Category Archives: de Staël

Madame de Staël: Goethe – Part 1 of 3

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 265-272

That which was wanting to Klopstock was a creative imagination: he gave utterance to great thoughts and noble sentiments in beautiful verse; but he was not what might be called an artist. His intentions are weak; and the colours in which he invests them have scarcely even that plenitude of strength that we delight to meet with in poetry, and in all other arts which are expected to give to fiction the energy and originality of nature. Klopstock loses himself in the ideal: Goethe never gives up the earth; even in attaining the most sublime conceptions, his mind possesses vigour not weakened by sensibility.

Goethe might be mentioned, as the representative of all German literature; not that there are no writers superior to him in different kinds of composition, but that he unites in himself alone all that distinguishes German genius; and no one besides is so remarkable for a peculiar species of imagination which neither Italians, English or French have ever attained.

Goethe having displayed his talents in composition of various kinds, the examination of his works will fill the greatest part of the following chapters; but a personal knowledge of the man who possesses such an influence over the literature of his country will, it appears to me, assist us the better to understand that literature.

Goethe possesses superior talents for conversation; and whatever we may say, superior talents ought to enable a man to talk. We may, however, produce some examples of silent men of genius: timidity, misfortune, disdain, or ennui, are often the cause of it; but, in general, extent of ideas and warmth of soul naturally inspires the necessity of communicating our feelings to others; and those men who will not be judged by what they say, may not deserve that we should interest ourselves in what they think.

When Goethe is induced to talk, he is admirable; his eloquence is enriched with thought; his pleasantry is, at the same time, full of grace and of philosophy; his imagination is impressed by external objects, as was that of the ancient artists; nevertheless his reason possesses but too much the maturity of our own times. Nothing disturbs the strength of his mind, and even the defects of his character, ill-humour, embarrassment, constraint, pass like clouds round the foot of that mountain on the summit of which his genius is placed.

What is related of the conversation of Diderot may give some idea of that of Goethe; but, if we may judge by the writings of Diderot, the distance between these two men must be infinite. Diderot is the slave of his genius; Goethe ever holds the powers of his mind in subjection: Diderot is affected, from the constant endeavour to produce effect; but in Goethe we perceive disdain of success, and that to a degree that is singularly pleasing, even when we have most reason to find fault with his negligence.

Diderot finds it necessary to supply by philanthropy his want of religious sentiments: Goethe is inclined to be more bitter than sweet; but, above all, he is natural; and in fact, without this quality, what is there in one man that should have powers to interest another?

Goethe possesses no longer that resistless ardour which inspired him in the composition of Werter; but the warmth of his imagination is still sufficient to animate everything. It might be said, that he is himself unconnected with life, and that he describes it merely as a painter. He attaches more value, at present, to the pictures he presents to us, than to the emotions he experienced; time has rendered him a spectator. While he still bore a part in the active scenes of the passion, while he sufficed, in his own person, from the perturbations of the heart, his writings produced a more lively impression.

As we do not always best appreciate our own talents, Goethe maintains at present, that an author should be calm even when he is writing a passionate work; and that an artist should equally be cool, in order the more powerfully to act on the imagination of his readers. Perhaps, in early life, he would not have entertained this opinion; perhaps he was then enslaved by his genius, rather than its master; perhaps he then felt, that the sublime and heavenly sentiment being of transient duration in the heart of man, the poet is inferior to the inspiration which animates him, and cannot enter into judgment on it, so losing it at once.

At first we are astonished to find coldness, and even some stiffness, in the author of Werter; but when we can prevail on him to be perfectly at his ease, the liveliness of his imagination makes the restraint which we first felt entirely disappear. He is a man of universal mind, and impartial because universal; for there is no indifference in his impartiality: his is a double existence, a double degree of strength, a double light, which, on all subjects, enlightens at once both sides of the question. When it is necessary to think, nothing arrests his course; neither the age in which he lives, nor the habits he has formed, nor his relations with social life: his eagle glance falls decidedly on the object he observes.

If his soul had developed itself by actions, his character would have been more strongly marked, more firm, more patriotic; but his mind would not have taken so wide a range over every different mode of perception; passions or interests would then have traced out to him a positive path.

Goethe takes pleasure in his writings, as well as in his conversation, to break the thread which he himself has spun, to destroy the emotions he excites, to throw down the image he has forced us to admire. When, in his fictions, he inspires us with interest for any particular character, he soon shows the inconsistencies which are calculated to detach us from it. He disposes of the poetic world, like a conqueror of the real earth; and thinks himself strong enough to introduce, as nature sometimes does, the genius of destruction into his own works.

