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The Philosopher David Friederich Strauss As A Poet

by W. W. C.


The writer of a sketch in a late number of a Leipsic journal presents the famous author of the Life of Jesus, David Friederich Strauss, in a new character. He mentions, first, that in the Unterhaltungen am häuslichen Heerde ("Conversations around the Homehearth"), published by Strauss in 1856, the latter makes, in the introduction, the following graceful reference to the deceased friend of his youth, E.F. Kauffmann: "If I were a philosophical emperor and wrote self-confessions, I would thank the gods for giving me, among other blessings, a poet and musician for an early friend. He is dead now, alas! the noble man whom alone I have to thank that my ear, though still unskillful, has been opened to the world of harmony. He was not a professional musician, but he had a thoroughly musical nature. The laws of composition he had studied theoretically, and he followed them practically. His position, in reality, was that of a professor of mathematics. But music was his secret love. He not only knew the great masters, but he lived in them. He thought little of playing on the piano the whole of one of Mozart's operas, note for note, without any written music before him. I have often seen him do this. How much I have owed to those hours! How he could draw his hearers into the right mood! How he could illuminate the groping mind with the lightning flash of thought!"


To this friend Strauss sent from Munich in 1851 ten sonnets. They were accompanied by a versified dedication to Kauffmann himself, and they constitute his claim to be considered a poet as well as a philosophic theologian. The sonnets are all on musical subjects, and may be taken as the natural outgrowth of that cultivation of his musical taste which he owed to his intimate association with Professor Kauffmann. The metrical dedication and the first five sonnets are given in the sketch before referred to. The writer of that article looks upon the tendency, thus displayed by Strauss, to "drop into poetry," as Mr. Wegg was accustomed to say, as another strong proof of the affinity—elsewhere noticed—between the genius of Strauss and that of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing; who, it will be remembered, sometimes diverted himself with the composition of light poetical pieces, such as his famous song, beginning "Gestern, Brüder, könnt ihr's glauben?"


The first sonnet is on Händel, the second on Glück, the third on Haydn, the fourth on Don Juan, and the fifth on Figaro.

The following attempt at a translation of the fourth sonnet may serve to give some idea of how far the world-renowned philosopher and skeptic has succeeded in his effort to assume the anomalous rôle of a sonneteer:



How joyously life's fountains here are flowing!

In crystal cups the purple flood is foaming;

Through dusky myrtle-groves are lovers roaming,

The dance begins in halls all bright and glowing.

Be watchful, though! Here treachery is hiding.

Wild passion naught for truth or ruth is caring:

As hawks do doves, mild innocence 'tis tearing,

And human vengeance lightly is deriding.

But now, once more alive, the slain appear!

They speak, with awful voice, the words of doom:

Death his cold hand is silently extending.

Now sinks the daring mood in ghastly fear.

The golden dream of life dissolves in gloom;

The silent grave brings on the bright joy's ending.

It is very hard, if not impossible, to render into any other language the true spirit of a German poem. But in the original this sonnet is far above mediocrity. It idealizes the opera of Don Juan very artistically, and displays a combination of force with harmony and grace which gives the impression, in connection with the other sonnets, that if Strauss had devoted his mental energy to poetry alone, he would not have taken a low rank among the poets of Germany.