Category Archives: Lessing
.Excerpt, “The Poetry of Germany, Consisting from Upwards of Seventy of the Most Celebrated Poets.” Translated into English Verse by Alfred Baskerville. 1853.
The Three Kingdoms of Nature
I sought, while drinking, to unfold
Why Nature’s kingdoms are threefold.
Both man and beast, they drink and love,
As each is gifted from above;
The dolphin, eagle, dog and flea,
In that they love and drink, agree.
In all that drink and love then, we
The first of these three kingdoms see.
The plants the second kingdom are,
But lower in creation far;
They do not love, but yet they drink,
When dripping clouds upon them sink;
Thus drinks the clover, thus the pine,
The aloe tree and branching vine,
In all that drink, but love not, we
The second of these kingdoms see.
The stony kingdom is the last,
Here diamonds with sand are classed;
No stone feels thirst, or soft desires,
No love, no draught its bosom fires.
In all that drink not, love not, we
The last of these three kingdoms see.
For without love, or wine, now own!
What wouldst thou be, oh Man? – A stone.
In my own modest fashion I collect antique books … my particular passion always the earliest translations of Goethe’s Faust.
My first acquisition? A copy of what was thought to be the first translation of Goethe’s Masterwork … which made its slow way to me from the German Lands many years ago. Even then, it was a tattered volume … brown and drab and appearing terribly disheveled with age … but to me, nothing could have been more grand! For it was my first truly antique book. And even now, wrapped carefully in scarlet silk and secured with a golden cord, this raggedy relic retains pride of place on my shelf … and in my heart.
Yet contained within was not only an eager young man’s exercise in translation … his effort to honor an author he most admired … but also English interpretations of a few other German poets as well. It is those other fragments I wish to share with you now. But first … a word about an enthusiast of German literature … turned translator … who became a Statesman.
“Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere (1800-1857) was known by his patronymic as Lord Francis Leveson-Gower until 1833, when he assumed, by Royal License, the surname of Egerton, having succeeded on the death of his father to the estates which the latter inherited from the Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater. Educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford, he entered Parliament soon after attaining his majority as member for the pocket borough of Bletchingly in Surrey. He afterwards sat for Sutherland and for South Lancashire, which he represented when he was elevated to the peerage as Viscount Brackley, of Brackley in the County of Northampton, and Earl of Ellesmere in 1846.
In politics he was a moderate Conservative of independent views, as was shown by his supporting the proposal for establishing the University of London, by his making and carrying a motion for the endowment of the Roman Catholic clergy in Ireland, and by his advocating free trade long before Sir Robert Peel yielded on the question. Appointed a Lord of the Treasury in 1827, he held the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1828 till July 1830, when he became Secretary of War for a short time.
His claims to remembrance are founded chiefly on, his services to literature and the fine arts. Before he was twenty he printed for private circulation a volume of poems, which he followed up after a short interval by the publication of a translation of Goethe’s Faust, one of the earliest that appeared in England, with some translations of German lyrics and a few original poems. In 1839 he visited the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. His impressions of travel were recorded in his very agreeably written Mediterranean Sketches (1843), and in the notes to a poem entitled The Pilgrimage. He published several other works in prose and verse, all displaying a fine literary taste. His literary reputation secured for him the position of rector of the University of Aberdeen in 1841.
Lord Ellesmere was a munificent and yet discriminating patron of artists. To the splendid collection of pictures which he inherited from his great-uncle, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, he made numerous additions, and he built a noble gallery to which the public were allowed free access. Lord Ellesmere served as president of the Royal Geographical Society and as president of the Royal Asiatic Society, and he was a trustee of the National Gallery. Ellesmere Island was named after him.” And now from 1823 ...
Satan (to a Spirit)
Speak then the first. Relate what thou hast performed.
Satan! I saw a cloud in the heavens; it carried destruction in its womb. I swooped upon it; hid myself in its deepest darkness, and guided its course; and stayed it over the hut of a poor and virtuous man, who was sinking into his first slumber in the arms of his wife. Here I rent the cloud, and shook out its fire in flakes upon the hut, and all that the wretches possessed was its prey. Satan, this was all I could. For himself, his weeping children, his wife, these the angel of the Lord bore out of the flame; and, as I saw him, I fled.
Coward and fool! and thou sayest it was the hut of a poor, of a virtuous man?
Even so, Satan. Now is he naked, and bare, and lost.
For us; yes, that is he, and forever! Take from the rich his treasure, that he may despair; shake it out on the hearth of the poor; that it may lead his heart astray; thus we win a double prize! To make poorer him who is already poor binds him still faster to his God. Speak, thou second spirit! tell me a better tale.
Satan, I can! I sent over the sea, and I sought me out a storm which I might destroy; and I found one. As I swept right on the shore, I looked down and saw a fleet, and there were traders on board, usurers and defrauders. Their yells and curses reached my ear: down I plunged with my whirlwind into the abyss, and up again I shot on the foam towards Heaven.
