Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792)

Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz wrote the two most politically subversive dramas of the Sturm und Drang: Der Hofmeister; The Tutor (1774) and Die Soldaten; The Soldiers (1776).

Lenz was born in Sesswegen in Livonia, on the eastern shores of the Baltic sea, 150km to the east of Riga. His father was the town pastor, and later Generalsuperintendant. From 1768-1771 Lenz studied theology at Königsberg where he attended Immanuel Kant’s lectures. One of his first publications was a poem dedicated to Kant (1770). From 1771-74 he was based in Strasbourg, where he worked as a private tutor and companion to two young barons von Kleist. In Strasbourg Lenz met Goethe and Jung-Stilling and became acquainted with the ideas of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement. In the summer of 1772 Lenz met and fell in love with Friederike Brion, with whom Goethe had previously been in love (between October 1770 and August 1771). Lenz’s love for Friederike was not reciprocated, neither was his love for Goethe’s sister Cornelia Schlosser, whom he met in 1775 (Cornelia died shortly after the birth of her second daughter in 1777). In April 1776 Lenz followed Goethe to Weimar, hoping that he could find a position for him. Goethe let him teach English to Charlotte von Stein, but in December 1776 Lenz was forced to leave Weimar because of an embarrassing incident, which Goethe called an ‘Eseley’; ‘behaving like an ass’ (Goethe, Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe III.I, p. 28). Lenz went to Goethe’s brother-in-law, Johann Georg Schlosser in Emmendingen, and then stayed with Christoph Kaufmann, a disciple of Lavater, in Switzerland. Around this time Lenz began to show symptoms of mental illness. From 20 January-8 February 1778 Lenz stayed with Pastor Johann Friedrich Oberlin in Waldersbach in the Steintal. Oberlin wrote a report of Lenz’s twenty-day stay with him. This report became the principle source of Georg Büchner’s famous novella Lenz (written 1835, published 1839).

After leaving Oberlin, Lenz spent time in Jena and Basel. For a brief period of time the Duke of Weimar paid him a stipend. In June 1779 Lenz’s brother Karl brought him back home to Livonia. From there he went to Riga, Petersburg and finally to Moscow in 1781, where he worked as a translator. On the morning of 4 June 1792 he was found dead in the street.

Lenz thought that poetry should be for everyone, and in July 1775 he wrote to Sophie von La Roche: ‘my public is the whole Volk, and I cannot exclude the lower classes any more than I can people of taste and education’ [Briefe von und an J.M.R. Lenz, ed. Karl Freye and Wolfgang Stammler, 2 vols (Leipzig: Wolf, 1918; reprint: Bern: Herbert Lang, 1969), vol. 1, p. 115. Quoted in Leidner and Wurst, Unpopular Virtues, p. 6].

Unlike Goethe and Schiller who sometimes have a tendency to idealise their heroes, Lenz’s characters are weak, and his works tread an uncomfortable line between comedy and tragedy. His work was admired by Georg Büchner and by Bertolt Brecht. In 1950 Brecht staged Lenz’s play Der Hofmeister; The Tutor (1774) at the Kammerspiele des Deutschen Theaters. One of Brecht’s stated intentions in staging the play was to encourage a reappraisal of German literary history by drawing attention to Lenz and to the starkly realistic beginnings of German classicism in the 1770s, before Goethe and Schiller formed their alliance and dominated the German literary scene (see Brecht, letter to Hans Mayer, 25 March 1950, quoted in Brecht, Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe (BFA), vol. 8, p. 558).

Plays by Lenz include:

Der Hofmeister oder Vorteile der Privaterziehung; The Tutor, or The Advantages of Private Tuition (published 1774, first performed 1778)

Pandämonium Germanicum (written 1775, published 1819)

Der neue Menoza; The New Menoza (published 1776)

Die Soldaten; The Soldiers (published 1776)

Novellas by Lenz include:

Zerbin (1776)

Der Landprediger; The Country Preacher (1777)

Lenz’s most famous essay is:

Anmerkungen übers Theater; Remarks about the Theatre (1774)

Lenz’s poetry includes:

An das Herz; To the Heart

Further Reading in English

Allan Blunden, ‘Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz’, in German Men of Letters, ed. by Alex Natan and Brian Keith-Smith, vol. 6 (London: Wolff, 1972), pp. 209-240

Allan Blunden, ‘A Study of the Role of Language in Personal Relationships in the Major Works of J.M.R. Lenz’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge (1973)

Allan Blunden, ‘Lenz, Language, and Love’s Labour’s Lost’, Colloquia Germanica (1974) 252-74

Roman Graf, ‘The Homosexual, the Prostitute, and the Castrato: Closet Performances by J.M.R. Lenz’, in Outing Goethe and his Age, ed. by Alice A. Kuzniar (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 77-93

Elystan Griffiths, ‘Action, Communication and the Problem of Form: J.M.R. Lenz's Social and Political Thought’, German Life and Letters 59:1 (2006), 1-24

John Guthrie, Lenz and Büchner: Studies in Dramatic Form (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1984)

Alan C. Leidner and Helga A. Madland (eds.), Space to Act: The Theater of J.M.R. Lenz (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994)

Alan C. Leidner and Karin A. Wurst, Unpopular Virtues: The Critical Reception of J.M.R. Lenz (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1999)

Helga Stipa Madland, Image and Text: J.M.R. Lenz (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994)

John Osborne, ‘The Problem of Pride in the Works of J.M.R. Lenz’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 39 (1969), 57-84

John Osborne, ‘From Pygmalion to Dibutade: Introversion in the Prose Writings of J.M.R. Lenz’, Oxford German Studies 8 (1973), 243-46

John Osborne, J.M.R. Lenz: The Renunciation of Heroism (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975)

Roy Pascal, ‘J.M.R. Lenz. A Bicentenary Lecture’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 21 (1952)

Roy Pascal, The German Sturm und Drang (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958)

Hans-Gerd Winter, ‘J.M.R. Lenz as Adherent and Critic of Enlightenment in Zerbin; Or, Modern Philosophy and The Most Sentimental of All Novels’, in Impure Reason: Dialectic of Enlightenment in Germany, ed. by W. Daniel Wilson and Robert C. Holub (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1993), pp. 443-64

Further Reading in German

Julia Freytag, Inge Stephan, Hans-Gerd Winter (eds.), J.M.R. Lenz Handbuch (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014)

John Guthrie (ed.), Alexander Pope: Epliog zu den Satiren. Dialog I. In der ungedruckten Übertragung von Jacob Michael Reinhold Lenz (St. Ingbert: Röhrig Universitätsverlag, 2014)

J.M.R. Lenz, Werke und Briefe in drei Bänden, ed. by Sigrid Damm, 3 vols (Leipzig: Insel, 1987)

J.M.R. Lenz, Moskauer Schriften und Briefe, ed. by Heribert Tommele, 2 vols (Berlin: Weidler, 2007)

Matthias Luserke (ed.), Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz im Spiegel der Forschung (Hildesheim: Olms, 1995)

Peter Müller and Jürgen Störzer (eds.), Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz im Urteil dreier Jahrhunderte. Texte der Rezeption von Werk und Persönlichkeit. 18.-20. Jahrhundert, 3 vols (Bern: Peter Lang, 1995)

Further Reading in French and German

J.M.R. Lenz, Schriften zur Sozialreform. Das Berkauer Projekt, ed. by Elystan Griffiths and David Hill, 2 vols (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007)

Web Link


Die Soldaten in German; click on a word for the English translation