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.

 

E.T.A. Hoffmann: “The Fire-Lily”

From Thomas Carlyle’s “German Romance: Specimens of its Chief Authors; with Biographical and Critical Notices.” Vol. II, 1827. Excerpt: “The Golden Pot” by E.T. A. Hoffmann.

jThe Fire-Lily

The Spirit looked upon the water, and the water moved itself, and chafed in foaming billows, and plunged thundering down into the Abysses, which opened their black throats, and greedily swallowed it. Like triumphant conquerors, the granite Rocks lifted their cleft peaky crowns, protecting the Valley, till the Sun took it into its paternal bosom, and clasping it with its beams as with growing arms, cherished it and warmed it.

Then a thousand germs, which had been sleeping under the desert sand, awoke from their deep slumber, and stretched out their little leaves and stalks toward the Sun their father’s face; and the smiling infants in green cradles, the flowrets rested in their buds and blossoms, til they too, awakened by their father, decked themselves in lights, which their father, to please them, tinted in a thousand varied hues.

But in the midst of the Valley was a black Hill, which heaved up and down like the breast of man when warm longing swells it. From the Abysses mounted steaming vapours, and rolled themselves together into huge masses, striving malignantly to hide the father’s face: but he called the Storm to him, which rushed thither, and scattered them away; and when the pure sunbeam rested again on the bleak Hill, there started from it, in the excess of its rapture, a glorious Fire-Lily, opening its fair leaves like gentle lips to receive the kiss of its father.

And now came a gleaming Splendour into the Valley; it was the youth Phosphorus; the Lily saw him, and begged, being seized with warm longing love: “Be mine for ever, fair youth! For I love thee, and must die if thou forsake me!” Then spake the youth Phosphorus: “I will be thine, thou fair flower; but then wilt thou, like a naughty child, leave father and mother; thou wilt know thy playmates no longer, wilt strive to be greater and stronger than all that now rejoices with thee as thy equal.

The longing which now beneficently warms thy whole being, will be scattered into a thousand rays, and torture and vex thee; for sense will bring forth senses; and the highest rapture, which the Spark I cast into thee kindles, will be the hopeless pain wherein thou shalt perish, to spring up anew in foreign shape. This spark is Thought!”

“Ah!” mourned the Lily, “Can I not be thine in this glow, as it now burns in me; not still be thine? Can I love then more than now; could I look on thee as now, if thou wert to annihilate me?” Then the youth Phosphorus kissed the Lily; and as if penetrated with light, it mounted up in flame, out of which issued a foreign Being, that hastily flying from the Valley, roved forth into endless Space, no longer heeding its old playmates, or the youth it had loved.

This youth mourned for his lost beloved; for he too loved her, it was love to the fair Lily that had brought him to the lone Valley; and the granite Rocks bent down their heads in participation of his grief.

But one of these opened its bosom, and there came a black-winged Dragon flying out of it, and said: “My brethren, the Metals are sleeping in there; but I am always brisk and waking, and will help thee.”

Dashing up and down on its black pinions, the Dragon at last caught the Being which had sprung from the Lily; bore it to the Hill, and encircled it with his wing; then was it the Lily again; but Thought, which continued with it, tore asunder its heart; and its love for the youth Phosphorus was a cutting pain, before which, as if breathed on by poisonous vapours, the flowrets which had once rejoiced in the fair Lily’s presence, faded and died.

The youth Phosphorus put on a glittering coat of mail, sporting with the light in a thousand hues, and did battle with the Dragon, who struck the cuirass with his black wing, till it rung and sounded; and at this loud clang the flowrets again came to life, and like variegated birds fluttered round the Dragon, whose force departed; and who, thus being vanquished, hid himself in the depths of the Earth.

The Lily was freed; the youth Phosphorus clasped her, full of warm longing, of heavenly love; and in triumphant chorus, the flowers, the birds, nay even the high granite Rocks, did reverence to her as the Queen of the Valley.”

h

Droste-Hülshoff: “The Boy on the Moor”

ANNETTE ELIZABETH VON DROSTE-HÜLSHOFF

Translated by Charles Wharton Stork

 

burg holshoff

Burg Hülshoff

 


DER KNABE IM MOOR

(1841)

'Tis an eerie thing o'er the moor to fare
When the eddies of peat-smoke justle,
When the wraiths of mist whirl here and there
And wind-blown tendrils tussle,
When every step starts a hidden spring
And the trodden moss-tufts hiss and sing
'Tis an eerie thing o'er the moor to fare
When the tangled reed-beds rustle.
 .
The child with his primer sets out alone
And speeds as if he were hunted,
The wind goes by with a hollow moan--
There's a noise in the hedge-row stunted.
'Tis the turf-digger's ghost, near-by he dwells,
And for drink his master's turf he sells.
"Whoo! whoo!" comes a sound like a stray cow's groan;
The poor boy's courage is daunted.
 .
Then stumps loom up beside the ditch,
Uncannily nod the bushes,
The boy running on, each nerve a twitch,
Through a jungle of spear-grass pushes.
And where it trickles and crackles apace
Is the Spinner's unholy hiding-place,
The home of the cursèd Spinning-witch
Who turns her wheel 'mid the rushes.
 .
On, ever on, goes the fearsome rout,
In pursuit through that region fenny,
At each wild stride the bubbles burst out,
And the sounds from beneath are many.
Until at length from the midst of the din
Comes the squeak of a spectral violin,
That must be the rascally fiddler lout
Who ran off with the bridal penny!
 .
The turf splits open, and from the hole
Bursts forth an unhappy sighing,
"Alas, alas, for my wretched soul!"
'Tis poor damned Margaret crying!
The lad he leaps like a wounded deer,
And were not his guardian angel near
Some digger might find in a marshy knoll
Where his little bleached bones were lying.
 .
But the ground grows firmer beneath his feet,
And there from over the meadow
A lamp is flickering homely-sweet;
The boy at the edge of the shadow
Looks back as he pauses to take his breath,
And in his glance is the fear of death.
'Twas eerie there 'mid the sedge and peat,
Ah, that was a place to dread, O!
. . Droste-Hülshoff_2

