‘[A] fine collection of essays covering a large scope of time and geography. […] Not least among the virtues of this collection is that it makes one think and ask questions.’ —Arnd Bohn, ‘Monatshefte’
The Voice of the People: Writing the European Folk Revival, 1760-1914by Matthew Campbell
‘The Voice of the People’ presents a series of essays on literary aspects of the pan-European folk revival from the late eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. The essays discuss the purposes of the folk revival, as well as its various forms and genres. Several prominent European literary figures are studied, but most of the focus is
‘The Voice of the People’ presents a series of essays on literary aspects of the pan-European folk revival from the late eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. The essays discuss the purposes of the folk revival, as well as its various forms and genres. Several prominent European literary figures are studied, but most of the focus is placed on the anonymous authors of the European folk tradition.
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The Voice of the People
Writing the European Folk Revival, 1760â"1914
By Matthew Campbell, Michael Perraudin
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2013 Matthew Campbell and Michael Perraudin
All rights reserved.
THE IMPACT OF OSSIAN: JOHANN GOTTFRIED HERDER'S LITERARY LEGACY
Johann Gottfried Herder's contribution to the revival of folklore in Germany has been duly acknowledged in a body of scholarly literature. His intention to preserve and define the characteristics of a distinct cultural heritage was wide-ranging and influential, and, despite various attempts at misrepresentation, was eventually recognised as an effort impossible to limit to one national interest alone. Herder's trademark stance was to assert not only the notion but also the authority of folk identity, a concept he believed had both cultural and intellectual merit, and which he therefore championed as a cause worthy of proper intellectual investigation. His interest in folk matters exceeded the orderly parameters endorsed by convention by giving consideration to the vitality of the folk and by paying attention to the force of its presence – traits Herder believed could not be qualified or communicated in restrictive literary terms. In his interpretation of folk culture, Herder relentlessly insisted upon authenticity, demanding that folk topics be presented with a dignity and consistency that corresponded to the nature of the subject matter itself. He was especially weary of the mannered way in which folk material was customarily dealt with in conventional literature and doubtful of the latter's capacity to do such material justice. Though Herder's dissatisfaction with the literature of his time was a theme that would permeate much of his critical writing, it is a particularly prominent feature of his early readings of Ossian. These are therefore more than worthy of comment in the present context, as his Ossianic reception was linked so closely with his early formulations on folklore.
Herder's contact with a complete collection of the Ossian material first occurred through Michael Denis's German translation of the text, which was published in 1768. Having read the translation, he published a review in Friedrich Nicolai's Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek(General German Library), in which he commented on the way the material was presented, noting primarily what he regarded as the stylistic incompatibilities of the text. He supported the idea of Denis's work – the preservation and promulgation of an ancient epic – but not the method by which it was done. Herder objected particularly strongly to Denis's contrived use of hexameters to relay the contents of the poems. He compared this stylistic choice to Macpherson's original use of prose, maintaining that the latter was more in keeping with the spirit of the subject matter and that it was a 'literal translation' ('wörtlich treue Übersetzung'), whereas Denis had over-extended himself by over-poeticising the material and had thus significantly failed in his aim of conveying the effect of the Scottish heroic epic.
Herder's critique is, of course, problematic for at least two reasons. First, as has been well documented elsewhere, he had not yet seen or read Macpherson's English version of the text when he wrote the Denis review. He was writing without empirical cause, responding to the original text through intuitive supposition rather than from experience and factual contact with the source material. Extraneous evidence attests to this, as there is correspondence between Herder and Goethe from late 1771 in which Goethe promises to loan his friend the English text, precisely so that Herder may read Macpherson's work in the original and interpret it independently by personally translating it. Secondly, there is the famously controversial matter of the role of James Macpherson himself, whose claim to have worked with an authentic Gaelic manuscript was highly problematic and whose production is arguably closer to 'fakelore', to use Richard Dorson's word, than to credible folklore.
