The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Messiah, The (poem)
MESSIAH, The (‘Der Messias’). Klopstock's ‘Messiah’ is German Pietism's most important contribution to literature and modern Germany's most pretentious epic poem, consisting of 19,458 dactylic hexameters as compared with the 12,310 of Homer's ‘Odyssey.’ When the first three cantos appeared in 1748 in the ‘Bremer Beiträge (‘Bremen Contributions’) it took the public a year to get accustomed to the novelty of its form and content, after which its success was unprecedented, its readers awaiting with impatience the next two cantos, which appeared in 1750, and the next five, which appeared in 1755. On these 10 the fame of the work must rest; for the following cantos, appearing five in 1768 and five in 1773, were probably as disappointing then as tiresome now.
The theme is the redemption of mankind, and the poem starts with Christ's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the most exalted subject at hand for the young Jena student of theology, who at the academy of Pforta had come under the influence of Milton through the writings of Bodmer. On going to Leipzig in 1747 Klopstock recast the prose beginnings into hexameters, thus breaking with the traditional Alexandrines and loosing a storm of criticism on his head from the school of Gottsched, while that of Bodmer applauded. It has been said that the work of no German poet before Richard Wagner aroused such controversy. Goethe's Autobiography tells us that his father banished the book from the house because of its blank verse. However, Klopstock broke the sway of the French in epic verse as Lessing did later in the drama, demonstrating the nearer affinity of German to English. He learned a great deal from Milton, but his nature was essentially lyrical, contemplative, mystic, and he often smothers the epic possibilities of his subject in a flood of fervent, more or less seraphic, religious ecstasy, which exhausts the reader. Instead of strong contrasts, going from darkness to light, from misery to bliss, he attempts to portray a mental state of continuous, dazzling brilliancy. Instead of an alternation of clashes there is a contemplative passivity, from which result endless repetitions and long drawn out speeches; so to speak, a massive elaboration of the text of Händel's oratorio, which was but seven years older. Certain descriptions, however, are very successful, such as those of hell, the council of the devils, their punishment through transformation, the trips through the universe made by angels and devils, and especially the vision of the last judgment. Klopstock's taking over of the Miltonic cosmography gave him the opportunity of portraying a great struggle between the powers of light and darkness for the soul of Christ and therefore of man, but instead his angels paralyze their adversaries with a look, which method of warfare is not epic, though perhaps pietistic.
His forte is to excite feeling and to lend expression to the inexpressible even when his characters become speechless. No German poet before him had so mastered the capacities of the language, whether in choice of words or in rhythmic cadence. In a sense he became the creator of modern poetic diction. A flood of epic imitations on various biblical subjects attested his contemporary influence, and all the younger poets of his day learned from him, but the 19th century admired him from an ever increasing distance. Edition: ‘Werke,’ Franz Muncker (Vols. I and II, Stuttgart 1893); ‘Messias und Oden’ (Halle 1910). Critical: Wilhelm Scherer, ‘Geschichte der deutschen Literatur’ (12th ed.. 1910); Franz Muncker, ‘Klopstocks Leben’ (Chap. 4, Stuttgart 1893); G. E. Lessing ‘Briefe,’ XV, ‘Brief: Ueber das Heldengedicht: Der Messias’ (1753).