The Brother’s Grimm

The Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm [1780s–1860s] were German academics, linguists, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors who together specialized in collecting and publishing folklore during the 19th century.

They were among the best-known storytellers of folk tales, and popularized stories such as “Cinderella”,  “The Frog Prince”, “The Goose-Girl”, “Hansel and Gretel”,  “Rapunzel”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Snow White”.

They wrote during a rise of romanticism and in response to trends valuing popular culture in the early 19th century. This revived interest in fairy tales, which had declined since their late-17th century peak and the Grimms rode the crest of this revival with their  collections.

The brothers  began the collection with the purpose of creating a scholarly treatise of traditional stories and of preserving the stories as they had been handed from generation to generation—a practice that was threatened by increased industrialization. According to scholars, some of the tales probably originated in written form during the medieval period  but were modified in the 17th century and again rewritten by the Grimms.

The brothers gained a reputation for collecting tales from peasants and story tellers, although many tales came from middle-class or aristocratic acquaintances. They discovered that versions of tales differed from region to region,

…picking up bits and pieces of local culture and lore, drawing a turn of phrase from a song or another story and fleshing out characters with features taken from the audience witnessing their performance.

 

 

It was this appropriation of culture and language with the retelling of the stories that led them to the conviction that a national identity could be found in popular culture from the common folk.

The brothers’ methodology for collecting and preserving folklore became a form of nationalism and “intellectual resistance” to external occupiers, a model to be followed later by writers throughout Europe during periods of oppression.

Their collections have become national and international masterpieces, classics retold in cinema, theatre, art and literature the world over.

A few points can be gathered from this brief summary of the work and significance of the Brothers Grimm.

  1. Folklore, legends and mythical stories have always had a deeper significance than simply being children’s morality tales. Their significance goes deeply into forming a sense of national and personal identity.
  2. The rise of romanticism and the threat of industrialisation created a flourishing interest in local folk lore which endures until today in some form or other. Where spirituality flourishes so does art, narrative, language, story and myth.
  3. When told in the vernacular of a region and with the nuances and influences of the customs and culture of a region, local stories can constitute “intellectual resistance” to outside influences.

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The enduring popularity of the  Grimm’s Fairy Tales indicates there is much untapped potential in the folklore, myths and legends of every region and language and ethnicity if only we had the persistence of the Grimms to catalogue and retell it.

 

 

The Sorrows of Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was only 24 years of age when he wrote and published the autobiographical and highly emotive work, The Sorrows of Young Werther [1774]. He wrote the work in just 6 weeks and its instant success made him an international celebrity.

The novel recounts the love of sentimental young Werther who dresses in a characteristic  blue coat with a yellow vest. He loves nature and is enchanted by the peasants of a rural township in Germany where he falls in love with Charlotte [Lotte]. She is a beautiful young woman who must look after her younger siblings after her parents death.

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Werther’s love is thwarted however, for Lotte is betrothed to a much older man Albert. The Sorrows of Young Werther are recounted in a series of letters to his friend Wilhelm and the melancholy depths the young man reaches, affected Goethe’s readership profoundly.

So significant was the novel that it stimulated a flood of Werther merchandise including a perfume called “Eau-de-Werther”, a craze for yellow waist-coats, and at least one copy-cat suicide.

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Characteristic of the Sturm und Drang movement of the late 1700s, it gained popularity for being a direct reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Roughly translated as “Storm and Stress” the movement was characterised by emotional turbulence, individuality and sentimentality.

Goethe had experienced terrible pain in love with a young woman Charlotte Buff two years earlier, who was engaged to a friend Albert Kestner. The writing of this novel was therapeutic because he admitted years later that he,

shot his hero to save himself..

…a reference to his own near-suicidal obsession over Charlotte. Moreover, an acquaintance of Goethe’s named Jerusalem who was similarly infatuated with a married woman, shot himself.

Goethe combined Jerusalum’s sufferings to his own experiences, and wrote the novel, Werther.

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Goethe treated the writing of the short novel as a cathartic exercise, hoping to exorcise some of his intense feeling.

Rather than releasing him, however Goethe’s novel was to have an significant impact disproportionate to its size. It not only helped to create Romanticism, but also articulated adolescent turmoil in a manner which has continued in popular format, to this day.

There would be no Catcher in the Rye and no Rebel Without a Cause without Werther.

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Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. The work influenced the later Romantic period particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster finds the book in a leather portmanteau, along with two greats — Plutarch and Milton. Shelley equated Werther’s case to the monster, of one rejected by those he loved.

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Goethe described the powerful impact the success of the book had on him, writing that even if Werther had been a brother of his whom he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by his vengeful ghost.

Yet he also acknowledged the great personal and emotional impact that The Sorrows of Young Werther exerted on forlorn young lovers who discovered it. As he commented to his secretary in 1821,

It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.

What was he hoped, closure for him, opened a wound in Europe’s collective consciousness and effectively haunted him the rest of his days.

 

 

 

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
–//–
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–//–

The last in a series on Romantic poetry, Ode on a Grecian Urn is another of Keats’ greats which  embodies much of Romantic ideology. It culimates with Keats’ own thematic focus “Beauty is truth, truth is Beauty.

In this poem, Keats addresses a Grecian vase, a “bride of quietness” and “child of silence” since the narrative upon its stone surface is wordless. Time has had little effect on the clarity of its images, freezing them as though in an eternal depiction of beauty. A “sylvan historian” it tells a tale of Greek detities and mortals, a scene Keats can barely understand but marvels at.

 

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
–//–
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–//–

Keats dwells on the eternity of this natural scene in which youth will never age, the trees will never wither, but also the lover can never attain his love, forever pursuing. The scene embodies for the romantic poet the goodness of life before beauty fades and grief takes hold.

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
–//–
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–//–

Happiness is as though frozen in time – forever desire is held in place, for ever panting and forever young.

Keats concludes the poem, admiring the stone pot for its eternal form.  The poet himself died of tuberculosis at the young age of 25 years,  and he had already seen many loved ones die. To him, this art form lived through the transience and sorrow of life, as a friend to man, and as an emobodiment of truth and beauty and so everything good and important to the world.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–//–

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

First printed in 1798, written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has left it’s mark on western thought. It marked the turn to romanticism in literature at the start of the 19th century and has influenced much of the new-wave spiritualism and environmentalism prevalent to this day.

Originator of the idiom “albatross around one’s neck,” the tale tells the tale of an ancient seafaring captain whose ship strays into Antarctic waters and is stranded in an ice jam. When an albatross appears, it leads them out and brings a fair wind to sail them north.

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.

It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!

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Despite the saving power of the albatross and the good omen it proved to be, curiously the mariners shoots the Albatross.

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white moonshine.”

`God save thee, ancient Mariner,
From the fiends that plague thee thus! –
Why look’st thou so?’ -“With my crossbow
I shot the Albatross.”

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The superstitious crew at first lament the death of the good omen, but when a good wind prevails they assume the death of the bird brought them salvation.

And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!

Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

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However, once the boat is stranded in a still sea, the crew punish the mariner by forcing him to wear the dead bird around his neck.

And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.

Ah! well-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.”

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The mariner and his crew are then visited by a ship captained by death and a crew playing dice for the lives of the mariner and his men.

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman’s mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
`The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

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The crew one by one are taken but the mariner is cursed to live on watching his men die slowly – it seems as retribution for killing the albatross.

One after one, by the star-dogged moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.

Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

The souls did from their bodies fly, –
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my crossbow!”

Unable to pray, sleep or die, the mariner lives on alone for seven days, until in despair he notices the beauty of the sea creatures and praises their loveliness. This utterance, releases the mariner’s from the curse.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”

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The wind picks ups immediately and fresh rain falls reviving the mariner. In his daze he envisions his dead crew steer his ship home or that a spirit beneath the waves carries the vessel forward.

Upon returning home he is met by a hermit, who rows a boat with a pilot and a boy who greet him in the harbour. However, his wretched boat sinks in a whirlpool beneath the waves and they drag him into their boat thinking him dead.

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Salvaged from the sea he is cursed forever to retell the tale to all who would hear it.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”

The poem is significant to the romantic literature movement for its animation and personification of nature. The mariner kills an innocent seabird, one that aided his ship from danger. In retribution, he loses his crew to death’s dice and himself is cursed to live on to remind generations after that “dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.” Only once he praises the beauty of the sea creatures he once feared, is he released from his punishments.

As the industrial revolution carved up Europe, the romantic poets lamented the death of nature.  Religion, in the wake of Kantian philosophy,  had been relegated to the realm of the private and intellectual while politics, economics, business and science, divorced from spirituality became disciplines commandeered by experts, ruled by reason but devoid of ethics and prone to domination by the strongest of wills.

Seeing the figurehead religion as sham, party to the desecration of nature through capitalist and imperialist pursuits, the romantics kept alive a spirituality and transcendent love of the earth by turning back to classical imagery, Greek and Roman myths and legends in which nature and her elements have agency.

The 20th and now 21st centuries have experienced a flowering of religious interest and environmental concerns which can be attributed to the works of the early romantic poets such as Coleridge and his peers.

John Ruskin the man who Couldn’t

John Ruskin was a Victorian polymath and genius. Renowned during his own lifetime he was a leading English art critic, draughtsman, watercolourist, social thinker and philanthropist.

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Celebrated for his lectures at Oxford he wrote on subjects ranging from geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economics.

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Ruskin penned essays, poetry, travel guides, letters and even a fairy tale. In all of his writing, he emphasised the connections between nature, art and society.

 

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He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation. He argued that the principal role of the artist is “truth to nature”.

He also championed the Pre-Raphaelites who were influenced by his ideas.

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His work later focused on social and political issues and he founded the Guild of St. George, a cratfsmans guild that endures today.

However, Ruskin was unhappy in love.

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He married 19 year old Effie Gray in 1848 and she filed for anulment of their marriage only 6 years later on the grounds of non-consummation.

In a letter to her parents she wrote:

He alleged various reasons, hatred of children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April [1848].

The Ruskin’s marriage is portrayed in the 2014 film, written by Emma Thompson Effie Gray. 

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Ruskin is portrayed as a stiff and absent husband, coddled by overbearing parents, who only cares for his books and lectures, and uncaring of his young,  vivacious and pretty wife.

Other theories suppose Ruskin was only acquainted by the nude bodies of Greek and Roman statues and so horrified by the reality of his wife’s nakedness and pubic hair.

Other accounts tell of his love for young girls between the ages of 9-17 years. Indeed in a letter to his doctor he wrote:

I like my girls from ten to sixteen—allowing of 17 or 18 as long as they’re not in love with anybody but me.—I’ve got some darlings of 8—12—14—just now, and my Pigwiggina here—12—who fetches my wood and is learning to play my bells.

Nevertheless, Effie left him and married Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, a disciple of Ruskin’s. They had 8 children together.

Ruskin never remarried.

Perhaps Ruskin’s life was one of profound and deep sorrow. The genius of the Romantic era, a man full of admiration for beauty, truth and nature, had no success in love.

Or perhaps he loved ideas more than he loved the reality he lived.