Madame de Staël: Lessing

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 254-258

Perhaps the literature of Germany alone derived its source from criticism. In every other place criticism has followed the great productions of art; but in Germany it produced them. The epoch at which literature appears in its greatest splendour is the cause of this difference. Various nations had for many ages become illustrious in the art of writing: the Germans acquired it at a much later period, and thought they could do no better than follow the path already marked out. It was necessary then that criticism should expel imitation, in order to make room for originality.

Lessing wrote in prose with unexampled clearness and precision: depth of thought frequently embarrasses the style of the writers of the new school; Lessing, not less profound, had something severe in his character which made him discover the most concise and poignant modes of expression. Lessing was always animated in his writings by an emotion hostile to the opinion he attacked, and a sarcastic humour gives strength to his ideas.

He occupied himself by turns with the theatre, with philosophy, antiquities and theology, pursuing truth through all of them, like a huntsman, who feels more pleasure in the chase than in the attainment of his object. His style has, in some respects, the lively and brilliant conciseness of the French; and it conduced to render the German language classical. The writers of the new school embrace a great number of thoughts at the same time, but Lessing deserves to be more generally admired; he possesses a new and bold genius, which meets nevertheless the common comprehensions of mankind. His modes of perception are German, his manner of expression European.

Although a dialectician, at once lively and close in his arguments, enthusiasm for the beautiful filled his whole soul. He possessed ardour without glare, and a philosophical vehemence which was always active, and which by repeated strokes produced effect the most durable. Lessing analysed the French theatre, which was then fashionable in his country, and asserted that the English drama was more intimately connected with the genius of his countrymen.

In the judgment he passes on Merope, Zaire, Semiramus and Rodogune, he notices no particular improbability; he attacks the sincerity of the sentiments and characters, and finds fault with the personages of those fictions, as if they were real beings.

His criticism is a treatise on the human heart, as much as on poetical literature. To appreciate with justice the observations made by Lessing on the dramatic system in general, we must examine, as I mean to do in the following chapters, the principal differences of French and German on that subject. But in the history of literature, it is remarkable that a German should have had the courage to criticise a great French writer, and jest with wit on the very prince of jesters, Voltaire himself.

It was much for a nation lying under the weight of an anathema which refused it both taste and grace, to become sensible that in every country there exits a national taste, a national grace; and that literary fame may be acquired in various ways. The writings of Lessing gave a new impulse to his countrymen: they read Shakespeare, they dared in Germany to call themselves German; and the rights of originality were established instead of the yoke of correction.

Lessing has composed theatrical pieces and philosophical works which deserve to be examined separately: we should always consider German authors under various points of view. As they are still more distinguished by the faculty of thought than by genius, they do not devote themselves exclusively to any particular species of composition. Reflection attracts them successively to different modes of literature.

Amongst the writings of Lessing, one of the most remarkable is the Laocoon; it characterizes the subjects which are suitable both to poetry and painting, with as much philosophy in the principles as sagacity.

Tomorrow … Madame de Staël: Winckelmann


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing