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 …
Excerpt, “The Prose Writings of Heinrich Heine: Edited, with an Introduction, by Havelock Ellis.” Walter Scott, London: 23 Warwick Lane, Paternoster Row: 1887.
Part Five … The Romantic School
While the romantic school was severely damaged in public opinion by the discovery of its Catholic tendencies, about the same time it received an utterly crushing blow in its own temple, and that, too, from one of those gods whom itself had enshrined there. For it was Wolfgang Goethe who descended from his pedestal to pronounce the doom of the Schlegels, the same high-priests who had offered him so much incense. That voice annihilated the whole pack of hobgoblins; the spectres of the middle ages fled; the owls crept again into their obscure castle-ruins, and the ravens fluttered back to their old church-steeples. Frederic Schlegel went to Vienna, where he attended mass daily and ate broiled fowl; A. W. Schlegel withdrew into the pagoda of Brahma.
Frankly confessed, Goethe at that time played a very ambiguous rule, and cannot be unconditionally praised. It is true, the Schlegels never were sincere with him; perhaps they built him an altar, and offered him incense, and taught the multitude to kneel before him, only because, in their warfare against the old school, they needed a living poet to set up as a model, and found none more suited for their purpose than Goethe; and, perhaps, also, because they expected some literary favours from him. Moreover, he was at such an easy distance from them. The road from Jena to Weimar leads through an avenue of fine plum trees, and the luscious fruit is very acceptable to the wayfarer when parched with the summer heat.
The Schlegels often travelled this road, and in Weimar they had many an interview with Herr Geheimrath von Goethe, who was always a finished diplomat. He listened quietly to what the Schlegels had to say, smiled approvingly, occasionally dined them, showed them various favours, etc. They also approached Schiller, but the latter was an honest, straight-forward man, and would have nothing to do with them. The correspondence between Schiller and Goethe, which was published three years ago, throws considerable light on the relations between these two poets and the Schlegels. Goethe, haughtily and contemptuously, mocks at them; Schiller is angry at their impertinent scandal-mongering, and at their passion for notoriety, and he calls them “puppies.”
But although Goethe assumed such haughty airs towards them, it is nevertheless true that he was indebted to the Schlegels for the greater portion of his fame, for it was they who introduced and promoted the study of his writings. The contemptuous and insulting manner with which he eventually cast them off has a very strong flavour of ingratitude. Perhaps Goethe, with his clear insight, was vexed that the Schlegels should seek to use him as an instrument to accomplish their projects. Perhaps those projects threatened to compromise him as the minister of a Protestant state. Perhaps it was the ancient pagan godlike wrath that awoke in him at sight of the mouldy Catholic follies.
For as Voss resembled the stalwart one-eyed Odin, so did Goethe, in form and figure, resemble great Jupiter. The former was compelled to pound long and vigorously with his Thor’s hammer; the latter needed but angrily to shake his majestic head, with its ambrosial locks, and the Schlegels trembled and crept out of sight. A public statement of Goethe’s opposition to the romantic school appeared in his journal, Kunst und Alterthum, and bore the title, Concerning the Christian-Patriotic-New-German School of Art.
With this article Goethe made his eighteenth brumaire in German literature, for by chasing the Schlegels so summarily out of the temple, and attaching to himself so many of their young and zealous disciples, and being hailed with acclamations by the public, to whom the Schlegelian directory had long been obnoxious, he established his autocratic sovereignty in German literature. From that hour nothing more was heard of the Schlegels. Only now and then their names were mentioned, just as one sometimes casually speaks of Barras or of Gohier. Neither romantic nor classic poetry was henceforth spoken of; everywhere it was nothing but Goethe.
It is true that several other poets arose in the meantime, who, in power and imagination, were but little inferior to Goethe. But out of courtesy they acknowledged him as their chief; they paid homage to him, they kissed his hand, they knelt before him. These grandees of Parnassus differed from the common multitude in being permitted to wear their laurel-wreaths in Goethe’s presence. Sometimes they even attacked him; but they were always vexed when one of the lesser ones ventured to assail him. No matter how angry aristocrats are with their sovereign, they are always displeased when plebeians also dare to revolt. And, in truth, the aristocrats of intellect had, during the last twenty years, very good reasons to be irritated against Goethe. As I myself unreservedly remarked at the time, not without bitterness, “Goethe resembled Louis XI. of France, who abased the powerful nobility and exalted the tiers etat.”
That was despicable. Goethe feared every writer of independence and originality, but glorified and praised all the petty authorlings. He carried this so far, that to be praised by Goethe came at last to be considered a brevet of mediocrity.
Later I shall speak of the new poets who grew up during the Goethean imperialism. They constitute a forest of young trees, whose true magnitude has become perceptible only since the fall of that century-old oak by whose branches they had been so completely overtopped and overshadowed. As already stated, there was not lacking a bitter and zealous opposition against Goethe, that giant oak. Men of the most diverse opinions were banded together in this opposition. The orthodox were vexed that in the trunk of this great tree there was no niche provided for the statuettes of the saints, but that, on the contrary, even the nude dryads of heathendom were permitted to carry on their witchery beneath it.
The pietists would gladly have imitated Saint Boniface, and with consecrated axe have felled this magic oak. The liberals, on the other hand, were indignant that they could not use it as a liberty tree and as a barricade. But, in truth, the tree was too lofty to have a red cap placed on its top, or a carmagnole danced beneath it. But the public at large honoured it just because it was so stately and independent; because it filled the whole world with its delicious fragrance; because its branches towered majestically to the heavens, so that the stars seemed to be merely the golden fruit of the great and wonderful tree.
It is true, the opposition against Goethe began with the appearance of the so-called pseudo Wanderjahre, which was published by Gottfried Basse of Quedlinburg, under the title of Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre, in 1821; that is, soon after the downfall of the Schlegels. Goethe had announced a sequel to his Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre, under this title, and very strangely it appeared simultaneously with its literary double, in which not only was Goethe’s style imitated, but the hero of Goethe’s original novel was represented as the leading personage.
This parody evinced much talent, and still greater tact, for as the author managed to maintain his anonymity for a considerable period, baffling all endeavours to discover his personality, public interest was artificially stimulated. Finally it transpired that the author was a hitherto unknown village parson, by the name of Pustkuchen, which translated into French would be omelette soufflé, a name which aptly describes the very essence of his book. It was nothing else than the old, stale, sour dough of the pietists, aesthetically kneaded over. In this book it was cast up to Goethe, as a reproach, that his poems had no moral aim; that he could create no lofty characters, but only low, vulgar creatures; that Schiller, on the contrary, had produced the most ideal and exalted conceptions, and that therefore the latter was a greater poet.
That Schiller was a greater poet than Goethe was the special point which Pustkuchen’s book sought to establish, and for which it was written. It became the fashion to institute comparisons between the writings of the two poets, and the public divided into partisan camps. The admirers of Schiller enthusiastically praised the purity and nobility of a Max Piccolomini, of a Thekla, of Posa, and other of Schiller’s dramatic heroes; on the other hand, they stigmatised Goethe’s Philine, Kathchen, Clarchen, and the like pretty creatures, as immoral jades.
Goethe’s adherents would smilingly admit that neither Goethe’s heroes nor his heroines could be called moral, but they claimed that the promotion of morality in nowise came within the province of art. In art, asserted they, as in the universe itself, there is no ulterior purpose; it is only man who introduces the conceptions of end and means. Art, like the universe, said they, exists for itself alone. Although the opinions of mankind concerning the universe are continually changing, the universe itself remains ever the same; so also must art remain uninfluenced by the temporary views of mankind.
Art must be kept especially independent of systems of morality, for these change on earth as often as a new religion arises, and supersedes an older faith. In fact, as after the lapse of a number of centuries a new religion always makes its appearance, influences the customs, and thus makes itself felt as a new system of morality, so in every period the art works of the past would be branded as heretical and immoral, were they to be judged by the temporary standard of morality. We have, in truth, lived to see good Christians, who condemn the flesh as of Satan, experience a feeling of anger at sight of the Greek mythological statues.
Chaste monks have put an apron on the antique Venus; the ridiculous custom of bestowing a fig leaf on nude figures has continued even up to the present. A pious Quaker went so far as to sacrifice his whole fortune in buying up and burning Giulo Romano’s most beautiful mythological paintings; truly he deserves for his pains to reach heaven, and there to be flogged daily. A religion which should recognise God in matter only, and should regard the flesh only as divine, would, when it had impressed itself upon the customs of men, give rise to a system of morality, according to which those works of art which glorify the flesh would be alone deemed worthy of praise; and on the contrary, those Christian art works which depict the nothingness of the flesh would be considered as immoral.
