LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2010 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 56, No.1 - Spring 2010
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Herder and Lithuanian Folksongs
The German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) is remembered as an important international scholar who turned the world’s attention to Lithuanian folksongs. From the point of view of literary analysis, he imagined that these songs were beautiful because their singers remained close to nature, unspoiled by modern civilization. This article speculates that there was another, personal angle to Herder’s studies, noting themes that are shared in the songs and in love letters exchanged between Herder and his fiancée, Karoline Flachsland.
Johann Gottfried von Herder’s (1744-1803) collections of songs from many nations are well known for their role in European national movements. He inspired a transnational search for oral poetry and a revival of folksongs as expressions of national spirit and symbols of national pride. In Lithuania, he is remembered for turning the world’s attention to the beauty of the dainos.1 There were three stages in Herder’s folksong project: First, the unpublished Alte Volkslieder of 1773; second, the two volumes of Volkslieder that Herder published anonymously in 1778-1779; and finally, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern, the expanded version compiled and edited by Karoline von Herder and Johannes Müller after Herder’s death. This essay revisits the role of Lithuanian folksongs in Herder’s thought, and for this reason I will discuss the songs that Herder himself edited and published in Volkslieder.2
Of the 162 songs in Volkslieder, the first six are particularly interesting: first is a German folksong collected from oral tradition by Herder’s close acquaintance, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). The source of this song clearly relates it to Herder’s scholarly arguments that songs from oral tradition could revive German poetry. Second is an English ballad, also not a surprise, since Herder wrote several essays on the similarity of German and English poetic traditions. But the remaining three songs are all Lithuanian. Why Lithuanian? And why, for God’s sake, three songs from the same nation? Finally, there is another song collected by Goethe, closing off a frame for this cluster of six songs. Later sections of Herder’s Volkslieder contain four more Lithuanian folksongs, but they will not be discussed here. There must have been something special about these three songs which caused Herder to foreground them as he did:
I.I.3 The Sick Bride. Lithuanian
the birch forest,
Through the pine forest,
My stallion, my brown one carried me,
To the father-in-law’s courtyard.
day! Pretty evening!
Mrs. In-law, dear one,
What is my dear little girl doing?
What is my young little girl doing?
little girl is sick,
Oh! Sick in the heart,
There in the threshing-house,
In her little green bed.
crossed the yard,
And I wept sincerely,
And by the door
I wiped the tears.
pressed her little hand,
Put the ring on:
Won’t it get better, little girl?
Won’t it get better, young little girl?3
will not get better,
I am no longer your bride!
You will not mourn for me,
You will look for another.
You will carry me;
Through it the guests ride.
Do you like that little girl?
Do you like that young little girl?3
I.I.4. Departure Song of a
in the garden bloomed marjoram,
Here in the garden bloomed thyme,
And wherever our little sister leaned down,
There, the best blossoms bloomed.
are you leaning back, my girl?
Why are you leaning, my young girl?
Isn’t your young life still youthful?
And your young little heart
Still light and fresh?
dear life is truly still youthful,
And my young heart is still fresh and light,
But I feel the pain of a young girl,
Today my youth is ending.
the green farmstead goes the maiden,
Her bridal wreath in her white little hand,
Oh, my little wreath, oh, my black wreath,
You and I will go far from here!
ride to the fisher,
I’ll visit the fisher,
I’d gladly be his son-in-law!
the shore of the port
I would reel the nets,
I would wash my hands clean.
It fell down
Off my middle finger,
My groom’s ring fell to the ground.
The wind, the north wind,
For forty long days!
wind will carry it,
The ring, from the ground
To your beloved girl’s meadow.
comes the girl,
There, over the field towards here,
To the rue-garden.
yourself, my beloved man,
Lay down the scythe
Here in the swath,
On this swath!
Rest yourself, my beloved man!
you, my girl,
Thank you for coming.
And for your compassion,
For your sweet speech!—
day, good evening,
O good mother!
May I have lodging?
I do not wish
To deny you,
But I will never be good to you.
