Category Archives: Goethe

Goethe:  “Coptic Song”

Excerpt, “THE POEMS OF GOETHE.”   Translated in the Original Metres, by Edgar Alfred Bowring, C.B. 1853.


Goethe: “The Pupil In Magic”

Excerpt:  “THE POEMS OF GOETHE.”   Translated in the Original Metres, by Edgar Alfred Bowring, C.B. 1853.

Goethe: “Before A Court Of Justice”

Excerpt, “THE POEMS OF GOETHE.”   Translated in the Original Metres, by Edgar Alfred Bowring, C.B. 1853.


Goethe: To A Golden Heart

Excerpt, “The Sonnets of Europe: A Volume of Translations.” Selected and Arranged with Notes by Samuel Waddington. 1885.

Faust by Shelley: “May Day Night”

Excerpt, “German Poetry with The English Versions of The Best Translations.” Edited by H.E. Goldschmidt.  1869. 

Illustrations by Harry Clarke.







Madame de Staël: Goethe – Part 1 of 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued …

Part Two           Part Three

weimar's golden age

Weimar’s Golden Days

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


Goethe: “Mephisto’s Song of the Flea”

By Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), “Aus Goethe’s Faust“, op. 75 no. 3 (1809). Translator: Anna Swanwick, 1850.,,


“Aus Goethes Faust: Mephistos Floh Lied”


A king there was once reigning,

Who had a goodly flea,

Him loved he without feigning,

As his own son were he!


His tailor then he summon’d,

The tailor to him goes;

Now measure me the youngster

For jerkin and for hose!


In satin and in velvet

Behold the younker dressed;

Bedizen’d o’er with ribbons,

A cross upon his breast.


Prime minister they made him,

He wore a star of state;

And all his poor relations

Were courtiers, rich and great.


The gentlemen and ladies

At court were sore distressed;

The queen and all her maidens

Were bitten by the pest,


And yet they dared not scratch them,

Or chase the fleas away.

If we are bit, we catch them

And crack them without delay..’

Goethe: “The Fisherman”

the fisherman

Fisherman and the Siren by Lord Frederic Leighton


The waters rush'd, the waters rose,
A fisherman sat by,
While on his line in calm repose
He cast his patient eye.
And as he sat, and hearken'd there,
The flood was cleft in twain,
And, lo! a dripping mermaid fair
Sprang from the troubled main.

She sang to him, and spake the while
"Why lurest thou my brood,
With human wit and human guile
From out their native flood?
Oh, couldst thou know how gladly dart
The fish across the sea,
Thou wouldst descend, e'en as thou art,
And truly happy be!

Do not the sun and moon with grace
Their forms in ocean lave?
Shines not with twofold charms their face,
When rising from the wave?
The deep, deep heavens, then lure thee not,--
The moist yet radiant blue,--
Not thine own form,--to tempt thy lot
'Midst this eternal dew?"

The waters rush'd, the waters rose,
Wetting his naked feet;
As if his true love's words were those,
His heart with longing beat.
She sang to him, to him spake she,
His doom was fix'd, I ween;
Half drew she him, and half sank he,
And ne'er again was seen.


Goethe: “The Treasure-Digger”

Excerpt, “The Poetry of Germany, Consisting from Upwards of Seventy of the Most Celebrated Poets.”  Translated into English Verse by Alfred Baskerville.  1853.


Goethe: “Calm Sea”

Excerpt,“German Lyric Poetry:  A Collection of Songs and Ballads.”  Translated from the Best German Lyric Poets, with Notes by Charles Timothy Brooks.  1863.

calm sea2


Goethe: “A Lay of Christmas”

Excerpt, “A Book of Ballads from the German.” Translated by Percy Boyd, Esq. 1848.


We cheerfully sing, and inscribe our glad lay,
To the Lord of the Castle here seated’
Whose grandson espoused a fair lady this day,
And the bridal guests sumptuously feted.

In the late holy wars he won honour and fame,
By splendid achievements ablazon’d his name,
Yet behold, when adown from his charger he came,
To his mansion he found it as open as day –
His property vanish’d – his servants away.

There you stand, noble Count,
you are now in your home,

And more comfortless quarters
you scarcely could find;

Through the chambers neglected,
the breezes may roam,

And all through the casements loud
whistles the wind:

“What now can be done in this cold
autumn night,

No servant attending – your rooms
in sad plight;

But patiently wait the return
of daylight:

In the meantime, the moonbeams
will show you where best,

On some straw as a couch you
may lie down and rest.”

There, seeking repose, half asleep as he lay,
Something moves about under his bed;
Perhaps a starved rat may be rustling his way,
For a long time a stranger to bread:

When, lo! Issues forth a diminutive wight,
An elegant Fay in a circle of light,
Who, with action so graceful,
and speech most polite,

Thus addresses the Count,
as he, drowsily peeking,

Can scarcely be sure,
if he’s waking and sleeping.

“Our festive assemblies we held in this place,
When, your castle forsaking, to war you had gone,
And as we all deem’d that this yet was the case,
We thought that our revels we still might hold on:
So we plead now for pardon, and hope you’ll agree,
To our giving a fete in good humour and glee,
And feasting a bride of the highest degree!”

The Count, through his dream, as he lay at his ease,
Says, “T’is at your service whenever you please.”
In an instant, three horsemen, who rode on before,
From under the bed leave their station,
Next follow a singing and musical choir,
Comic elves of this miniature nation.

While coaches and chariots came rolling along,
Till the eye and the ear were confused with the throng.
As it seem’d as a Queen to the castle had gone,
At last came a splendid gilt carriage,
With the bride, and her suite, to the marriage.

Alighting, they enter with rapid galope,
And around their saloon take their places,
To waltzes and polkas they joyously hop,
With partners who dance like the Graces:
There they pipe and they fiddle, and tinkle and play,
They spin round in circles so noisy and gay,
And they rustle and bustle and praddle away,
That the Count, more bewilder’d than ever, now deems
The whole the effect of his feverish dreams.

Thus they clatter and chatter, and frolic in saal,
Amid benches and tables all a prancing;
Till the banqueting-rooms offers welcome to all,
And supper succeeds to the dancing.
The dainties so magic, are sliced so fine!
With roebuck and wild fowl, and fish from the Rhine,
While goblets go round of the costliest wine,
And the festive enjoyments continue so long,
That they vanish away at the last with a song.
But here let us sing of what later took place,
When the revelry ceased and the noise;
How the pageant, devised by the frolicsome race,
The Count now adopts and enjoys:
So the trumpet is heard with its musical strain,
A splendid procession moves over the plain,
With chariots and horsemen, a numberless train,
All cordially joining, so happy and gay,
To honour the nuptials we witness today.

When, your castle forsaking, to war you had gone,
And as we all deem’d that this yet was the case,
We thought that our revels we still might hold on:
So we plead now for pardon, and hope you’ll agree,
To our giving a fete in good humour and glee,
And feasting a bride of the highest degree!”

The Count, through his dream, as he lay at his ease,
Says, “T’is at your service whenever you please.”
In an instant, three horsemen, who rode on before,
From under the bed leave their station,
Next follow a singing and musical choir,
Comic elves of this miniature nation.

While coaches and chariots came rolling along,
Till the eye and the ear were confused with the throng.
As it seem’d as a Queen to the castle had gone,
At last came a splendid gilt carriage,
With the bride, and her suite, to the marriage.

Alighting, they enter with rapid galope,
And around their saloon take their places,
To waltzes and polkas they joyously hop,
With partners who dance like the Graces:
There they pipe and they fiddle, and tinkle and play,
They spin round in circles so noisy and gay,
And they rustle and bustle and praddle away,
That the Count, more bewilder’d than ever, now deems
The whole the effect of his feverish dreams.

Thus they clatter and chatter, and frolic in saal,
Amid benches and tables all a prancing;
Till the banqueting-rooms offers welcome to all,
And supper succeeds to the dancing.
The dainties so magic, are sliced so fine!

With roebuck and wild fowl, and fish from the Rhine,
While goblets go round of the costliest wine,
And the festive enjoyments continue so long,
That they vanish away at the last with a song.

But here let us sing of what later took place,
When the revelry ceased and the noise;
How the pageant, devised by the frolicsome race,
The Count now adopts and enjoys:
So the trumpet is heard with its musical strain,
A splendid procession moves over the plain,
With chariots and horsemen, a numberless train,
All cordially joining, so happy and gay,
To honour the nuptials we witness today.

Goethe: “Das Märchen” 2/2

Excerpt, “Hours with German Classics” by Frederic Henry Hedge. 1886.

goethe's garden2

The Man with the lamp returns to his cottage, where the Old Woman — his wife — greets him with loud lamentations. “Scarcely were you gone,” she whimpers, “when two impetuous travelers called; they were dressed in flames, and seemed quite respectable. One might have taken them for Will-o’-wisps. But they soon began to flatter me, and made impertinent advances.”
“Pooh! they were only chaffing you. Considering your age, my dear, they could not have meant anything serious.” “My age, indeed! always my age! How old am I, then? But I know one thing. Just look at these walls! See the bare stones! They have licked off all the gold; and when they had done it, they dropped gold pieces about. Our dear pug swallowed some of them; and see there! the poor creature lies dead.”
The Old Woman represents the Church — the accepted traditional religion. There is a beautiful fitness in this symbolism. Science and religion, knowledge and faith, are mutually complemental in human life. The little pug may mean some pet dogma of the Church; Baumgart suggests belief in the supernatural, to which modern enlightenment (the gold of the Will-o’-wisps) proves fatal. The little pug dies; but a doctrine which perishes, which becomes obsolete as popular belief, may become historically precious as myth. This is what is meant when it is said, farther on, that the Old Man with his lamp changes the pug to an onyx.
Moreover, when each myth is embraced by poetry, it acquires a new, transfigured, immortal life. Thus the gods of Greece still live, and live forever, in Homer’s song. In this sense, with this aim, the Man with the lamp sends the onyx pug to the Fair Lily, whose touch causes dead things to live.
The Old Woman had incautiously promised the Will-o’-wisps (in order, we may suppose, to get rid of them) to pay their debt to the River, of three cabbages, three artichokes, and three onions. But why did they visit her cottage at all; and why so intent on the obsolete gold on the walls? The answer is, modern culture knows full well that the Church is the depository of many precious truths which, though no longer current in the form in which they were once clothed, approve and justify themselves when restarted and given to the world in a new form.
So they — the New Lights — say in effect to the Church, “Old Lady, you are somewhat out of date; if you mean to keep your place and vindicate your right to be, you must throw yourself into the life of the time; you must contribute something useful to forward that life. It is through you that the new philosophy must discharge its debt to the River” (that is, to the life of the time).
The Man with the lamp approves and seconds the commission entrusted to his wife by the Will-o’-wisps, and at dawn of day loads her with the cabbages, the artichokes, and the onions destined for the River, to which he adds the onyx as a present to the Fair Lily. The first part of her mission is a failure. On her way to the ferry she encounters the Shadow of the blundering Giant stretching across the plain. The Shadow unceremoniously puts its black fingers into her basket, takes out three vegetables – one of each kind – and thrusts them into the mouth of the Giant, who greedily devours them. (Some freak of popular ignorance intercepts and impairs the practical benefit which the new culture, through the Church, had hoped to confer on the age.)
The Ferryman refuses to accept the imperfect offering as full satisfaction of the Will-o’-wisps’ debt, and only consents at last to receive it provisionally, if the Old Woman will swear to make the number good within twenty-four hours. She is required to dip her hand in the stream and take the oath. She dips and swears. But when she withdraws her hand, behold! It has turned black; and, what is worse, has grown smaller, and seems likely to disappear altogether. (The apparent dignity of the Church is impaired by contact with vulgar life.)
“Oh, woe!” she cries. “My beautiful hand, which I have taken so much pains with and have always kept so nice! What will become of me?” The Ferryman tries to comfort her with the assurance that although the hand might become invisible, she would be able to use it all the same. “But,” says she, “I would rather not be able to use it than not have it seen.” (Here is a stroke of satire on the part of the poet, implying that the Church cares more for the show of authority than for the substance.)
Sad and sullen the Old Woman takes up her basket and bends her steps toward the abode of the Fair Lily. On the way she overtakes a pilgrim more disconsolate than herself — a beautiful youth, with noble features, abundant brown locks, his breast covered with glittering mail, a purple cloak depending from his shoulders. His naked feet paced the hot sand; profound grief appeared to render him insensible to external impressions. The Old Woman endeavors to open a conversation with him, but receives no encouragement.
She desists with the apology, “You walk too slow for me, sir. I must hurry on, for I have to cross the River on the Green Serpent, that I may take this present from my husband to the Fair Lily.” “You are going to the Fair Lily?” he cried; “then our roads are the same. But what is this present you are bringing her?” She showed him the onyx pug. “Happy beast!” he exclaimed; “thou wilt be touched by her hands, thou wilt be made alive by her; whereas the living are forced to stand aloof from her lest they experience a mournful doom. Look at me,” he continued, “how sad my condition!”
This mail which I have worn with honor in war, this purple which I have sought to merit by wise conduct, are all that is left me by fate — the one a useless burden, the other an unmeaning decoration. Crown, sceptre, and sword are gone; I am in all other respects as naked and needy as any son of earth. So unblest is the influence of her beautiful blue eyes! they deprive all living beings of their strength, and those who are not killed by the touch of her hand find themselves turned into walking shadows.”
This is finely conceived. The Youth, the Prince who has lost sceptre and sword, represents the Genius of Germany, once so stalwart and capable in action, now (at the time of Goethe’s writing) enervated and become a melancholy dreamer from excessive devotion to the Lily, that is, excessive Idealism; whereby “Enterprises of great pith and moment … their currents turn awry. And lose the name of action.”
Such was Germany in those days. And even later, Freiligrath compared her to Hamlet, in whom “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
The travelers cross the bridge which the Serpent makes for them. The Serpent herself straightens out her bow and accompanies them. On the way, the Will-o’-wisps, invisible in broad day, are heard whispering a request to the Serpent that she would introduce them to the Lily in the evening, as soon as they should be any way presentable. The Lily receives her visitors graciously, but with an air of deep dejection. She imparts to the Old Woman her recent affliction. While her pet canary-bird was warbling its morning hymn, a hawk appeared in the air and threatened to pounce upon it.
