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Toward an Understanding of the Figure Poems in
Johann Hellwig’s Die Nymphe Noris

Robert Stamper


Welcome!  This is a paper I wrote in spring 1997 as a first-year graduate student in the German department at the University of Georgia.  The class was Early Modern German Literature, and the teacher was Dr.  Max Reinhart.  I'd enjoy reading your ideas about my work; please feel free to drop me a line if you like.  Thank you.

Rarely in the study of literature is attention paid to the groundbreaking work of those writers who have sought to exercise and manipulate the confining parameters of traditional artistic convention, not so much thematically or stylistically, but textually—by fundamentally modifying the ways in which letters and words are arranged on the printed page.  Such experimentation with the commonplace norms of visual language has itself traditionally been something of a rarity, perhaps due to the considerable challenge it poses both to the artist and the printer. Whereas these new methods of written communication entail an unusual and, at times, unwieldy dimension of expression for the writer, the publisher must contend with the limitations of technology—an important concern ever since the initial publication of such writings some five centuries ago (Warnock, Folter 41).  All difficulties aside, though, this kind of exploration of the pictorial opportunities inherent in written language provides, for the intrepid author, a liberating tool with which to convey ideas and meanings in an intriguing and attractive fashion.  Often such texts take the form of Figurengedichte or figure poems (also called, variously, carmina figurata [Ernst "Poem" 11], pattern poems [Daly 127] or Bildgedichte [Faber du Faur 150]).  Higgins remarks that figure poems represent "an ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses, to tie together the experience of those two areas into an aesthetic whole" (3).  Warnock and Folter have pointed to this style of writing as the "transformation of the art of poetry into a game," one which "can be observed at various times in virtually all highly-developed literatures" (40).  They note further that the German Baroque period served as "one of the most propitious settings in modern times for such art" (40).  One writer of this era whose collection of figure poems has sometimes been cited and analyzed by scholars is Johann Hellwig of Nuremberg, member of the literary society known as the Pegnesischer Blumenorden (Faber du Faur 149).  Best known of the figure poems associated with Hellwig are those contained in his prose eclogue Die Nymphe Noris of 1650.  In order to come to a greater understanding of the Noris poems, and of the depth and range of the figure poem in general, I would like to examine, individually and comparatively, the twelve pieces featured in the work.  In so doing I hope at least to do justice to what I now know to be a richly engaging technique in poetic composition.

For purposes of orientation, a word on Hellwig’s life and the background of Noris might be in order; Reinhart’s biographical notes on Hellwig in his Descriptive Bibliography of Noris provide the most complete overview of Hellwig’s life available. Hellwig was born in 1609 in Nuremberg to well-to-do parents; after studying medicine and philosophy at Altdorf University, he continued his medical education at several other institutions in Europe, eventually becoming a successful and widely respected doctor (2-4).  He joined the Blumenorden as its fifth member in 1645 under the pseudonym "Montano" (7); his first German-language work in the Blumenorden was written in honor of fellow Pegnitz Shepherd Harsdörffer or "Strephon" (8).  Noris is essentially "a greatly expanded version" of the idyll to Harsdörffer (8); Hellwig intended it to serve as a sequel to previous "PegnitzSchäferey" by his colleagues (Faber du Faur 150); all of these works were themselves patterned on Opitz’ Schäfferei von der Nimfen Hercinie of 1630 (8).

Classification of Noris as a prose eclogue was facilitated by the work of Garber (26-38).  Noris fulfills the requirements of this genre in that it is set in a locus amoenus and features prosimetric narrative, an opening walk through nature, "a grove where tribute is paid in verse to the dedicatee," a "guiding nymph who directs the poet to compose the praise," and an eventual "reentry into nature" (Reinhart, Critical Edition, xxiv).  Vredeveld notes that the term "Noris" was lifted from Hessus, who coined it to personify Nuremberg as a muse of poets (209).  Like earlier Schäfergedicht eclogues, Noris follows a basic tripartite structure—a central tribute bracketed by walks through nature—repeated in each of its two books (Reinhart xxiv).  Nine poets of the Blumenorden appear in the course of Noris, each under their respective sobriquet.

Of the twelve figure poems included in the book, only four can be safely attributed to Hellwig; other members of the Blumenorden are responsible for the remaining eight (Reinhart Bibliography 12).  All twelve pieces are found in the first book or "Erste Tagzeit." The first two poems stand near the beginning, on succeeding pages, followed some seventy pages later by a set of the other ten.

