Skip to main content

Full text of "Heinrich von Kleist"

See other formats


Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world byJSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 

Read more about Early Journal Content at 
journal-content . 

JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 

Modern Philology 

Volume XIV October igi6 Number 6 


Heinrich von Kleist is hardly a familiar name to English readers, 
though he is the subject of a book in English' as early as 1875, which 
contains an excellent blank verse rendering of his greatest play, Der 
Prim von Hamburg, and an entirely satisfactory translation of his 
most powerful narrative, Michael Kohlhaas. In Germany his repu- 
tation is fully established. The critic, the historian, the rigisseur, the 
poet, the painter, have done him homage. Tieck rescued him — 
almost literally — in 1821; in the fifties Treitschke read that inner 
spirit of his work which Brahm, Eloesser, and others have since so 
admirably interpreted; Adolf von Menzel in the seventies captured 
the vividness of particular creations in spirited black-and-white; 
Wilhelm von Polenz found in Kleist's biography the material for a 
tragedy in 1891; finally the craftsmanship of Erich Schmidt and his 
henchmen has in recent years inclosed his works in a compact five- 
volume edition which meets all needs. 

This paper endeavors to trace the inner consistency of Kleist's 
temperament and to relate it to the peculiar spirit that pervades his 
plays. It is true that few writers defy orderly analysis so stubbornly, 
and that which is offered here cannot pretend to explain him com- 
pletely. But it is hoped that it may be found suggestive as an at- 
tempted reading of an evasive personality and a unique sequence of 

I Lloyd and Newton, Prussia's Representative Man, London: Teubner, 1875. 
321] 65 [MoDEEN Philology, October, 1916 

66 Barker Fairlby 

The personality is discovered, if anywhere, in the few years imme- 
diately following Kleist's retirement from the army in the spring of 
1799. He had entered it, it will be remembered, in June, 1792, 
before he had completed his fifteenth year. After going through 
the siege of Mainz and rising to a lieutenancy, he turned civilian to 
study mathematics, philosophy, and Latin, realizing that "was der 
Reiseplan dem Reisenden ist, das ist der Lebensplan dem Menschen,"' 
and for the benefit of a fellow-soldier he wrote, Baedeker-fashion, a 
lengthy Aufsatz, den sichern Weg des Glucks zu finden, und ungestort, 
audi unter den grossten Drangsalen des Lebens, ihn zu geniessen. He 
is loath to lose a day without drawing "moralische Revenuen,"^ and 
when he turns eighteenth-century schoolmaster and induces his 
betrothed to write essays in his absence, her progress means more 
than her love: "Ich freue mich darauf, dass ich Dich nicht wieder- 
kennen werde, wenn ich Dich wiedersehe."' Kleist affords at this 
stage in his life an astonishing instance of the premature personal 
composure to which certain types of training can lead. Steady mili- 
tary discipline has doubtless straitlaced countless natures into the 
acceptance for life of an activity, an outlook, and a self-criticism, 
which do not exceed a definition in simple terms. Even Kleist, whose 
enigmatic complexity defies the biographer a century after his death, 
waited two years, till the spring of 1801, for his real personality to 
break the iron shell which a long boyhood apprenticeship in the army 
and a rigid family tradition had forged around it. Meanwhile, in 
complete ignorance of the hidden processes of his nature, he con- 
structed and advertised to his friends his clear outlook and his trite 

His early letters, in which a precocious intellect urbanely solves 
the riddle of the stars, hold their own for blandness with any 
eighteenth-century moralizing. Indeed, the nineteenth century is 
nowhere in evidence, unless it be in the alarming intensity with which 
he embraces the standpoint and the purpose of the moment. He 
writes in February, 1801, immediately before his intellectual capitu- 
lation : " Ich beschloss, nicht aus dem Zimmer zu gehen, bis ich iiber 

1 Briefe (Werke, ed. E. Schmidt, V), p. 43. 
' Ibid., p. 162. 
3 Ibid., p. 193. 


Heinrich von Kleist 67 

einen Lebensplan entschieden ware; aber 8 Tage vergiengen, und ich 
musste doch am Ende das Zimmer unentschlossen wieder verlassen."* 
An analysis of his mind at this time yields a list of purely eighteenth- 
century qualities, but the vigor, the ferocity almost, with which they 
are announced is foreign to the essential spirit of that age. And 
though something of the logic which Kleist here parades stays with 
him through life and peeps with impish coolness through the lurid 
curtains of his imagination, yet it is the intensity alone that is truly 
characteristic of him. It is reflected again and again in his dramatic 
creations. The blind and exhaustive acceptance of a point of view, 
a purpose, a virtue, is fundamental in some of his strongest figures. 
Hardly anywhere is it absent. Its most energetic expression is in 
Penthesilea and in Hermann, but it is also most intimately conveyed 
in Kathchen, and disconcertingly in Sylvester Schroffenstein. Per- 
haps Sylvester, blindly aggravating the fatal mischief with the excess 
of a simple Christian virtue, best illustrates this anomalous period of 
Kleist's life, when tragedy and poetry were outwardly so very remote. 
To return to the biography. The much-discussed Wiirzburg 
journey, falling in the middle of Kleist's two years of suspension, 
must surely have had a practical, not a spiritual, purpose. It prob- 
ably did much to prepare the way for the mental crisis of 1801, but 
it did not reveal him fully to himself. It undoubtedly awoke in him 
a new sensitiveness to natural beauty and a vague presentiment of 
poetic ability. The two descriptions of Wiirzburg are the clearest 
indication of this: 

