Johann Heinrich Voss

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Johann Heinrich Voss ( sepia drawing by JN Peroux )
Signature Johann Heinrich Voß (cropped) .jpg

Johann Heinrich Voss (born February 20, 1751 in Sommerstorf , Mecklenburg-Schwerin , † March 29, 1826 in Heidelberg ) was a German poet. To this day he is famous for his transmissions of Homer's epics ( Iliad , Odyssey ) and other classics of antiquity.


Johann Heinrich Voss was born as the illegitimate son of Johann Heinrich Voss (1714–1778) and the organist's daughter Katharina Dorothea Karsten (1718–1798) in Sommerstorf near Waren (Müritz) . His parents married shortly after their son was born in April 1751. As a former valet, the father had seen much of the world. He settled in Penzlin as a customs collector, innkeeper and school keeper . The grandfather was a craftsman who had been released from serfdom . For Voss, this origin from the lowest social class was formative throughout his life, especially in his assessment of the French Revolution and the nobility .

Voss grew up as the oldest of five siblings in Penzlin and attended the city school there from 1759 to 1765. His father became impoverished by the Seven Years' War . Thanks to financial support, however, Voss was able to attend the scholars' school in Neubrandenburg from Easter 1766 to 1769 . Then he took a poorly paid private tutor position in Ankershagen because he had no money to study. Encouraged by the local pastor Ernst Theodor Johann Brückner , he sent in his own poems for the first time in 1771 for the Göttingen Musenalmanach . He began an exchange of letters with its founder and publisher Heinrich Christian Boie .


At Boie's invitation, Voss attended the Georg-August University of Göttingen from 1772 . Here he studied Protestant theology and philology , especially Greek studies, under difficult financial conditions . He became one of the founders and the leading spirit of the first German poets' association, the famous Göttingen Hainbund . The Bund often met in its little room on Barfüßergasse.

On June 6, 1774, he became a member of the Hamburg Freemason Lodge "To the three roses" and on April 22, 1775 with Count Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg-Stolberg was elevated to the title of master . In 1786 he left Freemasonry in a dispute with the Grand State Lodge of Freemasons of Germany . In two letters he justified this with the fact that the "secret bundling" was a deception; he did not believe in the alleged goals, and the " secret superiors " were obviously the Jesuits - a conspiracy theory often advocated at the time .

In 1774 Voss von Boie took over the sole editing of the Musenalmanac , which he published until 1800, from 1780 to 1788 together with Leopold Friedrich Günther von Goeckingk . He dropped out of his studies without a degree. Also in 1774 Voss first contacted Boie's youngest sister Ernestine (1756–1834) by letter and then traveled to Hamburg and Flensburg in the spring of 1774 to meet her and the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and to make other valuable contacts.

Wandsbek and Otterndorf

Marie Christine Ernestine Voss, b. Boie, painting by Georg Friedrich Adolph Schöner , 1797, Gleimhaus Halberstadt
Johann Heinrich Voss, painting by Georg Friedrich Adolph Schöner , 1797, Gleimhaus Halberstadt

Voss moved to Wandsbek in the neighborhood of Klopstock and Matthias Claudius . In 1777 he married Ernestine. During these years Voss worked primarily on the Odyssey translation in German hexameters .

In 1778, through the mediation of Johann Georg Büsch , Voss received the position of rector of the Latin school in Otterndorf at the mouth of the Elbe. He valued Hadeln , which was unusually free and liberal for that time , the main town of which was Otterndorf and whose inhabitants had already in the Middle Ages attached importance to a Latin school for the citizens of the city and farmers in the area.

In the late summer of 1781, Voss and his entire family fell seriously ill with marsh fever . In the poem An den Wind (1780) Voss had already described the poor water quality in Otterndorf. This city, located directly on the Lower Elbe in the area where the river flows into the North Sea, had groundwater with a very high salt content. Therefore, the drinking water from higher areas, the Geest in the Wingst or the Westerberg , was often delivered by carts for about 1 thaler per barrel. But not all people could afford that. In 1782 Voss left the place with his family.


