Heinrich Heine: “The Romantic School…again” Part 6 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 Six

Schiller united himself to the world of reality much more decidedly than did Goethe; and he deserves praise for this. The living spirit of the times thrilled through Frederic Schiller; it wrestled with him; it vanquished him; he followed it to battle; he bore its banner, and, lo! it was the same banner under which the conflict was being enthusiastically waged across the Rhine, and for which we are always ready to shed our heart’s best blood. Schiller wrote for the grand ideas of the Revolution; he razed the bastilles of the intellect; he helped to erect the temple of freedom, that colossal temple which shelters all nations like a single congregation of brothers: in brief, he was a cosmopolitan. He began his career with that hate of the past which we behold in The Robbers. In this work he resembles a diminutive Titan who has run away from school, got tipsy with schnapps, and throws stones at Jupiter’s windows. He ended with that love for the future which already in his Don Carlos blossoms forth like a field of flowers. Schiller is himself that Marquis Posa who is simultaneously prophet and soldier, and battles for that which he foretells. Under that Spanish cloak throbs the noblest heart that ever loved and suffered in Germany.

The poet is, on a small scale, but the imitator of the Creator, and also resembles God in creating his characters after his own image. If, therefore, Carl Moor and the Marquis Posa are wholly Schiller himself, so in like manner does Goethe resemble his Werther, his Wilhelm Meister, and his Faust, in whom the different phases of his intellect can be studied. While Schiller devotes himself to the history of the race, and becomes an enthusiast for the social progress of mankind, Goethe, on the other hand, applies himself to the study of the individual, to nature and to art. The physical sciences must of necessity have finally become a leading branch of study with Goethe, the pantheist, and in his poems, as well as in his scientific works, he gave us the result of his researches.

His indifferentism was to a certain extent the result of his pantheistic views. Alas! we must confess that pantheism has often led men into indifferentism. They reasoned thus: if everything is God; if everything is divine, then it is indifferent whether man occupies himself with clouds or ancient gems; with folk-songs or the anatomy of apes; with real human beings or play-actors. But that is just the mistake. Everything is not God, but God is everything. He does not manifest himself equally in all things, but He shows himself in different degrees according to the various matters.

Everything bears within itself an impulse to strive after a higher degree of divinity, and that is the great law of progress throughout all nature. The recognition of this law, which has been most profoundly revealed by the disciples of St. Simon, now makes pantheism a cosmic, universal theory, which not only does not lead to indifferentism, but, on the contrary, induces the most self-sacrificing endeavours. No, God does not manifest himself in all things equally, as Wolfgang Goethe believed, who through such a belief became an indifferentist, and, instead of devoting himself to the highest interests of humanity, occupied himself with art, anatomy, theories of colour, botanical studies, and observations of the clouds. No, God is manifest in some things to a greater degree than in others. He lives in motion, in action, in time. His holy breath is wafted through the pages of history, which is God’s true book of record. Frederic Schiller felt this, and became an historian, a “prophet of the past,” and wrote the Revolt of the Netherlands, the Thirty Years’ War, the Maid of Orleans, and William Tell.

It is true Goethe also depicted a few of the great struggles of freedom, but he portrayed them as an artist. Christian zeal was odious to him, and he angrily turned from it; and the enthusiasm for philosophy, which is characteristic of our epoch, he either could not understand or purposely avoided understanding, for fear of ruffling his customary tranquillity of mind; so he treated all enthusiasm objectively and historically; as a datum, as a subject to be written about. In his hands the living spirit became dead matter, and he invested it with a lovely and pleasing form. He became thus the greatest artist of our literature, and all that he wrote was a finished work of art.

The example of the master misled the disciples, and there arose in Germany that literary epoch which I once designated as the “art period,” and which, as I then showed, had a most disastrous influence on the political development of the German people. At the same time, I by no means deny the intrinsic worth of the Goethean masterpieces. They adorn our beloved fatherland just as beautiful statues embellish a garden; but they are only statues after all. One may fall in love with them, but they are barren. Goethe’s poems do not, like Schiller’s, beget deeds. Deeds are the offspring of words; but Goethe’s pretty words are childless.

That is the curse of all that which has originated in mere art. The statue which Pygmalion wrought was a beautiful woman, and even the sculptor himself fell in love with her. His kisses warmed her into life, but, so far as we know, she never bore children. I believe a similar idea has been suggested by Charles Nodier, and this thought came into my mind while wandering through the Louvre, as my glance alighted on the statues of the ancient gods. There they stood, with their white, expressionless eyes, a mysterious melancholy in their stony smiles. Perhaps they are haunted by sad memories of Egypt, that land of the dead from which they came; or perhaps it is a mournful longing for the life from which other divinities have expelled them, or a grieving over their immortality of death.

They seem to be awaiting the word that shall liberate them from their cold, motionless rigidity and bring them back to life. How strange that these antique statues should remind me of the Goethean creations, which are likewise so perfect, so beautiful, so motionless, and which also seem oppressed with a dumb grieving that their rigidity and coldness separate them from our present warm, restless life—that they cannot speak and rejoice with us, and that they are not human beings, but unhappy mixtures of divinity and stone.