Den Lauf der Strassen hat der regelloseste Zufall gebildet. In dieser 
Hinsicht unterscheidet sich Wurzburg durch nichts, von der Anlage des ge- 
meinsten Dorfes. Da hat sich Jeder angebaut, wo es ihm grade gefiel, ohne 
eben auf den Nachbar viele Riicksicht zu nehmen. Daher findet man nichts 
als eine Zuzammenstellung vieler einzelnen Hauser, und vermisst die Idee 
eines Ganzen, die Existenz eines allgemeinen Interesses. Oft ehe man es sich 
versieht ist man in ein Labyrinth von Gebauden gerathen, wo man sich den 
Faden der Ariadne wunschen muss, um sich heraus zu finden. Das Alles 
konnte man der grauen Vorzeit noch verzeihen; aber wenn heut zu Tage 
ganz an der Stelle der alien Hauser neue gebaut werden, so dass also auch die 
Idee, die Stadt zu ordnen, nicht vorhanden ist, so heisst das ein Versehen 

1 Op. cit., p. 195. 2 Ibid., p. 114. 


68 Barker Fairley 

This was on his arrival in September, 1800. In October he writes: 
" Ich finde jetzt die Gegend um diese Stadt weit angenehmer, als ich 
sie bei meinem Einzuge fand; ja ich mogte fast sagen, dass ich sie 
jetzt schon finde — und ich weiss nicht, ob sich die Gegend verandert 
hat, Oder das Herz, das ihren Eindruck empfieng,"i and is loud in 
praise of hills and water. But the book of maxims is still cherished 
and Kleist remains almost as unconscious of his inner nature as when 
a year earlier he overruled his family and doffed his uniform. 

The final tapping of the shell was, curiously enough, due to the 
reading of Kant's philosophy. It is hard today to realize the intense 
personal importance to the reader that the "reine Vernunft" had in 
its own age. " Es scheint, als ob ich eines von den Opfern der Thor- 
heit werden wtirde, deren die kantische Philosophic so viele auf das 
Gewissen hat."^ Bildung and Wahrheit, the two main props of 
Kleist's jerry-built castle, were knocked from under at a touch of this 
hammer of the intellect. Thus the intellectual dogmatism which 
insulated his inmost self could only be counteracted — so thorough- 
going was his acceptance of it — by intellectual means. With almost 
childlike pathos he cries: 

Wir konnen nicht entscheiden ob das, was wir Wahrheit nennen, wahr- 
haft Wahrheit ist, oder ob es uns nur so scheint. 1st das letzte, so ist die 
Wahrheit, die wir hier sammeln, nach dem Tode nicht mehr — und alles 
Bestreben, ein Eigenthum sich zu erwerben, das uns auch in das Grab folgt, 

ist vergeblich Seit diese Ueberzeugung, namlich, dass hienieden 

keine Wahrheit zu finden ist, vor meine Seele trat, habe ich nicht wieder ein 
Buch angeriihrt. Ich bin unthatig in meinem Zimmer umhergegangen, ich 
habe mich an das offne Fenster gesetzt, ich bin hinausgelaufen ins Freie, eine 
innerliche Unruhe trieb mich zuletzt in Tabagien und Caffeehauser, ich habe 
Schauspiele und Concerte besucht, um mich zu zerstreuen, ich habe sogar, 
um mich zu betauben, eine Thorheit begangen, die Dir Carl lieber erzahlen 
mag, als ich; und dennoch war der einzige Gedanke, den meine Seele in 
diesem ausseren Tumulte mit gltihender Angst bearbeitete immer nur dieser: 
dein einziges, dein hochstes Ziel ist gesunken.' 

From then on till the autumn of 1811, when Kleist and a married 
lady of his acquaintance committed a dual suicide at the Wannsee, 
an astonishing succession of changing prospects might be recounted 

1 Op. cit., p. 144. » Ibid., p. 207. 3 Ibid., p. 204. 


Heinkich von Kleist 69 

from his life, and in that short space were generated the whole of his 
writings of any importance — a masterpiece of comedy, a masterpiece 
of serious drama, four or five other plays of astonishing vigor, a 
handful of brilliant short stories, and a few odd lyrics and snatches 
of prose. Stranger still, he appears to have remained, up to the 
beginning of this period, quite unconscious of the powers within him, 
or at any rate unconscious of their nature — a thing in itself phe- 
nomenal, though not necessarily, as one biographer says, unique in 
the lives of poets.^ 

What of his spiritual life in these ten years ? During the months 
which immediately followed the loss of his youthful outlook, there is 
in his letters much talk of fate — more, at least, than at any other 
period of his life. With his flimsy vessel sunk, the young swimmer 
is at first aghast at the welter of blind forces over which he has been 
blissfully cruising. He exaggerates the significance of the mere acci- 
dents of life, or, rather, he sees the full significance where habit dulls 
an average mind. In July, 1801, the bray of a donkey frightens the 
horses behind which he and his sister are driving; the carriage upsets 
without harm to either — "Und an einem Eselsgeschrei hieng ein 
Menschenleben ? Und wenn es nun in dieser Minute geschlossen 
gewesen ware, darum also hatte ich gelebt? Darum? Das hatte 
der Himmel mit diesem dunkeln, rathselhaften, irrdischen Leben 
gewoUt, und weiter nichts — ? Doch ftir diesmal war es noch nicht 
geschlossen, — wofiir er uns das Leben gefristet hat, wer kann es 
wissen?"* Kleist is all confusion for a while, "wie die Werchfasem 
im Spinnrocken,"' and he strives in vain "mit der Hand des Ver- 
standes den Faden der Wahrheit, den das Rad der Erfahrung hinaus 
Ziehen soil, um die Spule des Gedachtnisses zu ordnen.'" And, in 
the long run, the personal confusion, far more than the impersonal 
caprice, holds his curiosity. The references to fate become fewer and 
less striking in their utterance. A sentence on the "ego," mean- 
while, blazes hot even amid the smolder of his letters: "Dieses 
rathselhafte Ding, das wir besitzen, wir wissen nicht von wem, das 
uns fortfuhrt, wir wissen nicht wohin, das unser Eigenthum ist, wir 
wissen nicht, ob wir dariiber schalten durfen, eine Habe, die nichts 

» F. Servaes, Heinrich von Kleist, 1912. ' Briefe, p. 240. < Ibid., p. 226. 


70 Bakker Faibley 

werth ist, wenn sie uns etwas werth ist, ein Ding, wie ein Wieder- 
spruch, flacli und tief, ode und reich, wiirdig und verachtlich, viel- 
deutig und unergriindlich, ein Ding, das jeder wegwerfen mogte, wie 
ein unverstandliches Buch.'" The words burst out from the context 
with cumulative force, as if they had lain and gathered power in the 
inner chambers of his mind. And the very fact of their energy is 
peculiar when their content is considered. The riddle of personality 
has often found expression, but where does it receive so sweeping, 
so fateful, a voice? Character is Fate — the saying is trite and a 
commonplace, but the mind which such a reflection dominates is apt 
to be quizzical, reflective, analytic, and its creations will be of like 
nature. Kleist, strangely enough, gives these unforgettable words a 
driving power and a momentum which add a vast impersonal quality 
to the thing he characterizes. His feeling for personality is energetic 
in a manner foreign to all that is personal. It is dangerous, dynamic, 

Kleist's letters, from about this time on, assume a more and more 
practical character, and it is in his plays that the real essence of his 
spirit must now be sought. It is not that reticence conceals the 
working of his mind. His frankness remains as pronounced as ever 
and becomes phenomenal in his latest letters. The collapse of his 
first intellectual edifice was followed by no attempt at a second. He 
disparages knowledge and the intellect, and relinquishes any endeavor 
to organize further the vast material of experience. "Die Wissen- 
schaften habe ich ganz aufgegeben."^ And some six years later 
(June, 1807) in a mood of despair, which, if passing, brings out, at 
least, a conviction that was too profound to leave him: "Ach, es ist 
ein ermiidender Zustand, dieses Leben, recht, wie Sie sagten, eine 
Fatigue. Erfahrungen rings, dass man eine Ewigkeit brauchte, um 
sie zu wtirdigen, und, kaum wahrgenommen, schon wieder von andern 
verdrangt, die eben so unbegriffen verschwinden."' He sees in the 
intellect no power whatsoever to order life, and beholds in the only 
experience which persists — the human consciousness — a complete 
riddle. His essay Ueber die allmdhliche Verfertigung der Gedanken 
beim Reden is thoroughly characteristic of him. Here he builds up 
an arresting paradox on the theme: "I'id^e vient en parlant." Sig- 

1 Op. «■(., p. 244. ' Ibid., p. 260. ' Ibid., p. 34:2. 


Heinrich von Kleist 71 

nificant, too, is the fact that he retains an interest in mathematics, 
where his craving for absolute values perhaps found a last refuge, 
unassailed by experience. "Ich kann ein Differentiale finden, und 
einen Vers machen; sind das nicht die beiden Enden der mensch- 
lichen Fahigkeit?"* When he seeks a constant in art, he turns in 
like spirit to musical counterpoint. Three months before his death 
he writes: "Ich glaube, dass im Generalbass die wichtigsten Auf- 
schlvisse iiber die Dichtkunst enthalten sind."* But he makes hence- 
forth no attempt to sort the changing phenomena of life, and only in 
his last play is there embodied any real sense of order — order, too, of 
a purely practical nature. Nowhere does Kleist appear to reason a 
single step beyond this. His sole anchorage is personality with its 
unsounded depths and incalculable storms. 

This unusual outlook upon life — unusual at least for so intense a 
mind as Kleist's — has left its mark on the body of his plays.' In 
fact, it accounts for the peculiar light that is on them. Kleist's 
vision, be it repeated, is anomalous in that the sole conclusion he 
cherishes about life, the unfathomableness of personality, gathers in 
his mind a vigor, an all-controlling importance, which was rarely, if 
ever, consistently associated with it by an imaginative writer. Some- 
thing akin to it lurks, no doubt, in the early work of many exuberant 
poets; it imparts luridness, perhaps, to some Stiirmer and Dranger, 
and to certain Elizabethans. But it was never steadily maintained 
through any series of plays the merits of which are comparable with 
Kleist's. Plays like Penthesilea and the Hermannsschlacht draw their 
life, to an almost unparalleled degree, from a single personal source — 
so much so, that they raise questions of dramatic theory which might 
have lain unexamined. 

It is peculiar to drama, as opposed to other creative forms of 
literature, that the whole of its action must pass through the medium 
of personality. Personality must either furnish the action, or at 
least reflect it. More than that, there is a quantitative limit set to 
this medium; the number of characters in any play is infinitely small 

1 Op. cit.. p. 316. ! Ibid., p. 429. 

• The personal element in the Novellen is very elusive. It seemed convenient to 
omit them here. 