On the mediation of his Hainbund friend Friedrich Stolberg, Voss took over the position of rector of the grammar school in Eutin (today's Johann Heinrich Voss School ) in 1782 . After brief stays in Wasserstraße and in the provisional town hall, which was converted into the Witwenpalais (Eutin) a little later, he lived here in the “Voss House” from May 1, 1784. In 1786 he became a councilor . During his time in Eutin, Voss went on various trips and made contacts with Gleim , Goethe , Wieland and Herder . He received Klopstock, Claudius, Jens Baggesen , Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi as visitors. The years in Eutin were his most productive, the end of which was heralded by the rift with Friedrich von Stolberg. The so-called Eutin Circle gathered around the two friends . In 1802 Voss asked for his retirement.

Jena and Heidelberg

From 1802 to 1805 he stayed as a privateer in Jena . His son Heinrich was a professor at the Wilhelm-Ernst-Gymnasium Weimar there from 1804-1806 . Although Goethe wanted to keep him close, he accepted the appointment by the government of the newly formed Grand Duchy of Baden to take on a highly endowed professorship at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg . The sinecure enabled him to devote himself entirely to his literary work, translations and antiquarian research until his death. During this time, as a spokesman for an enlightened, liberal Lutheranism, he was already violently polemic against the romantics , who in turn criticized him. He was able to welcome Goethe, Baggesen, Jean Paul and Barthold Georg Niebuhr as guests . He also cultivated his contacts on further trips.

In 1808 he was accepted as an external member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and, in 1814, of the Prussian Academy of Sciences .

Johann Heinrich Voss died in 1826 and was buried in the St. Anna cemetery in Heidelberg. His bones were later reburied in the Heidelberg mountain cemetery. On his grave site in section D there is a faithful replica of the family grave with the dedication inscription of his widow Ernestine Voss.


From his marriage to (Marie Christine) Ernestine there were five sons, of whom, however, the eldest, Fritz, died as a child. Of the other children, Hans Voss became a well-known architect, while Heinrich and Abraham also became philologists and continued their father's work. The son Wilhelm became a doctor in Eutin.

The son Abraham was named after Johann Abraham Peter Schulz , a friend of the father's.



Title page of the first print
Cover of the first print above

Voss was a man of remarkable intellectual independence and powerful language. First and foremost, it is the translations of Homer's great epics to which he owes his place in German literature. His translations show not only profound erudition and knowledge of ancient languages ​​and verse, but also a perfect command of the German language.

The most famous of his translations are those of the Homeric epics Iliad and Odyssey . Best known was his translation of the Odyssey , which appeared in 1781 “ at the expense of the author ” and whose memorable, pictorial language familiarized generations of German readers with Homer. In 1793 the whole of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey appeared in a revised form. Voss 'translation of the Iliad inspired Goethe to write Achilles' unfinished work . Voss also translated Hesiod , Theocrit , Bion and Moschos , Virgil , Ovid , Horace , Tibullus , Properz and other classical poets. He prepared a critical edition of Tibullus.

He also translated Antoine Galland's French translation of the stories from the Arabian Nights (1782–1785); the first German version ever. From 1818 to 1829 he published a translation of William Shakespeare's dramas in nine volumes , which he had made with the help of his sons Heinrich and Abraham, who were also scholars and skilled translators.

Voss's contribution to the translation of the classics was summed up by his contemporary August Thieme in a stanza of his poem Weihe from 1809:

“The honest Voss, from whose silver scales
Es Hella, Hella, sounds through Germania;
Who, with the same alternation of feet, tightly
wraps the reins around the stanza dance,
And from the language tombs up to the day
brings us immeasurably rich treasures. -
O, many call themselves the initiated,
But he is only the prince of the German strings! "

Own poems

In addition to idylls, elegies , odes and songs , Voss also wrote satirical poems and epigrams . In the years 1785 to 1795 he published a collection of his own poems in two editions, which he later expanded. The best of his poetic works is probably his idyllic poem Luise (1795), in which he tried with great success to express contemporary German intellectual life and feeling in the forms of classical (ancient) poetry, so among other things, as with the Homer translations, in hexameters. He inspired Goethe to write his verse epic Hermann and Dorothea , which appeared in 1797 (see also Goethe's Reineke Fuchs of 1793, also in hexameters).

The well-known toast "Who does not love wine, women and song , will remain a fool for life" are the last two lines from his poem "To Luther".

Theoretical writings

In the Mythological Letters (two volumes, 1794) and in his Antisymbolik (two volumes, 1824–1826), which he wrote in opposition to Friedrich Creuzer (1771–1858), and in other writings, Voss made important contributions to the study of mythology .

