The Romantic School … Part Four
This writer, Johann Heinrich Voss, is altogether unknown in France, and yet there are few to whom the German people are more indebted for their intellectual development. After Lessing, he is probably the greatest citizen in German literature. He certainly was a great man, and deserves more than a mere passing mention.
The biography of this man is that of nearly all German authors of the old school. He was the son of poor parents, and was born at Mecklenberg in 1751. He studied theology, but did not pursue it as a career. When, however, he became acquainted with poetry and Greek, he devoted himself zealously to both. In order not to starve he took to teaching, and became schoolmaster at Otterndorf, in Hadeln. He translated the ancients, and lived to the age of seventy-five, poor, frugal, and industrious. He enjoyed an excellent reputation among the poets of the old school, but the poets of the new romantic school were continually plucking at his laurels, and they scoffed not a little at the honest, old-fashioned Voss, who, however, went on in his straight-forward way, picturing the life on the lower Elbe, sometimes even writing in the Platt-Deutsch dialect.
He selected no medieval knights or madonnas as the heroes and heroines of his works, but chose for his theme the life of a simple Protestant parson and his virtuous family. Voss was so thoroughly wholesome, so bourgeois, so natural; while they, the new troubadours, were so morbid and somnambulistic, so high-flown and aristocratic, and altogether so unnatural. To Frederic Schlegel, the intoxicated poet of the dissolute, romantic Lucinde, the staid and sober Voss, with his “chaste Louise” and his “aged and venerable parson of Grunau,” must have been very obnoxious. August Wilhelm Schlegel, who never was so sincere as his brother in his glorification of profligacy and of Catholicism, harmonised much better with old Voss, and between the two there existed only the rivalry of translators, a rivalry which has been very beneficial for German literature.
Even before the rise of the new school, Voss had translated Homer; now, with an unprecedented industry, he translated the other heathen poets of antiquity, while August Wilhelm Schlegel translated the Christian poets of the romantic-Catholic period. Secret polemical motives inspired them both. Voss aimed to advance classic poetry and modes of thought through his translations, while A. W. Schlegel sought, through good translations, to make the Christian-romantic poets accessible to the public for imitation and culture. In sooth, this antagonism manifested itself even in the forms of speech used by the two translators.
While Schlegel became ever more fastidious and finical in his style, Voss grew more brusque and rugged. The language in the latter’s later translations is as rough as a file, and at times almost unpronounceable. If one is liable to slip on the smooth, highly-polished, mahogany-like surface of Schlegel’s poems, there is equal danger of stumbling over Voss’s versified blocks of granite. In a spirit of rivalry, Voss finally attempted a translation of Shakespeare, a work which Schlegel had accomplished so successfully in his earlier years. In this undertaking Voss fared very badly, and his publisher still worse; the translation was a total failure.
If Schlegel’s translation, perhaps, reads too smoothly; if his verses sometimes give the impression of whipped cream, and leave the reader in doubt whether it is to be eaten or be drunk;—Voss’s, on the other hand, is as hard as stone, and reading his verses aloud makes one fear a dislocation of the jaw-bone. But that which especially distinguished Voss was the energy with which he battled against all difficulties; he not only wrestled with the German language, but also with that aristocratic Jesuitic monster, which at that period raised its unsightly head from amidst the dark forest depths of German literature: and Voss dealt the monster a telling blow.
Herr Wolfgang Menzel, a German author, who is known as one of the bitterest opponents of Voss, dubs him “a Saxon boor.” Notwithstanding the unfriendly sense in which this epithet is applied, it is nevertheless very fitting. In truth, Voss is “a Saxon boor,” just as Luther was one: he lacks all that is chivalrous, courteous, and gracious; he was every inch one of that rude, rough, sturdy race, to whom Christianity could be preached only by fire and sword, and who only submitted to that religion after losing three battles, but who in their customs and ways still retain much of the old Norse pagan doggedness, and in their material and intellectual combats show themselves as valiant and as stubborn as their ancient gods.
When I contemplate Johann Heinrich Voss in his polemics and in his whole manner, I seem to see before me the ancient one-eyed Odin himself, who has left Asgard and has become a school-teacher in the province of Hadeln, and there teaches Latin declination and the Christian catechism to the little flaxen-haired Holsteiners; in his leisure hours he translates the Greek poets into German, and borrows from Thor his great hammer to beat the verses into shape; but after a while, becoming tired of the tedious work, he takes the hammer and cracks poor Fritz Stolberg on the head.
That was a famous affair. Frederick, Count of Stolberg, was a poet of the old school, and was remarkably popular in Germany, not, perhaps, so much on account of his poetic talents as for his title of count, which at that time counted for more in German literature than it does now. Fritz Stolberg, however, was a liberal man and had a noble heart, and he was a friend of those less patrician youths, who in Göttingen were seeking to found a poetic school. I recommend French literary men to read the preface to the poems of Holty, in which Johann Heinrich Voss describes the idyllic life of the band of poets of which he and Fritz Stolberg were members.
