Heinrich Heine: “The Romantic School … again” Part 3 of 8

Excerpt, “The Prose Writings of Heinrich Heine:  Edited, with an Introduction, by Havelock Ellis.” Walter Scott, London:  23 Warwick Lane, Paternoster Row:  1887.

The Romantic School … Part Three

Here the Schlegels reveal the same impotency that we seem to discover in Lessing. The latter also, strong as he is in negation, is equally weak in affirmation; seldom can he lay down any fundamental principle, and even more rarely, a correct one. He lacks the firm foundation of a philosophy, or a synthetic system. In this respect the Schlegels are still more woefully lacking. Many fables are rife concerning the influence of Fichtean idealism and Schelling’s philosophy of nature upon the romantic school, and it is even asserted that the latter is entirely the result of the former.

I can, however, at the most discover the traces of only a few stray thoughts of Fichte and Schelling, but by no means the impress of a system of philosophy. It is true that Schelling, who at that time was delivering lectures at Jena, had personally a great influence upon the romantic school. Schelling is also somewhat of a poet, a fact not generally known in France, and it is said that he is still in doubt whether he shall not publish his entire philosophical works in poetical, yes, even in metrical form. This doubt is characteristic of the man.

But if the Schlegels could give no definite, reliable theory for the masterpieces which they bespoke of the poets of their school, they atoned for these shortcomings by commending as models the best works of art of the past, and by making them accessible to their disciples. These were chiefly the Christian-Catholic productions of the middle ages. The translation of Shakespeare, who stands at the frontier of this art and with Protestant clearness smiles over into our modern era, was solely intended for polemical purposes, the present discussion of which space forbids. It was undertaken by A. W. Schlegel at a time when the enthusiasm for the middle ages had not yet reached its most extravagant height.

Later, when this did occur, Calderon was translated and ranked far above Shakespeare. For the works of Calderon bear most distinctly the impress of the poetry of the middle ages—particularly of the two principal epochs of knight-errantry and monasticism. The pious comedies of the Castilian priest-poet, whose poetical flowers had been besprinkled with holy water and canonical perfumes, with all their pious grandezza, with all their sacerdotal splendour, with all their sanctimonious balderdash, were now set up as models, and Germany swarmed with fantastically-pious, insanely-profound poems, over which it was the fashion to work one’s self into a mystic ecstasy of admiration, as in The Devotion to the Cross, or to fight in honour of the Madonna, as in The Constant Prince. Zacharias Werner carried the nonsense as far as it might be safely done without being imprisoned by the authorities in a lunatic asylum.

Our poetry, said the Schlegels, is superannuated; our muse is an old and wrinkled hag; our Cupid is no fair youth, but a shrunken, grey-haired dwarf. Our emotions are withered; our imagination is dried up: we must re-invigorate ourselves. We must seek again the choked-up springs of the naive, simple poetry of the middle ages, where bubbles the elixir of youth.

When the parched, thirsty multitude heard this, they did not long delay. They were eager to be again young and blooming, and, hastening to those miraculous waters, quaffed and gulped with intemperate greediness. But the same fate befell them as happened to the aged waiting-maid who noticed that her mistress possessed a magic elixir which restored youth. During her lady’s absence she took from the toilet drawer the small flagon which contained the elixir, but, instead of drinking only a few drops, she took a long deep draught, so that through the power of the rejuvenating beverage she became not only young again, but even a puny, puling babe. In sooth, so was it with our excellent Ludwig Tieck, one of the best poets of this school; he drank so deeply of the medieval folk tales and ballads that he became almost as a child again, and dropped into that childlike lisping which it cost Madame de Staël  so much painstaking to admire. She confesses that she found it rather strange to have one of the characters in a drama make his debut with a monologue, which begins with the words:—”I am the brave Bonifacius, and I come to tell you,” etc.

By his romance, Sternbald’s Wanderungen, and through his publication of the Herzensergies sungen eines Kunstliebenden Klosterbruders, written by a certain Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck sought to set up the naive, crude beginnings of art as models. The piety and childishness of these works, which are revealed in their technical awkwardness, were recommended for imitation. Raphael was to be ignored entirely; his teacher, Perugino, fared almost as badly, although rated somewhat higher, for it was claimed that he showed some traces of those beauties which were to be found in their full bloom in the immortal masterpieces of Fra Giovanno Angelico da Fiesole, and were so devoutly admired.

