Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848)

When Annette von Droste-Hülshoff died 150 years ago at Meersburg Castle, her poetic work was as good as unknown. Today, the woman pictured on the former 20 Mark note is immeasurably more popular than at the time of her death. For her literary "discovery" the authoress has to thank the fact that she was stylised as a figurehead in the culture struggle of the 1870s. Characterised by the attributes, 'catholic' and 'Westphalian', she was very quickly declared to be the "greatest German poetess", which brought scholarly investigation in its wake and earned her such a prominent position in literary history writings.

Anna Elisabeth Franzisca Adolphine Wilhelmine Louise Maria von Droste-Hülshoff - thus was her baptismal name - was born at the moated chateau of Hülshoff between Havixbeck and Roxel, near Münster. Care of the scarcely viable seven-month baby was in the hands of the wet-nurse, Catharina Plettendorf to whom Droste-Hülshoff remained closely attached all her life.

She grew up well looked after and was brought up in the confines and closeness of the world of the Westphalian nobility. Her mother ensured elementary lessons; later, various tutors were employed. It was said that, even as a child, Droste-Hülshoff was again and again afflicted with constant sicknesses - a nervous, overwrought condition was early confirmed, in particular. The poetess's life-long catalogue of sickness which sometimes made literary work impossible for months, can be traced through her letters. In her novel (fragment) Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande [1841] Droste-Hülshoff affords a glimpse into her parental home and offers impressive portraits of her mother, Therese von Droste-Hülshoff who is described as lively, intelligent and devoted to the practical side of life, and of her father Clemens August von Droste-Hülshoff whom she depicts as well read, musical and very benevolent.

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Childhood and Youth

Droste-Hülshoff began writing early in her life, in the main, little occasional poems and verses for the family album, at first still completely within the context of family life in the Biedermeier period. Her poetic talent was quickly recognised by relatives. Even in 1804, her uncle, Werner von Haxthausen, described the - at the time - seven-year old as a "second Sappho". Also, her talent was already being discussed in Münster in the year of 1809, to the extent that the publisher, Friedrich Raßmann requested contributions to his poetic booklet, "Mimigardia", from Droste-Hülshoff who was not yet twelve years old; however, the family did not allow this.

In Münster, Anton Matthias Sprickmann, a poet and lawyer almost fifty years older, emerged as her first literary supporter and person to whom she could turn - someone whose interest for her literary work Droste-Hülshoff could claim. She laid before him her early projects - the tragedy Bertha, or the Alps (1813/14) the epic poem Walther (1818) and the fragment of the novel Ledwina (1819) - in detail and informed him about the progress of her work. It was also he to whom, as 19 year old in 1816, she sent a first noteworthy poem with the title Unruhe, which depicts a biographical fundamental conflict, namely that between self assertion and conformity.

In her youth, Droste-Hülshoff seldom had the opportunity to escape the confines of the parental home. Apart from minor local excursions, only occasional visits to Bökendorf near Brakel, provided a change. Here in the Paderborn countryside relatives of her mother, the von Haxthausen family, had their seat. At chateau Bökendorf the "Bökendorf Fairytale Circle" would gather around the brothers August and Werner von Haxthausen and Wilhelm Grimm. During this period Droste-Hülshoff also took a part in the collection of sagas, fairytales and literary folklore.

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Droste's "Youthful Catastrophe"

In 1820 the Bökerhof was the scene of Droste-Hülshoff's so-called youthful catastrophe - her unhappy relationship with the Göttingen law student, Heinrich Straube. August von Arnswaldt, in an agreement with with Straube, had tried to put Droste-Hülshoff's love to the test and had also temporarily gained her affection. Hereupon both men promptly renounced their friendship with Droste-Hülshoff in a jointly composed letter. The failure of the relationship to Straube, brought about by the intrigue, was a traumatic experience combined with all sorts of humiliation. It led to her no longert visiting Bökendorf for almost twenty years. The painful experience is reflected in her poem Die Taxuswand: Along thy dark edge will I creep, and cancel eighteen years from my life's book. (The Yew Hedge). Droste-Hülshoff had, in 1819, already begun a cycle of spiritual songs for the ecclesiastical year's Sundays and festive days. Against the background of that fundamental shock in connection with the "Arnswaldt-Straube experience", her texts fell into personal confession in which uncertainty about faith became a theme. The poems bore - as Droste-Hülshoff wrote - traces of a soul much hard pressed and divided. Not until twenty years later was she able to complete Geistliche Jahr (The Ecclesiastical Year). The cycle was not published until after her death; it is regarded today as belonging to the outstanding examples of spiritual lyric.