The works of art which are accepted as moral in one land would be considered immoral in another country, where a different religion had generated different customs. Thus, our pictorial arts awaken the disgust of a strict Mahometan, while much that in the harems of the Orient is regarded as quite innocent would be an abomination in the eyes of Christians. In India the occupation of a Bayadere is not regarded as dishonourable; hence, the drama of “Vasantasena,” the heroine of which is a courtesan, is there not at all considered immoral. If, however, the Theatre Francais ventured to produce this play, the whole pit would raise the cry of “immorality”—the same pit that witnesses with delight plays whose plots are amorous intrigues, and whose heroines are young widows who remarry at the end of the play, instead of having themselves burned to death on their deceased husband’s funeral pyre, as required by Hindu morality.
Starting with this idea, the Goetheans viewed art as a separate, independent world, which they would rank so high, that all the changing and changeable doings of mankind, their religions and systems of morality, should surge far below it. I cannot unconditionally endorse this view; but the Goetheans were led so far astray by it as to proclaim art in and of itself as the highest good. Thus they were induced to hold themselves aloof from the claims of the world of reality, which, after all, is entitled to precedence.
To be continued ….
Link to Part Six
Part Six … THE ROMANTIC SCHOOL
Schiller united himself to the world of reality much more decidedly than did Goethe; and he deserves praise for this. The living spirit of the times thrilled through Frederic Schiller; it wrestled with him; it vanquished him; he followed it to battle; he bore its banner, and, lo! it was the same banner under which the conflict was being enthusiastically waged across the Rhine, and for which we are always ready to shed our heart’s best blood. Schiller wrote for the grand ideas of the Revolution; he razed the bastilles of the intellect; he helped to erect the temple of freedom, that colossal temple which shelters all nations like a single congregation of brothers: in brief, he was a cosmopolitan. He began his career with that hate of the past which we behold in The Robbers. In this work he resembles a diminutive Titan who has run away from school, got tipsy with schnapps, and throws stones at Jupiter’s windows. He ended with that love for the future which already in his Don Carlos blossoms forth like a field of flowers. Schiller is himself that Marquis Posa who is simultaneously prophet and soldier, and battles for that which he foretells. Under that Spanish cloak throbs the noblest heart that ever loved and suffered in Germany.
The poet is, on a small scale, but the imitator of the Creator, and also resembles God in creating his characters after his own image. If, therefore, Carl Moor and the Marquis Posa are wholly Schiller himself, so in like manner does Goethe resemble his Werther, his Wilhelm Meister, and his Faust, in whom the different phases of his intellect can be studied. While Schiller devotes himself to the history of the race, and becomes an enthusiast for the social progress of mankind, Goethe, on the other hand, applies himself to the study of the individual, to nature and to art. The physical sciences must of necessity have finally become a leading branch of study with Goethe, the pantheist, and in his poems, as well as in his scientific works, he gave us the result of his researches.
His indifferentism was to a certain extent the result of his pantheistic views. Alas! we must confess that pantheism has often led men into indifferentism. They reasoned thus: if everything is God; if everything is divine, then it is indifferent whether man occupies himself with clouds or ancient gems; with folk-songs or the anatomy of apes; with real human beings or play-actors. But that is just the mistake. Everything is not God, but God is everything. He does not manifest himself equally in all things, but He shows himself in different degrees according to the various matters.
Everything bears within itself an impulse to strive after a higher degree of divinity, and that is the great law of progress throughout all nature. The recognition of this law, which has been most profoundly revealed by the disciples of St. Simon, now makes pantheism a cosmic, universal theory, which not only does not lead to indifferentism, but, on the contrary, induces the most self-sacrificing endeavours. No, God does not manifest himself in all things equally, as Wolfgang Goethe believed, who through such a belief became an indifferentist, and, instead of devoting himself to the highest interests of humanity, occupied himself with art, anatomy, theories of colour, botanical studies, and observations of the clouds. No, God is manifest in some things to a greater degree than in others. He lives in motion, in action, in time. His holy breath is wafted through the pages of history, which is God’s true book of record. Frederic Schiller felt this, and became an historian, a “prophet of the past,” and wrote the Revolt of the Netherlands, the Thirty Years’ War, the Maid of Orleans, and William Tell.
It is true Goethe also depicted a few of the great struggles of freedom, but he portrayed them as an artist. Christian zeal was odious to him, and he angrily turned from it; and the enthusiasm for philosophy, which is characteristic of our epoch, he either could not understand or purposely avoided understanding, for fear of ruffling his customary tranquillity of mind; so he treated all enthusiasm objectively and historically; as a datum, as a subject to be written about. In his hands the living spirit became dead matter, and he invested it with a lovely and pleasing form. He became thus the greatest artist of our literature, and all that he wrote was a finished work of art.
The example of the master misled the disciples, and there arose in Germany that literary epoch which I once designated as the “art period,” and which, as I then showed, had a most disastrous influence on the political development of the German people. At the same time, I by no means deny the intrinsic worth of the Goethean masterpieces. They adorn our beloved fatherland just as beautiful statues embellish a garden; but they are only statues after all. One may fall in love with them, but they are barren. Goethe’s poems do not, like Schiller’s, beget deeds. Deeds are the offspring of words; but Goethe’s pretty words are childless.
That is the curse of all that which has originated in mere art. The statue which Pygmalion wrought was a beautiful woman, and even the sculptor himself fell in love with her. His kisses warmed her into life, but, so far as we know, she never bore children. I believe a similar idea has been suggested by Charles Nodier, and this thought came into my mind while wandering through the Louvre, as my glance alighted on the statues of the ancient gods. There they stood, with their white, expressionless eyes, a mysterious melancholy in their stony smiles. Perhaps they are haunted by sad memories of Egypt, that land of the dead from which they came; or perhaps it is a mournful longing for the life from which other divinities have expelled them, or a grieving over their immortality of death.
They seem to be awaiting the word that shall liberate them from their cold, motionless rigidity and bring them back to life. How strange that these antique statues should remind me of the Goethean creations, which are likewise so perfect, so beautiful, so motionless, and which also seem oppressed with a dumb grieving that their rigidity and coldness separate them from our present warm, restless life—that they cannot speak and rejoice with us, and that they are not human beings, but unhappy mixtures of divinity and stone.
These few hints will explain the publicly-expressed opposition of the various parties in Germany to Goethe. The orthodox were highly incensed against the great heathen, as Goethe was generally called in Germany; they feared his influence upon the people, whom he indoctrinated with his manner of viewing the world through merry verses, even through the simplest and most unpretentious ballads. They saw in him the most dangerous foe of the Cross, which, as he expressed himself, was as odious to him as vermin, garlic, and tobacco; at least, that is about the purport of the Xenie which Goethe dared to publish in Germany, the very country where vermin, garlic, tobacco, and the Cross form a holy alliance, and are supreme over all. But it was not this that displeased us, the party of action.
As previously stated, we found fault with Goethe for the barrenness of his writings; for the engrossing devotion to art, which through him was diffused over Germany; for his influence in creating among the German youth an apathy which was a hindrance to the political regeneration of our fatherland. Hence the indifferentist and pantheist was assailed from the most diverse sides. To use an illustration from French parliamentary life, the extreme right and the extreme left formed an alliance against him. While the cassocked priests brandished the crucifix over him, furious sans-culottes simultaneously assaulted him with the pike.
Wolfgang Menzel, who had carried on the war against Goethe with a display of talent worthy of a better cause, evinced in his polemics that he was not merely a one-sided spiritualistic Christian, or a discontented patriot; he rather based a portion of his attacks on the latest remark of Frederic Schlegel, who, after his fall, from the recesses of his Catholic cathedral, gave utterance to his woe concerning Goethe; Goethe, “whose poetry lacked a central point.” Menzel went still further, and showed that Goethe was not a man of genius, but only of talent; Schiller, however, was a genius, etc. This was some time before the July Revolution; Menzel was at that time a great admirer of the middle ages, of medieval art as well as of institutions; he was incessantly attacking Johann Heinrich Voss, and praising Joseph Görres with an enthusiasm hitherto unheard of.
These facts prove that Menzel was sincere in his hatred of Goethe, and that he did not write against him merely to make himself conspicuous, as many thought. Although I, myself, was at that time an opponent of Goethe, yet I was displeased at the harshness with which Menzel criticised him, and I complained of this want of respect. I said, Goethe is nevertheless the king of our literature, and in applying the knife of criticism to such a one, it always behoves us to show a proper courtesy, just as the executioner who was to behead Charles I., before performing the duties of his office, knelt before the king and begged his royal forgiveness.
