1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lenau, Nikolaus

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LENAU, NIKOLAUS, the pseudonym of Nikolaus Franz Niembsch von Strehlenau (1802-1850), Austrian poet, who was born at Csatád, near Temesvar in Hungary, on the 15th of August 1802. His father, a government official, died at Budapest in 1807, leaving his children to the care of an affectionate, but jealous and somewhat hysterical, mother, who in 1811 married again. In 1819 the boy went to the university of Vienna; he subsequently studied Hungarian law at Pressburg and then spent the best part of four years in qualifying himself in medicine. But he was unable to settle down to any profession. He had early begun to write verses; and the disposition to sentimental melancholy acquired from his mother, stimulated by love disappointments and by the prevailing fashion of the romantic school of poetry, settled into gloom after his mother's death in 1829. Soon afterwards a legacy from his grandmother enabled him to devote himself wholly to poetry. His first published poems appeared in 1827, in J. G. Seidl's Aurora. In 1831 he went to Stuttgart, where he published a volume of Gedichte (1832) dedicated to the Swabian poet Gustav Schwab. Here he also made the acquaintance of Uhland, Justinus Kerner, Karl Mayer[1] and others; but his restless spirit longed for change, and he determined to seek for peace and freedom in America. In October 1832 he landed at Baltimore and settled on a homestead in Ohio. But the reality of life in “the primeval forest” fell lamentably short of the ideal he had pictured; he disliked the Americans with their eternal “English lisping of dollars” (englisches Talergelispel); and in 1833 he returned to Germany, where the appreciation of his first volume of poems revived his spirits. From now on he lived partly in Stuttgart and partly in Vienna. In 1836 appeared his Faust, in which he laid bare his own soul to the world; in 1837, Savonarola, an epic in which freedom from political and intellectual tyranny is insisted upon as essential to Christianity. In 1838 appeared his Neuere Gedichte, which prove that Savonarola had been but the result of a passing exaltation. Of these new poems, some of the finest were inspired by his hopeless passion for Sophie von Löwenthal, the wife of a friend, whose acquaintance he had made in 1833 and who “understood him as no other.” In 1842 appeared Die Albigenser, and in 1844 he began writing his Don Juan, a fragment of which was published after his death. Soon afterwards his never well-balanced mind began to show signs of aberration, and in October 1844 he was placed under restraint. He died in the asylum at Oberdöbling near Vienna on the 22nd of August 1850. Lenau's fame rests mainly upon his shorter poems; even his epics are essentially lyric in quality. He is the greatest modern lyric poet of Austria, and the typical representative in German literature of that pessimistic Weltschmerz which, beginning with Byron, reached its culmination in the poetry of Leopardi.

Lenau's Sämtliche Werke were published in 4 vols. by A. Grün (1855); but there are several more modern editions, as those by M. Koch in Kürschner's Deutsche Nationalliteratur, vols. 154-155 (1888), and by E. Castle (2 vols., 1900). See A. Schurz, Lenaus Leben, grösstenteils aus des Dichters eigenen Briefen (1855); L. A. Frankl, Zu Lenaus Biographie (1854, 2nd ed., 1885); A. Marchand, Les Poètes lyriques de l'Autriche (1881); L. A. Frankl, Lenaus Tagebuch und Briefe an Sophie Löwenthal (1891); A. Schlossar, Lenaus Briefe an die Familie Reinbeck (1896); L. Roustan, Lenau et son temps (1898); E. Castle, Lenau und die Familie Löwenthal (1906).


  1. Karl Friedrich Hartmann Mayer (1786-1870), poet, and biographer of Uhland, was by profession a lawyer and government official in Württemberg.