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The early death of Wilhelm Scherer, Professor of the German 
Language and Literature in the University of Berlin, removes 
perhaps the most eminent of German philologists and literary 
historians. He died in Berlin, August 8, 1886. The philological 
gifts and varied knowledge of literature which were united in him 
makes his death in the maturity of his powers a loss to the learning 
of his native land. 

He was born in Schonborn, in Lower Austria, April 26, 184 1. 
His father was Oberamtmann of the Counts of Schonborn. He 
was educated first at the elementary school of a Bohemian teacher 
in Gollersdorf, and later in the Academic Gymnasium and Univer- 
sity of Vienna, which latter he entered when only seventeen years 
of age. Here he was perhaps influenced most by Franz Pfeiffer, and 
a permanent direction given to his later studies. As a youth he 
had his literary heroes, who inspired him with enthusiasm for cer- 
tain ideas which characterize his writings. From the works of 
Jacob Grimm he learned the contribution which language makes 
to our knowledge of the life, history and religion of early times. 
Herder's views of history caused him to see the unity which 
underlies historic phenomena, and that the present is the culmina- 
tion of the past and the prophecy of the future. He was power- 
fully affected by two writers, whose early united labors exerted a 
wide influence in criticism and politics in the nation, viz. Gustav 
Freytag and Julian Schmidt. They brought a sober, if frequently 
a harsh, judgment to bear on the productions of " Young Ger- 
many," and in politics their views of constitutional liberty were a 
balance against feverish outcries for freedom, as well as against 
arbitrary authority. Freytag's enthusiasm for German nationality 
colored the views of his young disciple. In a letter to him, he 
says : " No one, in my youthful years, filled me with such a love 
for our people as you. What an advantage ! what good fortune 
for a German- Austrian ! I was freed from all jealous distinctions 
between the Austrians and the Germans of the Empire. I felt 
that I was one with our people, and was happy in this feeling. I 
gained a new basis for my whole moral being, a fixed direction, an 
immovable support, a richer background, if I may so express it, 
and deeper roots of existence." 


These words are important as representing views that shaped 
his career as well as directed his intellectual activity. His early 
indebtedness to Julian Schmidt became a permanent one; his early 
regard for him never wavered, and he continued to place confidence 
in his literary judgments, however the popular estimate of his works 
may have varied. 

After two years in the University of Vienna, he went to Berlin. 
Jacob Grimm was still living, in the fullness of his fame. Haupt, 
and Miillenhoffwho had just left Breslau and entered upon his 
career in Berlin, became his friends and teachers. Scherer studied 
comparative philology with Bopp, and Sanskrit with Weber, and 
the history of German law with Homeyer. He gained not only 
in breadth of knowledge, but in a stricter scientific method. The 
confidence which his teacher, Mullenhoff, placed in him caused 
the latter to associate the young student, then only twenty-one 
years old, with him in the work of revising his Denkmaler 
deutscher Poesie und Prosa aus dem VIII-XII Jahrhundert, 
calling him "just such a colaborer as he desired." Scherer revised 
the text of this work and wrote the notes which accompanied the 
prose extracts, and part of those on the poetry. 

His studies were directed to the life as well as the language of 
the early Germans, and he made profound researches in the music 
as well as the theology of the Middle Ages. 

A characteristic picture of Scherer at this time is seen in the 
following incident. Jacob Grimm died Sept. 20, 1863. Two days 
passed, and no notice of his death or of his wonderful contribu- 
tions to German learning had been published. The young 
Scherer was amazed at this oversight, and called at the office 
of the Berliner Allgemeine Zeitung to inquire the reason ; the 
greatest of German philologists was dead, and no recognition of a 
life that had cast a glory upon his country had appeared. The 
editor asked the young man why he did not write a fitting notice 
of his teacher. This was the occasion of his effort to erect a 
worthy memorial of the scholar who was as illustrious for his 
character and simple manhood as for his learning. He consented, 
and on Sept. 24 his tribute was published. This graceful and 
appreciative sketch, rapid in its summaries, and conceived in the 
spirit of profound reverence, is a glowing estimate of the work of 
the great master. It became the basis of his monograph on Jacob 
Grimm. One of Scherer's latest tasks was to prepare a new 
edition of this, his earliest work, for the one-hundredth anniversary 


