‘Ferdinand Freiligrath and His Work’ by John Spargo from The Comrade. Vol. 1 Nos. 5-6. February-March, 1902.

Ferdinand Freiligrath by Johann Peter Hasenclever, 1851.
‘Ferdinand Freiligrath and His Work’ by John Spargo from The Comrade. Vol. 1 Nos. 5-6. February-March, 1902.

Like all great revolutionary movements the Socialist movement has produced its full share of great poets, and its bardic roll is adorned by many of the most illustrious names in the literary history of the nineteenth century-the century of its birth and early struggles. And among the most lustrous of these, though comparatively unknown to the present generation of English-speaking Socialists, is the name of Ferdinand Freiligrath.

‘Christian Rohlfs (1849 -1938) Freiligrath-Haus in Soest, 1906.’

Born at Detmold in 1810, Freiligrath longed as a boy for a University education, but his father, Johann Wilhelm, was
too poor to gratify that desire -a fact to which he tenderly alludes in his Odysseus- so at fifteen, bearing his disappointment bravely, he entered the employment of his uncle, who carried on business at Soest, a small, out-of-the-way town in Westphalia. Here he remained until his twenty-first year, when he went to Amsterdam and took up a situation in a large banking house. Here he was emploved for about five years, during which time he wrote many of the poems which brought him fame on the publication of his first work in 1838. Long before this, however, fugitive poems from his pen had appeared anonymously; and though perhaps crude in some respects, they gave promise of an undoubted future for the young aspirant to fame. His “Iceland Moss Tea,” written when he was a lad of sixteen, reveals the power of the poetic impulse within him. After a really magnificent picture of Iceland with its volcanoes, weird scenery and lone seas, he bursts forth with inspired enthusiasm and fervent invocation:

“Oh, Jet the flames that burn unfed
Within me wax until they glow,
Volcano-like through even the snow
That in few years shall strew my head.
And as the stones that Hecla sees
Flung up to Heaven through fiery rain,
Descend like thunderbolts again
Upon the distant Farnese.
So Jet the rude but burning rhymes
Cast from the cauldron of my breast,
Again fall flashing down and rest
On human hearts in farthest climes.”

The five years spent at Amsterdam were busy years for the young poet. Not only did he write most of the poems which appeared in his first volume, during this time, but he began also his work as translator, in which he was so signally successful. Working often ten hours a day at the bank, he nevertheless undertook to translate Victor Hugo’s poems at the rate of an ode a day! “This Hugo sets my brain on fire,” he wrote to a friend. In addition he translated a large number of poems by some of the great English poets. Meantime his own poems were attracting attention, and poets like Chamisso, Uhland and Gustav Schwab wrote him long letters of kindly encouragement and appreciation for which he ever remained grateful.

Freiligrath home in Soest.

In 1836 he left Amsterdam and returned to Soest, where he spent several months preparing his book for the press; then, when the MS. had gone to the publisher’s, he entered a mercantile office at Barmen and awaited results. When the book appeared it was received with rapture, and Freiligrath woke to the enviable fact that he had become famous overnight. The most remarkable feature of the poems which were thus rapturously applauded, was the wonderful way in which he described scenes which he had never seen save by imagination, and the great variety of those scenes. In “The Lion’s Ride,” for example, we have a picture of the great South African Karoo, which even Pringle, “the poet of the Karoo,” never excelled: it is the work of a master. But, strange to say, he describes for us with equal power and accuracy, the grim tragedies of ocean; the splendid imagery of Oriental life and the majesty, cold and proud, of the Arctic world. Had he never written another line these poems must have won for Freiligrath an enduring fame as a great poet.

Karl Immermann.

He now decided, upon the advice of Karl Immermann and others, to leave the world of commerce and devote himself to literature, and after a pedestrian tour through Westphalia, he settled down to his chosen work. In the following year, 1840, he became engaged to Ida, the daughter of Professor Melos of Weimar, to whom he addressed some of the sweetest love songs in any language. They were married in 1841, and it is pleasing to know that all through his stormy career, their love union was unimpaired.

It was just at this time that Alexander von Humboldt, unknown to the poet, began to use his influence with the king, William IV of Prussia, with the result that he granted Freiligrath a small pension of three hundred thalers a year, which, small as it was, proved most acceptable. With his wife he now went to live at St. Goar on the Rhine, where the first year of their wedded life was spent largely in the company of that other great German poet, Emanuel Geibel, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was then staying in the district. That meeting was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two poets; a friendship fraught with great importance to German literature, because Freiligrath’s translations were to reveal to his countrymen the sweetness and beauty of the American poet.

Georg Herwegh.

The increase of oppression in Germany, drew a number of poets like Herwegh, Prutz, Griin and others into the ranks of the revolutionary party. But Freiligrath had a terrible dread of becoming a “political poet,” and when Herwegh and others admonished him, he replied with a poem, “Ein Brief,” in which he took the view “That the poet stands on a higher beacon than on the battlements of party.” This poem provoked a great deal of discussion, and a brilliant poem from Herwegh in reply, in which he held that it was the duty of the poet, and his true mission, to stand by the party of Freedom.

But it must not be inferred that Freiligrath was indifferent to the great struggle that was taking place. Even in his first work, as the English poet and critic, William Howitt, pointed out with remarkable discrimination, there was the foreshadowing of the revolutionist, and his writings since that time bore witness to the fact, that he was nearing that crisis in his life, when, in spite of himself, he would have to take his stand with the revolutionists. In “A Spot on the Rhine ” he first makes clear that henceforth he is to be a soldier in the fight:

“Thou whose proud banner but from mould’ring wall
Doth lonely float, thro’ the dull air slow sailing;
Thou the Dethroned!-with agitated soul
Down at thy feet I humbly, sadly fall,
A solemn witness of thy widow’s wailing;
A child, all feverish of this Era new,
Yet for the Past piously mourning too.
Not as a boy! only one hour, lo!
Stretched at thy feet I’ll join thee in thy sorrow!
The spirit. fresh that thro’ these times doth flow,
I’ve promised it, it has my word and vow,
My blade must flash yet in the fight to-morrow.
Only one hour! but that devoted quite
To thee alone, and to thy glory bright.”


In the spring of 1844 Freiligrath prepared his “Credo” (Glaubensbekentniss) for the press and in the early summer of that year it was published, and, of course, immediately interdicted by the police. This little volume is- of remarkable interest as bearing witness to the gradual change which had come over the poet. The first part consists of his less conscious and definite poems, including ” A Spot on the Rhine,” from which we have already quoted and “Ein Brief,” his rebuke to Herwegh. The second part consists of the poems of his maturer thought and begins with “Good Morning,” in which he shakes off all irresolution and declares:

“To my nation, then I bade “Good Morning!”
Next, God willing, I shall bid “Good Day.”
So “Good Morning!” Free, I chose my station
With the people, and their cause make mine.
“Poet, march and labor with thy nation,”
Thus, to-day, I read my Schiller’s line.”

Perhaps the finest thing in the volume is the magnificent poem “Freedom and Right,” in which he passionately insists that: Freedom still liveth, and with her the Right, Freedom and Right!

“And this is a trust; never made, as at present,
The glad pair from battle to battle their flight;
Never ‘breathed through the soul of the downtrodden peasant,
Their spirit so deeply in promptings of light;
They sweep o’er the earth with a tempest-like token;
From strand unto strand words of thunder are spoken;
Already the serf finds his manacles broken,
And those of the negro are falling from sight;
Freedom and Right!
Yes, everywhere wide is their war-banner waving,
On the armies of wrong their revenge to requite;
The strength of Oppression they boldly are braving
And at last they will conquer, resistless in Might!
Oh, God! what a glorious wreath then appearing,
Will blend every leaf in the banner they’re wearing
The olive of Greece and the shamrock of Erin,
And the oak-bough of Germany, greenest in light!
Freedom and Right!”

In the introduction to this, his first political work, Freilirath announced that he had refused to accept the royal pension any longer. “On New Year’s Day, 1842, I was surprised by its bestowal; since New Year’s Day, 1844, I have ceased to receive it,” he writes proudly. Explaining why he included the poems in the first part of the book which expressed views he no longer held, he declares: “I cannot help it! Whoso stands at the goal should not deny the roundabout way by which it has been attained…The thoughtful and enquiring, will,…I hope perceive that there can only be question here of progress and evolution, not of a change of party or faction; certainly not of a wanton catching at anything so sacred as is the love and respect of a people.” He likens his own struggle for political consciousness to that which the nation itself must pass through and fully and freely admits that he has “descended from that higher beacon” to the “battlements of party” which he formerly descried. ” Firmly and immoveably I stand on the side of those who face the reaction with all their energy. No life for me further without liberty…. My face is turned toward the future.” He is now in very truth a poet of the revolution and there awaits him the common guerdon of persecution, hatred and exile.

