Sensitivity and friendship cult: Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – People and Places

Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719–1803), engraving by Friedrich Johann Kauke (1759) made after a painting by Johann Heinrich Tischbein d. Ä. (Source: Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Inventar.-Nr. A 7824

A man of intellectual standing in mid-eighteenth century Germany could arguably not have avoided being acquainted with Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719–1803) at some stage in his life. Hence also C. P. E. Bach belonged to Gleim’s ever growing circle of friends, who during that period lived in Potsdam and Berlin, working as a tutor. A writer of cheerful rococo shepherd poetry, he, like no other person, succeeded in applying his lovable and generous nature in order to bond with young, penniless writers, and support them both financially and ideally. That the literary quality of his own fiction left much to be desired is insinuated by Goethe in Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) with an air of mild sarcasm: 

“He would equally have missed taking his breath as writing fiction and making gifts, and by helping indigent talents of all sorts out of earlier or later embarrassment thus truly supporting literature, he won so many friends, debtors and dependants that one gladly accepted his broad poetry, as one was not capable of returning any more than the sufferance of his poems out of gratitude for his extensive charity.”

Nevertheless, Gleim’s merits do not only regard the promotion of German literary life. Although anakreontic poetry with its gallantry, whose main German representative Gleim was, is entirely a product of the rococo era, its song-like tone still helped to liberate the German language from the pathos of the baroque age. Besides, even the young Goethe could not evade the lyrical fad of chivalrous shepherd dalliance, a destiny he shared with Schiller, Lessing, Klopstock, to name but the most prominent.

The rather modest literary value of anakreontic poetry should not be perceived independently from the generally widespread cult of friendship celebrated during the era of sensitivity. In fact it becomes all the more comprehensible when such poetry is perceived as an extension of the cult. The cult of friendship actually became something comparable to a private religion unto Gleim after he had moved to Halberstadt in the Harz mountains: he made the central room of his house a cult site containing a huge collection of portraits of his friends painted in oil. Possibly C. P. E. Bach was inspired by this gallery of friends in Gleim’s house, whom he visited in 1751, to start his own collection with portraits of musicians and theoreticians he knew well. Whether he composed the character piece for piano, La Gleim of 1755 (Wq 117/19), as a monument to the poet or maybe his niece Sophie Dorothea (after all the article is feminine) is not known, but it is documented that he set several poems by his friend and other anacreontics to music.

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