of the birth of Jacob Grimm. The controversy respecting the 
unity and authorship of the Nibelungenlied, which was begun by 
Lachmann, created at that time heated divisions among German 
scholars. Scherer had adopted the views of Lachmann and Miil- 
lenhoff, and thus placed himself in the ranks of those who were 
opposed to his old teacher, Pfeiffer, an attitude which separated 
them when, in 1864, he became Privat-Docent in the University of 
Vienna. Here his lectures attracted immediate attention. His 
scholarship was not only accurate and varied, but his reputation 
was already brilliant ; his achievements, for one so young, were 
already of extraordinary merit. His room was crowded with 
eager listeners. His lectures were marked by a graceful style and 
brilliant generalizations, which are so attractive to youthful students. 
His sympathetic address and power of lucid presentation of the 
facts of language were not the only elements of his success. 
Literature had to him a value as the embodiment of national life, 
and as presenting the history of the world's intellectual growth. 
His article on the Unity of the German Language begins with the 
words : " The history of our language is, in a certain degree, the 
history of our people itself." He sought to find in language a 
revelation of life and an index of popular culture. He thus 
appealed to broad, human interests even in scientific study : 
what had been technical and verbal in the instruction of others, 
under his treatment cast light upon the problems of early culture 
and history. His views differed from those of his colleague, Franz 
Pfeiffer, and his ardent espousal and successful defense of his 
opinions created a divergence of feeling. The clearness and skill 
with which Scherer discussed any subject, and the literary charm 
which was unknown in the treatment of philological questions, 
created a distrust of his learning. Reviewers called him a "feuil- 
letonist " ; others characterized one of his books as "parlor lectures 
to ladies "; but able scholars even who differed from him recog- 
nized his pre-eminent merit. 

Scherer was dissatisfied with his position in Vienna, when he was 
called to professorships in Graz and in Wtlrzburg. He was 
wavering in the direction of his future, when his old teacher, 
Pfeiffer, died, and in 1867 he was chosen his successor. He was 
thus elected, when only twenty-six years old, to one of the most 
important chairs in what was then one of the largest universities 
of Europe. Scherer's literary productiveness in his new sphere was 
marvellous, and was not limited to a single field. His entrance 


upon his professorship was signalized by the publication of his 
work Zur deutschen Sprache. This book exemplifies Scherer's 
strength and weakness. Many of its views are now obsolete, but 
at its appearance it was regarded as a work phenomenal in sug- 
gestiveness. It sought to find a simple historical explanation of 
Germanic inflexions in certain Arian forms. That this work was 
a safe guide, in many of the matters of which it treats, no one now 
holds. Its bold hypotheses, its discernment of unity in diversity, 
even if not soundly based, gave a glimpse of analogies and sugges- 
tions of truth which, though not final, paved the way for much that 
was valuable to come. There is a press, a rush of thought in all 
that Scherer writes, a struggle to attain that which is visionary and 
ideal, which is, after all, the only real. The present work shows 
how out from a chaos of facts he sought to attain principles, and 
these principles must be permanent elements of intellectual life and 
expression. Something unattained always urges him on : he does 
not rest in what has been achieved, but in what lies beyond. 

Herder's Ideen gave him early the conception of harmony in 
history, of a definite goal in the progress of humanity. Buckle's 
History gave him a taste for brilliant hypotheses. What was out- 
side the mere study of language and beyond it, guided his studies 
in philology itself. Scherer's extensive knowledge of theories 
appears throughout this work ; everywhere is manifest the search 
for unity, for controlling principles that will harmonize facts. In 
this fertility of ideas, much that was casual and fanciful, based upon 
an assumed analogy or on uncertain form, has been set aside by 
later investigation. Much that was suggestive has led beyond 
itself to higher truth. There is everywhere the effort to empha- 
size the influence of mind upon form, of spiritual and historical 
influences in shaping speech. The elder school of philologists 
were amazed at the exaltation of forces in language of which they 
had not dreamed, often with a sweep of assurance hitherto unknown. 
This was the cause of much of the distrust and contention which 
Scherer encountered in his early years. Everything is stated with 
the marvellous clearness which characterized his mind, and with a 
felicity of style, a philosophy, a range of inference and conclusion, 
quite unknown in discussing this class of subjects. Untenable 
opinions he frankly abandoned, and was the first to recognize the 
advance of science beyond his own view. 

