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Friedrich von Spee

But the earliest poet of this school deserves notice both for his own sake, and because he is the first Roman Catholic poet of any note since the Reformation. Hitherto the intellectual activity of Germany had been all on the side of the Reformed doctrine; it was so still to a great degree, but the order of the Jesuits was beginning in Southern Germany to push back the advancing tide of Lutheranism, and it is among them that we meet with the first Roman Catholic writers who made a mark on the literature of their time. These were Johann Jacob Balde and Friedrich von Spee. Balde (1603-1668) wrote almost exclusively in Latin, but his "Carmina Lyrica" are said to possess remarkable power and fire, and were very much read and imitated in his own day. Friedrich von Spee, on the contrary, wrote in German, expressly as he says, because "it is not only in the Latin tongue, but in the German no less, that men can speak and compose good poetry; if this have been wanting, 'tis the fault not of the tongue, but of the persons who use it." He himself belonged to a noble family of Bavaria, and was born either in 1591 or 1595, at Kaiserswerth. He entered the order of Jesuits as a youth, and taught moral philosophy at Cologne until 1627, when he was transferred to Wurzburg. Here it was part of his duty to act as confessor to the poor creatures who were victims of the popular mania about witchcraft, and he is said to have witnessed the last hours of no fewer than two hundred of these unfortunate persons. The distress of mind thus caused him injured his 241 health, and prematurely whitened his hair, but he did not merely pity, he acted; to him belongs the great distinction of being the first man in Europe to write openly against trials for witchcraft. It was no slight effort of courage to do so then, but he had the reward of making at once at least one convert, the Count of Schönborn, who afterwards as Archbishop of Mayence was the first prince who prohibited such trials within his dominions. Spee's work, "De Processu contra sagas liber" (Treatise concerning the Trial of Witches), attracted much attention, and was translated into several languages. He died in 1635 at Trèves, of a fever caught while attending on sick and wounded soldiers--an honourable end to so honourable a life. His principal work, "The Nightingale's Rival Trutz-Nachtigall"), was not published till 1649, and in 1666 his "Golden Book of Virtue." Selections from them, somewhat abridged and modified, have appeared from time to time ever since; one, edited in 1849 by W. Smets, a canon of Cologne cathedral, has now a wide circulation.

As a poet, Spee reminds us not a little of the Minne-singers; he has all their love of nature, their delight in spring-time and the song of birds, and much of their fluency and mastery over rhyme and metre. There is great beauty and grace in his poems, though many of them are too much spun out, and overloaded with quaint conceits. But their chief defect to us is that the pastoral tone, which he had caught from the Italians, seems unbefitting such serious themes as those to which it is here often applied. In one poem, for instance, the moon as the shepherd of the stars gathers her flock around her, and bids them look down 242 with pity and wonder on the sorrows of Daphnis, which are then described through several stanzas, and prove to be the Agony of our Lord in the Garden. Or again, the poet wanders into the woods: near a waterfall he utters the name of Jesus; it is repeated; at first he thinks it is some kindred heart responding to his own, then that it may be Jesus Himself condescending thus to sport with him, then he finds it is the echo, and from that time his delight is to play at ball with the echo, tossing the name of the Beloved to and fro, till all the woods ring with the sweet sound. All this is told in flowing verses, in which the answers of the echo are introduced with great skill; and were the subject an earthly love, it would be a charming little poem. The following is one of his best-known poems, and very characteristic of his style:--

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