Madame de Staël: Goethe’s Faust 3
Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. II, 203-212. All illustrations by Eugene Delacroix.
“She is not the first!”
The history of Margaret is oppressively painful to the heart. Her low condition, her confined intellect, all that renders her subject to misfortune, without giving her the power of resisting it, inspires us with the greater compassion for her. Goethe, in his novels and in his plays, has scarcely ever bestowed any superior excellence upon his female personages, but he describes with wonderful exactness that character of weakness which renders protection so necessary to them.
Margaret is about to receive Faustus in her house without her mother’s knowledge, and gives this poor woman, by the advice of Mephistopheles, a sleeping draught which she is unable to support, and which causes her death. The guilty Margaret becomes pregnant, her shame is made public, all her neighbours point the finger at her. Disgrace seems to have greater hold upon persons of an elevated rank, and yet it is perhaps more formidable among the lower class. Everything is so plain, so positive, so irreparable, among men who never upon any occasion made use of shades of expression.
Goethe admirably catches those manners. At once so near and so distant from us, he possesses in a supreme degree the art of being perfectly natural in a thousand different natures.
Valentine, a soldier, the brother of Margaret, returns from the wars to visit her, and when he learns her shame, the suffering which he feels, and for which he blushes, betrays itself in language at once harsh and pathetic. A man severe in appearance, yet inwardly endowed with sensibility, causes an unexpected and poignant emotion.
Goethe has painted with admirable truth the courage which a soldier is capable of exerting against moral pain, that new enemy which he perceives within himself, and which he cannot combat with his usual weapons. At last, the necessity of revenge takes possession of him, and brings into action all the feelings by which he was inwardly devoured. He meets Mephistopheles and Faustus at the moment when they are going to give a serenade under his sister’s window. Valentine provokes Faustus, fights with him, and receives a mortal wound. His adversaries fly to avoid the fury of the populace.
Margaret arrives, and asks who lies bleeding upon the earth. The people answer the son of thy mother. And her brother dying addresses to her reproaches more terrible, and more harrowing, than most polished language could ever make use of. The dignity of tragedy could never permit us to dig so deeply into the human heart for the characters of nature.
Mephistopheles obliges Faustus to leave the town, and the despair excited in him by the fate of Margaret creates a new interest in his favor.
“Alas!” he exclaims, “she might so easily have been made happy! a simple cabin in an alpine valley, a few domestic employments, would have been enough to satisfy her limited wishes, and fill up her gentle existence; but I, the enemy of God, could not rest till I had broken her heart, and triumphed in the ruin of her humble destiny. Through me, will peace be for ever ravished from her. She must become the victim of hell. Well! Demon, cut short my anguish, let what must come, come quickly! Be the fate of unhappy creature fulfilled, and cast me headlong, together with her, into the abyss.”
The bitterness and sang-froid of the answer of Mephistopheles are truly diabolical.
“How you enflame yourself,” he says to him, “how you boil!
I know not how to console thee,
and upon my honour
I would now give myself to the Devil if I were not the Devil myself;
but thinkest thou, then, madman,
that because thy weak brain can find no issue,
there is none in reality?
Long live he who knows how to support all things with courage!
I have rendered thee not much unlike myself,
and reflect, I beseech thee,
that there is nothing in the world more disgusting,
than a devil who despairs!”
Margaret goes alone to the church, the only asylum that remains to her: An immense crowd fills the aisles, and the burial service is being performed in this solemn place. Margaret is covered with a veil; she prays fervently; and when she begins to flatter herself with hopes of divine mercy, the evil spirit speaks to her in a low voice, saying,
“Dost thou remember, Margaret, the time when thou came hither to prostrate thyself before the altar? Then wert thou full of innocence, and while thy timid voice lisped the psalms, God reigned in thy heart. Margaret, what hast thou since done? What crimes hast thou committed? Dost thou come to pray for the soul of thy mother, whose death hangs so heavily upon thy head! Dost thou see what blood is that which defiles thy threshold? It is thy brother’s blood. And dost thou not feel stirring in thy womb an unfortunate creature that already forewarns thee of new sufferings?”
