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Ludwig Uhland: Introduction

(1787-1862) Johann Ludwig Uhland, romantic poet, researcher of medieval manuscripts and folk legends, professor of German language and literature, attorney at law, and liberal politician, was born in Tübingen (in the small southern German state of Württemberg) on April 26, 1787. Uhland grew up and pursued his education in his home town. A shy and quiet boy, he felt himself drawn to nature at an early age. He attended the local "Latin school" before studying law (to please his father) as well as philology at Tübingen University (1801-1808).

It was during his university days that Uhland published his first works. As an answer to the Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände (Morning Paper for the Educated Classes) he created a hand-written Sonntagsblatt für ungebildete Stände (Sunday Paper for the Uneducated Classes) together with Karl Mayer and Justinius Kerner, who later belonged to the same literary group as Uhland. During a study visit in Paris the young man gained access to French and German medieval manuscripts that fascinated him and provided many of the subjects he was to address in his poetry.

Upon his return from France he became a secretary at the Ministry of Defense in Stuttgart. He was, however, never permanently appointed as a civil servant since he refused to swear fealty to King Friedrich II, who had dissolved parliament unconstitutionally in 1805. The state's rejection did not constitute a problem for Uhland who felt horribly lonely in his work. In 1814 he left the employ of the state and started to work as a lawyer in Stuttgart. In 1815 (the year of Waterloo) his first book of poetry, Vaterländische Gedichte (Poems of the Fatherland), was published.

In the wake of the Napoleonic rule in Europe, the duchy Württemberg had become a kingdom in 1806. Before long Uhland joined those who strove to instate parliamentary democracy in the country. In 1819 a modern constitution was established under King Wilhelm I, and Ludwig Uhland represented Tübingen in the legislative chamber of the Ständeversammlung (state assembly). One year later he married Emilie Vischer (1799-1881), an heiress from a well-situated merchant family from Calw, thus becoming financially independent. In 1829 he became a professor of German language and literature at the University of Tübingen, a position he resigned when he was elected as a liberal representative to sit in the Landtag (country parliament) in 1832.

Frustrated by many drawbacks (he had, for example, resigned his professorship because he was not granted a necessary leave to pursue his parliamentary duties, being a member of the opposition), Uhland withdrew from politics in 1838 and lived only for his art and scholarship. During Germany's failed attempt at revolution and unity in 1848 Uhland once more remembered his political convictions and served as a representative of the Großdeutsche Partei (Party of All of Germany) at the Nationalversammlung (national assembly) in Frankfurt. He went back to Stuttgart with the reduced parliament and, after its forcible dissolution, settled in Tübingen where he spent the rest of his life. He refused to accept both the Prussian order Pour-le-mérite (offered to him 1853 by Alexander von Humboldt) and the Bavarian Maximiliansorden (Order of Maximilian), pointing out the shortcomings of the political system and the victims of repression. Only once more did he appear officially: at the Schiller festivity in November 1859 he gave a speech in which he used Schiller's Lied von der Glocke (Song of the Bell) to clarify his own political convictions. Uhland died in Tübingen on November 13, 1862.

The time of Uhland's political influence is long gone. Today, he is known more for his considerable literary achievements than for his service to his country. As a philologist he contributed to literary scholarship with his work on Germanic sagas, folklore and folk songs, legends, and the medieval Minnesänger (troubadour) Walther von der Vogelweide. His works include Alte hoch-und niederdeutsche Volkslieder (1844-45) and Schriften zur Geschichte der Dichtung und Sage, 8 vols. (1865-1873). Most of all he is famous for his romantic poetry. Using a simple language and vocabulary familiar to his readers, and addressing common sentiments, he wrote verse that spoke to and for the people. Many of his poems were so lyrical that they were rendered songs by composers like Schubert. Uhland is considered the head of the poets' circle known as the schwäbische Schule or schwäbische Romantik (Swabian Circle/ Romanticism) consisting of Uhland himself, and poets like Justinius Kerner, Gustav Schwab, and Karl Mayer.

It is Karl Mayer to whom the poem "Merlin der Wilde" (1829; publ. 1831) is dedicated. In it Uhland compares Mayer to Merlin, who is represented as a being completely in tune with nature (the ideal state of a romantic poet). Mayer replied by returning the compliment in a poem which applies the comparison to Uhland himself.

"Merlin der Wilde" tells the story of how Merlin, who regenerates his strength in the forest, listening to the birds and trees and thus learning the "world spirit," is taken to the (unnamed) king's castle. There he must prove his wisdom and clairvoyance by answering the king's question: the previous night the king had heard the voices of lovers under a nearby copse of linden trees and wants to know who it was who met there. Merlin almost scornfully plucks a linden leaf from the king's daughter's hair and declares that, since no linden trees grow in royal halls, it must have come from somewhere else. Pointing out that he has solved this small mystery by a single linden leaf and that therefore larger mysteries can be solved by an entire forest, he climbs upon a stag's back and rides back into the woods.

