Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. II, 181-192. Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations by Eugene Delacroix.
Plan all things to achieve my end!
Engage the attention of her friend!
No milk and water devil be.
And bring fresh jewels instantly!
Among the pieces written for the performance of puppets, there is one entitled “Dr. Faustus, or Fatal Science,” which has always had great success in Germany. Lessing took up this subject fore Goethe. This wonderful history is a tradition very generally known. Several English authors have written the life of this same Dr. Faustus, and some of them have even attributed to him the art of printing — his profound knowledge did not preserve him from being weary of life, and in order to escape from it, he tried to enter into a compact with the devil, who concludes the whole by carrying him off. From these slender materials, Goethe has furnished the astonishing work, of which I will now try to give some idea.
Certainly, we must not expect to find in its either taste, or measure, or the art that selects and terminates; but if the imagination could figure to itself an intellectual chaos, such as the material chaos has often been painted, the “Faustus” of Goethe should have been composed at that epoch. It cannot be exceeded in boldness of conception, and the recollection of this production is always attended with a sensation of giddiness.
The Devil is the hero of the piece;
the author has not conceived him like a hideous phantom,
such as he is usually represented to children;
he has made him, if we may so express ourselves,
the evil Being par excellence,
before whom all others…are only novices,
scarcely worthy to be the servants of Mephistopheles.
Goethe wished to display in this character, at once real and fanciful, the bitterest pleasantry that contempt can inspire, and at the same time an audacious gaiety that amuses. There is an infernal irony in the discourses of Mephistopheles, which extends itself to the whole creation, and criticizes the universe like a bad book of which the Devil has made himself the censor.
Mephistopheles makes sport with genius itself, as with the most ridiculous of all absurdities, when it leads men to take a serious interest in any thing that exists in the world, and above all when it gives them confidence in their own individual strength. It is singular that supreme wickedness and divine wisdom coincide in this respect; that they equally recognize the vanity and weakness of all earthly things: but the one proclaims this truth only to disgust men with what is good, the other only to elevate them above what is evil.
If the play of “Faustus” contained only a lively and philosophical pleasantry, an analogous spirit may be found in many of Voltaire’s writings; but we perceive in this piece an imagination of a very different nature. It is not only that it displays to us the moral world, such as it is, annihilated, but that Hell itself is substituted in the room of it. There is a potency of sorcery, a poetry belonging to the principle of evil, a delirium of wickedness, a distraction of thought, which make us shudder, laugh and cry, in a breath.
It seems as if the government of the world were, for a moment, entrusted to the hands of the Demon. You tremble because he is pitiless, you laugh because he humbles the satisfaction of self-love, you weep, because human nature, thus contemplated from the depths of hell, inspires a painful compassion.
Milton has drawn his Satan larger than man; Michaelangelo and Dante have given him the hideous figure of the brute combined with the human shape. The Mephistopheles of Goethe is a civilized Devil. He handles with dexterity that ridicule, so trifling in appearance, which is nevertheless often found to consist with a profundity of malice; he treats all sensibility as silliness or affectation; his figure is ugly, low, and crooked; he is awkward without timidity, disdainful without pride; he affects something of tenderness with the women, because it is only in their company that he needs to deceive, in order to seduce; and what he understands by seduction, is to minister to the passion of others; for he cannot even imitate love. This is the only dissimulation that is impossible to him.
The character of Mephistopheles supposes an inexhaustible knowledge of social life, of nature, and of the marvelous. This play of “Faustus,” is the nightmare of the imagination, but is is a nightmare that redoubles its strength. It discovers the diabolical revelation of incredulity — of that incredulity which attaches itself to everything that can ever exist of good in this world; and perhaps this might be a dangerous revelation, if the circumstances produced by the perfidious intentions of Mephistopheles did not inspire a horror of his arrogant language, and make known the wickedness which it covers.
In the character of Faustus, all the weaknesses of humanity are concentrated: desire of knowledge, and fatigue of labour; wish of success and satiety of pleasure. It presents a perfect model of the changeful and versatile being whose sentiments are yet more ephemeral than the short existence of which he complains. Faustus has more ambition than strength; and this inward agitation produces his revolt against nature, and makes him have recourse to all manner of sorceries, in order to escape from the hard but necessary conditions imposed upon mortality.