To escape the persecution, which he will knew his book must bring forth, the poet fled to Brussels, where he made the acquaintance of Marx, Burgers and Heinzen, all three exiles like himself. Being warned, he left Brussels and fled to Switzerland, and not too soon either, for about six hours later another man of the same name was arrested. He found a temporary home in Rapperswyl, in the canton of St. Gallen, his wife joining him there some time later. But even here he was not safe, so he moved to Zurich, where, in addition to the three fellow-exiles with whom he had sojourned in Brussels, he met Arnold Ruge and his one-time opponent, Herwegh.

In 1845 the small volume of six poems, “Ca ira,” appeared and took Germany by storm. Never before had the Revolution been so fully realized in song; never before had poet so powerfully championed the spirit of revolt, and these six poems must always be regarded as among the greatest political poems of the world. Mr. Justin McCarthy, himself a sympathetic translator of some of Freiligrath’s poems, has derided his political poems as being destined by Time, “for that wallet wherein he carries alms for oblivion,” a verdict which reflects sadly upon his judgment. Far wiser were the words of the Foreign Quarterly Review, written almost a quarter of a century before. In a review of the “Credo,” after quoting the poem ”Freedom and Right,” both translated and in the original, the Review said: ” And it is in the teeth of such condemning evidence as this, that here and there some crochetry Englishman can affect to mourn over his descent into the ignoble region of political strife! As if Freedom were not the living breath of all true poetry, or as if there could be found a champion more fit than the poet himself to defend the dignity and the existence of his noble art.” What could be finer, even in translation than “The Chances of the Game,” with which “Ca ira” closes?

After the publication of these poems, even Switzerland was no longer a safe abiding place for him. A vigorous attempt had been made to induce him, a year before, to join the German colony, which had recently been started in Texas, and was again renewed, but he declined, and, in response to the invitation of his friends, William and Mary Howitt, who had already done much to make his work known in England, turned, as did all the political refugees of that time, to London, a safe asylum there being always certain.


Freiligrath arrived in London in February, 18th, and was warmly welcomed by the Howitts and others who admired his genius. William Howitt wrote in one of the leading literary magazines, “From this day forward England is the home of Ferdinand Freiligrath and as he will derive from us a sense of personal. security, we shall derive from his presence the honor of one more true patriot and poet amongst us.” Other friends who welcome the exile were “Barry Cornwall,” Sir Edward Bulwer (afterwards Lord Lytton), and Moncton Milnes. But there was at first some difficulty in finding employment, and for a month or two financial embarrassment troubled him greatly. His English friends offered financial assistance, and Longfellow wrote urging him to come over and settle in America. Presently, however; he succeeded in finding a situation in a large commercial house where he remained until 1848. The literary work of those two years consists mainly of a couple of translations from Hood- “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Song of the Shirt, “and the magnificent poem, “Ireland,” written in the great “famine year.” Of this poem, widely published at the time, I quote one verse:

“A wailing cry sweeps like a blast
The length and breadth of Ireland through;
The west wind which every casement passed
Brought to mine ear that wail of sorrow.
Faint, as a dying man’s last sigh,
Came o’er the waves my heart-strings searing,
The cry of woe, the hunger cry,
The death cry of poor weeping Erin.”

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921). “Proclamation de la République de le 24 février 1848”. 1902.

Then came the Revolution of ’48, which shook the very foundations of Europe. On the 25th of March he published his wonderful song, “Berlin,” in memory of those who fell on the 18th. Grief for the dead and fierce defiance to the oppressors are equally blended in this magnificent memorial song. Soon after he left his situation and hastened to Germany to take his part in the struggle for freedom. He arrived with his family in Dusseldorf early in June, and threw himself boldly into the strife. In July appeared his sharp and bitter political variation of Bums’ poem, “A man is a man for a’ that.” under the title, “Trotz Alledem!” Then came the famous poem, “From the Dead to the Living,” considered by many critics to be his masterpiece. An idea of the savage indignation which pervades the whole poem may be gathered from this brief extract:

“Too much of scorn, too much of shame, heaped daily on your head
Wrath and Revenge must still be left, believe it, from the Dead!
It does remain, and it awakes-it shall and must awake!
The Revolution, half complete, yet wholly forth will break!
It waits the hour to rise in power, like an uprolling storm,
With lifted arms and streaming hair, a wild and mighty form!
It grabs the rusted gun once more, and swings the battered blade,
While the red banners flap the air from every barricade!
Those banners lead the German Guards, the armies of the Free-
The Princes fly their blazing thrones and hasten towards the sea!
The boding eagles leave the land- the lion’s claws are shorn-
The Sovereign people, roused and bold, await the Future’s morn’.”

