Category Archives: de Staël


Madame de Staël: Lessing

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

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
1729-1781

Madame de Staël: Klopstock

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 241-253
(Trans. note: The oak is the emblem of patriotic poetry, and the palm tree that of religious poetry, which comes from the east.)
In Germany, there have been many more remarkable men of the English than of the French school. Amongst the writers formed by English literature we must first reckon the admirable Haller, whose poetic genius served him so effectively, as a learned man, in inspiring him with the greatest enthusiasm for the beauties of nature, and the most extensive views of its various phenomena; Gessner, whose works are even more valued in France than in Germany; Gleim, Ramler, &c, and above them all, Klopstock.
His genius was inflamed by Milton and Young; but it was with him that the true German school first began. He expresses in a very happy manner in one of his odes the emulation of the Muses.
“I have seen — Oh, tell me! was it the present, or did I contemplate the future? I have seen the Muse of Germany enter the lists with the English Muse, and full of ardour press forward to victory.
Two goals, erected at the extremity of the course, were scarcely distinguishable: One was shaded by the oak, the other by palm trees.
Accustomed to such combats, the Muse of Albion proudly descended on the arena; she recollected the ground which she had already traversed in her sublime contest with the son of Meonides, with the lyrist of the Capitol. She saw her rival young and trembling, but her emotion was glorious: the ardour of victory flushed her countenance, and her golden hair flowed on her shoulders.
Scarcely retaining her respirations within her agitated bosom, already she thought she heard the trumpet; she devoured the arena with ardent eyes; she bent herself towards the goal.
Proud of such a rival, still more proud of herself, the noble English Muse measured the daughter of Tuisco with a glance. Yes, I remember, said she, in the forests of oak, near the ancient bards, together we sprung into birth.
But I was told that thou wert no more: Pardon, O Muse, if thou revivest to immortal life, pardon me that I knew it not till now. Nevertheless, I shall know it better when we arrive at the goal.
Is it there — dost thou see it in the distance? beyond that oak seest thou those palms, canst thou discern the crown? thou art silent — Oh! that proud silence, that constrained countenance, that look of fire fixed on the earth — I know it.
Nevertheless — think again before the dangerous signal, think — is it not I who maintained the contest with the Muse of Thermophyla, with her also of the seven hills?
She said: The decisive moment is arrived, the herald approaches: O daughter of Albion. cried the Muse of Germany, I love thee — but the palm of immortality is dearer to me even than thou art. Seize the crown if thy genius demands it, but let me be allowed to partake it with thee.
How my heart beats — immortal gods — even, if I were to arrive the first at the sublime object of our course — Oh! then thou wouldst follow close upon me — thy breath would agitate my flowing hair.
All at once the trumpet resounded; they fly with the rapidity of an eagle; a cloud of dust extends itself over the wide career: I saw them near the oak, but the cloud thickened, and they were soon lost to my sight.”
It is thus that the ode finishes, and there is a grace in not pointing out the victor.
I refer the examination of Klopstock’s works in a literary point of view to the chapter on German poetry, and I now confine myself to the pointing them out as the actions of his life. The aim of all his works is either to awaken patriotism in his country, or to celebrate religion. If poetry had its saints, Klopstock would certainly be reckoned one of the first of them.
The greater part of his odes may be considered as Christian psalms; Klopstock is the David of the New Testament. But that which honours his character above all, without speaking of his genius, is a religious hymn under the form of an epic poem called the Messiah, to which he devoted twenty years. The Christian world already possessed two poems: The Inferno of Dante, and Milton’s Paradise Lost: One was full of images and phantoms, like the external religion of the Italians. Milton who had lived in the midst of Civil wars, above all excelled in the painting of his characters; and his Satan is a gigantic rebel armed against the monarchy of heaven.
Klopstock has conceived the Christian sentiment in all its purity; he consecrated his soul to the divine Saviour of men. The fathers of the church inspired Dante; the Bible inspired Milton. The greatest beauties of Klopstock’s poem are derived from the New Testament; from the divine simplicity of the gospel he knew how to draw a charming strain of poetry, which does not lessen its purity. In beginning this poem, it seems as if we were entering a great church, and that tender emotion, that devout meditation which inspires us in our Christian temples, also pervades the soul as we read the Messiah.
Klopstock, in his youth, proposed to himself this poem as the object and end of his existence. It appears to me that men would acquit themselves worthily with respect to this life, if a noble object, a grand idea of any sort, distinguished their passage through the world; and it is already an honourable proof of character to be able to direct towards one enterprize all the scattered rays of our faculties, the results of our labour. In whatever manner we judge of the beauties of our labour.
In whatever manner we judge of the beauties and defects of the Messiah, we ought frequently to read over some of its verses: the reading of the whole work may be wearisome, but ever time that we return to it, we breathe a sort of perfume of the soul, which makes us feel an attraction to all things holy and celestial.
After long labours, after a great number of years, Klopstock at length concluded his poem. Horace, Ovid, &c, have expressed in various manners the noble pride which seemed to ensure to them the immortal duration of their works.
