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Lessing's Feeling for Classic Rhythms 187 


In the fields of philology and literary criticism, Lessing claimed 
to go back of traditional interpretations to the sources, sweeping 
away all baser accretions, and referring to pure Greek examples 
as embodying the highest standard from which there is no appeal. 

Severe "classical" studies (well represented in Lessing's puri- 
tanical father) were a proud tradition in the straitened home of 
his boyhood; at the St. Afra school there was a decided stress 
laid upon antique learning — but this was a rather dusty and 
formal learning, with too little of the authentic sweetness of the 
Attic charm; it was apprehended intellectually, rather than sen- 

The eighteenth century walked in metrical darkness, and was 
far removed from a direct, simple feeling for original values. 
Among Lessing's own verse we find sundry Latin hexameters and 
distichs, as well as four verses in hendecasyllables. 1 All of these 
seem formally correct, and all bear the marks of having been 
done rather mechanically, with little indication of musical feel- 
ing. In a letter of April 2, 1757, 2 occur ten good Latin senarii, 
which are possibly Lessing's own work. 

In seeking to arrive at an estimate of Lessing's attitude toward 
the harmonies of classic verse, we may begin with his earliest 
public utterance concerning the Messias (Nov. 1749), a fling at 
Reichel's appreciation of that work: 3 "Er dringt . . . nicht in 
das Innere dieses Heldengedichts ein. . . . Er fangt an zu 
lesen; er sperrt Maul und Nase auf, und sieht das Sylbenmaasz 
an, wie die Kuh das neue Thor. Er entdeckt unentdeckliche 
Schonheiten darinne [as if that were not a legitimate function of 
criticism!] und giebt dadurch einen Beweis von der Feinheit und 
der scharfen Ausdehnung des Trommelf ells seiner Ohren. " 4 Surely 
this is a most unworthy contempt for the delicate science of 
rhythms — a study which engaged the devoted attention of Diony- 

1 The 1 13 verses translating the opening of Klopstock's Messias (Samtl. 
Schriften, Lachmann-Muncker V, 92) are usually ascribed to Lessing's brother 

2 XVII, 99. 

3 Kritik tiber den Wohlklang des Sylben Maases in dem Eeldengedichlc, 
der Messias. Cf. Schriften, IV, 41. 

1 IV, 41. 

188 Hatfield 

sius and Longinus, of Cicero and Quintilian and Klopstock, and 
(perhaps most thorough of all German students of the subject) of 
Johann Heinrich Voss, who was anything but the palpitant Pie- 
tist whom Lessing subconsciously despised in Klopstock. As 
an especially absurd example of Reichel's aesthetic sensibility, 
Lessing ridicules his admiration for the line: 

Sieh! itzt streckt schon der Sproszling der griinenden Ceder den Arm aus! 

probably as true-sounding a verse of the kind as could be found. 
Lessing, as far as we know, never attempted Horatian stanzas, 
either in Latin or German. Rhetorical effects claimed his interest 
in Vergil, 6 and he focused his attention upon meaning, rather 
than form. In discussing higher harmonies, he made the "poetic 
period" the chief charm in the Aeneid. 6 In 1750 he interprets 

Legitimumque sonum digitis callemus et arte 

merely as directed against "unharmonische Verse." 7 His frag- 
mentary treatise on the Pantomime of the Ancients (cir. 1749) 8 
is largely concerned with dancing, but neglects the discussion of 
rhythms. In 1754 he published without protest the statement 
of Mylius that if Greek tragedy were written down as prose, 
no one could detect that it was in verse. 9 A few years later, in 
mentioning Klopstock's brief treatise, Von der Nachahmung des 
griechischen Sylben Maaszes im Deutschen, it is plain to see that 
Lessing handles its substance in a gingerly fashion, and in most 
general terms. In the same article he quotes some of Fischart's 
appalling German heroics, 10 observing, "Die Hexameter sind, 
nach der damaligen Zeit recht sehr gut. " 

Discussing Klopstock's ode to Frederick V., Lessing says: 
"The metrical form which the poet chooses is Horatian; . . . 
Throughout, the value of the syllables and of the caesura are 
observed exactly, a cause for greater admiration from the fact 
that until now the German language has been so unaccustomed 
to the Roman fetters." 11 Had Lessing said, "these are as good 

• XV, 438. 

• VIII, 45. 
' IV, 70. 

e XIV, 144. 

9 Mylius, Schriftenp. 308. 

•» VIII, 45. 

11 IV, 400. 

Lessing's Feeling for Classic Rythms 189 

Asclepiadeans as are now practicable in German verse," no_ fault 
could be found — but he marks the form welchen as an "exactly- 
observed" spondee, and makes the final cadence of the first three 
lines pyrrhic in place of iambic, despite the fact that two of them 
end in the words gebohren ward and Menschenfreund. The Gly- 
conic, however, which is identical with the first three lines save 
for the omission of one choriamb, he causes to end, properly, in 
an iambic cadence. In other words, trochee, spondee, pyrrhic, 
and iambus all looked alike to Lessing in the Third Asclepiadean 
strophe. One is compelled to think of Quintilian's testimony 
as to the enormous difference to the Roman ear in the final cadence 
even of prose sentences. 

In Lessing's printed scansion of Klopstock's Alcaics, again, 12 
he darkens counsel by false quantities and metrical divisions, 
at the moment when he pretends to enlighten the uninstructed 
as to how to read and enjoy these verses: of gleich erschufst and 
of schnellen Hauch he makes dactyls; he mixes trochee and spondee 
in the early part of the verse, closes the fourth fine correctly with 
a spondee, while ending the first three incorrectly with trochees. 
After such a confused treatment of form, I am free to confess 
that his dash of cold water, " Was fur eine Verwegenheit, so ernst- 
lich um eine Frau zu bitten," loses somewhat of its chill. 13 

In the 39th Litter aturbrief (1759: Schr. VIII, 85) Lessing 
mentions an English translation from Vergil which had appeared 
in London. The anonymous author establishes purely arbitrary 
rules as to position and prosody in general, and delivers himself 
in hexameters like these: 

Sicilian Muses to a Strain more noble ascend we! 
Woods and low Tamarisks delight not every fancy. 
Groves if we sing of, those Groves be worthy a Consul. 
Now is the last Epoch of song Cumaean arrived: 
A new and wondrous series of Things is arising. 

Lessing's verdict on this astounding paraphrase is, "As far 
as I, a mere German, may pass judgment upon this new attempt, 

12 IV, 376. 

13 Only the serious, all-too-serious, student would reckon closely with 
Lessing's breezy verses 

Horaz, wenn ich mein Madchen kiisse, . . . 
Dann seh ich, ohne kritsche Schliisse, 
Dich tiefer als zehn Bentleys ein — 
but if he had held to this thesis, it would have brought him about as far as he 
actually got in dealing with Horatian prosody. 

190 Hatfield 

it has succeeded excellently. I have not noted one verse here 
that could be scanned in more than one way, and I believe that 
we might be proud if we had many such good hexameters in Ger- 
man. " 

Of special interest is Lessing's reaction to the Sapphic strophe. 
I beg indulgence for digression here into a field which is larger 
than the scope of this paper. After the decline of Roman culture, 
Christian hymns were written in good Latin Sapphics for centuries, 
such as the admirable productions of Gregory the Great, in the 
sixth century. Paulus Diaconus, two hundred years later, intro- 
duced a spurious embellishment in the way of a sort of interior 
rhyme in certain stanzas of the hymn Ut queant laxis resonare 
fibris, though without neglecting quantities. 14 In the ninth cen- 
tury we see in Hrabanus Maurus a carelessness as to quantity 
in a few end-syllables. 16 As late as the 11th and 12th centuries 
there exist correct hymns of the sort. In the 12th century, how- 
ever, the hymn De Conceptione beatae Mariae virginis™ shows the 
change to accentual verse. The outer appearance, number of 
syllables, general phrasing, are the same, but the quantities have 
suffered hopeless shipwreck (the first line, for instance, has but 
one short syllable, in place of the necessary four). 

At the time of the Humanist revival, scholarly poets went 
back to faultlessly correct church Sapphics: — Pius II, 1460; 
Sebastian Brant, 1494; Jacobus Montanus, Jakob Meyer, Eobanus 
Hessus, Erasmus, Melanchthon, George Buchanan, and the rest, 
though we have no testimony as to their exact vocal rendering. 
One of the very earliest of German "reproductions" is Martin 
Mylius's Passio Christi of 1517, 17 (written to the tune Ut queant 
laxis), which has taken on an utterly alien iambic cadence through- 
out, and rhymes together the three long lines. The last important 
collection just preceding Luther's influence, the Hymnarius Sig- 
mundslust, 1 * contains a considerable number of German repro- 
ductions of Latin Sapphic hymns, in which the bastard accentual 
scheme (which we know so well from the singing of Integer vitae 