The frightened creature sought refuge in its mistress’ bosom, and, like all living things, was killed by her touch. (The Hawk represents the newly awakened, impatient spirit of German Patriotism, which scared into silence the lighter lyrics of the time).
The Old Woman presents the onyx pug, and the Lily is delighted with the gift. Her touch gives it life. She plays with it, caresses it. The melancholy youth who stands by and looks on is maddened with jealousy at the sight. “Must a nasty little beast be so fondled, and receive her kiss on its black snout, while I, her adorer, am kept at a distance?” At last he can bear it no longer, and resolves to perish in her arms. He rushes towards her; she, knowing the consequence, instinctively puts out her arms to ward him off, and thereby hastens the catastrophe. The youth falls lifeless at her feet.
Her ends the second act. The Genius of Germany is apparently extinct. Can it be revived? The third and final act foreshows its revival — the political rehabilitation of Germany. I am compelled by want of space to omit, in what follows, many of the accessories — such as the female attendants of the Lily, the mirror, the last desperate freaks of the Giant, etc — and to keep myself to the main thread of the story.
The first object now, on the part of those interested, is to prevent corruption, which would make resuscitation impossible. So the Serpent forms with her body a cordon around the lifeless form of the Youth to protect it. “Who will fetch the Man with the lamp?” she cries, fearing every moment that the sun will set and dissolution penetrate the magic circle, causing the body of the Youth to fall in pieces. At length she espies the Hawk in the air, and hails the auspicious omen (Patriotism still lives.)
Shortly after, the Man with the lamp appears. “Whether I can help,” he says, “I know not.” The individual by himself cannot do much, but only he who at the proper moment combines with many. (All who have their country’s salvation at heart must joint their forces in time of need.)
Night comes on. The Old Man glances at the stars and says, “We are here at the propitious hour; let each do his duty and perform his part.” The Serpent then began to stir; she loosened her enfolding circle, and slid in large volumes toward the River. The Will -o’-wisps followed. The Old Man and his Wife seized the basket, lifted into it the body of the Youth, and laid the Canary-bird upon his breast. The basket rose of itself into the air, and hovered over the Old Woman’s head. She followed the Will-o’-wisps. The Fair Lily with the pug in her arms followed the Woman, and the Man with the lamp closed the procession.
The Serpent bridged the River for them, and then drew her circle again around the basket containing the body of the Youth. The Old Man stoops down to her and asks, “What are you going to do?” “Sacrifice myself,” she answers, “rather than be sacrificed.” The Man bids the Lily touch the Serpent with one hand and the body of the Youth comes alive again, but not to full consciousness. Then the Serpent bursts asunder. Her form breaks into thousands upon thousands of glittering jewels. These the Man with the lamp gathers up and casts into the stream, where they afterward form a solid and permanent bridge.
The Old Man now leads the party to the cave. They stand before the Temple barred with golden lock and bolt. The Will-o’-wisps at the bidding of the Old Man melt bolt and lock with their flames, and the company are in the presence of the Four Kings. “Whence come ye?” asks the Gold King. “From the world,” is the reply. “Whither go ye?” asked the Silver King. “Into the world.” “What would ye with us?” asked the Brazen King. “Accompany you,” said the Old Man. “Who will govern the world?” asked the Composite King. “He who stands on his feet,” is the answer. “That am I,” said the King. “We shall see,” said the Old Man, “for the time is come.”
Then the ground beneath them began to tremble; the Temple was in motion. For a few moments a fine shower seemed to drizzle from above. “We are now beneath the River,” said the Old Man. The Temple mounts upward. Suddenly a crash is heard; planks and beams come through the opening of the dome. It descends and covers the Old Man and the Youth. The women, who find themselves excluded, beat against the door of the Hut, which is locked. After a while the door and walls begin to ring with a metallic sound. The flame of the Old Man’s lamp has converted the wood into silver. The very form has changed; the Hut has become a smaller temple, or, if you will, a shrine, within the larger.
Observe the significance of this feature of “The Tale.” The Hut, as was said, represents the existing Government. New Germany is not to be the outcome of a violent revolution forcibly abolishing the old, but a natural growth receiving the old into itself, assimilating and embodying it in a new constitution.
When the Youth came forth from the transformed Hut, it was in company with a man clad in a white robe, bearing a silver oar in his hand. This was the old Ferryman, now to become a functionary in the new State.
As soon as the rising sun illumined the cupola of the Temple, the Old Man, standing between the Youth and the Maiden (the Lily), said with a loud voice, “There are three that reign on earth: Wisdom, Show, Force.” When the first was named, up rose the Gold King; with the second, the Silver. The Brazen King was rising slowly at the sound of the third, when the Composite King (the Holy Roman Empire) suddenly collapsed into a shapeless heap.
The Man with the lamp now led the still half-conscious Youth to the Brazen King, at whose feet lay a sword. The Youth girded himself with it. “The sword on the left,” said the mighty king, “the right hand free.” Then they went to the Silver King, who gave the Youth his sceptre, saying, “Feed the sheep.” They came to the Gold King, who, with a look that conveyed a maternal blessing, crowned the Youth’s head with a garland of oak leaves, and said, “Acknowledge the Highest.”
The Youth now awoke to full consciousness; his eyes shone with an unutterable spirit, and his first word was, “Lily!” He clasped the fair maiden, whose cheeks glowed with an inextinguishable red, and, turning to the Old Man, said, with a glance at the three sacred figures, “Glorious and safe is the kingdom of our fathers; but you forgot the fourth power, that which is earliest, most universal, and surest of all rules in the world: the power of Love.” “Love,” said the Old Man, smiling, “does not rule, but educates; and that is better.”
And so the Temple stands by the River. The Old Woman, having at the bidding of her husband bathed in the waves, comes forth rejuvenated and beautiful. The Old Man himself looks younger. Husband and wife (Science and Religion) renew their nuptial vows, and pledge their troth for indefinite time.
The prophecy is accomplished. What Genius predicted ninety years ago has become fact. The Temple stands by the River, the bridge is firm and wide. The Genius of Germany is no longer a sighing, sickly youth, pining after the unattainable, but, having married his ideal, is now embodied in the mighty Chancellor whose statecraft founded the new Empire, and whose word is a power among the nations.