Among the opponents of Goethe was the famous Hofrath Müllner, and his only remaining friend, Professor Schütz. There were several others of less celebrity—Herr Spann, for instance, who had been imprisoned for a long time on account of political offences—belonged to the public adversaries of Goethe. In confidence, dear reader, it was a very motley crowd. The ostensible reasons I have sufficiently indicated, but it is more difficult to guess what special motive influenced each individual to give publicity to his anti-Goethean sentiments. I know the secret motives of only one of these persons, and as that one is myself, I will frankly confess that I was envious of Goethe. To my credit I must say that I assailed in Goethe only the man, never the poet. Unlike those critics who, with their finely-polished glasses, claim to have also detected spots upon the moon, I could never discern blemishes in Goethe’s works. What these sharp-sighted people consider spots are blooming forests, silvery streams, lofty mountains, and smiling valleys.
Nothing is more foolish than to depreciate Goethe in order thereby to exalt Schiller, whom it was always customary to praise in order to disparage Goethe. Do such critics really not know that those highly-extolled, highly-idealised figures, those sacred pictures of virtue and morality which Schiller produced, were much easier to construct than those frail, worldly beings of whom Goethe gives us a glimpse in his works? Do they not know that mediocre painters generally select sacred subjects, which they daub in life-size on the canvas? But it requires a great master to paint with lifelike fidelity and technical perfection a Spanish beggar-boy scratching himself, or a Netherlandish peasant having a tooth extracted, or some hideous old woman such as we see in Dutch cabinet pictures. In art it is much easier to picture large tragic subjects than those which are small and droll.
The Egyptian sorcerers could imitate Moses in many of his tragic feats: they could make serpents, and blood, and frogs; but when Moses created vermin, which would seemingly be less difficult to copy, then they confessed their impotence, and said, “It is the finger of God.” Rail as you will at the coarseness of certain portions of Faust, at the scenes on the Brocken and in Auerbach’s cellar, inveigh against the licentiousness in Wilhelm Meister, it is nevertheless more than you can do; it is the finger of Goethe! But I hear you say, with disgust, “We do not wish to create such things. We are no sorcerers; we are good Christians.” I know quite well that you are no sorcerers.
Goethe’s greatest merit consists in the perfection of all his works. Here are no portions that are strong while others are weak; here no one part is painted in detail while another is merely sketched; here is no confusion, nor any of the customary padding, nor any undue partiality for certain special characters. Goethe treats every person that appears in his romances and dramas as if he or she were the leading character. So it is with Homer, so with Shakespeare. In the works of all great poets there are, in fact, no minor characters at all; every character in its place is the chief personage.
Such poets are absolute monarchs, and resemble the Emperor Paul of Russia, who, when the French ambassador remarked that a man of importance in his empire was interested in a certain matter, sharply interrupted the speaker with the memorable words—”In my empire there is no man of importance except he to whom I may happen to be speaking; and he is of importance only so long as I address him.” An absolute poet, who also holds power by the grace of God, in like manner views that person in his intellectual realm as the most important who at that particular moment is speaking through his pen. From this art-despotism arises that wonderful perfection of the most trivial and unimportant figures which we find in the works of Homer, Shakespeare, and Goethe.
To be continued …
Part Seven … The Romantic School
If I have spoken rather harshly of Goethe’s adversaries, I should have cause to criticise his defenders still more severely, for most of the latter, in their zeal, have been guilty of even greater follies. At the head of those who have made themselves ridiculous in this respect is one by the name of Eckermann, a writer not generally lacking in talent. In the campaign against Pustkuchen, Carl Immermann, who is now our greatest dramatic poet, won his spurs as a critic by publishing an excellent brochure. Berlin chiefly distinguished itself on this occasion. Goethe’s leading champion, at all times, was Varnhagen von Ense, a man whose heart is filled with thoughts grand as the universe, and who expresses them in words as precious and as dainty as cut jewels. He is the noble-minded man in whose judgment Goethe ever placed the most reliance. Perhaps it may be well to mention here that Wilhem von Humboldt once wrote an excellent book concerning Goethe. During the last ten years every Leipsic Fair has brought to light a large number of works on Goethe. Herr Schubart’s studies of Goethe are among the marvels of fine criticism. Herr Hering, whose nom de plume is Willibald Alexis, has written for various periodicals clever and valuable articles on Goethe. Herr Zimmermann, professor at Hamburg, has, in his oral lectures, given some most excellent criticisms of Goethe; in his writings on dramaturgy we find similar thoughts, more briefly expressed, perhaps, but more profound. At various German universities there were courses of lectures on Goethe, and of all his works the public chiefly devoted itself to the study of Faust. It was the theme of endless dissertations and commentaries, and became the secular Bible of the Germans.
I would be no true German if I wrote of Faust without giving expression to some explanatory thoughts concerning it, for from the greatest thinker down to the most insignificant penny-a-liner, from philosophers down to professors of philosophy, everyone tries his wit on this book. It is, in fact, as wide in its compass as the Bible; like the latter, it embraces heaven and earth, mankind and its exegesis. The subject matter of Faust is the chief reason of its popularity, and its selection from among the many folk-legends is a proof of Goethe’s profound judgment and genius, which ever seized on that which was nearest and best. I may assume that the story of Faust is familiar to my readers, for the book has recently become celebrated in France also; but I know not if the original legend itself is known here. I know not if at your annual rustic fairs there is hawked for sale a little book of grey, fleecy paper, badly printed, with rude woodcuts, containing a circumstantial account of how the arch-sorcerer, Johannes Faustus, a learned scholar who had studied all the sciences, finally threw away his books and made a compact with the devil, by which he was enabled to enjoy all the material pleasures of the earth, but in return for which his soul was to be given up to the powers of hell. During the middle ages the populace attributed all extraordinary intellectual powers to a compact with the devil, and Albertus Magnus, Raimond Lullus, Theophrastus Paracelsus, Agrippa von Nettesheim, and Roger Bacon in England, were held to be magicians, sorcerers, and conjurers. But the ballads and romances tell much stranger stories concerning Doctor Faustus, who is reputed to have demanded from the devil not only a knowledge of the profoundest secrets of nature, but also the most realistic physical pleasures. This is the self-same Faust who invented printing, and who lived at a time when people began to inveigh against the strictness of church authority, and to make independent researches. With Faust the medieval epoch of faith ends, and the modern era of critical, scientific investigation begins. It is, in fact, of the greatest significance that Faust should have lived, according to popular tradition, at the very beginning of the Reformation, and that he himself should have invented printing, the art which gave science the victory over faith; an art, however, which has also robbed us of the catholic peace of mind, and plunged us into doubts and revolutions, and had finally delivered us into the power of Satan. But no! knowledge, science, the comprehension of nature through reason, eventually gives us the enjoyments of which faith, that is, Catholic Christianity, has so long defrauded us; we now recognise the truth that mankind is destined to an earthly, as well as to a heavenly equality. The political brotherhood which philosophy inculcates is more beneficial to us than the purely spiritual brotherhood, for which we are indebted to Christianity. The thought becomes transformed into words, the words become deeds, and we may yet be happy during our life on this earth. If in addition to this, we also attain after death that heavenly felicity which Christianity promises so assuredly, so much the better.
The German people had, for a long time, felt a profound presentiment of this, for the Germans themselves are that learned Doctor Faust; they themselves are that spiritualist, who, having at last comprehended the inadequateness of the spiritual life alone, reinstates the flesh in its rights. But still biassed by the symbolism of Catholic poetry, in which God is pictured as the representative of the spirit, and the devil as that of the flesh, the rehabilitation of the flesh was characterised as an apostasy from God, and a compact with the devil.
But some time must yet elapse ere the deeply-significant prophecy of that poem will be fulfilled as regards the German people, and the spirit itself, comprehending the usurpation of spiritualism, become the champion of the rights of the flesh. That will be the Revolution, the great daughter of the Reformation.
Less known in France than Faust is Goethe’s West-Ostlichen Divan, a later work with which Madame de Staël was unacquainted, and which demands especial notice. It reveals the peculiar thoughts and feelings of the Orient in graceful ballads and pithy proverbs, which exhale an atmosphere of fragrance and passion, like a harem of love-sick odalisques, with the dark eyes of gazelles, and amorous white arms. The reader is filled with a mixed sensation of shuddering and desire, like lucky Caspar Debureau, when he stood at the top of a ladder in Constantinople, and beheld de haut en bas what the Commander of the Faithful is wont to see only de bas en haut. At times a feeling steals o’er the reader as if he lay comfortably stretched upon a Persian carpet, smoking a long Turkish pipe, filled with the yellow tobacco of Turkestan, while a negress slave gently waves over him a variegated fan of peacock feathers, and a handsome boy serves a cup of Mocha coffee—the sweetest and most blissful sense of life and its pleasures has Goethe expressed in these verses—in verses so dainty, so felicitous, so airy, so ethereal, that one is lost in astonishment that such things are possible in the German language. In addition to all this, the book contains the most beautiful prose descriptions and explanations of the customs and manners of the Orient, the patriarchal life of the Arabs; and withal Goethe is as easy, merry, and harmless as a child, and yet as full of wisdom as a greybeard. Goethe’s prose in this work is as translucent as the green sea, when, on a bright, calm summer afternoon, we can look far down into the depths below, and catch glimpses of ancient drowned cities, and all their fabulous splendours. Then, at times, that prose is as magical and as mysterious as the firmament, when the darkness of twilight has lifted, and the grand Goethean thoughts appear, pure and golden, like the stars. The charm of this book is indescribable; it is a salaam sent by the Occident to the Orient, and many a quaint and curious flower is gathered there; passionate red roses, snowdrops white as a maiden’s bosom, comical dandelions, purple digitalis like long human fingers, contorted crocuses, and peeping slyly forth, in the midst, modest German violets. The meaning of this salaam is that the Occident, grown weary of its frigid, meagre spiritualism, seeks again to refresh itself amid the wholesome physical pleasures of the Orient. After Goethe had expressed in Faust his aversion to abstract spiritualism, and his desire for realistic enjoyments, in writing the West-Ostlichen Divan he threw himself with his whole soul, as it were, into the arms of sensualism.