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From Rüschhaus into the World

Drastic changes in Droste-Hülshoff's life occurred in 1826 when her father died. The brother Werner took over the family seat and Droste-Hülshoff moved, together with her mother and sister Jenny, into the Rüschhaus, a dwelling near Nienberge, some nine kilometres from Münster, that had been bought shortly before. It is a mixture of farmhouse and manor house built by the famous Westphalian architect Johann Conrad Schlaun. In seclusion, Droste-Hülshoff lived a simple, reserved and rather unpretentious life. She withdrew into her "little snail shell" as she called her living room in order to write, read, compose poetry, or just to daydream. For some time she resorted to her second talent, music. Her uncle Maximillian, her father's brother, had already given her his book, Generalbaßbuch, on the theory of composition as a present in 1821. It formed the music theory basis for Droste-Hülshoff's various Lieder compositions and opera drafts of the Eighteen-twenties.

Then, in the Thirties, Droste-Hülshoff gradually widened her horizons. She undertook several journeys to the Rhine, to Bonn and Cologne where she stayed with relatives. She was able to form new friendships, made the acquaintanceship of wealthy banker's wife, Sybille Mertens-Schaffhausen in whose house she also met Adele Schopenhauer, the sister of the famous philosopher. She took full part in the social life; once she even took part in the Cologne Carnival. In 1835 a further journey led to the canton of Thurgau in Switzerland, to chateau Eppishausen. Her sister, Jenny was already living here, who had been married since 1834 to Baron Joseph von Laßberg who later became the owner of Meersburg Castle. It is known from her letters that although Droste-Hülshoff liked the Swiss mountain landscape, she was in general disappointed with the sojourn.

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Travelling and Homeland

Responsible for this, on the one hand, was the chateau's position - during the long winter one was almost completely isolated from the world outside - but the lack of mental diversion was all the more so. The authoress could discern no interesting interlocutor among Laßberg's learned friends, admirers of mediaeval literature. Great dissatisfaction and severe home-sickness ensured that Droste-Hülshoff was glad, after over a year, to be able to travel to the homeland again. From the literary aspect, she occupied herself in the Thirties with the composition of epic verse, longer narrative verse, often laborious detail work, which was still bound up with Biedermeier taste of the period. This includes Das Hospiz auf dem großen St. Bernhard, Des Arztes Vermächtniß, and Die Schlacht im Loener Bruch. (The Hospice on Great St. Bernhard, The Doctor's Legacy and The Battle of Lohn Moor). These texts, together with a few other poems, were published in 1838 by the Aschendorff Verlag in Münster. The Münster philosophy lecturer, Christoph Bernhard Schlüter was involved in a special way in the preparation of the edition, who was the authoress's main correspondent on literary questions in the Thirties. Droste-Hülshoff was now a published poetess; however, only the initials of her name appeared on the title page. The first great creative phase closes with the edition which remained largely unnoticed.

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Schücking and "Die Judenbuche"

During the subsequent period Droste-Hülshoff was urged on to new projects, especially by the family, that she followed up only half-heartedly. She concerned herself with the comedy Perdu! Oder Dichter, Verleger und Blaustrümpfe and intended to to write a Westphalian novel with the title Bei uns zu Lande auf dem Lande. All in all, it was a time when a literary reorientation set in for the authoress. If Schlüter had been a kind of literary mentor in the Thirties, then in the next period this was to be the seventeen years younger Levin Schücking the son of Droste-Hülshoff's friend Catharina Busch. Schücking was very bustling and knew his way around the literature business - in him Droste-Hülshoff had a correspondent who guided her to contemporry literature, but who also made her work for his own projects.

Droste-Hülshoff delivered a series of descriptions of landscapes and localities, as well as several historical ballads with a local interest, within a brief period for the volume Das malerische und romantische Westphalen that Schücking had taken on. It was Schücking, too, who arranged the publication of her novella Die Judenbuche. Ein Sittengemälde aus dem gebirgigten Westphalen (1842) in the former literary paper, the Cottasche Morgenblatt. She succeeded in creating a "Portrait of Morals" which reflects a segment of Westphalian life in almost naturalistic sharpness of detail, with the story of Friedrich Mergel who, years after the murder of a Jew, returned to the scene of the deed and hanged himself in the beech. Yet Die Judenbuche is more than a study of low life; it is simultaneously crime story and psychograph, a story which by its ambiguity, in the end, fundamentally calls into question the perception of reality.

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Droste at Meersburg

Droste-Hülshoff experienced one phase of highest poetic inspiration in the winter of 1841/42 that she spent when visiting her sister Jenny von Laßberg, now mistress of castle Meersburg on Lake Constance. The Laßbergs had been living at Meersburg castle since the end of 1838, but Droste-Hülshoff had, after the bad experiences at Eppishausen, at first refused to pay another visit to her sister. However, in the autumn of 1841 when a journey to Lake Constance once again became the subject of conversation, it was under more favourable portents. Levin Schücking could be among those present, who was supposed to be compiling a catalogue of the valuable Laßberg library. Thus Droste-Hülshoff set off on 21st December 1841 on a journey that she later summed up with We have been having a life of the gods here and our life together […] in Meersburg [was] surely the most cordial time of our mutual life.