Margaret: “Woe! Woe! How can I escape from the thoughts that spring up in my soul and rise in rebellion against me?”
The Choir: (chanting in the church)
Dies irae, dies illa, Solvet saeclum in favilla.
*(The day of wrath will come, and the universe will be reduced to ashes.)
The Evil Spirit: “The anger of Heaven threatens thee, Margaret! The trumpets of the resurrection are sounded; the tombs are shaken, and thy heart is about to awake to eternal flames.”
Margaret: “Ah, that I could fly hence! the sounds of that organ prevent me from breathing, and the chants of the priests penetrate my soul with an emotion that rends it.”
Judex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet apparebit;
Nil inultum remanebit.
*(When the supreme judge appears, he will discover all that is hidden, and nothing shall remain unpunished.)
Margaret: “It seems as if the walls were closing together to stifle me. Air! Air!”
The Evil Spirit: “Hide thyself! Guilt and shame pursue thee. Thou callest for air and for light; miserable wretch! what hast thou to hope from them?”
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus?
Cum vix justus sit securus?*
*(Miserable wretch! What then shall I say? to what protector shall I address myself, when even the just can scarcely believe themselves saved?)
The Evil Spirit: “The saints turn away their faces from thy presence; they would blush to stretch forth their pure hands toward thee.”
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Margaret, at this discourse, utters a shriek and faints away.
What a scene! this unfortunate creature who, in the asylum of consolation finds despair; this assembled multiple praying to God with confidence, while the unhappy woman, in the very temple of the Lord, meets the spirit of hell. The severe expressions of the sacred hymn are interpreted by the inflexible malice of the evil genius. What distraction in the heart! what ills accumulated on one poor feeble head! And what a talent his, who knew how to represent to the imagination those moments in which life is lighted up with us like a funeral fire, and throws over our fleeting days the terrible reflection of an eternity of torments!
Mephistopheles conceives the idea of transporting Faustus to the Sabbath of Witches in order to dissipate his melancholy, and this leads us to a scene of which it is impossible to give the idea, though it contains many thoughts which we shall endeavour to recollect: this festival of the Sabbath represents truly the saturnalia of genius. The progress of the piece is suspended by its introduction, and the stronger the situation, the greater we find the difficulty of submitting even to the inventions of genius when they so effectively disturb the interest.
Amidst the whirlwind of all that can be thought or said, when images and ideas rush headlong, confound themselves, and seem to fall back into the abysses from which reason has called them, there comes a scene which reunited us to the circumstances of the performance in a terrible manner. The conjurations of magic cause several different pictures to appear, and all at once Faustus approaches Mephistopheles and says to him:
“Dost thou not see, there below,
a young girl,
pale, though beautiful,
who stands alone in the distance?
She advances slowly,
her feet seem to be knit togehter;
do you not perceive her resemblance to Margaret?”
Mephistopheles: “It is an effect of magic, only illusion. It is not good to dwell upon the sight. Those fixed eyes freeze the blood of men. It was thus that Medusa’s head, of old, turned all who gazed upon it to stone.”
Faustus: “It is true that the eyes of that image are open, like those of a corpse which have not been closed by a friendly hand. There is the bosom on which I rested my head; there are the charms which my heart called its own.”
Mephistopheles: “Madman! all this is but witchcraft; every one thinks he beholds the beloved of his soul in this phantom.”
Faustus: “What madness! What torment! I cannot fly from that look: But what means that red collar that encircles her beautiful neck, no broader than the edge of a knife?”
Mephistopheles: “Tis true; but what would you do? Do not lose thyself thus in thought; ascend this mountain; they are preparing a feast for you on the summit. Come!”
To be continued…