Time passed, and these two only were left of all that galaxy of youthful poets. When Fritz Stolberg, with great eclat, joined the Catholic Church, abjuring reason and the love of freedom, becoming a promoter of intellectual darkness, and by his aristocratic example drawing many weaklings after him—then Johann Heinrich Voss, the venerable man of three-score and ten, publicly entered the lists against the friend of his youth, and wrote the little book, Wie Ward Fritz Stolberg ein Unfreier?
In it he analysed Stolberg’s whole life, and showed how the aristocratic tendency in the nature of his old comrade had always existed, and that after the events of the French Revolution that tendency had steadily become more pronounced; that Stolberg had secretly joined an association of the nobility, which had for its purpose to counteract the French ideas of liberty; that these nobles entered into a league with the Jesuits; that they sought, through the re-establishment of Catholicism, to advance also the interests of the nobility: he exposed in general the ways and means by which the reactionists were seeking to bring about the restoration of the Christian-Catholic-feudal middle ages, and the destruction of Protestant intellectual freedom and the political rights of the commonalty.
Once, ere the era of revolutions, good fellowship existed between German democracy and German aristocracy; the former hoped for nothing, the latter feared nothing; but now as grey-beards, they faced each other, and fought a duel for life or death.
That portion of the German public which did not comprehend the significance and terrible necessity of this struggle blamed poor Voss for the ruthless revelation of confidential relations and private affairs, which, however, taken as a whole, conclusively proved the correctness of his charges. Then certain so-called aesthetic souls, far too exalted and refined for such petty gossip, raised an outcry, and accused poor Voss of being a scandal-monger.
Other good citizens, who feared that the curtain might be drawn from them, and their own miserable shortcomings be exposed, waxed indignant over the violation of the established rules of literary polemics, which strictly forbid all personalities and disclosures of private affairs. It so happened that Fritz Stolberg died soon after, and his death was attributed to grief; and when, immediately after his death, his Liebesbechlein was published, in which he assumes the true Jesuitic tone, and speaks of his poor deluded friend in terms of pious Christian forgiveness—then the tears of German compassion fell thick and fast, and the German Michel assumed his most lugubrious expression, and all this flood of sentimentality was turned into wrath against poor Voss; and most of the abuse heaped upon him came from the very ones for whose intellectual and material welfare he had battled.
When one gets soundly thrashed in Germany one can always count on the pity and tears of the multitude. In this respect the Germans resemble those old crones who never miss an opportunity of witnessing an execution, and who eagerly press to the front of the curious spectators, setting up a bitter lamentation at sight of the poor wretch, and even taking his part. The snivelling old women who attend literary executions, and put on such grief-stricken airs, would nevertheless be very much disappointed if the poor sinner was suddenly to receive a pardon, and they be sent trudging homeward without beholding the anticipated flogging. Their worst fury would then be directed against the one who had balked their expectation.
Meanwhile Voss’s polemical writings exerted a powerful influence upon the masses, and turned the current of public opinion against that predilection for medievalism which had been all the fashion. His writings aroused Germany; many declared for Voss personally; a greater portion supported his cause alone. The controversy waxed fiercer and fiercer; attacks and rejoinders followed in quick succession, and the last days of the old man were embittered by these quarrels.
He had to deal with the most dangerous opponents, the priesthood, who attacked him under the most-varied guises. Not only the Crypto-Catholic, but also the Pietists, the Quietists, the Lutheran Mystics; in brief, all the supernaturalistic sects of the Protestant church, no matter how decidedly they differed from one another in their creeds, yet they all agreed in their great hatred of Johann Heinrich Voss, the rationalist. This name is in Germany applied to those who hold that the claims of reason should not be put aside in matters of religion, in opposition to the supernaturalists, who to a greater or less degree discard reason in religion. The latter, in their furious hate of the poor rationalists, resemble the inmates of a lunatic asylum, who, although they will not believe in each other’s hallucinations, yet in a measure tolerate one another. But with all the fiercer hate do they turn against the man whom they consider their common enemy, who is no other than the physician who seeks to restore their reason.
To be continued…
Link to Part Five
Excerpt, “The Prose Writings of Heinrich Heine: Edited, with an Introduction, by Havelock Ellis.” Walter Scott, London: 23 Warwick Lane, Paternoster Row: 1887.
The Baron de la Motte-Fouqué was formerly a major in the Prussian military service, and is one of the most conspicuous of those poet-heroes, or hero-poets, whose lyre and sword won renown during the so-called war of liberation.