Hence it is of the utmost significance that this work appeared soon after Faust. It was the last phase of Goethe’s genius, and his example was of the greatest influence upon literature. The Orient was now the theme of our lyric poets. It may be worthy of mention, that while Goethe so rapturously celebrated Persia and Arabia in his verses, he expressed the most decided aversion to India. The bizarre and confused characteristics of that country were repugnant to him, and perhaps this dislike originated in the suspicion that some Catholic stratagem was at the bottom of the Sanscrit studies of the Schlegels and their friends. These men regarded Hindostan as the cradle of Catholicism; they claimed to have discovered there the model of the Catholic hierarchy, the doctrine of the trinity, of the incarnation, of penance, of atonement, of the maceration of the flesh, and all their other favourite crotchets. Goethe’s antipathy towards India nettled these people not a little, and A. W. Schlegel, with transparent malice, called him “a heathen converted to Mahometanism.”
Amongst the most noteworthy writings on Goethe which have appeared this year is a posthumous work by Johannes Falk, entitled Goethe aus Personlichen Umgange Dargestellt. With the exception of a detailed treatise on Faust, which, of course, must not be omitted, the author of this book has given us most excellent sketches of Goethe; he has depicted him in all the walks of life, naturally, impartially, with all his virtues and all his failings. In this book we behold Goethe in his relations to his mother, whose temperament was so wonderfully reflected in that of her son; we see him as the naturalist, watching a caterpillar developing into a butterfly; we see the great Herder expostulating with him against the indifferentism with which he let the development of humanity itself pass before him, unregarded; we behold him at the court of the Grand Duke of Weimar, seated among the blonde court dames, making merry improvisations, like Apollo guarding the flocks of King Admetus; again we see him, with the haughtiness of a Dalai-Lama, refusing to recognise Kotzebue; then we see the latter giving a public celebration in honour of Schiller, in order thereby to depreciate Goethe; we see him in all things, wise, handsome, amiable, a blessed and inspiring figure, like the eternal gods.
In fact, that harmony of personal appearance with genius, which we demand in eminent men, existed in its fullest degree in Goethe. His outward appearance was as impressive as the thoughts that live in his writings. His figure was symmetrical and majestic, and in that noble form Grecian art might be studied as in an ancient statue. That stately form was never bent in Christian humility; the features of that noble countenance were never distorted with Christian self-reproach; those eyes were never downcast with Christian remorse, nor turned devoutly and tremulously towards heaven. No, his eyes had a godlike steadfastness, for it is in general the distinctive mark of a god, that his look is unmoved. Hence when Agni, Varuna, Yama, and Indra assume the form of Nala at Damayanti’s wedding, the latter recognises her lover by the twitching of his eyes, for, as I have said, the eyes of a god are always steadfast and unmoved.
Napoleon’s eyes possessed this peculiarity, and hence I am convinced that he also was a god. Goethe’s eyes, even at an advanced age, remained just as godlike as in his youth, and although time could whiten, it could not bow that noble head. He always bore himself proudly and majestically, and when he spoke he seemed to grow statelier still, and when he stretched out his hand it seemed as though he could prescribe to the stars the paths they should traverse. It is said that a cold, egotistic twitching might be observed around the corners of his mouth. But this trait is also peculiar to the eternal gods, and especially to the father of gods, great Jupiter, to whom I have already likened Goethe. When I visited him at Weimar I involuntarily glanced around to see if I might not behold at his side the eagle with the thunderbolt in its beak. I was about to address him in Greek, but, as I noticed that he understood German, I told him in the latter language that the plums along the roadside from Jena to Weimar were excellent. Many a long winter’s night I had pondered on the exalted and profound remarks I should make to Goethe if I should ever see him. And now that I did at last see him face to face, I told him that the plums of Saxony were delicious. And Goethe smiled. He smiled with the same lips with which he had once kissed the beautiful Leda, Europa, Danae, Semele, and many another princess or ordinary nymph.
To be continued …
Link to Part Eight
The Romantic School … Part Three
Here the Schlegels reveal the same impotency that we seem to discover in Lessing. The latter also, strong as he is in negation, is equally weak in affirmation; seldom can he lay down any fundamental principle, and even more rarely, a correct one. He lacks the firm foundation of a philosophy, or a synthetic system. In this respect the Schlegels are still more woefully lacking. Many fables are rife concerning the influence of Fichtean idealism and Schelling’s philosophy of nature upon the romantic school, and it is even asserted that the latter is entirely the result of the former.
I can, however, at the most discover the traces of only a few stray thoughts of Fichte and Schelling, but by no means the impress of a system of philosophy. It is true that Schelling, who at that time was delivering lectures at Jena, had personally a great influence upon the romantic school. Schelling is also somewhat of a poet, a fact not generally known in France, and it is said that he is still in doubt whether he shall not publish his entire philosophical works in poetical, yes, even in metrical form. This doubt is characteristic of the man.
But if the Schlegels could give no definite, reliable theory for the masterpieces which they bespoke of the poets of their school, they atoned for these shortcomings by commending as models the best works of art of the past, and by making them accessible to their disciples. These were chiefly the Christian-Catholic productions of the middle ages. The translation of Shakespeare, who stands at the frontier of this art and with Protestant clearness smiles over into our modern era, was solely intended for polemical purposes, the present discussion of which space forbids. It was undertaken by A. W. Schlegel at a time when the enthusiasm for the middle ages had not yet reached its most extravagant height.
Later, when this did occur, Calderon was translated and ranked far above Shakespeare. For the works of Calderon bear most distinctly the impress of the poetry of the middle ages—particularly of the two principal epochs of knight-errantry and monasticism. The pious comedies of the Castilian priest-poet, whose poetical flowers had been besprinkled with holy water and canonical perfumes, with all their pious grandezza, with all their sacerdotal splendour, with all their sanctimonious balderdash, were now set up as models, and Germany swarmed with fantastically-pious, insanely-profound poems, over which it was the fashion to work one’s self into a mystic ecstasy of admiration, as in The Devotion to the Cross, or to fight in honour of the Madonna, as in The Constant Prince. Zacharias Werner carried the nonsense as far as it might be safely done without being imprisoned by the authorities in a lunatic asylum.
Our poetry, said the Schlegels, is superannuated; our muse is an old and wrinkled hag; our Cupid is no fair youth, but a shrunken, grey-haired dwarf. Our emotions are withered; our imagination is dried up: we must re-invigorate ourselves. We must seek again the choked-up springs of the naive, simple poetry of the middle ages, where bubbles the elixir of youth.
When the parched, thirsty multitude heard this, they did not long delay. They were eager to be again young and blooming, and, hastening to those miraculous waters, quaffed and gulped with intemperate greediness. But the same fate befell them as happened to the aged waiting-maid who noticed that her mistress possessed a magic elixir which restored youth. During her lady’s absence she took from the toilet drawer the small flagon which contained the elixir, but, instead of drinking only a few drops, she took a long deep draught, so that through the power of the rejuvenating beverage she became not only young again, but even a puny, puling babe. In sooth, so was it with our excellent Ludwig Tieck, one of the best poets of this school; he drank so deeply of the medieval folk tales and ballads that he became almost as a child again, and dropped into that childlike lisping which it cost Madame de Staël so much painstaking to admire. She confesses that she found it rather strange to have one of the characters in a drama make his debut with a monologue, which begins with the words:—”I am the brave Bonifacius, and I come to tell you,” etc.
By his romance, Sternbald’s Wanderungen, and through his publication of the Herzensergies sungen eines Kunstliebenden Klosterbruders, written by a certain Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck sought to set up the naive, crude beginnings of art as models. The piety and childishness of these works, which are revealed in their technical awkwardness, were recommended for imitation. Raphael was to be ignored entirely; his teacher, Perugino, fared almost as badly, although rated somewhat higher, for it was claimed that he showed some traces of those beauties which were to be found in their full bloom in the immortal masterpieces of Fra Giovanno Angelico da Fiesole, and were so devoutly admired.
