Heinrich Heine: “The Romantic School … again” Part 7 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 Seven … The Romantic School

If I have spoken rather harshly of Goethe’s adversaries, I should have cause to criticise his defenders still more severely, for most of the latter, in their zeal, have been guilty of even greater follies. At the head of those who have made themselves ridiculous in this respect is one by the name of Eckermann, a writer not generally lacking in talent. In the campaign against Pustkuchen, Carl Immermann, who is now our greatest dramatic poet, won his spurs as a critic by publishing an excellent brochure. Berlin chiefly distinguished itself on this occasion. Goethe’s leading champion, at all times, was Varnhagen von Ense, a man whose heart is filled with thoughts grand as the universe, and who expresses them in words as precious and as dainty as cut jewels. He is the noble-minded man in whose judgment Goethe ever placed the most reliance. Perhaps it may be well to mention here that Wilhem von Humboldt once wrote an excellent book concerning Goethe. During the last ten years every Leipsic Fair has brought to light a large number of works on Goethe. Herr Schubart’s studies of Goethe are among the marvels of fine criticism. Herr Hering, whose nom de plume is Willibald Alexis, has written for various periodicals clever and valuable articles on Goethe. Herr Zimmermann, professor at Hamburg, has, in his oral lectures, given some most excellent criticisms of Goethe; in his writings on dramaturgy we find similar thoughts, more briefly expressed, perhaps, but more profound. At various German universities there were courses of lectures on Goethe, and of all his works the public chiefly devoted itself to the study of Faust. It was the theme of endless dissertations and commentaries, and became the secular Bible of the Germans.

I would be no true German if I wrote of Faust without giving expression to some explanatory thoughts concerning it, for from the greatest thinker down to the most insignificant penny-a-liner, from philosophers down to professors of philosophy, everyone tries his wit on this book. It is, in fact, as wide in its compass as the Bible; like the latter, it embraces heaven and earth, mankind and its exegesis. The subject matter of Faust is the chief reason of its popularity, and its selection from among the many folk-legends is a proof of Goethe’s profound judgment and genius, which ever seized on that which was nearest and best. I may assume that the story of Faust is familiar to my readers, for the book has recently become celebrated in France also; but I know not if the original legend itself is known here. I know not if at your annual rustic fairs there is hawked for sale a little book of grey, fleecy paper, badly printed, with rude woodcuts, containing a circumstantial account of how the arch-sorcerer, Johannes Faustus, a learned scholar who had studied all the sciences, finally threw away his books and made a compact with the devil, by which he was enabled to enjoy all the material pleasures of the earth, but in return for which his soul was to be given up to the powers of hell. During the middle ages the populace attributed all extraordinary intellectual powers to a compact with the devil, and Albertus Magnus, Raimond Lullus, Theophrastus Paracelsus, Agrippa von Nettesheim, and Roger Bacon in England, were held to be magicians, sorcerers, and conjurers. But the ballads and romances tell much stranger stories concerning Doctor Faustus, who is reputed to have demanded from the devil not only a knowledge of the profoundest secrets of nature, but also the most realistic physical pleasures. This is the self-same Faust who invented printing, and who lived at a time when people began to inveigh against the strictness of church authority, and to make independent researches. With Faust the medieval epoch of faith ends, and the modern era of critical, scientific investigation begins. It is, in fact, of the greatest significance that Faust should have lived, according to popular tradition, at the very beginning of the Reformation, and that he himself should have invented printing, the art which gave science the victory over faith; an art, however, which has also robbed us of the catholic peace of mind, and plunged us into doubts and revolutions, and had finally delivered us into the power of Satan. But no! knowledge, science, the comprehension of nature through reason, eventually gives us the enjoyments of which faith, that is, Catholic Christianity, has so long defrauded us; we now recognise the truth that mankind is destined to an earthly, as well as to a heavenly equality. The political brotherhood which philosophy inculcates is more beneficial to us than the purely spiritual brotherhood, for which we are indebted to Christianity. The thought becomes transformed into words, the words become deeds, and we may yet be happy during our life on this earth. If in addition to this, we also attain after death that heavenly felicity which Christianity promises so assuredly, so much the better.

The German people had, for a long time, felt a profound presentiment of this, for the Germans themselves are that learned Doctor Faust; they themselves are that spiritualist, who, having at last comprehended the inadequateness of the spiritual life alone, reinstates the flesh in its rights. But still biassed by the symbolism of Catholic poetry, in which God is pictured as the representative of the spirit, and the devil as that of the flesh, the rehabilitation of the flesh was characterised as an apostasy from God, and a compact with the devil.

But some time must yet elapse ere the deeply-significant prophecy of that poem will be fulfilled as regards the German people, and the spirit itself, comprehending the usurpation of spiritualism, become the champion of the rights of the flesh. That will be the Revolution, the great daughter of the Reformation.