His laurels are of the genuine kind. He is a true poet, and the inspiration of poetry is on his brow. Few authors receive such universal homage as did our good Fouqué. Now his readers consist only of the patrons of the circulating libraries. But that public is still large enough, and Fouqué may boast that he was the only one of the romantic school who was also received with favour by the lower classes. At the time when at the aesthetic tea-gatherings in Berlin it was the fashion to sneer at the fallen knight, in a little Hartz village I became acquainted with a lovely maiden, who spoke of Fouqué with a charming enthusiasm, and blushingly confessed that she would gladly give a year of her life if she might but once kiss the author of “Undine”—and this maiden had the prettiest lips that I have ever seen.
“Undine” is indeed a charming poem. This poem is itself a kiss! The genius of poetry kissed the sleeping spring, and as it opened its laughing eyes all the roses exhaled their sweetest perfumes, and all the nightingales sang; and the fragrance of the roses and the songs of the nightingales, all this did our good Fouqué clothe in words, and called it “Undine.”
I know not if this novel has been translated into French. It is the story of a lovely water-fairy who has no soul, and who only acquires one by falling in love with an earthly knight. But, alas! with this soul she also learns human sorrows. Her knightly spouse becomes faithless, and she kisses him dead. For in this book death also is only a kiss.
This “Undine” may be regarded as the muse of Fouqué’s poetry. Although she is indescribably beautiful, although she suffers as we do, and earthly sorrows weigh full heavily upon her, she is yet no real human being. But our age turns away from all fairy-pictures, no matter how beautiful. It demands the figures of actual life; and least of all will it tolerate water-fays who fall in love with noble knights. This reactionary tendency, this continual praise of the nobility, this incessant glorification of the feudal system, this everlasting knight-errantry balderdash, became at length distasteful to the educated portion of the German middle classes, and they turned their backs on the minstrel who sang so out of time. In fact, this everlasting sing-song of armours, battle-steeds, high-born maidens, honest guild-masters, dwarfs, squires, castles, chapels, minnesingers, faith, and whatever else that rubbish of the middle ages may be called, wearied us; and as the ingenuous hidalgo Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué became more and more immersed in his books of chivalry, and, wrapped up in the reveries of the past, he ceased to understand the present, and then even his best friends were compelled to turn away from him with dubious head-shakings.
His later writings are unenjoyable. The faults of his earlier works are repeated, only more glaringly. His knights are combinations of iron and sentimentality; they have neither flesh nor common-sense. His heroines are mere semblances of women; they are dolls, whose golden tresses daintily curl over features that are as pretty and as expressionless as flowers. Like the works of Walter Scott, so also do Fouqué’s romances of chivalry remind us of the fantastic tapestries known as gobelins, whose rich texture and brilliant colours are more pleasing to our eyes than edifying to our souls. We behold knightly pageantry, shepherds engaged in festive sports, hand to hand combats, and ancient customs, charmingly intermingled.
It is all very pretty and picturesque, but shallow, brilliant superficiality. Among the imitators of Fouqué, as among the imitators of Walter Scott, this mannerism of portraying—not the inner nature of men and things, but merely the outward garb and appearance—was carried to still greater extremes. This shallow art and frivolous style is still in vogue in Germany, as well as in England and France. Even if the portrayal no longer attempts to glorify the age of chivalry, but is directed to our modern affairs, it is still the same mannerism, which grasps not the essential points of phenomena, but merely the superficial and the accidental. In lieu of a knowledge of mankind, our recent novelists evince a profound acquaintance with clothes; they perhaps justify themselves by the old saying:
“The tailor makes the man.” How different from the older, especially the English, novelists! Richardson gives us the anatomy of the emotions. Goldsmith treats of the affections of his heroes pragmatically. The author of Tristram Shandy reveals to us the profoundest depths of the human soul; he opens, as it were, a crevice of the soul; permits us to take one glance into its abysses, into its paradise and into its filthiest recesses; then quickly lets the curtain fall over it. We have had a front view of that marvellous theatre, the soul; the arrangements of lights and the perspective have not failed in their effects, and while we imagined that we were gazing upon the infinite, our own hearts have been exalted with a sense of infinity and poetry. Fielding at once takes us behind the scenes, and there shows us all the emotions covered with deceitful rouge; the gross motives that underlie the most generous deeds; the colophony that is afterwards to blaze aloft into enthusiasm; the bass drum, while on it repose the drumsticks, which are destined to sound the furious thunder of passion.
In short, he shows us the whole interior machinery by which theatrical effects are produced; he exposes the colossal deceit by which men assume an appearance far different from the reality, and through which the truth and gladness of life are lost. But what need to cite the English as an example, since our own Goethe has given us in his Wilhelm Meister the best model of a novel?