If the reader wishes to form an idea of the taste of the art-enthusiasts of that period, let him go to the Louvre, where the best pictures of those masters, who were then worshipped without bounds, are still on exhibition; and if the reader wishes to form an idea of the great mass of poets who at that time, in all possible varieties of verse, imitated the poetry of the middle ages, let him visit the lunatic asylum at Charenton.

I believe, however, that those pictures in the first salon of the Louvre are still too graceful to give the observer a correct idea of the art ideals of that period. The pictures of the old Italian school must be imagined translated into the old German, for the works of the old German painters were considered more artless and childlike, and therefore more worthy of imitation than the old Italian. It was claimed that we Germans, with our Gemüth, a word for which the French language has no equivalent, have been able to form a more profound conception of Christianity than other nations, and Frederic Schlegel, and his friend, Joseph Görres, rummaged among the ancient Rhine cities for the remains of old German pictures and statuary, which were superstitiously worshipped as holy relics.

I have just likened the German Parnassus of that period to Charenton. Even that, however, is too mild a comparison. A French madness falls far short of a German lunacy in violence, for in the latter, as Polonius would say, there is method. With a pedantry without its equal, with an intense conscientiousness, with a profundity of which a superficial French fool can form no conception, this German folly was pursued.

The political condition of Germany was particularly favourable to those Christian old German tendencies. “Need teaches prayer,” says the proverb; and truly never was the need greater in Germany. Hence the masses were more than ever inclined to prayer, to religion, to Christianity. No people is more loyally attached to its rulers than are the Germans. And more even than the sorrowful condition to which the country was reduced through war and foreign rule did the mournful spectacle of their vanquished princes, creeping at the feet of Napoleon, afflict and grieve the Germans.

The whole nation resembled those faithful old servants in once great but now reduced families, who feel more keenly than even their masters all the humiliations to which the latter are exposed, and who in secret weep most bitterly when the family silver is to be sold, and who clandestinely contribute their pitiful savings, so that patrician wax candles and not plebeian tallow dips shall grace the family table—just as we see it so touchingly depicted in the old plays. The universal sadness found consolation in religion, and there ensued a pious resignation to the will of God, from whom alone help could come.

And, in fact, against Napoleon none could help but God Himself. No reliance could be placed on the earthly legions; hence all eyes were religiously turned to Heaven.

We would have submitted to Napoleon quietly enough, but our princes, while they hoped for deliverance through Heaven, were at the same time not unfriendly to the thought, that the united strength of their subjects might be very useful in effecting their purpose. Hence they sought to awaken in the German people a sense of homogeneity, and even the most exalted personages now spoke of a German nationality, of a common German fatherland, of a union of the Christian-Germanic races, of the unity of Germany. We were commanded to be patriotic, and straightway we became patriots,—for we always obey when our princes command.

But it must not be supposed that the word “patriotism” means the same in Germany as in France. The patriotism of the French consists in this: the heart warms; through this warmth it expands; it enlarges so as to encompass, with its all-embracing love, not only the nearest and dearest, but all France, all civilisation. The patriotism of the Germans, on the contrary, consists in narrowing and contracting the heart, just as leather contracts in the cold; in hating foreigners; in ceasing to be European and cosmopolitan, and in adopting a narrow-minded and exclusive Germanism.

We beheld this ideal empire of churlishness organised into a system by Herr Jahn; with it began the crusade of the vulgar, the coarse, the great unwashed—against the grandest and holiest idea ever brought forth in Germany, the idea of humanitarianism; the idea of the universal brotherhood of mankind, of cosmopolitanism—an idea to which our great minds, Lessing, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, Jean Paul, and all people of culture in Germany, have ever paid homage.

With the events that speedily followed you are only too familiar. After God, the snow, and the Cossacks had destroyed the best portion of Napoleon’s forces, we Germans received the command from those highest in authority to free ourselves from the foreign yoke, and we straightway flamed with manly wrath at the bondage too long endured; and we let ourselves be excited to enthusiasm by the fine melodies, but bad verses, of Körner’s ballads, and we fought until we won our freedom—for we always do what our princes command.

At a period when the crusade against Napoleon was forming, a school which was inimical to everything French, and which exalted everything in art and life that was Teutonic, could not help achieving great popularity. The Romantic School at that time went hand in hand with the machinations of the government and the secret societies, and A. W. Schlegel conspired against Racine with the same aim that Minister Stein plotted against Napoleon. This school of literature floated with the stream of the times; that is to say, with the stream that flowed backwards to its source.