He also acted as an advocate for the right to religious freedom . At a time when numerous German Romantics were converting to the Roman Catholic Church , he stood out in a sensational article in Sophronizon (1819), a newspaper published by Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus , in which he spoke out against the conversion of his former friend in 1800 Friedrich Leopold Graf zu Stolberg turned to Catholicism. With further writings against Stolberg and Creuzer, however, Voss also wanted to attack the tendencies of the period of Romanticism that were directed against reason and Protestantism and, in his eyes, politically retrograde, superstition, mysticism and the Middle Ages, glorifying tendencies. In this respect, Voss was one of the most consistent representatives of the German Enlightenment and late Enlightenment in his philosophical, social and political views . His work caused an abundance of contradictions, but also statements of consent.



The former house in Otterndorf, now a museum

The house in which Rector Voss lived in Otterndorf is now a Voss Museum. Parts of permanent exhibitions in other museums and special exhibitions are also dedicated to his life and work.

In March 2019, in the former Rector's House in Penzlin, where Voss went to school, the “Johann-Heinrich-Voss-Haus” opened a literature center with a city library, tourist information and a permanent exhibition entitled “Johann Heinrich Voss. A Greek from Mecklenburg. "

A bronze bust of Voss was erected in 1883 at the high school in Eutin (today the Carl-Maria-von-Weber-School, one of the two high schools in Eutin next to the Johann-Heinrich-Voss-School ). Further Voss busts are not far from the town church on the market square of Penzlin and on the south side of the Severikirche in Otterndorf.

Voss as the namesake

His name is the Johann Heinrich Voss Prize for Translation , which is awarded annually by the German Academy for Language and Poetry , and the Johann Heinrich Voss Prize for Literature and Politics , which is awarded every three years .

In several cities streets, paths or squares were named after Johann Heinrich Voss (including in Bremen, Geestemünde, Göttingen, Neubrandenburg, Otterndorf). Schools are also named after him (in Eutin, Neubrandenburg, Penzlin, Otterndorf).

The asteroid (23473) Voss , discovered on October 11, 1990, was named after him.

Also the plant genus Vossia Wall. & Handle. from the sweet grass family (Poaceae) is named after him.


  • Serfdom. In: Muses Almanac . 1776.
  • Luise. A rural poem in three idylls. Nicolovius, Königsberg 1795 ( digitized and full text in the German text archive ).
  • Luise. A rural poem in three idylls. Last hand edition, J. Müller, Leipzig 1861 ( digitized version )
  • Timekeeping of the German language. Supplement to the odes and elegies. Nicolovius, Königsberg 1802.
  • Outline of my life . Froebel, Rudolstadt 1818; Reprint: Wald, Karben 1996.
  • Letters. Edited by Abraham Voss . Three volumes. Brüggemann, Halberstadt 1829–1833; Reprint: Olms, Hildesheim 1971.
  • All poetic works. Edited by Abraham Voss. Müller, Leipzig 1835.
  • Johann Heinrich Voss. Works in one volume . Selected and introduced by Hedwig Voegt . Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin 1983.
  • Poems. Selection and introductory texts by Klaus Langenfeld. Husum Printing and Publishing Company, Husum 2001.
  • The little idylls. With an introduction to understanding the idylls and an afterword edited by Klaus Langenfeld . Academic publishing house Heinz, Stuttgart 2004.
  • Ali Baba and forty robbers. Tales from a thousand and one nights. Edited by Ernst-Peter Wieckenberg. Beck, Munich 2012, ISBN 978-3-406-61608-2 .


