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Christian Singers Of Germany by Catherine Winkworth

Christian Fürchtegott Gellert

Among the writers whose hymns were thus used by both Churches was Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, the immense popularity of whose writings in their own age shows how exactly they must have fulfilled its requirements. His life was uneventful enough. Born in 1715 in Saxony, the son of a country clergyman, he studied at the university of Leipsic, became a private tutor, and afterwards professor of poetry and moral philosophy there; and never left the city except for occasional visits to the baths and once to Berlin, until his death in 1769, at the age of fifty-four. In 1742, when he was a young man of seven-and-twenty, he joined with a number of his friends in bringing out a periodical called the |Contributions from Bremen| (Bremer Beiträge) which created a great sensation as being the first successful rebellion against the domination of Gottsched and the French school. Most of the men engaged in it were of some note in their day, but only two or three are now remembered, and among these Klopstock towers far above the rest. Gellert's contributions consisted of fables told with a spirit and fluency which made their humour and point all the more penetrating. He also wrote comedies, and his lectures at the university were famed for their charm of style and manner no less than for their clearness of thought and moral influence. Yet his life was not a joyous one: he suffered incessantly from ill health and from attacks of hypochondria that was held in check only by his real piety and excellence of conduct. For Gellert was a deeply religious man, though rather of the old orthodox than of the pietistic type; he was a most regular attendant on religious services, and a great reader of devotional works. In 1757 he published a volume of fifty-four poems under the title of |Spiritual Odes and Songs,| which were received with an enthusiasm almost like that which greeted Luther's hymns on their first appearance. His lectures also, and his habit of interesting himself warmly in the personal conduct and welfare of his students, gave him a remarkable influence over young men, who afterwards carried the impression received in his class-room into every part of Germany. Lessing and Goethe were each in turn among his pupils, but his tendency to melancholy and sentimentality, and his somewhat formal and precise genius, were to them very uncongenial. Yet Goethe, much the more kindly critic of the two, says: |The reverence and affection which Gellert received from all the young men was extraordinary. His lecture-room was always crowded to the utmost; and Gellert's beautiful soul, purity of will, his admonitions, warnings and entreaties, delivered in a somewhat hollow and sad voice, produced a deep impression. A figure not tall, but slender without being thin, soft rather mournful eyes, a very beautiful brow, all rendered his presence agreeable.| Nor was his influence confined to his class-room: a peasant one day laid a load of firewood at his door as a thank-offering for the pleasure derived from his fables; a young Prussian officer sent him a sum of money, entreating him to accept the gift from one whose heart had been raised by his writings; and these were but instances of innumerable similar presents which Gellert used generally to bestow on the poor. Princes and great people of all kinds made pilgrimages to see him; even Frederick the Great had an interview with him, and pronounced him the most reasonable German professor he had ever come across. The general tone of his writings is that of a sincere Christian morality, kindly and a little formal, not very elevated or enthusiastic, but pure and honest, and coloured by a rather sentimental and pathetic view of life in general. His hymns, for the composition of which he always prepared himself by prayer, are correct and moderate, yet with a certain earnestness and pathos; and though it is now the fashion to depreciate them as much as they were once admired, there is a merit not to be ignored in their rational piety and quiet good taste.
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