Less known in France than Faust is Goethe’s West-Ostlichen Divan, a later work with which Madame de Staël was unacquainted, and which demands especial notice. It reveals the peculiar thoughts and feelings of the Orient in graceful ballads and pithy proverbs, which exhale an atmosphere of fragrance and passion, like a harem of love-sick odalisques, with the dark eyes of gazelles, and amorous white arms. The reader is filled with a mixed sensation of shuddering and desire, like lucky Caspar Debureau, when he stood at the top of a ladder in Constantinople, and beheld de haut en bas what the Commander of the Faithful is wont to see only de bas en haut. At times a feeling steals o’er the reader as if he lay comfortably stretched upon a Persian carpet, smoking a long Turkish pipe, filled with the yellow tobacco of Turkestan, while a negress slave gently waves over him a variegated fan of peacock feathers, and a handsome boy serves a cup of Mocha coffee—the sweetest and most blissful sense of life and its pleasures has Goethe expressed in these verses—in verses so dainty, so felicitous, so airy, so ethereal, that one is lost in astonishment that such things are possible in the German language. In addition to all this, the book contains the most beautiful prose descriptions and explanations of the customs and manners of the Orient, the patriarchal life of the Arabs; and withal Goethe is as easy, merry, and harmless as a child, and yet as full of wisdom as a greybeard. Goethe’s prose in this work is as translucent as the green sea, when, on a bright, calm summer afternoon, we can look far down into the depths below, and catch glimpses of ancient drowned cities, and all their fabulous splendours. Then, at times, that prose is as magical and as mysterious as the firmament, when the darkness of twilight has lifted, and the grand Goethean thoughts appear, pure and golden, like the stars. The charm of this book is indescribable; it is a salaam sent by the Occident to the Orient, and many a quaint and curious flower is gathered there; passionate red roses, snowdrops white as a maiden’s bosom, comical dandelions, purple digitalis like long human fingers, contorted crocuses, and peeping slyly forth, in the midst, modest German violets. The meaning of this salaam is that the Occident, grown weary of its frigid, meagre spiritualism, seeks again to refresh itself amid the wholesome physical pleasures of the Orient. After Goethe had expressed in Faust his aversion to abstract spiritualism, and his desire for realistic enjoyments, in writing the West-Ostlichen Divan he threw himself with his whole soul, as it were, into the arms of sensualism.

Hence it is of the utmost significance that this work appeared soon after Faust. It was the last phase of Goethe’s genius, and his example was of the greatest influence upon literature. The Orient was now the theme of our lyric poets. It may be worthy of mention, that while Goethe so rapturously celebrated Persia and Arabia in his verses, he expressed the most decided aversion to India. The bizarre and confused characteristics of that country were repugnant to him, and perhaps this dislike originated in the suspicion that some Catholic stratagem was at the bottom of the Sanscrit studies of the Schlegels and their friends. These men regarded Hindostan as the cradle of Catholicism; they claimed to have discovered there the model of the Catholic hierarchy, the doctrine of the trinity, of the incarnation, of penance, of atonement, of the maceration of the flesh, and all their other favourite crotchets. Goethe’s antipathy towards India nettled these people not a little, and A. W. Schlegel, with transparent malice, called him “a heathen converted to Mahometanism.”

Amongst the most noteworthy writings on Goethe which have appeared this year is a posthumous work by Johannes Falk, entitled Goethe aus Personlichen Umgange Dargestellt. With the exception of a detailed treatise on Faust, which, of course, must not be omitted, the author of this book has given us most excellent sketches of Goethe; he has depicted him in all the walks of life, naturally, impartially, with all his virtues and all his failings. In this book we behold Goethe in his relations to his mother, whose temperament was so wonderfully reflected in that of her son; we see him as the naturalist, watching a caterpillar developing into a butterfly; we see the great Herder expostulating with him against the indifferentism with which he let the development of humanity itself pass before him, unregarded; we behold him at the court of the Grand Duke of Weimar, seated among the blonde court dames, making merry improvisations, like Apollo guarding the flocks of King Admetus; again we see him, with the haughtiness of a Dalai-Lama, refusing to recognise Kotzebue; then we see the latter giving a public celebration in honour of Schiller, in order thereby to depreciate Goethe; we see him in all things, wise, handsome, amiable, a blessed and inspiring figure, like the eternal gods.

In fact, that harmony of personal appearance with genius, which we demand in eminent men, existed in its fullest degree in Goethe. His outward appearance was as impressive as the thoughts that live in his writings. His figure was symmetrical and majestic, and in that noble form Grecian art might be studied as in an ancient statue. That stately form was never bent in Christian humility; the features of that noble countenance were never distorted with Christian self-reproach; those eyes were never downcast with Christian remorse, nor turned devoutly and tremulously towards heaven. No, his eyes had a godlike steadfastness, for it is in general the distinctive mark of a god, that his look is unmoved. Hence when Agni, Varuna, Yama, and Indra assume the form of Nala at Damayanti’s wedding, the latter recognises her lover by the twitching of his eyes, for, as I have said, the eyes of a god are always steadfast and unmoved.

Napoleon’s eyes possessed this peculiarity, and hence I am convinced that he also was a god. Goethe’s eyes, even at an advanced age, remained just as godlike as in his youth, and although time could whiten, it could not bow that noble head. He always bore himself proudly and majestically, and when he spoke he seemed to grow statelier still, and when he stretched out his hand it seemed as though he could prescribe to the stars the paths they should traverse. It is said that a cold, egotistic twitching might be observed around the corners of his mouth. But this trait is also peculiar to the eternal gods, and especially to the father of gods, great Jupiter, to whom I have already likened Goethe. When I visited him at Weimar I involuntarily glanced around to see if I might not behold at his side the eagle with the thunderbolt in its beak. I was about to address him in Greek, but, as I noticed that he understood German, I told him in the latter language that the plums along the roadside from Jena to Weimar were excellent. Many a long winter’s night I had pondered on the exalted and profound remarks I should make to Goethe if I should ever see him. And now that I did at last see him face to face, I told him that the plums of Saxony were delicious. And Goethe smiled. He smiled with the same lips with which he had once kissed the beautiful Leda, Europa, Danae, Semele, and many another princess or ordinary nymph.

To be continued …

Link to Part Eight