HEINRICH VON KLEIST
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THE LIFE OF HEINRICH VON KLEIST
By JOHN S. NOLLEN, PH.D.
President of Lake Forest College
Brandenburg has, from olden times, been the stern mother of soldiers, rearing her sons in a discipline that has seemed harsh to the gentler children of sunnier lands. The rigid and formal pines that grow in sombre military files from the sandy ground make a fit landscape for this race of fighting and ruling men. In the wider extent of Prussia as well, the greatest names have been those of generals and statesmen, such as the Great Elector, Frederick the Great, and Bismarck, rather than poets and artists. Even among the notable writers of this region, intellectual power has usually predominated over gifts of feeling or of imagination; the arid, formal talent of Gottsched is an exemplary instance, and the singularly cold and colorless mind of the greatest thinker of modern times, Immanuel Kant, seems eminently Prussian in quality. Growing out of such traditions and antecedents as these, the genius of Heinrich von Kleist appears as a striking anomaly.
This first great literary artist of Prussia was descended from a representative Prussian family of soldiers, which had numbered eighteen generals among its members. Heinrich von Kleist was born October 18, 1777, at Frankfort-on-the-Oder, in the heart of Brandenburg, where his father was stationed as a captain in the service of Frederick the Great. The parents, both of gentle birth, died before their children had grown to maturity. Heinrich was predestined by all the traditions of the family to a military career; after a private education he became, at the age of fourteen, a corporal in the regiment of guards at Potsdam.
[Illustration: #HEINRICH VON KLEIST IN HIS TWENTY-FOURTH YEAR# Made after a miniature presented by the poet to his bride]
The regiment was ordered south for the Rhine campaign against the French revolutionists, but the young soldier saw little actual fighting, and in June, 1795, his battalion had returned to Potsdam; he was then an ensign, and in his twentieth year was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.
The humdrum duties and the easy pleasures of garrison life had no lasting charms for the future poet, who was as yet unconscious of his latent power, but was restlessly reaching out for a wider and deeper experience. We soon find him preparing himself, by energetic private study, for the University; in April, 1799, against the wishes of his family and his superior officers, he obtained a discharge from the army and entered upon his brief course as a student in his native city. He applied himself with laborious zeal to the mastery of a wide range of subjects, and hastened, with pedantic gravity, to retail his newly won learning to his sisters and a group of their friends. For the time being,