The growing reputation of the young Privat-Docent, and the 
popularity of his lectures, created envy. He was soon chosen a 


Corresponding Member of the Imperial Academy, to which he 
contributed his Leben Willirams. Two years later the Franco- 
German war broke out. Scherer's ardent Germanism led him to 
espouse the German side ; to him the success of the German arms 
was the triumph of nationality, the revival of the ancient glory of 
Germany, which could only be true to its destiny when politically 
free. The preface of his edition of Grimm's Grammar trembles 
with patriotic fervor. He advocated the German cause in his 
lectures and writings. He carried the enthusiasm of his student 
friends with him, but the adoption in a professor's chair of current 
and, in part, unpopular views, created a strong feeling on the 
part of the upper classes against him. He was warned by the 
university authorities to moderate the expression of his views, but 
his patriotism flamed out with a kind of defiance. The success of 
the German arms, and the foundation of the new Imperial University 
at Strassburg, to which he was summoned, alone prevented legal 
proceedings in the courts against him. Scherer's work at Strass- 
burg was in the highest degree successful. His fame attracted 
numerous students, and the ample equipment of his department 
made its results noteworthy. He interested himself in the literary 
history and culture of the newly-acquired German provinces, 
and, in connection with ten Brink, planned the series of contribu- 
tions to German literature and philology published under the title 
Quellen und Forschungen zur Sprach- und Culturgeschichte der 
germanischen Volker. 

Scherer possessed the qualities which stimulated and directed 
work in others, and an estimate of his life must embrace not only 
his own literary activity, but the forces which he set in motion. 
The period of his Strassburg residence is marked by extraordi- 
nary productivity, especially in publications upon the poetry of the 
eleventh and twelfth centuries. 

Scherer's part in the revision of Grimm's Grammar was confined 
to the incorporation in the text of the notes in Grimm's interleaved 
copy. The work involved was great, but Scherer attached little 
value to his part in it, as he could not attempt a revision of the 
views and his work was limited to the correction of obvious errors. 
Many essential changes which Grimm had seen necessary, and 
noted, could not be incorporated without a radical change in the 
proof references. If the result was unsatisfactory, the theory upon 
which the new edition was undertaken made it so. 

In 1877 Scherer accepted a call to a professorship in the Univer- 


sity of Berlin, not without great regret in leaving the field of his 
activity in Strassburg. Here the same activity was continued, and 
the range of his studies extended and included the modern writers 
of Germany, and even reviews of works in foreign literature. The 
versatility of his mind could not be limited. 

Only two years before his death he had been greeted by the 
historian Mommsen, upon his election to the Royal Academy of 
Berlin, as the " many-sided and widely-active investigator, the 
scholar of rich fruit and richer hope." His life ended when fullest 
of purpose, and when he had assumed labors which would have 
appalled another. He had undertaken to prepare the Altertums- 
kunde of his revered teacher, Mullenhoff, for the press, only one 
volume of which had been issued, and he had become one of the 
editors of the standard edition of Goethe's works. 

It was by the advice of his revered teacher and friend, Mullen- 
hoff, that he undertook his History of German Literature. This 
work was published in parts as it was completed. The amount of 
reading and critical investigation which was necessary in connec- 
tion with it can be judged in part from the vast range of citations 
in the bibliography. Its preparation was accompanied by the active 
discharge of the duties of his professorship and numerous subordi- 
nate literary occupations. He often wrote of the " terrible press- 
ure " of the task which he had undertaken. In this History of 
German Literature there was ample scope for his wide learning as 
well as his critical ability, and it will remain the most permanent 
memorial of his genius. 