The ordering of songs in Volkslieder as a whole is puzzling. Herder himself was explicit in pointing out that one should read each song “in its place and order,”4 but subsequent readers, most notably Bernhard Suphan and Heinrich Meyer, editors of Herder’s collected works, could not identify a principle of ordering – ethnographic, aesthetic, or otherwise.5 Clearly, there is a structure to Volkslieder: Two volumes, each containing three “books,” with 24 songs per book in Volume I, and 30 songs per book in Volume II. The German scholar Ulrich Gaier, in his annotations to the new edition of Volkslieder, uncovers a semantic framework related to Herder’s earlier writings on poetry, finding that the two volumes and six “books” are organized according to fundamental eighteenth-century anthropological problems: Volume I shows man in his relationships; its first “book” relates to the problem of activity or passivity in personal and social bonds, and a person is shown in unmediated relationships. Volume II shows how man himself construes and takes responsibility for these relationships.6 Gaier’s detailed analysis of the opening pages of Book One will be discussed below. To his interpretation I will add another idea, that the three Lithuanian songs had a special personal meaning for Herder.
In this essay, I will consider three reasons why Herder may have chosen to foreground these Lithuanian songs when he published Volkslieder in 1778: One explanation might be that he was inspired by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s (1729-1781) essay about Lithuanian songs; another explanation argues that, for Herder, Lithuanian songs could have been, like traditional English songs, somehow closely related to German heritage. A third explanation, which I think is most believable, is that these three Lithuanian songs affected Herder personally, recalling feelings of love between him and his fiancée Karoline Flachsland. I’m on shaky ground when I say this. While the first two explanations might be supported by passages in contemporary primary sources, there is no clear textual proof, only tantalizing intertextual connections that point to Herder’s personal feelings about these three Lithuanian songs.
Lessing’s Uncivilized Poetry
Sometime in the mid-1760s, Herder first read a reference to an essay by Lessing;7 he mentioned it several times in his writings, and finally quoted a passage in the introduction to Volkslieder:
You should learn... that under every part of the Heavens, poets are born, and that lively sensations are not the sole privilege of civilized nations. Not long ago, I was leafing through the pages of Ruhig’s Lithuanian Dictionary, and at the end of the preface about this language I came upon a rarity that amused me to no end. A few Lithuanian dainos, or little songs, namely in the manner as they are sung by the common girls. What naive wit! What lovely simplicity!8
The passage told Herder that effective poetry might be found in an unexpected place, in oral tradition. Lessing’s revelation came from two translated Lithuanian songs that he found in a grammar book; there can be no doubt that he initially inspired Herder to place both songs in the unpublished 1773 manuscript under the chapter heading “Nordic Songs,” leading off a series of one Latvian, one Estonian, two Sámi, one Inuit and five Icelandic texts. But while Herder was revising and expanding that earlier manuscript to create Volkslieder, he discarded one of Lessing’s two Lithuanian songs; the other was buried deep in Volume II, Book Two, Number 4, still clustered, as in 1773, with Estonian, Latvian and Sámi, as well as Greek and English songs, but no longer first in sequence. Herder furthermore substantially edited the one song he took from Lessing, smoothing its meter and lexicon in German. And so, while it is clear that Lessing turned Herder’s attention to Lithuanian songs, it is also clear that Herder didn’t ascribe much importance to the particular songs that Lessing once admired. The sudden prominence of these three new Lithuanian songs, which were sent to Herder in the summer of 1775, must have a different explanation.
