Almost at the same time as the “classical” works of German literature (the summary of which as a literary-historical epoch is a work of the 19th century), the romantic movement that introduced modernism emerged across Europe. It is included in the “Goethe Era” in popular periodization. H. Heine ironically called it the “art period”. The late work of Goethe (including the novels »Die Wahlverwandationen«, 1809; »Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre or Die Abstagenden«, 1st version 1821, 2nd version 1829; the autobiography “From my life. Poetry and truth”, 1st – 3rd part 1811– 14, the 4th part appeared posthumously in 1833; the poems of the West-Eastern Divan, 1819, expanded in 1827; the tragedy Faust, part 1 1809, part 2 published 1832) appeared in the heyday of romantic poetry. The controversies of contemporaries – Goethe versus the Schlegel brothers, Novalis and others – are, from today’s perspective, part of the process of clarifying the concept of modern literature.
C. F. Hölderlin, H. von Kleist and Jean Paul cannot be classified in any of the great literary historical currents, although they were shaped by the contradictions of the time.
Hölderlin, misunderstood by his contemporaries – with the exception of Schiller – points with his work far into the modern age; Out of the longing for the perfect and divine, he created lyrical prose (epistolary “Hyperion or The Hermit in Greece”, 2 volumes, 1797–99; tragedy fragment “The Death of Empedocles”, 1826) of the highest linguistic beauty, in his odes, Elegies and hymns succeeded in perfectly adapting ancient metrics to the German language.
The theme of the loss of the unconscious, the complex relationship between feeling and reflective consciousness (formulated theoretically in the essay “About the Marionette Theater”, 1810) pervades Kleist’s work. His ingenious dramatic work was created as an alternative to classical drama. He had a different picture of antiquity (“Amphitryon”, 1808, after Molière; “Penthesilea”, 1808) and was planning one about Schiller far-reaching historical tragedy (the fragment “Robert Guiskard”, published in 1821). His comedy “Der zerbrochne Krug” (1811) is highly effective on the stage. Only in the fairy tale story “Das Käthchen von Heilbronn” (1810) is he close to romantic poetry. His narrative prose (including the novel “The Earthquake in Chili”, 1810) is as original as his drama in terms of theme, style and language. Kleist was hardly known in the contemporary literary world, and his fame only began with the estate edition of Tieck. The novellas and short stories are considered exemplary up to the present day.
Jean Paul limited himself exclusively to prose, narrative, novel and related forms, and justified this in his poetics (“Preschool of Aesthetics…”, 3 volumes, 1804). His “character novels” consistently select certain character constellations: the sensitive and ingenious hero, the sensitive and enthusiastic lover, the humorist, oddball and eccentric; the central theme is the dualism between mind and body, ideality and reality, fantasy and reality, elevation and humor.
This new cultural revolutionary European movement was the earliest established in Germany, before the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Its intellectual foundations were rooted in sensitivity, as well as in the political and social ideas of the liberation of the individual, such as those brought about by the French Revolution. This liberation included the autonomy of art, which was understood as the direct implementation of individual rights of freedom. Art, art theory and art criticism were seen as a unit. The strict separation of genres became obsolete and the principle of mixing styles was rediscovered. Romantic poetry should be considered “progressive universal poetry” (F. Schlegel) merge all genres, merge all arts, poeticize life and science, unite art and science. The novel seemed predestined for modern poetry because it was not taken into account in traditional poetics. A new relationship to history brought the reflection on myths, sagas, legends and fairy tales, with poetry on the forms of folk poetry, but also on non-European literatures; this included a lively translation activity (including Shakespeare and Calderón). The new theory of drama by the brothers A. W. and F. Schlegel determined the drama as an “applied novel” and the peculiarity of the “romantic drama” in the mixture of tragic and comic elements. The “romantic irony” as an expression of the “infinite mobility of the mind” was a literary principle. That included the fascination that emanated from everything fantastic, bizarre, grotesque and demonic.
The center of early romanticism was Jena, where Schiller, Fichte, Schelling and L. Tieck worked and A. W. and F. Schlegel argued polemically with the representatives and ideas of the Classical period. Together with Novalis, both developed the theory of romanticism (“Athenaeum” magazine, 1798–1800). W. H. Wackenroder’s novel “Herzensergießungen einer art-loving monastery brother” (published by Tieck in 1797) is an early testimony to the new mentality; other important poetic achievements of the older Romanticism are by Novalis “Heinrich von Ofterdingen” (published in 1802), by C. Brentano “Godwi” (2 volumes, 1801), by F. Schlegel “Lucinde” (1799) as an allegorical-symbolic implementation of his theory of romanticism and the novel “Nachtwachen”, which under the pseudonym Bonaventura, which has not yet been finally clarified, appeared in 1804.
Caroline and Dorothea Schlegel played an important role in the circle to which F. Schleiermacher was friends. At about the same time, the salons of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense and Henriette Julie Herz were spiritual centers in Berlin; A. von Chamisso also belonged to the circle of the Berlin romantics, who achieved world fame with his fairy-tale novella “Peter Schlemihl’s miraculous story” (1814).
When restorative tendencies grew stronger, people withdrew into a mythical world of history (A. von Arnim, “Die Kronenwächter”, Volume 1: 1817, Volume 2: published in 1854). The numerous letters, especially those written by women (Bettina von Arnim, Caroline Schlegel, Rahel Varnhagen von Ense), are testimony to romantic prose. – The poetry changed from the speculative-ideal, often religiously arrested poems of the early romanticism (Novalis, Brentano) to the natural mood poetry of the high and late romanticism, so Eichendorffs Poems that, simply in their language, achieve the highest harmony of content and form. Many romantic poems became the epitome of romantic thinking and feeling through setting (including by F. Schubert, R. Schumann, F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy, F. Silcher, H. Wolf).
In the late romantic period there was a change from the liberal cosmopolitanism of the early romantic period to conservative nationalism. Eichendorff fought for a Catholic renewal in all areas of life; the creative impulse of romanticism flowed into the Biedermeier style, was materialized into a poetic historicism (L. Uhland, J. Kerner, W. Hauff and others) or turned into science (“historical school”). Literature stood in the area of tension between the restoration and the constitutional movement, even where it eluded current political discussion.