Sturm und Drang

Literally, storm and stress, Sturm und Drang was a literary viewpoint, a brief, creative movement. The vitality, a flower thrust center point, then lashed to a backdrop of ominous foreboding—extremes, melodramatic, powerful in contrast. There’s beauty in forces greater than ourselves, and amplify the effect with an innocent, frail subject. This, I contend, is a component in our modern perception of the Romantic movement, posing a meek protagonist against a supernatural antagonist. ie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which contrasted the romantic ideal, a beautiful woman of purity against horrific presence. Consider the old silent movies, wherein heroine is tormented by magnificent evil. Gothic architecture of the middle ages was ‘rediscovered’, needle church spires stabbing a painter’s sky, dramatic angled light and shadow. Artists started portraying impending storms in the backdrops with dramatic subjects in the foreground. The power of nature’s fury provided art so much more impact by empathizing our insignificance—classic sturm und drang.

Sturm und Drang” [Storm and Stress] is the name of a fairly brief (approximately 1767-1786) but highly productive period in German literature situated between the literary manifestations of the Enlightenment and Weimar Classicism. This period is also called Geniezeit [the era of “universal”, “original” or “powerful” genius]. The established English translation “Storm and Stress” is not entirely felicitous: “passion and energy” or “energy and rebellion” would be more appropriate. Sturm und Drang derives its name from a drama by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger (1752-1831) originally titled WirrwarrChaos] and re-named Sturm und Drang

Citation: Knapp, Gerhard P.. “Sturm und Drang [Storm and Stress]”
The Literary Encyclopedia. 13 February 2003
Gerhard P. Knapp (University of Utah)

It appears that extreme experimentation among past writers has influenced our romantic ideals of today. Poets of the latter Victorian era expressed the sublimely beautiful, and that was made all the more extreme by contrasting with tragedy. In the poetry of modern, young writers, I pick up on the dramatic appeal of contrast. It’s root is probably as old as yin yang or Grecian-Roman drama; opposites are represented in so many cultures, but writers of the sturm und drang salons were breaking ground in a tumultuous, surround sound, stiletto vs purity, neo-classical sort of way. Exhale.

Searching sturm und drang or ‘storm and stress’ on the web begets a selection of romantic extremism from our musical friends. Even ‘Romantic Tragedy’ is a band name. In media, recognize sturm und drang’s powerful thrust, made more extreme by juxtaposing frailty: sublime beauty sings softly before a world enraged. And generally one of the two extremes has the refined quality of classical detail. But go to the images and look at the art—purity with a backdrop of darkness. Many artists also create the opposite effect, demonstrating a vista of serene beauty with a focal point of evil. For the artist that is the writer, these trains of thought and themes can be woven into the textual framework: Pacing, dramatic word choice, subtlety contrasting sudden harshness, a benign plot torn by an extreme character. Explore the style, it seems vogue again.

Romantic images:
powerful storm/frail self

The verbs are given a dramatic twist, too—just digging for an old poetry generator that gives a pretty cool example of the poetic time period—got it!

Untitled by gaboo

the night falls with a silent sigh, stricken are we.
the salvation for which you sacrifice yourself
flares once, then dies,
devoured by the all-encompassing dark.
all hope must not endure.

your heart desires no more.
how could you abandon me?
lost souls surround us, crying,

That was fun. Oh well, there’s probably a thousand other word curious that got the same output as me. Who were some of those early, emotionally extreme poets?

Any research into the sublime will take you to Wordsworth and Coleridge, in particular, “The Climbing of Snowdon” (from Thirteen Book Prelude Book XIII). Here’s White, talking about Burke, talking about Wordsworth, talking about the moon.[1] And all refers to the “sublime moment” in Wordsworth’s line:

… I looked about and lo!
The moon stood naked in the heavens at height
Immense above my head, and on the shore
I found myself of a huge sea of mist
Which meek and silent rested at my feet…

Everything is grandeur, immense, powerful and then Wordsworth smacks us down with the humble. Pipkin writes that this is where “the sublime reaches its conceptual apex”, referring to the “powerful image of the poetic mind transcending its own physical limitations has come to represent the quintessentially sublime response of the human imagination to the overwhelming power of nature”[2] Sure. Today, I think we just say zen followed by sharp anti-climax.