14 Wackernagel, Das deutscke Kirchenlied, I, No. 127. 

16 W., I, No. 137. 
"W., I, No. 201. 

17 W., II, No. 1338. 

18 W., II, No. 1347 ff. 

Lessing's Feeling for Classic Rythms 191 

in student days) is fatally fixed upon German prosody and German 

So wir des martrers tryumph loblich feyren, 
Christum den Herren mit lob frolich singen, 
Ausz des erwolung Blasius ist khumen 

In khlaren Hymell. 19 

The most of these hymns have no well-defined scheme of rhyme. 
So learned a metrist as Jakob Minor has no feeling against this 
accentual treatment of the strophe. Accidentally, it tallies with 
the word-accents in Integer vitae, but in such verses as 

Pinus, aut impulsa cupressus Euro 

it ruins the accent of the third word. 

Luther and his immediate imitators had little stomach for 
exotic niceties. Johann Kolrose, in 1532, superimposed upon 
the Sapphic not only end-rhyme, but inner rhyme: 20 

Gott vatter Herre, Sun und haylger gayste, 
Wir bittend seere, dein genad uns layste 
Yetz und am ende, das der feynd nit schende, 

Uns von dir wende. 

The development toward the close of the sixteenth century is 
represented by Thomas Bremel, 21 who accents as in the preceding 
specimen, but uses the forms abab and aabb without inner rhyme. 
This form aabb remains the favorite "Sapphic" throughout the 
eighteenth century, and even until now. Before Klopstock, we 
need note in this field only Pyra and Lange's strange attempts, 
of about 1745, in which the long lines are thrown into a straight- 
away iambic cadence, resembling the original only in having 
eleven syllables and no rhyme (Lange, it is to be recalled, passed 
as the leading Horatian in Germany) : 

Ich hore lauschend auf der Lieder Innhalt, 
Die Zartlichkeit ruhrt meine Brust. Ich fuhle 
Mich selbst. Die Sehnsucht zittert in den Saiten. 
Du denckest an mich! 

Returning to Lessing, we find only one deliverance in regard 
to this measure. In his preface to the works of Mylius (1754) he 
praises particularly certain Sapphic odes, "which keep very 

19 W., II, No. 1398. 

20 W., Ill, No. 118. 
51 W.. V. Nos. 67, 68 

192 Hatfield 

successfully to this delicate metrical form, and have many graceful 
passages" — the "delicate metrical form" being, however, the 
pre-Klopstockian rhymed and accented stanza (the aabb type of 
Bremel), which obviously causes Lessing no distress whatever. 

I venture a few theoretical remarks based upon years of patient 
declamation, and upon the faith that ancient metrists spoke 
intelligently when they asserted that a long syllable has always 
the time-value of two short ones. The essence of the Sapphic, 

in my opinion, is the decorative figure — — ' (also the chief 

ornamental pattern in the Alcaic): psychologically, the lighter 
elan of the trochee is followed by the settling down to a steady 
attack on the part of the spondee. I respectfully reject the 
accepted modern theory that these two units are of the same length 
as musical measures. Sappho and Horace did not toil through 
the night to elaborate this nice combination, if the rhythm moved 
inexorably onward, or failed to stay its feet and make delays. 
The hexameter, to be sure, forges ahead continuously, but these 
interrupted rhythms 22 were also pleasing to the ancient ear. It 
is true that Voss, in his Zeitmessung der deutschen Sprache (1802), 
affirms stoutly: "They all move in the same time, without which 
no order or harmony could exist — for the dance must then degener- 
ate into a disorganized hopping" — but many modern musical 
compositions illustrate my contention. In Wolf-Ferrari's La 
Vita Nuova (Canzone 13) is the movement (through subsequent 
single measures): 44; 3-4; 44; 44; 3-4; 3-4; 3-4; 44; 3-4. So 
in Pierne's St. Francis: 4-4; 3-4; 44. In Harty's Mystic Trum- 
peter, the "Procession of the Priests" (which offers suggestive 
analogies to the movement of the noblest of all Sapphic liturgic 
festival odes) proceeds, "In very precise rhythm," to the cadence: 
3-4; 2-4; 3-4; 2-4; 3-4; 2-4; 3-4; 3-4; 3-4; 2-4; 3-4; 2-4; 3-4; 2-4; 
3-4 — and so on. 

Some time ago the Chicago Choral Society gave an evening of 
Modern Greek Folk Songs. "Song and dance," said Mr. Nicolay, 
in reviewing this performance, "are inseparable in these heroic 
expressions of Greek life. . . . Three types appear to dominate: 
the simple 3-4 rhythm, the 2-4, and an alternate of the two, which 
we commonly call 5-4 rhythm, strongly stressed and regular. 

