Martin Optiz

Buch von der deutschen Poeterey ... Bresslaw: In Verlegung David Müllers Buchhändlers, 1624.

The first and most prominent of the 17th-century theorists, Martin Opitz (1597-1639), led his contemporaries to the first flowering of German poetry in the modern era with his Buch von der Deutschen Poeterey (1624), in which he describes poetic technique and encourages Germans to write poetry themselves. It is noteworthy that Opitz treats Homer as one great poet among the many greats of ancient Greek and Rome, while Virgil is considered the greatest classical poet, a sentiment typical of the period.

Beinecke Call Number: Zg17 Op3 625

Johann Christoph Gottsched

Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst ... Leipzig: B.C. Breitkopf, 1751.

This text made Gottsched’s name. In it, he emphasizes the eternal quality of literary standards, ignoring historical aspects of literature in favor of proscriptive formal and moral arguments as criteria of literary criticism. Gottsched believes the heroic epic to be the “true magnum opus of all poetry”1:

Homer is, as far as we know, the very first to attempt this type of work, and carried it out with such luck, or better, with such skill, that […] he is presented to all his successors as the paradigm. […] Homer is therefore the father and the first inventor of this [type of] poem, and thus a truly great intellect, a man of special ability…2

Beinecke Call Number: Zg17 G71 751v

Johann Jakob Bodmer

Character der Teutschen Gedichte ... Zürich, 1734.

Early Modern German literary critics often complain that the German language itself makes writing poetry impossible; however, a young Bodmer (1698-1783) argues in this verse essay on the subject: “even Germans can vault themselves onto Mount Parnassus.”3 Some twenty years later, Bodmer would hold up the newly rediscovered Nibelungenlied as proof.

Beinecke Call Number: Zg18 H151 732

Simon Schnaidenreißer

Odyssea, das seind die aller zierlichsten vnd lustigsten vier vnd zwaintzig Bücher ... Alexander Weissenhorn, 1538.

This is the first modern-language translation of the Odyssey. Thirty printings of Latin translations of the Odyssey and Iliad had been produced in German-speaking territories before it, and Schaidenreißer’s translation represents the Humanist push for the dissemination of ancient texts to an audience beyond traditional learned circles.

Translators feared that the less educated could misunderstand or misuse classical thought, but believed the benefits were great enough to attempt the undertaking. For these reasons, 16th-century translators took steps to ensure a ‘proper’ understanding of classical authors. Schaidenreißer (ca. 1500-1573) employs a contextualizing introduction and illustrations that highlight the most pedagogically useful content to make the story relevant to readers of Reformation-era Germany and to downplay morally ambiguous content. The size of the book and quality of the paper suggest a wealthy target audience, likely members of the rising merchant class. Weißenhorn printed two title pages for Odyssea (one reading 1537, the other 1538), but it seems that there was only a single print run (Weidling xi-xii).

Beinecke Call Number: Gfh91 +Fn537B

Simon Schnaidenreißer

Homeri des aller hoch berümbsten [!] und griechischen Poeten Odissea ... Franckfurt : [J. Schmidt], 1570.

This 2nd edition of Schaidenreißer’s Odyssea likely was unauthorized. The text has been abridged somewhat; the expensive large-format woodcuts replaced by smaller, less detailed ones. The practical, diminutive size suggests the volume was not intended to become an ornamental or status-conferring possession for the newly wealthy, but made for reading.

Beinecke Call Number: Zg16 Sc29 570

Johann Spreng

Ilias Homeri: das ist Homeri dess ... Gedruckt zu Augspurg : durch Christoff Mangen, In Verlegung Eliæ Willers, 1610.

Each of Homer’s epics was translated into German only once from the advent of the printing press until the beginning of the 18th century, although both Schaidenreißer and Spreng’s translations went through multiple editions (two and five, respectively).4 Despite this, it took seventy years for the Iliad to join the Odyssey in German translation. The aim of Spreng’s translation is, like Schaidenreißer’s, to disseminate a venerable work to the widest possible audience. Published after the translator’s death, the book begins with a commemorative portrait and poem. In the poem, a colleague named Christoph Weinenmair praises Spreng as a great scholar and poet in his own right, while also lauding the Augsburg bureaucrat and Meistersinger’s use of his free time to translate the knowledge of the world into German:

While of his station aware,
He did occupy his time so spare
With translating books to German,
His Fatherland to emblazon...