72 Barker Fairley 

in relation to the population of a nation or of the world, and of these, 
even, only a handful can be given prominence. But since the outer 
world and, particularly, outer humanity must necessarily be related 
to the immediate action, the task of the dramatist is thereby compli- 
cated. He must present, through the mouths of a small group of 
individuals, a piece of life in which they not only reveal themselves, 
but also reflect a twofold association: first, with the more numerous 
life of mankind wherein their lives are imbedded; secondly, with the 
all-inclosing world of matter and accident. Thus the personal utter- 
ance of the play must be ballasted, as it were, with elements relatively 
impersonal, and others which are entirely impersonal. Or, if con- 
venience may select the terms, the individual must control three 
registers: the "individual" itself, the "collective" of humanity, and 
the "impersonal" of natural forces. The harmonics of drama 
demands this complexity. 

It is true that scenery itself, by merely providing a material set- 
ting, contributes to the impersonal. The simple enactment before a 
curtain of the simplest dialogue adds impersonal elements which the 
literature of the conversation might utterly lack. But the greater 
dramatists have always shrunk from the dissociating of stage-effect 
and book-effect and have conscientiously furnished a literary counter- 
part for all that is essential in the stage-impression. The very con- 
tinuance of drama lies here in this parallelism, and a swerving in 
either direction means a definite weakening of vitality. The critic 
is thus entitled to search for the presence of these three elements — 
the individual, the collective, the impersonal — in the substance of a 
play, and to observe, further, how far the dramatic energy is dis- 
tributed among them. An accurate division could nowhere be made 
of so subtly blended a compound as human life, but the presence of 
these elements in a plausible analysis is immediately perceptible and 
it is not difficult to examine the manner in which dramatists intro- 
duce them. Thus, it is at once evident that the Greek chorus makes 
ample provision of the vaster inclosing human substance, the collect- 
ive, and, by definitely appropriating thus much of the vigor, gives 
the dramatist freer play in the stressing of his principal characters, 
without risk of disturbing the desirable balance of energies. Simi- 
larly, the common life of Shakspere's relief scenes, all, in fact, that 


Heinbich von Kleist 73 

we call choric, is neither more nor less than a provision of this middle 
element. Much of it can, of course, be supplied without the actual 
presence of subordinate groups and masses of humanity. Any refer- 
ence to distinct past or distinct future, any looking outside of him- 
self on the part of a character, contributes to it. And even without 
this, any generalizations, any philosophic reflection, any insistence on 
universals in human experience, will do as much. The third element, 
the impersonal, expressing itself through all reference to the non- 
human, through all accident and circumstance and material acces- 
sories, looks after itself, no doubt, better than the second. But it 
is interesting to observe how scrupulous Shakspere is to embody his 
nature settings in the letter of his scenes, and with what cunning he 
mingles the sway of personal impulse with the coercion of circum- 
stance. Nor must the impersonal potentialities of mere speech be 
overlooked. Steadiness of rhythm and pitch are parts of a universal 
continuity and themselves contribute impersonal energy. Perhaps 
the following passage from a modern novel is not without relevancy: 
"'The tears fell from her eyes — and then she died,' concluded the 
girl in an imperturbable monotone, which more than anything else, 
more than the white statuesque immobility of her person, more than 
mere words could do, troubled my mind profoundly with the passive, 
irremediable horror of the scene."' For such reasons as this, greater 
license is tolerated in dramatic characterization, where the whole play 
is set in verse; the prose play, lacking this particular element of 
impersonal control, must treat its personalities more cautiously. 

The reasonableness of the greatest dramas is impossible without a 
just distribution of these elements. True, it is a distribution for 
genius to effect, and neither mathematics nor political economy can 
calculate or deduce the percentages of it. It is a balance of dramatic 
energies, capable of endless variety, but hedged by limits which the 
intuitive wisdom of larger poetic minds has never failed to discern. 
It is to the credit, however, of some lesser writers that their very 
deviation from this unwritten standard, their special endeavors, their 
experiments, and their errors direct the thoughtful mind to issues 
which greater poets conceal, and, by pointing to the problem, at least 
serve to illuminate the glory of major imaginations. The various 

1 Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim. 


74 Bakkek Faikley 

attempts in modern drama to stage a composite hero, to compose an 
action dominated by the mass, are a complete example of this tech- 
nical suggestiveness. Schiller's Tell and other plays only partially 
subordinate the individual.' Not until Hauptmann's Weber does 
plural humanity hold the stage throughout. By avoiding the stress- 
ing of individuals and making the aggregate completely dominant, 
Hauptmann has furnished dramatic criticism with an intensely inter- 
esting example of maximum insistence on one element. The result 
is a play of novel quality and impression. The sharp, soaring 
moments of more normally organized drama are impossible here, 
where the gathering mutter of indeterminate masses muffles the 
single voice. The scenes shade off imperceptibly into the recesses 
of perspective, while a brooding, pervasive tone gives an abiding 
suggestion of unopened magazines of strength. Some such effect 
goes inevitably with the stressing of this middle element. 

