Martin Opitz, Father of German Poetry: Translation and the Sonnet


In Germany during the Baroque era, the sonnet was at the centre of poetry; gDer beste Prüfstein für die Form eines Dichters im siebzehnten Jahrhundert ist das Sonetth[1].  Martin Opitz (1597-1639) established this genre and this form in Germany – along with a German literary language.


A consideration of the slender foundations on which Opitz built, and of the quality of poetry that followed him, is necessary to demonstrate the magnitude of his achievement.  Passing a cursory eye over the former, we find Christoph Wirsungfs translation of an antipapal sonnet by the reformatory preacher Bernardino Ochino in 1556: the first known sonnet in German.  It is interesting to note that the originalfs rhyme scheme was faithfully maintained – at a heavy price, one line ending with gundh – but every line consists of four beats and an irregular number of unstressed syllables, and ends with a masculine rhyme: a slight and painful extension of Knittelvers.  In the 1570s Fischart wrote seven satirical sonnets with irregular rhymes and metres.  Somewhat more accomplished are the translated sonnets that appeared in Van der Nootfs eDas Buch Extasisf: gdie ersten formvollendeten Sonette in deutscher Spracheh[2].  There were also the poems of Georg Rudolf Weckherlin, gDer erste bedeutende deutsche Lyriker des 17. Jahrhundertsh[3], whose efforts at uniting the rhythm of natural speech to the alexandrine were rendered null and void by the Buch von der deutschen Poeterey.  The reception of the sonnet in Germany was eased by translations of novels, especially of Montreulxfs Les bergeries de Juliette and DfUrféfs Astree.[4]  In general, however, these were isolated, single attempts, unsupported by theory, and not pursued.  There were two separate literatures in Germany before Opitz: Latin, and German, each living in its own tradition.  Moreover, German literature was divided into isolated groups; no writer composed both secular and religious poetry.[5]


Opitz published his book of poetics, the Buch von der deutschen Poeterey, in 1624, to establish the guidelines; the following year, his Acht Bücher Deutscher Poematum provided exemplars.  Each book was devoted to a separate genre, such as spiritual poems, epithalamia, odes and epigrams; the book of sonnets that appeared (Book 7) was the first book of sonnets in German literature; indeed, the very concept of literary genres was new in the German lands, for previously texts had been arranged according to their subject-matter.


The rules that he laid down for sonnet composition are brief and simple: the quatrain must be abba abba with an adherence of one rhyme-sound to a masculine, and the other to a feminine ending; the sestet is more flexible, but ccd eed is recommended; and alexandrines are to be used, preferably in iambs. It is not difficult to understand why he adopted this particular line; although the translations of Van der Noot had had little impact outside Catholic areas, Germany had made the acquaintance of the alexandrine through the Flugblätter printed in Amsterdam and Antwerp[6].  Eventually, these rules would be felt to be too restrictive, as far as metre was concerned; but for their time, they were of the utmost importance.  They provided poets with a framework within which to compose.  The overriding impression created by 17th C sonnets is one of uniformity[7]; exceptions to the standard form, although often popular among anthologists, are in fact very rare outside the Poetics of the time[8].  Opitzfs theory was based on practice; and his book of poetics was as influential in Germany as Pietro Bembofs Prose della Volgar Lingua had been in Italy almost a century earlier.  There had been no detailed account of the principles of sonnet-writing in Elizabethan England; in fact, the term gsonneth itself was rather vague, and could be used to refer to a short love poem (e.g. in Donnefs eSongs and Sonetsf).  The term, and the genre, was not strictly defined at an early stage, as they were in Germany.