Goethe: “Das Märchen” 1/2

Excerpt, “Hours with German Classics” by Frederic Henry Hedge. 1886.

weimar 1803-500


Das Märchen

In the summer of 1795, Goethe composed for Schiller’s new magazine, “Die Horen,” a prose poem known in German literature as Das Märchen … “The Tale” … as if it were the only one, or the one which more than another deserves that appellation.

It is not to be supposed that the author himself claimed this preeminence for his production. The definite article must be taken in connection with what precedes it in the “Unterhaltungen Deutscher Ausgewanderten;” it was that tale which the Abbe had promised for the evening’s entertainment of the company.

Goethe gave this essay to the public as a riddle which would probably be unintelligible at the time, but which might perhaps find an interpreter after many days, when the hints contained in it should be verified. Since the first appearance commentators have exercised their ingenuity upon it, perceiving it to be allegorical, but until recently without success. They made the mistake of looking too far and too deep for the interpretation. Carlyle, who in 1832 published a translation of it in “Fraser’s Magazine,” and who pronounces it “one of the notablest performances produced for the last thousand years,” says: “So much, however. I will stake my whole money capital and literary character upon, that here is a wonderful EMBLEM OF UNIVERSAL HISTORY set forth,” etc.

But Goethe was not the man to concern himself with such wide generalities. He preferred to deal with what is present and palpable, and the inferences to be deduced therefrom.

Dr. Hermann Baumgart in 1875, under the title “Goethe’s Märchen, ein politisch-nationales Glaubensbekenntiss des Dichter’s,” wrote a commentary on “The Tale,” which gives what is probably the true explanation. If it does not solve every difficulty, it solves more difficulties and throws more light on the poem than any previous interpretation had done. I follow his lead in the exposition which I now offer.

“The Tale” is a prophetic vision of the destinies of Germany – an allegorical foreshowing at the close of the eighteenth century of what Germany was yet to become, and has in great part already become. A position is predicted for her like that which she occupied from the time of Charles the Great to the time of Charles V — a period during which the Holy Roman Empire of Germany was the leading secular power in Western Europe.

That time had gone by. Since the middle of the sixteenth century, Germany had declined, and at the date of this writing (1795) had nearly reached her darkest day. Disintegrated, torn by conflicting interests, pecked by petty rival princes, despairing of her own future, it seemed impossible that she should ever again become a power among the nations.

Goethe felt this; he felt it as profoundly as any German of his day. He has been accused of want of patriotism, and incurred much censure for that alleged defect. He certainly did not manifest his patriotism by loud declamation. During the War of Liberation he made no sign. Under the reign of the Holy Alliance, he did not side with the hotheads — compeers of Sand — who placed themselves in open opposition to the Government. He could not echo their cry. They were revolutionists; he was an evolutionist. And they hated him, they maligned him, they invented all manner of scandal against him. They accused him of abusing the affections of women for literary purposes; they even affected to depreciate his genius.

Borne pronounced him a model of all that is bad. Menzel wrote: “Mark my words: in twenty, or at the longest thirty, years he will not have an admirer left; no one will read him.” There was nothing too bad to be said of Goethe; he was publicly held up for reprobation and scorn. It was as much as one’s reputation was worth to speak well of him.

Goethe, I say, was charged with want of patriotism. He was no screamer; but he felt profoundly his country’s woes, and he characteristically went into himself and studied the situation. The result was this wonderful composition: “Das Märchen.”

He perceived that Germany must die to be born again. She did die, and is born again. He had the sagacity to foresee the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire – an event which took place eleven years later, in 1806. The Empire is figured by the composite statue of the fourth King in the subterranean Temple, which crumbles to pieces when that Temple, representing Germany’s past, emerges and stands above ground by the River. The resurrection of the Temple and its stand by the River is the denouement of the Tale. And that signifies, allegorically, the rehabilitation of Germany.

The agents that are to bring about this consummation are the spread of liberal ideas, signified by the gold of the Will-o’-wisps; Literature, signified by the Serpent; Science, signified by the Old Man with the lamp; and the Church, or Religion, signified by his wife. The Genius of Germany is figured by the beautiful Youth, the disconsolate Prince, who dies of devotion to the Fair Lily. The Lily herself represents the Ideal.

Having premised thus much, I now proceed to unfold the Tale, with accompanying comments, omitting however some of the details, and presenting only the organic moments of the fable.


In the middle of a dark night (the dark period of German history), the ferryman asleep in his hut by the side of a swollen river is awakened by the cry of parties demanding to be ferried across the stream.

Here let us pause a moment. The Hut, according to Baumgart, is the provisional State (Nothstaat), – the government for the time being. The Ferryman then is the State functionary, who regulates and controls civil intercourse. The River represents that intercourse — the flow of current events — swollen by the French Revolution. Now, a river is separation and communication in one. The Rhine, which separates Germany from France, is also a medium of communication between the two.

What is it then that the River in the “Märchen” separates and mediates? This is a difficult question. No interpretation tallies exactly with all the particulars of the allegory. The most satisfactory is that of a separation and a means of communication between State and people; between official, established tradition and popular life.

To return to the story. The Ferryman, roused from his slumbers, opens the door of the hut, and sees two Will-o’-wisps, who are impatient to be put across. These are the bearers of the new ideas, which proved so stimulating to the German mind — giving rise to what is known in German literature as the Aufklärung (“enlightenment”). Why called Will-o’-wisps? They come from France, and the poet means by their flashes and vivacity, as contrasted with German gravity, to indicate their French origin. They cause the Ferryman much trouble by their activity.

