Heinrich Heine: “The Romantic School … again” Part 5 of 9

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

Part Five … The Romantic School

While the romantic school was severely damaged in public opinion by the discovery of its Catholic tendencies, about the same time it received an utterly crushing blow in its own temple, and that, too, from one of those gods whom itself had enshrined there. For it was Wolfgang Goethe who descended from his pedestal to pronounce the doom of the Schlegels, the same high-priests who had offered him so much incense. That voice annihilated the whole pack of hobgoblins; the spectres of the middle ages fled; the owls crept again into their obscure castle-ruins, and the ravens fluttered back to their old church-steeples. Frederic Schlegel went to Vienna, where he attended mass daily and ate broiled fowl; A. W. Schlegel withdrew into the pagoda of Brahma.

Frankly confessed, Goethe at that time played a very ambiguous rule, and cannot be unconditionally praised. It is true, the Schlegels never were sincere with him; perhaps they built him an altar, and offered him incense, and taught the multitude to kneel before him, only because, in their warfare against the old school, they needed a living poet to set up as a model, and found none more suited for their purpose than Goethe; and, perhaps, also, because they expected some literary favours from him. Moreover, he was at such an easy distance from them. The road from Jena to Weimar leads through an avenue of fine plum trees, and the luscious fruit is very acceptable to the wayfarer when parched with the summer heat.

The Schlegels often travelled this road, and in Weimar they had many an interview with Herr Geheimrath von Goethe, who was always a finished diplomat. He listened quietly to what the Schlegels had to say, smiled approvingly, occasionally dined them, showed them various favours, etc. They also approached Schiller, but the latter was an honest, straight-forward man, and would have nothing to do with them. The correspondence between Schiller and Goethe, which was published three years ago, throws considerable light on the relations between these two poets and the Schlegels. Goethe, haughtily and contemptuously, mocks at them; Schiller is angry at their impertinent scandal-mongering, and at their passion for notoriety, and he calls them “puppies.”

But although Goethe assumed such haughty airs towards them, it is nevertheless true that he was indebted to the Schlegels for the greater portion of his fame, for it was they who introduced and promoted the study of his writings. The contemptuous and insulting manner with which he eventually cast them off has a very strong flavour of ingratitude. Perhaps Goethe, with his clear insight, was vexed that the Schlegels should seek to use him as an instrument to accomplish their projects. Perhaps those projects threatened to compromise him as the minister of a Protestant state. Perhaps it was the ancient pagan godlike wrath that awoke in him at sight of the mouldy Catholic follies.

For as Voss resembled the stalwart one-eyed Odin, so did Goethe, in form and figure, resemble great Jupiter. The former was compelled to pound long and vigorously with his Thor’s hammer; the latter needed but angrily to shake his majestic head, with its ambrosial locks, and the Schlegels trembled and crept out of sight. A public statement of Goethe’s opposition to the romantic school appeared in his journal, Kunst und Alterthum, and bore the title, Concerning the Christian-Patriotic-New-German School of Art.

With this article Goethe made his eighteenth brumaire in German literature, for by chasing the Schlegels so summarily out of the temple, and attaching to himself so many of their young and zealous disciples, and being hailed with acclamations by the public, to whom the Schlegelian directory had long been obnoxious, he established his autocratic sovereignty in German literature. From that hour nothing more was heard of the Schlegels. Only now and then their names were mentioned, just as one sometimes casually speaks of Barras or of Gohier. Neither romantic nor classic poetry was henceforth spoken of; everywhere it was nothing but Goethe.

It is true that several other poets arose in the meantime, who, in power and imagination, were but little inferior to Goethe. But out of courtesy they acknowledged him as their chief; they paid homage to him, they kissed his hand, they knelt before him. These grandees of Parnassus differed from the common multitude in being permitted to wear their laurel-wreaths in Goethe’s presence. Sometimes they even attacked him; but they were always vexed when one of the lesser ones ventured to assail him. No matter how angry aristocrats are with their sovereign, they are always displeased when plebeians also dare to revolt. And, in truth, the aristocrats of intellect had, during the last twenty years, very good reasons to be irritated against Goethe. As I myself unreservedly remarked at the time, not without bitterness, “Goethe resembled Louis XI. of France, who abased the powerful nobility and exalted the tiers etat.”

That was despicable. Goethe feared every writer of independence and originality, but glorified and praised all the petty authorlings. He carried this so far, that to be praised by Goethe came at last to be considered a brevet of mediocrity.

Later I shall speak of the new poets who grew up during the Goethean imperialism. They constitute a forest of young trees, whose true magnitude has become perceptible only since the fall of that century-old oak by whose branches they had been so completely overtopped and overshadowed. As already stated, there was not lacking a bitter and zealous opposition against Goethe, that giant oak. Men of the most diverse opinions were banded together in this opposition. The orthodox were vexed that in the trunk of this great tree there was no niche provided for the statuettes of the saints, but that, on the contrary, even the nude dryads of heathendom were permitted to carry on their witchery beneath it.

