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Wisconsin Workshop (18th : 1987 : Madison, Wis.) / From the Greeks to the greens : images of the simple life
(1989)

Bersier, Gabrielle
Arcadia revitalized: the international appeal of Gessner's Idylls in the 18th century,   pp. 34-47


Page 34

Arcadia Revitalized: 
The International Appeal of 
Gessner's Idylls in the 18th Century 
GABRIELLE BERSIER 
In his lifetime, Salomon Gessner, the poet, graphic artist, painter, and
publisher 
from Zurich, was the most widely read author of German literature abroad.
His 
Idylls and his Death of Abel were virtually in the hand of every literate
European 
and North American, from salon lady to reclusive housewife, from coffeehouse
philosopher to side-street craftsman, from reform-minded landlord to village
preacher. Today, the countless editions, translations, and reprints of his
works 
collect dust in rare book stacks, bibliophilic libraries, and antique booksellers'
shops. That this 18th-century cult figure has fallen into disrepute is evident
from 
the lack of a German reading edition of the Idylls since 1925 and from the
absence 
of any modem translations in the 20th century.'I Whereas Ernst Theodor Voss's
critical edition of the Idyllen, published by Reclam in 1973, is obviously
designed 
for classroom use, the only modem issue of Gessner's complete works, edited
by Martin Bircher and published in 1974 by the author's former company Orell
in Zurich, is a three-volume reprint of the 1762 and 1772 Schriften, intended
for limited scholarly perusal.2 The recent surge of scholarly interest in
the idyll, 
both as a literary genre and a cultural phenomenon in history, may have sparked
intellectual curiosity in Gessner's small opus, but it has hardly kindled
a new 
affinity for the texts. The dissertations produced in the wake of Friedrich
Sengle's 
article on the idyll and Renate B-schenstein-Schaifer's influential Idylle
mono- 
graph3 have demonstrated the key role of the Gessnerian idyll within poetological
history. They have also clarified the historical function of the Enlightenment
idyll 
by revealing its critical and utopian components.4 Yet the scholarly renaissance
of the idyll has hardly made the Gessnerian prototype more inviting than
it was 
in 1924 when Paul van Tieghem assessed the lack of a thorough literary inter-
pretation of the Idylls.5 The feeling of estrangement, of "not being
at home" 
with Gessner, which Hegel expressed in the early 19th century,6 has remained
the main element in contemporary response.7 Gessner has become a persona
non 
grata of German literary history, assigned an uncertain location between
Anakreon- 
tik and Empfindsamkeit, as if snagged in an uncanny contradiction between
rococo 
frivolity and sentimental pathos. 
In contrast to his depreciated literary idyll, however, Gessner's visual
depic- 
34 


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