These few hints will explain the publicly-expressed opposition of the various parties in Germany to Goethe. The orthodox were highly incensed against the great heathen, as Goethe was generally called in Germany; they feared his influence upon the people, whom he indoctrinated with his manner of viewing the world through merry verses, even through the simplest and most unpretentious ballads. They saw in him the most dangerous foe of the Cross, which, as he expressed himself, was as odious to him as vermin, garlic, and tobacco; at least, that is about the purport of the Xenie which Goethe dared to publish in Germany, the very country where vermin, garlic, tobacco, and the Cross form a holy alliance, and are supreme over all. But it was not this that displeased us, the party of action.

As previously stated, we found fault with Goethe for the barrenness of his writings; for the engrossing devotion to art, which through him was diffused over Germany; for his influence in creating among the German youth an apathy which was a hindrance to the political regeneration of our fatherland. Hence the indifferentist and pantheist was assailed from the most diverse sides. To use an illustration from French parliamentary life, the extreme right and the extreme left formed an alliance against him. While the cassocked priests brandished the crucifix over him, furious sans-culottes simultaneously assaulted him with the pike.

Wolfgang Menzel, who had carried on the war against Goethe with a display of talent worthy of a better cause, evinced in his polemics that he was not merely a one-sided spiritualistic Christian, or a discontented patriot; he rather based a portion of his attacks on the latest remark of Frederic Schlegel, who, after his fall, from the recesses of his Catholic cathedral, gave utterance to his woe concerning Goethe; Goethe, “whose poetry lacked a central point.” Menzel went still further, and showed that Goethe was not a man of genius, but only of talent; Schiller, however, was a genius, etc. This was some time before the July Revolution; Menzel was at that time a great admirer of the middle ages, of medieval art as well as of institutions; he was incessantly attacking Johann Heinrich Voss, and praising Joseph Görres with an enthusiasm hitherto unheard of.

These facts prove that Menzel was sincere in his hatred of Goethe, and that he did not write against him merely to make himself conspicuous, as many thought. Although I, myself, was at that time an opponent of Goethe, yet I was displeased at the harshness with which Menzel criticised him, and I complained of this want of respect. I said, Goethe is nevertheless the king of our literature, and in applying the knife of criticism to such a one, it always behoves us to show a proper courtesy, just as the executioner who was to behead Charles I., before performing the duties of his office, knelt before the king and begged his royal forgiveness.

Among the opponents of Goethe was the famous Hofrath Müllner, and his only remaining friend, Professor Schütz. There were several others of less celebrity—Herr Spann, for instance, who had been imprisoned for a long time on account of political offences—belonged to the public adversaries of Goethe. In confidence, dear reader, it was a very motley crowd. The ostensible reasons I have sufficiently indicated, but it is more difficult to guess what special motive influenced each individual to give publicity to his anti-Goethean sentiments. I know the secret motives of only one of these persons, and as that one is myself, I will frankly confess that I was envious of Goethe. To my credit I must say that I assailed in Goethe only the man, never the poet. Unlike those critics who, with their finely-polished glasses, claim to have also detected spots upon the moon, I could never discern blemishes in Goethe’s works. What these sharp-sighted people consider spots are blooming forests, silvery streams, lofty mountains, and smiling valleys.

Nothing is more foolish than to depreciate Goethe in order thereby to exalt Schiller, whom it was always customary to praise in order to disparage Goethe. Do such critics really not know that those highly-extolled, highly-idealised figures, those sacred pictures of virtue and morality which Schiller produced, were much easier to construct than those frail, worldly beings of whom Goethe gives us a glimpse in his works? Do they not know that mediocre painters generally select sacred subjects, which they daub in life-size on the canvas? But it requires a great master to paint with lifelike fidelity and technical perfection a Spanish beggar-boy scratching himself, or a Netherlandish peasant having a tooth extracted, or some hideous old woman such as we see in Dutch cabinet pictures. In art it is much easier to picture large tragic subjects than those which are small and droll.

The Egyptian sorcerers could imitate Moses in many of his tragic feats: they could make serpents, and blood, and frogs; but when Moses created vermin, which would seemingly be less difficult to copy, then they confessed their impotence, and said, “It is the finger of God.” Rail as you will at the coarseness of certain portions of Faust, at the scenes on the Brocken and in Auerbach’s cellar, inveigh against the licentiousness in Wilhelm Meister, it is nevertheless more than you can do; it is the finger of Goethe! But I hear you say, with disgust, “We do not wish to create such things. We are no sorcerers; we are good Christians.” I know quite well that you are no sorcerers.

Goethe’s greatest merit consists in the perfection of all his works. Here are no portions that are strong while others are weak; here no one part is painted in detail while another is merely sketched; here is no confusion, nor any of the customary padding, nor any undue partiality for certain special characters. Goethe treats every person that appears in his romances and dramas as if he or she were the leading character. So it is with Homer, so with Shakespeare. In the works of all great poets there are, in fact, no minor characters at all; every character in its place is the chief personage.

Such poets are absolute monarchs, and resemble the Emperor Paul of Russia, who, when the French ambassador remarked that a man of importance in his empire was interested in a certain matter, sharply interrupted the speaker with the memorable words—”In my empire there is no man of importance except he to whom I may happen to be speaking; and he is of importance only so long as I address him.” An absolute poet, who also holds power by the grace of God, in like manner views that person in his intellectual realm as the most important who at that particular moment is speaking through his pen. From this art-despotism arises that wonderful perfection of the most trivial and unimportant figures which we find in the works of Homer, Shakespeare, and Goethe.

To be continued …

Link to Part Seven