However, Herder in 1769, the year in which he published his review, was still convinced that the Ossian material was wholly authentic, and that it presented a veritable 'remnant of the primordial world' ('Ueberbleibsel der Vorwelt'). He was strongly of the view that, for this reason alone, Denis had the responsibility of conveying the material accordingly, that is, by delivering the text to contemporary readers without allowing his own poetic training and experience to interfere. Herder clearly regarded the poems as a historical and cultural document which was not to be tampered with, for fear of losing its original unique status. Interestingly enough, he demonstrates a keen sense of his own literary expertise in identifying Denis's aberrations. Thus, he is easily able to perceive in Denis's hexameter the poetic influence of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and, although he is entirely complimentary towards Klopstock and his talents, he sees this sort of homage as inappropriate in the context. To affirm his views, Herder rather cunningly turns to his Publikum, his readers, to ask the rhetorical question: '[...] but would Ossian, if he had sung the poems in our language, have sung them in hexameters?' ('[...] aber würde Ossian wenn er in unsrer Sprache [die Gedichte] abgesungen, sie hexametrisch abgesungen haben?'). The answer is, of course, no, for, in Herder's view, this affected literary taste ('Geschmack') is incompatible with the fundamental mode of expression of Nordic folk poetry, which, according to him, would be incapable of reproducing even the tone or accent required to maintain the purported harmony of a hexameter.
Herder's objection to a stylised, and ultimately foreign, mode of poetic expression was to influence a generation of Sturm und Drang authors, who would similarly claim the prerogative of a more natural and immediate form of expression and reject the encumbrance of an imposed literary tradition. For Herder himself, however, the critique of tradition corresponded not only to the rejection of enforced universalist principles but also to the development of a new ideology of folk, which he believed was irreconcilable with existing conventional categories of expression. In the 1770s, following his reading and review of Ossian, Herder began to conceptualise his notion of folk more systematically in critical writings, redefining its meaning and attributing to it a specifically ethnic dimension. Most notably, he modified the popular understanding of the word 'Volk'. Volk, for Herder, was no longer primarily a judgement qualifier designating those of low social standing; as he employed it, it became, rather, a marker serving to highlight the distinguishing traits that bind and divide different ethno-cultural groups.
One must be careful not to qualify this distinction as political, for it is erroneous to associate Herder's understanding of Volk with modern concepts of nationhood and/or statehood. His folk conception rested on a manifested cultural presence which was expressive, original and creative, and which did not presuppose a given political structure. More importantly, it was also a constantly evolving concept that stood in complex relation to Herder's larger understanding of Humanität, and which, for this reason too, could not be reduced to the designation of a single nation. His views on folk matters were therefore necessarily pluralist; as Vicki Spencer explains, Herder was 'fully aware of the diversity existing within any given cultural community and promoted cultural interaction and interchange in a spirit of cooperation'.
The essence of Herder's understanding of the Volk was thus a conscious and knowing co-existence of cultures. Such deliberate interaction was imperative in the securing of one's own cultural status, because it was the recognition of the dynamic interplay of differences and similarities that enabled one to discern one's own specific values and traits. Insight into one's folk identity was gained through this comparative but egalitarian process. Insisting on the supremacy of one folk tradition over another would seriously impair the cognitive benefits inherent in this act of dynamic cultural comparison, and it would undermine a basic aspect of folk existence. It is through such complex negotiations of identity and recognition that one must approach Herder's folk formulation, for it is only then that one can understand why it is so inevitably universalistic (rather than nationalist) in nature.
Stressing the commonality and cross-cultural cohesion that underlies Herder's folk formulation, the critic Isaiah Berlin cites the important role nature plays in framing Herder's thoughts. Berlin paraphrases: 'Nature creates nations, not states, and does not make some nations intrinsically superior to others [...]. A nation is made what it is by "climate", education, relations with its neighbours, and other changeable and empirical factors, and not by an impalpable inner essence or an unalterable factor such as race or colour'. All of these reasons compel Berlin repeatedly to emphasise Herder's disinclination and inability ever to define folk matters in terms of cultural superiority; and they lead him to conclude: '[For Herder] there is no Favoritvolk'. Herder himself clearly endorsed the organic notion of the Volk in his own work. In the introduction to his collection of Volkslieder (1778), Herder defined the folk concept in generic terms by alluding to the folk's creative vitality, rather than to its cultural or geographical specificity. He wrote: 'The people are not the mob in the streets, who never sing or compose, but only shriek and mutilate' ('Volk heißt nicht der Pöbel auf den Gassen, der singt und dichtet niemals, sondern schreit und verstümmelt'). His unequivocal sense of folk presence had a clear impact on contemporary intellectual culture: it not only demanded a wholly unique upgrading of the Volk in popular perception, but it also pressed for a revision of traditional forms of literary writing.
