Careers in German Poetry, part 2

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The devout noblewoman who became a feminist role model

In 1851 a collection of religious poems by Annette von Droste Hülshoff appeared posthumously. The author had died three years earlier and her works did not cause a lot of stir during her lifetime. Some 120 years later, the author of these deeply devout poems got appreciation as the greatest German female poet and even became regarded as a feminist role model. A strange career. How come?

Von Droste Hülshoff was born in 1797 as the second child of a local noble family living in the castle Hülshoff. Her complete name being Anna Elisabeth Franziska Adolfina Wilhelmine Luise Maria von Droste-Hülshoff .The French revolution had started eight years earlier but the effects were not felt yet in castle Hülshoff and its environs. These environs would shape the life and the career of the girl that her parents called by the name of Annette.

Keeping up appearances

When Annette was born, Germany still was no more than a collection of independent principalities. There were big ones, like the always lurking Prussia, and smaller ones, like the bishopric of Münster were Hülshoff was located. The bishop of Münster ruled as a sovereign prince but for obvious reasons the title was not hereditary. So every noble family could hope to deliver a prince/bishop someday. This consciousness made all the noble families very keen on keeping up appearances and avoiding every motive for gossip.1 The bishopric of Münster became part of protestant Prussia in 1802 and the bishop lost his worldly authority. But that did not change the sensitivities of the local Catholic nobility.

Strained nerves and a phantastical zest of spirit

In these circumstances Annette’s mother had to ponder over the question whether her daughter should receive something of an education: “she has her head full, there is a chance that she will go crazy.”2 Eventually she decided that when a priest is once hired to teach her son she should make full use of him and let him teach her daughter as well. Under this supervision, young Annette unfolded her literary talent. She exceeded her mother, who sometimes read self-written poetry at family occasions, and was able to write in hexameters at the age of nine.3

Some members of the family were not amused by this. When Annette also played a part in a play at a local theatre, her uncle could not hold back his concerns anymore. In a letter to Annette’s mother he stated that: “it is harmful for girls that have strained nerves and a phantastical zest of the spirit. They start to live in an ideal world, the realisation of which they will strive for day and night.”4

Despite these concerns, Annette’s mother was quite happy with the development of her children: “The children behave rather well, although they do show some childish behaviour like leaving doors open and singing at table they do not show signs of primary evils like curiosity and talkativeness.”5

Longing and contemplation

Annette would continue to live in a tension between obedience and the need of expressing herself. From her early youth she got a reputation of being a bit too individual. At the age of 23 she had a short affair with the law student Heinrich Straube but the affair was ended after Straube had humiliated her for the sake of testing her love.6 Annette would stay unmarried for the rest of her live and that made it even harder to escape the family confines. She now was subject to a stern code of conduct regulating the behaviour of unmarried noblewomen. There was no room for poetry, and it looked like every poem that Annette would write would be written for the drawer. Condemned to a lonely live in the castle, sometimes alternated with visits to family members with her mother and doing chores as kind of a family nurse, her poetry is full of longing and contemplation:

When I could recognize no gaze anymore
Except of the beams through the bushes
I called the rocks my brothers
And my image in the pond my sister7

A short period of happiness

On the family visits Annette at least would get to know some people with a literary background. Amongst them was the much younger law student Levin Schücking with whom she started a relation of reciprocal literary stimulation. It was Levin Schücking who stimulated her to publish her poems, and in 1838 an anonymous collection of her work appeared. The work got thirteen reviews, mostly written by friends and relatives. One outsider who wrote a review was Friedrich Engels, who worked as a journalist at the time, he was not very enthusiastic but did give her some positive remarks by describing her of being of a brave Byronian zest. That was a frame that would stick later on.8 But it was no comfort at the time, the work stayed mostly unattended and four years later Annette was forced to buy 172 of the 400 copies herself.9

Mother was cautiously optimistic though: “the poems appear nice to me and the learned people seem to like them as well, but the nobility is not pleased by the fact that a noblewoman exposes herself to the public opinion.”10

In 1841 Annette moved to her brother’s estate Meersburg and managed to get Levin Schücking a job as a librarian at the same estate. For a short time Annette found sublime happiness in the company of the young author. They conversed heartily and visited a local wine tavern but except for the usual gossip there is no evidence that they actually had an affair.11