Hauptmann's Weber was a conscious attempt at the solution of a 
technical problem. Kleist's plays — generally speaking — ^form a 
striking counterpart at the other end of the century, for, quite uncon- 
sciously, with no theories at his back, he carries the first element to 
the point of extremest emphasis. Scherer was aware, as indeed all 
readers must be, of a peculiar and completely novel intensity in 
Kleist's characteristic work. He felt at once that it was excessive 
in its kind, some dramatic maximum in a particular direction. He 
says of Kleist : " Er treibt die Objectivitat und den Realismus so weit, 
dass er sich im Drama ganz auf die Darstellung des Gegenwartigen 
concentrirt und unsln den engen Gesichtskreis handelnder und emfin- 
dender Menschen mehr, als irgend ein Dramatiker vor ihm, gebannt 
halt."! The terms "objectivity" and "realism" in this context are 
not beyond criticism, but the body of the statement is lucid enough — 
Kleist devotes himself to the "presentation of the immediate"; he 
rivets his whole attention on the rendering of a definite piece of life, 
rapid in its enactment and limited in its personnel. One is tempted 
to go beyond Scherer. So intensely does Kleist concentrate his vision 
that the foreground of his spectacle of energies becomes dominant; 
the individual blocks the prospect, obscuring the middle distance with 
its collective human chorus, and almost crowding out the background 

* Geschichte der deutscke Literatur. 


Heinrich von Kleist 75 

of the material world. He violently deranges the balance in favor of 
the immediate and personal; it is almost entirely from the actual 
characters — often from a single character — that the vigor derives. 
He is careless of the larger canvas; he is at no pains to weave the 
special action into union with the vaster life without; humanity at 
large is a neglected force. In his hands the material world is mainly 
visual, rarely dynamic, rarely emerging into the interference of cir- 
cumstance; it is a mere playground, with no power of stealthy influ- 
ence or prerogative of intervention. Kleist's Penthesilea in the first 
decade of the nineteenth century is a critical Gegenstilck to Haupt- 
mann's Weber in the last. Both constitute a ne plus ultra in dramatic 

Penthesilea is the most complete title in all drama, since nowhere 
else does the title-r61e so tyrannize the play. It is only after an 
immersion in the play's atmosphere that what is here said of it can 
be tested. And clearly any measure of dramatic excess is relative; 
elements essential in all life can be minimized, never eliminated. The 
propelling forces can never be wholly gathered from one element 
alone; an external analysis will always point to a mixed origin. 
Thus it is from her dead mother that the initial fillip is given to 
Penthesilea's conduct, and the changing fortune of war is essential 
in the development of the crisis. But in the real world of the play 
the personal energy of Penthesilea alone is felt. From the opening 
picture of paralytic amazement on the part of Achilles' companions, 
who relate and behold the feverish pursuit of the Amazon queen, 
"die Hyane, die blind-wtitende," down to the last scene of her aston- 
ishing volitional suicide, an extreme manifestation of pure will which 
the daring of playwrights has surely never outdone — 

Denn jetzt steig' ich in meinen Busen nieder, 
Gleich einem Schacht, und grabe, kalt wie Erz, 
Mir ein vemichtendes Gefiihl hervor. 
Dies Erz, dies lautr' ich in der Glut des Jammers 
Hart mir zu Stahl; trank' es mit Gift sodann, 
Heissatzendem, der Reue, durch und durch; 
Trag' es der Hoffnung ew'gem Amboss zu, 
Und scharf' und spitz' es mir zu einem Dolch; 
Und diesem Dolch jetzt reich' ich meine Brust: 
So! So! So! So! Und wiederl— Nun ist's gut [11. 3025-34]— 

76 Barker Fairley 

there is in the course of some three thousand lines hardly a pause in 
the furious exhibition of Penthesilea's blazing personality. The play 
is, indeed, less a dramatic action than a dramatic conflagration, the 
mere spectacle of which possesses the perceptions of the beholder as 
if it were the sum of all forces and the world about it inert matter 
for it to vitalize or consume. So intense is this tragic heroine that, 
for the time being, the universe seems bounded spatially by her 
energies, and all that she does not immediately touch into warmth — 
the rose festival, Troy, and Agamemnon — seems unreal as shadows. 
It is interesting to observe some of the characteristics of this 
amazing play and to consider how far they contribute to the peculiar 
dominant effect. It will at once be noticed that the sententious is 
almost entirely lacking. Reflection is as remote from Penthesilea, 
her friends, and her opponents, as if the lives of them all had begun 
with the play's opening and the very basis of reflection were absent. 
The earlier history of the Amazons and their leader — Achilles and 
the Greeks have as good as none!— is narrated as far as is necessary 
to make the weird plot plausible for the moment, but there is a vast 
gulf between it and the immediate business. The events lie in a 
remote past, a different world almost. Their life is not the life of the 
play. They seem to belong to a different complex of energies, a 
detached system of forces. It is as if the eyes had followed the line 
of a searchlight and become absorbed in its circle of illumination and 
had then cast their gaze suddenly back on some distant light to the 
rear. The bond with outer humanity is not felt throughout the play. 
All that is not seen is too remote to appear continuous with the 
actual and visible, and the created life of the poet's brain seems a 
thing isolated, its own universe, its own first cause. So much for the 
collective. Turning to the impersonal, we find that the material 
setting of the play is by no means ignored. On the contrary, it is 
beheld with an extraordinary sharpness; it is vivid to an unparalleled 
degree. The return of Achilles, seen off-stage from a hillock, is scien- 
tifically recorded with a catalogue of the parts of himself and his 
chariot horses as they appear in turn over the hill-crest: 

Seht! Steigt dort, uber jenes Barges Rticken, 
Ein Haupt nicht, ein bewaffnetes, empor ? 
Ein Helm, von Federbiischen iiberschattet ? 