He treats the history of German literature in a few great epochs: 
the early Germans and their condition in the time of the Romans ; 
the origin and development of the heroic songs in the period of 
the migration of nations and in the Merovingian epoch ; the 
mediaeval renascence under the Carlovingians and Othos ; the 
Old High-German period ; the Middle High-German epic and 
lyric poetry ; the transition to the Reformation, and from the 
Reformation to the death of Luther. The author lingers long over 
works and writers which have affected profoundly or stimulatingly 
the life of the people, but minor authors are unnoticed, or assigned 
to their true place in a few words. His History is like that of 
Taine, a study not merely of men and books, but of literature as 
relating to the intellectual life of the time. No great work, either 
of literature or art, can be independent of the people and times 
which produced it : they are the soil out of which it grew. The 


tragedies of fate of the Greeks could only have originated amid 
the beautiful but paralyzing faith of Greece. As our knowledge of 
the history and of the environments of a work becomes more 
complete, the aim of tendenz writings is better interpreted. 
Literary estimates will vary as the view of the historian judges 
the past from the present, or studies the past in itself as the parent 
of a new future. The value of a work may be local and temporary, 
and its mission limited to its own age, or it may have a perennial 
interest, and the author be the " eternal child " described by 
Emerson, whose revelation of truth is a fountain out of which all 
nations delight to drink. Most authors fulfil their destiny and are 
lost in the waves of the grand advance. 

Occasionally the significance of a name among contemporaries 
is not fully recognized in this work. Thus Rist was praised in 
his day above Opitz as " princeps poetarum totius Germaniae "; 
his immense activity and the wide scope of his influence could 
not be gathered from these pages. As extensive as Scherer's 
learning is, it does not load or encumber his pages. Salient facts 
are selected and the narrative flows on uninterruptedly ; the 
essential is uniformly presented, and nothing extraneous intro- 
duced. The history, however, often gains greatly by the delicate 
comparisons or references to English and French literature. 
Scherer is a German, but his judgment is seldom local or national ; 
hence his book acquires a cosmopolitan character and value. 
There are graceful interpretative passages, full of suggestion, the 
product of wide reading and skillful generalization. " The highest 
ideal known to declining Rome in the intellectual sphere was 
Christianity, and the possession of the Bible has the same signifi- 
cance in the intellectual and religious sphere that the possession of 
Rome and Italy has in the political." " Dietrich of Bern has that 
moral depth which heavy and enduring ill, worthily borne, imparts 
to man." 

In analyzing the Nibelungenlied, we do not think he does full 
justice to the canto which contains the death of Rudiger, which, in 
our judgment, is the finest in the whole poem in psychological 
and splendid depiction of passion, of noble moral greatness, with 
loyal devotion to his promise, and in the conflict of motives. 
There are passages in which we cannot resist the feeling that 
rhetorical effect, even though most skilfully attained, betrays the 
author into antitheses and generalizations which are more striking 
than profound. 


While Scherer's power is remarkable in the rapid summary of 
the striking events of a period, it is in such groupings that we 
most often find occasion to take exception to certain assumed facts 
and conclusions. He hardly does justice to the poetic spirit 
of the author of the Heliand. The formal, mechanical verse 
and narrative of the Evangelienharmonie of Otfrid apparently 
possess greater merit in his view than the Heliand, with its moral 
earnestness and charmingly naive description of character, which is 
more true to the German spirit. Scherer's whole treatment of the 
Heliand is an example of a loose discrimination which a careful 
examination will find in many of his estimates. The poet of the 
Heliand stands, in his judgment, on the same level as the Anglo- 
Saxon priests : " The German poet could learn much from the 
English." " The Heliand is really no epic at all, but just the 
didactic poem which its author meant it to be." But he has previ- 
ously said that the poet " transferred the spirit and costume of the 
secular epic to subjects which, from their very nature, were little 
fitted for such treatment. He makes the most of incidents, such 
as banquets and storms, which lend themselves to the established 
methods of epic description." Again, the poet carefully omits the 
humiliating command which bade men present the other cheek to 
the smiter, " but he could not in the same way suppress the story 
of the flight of the Disciples after the betrayal. They were guilty 
of one of the blackest crimes known to the German moral code, 
and yet they were holy men for whom the poet wishes to inspire 
veneration. ... A true German would have accused those 
prophets of lying." 