A sentiment of a very different nature penetrated the soul of Klopstock when his Messiah was finished. He expresses it thus in his Ode to the Redeemer, which is at the end of his poem.
“I have hoped in thee, O heavenly Mediator! I have sung the canticle of the new covenant: the formidable race is run, and thou hast pardoned my tottering footsteps.
Gratitude! eternal, ardent, exalted sentiment! O cause the harmony of my harp to resound. O, haste! my heart is overwhelmed with joy, and I shed tears of rapture.
I ask no recompense; have I not already tasted the pleasure of angels since I have sung the glories of my God? the emotion it occasioned penetrated to the inmost recesses of my soul, and it vibrated all that is most intimately connected with my being.
Heaven and earth disappeared from my sight; but soon the storm subsided: the breath of my life resembled the purse and sere air of a vernal day.
“Ah! am I not recompensed? have I not seen the tears of Christians flow? and in another world, perhaps, they will again welcome me with those holy tears! I have also felt terrestrial joy; my heart (in vain would I conceal it from thee), my heart was animated by ambition for glory: in my youth it palpitated with this sentiment; it still palpitates, but with a more chastened ardour.
“Has not thy apostle said to the faithful, ‘If there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on those things!’ — It is this celestial flame which I have chosen for my guide; it appears before my steps, and displays a holier path to my ambitious site.
Led by this light, the delusion of terrestial pleasures has not deceived me. When I was in danger of wandering, the recollection of the holy hours in which my soul was initiated, the harmonious voices of angels, their harps, their concerts recalled me to myself.
I am at the goal, yes, I have reached it, and I tremble with happiness; thus (to speak in a human manner of celestial things), thus we shall be affected, when at a future day we shall find ourselves in the presence of Him who died and rose again for us.
It is my Lord and my God, whose powerful hand has led me to this goal through the graves which surrounded me; he armed me with strength and courage against approaching death; and dangers, unknown, but terrific, were warded from the poet who was thus protected by a celestial shield.
I have finished the song of the new covenant. I have traversed the formidable course. Oh heavenly Mediator, in thee have I put my trust.”
This mixture of poetic enthusiasm and religious confidence inspires both adminration and tenderness. Men of talents formerly addressed themselves to fabulous deities. Klopstock has consecrated his talents to God himself, and by the happy union of the Christian religion with poetry, he shews the Germans how possible it is to attain a property in the fine arts which may belong peculiarly to themselves, without being derived as servile imitations, from the ancients.
Those who have known Klopstock, respect as much as they admire him. Religion, liberty, love, occupied all his thoughts. His religious profession was found in the performance of all his duties: he even gave up the cause of liberty when innocent blood would have defiled it; and fidelity consecrated all the attachments of his heart. Never had he recourse to his imagination to justify an error; it exalted his soul without leading it astray. It is said that his conversation was full of wit and taste; that he loved the society of women, particularly of French women, and that he was a good judge of that sort of charm and grace which pedantry reproves.
I readily believe it; for there is always something of universality in genius, and perhaps it is connected by secret ties to grace, at least to that grace which is bestowed by nature.
How far distant is such a man from envy, selfishness, excess of vanity, which many writers have excused in themselves in the name of the talents they possessed! If they had possessed more, none of these defects would have agitated them. We are proud, irritable, astonished at our own perfections, when a little dexterity is mixed with the mediocrity of our character; but true genius inspires gratitude and modesty; for we feel from whom we received it, and we are also sensible of the limit, which he who bestowed has likewise assigned to it.
We find in the second part of the Messiah a very fine passage on the death of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who is pointed out to us in the Gospel as the image of the contemplative virtue. Lazarus, who has received life a second time from Jesus Christ, bids his sister farewell with a mixture of grief and of confidence which is deeply affecting. From the last moments of Mary, Klopstock has drawn a picture of the death bed of the just. When in his turn he was also on his death bed, he repeated his verses on Mary with an expiring voice; he recollected them through the shades of the sepulchre, and in feeble accents he pronounced them as exhorting himself to die well: thus, the sentiments expressed in youth were sufficiently pure to form the consolation of his closing life.
Ah! how noble a gift is genius, when it has never been profaned, when it has been employed only in revealing to mankind under the attractive form of the fine arts, the generous sentiments and religious hopes which have before lain dormant in the human heart.
This same passage of the death of Mary was read with the burial service at Klopstock’s funeral. The poet was old when he ceased to live, but the virtuous man was already in possession of the immortal psalms which renew existence and flourish beyond the grave. All the inhabitants of Hamburgh rendered to the patriarch of literature the honours which elsewhere are scarcely ever accorded except to rank and power, and the manes of Klopstock received the reward which the excellence of his life had merited.
Tomorrow: Madame de Staël on Lessing

friedrich_gottlieb_klopstock.jpg

Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803)
by Johann Caspar Füssli (1750)

