400 years ago, the poet Andreas Gryphius was born. His world view was shaped by the catastrophe of the Thirty Years' War. But rereading reveals his modernity.
V our poems by Andreas Gryphius have made it into the school canon, 400 years after his birth: "Es ist alles eitel," "Tranen in schwerer Krankheit," "Menschliches Elende," "Tranen des Vaterlands" ("It is all vain").
Gryphius editor Uwe Kolbe seems dissatisfied with it. "How can a scant handful of poems make such a tremendous impression on posterity, while most of the rest has since been of interest almost only to specialists?" he asks in his recently published Gryphius reader. And gives his answer: "In the poems in question, God, God's Son, the evangelists and other biblical figures are not even mentioned. It seems as if a deliberate selection has taken place, as if the taste of the centuries that have passed since then has ensured that prayer has been put on the back burner."
However, these four poems have a special effect because they are by far his best. And, turned further, one would have to ask: whether there is not perhaps a connection between their quality and God's absence?
Is God great?
Great literature always emerges where there is a wound to heal. Where man and the world fall apart and man tries to throw a lifeline. God, on the other hand … Those who have religion can do without art and, if necessary, without the world. Millions of monks, fakirs and suicide bombers cannot be wrong. Gryphius, too, would probably have confirmed at any time that God was great. It was a prerequisite of all world knowledge, just as HTML is the prerequisite of the Internet, even though HTML would probably be dispensed with in an Internet relaunch.
Not even the terrible Thirty Years' (religious) War had, superficially, changed anything in the fear of God. The conclusion would have been obvious that whoever had created such a world of horror was not worthy of reverence. To recognize God, however, as a superfluous hypothesis, mankind was not yet far enough for that. So Gryphius and his contemporaries were left with only one conclusion: this terrible world could not be what the Lord intended for us. All striving in it would have to be void. True life is hidden elsewhere, in the hereafter.
And yet the untheological, the self-thinking had long since begun, the presuppositionless, unprejudiced investigation of the world – in essence an apostasy from God: as is well known, the despot of Genesis did not like people with a thirst for knowledge. It would still take centuries until the triumph of inquisitiveness has pushed back the creator into a rear hypothetical sulking corner of the universe. Transitionally, each generation of thinkers had to bend all knowledge in such a way that their results would be in harmony with God and that it would be to his honor if one explored his wonders.
Clockwork of the Universe
Andreas Gryphius will also have had these inner negotiations. He was an alert, interested mind, his travels had taken him through Europe, he had studied in Leiden, not least heard Descartes. He had no reason to doubt in a coherently organized structure of the world, in its divine beauty. And yet, in his main works, the coming of a greater, freer time was announced.
In his four above-mentioned poems, man is left to himself, to introspection, to earthly suffering. God comes out of no box and gives comfort. The consolation, if any, is the poem itself. Is the human spirit, which can transform this world, however bad it is, into beauty.
There are enough mediocre pieces by Gryphius: the more pious, the bleaker. He believed in the theological guidelines of his time, just as we believe in the growth commandment, the banking system or gluten allergy. Sometimes, however, Gryphius peeks out of his time, just as the wanderer on the edge of the world in the famous woodcut sticks his head through the stars to look into the clockwork of the universe.
"The Raging Trombone"
"Tears of the fatherland", how far is this touching lament from the praise of the Lord, how low has the speaker fallen from all heavens and how hard has he set down on the real earth! And how does he draw beauty from the most human thing, language! "We are now more than more devastated! / The insolent Volcker crowd / the raging trombone / the sword fat with blood / the thundering Carthaun. / Has all sweat / vnd diligence / vnd stock auff gezehret."
Transitoriness is everything – this is also a time-bound preconception of the Baroque, which is gladly chewed over on the basis of Gryphius. But whether he really always felt this fashionable snark? In 1637 a great fire destroys the Silesian Freystadt, in front of whose gates the young Gryphius lives. Within a short time he writes "Fewrige Freystadt": a stirring reportage about the annihilation. The work is designed not least as an appeal to the emperor to help with the reconstruction – where is the devoted fatalism of Vanitas??
After Gryphius neatly evokes transience, he completely changes direction: Freystadt becomes for him the image of the heavenly Jerusalem, which now, after the destruction, beckons a more golden future. Gryphius unwillingly marks here that the vanitas idea is only a question of timing: If one starts at the moment of catastrophe instead of in the most beautiful flourishing, the earth's drifting offers cause for optimism: If everything is just destroyed, new things will grow here. It is precisely nature's cycle of coming and passing that dominates the world – a completely immoral impulse -, it is not the raised forefinger of a god.
Darkening of the world
In the "Fewrigen Freystadt" God appears from time to time as a rhetorical figure. In this he differs in nothing from the capricious nature. Sometimes he is described as merciful, because he saved a certain house, but most of the time his wrath is mentioned, which, for example, also destroys the church in the village. Gryphius knows very well from whom in this world help could really be hoped for: It is the grandees of the city and the country, his own relatives and patrons, who march prominently through the text by name and with full titulature – "person-placement," which probably enables Gryphius to publish this. That enables him to be a modern, a curious man.
With great precision and the pull of a good detective story, he describes the course of the few hours that turn Freystadt into a smoking wasteland, reconstructing from a wealth of testimony how the fire, starting from the house of the baker's family Neidlinger, gradually eats its way in, how the guards sleep instead of ringing the storm bell, how the inadequate fire walls collapse, the fleeing people pile up at the town gate, looters roam the streets.
Dramatically he describes both human deaths claimed by the fire, and he adds to it the death of a family of swallows: This is the view of the sentient and enlightened man, to whom the suffering of all creatures is close and who, however, never, even in the worst inferno, ceases to want to know. To feel at home in this world with heart and brain. This is Andreas Gryphius, who looks far out of the theological obscurity of the world, the Gryphius who greets us today.
"No longer in me"
This is the Gryphius who speaks to us like one living: "Tears of the Fatherland" – how colorful, how vital it is! Gryphius, who almost drowned as a boy, who was expelled from his homeland for reasons of faith, who saw another homeland sink into ashes – he loved the beauty of the world all the more. Thinking about their transience only made them sweeter to him.
Perhaps his most modern poem, "Tears in Serious Illness," is consistently about the suffering self; it refers with great devotion to the agonies of being ill, contemplates the decaying face in the mirror, shines with the imperishable line "I am no longer found by myself in myself" – and yet is so full of pulse, full of joie de vivre, that today one can easily read it as a comic poem, so palpably does Papageno's suicidal-curious self-pity from "The Magic Flute" flutter here, so palpable is the kinship to the playful-dissociative expressionism of a Jakob van Hoddis.
Gryphius in his brightest moments is no longer the vicarious agent of religious propaganda with all its dumb unambiguity. He becomes, in his great poems, a being who lustfully contradicts himself. To the human being. In painful, delicious freedom.