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Johann Gottfried Seume: The Soldier, the Poet, and the Wild Man

Lars Seume HEADER

It must have been years ago that I scored a book from 1905 containing a selection of German poetry compiled by a certain Professor Hermann Kluge.1 It cost me only a Euro or two and that bought me a collection of poems that are mostly set in the voice of the militant nationalism so typical of days long past. The book still treats me with roaring sentences like:

The God that created Iron,
He did want no slaves
That’s why he gave sword, sable and stake
Into men’s right hand
And brave valor,
The anger of free discourse
So that he would keep up until blood flows,
Until death the battle2

Not very inspiring words for the modern reader. But sometimes the very same book offers a very nice surprise. One of these surprises was a poem called “The Wild Man”. That could very well have been the title of the poem quoted above, but this poem starts very different:

A Canadian, not yet familiar
With the whitewashed civility of the European
And a heart given by God, still free of culture, felt beating in his chest
Brought what he had caught with his bow from Quebec’s Icy forests to sell.
When without any smart talk, like he received, he had sold his mountain birds for little money
He went happy with his small gain, back home to his hordes buried in snow
And into the arms of his brown (sic.) wife3

This poem, written by a man called Johann Gottfried Seume, struck a chord with me. It’s the only poem by this author that is present in this 1905 collection, tucked away in between twenty pages of Friedrich Von Schiller and a poet called Karl Simrock (the name Simrock alone inspires me to write an article about him as well, but that’s a different story). Reason enough to take a closer look at a man called Johann Gottfried Seume, who seems to have had quite the wondrous Canadian experience.

The disease of loving justice

Luck has it that the man himself wrote an autobiography. The autobiography starts with the words:

The awkward thing about an autobiography is known to me as to everybody else. I don’t consider myself important enough to describe my life. (…) An owner of a bookstore offered me, when the stars at the literary heaven were in a different constellation than nowadays, a considerate sum of money to describe the psychological history of my education.4

Let us judge ourselves whether his life was interesting enough.

Seume 256px
Johann Gottfried Seume. Artist unknown. Scanned by Aristeas from a copy of the book in his own possession. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Johann Gottfried Seume was born in 1762 in a village with the rustic name Poserna in Saxony as the son of a well-to-do farmer. Reflecting on his father, the poet stated that the man was “an honest and quite prosperous man of the land who, like me, suffered from the disease of not being able to tolerate injustice without expressing his discontent.”

Being an ardent lover of justice is never a recipe for a happy life, let alone in the late 1800’s. The old Seume seemed to get so fed up with all the small injustices he was confronted with while being a wealthy farmer, that he chose to move and rent an inn at the town of Knautkleeberg (only the name of the town makes it worth a visit in my opinion, Microsoft corrects it as “nightclubbing”, so it must be a marvelous place to stay). In Knautkleeberg maybe his conscience was soothed, but not his wallet: when the old man died Johann Gottfried was twelve years old, and his family almost bankrupt.

Luckily the local count of Hohenthal-Knauthayn had set an eye on the young boy and promised to provide for an education. When asked what profession should be envisaged, the young boy, who seemed to be all but a Hercules, stated he preferred something solid. And he took that quite literally: he wanted to become a blacksmith. With reference to his physical condition, his mother and the honorable count dared to disagree with that being a good choice for the future. A schoolmaster would be the next best thing in Johann Gottfried’s opinion, and that was seconded by both mother and count.5

The necessary studies for that were started in due time. Despite that it took Johann Gottfried until the age of sixteen before he first read a novel, and that was quite the experience for him. Said novel, Siegwart by the theologian Johann Martin Miller, is the kind of book no one reads anymore, and it somehow failed to impress the young Seume too. Although he read it with great zeal in the course of one night, Seume stated:

It is too much of a play-toy for the imagination, which occupies a human mind without being truly of use. Reality, and reality alone, was of importance to me now. Why build castles in the sky with empty poetry?6

George III in Coronation Robes. Workshop of Allan Ramsay. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
George III in Coronation Robes. Workshop of Allan Ramsay. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Whether it was Siegwart or something else that caused the young Seume to become restless is unknown. Anyhow: at the age of 18 he flees the city of Leipzig where he was supposed to study theology at the behest of the count who still supported him. The plan was to go to Metz, but historical changes at the other end of the world would alter the course of Seume’s life…

No hooray, but going to America anyway

In what is now the United Stated of America, an uprising against the British colonial rule had started. The British forces were hugely underpowered and not able to any significant counteraction. The British king George III, who was also hereditary ruler of the German princedom Hannover, looked abroad for new soldiers, and found a willing ear at the courts off the many German princes.7

One of them, the count of Hessen-Kassel, was especially eager to provide George with troops for some reason. The fact that he was the uncle of George III might be an explanation; another might be that he got paid very well for every soldier he would provide. Conscription was started in the territory of Hessen-Kassel with quite rigorous methods. The great German poet Friedrich Von Schiller mentioned these methods in his play Kabale und Liebe (“Noise and Love”):

Damsel: No one was forced, I hope?

Servant: (laughs heartily) Oh no! All were volunteers. Some noisy young men stepped to the forefront though and asked the colonel: “Against what price will the prince sell the burden of the people?” Our honorable ruler let his troops march in and shoot the bigmouths. We heard the shots and saw the brains splatter on the pavement. Then the entire army shouted: “Hooray, we’re going to America!”8

Nova Scotia, Canada. By Hanhil via Wikimedia Commons.
Nova Scotia, Canada. By Hanhil via Wikimedia Commons.