Heineich von Kleist 77 

Der Naoken schon, der macht'ge, der es tragt ? 
Die Schultem auch, die Arme, stahlumglanzt ? 
Das ganze Brustgebild, o seht doch, Freunde, 
Bis wo den Leib der goldne Gurt umschliesst ? 

Die Haupter sieht man schon, geschmiickt mit Blessen, 
Des Rossgespanns! Nur noch die Schenkel sind, 
Die Hufe, von der Hohe Rand bedeckt! 
Jetzt, auf dem Horizonte, steht das ganze 
Kriegsfahrzeug da! [11. 356-62, 364r-68.] 

Still more breath-taking is the observation of the chariot-wheels, 
whiried in flight to an opaque disc: 

Der Blick dringt unzerknicht sich durch die Rader 
Zur Scheibe fliegend eingedreht, nicht bin [11. 385-86]. 

Penthesilea even sees her own reflection in the shining breastplate 
of Achilles when they approach one another (11. 642-45). There is a 
lurid clarity about the whole picture. The landscape is illuminated 
by the blaze of Penthesilea's self. She is its sun. Of itself it is, in a 
phrase of Kleist's, 

Nichts als ein dunkler Grund nur, eine Folie, 

Die Funkelpracht des Einzigen zu heben [Penth., 11. 1042-43]. 

It is a thing visualized with no energy of its own. It is usually in 
the half-lights that nature seems alert, an incalculable store of hidden 
forces. "When other things sank brooding to sleep the heath 
appeared slowly to awake and listen," says Thomas Hardy. Mac- 
beth's witches fade in the sunlight, and it is in the obscurity of rain 
and thunder that the frail body of a Lear is buffeted. In Penthesilea 
the very clearness of the pictorial vision robs the things seen of their 
true energy. Hebbel felt this to be spurious: "In Heinrich von 
Kleist's falscher Plastik wird gewissermassen der Lebensodem auch 
sichtbar gemacht."' There is no atmosphere in it, no impressionism, 
only color and outline and brightness. It has the flat, inert falseness 
of a color photograph. It astonishes the eye, but leaves the spirit 

Other characteristics might be derived, but these are among the 
most obvious. Their contribution to the atmosphere of the play is 

» TagebUcher, ed. Werner, IV, 5740. 


78 Barker Fairley 

a uniform one, and its effect is to identify Penthesilea with the vitality 
of the whole action. She storms comet-like through the breathless 
succession of twenty-four scenes that constitute the play, 

Mit eines Waldstroms wiitendem Erguss 

Die einen, wie die andern, niederbrausend [II. 120-21]. 

She rules imperiously the very forces of nature, when she in her 
furious onset 

Hinweg die Luft trinkt lechzend, die sie hemmt [I. 398]. 

The play cannot command our affection; it must always evoke 
a large measure of disapproval; but the sheer energy of its central 
figure will remain a thing not easy to put aside, for it is a supreme 
instance, surpassing Marlowe, of that type of play which a single 
person dominates. 

The same tendency influences every play of this disconcerting 
author. His earliest play. Die Familie Schroffenstein, is the only one 
with a deliberate attempt to employ the energy of blind forces in 
vitalizing the action, and this feature of the work seems, from an 
inspection of the variants, to have been an afterthought.' The play 
probably arose during the brief fatalistic mood of 1801 and was 
externally influenced by it. Certainly the coincidences in its plot 
are ludicrous in the extreme and only less foolish than the absurd 
little finger, cut from a dead child's hand, which contributes in some 
measure to the general misunderstanding and is grotesquely accen- 
tuated late in the play as a symbol of fateful malice. The variety of 
the characters, the strongly differentiated scenes — there is a witch's 
kitchen with cauldron and incantations as well as some woodland 
love-making — the presence of a fair amount of general reflection, all 
these do indeed create a feeling of balance, which makes the play, 
immature as it is, the most normal in general impression of all Kleist's 
dramas and gives promise of a development far more on traditional 
lines than proved to be the case. But even here the mood which 
makes puppets of mankind is felt to be on the wane and the unfathom- 
able personahty asserts itself. The character of Rupert — in lesser 
degree Sylvester — is a clear forerunner of the later unique studies. 
The opening scene — it must be one of Kleist's earliest — strikes a 

• ex. Kleist's MS note at the beginning of IV, iii, and again to 1. 2223. 


Heinrich von Kleist 






furious personal note. Mass has just been sung in the castle chapel 
at Rossitz; Rupert and his family approach the altar: 

Rupert: Ich schwore Rache! Rache! auf die Hostie, 

Dem Haus' Sylvesters, Grafen Schroffenstein. 

(Er empfdngt das Abendmahl.) 
Die Reihe ist an dir, mein Sohn. 

Main Herz 
Tragt wie mit Schwingen deinen Fluch zu Gott. 
Ich schwore Rache, so wie du. 

Den Namen, 
Mein Sohn, den Naraen nenne ! 

Rache schwor' ich 
Sylvestern Schroffenstein! 

Nein, irre nicht! 
Ein Fluch, wie unsrer, kommt vor Gottes Olu-, 
Und jedes Wort bewaffnet er mit Blitzen. 
Drum wage sie gewissenhaft. — Sprich nicht 
"Sylvester," sprich "sein ganzes Haus," so hast 
Du's sichrer. 

