The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


The fame of lofty deeds must perish as a dream. - GRYPHIUS.

In countries to the west and south of Germany external honor or personal reputation was perhaps the most popular subject for dramas. Today this subject is most often associated with the Baroque dramas of Spain, particularly with those of Lope de Vega and Calderon, such as El médico de su honra and A secreta agravia, secreta venganza. As the principal characteristics of such dramas, D. C. Stuart summarizes these facts: "honor is a pure crystal be­longing to man and woman; it is not acquired, but is conferred upon them at birth; the slightest breath of scandal dims it; any stain upon it must be kept hidden at all cost; if the stain becomes visible it must be washed out with blood; a woman's transgression, or merely suspected transgression, is enough to wound the honor of a man connected with her by blood or by marriage. The cruelty of the law of honor is realized and bemoaned. Dura lex, sed lex."1 Stuart also shows that sources of the Spanish concept of honor, especially with regard to vengeance wreaked by a husband on his wife or her lover, can be found in ancient Gothic survivals and need not be attributed to Moorish influences.2

Nevertheless, even though all the elements were present in Spain, it so happens that the first drama of this tradition, Torres Naharro's Imenea of 1517, was written, played, and published in Italy, albeit its author was a Spaniard. Whereas Stuart believed the Spanish honor-dramas to be the direct result of Italian models, Américo Castro doubts this and contends that the Spanish ideal of honor, as expressed in the dramas, could have developed independently from medieval precedents and international humanistic theories, especial­ly those from Seneca.3

1 Stuart, p. 248.

2 op. cit., p. 251.

3 Castro, p. 330.

In order to be popular, the dramatic action had to glorify external honor and revenge; yet the authors could also cite Stoic ideas opposing the point of honor.1 Italian influence is obvious in Shakespeare's Othello, and it is indirectly present in the honor-dialectics of his Richard II and Henry IV .

Perhaps the best known of all honor-dramas is Corneille's Le Cid of 1636, which was based on a drama of the same name written a few years earlier by the Spaniard Guillen de Castro. Corneille's version presents a true psychological conflict, or one should say conflicts, since both the hero and heroine must choose between love and honor. The hero's father, a meritorious but aging statesman named Don Diegue, has a rather undignified altercation with a younger rival, Count de Gormas, concerning their relative honor and merit; and, after much abuse on both sides, Gormas slaps the old man. Mortally grieved by this affront, which makes him feel ineli­gible for holding high office, Don Diegue draws his sword; but Gormas easily disarms him and does not deign to pick up his sword as a trophy.

Don Diegue then implores his young son, Don Rodrigue, to re­move his infamy and repair his honor by killing Gormas, even though Gormas is the father of Don Rodrigue's fiancée, Chimène. After much inner struggle and rhetorical monologue, Don Rodrigue decides to answer the call of honor and avenge his father, even at the cost of losing his love. When Gormas falls in their duel, Chimène demands justice of the king, since she too puts her honor above her love. Because the king delays in avenging her, Don Rodrigue offers to let her kill him in order to restore her honor, but she refuses the offer and persists in demanding lawful justice. The king decrees a trial by combat and adds the stipulation that Chimène must marry the victor. Don Rodrigue defeats Chimène's champion ,much to her joy, and thereby wins her hand.

Except for omitting the theme of revenge for adultery, this play includes most of the motifs popular in the Italian and Spanish honor-dramas, which seem to have preserved chivalresque situations and adorned them with classic commonplaces. Don Rodrigue's dilemma reminds one of that of Rüedeger in the Lay of the Nibelungs, and Chimène's dilemma is like that of Laudine, who loved her husband's slayer. Just as Wolfram von Eschenbach reproved Laudine for forgiving and marrying Iwein,2 so too Jean Chapelain, speaking for the French Academy, called Chimène a "denatured girl" for marrying Don Rodrigue.3


1 Op. cit., pp. 354-382.

2 Parzival, 253, 10-18.

3 In his Sentiments de l'Acad é mie sur "le Cid" of 1637.

In this play we find many familiar commonplaces: An insult can be washed off only with blood; a man who lives infamously is unworthy of the day; the code of honor is a hard law; if one conquers without peril he triumphs without glory; a man without honor does not merit a noble woman; infamy pursues a cowardly warrior and a faithless lover; dying for one's country is not a sad lot because such a death brings immor­tality; and many more.1