Fouque’s romances are a legion in number; he is one of the most prolific of authors. The Magic Ring and Thiodolph the Icelander merit a specially favourable mention. His metrical dramas, which were not intended for the stage, contain great beauties. Sigurd the Serpent-slayer is a bold work, in which the ancient Scandinavian mythology is mirrored with all its gigantesque and magical characteristics. Sigurd, the chief personage of the drama, is a colossal creation. He is as strong as the rocky crags of Norway, and as fierce as the sea that beats around their base. He has as much courage as a hundred lions, and as much sense as two asses.
Herr Ludwig Uhland is the true lyric poet. He was born in Tübingen in 1787, and is now an advocate at Stuttgard. This author has written a volume of poems, two tragedies, and two treatises on Walther von der Vogelweide, and on the French troubadours. The latter are two small historical researches, and give evidence of a diligent study of the middle ages. The tragedies are entitled Louis the Bavarian, and Duke Ernest of Suabia. I have not read the former, nor is it considered the better of the two. The latter, however, contains many beauties, and pleases by its noble and exalted sentiments. It is fragrant with the sweet breath of poetry, such as we fail to find in the pieces that reap so much applause on the stage at the present day. German fidelity is the theme of the drama, and we see it here strong as an oak, defying all storms. German love blossoms, scarcely visible, in the far distance, but its violet-perfume appeals the more touchingly to our hearts.
This drama, or rather this poem, contains passages which are among the most precious pearls of our literature; notwithstanding which, the theatre-going public received, or rather rejected, the piece with indifference. I will not censure the good people of the pit too severely for that. These people have certain needs, which they demand that the poet shall gratify. The poet’s productions must not merely express the sympathies of his own heart, but must accord with the desires of the audience. The latter resembles the hungry Bedouin in the desert, who thinks he has found a sack of peas, and opens it eagerly, but, alas! they are only pearls.
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…Twenty years ago I was a lad, and what overflowing enthusiasm would I then have lavished upon Uhland! At that time I could better appreciate his merits than now; we were then more akin in modes of thought and feeling. But so much has happened since then! What then seemed to me so grand: all that chivalry and Catholicism; those cavaliers that hack and hew at each other in knightly tournaments; those gentle squires and virtuous dames of high degree; the Norseland heroes and minnesingers; the monks and nuns; ancestral tombs thrilling with prophetic powers; colourless passion, dignified by the high-sounding title of renunciation, and set to the accompaniment of tolling bells; a ceaseless whining of the Miserere; how distasteful all that has become to me since then! But once, it was, oh! so different. How often have I sat on the ruins of the old castle at Düsseldorf on the Rhine, declaiming the loveliest of all Uhland’s poems:—
A wandering shepherd, young and fair,
Beneath the royal castle strayed;
And when the princess saw him there,
Love’s longing thrilled the maid.
And then with accents sweet, she said,
“Oh! would that I might come to thee!
How white the lambkins there; how red
The flowerets on the lea.”
The youth made answer from below,
“If thou would’st but come down to me!
How rosy red thy cheeks do glow,
How white those arms I see.”
And every morn, with silent pain,
He drove his flock the castle by,
And gazed aloft, until again
His love appeared on high.
“Oh, welcome! welcome! princess sweet!”
His joyous tones rang bright and clear.
Then softly she in turn did greet,
“Kind thanks, my shepherd dear.”
Cold winter fled, spring came again,
The flowerets blossomed far and near.
The shepherd sought his love;—in vain!
No more did she appear.
“Oh, welcome! welcome! princess fair!”
His words were mournful now, and drear.
A spirit voice rang through the air,
“Farewell, my shepherd dear.”
And as I sat on the ruins of the old castle and recited this poem, at times I heard the water-fays of the Rhine mockingly, and with comic pathos, take up my refrain, and from amidst the sighing and the moaning of the river that ran below I could hear in faint tones——
“A spirit voice ring through the air,
‘Farewell, my shepherd dear.'”
But I would not let myself be disturbed by the bantering of the mermaids, even when at some of the most beautiful passages in Uhland’s poems they tittered ironically. At that time I modestly ascribed the tittering to myself, particularly when the twilight was sinking into darkness, and I raised my voice somewhat to overcome the mysterious feeling of awe with which the old castle ruins inspired me, for there was a legend that the ruins were haunted by a headless woman. At times I seemed to hear the rustling of her silken gown, and my heart beat quickly;—that was the time, and that the place, to be an enthusiast over the poems of Ludwig Uhland.
I hold the same volume again in my hands, but twenty years have flown since then, and I have seen much and learned much. I no longer believe in headless human beings, and the old ghost story has no longer power to move me. The house wherein I sit and read is situated on the Boulevard Montmartre; the fiercest turmoil of the day breaks in tumultuous billows around this spot, and loud and shrill are heard the voices of the modern epoch. First, a burst of laughter; then a heavy rumbling; next, drums beating quick time; and then, like a flash, the national guards dash by in quick march; and every one speaks French. And is this the place to read Uhland’s poems? Thrice have I again declaimed the concluding lines of the same poem, but I do not feel the keen, unspeakable pain that once thrilled me when the little princess died, and the handsome shepherd lad so pathetically calls to her, “Oh, welcome! welcome! princess fair!”
