Heinrich Heine: “The Romantic School … again” Part 8 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 Eight — The Romantic School

Les Dieux s’en vont. Goethe is dead. He died on March 22nd, last year, that memorable year in which the world lost its greatest celebrities. It is as if death had become suddenly aristocratic, and sought to designate particularly the great ones of this earth by sending them contemporaneously to the grave. Perhaps death wished to found a pairie in the shadowy realms of Hades, in which case its fournae were well chosen. Or, perhaps, on the contrary, death sought during the past year to favour democracy by destroying these great celebrities, and their authority over the minds of men, and thus to bring about an intellectual equality. Was it out of respect or from irreverence that death spared the crowned heads during the past year? In a fit of abstraction death did raise his scythe over the King of Spain, but he recollected himself in time, and spared his life. During the past twelve months not a single king has died. Les Dieux s’en vont—but the kings are still with us.

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Schelling’s influence on the romantic school was chiefly of a personal nature, but in addition to this, by the philosophy of nature which came into vogue through him, the poets have elevated themselves to much more profound conceptions of nature. One portion let themselves be absorbed with all their human emotions into nature; others remembered a few magic formulas, with which to conjure out of nature something that possessed human form and speech. The former were the genuine mystics, and resembled in many respects the devotees of India, who dissolve in nature, and at last begin to feel as if they and nature were one. The latter were rather sorcerers, who by their own will summoned forth even hostile spirits; they resembled those Arabian magicians, who, at their caprice, could endow stones with life, and turn living beings into stone.

Novalis belonged to the first class, Hoffman to the latter. Novalis saw marvels in everything, and charming marvels they were. He listened to the language of the plants, he knew the secret of every young rose, finally he identified himself with all nature, and when autumn came and the leaves began to fall, then he died. Hoffman, on the contrary, saw spectres in everything; they nodded to him from every Chinese tea-pot, and from under each Berlin periwig. He was a sorcerer who transformed human beings into beasts, and beasts into human beings, even into royal Prussian court-counsellors. He would raise the dead from their graves, but life itself turned away from him, as from some gloomy spectre. He realised this; he felt that he himself had become a ghost. All nature was to him an imperfect mirror, in which he saw, distorted in a thousand ways, the cast of his own dead face; and his works are naught else than a horrible shriek of terror in twenty volumes.

Hoffman does not belong to the romantic school. He did not come into contact with the Schlegels, and was in no way affected by their tendencies. I only mention him in contrast to Novalis, who was peculiarly a poet of that school. Novalis is less known here than Hoffman, who has been introduced to the French public by Loeve-Veimars in a very attractive form, and thus has acquired a great reputation in France. In Germany, Hoffman is by no means en vogue, but he was so formerly. In their time his works were much read, but only by persons whose nerves were either too strong or too weak to be affected by less violent accords. The minds that were really intellectual, and the natures that were truly poetical, would have nothing to do with him.

Such as these much preferred Novalis. But frankly confessed, Hoffman was a much greater poet than Novalis, for the latter with his idealistic pictures ever floats in the blue skies; while Hoffman, notwithstanding all his grotesque bogies, still clings fast to earthly realities. Just as the giant Anteus remained strong and invincible so long as his feet rested on mother earth, and lost his strength the moment Hercules held him aloft; so also the poet is strong and mighty as long as he does not forsake the terra firma of reality, but becomes powerless as soon as he attempts to float enraptured in the blue ether.

The great resemblance between these two poets lies in the fact that their poetry was really a disease. It has been said that it does not come within the province of the critic, but of the physician, to pass judgment on their writings. The rosy glow in Novalis’s poems is not the hue of health, but the hectic flush of consumption; and the brilliant light in Hoffman’s fantastic conceptions is not the flame of genius, but of fever.

But have we a right thus to criticise—we, who are ourselves not blest with robust health? and especially now, when all literature appears like one vast hospital? or is poetry, perhaps, a disease of humanity, as the pearl is the morbid matter of the diseased oyster?

Novalis was born May 2nd, 1772. His real name was Hardenberg. He loved a young lady who was afflicted with consumption, and died of that dread disease. This sad experience left its impress upon all his writings. His life was but a dreamy, lingering death, and he also died of consumption in 1801, before he had completed his twenty-ninth year, or his romance. This romance, in its present shape, is only the fragment of a great allegorical poem, which, like the divine comedy of Dante, was to embrace all earthly and celestial matters. Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the celebrated poet, is the hero of this romance.

