Gerrit Engelke was born in Hannover in 1890. He was the son of a salesman who emigrated to the USA in 1901: his mother and sister followed in 1910, leaving the young Gerrit had to fend for himself. He completed an apprenticeship as a commercial decorator in 1908 and then worked for various companies, also attending art classes at the Werkkunstschule in Hannover. In literature, though, he was largely self-educated. His first poems were written in 1910/11; his early work reflects life in the industrial environment of a large town, including the rhythm of machinery and locomotives and the smoking chimneys. In July 1913 he visited the writer Richard Dehmel, who helped him to publish in the journal Das neue Pathos. Dehmel also recommended him to the workmen of Haus Nyland, an artistic association in Hopsten, near Rheine Westfalen, who printed some of his lyrics in their journal Quadriga in 1914. His involvement with Haus Nyland also resulted in the 1916 poetry collection Schulter an Schulter: Gedichte von drei Arbeitern (Shoulder to Shoulder, Poems of Three Workers; together with Heinrich Lersch and Karl Zielke).

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, Engelke was staying in Denmark and was initially unwilling to return to Germany, but eventually his financial situation and the belief that he was fated to it, led him to do so. He began his military training in Flensburg in October 1914. From February 1915 he served at several locations on the western front and was awarded the Iron Cross after swimming the border river Yser. In 1917 he was wounded and sent home to recover. During this period he met an officer’s widow to whom he became engaged in February 1918. As well as keeping a diary, he wrote copious letters, especially to his workman friend Jakob Kneip and to his fiancée Annie-Mai. But on October 11th 1918 he was badly wounded, taken prisoner and died in a British field hospital near Cambrai two days later. The proofs of his collected poems under the title Rhythmus des neuen Europa did not reach him in time and the volume was published posthumously by Jakob Kneip in 1921. Kneip also edited his letters and other works, publishing them in 1937 in the volume Vermächtnis. Engelke´s work shows powerful language and was influenced by the American poet Walt Whitman as well as by Friedrich Nietzsche and Émile Verhaeren. However, a clear political dimension to his poetry and prose is lacking.

“War is the negation or at least the degeneration of the soul and the furthering of the material world’s power” (Letter to “Frau R”. of 22.6.15)

Gerrit Engelke’s Poems

Writing and References

G. Engelke, Das Gesamtwerk. Rhythmus des neuen Europa, with an introduction and edited by Hermann Blome, München (List) 1960; Reprint: Hannover (Postskriptum) 1979 ISBN 3-922382-02-9

H. Schwerte: Engelke, Gerrit Ernst Manilius, in: Neue Deutsche Biographie 1959, Bd. 4, S. 516 f. [Onlinefassung]; URL: http://www.deutsche-biographie.de/pnd118530356.html

P. Bridgewater, The German poets of the First World War, Croom Helm, c.1985 & New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.

This entry was written by Penelope Monkhouse