“A spirit voice rang through the air,
‘Farewell, my shepherd dear.'”
Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for this class of poems also partly arises from my experience that the most painful love is not that which fails to win possession of the object of its affections, or loses her through death. In truth, it is more painful to fold the loved one in our arms, and yet have her worry us with her contrariness, and her silly caprices, until night and day are rendered unendurable, and we are finally forced to close our heart against her who is most precious, and send the dear plague of a woman off in a post chaise—
“Farewell, oh! princess fair!”
Verily, more grievous than the loss through death is the loss through life; for instance, when the loved one in the spirit of mischievous coquetry turns away from us; when she insists upon going to a masked ball, to which no respectable person dare escort her; and when there, with jaunty dress and roguish curls, takes the arm of the first scamp that comes along, and leaves you all alone.
“Farewell, my shepherd dear!”
Perhaps Herr Uhland himself fared no better than ourselves. Perhaps his temperament has changed since then. With a few exceptions, he has produced no new poems in twenty years. I cannot believe that this beautiful poet soul was so stingily endowed by Nature, and had but one spring-time. No, I explain Uhland’s silence as the result of the contradiction between the tendencies of his muse and his political position. The elegiac poet, in whose ballads and romances the praises of the Catholic-feudal past were sung so beautifully; the Ossian of the middle ages has since then become a member of the assembly of notables in Wurtemburg, a zealous champion of popular rights, and a bold advocate of the equality of all citizens, and of freedom of opinion.
Herr Uhland has proved the absolute sincerity of his democratic and Protestant convictions by the great personal sacrifices that he has made in their behalf. In his earlier days he fairly earned the poet’s laurels, and now he has also won the bays of civic virtue. But just because he was so honest in his sympathy for the modern epoch, he could no longer sing the olden songs of the olden time with the former fervour. His Pegasus was a knightly steed that gladly trotted back to the past, but obstinately refused to budge when urged forward into modern life; and so our worthy Uhland smilingly dismounted, quietly unsaddled the unruly steed, and led it back to the stable. There it remains to this very day; like its colleague, the famous war-horse Bayard, it possesses all possible virtues, and only one fault; it is dead.
It will not have escaped keener eyes than mine, that the stately war-horse, decked with its brilliant coat of arms and proudly-waving plumes, was never rightly suited to its bourgeois rider, who, instead of boots with golden spurs, wore shoes with silk stockings; and who, instead of helm, wore the hat of a Tübingen professor. Some claim to have discovered that Herr Ludwig Uhland never was wholly in sympathy with his theme; that in his writings, the naive, rude, powerful tones of the middle ages are not reproduced with idealised fidelity, but rather they are dissolved into a sickly, sentimental melancholy. It is claimed that Uhland has taken up into his temperament the strong, coarse strains of the heroic legends and folk-songs, and boiled them down, as it were, to make them palatable to our modern public.
And in truth, when we closely observe the women in Uhland’s poems, we find that they are only beautiful shadows, embodied moonshine; milk flows in their veins, and sweet tears in their eyes; that is, tears which lack salt. If we compare Uhland’s knights with the knights in the old ballads, it seems to us as if the former were composed of suits of leaden armour, which were entirely filled with flowers, instead of flesh and bones. Hence Uhland’s knights are more pleasing to delicate nostrils than the old stalwarts, who wore heavy iron trousers, and were huge eaters, and still greater drinkers.
But that is no reason for finding fault with Herr Uhland; he did not seek to give an exact copy of the German past; perhaps he only wished to please us with a fanciful reflection, and so he mirrored a flattering picture by the crepuscular lights of his genius. This perhaps lends an especial charm to his poems, and wins for them the admiration and affection of many gentle and worthy persons. The pictures of the past cast some of their magic glamour over us, even in the feeblest conjuration.
Even the men who have warmly espoused the cause of modernism always retain a secret sympathy for the heritages of the olden time. Those ghostly voices of the past, no matter how faint their re-echo, marvellously stir our souls. Hence it is to be readily understood that the ballads and romances of our worthy Uhland not only received the most cordial applause from the patriots of 1813, from pious youths and sentimental maidens, but also from more powerful and more modern minds.
Excerpt, “The Prose Writings of Heinrich Heine: Edited, with an Introduction, by Havelock Ellis.” Walter Scott, London: 23 Warwick Lane, Paternoster Row: 1887.