The Jew’s Beech

Life finally was good for Annette. In this time her now most famous book appeared. In 1842 the crime story “The Jew’s Beech by Annette Lady von Droste Hülshoff” appeared in The morning paper for the educated classes.12 It is a crime story that begins with the following lines:

Where is the hand so soft, that without confusion
can isolate the chaos of the impeded brain
so hard, that without a tremble she can cast a stone
on a poor and wretched existence?13

The story is set in the rural area were Annette was born and raised. In the village of B. the boy Friedrich Mergel is born as the son of a violent drunkard and a sweet and devout mother. His father dies in a drunken accident and soon superstitious stories are told in the village. They state that the devil was somehow involved in the accident. Friedrich is bullied, gets wrong friends and turns criminal. When the local Jew Aaron is murdered, Friedrich is the first suspect because he owed Aaron money, but he disappears without a trace. Twenty-five years later the old and feeble Friedrich returns to the village stating that he spent all these years in Turkish captivity. The village takes pity on the old man and do not think him guilty of having murdered Aaron anymore. A few days later however, Friedrich is found hanging from the beech tree were Aaron was murdered twenty five years earlier.14

Whether Friedrich was the actual fictional murderer is still a matter of literary controversy.15 Thrilling as the story is, it received little attention. But because it was published as a periodical in a newspaper Annette at least would not have to buy up any unsold copies. In 1844 a new edition of her complete poems appeared. It contained 1200 copies and it looked like Annette would finally meet with some literary success. But the critics were not too friendly. The times had changed. Liberalism and other modern ideas were on the rise and the works of a woman who remained a devout catholic for all her life just was not en vogue anymore.

A posthumous career

In the second half of 1842 Levin Schücking left the estate of Meersburg because he had gotten a position elsewhere, eventually he would marry another woman. Annette spent hours sitting in the chair were Levin used to sit.16 In 1848 she died as a lonely woman but her literary career was yet to begin.

The works of Annette somehow had a lasting appeal on the following generations: the romantics liked her gloomy way of describing nature and devout Catholics loved her religiously inspired poems which were collected in the Geistliches Jahr that appeared posthumously in 1851.

And in the twentieth century, female writers found a role model in the noblewoman who struggled with obedience. In 1973, Sarah Kirsch wrote a poem wherein she imagines going fishing with Annette von Droste Hülshoff and drinking Schnapps with Levin Schücking afterwards.17 From there it was no long way for feminists to start admiring von Droste Hülshoff for expressing her feelings in a time when she had to conform.18 and is there in the company of women like Rosa Luxemburg. That is just all right in my opinion. I think Annette von Droste Hülshoff deserves all the attention that she can get.


Paper Towns
De duivel en het meisje
Het Diner

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. H.Kraft, Annette von Droste Hülshoff. Ein Gesellschaftsbild (Aschendorf 1996) 1-24. When interested in the motives for keaping up appearances, the work by T.Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class. An economic study in Institutions (1899) is the classic to begin with.  

  2. H.Kraft, Annette von Droste Hülshoff (Hanburg 1994) 22  

  3. Ibidem 

  4. Ibidem 

  5. Ibidem, 23  

  6. http://www.lwl.org/LWL/Kultur/Droste/Biographie/leben#jugendkatastrophe, last seen 22 july 2014  

  7. A.Droste Hülshoff, “Spätes Erwachen”, is available in all her collections of poetry. My edition is from Berlin 1907, page 29. Translation by the author. 

  8. R.Schneider, Annette Droste Hülshoff (Stuttgart/Weimar 1995) 147  

  9. Ibidem 

  10. H.Kraft, Annette Droste Hülshoff (1996) 79 

  11. Ibidem, 93 

  12. http://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Morgenblatt_(Cotta), last seen 22 july 2014  

  13. A. von Droste Hülshoff, Die Judenbuche (1842, Stuttgart 1975) 3 

  14. A. von Droste Hülshoff, Die Judenbuche 

  15. For an overview see N.Mecklenburg, Der Fall Judenbuche. Revision eines Fehlurteils (Bielefeld 2008)  

  16. H.Kraft, Annette Droste Hülshoff (1996) 79  

  17. S.Kirsch, “Die Droste würde ich gerne Wasser reichen” in Zaubersprüche (1973) 42  

  18. She is included in the book of P. Herminghouse and M.Mueller, German Feminist Writings (London/New York 2001)