These opening two, "Hertz" and "Pyramis oder Flammseule" (see Figures One and Two of the Appendix), both by Hellwig (Reinhart 12), fit nicely together both thematically and visually, as do many of the Noris poems when compared and understood in concert. Both treat the brevity and fragility of human existence; "nichts besteht / alles vergeht / was heut lachet / morgen krachet," intones the first, echoed by the "Dich und mich der Tod verlachet" of the second (Reinhart Critical Edition 13, 14).  Tightly bound together as they are, it is easy for the reader to perceive the semantic value of the forms Hellwig has chosen: a heart, representative of human life, is juxtaposed strikingly with the funereal pyramid shape (according to Kühlmann, one of the "leicht zu interpretierende Versatzstücke der Monumental- oder Sakralarchitektur" [510]), underscoring the ephemeral nature of life on earth; Ernst acknowledges the expression here of "die vanitas der irdischen Existenz, den raschen Wechsel von Leben und Tod" ("Pyramidenform" 328).  In a mere flipping of the image, the poet is able to comment further on the subject of his two poems, without actually writing additional verses.

Typical among the figure poems of the Noris is the curious Klangmalerei of the first verses. "Scherz: / Schmertz!" announces the uppermost line, setting the tone (and tone-pattern) for the two following lines.  The rhyme here shifts between phrases within a single horizontal line of print, but not yet among the lines themselves.  Only in the fourth line does the reader encounter an end rhyme repeated from a preceding line; from this point forward, only end rhyme is heard ("Grund" / "Stund"; "Weib" / "bleibt," etc.; Reinhart 13).  Such careful construction of the rhymes within the poem serves to grasp the reader’s attention and draw it close to the basic structure of the verse, emphasizing the pictorial nature of the work.  Significant also is Hellwig’s tailoring of his words and ideas to fit the limits imposed by the form; instead of awkwardly forcing pre-written lines into the shape of a heart (a step which, though visually comparable, could easily lead to a jagged, unappealing reading of the text), he uses the shape of the heart and its peculiar curves and spaces as the blueprint for the creation and assemblage of words and phrases of optimum size and configuration. Just as the space available in a single line grows as "Pyramis" progresses, so do Hellwig’s lines increase in length and complexity: from the almost staccato structure and phrasing "† / Hier / beacht: / Heut an mir / Morgen an dir," Hellwig moves to statements such as "Hirten und der Hirtinn Zunfft / wollet ihrer nicht vergessen," which fills a single line of text (Reinhart 14).

The reader, upon reaching the later set of ten poems, is reminded immediately of the shape of the "Pyramis" by "Parnassus" (see Figure Three), which is essentially a doubling of the earlier piece, as explained by Adler and Ernst (145).  In "Parnassus," the poet, Harsdörffer (Reinhart Bibliography 12), makes use of intricate interior rhyme to enhance the poem’s density (fitting for a mountain image), pulling the reader between alternating rhymes both in the individual "summits" and in the successive lines of text, as noted by Adler (133). For instance, a first rhyme may be heard in "welcher / unser," another in "Weide / Hirtenfreude," though these pairs are found beside one another; that is, the rhymes function vertically.  Harsdörffer then switches to a rhyme between the "mountains": "Spitzen" connects to "erhitzen," and "Sonnenstrahlen" to "morgens mahlen," creating a cross-rhyming which binds together the previously separated textual areas (131).  In treating this quality of Klangmalerei, Adler recognizes an important strength of the figure poems; however I’m not as convinced by his assertions as to the structure’s effect on the reader.  His claim that the twin-peak image of "Parnassus" demands "a reading against the shape" assumes that readers, when confronted with the poem, will instinctively attempt to read from one summit to its base, then move to the next summit (131).  But what of those who, when they see that the poem isn’t divided between the mountains at bottom, read the uppermost words from left to right as they would in regular text? Adler’s subsequent idea that "the text displaces the normal smoothness of linear perception by a technique of repeated interference" (131) seems out of place in regard to "Parnassus," I think, considering the limited "interference" a reading of the poem would present to most readers.

The poem on the next page, "Thurn," is again Hellwig’s work (Reinhart Bibliography 12).  Adler and Ernst correctly point out that, as in "Parnassus," a peak has been added to the most recent figure; we now have three Spitzen, forming, according to Warnock and Folter, an image of the tower on Harsdörffer’s coat of arms (48), nicely enhancing the poem’s theme of praise as a "löbliches Denkmal." "So vermag die äußere Struktur die Texte zu vereinigen," state Adler and Ernst; though thematically they have varied in significant ways, structurally the poems have maintained a continuum of visual design, one which contributes to the work’s overall impact on the reader.

