1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kleist, Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von
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Kleist, Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von
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KLEIST, BERND HEINRICH WILHELM VON (1777-1811), German poet, dramatist and novelist, was born at Frankfort-on-Oder on the 18th of October 1777. After a scanty education, he entered the Prussian army in 1792, served in the Rhine campaign of 1796 and retired from the service in 1799 with the rank of lieutenant. He next studied law and philosophy at the university of Frankfort-on-Oder, and in 1800 received a subordinate post in the ministry of finance at Berlin. In the following year his roving, restless spirit got the better of him, and procuring a lengthened leave of absence he visited Paris and then settled in Switzerland. Here he found congenial friends in Heinrich Zschokke (q.v.) and Ludwig Friedrich August Wieland (1777-1819), son of the poet; and to them he read his first drama, a gloomy tragedy, Die Familie Schroffenstein (1803), originally entitled Die Familie Ghonorcz. In the autumn of 1802 Kleist returned to Germany; he visited Goethe, Schiller and Wieland in Weimar, stayed for a while in Leipzig and Dresden, again proceeded to Paris, and returning in 1804 to his post in Berlin was transferred to the Domänenkammer (department for the administration of crown lands) at Königsberg. On a journey to Dresden in 1807 Kleist was arrested by the French as a spy, and being sent to France was kept for six months a close prisoner at Châlons-sur-Marne. On regaining his liberty he proceeded to Dresden, where in conjunction with Adam Heinrich Müller (1779-1829) he published in 1808 the journal Phöbus. In 1809 he went to Prague, and ultimately settled in Berlin, where he edited (1810-1811) the Berliner Abendblätter. Captivated by the intellectual and musical accomplishments of a certain Frau Henriette Vogel, Kleist, who was himself more disheartened and embittered than ever, agreed to do her bidding and die with her, carrying out this resolution by first shooting the lady and then himself on the shore of the Wannsee near Potsdam, on the 21st of November 1811. Kleist's whole life was filled by a restless striving after ideal and illusory happiness, and this is largely reflected in his work. He was by far the most important North German dramatist of the Romantic movement, and no other of the Romanticists approaches him in the energy with which he expresses patriotic indignation.
His first tragedy, Die Familie Schroffenstein, has been already referred to; the material for the second, Penthesilea (1808), queen of the Amazons, is taken from a Greek source and presents a picture of wild passion. More successful than either of these was his romantic play, Das Käthchen von Heilbronn, oder Die Feuerprobe (1808), a poetic drama full of medieval bustle and mystery, which has retained its popularity. In comedy, Kleist made a name with Der zerbrochene Krug (1811), while Amphitryon (1808), an adaptation of Molière's comedy, is of less importance. Of Kleist's other dramas, Die Hermannschlacht (1809) is a dramatic treatment of an historical subject and is full of references to the political conditions of his own times. In it he gives vent to his hatred of his country's oppressors. This, together with the drama Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, the latter accounted Kleist's best work, was first published by Ludwig Tieck in Kleists hinterlassene Schriften (1821). Robert Guiskard, a drama conceived on a grand plan, was left a fragment. Kleist was also a master in the art of narrative, and of his Gesammelte Erzählungen (1810-1811), Michael Kohlhaas, in which the famous Brandenburg horse dealer in Luther's day (see Kohlhase) is immortalized, is one of the best German stories of its time. He also wrote some patriotic lyrics. His Gesammelte Schriften were published by Ludwig Tieck (3 vols. 1826) and by Julian Schmidt (new ed. 1874); also by F. Muncker (4 vols. 1882); by T. Zolling (4 vols. 1885); by K. Siegen, (4 vols. 1895); and in a critical edition by E. Schmidt (5 vols. 1904-1905). His Ausgewählte Dramen were published by K. Siegen (Leipzig, 1877); and his letters were first published by E. von Bülow, Heinrich von Kleists Leben und Briefe (1848).
See further A. Wilbrandt, Heinrich von Kleist (1863); O. Brahm, Heinrich von Kleist (1884); R. Bonafous, Henri de Kleist, sa vie et ses œuvres (1894); H. Conrad, Heinrich von Kleist als Mensch und Dichter (1896); G. Minde-Pouet, Heinrich von Kleist, seine Sprache und sein Stil (1897); R. Steig, Heinrich von Kleists Berliner Kämpfe (1901); F. Servaes, Heinrich von Kleist (1902); S. Wukadinowic, Kleist-Studien (1904); S. Rahmer, H. von Kleist als Mensch und Dichter (1909).