They shake gold into his boat (that is, talk philosophy, — the philosophy of the French Encyclopedia); he fears that some of it might fall into the stream, and then there would be mischief, — the stream would rise in terrible waves and engulf him. (The new ideas were very radical; and if allowed to circulate freely in social converse might cause a revolution). He bids them take back their gold. “We cannot take back what we have once given forth.” (The word once spoken cannot be unspoken.)

When they reach the opposite shore the Ferryman demands his fare. They reply, that he who will not take gold for pay must go unpaid. He demands fruits of the earth (that is, practical service), which they despise. They attempt to depart, but find it impossible to move. (Philosophy without practical ability can make no headway in real life.) He finally releases them on their promise to bring to the River three cabbages, three artichokes and three onions.

I am not aware that there is any particular significance in the several kinds of vegetables here specified. The general meaning is, that whoever would work effectually in his time must satisfy the necessities of the time — must pay his toll to the State with contributions of practical utility.

The Ferryman then rows down the stream, gathers up the gold that has fallen into the boat, goes ashore and buries it in an out-of-the-way place in the cleft of a rock, then rows back in his hut. Now, in the rock-cleft, into which the gold had been cast, dwelt the Green Serpent. The Serpent is supposed to represent German Literature, which until then had kept itself aloof from the world had wandered as it were in a wilderness; but the time was now come when it was to receive new light and be quickened with new impulse. She hears the chink of the falling gold-pieces, darts upon them, and eagerly devours them.

They melt in her interior, and she becomes self-luminous — a thing that she had always been hoping for, but had never until then attained. Proud of her new lustre, she sallies forth to discover if possible whence the gold which came to her had been derived. She encounters the Will-o’-wisps, and claims relationship with them.

“Well, yes,” they allow, “you are a kind of cousin; but you are in the horizontal line — we are vertical. See here.” They shoot up to their utmost height. “Pardon us, good lady, but what other family can boast of anything like that? No Will-o’-Wisp ever sits or lies down.”

The Serpent is somewhat abashed by the comparison. She knows very well that although when at rest she can lift her head pretty high, she must bend to earth again to make any progress. She inquires if they can tell her where the gold came from which dropped in the cave where she resides. They are amused at the question and immediately shake from themselves a shower of old pieces, which she greedily devours. “Much good may it do you, madam.”

In return for this service they desire to be shown the way to the abode of the Fair Lily, to whom they would pay their respect. (The Fair Lily represents Ideal Beauty.) The Serpent is sorry to inform them that the Lily dwells on the other side of the river.

“On the other side!” they exclaim, “and we let ourselves be ferried across to this side last night in the storm! But perhaps the Ferryman may be still within call, and be willing to take us back.” “No,” she says; “he can bring passengers from the other side to this, but is not permitted to take any one back.”

The interpretation here is doubtful. It may mean that while a jealous Government is willing to assist in the deportation of questionable characters, it will have nothing to do with them on its own ground.

But besides the government ferry, there are other means of getting across. The Serpent herself, by making a bridge of her body, can take them across at high noon. (Literature, in its supreme achievements, — its meridian power — becomes a vehicle of ideas which defies political embargo.)

But Will-o’-wisps do not travel at noonday. Another passage is possible at morning and evening twilight, by means of the shadow of the great Giant. The Giant’s body is powerless, but its shadow is mighty, and when the sun is low stretches across the River.

Here all commentators seem to agree in one interpretation. Says Carlyle, “Can any mortal head, not a wigblock, doubt that the Giant of this poem is Superstition/” This is loosely expressed. Unquestionably superstition, in the way of fable or foreboding, stretches far into the unknown. But it is a shadow, according to “The Tale,” which possesses this power. Now, to make a show two things are needed: Light, and a body which intercepts the light. The body in this case is popular ignorance; that is the real Giant. Superstition is that Giant’s shadow – strongest and longest, of course, when the sun is low.

Thus instructed, the Will-o’-wisps take their leave, and the Serpent returns to her cave.

Now follows the scene in the subterranean Temple, the Temple of the Four Kings, by which we are to understand historic Germany — the Germany of old time. The Serpent has discovered this Temple, and having become luminous is able to see what it contains. There are the statues of the four kings. The first king, who wears a plain mantle and no ornament but a garland of oak leaves, represents the rule of Wisdom and acknowledged worth.

The second, who sits, and is highly decorated — robe, crown, sceptre, adorned with precious stones — represents the rule of Appearance (Schein) — majesty supported by prestige and tradition. The third, also sitting, represents Government by Force. The fourth, the composite figure in a standing posture, represents the Holy Roman Empire of Germany. The Serpent has been discoursing with the Gold King, when the wall opens, and enters an old man of middle stature, in peasant’s dress, carrying a lamp, with a still flame pleasing to look upon, which illumines the whole Temple without casting any shadow.

This lamp possesses a strange property of changing stone, wood into silver, dead animals into precious stone, and annihilating metals. But to exercise this power it must shine alone; if another light appears beside it, it only diffuses a clear radiance, by which all living things are refreshed.