The pietists would gladly have imitated Saint Boniface, and with consecrated axe have felled this magic oak. The liberals, on the other hand, were indignant that they could not use it as a liberty tree and as a barricade. But, in truth, the tree was too lofty to have a red cap placed on its top, or a carmagnole danced beneath it. But the public at large honoured it just because it was so stately and independent; because it filled the whole world with its delicious fragrance; because its branches towered majestically to the heavens, so that the stars seemed to be merely the golden fruit of the great and wonderful tree.

It is true, the opposition against Goethe began with the appearance of the so-called pseudo Wanderjahre, which was published by Gottfried Basse of Quedlinburg, under the title of Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre, in 1821; that is, soon after the downfall of the Schlegels. Goethe had announced a sequel to his Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre, under this title, and very strangely it appeared simultaneously with its literary double, in which not only was Goethe’s style imitated, but the hero of Goethe’s original novel was represented as the leading personage.

This parody evinced much talent, and still greater tact, for as the author managed to maintain his anonymity for a considerable period, baffling all endeavours to discover his personality, public interest was artificially stimulated. Finally it transpired that the author was a hitherto unknown village parson, by the name of Pustkuchen, which translated into French would be omelette soufflé, a name which aptly describes the very essence of his book. It was nothing else than the old, stale, sour dough of the pietists, aesthetically kneaded over. In this book it was cast up to Goethe, as a reproach, that his poems had no moral aim; that he could create no lofty characters, but only low, vulgar creatures; that Schiller, on the contrary, had produced the most ideal and exalted conceptions, and that therefore the latter was a greater poet.

That Schiller was a greater poet than Goethe was the special point which Pustkuchen’s book sought to establish, and for which it was written. It became the fashion to institute comparisons between the writings of the two poets, and the public divided into partisan camps. The admirers of Schiller enthusiastically praised the purity and nobility of a Max Piccolomini, of a Thekla, of Posa, and other of Schiller’s dramatic heroes; on the other hand, they stigmatised Goethe’s Philine, Kathchen, Clarchen, and the like pretty creatures, as immoral jades.

Goethe’s adherents would smilingly admit that neither Goethe’s heroes nor his heroines could be called moral, but they claimed that the promotion of morality in nowise came within the province of art. In art, asserted they, as in the universe itself, there is no ulterior purpose; it is only man who introduces the conceptions of end and means. Art, like the universe, said they, exists for itself alone. Although the opinions of mankind concerning the universe are continually changing, the universe itself remains ever the same; so also must art remain uninfluenced by the temporary views of mankind.

Art must be kept especially independent of systems of morality, for these change on earth as often as a new religion arises, and supersedes an older faith. In fact, as after the lapse of a number of centuries a new religion always makes its appearance, influences the customs, and thus makes itself felt as a new system of morality, so in every period the art works of the past would be branded as heretical and immoral, were they to be judged by the temporary standard of morality. We have, in truth, lived to see good Christians, who condemn the flesh as of Satan, experience a feeling of anger at sight of the Greek mythological statues.

Chaste monks have put an apron on the antique Venus; the ridiculous custom of bestowing a fig leaf on nude figures has continued even up to the present. A pious Quaker went so far as to sacrifice his whole fortune in buying up and burning Giulo Romano’s most beautiful mythological paintings; truly he deserves for his pains to reach heaven, and there to be flogged daily. A religion which should recognise God in matter only, and should regard the flesh only as divine, would, when it had impressed itself upon the customs of men, give rise to a system of morality, according to which those works of art which glorify the flesh would be alone deemed worthy of praise; and on the contrary, those Christian art works which depict the nothingness of the flesh would be considered as immoral.

The works of art which are accepted as moral in one land would be considered immoral in another country, where a different religion had generated different customs. Thus, our pictorial arts awaken the disgust of a strict Mahometan, while much that in the harems of the Orient is regarded as quite innocent would be an abomination in the eyes of Christians. In India the occupation of a Bayadere is not regarded as dishonourable; hence, the drama of “Vasantasena,” the heroine of which is a courtesan, is there not at all considered immoral. If, however, the Theatre Francais ventured to produce this play, the whole pit would raise the cry of “immorality”—the same pit that witnesses with delight plays whose plots are amorous intrigues, and whose heroines are young widows who remarry at the end of the play, instead of having themselves burned to death on their deceased husband’s funeral pyre, as required by Hindu morality.

Starting with this idea, the Goetheans viewed art as a separate, independent world, which they would rank so high, that all the changing and changeable doings of mankind, their religions and systems of morality, should surge far below it. I cannot unconditionally endorse this view; but the Goetheans were led so far astray by it as to proclaim art in and of itself as the highest good. Thus they were induced to hold themselves aloof from the claims of the world of reality, which, after all, is entitled to precedence.

To be continued ….

Link to Part Six