A Historical Context of German Heritage
It is plausible that Herder could have seen some kind of genetic relation between Lithuanian and German songs, comparable to the tie that he saw between English and German poetry. Such ideas were expressed in Herder’s day. In fact, J. Gottlieb Kreutzfeld (1745-1784), the professor at Königsberg University who sent Herder these Lithuanian songs in German translation, included a note that “the last traces of the Prussian language disappeared already a century ago. One may hope to recognize in Lithuanian the sister of the extinct language... So the Lithuanian dainos are our land’s sole existing fragments of national heritage;”9 Herder commented that his interest in these childish songs could be covered by a “fig leaf” of fatherland love.10 A generation later, in 1809 another professor at Königsberg, Ludwig Rhesa (1776-1840), published German translations of Lithuanian folksongs in a book subtitled “Prussian Folksongs,” framing them as the heritage of a multicultural Prussia and arguing that his Lithuanian homeland in the Curonian dunes would fight for liberty hand in hand with Prussia.11
But Herder was not a Prussian patriot;12 nor does he refer anywhere to genetic ties between Lithuanian culture and German heritage. On the contrary, as he was preparing Volkslieder, he wrote to a friend that he would deliberately include non- German songs to ward off criticism of the colloquialisms that appear in German folksongs.13 And later, in his philosophy of the history of mankind, Herder devoted a separate chapter to the “German nations,” about whom he wrote that they subjugated and destroyed the Prussians, a nation related to Lithuanians and Latvians.14 And so, it is not likely that some kind of belief in a common German-English-Lithuanian heritage could have caused Herder to place three Lithuanian folksongs at the beginning of Volkslieder.
Love, a Fundamental Human Experience
A third explanation reads the simple texts of these three Lithuanian songs, as Herder would read such poetry,15 and relates them to the love that Herder experienced after he met Karoline Flachsland in 1770. That love, I think, added new meanings that Herder attached to Lithuanian folksongs sometime between 1773 and 1777. In 1771, Herder followed Lessing when he mentioned Lithuanian songs in his essay about Ossian and the songs of ancient nations: “you have read about the Latvian [i.e. Lithuanian] songs that Lessing took from Ruhig, and you know how much sensitive language rhythm is contained in them,”16 Lessing’s ideas appear again in Herder’s introduction to the unpublished 1773 song collection: ”The Lithuanian maiden who parts with all of her house, and portrays from her eye and heart the entire world of a bride, is a greater poetess than the most comical fabricator of a farewell speech...”17 These references echo Lessing’s surprise and joy upon discovering that uncivilized nations also have poets with “naive wit” and “lovely simplicity.” The former sentence also contains ideas regarding the rhythm of Latvian songs that came from Herder’s mentor Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788). But by 1777, Herder saw folksongs in the context of universal humanity and read Lithuanian dainos as a fundamental expression of human love. He wrote, “The Greeks, too, were once wild... If the wife, Sappho, and a Lithuanian girl sing of love in the same way, truly the rules of their song must be true, they are the nature of love and reach to the ends of the world.” 18
I think that when Herder actually fell in love, he began to experience firsthand the power of folk poetry in general and then Lithuanian folk poetry in particular. Some of Herder’s thoughts and feelings may be traced in his correspondence with his wife-to-be. These letters reveal the “prehistory” of Volkslieder and reflect development in Herder’s views of folksongs. Soon after they met, Herder sent to Karoline a love poem, which he said had made a powerful impression on his senses, and asked for her feelings about it. This is the moment when Herder’s folksong project began to take concrete shape: “I’ve had the foolish fancy to make a small collection of the few German pieces that seem to me to be the true expression of sensibility and the entire soul; wouldn’t that be a pretty songbook?” He began copying songs, German and others, and, over the next few years after June 1771, Karoline compiled nearly two hundred of them in a notebook she called the “Silver Book,” after the color of its cover. In the course of their correspondence, Herder added new ideas: He believed that, like a woman in Klopstock’s poem, Karoline was sensitive (empfindliche) and could see what was eternal in poetry. Then he sent her a Sámi song as proof that oral poetry was more powerful than written. And several years later, 46 songs from Karoline’s Silver Book comprised a quarter of Herder’s manuscript for Volkslieder. 19
The Herders’ correspondence documents that work on Alte Volkslieder as well as Volkslieder was a joint enterprise. After Herder’s death, Karoline remembered those early years of their marriage:
He wanted to publish the Volkslieder at that time; it was recalled from the publisher for reasons I don’t recall. Those were joyful days and hours that he spent on the project, and I helped him transcribe portions; at that time, he lived in the full, beautiful garden of poetry of all nations, and I was there with him.20
Karoline was not a mere secretary who copied and organized Herder’s manuscripts. She was an active participant in the process of selection and interpretation.21 As the two of them worked on the manuscript, they shared hundreds of poems and songs. Perhaps when they read the first poem that Herder translated from English, “Fair Rosemunde,” they also remembered that he sent her this poem in November of 1770; several months later, her Silver Book was born.22 Perhaps this is the moment when they placed “Rosemunde” second out of the 162 songs in Volkslieder. And perhaps, when some new Lithuanian songs arrived in 1775, the texts reminded the Herders of other moments during their courtship. This might have been the moment when they decided to give these songs a special place in Volkslieder.