In his Übertragungen and Nachdichtungen, Opitz sought to introduce new themes to German literature as well as the linguistic, metrical and poetical means to control them in the German language.  He completely ignored 16th century German forms; however, it would be incorrect to state that his work represented a break from tradition.  It displayed continuity – from the Neolatin tradition; some characteristics of which – rhetorical intensification, exaggerated metaphors – came to typify the eBaroquef style.[9]   This influence is also seen in the name he chose for Volume II of his Weltliche Poemata: Poetische Wälder, for the term eSilvaef represented a collection of various types of poems and dated back to Statius and Quintilian.  Just as Neolatin literature had been the preserve of a humanist elite, so the new German literature was aimed at an elite, erudite audience.  Opitz translates – gaber für diejenigen, welche auch die Originale lesen können; er will ihnen zeigen, wie man diese Texte in dem neuen Stil wiedergeben könne.h[10]  The prestige of vernacular languages had soared since Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) had elevated Petrarca to the status of a modern classic; this provided a model to be imitated.


Opitz set the tone for future German translations of poetry by being gder erste, der sich die Aufgabe stellte, formgetreu zu übersetzenh[11].  However, he was the only translator of his time to adopt this approach.[12]  Those translations of his which stay very close to the content of the original and show some variation in form – eWas will ich über Puschcf (with the rhyme-scheme abba acca ded eff), eBedeutung der Farbenf and eIst Liebe lauter nichtscf (the latter reading abba cddc eff egg) – are early attempts.


He has been praised for the gErfindsamkeit, Leichte und Krafth[13] of his rhymes.  In his early translations, he relies heavily on the original text; in eWas will ich über Puschcf, only bb of the six rhyme-groups is not taken from or suggested by the Dutch poem[14] – an example of his gknack for taking over rhymesh[15].   Thus we have allegiance to the rhyme-word at the expense of the rhyme-scheme[16], which tends to be restrictive; this was however typical of his early translations, and as his technique developed, Opitz learnt that the adherence to a rhyme-scheme is an invitation to creativity, encouraging the translator to follow the original up to a certain point and then subject it to development and amelioration. 


This is another example of the importance of the language from which one translates and its effect on translation theory.  Opitz was influenced by the Netherlands[17], for this land provided an excellent model for Germany to follow; the two peoples were closely related – indeed, writers at the time occasionally talk of Dutch and German as one language, Holland belonged to the German Reich until 1648, and Paul Fleming writes of unser Heinsius and Opitz – and The Netherlands had become a commercially and culturally thriving nation.  The linguistic adoptions that result from such meetings tend to be influenced by cultural, not by linguistic, considerations; hence Japan accepted kanji, despite its insufficiency; hence Russia assumed a metrical system based on syllable number, under Polish influence, until Lomonosov introduced the syllabic-accentual system that is more natural to the language; hence A.W. Schlegelfs view of the Petrarchan sonnet as an ideal form was the result of his encounter with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese literature.  The fact that Opitz could easily carry so many rhymes over from Dutch – in his earlier translations – seems to have played an important part in his later translation practice. 


Moreover, Germany was influenced by Italian, Spanish, French and Dutch Petrarchism, as well as by the Neo-Latin literatures of the forementioned countries and of England and Germany itself; but the English Petrarchism of Wyatt and Surrey was the only branch not to take profitable root in German soil.[18]  The reason is simple: Opitz did not know English.[19]


Yet the importance of chance should not be overemphasised; the element of choice in the adoption of the abba abba octave and the ccd eed sestet must also be stressed.  Opitz was not adopting a foreign form per se to fill a void, but was fixing on the form that he believed to constitute a correct vehicle for a particular poetical genre, and which most appealed to his sensibilities and his concept of decorum.  Daniel Heinsius was the first poet whose texts he translated in any number; he used Heinsiusf form to translate not only the classicist school (Heinsius), but also the freer school (for example, Brederofs eKoortsigh Lietjef, the eFieberliedlinf)[20].  He also neglected the more modern Malherbe and Hooft for Ronsard and Heinsius[21].  The importance of Heinsiusfs example cannot be overstated; here was a renowned classical philologist publishing his Nederduytsche Poemata in 1616.[22]