Madame de Staël: Weiland

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 235-240
Of all the Germans who have written after the French manner, Wieland is the only one whose works have genius; and although he has almost always imitated the literature of foreign countries, we cannot avoid acknowledging the great services he has rendered to that of his own nation, by improving its language and giving it a versification more flowing and harmonious.
There was already in Germany a crowd of writers, who endeavored to follow the traces of French literature, such as it was in the age of Louis XIV.
Wieland is the first who introduced with success that of the 18th Century. In his prose writings he bears some resemblance to Voltaire, and in his poetry to Ariosto; but these resemblances, which are voluntary on his part, do not prevent him from being by nature completely German.
Weiland is infinitely better informed than Voltaire; he has studied the ancients with more erudition than has been done by any poet in France. Neither the defects, nor the powers of Weiland allow him to give to his writings any portion of the French lightness and grace.
In his philosophical novels, Agathon and Peregrinus Proteus, he begins very soon with analysis, discussion and metaphysics. He considers it as a duty to mix with them passages which we commonly call flowery; but we are sensible that his natural disposition would lead him to fathom all the depths of the subject which he endeavors to treat. In the novels of Weiland seriousness and gaiety are both too decidedly expressed ever to blend with each other; for in all things, though contrasts are striking, contrast extremes are wearisome.
In order to imitate Voltaire, it is necessary to possess a sarcastic and philosophical irony, which renders us careless of everything, except a poignant manner of expressing that irony. A German can never attain that brilliant freedom of pleasantry; he is too attached to truth, he wishes to know and to explain what things are, and even when he adopts reprehensible opinions, a secret repentance slackens his pace in spite of himself.
The Epicurean philosophy does not suit the German mind; they give to that philosophy a dogmatical character, while in reality it is seductive only when it presents itself under light and airy forms: As soon as you invest it with principles, it is equally displeasing to all.
The poetical works of Weiland have much more grace and originality than his prose writings. Oberon and the other poems of which I shall speak separately are charming and full of imagination. Weiland has, however, been reproached for treating the subject of love with too little severity, and he is naturally thus condemned by his own countrymen, who still respect women a little after the manner of their ancestors.
But whatever may have been the wanderings of imagination which Weiland allowed himself, we cannot avoid acknowledging in him a large portion of true sensibility; he has often had a good or bad intention of jesting on the subject of love; but his disposition, naturally serious, prevents him from giving himself boldly up to it. He resembles that prophet who found himself obliged to bless where he wished to curse; and he ends in tenderness what was begun in irony.
In our intercourse with Weiland we am charmed, precisely because his natural qualities are in opposition to his philosophy. This disagreement might be prejudicial to him as a writer, but it renders him more attractive in society; he is animated, enthusiastic, and, like all men of genius, still young even in his old age; yet he wishes to be skeptical, and is angry with those who would employ his fine imagination in the establishment of his faith.
Naturally benevolent, he is nevertheless susceptible of ill-humour; sometimes, because he is not pleased with himself, and sometimes, because he is not pleased with others. He is not pleased with himself, because he would willingly arrive at a degree of perfection in the manner of expressing his thoughts, of which neither words nor things are susceptible.
He does not choose to satisfy himself with those indefinite terms, which perhaps agree better with the art of conversation than perfection itself; he is sometimes displeased with others, because his doctrine, which is a little relaxed, and his sentiments, which are highly exalted, are not always easily reconciled.
He contains within himself the French poet and a German philosopher, who are alternately angry with each other; but this anger is still very easy to bear; and his discourse, filled with ideas and knowledge, might supply many men of talent with a foundation for conversation of many sorts.
The new writers, who have excluded all foreign influence from German literature, have been often unjust to Weiland. It is he whose works, even in translation, have excited the interest of all of Europe. It is he who has rendered the science of antiquity subservient to the charms of literature. It is he also who, in verse, has given a musical and graceful flexibility to his fertile but rough language.
It is, nevertheless, true, that his country would not be benefited by possessing many imitators of his writings; national originality is a much better thing; and we ought to wish, even when we acknowledge Weiland to be a good master, that he may have no disciples.
Tomorrow: Madame de Staël On Klopstock