Freiligrath in 1842.

The poem was received with wild enthusiasm and spread all over Germany in a few days. Published at the close of July, 10 great was its effect, that on the 4th of August it was moved that the poet should be held responsible for the revolutionary instigations contained in the verses. He was not interfered with, however, until the end of the month, when he was arrested, the trial taking place early in October. He was triumphantly acquitted and his return home was made the subject of an imposing popular demonstration. Frethgrath now joined Marx and others in the Cologne agitation and became one of the editors of the “New Rhenish Gazette,” which Marx had founded. To this paper he contributed many fine poems, notably “Blum,” “Ungaro,” “Reveille” and, in May, 1849, the defiant “Farewell of the New Rhenish Gazette.”

Blum, sent as a German delegation to Vienna in 1848, was arrested and shot by the authorities as a disturber of the peace, and Freiligrath’s poem was a worthy memorial of a brave martyr- “The man, who, whatsoe’er might hap, could ne’er the People’s cause betray.” By a fine stroke of genius the poet passes from the lusty cry of the new-born babe, to the grave-song, forty years after, of the martyr. Then, in a burst of unrestrained anger and grief, he turns to those who merely mourn:

“Why grasp ye not your swords in wrath, 0 ye that sing, and ye that pray?…
Ye organ pipes, to trumpets tum, and fright the scoundrels with your breath,
And din into their dastard ears the dreadful news of sudden death,
Those scoundrels who the order gave, the cruel murder dared to do
The hero leant him on his knee on that autumnal morning’s dew,
Then silent fell upon his face in blood-’tis eight short days ago-Two bullets smote him on the breast, and laid his head for ever low.”

The rage subsides somewhat, but the grief remains, and mingled with the cries of the mourner are the terrible forebodings of the prophet:

“They gave him peace and rest at last; he lies in peaceful raiment dressed;
Then sing an anthem round his grave, an anthem of eternal rest;
Yea, rest for him who has ‘bequeathed unrest to us for evermore;
For in the dim cathedral aisles, where moving masses thronged the door,
Methought through all the noise I heard a sound as of a whisper strange,
The passing moment is not all; the organs shall to trumpets challenge!
Yes, they that now sing dirges here shall seize the sword in wrath sublime,
For naught but fierce, unceasing strife yet wrestles in the womb of time.
A dirge of death is no revenge, a song of sorrow is not rage,
But soon the dread Avenger’s foot shall tramp across the black-stoled stage:
The dread Avenger, robed in red, and smirched and stained with blood and tears,
Shall yet proclaim a ceaseless war through all the coming tide of years;
Then shall another requiem sound and rouse !Pin the listening dead-
Thou dost not call for vengeance due but Tune will bring her banner red.
The wrongs of others cry aloud; deep tide of wrath arise in flood- And woe to all the tyrants then whose hands are foul with guiltless blood!”

Throne room of the Tuileries, February 24, 1848. Hand-colored lithograph published by Nathaniel Currier, c1848.

The poet remained in Cologne for a year after the collapse of the “New Rhenish Gazette,” during which time he was busy preparing another volume of his poems (“Zwischen den Garben”) for the press. This volume consisted of a number of the poems published during the previous two years, including translations from Hood, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Lamartine and others. One of the most popular of his youthful poems, “Love while Love beside thee Stays,” was now for the first time included in his collected works.