  • Heinrich Döring : Johann Heinrich Voss . In: New Nekrolog der Deutschen Vol. (1826), pp. 171-204 ( digitized version ).
  • Wilhelm Herbst: Johann Heinrich Voss. 3 volumes. Leipzig 1872–1876 (Reprint: Lang, Bern 1970).
  • Friedrich Heussner: Johann Heinrich Voss as a school man in Eutin. Festschrift for the centenary of his arrival there. Struve, Eutin 1882.
  • Franz MunckerVoss, Johann Heinrich . In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Volume 40, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1896, pp. 334-349.
  • August Sauer (Ed.): Johann Heinrich Voss. Spemann, Berlin 1886 (Reprint: Niemeyer, Tübingen 1974, DNB 750486767 ).
  • Hermann Bräuning-Oktavio : Silhouettes from the Werther period. From the estate of Johann Heinrich Voss and Carl Schubert's book of silhouettes . Wittich, Darmstadt 1926, DNB 579240010 .
  • Heinrich Alexander Stoll : Johann Heinrich Voss. 2 volumes. Union-Verlag, Berlin 1962/1968.
  • Hanns Zimmermann: ... and so I walked through Alt-Malente based on Luise. (To Voss' Idylle Luise ). Struve, Eutin 1973.
  • Günter Häntzschel : Johann Heinrich Voss. His translation of Homer as a language-creative achievement. (= Zetemata Vol. 68). Beck, Munich 1977. XVII, 283 pp.
  • Klaus Langenfeld: Johann Heinrich Voss. People, poets, translators (= Eutin library books. Vol. 3). Struve, Eutin 1990, DNB 910182795 .
  • Christoph Prignitz: Voss, Johann Heinrich. Hans Friedl u. a. (Ed.): Biographical manual for the history of the state of Oldenburg . Edited on behalf of the Oldenburg landscape. Isensee, Oldenburg 1992, ISBN 3-89442-135-5 , pp. 772-774 ( PDF ).
  • Frank Baudach, Günter Häntzschel (Ed.): Johann Heinrich Voß (1751-1826). Contributions to the Eutiner Symposium in October 1994 (= Eutiner Research , Vol. 5). Struve, Eutin 1997. ISBN 978-3-939643-15-9
  • Frank Baudach (Ed.): A man like Voss ... Exhibition for the 250th birthday of Johann Heinrich Voss. Edition Temmen, Bremen 2001, ISBN 3-86108-537-2 .
  • Inka Tappenbeck (Ed.): Johann Heinrich Voss (1751-1826). Idyll, polemics and sound. Lower Saxony State Library, Göttingen 2001, ISBN 3-930457-21-0 .
  • Mathias Brandstädter: Madness and mediocrity? An analysis of the Vossian excitement potential and the polemical deep structure of the "anti-symbolism". In: Culture & Ghosts . Vol. 4, 2007, pp. 38-54.
  • Christian Begemann: Johann Heinrich Voss. In: Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Ed.): Kindler Vol. 17. Vil – Z (= Kindlers Literature Lexicon . Volume 2). Metzler, Weimar 2009, ISBN 978-3-476-04000-8 , p. 101 f.
  • Frank Stückemann: Georg Christoph Friedrich Gieseler's war song of the Germans against the New Franks. A counter-song to Johann Heinrich Voss' Hymn of Freedom. In: Vossische Nachrichten. No. 11 (December 2014), pp. 33-44.
  • Hans-Joachim Kertscher , Andrea Rudolph: Johann Heinrich Voss. Once at home in Penzlin - today at home in German literature (= articles on cultural studies. Sources and research. Ed. By Andrea Rudolph and Ute Scholz. Vol. 8). Dettelbach 2014, ISBN 978-3-89754-457-4 .

Web links

Commons : Johann Heinrich Voss  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Johann Heinrich Voss  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Eugen Lennhoff, Oskar Posner, Dieter A. Binder: International Freemason Lexicon . 5th revised edition. Herbig Verlag, ISBN 3-7766-2478-7 , p. 883.
  2. The house was burned on January 30, 2006, Ernestine's 250th birthday.
  3. Leena Ruuskanen: The Heidelberg Bergfriedhof through the ages . Verlag Regionalkultur, Ubstadt-Weiher et al. 2008, ISBN 978-3-89735-518-7 , p.
  4. ^ Essays by Ernestine Voss . On the silver wedding anniversary of their children Abraham and Maria, o. O. [Düsseldorf: Hermann Voss] 1837
  5. Information on the title page of the first print
  6. ^ Johann Heinrich Voss: To Luther. Published in: Voss: Works in one volume. Construction publishing house. Berlin and Weimar. 1966.
  7. Literaturhaus for poets and Homer translators Voss opened
  8. Lotte Burkhardt: Directory of eponymous plant names - Extended Edition. Part I and II. Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin , Freie Universität Berlin , Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-946292-26-5 doi: 10.3372 / epolist2018 .