Herder's novel understanding of folk material – incorporating an emphatic interest in preserving such material's primal unencumbered state – had a dramatic effect on literary form and expression. Literature faced the problematic task of documenting the folk's uninhibited and unrestrained energy while maintaining the immediacy of its expression, thus mediating between states of permanency and flux. In keeping with Herder's postulations, texts could not simply be tailored to accommodate folk matter, but instead needed to be presented in an authentic way, in which the reader could experience – rather than merely read about – the full force of its content. Herder believed it more truthful to render folk material in its full organic complexity, even if this were to defy the organised categories of conventionally structured knowledge and appear to the readers potentially as chaotic. Comprehension, he evidently felt, would in the end be produced better by wilful confusion than by contrived and artificially mastered formulations using folk material.
There is of, course, an implicit anti-Enlightenment reflex in all of this, for Herder is known to have abhorred the standardisation of values promoted by the Enlightenment's didactic print culture. However, this disagreement with the overriding intellectual values of the day suited his reformulation of folk identity well, for Volk was not a notion that he could see as belonging to a single unified category. In fact, the more remote folk expression was from a recognisable (and readily expressible) form of interpretation, the more authentic he deemed it to be, as it had not yet been corrupted by the rehearsed and stilted practices of unimaginative civilised culture. In his so-called Briefwechsel (correspondence) on the Ossian poems and other Volkslieder, Herder argued for the value of such literary folk artefacts, maintaining that they displayed an immediacy of expression that eclipsed conventional poetic practice. Throughout the text he repeatedly used a set of highly evocative adjectives, describing folk expression variously as 'sinnlich' (sensuous), 'klar' (clear), 'rauh' (raw), 'lebendig' (vivid); and he thereby reinforced the aura of authenticity he sought, by consciously avoiding the kind of rationalistic discourse with which his findings could be challenged.
The vivacity of expression indicated here escapes the limitations imposed by a universal application of language. The picturesque literacy that Herder here endorsed exceeds the medium of language by communicating not just in words, but rather in concepts that the imagination, and not reason alone, must process. Herder also frequently employed music as his analogy of choice to indicate the purpose of his folk aspirations. He thus lamented the absence of melody in Denis's translation; in his Briefwechsel, he lauded acoustic perception;19 and, in the introductory comments to his Volkslieder, he stated emphatically that the very essence of the Volkslied is Gesang (song), with its ability to harmonise passions and sentiments. On the visual level, Herder employs a similarly suggestive example, evoking a hunting episode and its subsequent renarration to demonstrate the cohesiveness of folk perception. He describes a scene in which word and deed are tightly interwoven and where it is precisely their convergence, the inseparability of the two, that constitutes the focal experience of the hunt: 'When the Greenlander speaks of his seal hunt, he does not narrate, but he paints; he paints each circumstance and each movement with both words and movements, for they are all part of the image that exists in his soul' ('Wenn der Grönländer von seinem Seehundfange erzählt, so redet er nicht, sondern malet mit Worten und Bewegungen jeden Umstand, jede Bewegung; denn alle sind Teile vom Bilde in seiner Seele').
Herder is intent on preserving this cohesive folk-cultural legacy, and throughout his Briefwechsel he urges his readers not to be ashamed of their local folk songs and tales ('der Stücke nicht schämen'), but rather to collect and safeguard these oral artefacts for future generations. He cites the examples of French and English reading cultures which understand the historical merit of their folk literature and protect it accordingly. He sees German folklore as being of equal value and worthy of the same degree of cultural consideration. Herder had hoped that a reinterpretation of folk literature would regenerate contemporary German literary practice, awakening authors' interest in their own cultural heritage and replacing their current habit of assimilating pre-existing (and mostly foreign) literary forms. His plea was heeded and, indeed, it inspired a renewed intellectual interest in local lore and custom. In the end, it was the Romantic writers of the nineteenth century who were especially keen to follow Herder's example of restoration, and who popularised the notion of a national folk literature through their own compilations of folk tales and folk stories. Herder's work should be regarded, however, as both a critical and a creative precedent for their later efforts, for it was he who first engaged with the problems inherent in the compiling and recording of folk material. Herder's early folk writings in fact candidly address many of this activity's salient issues.
