Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Gottfried
GOTTFRIED. Meister Gottfried of Strasburg, the most brilliant German poet of the Middle Ages, flourished about the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century. Of his life and position we have no certain information, for he has told us next to nothing about himself, and contemporary records are dubious and confusing. It would seem, however, that he was a man of good birth and position, who filled an important municipal office in his native town of Strasburg. His chief work was written about 1210, and we may confidently place his death between 1210 and 1220. We know from his writings that he was a man of high culture, but it is almost certain that he was not a priest. Of this his occasional sneers at the clergy are perhaps a better proof than the dubious morality of much of his work. Gottfried wrote one great poem, Tristan und Isolt. The story is of Celtic origin; it came first from Britain and Ireland, thence was carried to France, and thence to Germany. Few stories have been so often treated or have had so wide an influence upon literature. A very few words will suffice to give Gottfried’s version of it. King Mark of Cornwall has a nephew named Tristan, whom he sends to woo vicariously, and bring home as queen of Cornwall, the beautiful Isolt, princess of Ireland. The young man goes on his mission, is successful, and sets out with Isolt on the homeward journey. Before they reach Cornwall, however, they unfortunately drink a love potion which Isolt’s mother had intended to be given to her daughter by the king of Cornwall. The consequence of the mistake is that the young people fall madly and hopelessly in love with one another. The wild force of their passion soon causes them to disregard morality and prudence alike, and the bulk of the poem is devoted to an account of the numerous complications which in time arose. Of course the king soon becomes suspicious, and at last his suspicions become certainties. Tristan withdraws to Normandy, and enters into an alliance with a princess of the land, whose very name—Isolt, the white-handed—has a strange charm for him. But he finds that he really cares nothing for this new Isolt; the memory of his old love rises powerfully in his soul; and he gives utterances to his doubts and perplexities in a soliloquy, with which the poem abruptly concludes.
Tristan is thus an unfinished work; still it is a tolerably long one, as it consists of 19,552 short rhymed lines. The style is highly finished. There is an artistic choice of fit words, a frequent use of antithesis and word-play, and a skilful management of the versification. But these are, of course, only side matters. The permanent interest of the poem consists in its representation of human passion, and in the knowledge it shows of the human heart. The plain, rude story, when told by Gottfried, takes a depth and pathos that are hardly its own. All is described, too, with such clear, bright touches, and such vivid force, that the poem seems somehow a tale of our own time. Its morality indeed is not high; but this objection did not probably occur to those who first read it. If we judge it by a purely art standard, we must pronounce it worthy of an important place in the literature of Europe. Tristan was not allowed to remain a fragment. Ulrich von Türheim (about 1236) and Heinrich von Freiberg (about 1270) both wrote continuations and conclusions of the work, which certainly fell far short of the original.
Of Gottfried’s other writings, only some lyrics in the ordinary style of the minnesingers remain to us. Two longer poems, entitled Lobgesang auf die Jungfrau Maria and Gedicht von der Armuth, were long attributed to him, but recent criticism has conclusively proved that they are the work of others. Gottfried’s influence on German literature was very great, and a proof of this is the number of poets who treated the same subject after the plan he had laid down. All these, from Hans Sachs (1494–1576) to Immermann (1796–1840), may fairly be claimed as his followers.