The River of Bygone Times

The Rhine and romanticism

The Rhine with the Lorelei, painting by Friedrich Perlberg, 1880, Excerpt
(Photo: akg-images)

No other river in Germany has from time immemorial inspired people and artists to poetry, stories, paintings and naturally music like the Rhine. Its wild nature, its legends and its historical significance made the river the embodiment of romantic dreams and fears – and the symbol of a newly developing German national identity, for better or worse.

The Middle Rhine Valley combines landscapes, historical monuments and symbolism in a half-real, half-mythical world that seems to confirm the concept of romanticism. The wild, majestic nature with its massive steep cliffs, like the views downward into the abyss or beyond into the distance, can be associated with romantic feelings of endlessness and otherworldly grandeur, with the awe of the metaphysical. The old, tradition-steeped cities on the river, their customs, their celebrations, their breed of people were sought out by the romantics as witnesses of a lost authenticity, an exalted folksiness.

The sight of the ruins of a castle or decaying chapels turned their thoughts back to an idealized Christian past, a romantically glorified Middle Ages. In addition, the river, with the mountains, the forests and the ruins created a “picturesque” setting, both inviting and sinister, which with romantically inspired imagination was inevitably populated with heroes, knights and spirits and associated with legendary treasures and battles. And the river, which flows into the sea, is more than just a symbol, in any case: it almost guarantees an oceanic feeling, being submerged in waves, disappearing into infinity – like the unhappy fisher boy in Clemens Brentano’s poem Auf dem Rhein (On the Rhine), who lies in his boat and looks at the sky: “Stops rowing, / And drifts further, further / Into the sea.”

This infatuation with death was not everyone’s cup of tea, not all the time, at any rate. In the early 1790s, the naturalist and travel writer Georg Forster could not conceal his antipathy towards the “romantic” Rhine: “Some places are wild enough to nourish a dark fantasy with images of Orcus, and even the position of the small towns, which are hemmed in between the vertical walls of the Slate Mountains and the bed of the formidable river, is melancholy and frightful.”

Only a generation later, the world that the Rhine flowed through was no longer the same. “As they came out of the forest and stepped onto a jutting cliff, they at once spotted, at a marvellous distance, emerging from old castles and timeless forests, the river of bygone ages and eternal inspiration, the regal Rhine,” Joseph von Eichendorff wrote in his novel Ahnung und Gegenwart (Premonition and Present), which was completed in 1812. “When the sun was already high, they climbed up to the old, well-preserved castle, which stood like a glorious crown above the old German region.”

Place of pilgrimage for a radically new nationalist spirit

“Altdeutsch” (old German) is the magic word. The student youth wore traditional German costume, sang traditional songs, collected ancient legends and hiked through historic German regions. The romantic Rhine became a place of pilgrimage for a by no means old, but rather radically new nationalist spirit. The proclaimed “Germanness”, with its awakening in antiquity, cannot be explained as resistance to French occupation policy or the hated Western civilization alone.

The military and propagandistic dispute over the regions on the left bank of the Rhine, over the claim that the Rhine was “Germany’s river, but not Germany’s border” (Ernst Moritz Arndt) gave rise to a politicized and aggressively heated version of Rhine romanticism during the 19th century, which culminated in the deafening patriotism of the Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine) in 1840: “The cry resounds like a thunder’s peal, / Like clashing swords and splashing waves: / To the Rhine, the Rhine, to the German Rhine / Who will defend the river? / Dear fatherland, put your mind at rest, / Firm and true stands the Watch on the Rhine.”

According to the texts of the medieval Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs), which were rediscovered in the course of the “old German” movement, Hagen von Tronje had sunk the legendary hoard of the Nibelungs, Siegfried’s treasure, in the Rhine near Worms.

German national romanticism perpetuated this legend: it saw in the sunken hoard the assurance of the “holy German Empire” and anticipated the rebirth of the empire with the recovery of the treasure.

“For me, the hoard of the Nibelungs is a symbol of all German power, joy and majesty, all of which lies sunken in the Rhine, and the fatherland will survive or be lost with it,” the painter Peter von Cornelius wrote in 1856.

At the same time, Richard Wagner recreated the story for his four-part opera Der Ring des Nibelungen by reinterpreting the hoard with its jewels as pristine “Rhine gold”, as “pure gold”, which is guarded and extolled by the Rhinemaidens at the bottom of the river: a paradisiacal primal state. Which does not last long, however. With the theft of the gold, evil comes into the world: the Creation is ruined by value creation.

Die Rheintöchter, Aquarell von Hans Thoma, 1854
(Photo: akg-images)

“People don’t die in ships any more, just because some blonde constantly combs her hair”

Erich Kästner

Wagner’s legend of gold theft is a literary fantasy, like all the Rhine legends. That is also true of the most famous of them, the story of the enchanting Lorelei on her rock high above the Rhine. Clemens Brentano came up with the idea, but it became popular and known throughout the world above all through Heinrich Heine’s poem of 1824. Thus, it is neither “a tale from olden times”, as Heine alleges, nor a German or even an “old German” folk song. Particularly since the figure of the beautiful Lorelei, who distracts sailors with her singing and causes their death, is modelled on the nature spirits and mythical figures from Greek mythology, the nymphs, naiads and sirens.

One hundred years later, Erich Kästner wrote another poem about the Lorelei, an ironic farewell to the golden age of Rhine romanticism: “We change, and so do the sailors. / The Rhine is regulated and dammed up. / Time goes by, and people don’t die in ships any more, / just because some blonde constantly combs her hair.” Kästner wrote that in 1932, at the end of the Weimar Republic. A little more of this witty, wide-awake post-romantic spirit would also have done his compatriots good. But, as we know, the Germans decided otherwise.

Wolfgang Stähr