After attending (1766-69) the gymnasium at Neubrandenburg, he was obliged to accept a private tutorship in order to earn money to enable him to study at a university. At the invitation of H.C. Boie, whose attention he had attracted by poems contributed to the Göttinger Musenalmanach, he went to Göttingen in 1772. Here he studied philology and became one of the leading spirits in the famous Hain or Dichterbund.
In 1775 Boie made over to him the editorship of the Musenalmanach, which he continued to issue for several years. He married Boie's sister Ernestine in 1777 and in 1778 was appointed rector of the school at Otterndorf in Hanover. In 1782 he accepted the rectorship of the gymnasium at Eutin, where he remained until 1802. Retiring in this year with a pension of 600 thalers he settled at Jena, and in 1805, although Goethe used his utmost endeavours to persuade him to stay, accepted a call to a professorship at Heidelberg. Here, in the enjoyment of a considerable salary, he devoted himself entirely to his literary labours, translations and antiquarian research until his death.
Voss was a man of a remarkably independent and vigorous character. In 1785-1795 he published in two volumes a collection of original poems, to which he afterwards made many additions. The best of these works is his idyllic poem Luise (1795), in which he sought, with much success, to apply the style and methods of classical poetry to the expression of modern German thought and sentiment. In his Mythologische Briefe (2 vols., 1794), in which he attacked the ideas of Christian Gottlob Heine, in his Antisymbolik (2 vols., 1824-26), written in opposition to Georg Friedrich Creuzer (1771-1858), and in other writings he made important contributions to the study of mythology. He was also prominent as an advocate of the right of free judgment in religion, and at the time when some members of the Romantic school were being converted to the Roman Catholic church he produced a strong impression by a powerful article, in Sophronizon, on his friend Friedrich von Stolberg's repudiation of Protestantism (1819).
It is, however, as a translator that Voss chiefly owes his place in German literature. His translations indicate not only sound scholarship but a thorough mastery of the laws of German diction and rhythm. The most famous of his translations are those of Homer. Of these the best is the translation of the Odyssey, as originally issued in 1781. He also translated Hesiod, Theocritus, Bion and Moschus, Virgil, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius and other classical poets, and he prepared a critical edition of Tibullus. In 1818-1829 was published, in 9 vols., a translation of Shakespeare's plays, which he completed with the help of his sons Heinrich and Abraham, both of whom were scholars and writers of considerable ability.
J.H. Voss's Sämtliche poetische Werke were published by his son Abraham in 1835; new ed. 1850. A good selection is in A Sauer, Der Göttinger Dichterbund, vol. i. (Kürschner's Deutsche National-literatur, vol. 49, 1887). His Letters were also published by his son in 4 vols. (1829—33). Voss left a short autobiography, Abriss meines Lebens (1818). See also W Herbst, J.H. Voss (3 vols., 1872-1876); A. Heussner, J.H. Voss als Schulmann in Eutin (1882).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.