Opitzfs translations, judged on their own merits, have encountered a mixed reception; those from Ronsard have been placed among his best poems[23]; dissenting voices, such as that of Tonnelat, who found them gfort médiocresh[24], depreciating Opitzfs achievement and exaggerating the merits of Ronsard, are in the minority.  Reviewers of his translations from the French have, on occasion, judged these texts according to their preconceptions of what poetry should be; the comment that Opitz captured none of the spirit of the original is typical in its lack of understanding[25]: he was writing sonnets of the German Baroque, not of the French Renaissance.  W.E. Yates was critical of Opitzfs rendering of Petrarca CXXXII (eIst Liebe lauter nichts/ wie daß sie mich entzündet?f), in which he changes the sense at the very beginning, omits the central 7th line, which encapsulates the paradox of Petrarchan love: gO viva morte, o dilettoso maleh, and often tautologises to fill out a half-line: so in l.3, eSe bonaf becomes eIst sie auch recht und gutf[26].  On the other hand, this translation has been viewed as gein vortreffliches Beispiel, wie Übersetzen eine schöpferische Tätigkeit sein kann und Aufschlüsse über die geistige und dichterische Eigenart des Übersetzers erlaubth[27].


However, a translator must always be judged against his aims; it is a mistake to evaluate the work of 17th C translators according to the modern (Romantic) concept of translation.  Opitz was not attempting to reproduce Petrarca, Ronsard or Heinsius in German; he was marking their work with his own style, indeed vying with the original poet, who served as both model and rival.  His translation of Ronsardfs eJe faisois ces sonnets en lfantre Pieridef (eIch machte diese verß in meiner Pierinnenf) has no interest in Bellona treading a blood-soaked path through France, but rather wishes to apply the content to the Germany of the Thirty Yearsf War[28].  By the same token, when Diederich von der Werder translated Petrarcafs three eAvignonesef sonnets, he was adapting a historical complaint to the present political situation, thus making Rome, rather than Avignon, the den of iniquity.  He may adhere closely to his original, but only because their content is so appropriate to his needs; when he adds a rhyme, he does so to enforce the more pronounced declamatory nature of his invective[29].


The different kinds of translation must also be considered; published translations were regarded as original work, and were not to be confused with word-for-word renditions composed as pure exercises in style[30].  This is not to say, however, that the published translations were any less important in the formation of the poetfs style.  Yet the point must be made that the word-for-word renditions were regarded as translations, while the published translations were not.  Translation was valued less than Imitation.[31] Renerfs Übersetzung-Interpretatio-Imitatio is similar to Drydenfs tripartite division.  There is also the important fact that the reader was expected to be familiar with the source of the translation; in such circumstances, the translator invites comparison of the new creation with the old, so that the reader may observe how the source has been assimilated into – and improved through – the German literary tradition.  However, although Opitzfs translations differed from the originals, and were intended and felt to be different, the fact that they were regarded as original work rather than as translations weakens this sense of difference; the concept of eothernessf in translation appears first with the German Romantics.  Perhaps Opitzfs efforts should be designated as Übertragung rather than Übersetzung.


