Thomas Carlyle: “The Imagination of Jean Paul”

Excerpt, “Critical and Miscellaneous Essays: Jean Paul Friedrich Richter,” Thomas Carlyle. 1830
We have spoken warmly of Jean Paul’s Imagination, of his high devout feeling, which is now a still more grateful part of our task to exhibit. But in this also our readers must content themselves with some imperfect glimpses. What religious opinions and aspirations he specially entertained, how that noblest portion of man’s interest represented itself in such a mind, were long to describe, did we even know it with certainty.
He hints somewhere that ‘the soul, which by nature looks Heavenward, is without a Temple in this age ; ‘ in which little sentence, the careful reader will decipher much.
‘But there will come another era,’ says Paul, ‘when it shall be light, and man will awaken from his lofty dreams, and find — his dreams still there, and that nothing is gone save his sleep,’The stones and rocks, which two veiled Figures (Necessity and Vice), like Deucalion and Pyrrha, are casting behind them, at Goodness, will themselves become men.
‘And on the Western-gate of this century stands written: Here is the way to Virtue and Wisdom; as on the Western-gate at Cherson stands the proud Inscription: Here is the way to Byzance.
‘Infinite Providence, Thou wilt cause the day to dawn,’But as yet, struggles the twelfth-hour of the Night: the nocturnal birds of prey are on the wing, spectres uproar, the dead walk, the living dream.’
Connected with this, there is one other piece, which also,for its singular poetic qualities, we shall translate here. The reader has heard much of Richter’s Dreams, with what strange prophetic power he rules over that chaos of spiritual Nature, bodying forth a whole world of Darkness, broken by pallid gleams or wild sparkles of light, and peopled with huge, shadowy, bewildered shapes, full of grandeur and meaning.
No Poet known to us, not Milton himself, shows such a vastness of Imagination; such a rapt, deep, Old-Hebrew spirit as Richter in these scenes. He mentions, in his Biographical notes, the impression which these lines of the Tempest had on him, as recited by one of his companions:
“We are such stuff
As Dreams are made of, and our little Life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
‘The passage of Shakespeare,’ says he, ’rounded with a sleep in Plattner’s mouth, created whole ‘books in me.’ — The following Dream is perhaps his grandest, as undoubtedly it is among his most celebrated. We shall give it entire, long as it is, and therewith finish our quotations. What value he himself put on it, may be gathered from the following Note:
‘If ever my heart,’ says he, ‘were to grow so wretched and so dead that all feelings ‘in it which announce the being of a God were extinct’there, I would terrify myself with this sketch of mine ; it’ would heal me, and give me my feelings back.’ We translate from Siebenkas, where it forms the first Chapter, or Blumenstuck (Flower-Piece).
‘The purpose of this Fiction is the excuse of its boldness. Men deny the Divine Existence with as little feeling as the most assert it.
Even in our true systems we go on collecting- mere words, playmarks and medals, as misers do coins; and not till late do we transform the words into feelings, the coins into enjoyments, A man may, for twenty years, believe the Immortality of the Soul; — in the one-and-twentieth, in some great moment, he for the first time discovers with amazement the rich meaning of this belief, the warmth of this Naphtha-well, ‘Of such sort, too, was my error, at the poisonous stifling vapour which floats out round the heart of him who, for the first time, enters the school of Atheism.
I could with less pain deny Immortality than Deity : there I should lose but a world covered with mists, here I should lose the present world, namely, the Sun thereof: the whole spiritual Universe is dashed asunder by the hand of Atheism into numberless quicksilver-points of Me’s, which glitter, run, waver, fly together or asunder, without unity or continuance.
No one in Creation is so alone, as the denier of God ; he mourns, with an orphaned heart that has lost its great Father, by the Corpse of Nature, which no World-spirit moves and holds together, and which grows in its grave ; and he mourns by that Corpse till he himself crumble off from it. The whole world lies before him, like the Egyptian Sphinx of stone, half-buried in the sand; and the All is the cold iron mask of a formless Eternity…
‘I merely remark farther, that with the belief of Atheism, the belief of Immortality is quite compatible; for the same Necessity, which in this Life threw my light dewdrop of a Me into a flower-bell and — under a Sun, can repeat that process in a second life; nay,more easily embody me the second time than the first.