Madame de Staël: Of the principal Epochs of German Literature

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 228-234.
German Literature has never had what we are accustomed to call a golden age, that is to say, a period in which the progress of science is encouraged by the protection of a sovereign power. Leo X in Italy, Louis XIV in France, and in ancient times, Pericles and Augustus, have given their names to the age in which they lived. We may also consider the reign of Queen Anne as the most brilliant epoch of English literature; but this nation, which exists by its own powers, has never owed its great men to the influence of its kings. Germany was divided; in Austria no love of literature was discovered, and in Frederic II (who was all Prussia in himself alone), no interest whatever for German writers.
Literature, in Germany, has then never been concentrated to one point, and has never found support in the state. Perhaps it owes to this abandonment, as well as to the independence consequent on it, much of its originality and energy.
“We have seen poetry (says Schiller) despised by Frederic, the favoured son of his country, fly from the powerful throne which refused to protect it: but it still dared to call itself German; it felt proud in being itself the creator of its own glory. The songs of German bards resounded on the summits of the mountain, were precipitated as torrents into the vallies: the poet, independent, acknowledged no law, save the impression of his own soul, no sovereign but his own genius.”
It naturally followed from the want of encouragement given by government to men of literary talents in Germany that their attempts were made privately and individually in different directions, and that they arrived late at the truly remarkable period of their literature.
The German language, for a thousand years, was at first cultivated by monks, then by knights, and afterwards by artisans, such as Hans-Sachs, Sebastian Bran, and others, down to the period of the reformation; and latterly by learned men who have rendered it a language well adapted to all the subtleties of thought.
In examining the works of which German literature is composed, we find, according to the genius of the author, traces of these different modes of culture; as we see in mountains strata of the various minerals which the revolutions of the earth have deposited in them. The style changes its nature almost entirely, according to the writer; and it is necessary for foreigners to make a new study of every new book which they wish to understand.
The Germans, like the greater part of the nations in Europe in the times of chivalry, had also their troubadours and warriors, who sung of love and of battles. An epic poem has lately been discovered called the “Nibelungs” which was composed in the thirteenth century; we see in it the heroism and fidelity which distinguished the men of those times, when all was as true, strong and determinate, as the primitive colours of nature. The German in this poem is more clear and simple than it is at present; general ideas were not yet introduced into it, and traits of character only are narrated.
The German nation might then have been considered as the most warlike of all European nations, and its ancient traditions speak only of strong castles and beautiful mistresses, to whom they devoted their lives. When Maximilian endeavored at a later period to revive chivalry, the human mind no longer possessed that tendency; and those religious disputes had already commenced, which direct thought towards metaphysics, and place the strength of the soul rather in opinions than in actions.
Luther essentially improved his language by making it subservient to theological discussion; his translation of the Psalms and the Bible is still a fine specimen of it. The poetical truth and conciseness which he gives to his style are in all respect conformable to the genius of the German language, and even the sound of the words has an indescribable sort of energetic frankness on which we with confidence rely. The political and religious wars, which the Germans had the misfortune to wage with each other, withdrew the minds of men from literature, and when it was again resumed, it was under the auspices of the age of Louis XIV, at the period in which the desire of imitating the French pervaded almost all the courts and writers of Europe.
The works of Hagedorn, of Gellert, of Weiss, &c, were only heavy French, nothing original, nothing conformable to the natural genius of the nation. Those authors endeavored to attain French grace without being inspired with it, either by their habitrs, or their modes of life. They subjected themselves to rule, without having either the elegance or taste which may render even that despotism agreeable. Another school soon succeeded that of the French, and it was in Germanic Switzerland that it was erected. This school was at first founded on an imitation of English writers. Bodmer, supported by the example of the great Haller, endeavored to show that English literature agreed better with the German genius, than that of France.
Gottsched, a learned man without taste or genius, contested this opinion, and great light sprung from the dispute between these two schools. Some men then began to strike out a new road for themselves. Klopstock held the highest place in the English school, as Wieland did in that of the French; but Klopstock opened a new career for his succession, while Wieland was at once the first and the last of the French school in the eighteenth century. The first, because no other could equal him in that kind of writing, and the last, because after him the German writers pursued a path widely different.
As there still exist in all the Teutonic nations some sparks of that sacred fire which is again smothered by the ashes of time, Klopstock, at first imitating the English, succeeded at last in awakening the imagination and character peculiar to the Germans; and almost at the same moment, Winckelmann in the arts, Lessing in criticism, and Goethe in poetry, founded a true German school, if we may so call that, which admits of as many differences, as there are individuals, or varieties of talent.
I shall examine separately poetry, the dramatic arts, novels, and history; but every man of genius constituting (it may be said) a separate school in German, it appears to me necessary to begin by pointing out some of the principal traits which distinguish each writer individually, and by personally characterizing their most celebrated men of literature, before I set about analyzing their works.
Tomorrow: Madame de Staël: On Wieland.
Peter_von_Cornelius_Hagen_versenkt_den_Nibelungenhort_1859