In 1770, for example, Herder wrote to Karoline that he imagined her in her “little bed,” “Bettchen,” a word that appears in the first Lithuanian song; she responded by recounting her fantasies as she lay in bed. In a letter written in 1771, Karoline wrote that, as she lay sick for ten days, she imagined him sitting by the bed in her little room. She truly was ill at that time, but she was lovesick too.23 In a word, she resembled the “Sick Bride” in this Lithuanian song. There is also an intertextual connection to another poetic work that Herder was translating in the 1770s, Solomon’s Song of Songs, in which a woman is “Sick for love.” 24 Such parallels in the Old Testament as well as in real life would bolster the song’s perceived relation to a universal, fundamental human state. But there is also a personal connection in the Lithuanian song, where a man comes to his sick bride’s bed, weeping; in the above-mentioned letter, Herder wrote, “Oh, with these tears I am with you and wish to embrace you.”25 Karoline wrote to Herder more than once that his letters caused her to break into tears, and urged him to, “Weep with me!”26
The second Lithuanian song begins with a bride in her garden. This was another image for which parallels existed in Herder’s translation of the Song of Songs, where a bride recalls her unmarried life in a garden, close to nature,27 similar, perhaps, to Karoline’s walks in the forest and fields with her sister, as described in her letters.28 The concluding stanza, a bride’s lament upon departure from her family, is a situation that Karoline knew well. Her parents died when she was a child, and she and two brothers went to live with their married sister, with whom she was very close. Many years later, when Karoline wrote her memoir after Herder’s death, she still recalled the pain of parting from her brothers and sister when she was married and moved to a different city: “Parting with my good siblings was painful for me.”29
The third Lithuanian song is about a man who loses his engagement ring. His bride encourages him to come back, and he thanks her. There is, again, some similarity to Herder, who avoided the issue of marriage in their correspondence until Karoline forced him into making a decision.30
And so, that’s the story. I’m not sure what else can be said on this topic. There are intertextual connections between the love of Herder’s life and these three Lithuanian songs. Based on these connections, and on the songs’ prominent position in Volkslieder, I believe that these texts had an effect on Herder, who himself was fascinated with poetry’s effect (Wirkung) on humans.31
If these three Lithuanian songs are read in light of their possible personal meaning for Johann Gottfried and Karoline, then new meanings also emerge for the German and English songs which frame them. Herder’s personal connection is most easily documented for Song Two, the English ballad, “Fair Rosemunde,” which tells about a king, his lover Rosemunde, and his wife, the queen. The king must ride to a faraway war, his lover implores him to take her along because she wants to be close to him, but he refuses; then the jealous queen murders her. This ballad was Herder’s first attempt at translating from English to German, and it was the first of his own translations that he sent to Karoline. It is significant for these reasons, but it is also memorable – and perhaps it was memorable to Herder in the 1770s — because he sent it to Karoline at a time when they lived in separate towns, and they might have found in this song an expression of their longing for each other across great distances. Other connections are on less solid ground: The song is about the love of a commoner and her king, resonating with the song of the woman who longs for her king in Solomon’s Song of Songs. 32 Perhaps there is also some connection to Karoline’s alter ego in a women’s literary club where she identified herself with Psyche, a human who loved the god Cupid in Greek myth;33 there is some similarity to the situation of Karoline, who loved the internationally famous scholar, Herder, and wrote to him that she wished to follow him wherever he might go; like the king in this ballad, he refused.34 In Karoline’s town there was a countess, perhaps a jealous parallel to the queen in the ballad? These speculations, admittedly, stretch the very limits of what can be known.