Citations: 1. ‘Women Poets and the Romantic Sublime’ by Kerry White, March 2007. University of Southern Queensland

2. Pipkin, John G. ‘The Material Sublime of Women Poets’. SEL: Studies in English Literature, Autumn 98, Vol. 38, Issue 4. Published for Rice University Texas by John Hopkins University Baltimore. Academic Search Premier accessed 23 October 2005.

Here’s a Gothic example:

Dreamland by Christina Rossetti

Where sunless rivers weep
Their waves into the deep,
She sleeps a charmed sleep:
Awake her not.
Led by a single star,
She came from very far
To seek where shadows are
Her pleasant lot.

She left the rosy morn,
She left the fields of corn,
For twilight cold and lorn
And water springs.
Through sleep, as through a veil,
She sees the sky look pale,
And hears the nightingale
That sadly sings.

Rest, rest, a perfect rest
Shed over brow and breast;
Her face is toward the west,
The purple land.
She cannot see the grain
Ripening on hill and plain;
She cannot feel the rain
Upon her hand.

Rest, rest, for evermore
Upon a mossy shore;
Rest, rest at the heart’s core
Till time shall cease:
Sleep that no pain shall wake;
Night that no morn shall break
Till joy shall overtake
Her perfect peace.

“No joy shall overtake her perfect peace” —depressing, you really have to want nothing, no mad or glad—but the backdrop is entwined with pastoral memory, sort of traveling the sky, paralleling the moon’s track with a dream. And another Gothic example:

The Night Is Darkening Round Me by Emily Bronte

The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow ;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.

Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below ;
But nothing drear can move me :
I will not, cannot go.

Yikes. Starts out ominous and gets progressively more melancholic. The poet’s having a bad day, doom imminent. I don’t read ‘drear’ a lot. Imagine reading the poem aloud, in a flat, banal voice. The following is considered an example of the Romantic genre:

When I am dead by Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me:
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain;
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

Again, the poet seeks abject nothingness—to simply wallow, but the contrast is a cascade of natural beauty. Oh, the passion. And rebellious, having such revealing thoughts of eternal fence sitting.

Sturm und Drang:

Still more from the sibs in theater, perhaps the most influential sturm und drang work comes from the dramatic school—a five act script entitled Miss Sara Sampson by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. It’s in German, but a translation was done by Ernest Bell (there is some odd controversy behind this claim of translation. Figures, writers.) The piece was one which shaped our images of contrast today, “It [Miss Sara Sampson] demonstrated that tragedy need not be limited to the highborn.”[1] Tragedy and beauty were found in street life.

1. “Miss Sara Sampson.”
Encyclopædia Britannica 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 08 Apr. 2010

Lessing was The Romantic Critic. He stated that indeed the style existed in his Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767–69) <>:

“The names of princes and heroes can lend pomp and majesty to a play, but they contribute nothing to our emotion. The misfortune of those whose circumstances most resemble our own, must naturally penetrate most deeply into our hearts, and if we pity kings, we pity them as human beings, not as kings.”

I always had a soft, bleeding, spot for the sublime. You can understand why charitable organizations use sturm und drang images in their campaigns—it’s so compelling. The image of a big-eyed, innocent puppy staged in an urban alley gets donations. And we should donate, because life has ups and downs. Sturm und drang arranges our sensitivities and connects with our need for extremes. Four flowers stand, one droops lifeless–the artist dramatizes the existence of both perspectives, happily alive and dreadfully dead. Appreciate life, because withering can occur.

Why label it?

I don’t think that poetry must be categorized, but study poetry and we can witness development of the human condition and reflect on eras. Poetry that survives offers a timeless perspective on how we got here. Back when sturm und drang was a rage, poets were testing extremes of expression. Try it—today’s readers are trained to pick up on the cues. How one chooses to express is fun to watch.

Another out of the blue wordy essay by gaboo.


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