Madame de Staël: Weiland
Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 235-240
Of all the Germans who have written after the French manner, Wieland is the only one whose works have genius; and although he has almost always imitated the literature of foreign countries, we cannot avoid acknowledging the great services he has rendered to that of his own nation, by improving its language and giving it a versification more flowing and harmonious.
There was already in Germany a crowd of writers, who endeavored to follow the traces of French literature, such as it was in the age of Louis XIV.
Wieland is the first who introduced with success that of the 18th Century. In his prose writings he bears some resemblance to Voltaire, and in his poetry to Ariosto; but these resemblances, which are voluntary on his part, do not prevent him from being by nature completely German.
Weiland is infinitely better informed than Voltaire; he has studied the ancients with more erudition than has been done by any poet in France. Neither the defects, nor the powers of Weiland allow him to give to his writings any portion of the French lightness and grace.
In his philosophical novels, Agathon and Peregrinus Proteus, he begins very soon with analysis, discussion and metaphysics. He considers it as a duty to mix with them passages which we commonly call flowery; but we are sensible that his natural disposition would lead him to fathom all the depths of the subject which he endeavors to treat. In the novels of Weiland seriousness and gaiety are both too decidedly expressed ever to blend with each other; for in all things, though contrasts are striking, contrast extremes are wearisome.
In order to imitate Voltaire, it is necessary to possess a sarcastic and philosophical irony, which renders us careless of everything, except a poignant manner of expressing that irony. A German can never attain that brilliant freedom of pleasantry; he is too attached to truth, he wishes to know and to explain what things are, and even when he adopts reprehensible opinions, a secret repentance slackens his pace in spite of himself.
The Epicurean philosophy does not suit the German mind; they give to that philosophy a dogmatical character, while in reality it is seductive only when it presents itself under light and airy forms: As soon as you invest it with principles, it is equally displeasing to all.
The poetical works of Weiland have much more grace and originality than his prose writings. Oberon and the other poems of which I shall speak separately are charming and full of imagination. Weiland has, however, been reproached for treating the subject of love with too little severity, and he is naturally thus condemned by his own countrymen, who still respect women a little after the manner of their ancestors.
But whatever may have been the wanderings of imagination which Weiland allowed himself, we cannot avoid acknowledging in him a large portion of true sensibility; he has often had a good or bad intention of jesting on the subject of love; but his disposition, naturally serious, prevents him from giving himself boldly up to it. He resembles that prophet who found himself obliged to bless where he wished to curse; and he ends in tenderness what was begun in irony.
In our intercourse with Weiland we am charmed, precisely because his natural qualities are in opposition to his philosophy. This disagreement might be prejudicial to him as a writer, but it renders him more attractive in society; he is animated, enthusiastic, and, like all men of genius, still young even in his old age; yet he wishes to be skeptical, and is angry with those who would employ his fine imagination in the establishment of his faith.
Naturally benevolent, he is nevertheless susceptible of ill-humour; sometimes, because he is not pleased with himself, and sometimes, because he is not pleased with others. He is not pleased with himself, because he would willingly arrive at a degree of perfection in the manner of expressing his thoughts, of which neither words nor things are susceptible.
He does not choose to satisfy himself with those indefinite terms, which perhaps agree better with the art of conversation than perfection itself; he is sometimes displeased with others, because his doctrine, which is a little relaxed, and his sentiments, which are highly exalted, are not always easily reconciled.
He contains within himself the French poet and a German philosopher, who are alternately angry with each other; but this anger is still very easy to bear; and his discourse, filled with ideas and knowledge, might supply many men of talent with a foundation for conversation of many sorts.
The new writers, who have excluded all foreign influence from German literature, have been often unjust to Weiland. It is he whose works, even in translation, have excited the interest of all of Europe. It is he who has rendered the science of antiquity subservient to the charms of literature. It is he also who, in verse, has given a musical and graceful flexibility to his fertile but rough language.
It is, nevertheless, true, that his country would not be benefited by possessing many imitators of his writings; national originality is a much better thing; and we ought to wish, even when we acknowledge Weiland to be a good master, that he may have no disciples.
Tomorrow: Madame de Staël On Klopstock