The bearer of this lamp is supposed, by Baumgart, to represent Science (Wissenschaft); but is seems to me that his function includes practical wisdom as well. What it signified by the marvelous properties of the lamp must be left to each reader to conjecture.

“Why do you come?” asks the Gold King of the Man with the lamp, “seeing we already have light?”

“You know that I cannot enlighten what is wholly dark,” is the reply. (Wisdom does not concern itself with what is unsearchable — with matters transcending human ken.)

“Will my kingdom end?” asks the Silver King.

“Late or never.”

The Brown King asks, “When shall I arise?”

The answer is, “Soon.”

“With whom shall I combine?”

“With your elder brothers.”

“What will the youngest do?” inquired the King.

“He will sit down,” replied the Man with the lamp.

“I am not tired,” growled the fourth king. (The Empire, even at that date, was still tenacious of its sway.)

Again, the Gold King asks of the Man with the lamp, “How many secrets knowest thou?”

“Three,” replied the Man.

“Which is the most important?” asks the Silver King.

“The open secret,” the Man replies.

It sometimes happens that a truth or conviction is, as we say, “in the air,” before the word which formulates it has been spoken; it is an open secret. Thus, in the closing months of 1860, “Seccession” was in the air; it was our open secret. (An American remembrance from Harvard Professor F.H. Hedge.)

“Wilt that open it to us also?” asks the Brazen King.

“When I know the fourth,” replied the Man.

“I know the fourth,” said the Serpent, and whispered something in the ear of the Man with the lamp.

He cried with a loud voice, “The time is at hand!” The Temple resounded, the statues rang with the cry; and immediately the Man with the lamp vanished to the west, the Serpent to the east.

Here ends the first act of this prophetic drama.

To be continued …

goethe's garden2

Madame de Staël: Goethe’s Egmont 2/2

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. III, 153-162.

Child! Child! Forbear!
As if goaded by invisible spirits,
The sun steeds of time bear onward
The light car of our destiny
And nothing remains for us
But, with calm self-possession,
Firmly, to grasp the reins, and
Now right, now left,
To steer the wheels here from the precipice
And there from the rock.
Whether he is hasting, who knows?
Does anyone consider whence he came?