“Gunther Orders Hagen to Sink the Nibelung Treasure”
Peter Cornelius, 1859

The painting illustrates a scene from the 14th-century Middle High German saga, The Song of the Nibelungs [Nibelungenlied]. During the Napoleonic wars, the trappings of the Germanic medieval world – Gothic architecture, “old German” [altdeutsch] dress, northern tales and legends – came to embody the national longing for a unified German identity.
Therefore, it is not surprising that The Song of the Nibelungs, rediscovered in 1755 and praised by Goethe as worthy of a modern retelling, should have captured the imaginations of the Romantics. Such notable writers as Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Ludwig Tieck, and Friedrich Hebbel reworked the story in poetry, drama, and prose. New editions of the original poem were illustrated by Alfred Rethel, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and Peter Cornelius (1824-1874). By mid-century, the saga had achieved the status of a national epic.
“For me, the hoard of the Nibelungs is a symbol of all German power, joy and majesty, all of which lies sunken in the Rhine and remains for the fatherland to win or lose,” Cornelius wrote in a letter in 1864. It’s most famous adaptation, of course, was Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, “The Ring of the Nibelungs,” which was composed between 1851 and 1874.”
http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/about.cfm

Madame de Staël: On German Literature – The Schlegels

Part 2 of 2
Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation).
After having done justice to the uncommon talents of the two Schlegels, we will now examine in what that partiality consists of which they are accused, and from which it is certain all their writings are not exempt. They are evidently prepossessed in favour of the Middle Ages and the opinions that were then prevalent; chivalry without spot, unbounded faith, and unstudied poetry, appear to them inseparable; and they apply themselves to all that may enable them to direct their minds and understandings of others to the same preference. W. Schlegel expresses his admiration for the Middle Ages in several of his writings, and particularly in two stanzas of which I now will give a translation.
“In those distinguished ages, Europe was sole and undivided, and the soil of that universal country was fruitful in those generous thoughts which are calculated to serve as guides through life and in death. Knighthood converted combatants into brethren in arms: they fought in defense of the same faith; the same love inspired all hearts, and the poetry which sung that alliance expressed the same sentiment in different languages.
Alas! the noble energy of ancient times is lost; our age is the inventor of a narrow-minded wisdom, and what weak men have no ability to conceive is in their eyes only a chimera; surely nothing truly great can succeed if undertaken with a groveling heart. Our times, alas! no longer know either faith or love; how then can hope be expected to remain with them.”
Opinions, whose tendency is so strongly marked, must necessarily affect impartiality of judgment on works of art. Without doubt, as I have continually repeated during the whole course of this work, it is much to be desired that modern literature should be founded on our history and our religion; it does not however follow that the literary productions of the Middle Ages should be considered as absolutely good. The energetic simplicity, the pure and loyal character which is displayed in them interests us warmly; but in the other hand, the knowledge of antiquity and the progress of civilization have given us advantages which are not to be despised. The object is not to trace back the arts to remote times, but to unite as much as we can all the various qualities which have been developed in the human mind at different periods.
The Schlegels have been strongly accused of not doing justice to French literature. There are, however, no writers who have spoken with more enthusiasm of the genius of our troubadours, and of the French chivalry which was unequaled in Europe, when it united in the highest degree, spirit and loyalty, grace and frankness, courage, and gaiety, the most affecting simplicity with the most ingenuous candor. But the German critics affirm that those distinguished traits of the French character were effaced during the course of the reign of Louis XIV. Literature, they say, in ages which are called classical, loses in originality what it gains in correctness. They have attacked our poets, particularly in various ways, and with great strength of argument. The general spirit of those critics is the same with that of Rousseau in his letter against French music. They think they discover in many of our tragedies that kind of pompous affectation, of which Rousseau accuses Lully and Rameau, and they affirm that the same taste which give the preference to Coypel and Boucher in painting, and to the Chevalier Bernini in sculpture, forbids in poetry that rapturous ardour which alone renders it a divine enjoyment; in short, they are tempted to apply to our manner of conceiving and of loving the fine arts the verses so frequently quoted from Corneille:
“Othon a la princesse a fait un compliment.
Plus en homme d’esprit qu’en veritable amant.”
W. Schlegel pays homage, however, to most of our great authors; but what he chiefly endeavors to prove is, that from the middle of the 17th Century, a constrained and affected manner has prevailed throughout Europe , and that this prevalence has made us lose those bold flights of genius which animated both writers and artists in the revival of literature. In the pictures and bas reliefs where Louis X!V is sometimes represented as Jupiter, and sometimes as Hercules, he is naked, or clothed only with the skin of a lion, but always with a great wig on his head. The writers of the new school tell us that this great wig may be applied to the physiognomy of the fine arts in the 17th Century: An affected sort of politeness, derived from factitious greatness, is always to be discovered in them.
It is interesting to examine the subject in this point of view, in spite of the innumerable objections which may be opposed to it. It is, however, certain that these German critics have succeeded in the object aimed at; as, of all writers since Lessing, they have most essentially contributed to discredit the imitation of French literature in Germany. But, from the fear of adopting French taste, they have not sufficiently improved that of their own country, and have often rejected just and striking observations, merely because they had before been made by our writers.
They know not how to make a book in Germany, and scarcely ever adopt that methodical order which classes ideas in the mind of the reader. It is not, therefore, because the French are impatient, but because their judgment is just and accurate, that this defect is so tiresome to them. In German poetry, fictions are not delineated with those strong and precise outlines which ensure the effect, and the uncertainty of the imagination corresponds to the obscurity of the thought. In short, if taste be found wanting in those strange and vulgar pleasantries which constitute what is called comic in some of their works, it is not because they are natural, but because the affectation of energy is at least as ridiculous as that of gracefulness. “I am making myself lively,” said a German as he jumped out a window. When we attempt to make ourselves anything, we are nothing. We should have recourse to the good taste of the French to secure us from the excessive exaggeration of some German authors, as on the other hand we should apply to the solidity and depth of the Germans to guard us from the dogmatic frivolity of some individuals amongst the men of literature of France.
Different nations ought to serve as guides to each other, and all would do wrong to deprive themselves of the information they may mutually receive and impart. There is something very singular in the difference which subsists between nations: the climate, the aspect of nature, the language, the government, and above all the events in history which have in themselves powers more extraordinary than all the others united. All combine to produce those diversities; and no man, however superior he may be, can guess at that which is naturally developed in the mind of him who inhabits another soil and breathes another air. We should do well then, in all foreign countries, to welcome foreign thoughts and foreign sentiments; for hospitality of that sort makes the fortune of him who exercises it.

Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel

Friedrich von Schlegel

Madame de Staël: On German Literature – The Schlegels

Part 1 of 2
“When I began the study of German literature, it seemed as if I was entering on a new sphere, where the most striking light was thrown on all that I had before perceived in the most confused manner.”
Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation).
For some time past, little has been read in France except memoirs and novels, and it is not wholly from frivolity, that we are become less capable of more serious reading, but because the events of the revolution have accustomed us to value nothing but the knowledge of men and things. We find in German books, even on the most abstract subjects, that kind of interest which confers their value upon good novels, and which is excited by the knowledge which they teach us of our own hearts. The peculiar character of German literature is to refer everything to an interior existence; and as that is the mystery of mysteries, it awakens an unbounded curiosity.
I will say a few words on what may be considered as the legislation of that empire; I mean criticism. There is no branch of German literature which has been carried to a greater extent, and as in some cities there are more physicians than patients, there are sometimes in Germany more critics than authors. But the analyses of Lessing, who was the creator of style in German prose, are made in such a manner that they may themselves be thought of as works.
Kant, Goethe, J. de Mueller, the greatest German writers of every various kind, have inserted in periodicals of different publications recensions which contain the most profound philosophical theory and positive knowledge. Amongst the younger writers, Schiller and the two Schlegels have shown themselves superior…
The writings of A.W. Schlegel are less abstracted that those of Schiller; as his knowledge of literature is uncommon even in Germany, he is led continually to application by the pleasure which he finds in comparing different languages and different poems with each other; so general a point of view ought to be considered as infallible, if partiality did not sometimes impair it; but this partiality is not of an arbitrary kind, and I will point out both the progress and aim of it; nevertheless as there are subjects in which it is not perceived, it is of those I shall first speak.
W. Schlegel has given a course of dramatic literature in Vienna which comprises everything remarkable that has been composed for the theatre from the time of the Grecians to our days; it is not a barren nomenclature of the works of the various authors. He seizes the spirit of their different sorts of literature, with all the imagination of a poet; we are sensible that to produce such consequences extraordinary studies are required; but learning is not perceived in this work except by his perfect knowledge of the chefs d’oeuvre of composition. In a few pages we reap the labor of a whole life; every opinion formed by the author, every opinion, every epithet given to the writers of whom he speaks, is beautiful and just, concise and animated. W. Schlegel has found the art of treating the finest piece of poetry as so many wonders of nature, and of painting them in lively colors which do not injure the justness of the outline; for we cannot repeat too often that imagination, far from being an enemy to truth, brings it forward more than any other faculty of the mind, and all those who depend upon it as an excuse for indefinite terms or exaggerated expressions, are at least destitute of poetry as of good sense.
An analysis of the principles on which both tragedy and comedy are founded is treated in W. Schlegel’s course of dramatic literature with much depth of philosophy; this kind of merit is often found among the German writers. But Schlegel has no equal in the art of inspiring his own admiration; in general he shows himself attached to a simple taste, sometimes bordering on rusticity, but he deviates from his usual opinions in favor of the opinions of the inhabitants of the south. Their jeux de mots and their concetti are not the objects of his censure; he detests the affectation which owes its existence to the spirit of society, but that which is excited by the luxury of imagination pleases him in poetry as the profusion of colours and perfumes would do in nature. Schlegel, after having acquired a great reputation by his translation of Shakespeare, became equally enamored of Calderon, but with a very different sort of attachment that with which Shakespeare had inspired him; for while the English author is deep and gloomy in his knowledge of the human heart, the Spanish poet gives himself up with pleasure and delight to the beauty of life, to the sincerity of faith, and to all the brilliancy of those virtues which derive their coloring from the sunshine of the soul.