And drownest them?
So that none escaped. Their souls are now thine!
Traitor! they were so before. Had they lived, they would have inflicted heavier curses and destruction on the earth; would have robbed, and murdered, and violated on other coasts; would have transported, from clime to clime, new temptation to sin. And all this is now lost. Oh! you should be sent back to hell! You do but disturb my government — Speak, thou, the third. Hast thou to do with storms and whirlwinds?
The third Spirit narrates that he has snatched from the lips of a sleeping girl the first kiss had ever been printed on them, and thrown the first shade of pollution over the purity of her mind.
‘Tis well; there is forethought and speculation in thy deed. Poor spirits! who breathe corruption on material substance: this one does better, he corrupts the soul. Say on, thou fourth! what hast thou performed?
Satan, nothing! But I have conceived a stratagem which, could it be realized in deed, would cause all other deeds to shrink in comparison.
What is it?
To rob the Deity of his favourite: a thoughtful, solitary youth, totally given up to the search after wisdom; breathing and feeling alone for this; renouncing every passion but this one for wisdom; dangerous to you and to all of us, should he once become a teacher of the people — to gain him from Heaven, Satan …
Excellent! admirable! and your plan?
See, I gnash my teeth! I have no plan! I have slunk about his soul on every side; but I found no single weakness on which to fix my hold.
Fool! has he not desire of knowledge?
More than any mortal beside.
Then leave him to me; that is enough for his perdition.
With these words, Satan concludes the scene; but, as the infernal ministers depart, the voice of the Angel of Prescience, der ursehung, is heard from above —
Ye shall not prevail!
Faust himself is thrown, by angelic agency, into a deep slumber, and a phantom is put in his place, on which the devil exercises his ingenuity in vain. Faust sees, in a dream, the progress of these temptations, and wakes more confirmed in virtue than ever.
Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 254-258
Perhaps the literature of Germany alone derived its source from criticism. In every other place criticism has followed the great productions of art; but in Germany it produced them. The epoch at which literature appears in its greatest splendour is the cause of this difference. Various nations had for many ages become illustrious in the art of writing: the Germans acquired it at a much later period, and thought they could do no better than follow the path already marked out. It was necessary then that criticism should expel imitation, in order to make room for originality.
Lessing wrote in prose with unexampled clearness and precision: depth of thought frequently embarrasses the style of the writers of the new school; Lessing, not less profound, had something severe in his character which made him discover the most concise and poignant modes of expression. Lessing was always animated in his writings by an emotion hostile to the opinion he attacked, and a sarcastic humour gives strength to his ideas.
He occupied himself by turns with the theatre, with philosophy, antiquities and theology, pursuing truth through all of them, like a huntsman, who feels more pleasure in the chase than in the attainment of his object. His style has, in some respects, the lively and brilliant conciseness of the French; and it conduced to render the German language classical. The writers of the new school embrace a great number of thoughts at the same time, but Lessing deserves to be more generally admired; he possesses a new and bold genius, which meets nevertheless the common comprehensions of mankind. His modes of perception are German, his manner of expression European.
Although a dialectician, at once lively and close in his arguments, enthusiasm for the beautiful filled his whole soul. He possessed ardour without glare, and a philosophical vehemence which was always active, and which by repeated strokes produced effect the most durable. Lessing analysed the French theatre, which was then fashionable in his country, and asserted that the English drama was more intimately connected with the genius of his countrymen.
In the judgment he passes on Merope, Zaire, Semiramus and Rodogune, he notices no particular improbability; he attacks the sincerity of the sentiments and characters, and finds fault with the personages of those fictions, as if they were real beings.
His criticism is a treatise on the human heart, as much as on poetical literature. To appreciate with justice the observations made by Lessing on the dramatic system in general, we must examine, as I mean to do in the following chapters, the principal differences of French and German on that subject. But in the history of literature, it is remarkable that a German should have had the courage to criticise a great French writer, and jest with wit on the very prince of jesters, Voltaire himself.
It was much for a nation lying under the weight of an anathema which refused it both taste and grace, to become sensible that in every country there exits a national taste, a national grace; and that literary fame may be acquired in various ways. The writings of Lessing gave a new impulse to his countrymen: they read Shakespeare, they dared in Germany to call themselves German; and the rights of originality were established instead of the yoke of correction.
Lessing has composed theatrical pieces and philosophical works which deserve to be examined separately: we should always consider German authors under various points of view. As they are still more distinguished by the faculty of thought than by genius, they do not devote themselves exclusively to any particular species of composition. Reflection attracts them successively to different modes of literature.
Amongst the writings of Lessing, one of the most remarkable is the Laocoon; it characterizes the subjects which are suitable both to poetry and painting, with as much philosophy in the principles as sagacity.
Tomorrow … Madame de Staël: Winckelmann
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing