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Poetry and the Drama: Three Plays by Frederic Hebbel

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
If a stringent quality be noticeable in Hebbel, it can well be traced to his early environment. The greater ills which strike the manhood into human nature are drastic godsends; but the long draw of poverty, the depressing atmosphere of dour faces, the helpless baffle of young and ignorant art “made tongue-tied with authority”—it is these things that in a sensitive nature are prone to twist strength into rancour. Luckily this was not the effect on Hebbel, but in the caustic, if honest, introspection, the rigid or hesitant self-examinings, the loathing of poverty and uncongenial work that was almost a panic, in these things whose excess tends to stunt the energy, the bane of Hebbel’s early years is seen. Nothing more can be said for his great stature than that through all his miseries he won his way to a mature confidence and mellow resignation. He was born in 1813, a Dittmarscher, the son of a mason. There is in that sea-coast blood something of an ancient savagery, a kinship with grey skies and seas, yet a power under strong control. To this he owed his sharp directness of speech, and to his peasanthood a raw facing of unvarnished things that was to stand him in good stead in his future war on faddists and dilettanti. Yet these resultant goods helped little in his early strife. A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles in education, destined by his father for masonry, at fourteen a petty clerk “set to feed with grooms,” derided by his master for crude effusions in the local weekly, and no doubt soundly trounced for a malcontent cub, suffering this for twenty-two years, the sensitive young thinker might well have wondered which was out of joint, himself or the time. It was not till a Hamburg authoress, Amelia Schoppe, struck by his writing, invited him to Hamburg, that his restricted nature began to expand—yet under difficulties. His patroness advised him to make a crutch of law and a walking-stick of poetry, to which end she made him the pensioner of a well-intentioned clique. It was a gigantic task for an ill-equipped boy to make up the yawning gaps in systematic education: it was worse to bury himself in constitutional niceties; and, most unkindest cut, to eat the bread of dependence. The Northern stubbornness bristled at this last; and it was intolerable to be admitted as a favoured guest into a banal society where literature was pasteurised. There he ruffled some honest brows by boldly affirming that Kleist was superior to Körner. Even thus young he was bound to speak his mind, and it is precisely those minds that take boldness as an unavoidable pang which suffer under introspection. Truth to oneself is good in the sanctum, but awkward in the parlour, expulsion from which sets one, in his drifting loneliness, grasping at the first straw. Thus it was that Hebbel sought a doubtful balm in the love of Elise Lensing.