If he were not an estimable character, we should be afraid of that species of superiority which elevates itself above all things; which degrades, and then again raises up, which affects us, and then laughs at our emotion; which affirms and doubts by turns, and always with the same success.

I have said, that Goethe possessed in himself alone, all the principal features of German genius; they are all indeed found in him to an eminent degree: a great depth of ideas, that grace which springs from imagination, a grace far more original that than which is formed by the spirit of society; in short, a sensibility sometimes bordering on the fantastic, but far that very reason the more calculated to interest readers, who seek in books something that may give variety to their monotonous existence, and in poetry, impressions which may supply the want of real events.

If Goethe were a Frenchman, he would be made to talk morning till night: all the authors, who were contemporary with Diderot, went to derive ideas from his conversation, and afforded him at the same time an habitual enjoyment, from the admiration he inspired. The Germans know not how to make use of their talents in conversation, and so few people even among the most distinguished, have the habit of interrogating and answering, that society is scarcely at all esteemed among them; but the influence acquired by Goethe is not the less extraordinary.

There are a great many people in Germany who would think genius discoverable even in the direction of a letter, if it were written by him. The admirers of Goethe form a sort of fraternity, in which the rallying words serve to discover the adepts to each other. When foreigners also profess to admire him, they are rejected with disdain, if certain restrictions leave room to suppose that they have allowed themselves to examine works, which nevertheless gain much by examination.

No man can kindle such fanaticism without possessing great faculties, whether good or bad; for there is nothing but power, of whatever kind it may be, which men sufficiently dread to be excited by it to a degree of love so enthusiastic.

To be continued …

Part Two           Part Three

weimar's golden age

Weimar’s Golden Days

Schiller vor Herzoginmutter Amalie, dem Herzogspaar Karl August und Luise, Goethe, Wieland, Herder, Musäus, den Brüdern Humboldt u.a. Farbdruck nach Gemälde von Theobald Reinhold Freiherr von Oer, 1860; Schloss Bellevue, Berlin.


Madame de Staél: “Preface to DE L’ALLEMAGNE” Part 3 of 3

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810 in three volumes; this is from the 1813 John Murray translation).


On my return to the estate of my father, the Prefect of Geneva forbad me to go to a greater distance than four leagues from it.

I suffered myself one day to go as far as ten leagues, merely for an airing; the gendarmes immediately pursued me, the postmasters were forbidden to supply me with horses, and it would have appeared as if the safety of the state depended on such a weak being as myself.

However, I still submitted to this imprisonment in all its severity, when a last blow rendered it quite insupportable to me.

Some of my friends were banished, because they had had the generosity to come and see me.  This was too much.

To carry with oneself the contagion of misfortune, not to dare to associate with those one loves, to be afraid to write to them, or pronounce their names.

To be the object by turns, either of affectionate attentions which make one tremble for those who shew them, or of those refinements of baseness which terror inspires, is a situation from which every one, who values life, would withdraw!

I was told, as a means of softening my grief, that these continual persecutions were a proof of the importance that was attached to me.

I could have answered that I had not deserved ‘Neither this excess of honour, nor this unworthy treatment,’ but I never suffered myself to look to consolations addressed to my vanity.

For I knew that there was no one then in France, from the highest to the lowest, who might not have been found worthy of being, made unhappy.

I was tormented in all the concerns of my life, in all the tender points of my character, and power condescended to take the trouble of becoming well acquainted with me, in order the more effectually to enhance my sufferings.

Not being able then to disarm that power by the simple sacrifice of my talents, and resolved not to employ them in its service, I seemed to feel to the bottom of my heart the advice my father had given me, and I left my paternal home.

I think it my duty to make this calumniated book known to the public, this book, the source of so many troubles.

And though General Savary told me in his letter, that my work ‘was not French,’ as I certainly shall not allow him to be the representative of France, it is to Frenchmen such as I have known them, that I should with confidence address a work, in which I have endeavored to the best of my abilities to heighten the glory of the works of the human mind.

Germany may be considered, from its geographical situation, as the heart of Europe, and the great association of the Continent can never recover its independence but by means of that country.

Difference of language, natural boundaries, the recollections of a common history, contribute all together to give birth to those great individual existences of mankind which we call nations.

Certain proportions are necessary to their existence, they are distinguished by certain qualities.