I was at Vienna when W. Schlegel gave his public course of lectures. I expected only good sense and instructions where the object was only to convey information; I was astonished to hear a critic as eloquent as an orator, and who, far from falling upon defects which are the eternal food of mean and little jealousy, sought only the means of reviving a creative genius.
Spanish literature is but little known, and it was the subject of one of the finest passages delivered during the setting at which I attended. W. Schlegel gave us a picture of the chivalrous nation, whose poets were all warriors, and whose warriors were poets. He mentioned that count Ercilla who composed his poem of the Araucana in a tent, as now on the shores of an ocean, now at the foot of the Cordilleras while he made war on those in revolt. Garcilasso, one of the descendants of the Incas, wrote poems on love on the ruins of Carthage, and perished at the siege of Tunis. Cervantes was dangerously wounded at the battle of Lepanto; Lope de Vega escaped by miracle at the defeat of the invincible armada; and Calderon served as an intrepid soldier in the wars of Flanders and Italy.
Religion and war were more frequently united amongst the Spaniards than in any other nation; it was they, who, by perpetual combats drove out the Moors from the bosom of their country, and who may be considered the vanguard of European christendom; they conquered their churches from the Arabians, an act of their worship was a trophy for their arms, and their triumphant religion, sometimes carried to fanaticism, was allied to the sentiment of honour, and gave to their character an impressive dignity. That gravity tinctured with imagination, even that gaiety that loses nothing of what is serious in the warmest affections, shows itself in Spanish literature, which is wholly composed of fictions and poetry, of which religion, love and warlike exploits are constantly the object. It might be said that when the New World was discovered, the treasures of another hemisphere contributed to enrich the imagination as much as the state; and that in the empire of poetry as well as in that of Charles V, the sun never ceased to enlighten the horizon.
All who heard W. Schlegel were much struck with this picture, and the German language, which he spoke with elegance, adding depth of thought and affecting expression to those high-sounding Spanish names, which can never be pronounced without presenting to our imaginations the orange trees of the kingdom of Grenada and the palaces of its Moorish sovereigns.
Wilhelm Schlegel, whom I here mention as the first literary critic of Germany, is the author of a French pamphlet lately published under the title of “Reflections of a Continental System.” This same W. Schlegel printed a few years ago at Paris a comparison the Phaedra of Euripides and that of Racine. It made a great deal of noise among the literary people of that place, but no one could deny that W. Schlegel, though a German, wrote French well enough to be fully competent to the task of criticizing Racine.
We may compare W. Schlegel’s manner of speaking poetry, to that of Winkelmann in describing statues; and it is only by such method of estimating talents, that it is honourable to be a critic: Every artist or professional man can point out inaccuracies which ought to be avoided. but the ability to discover genius and to admire it, is almost equal to the possession of genius itself.
Frederic Schlegel being much involved in philosophical pursuits, devoted himself less exclusively to literature than his brother; yet the piece he wrote on the intellectual culture of the Greeks and the Romans contains in small compass perceptions and conclusions of the first order. F. Schlegel has more originality of genius than almost any other celebrated man in Germany; but far from depending upon that originality, though it promised him much success, he endeavored to assist it by extensive study. It is a great proof of our respect for the human species when we dare not address it from the suggestions of our own minds without having first conscientiously examined into all that has been left to us by our predecessors as an inheritance. The Germans in those acquired treasures of the human mind are true proprietors. Those who depend on their own natural understandings alone are mere sojourners in comparison with them.
To be continued …

August_Wilhelm_von_Schlegel

August Wilhelm von Schlegel

Madame de Staël on “The Robbers”