Annette Elizabeth von Droste-Hulshoff
1797-1848

Anna Letitia Barbauld: “Corsica”

Excerpt, “A Metrical History of the Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Collection of Poems and Songs. Many from Obscure and Anonymous Sources, Selected and Arranged with Introductory Notes and Connective Narrative.” William J. Hillis. 1896.

CORSICA

The island of Corsica is situated in the Mediterranean sea, about one hundred miles from the coast of France, and almost directly south of Genoa and west of Rome. The village of Ajaccio is on the western coast of the island, and it was there, on the fifteenth day of August, 1769, that Napoleon Bonaparte, the son of Charles Bonaparte and Letitia Ramolino, was born.

Of thirteen children born to these parents, eight survived, of whom, as matter of age. Napoleon was second ; but who, in reality, from early manhood was the recognized head of the family. Charles Bonaparte died when Napoleon was sixteen years old, and it was to his mother that the future Emperor was indebted for that strength of character and brilliancy of intellect which enabled him, alone and unaided, within the short space of less than twenty years, to transform himself from a poor unknown Corsican sub-lieutenant into the greatest character of ancient or modern history. Perhaps some of the qualities which went to make up this most remarkable man may be attributed to his birthplace, rugged Corsica, so well pictured in the following lines:

CORSICA

How raptured fancy burns, while warm in thought

I trace the pictured landscape ; while I kiss

With pilgrim lips devout the sacred soil

Stained with the blood of heroes. Cyrnus, hail!

Hail to thy rocky, deep indented shores,

And pointed cliffs, which hear the chafing deep

Incessant foaming round thy shaggy sides.

.

Hail to thy winding bays, thy sheltering ports,

And ample harbours, which inviting stretch

Their hospitable arms to every sail:

Thy numerous streams, that bursting from the cliffs

Down the steep channelled rock impetuous pour

With grateful murmur : on the fearful edge

Of the rude precipice, thy hamlets brown

And straw-roofed cots, which from the level vale

Scarce seen, amongst the craggy hanging cliffs

Seem like an eagle’s nest aerial built.

 .

Thy swelling mountains, brown with solemn shade

Of various trees, that wave their giant arms

O’er the rough sons of freedom ; lofty pines,

And hardy fir, and ilex ever green,

And spreading chestnut, with each humbler plant.

And shrub of fragrant leaf, that clothes their sides.

 .

With living verdure; whence the clustering bee

Extracts her golden dews : the shining box

And sweet-leaved myrtle, aromatic thyme,

The prickly juniper, and the green leaf

Which feeds the spinning worm ; while glowing bright

Beneath the various foliage, wildly spreads

The arbutus, and rears his scarlet fruit

Luxuriant, mantling o’er the craggy steeps ;

And thy own native laurel crowns the scene.

 .

Hail to thy savage forests, awful, deep ;

Thy tangled thickets, and thy crowded woods,

The haunt of herds untamed ; which sullen bound

From rock to rock with fierce, unsocial air,

And wilder gaze, as conscious of the power

That loves to reign amid the lonely scenes

Of unequalled nature ; precipices huge.

 .

And tumbling torrents ; trackless deserts, plains

Fenced in with guardian rocks, whose quarries teem

With shining steel, that to the cultured fields

And sunny hills which wave with bearded grain,

Defends their homely produce.

Young Napoleon at Le Grotte du Casone

.

Liberty,

The mountain goddess, loves to range at large

Amid such scenes, and on the iron soil

Prints her majestic step. For these she scorns

The green enamelled vales, the velvet lap

Of smooth savannahs, where the pillowed head

Of luxury reposes ; balmy gales,

And bowers that breathe of bliss.

.

For these, when first

This isle, emerging like a beauteous gem

From the dark bosom of the Tyrrhene main.

.

Reared its fair front, she marked it for her own.

And with her spirit warmed. Her genuine sons,

A broken remnant, from the generous stock

Of ancient Greece, from Sparta’s sad remains.

.

True to their high descent, preserved unquenched

The sacred fire through many a barbarous age;

Whom nor the iron rod of cruel Carthage,

Nor the dread sceptre of imperial Rome,

Nor bloody Goth, nor grisly Saracen,

Nor the long galling yoke of proud Liguria,

Could crush into subjection.

 .

Still unquelled

They rose superior, bursting from their chains.

And claimed man’s dearest birthright, liberty :

And long, through many a hard unequal strife

Maintained the glorious conflict ; long withstood,

With single arm, the whole collected force

Of haughty Genoa and ambitious Gaul.