And if Germany were united to France, the consequence would be, that France would also be united to Germany, and the Frenchmen of Hamburg, like the Frenchmen of Rome, would by degrees effect a change in the character of the countrymen of Henry the Fourth.

The vanquished would in time modify the victors, and in the end both would be losers.

I have said in my work that the Germans ‘were not a nation’; assuredly, they are at this moment most heroically disproving that assertion.

But, nevertheless, do we not still see some German countries expose themselves, by fighting against their countrymen, to the contempt even of their allies, the French?

Those auxiliaries (whose names we hesitate to pronounce, as if it were not yet too late to conceal them from posterity); those auxiliaries, I say, are not led either by opinion or even by interest, still less by honour.

But a blind fear has precipitated their governments towards the strongest side, without reflecting that they were themselves the cause of that very strength before which they bowed.

The Spaniards, to whom we may apply Southey’s beautiful lines,

“And those who suffer bravely save mankind.”

The Spaniards have seen themselves reduced to the possession of Cadiz alone; but they were no more ready then to submit to the yoke of strangers, than they are now when they have reached the barrier of the Pyrenees, and are defended by that man of an ancient character and a modern genius, Lord Wellington.

But to accomplish these great things, a perseverance was necessary, which would not be discouraged by events. The Germans have frequently fallen into the error of suffering themselves to be overcome by reverses.

Individuals ought to submit to destiny, but nations never; for it is they who can alone command destiny; with a little more exertion of the will, misfortune would be conquered.

The submission of one people to another is contrary to nature.

Who would now believe in the possibility of subduing Spain, Russia, England, or France?—why should it not be the same with Germany?

If the Germans could be subjugated, their misfortune would rend the heart; but still we should be tempted to say to them as Mlle. De Mancini said to Louis XIV: “You are a king, sire, and you weep—you are a nation and you weep!”

The picture of literature and philosophy seems indeed foreign from the present moment; yet it will be grateful, perhaps, to this poor and noble Germany, to recall the memory of intellectual riches amidst the ravages of war.

It is three years since I designated Prussia, and the countries of the north which surround it, as ‘the country of thought’; into how many noble actions has this thought been transformed!

That to which the systems of Philosophers led the way is coming to pass, and the independence of mind is about to lay the foundation of the independence of nations.

Madame de Staél: “Preface to DE L’ALLEMAGNE” Part 2 of 3

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810 in three volumes; this is from the 1813 John Murray translation).

General Savary

Anne Jean Marie René Savary, 1st Duc de Rovigo and Minister of Police

Savary carried out the order of Napoleon for the exile of Mme de Staël and the destruction of her work De l’Allemagne.

General Police

Minister’s Office.

 Paris, 3d October, 1810

“I received, Madam, the letter that you did me the honor to write to me. Your son will have apprised you, that I had no objection to our postponing your departure for seven or eight days.

“I beg you will make that time sufficient for the arrangements you still have to make, because I cannot grant you more.

“The cause of the order which I have signified to you, is not to be looked for in the silence you have preserved with respect to the Emperor in your last work; that would be a mistake; no lace could be found in it worthy of him.

“But your banishment is a natural consequence of the course you have constantly pursued for some years past. It appeared to me, that the air of this country did not agree with you, and we are not yet reduced to seek for models amongst the people you admire.

“Your last work is not French; it is I who have put a stop to the publication of it. I am sorry for the loss the bookseller must sustain, but it is not possible for me to suffer it to appear.

“You know, Madam, that you were only permitted to quit Coppet, because you had expressed a desire to go to America.

“If my predecessor suffered you to remain in the department of the Loire and the Cher, you were not to look upon that indulgence as a revocation of the orders which had been given with respect to you.

“At present, you oblige me to cause them to be strictly executed, and you have only yourself to accuse for it.

“I desire M. Corbigny [Prefect of the Loire and the Cher] to suspend the execution of the order I had given him, until the expiration of the time I now grant you.

“I am concerned, Madam, that you have obliged me to commence my correspondence with you by a measure of severity.

“It would have been more agreeable to me to have had only to offer you the testimonies of the high consideration with which I have the honour to be,


Your very humble and very

Obedient Servant,

[Signed] The Duke De Rovigo

“Mad. De Stael,

P.S. I have reasons, Madam, for mentioning to you the ports of L’Orient, Larochelle, Bourdeaux, and Rochefort, as being the only ports at which you can embark; I beg you will let me know which of them you choose.”

*The object of the Postscript was to forbid me the Ports of the Channel.