‘If we hear, in childhood, that the Dead, about midnight, when our sleep reaches near the soul, and darkens even our dreams, awake out of theirs, and in the church mimic the worship of the living, we shudder at Death by reason of the dead, and in the night-solitude turn away our eyes from the long silent windows of the church and fear to proceed from the moon.
“Childhood, and rather its terrors than its raptures, take wings and radiance again in dreams, and sport like fire-flies in the little knight of the soul. Crush not these flickering sparks!
Leave us even our dark painful dreams as higher half-shadows of reality! And wherewith will you replace to us those dreams, which bear us away from under the tumult of the stream of life yet ran silent in its little plain, and flowed towards it abysses, a mirror of the Heaven?
‘I was lying once, on a summer evening, in the sunshine; and I fell asleep. Methought I awoke in the Churchyard. The downrolling wheels of the steeple-clock which was striking eleven, had awakened me. In the emptied night-heaven I looked for the Sun;for I thought an eclipse was veiling him with the Moon.
All the Graves were open and the iron doors of the charnel-house were swinging to and fro by invisible hands. On the walls flitted shadows, which proceeded from no one, and other shadows stretched upwards in the pale air. In the open coffins none now lay sleeping, but the children. Over the whole heaven hung, in large folds, a gray sultry mist; which a giant shadow, like vapour, was drawing down,nearer, closer and hotter.
Above me I heard the distant fall of avalanches; under me the first step of a boundless earthquake. The Church wavered up and down with two interminable Dissonances, which strutted with each other in it; endeavouring in vain to mingle in unison. At times, a gray glimmer hovered along the windows, and under it the lead and iron fell down molten.
The net of the mist,and the tottering Earth brought me into that hideous Temple; at the door of which, in two poison-bushes, two glittering Basilisks lay brooding. I passed through unknown Shadows, on whom ancient centuries were impressed. — All the Shadows were standing round the empty Altar; and in all, not the heart, but the breast quivered and pulsed.
One dead man only, who had just been buried there, still lay on his coffin without quivering breast; and on his smiling countenance stood a happy dream. But at the entrance of one Living, he awoke, and smiled no longer ; he lifted his heavy eyelids, but within was no eye; and in his beating breast there lay, instead of a heart, a wound. He held up his hands, and folded them to pray; but the arms lengthened out and dissolved ; and the hands, still folded together, fell away.
Above, on the Church-dome, stood the dial-plate of Eternity, whereon no number appeared, and which was its own index : but a black finger pointed thereon, and the Dead sought to see the time by it,
“Now sank from aloft a noble, high Form, with a look of uneffaceable sorrow, down to the Altar, and all the Dead cried out, ” Christ, is there no God ?” He answered, “There is none!” The whole Shadow of each then shuddered, not the breast alone; and one after the other, all, in this shuddering, shook into pieces.
“Christ continued: “I went through the Worlds, I mounted into the Suns, and flew with the Galaxies through the wastes of Heaven ;but there is no God! I descended as far as Being casts its shadow, and looked down into the Abyss and cried, Father, where art thou? But I heard only the everlasting storm which no one guides, and this gleaming Rainbow of Creation hung without a Sun that made it,over the Abyss, and trickled down.
And when I looked up to the immeasurable world for the Divine Eye, it glared on me with an empty, black, bottomless Eye-socket; and Eternity lay upon Chaos, eating it and ruminating it. Cry on, ye Dissonances; cry away the Shadows, for He is not I!”
‘The pale-grown Shadows flitted away, as white vapour which frost has formed with the warm breach disappears ; and all was void. 0, then came, fearful for the heart, the dead Children who had been awakened in the Churchyard, into the Temple, and cast themselves before the high Form on the Altar, and said, ” Jesus, have we no Father?” And he answered, with streaming tears, ” We are all orphans, I and you : we are without Father ! ”
‘Then shrieked this Dissonances still louder, — the quivering walls of the Temple parted asunder; and the Temple and the Children sank down, and the whole Earth and the Sun sank after it, and the whole Universe sank with its immensity before us; and above, on the summit of immeasurable Nature, stood Christ, and gazed down into the Universe chequered with its thousand Suns, as into the Mine bored out of the Eternal Night, in which the Suns run like mine-lamps, and the Galaxies like silver veins.