One might contend that Corneille has deepened the motivation of this play by associating honor with duty. On one occasion Don Diegue states that, whereas love is only a pleasure, honor is a duty;2 and he tries to persuade his son by appealing to his filial piety. Because such an appeal is not enough, he also convinces him that he must fight to avenge not only his father but also his own honor, and his son accepts this double motivation.3 Throughout the play people seem anxious about external appearances, and their chief concern is their gloire, honneur, tame, renommee, nom, memoire, honte, intamie, blame, and medisance . When Don Rodrigue visits Chimène after the duel, her only worry is that she will lose her honor if people see him leave.4 Likewise, Don Rodrigue knows that he can voluntarily lose the trial by combat without any danger to his glory, because people will say (on dira) that he did not try to resist because of his love for Chimène.5

According to modern standards, these noble characters are extremely selfish. Just to save his own reputation, Don Diegue goads his dutiful but inexperienced son to challenge the realm's most famous warrior; and later he sends him to seek glory, and an honorable death if necessary, in a campaign against the Moors. Likewise, Chimène greatly inconveniences the king with her selfish demands for vengeance.

1 "Ce n'est que dans le sang qu'on lave un tel outrage" (I, 5, v. 14); "qui
peut vivre infâme est indigne du jour" (I, 5, v. 24); "Noble et dure contrainte,
aimable tyrannie" (I, 6, v. 22); "Trop peu d'honneur pour moi suivrait cette victoire: A vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire" (II, 2, vv. 37-38);
"Qu'un homme sans honneur ne te méritait pas" (III, 4, v. 40); "L'infâmie
est pareille, et suit egalement Le guerrier sans courage et le perfide amant" (III, 6, vv. 39-40); "Mourir pour le pays n'est pas un triste sort; C'est s'immortaliser par une belle mort" (IV, 5, vv. 31-32).

2 "L'amour n'est qu'un plaisir, l'honneur est un devoir" (III, 6, v. 35).

3 "D'un affront si cruel, Qu' à l'honneur de tous deux il porte un coup mortel" (I, 5, vv. 7-8). Later the son states, "j'ai vengé mon honneur et mon père (III, 6, v. 29). Gormas also looks upon Don Rodrigue's challenge as a duty (ton devoir, II, 2, v. 27).

4 "Dans l'ombre de la nuit cache bien ton départ: Si l'on te voit sortir, mon honneur court hasard" (III, 4, vv. 127-128).

5 "Rodrigue peut mourir sans hasarder sa gloire..." (V, 1).

Contemporary with these honor-dramas there appeared a flood of learned disquisitions on honor, good examples being Giovanni Battista Possevino's Dialogo dell' honore, written in 1555, and Robert Ashley's Of Honour, written in or soon after 1596. Closely following classical sources, Ashley neglects the "point of honor", which, although of Germanic origin, was discussed in most of the classically inspired works about honor written on the Continent. Although he acknowledges his debt to both the Academic and Peripatetic philosophers, Ashley actually owes most of his ideas to Aristotle.1 Like Aristotle, he considers the desire for honor a virtue, provided it is moderate and provided one seeks true rather than false honor. Although he distinguishes between true and false honor and between glory and honor, he does not realize that he is using the word "honor" to denote two separate concepts. He begins his work by saying that honor must spring from the Godhead, "since we find no Originall thereof in the earth neither in things without soule, neither in brute beastes, not in men themselves: but only in one onely God alone." Honor must be good, since God demands it of us. This thought could be pagan as well as Christian, since it is proved by a reference to the temple the Romans built to commemo­rate Honor.

We have seen that many thirteenth-century German courtly and didactic poets believed, in agreement with Aristotle, that the pursuit of true honor leads to virtue; and thus they believed that it made men more pleasing to God, from whom all true honor comes. This view remained popular for centuries, finding perhaps its best expression in Spenser's Fairy Queen . Nevertheless, most clergymen followed the other-worldly tradition of damning worldly honor as a temptation of the devil. As Bossuet declaimed in his funeral oration for Henriette of England in 1670: "Glory! What is more pernicious and more mortal for a Christian? What bait more dangerous? What smoke more capable of turning the best heads?"2

In his treatise The Courtier, written in 1528, Baldesar Castiglione discussed the ways and means by which a courtier could win the favor of his liege and the admiration of his peers. This work, which was translated into most European languages, including German, remained a handbook on courtly behavior for generations. Most of its admonitions reappeared intact a century later in Nicolas Faret's L'honneste Hornme .3

1 Ashley, p. 24.

2 "La Gloire! Qu'y a-t-il pour le chrétien de plus pernicieux et de plus mortel? quel âppat plus dangereux? quelle fumée plus capable de faire tourner les meilleures têtes?" (Bossuet, Oraison funèbre d'Henriette d'Agleterre, cited from Highet, p. 657).