See here! See here!
The laws of the world have become mere dice-play;
The bonds of Nature are torn asunder.
The Demon of Discord has broken loose
And stalks about triumphant!
Schiller
My newest book has arrived and I am pleased! The 1799 Render translation of Schiller’s first drama, “Die Räuber” ( published in 1781; first translated as The Robbers in 1792). At two hundred and nine years of age, the volume is a beauty! Bound in contemporary green calf, its spine is richly decorated and lettered in gilt (title and author vibrant!), its boards distinctively bordered in gilt and blind, with green marbled edges and end-papers, pages clean and bright, and a handsome frontispiece by Nagle!
Just hold an old book in your hand. Listen! It will whisper to you of ages past, if only you have the heart to hear!
But now, Comments from another antique source … DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation).
Schiller, in his earliest youth, possessed a fervour of genius, a kind of intoxication of sentiment, which misguided him. The “Conspiracy of Fiesco,” “Intrigue and Love,” and , lastly, “The Robbers,” all which have been performed in the French theatre, are works which the principle of art, as well as those of morality, may condemn; but from the age of five and twenty, his writings were pure and severe. The education of life depraves the frivolous, but perfects the reflecting mind.
“The Robbers” has been translated into French, but greatly altered; at first they omitted to take advantage of the date, which affixes an historical interest to the piece. The scene is placed in the 15th century, at the moment when the perpetual peace, by which all private challenges were forbidden, was published in the empire. This edict was no doubt productive of great advantage to the repose of Germany; but the young men of birth , accustomed to live in the midst of dangers, and rely upon their personal strength, fancied that they fell into a sort of shameful inertness when they subjected themselves to the authority of the laws. Nothing was more absurd that this conception; yet, as men are generally governed by custom, it is natural to be repugnant even to the best of changes, only because it is a change. Schiller’s Captain of the Robbers is less odious than if he were placed in the present times, for there was little difference between the feudal anarchy in which he lived, and the bandit life which he adopted; but it is precisely the kind of excuse which the author affords him, that renders his piece the more dangerous. It has produced, it must be allowed, a bad effect in Germany. Young men, enthusiastic admirers of the character and mode of living of the Captain of the Robbers, have tried to imitate him.
Their taste for a licentious life they honoured with the name of the love of liberty, and fancied themselves to be indignant against the abuses of social order, when they were only tired of their own private condition. Their essays in rebellion were merely ridiculous, yet have tragedies and romances more importance in Germany than in any other country. Every thing there is done seriously; and the lot of life is influenced by reading such a work, or seeing such a performance. What is admired in art, must be imitated into existence. Werther has occasioned more suicides than the finest woman in the world; and poetry, philosophy, in short all the ideal, have often more command over the Germans, than nature and the passions themselves.
The subject of “The Robbers” is the same with that of so many other fictions, all founded originally on the parable of the Prodigal. There is a hypocritical son, who conducts himself well in outward appearances, and a culpable son, who possesses good feelings among his faults. This contrast is very fine in a religious point of view, because it bears witness to us that God reads our hearts; but is nevertheless objectionable in inspiring too much interest in favor of a son who deserted his father’s house. It teaches young people with bad heads universally to boast of the goodness of their hearts, although nothing is more absurd than for men to attribute to themselves virtues, only because they have defects; this negative pledge is very uncertain, since it never can follow from their wanting reason that they are possessed of sensibility: Madness is often only an impetuous excess of self-love.
The character of the hypocritical son, such as Schiller has represented him, is much too odious. It is one of the faults of very young writers to sketch with too hasty a pencil; the gradual shades in painting are taken for timidity of character, when, in fact, they constitute a proof of the maturity of talent. If the personages of the second rank are not painted with sufficient exactness, the passions of the chief of the robbers are admirably expressed. The energy of this character manifests itself in turns in incredulity, religion, love and cruelty. Having been unable to find a place where to fix himself in his proper rank, he makes to himself an opening through the commission of a crime; existence is for him sort of a delirium, heightened sometimes by rage, and sometimes by remorse. The love scenes between the young girl and the chief of the robbers, who was to have been her husband, are admirable in point of enthusiasm and sensibility; there are few situations more pathetic than that of this perfectly virtuous woman, always attached from the bottom of her soul to him whom she loved before he became criminal. The respect which a woman is accustomed to feel for the man she loves is changed into a sort of terror and of pity; and one would say that the unfortunate female flatters herself with the thought of becoming the guardian angel of her guilty lover, in heaven, now when she can never more hope to be the happy companion of his pilgrimage on earth.
Schiller’s play cannot be fairly appreciated by the French translation. In this they have preserved only what may be called the pantomime of action; the originality of the characters has vanished, and it is that alone which can give life to fiction; the finest tragedies would degenerate into melo-drames, when stripped of the animated colouring of sentiments and passions. The force of events is not enough to unite the spectator with the persona represented; let them love, or let them kill one another, it is all the same to us, if the author has failed of exciting our sympathies in their favour.

Madame de Staël

Madame de Staël

← Previous page