Opitz has often had his limitations as a poet exaggerated.  It is true that gEr bringt zu oft Formel statt Bildh[32] and many of his translations were of decidedly average texts; he did translate on his level[33].  However, his work in this field was successful both on a personal artistic level – leading to the fine TrostGedichte In Widerwertigkeit Deß Krieges (1633) – and on a much greater level: the Opitzian form, deeply intensified but otherwise little altered, would give to world literature the sonnets of Andreas Gryphius; and his most influential sonnets were those based on foreign models.  His practice of writing one, and only one, sonnet on a new theme – whether the sick, dying man, or the enumeration of the belovedfs physical features in mounting antitheses leading to a summarising accumulation at the end – left those who followed him ample opportunity to develop that theme.[34]  Above all, he possessed the gFähigkeit, gerade jene literarische Formen und Inhalten aufzugreifen, die in seiner Zeit entwicklungsfähig warenh[35].  Opitz himself knew that he was blazing a trail for greater poets to follow; he was meeting the needs of his time and preparing for the future.[36]  He was idolised by his contemporaries and for a long time following[37]; but paradoxically, his success as a translator led to the neglect of the art of translation in the following generation.  The German authors who followed him were interested in his manner of composition, not in his manner of translation; indeed, his poetics were concerned with the method of composing poetry, not of translation.  The art is seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself; as scaffolding to be removed; as foundations to remain unseen and unregarded.  As in England in the previous century, translation was summoned to assist an impoverished language and literature and then discharged when its task was considered to have been completed.  Political isolation and cultural insularity meant that the achievement of Opitz ultimately came to nought, for there was no way of sustaining the quality of poetry that sprang from his example, and German Literature had to be reborn again.








[1] Rudolf Ibel, eStudien zum Formkunst Hofmanns von Hofmannswaldauf, Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 51 (1926), p. 445.

[2] Karl Wolfskehl, quoted in Leonard Forster, Die Niederlände und die Anfänge der deutschen Barocklyrik (Groningen: Wolters, 1967), p. 10.

[3] Silvia Weimar-Kluser, Die höfische Dichtung Georg Rudolf Weckherlins (Frankfurt am Main: 1971), p.  7.

[4] Leighton, eDas barocke Sonett als Gelegenheitsgedichtf in Martin Bircher and Eberhard Mannack (eds)  Deutsche Barockliteratur und europäische Kultur: Zweites Jahrestreffen des Internationalen Arbeitskreises für deutsche Barockliteratur in der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel 28. bis 31. August 1976 (Hamburg: Dr Ernst Hauswedell & Co. Verlag 1977), 141-167, here 151.

[5] Erich Trunz (ed), Martin Opitz.  Weltliche Poemata II Teil (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1975), p. 45*.

[6] See Forster, n. 2.

[7] Quirinus Kuhlmann and Christian Gryphius both wrote a number of sonnets (11 and 13 respectively) with cross-rhymed octets, but the dominance of enclosed rhyme was overwhelming.  Andreas Gryphius experimented considerably with metre, but not with this device.

[8] Leighton, eDeutsche Sonett-Theorief, p. 23.

[9] Volker Meid, Barocklyrik (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1986), p. 4.

[10] Trunz (1975), p. 15*.

[11] Trunz (1975), p.27*.

[12] Trunz (1975), p. 27*.

[13] Herbert Cysarz, eMartin Opitz.  Drei Sonettef in Benno von Wiese (ed.), Die deutsche Lyrik.  Form und Geschichte (Düsseldorf: August Bagel Verlag, 1964), p.120.

[14] Janis L. Gellinek, Die weltliche Lyrik des Martin Opitz (Bern/München: Francke Verlag, 1973), p. 99.  The translations of Jan Van der Nootfs sonnets in the eTheatrumf (1572) attributed to Balthasar Froe generally retained the Dutch rhyme words, even when this provided assonance in German (e.g. geschlichen/streichen): Leonard Forster, Die Niederlände und die Anfänge der Barocklyrik in Deutschland (Groningen: J.B. Wolters, 1967), p. 6.

[15] Theo Weevers, eSome unrecorded Dutch originals of Opitzf, Neophilologus, 23 (1938), p. 196.

[16] This suggestion of rhyme, most notable in those languages closely related to onefs mother tongue, is an important motivation in translation.  This sometimes has the result of a mediocre sonnet being translated because its rhymes suggest corresponding rhymes in the target tongue.