3 ed. M. Magendie, Paris, 1925.

According to Faret, to be an "honest man" one should be born to a noble and distinguished family, since noblemen withdraw from wickedness through fear of "infamie"; yet, although desirable, noble birth is not absolutely necessary. The military career is the most suitable profession, and courage is even more important than deportment or wealth. An honest man must defend his honor; but he should not be quarrelsome, vain, or coarse. He should be physically attractive and excel in leisure-class sports, including moderate gambling. He should avoid avarice, indolence, despondence, affectation, calculation, excessive make-up, and vice. He should pursue virtue, learning, modesty, and good deeds; and he should be graceful, well dressed, and sweet-breathed. In other words, Faret has retained not only the ideals of Castiglione's courtier, but practically those of the thirteenth-century knights. Although he has added a few social graces, honor remains an external possession which one earns through good behavior. Aptly enough, the sub-title of the book is "the Art of Pleasing at Court." Faret's apparent cultural advance in this work over Castiglione can be attributed to his social class: Faret was a bourgeois trying to write for noblemen, whereas Castiglione was born an aristocrat.

Objective honor was ordinarily eulogized by laymen only; yet one of the most amazing and original arguments on the subject was written by a clergyman. In a sermon delivered in or about 1667 on I Samuel 2,30 (For them that honor me I will honor), an English divine named Isaac Barrow argued that honor must be a good thing, since God sees fit to bestow it on men. First he praises honor as the goal and therefore source of every worthy deed; and for this purpose he complies a veritable commonplace book of ancient wisdom. Next he shows that desire for honor is rooted in man's very nature, for without it we would be but brutes. Then he lists the many passages in Scripture where honor is mentioned as a desirable good or as a gift of God.l This remains perhaps the most successful attempt to reconcile love of God and love of honor.

While secular poets, and Isaac Barrow, glorified objective honor, most clerical poets, or poets in clerical employ, continued to belittle it. Even poets who often praised it sometimes damned it. According to Tasso, "Fame, which entices you proud mortals with a sweet sound and appears so beautiful, is an echo, a dream, even the shadow of a dream that faints and fades away into every wind."2 Montaigne expressed this thought somewhat later with the words, "Of all the dreams of the world, the most universally accepted is the concern for reputation and glory, which we espouse to the point of quitting riches, repose, life, and health, which are real and substantial, in order to follow that vain image and simple voice that has neither body nor substance."3

1 Barrow, pp. 74-101.

2 "La fama che invaghisce a un dolce suono voi superbi mortali, e par sí bella, è un'echo, un sogno, anzi del sogno un'ombra, ch'ad ogni vento si dilegua e sgombra" (Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme Liberata, ed. L. Bonifigli, Bari, 1930, XIV, 63).

3 "De toutes les resveries du monde, la plus receué et plus universelle est le soing de la reputation et de la gloire, que nous espousons jusques à quitter les richesses, le repos, la vie et la santé, qui sont bien effectuels et substantiaux, pur suyvre cette vaine image et cette simple voix qui n'a ny corps ny prise" (Montaigne, ed. Armaingaud, I, 41).

In contrast to Norfolk's encomium of honor in Richard II, Shakespeare also presents Falstaff's monologue: "What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon - and so ends my catechism."1 A century and a half later Albrecht von Haller, a Swiss scholar, repeated the commonplace by calling honor a "valued nothing,... a bewitching fantom."2 A century later the Austrian dramatist Grillparzer, following Spanish baroque tradition, wrote: "What is the world's fortune? A shadow! What is the world's fame? A dream!"3 It is generally recognized that baroque civilization was dualistic, but we should remember that this dualism was a heritage from the Middle Ages, despite current beliefs about medieval harmony. At about the same time as Grillparzer, the German-Hungarian poet Nikolaus Lenau similarly deprecated ambition: "Cease your struggle for honor; rather turn your hot striving into your own heart, and you will live a beautiful life."4

1 King Henry IV, Part I, V, 1, vv. 135-143. Iago follows either tradition, depending upon his need. To Cassio he says, "As I am an honest man, I thought you had receiv'd some bodily wound. There is more sense in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser" (Othello, II, 3, vv. 266-272). To Othello he says, “Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, Is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed" (Othello, III, 3, vv. 155-161).