If the reader wishes to form an idea of the taste of the art-enthusiasts of that period, let him go to the Louvre, where the best pictures of those masters, who were then worshipped without bounds, are still on exhibition; and if the reader wishes to form an idea of the great mass of poets who at that time, in all possible varieties of verse, imitated the poetry of the middle ages, let him visit the lunatic asylum at Charenton.
I believe, however, that those pictures in the first salon of the Louvre are still too graceful to give the observer a correct idea of the art ideals of that period. The pictures of the old Italian school must be imagined translated into the old German, for the works of the old German painters were considered more artless and childlike, and therefore more worthy of imitation than the old Italian. It was claimed that we Germans, with our Gemüth, a word for which the French language has no equivalent, have been able to form a more profound conception of Christianity than other nations, and Frederic Schlegel, and his friend, Joseph Görres, rummaged among the ancient Rhine cities for the remains of old German pictures and statuary, which were superstitiously worshipped as holy relics.
I have just likened the German Parnassus of that period to Charenton. Even that, however, is too mild a comparison. A French madness falls far short of a German lunacy in violence, for in the latter, as Polonius would say, there is method. With a pedantry without its equal, with an intense conscientiousness, with a profundity of which a superficial French fool can form no conception, this German folly was pursued.
The political condition of Germany was particularly favourable to those Christian old German tendencies. “Need teaches prayer,” says the proverb; and truly never was the need greater in Germany. Hence the masses were more than ever inclined to prayer, to religion, to Christianity. No people is more loyally attached to its rulers than are the Germans. And more even than the sorrowful condition to which the country was reduced through war and foreign rule did the mournful spectacle of their vanquished princes, creeping at the feet of Napoleon, afflict and grieve the Germans.
The whole nation resembled those faithful old servants in once great but now reduced families, who feel more keenly than even their masters all the humiliations to which the latter are exposed, and who in secret weep most bitterly when the family silver is to be sold, and who clandestinely contribute their pitiful savings, so that patrician wax candles and not plebeian tallow dips shall grace the family table—just as we see it so touchingly depicted in the old plays. The universal sadness found consolation in religion, and there ensued a pious resignation to the will of God, from whom alone help could come.
And, in fact, against Napoleon none could help but God Himself. No reliance could be placed on the earthly legions; hence all eyes were religiously turned to Heaven.
We would have submitted to Napoleon quietly enough, but our princes, while they hoped for deliverance through Heaven, were at the same time not unfriendly to the thought, that the united strength of their subjects might be very useful in effecting their purpose. Hence they sought to awaken in the German people a sense of homogeneity, and even the most exalted personages now spoke of a German nationality, of a common German fatherland, of a union of the Christian-Germanic races, of the unity of Germany. We were commanded to be patriotic, and straightway we became patriots,—for we always obey when our princes command.
But it must not be supposed that the word “patriotism” means the same in Germany as in France. The patriotism of the French consists in this: the heart warms; through this warmth it expands; it enlarges so as to encompass, with its all-embracing love, not only the nearest and dearest, but all France, all civilisation. The patriotism of the Germans, on the contrary, consists in narrowing and contracting the heart, just as leather contracts in the cold; in hating foreigners; in ceasing to be European and cosmopolitan, and in adopting a narrow-minded and exclusive Germanism.
We beheld this ideal empire of churlishness organised into a system by Herr Jahn; with it began the crusade of the vulgar, the coarse, the great unwashed—against the grandest and holiest idea ever brought forth in Germany, the idea of humanitarianism; the idea of the universal brotherhood of mankind, of cosmopolitanism—an idea to which our great minds, Lessing, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, Jean Paul, and all people of culture in Germany, have ever paid homage.
With the events that speedily followed you are only too familiar. After God, the snow, and the Cossacks had destroyed the best portion of Napoleon’s forces, we Germans received the command from those highest in authority to free ourselves from the foreign yoke, and we straightway flamed with manly wrath at the bondage too long endured; and we let ourselves be excited to enthusiasm by the fine melodies, but bad verses, of Körner’s ballads, and we fought until we won our freedom—for we always do what our princes command.
At a period when the crusade against Napoleon was forming, a school which was inimical to everything French, and which exalted everything in art and life that was Teutonic, could not help achieving great popularity. The Romantic School at that time went hand in hand with the machinations of the government and the secret societies, and A. W. Schlegel conspired against Racine with the same aim that Minister Stein plotted against Napoleon. This school of literature floated with the stream of the times; that is to say, with the stream that flowed backwards to its source.
When finally German patriotism and nationality were victorious, the popular Teutonic-Christian-romantic school, “the new-German-religious-patriotic art-school,” triumphed also. Napoleon, the great classic, who was as classic as Alexander or Ceasar, was overthrown, and August William and Frederic Schlegel, the petty romanticists, who were as romantic as Tom Thumb and Puss in Boots, strutted about as victors.
But the reaction which always follows excess was in this case not long in coming. As the spiritualism of Christianity was a reaction against the brutal rule of imperial Roman materialism; as the revival of the love for Grecian art and science was a reaction against the extravagances of Christian spiritualism; as the romanticism of the middle ages may also be considered as a reaction against the vapid apings of antique classic art; so also do we now behold a reaction against the re-introduction of that catholic, feudal mode of thought, of that knight-errantry and priestdom, which were being inculcated through literature and the pictorial arts, under bewildering circumstances.
For when the artists of the middle ages were recommended as models, and were so highly praised and admired, the only explanation of their superiority that could be given was that these men believed in that which they depicted, and that, therefore, with their artless conceptions they could accomplish more than the later sceptical artists, notwithstanding that the latter excelled in technical skill. In short, it was claimed that faith worked wonders, and, in truth, how else could the transcendent merits of a Fra Angelico da Fiesole or the poems of Brother Ottfried be explained? Hence the artists who were honest in their devotion to art, and who sought to imitate the pious distortions of those miraculous pictures, the sacred uncouthness of those marvel-abounding poems, and the inexplicable mysticisms of those olden works—these artists determined to wander to the same hippocrene whence the old masters had derived their supernatural inspiration.
They made a pilgrimage to Rome, where the vicegerent of Christ was to re-invigorate consumptive German art with asses’ milk. In brief, they betook themselves to the lap of the Roman-Catholic-Apostolic Church, where alone, according to their doctrine, salvation was to be secured. Many of the adherents of the romantic school—for instance, Joseph Görres and Clemens Brentano—were Catholics by birth, and required no formal ceremony to mark their re-adhesion to the Catholic faith; they merely renounced their former free-thinking views. Others, however, such as Frederic Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, Werner, Schütz, Carove, Adam Müller, etc., were born and bred Protestants, and their conversion to Catholicism required a public ceremony. The above list of names includes only authors; the number of painters, who in swarms simultaneously abjured Protestantism and reason, was much larger.
When it was seen how these young people made obeisance, as it were, to the Roman Catholic Church, and pressed their way into ancient prisons of the mind, from which their fathers had so valiantly liberated themselves, much misgiving was felt in Germany. But when it was discovered that this propaganda was the work of priests and aristocrats, who had conspired against the religious and political liberties of Europe; when it was seen that it was Jesuitism itself which was seeking, with the dulcet tones of Romanticism, to lure the youth of Germany to their ruin, after the manner of the mythical rat-catcher of Hamelin; when all this became known, there was great excitement and indignation in Germany among the friends of Protestantism and intellectual freedom.
I have mentioned intellectual freedom and Protestantism together; although, in Germany, I profess the Protestant religion, yet I trust no one will accuse me of a prejudice in its favour. It is entirely without partiality that I have named Protestantism and free-thought together, for in Germany they really stand on a friendly footing towards one another. At all events they are akin, and that as mother and daughter.
Even if the Protestant Church may be charged with a certain odious narrow-mindedness, yet to its immortal honour be it said, that by allowing the right of free investigation in the Christian religion, and by liberating the minds of men from the yoke of authority, it made it possible for free-thought to strike root in Germany, and for science to develop an independent existence. Although German philosophy now proudly takes its stand by the side of the Protestant Church; yes, even assumes an air of superiority; yet it is only the daughter of the latter, and as such owes her filial respect and consideration; and when threatened by Jesuitism, the common foe of them both, the bonds of kindred demanded that they should combine for mutual defence.
All the friends of intellectual freedom and the Protestant Church, sceptics as well as orthodox, simultaneously arose against the restoration of Catholicism, and, as a matter of course, the Liberals, who were not specially concerned either for the welfare of the Protestant Church or of philosophy, but for the interests of civil liberty, also joined the ranks of this opposition. In Germany, however, the Liberals had always, up to the present time, been students both of philosophy and theology, and the idea of liberty for which they fought was always the same, whether the subject under discussion was exclusively political, philosophical, or theological. This is most clearly manifest in the life of the man, who, at the very outset of the romantic school in Germany, undermined its foundation, and contributed the most to its overthrow. I refer to Johann Heinrich Voss.