When finally German patriotism and nationality were victorious, the popular Teutonic-Christian-romantic school, “the new-German-religious-patriotic art-school,” triumphed also. Napoleon, the great classic, who was as classic as Alexander or Ceasar, was overthrown, and August William and Frederic Schlegel, the petty romanticists, who were as romantic as Tom Thumb and Puss in Boots, strutted about as victors.

But the reaction which always follows excess was in this case not long in coming. As the spiritualism of Christianity was a reaction against the brutal rule of imperial Roman materialism; as the revival of the love for Grecian art and science was a reaction against the extravagances of Christian spiritualism; as the romanticism of the middle ages may also be considered as a reaction against the vapid apings of antique classic art; so also do we now behold a reaction against the re-introduction of that catholic, feudal mode of thought, of that knight-errantry and priestdom, which were being inculcated through literature and the pictorial arts, under bewildering circumstances.

For when the artists of the middle ages were recommended as models, and were so highly praised and admired, the only explanation of their superiority that could be given was that these men believed in that which they depicted, and that, therefore, with their artless conceptions they could accomplish more than the later sceptical artists, notwithstanding that the latter excelled in technical skill. In short, it was claimed that faith worked wonders, and, in truth, how else could the transcendent merits of a Fra Angelico da Fiesole or the poems of Brother Ottfried be explained? Hence the artists who were honest in their devotion to art, and who sought to imitate the pious distortions of those miraculous pictures, the sacred uncouthness of those marvel-abounding poems, and the inexplicable mysticisms of those olden works—these artists determined to wander to the same hippocrene whence the old masters had derived their supernatural inspiration.

They made a pilgrimage to Rome, where the vicegerent of Christ was to re-invigorate consumptive German art with asses’ milk. In brief, they betook themselves to the lap of the Roman-Catholic-Apostolic Church, where alone, according to their doctrine, salvation was to be secured. Many of the adherents of the romantic school—for instance, Joseph Görres and Clemens Brentano—were Catholics by birth, and required no formal ceremony to mark their re-adhesion to the Catholic faith; they merely renounced their former free-thinking views. Others, however, such as Frederic Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, Werner, Schütz, Carove, Adam Müller, etc., were born and bred Protestants, and their conversion to Catholicism required a public ceremony. The above list of names includes only authors; the number of painters, who in swarms simultaneously abjured Protestantism and reason, was much larger.

When it was seen how these young people made obeisance, as it were, to the Roman Catholic Church, and pressed their way into ancient prisons of the mind, from which their fathers had so valiantly liberated themselves, much misgiving was felt in Germany. But when it was discovered that this propaganda was the work of priests and aristocrats, who had conspired against the religious and political liberties of Europe; when it was seen that it was Jesuitism itself which was seeking, with the dulcet tones of Romanticism, to lure the youth of Germany to their ruin, after the manner of the mythical rat-catcher of Hamelin; when all this became known, there was great excitement and indignation in Germany among the friends of Protestantism and intellectual freedom.

I have mentioned intellectual freedom and Protestantism together; although, in Germany, I profess the Protestant religion, yet I trust no one will accuse me of a prejudice in its favour. It is entirely without partiality that I have named Protestantism and free-thought together, for in Germany they really stand on a friendly footing towards one another. At all events they are akin, and that as mother and daughter.

Even if the Protestant Church may be charged with a certain odious narrow-mindedness, yet to its immortal honour be it said, that by allowing the right of free investigation in the Christian religion, and by liberating the minds of men from the yoke of authority, it made it possible for free-thought to strike root in Germany, and for science to develop an independent existence. Although German philosophy now proudly takes its stand by the side of the Protestant Church; yes, even assumes an air of superiority; yet it is only the daughter of the latter, and as such owes her filial respect and consideration; and when threatened by Jesuitism, the common foe of them both, the bonds of kindred demanded that they should combine for mutual defence.

All the friends of intellectual freedom and the Protestant Church, sceptics as well as orthodox, simultaneously arose against the restoration of Catholicism, and, as a matter of course, the Liberals, who were not specially concerned either for the welfare of the Protestant Church or of philosophy, but for the interests of civil liberty, also joined the ranks of this opposition. In Germany, however, the Liberals had always, up to the present time, been students both of philosophy and theology, and the idea of liberty for which they fought was always the same, whether the subject under discussion was exclusively political, philosophical, or theological. This is most clearly manifest in the life of the man, who, at the very outset of the romantic school in Germany, undermined its foundation, and contributed the most to its overthrow. I refer to Johann Heinrich Voss.

To be continued…


Link to Part Four