Lord Francis Leveson Gower: Lessing’s Faust
In my own modest fashion I collect antique books … my particular passion always the earliest translations of Goethe’s Faust.
My first acquisition? A copy of what was thought to be the first translation of Goethe’s Masterwork … which made its slow way to me from the German Lands many years ago. Even then, it was a tattered volume … brown and drab and appearing terribly disheveled with age … but to me, nothing could have been more grand! For it was my first truly antique book. And even now, wrapped carefully in scarlet silk and secured with a golden cord, this raggedy relic retains pride of place on my shelf … and in my heart.
Yet contained within was not only an eager young man’s exercise in translation … his effort to honor an author he most admired … but also English interpretations of a few other German poets as well. It is those other fragments I wish to share with you now. But first … a word about an enthusiast of German literature … turned translator … who became a Statesman.
“Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere (1800-1857) was known by his patronymic as Lord Francis Leveson-Gower until 1833, when he assumed, by Royal License, the surname of Egerton, having succeeded on the death of his father to the estates which the latter inherited from the Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater. Educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford, he entered Parliament soon after attaining his majority as member for the pocket borough of Bletchingly in Surrey. He afterwards sat for Sutherland and for South Lancashire, which he represented when he was elevated to the peerage as Viscount Brackley, of Brackley in the County of Northampton, and Earl of Ellesmere in 1846.
In politics he was a moderate Conservative of independent views, as was shown by his supporting the proposal for establishing the University of London, by his making and carrying a motion for the endowment of the Roman Catholic clergy in Ireland, and by his advocating free trade long before Sir Robert Peel yielded on the question. Appointed a Lord of the Treasury in 1827, he held the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1828 till July 1830, when he became Secretary of War for a short time.
His claims to remembrance are founded chiefly on, his services to literature and the fine arts. Before he was twenty he printed for private circulation a volume of poems, which he followed up after a short interval by the publication of a translation of Goethe’s Faust, one of the earliest that appeared in England, with some translations of German lyrics and a few original poems. In 1839 he visited the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. His impressions of travel were recorded in his very agreeably written Mediterranean Sketches (1843), and in the notes to a poem entitled The Pilgrimage. He published several other works in prose and verse, all displaying a fine literary taste. His literary reputation secured for him the position of rector of the University of Aberdeen in 1841.
Lord Ellesmere was a munificent and yet discriminating patron of artists. To the splendid collection of pictures which he inherited from his great-uncle, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, he made numerous additions, and he built a noble gallery to which the public were allowed free access. Lord Ellesmere served as president of the Royal Geographical Society and as president of the Royal Asiatic Society, and he was a trustee of the National Gallery. Ellesmere Island was named after him.” And now from 1823 ...
Satan (to a Spirit)
Speak then the first. Relate what thou hast performed.
Satan! I saw a cloud in the heavens; it carried destruction in its womb. I swooped upon it; hid myself in its deepest darkness, and guided its course; and stayed it over the hut of a poor and virtuous man, who was sinking into his first slumber in the arms of his wife. Here I rent the cloud, and shook out its fire in flakes upon the hut, and all that the wretches possessed was its prey. Satan, this was all I could. For himself, his weeping children, his wife, these the angel of the Lord bore out of the flame; and, as I saw him, I fled.
Coward and fool! and thou sayest it was the hut of a poor, of a virtuous man?
Even so, Satan. Now is he naked, and bare, and lost.
For us; yes, that is he, and forever! Take from the rich his treasure, that he may despair; shake it out on the hearth of the poor; that it may lead his heart astray; thus we win a double prize! To make poorer him who is already poor binds him still faster to his God. Speak, thou second spirit! tell me a better tale.
Satan, I can! I sent over the sea, and I sought me out a storm which I might destroy; and I found one. As I swept right on the shore, I looked down and saw a fleet, and there were traders on board, usurers and defrauders. Their yells and curses reached my ear: down I plunged with my whirlwind into the abyss, and up again I shot on the foam towards Heaven.
And drownest them?
So that none escaped. Their souls are now thine!
Traitor! they were so before. Had they lived, they would have inflicted heavier curses and destruction on the earth; would have robbed, and murdered, and violated on other coasts; would have transported, from clime to clime, new temptation to sin. And all this is now lost. Oh! you should be sent back to hell! You do but disturb my government — Speak, thou, the third. Hast thou to do with storms and whirlwinds?
The third Spirit narrates that he has snatched from the lips of a sleeping girl the first kiss had ever been printed on them, and thrown the first shade of pollution over the purity of her mind.
‘Tis well; there is forethought and speculation in thy deed. Poor spirits! who breathe corruption on material substance: this one does better, he corrupts the soul. Say on, thou fourth! what hast thou performed?
Satan, nothing! But I have conceived a stratagem which, could it be realized in deed, would cause all other deeds to shrink in comparison.
What is it?
To rob the Deity of his favourite: a thoughtful, solitary youth, totally given up to the search after wisdom; breathing and feeling alone for this; renouncing every passion but this one for wisdom; dangerous to you and to all of us, should he once become a teacher of the people — to gain him from Heaven, Satan …
Excellent! admirable! and your plan?
See, I gnash my teeth! I have no plan! I have slunk about his soul on every side; but I found no single weakness on which to fix my hold.
Fool! has he not desire of knowledge?
More than any mortal beside.
Then leave him to me; that is enough for his perdition.
With these words, Satan concludes the scene; but, as the infernal ministers depart, the voice of the Angel of Prescience, der ursehung, is heard from above —
Ye shall not prevail!
Faust himself is thrown, by angelic agency, into a deep slumber, and a phantom is put in his place, on which the devil exercises his ingenuity in vain. Faust sees, in a dream, the progress of these temptations, and wakes more confirmed in virtue than ever.