The Meersburg years became climaxes in the life of Droste-Hülshoff, through the coincidence of attendant circumstances. Altogether Droste-Hülshoff visited the old Meersburg castle three times; first from September 1841 until the end of July 1842 - the second stay lasted from the end of September 1843 until end September 1844, the third from September 1846 until her death. Travels to Lake Constance, initially undertaken with reservations, gradually developed into excursions into familiar territory. The authoress writes to her friend, Philippa Pearsall: ...I regard Meersburg as the second half of my homeland.

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Writing at Lake Constance

Meersburg became the pivotal and hinge point of a new world for Droste-Hülshoff. She could breathe more freely here; here she was released from many duties and harassments that she suffered at home; here she recovered her health and found manifold stimulation and diversion. Here, too, she was uncommonly creative. During the winter of 1841/42 at Meersburg, spent in the company of Schücking, a new poem came into being almost every day, through his urging and within a short time, material for a whole volume of poetry, which was to gain a hearing for the authoress in the literary world.

Many of the texts developed at Meersburg already display their local connection in their titles, such as Am Bodensee, Das alte Schloß, Am Thurme or Die Schenke am See. These texts may be headed "Travel pictures of Lake Constance", although they do not appear under that heading as such in any edition of poetry; 'travel pictures' which give evidence by their literary ranking, that they distance themselves from all traditional "Lake Constance" hymnody and contrived pathos by means of subjectively emotional language. Beside these many "new" texts the authoress also brought with her to Meersburg much of her material from home, in order to write it down with an easier hand in a freer atmosphere. So it was that only far from her homeland did she find the leisure and inspiration to complete her Westphalian themes - Haidebilder and Westphälische Schilderungen. Most of her 'typical' Westphalian texts thus developed, not at the pond before the Rüschhaus front door, but far away at the Swabian lake.

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"Fürstenhäusle" and break with Schücking

The joint sojourn with Schücking at the Meersburg castle ceased on 2nd April 1842 when he went away to take up a post as a tutor. During the period thereafter Droste-Hülshoff worked on the completion of a new volume of verse. After barely a year's stay in Meersburg, in the summer of 1842 she travelled back home again where the difficult process of correcting, rejecting and revising followed the phase of inspired creativity at Lake Constance. It still took until September 1844 before the new volume of verse was ready. In anticipation of the quite handsome fee that Schücking had negotiated, Droste-Hülshoff bought, by auction in November 1843, the "Fürstenhäusle" which was located among vineyards outside the town walls of Meersburg, thereby becoming a grandiose Grundbesitzerin.

During her second stay at Meersburg (September 1843 - September 1844) a visit by Levin Schücking took place, this time accompanied by his young wife, Louise von Gall. Schücking's marriage had not left Droste-Hülshoff unimpressed - she had often warned him, in her letters, against an impetuous marriage. Although the relationship between Droste-Hülshoff and Schücking now cooled and estrangement set in, he remained an important stimulator and promoter of further literary texts. Whenever he came with a new commission, Droste-Hülshoff accepted it. In spring 1844 she composed almost twenty poems, among which was the poem addressed to the Schückings, Lebt wohl. Droste-Hülshoff and Schücking never saw each other again after this meeting. The final break came when Schücking published the novel Die Ritterbürtigen in which, in Droste-Hülshoff's opinion, he divulged confidential information from the world of the nobility.

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In autumn 1844 Droste-Hülshoff left Meersburg and travelled back to Westphalia. Although already seriously weakened by sickness, she was still able to create some literary work. The care of her wet-nurse who had meanwhile moved into the Rüschhaus and died there in 1845, was a burden. Apart from that she lived quietly in the seclusion of Rüschhaus, interrupted only by a visit to Abbenburg in the summer of 1845, where once again at the request of Schücking, a large number of poems was written. At the beginning of 1846 the contact to her old friend Schlüter flickered up again, but the encounter remained forced. Because of her chronic sickness, Droste-Hülshoff was increasingly unable to saddle up her Pegasus. Her literary voice began to dwindle. In autumn 1846 she travelled to Meersburg one last time. She died here in the afternoon of 24th May 1848.

The present fame of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff has its base on Die Judenbuche in particular and also her lyric verse about the natural world, texts with which she reaches far beyond her own times. The authoress once formulated her poetical conception of herself with I do not like and do not want to become famous, but I should like to be read a hundred years from now. Without doubt, she has achieved this.

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