Madame de Staël: Klopstock
Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 241-253
(Trans. note: The oak is the emblem of patriotic poetry, and the palm tree that of religious poetry, which comes from the east.)
In Germany, there have been many more remarkable men of the English than of the French school. Amongst the writers formed by English literature we must first reckon the admirable Haller, whose poetic genius served him so effectively, as a learned man, in inspiring him with the greatest enthusiasm for the beauties of nature, and the most extensive views of its various phenomena; Gessner, whose works are even more valued in France than in Germany; Gleim, Ramler, &c, and above them all, Klopstock.
His genius was inflamed by Milton and Young; but it was with him that the true German school first began. He expresses in a very happy manner in one of his odes the emulation of the Muses.
“I have seen — Oh, tell me! was it the present, or did I contemplate the future? I have seen the Muse of Germany enter the lists with the English Muse, and full of ardour press forward to victory.
Two goals, erected at the extremity of the course, were scarcely distinguishable: One was shaded by the oak, the other by palm trees.
Accustomed to such combats, the Muse of Albion proudly descended on the arena; she recollected the ground which she had already traversed in her sublime contest with the son of Meonides, with the lyrist of the Capitol. She saw her rival young and trembling, but her emotion was glorious: the ardour of victory flushed her countenance, and her golden hair flowed on her shoulders.
Scarcely retaining her respirations within her agitated bosom, already she thought she heard the trumpet; she devoured the arena with ardent eyes; she bent herself towards the goal.
Proud of such a rival, still more proud of herself, the noble English Muse measured the daughter of Tuisco with a glance. Yes, I remember, said she, in the forests of oak, near the ancient bards, together we sprung into birth.
But I was told that thou wert no more: Pardon, O Muse, if thou revivest to immortal life, pardon me that I knew it not till now. Nevertheless, I shall know it better when we arrive at the goal.
Is it there — dost thou see it in the distance? beyond that oak seest thou those palms, canst thou discern the crown? thou art silent — Oh! that proud silence, that constrained countenance, that look of fire fixed on the earth — I know it.
Nevertheless — think again before the dangerous signal, think — is it not I who maintained the contest with the Muse of Thermophyla, with her also of the seven hills?
She said: The decisive moment is arrived, the herald approaches: O daughter of Albion. cried the Muse of Germany, I love thee — but the palm of immortality is dearer to me even than thou art. Seize the crown if thy genius demands it, but let me be allowed to partake it with thee.
How my heart beats — immortal gods — even, if I were to arrive the first at the sublime object of our course — Oh! then thou wouldst follow close upon me — thy breath would agitate my flowing hair.
All at once the trumpet resounded; they fly with the rapidity of an eagle; a cloud of dust extends itself over the wide career: I saw them near the oak, but the cloud thickened, and they were soon lost to my sight.”
It is thus that the ode finishes, and there is a grace in not pointing out the victor.
I refer the examination of Klopstock’s works in a literary point of view to the chapter on German poetry, and I now confine myself to the pointing them out as the actions of his life. The aim of all his works is either to awaken patriotism in his country, or to celebrate religion. If poetry had its saints, Klopstock would certainly be reckoned one of the first of them.
The greater part of his odes may be considered as Christian psalms; Klopstock is the David of the New Testament. But that which honours his character above all, without speaking of his genius, is a religious hymn under the form of an epic poem called the Messiah, to which he devoted twenty years. The Christian world already possessed two poems: The Inferno of Dante, and Milton’s Paradise Lost: One was full of images and phantoms, like the external religion of the Italians. Milton who had lived in the midst of Civil wars, above all excelled in the painting of his characters; and his Satan is a gigantic rebel armed against the monarchy of heaven.
Klopstock has conceived the Christian sentiment in all its purity; he consecrated his soul to the divine Saviour of men. The fathers of the church inspired Dante; the Bible inspired Milton. The greatest beauties of Klopstock’s poem are derived from the New Testament; from the divine simplicity of the gospel he knew how to draw a charming strain of poetry, which does not lessen its purity. In beginning this poem, it seems as if we were entering a great church, and that tender emotion, that devout meditation which inspires us in our Christian temples, also pervades the soul as we read the Messiah.
Klopstock, in his youth, proposed to himself this poem as the object and end of his existence. It appears to me that men would acquit themselves worthily with respect to this life, if a noble object, a grand idea of any sort, distinguished their passage through the world; and it is already an honourable proof of character to be able to direct towards one enterprize all the scattered rays of our faculties, the results of our labour. In whatever manner we judge of the beauties of our labour.
In whatever manner we judge of the beauties and defects of the Messiah, we ought frequently to read over some of its verses: the reading of the whole work may be wearisome, but ever time that we return to it, we breathe a sort of perfume of the soul, which makes us feel an attraction to all things holy and celestial.
After long labours, after a great number of years, Klopstock at length concluded his poem. Horace, Ovid, &c, have expressed in various manners the noble pride which seemed to ensure to them the immortal duration of their works.