[17] And the Netherlands had experienced French, not Italian, influence.  Indeed, the strongest Italian influence had been felt in Spain, in the generation of Garcilaso de la Vega (1503-36) (Walter Mönch, Das Sonett: Gestalt und Geschichte, p. 22)

[18] Hans Pyritz, Paul Flemings deutsche Liebeslyrik.  Zur Geschichte des Petrarkismus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963): „Allein der englische Petrarkismus (Wyatt, Surrey) hat keine nennenswerten Spuren in Deutschland hinterlasseng, p. 150.

[19] In The Netherlands at this time, only Joost van den Vondel occasionally attempted a Shakespearean sonnet; he did not, however, know English. (A.J. Barnouw, eJoost van den Vondelf in Seventeenth Century Studies. Presented to Sir Herbert Grierson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938, pp. 105-128, here pp. 111-112.

[20] Ferdinand van Ingen, eDo ut res. Holländisch-deutsche Wechselbeziehungen im 17.

Jahrhundertf in Bircher & Mannack (ed.), p. 80.

[21] Leonard Forster, The Icy Fire: Five Studies in European Petrarchism (Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 72.

[22] Van Ingen, op. cit., (n.21), p. 80.

[23] Janis L. Gellinek, eOpitzf Liebessonette nach Ronsardf in Hoffmeister (ed.), p.85.  Gellinek praises the translations for being more dynamic than the French and for making the static original dramatic.

[24] eDeux imitateurs allemands de Ronsard: G.R. Weckherlin et Martin Opitzf in Revue de Littérature Comparée 4 (1924), pp. 557-589, here p.584.

[25] Fritz Strich, Der Lyrische Stil des 17. Jahrhundertsf in Richard Alewyn (ed), Deutsche Barockforschung (Köln/Berlin, 4th ed, 1970), pp. 229-59.

[26] W.E. Yates (Frankfurt: 1981), p.43.  And see Forster, The Icy Fire, p. 6.

[27] Janis L. Gellinek, Die weltliche Lyrik des Martin Opitz (Bern/München: Francke Verlag, 1973), p.103.

[28] Günther Weydt, eNeuerung und Schöpfung bei Opitz.  Die frühen Sonette und das Werk der Veronica Gambaraf, Euphorion 50 (1956), pp.23-4.

[29] Dünnhaupt, ePetrarch in Germany during the Thirty Yearsf Warf, pp. 432-437.

[30] Frederick M. Rener, eOpitzf Sonett an die Bienenf in Hoffmeister (ed.), pp. 67-84.

[31] Adelheid Beckmann, Motive und Formen der deutschen Lyrik des 17. Jahrhunderts und ihre Entsprechungen in der französischen Lyrik seit Ronsard (Tübingen, 1960), p. 22.

[32] Weydt, Euphorion 50 (1956), p. 19.

[33] Theo Weevers, eSome unrecorded Dutch originals of Opitzf, Neophilologus, 23 (1938), p. 197.

[34] With regard to the first theme, his translation of Ronsardfs gJe nfai plus que les osh (gIch bin nur Haut und Beinh) led to Gryphiusfs gIch bin nicht / der ich warh, gTränen in schwerer Krankheith and gAn Sich Selbst.h  The second theme was continued by Finckelthaus, Zesen and Hofmannswaldau (Meid 1986, p. 75; Trunz 1975, pp. 80-81*).

[35] Klaus Gysi et al (ed.), Geschichte der deutschen Literatur (Berlin: Volk und Wissen Volkseigener Verlag, 1963), p. 126.

[36] „Es wird in künftig noch die Bahn so ich gebrochen / Der so geschickter ist nach mir zu bessern sucheng in Trostgedicht I.  I cannot find this excellent poem on the Internet.

[37] In 17th century German, his fame was greater than that of Gryphius.  Harsdörfferfs criticism – that Opitz was no poet, for he translated much and created little – was that of a lone voice.  The likes of Schottellius, Morhof and Leibniz praised him for his translations and his formation of the German literary language (Trunz 1975, p. 96*; pp. 105-110*).