A citizen of Brussels: “God forbid that we should listen to you any longer! Some misfortune would be the consequence of it.”
Clara: “Stay, stay! Do not leave me because I speak of him whom with so much ardour you press’d forward to meet when public report announced his arrival; when each of you exclaimed, Egmont comes! He comes! Then, the inhabitants of the streets through which he was to pass, esteemed themselves happy; as soon as the footstep of his horse was heard, each abandoned his labour to run out to meet him, and the beam which shot from his eye, coloured your dejected countenances with hope and joy.
Some among you carried their children to the threshold of the door, and raising them in their arms, cried out, ‘Behold, this is the great Egmont, it is! He, who will procure for you times far happier than those which your poor fathers have endured.’ Your children will demand of you, what is become of the times which you then promised them? What! We lose our moments in vain words! You are inactive, you betray him!”
Brackenbourg, the friend of Caral, conjures her to go home. “What will your mother say?” cries he.
Clara: “Thinkest thou that I am a child, or bereft of my senses? No, they must listen to me: Hear me, fellow citizens! I see that you are perplexed, and that you can scarcely recollect yourselves amidst the dangers which threaten you. Suffer me to draw your attention to the past – alas! even to the past of yesterday. Think on the future; can you live? Will they suffer you to live, if he perishes? With him the last breath of your liberty will be extinguished. Was he not everything to you? For whom, then did he expose himself to dangers without number? His wounds — he received them for you; that great soul, wholly devoted to your service, now wastes its energies in a dungeon.
Murder spreads its snares around him; he thinks of you, perhaps he still hopes in you. For the first time he stands in need of your assistance. He, who to this very day, has been employed only in heaping on you his services and his benefactions.”
A Citizen of Brussels (to Brackenbourg): “Send her away, she afflicts us.”
Clara: “How, then! I have no strength, no arms skillful in battle as yours are; but I have what you want, courage and contempt of danger! Why cannot I infuse my soul into yours? I will go forth in the midst of you: A defenseless standard has often rallied a noble army. My spirit shall be like a flame preceding your steps; enthusiasm and love shall at length re-unite this dispersed and wavering people.”
Brackenbourg informs Clara that they perceive not far from them some Spanish soldiers who may possibly listen to them. “My friend,” said he, “consider in what place we are.”
Clara: “In what place! Under that heaven whose magnificent vault seems to bow with complacency on the head of Egmont when he appeared. Conduct me to his prison, you know the road to the old castle. Guide my steps, I will follow you.”
Brackenbourg draws Clara to her own habitation, and goes out again to enquire the fate of the Count of Egmont. He returns, and Clara, whose last resolution is already taken, insists on his relating to her all that he has heard.
“Is he condemned?” (she exclaims.)
Brackenbourg: “He is, I cannot doubt of it.”
Clara: “Does he still live?”
Brackenbourg: “Yes.”
Clara: “And how can you assure me of it? Tyranny destroys the generous man during the darkness of the night, and hides his blood from every eye — the people, oppressed and overwhelmed, sleep and dream that they will rescue him, and during that time his indignant spirit has already quitted this world. He is no more! Do not deceive me, he is no more!”
Brackenbourg: “No, I repeat it, alas! He still lives, because the Spaniards destined for the people they mean to oppress, a terrifying spectacle; a sight which must break every heart in which the spirit of liberty still resides.”
Clara: “You may speak out: I also will tranquilly listen to the sentence of my death. I already approach the region of the blessed. Already consolation reaches me from that abode of peace. Speak.”
Brackenbourg: “The reports which circulate, and the doubled guard, made me suspect that something formidable was prepared this night on the public square. By various windings I got to a house, whose windows front that way; the wind agitated the flambeaux, which was borne in the hands of a numerous circle of Spanish soldiers; and as I endeavored to look through that uncertain light, I shuddered on perceiving a high scaffold; several people were occupied in covering the floor with black cloth, and the steps of the staircase were already invested with that funereal garb.
One might have supposed they were celebrating the consecration of some horrible sacrifice. A white crucifix, which during the night shone like silver, was placed on one side of the scaffold. The terrible certainty was there, before my eyes; but the flambeaux by degrees were extinguished, every object soon disappeared, and the criminal work of darkness retired again into the bosom of night.”
The son of the Duke of Alva discovers that he has been made the instrument of Egmont’s destruction, and he determines, at all hazards, to save him; Egmont demands of him only one service, which is to protect Clara when he shall be no more. But we learn that, resolved not to survive the man she loves, she has destroyed herself. Egmont is executed; and the bitter resentment which Ferdinand feels against his father is the punishment of the Duke of Alva, who, it is said, never loved anything on earth except his son.
It seems to me that with a few variations, it would be possible to adapt this play to the French model. I have passed over in silence some scenes which could not be introduced on our theatre. In the first place, that with which the tragedy begins: some of Egmont’s soldiers, and some citizens of Brussels, are conversing together on the subject of his exploits. In a dialogue, very lively and natural, they relate the principal actions of his life, and in their language and narratives, shew the high confidence with which he had inspired them.
‘Tis thus that Shakespeare prepares the entrance of Julius Caesar; and the Camp of Wallenstein is compared with the same intention. But in France, we should not endure a mixture of the language of the people with that of tragic dignity; and this frequently gives monotony to our second-rate tragedies. Pompous expressions, and heroic situations, are necessarily few in number. And besides, tender emotions rarely penetrate to the bottom of the soul when the imagination is not previously captivated by those simple but true details which give life to the smallest circumstances.
The family to which Clara belongs is represented as completely that of a citizen; her mother is extremely vulgar. He who is to marry her, is indeed passionately attached to her, but one does not like to consider Egmont as the rival of such an inferior man; it is true that everything which surrounds Clara serves to set off the purity of her soul, but nevertheless in France we should not allow in the dramatic of first principles in that of painting, the shade which renders the light more striking.
As we see both of these at once in a picture, we receive, at the same time, the effect of both. It is not the same in a theatrical performance where the action follows in succession; the scene which hurts our feelings is not tolerated in consideration of the advantageous light it is to throw on the following scene; and we expect that the contrast shall consist in beauties, different indeed, but which shall nevertheless be beauties.
The conclusion of Goethe’s tragedy does not harmonize with the former part; the Count of Egmont falls asleep a few minutes before he ascends the scaffold. Clara, who is dead, appears to be him during his sleep, surrounded by celestial brilliance, and informs him that the cause of liberty, which he had served so well, will one day triumph. This wonderful denouement cannot accord with an historical performance.
The Germans are, in general, embarrassed about the conclusion of their pieces; and the Chinese proverb is particularly applicable to them, which says, “When we have ten steps to take, the ninth brings us half way.” The talent necessary to finish a composition of any kind demands a sort of cleverness, and of calculation, which agrees but badly with the vague and indefinite imagination displayed by the Germans in all their works.
Besides, it requires art, and a great deal of art, to find a proper denouement, for there are seldom any in real life: Facts are linked one to the other, and their consequences are lost in the lapse of time. The knowledge of the theatre alone teaches us to circumscribe the principal event, and make all the accessory ones concur to the same purpose. But to combine effects seems to the Germans almost like hypocrisy, and the spirit of calculation appears to them irreconcilable with inspiration.
Of all the writers, however, Goethe is certainly best able to unite the frailties of genius with its bolder flights; but he does not vouchsafe to give himself the trouble of arranging dramatic situations so as to render them properly theatrical. If they are fine in themselves, he cares for nothing else.
His German audience at Weimar ask no better than to wait the development of his plans, and to guess at his intention — as patient, as intelligent, as the ancient Greek chorus, they do not expect merely to be amused as sovereigns commonly do, whether they are people or kings, they contribute to their own pleasure, by analyzing and explaining what did not at first strike them — such a public is truly like an artist in its judgments.

I stand high, but I can and must rise yet higher.
Courage, strength and hope possess my soul.
Not yet, have I attained the height of my ambition;
That once achieved, I will stand firmly and without fear.
Should I fall, should a thunderclap, a storm blast,
Ay, a false step of my own,
Precipitate me into the abyss,
So be it.
I shall lie there with thousands of others.
I have never distained, even for a trifling stake,
To throw the bloody die with my gallant comrades,
And shall I hesitate now,
When all that is most precious in life
Is set upon the cast?

Egmont and Hoorn


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