Les Dieux s’en vont. Goethe is dead. He died on March 22nd, last year, that memorable year in which the world lost its greatest celebrities. It is as if death had become suddenly aristocratic, and sought to designate particularly the great ones of this earth by sending them contemporaneously to the grave. Perhaps death wished to found a pairie in the shadowy realms of Hades, in which case its fournae were well chosen. Or, perhaps, on the contrary, death sought during the past year to favour democracy by destroying these great celebrities, and their authority over the minds of men, and thus to bring about an intellectual equality. Was it out of respect or from irreverence that death spared the crowned heads during the past year? In a fit of abstraction death did raise his scythe over the King of Spain, but he recollected himself in time, and spared his life. During the past twelve months not a single king has died. Les Dieux s’en vont—but the kings are still with us.
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Schelling’s influence on the romantic school was chiefly of a personal nature, but in addition to this, by the philosophy of nature which came into vogue through him, the poets have elevated themselves to much more profound conceptions of nature. One portion let themselves be absorbed with all their human emotions into nature; others remembered a few magic formulas, with which to conjure out of nature something that possessed human form and speech. The former were the genuine mystics, and resembled in many respects the devotees of India, who dissolve in nature, and at last begin to feel as if they and nature were one. The latter were rather sorcerers, who by their own will summoned forth even hostile spirits; they resembled those Arabian magicians, who, at their caprice, could endow stones with life, and turn living beings into stone.
Novalis belonged to the first class, Hoffman to the latter. Novalis saw marvels in everything, and charming marvels they were. He listened to the language of the plants, he knew the secret of every young rose, finally he identified himself with all nature, and when autumn came and the leaves began to fall, then he died. Hoffman, on the contrary, saw spectres in everything; they nodded to him from every Chinese tea-pot, and from under each Berlin periwig. He was a sorcerer who transformed human beings into beasts, and beasts into human beings, even into royal Prussian court-counsellors. He would raise the dead from their graves, but life itself turned away from him, as from some gloomy spectre. He realised this; he felt that he himself had become a ghost. All nature was to him an imperfect mirror, in which he saw, distorted in a thousand ways, the cast of his own dead face; and his works are naught else than a horrible shriek of terror in twenty volumes.
Hoffman does not belong to the romantic school. He did not come into contact with the Schlegels, and was in no way affected by their tendencies. I only mention him in contrast to Novalis, who was peculiarly a poet of that school. Novalis is less known here than Hoffman, who has been introduced to the French public by Loeve-Veimars in a very attractive form, and thus has acquired a great reputation in France. In Germany, Hoffman is by no means en vogue, but he was so formerly. In their time his works were much read, but only by persons whose nerves were either too strong or too weak to be affected by less violent accords. The minds that were really intellectual, and the natures that were truly poetical, would have nothing to do with him.
Such as these much preferred Novalis. But frankly confessed, Hoffman was a much greater poet than Novalis, for the latter with his idealistic pictures ever floats in the blue skies; while Hoffman, notwithstanding all his grotesque bogies, still clings fast to earthly realities. Just as the giant Anteus remained strong and invincible so long as his feet rested on mother earth, and lost his strength the moment Hercules held him aloft; so also the poet is strong and mighty as long as he does not forsake the terra firma of reality, but becomes powerless as soon as he attempts to float enraptured in the blue ether.
The great resemblance between these two poets lies in the fact that their poetry was really a disease. It has been said that it does not come within the province of the critic, but of the physician, to pass judgment on their writings. The rosy glow in Novalis’s poems is not the hue of health, but the hectic flush of consumption; and the brilliant light in Hoffman’s fantastic conceptions is not the flame of genius, but of fever.
But have we a right thus to criticise—we, who are ourselves not blest with robust health? and especially now, when all literature appears like one vast hospital? or is poetry, perhaps, a disease of humanity, as the pearl is the morbid matter of the diseased oyster?
Novalis was born May 2nd, 1772. His real name was Hardenberg. He loved a young lady who was afflicted with consumption, and died of that dread disease. This sad experience left its impress upon all his writings. His life was but a dreamy, lingering death, and he also died of consumption in 1801, before he had completed his twenty-ninth year, or his romance. This romance, in its present shape, is only the fragment of a great allegorical poem, which, like the divine comedy of Dante, was to embrace all earthly and celestial matters. Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the celebrated poet, is the hero of this romance.
We see him as a youth in Eisenach, the pretty little village which lies at the foot of the ancient Wartburg, which has been the scene of some of the greatest, as well as some of the most stupid, deeds; for here Luther translated his Bible, and here, also, a few silly Teuto-maniacs burned Kamptz’s Gendarmerie-Codex. At this burg was held the famous tournament of minstrelsy, at which, among other poets, Heinrich von Ofterdingen met Klingsohr of Hungary in the perilous duel of poetry, an account of which has been handed down to us in the Manessa collection. The head of the vanquished was to be forfeited to the executioner, and the Landgraf of Thuringia was the judge. Wartburg, the scene of his later glory, towers ominously over the hero’s cradle, and we behold him, in the beginning of Novalis’s romance, under the paternal roof at Eisenach. “The parents are abed and asleep, the old clock on the wall keeps up its monotonous ticking, the wind howls and the windows rattle; ever and anon the room is lit up by fitful glimpses of the moon.