Rache schwor' ich, Rache! 
Dem Morderhaus' Sylvesters. 

(Er empfdngt das Abendmahl.) 
Die Reihe ist an dir. 

Verschone mich, 
Ich bin ein Weib — 

Und Mutter auch des Toten. 
O Gott! Wie soU ein Weib sich rachen ? 

Dedanken. Wurge sie betend. 

(Sie empfdngt das Abendmahl.) 

[11. 23-39.] 

Of this same father, Ottokar says : 

Er tragt uns, wie die See das Schiff, wir mlissen 
Mit seiner Woge fort, sie ist nicht zu 
Beschworen [11. 1454-56]. 

The thesis can be applied instructively to the whole series of 
Kleist's plays, and, while none of them instances it so completely as 
Penthesilea, their most remarkable peculiarities tally closely with it 
and can, perhaps, be fully comprehended only from this point of view. 
Hermann is an amazing example of purely personal initiative bending 






80 Barker Fairley 

a disunited nation to a great issue and, elsewhere, Kathchen's appar- 
ent passivity is, at bottom, the controlUng energy in the only parts 
of the play that truly live. In both these most unique works the 
severance from normal life is strongly pronounced. The Hermanns- 
schlacht is anything but a typical national assertion; it is a penetrat- 
ing study of an individual manifestation of patriotism, so unusual in 
nature as to be incomprehensible to Hermann's own fellows. Kath- 
chen is an unforgettable study, one of the most intimate feminine 
studies in literature, but with the slightest possible measure of general 
vaUdity. It is significant, too, that the nature-setting which Kleist 
deliberately associates with her: 

— wo der Zeisig sich das Nest gebaut, 

Der zwitschemde, in dem HoUunderstrauch [V, xii],^ 

is as highly specialized among external phenomena as is Kathchen 
among women. The impersonal contribution, exquisite as a decora- 
tive setting, is in no way a milieu and stands for no force or influence. 
The mediaeval gear which bestrews the play like an untidy museum 
is equally devoid of inner significance. The bustle of it all is straight- 
forwardly refreshing, but it is hardly in serious relation to the prin- 
cipal characters. Kathchen is ruthlessly withdrawn from the rich 
associations, so superbly conveyed in the opening scene, and the 
succeeding pictures, with the exception of III, i, have nothing of 
their breadth. Like the landscape of Penthesilea — though in lesser 
degree — they are seen without mood or atmosphere, stage-settings in 
flat surfaces for characters that move to and fro on an intervening 
plane. Further, Kleist's broken rhythms of speech, which diminish 
the impersonal in all his plays, are further accentuated here by the 
very capricious alternation of prose and verse. 

The attitude that this paper takes is frankly remote from R. M. 
Meyer's generalization on Kleist: "Aus einer unsicheren Stimmung, 
die den Helden umgibt, erwachst in rascher Entwickelung das Prob- 
lem. Diese Stimmung lebt in alien Nebenfiguren; hell wird sie in 
dem Helden. Und darin liegt es, dass bei Kleist die Gesamtperson- 
lichkeit, die Volksindividualitat zum eigentlichen Helden wird. Der 
Heros der Hermannsschlacht ist das deutsche Volk; der rechte Sieger 

" Cf. also I, ii (two references) and the whole of IV, ii. 


Heinrich von Kleist 81 

im Primen von Homburg ist: Brandenburg."' As an inverse state- 
ment of Kleist's characteristics, this passage seems completely ade- 
quate. Granting the plots of the two plays mentioned, it is difficult 
to realize how the mass could be more subordinated than is the case 
here. Something has already been said of the Hermannsschlacht, a 
play "einzig und allein auf diesen Augenblick berechnet." As for 
the Prim von Homburg, which is, likewise, closely identified with the 
spirit of the times, it is strange that in a play the immediate purpose 
of which had everything to gain from massed effects there should be 
no military parade, much less a folk-scene. As Erich Schmidt 
observes: "Kein Schwede tritt auf; es wird nie mit Massenszenen 
gearbeitet; das Biirgertum Brandenburgs erscheint nirgends, die 
Bauernschaft nur fiir einen Augenblick, um Herbei^e fiir einen hohen 
Gast zu bieten; unser Drama gehort allein dem Hof und den Offi- 
zieren des Kurfursten."^ If it had been possible for Kleist to organize 
a larger body of humanity and make it articulate, as Schiller and 
Hauptmann could, it would surely have been here, in the two his- 
torical plays, when his heart beat high for Prussia, for, in spite of 
their peculiarities, they remain the most comprehensive utterance 
in his country's literature of the spirit of regeneration which stirred 
Fichte and the war poets. The accident of circumstance furnishes 
us in these last plays with proof, otherwise not forthcoming, that 
Kleist was not only constitutionally disinclined, but constitutionally 
unable to control and energize the crowd. His overpowering feeling 
for personality leaves us after a repeated perusal of these latest 
creations with a profound impression of individual purposefulness, 
so utter as to be enigmatic, in Hermann, and of individual volatility, 
disturbing to some readers even today, in Prinz Friedrich von Hom- 
burg. Reserve must be made for that early fragment, Robert Guis- 
kard, which opens splendidly on the larger note of a people's voice, 
but it must be remembered that the play was left unfinished, and the 
assumption is plausible that Kleist was defeated by a plan which 
was not sufficiently compatible to his imagination. 