While loyalty to a chief was a characteristic of the early German 
spirit, flight before a more powerful enemy was often no occasion 
of reproach. Nothing could have been more natural in the work 
of a German poet who was accommodating a new moral code to 
the popular spirit of his countrymen than his representation of 
this scene. Scherer, in speaking of the inferiority of the Heliand 
to the Anglo-Saxon poems, does not mention that Caedmon's 
Genesis is borrowed from the Heliand. It is too early to deter- 
mine, while investigations of the relations of Norse to Roman 
mythology are still incomplete, how far we may receive the tradi- 
tional German Olympus, whose description by Miillenhoff shows 
manifest traces of elaboration from classic conceptions. 

The treatment of the various periods and authors is, in general, 
skilfully proportioned to their relative importance. The arrange- 


ment by subjects, in which the characteristic literature of a period 
is discussed, occasions often a derangement of the proper succes- 
sion of authors. Thus we find, under the heading " The Mediaeval 
Renaissance," the writings of the nun Roswitha (963) described ; 
later we find the Ludwigslied (881) mentioned. There are other 
breaks in the continuity of the narrative, with, however, the general 
advantage of grouping the literature of a particular type. 

The treatment is artistic ; there is none of the padding of unillus- 
trative quotation which characterizes so much of Julian Schmidt's 
historical work, but there is everywhere manifest the humane 
influence of literature. Literature as it affects life is the deep 
undercurrent of the whole History. There are references to other 
forces than the purely literary. The relations of politics, of music, 
of science and the arts to the popular and intellectual life are finely 
portrayed. The first volume covers the history of the literature 
to the time of Frederick the Great ; the second extends from this 
period to Goethe's death. 

Though a Catholic, Scherer's judgment of Luther and the 
mediaeval Church is clear and judicial. Hardly any reforming 
and purifying force that flowed from that mighty upheaval is left 

There are many passages full of wide suggestiveness outside 
the province of mere literary history, as the following from the 
chapter on the Goths : " We can only guess at the causes which 
influenced the people to forsake their old gods. The most 
important was the migration itself, the changed conditions which 
arose from the total change of locality. To leave their old 
homes, to leave the sanctuary of their tribe, where they assembled 
for their religious festivals, and the sacred groves in which the 
gods dwelt — this in itself was a great wrench. A time of great 
deeds, but also of great suffering, ensued. The excitement of the 
struggle for existence might nerve and elevate the hearts of kings 
and nobles, yet the mass of the people were, without doubt, 
exposed to extreme distress. They invoked the old gods, and finding 
no succor, began to lose faith in them. Why should they not try 
the new God, to whom the Greeks and Romans raised innumer- 
able churches and altars — the gentle and merciful God, the God of 
the poor and needy, who had Himself suffered the greatest indig- 
nities ? Even the Roman emperor bowed before this God ; and 
He must surely be the most powerful Deity to whom the emperor 
himself could appeal for help. While these were probably the 


feelings of the people, their chiefs, on the other hand, had good 
political reasons for offering homage to the God of the Byzantine 
Empire: they might thus acquire land, and favor with the emperor. 
So the vigilant Christian missionaries found ready listeners in 
chiefs and people." 

Occasionally the merits or defects of an author are represented 
by a graphic touch which mirrors forever his strength and weak- 
ness. Of Laufenberg's hymns : " His elegant and melodious 
hymns sounded far more secular than religious; they shed an 
unholy splendor round the sublime subjects of which they sang, 
and drew divine things down to an earthly level." 

" Luther's pre-eminent authority was not altogether a blessing 
for his church ; it became also a weapon of intolerance, and a 
source of dissension." 

" Luther, too, had imbibed the elements of humanistic culture, 
but he was not a true Humanist. He could esteem a few didactic 
productions of classical poetry and science, but the beauty of the 
classical authors left no impression on him. In the Scriptures he 
found both beauty and wisdom, and that sufficed him." 

