Although the German poet and author Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) was one of the most versatile writers of the later romantic period, he is best remembered for his lyric poetry.
Clemens Brentano was born on Sept. 8, 1778, in Ehrenbreitstein, the son of an Italian businessman. He developed an early interest in literature and at the universities of Halle and Jena became acquainted with contemporary writers, especially Friedrich von Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck. In 1803 he married the poet Sophie Mereau, to whom he had dedicated his first important novel, Godwi (1801).
Godwi is an "educational novel" about the passionate adventures of a wealthy young man. It is experimental in form, and the novelist himself enters the plot as one of the characters. The sensationalism of this first work is continued in the suspense drama Ponce de Leon (1801) and in the novel Chronika eines fahrenden Schülers (Chronicle of a Wandering Scholar), which was begun in 1803 as a medieval tale of romance, mysticism, and black magic. The exotic religiosity of this novel is also to be found in the series of verse narratives Romanzen vom Rosenkranz (Romances of the Rosary), which Brentano began about this time.
In 1804 he settled in Heidelberg, where, with fellow romantics Achim von Arnim and Johann Josef von Görres, he edited the literary journal Zeitung für Einsiedler (Newspaper for Hermits). With Arnim he also compiled the most famous collection of German folk songs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn), in three volumes between 1805 and 1808.
After the death of his wife in 1806, Brentano traveled about Germany for a few years. He met the Grimm brothers in Kassel in 1807 and in 1809 joined a literary group in Berlin. After a brief sojourn in Bohemia and Vienna (where he composed a patriotic drama inspired by the Germans' fight against Napoleon), he returned to Berlin and wrote his most famous story, Die Geschichte vom braven Kasperl und dem schönen Annerl (1817; The Story of Brave Caspar and Beautiful Annie). In 1817 he also underwent a conversion to devout Catholicism.
Brentano devoted the next several years to recording the utterances of the stigmatized nun Katharina Emmerich. After her death in 1824 he lived in Frankfurt and Coblenz and in 1833 settled in Munich, where he associated with a group of Catholic romantic writers, including Görres. Among Brentano's later works was a collection of fairy tales (1838), which shows his imaginative powers to be as lively as ever. Brentano died in Aschaffenburg on July 28, 1842.
The best general discussion in English of Brentano's life and works is in Ralph Tymms, German Romantic Literature (1955). Another book with a good general treatment of the poet is L. A. Willoughby, The Romantic Movement in Germany (1930). There is a helpful discussion of Brentano's lyric poetry in August Closs, The Genius of the German Lyric: An Historical Survey of Its Formal and Metaphysical Values (1962). □