Much more so than "Parnassus," "Thurn" actually does pose a quandary to the viewer: How to tackle a text which so clearly seems to begin in three places at once? A cursory examination of the rhyme schemes might be of assistance.  First, one notices that each of the three towers contains internal, vertical rhymes leading to their base line, which rhymes three times over within itself: "klugreiche Lehr: / Gott und sein Ehr’ / aufglimmet sehr" (Reinhart Critical Edition 89).  Then this rhyme continues in couplets—".  .  .  vermehrt / .  .  .  nährt"—up to those lines which are divided by the building’s central "window," on either side of which now both phrases rhyme: "Leb ohn’ Neid / lange Zeit," read the first phrases around the window.  End rhyme in couplets of succeeding vertical lines is then resumed.  Hellwig’s alternation between longer and shorter lines of verse enhance the beauty of the work, especially as crafted in the shape of the tower.  "Stephons Nam bestralet ist / wie der Sonn und Sternen Liecht," writes Hellwig (89); the form of the figure poem has permitted him to add a unique dimension to what might otherwise have been an easily forgotten Lobgedicht.

Presented next is the "Nußbaum," by Volkamer (Reinhart Bibliography 12).  Warnock and Folter recognize "Nußbaum" as directly related to an emblematic poem by Alciatus with the motto "In fertilitatem sibi ipsi damnosam," which treats the same subject as Volkamer’s work; the critics further cite both poems as representatives of the form of the Rollengedicht (51).  The story recounted is that of the fruit-bearing tree who, in exchange for its delicious issue, receives only injuries from those who wish to eat.  Daly notes that in "every respect this pattern poem is an emblematic poem: the title names the object, which embodies the moral meaning explained in the last lines; the verse is arranged so as to produce the outline of the tree, as a pictura: the first half of the poem is pictorial, the second half interpretive" (132).  Indeed, no other poem in the collection conforms to the organizational basics of the emblem as well as "Nußbaum." Aside from its historical background, this is one of the more readily understood poems in Noris.

The "Nußbaum" is, as seen before, flipped (and altered slightly) on the following page in Harsdörffer’s "Reichsapfel," which, aside from its visual connection to the preceding poem, is something of a puzzle among the figures, particularly to contemporary readers.  What original shape does it imitate? Nevertheless, the two, facing each other, make for an attractive pair, and the brief rhyming of lines such as "wie süß / aber süß / seyn es Friedes Füß’! / ieder sie erküß!" and "Kriegesflut / kränket Muth" is enchanting (Reinhart, Critical Edition, 91).

Then appears the "Oergelein" by Volkamer, dedicated to Lochner (Higgins 77), followed on the next page by the collection’s other two musical figures, the "Schalmei" ("Pfeife" or "Syrinx") and the "Laute." Adler and Ernst explain that this first instrument is a "porfyrianischen Wasserorgel" (46); Adler points out that the theme of music was previously intimated, in "Parnassus" (135).  The "Schalmei," seen also as part of a pair with the "Laute," recalls Birken’s Opitzian prose eclogue Fortsetzung der Pegnitz-Schäferey, in which Pan gives his flute of reeds to the Pegnitz Shepherds; also brought to mind is the Syrinx poem of the ancient originator of the Western figure poem, Theocritus (Adler 125).  Remarkable, though, is the vast visual difference between Birken’s "Syrinx" (see Adler 124) and Klaj’s, since the latter, it must be admitted, looks like a pan flute only to the most forgiving reader.  Somewhat easier to make out is the contour of Hellwig’s "Laute," which features delightful Klangmalerei.

Next featured is Lochner’s "Quell" or "Springender Röhrbrunnen," which "is understood to be an emblem of a spring on Mount Parnassus," thus again uniting in figure distant parts of the text (Adler 134).  Intriguingly, this poem may be compared with one almost identical in shape: Johann Steinmann’s "Der Musen springender Röhrbrunn" of 1653 (Adler and Ernst 149).  Of note are the hanging lines "Saures oft betrübet / Süssigkeit beliebet," which pour out from the central core of text and are to be read by the reader either before or after the body of verse; Lochner thus adds a kind of coda, or introduction, to the work, depending on how the reader chooses to proceed.  The "Quell" may also be seen as fitting into the theme of architectural structures, along with the "Pyramis," "Thurn" and the final "Ehrengebäu."

Sechst’s striking "Sanduhr" follows in quick succession; remarkable in design due to its angular features and sharp text-space contrasts, this form is classified among other "semiotisch unzweideutige Requisiten" by Kühlmann (509).  Also notable is the uniqueness of "Sanduhr"; it seems to resemble no other of the poems structurally, though thematically it works nicely with the theme of vanitas first conveyed in the opening pair of figures.  Poetically marvelous, it pulls the reader in torrents of movement through the core of the verse; this is perhaps the most challenging piece for the reader in its bizarre design.