“The youth lay tossing restlessly on his couch, thinking of the stranger and his narratives. ‘It is not the treasures that have awakened within me such an unspeakable longing,’ said he to himself; ‘far from me is all avarice; but I yearn to behold the blue flower. It is always in my thoughts, and of nought else can I think or muse. I never felt so strangely before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if in my sleep I had passed into another world; for in the world in which I formerly dwelt, who would there have concerned themselves about flowers? And so strange a passion for a flower, I never heard of there.'”
These are the opening words of Heinrich von Ofterdingen, and the whole romance is full of the fragrance and the radiance of the blue flower. It is remarkable and significant that the most fabulous personages in this book seem as well known to us, as though in earlier times we had lived in friendly, confidential intercourse with them. Old memories awaken, Sophia’s features are so familiar, and memory brings back long avenues of beech trees, the scene of so many promenades and tender caresses. But all this lies dimly back of us, like some half-forgotten dream.
The muse of Novalis was a fair and slender maiden, with earnest blue eyes, golden hyacinthine tresses, smiling lips, and a small mole on the left side of the chin, for I imagine his muse to be the self-same maid through whom I first became acquainted with his works, as I saw the red morocco-bound, gilt-edged volume, containing Heinrich von Ofterdingen, in her dainty fingers. She always dressed in blue, and her name was Sophia. She lived a few stations from Göttingen with her sister, the postmistress—a merry, buxom, ruddy-cheeked dame, whose full bust, surmounted with stiff white lace, resembled a fortress.
This fortress, however, was impregnable; the good dame was a very Gibraltar of virtue. She was an industrious, practical housewife, and yet her only pleasure consisted in reading Hoffman’s romances. Hoffman was just the writer who could agitate her coarse-grained nature and awaken pleasant emotions. But her pale, delicate sister was disagreeably affected at the mere sight of one of Hoffman’s books, and if she accidentally laid hands on one, she shrank from the touch. She was as delicate as a sensitive plant, and her words were so fragrant and melodious, that, taken together, they were poetry. I have written down some of her sayings, and they are poems wholly after the manner of Novalis, only more tuneful and ethereal.
One of them, which she recited to me as I bade her farewell ere setting out on my travels to Italy, is an especial favourite of mine. The time is autumn; the scene, a garden wherein there had been an illumination, and we hear the conversation between the last glimmering taper, the last rose, and a wild swan. The morning mists approach, the solitary light flickers and dies out, the rose leaves fall, and the swan unfolds its white wings and flies away to the south.
For Hanover abounds with wild swans that seek the warm south in autumn, and return again in summer. They probably spend the winter in Africa, for in the breast of a dead swan an arrow was once found, which Professor Blumenbach recognised as of African origin. The poor bird, with the arrow in its breast, had returned to its northern nest to die. But many a swan, when pierced by such an arrow, may not have the strength for such a journey, and is left helpless in the burning deserts, or with wearied pinions is perched on some Egyptian pyramid, gazing with longing eyes towards the north, towards the cool summer home in Hanover.
Late in the autumn of 1828, as I returned from the south, also with a burning arrow in my heart, my route led through the vicinity of Göttingen, and I stopped over at the dwelling-place of my old friend, the postmistress, in order to change horses. A long time had elapsed since I last saw her, and a woeful change had taken place in the good dame. Her buxom form still resembled a fortress,—but a ruined and dismantled fortress. The bastions were razed, no sentinels were on guard, and her heart, the citadel, was broken. The postillion, Pieper, informed me that she had even lost her relish for Hoffman’s novels, but, as a substitute, she indulged all the more freely in brandy at bedtime. The latter is a much simpler plan, for the brandy is always at hand, whereas the novels must be procured at the Deurlich circulating library at Göttingen, at some hours’ distance.
Postillion Pieper was quite diminutive, and looked as sour as if the contraction in his size was the result of drinking vinegar. When I asked the fellow concerning the postmistress’s sister, he answered, “She will soon die; she is already an angel,” How good a being must she have been to draw from such a churlish person the remark, “She is an angel.” While saying this, he was driving off the fluttering, cackling poultry, by kicking at them with his high top-boots. The house, once so white and cheerful, had changed for the worse, like its mistress; its colour was now a sickly yellow, and the walls were wrinkled with fissures. In the court-yard lay broken vehicles, and a postillion’s scarlet mantle, soaking wet, was hanging on a post to dry. Mademoiselle Sophia stood by the window, reading, and when I approached her, I found it was a gilt-edged volume, bound in red morocco; it was Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen.