The contrast between Merlin, who lives in the forest and divines the fathomless depths of nature, and the king, who lives in a castle and, instead of answers, has only questions, is the romanticist contrast between the transcendentalist "Child of Nature," the "Noble Savage" ("Merlin der Wilde" can also be translated as "Merlin the Savage"), and the man trapped in man-made form and construction.

In the first part of the poem Uhland (he postulates himself as narrator) addresses his friend Karl Mayer (named in the headline), telling him that his (Mayer's) songs are full of nature's delight and freshness. The poet describes himself as leafing through an old book, but even this is a man-made object and must therefore be treated with caution: he does not read it but only searches for "dried flowers" inside. Then he follows a path that winds itself through the lines of the book, and enters a forest. Thus Uhland turns the book into an object of both worlds: you can press nature (symbolized by the flowers) between its pages, and although it will drain it of some of its strength (they are "dried flowers"), it can lead you back to nature if you follow the way between the lines. The metaphor can therefore be interpreted as a justification of the writing and recording of nature poetry.

Uhland then leaves the first-person modus and becomes an omniscient author. He describes Merlin sitting in the forest -- a Merlin who realizes that he has aged because he has been "in the world's murky throng" for too long. Now, back in the woods, he regains his energy by listening to the voices of nature. He attracts the wild animals who gather around him, and although he is not said to be singing, the allusion to Orpheus is clear in light of the dedication of the poem to a poet and his "songs." Before long, however, a troop of hunters takes him away to the king's castle. The king greets him and then proceeds to list the things he has heard of the seer, stressing the fact that Merlin is being taught wisdom by the forest. Nevertheless the monarch is skeptical; the question that he asks Merlin is also a test in which the seer is supposed to prove that his way of life, i.e. oneness with nature, is right. Around the king the courtiers have gathered; clearly Merlin is back in the "world's murky throng," the place that drains him of his energy. The seer, however, does not need to employ his special wisdom; in a place far from natural, simple power of deduction leads him to the solution: he plucks from the king's daughter's hair a linden leaf.

Presenting the king with this simple yet embarrassing solution, Merlin once more points out the wisdom of nature, which is too great to be applied to so simple a puzzle. Then he leaves the hall proudly like a king, riding away on a stag into his own forest kingdom. The last stanza takes its leave from Merlin in the forest. Then Uhland reverts to the first-person narrator modus and draws the parallel between his friend, Karl Mayer, and Merlin.

Uhland's inspiration for "Merlin der Wilde" was taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini (c. 1150) to which the poem bears a very faint resemblance. In the Vita the prophet Merlin, the brother-in-law of King Rydderch, runs mad in the forest. The king has him captured and brought back to his castle. Merlin in his maddened state prefers the quiet of the forest to the loud hall. The king chains him in order to prevent him from escaping. When his wife, Merlin's sister, enters the hall, the king plucks a leaf from her hair, joking. The prophet starts laughing and after much prompting reveals that the leaf got caught in the queen's hair when she lay with her lover in the forest. The queen keeps her wits about her and challenges Merlin's powers. She sends a boy to him thrice in three different disguises and asks her brother to prophesy the manner of the boy's death. Merlin prophesies a different death every time, and no-one believes his allegation against the queen after that. Years later, however, the boy does die the threefold death (lines 165-414).

Only the elements of Merlin's affinity to nature and the leaf in a woman's hair are adopted by Uhland in his poem. Neither madness, nor the family relations, nor a challenge of his deduction, nor any of the smaller details not mentioned above, are part of "Merlin der Wilde." Whereas the Vita is concerned with Merlin's life which in part is told like that of a Celtic Holy Man, Uhland's poem tells a romantic tale of the supremacy of nature over artificiality.

Bausinger, Hermann, and Gottfried Korff. Ludwig Uhland, Dichter - Politiker - Gelehrter. Tübingen: Attempto Verlag, 1988.

Fröschle, Hartmut. Ludwig Uhland und die Romantik. Köln: Wein: Böhlau, 1973.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. Life of Merlin. Edited, with introduction, facing translation, textual commentary, name notes index and translation of the Lailoken tales, by Basil Clarke. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973.

Thomas, Neil. "The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi." Arthuriana 10.1 (Spring 2000): 27-42.

Uhland, Ludwig. "Merlin der Wilde" in Deutscher Balladenschatz. Ed. Adalbert Baur. Bayreuth: Gondrom Verlag, 1978. 612-13.