Beinecke Call Number: Zg16 Sp79 +610

Christian Heinrich Postel

Die listige Juno ... Hamburg : Gedruckt und verlegt durch Nicolaus Spieringk, 1700.

In 1700, Christian Heinrich Postel (1658-1705), a well-known opera librettist with a passion for philology, published an excerpt from the Iliad under the title Die Listige Juno (Cunning Juno). Postel employs an approach that seems quite modern in comparison to the translations by Schaidenreißer and Spreng – the translator includes the original Greek beside the German translation as well as exposition and criticism by himself and an ancient author. After the Homer fragment, an exegesis of the text by an ancient scholar appears, followed by Postel’s own interpretation. In place of the expository marginalia of the earlier translations, which mostly summarize the text, Postel employs footnotes to describe his sources very precisely. Interestingly, no knowledge of Greek or Latin is necessary to read Postel, because every quotation is translated; this suggests that Postel, too, was aiming for an audience who may have been closer to monolingual than trilingual. On the other hand, the use of German no longer had to suggest a less educated audience; over the course of the 17th century, the movement toward the vernacular as an acceptable language for learned texts had grown tremendously. 

Like Opitz and Bodmer, Postel is quick to refute the idea that German is inferior to other languages: in the introduction he writes, “our noble German language is just as suitable to that for which the other European languages are used”6 and therefore able to produce as elegant a translation of Homer as had been made in English and French. Postel’s Cunning Juno is representative of the ascendance of Homer in German thought; always a great figure, Homer’s shadow came to envelop other ancient poets. Postel himself considers Homer incomparably great:

...he is the most beautiful and also the most effortless of all Greek poets; the great and immortal Homer, of whom ancient and modern scholars rightly believed that the treasure of all knowledge and human science lies hidden within him...7

In addition, Postel pointedly attacks previous translations of Homer into German, which serves to highlight the radically changing norms of translation over the course of the Early Modern Period. Given the small number of Early Modern translations, it must be assumed that he includes at least Spreng's Iliad, if not Schaidenreißer's Odyssea in this complaint.

Beinecke Call Number: Zg17 P84 700


1 “das rechte Hauptwerk und Meisterstück der ganzen Poesie” (Gottsched 1751, II.4 469).

2 Homer ist, so viel wir wissen, der allererste, der dergleichen Werk unternommen, und mit solchem Glücke, oder vielmehr mit solchem Geschicklichkeit ausgeführet hat […] und allen seinen Nachfolgern zum Muster vorgeleget wird. […] Homer ist also der Vater und der erste Erfinder dieses Gedichtes, und folglich ein recht großer Geist, ein Mann, von besonderer Fähigkeit gewesen […](Gottsched 1751, II.4 469).

3 “Auch Teutsche können sich auf den Parnassus schwingen” (Bodmer 1734).

4 “Data are difficult to come by, but it appears that by the 16th century, editions reached between three and four thousand copies; smaller editions could of course be made, but at correspondingly higher prices” (Hirsch 1974, 68).

5 “Inmittelst seines Ampts bedacht/ Hat er die ubrig zeit zu bracht/ Mit Bücher Teutsch zu transferieren/ Dardurch sein Vatterland to zieren/…” (Spreng 1610, n.p.).

6 “unsere edele Teutsche Sprache [ist] eben da zu geschickt / wo zu die andern Europäischen Sprachen gebrauchet warden” (Postel 1700, n.p).

7 “er sei der schönste und dabei der leichteste aller Greichischen Poeten; de[r] gross[e] und unsterblich[e] Homerus / von dem mit recht die Gelahrten alter und neuer Zeiten schon gehalten / daß der Schatz aller Weißheit und menschlicher Wissenschafft in ihm verborgen lege” (Postel 1700, n. p.)