She had read and re-read this book, until its pages had inoculated her with consumption, and now she looked like a luminous shadow. But her beauty was now so ethereal, that the sight of it touched me most painfully. I took both of her pale, thin hands in mine, and looked steadily into her blue eyes, and then I asked, “Mademoiselle Sophia, how are you?” “I am well,” she answered, “and I shall soon be still better!” Then she pointed out of the window to a little hillock, in the new churchyard, not far from the house. On this barren mound stood a small, thin, solitary poplar, almost leafless, and it swayed to and fro in the autumn winds, not like a living plant, but like the ghost of a tree.
Mademoiselle Sophia now lies under that poplar, and the gilt-edged, red morocco volume, Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which she left me as a souvenir, lies on the desk before me as I write. I have used it in the composition of this chapter.
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Jean Paul Richter anticipated the Young Germany school in its most marked tendency. The latter, however, occupied with practical questions, avoided the abstract intricacies, the abrupt mannerisms, and the unenjoyable style of Jean Paul Richter. No Frenchman with a clear, well-regulated mind can form a conception of that peculiar style. Jean Paul’s style is a structure consisting entirely of very small compartments, which are sometimes so narrow that when one thought encounters another, their heads collide and bruise each other. From the ceiling are suspended hooks, on which Jean Paul hangs all sorts of ideas, and the walls are full of secret drawers, in which he conceals emotions.
No German author is so rich as Jean Paul in ideas and in emotions; but he never permits them to ripen; and, notwithstanding his wealth of mind and heart, he excites more astonishment than pleasure. Thoughts and sentiments which would grow into colossal trees, if permitted to strike root properly and develop all their branches, blossoms, and leaves—these he uproots while they are still insignificant shrubs, mere sprouts even; and whole intellectual forests are thus served up to us as an ordinary dish. Now, although curious, this is decidedly unpalatable fare, for not every stomach can digest such a mess of young oaks, cedars, palms, and banana trees. Jean Paul is a great poet and philosopher; but no one can be more inartistic than he in his modes of thought and work, In his romances he has brought to light some truly poetical creations, but all his offspring carry with them a long umbilical cord in which they become entangled and choke.
Instead of thought he gives us his thinking itself. We see the material activity of his brain; he gives us, as it were, more brain than thought, and meanwhile the flashes of his wit skip about, like the fleas of his heated imagination. He is the merriest, and, at the same time, the most sentimental of authors. In fact, sentimentality always finally overcomes him, and his laughter abruptly turns into tears. He sometimes disguises himself as a gross, beggarly fellow; but then, like stage princes, he suddenly unbuttons the coarse overcoat and reveals the glittering insignia of his rank.
In this respect Jean Paul resembles Laurence Sterne, with whom he has been often compared. The author of Tristram Shandy, when apparently sunk in the most vulgar trivialities, possesses the art of rising by sudden transitions to the sublime, reminding us that he is of princely rank and the countryman of Shakespeare. Jean Paul, like Laurence Sterne, reveals in his writings his own personality, and lays bare his own human frailties; but yet with a certain awkward bashfulness, especially in sexual matters. Laurence Sterne parades before the public entirely unrobed, quite naked; but Jean Paul has only holes in his trousers.
A few critics erroneously believe that Jean Paul possessed more true feeling than Sterne, because the latter, whenever the subject under treatment reaches a tragic elevation, suddenly assumes a merry, jesting tone. Jean Paul, on the contrary, if the subject verges in the least towards the serious, gradually becomes lachrymose, and composedly lets his tears trickle. Sterne probably felt more deeply than Jean Paul, for he is a greater poet. Laurence Sterne, like Shakespeare, was fostered by the muses on Parnassus. After the manner of women, they early spoiled him with their caresses. He was the special pet of the pale Goddess of Tragedy.
Once, in a paroxysm of fierce tenderness, she kissed him so passionately, with such fervour, with so ardent a pressure of her lips, that his young heart began to bleed, and at once understood all earthly sorrows, and was filled with a boundless compassion. Poor young poet-heart! But the younger sister, the rosy Goddess of Mirth, sprang quickly to his side, took the suffering lad into her arms, and sought to cheer him with song and merriment. She gave him as playthings the mask of comedy and the jingling bells, and pressed a soothing kiss upon his lips; and with that kiss she imbued him with all her levity, all her frolicsome mirth, all her sportive wit.
And since then Sterne’s heart and Sterne’s lips have drifted into a strange contradiction. Sometimes, when his soul is most deeply agitated with tragic emotion, and he seeks to give utterance to the profound sorrows of his bleeding heart, then, to his own astonishment, the merriest, most mirth-provoking words will flutter from his lips.
To be continued …