To be continued…
Link to Part Four
The Romantic School — Part Two
But human genius can transfigure deformity itself, and many painters succeeded in accomplishing the unnatural task beautifully and sublimely. The Italians, in particular, glorified beauty,—it is true, somewhat at the expense of spirituality,—and raised themselves aloft to an ideality which reached its perfection in the many representations of the Madonna. Where it concerned the Madonna, the Catholic clergy always made some concessions to sensuality. This image of an immaculate beauty, transfigured by motherly love and sorrow, was privileged to receive the homage of poet and painter, and to be decked with all the charms that could allure the senses.
For this image was a magnet, which was to draw the great masses into the pale of Christianity. Madonna Maria was the pretty dame du comptoir of the Catholic Church, whose customers, especially the barbarians of the North, she attracted and held fast by her celestial smiles.
During the middle ages architecture was of the same character as the other arts; for, indeed, at that period all manifestations of life harmonised most wonderfully. In architecture, as in poetry, this parabolising tendency was evident. Now, when we enter an old cathedral, we have scarcely a hint of the esoteric meaning of its stony symbolism. Only the general impression forces itself on our mind. We feel the exaltation of the spirit and the abasement of the flesh.
The interior of the cathedral is a hollow cross, and we walk here amid the instruments of martyrdom itself. The variegated windows cast on us their red and green lights, like drops of blood and ichor; requiems for the dead resound through the aisles; under our feet are gravestones and decay; in harmony with the colossal pillars, the soul soars aloft, painfully tearing itself away from the body, which sinks to the ground like a cast-off garment. When one views from without these Gothic cathedrals, these immense structures, that are built so airily, so delicately, so daintily, as transparent as if carved, like Brabant laces made of marble, then only does one realise the might of that art which could achieve a mastery over stone, so that even this stubborn substance should appear spectrally etherealised, and be an exponent of Christian spiritualism.
But the arts are only the mirror of life; and when Catholicism disappeared from daily life, so also it faded and vanished out of the arts. At the time of the Reformation Catholic poetry was gradually dying out in Europe, and in its place we behold the long-buried Grecian style of poetry again reviving. It was, in sooth, only an artificial spring, the work of the gardener and not of the sun; the trees and flowers were stuck in narrow pots, and a glass sky protected them from the wind and cold weather.
In the world’s history every event is not the direct consequence of another, but all events mutually act and react on one another. It was not alone through the Greek scholars who, after the conquest of Constantinople, immigrated over to us, that the love for Grecian art, and the striving to imitate it, became universal among us; but in art as in life, there was stirring a contemporary Protestantism. Leo X., the magnificent Medici, was just as zealous a Protestant as Luther; and as in Wittenburg protest was offered in Latin prose, so in Rome the protest was made in stone, colours, and ottava rime.
For do not the vigorous marble statues of Michael Angelo, Giulio Romano’s laughing nymph-faces, and the life-intoxicated merriment in the verses of Master Ludovico, offer a protesting contrast to the old, gloomy, withered Catholicism? The painters of Italy combated priestdom more effectively, perhaps, than did the Saxon theologians. The glowing flesh in the paintings of Titian,—all that is simple Protestantism. The limbs of his Venus are much more fundamental theses than those which the German monk nailed to the church door of Wittenburg.
Mankind felt itself suddenly liberated, as it were, from the thraldom of a thousand years; the artists, in particular, breathed freely again when the Alp-like burden of Christianity was rolled from off their breasts; they plunged enthusiastically into the sea of Grecian mirthfulness, from whose foam the goddess of beauty again rose to meet them; again did the painters depict the ambrosial joys of Olympus; again did the sculptors, with the olden love, chisel the heroes of antiquity from out the marble blocks; again did the poets sing of the house of Atreus and of Laios; a new era of classic poetry arose.
In France, under Louis XIV., this neo-classic poetry exhibited a polished perfection, and, to a certain extent, even originality. Through the political influence of the grand monarque this new classic poetry spread over the rest of Europe. In Italy, where it was already at home, it received a French colouring; the Anjous brought with them to Spain the heroes of French tragedy; it accompanied Madame Henriette to England; and, as a matter of course, we Germans modelled our clumsy temple of art after the bepowdered Olympus of Versailles. The most famous high priest of this temple was Gottsched, that old periwigged pate, whom our dear Goethe has so felicitously described in his memoirs.
Lessing was the literary Arminius who emancipated our theatre from that foreign rule. He showed us the vapidness, the ridiculousness, the tastelessness, of those apings of the French stage, which itself was but an imitation of the Greek. But not only by his criticism, but also through his own works of art, did he become the founder of modern German original literature. All the paths of the intellect, all the phases of life, did this man pursue with disinterested enthusiasm. Art, theology, antiquarianism, poetry, dramatic criticism, history,—he studied these all with the same zeal and with the same aim. In all his works breathes the same grand social idea, the same progressive humanity, the same religion of reason, whose John he was, and whose Messiah we still await. This religion he preached always, but alas! often quite alone and in the desert. Moreover, he lacked the skill to transmute stones into bread.
The greater portion of his life was spent in poverty and misery—a curse which rests on almost all the great minds of Germany, and which probably will only be overcome by the political emancipation. Lessing was more deeply interested in political questions than was imagined,—a characteristic which we entirely miss in his contemporaries. Only now do we comprehend what he had in view by his description of the petty despotisms in Emilia Galotti. At that time he was considered merely a champion of intellectual liberty and an opponent of clerical intolerance; his theological writings were better understood. The fragments “Concerning the Education of the Human race,” which have been translated into French by Eugene Rodrigue, will perhaps suffice to give the French an idea of the wide scope of Lessing’s genius. His two critical works which have had the most influence on art are his Hamburger Dramaturgie and his Laocoon, or Concerning the Limits of Painting and Poetry. His best dramatic works are Emilia Galotti, Minna von Barnhelm, and Nathan the Wise.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born January 22nd, 1729, at Kamenz, in Upper Lusatia, and died February 15th, 1781, at Brunswick. He was a whole man, who; while with his polemics waging destructive battle against the old, at the same time created something newer and better. “He resembled,” says a German author, “those pious Jews, who, at the second building of the temple, were often disturbed by the attacks of their enemies, and with one hand would fight against the foe, while with the other hand they continued to work at the house of God.” This is not the place to discuss Lessing more fully, but I cannot refrain from saying that, in the whole range of literary history, he is the author whom I most love.
I desire here to call attention to another author, who worked in the same spirit and with the same aim, and who may be regarded as Lessing’s most legitimate successor. It is true, a criticism of this author would be out of place here, for he occupies a peculiarly isolated place in the history of literature, and his relation to his epoch and contemporaries cannot even now be definitely pronounced. I refer to Johann Gottfried Herder, born in 1744, at Morungen, in East Prussia; died in 1803, at Weimar, in Saxony.
The history of literature is a great morgue, wherein each seeks the dead who are near or dear to him. And when, among the corpses of so many petty men, I behold the noble features of a Lessing or a Herder, my heart throbs with emotion. How could I pass you without pressing a hasty kiss on your pale lips?
But if Lessing effectually put an end to the servile apings of Franco-Grecian art, yet, by directing attention to the true art-works of Grecian antiquity, to a certain extent he gave an impetus to a new and equally silly species of imitation. Through his warfare against religious superstition he even advanced a certain narrow-minded jejune enlightenment, which at that time vaunted itself in Berlin; the sainted Nicolai was its principal mouthpiece, and the German Encyclopedia its arsenal. The most wretched mediocrity began again to raise its head, more disgustingly than ever. Imbecility, vapidity, and the commonplace distended themselves like the frog in the fable.
It is an error to believe that Goethe, who at that time had already appeared upon the scene, had met with general recognition. His Goetz von Berlichingen and his Werther were received with enthusiasm, but the works of the most ordinary bungler not less so, and Goethe occupied but a small niche in the temple of literature. It is true, as said before, that the public welcomed Goetz and Werther with delight, but more on account of the subject matter than their artistic merits, which few were able to appreciate. Of these masterpieces, Goetz von Berlichingen was a dramatised romance of chivalry, which was the popular style at that time. In Werther the public saw only an embellished account of an episode in real life—namely, the story of young Jerusalem, a youth who shot himself from disappointed love, thereby creating quite a commotion in that dead-calm period.
