completely neutralised by the more and more sensibly felt disadvantages of our situation on an air-encompassed globe, was only a question of time. The point was a fixed one: it could be reached later only by a more sluggish advance. Both the difficulty and its remedy were foreseen 167 years ago by the greatest of astronomers and opticians.

[ocr errors]

'If the theory of making telescopes,' Sir Isaac Newton wrote in 1717,* could at length be fully brought into practice, yet there would 'be certain bounds beyond which telescopes could not perform. For 'the air through which we look upon the stars is in a perpetual tremor, 'as may be seen by the tremulous motion of shadows cast from high 'towers, and by the twinkling of the fixed stars. The only remedy ' is a most serene and quiet air, such as may perhaps be found on the tops of the highest mountains above the grosser clouds.'

ART. III.-1. Quickborn: Folksleben in plattdeutschen Gedichten ditmarscher Mundart. Von KLAUS GROTH. Berlin: 1873.

2. Briefe über Hochdeutsch und Plattdeutsch. Von Dr. KLAUS GROTH. Kiel: 1858.

A BOOK of poems published in Germany upwards of thirty years ago, which has passed through a number of editions, both plain and illustrated, rarely escapes the notice of English readers. Yet we venture to predict that the name of 'Quickborn' and of its author will be heard for the first time by many of our readers. The reason of this anomaly is not far to seek. The Low-German dialect in which those poems are written is one with which few English readers are likely to be familiar; and so closely is the charm of the poetry connected with the homeliness of the dialect, that every translation has failed to catch it.

Away in the extreme north-west corner of the German Empire, between the estuaries of the Elbe and the Eider, lies a small tract of country called the Ditmarsch. It is inhabited by a people who have been remarkable from the earliest times for their courage and love of freedom. Up to the year 1559 they maintained their independence and defied all the surrounding powers. It was only after a struggle, which lasted for centuries, that they succumbed to the yoke of Denmark. The whole of the Ditmarsch is more or less flat,

*Optice, p. 107 (2nd ed. 1719. Author's 'Monitio' dated July 16, 1717).

but it comprises two distinct divisions which differ widely in this respect. The eastern division, known as the 'Geest,' might be called the Highlands of the Ditmarsch; although such a term can be used only relatively. Its hills are low and scantily wooded, and the greater part of it is covered with large tracts of barren heath, abounding in the socalled Daepels, or underground streams, which appear on the surface and run along for a few yards, only to disappear again as mysteriously as they issued. Far richer is the Marsch,' or western division, which lies along the seacoast. It is from the dairies of the Marsch' that a great deal of the renowned Kiel butter finds its way to our English breakfast-tables. The whole country here is perfectly flat. Not a single eminence is to be seen as far as the eye can reach, except those two mounds away on the east, which were thrown up as refuge for the people when the sea broke in on the land, and that long monotonous line on the western horizon, which marks the dyke built to prevent the recurrence of a like catastrophe. A network of ditches, wide and narrow, divides the whole country into farms, and the farms into fields. The farmhouses of the Ditmarsch are of a type quite peculiar to the place. So low are the walls, and so far do the huge thatched roofs slouch over them, that it is only after a close examination that we can convince ourselves that there any walls at all.

It was in one of those quaint cottages, in the village of Heide, just on the margin of Marsch and Geest, that Hartwig Groth, the poet's father, lived, and Klaus himself was born. A happier household than the Groths' could hardly have been found in all the Ditmarsch. Here there lived Hartwig with his wife and family of four sons and a daughter, while the group was completed by the grandfather (de Obbe), a most interesting character. Klaus was his favourite grandchild, always on his knee in the evening, or trotting along beside him in the fields and eagerly drinking in all his stories of the old heroes who had bled for the freedom of the Ditmarsch. Hartwig Groth was not rich. He had often to keep his son away from school to help with the farm work; but he was an industrious, well-to-do man, and had always succeeded in the struggle against poverty, so that his family were spared from its souring, blighting influence. A happy childhood is often the making of a happy life. It forms a healthy disposition which enables us to fight life's battles cheerily, and lays up a store of sunshine that will light us on the darker days. To this cottage home, with its inmates

and surroundings, the poet constantly reverts with pleasure; and the result of his travels in after life is only to bring him back to it more fully persuaded that no spot on earth can compare with it.

'The little field before our door,

How sweet a spot that was!
Down there at early dawn I ran
Above my knees in grass.

I played there till the evening came
Amongst the stones and sand;
Then grandfather would fetch me in,
So kindly, hand in hand.

I often wished I were grown up

The great wide world to see:

The old man shook his head and sighed,-
'Tis time enough,' said he.

Ah, so it was! This great wide world
I've wandered o'er and o'er.