We see him as a youth in Eisenach, the pretty little village which lies at the foot of the ancient Wartburg, which has been the scene of some of the greatest, as well as some of the most stupid, deeds; for here Luther translated his Bible, and here, also, a few silly Teuto-maniacs burned Kamptz’s Gendarmerie-Codex. At this burg was held the famous tournament of minstrelsy, at which, among other poets, Heinrich von Ofterdingen met Klingsohr of Hungary in the perilous duel of poetry, an account of which has been handed down to us in the Manessa collection. The head of the vanquished was to be forfeited to the executioner, and the Landgraf of Thuringia was the judge. Wartburg, the scene of his later glory, towers ominously over the hero’s cradle, and we behold him, in the beginning of Novalis’s romance, under the paternal roof at Eisenach. “The parents are abed and asleep, the old clock on the wall keeps up its monotonous ticking, the wind howls and the windows rattle; ever and anon the room is lit up by fitful glimpses of the moon.

“The youth lay tossing restlessly on his couch, thinking of the stranger and his narratives. ‘It is not the treasures that have awakened within me such an unspeakable longing,’ said he to himself; ‘far from me is all avarice; but I yearn to behold the blue flower. It is always in my thoughts, and of nought else can I think or muse. I never felt so strangely before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if in my sleep I had passed into another world; for in the world in which I formerly dwelt, who would there have concerned themselves about flowers? And so strange a passion for a flower, I never heard of there.'”

These are the opening words of Heinrich von Ofterdingen, and the whole romance is full of the fragrance and the radiance of the blue flower. It is remarkable and significant that the most fabulous personages in this book seem as well known to us, as though in earlier times we had lived in friendly, confidential intercourse with them. Old memories awaken, Sophia’s features are so familiar, and memory brings back long avenues of beech trees, the scene of so many promenades and tender caresses. But all this lies dimly back of us, like some half-forgotten dream.

The muse of Novalis was a fair and slender maiden, with earnest blue eyes, golden hyacinthine tresses, smiling lips, and a small mole on the left side of the chin, for I imagine his muse to be the self-same maid through whom I first became acquainted with his works, as I saw the red morocco-bound, gilt-edged volume, containing Heinrich von Ofterdingen, in her dainty fingers. She always dressed in blue, and her name was Sophia. She lived a few stations from Göttingen with her sister, the postmistress—a merry, buxom, ruddy-cheeked dame, whose full bust, surmounted with stiff white lace, resembled a fortress.

This fortress, however, was impregnable; the good dame was a very Gibraltar of virtue. She was an industrious, practical housewife, and yet her only pleasure consisted in reading Hoffman’s romances. Hoffman was just the writer who could agitate her coarse-grained nature and awaken pleasant emotions. But her pale, delicate sister was disagreeably affected at the mere sight of one of Hoffman’s books, and if she accidentally laid hands on one, she shrank from the touch. She was as delicate as a sensitive plant, and her words were so fragrant and melodious, that, taken together, they were poetry. I have written down some of her sayings, and they are poems wholly after the manner of Novalis, only more tuneful and ethereal.

One of them, which she recited to me as I bade her farewell ere setting out on my travels to Italy, is an especial favourite of mine. The time is autumn; the scene, a garden wherein there had been an illumination, and we hear the conversation between the last glimmering taper, the last rose, and a wild swan. The morning mists approach, the solitary light flickers and dies out, the rose leaves fall, and the swan unfolds its white wings and flies away to the south.

For Hanover abounds with wild swans that seek the warm south in autumn, and return again in summer. They probably spend the winter in Africa, for in the breast of a dead swan an arrow was once found, which Professor Blumenbach recognised as of African origin. The poor bird, with the arrow in its breast, had returned to its northern nest to die. But many a swan, when pierced by such an arrow, may not have the strength for such a journey, and is left helpless in the burning deserts, or with wearied pinions is perched on some Egyptian pyramid, gazing with longing eyes towards the north, towards the cool summer home in Hanover.

Late in the autumn of 1828, as I returned from the south, also with a burning arrow in my heart, my route led through the vicinity of Göttingen, and I stopped over at the dwelling-place of my old friend, the postmistress, in order to change horses. A long time had elapsed since I last saw her, and a woeful change had taken place in the good dame. Her buxom form still resembled a fortress,—but a ruined and dismantled fortress. The bastions were razed, no sentinels were on guard, and her heart, the citadel, was broken. The postillion, Pieper, informed me that she had even lost her relish for Hoffman’s novels, but, as a substitute, she indulged all the more freely in brandy at bedtime. The latter is a much simpler plan, for the brandy is always at hand, whereas the novels must be procured at the Deurlich circulating library at Göttingen, at some hours’ distance.

Postillion Pieper was quite diminutive, and looked as sour as if the contraction in his size was the result of drinking vinegar. When I asked the fellow concerning the postmistress’s sister, he answered, “She will soon die; she is already an angel,” How good a being must she have been to draw from such a churlish person the remark, “She is an angel.” While saying this, he was driving off the fluttering, cackling poultry, by kicking at them with his high top-boots. The house, once so white and cheerful, had changed for the worse, like its mistress; its colour was now a sickly yellow, and the walls were wrinkled with fissures. In the court-yard lay broken vehicles, and a postillion’s scarlet mantle, soaking wet, was hanging on a post to dry. Mademoiselle Sophia stood by the window, reading, and when I approached her, I found it was a gilt-edged volume, bound in red morocco; it was Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen.