After the publication of this volume he went to Dusseldorf, where he remained only a short while. For two years he had been constantly persecuted and molested and was never sure of being tolerated. Nor was there rest for him in Dusseldorf for long. By May, 1851, he had a new volume of social and political poems (“Neuere politische and soziale Gedichte”) ready for publication, and, foreseeing trouble, he decided to once more seek refuge in England. That he acted wisely subsequent events conclusively proved. Immediately after he had fled to England he was indicted for “Conspiracy against the State,” and public advertisements were issued for his capture. The opening poem in this new volume was” The Revolution,” which the poet’s friend, Ernest Jones, translated with unusual success. Other poems were the “Christmas Song for my Children,” “Nach England!”, and a number of translations from the works of Barry Cornwall and Thomas Hood. “Nach England!” probably written during the first exile, is the vow of the exiled poet that he will not allow the toil and care of life to silence his muse. Although the new poems added greatly to his reputation, they rather injured his material interests, many business houses refusing to give him employment because of them. He experienced a great deal of difficulty in finding regular work, and for a whole year fought a stern battle with penury. During this time he compiled ” Rose, Thistle and Shamrock,” a German anthology of English poetry, and an anthology of German poetry, “Dichtung und Dichter.” In this second exile, he did not take part in the discussions that arose among the refugees of ’48. Perhaps disappointed and disheartened, he settled quietly down to his literary work and drifted away from party associations. -Nor were those associations ever resumed. His poems as they appeared were received with rapture in Germany, testifying to the popularity of the brave exile. But he is no longer the revolutionary poet: that is a closed chapter in a varied career!

Longfellow in 1868.

After the hardships of the first year of his second exile, Freiligrath obtained a position with a German business house where he remained for three years, until May 1855. It is interesting to recall, that when, in 1854, Longfellow resigned his chair as Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, a movement was organized to secure the appointment for Freiligrath. Longfellow was placed in a rather delicate position by reason of the fact that his influence was sought on behalf of two parties -Freiligrath and James Russell Lowell, who was also then in England and was, like Freiligrath, a candidate for the position. Under the circumstances, Longfellow decided to remain entirely neutral, using his influence for neither party. The appointment was given to Lowell, and Freiligrath gave up all thoughts of ever visiting America. After another year of hardship and unemployment he secured a position as Manager of the London Branch of the General Bank of Switzerland, which position he held from June 1856 to its dissolution in 1865. The failure of the bank, and the consequent loss of employment, together with the gloomy political outlook, gave to the poems of this period a tone of pessimism which we do not find many of the earlier works.

At this time a few friends in Barmen who had always remained faithful to the poet during his long exile, and helpful in times of distress, conceived the idea of presenting him with a testimonial. In order to be sure of their proposal being acceptable to the poet himself, they asked him whether he would accept such a testimonial if it were arranged. His reply was characteristic: if it came from the people, yes otherwise no. For them he had suffered hardship and exile -from them alone would he receive any honor that might be deemed to be due to him. As a result, a great national fund was arranged to provide for the poet during his remaining years, and in 1868 he returned to end his days in the Germany he loved so well, settling at Stuttgart. Two years quietly spent, then the stirring events of 1870 led him once more into the thunders of political strife from which he had so long abstained. But his “Hurrah Germania!” and other poems of that period gave little joy to his former companions. The poet of the Revolution of ’48 was now the war poet of 1870, and much bitter criticism was the result. Freiligrath soon withdrew again from all forms of political strife, and from now to his death in 1876 kept on translating and writing poems full of a gentle humor, more marked now than in earlier years.

On March 18th, 1876, anniversary of the Berlin Revolution of 1848 which he had immortalized in stirring song, and of the Paris Commune of 1871, the news was flashed over the electric wires of Europe and America that Freiligrath was dead; and in spite of the fact that he had long since ceased to be associated with the revolutionary political movement of the world, its Press, remembering the courage and power with which he wielded the mighty weapon of his genius in the stirring times of old, paid eloquent tributes of praise to his memory. And shall not we, as we honor the memory of those brave heroes of ’48 and ’71, pay a tribute also to the memory of Freiligrath, the Poet of Revolution?

The Comrade began in 1901 with the launch of the Socialist Party, and was published monthly until 1905 in New York City. Edited by John Spargo, Otto Wegener, and Algernon Lee amongst others. Along with Socialist politics, it featured radical art and literature. Adorned with photos, portraits, art, and images, The Comrade was known for publishing Utopian Socialist literature and included a serialization of ‘News from Nowhere’ by William Morris along work from with Heinrich Heine, Thomas Nast, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Edward Markham, Jack London, Maxim Gorky, Clarence Darrow, Upton Sinclair, Eugene Debs, and Mother Jones. It would be edited by Algie Simons and absorbed into the International Socialist Review in 1905.

PDF of issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/comrade/v01n05-feb-1902-The-Comrade.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s