Short biography of Ferdinand Freiligrath

(Hermann) Ferdinand Freiligrath, (1810-1876), a German poet who has been dubbed "Der Trompeter der Revolution," was born at Detmold on the 17th of June 1810. He was educated at the gymnasium of his native town, and in his sixteenth year was sent to apprentice with his step-uncle, Moritz Schwollmann, in Soest, with a view to preparing him for a commercial career. Here he also had time and opportunity to acquire a taste for French and English literature. His father, a professor, died in 1829. He spent the years from 1831 to 1836 in a bank at Amsterdam, and 1837 to 1839 in a business house at Barmen (near Düsseldorf).

In 1838 his Gedichte (Poems) appeared and met with such extraordinary success that he gave up the idea of a commercial life and resolved to devote himself entirely to literature. His repudiation of the political poetry of 1841 and its revolutionary ideals attracted the attention of the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV, who on the recommendation of Alexander von Humboldt, granted him in 1842 a pension of 300 talers a year.

In 1841 he married a professor’s daughter, Ida Melos, and they had five children. To be near his friend Emanuel Geibel, he settled at St Goar. Before long, however, Freiligrath was himself carried away by the rising tide of liberalism. In the 1844 poem Ein Glaubensbekenntnis (A Statement of Beliefs) he openly avowed his sympathy with the political movement led by his old adversary, Georg Herwegh; the day, he declared, of his own poetic trifling with Romantic themes was over; Romanticism itself was dead. He laid down his pension, and, to avoid the inevitable political persecution, took refuge in Belgium and then in 1845 Switzerland. In Belgium he became acquainted with, among others, Karl Marx. As a sequel to the Glaubensbekenntnis he published in 1846 Ça ira! (That will go! - a popular anthem during the French Revolution), which strained his relations with the German authorities still further. He fled to London, where he resumed the commercial life he had broken off seven years before, this time at the firm of Friedrich Huth & Co.

When the Revolution of 1848 broke out, it seemed to Freiligrath, as to all the liberal thinkers of the time, the dawn of an era of political freedom; and, as may be seen from the poems in his collection of Neuere Politische und soziale Gedichte (1849-1851), he welcomed it with unbounded enthusiasm. He returned to Germany and settled in Düsseldorf where he became an honorary member of the Cologne Workers Association; but it was not long before he had again called down upon himself the ill-will of the ruling powers by his 1848 poem, Die Toten an die Lebenden (The Dead to the Living). He was arrested on a charge of lese-majest, but the prosecution ended in his acquittal. He continued to live in Düsseldorf and, for a while, in Cologne where with Karl Marx he edited the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In 1849 he joined the federation of the communists for four years.

In May of 1849 the Neue Rheinische Zeitung was banned. Freiligrath fled to Holland but was banished from there. In 1850 he moved back to Düsseldorf. New difficulties arose; his association with the democratic movement rendered him an object of constant suspicion; the publication in 1851 of the Neuere Politische und soziale Gedichte led to a warrant for his arrest and he returned to London. From 1856 to 1865 he was London manager of the General Bank of Switzerland. In 1858 Freiligrath became an English citizen. In 1859 he took part in a tribute to Johann Gottfried Kinkel thereby laying the foundation-stone for his alienation from Marx, with whom he came to an open break after one year (Marx had, in 1852, singled Kinkel out for particular scorn in his satiric "Heroes of the Exile").

In 1867 he lost his position in the "Bank of Switzerland", since it had to be closed. A public subscription of 60,000 talers raised in Germany enabled him to return in June 1868. He settled first in Stuttgart then in 1875 the neighboring town of Cannstatt. In 1873 his son Otto died. Ferdinand Freiligrath died of heart failure on 18 March 1876 in Canstatt.

As a poet, Freiligrath was the most gifted member of the German revolutionary group. Coming at the very close of the Romantic age, his own purely lyric poetry echoes for the most part the familiar thoughts and imagery of his Romantic predecessors; but at an early age he had been attracted by the work of French contemporary poets, and he reinvigorated the German lyric by grafting upon it the orientalism of Victor Hugo. In this reconciliation of French and German romanticism lay Freiligrath’s significance for the development of the lyric in Germany. His remarkable power of assimilating foreign literatures is also to be seen in his translations of English and Scottish ballads, of the poetry of Burns, Mrs Hemans, Longfellow and Tennyson (Englische Gedichte aus neuerer Zeit, 1846; The Rose, Thistle and Shamrock, 1853, 6th ed. 1887); he also translated Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Winters Tale and Venus and Adonis, as well as Longfellow's Hiawatha (1857).

Freiligrath is most original in his revolutionary poetry. His poems of this class suffer, it is true, under the disadvantage of all political poetry (purely temporary interest and the unavoidable admixture of much that has no claim to be called poetry at all), but the agitator Freiligrath, when he is at his best, displays a vigour and strength, a power of direct and cogent poetic expression, not to be found in any other political singer of the age. Freiligrath’s Gedichte have passed through some fifty editions, and his Gesammelte Dichtungen, first published in 1870, have reached a sixth edition (1898). Nachgelassenes (including a translation of Byron's Mazeppa) was published in 1883. A selection of Freiligraths best-known poems in English translation was edited by his daughter, Mrs Freiligrath-Kroeker, in 1869; also Songs of a Revolutionary Epoch were translated by J. L. Joynes in 1888. Cp. E.

Further reading:

Schmidt-Weissenfels, F. Freiligrath, Eine Biographie (1876); W. Buchrrer, F. Freiligrath, Ein Dichterleben in Briefen (2 vols., 1881); G.

Freiligrath, Erinnerungen an F. Freiligrath (1889); P. Besson, Frellfgralh (Paris, 1899); K. Richter, Freiligrath als Ubersetzer (1899). (J. G. R.)

[This article has been adapted from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, augmented from other sources.]

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