The two German songs might likewise have had special connotations. Song 1, “The Song about the Young Count,” describes a man who rides a long distance to prevent his beloved from entering a convent; he finds her in nun’s garb, and his heart breaks in two. In Song 6, “The Song about a Jealous Young Man,” the man kills his betrothed with a dagger and throws her ring into a river, because she was kind to another man. A possible connection to Karoline appears in their letters of May 1771, where she joked that her apparel made her look like a nun, and he wrote back, “Sweet, holy nun, remember me when you take your veil,” and composed a long, poetic lover’s lament about his beloved becoming a nun.35 Notable is the fact that this exchange took place several months before Goethe sent Herder the song about the nun.36 As mentioned above, both German songs were sent to Herder by Goethe, who, besides collecting folksongs, also spent much time with Karoline while Herder was away. Goethe dedicated a poem to Karoline (“To Psyche”), and even kissed her goodbye once. She remained faithful to Herder, of course, and reported all of the details of Goethe’s visits in letters to her fiancé. But Herder’s jealousy was evident in his biting remarks and in his scathing parody of his rival’s poem.37 The sixth song ends with advice for all young women, perhaps also Karoline? “So it goes, when one maiden has two favorite boys; it rarely comes to good.”
In his commentary to Volume I, Book One of Volkslieder, Ulrich Gaier separates these first six songs into three thematic groups: In his analysis, Songs 1-3 (German, English, and Lithuanian) reflect “failed attempts to achieve unrestricted love”; Songs 4 and 5 (both Lithuanian) are about “grief and failure in the newly entered bonds”; and Song 6 is together with the next five songs, under the theme “Unfaithfulness and external pressure destroy love.”38 My alternate conceptual grouping highlights the cluster of Songs 1-6.39 My interpretation does not contradict Gaier’s; it adds another layer of meaning, perhaps revealing how Herder himself experienced these songs when he read them.40
Conclusion: Proof by empathy
Herder’s comments on interpretations of Solomon’s Song are appropriate here: “In recent times, when ingenuity is on the rise, it has become a fashion of sorts for every lucky interpreter to have their own lucky hypothesis.”41 Similar critique can be aimed at my interpretation of Herder’s Volkslieder. In summary, I cannot present explicit textual proof for my argument that these three Lithuanian songs had a particular, personal effect on Karoline or Johann Gottfried Herder. The songs do resonate with some of the Herders’ letters written during their long-distance courtship. Folksongs could have done what Herder said folk poetry does: They could have had a powerful effect on Herder, if he recalled his courtship while reading the texts. But even if, on the contrary, there is no historical relation between Herder’s biography and the song contents, then it is still true that the songs are related to the fundamental human experience of falling in love, which is similar in the Lithuanian songs, in the Old Testament, and in the Herders’ correspondence. This meaning is certainly one that can be extracted from the texts and their biographical context. There is, in Herder’s words, “room for empathetic understandings” and a subjective interpretation.42 Thus, to my argument that Lithuanian folksongs meant something special to Johann Gottfried and Karoline Herder, I’ll add one more supporting idea. If you are in love, and you happen to read or hear Lithuanian dainos, I think you’ll also feel their incredible effect. You’ll understand their content by means of empathy, as Herder intended us to understand folksongs. It happened to me, and that’s why I think it happened to Herder! And if you don’t yet know the Lithuanian language, then you should enroll in the Baltic Studies Summer Institute this summer and study in the Intensive Lithuanian language course.43
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———— . Sämtliche Werke. Ed. Bernhard Suphan. 33 vols. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1967-1968.
———— . Werke in zehn Bänden. Bibliothek Deutscher Klassiker Ed. Martin Bollacher et al. 10 vols. Frankfurt am Main Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1985-2000.
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Schauer, Hans, ed. Herders Briefwechsel mit Caroline Flachsland. 2 vols. Weimar: Goethe-Gesellschaft, 1926-1928. 67
Schütte-Bubenik, Andrea. Empfindsamkeit auf Abwegen : Die Korrespondenzen der Karoline Herder. Berlin: WVB, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2001.
Šešplaukis, Alfonsas. J.G. Herderis ir baltų tautos: Mokslinė studija. Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidykla, 1995.
Suphan, Bernhard. “Herders Volkslieder und Johann von Müllers
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