Tears were shed over his pathetic letters, and it was shrewdly observed that the manner in which Werther had been ostracised from the society of the nobility must have increased his weariness of life. The discussion concerning suicide brought the book still more into notice; a few fools hit upon the idea of shooting themselves in imitation of Werther, and thus the book made a marked sensation. But the romances of August Lafontaine were in equal demand, and as the latter was a voluminous writer, it followed that he was more famous than Wolfgang Goethe. Wieland was the great poet of that period, and his only rival was Herr Ramler of Berlin. Wieland was worshipped idolatrously, more than Goethe ever was. Iffland, with his lachrymose domestic dramas, and Kotzebue’s farces, with their stale witticisms, ruled the stage.
It was against this literature that, in the closing years of the last century, there arose in Germany a new school, which we have designated the Romantic School. At the head of this school stand the brothers August William and Frederic Schlegel. Jena, where these two brothers, together with many kindred spirits, were wont to come and go, was the central point from which the new aesthetic dogma radiated. I advisedly say dogma, for this school began with a criticism of the art productions of the past, and with recipes for the art works of the future. In both of these fields the Schlegelian school has rendered good service to aesthetic criticism. In criticising the art works of the past, either their defects and imperfections were set forth, or their merits and beauties illustrated. In their polemics, in their exposure of artistic shortcomings and imperfections, the Schlegels were entirely imitators of Lessing; they seized upon his great battle-sword, but the arm of August William Schlegel was far too feeble, and the sight of his brother Frederic too much obscured by mystic clouds; the former could not strike so strong, nor the latter so sure and telling a blow as Lessing. In reproductive criticism, however, where the beauties of a work of art were to be brought out clearly; where a delicate perception of individualities was required; and where these were to be made intelligible, the Schlegels are far superior to Lessing. But what shall I say concerning their recipes for producing masterpieces?
To be continued…
THE ROMANTIC SCHOOL
[The Romantic School, one of Heine’s chief works, of which the most interesting portions are here given, was published in 1833. It was first written in French, as a counterblast to Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne, forming a series of articles in the Europe Litteraire. Notwithstanding many errors of detail, and some occasional injustice, it remains by far the best account of the most important aspect of German literature. Indirectly Heine wished to lay down the programme of the future, for he regarded himself as the last of the Romantic poets, and the inaugurator of a new school. The following translation is Mr. Fleishman’s; it has been carefully revised.]
MADAME de Staël’s work, De l’Allemagne, is the only comprehensive account of the intellectual life of Germany which has been accessible to the French; and yet since her book appeared a considerable period has elapsed, and an entirely new school of literature has arisen in Germany. Is it only a transitional literature? Has it already reached its zenith? Has it already begun to decline? Opinions are divided concerning it.
The majority believe that with the death of Goethe a new literary era begins in Germany; that with him the old Germany also descended to its grave; that the aristocratic period of literature was ended, and the democratic just beginning; or, as a French journal recently phrased it, “The intellectual dominion of the individual has ceased,—the intellectual rule of the many has commenced.”
So far as I am concerned, I do not venture to pass so decided an opinion as to the future evolutions of German intellect. I had already prophesied many years in advance the end of the Goethean art-period, by which name I was the first to designate that era. I could safely venture the prophecy, for I knew very well the ways and the means of those malcontents who sought to overthrow the Goethean art-empire, and it is even claimed that I took part in those seditious outbreaks against Goethe. Now that Goethe is dead, the thought of it fills me with an overpowering sorrow.
While I announce this book as a sequel to Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne, and extol her work very highly as being replete with information, I must yet recommend a certain caution in the acceptance of the views enunciated in that book, which I am compelled to characterise as a coterie-book. Madame de Staël’s , of glorious memory, here opened, in the form of a book, a salon in which she received German authors and gave them an opportunity to make themselves known to the civilised world of France. But above the din of the most diverse voices, confusedly discoursing therein, the most audible is the delicate treble of Herr A. W. Schlegel.
Where the large-hearted woman is wholly herself,—where she is uninfluenced by others, and expresses the thoughts of her own radiant soul, displaying all her intellectual fireworks and brilliant follies,—there the book is good, even excellent. But as soon as she yields to foreign influences, as soon as she begins to glorify a school whose spirit is wholly unfamiliar and incomprehensible to her, as soon as through the commendation of this school she furthers certain Ultramontane tendencies which are in direct opposition to her own Protestant clearness, just so soon her book becomes wretched and unenjoyable.
To this unconscious partisanship she adds the evident purpose, through praise of the intellectual activity, the idealism, of Germany, to rebuke the realism then existing among the French, and the materialistic splendours of the Empire. Her book De l’Allemagne resembles in this respect the Germania of Tacitus, who perhaps likewise designed his eulogy of the Germans as an indirect satire against his countrymen. In referring to the school which Madame de Staël’s glorified, and whose tendencies she furthered, I mean the Romantic School. That this was in Germany something quite different from that which was designated by the same name in France, that its tendencies were totally diverse from those of the French Romanticists, will be made clear in the following pages.
But what was the Romantic School in Germany?
It was nothing else than the reawakening of the poetry of the middle ages as it manifested itself in the poems, paintings, and sculptures, in the art and life of those times. This poetry, however, had been developed out of Christianity; it was a passion-flower which had blossomed from the blood of Christ. I know not if the melancholy flower which in Germany we call the passion-flower is known by the same name in France, and if the popular tradition has ascribed to it the same mystical origin.
It is that motley-hued, melancholic flower in whose calyx one may behold a counterfeit presentment of the tools used at the crucifixion of Christ—namely, hammer, pincers, and nails. This flower is by no means unsightly, but only spectral: its aspect fills our souls with a dread pleasure, like those convulsive, sweet emotions that arise from grief. In this respect the passion-flower would be the fittest symbol of Christianity itself, whose most awe-inspiring charm consists in the voluptuousness of pain.
Although in France Christianity and Roman Catholicism are synonymous terms, yet I desire to emphasise the fact, that I here refer to the latter only. I refer to that religion whose earliest dogmas contained a condemnation of all flesh, and not only admitted the supremacy of the spirit over the flesh, but sought to mortify the latter in order thereby to glorify the former.
I refer to that religion through whose unnatural mission vice and hypocrisy came into the world, for through the odium which it cast on the flesh the most innocent gratification of the senses were accounted sins; and, as it was impossible to be entirely spiritual, the growth of hypocrisy was inevitable. I refer to that religion which, by teaching the renunciation of all earthly pleasures, and by inculcating abject humility and angelic patience, became the most efficacious support of despotism.
Men now recognise the nature of that religion, and will no longer be put off with promises of a Heaven hereafter; they know that the material world has also its good, and is not wholly given over to Satan, and now they vindicate the pleasures of the world, this beautiful garden of the gods, our inalienable heritage. Just because we now comprehend so fully all the consequences of that absolute spirituality, we are warranted in believing that the Christian-Catholic theories of the universe are at an end; for every epoch is a sphinx which plunges into the abyss as soon as its problem is solved.
We by no means deny the benefits which the Christian-Catholic theories effected in Europe. They were needed as a wholesome reaction against the terrible colossal materialism which was developed in the Roman Empire, and threatened the annihilation of all the intellectual grandeur of mankind. Just as the licentious memoirs of the last century form the pieces justificatives of the French Revolution; just as the reign of terror seems a necessary medicine when one is familiar with the confessions of the French nobility since the regency; so the wholesomeness of ascetic spirituality becomes manifest when we read Petronius or Apuleius, books
The flesh had become so insolent in this Roman world that Christian discipline was needed to chasten it. After the banquet of a Trimalkion, a hunger-cure, such as Christianity, was required.
Or did, perhaps, the hoary sensualists seek by scourgings to stimulate the cloyed flesh to renewed capacity for enjoyment? Did aging Rome submit to monkish flagellations in order to discover exquisite pleasure in torture itself, voluptuous bliss in pain?
Unfortunate excess! it robbed the Roman body-politic of its last energies. Rome was not destroyed by the division into two empires. On the Bosphorus as on the Tiber, Rome was eaten up by the same Judaic spiritualism, and in both Roman history became the record of a slow dying-away, a death agony that lasted for centuries. Did perhaps murdered Judea, by bequeathing its spiritualism to the Romans, seek to avenge itself on the victorious foe, as did the dying centaur, who so cunningly wheedled the son of Jupiter into wearing the deadly vestment poisoned with his own blood?
In truth, Rome, the Hercules among nations, was so effectually consumed by the Judaic poison that helm and armour fell from its decaying limbs, and its imperious battle tones degenerated into the prayers of snivelling priests and the trilling of eunuchs.
But that which enfeebles the aged strengthens the young. That spiritualism had a wholesome effect on the over-robust races of the north; the ruddy barbarians became spiritualised through Christianity; European civilisation began. This is a praiseworthy and sacred phase of Christianity. The Catholic Church earned in this regard the highest title to our respect and admiration. Through grand, genial institutions it controlled the bestiality of the barbarian hordes of the North, and tamed their brutal materialism.
