Reiner Brockmann

by Marju Lepajõe

Reiner Brockmann: Ich hab wollen Esthnisch schreiben (I wanted to write in Estonian)

Marju Lepajõe

In 2009, Estonian culture celebrates a remarkable anniversary, which is a reminder that the history of Estonian poetry does not begin with the 19th century national-romantic poetry of the Awakening period, but a few centuries earlier: in April this year 400 years ago, the first Estonian poet, Reiner Brockmann (28 April 1609–29 November 1647), was born. He wrote the earliest surviving published Estonian-language poem, a wedding song in alexandrines, with the Latin title Carmen Alexandrinum Esthonicum ad leges Opitij poëticas compositum (A song in Estonian in alexandrines, composed according to Opitz’s poetic rules). It was printed in Tallinn on 20 November 1637, on the occasion of the marriage of Hans von Höveln and Margaretha Stahl.    

This anniversary will be celebrated in various ways. From 17 to 19 September, an international conference takes place in Tallinn, where Brockmann arrived as a 25-year-old young man in 1634, as a professor of the Greek language, and where he wrote his four poems in Estonian and translated a number of church songs. The conference is being organised, in a cooperative effort between Tallinn and Erfurt Universities, under the title Paul Fleming, Reiner Brockmann und ihre Nachwirkungen: Sprach-, Literatur- und Kulturkontakt im Baltikum (the main organiser is Professor Mari Tarvas). In addition, various research papers will be published etc. A special recognition of the whole of Estonian literary science is the fact that on 3 August Kristi Viiding (University of Tartu) had the honour of opening the 14th Congress of the International Association for Neo-Latin Studies in Uppsala, by delivering her plenary paper. Although she did not directly tackle Brockmann, instead addressing poetry in Latin written in Estonia in the 17th century generally, it was research on Brockmann’s poetry that provided the strongest impetus in the second half of the 1980s to properly study 17th century Estonian literature as a whole (mainly written in Latin and German). Now, 20 years later, an entire school of scholars has emerged from this impetus, working at the Department of Classical Philology at the University of Tartu. The work of the new generation has, in turn, added a new perspective to the treatment of Brockmann’s poetry.

Why are new perspectives necessary? Brockmann’s position in the history of Estonian literature is by no means unequivocal. His initiative is recognised, but his poetry has not yet been integrated into the aesthetic logic of the development of Estonian literature. On the one hand, this is because he was not Estonian, Estonian was not his mother tongue and his poetry is regarded as an artificial foreign effort; on the other hand, he lacked an Estonian audience whom his poetry could have influenced and inspired. It is difficult to see Brockmann as a clear link in a clear chain, which would make the research on his role in literary history so much easier.

However, if we widen the perspective and admit the complexity of earlier Estonian literary history, if we view Brockmann’s Estonian poems in the context of his whole legacy, mostly in Latin and German with some Greek thrown in, and then place the legacy against the background of poetry during Brockmann’s lifetime, then some fascinating light is cast on Estonian poems. Some factors connecting 17th century ‘verse concoctions’ with 19th century Estonian literature also appear.   

Brockmann’s education

The first knot to unravel if we wish to explain Brockmann’s poetic legacy is his education. One of the typical features of 16th–17th poetry is its direct dependency on education. In today’s literature, it is nearly always very difficult to guess what kind of education, if any, the author has. During the humanist period, on the other hand, the situation was totally different: education inevitably found expression in poetry.

Reiner Brockmann was born in northern Germany, in the town of Schwan (Duchy of Mecklenburg), the son of a pastor; he went to school in Rostock and Wismar and to a Hamburg secondary school. 

What was the basic principle of school education of that time? We could say (at least ideally) that it was moderation and providing people with a sense of moderation – the idea that the Italian humanists, influenced by the ancients, began emphasising again. Moderation took root in thinking, was realised in decision-making and was expressed in language, as well as in an ability to control body and soul. Curricula mainly contained subjects that were supposed to help people to shape their inner human character, consistently polish their sense of moderation, and develop an ability to make ethical decisions and acquire an appreciation of beauty: Latin and Greek, rhetoric, logic, poetry and history were taught. Mathematics, physics as a science about nature, metaphysics and theology also played a role. People learned to know and shape themselves according to clear ideals, which were mostly taken from antiquity. During secondary school, Greek and Roman culture became a natural part of every educated man’s world of thinking, which then influenced people’s daily decisions.