Finally, Arnold’s "Ehrengebäu" to the Pegnitz Shepherds closes the set, closing also the cycle of architectural poems beginning with the "Pyramis" (Adler and Ernst 145).  Like the "Thurn," this figure features pairs of rhymed phrases around the contour of the window; its design is on the whole is quite easy to understand, and quite satisfying.  Once again, the window device enables the poet to craft couplets such as "ohn umschweif / ihre Pfeif / sich erschwingt / lieblich klingt" (Reinhart 96).

"So entsteht eine ganze Fülle von Entsprechungen, welche die Gedichte thematisch und ästhetisch verbinden," state Adler and Ernst (145).  The poems of Johann Hellwig’s Die Nymphe Noris touch upon one another in an intricate conceptual and visual network which effectively draws the reader into Hellwig’s world. In light of the tremendous input of his fellow Shepherds, I am most impressed by Hellwig’s skill at organizing Noris so beautifully; it is, to be sure, easy to see how one could mistake the entire text for the product of a man working alone.  Though impugned for what some see as lyrical failings, Hellwig’s work in Noris should be recognized and appreciated for its captivating complexity and excellent organization.

Works Cited and Consulted
Adler, Jeremy.  "Pastoral Typography: Sigmund von Birken and the ‘Picure-Rhymes’ of Johann Helwig." Visible Language 20.1 (1986): 121-135.

Adler, Jeremy and Ulrich Ernst.  Text als Figur.  Visuelle Poesie von der Antike bis zur Moderne.  2nd ed.  Weinheim: VCH, 1988.

Birken, Sigmund von.  Werke und Korrespondenz.  Ed.  Klaus Garber.  Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1988.

Daly, Peter M.  Literature in the Light of the Emblem: Structural Parallels between the Emblem and Literature in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979.

de Cózar, Rafael.  Poesía e imagen: Formas difíciles de ingenio literario.  Seville: Carro de la Nieve, 1991.

Ernst, Ulrich.  "Europäische Figurengedichte in Pyramidenform aus dem 16.  und 17.  Jahrhundert." Euphorion 76 (1982): 295-360.

---.  "The Figured Poem: Towards a Definition of Genre." Visible Language 20.1 (1986): 8-27.

Faber du Faur, Curt von.  German Baroque Literaure: A Catalogue of the Collection in the Yale University Library.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1958.

Higgins, Dick.  Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature.  Albany: State U of New York P, 1987.

Kirchner, Gottfried.  Fortuna in Dichtung und Emblematik des Barock: Tradition und Beutungswandel eines Motivs.  Stuttgart: Metzler, 1970.

Kühlmann, Wilhelm.  "Kunst als Spiel: Das Technopaegnium in der Poetik des 17.  Jahrhunderts." Daphnis 20.3-4 (1991): 505-529.

Newman, Jane Ogden.  Pastoral Conventions: Poetry, Language, and Thought in Seventeenth-Century Nuremberg. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Reinhart, Max.  "Historical, Poetic and Ideal Representation in Hellwig’s Prose Eclogue Die Nymphe Noris." Konstruktion: Untersuchungen zum deutschen Roman der frühen Neuzeit. Ed.  Lynne Tatlock.  Daphnis Sonderheft 19.1 (1990): 41-66.

---.  Johann Hellwig: A Descriptive Bibliography.  Studies in German Lit., Linguistics, and Culture.  Columbia: Camden, 1993.

---.  Johann Hellwig’s Die Nymphe Noris (1650): A Critical Edition.  Studies in German Lit., Linguistics, and Culture.  Columbia: Camden, 1993.

---.  "Poets and Politics: The Transgressive Turn of History in Seventeenth-Century Nürnberg." Writing on the Line: Transgression in Early Modern German Literature.  Ed.  Lynne Tatlock.  Daphnis Sonderheft 20.1 (1992): 65-94.

---.  "The Privileging of the Poet in Johann Hellwig’s Die Nymphe Noris." Sprachgesellschaften—Galante Poetinnen.  Ed.  Erika A.  Metzger and Richard E.  Schade.  Daphnis Sonderheft 17.3 (1988).  229-243.

Vredeveld, Harry.  "Zur Herkunft des Wortes ‘Noris’." Mitteilungen des Vereins für Geschichte der Stadt Nürnberg 71 (1984): 208-211.

Warnock, Robert G.  and Roland Folter. "The German Pattern Poem: A Study in Mannerism of the Seventeenth Century." Festschrift für Detlev W.  Schumann zum 70.  Geburtstag.  Ed.  Albert R. Schmitt.  Munich: Delp, 1970.  40-73.

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