Kleist's ability, then, to conceive and organize dramatically is 
thus exactly in line with his personal conviction about life. Just as 

' Die deutsche Literatur dea 19. Jahrhunderts, I, 28. ' Kleist, Werke, III. 12. 


82 Babker Faibley 

he remained more completely than most adults the center of a dis- 
orderly universe, so his natural tendency in play-writing was to throw 
full energy into a single character and to surround it with passive 
material, human and inanimate, which it illumines, quickens, or 
annihilates at will. And just as this sole constant, the personality, 
was to Kleist a riddle, incalculable and fraught with unsuspected 
potentialities, so in his plays these central figures, violent as they are, 
are not usually fully revealed as consistent entities but only flashed 
into the eye from the particular angle of immediate observation. 
This excessive realism only serves to emphasize the detachment of 
these works from common life, and even from one another. Each 
play is its own world. We cannot, as in Shakspere, transfer a char- 
acter in imagination from one play to another. In each there is a 
separate system of energies. How complete, for example, is the 
isolation, from the world and from other plays, of Der zerbrochene 
Krug. There is not the faintest vein of social satire or criticism in 
this delightful study of a country judge and his escapades. It is, 
rather, a special world, analogous to ours, but not of it, constructed 
for our personal delight. Judge Adam, more fortunate than his 
confreres of this earth, awakens no contempt and feels no humilia- 
tion, and even the last picture — 

Seht! wie der Richter Adam, bitt' ich euch, 
Berg auf, Berg ab, als floh' er Rad und Galgen, 
Das aufgepfliigte Winterfeld durchstampft! 

Jetzt kommt er auf die Strasse. Seht! seht! 
Wie die Periicke ihm den Riicken peitscht! 

[11. 1954-56, 1958-59]— 

elicits our unreserved gratitude for a final touch of generous enter- 

It can be seen, then, that throughout Kleist's plays, his extraor- 
dinary bias toward the personal, as the controlling energy, determines 
or, at least, in large measure affects the impression they convey to the 
student. Mention has been made, here and there in this paper, of 
every drama of his, except the Amphitryon, where he was subordinat- 
ing his creative power to purposes of translation. Considering the 
five plays, in which his powers are fully revealed, it is not hard to see 


Heinrich von Kleist 83 

that the balance of energies among the individual, the collective, and 
the impersonal is essential in what is felt to be artistic breadth and 
sanity. The Hermannsschlacht and Penthesilea, both works of unfor- 
gettable vigor and originality, lack the equilibrium of greater dramas 
while sharing, beyond doubt, many of their virtues. The very defects 
of Kdthchen, the popular concessions — perhaps some of those which 
Kleist so bitterly regretted — -restore a semblance of balance, not 
exactly inherent, and may help it to weather storms of time, in which 
its immediate fellows, unsteadied by general cargo, may ultimately 
go down. The Prim von Homburg and Der zerbrochene Krug stand 
apart from these three. They retain in restrained form the virtues 
of Kleist's genius and powerfully correct his great excess. Both 
contain a rich gallery of portraits; both touch the healthier national 
traditions. Judge Adam, first cousin to Falstaff, is not the life- 
energy of his play, but merely its central figure. Licht, the sly clerk, 
the garrulous Frau Marthe, Veit and Ruprecht, those admirable 
villagers, all stand on their own feet; they draw their life from the 
soil and move in the larger sunlight. 

Ein riistig Miidel ist's, ich hab's beim Ernten 

Gesehn, wo alles von der Faust ihr ging, 

Und ihr das Heu man flog, als wie gemaust. 

Da sagt' ich: "Willst du ?" Und sie sagte: "Ach! 

Was du da gekelst." Und nachher sagt' sie : "Ja. " 

[11. 876-80.] 

Here Kleist touches Mother Earth, as nowhere in the extremer plays. 
He joins the ranks in peasant literature with Otto Ludwig and 
Anzengruber, and, to the delight of his admirers, adds his share to 
the splendid native tradition that was later enriched by the Heiteretei 
and the Kreuzelschreiber. And in the Prim von Homburg, the pres- 
ence alone of old "Hans Kottwitz aus der Priegnitz" and the still 
greater Kurftirst, the "mark'sche Weise" of these splendid fellows, 
gives ample poise to this fascinating study. Hence, while the rela- 
tion of these two plays to the main characteristics of Kleist's other 
works can easily be traced, it is unobtrusive, and the whole manner 
of them is on altogether broader lines. 

By virtue of these two plays Kleist has a claim on all students of 
drama. There is little or nothing in character-comedy since Shak- 
spere that is choicer than Der zerbrochene Krug, and in serious drama 


84 Barkek Fairley 

the Prim von Hamburg, with its superlative deftness, holds a unique 
and distinguished place. 

For theorists in literature Kleist has done still more. The critic 
who is not content with masterpieces alone, where poets so ungener- 
ously cover their traces, will find in a fuller study of Kleist a most 
welcome insistence on the real point de depart in literary judgments. 
In order to point the physician's finger at Kleist's poetic constitution, 
its basis of energy, not its basis of dexterity, must be regarded. He 
insists, all unconsciously, on the underlying arrangement of vitalities 
which sustains the whole of literature. The application of accepted 
Classical and Romantic standards to his work shows how external, 
not to say superficial, are such criteria. Drama is at bottom a system 
of energies, and it is to Kleist's enormous credit that he defies exami- 
nation on any shallower basis. 

Barker Fairley 

University of Toronto