Andreas Gryphius – Master Poet of the German Baroque

Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664)

On October 11, 1616, German Baroque lyric poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius was born. For his poems and tragedies Gryphius chose the topics of pain and moral decay during the times of the Thirty Years War as well as human restlessness, solitude and inner conflicts. Unless you have attended a German highschool or have a strong interest in baroque poetry, you might have never heard of Andreas Gryphius. Back at school, we had to learn some of Gryphus by heart – besides of interpreting his works again and again. Thus, his poetry has become part of my life and therefore, I decided to introduce Gryphius and his work also to the readers of our daily science blog.

Andreas Gryphius was born on October 11, 1616, in Großglogau, Silesia, which is today Poland, as the youngest son of the Protestant archdeacon, Paul Gryphius. Actually, his German family name was ‘Greif’. But, following the prevailing fashion, he latinized it to Gryphius. Gryphius was born right at the beginning of the Thirty Year’s war, which should influence him as a major topic of his poetry throughout his entire life. This war involved almost every country in Central Europe. It was one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history, and one of the longest continuous wars in modern history. It was fought largely as a religious war between Protestants and Catholics. A major consequence of the Thirty Years’ War was the devastation of entire regions, denuded by the foraging armies. Famine and disease significantly decreased the population of the German states, Bohemia, the Low Countries, and Italy; most of the combatant powers were bankrupted. In these troubled times, Andreas Gryphius grew up, left early an orphan and driven from his native town by the war. He received his schooling in various places, but notably at Görlitz and Fraustadt, where he enjoyed an excellent classical education.

In 1632, Gryphius had witnessed the pillaging and burning of the Silesian town of Freystadt by Swedish troops, and immortalized the event in his poem Fewrige Freystadt in 1637. His first publications included Latin poetry, Herodis Furiae, et Rachelis lachrymae (1634), and his first collection of German sonnets (1637). From 1634 until 1636, he studied at the Academic Gymnasium in Danzig (present-day Gdansk, Poland), where he met professors Peter Crüger and Johann Mochinger, who introduced Gryphius to the new German language poetry. Crüger had for years close contacts to Martin Opitz, who is referred to as ‘father of German poetry‘. In 1636 Gryphius became tutor to the sons of the eminent jurist Georg von Schönborner, a man of wide culture and considerable wealth, who had been rewarded by the emperor Ferdinand II. with the title and office of imperial count-palatine (Hofpfalzgraf). Schönborner, who recognized Gryphius’s genius, crowned him poeta laureatus, gave him the diploma of master of philosophy, and bestowed on. him a patent of nobility, though Gryphius never used the title. In 1638, after the death of his patron he accompanied Schönborner’s two sons on their knight tour through the Netherlands to the prestigious university in Leiden, where from 1638 to 1644 he studied a wide range of subjects and also gave lectures. He traveled on his own to Den Haag, Paris, Marseille, Florence, Rome, Venice, and Strassbourg in 1644.

The German baroque literature was driven by two opposite currents, heavily influenced by the dramatic events of the Thirty Yewar’s War: embracement of life and the vanitas mundi. This Latin word means “vanity” and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. A master of the sonnet form, Gryphius wrote predominantly sombre poetry, embodying Christian reflections on the vanity and brevity of human life and earthly values. Finally, Gryphius settled in 1647 at Fraustadt, where he began his dramatic work. Gryphius married Rosina Deutschländer in Fraustadt 1649 and in 1650 became secretary to or legal representative of the estates (Landessyndikus) in the principality of Glogau, a position he held until his death. Duke William IV of Sachsen-Weimar inducted him into the Fruitbearing Society in 1662, where he was referred to as “der Unsterbliche” (the immortal). He declined offers of chairs in Frankfurt/Oder, Heidelberg, and Uppsala. Andreas Gryphius passed away on July 16, 1664.

One of my favourite poems of Gryphius is ‘Es ist alles eitel’ (The Vanity of This World).

The Vanity of This World

Look anywhere you will, the Earth is empty show.
What someone builds today, another soon tears down;
Where now a city stands will be a grassy mound,
A place that only shepherds grazing their flocks will know.

What blooms so fair at daybreak, by noon is trampled low;
What bravely struts and strives soon turns to ash and bone;
No substance lasts forever, no brass, no polished stone.
One moment fortune smiles, the next brings bitter woe.

Tales of our mighty deeds like dreams must fade away.
How then should Man—Time’s plaything—ever hope to stay?
Oh think, what are those objects we prize beyond compare,

Mere shadows, dust, and wind—all worthless, false and vain;
Field flowers glimpsed in passing and never seen again!
For that which is immortal, no man seems to care.

At yovisto, you can listen to a German recitation of one of Gryphius’ vanitas mundi poems: ‘Die Trähnen des Vaterlands / Anno 1636′.

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