Engels On Political Poetry

This is an excert of a letter Frederick Engels wrote to Hermann Schlüter in 1885.

London, May 15, 1885.

Dear Schlüter:

… As for the poems:

The Marseillaise of the Peasant War was: Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott, and conscious of victory as the text and melody of this song are, it cannot nor need it be taken in this today. Other songs of the time are to be found in collections of folksongs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the like. More may perhaps be found there. But the mercenary soldier largely pre-empted our folk poetry even at that time.

Of foreign songs I know only the pretty Danish song of Herr Tidmann, which I translated in the Berlin Sozialdemokrat in 1865.

There were all sorts of Chartist songs, but they aren’t to be had any more. One began:

Britannia’s sons, though slaves you be,
God your creator made you free;
To all he life and freedom gave,
But never, never made a slave.

I don’t know any others.

All that has vanished, nor was this poetry worth much. In 1848 there were two songs sung to the same melody: Schleswig-Holstein, The Hecker Song:

Hecker, hoch dein Name schalle
An dem ganzen deutschen Rhein.
Deine Grossmut, ja dein Auge
Flossen schon Vertrauen ein.
Hecker, der als deutscher Mann
Vor der Freiheit sterben kann.

I think that’s enough. Then the variant:

Hecker, Struve, Blenker, Zitz und Blum
Bringt die deitsche Ferschte um!

In general, the poetry of past revolutions (the Marseillaise always excepted) rarely has a revolutionary effect for later times because it must also reproduce the mass prejudices of the period in order to affect the masses. Hence the religious nonsense even among the Chartists …



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