The works of art in the middle ages give evidence of this mastery of matter by the spirit; and that is often their whole purpose. The epic poems of that time may be easily classified according to the degree in which they show that mastery. Of lyric and dramatic poems nothing is here to be said; for the latter do not exist, and the former are comparatively as much alike in all ages as are the songs of the nightingales in each succeeding spring.
Although the epic poetry of the middle ages was divided into sacred and secular, yet both classes were purely Christian in their nature; for if the sacred poetry related exclusively to the Jewish people and its history, which alone was considered sacred; if its themes were the heroes of the Old and the New Testaments, and their legends—in brief, the Church—still all the Christian views and aims of that period were mirrored in the secular poetry. The flower of the German sacred poetry of the middle ages is, perhaps, Barlaam and Josaphat, a poem in which the dogma of self-denial, of continence, of renunciation, of the scorn of all worldly pleasures, is most consistently expressed.
Next in order of merit I would rank Lobgesang auf den Heiligen Anno, but the latter poem already evinces a marked tendency towards secular themes. It differs in general from the former somewhat as a Byzantine image of a saint differs from an old German representation. Just as in these Byzantine pictures, so also do we find in Barlaam and Josaphat the greatest simplicity; there is no perspective, and the long, lean, statue-like forms, and the grave, ideal countenances, stand severely outlined, as though in bold relief against a background of pale gold.
In the Lobgesang auf den Heiligen Anno, as in the old German pictures, the accessories seem almost more prominent than the subject; and, notwithstanding the bold outlines, every detail is most minutely executed, and one knows not which to admire most, the giant-like conception or the dwarf-like patience of execution. Ottfried’s Evangeliengedicht, which is generally praised as the masterpiece of this sacred poetry, is far inferior to both of these poems.
In the secular poetry we find, as intimated above, first, the cycle of legends called the Nibelungenlied, and the Book of Heroes. In these poems all the ante-Christian modes of thought and feelings are dominant; brute force is not yet moderated into chivalry; the sturdy warriors of the North stand like statues of stone, and the soft light and moral atmosphere of Christianity have not yet penetrated their iron armour.
But dawn is gradually breaking over the old German forests, the ancient Druid oaks are being felled, and in the open arena Christianity and Paganism are battling: all this is portrayed in the cycle of traditions of Charlemagne; even the Crusades with their religious tendencies are mirrored therein. But now from this Christianised, spiritualised brute force is developed the peculiar feature of the middle ages, chivalry, which finally becomes exalted into a religious knighthood.
The earlier knighthood is most felicitously portrayed in the legends of King Arthur, which are full of the most charming gallantry, the most finished courtesy, and the most daring bravery. From the midst of the pleasing, though bizarre, arabesques, and the fantastic, flowery mazes of these tales, we are greeted by the gentle Gawain, the worthy Lancelot of the Lake, by the valiant, gallant, and honest, but somewhat tedious, Wigalois. By the side of this cycle of legends we find the kindred and connected legends of the Holy Grail, in which the religious knighthood is glorified, and in which are to be found the three grandest poems of the middle ages, Titurel, Parcival, and Lohengrin.
In these poems we stand face to face, as it were, with the muse of romantic poetry; we look deep into her large, sad eyes, and ere we are aware she has ensnared us in her network of scholasticism, and drawn us down into the weird depths of medieval mysticism. But further on in this period we find poems which do not unconditionally bow down to Christian spirituality; poems in which it is even attacked, and in which the poet, breaking loose from the fetters of an abstract Christian morality, complacently plunges into the delightful realm of glorious sensuousness.
Nor is it an inferior poet who has left us Tristan and Isolde, the masterpiece of this class. Verily, I must confess that Gottfried von Strasburg, the author of this, the most exquisite poem of the middle ages, is perhaps also the loftiest poet of that period. He surpasses even the grandeur of Wolfram von Eschilbach, whose Parcival, and fragments of Titurel, are so much admired. At present, it is perhaps permissible to praise Meister Gottfried without stint, but in his own time his book and similar poems, to which even Lancelot belonged, were considered Godless and dangerous. Francesca da Polenta and her handsome friend paid dearly for reading together such a book;—the greater danger, it is true, lay in the fact that they suddenly stopped reading.
All the poetry of the middle ages has a certain definite character, through which it differs from the poetry of the Greeks and Romans. In reference to this difference the former is called Romantic, the latter Classic. These names, however, are misleading, and have hitherto caused the most vexatious confusion, which is even increased when we call the antique poetry plastic as well as classic.
In this, particularly, lay the germ of misunderstandings; for artists ought always to treat their subject-matter plastically. Whether it be Christian or pagan, the subject ought to be portrayed in clear contours. In short, plastic configuration should be the main requisite in the modern romantic as well as in antique art. And, in fact, are not the figures in Dante’s Divine Comedy or in the paintings of Raphael just as plastic as those in Virgil or on the walls of Herculaneum?
The difference consists in this,—that the plastic figures in antique art are identical with the thing represented, with the idea which the artist seeks to communicate. Thus, for example, the wanderings of the Odyssey mean nothing else than the wanderings of the man who was a son of Laertes and the husband of Penelope, and was called Ulysses. Thus, again, the Bacchus which is to be seen in the Louvre is nothing more than the charming son of Semele, with a daring melancholy look in his eyes, and an inspired voluptuousness on the soft arched lips. It is otherwise in romantic art: here the wanderings of a knight have an esoteric signification; they typify, perhaps, the mazes of life in general.
The dragon that is vanquished is sin; the almond-tree, that from afar so encouragingly wafts its fragrance to the hero, is the Trinity, the God-Father, God-Son, and God-Holy-Ghost, who together constitute one, just as shell, fibre, and kernel together constitute the almond. When Homer describes the armour of a hero, it is naught else than a good armour, which is worth so many oxen; but when a monk of the middle ages describes in his poem the garments of the Mother of God, you may depend upon it, that by each fold of those garments he typifies some special virtue, and that a peculiar meaning lies hidden in the sacred robes of the immaculate Virgin Mary; as her Son is the kernel of the almond, she is quite appropriately described in the poem as an almond-blossom. Such is the character of that poesy of the middle ages which we designate romantic.
Classic art had to portray only the finite, and its forms could be identical with the artist’s idea. Romantic art had to represent, or rather to typify, the infinite and the spiritual, and therefore was compelled to have recourse to a system of traditional, or rather parabolic, symbols, just as Christ himself had endeavoured to explain and make clear his spiritual meaning through beautiful parables. Hence the mystic, enigmatical, miraculous, and transcendental character of the art-productions of the middle ages. Fancy strives frantically to portray through concrete images that which is purely spiritual, and in the vain endeavour invents the most colossal absurdities; it piles Ossa on Pelion, Parcival on Titurel, to reach heaven.
Similar monstrous abortions of imagination have been produced by the Scandinavians, the Hindoos, and the other races which likewise strive through poetry to represent the infinite; among them also do we find poems which may be regarded as romantic.
Concerning the music of the middle ages little can be said. All records are wanting. It was not until late in the sixteenth century that the masterpieces of Catholic Church music came into existence, and, of their kind, they cannot be too highly prized, for they are the purest expression of Christian spirituality. The recitative arts, being spiritual in their nature, quite appropriately flourished in Christendom. But this religion was less propitious for the plastic arts, for as the latter were to represent the victory of spirit over matter, and were nevertheless compelled to use matter as a means to carry out this representation, they had to accomplish an unnatural task.
Hence sculpture and painting abounded with such revolting subjects as martyrdoms, crucifixions, dying saints, and physical sufferings in general. The treatment of such subjects must have been torture for the artists themselves; and when I look at those distorted images, with pious heads awry, long, thin arms, meagre legs, and graceless drapery, which are intended to represent Christian abstinence and ethereality, I am filled with an unspeakable compassion for the artists of that period. It is true the painters were somewhat more favoured, for colour, the material of their representation, in its intangibility, in its varied lights and shades, was not so completely at variance with spirituality as the material of the sculptors;
But even they, the painters, were compelled to disfigure the patient canvas with the most revolting representations of physical suffering. In truth, when we view certain picture galleries, and behold nothing but scenes of blood, scourgings, and executions, we are fain to believe that the old masters painted these pictures for the gallery of an executioner.
To be continued…
Link to Part Four
That emotions shall rapidly follow,
like blows on blows, or shock on shock;
that love, hatred, jealousy, ambition, pride,
point d’honneur –
in fact, all the passionate feelings
which constantly rage unchained in real life …
shall burst forth in wilder rage.
No, it is simply impossible…
to form any idea of this…
frenzy of passion.
We see its deeds, we hear its words;
but these deeds and words astonish us,
and awaken in us,
a vague presentiment,
but certainly do not give us an exact knowledge
of the feelings which they express
or from which they spring.
He who would truly know
what burning is
must really put his hand
into the fire.