A sentiment of a very different nature penetrated the soul of Klopstock when his Messiah was finished. He expresses it thus in his Ode to the Redeemer, which is at the end of his poem.
“I have hoped in thee, O heavenly Mediator! I have sung the canticle of the new covenant: the formidable race is run, and thou hast pardoned my tottering footsteps.
Gratitude! eternal, ardent, exalted sentiment! O cause the harmony of my harp to resound. O, haste! my heart is overwhelmed with joy, and I shed tears of rapture.
I ask no recompense; have I not already tasted the pleasure of angels since I have sung the glories of my God? the emotion it occasioned penetrated to the inmost recesses of my soul, and it vibrated all that is most intimately connected with my being.
Heaven and earth disappeared from my sight; but soon the storm subsided: the breath of my life resembled the purse and sere air of a vernal day.
“Ah! am I not recompensed? have I not seen the tears of Christians flow? and in another world, perhaps, they will again welcome me with those holy tears! I have also felt terrestrial joy; my heart (in vain would I conceal it from thee), my heart was animated by ambition for glory: in my youth it palpitated with this sentiment; it still palpitates, but with a more chastened ardour.
“Has not thy apostle said to the faithful, ‘If there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on those things!’ — It is this celestial flame which I have chosen for my guide; it appears before my steps, and displays a holier path to my ambitious site.
Led by this light, the delusion of terrestial pleasures has not deceived me. When I was in danger of wandering, the recollection of the holy hours in which my soul was initiated, the harmonious voices of angels, their harps, their concerts recalled me to myself.
I am at the goal, yes, I have reached it, and I tremble with happiness; thus (to speak in a human manner of celestial things), thus we shall be affected, when at a future day we shall find ourselves in the presence of Him who died and rose again for us.
It is my Lord and my God, whose powerful hand has led me to this goal through the graves which surrounded me; he armed me with strength and courage against approaching death; and dangers, unknown, but terrific, were warded from the poet who was thus protected by a celestial shield.
I have finished the song of the new covenant. I have traversed the formidable course. Oh heavenly Mediator, in thee have I put my trust.”
This mixture of poetic enthusiasm and religious confidence inspires both adminration and tenderness. Men of talents formerly addressed themselves to fabulous deities. Klopstock has consecrated his talents to God himself, and by the happy union of the Christian religion with poetry, he shews the Germans how possible it is to attain a property in the fine arts which may belong peculiarly to themselves, without being derived as servile imitations, from the ancients.
Those who have known Klopstock, respect as much as they admire him. Religion, liberty, love, occupied all his thoughts. His religious profession was found in the performance of all his duties: he even gave up the cause of liberty when innocent blood would have defiled it; and fidelity consecrated all the attachments of his heart. Never had he recourse to his imagination to justify an error; it exalted his soul without leading it astray. It is said that his conversation was full of wit and taste; that he loved the society of women, particularly of French women, and that he was a good judge of that sort of charm and grace which pedantry reproves.
I readily believe it; for there is always something of universality in genius, and perhaps it is connected by secret ties to grace, at least to that grace which is bestowed by nature.
How far distant is such a man from envy, selfishness, excess of vanity, which many writers have excused in themselves in the name of the talents they possessed! If they had possessed more, none of these defects would have agitated them. We are proud, irritable, astonished at our own perfections, when a little dexterity is mixed with the mediocrity of our character; but true genius inspires gratitude and modesty; for we feel from whom we received it, and we are also sensible of the limit, which he who bestowed has likewise assigned to it.
We find in the second part of the Messiah a very fine passage on the death of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who is pointed out to us in the Gospel as the image of the contemplative virtue. Lazarus, who has received life a second time from Jesus Christ, bids his sister farewell with a mixture of grief and of confidence which is deeply affecting. From the last moments of Mary, Klopstock has drawn a picture of the death bed of the just. When in his turn he was also on his death bed, he repeated his verses on Mary with an expiring voice; he recollected them through the shades of the sepulchre, and in feeble accents he pronounced them as exhorting himself to die well: thus, the sentiments expressed in youth were sufficiently pure to form the consolation of his closing life.
Ah! how noble a gift is genius, when it has never been profaned, when it has been employed only in revealing to mankind under the attractive form of the fine arts, the generous sentiments and religious hopes which have before lain dormant in the human heart.
This same passage of the death of Mary was read with the burial service at Klopstock’s funeral. The poet was old when he ceased to live, but the virtuous man was already in possession of the immortal psalms which renew existence and flourish beyond the grave. All the inhabitants of Hamburgh rendered to the patriarch of literature the honours which elsewhere are scarcely ever accorded except to rank and power, and the manes of Klopstock received the reward which the excellence of his life had merited.
Tomorrow: Madame de Staël on Lessing
Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803)
by Johann Caspar Füssli (1750)