He is discovered, in the first scene, surrounded by his books, and by an infinite number of mathematical instruments and chemical phials. His father had also devoted himself to science, and transmitted to him the same taste and habits. A solitary lamp enlightens this gloomy retreat, and Faustus pursues without intermission his studies of nature, and particularly of magic, many secrets of which are already in his possession.
He invokes one of the creating Genii of the second order; the spirit appears, and counsels him not to elevate himself above the sphere of the human understanding — “It is for us,” he says, “it is for us to plunge into the tumult of exertion, into those eternal billows of life, which are made to swell and sink, are impelled and recalled, by man’s nativity and dissolution: we are created to labour in the work which God has ordained us, and of which time completes the web. But thou, who canst conceive of nothing beyond thine own being, thou, who trembles to sound thine own destiny, and whom a breath of mine makes sudden, leave me! Recall me no more!” When the Genii has disappeared, a deep despair seizes on Faustus, and he forms the design of poisoning himself.
“And I,” he says, ” the image of the Deity, I, who believed myself on the point of tasting eternal truth in all the splendour of celestial light! I, who was no longer a son of the earth, who felt myself equal to the cherubim, who creators in their turn, are susceptible of the enjoyments of God himself! Ah! how much do I need expiate my presumptuous anticipation! One word of thunder has dissipated them for ever. Divine spirit! I had power to attract, but none to retain thee, I felt myself at once so great and so little! But thou hast driven me back, with violence, to the uncertain lot of humanity!
Who now will instruct me? What ought I to avoid? Ought I to yield to the impulse which presses upon me? Our action, as our sufferings, arrest the advance of thought. Low inclinations oppose themselves to the most magnificent conception of the soul. When we attain a certain degree of sublime happiness, we treat as illusion and falsehood whatever is more valuable than this happiness; and the sublime sentiments with which we were gifted by the Creator, lose themselves in earthly interests.
At first, imagination, with its daring wings, aspires to eternity; soon a little space is enough for the ruins of our broken hopes. Anxiety takes possession of our heart. She engenders secret griefs within it, and robs it of pleasure and repose. She presents herself to us in a thousand shapes; now under the aspect of fortune, then as a wife or children, in the likeness of the dagger, of poison, of flames, or of the ocean, she pursues and harasses us. Man trembles in the contemplation of what never will happen, and mourns incessantly for what he has never lost.
No, I did not compose myself to the Deity; no, I feel my misery: it is the insect that I resemble; the insect that agitates the dust on which it exists, and is crushed by the foot of the passenger.
And what, but dust, are all these books by which I am surrounded? Am I not shut up in the prison of science? These walls, these windows which environ me, do they suffer even the light of the sun to reach me without altering its rays? What am I to do with these numberless volumes, with these endless nothings that crowd my brain? Shall I find among them what I want? If I cast my eye over these pages, what shall I read into them? That men everywhere torment themselves about their fate; that from time to time a single happy man has existed, and that he has made all the other inhabitants of the earth despair.” (A death’s head is on the table.)
“And thou, who seemest to address me with that horrible grin, was not the mind that once inhabited thy brain guilty of error like my own? Did it not search for light, and did it not sink under the weight of darkness? These instruments of every description, that my father collected, to assist him in his vain labours; these wheels, and cylinders, and levers, will they reveal to me the secret of nature? no, she is involved in mystery, for all that she pretends to display herself on the light; and, what she chooses to conceal, not all the efforts of science will ever tear from her bosom.
My ears turn themselves, then, to thee, thou poisoned beverage! Thou, who bestowest death, I salute thee like a pale ray of light in the gloomy forest. In thee, I honour science and reverence the human understanding. Thou art the sweetest essence of all sleeping juices. In thee are concentrated all the powers of death. Come to my relief! I feel my troubled spirit already grow calm; I am about to launch upon the open sea. The limpid waves glitter like a mirror under my feet. A new day invitest me to the opposite shore. A chariot of fire already hovers over my head; I am about to ascend it; soon shall I wander amongst etherial spheres, and taste the delights of the heavenly regions.
But how deserve them in this state of my debasement? Yes, I may deserve them if I dare, if I courageously burst those gates of death before which no man can pass without shuddering. It is time to display the dignity of man. I must no longer shiver on the brink of this abyss, where the imagination condemns itself to its own torments, and the flames of hell seem to prohibit our approach. Into this cup of pure crystal will I pour the mortal poison. Alas! it once served for another use: it circulated from hand to hand in the joyous festivals of our fathers, and the guest, as it passed to him, celebrates its beauty in a song.
Thou gilded cup! Thou bringest to my remembrance the jovial nights of my youth. No more shall I pass thee to my neighbour; no more shall I extol the artist that fashioned and embelished thee. Thou art now filled with a dismal beverage — it was prepared by me, it is chosen by me. Ah! be it for me the solemn libation which I consecrate to the morning of a new existence!”
At the moment when he is about to swallow the poison, Faustus hears the town bells ringing in honour of Easter day, and the choirs of the neighboring church celebrating that holy feast.
The Choir: “Christ is risen. Let degenerate, weak and trembling mortals be glad thereof!”
Faustus: “With what imposing solemnity does this brazen sound shake my soul to its very foundations! What pure voices are those that make the poisoned cup fall out of my hand? Do yet announce, resounding bells, the first hour of the sacred sabbath of Easter? Ye, oh choir! do ye already celebrate those strains of consolation, those strains, which, in the night of the grave, were sung by angels descending from heaven to commence the new covenant?”
The choir repeats: “Christ is risen….”
Faustus: “Celestial strains! potent and gentle, wherefore do ye seek me, humbled in the dust? Go! make yourselves heard by those who are capable of deriving comfort from you! I hear the message you convey to me, but I want faith to believe it. Miracle is the cherished offspring of faith. I cannot spring upwards to the sphere from which your glorious tidings are descending: and yet, accustomed from childhood to these songs, they recall me to life. Once, a ray of divine light used to call on me during the peacful solemnity of the sabbath. The drowsy hum of the bells used to fill my soul with the presentiment of futurity, and prayer was an ardent enjoyment to my heart.
Those same bells also announced the games of youth, and the festival of spring. The memory of them rekindles those feelings of childhood which remove us from the contemplation of death. Oh! should again, celestial strains! Earth has regained possession of me.”
To be continued…
From Thomas Carlyle’s “German Romance: Specimens of its Chief Authors; with Biographical and Critical Notices.” Vol. II, 1827. Excerpt: “The Golden Pot” by E.T. A. Hoffmann.
The Spirit looked upon the water, and the water moved itself, and chafed in foaming billows, and plunged thundering down into the Abysses, which opened their black throats, and greedily swallowed it. Like triumphant conquerors, the granite Rocks lifted their cleft peaky crowns, protecting the Valley, till the Sun took it into its paternal bosom, and clasping it with its beams as with growing arms, cherished it and warmed it.
Then a thousand germs, which had been sleeping under the desert sand, awoke from their deep slumber, and stretched out their little leaves and stalks toward the Sun their father’s face; and the smiling infants in green cradles, the flowrets rested in their buds and blossoms, til they too, awakened by their father, decked themselves in lights, which their father, to please them, tinted in a thousand varied hues.
But in the midst of the Valley was a black Hill, which heaved up and down like the breast of man when warm longing swells it. From the Abysses mounted steaming vapours, and rolled themselves together into huge masses, striving malignantly to hide the father’s face: but he called the Storm to him, which rushed thither, and scattered them away; and when the pure sunbeam rested again on the bleak Hill, there started from it, in the excess of its rapture, a glorious Fire-Lily, opening its fair leaves like gentle lips to receive the kiss of its father.
And now came a gleaming Splendour into the Valley; it was the youth Phosphorus; the Lily saw him, and begged, being seized with warm longing love: “Be mine for ever, fair youth! For I love thee, and must die if thou forsake me!” Then spake the youth Phosphorus: “I will be thine, thou fair flower; but then wilt thou, like a naughty child, leave father and mother; thou wilt know thy playmates no longer, wilt strive to be greater and stronger than all that now rejoices with thee as thy equal.
The longing which now beneficently warms thy whole being, will be scattered into a thousand rays, and torture and vex thee; for sense will bring forth senses; and the highest rapture, which the Spark I cast into thee kindles, will be the hopeless pain wherein thou shalt perish, to spring up anew in foreign shape. This spark is Thought!”