2 "Geschätztes nichts der eitlen Ehre! Dir baut das Alterthum Altäre; Du bist noch heut der Gott der Welt. Bezaubernd Unding, Kost der Ohren, Des Wahnes Tochter, Wunsch der Thoren, Was hast du dann, das uns gefällt?" (Haller, p. 9). In forty more strophes he heaps classical commonplaces and historical illustrations to show that worldly honor is a fleeting and useless thing.

3 "Was ist der Erde Glück? - Ein Schatten! Was ist der Erde Ruhm? - Ein Traum!" (Das goldene Vliess. Medea, V, vv. 2366-2367). Cf. "Und die Grösse ist gefährlich, Und der Ruhm ein leeres Spiel" (Der Traum ein Leben, IV, vv. 2653-2654). Grillparzer vacillates in his views on honor like his heroine Sappho. First she says, "Weh dem, den aus der Seinen stillem Kreise Des Ruhmes, der Ehrsucht eitler Schatten lockt!"; but then she says, "Es schmähe nicht den Ruhm, wer ihn besitzt. Er ist kein leer-bedeutungsloser Schall, Mit Götterkraft erfüllet sein Berühren!" (Sappho, I, 5).

4 "Lass das Ringen nach der Ehre; Lieber all dein heisses Streben In den eigenen Busen kehre, Und du lebst ein schönes Leben" (Lenau, I, p. 125).

While the Renaissance and Baroque poets of Italy, Spain, France, and England were devoting so much of their time to discussing honor, German writers almost entirely ignored the subject. Their lack of interest can be explained by their religious urges, which caused them to expend their energies in mysticism and theology, and then with reformation, counter-reformation, and the political and military struggles resulting from them. The Christian tradition of inwardness, which had flourished with the mystics, was handed down to the Reformers and passed on by them to the Pietists and other sects. Naturally these inner-directed people were less anxious about the opinions of other people than about the salvation of their souls. To use medieval terminology, they longed more for God's grace than for man's favor. The theocentric teachings of the early missionaries had at last borne abundant fruit. The attitude of the whole Reformation Era toward honor can be summed up in the verse of the Protestant anthem, "A Mighty Fortress", which says we should have no thought for "life, wealth, honor, child, and wife."l In other words, as during the Cluny Reform, the values of this world are nought in comparison with the values of Heaven. In such an atmosphere, honor could not inspire great literature.

To be sure, the ruling classes still cherished military renown, as can be seen in their constant dynastic struggles. Consequently, some poets continued the heroic tradition. In his "Battle Song" Jacob Vogel claimed that there is no happier death than that before the enemy, since it brings immortal fame.2 Nevertheless, such sentiments were rare compared with concern for salvation. Andreas Gryphius was more representative of his time, at least of the literature of his time, when he said, "The fame of lofty deeds must perish as a dream."3 Johann Scheffler, better known as Angelus Silesius, championed such a view in his Cherubinischer Wandersmann. Typical is his epigram: "The honor of this world perishes in a short time; Alas, seek the honor of eternal bliss."4

1 "Nehmen sie den Leib, Gut, Ehr, Kind und Weib." Seen clerically, this is much more advanced than Walther's similar passage contrasting life, wife, and child to God's grace and honor (Walther, 22, 24-27).

2 "Davon tut haben Unsterblichen Ruhm Mancher Held frumm" (The Oxford Book of German Verse, Oxford, 1946, No. 26). Note that, at this late date, the word frumm still meant brave, as had been usual centuries earlier. In other words, a courageous man was still a useful man.

3 "Der hohen Taten Ruhm muss wie ein Traum vergehen" (The Oxford Book of German Verse, Oxford, 1946, No. 41).

4 Cherubinischer Wandersmann, VI. At first glance, one of his statements appears to anticipate the internalization of honor discussed in the next chapter: "Wer in sich Ehre hat, der sucht sie nicht von Aussen; Suchst du sie in der Welt, so hast du sie noch draussen" (VI, 24). A comparison with some other passages (e.g. VI, 25, 26, 27, 76, 209, 210 et passim) shows that he uses the word Ehre to mean future glory in heaven, in other words gloria, not honestum .

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