I shall subjoin some reflections upon this letter, although it appears to me curious enough in itself.

“It appears to me,” says General Savary, “that the ‘air of this country did not agree with you.’”

What a gracious manner of announcing to a woman, then, alas! the mother of three children, the daughter of a man who had served France with so much fidelity, that she was banished forever from the place of her birth, without being suffered, in any manner, to protect against a punishment, esteemed the next in severity to death!

There is a French vaudeville, in which a bailiff boasting of his politeness towards those persons whom he takes to prison, says, “So I am loved by all I arrest.”

I do not know if such were the intention of General Savary.

He adds that ‘the French are not reduced to seek for models amongst the people I admire’; these people are the English first, and in many respects the Germans.

At all events, I think I cannot be accused of not loving France.

I have shewn but too much sensibility in being exiled from a country where I have so many objects of affection, and where those who are dear to me have such power of entertaining me by their genius!

But, notwithstanding this attachment, perhaps too lively, for so brilliant a country, and its ingenious inhabitants, it did not follow that I was to be forbidden to admire England.

She has been seen like a knight armed for the defence of social order, preserving Europe, during ten years of anarchy, and ten years more of despotism.

Her happy constitution was, at the beginning of the Revolution, the object of the hopes and the efforts of the French. My mind still remains where theirs was then.

To be continued…

Madame de Staél: “Preface to DE L’ALLEMAGNE” Part 1 of 3

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810 in three volumes; this is from the 1813 John Murray translation).

Madame de Stael

Preface from Volume One

1st October, 1813

In 1810, I put the manuscript of this work on Germany into the hands of the bookseller, who had published “Corinne.” As I maintained in it the same opinions, and preserved the same silence respecting the present government of the French, which I had done in my former writings, I flattered myself that I should have been permitted to publish this work also.

Yet, a few days after I had dispatched my manuscript, a decree of a very singular description appeared on the subject of the liberty of the press; it declared “that no work could be printed without having been examined by certain censors.”

Very well—it was usual in France, under the old regime, for literary works to be submitted to the examination of a public censorship; the tendency of public opinion was then toward the feeling of liberty, which rendered such a restraint a matter very little to be dreaded.

A little article, however, at the end of the new regulations declared, “that when the censors should have examined a work and permitted its publication, booksellers should be authorized to publish it, but that the Minister of Police should still have a right to suppress it altogether, if he should think fit to do so.”

The meaning of which is, that such and such forms should be adopted until it should be thought fit no longer to abide by them: a law was not necessary to decree what was in fact the absence of all law; it would have been better to have relied simply upon the exercise of absolute power.

My bookseller, however, took upon himself the responsibility of the publication of my book, after submitting it to the censors, and thus our contract was made. I came to reside within forty leagues of Paris, to superintend the printing of the work, and it was upon that occasion that, for the last time, I breathed the air of France.

I had, however, abstained in this book, as will be seen, from making any reflections on the political state of Germany: I supposed myself to be writing at the distance of fifty years from the present time; but the present time will not suffer itself to be forgotten.

Several of the censors examined my manuscript, they suppressed the different passages which I have now restored and pointed out by notes. With the exception, however, of these passages, they allowed the work to be printed, as I now publish it, for I have thought it my duty to make no alteration in it.

It appears to me a curious thing to show what the work is, which is capable even now in France, of drawing down the most cruel persecution on the head of its author.

At the moment when this work was about to appear, and when the ten thousand copies of the first edition had been actually printed off, the Minister of the Police, well known under the name of General Savary, sent his gendarmes to the house of the bookseller, with orders to tear the whole edition in pieces, and to place sentinels at the entrances to the warehouse, for fear a single copy of this dangerous writing should escape.

A commissary of police was charged with the superintendence of this expedition, in which General Savary easily obtained the victory; and the poor commissary, it is said, died of the fatigue he underwent in too minutely assuring himself of the destruction of so great a number of volumes, or rather in seeing them transformed into paper perfectly white, upon which no trace of human reason remained.

The price of the paper valued merely at twenty louis by the police was the only indemnification which the Bookseller obtained from the Minister.

At the same time that the destruction of my work was going on at Paris, I received in the country an order to deliver up the copy from which it had been printed, and to quit France in four and twenty hours.

The constripts are almost the only persons I know for whom four and twenty hours are considered a sufficient time to prepare for a journey; I wrote, therefore, to the Minister of the Police that I should require eight days to procure money and my carriage. The following is the letter which he sent me in answer.

To be continued…

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