“Ah!” mourned the Lily, “Can I not be thine in this glow, as it now burns in me; not still be thine? Can I love then more than now; could I look on thee as now, if thou wert to annihilate me?” Then the youth Phosphorus kissed the Lily; and as if penetrated with light, it mounted up in flame, out of which issued a foreign Being, that hastily flying from the Valley, roved forth into endless Space, no longer heeding its old playmates, or the youth it had loved.
This youth mourned for his lost beloved; for he too loved her, it was love to the fair Lily that had brought him to the lone Valley; and the granite Rocks bent down their heads in participation of his grief.
But one of these opened its bosom, and there came a black-winged Dragon flying out of it, and said: “My brethren, the Metals are sleeping in there; but I am always brisk and waking, and will help thee.”
Dashing up and down on its black pinions, the Dragon at last caught the Being which had sprung from the Lily; bore it to the Hill, and encircled it with his wing; then was it the Lily again; but Thought, which continued with it, tore asunder its heart; and its love for the youth Phosphorus was a cutting pain, before which, as if breathed on by poisonous vapours, the flowrets which had once rejoiced in the fair Lily’s presence, faded and died.
The youth Phosphorus put on a glittering coat of mail, sporting with the light in a thousand hues, and did battle with the Dragon, who struck the cuirass with his black wing, till it rung and sounded; and at this loud clang the flowrets again came to life, and like variegated birds fluttered round the Dragon, whose force departed; and who, thus being vanquished, hid himself in the depths of the Earth.
The Lily was freed; the youth Phosphorus clasped her, full of warm longing, of heavenly love; and in triumphant chorus, the flowers, the birds, nay even the high granite Rocks, did reverence to her as the Queen of the Valley.”
Hear the Lied! See the Video!
Do you see at the window
there again, that red cap?
Something must be the matter
for it is going up and down.
And what a sudden mob
is now by the bridge near the field!
Hark! the fire-bell is shrilling:
beyond the hill,
beyond the hill,
there's a fire in the mill!
Look, there he goes, galloping furiously
through the gate - it's the fire-rider
on his horse, a bony nag
like a fire-ladder!
Across the fields, through the smoke and heat
he plunges, and he's already reached his goal!
Over there the bells are pealing,
beyond the hill,
beyond the hill,
there's a fire in the mill!
You who so often smelled fire
from a mile off,
and with a fragment of the holy cross
maliciously conjured the blaze -
Woe! from the rafters there grins
the Enemy of Man in hellish light.
May God have mercy on your soul!
Beyond the hill,
beyond the hill,
he is raging in the mill!
Not an hour had passed
before the mill was reduced to rubble;
but the bold rider
from that hour was never seen again.
People and wagons in crowds
turn toward home away from all the horror;
and the bell stops ringing:
beyond the hill,
beyond the hill,
Later a miller found
a skeleton together with the cap
upright against the wall of the cellar
sitting on the mare of bone:
Fire-rider, how coolly
you ride now to your grave!
Hush! there it falls to ashes.
down there in the mill!
A SONG FOR TWO IN THE NIGHT
_She_. How soft the night wind strokes the meadow grasses
And, breathing music, through the woodland passes!
Now that the upstart day is dumb,
One hears from the still earth a whispering throng
Of forces animate, with murmured song
Joining the zephyrs' well-attunèd hum.
, _He_. I catch the tone from wondrous voices brimming,
Which sensuous on the warm wind drifts to me,
While, streaked with misty light uncertainly,
The very heavens in the glow are swimming.
. _She_. The air like woven fabric seems to wave,
Then more transparent and more lustrous groweth;
Meantime a muted melody outgoeth
From happy fairies in their purple cave.
To sphere-wrought harmony
Sing they, and busily
The thread upon their silver spindles floweth.
, _He_. Oh lovely night! how effortless and free
O'er samite black-though green by day--thou movest!
And to the whirring music that thou lovest
Thy foot advances imperceptibly.
Thus hour by hour thy step doth measure--
In trancèd self-forgetful pleasure
Thou'rt rapt; creation's soul is rapt with thee!