[This page by Seán Williams]
Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715-1769)
Gellert was, quite literally, a monumental figure for the beginnings of modern German literature. According to Werner Jung (see reading list below), Gellert was the most widely read of all authors writing in German during the 18th century. He wrote verse, such as that in his volumes Fabeln und Erzählungen ; Fables and Tales (1746/48) and Lehrgedichte und Erzählungen ; Didactic Poems and Tales (1754), drama (two pastoral plays as well as numerous comedies, including Die zärtlichen Schwestern ; The Tender Sisters, 1747), and a novel, Das Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G*** ; Life of the Swedish Countess of G*** (1747/48). He also penned a collection of model letters and a commentary on their composition (Briefe, nebst einer praktischen Abhandlung von dem guten Geschmacke in Briefen ; Letters, together with a practical treatise on good taste in letters, 1751), as well as a selection of hymns, Geistliche Oden und Lieder ; Spiritual Odes and Songs (1757). From 1744, Gellert lectured at the University of Leipzig, and became an extraordinary professor in 1751. His lecture series on topics of rhetoric and poetics as well as morality and ethics were published over the course of his lifetime and posthumously respectively.
Gellert’s works of fiction and theory were read by a growing commerical public and by important contemporaries, many of whom the author knew personally. For he lectured alongside Johann Christoph Gottsched, was acquainted with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and taught the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, for example. Gellert’s writing was frequently interrupted by ill health, and there were many premature – and amusing – rumours about his death as a result. In the spring of 1753, he wrote to a friend: ‘Warum sagt mich doch die Welt so oft todt? Bin ich wichtig genug, daß sie etwas gewinnen sollte, wenn ich stürbe?’ (‘Why does the world so often declare me for dead? Am I important enough that it should gain something if I were to die?’). Gellert eventually died in 1769, aged just 54; and his obituaries indeed emphasised his significance for literary history. In 1774, the first free-standing public monument to a German author was erected in Gellert’s honour. His life, works and physical afterlife in German commemorative culture helped give shape to an emergent literary tradition.
The secondary literature on Gellert usually focuses on Das Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G*** as an example of both popular literature and formal invention in the mid-18th century. The novel merits attention on both counts, but in fact Gellert’s fables, letters and hymns resonated to an even greater extent with readers of the period. In 1780, Frederick the Great characterized Gellert as a writer of fables in his essay on German literature, De la littérature allemande, calling him one of the few exceptions to an otherwise apparently lamentable literary scene. Frederick’s praise of Gellert as a fabulist specifically was perhaps because the king especially liked the genre of fable, and took a liking to Gellert as a person – who had been given an audience with the monarch in 1760. But it was also because fables were what Gellert was (still) well-known for at the time. This continued popularity of fables that are ostensibly about animals, baroque gravestones or other seemingly banal themes might seem hard for us to understand when we read them ‘cold’. Yet the Fabeln und Erzählungen are often actually thematizing contemporary figures such as famous poets at court or controversial character types such as fanciers of pretentious baroque splendour or the freethinker in an age of Enlightenment, about whom we might not know much when first discovering the eighteenth century. Gellert’s model letters, on the other hand, are more immediately interesting. They are based on his actual correspondence with acquaintances, and so tell us something of Gellert’s own private life. Of all Gellert’s writings, though, his hymns have enjoyed the most longevity and are pertinent to sections of our present society. Some are still sung in German church services today; and six were set to music by Ludwig van Beethoven, for example Sechs Lieder von Gellert: Op. 48 (1803).
Further Reading in German
The best overview of Gellert’s life and works is a collection of essays in German:
Bernd Witte (ed.), Ein Lehrer der ganzen Nation: Leben und Werk Christian Fürchtegott Gellerts (Munich: Fink, 1990)
Werner Jung, ‘Gellert’, in Walther Killy (ed.), Literatur Lexikon. Autoren und Werke deutscher Sprache, 14 vols., vol. 4 (Munich: Bertelsmann, 1989), pp. 104-106
Sibylle Schönborn and Vera Viehöver (eds.), Gellert und die empfindsame Aufklärung. Vermittlungs-, Austauch- und Rezeptionsprozesse in Wissenschaft, Kunst und Kultur (Berlin: Schmidt, 2009)
General Background Reading in English
K. F. Hilliard, Freethinkers, Libertines and Schwärmer: Heterodoxy in German Literature, 1750-1800 (London: IGRS Books, 2011)