Oh! would it were but half so sweet

As yon one at our door!'

In his sixteenth year Klaus left his father's house to become secretary to a neighbouring country magistrate. He had not been long in this situation when his ardent love of study inspired him with the desire of educating himself for a teacher. With this purpose, he entered the seminary in Tondern, where he passed the examinations with brilliant success, and was appointed schoolmaster in Heide, his native village. Here, under the old roof, and with all the old surroundings, began a long period of happy tranquillity. During this time, in his strolls about the neighbourhood, his visits to his uncles at Tillingstedt, and his intercourse with the neighbours at Heide, he acquired that keen insight into the Ditmarsch peasant's life which so strongly marks his writings. He has given us a peep of his life at this period :

'Often when I was working in the evening I heard my brother John outside singing with his sweet voice some of our folk-songs. He was always merry, and scarcely a day did we sit down to our midday meal-four grown-up brothers and a sister, besides the old people, round the table-but a host of droll remarks or lively stories converted our meal into a perfect feast. Never since have I heard expressed such clear, healthy opinions about people, or such a deep insight into their doings and sayings, as on those occasions.'

It is this brother John, his favourite playmate, that inspires one of the most beautiful of his poems:

'I would they'd come again, John,
Those days when we were young.
By neighbour's well, ah, then! John,
We sat whole evenings long.

The silent moon we watched o'erhead
From out the white clouds peep,
And talked of how the heavens were high,
And how the well was deep.

Just think how still that was, John,-
The world all hushed to rest-
'Tis thus no more, alas! John,
Or just in dreams at best.

And when some distant shepherd's song
Trilled o'er the moorland lone,
Oh! John, 'twas music that indeed,—
Was sweeter ever known?

Sometimes at eventide, John,
I feel my heart still swell,
As when once side by side, John,
We sat by neighbour's well.
Then eagerly I turn me round,
As though you still were by;
Ah! John, the only thing I find
Is that I stand and cry!'

Such a life, unbroken by any event of greater importance than a trip in Germany, Klaus Groth continued to live till his twenty-eighth year. But if his life was uneventful, it was far from idle. He was one of those who 'scorn delights, ' and live laborious days.' The early morning always found him at his studies, and he had recourse to an ingenious expedient for ensuring his being wakened betimes. Every night when he went to bed he fastened a string round his wrist, and hung the other end of it out at the window. The purpose of Klaus's string was quite understood by all the villagers, and the first who happened to be astir never forgot to tug it, and to keep on tugging it till the schoolmaster himself appeared at the window to thank him for his kind service and testify to its success. Poetry had a special charm for him, and, as he was gifted with a strong natural talent for languages, it was not long before he was quite familiar with the beauties of German, English, and Swedish literature. But his special predilection for poetry did not prevent him

from devoting some of his time to the sciences, especially to botany, of which he acquired an extensive knowledge.

The strain of those studious habits, coupled with the hard work of teaching, soon began to tell on his health. A complete change of life became imperative, and he resolved to abandon his scholastic career and devote himself entirely to poetry. With this purpose he withdrew himself to the little island of Femarn. There, almost within hearing of the cannons which were to decide once more the destiny of his native land, his book of poems was written, and published, in 1852, under the title of Quickborn,' which means 'Living Fountain.'

[ocr errors]

Beyond this point we need not trace the poet's life. When he left Heide he had already laid up all the store of happy observations from which the materials of his poems are drawn. It is of the days he spent in Heide that he sings in his sweetest strains, of the songs his mother lulled him to sleep with, of the weird tales his grandfather used to tell. It is the characters he met there that live and breathe in his Idylls. It is the tidy little farms of the Marsch,' or the bare heaths of the Geest,' that form the harmonious background of the whole. His heart was overflowing, and he felt he had but to look in it and write.

But there was something more in Klaus Groth's mission. Not only was he to write the songs of his native land, but to write them in his native dialect-the Low-German of the Ditmarsch. 'We write,' he tells us, 'to redeem the honour 'of the Low-German language.' The language in which an author writes bears the same intimate relation to his writings as the material of which a building is constructed does to its architectural design. A marble palace would look ridiculous if reproduced in brick; nor can the ornamentation which is easy in freestone be carried out in granite. It will, therefore, not be amiss to give some account of this Low-German dialect which supplies the raw material of Klaus Groth's poems.

We must not imagine that Low-German implies anything low or vulgar. It owes its name to the fact of its being the language spoken by the inhabitants of the low-lying, flat countries of Northern Europe, in distinction to High-German, the language spoken in the inland and more mountainous districts. Low-German is not a patois, or corruption of High-German. The two languages stand to each other in the relation of sisters, not of mother and daughter. Both have descended from a common source, and both of them

« VorigeDoorgaan »