The focus of the curriculum was language, especially language through poetry: poetry is the moderation of language and its understanding. Writing poems in Latin, which required a great deal of time and attention, meant imitating ancient authors in a specially concentrated manner and, at the same time, undergoing an extreme polishing of one's own language, trying out various Latin metres and forms of stanza forms. Poetry was supposed to manifest the freedom of erudition and depth of education. The ideal of the ideal in this context was the Greek language combined with poetry, but writing poetry in Greek was not possible for everybody. 

Brockmann’s interest in Greek was evident quite early, when he was studying in Wismar. Even in his funeral sermon (1648), the deacon Andreas Sandhagen deemed it necessary to mention that it was in Wismar that Brockmann “successfully laid the foundation for his knowledge of Greek, both in prose and in poetry.” During his studies at Hamburg, Brockmann’s mother and father died in the same year. At the death of his father, the 17-year-old wrote a poem in Greek, which unfortunately has not survived (as far as we know).

For a time, Brockmann studied theology at Rostock University. His achievements in Greek must have been excellent, because in 1633 he received an official invitation to take up the post of Professor of Greek at the Tallinn Gymnasium (founded in 1631).

We can only assume that his taste in poetry and his habit of writing poetry had already been established, although no work of that period has survived. A phenomenon called 'occasional poetry' had probably become second nature to him, although no one can quite say where occasional poetry ends and 'real' poetry begins. Occasional poetry is defined by its external qualities: it is written for pivotal events in people’s life (e.g. baptisms, weddings, funerals, defending a thesis etc.) in order to create a festive atmosphere. It was especially popular in Western Europe throughout the period of humanism, and is sometimes cultivated today as well. It is, of course, impossible to guess how much of this kind of poetry was written with a wish to express 'real poetic qualities' which, however, failed to reach the desired depth.

Brockmann in Tallinn

Brockmann arrived in Tallinn at the end of May 1634, and stayed until the end of his short life. Besides the Greek language, his task at the Tallinn Gymnasium, where he worked for five years as a professor, was to teach history (he also taught this in Greek), Latin and theology. A year after his arrival, he married Dorothea Temm, the daughter of the St Nicholas Church pastor. As a superb linguist, Brockmann immediately took an interest in the Estonian language, going to church to listen to sermons in Estonian. Three years later, he was already able to produce prose translations of hymns, and also write poetry, in Estonian.

The literary life in Tallinn centred around the professors at the gymnasium.  This might have been due to habit or the inspiring impact of the poetry-loving environment. In any case, the Tallinn Gymnasium publications soon began publishing Brockmann’s poems, not only in Latin but also in German, the latter poems being quite a bit longer.

German-language poems in the prevailing academic Latin-language environment were by no means an obvious choice and show Brockmann as a scholar of the new era. The explosive increase in writing German-language poetry in the first half of the 17th century is usually associated with the influence of Martin Opitz (1597–1639). The success of his practical poetry manual Buch von der Deutschen Poeterey (1624), and the impact on both contemporary and later German poetry, is truly amazing (the manual was reprinted nine times during Brockmann’s lifetime alone).

It is doubtful whether Opitz’s booklet would have found such acclaim if it had not corresponded to deeper tendencies in German educational life, characterised by Wolfgang Ratke’s (Ratichius, 1571–1635) innovative reform plans, which aimed to make schools change to German-language teaching, i.e. to use the mother tongue. Ratke emphasised his continuity with Martin Luther’s ideas: just as understanding the deepest religious truths required use of the mother tongue, so education as a whole had to be available to all.

Brockmann and Fleming

Brockmann’s splendid alexandrines, in which the German sounds like music, provide some proof that he already knew Opitz’s poetic rules before coming to Tallinn, and that they suited his views and his talent.