First and foremost, there is an intrinsic tension in writing about such tradition, for the task seems to contradict itself by bringing into interplay two opposite but equally authoritative means of communication: the oral and the literary. Print culture records information in a definitive way and, unless prefaced otherwise, creates a set format in which this information is to be relayed and understood. The permanence of print thus clashes with the very spirit of folklore, for it removes the uniqueness and the immediacy of its expression, replacing a vivid realm of influence with a universe of habitual and re-usable words. Herder himself was highly conscious of the trappings that written language imposes and he recognised its unsuitability for relaying genuine folk narratives. As a structure of conventions, language as such and particularly written language could not do justice to the authentic core of folk culture. However, in the absence of an alternative, more intelligible means of communication, all Herder could do was protest against the artificiality of print culture, alerting others to the limitations of its expression. In his Briefwechsel he articulated this point quite clearly when he stated:
Do you know that the wilder, that is to say the livelier, the freer in its effects a folk is (for this word means nothing less than that), the wilder, livelier, freer, more sensuous and more lyrical their songs become. The more distant the folk is from the artificial and the scientific mode of thought, language and writing, the less their songs are intended for paper and for dead written verses.
Wissen Sie also, daß je wilder, d.i. je lebendiger, je freiwürkender ein Volk ist (denn mehr heißt dies Wort doch nicht!), desto wilder, d.i. desto lebendiger, freier, sinnlicher, lyrisch handelnder müssen auch, wenn es Lieder hat, seine Lieder sein. Je entfernter von künstlicher, wissenschaftlicher Denkart, Sprache und Letternart das Volk ist, desto weniger müssen auch seine Lieder fürs Papier gemacht und tote Letternverse sein.]
Excerpted from The Voice of the People by Matthew Campbell, Michael Perraudin. Copyright © 2013 Matthew Campbell and Michael Perraudin. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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What People are saying about this
‘A masterly chronological line-up of scholarship from many lands, this book releases the European folk revival from its many confining nationalisms, making the folk/literary movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries individually and collectively legible for a new generation of scholars.’ —Professor Angela Bourke, MRIA, University College Dublin
‘An ambitious and timely publication, which will be of great interest to both historians and literary critics. The book’s wide-ranging case studies cumulatively reaffirm the central role of “folk” and “popular” culture in the making of modern European literary sensibilities.’ —Dr Philip Connell, University of Cambridge
‘This sparkling collection of essays reveals in intricate detail a cat’s cradle of regional, national, and international relations within the folklore revival. Marvellously ambitious and wide-ranging, it is sure to stimulate fresh research into the European contexts of folksong. It is impossible not to learn something from this rich and compelling work.’ —Professor Nick Groom, University of Exeter
‘From the Scottish Highlands of Ossian to the nymph-like vilas of First World War Bosnia, this collection reveals how interconnected the proponents of the European folk revival were. Each chapter, whether dealing with well-known figures like Robert Burns and Heinrich Heine, or more exotic fare such as Portuguese romanticism and the Estonian national epic, demonstrates the dynamic impact of demotic culture on literature and the arts in the long nineteenth century. Given the social and political significance of “The People” in an age of revolutions, this collection will be as useful to historians as it is to literary scholars.’ —Dr David Hopkin, University of Oxford
‘Interest in vernacular culture flourished all over Europe in the nineteenth century. Just how trans-national this interest was, despite its national(ist) application in the various European countries, is made clear by this assembly of case studies. Each essay in this collection, instructive in its own right, is enriched by the others, and by the comparative context. A landmark book in folklore studies and in intellectual history.’ —Professor J. T. Leerssen, University of Amsterdam
Meet the Author
Matthew Campbell is Reader in English Literature at the University of Sheffield.
Michael Perraudin is Professor of German at the University of Sheffield.
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