Upper Silesia at the age of 69.

“Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen, / Die da träumen fort und fort, / Und die Welt hebt an zu singen, / Triffst du nur das Zauberwort.“ (There is a song sleeping in all things / that dream on and on / and the world begins to sing / if only you can find the magic word, Joseph von Eichendorff, “Wünschelrute” / “Dowsing Rod”)

Franz Kugler: "Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff"

When the birth pangs of the modern age allowed Europe a breather in 1815, after the end of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, a generation of turmoil had bred all kinds of spiritual confusion and the motto of the day was – back to normal. Or, if possible, back to the state of things as they had been before the world was plunged into a chaos. Poetic souls and their disciples suffered from the apparent normality, though, and the disappointment of the failed revolution shone through the works of art of the fading Romantic Age. Orientation towards a conservative world order and a non-classical past, enchanted with nature, fairy and folk stories, was a variant dominant in the German states between 1815 and 1848, not only through the immense popularity of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, but with popular authors like Brentano, Arnim and Joseph von Eichendorff.

It was a spectacularly unspectacular life that Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff led, at least for a Romantic poet. Born as the son of a Prussian officer on the family estate in Racibórz, then Ratibor, in Silesia, he studied jurisprudence in Berlin and Vienna, even graduated and entered civil service where he climbed the career ladder until the next revolution, the one of 1848, when he retired for health reasons at the age of 60, was happily married and had four children. Nevertheless, he fought for two years in Lützow’s Freikorps against Napoleon during the Wars of Liberation and wrote and published plays, novels and poems, the latter being among the Romantic Age's poetry set to music most often. And there was always homesickness and yearning, for a bygone childhood and things that never had been.

Facsimile of a 1907 edition of Eichendorff's poetry

Eichendorff was indeed the poet of travel preparations, not arrival, of homesickness, not of home, of yearning without origin nor designation. The priest-poet who would heal the rift that ran through the world and the individual with magic words of art would not find more than an abstract purpose for himself and even though he was revered as a great one of poetry, he was considered “old” and “behind the times” already during his life and times and his novel "Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts“ (Of the Life of a Good-For-Nothing) marks the conclusion of Romanticism in German literature and Eichendorff remains a poet in a time of inner conflict who, with simple words, benign Catholicism and a profound sense of wonder, sings of things as they should be with his multi-layered web of symbols for reading the world, nature and soul as a Romantic counterdraft at the dawn of the Industrial Age.

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