‘And as he saw the grinding press of Worlds, the torch-dance of celestial wildfires, and the coral-banks of beating hearts ; and as he saw how world after world shook off its glimmering souls upon the Sea of Death, as a water-bubble scatters swimming lights on the waves, then majestic as the Highest of the Finite, he raised his eyes towards the Nothingness, and towards the void Immensity, and said: ” Dead, dumb Nothingness!
Cold, everlasting Necessity! Frantic Chance! Know ye what this is that lies beneath you? When will ye crush the Universe in pieces, and me? Chance, knowest thou what thou doest, when with thy hurricanes thou walkest through that snow powder of Stars, and extinguishest burn after Sun, and that sparkling dew of heavenly lights goes out as thou passest over it? How is each so solitary in this wide grave of the All?
I am alone with myself! O Father, O Father! Where is thy infinite bosom, that I might rest on it? Ah, if each soul is its own father and creator, why cannot it be its own destroyer, too?
“Is this beside me yet a Man! Unhappy one! Your little life is the sigh of Nature, or only its echo ; a convex-mirror throws its rays into that dust-cloud of dead men’s ashes, down on the Earth; and thus you, cloud-formed wavering phantasms, arise. — Look down into the Abyss, over which clouds of ashes are moving; mists full of Worlds reek up from the Sea of Death ; the Future is a mounting mist, and the Present is a falling one. — Knowest thou thy Earth again?’
‘Here Christ looked down, and his eye filled with tears, and he said: “Ah, I was once there; I was still happy then; I had still my Infinite Father, and looked up cheerfully from the mountains, into the immeasurable Heaven, and pressed my mangled breast on his healing form, and said even in the bitterness of death: Father, take thy son from this bleeding hull, and lift him to thy heart! —
Ah, ye too happy inhabitants of Earth, ye still believe in Him. Perhaps even now your Sun is going down, and ye kneel amid blossoms, and brightness, and tears, and lift trustful hands, and cry with joy-streaming eyes, to the opened Heaven; “Me too thou knowest. Omnipotent, and all my wounds; and at death thou receivest me, and closest them all!
“Unhappy creatures, at death they will not be closed! Ah, when the sorrow-laden lays himself, with galled back, into the Earth,to sleep till a fairer Morning full of Truth, full of Virtue and Joy, — he awakens in a stormy Chaos, in the everlasting Midnight, — and there comes no Morning, and no soft healing hand, and no Infinite Father! — Mortal, beside me! if thou still livest, pray to Him; else hast thou lost him forever!”
‘And as I fell down, and looked into the sparkling Universe, I saw the upborne Rings of the Giant-Serpent, the Serpent of Eternity, which had coiled itself round the ALL of Worlds,— and the Rings sank down, and encircled the ALL doubly ; and then it wound itself, innumerable ways, round Nature, and swept the Worlds from their places, and crashing, squeezed the Temple of Immensity together, into the Church of a Burying-ground, —and all grew strait, dark, fearful, — and an immeasurably extended Hammer was to strike the last hour of Time, and shiver the Universe asunder . . . WHEN I AWOKE.
‘My soul wept for joy that I Could still pray to God; and the joy, and the weeping, and the faith on him were my prayer. And as I arose, the Sun was glowing deep behind the full purpled corn-ears,and casting meekly the gleam of its twilight-red on the little Moon, which was rising in the East without an Aurora; and between the sky and the earth, a gay transient air-people was stretching out its short wings and living, as I did, before the Infinite Father; and from all Nature around me flowed peaceful tones as from distant evening-bells.’
We must here for the present close our lucubrations on Jean Paul…
We honour Richter, such as he was… and discern under this wondrous guise the spirit of a true Poet and Philosopher. A Poet, and among the highest of his time, we must reckon him, though he wrote no verses; a Philosopher, though he promulgated no systems: for, on the whole,that ‘ Divine Idea of the World ‘ stood in clear ethereal light before his mind; he recognised the Invisible, even under the mean forms of these days, and with a high, strong, not uninspired heart, strove to represent it in the Visible, and publish tidings of it to his fellow-men.
This one virtue, the foundation of all the other virtues, and which a long study more and more clearly reveals to us in Jean Paul … raises him into quite another sphere than that of the thousand elegant Sweet-singers, and cause-and-effect Philosophes, in his own country, or in this…