82 Cf. Quintilian's fercussiones T&raaiiiiM, and his statement that the 
sequence, spondee plus trochee, as a closing prose cadence, was very gratifying 
to him. 

Lessing's Feeling for Classic Rythms 193 

It is remarkable, by the way, that the folk-song of S. E. Europe 
generally seems to find this 5-4 an instinctive dance-step." 

Such steps are not unknown in co-educational circles. The 
well-liked "canter," I am credibly informed, is a waltz-step, 
alternating with a two-step. Mr. Vernon Castle, whose practical 
feeling for rhythms is favorably spoken of, introduced in February 
1914 a new movement which he called "half-and-half." "It is 
really a 5-step," he commented, "and the count goes: 1, 2, 3; 
1, 2. " All this has direct value when applied, for instance, to the 
scansion of Horace. There is no ground for prolonging the second 
syllable in the longer lines: it frequently falls within the bounds 
of a single longer word, where a vicarious lengthening is scarcely 
conceivable. The dance-rhythm is manifest: "Atqui corporis 
quoque motui, et signa pedum non minus saltationi quam modula- 
tionibus adhibet musica ratio numerorum. ' m And the poet's own 
words in his ode dedicating the Carmen Saeculare, 

Lesbium servate pedem, meique 
Pollicis ictum — 

what is this, in effect, but an intimation to the dancing maidens 
and youths that the measure is varied, and that they must "watch 
their step"? 

In later years Lessing showed occasional, though hardly illumi- 
native interest in the whole subject. Klopstock made a short 
visit to Hamburg in June 1767, while Lessing resided in that 
city. The latter wrote to Nicolai on August 4: "Klopstock ist 
hier gewesen, und ich hatte manche angenehme Stunde mit ihm 
haben konnen, vvenn ich sie zu genieszen gewuszt. . . . Er hat 
auch ein ziemlich weitlauftiges Werk von den Griechischen Syl- 
benmaaszen geschrieben; worinn viel gutes kritisches Detail ist." 
It is plain that Lessing evades here any discussion of the remarkable 
substance of Klopstock's long work on metrics. On August 
14, he again writes: "Seit dem ich Klopstocks Abhandlung gelesen 
habe ich ganz eigene Grillen liber die Prosodie gefangen. Ich 
will sie ehstens zu Papier bringen und Ihrer und Moses Beurtheil- 
ung unterwerffen. " 

This project was not carried out, though it is doubtless referred 
to in the letter to Ramler of Nov. 6, 1768, where Lessing asks for 
Ramler's translation of the odes of Horace, with the indication of 

23 Quintal., 9, 4, 139. 

194 Hatfield 

their relative difficulty in reproduction in German, as well as an 
opinion as to their relative rank in euphony. 24 In the Collectanea 
(1768-1775) is preserved a note: 25 "I had once the idea of deter- 
mining the effect of various metrical feet by reference to the dif- 
ferent kinds of pulse-beats. I planned to learn from the physi- 
cians whether (and in what way) a different kind of pulse-beat 
was the especial concomitant of each violent emotion; ... I 
then proposed to investigate the different metrical feet, and make 
sure which one coincided with each especial kind of pulse-beat 
. . . which would naturally, then, be those which best correspond 
to the emotions which are connected with such pulse-beats. . . . 
A physician at Nancy, Mr. Marquet, has published a work "On 
the Method of Determining the Pulse-Rate through Music." 
The Author claims that a natural pulse has the same rhythm as 
the minuet. . . . The more the pulse varies from the cadence 
of the minuet, the more it approaches pathological conditions. 
... I must read this work at my earliest opportunity." We 
find also a suggestion 26 that a study of Ennius's procedure in taking 
over the hexameter into Latin might shed light on the problem 
of writing heroic verse in German. 

The foregoing survey, which is farily complete, leads to group- 
ing Lessing among those of whom Klopstock mildly asserts (I 
am inclined to believe with a direct aim at Lessing): "Es giebt 
Kenner, die zwar die Alten gelesen, aber sich nicht so genau um 
ihre Versarten bekummert h&ben, das sie die Nachahmung dersel- 
ben entscheidend soil ten beurtheilen konnen. " 

James Taft Hatfield. 

Northwestern University. 

24 Ramler himself showed very striking advance in using the forms of 
Horace's odes between, say, 1767 and 1789. 

25 XV, 279. 
* XV, 266.