"As early as the eighteenth century science had suffered from 
the growing power of poetic imagination. Goethe, in despising 
mere analysis and mathematical calculation, was only realizing and 
strengthening the predominant tendency of the age. . . . Men's 
excited imagination scorned colorless abstractions, and demanded 
glowing life in everything. Nature's secrets were now no longer to 
be wrung from her by the forcible method of experiment. . . . 
The sensuous perception, which had been quickened and trained 
by the contemplation of the most sublime works of art, proved of 
great use in mineralogy. To distinguish and establish the char- 
acters of nations and countries was a poetical as much as a 
geographical task." 

"Jean Paul had a great gift of humor, a rich imagination, and a 
strong faculty for catching the poetical aspect of everything. His 
narrative is broad and animated, full of life and action, but he 
seldom fuses his materials together into an artistic whole, and his 
writing shows the same want of force as Sterne's. His style is 
overladen with encyclopaedic knowledge, far-fetched metaphors, 
parentheses and digressions ; his sentences are awkward, and he 
does not even shrink from violations of good taste : subjects the most 
wide apart jostle each other, and the author seems to delight in 
jumping from one extreme of feeling to another." 


The treatment of the philosophical writers in a general history of 
literature is necessary in order to show their effect on contemporary 
thought. The criticism of the philosophers does not discuss the 
profounder problems of their works, but describes their literary 
influence. Scherer has often studied effect more than cause ; he 
is throughout more objective than subjective in his treatment. He 
is less a philosopher than Gervinus and more an interpretative 

Hamann's influence, which is now fully recognized in Ger- 
many, although little known in England, is briefly outlined. The 
thoughts of this great man have exerted their power on a few 
enthusiastic disciples, and not upon the literary public directly. 
He has not, like Emerson, had his opinions adopted and promul- 
gated by a school, thus reaching by intervention a universal 

The chapter on Romanticism in its relation to science, phi- 
lology, philosophy and history is a vivid grouping of the forces 
that flowed from this remarkable manifestation. Although brilliant, 
there are manifest defects : the relation of Schiller and Goethe to 
the Romantic School, the " negative preparation," and the social 
influence of Romanticism as shown in the writings of Friedrich 
Schlegel and Tieck, so admirably presented by Brandes, are not 
adequately treated, and leave untouched some of the most promi- 
nent tendencies of this school. 

Among the errors in translation, we note, Vol. II, pages 284 and 
291, "feigned autobiographies," applied to Moritz's novel, Anton 
Reiser, which is really a Selbstbiographie , a hidden autobiography. 
The name of Karl Follen, Vol. II 268, appears in its Latinized form, 
Follenius. There are occasionally condensed statements which 
Scherer would himself have modified : " The translation of Ulfilas 
is a literal reproduction in Gothic of the Greek text." There are 
traces of the Itala and the Old-Latin versions. We cannot agree 
in calling the Elective Affinities the " epic masterpiece of the whole 
period from Schiller's death to Goethe's." 

The History is accompanied by an appendix containing notes 
and authorities which will be of high value to all students of Ger- 
man literature who would be at a loss in the presence of the count- 
less biographies, literary histories, commentaries and critical 
treatises on the whole or special fields of German literature. 

The chronology in the period covered by Grimm's Life of Goethe 
is taken in part directly from that work ; the statements for the 


years 1783, 1785, 1786, 1787 are identical ; it is in itself a sug- 
gestive outline of the order and relation of the different writers 
and their works, while the bibliography is an admirable presenta- 
tion of the best editions of the various works in German literature, 
often with brief and critical estimates of the merits of different 
editors and the results attained by their investigations. The 
fullness and accuracy of Professor Scherer's knowledge are shown 
by the wide range of citation of special monographs or isolated 
discussions treating of minor or related questions in biography or 
the history of the intellectual development of Germany. 

The English version of Scherer's History is, on the whole, 
excellent. It is faithful, and may enjoy the high praise that it does 
not read like a translation. There are, however, numerous omis- 
sions of from ten to twenty lines without apparent cause. These 
are of no great importance, but prevent the work from being an 
exact reproduction of the original. 

The name of Max Miiller on the title-page is apparently a pub- 
lisher's device to attract attention to a work whose merit would 
not be increased by such an addition. It exhibits no trace of his 
editing, though his advice may have accompanied his daughter, 
Mrs. Conybeare, in her work of translation. 

Waterman Thomas Hewett.