Things had it that the young Seume passed through Hessen-Kassel while traveling to Metz, was shanghaied, and a couple of days later found himself on a ship sailing to America. Seume remembered that he and the men who met the same fate, amongst them a vagabond son of the muses from Jena and a monk from Würzburg, were crammed into the boat like pickled herrings, and during the long journey were put on a diet of “one day peas with pork, the other day pork with peas.”9 Still Seume found opportunity to enjoy the tranquility of the sea and the company of his picaresque fellow travelers before arriving in Halifax after a journey that had lasted twenty-two weeks.

Halifax was probably the chosen destination because the position of the loyalist English in New York and the other provinces was already too bad to let English ships dock there. Halifax had been established as a British military base in 1749 in the rough and secluded peninsula of Nova Scotia, and was still in British hands. Camp was set up in the autumn weather, but no weapons or cannons were provided. The new recruits were supposed to march to other regiments that were located in the heat of battle, but bad weather, and even worse logistics, prevented that from happening.

The lying Baron?

Camping out in autumn weather seems bad enough, but Seume was lucky to get acquainted with the Baron of Münchhausen.10 That name might strike a chord with modern readers: is this the infamous lying Baron who told strong stories about his military career at his court dinners, and who was baffled and insulted when he found out that a certain Rudolf Erich Raspe had written a collection of fantastic stories with his name attached to it? I’m sorry to admit that that Baron Münchhausen was already enjoying retirement when Seume arrived in Halifax. The Münchhausen family then were still best known for their military and diplomatic careers in the service of the prince of Hannover, and hence of the king of England. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to identify the said Baron that Seume made acquaintance with, but Seume describes him as “a man of sound unletter’d intelligence.”11 Anyhow: the Baron was a commanding officer and was impressed by the poems that Seume had written during the journey, so frequent stays at the officer’s mess made life a bit more bearable now.

Very unlike the German Karl May who invented Winnetou and Old Shatterhand without ever crossing the Atlantic, Seume had the opportunity to meet natives for real. Contrary to the stories he heard about gruesome scalpings, Seume regarded the “wild men” as very cordial.12 Most of the interchangings were not of a very edifying nature though. The “wild men” visited Halifax to sell the products of their hunting and gathering, and in return received European needs like the amenity of rum.

When on guard one day, Seume sees a small boat slowly drifting towards the coast:

In it was an old ancient American sound asleep during the storm and wind. Next to him was a half empty bottle of rum, which might have influenced the quality of his slumbering. We were not able to wake him up, his situation of course quite clear13

These kind of incidents induced Seume to reflect:

Some of them were on our side, some of them were on the side of the Republicans and it is hard to distinguish who screws them more. They are cordial people, whenever an atrocity is reported it probably was the European’s misdoing that started it in the first place.14

Seume started to like his life in Halifax. Some shots were fired, but apart from that the war of independence went on in silence for the secluded city of Halifax. Chances of a military career in the British service loomed. And then the message of peace came. This was not to the liking of Seume: “young ambitious men don’t like to see their road blocked. In war, where there is periculum in mora, men are selected that are fit for the job and not jobs are selected to be fit for the men.”15

But there was no choice: Seume had to face a long journey back to Germany. There he would embark on an adventurous career in the military and write several books in which indeed reality had a prominent place. But for now his experiences had inspired him to a poem about the “Wild Man”, which tells the story of a European getting lost in the wilderness. It ends like this:

Like the wildest son of the wildest warrior
Terrifying he stood with bow and arrow
This Huron before his guest
And he wakes him, the scared European
Grabs his hunting rifle
And the wild man in answer gave him a bowl
Filled with a sweet morning drink
And he smilingly lets his guest drink

[…]

The European thanked him heartily
Looking gloomily the wild man stood without moving an inch
He looked the plantation-owner into his eyes
And spoke with an earnest voice
Haven’t we met before?
The plantation-owner stood as if struck by lightning
And recognized his patron
As the man he had driven from his home only weeks ago
He started mumbling apologies
But the Huron mildly smiled and said
See, you strange, intelligent white people
See, we wild men in the end are the better people
And he disappeared into the bushes16

A poem written in 1793. In 2015 we know quite a bit more about the fate of the “Hurons” of America, and that should induce respect for this German soldier-poet who came to America by accident.

 

Een korte geschiedenis van de tractor in de Oekraïne
13.55
De vleermuisman
14.95
De jaloerse kip en andere beesten
11.95
Alleen maar nette mensen
15.95
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. Kluge, Hermann, ed. Auswahl Deutscher Gedichte. Altenburg, 1905.  

  2. Arndt, E.M. “Vaterlandslied.” (1812) Auswahl Deutscher Gedichte. Ed. Hermann Kluge. Altenburg, 1905. 2-3 

  3. Seume, Johann Gottfried. “Der Wilde.” Auswahl Deutscher Gedichte. Ed. Hermann Kluge. Altenburg, 1905. 594-595 

  4. Seume, Johann Gottfried. Selbstbiographie. (1834) 1 

  5. Seume, Johann Gottfried. Selbstbiographie. (1834) 89 

  6. Ibidem, 93 

  7. Wishon, M. German Forces and the British Army: Interactions and Perceptions 1742-1815. 104 

  8. F. von Schiller, Kabale und Liebe. (1784) 24 

  9. Seume, Johann Gottfried. Selbstbiographie. (1834) 127 

  10. Ibidem, 134 

  11. Ibidem 

  12. Ibidem, 143 

  13. Ibidem, 147 

  14. Ibidem, 148 

  15. Ibidem 

  16. Seume, Johann Gottfried. “Der Wilde.” Auswahl Deutscher Gedichte. Ed. Hermann Kluge. Altenburg 1905. 594-595