Another fact was certainly no less influential: from January 1635 to April 1636 the greatest contemporary German poet, Paul Fleming (1609–1640), stayed in Tallinn. He was there in connection with the Oriental travels of Friedrich III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, and his entourage, to which Fleming belonged. Brockmann and Fleming, who were the same age, shared the same interests, and were fascinated by Opitz, became close friends. A group of friends formed a 'shepherds’ society', as was fashionable at the time, undertaking joint trips into nature, and organising parties with music and poetry. Fleming saw this period as the happiest in his life, and the same might well have been true for Brockmann, although it was not the most productive time for him. For Brockmann’s wedding in 1635, Fleming composed one of his longest works of poetry, in fact a whole book, where the poems are set in a short story-like narrative form.                 

First poems in Estonian

The trend towards use of the mother tongue inevitably led to attempts to write verse in Estonian, although there was no hope of having the public enjoy them in the near future. This was obvious from contemporary descriptions about the dismal conditions in which Estonian peasants lived, as well as in Brockmann’s own correspondence, published in his Works (see footnote 1). Hymns had been translated into Estonian before, even during the Catholic period, but there had been no poetry before Brockmann based on the human dimension in the here and now. The scholarly anthology by Villem Alttoa and Aino Valmet, Occasional Estonian poetry in the 17th century and early 18th century (see footnote 1) shows that if Brockmann had not started writing, someone else would have done it at more or less the same time – the gaps between new Estonian-language poems and authors (a total of 18 at the time) are that small. 

Brockmann’s wedding song Carmen Alexandrinum Esthonicum is a sublime start to an author's poetry. It is addressed to the bridegroom, who in his piety and patience has earned his reward, marital bliss. The supple alexandrines of the first verse directly refer to the First Psalm in the Bible, which begins: Blessed is the Man …. Brockmann varied this to: How blessed is the man who relies on the Father / (who is fully settled) and waits for happiness …. The genuine piety of the first stanza leads unambiguously to the marital bed in the last stanza: Go and play then, it will soon be seen,/ what your playing has achieved in the night.

Brockmann's first poem brilliantly captures the natural melody of the Estonian spoken language, whereas the next secular wedding song with the Latin title Oda Esthonica Jambico-Trochaica (Estonian-language iambic-trochaic ode, 1638) is fully folkloristic.

It must be said that Brockmann certainly realised his Estonian poetry manifesto, which he published after Carmen Alexandrinum Esthonicum in the same wedding booklet in 1637: Andre mögn ein anders treiben;/ Ich hab wollen Esthnisch schreiben./ Ehstnisch redet man im Lande/ Esthnisch redet man am Strande/ Esthnisch redt man in der Mauren/ Esthnisch reden auch die Bauren/ Ehstnisch reden Edelleute/ Die Gelährten gleichfals heute./ Esthnisch reden auch die Damen/ Esthnisch, die auß Teutschland kamen./ Esthnisch reden jung’ und alte./ Sieh/ was man von Esthnisch halte?/ Esthnisch man in Kirchen höret/ Da GOtt selber Esthnisch lehret./ Auch die klugen Pierinnen/ Jetz das Esthnisch lieb gewinnen./ Ich hab wollen Esthnisch schreiben;/ Andre mögn ein anders treiben.

Brockmann in Kadrina

In 1639 Brockmann abandoned his professorial position in Tallinn and moved to Kadrina (Tristfer) where he became a pastor. He had been repeatedly invited to take up this post. As seen in the surviving correspondence, his workload increased and his duties changed, but his prolific poetry-writing did not diminish. He seemed to focus on translating hymns, 23 of which were published posthumously in 1656.

It is not known what caused Brockmann to fall ill in November 1647, but the illness resulted in his death on 29 November.

In conclusion, Reiner Brockmann’s legacy is not bulky (a total of 47 poems in four languages), but it has timeless significance. We could write the history of German poetry largely on the basis of Martin Opitz’s influence on authors , and thanks to Brockmann this history also includes poetry in Estonian, an influence that lasted even into the 20th century. It is unlikely that even an educated Estonian could have produced better verses than Brockmann at that period, and we have to agree with Cornelius Hasselblatt: “Literature is written with ink and not with blood”. 

This research was supported by the European Union, through the European Regional Development Fund (Centre of Excellence CECT).