She had read and re-read this book, until its pages had inoculated her with consumption, and now she looked like a luminous shadow. But her beauty was now so ethereal, that the sight of it touched me most painfully. I took both of her pale, thin hands in mine, and looked steadily into her blue eyes, and then I asked, “Mademoiselle Sophia, how are you?” “I am well,” she answered, “and I shall soon be still better!” Then she pointed out of the window to a little hillock, in the new churchyard, not far from the house. On this barren mound stood a small, thin, solitary poplar, almost leafless, and it swayed to and fro in the autumn winds, not like a living plant, but like the ghost of a tree.

Mademoiselle Sophia now lies under that poplar, and the gilt-edged, red morocco volume, Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which she left me as a souvenir, lies on the desk before me as I write. I have used it in the composition of this chapter.

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Jean Paul Richter anticipated the Young Germany school in its most marked tendency. The latter, however, occupied with practical questions, avoided the abstract intricacies, the abrupt mannerisms, and the unenjoyable style of Jean Paul Richter. No Frenchman with a clear, well-regulated mind can form a conception of that peculiar style. Jean Paul’s style is a structure consisting entirely of very small compartments, which are sometimes so narrow that when one thought encounters another, their heads collide and bruise each other. From the ceiling are suspended hooks, on which Jean Paul hangs all sorts of ideas, and the walls are full of secret drawers, in which he conceals emotions.

No German author is so rich as Jean Paul in ideas and in emotions; but he never permits them to ripen; and, notwithstanding his wealth of mind and heart, he excites more astonishment than pleasure. Thoughts and sentiments which would grow into colossal trees, if permitted to strike root properly and develop all their branches, blossoms, and leaves—these he uproots while they are still insignificant shrubs, mere sprouts even; and whole intellectual forests are thus served up to us as an ordinary dish. Now, although curious, this is decidedly unpalatable fare, for not every stomach can digest such a mess of young oaks, cedars, palms, and banana trees. Jean Paul is a great poet and philosopher; but no one can be more inartistic than he in his modes of thought and work, In his romances he has brought to light some truly poetical creations, but all his offspring carry with them a long umbilical cord in which they become entangled and choke.

Instead of thought he gives us his thinking itself. We see the material activity of his brain; he gives us, as it were, more brain than thought, and meanwhile the flashes of his wit skip about, like the fleas of his heated imagination. He is the merriest, and, at the same time, the most sentimental of authors. In fact, sentimentality always finally overcomes him, and his laughter abruptly turns into tears. He sometimes disguises himself as a gross, beggarly fellow; but then, like stage princes, he suddenly unbuttons the coarse overcoat and reveals the glittering insignia of his rank.

In this respect Jean Paul resembles Laurence Sterne, with whom he has been often compared. The author of Tristram Shandy, when apparently sunk in the most vulgar trivialities, possesses the art of rising by sudden transitions to the sublime, reminding us that he is of princely rank and the countryman of Shakespeare. Jean Paul, like Laurence Sterne, reveals in his writings his own personality, and lays bare his own human frailties; but yet with a certain awkward bashfulness, especially in sexual matters. Laurence Sterne parades before the public entirely unrobed, quite naked; but Jean Paul has only holes in his trousers.

A few critics erroneously believe that Jean Paul possessed more true feeling than Sterne, because the latter, whenever the subject under treatment reaches a tragic elevation, suddenly assumes a merry, jesting tone. Jean Paul, on the contrary, if the subject verges in the least towards the serious, gradually becomes lachrymose, and composedly lets his tears trickle. Sterne probably felt more deeply than Jean Paul, for he is a greater poet. Laurence Sterne, like Shakespeare, was fostered by the muses on Parnassus. After the manner of women, they early spoiled him with their caresses. He was the special pet of the pale Goddess of Tragedy.

Once, in a paroxysm of fierce tenderness, she kissed him so passionately, with such fervour, with so ardent a pressure of her lips, that his young heart began to bleed, and at once understood all earthly sorrows, and was filled with a boundless compassion. Poor young poet-heart! But the younger sister, the rosy Goddess of Mirth, sprang quickly to his side, took the suffering lad into her arms, and sought to cheer him with song and merriment. She gave him as playthings the mask of comedy and the jingling bells, and pressed a soothing kiss upon his lips; and with that kiss she imbued him with all her levity, all her frolicsome mirth, all her sportive wit.

And since then Sterne’s heart and Sterne’s lips have drifted into a strange contradiction. Sometimes, when his soul is most deeply agitated with tragic emotion, and he seeks to give utterance to the profound sorrows of his bleeding heart, then, to his own astonishment, the merriest, most mirth-provoking words will flutter from his lips.

To be continued …

Link to Part Nine