FREILIGRATH, FERDINAND (1810-1876), German poet, was born at Detmold on the 17th of June 1810. He was educated at the gymnasium of his native town, and in his sixteenth year was sent to Soest, with a view to preparing him for a commercial career. Here he had also time and opportunity to acquire a taste for French and English literature. The years from 1831 to 1836 he spent in a bank at Amsterdam, and 1837 to 1839 in a business house at Barmen. In 1838 his Gedichte appeared and met with such extraordinary success that he gave up the idea of a commercial life and resolved to devote himself entirely to literature. His repudiation of the political poetry of 1841 and its revolutionary ideals attracted the attention of the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV., who, in 1842, granted him a pension of 300 talers a year. He married, and, to be near his friend Emanuel Geibel, settled at St Goar. Before long, however, Freiligrath was himself carried away by the rising tide of liberalism. In the poem Ein Glaubensbekenntnis (1844) he openly avowed his sympathy with the political movement led by his old adversary, Georg Herwegh; the day, he declared, of his own poetic trifling with Romantic themes was over; Romanticism itself was dead. He laid down his pension, and, to avoid the inevitable political persecution, took refuge in Switzerland. As a sequel to the Glaubensbekenntnis he published Ca ira! (1846), which strained still further his relations with the German authorities. He fled to London, where he resumed the commercial life he had broken off seven years before. When the Revolution of 1848 broke out, it seemed to Freiligrath, as to all the liberal thinkers of the time, the dawn of an era of political freedom; and, as may be seen from the poems in his collection of Politische und soziale Gedichte (1849-1851), he welcomed it with unbounded enthusiasm. He returned to Germany and settled in Düsseldorf; but it was not long before he had again called down upon himself the ill-will of the ruling powers by a poem, Die Toten an die Lebenden (1848). He was arrested on a charge of lèse-majesté, but the prosecution ended in his acquittal. New difficulties arose; his association with the democratic movement rendered him an object of constant suspicion, and in 1851 he judged it more prudent to go back to London, where he remained until 1868. In that year he returned to Germany, settling first in Stuttgart and in 1875 in the neighbouring town of Cannstatt, where he died on the 18th of March 1876.
As a poet, Freiligrath was the most gifted member of the German revolutionary group. Coming at the very close of the Romantic age, his own purely lyric poetry re-echoes for the most part the familiar thoughts and imagery of his Romantic predecessors; but at an early age he had been attracted by the work of French contemporary poets, and he reinvigorated the German lyric by grafting upon it the orientalism of Victor Hugo. In this reconciliation of French and German romanticism lay Freiligrath's significance for the development of the lyric in Germany. His remarkable power of assimilating foreign literatures is also to be seen in his translations of English and Scottish ballads, of the poetry of Burns, Mrs Hemans, Longfellow and Tennyson (Englische Gedichte aus neuerer Zeit, 1846; The Rose, Thistle and Shamrock, 1853, 6th ed. 1887); he also translated Shakespeare's Cymbeline, Winter's Tale and Venus and Adonis, as well as Longfellow's Hiawatha (1857). Freiligrath is most original in his revolutionary poetry. His poems of this class suffer, it is true, under the disadvantage of all political poetry - purely temporary interest and the unavoidable admixture of much that has no claim to be called poetry at all - but the agitator Freiligrath, when he is at his best, displays a vigour and strength, a power of direct and cogent poetic expression, not to be found in any other political singer of the age.
Freiligrath's Gedichte have passed through some fifty editions, and his Gesammelte Dichtungen, first published in 1870, have reached a sixth edition (1898). Nachgelassenes (including a translation of Byron's Mazeppa) was published in 1883. A selection of Freiligrath's best-known poems in English translation was edited by his daughter, Mrs Freiligrath-Kroeker, in 1869; also Songs of a Revolutionary Epoch were translated by J. L. Joynes in 1888. Cp. E. Schmidt-Weissenfels, F. Freiligrath, eine Biographie (1876); W. Buchner, F. Freiligrath, ein Dichterleben in Briefen (2 vols., 1881); G. Freiligrath, Erinnerungen an F. Freiligrath (1889); P. Besson, Freiligrath (Paris, 1899); K. Richter, Freiligrath als Ubersetzer (1899).
(J. G. R.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)