ON WINDING PATHS: JUSTUS MÖSER'S VIEW OF ENGLISH LITERATURE

Introduced by Dr Sali Dening, Member, on 16 November 1999

Illustrated by slides kindly lent by the Möser-Dokumentationsstelle, Osnabrück.

Although he had not yet visited England, Justus Möser of Osnabrück in his essay Harlekin or Defence of the Grotesquely Comical (1761) defined the `unique spirit of the English' as having achieved more new perfections along winding paths than were to be found in formal gardens along their straight monotonous walks and visible bounds. Möser thought of the English spirit as resembling a landscape garden.

Justus Möser, lawyer, official, statesman and writer, lived and died in the small prince-bishopric of Osnabrück, one of the 300 states of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. After the Thirty Years War, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) gave the little state a unique constitution under which it was to be governed alternately by a Catholic bishop and by a Protestant prince of the House of Hanover.

Ernst August, Elector of Hanover, and father of George I, had become bishop of Osnabrück in 1662. A palace, and gardens with symmetrical parterres, after the manner of Versailles, was built for him. Möser knew this palace garden and also the more formal garden of Herrenhausen, Hanover.

French culture prevailed not only in garden design but also in fashion, manners and literature. French was the language use in the court and among the educated. Möser conducted much of his correspondence with the local nobility in French. The rules for poetry, particularly in drama, as outlined by Aristotle and interpreted by such writers as Boileau and Pope, were taken as the norm in Germany.

However, knowledge was spreading gradually about English authors such as William Shakespeare, to whose works such rules obviously did not apply. Yet books in English were difficult to obtain, translators with a good command of English were scarce. Information came from such French writers as Voltaire and Le Blanc who had visited England; Möser quoted frequently from their works.

Möser was better placed than most Germans to learn about things English. Firstly, there was the Hanoverian connection. Secondly, his relative J. M. F. Jerusalem, founder of a college in Brunswick, had around him a group of scholars who could translate from English. Thirdly, Johann Friedrich von dem Bussche-Hünnefeld, a nobleman for whom Möser carried out legal work, drew Möser's attention to the English writers.

By 1761 Möser knew the works of Shaftesbury, who preferred the `wilderness' to `princely gardens', the essays in The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian, where Nature is pronounced superior to formal gardens, and Pope's Moral Epistles in which he makes clear his dislike of symmetrical gardens. Möser was able to quote in English from Pope's Preface to the Works of Shakespeare. At this time he enjoyed the novels of Henry Fielding and read William Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty with his theory of the serpentine line as the standard of beauty.

During the Seven Years War (1756 -63), when Osnabrück was in the path of hostilities and suffered severely, Möser had many contacts with English officers and officials. When he came to London to negotiate on behalf of Osnabrück at the end of the War he was to discover at first hand many more aspects of the English spirit.

M. A. Dening