Thomas De Quincey

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John Wolfgang von Goethe, a man of commanding influence in the literature of modern Germany throughout the latter half of his long life, and possessing two separate claims upon our notice; one in right of his own unquestionable talents; and another much stronger, though less direct, arising out of his position, and the extravagant partisanship put forward on his behalf for the last forty years. The literary body in all countries, and for reasons which rest upon a sounder basis than that of private jealousies, have always been disposed to a republican simplicity in all that regards the assumption of rank and personal pretensions. Valeat quantum valere potest, is the form of license to every man’s ambition, coupled with its caution. Let his influence and authority be commensurate with his attested value; and, because no man in the present infinity of human speculation, and the present multiformity of human power, can hope for more than a very limited superiority, there is an end at once to all absolute dictatorship. The dictatorship in any case could be only relative, and in relation to a single department of art or knowledge; and this for a reason stronger even than that already noticed, viz., the vast extent of the field on which the intellect is now summoned to employ itself. That objection, as it applies only to the degree of the difficulty, might be met by a corresponding degree of mental energy; such a thing may be supposed, at least. But another difficulty there is, of a profounder character, which cannot be so easily parried. Those who have reflected at all upon the fine arts, know that power of one kind is often inconsistent, positively incompatible, with power of another kind. For example, the dramatic mind is incompatible with the epic. And though we should consent to suppose that some intellect might arise endowed upon a scale of such angelic comprehensiveness, as to vibrate equally and indifferently towards either pole, still it is next to impossible, in the exercise and culture of the two powers, but some bias must arise which would give that advantage to the one over the other which the right arm has over the left. But the supposition, the very case put, is baseless, and countenanced by no precedent. Yet, under this previous difficulty, and with regard to a literature convulsed, if any ever was, by an almost total anarchy, it is a fact notorious to all who take an interest in Germany and its concerns, that Goethe did in one way or other, through the length and breadth of that vast country, establish a supremacy of influence wholly unexampled; a supremacy indeed perilous in a less honorable man, to those whom he might chance to hate, and with regard to himself thus far unfortunate, that it conferred upon every work proceeding from his pen a sort of papal indulgence, an immunity from criticism, or even from the appeals of good sense, such as it is not wholesome that any man should enjoy. Yet we repeat that German literature was and is in a condition of total anarchy. With this solitary exception, no name, even in the most narrow section of knowledge or of power, has ever been able in that country to challenge unconditional reverence; whereas, with us and in France, name the science, name the art, and we will name the dominant professor; a difference which partly arises out of the fact that England and France are governed in their opinions by two or three capital cities, whilst Germany looks for its leadership to as many cities as there are residenzen and universities. For instance, the little territory with which Goethe was connected presented no less than two such public lights; Weimar, the residenz or privileged abode of the Grand Duke, and Jena, the university founded by that house. Partly, however, this difference may be due to the greater restlessness, and to the greater energy as respects mere speculation, of the German mind. But no matter whence arising, or how interpreted, the fact is what we have described; absolute confusion, the “anarch old” of Milton, is the one deity whose sceptre is there paramount; and yet there it was, in that very realm of chaos, that Goethe built his throne. That he must have looked with trepidation and perplexity upon his wild empire and its “dark foundations,” may be supposed. The tenure was uncertain to him as regarded its duration; to us it is equally uncertain, and in fact mysterious, as regards its origin. Meantime the mere fact, contrasted with the general tendencies of the German literary world, is sufficient to justify a notice, somewhat circumstantial, of the man in whose favor, whether naturally by force of genius, or by accident concurring with intrigue, so unexampled a result was effected.

Goethe was born at noonday on the 28th of August, 1749, in his father’s house at Frankfort on the Maine. The circumstances of his birth were thus far remarkable, that, unless Goethe’s vanity deceived him, they led to a happy revolution hitherto retarded by female delicacy falsely directed. From some error of the midwife who attended his mother, the infant Goethe appeared to be still-born. Sons there were as yet none from this marriage; everybody was therefore interested in the child’s life; and the panic which arose in consequence, having survived its immediate occasion, was improved into a public resolution, (for which no doubt society stood ready at that moment,) to found some course of public instruction from this time forward for those who undertook professionally the critical duties of accoucheur.

We have noticed the house in which Goethe was born, as well as the city. Both were remarkable, and fitted to leave lasting impressions upon a young person of sensibility. As to the city, its antiquity is not merely venerable, but almost mysterious; towers were at that time to be found in the mouldering lines of its earliest defences, which belonged to the age of Charlemagne, or one still earlier; battlements adapted to a mode of warfare anterior even to that of feudalism or romance. The customs, usages, and local privileges of Frankfort, and the rural districts adjacent, were of a corresponding character. Festivals were annually celebrated at a short distance from the walls, which had descended from a dateless antiquity. Every thing which met the eye spoke the language of elder ages; whilst the river on which the place was seated, its great fair, which still held the rank of the greatest in Christendom, and its connection with the throne of Caesar and his inauguration, by giving to Frankfort an interest and a public character in the eyes of all Germany, had the effect of countersigning, as it were, by state authority, the importance which she otherwise challenged to her ancestral distinctions. Fit house for such a city, and in due keeping with the general scenery, was that of Goethe’s father. It had in fact been composed out of two contiguous houses; that accident had made it spacious and rambling in its plan; whilst a further irregularity had grown out of the original difference in point of level between the corresponding stories of the two houses, making it necessary to connect the rooms of the same suite by short flights of steps. Some of these features were no doubt removed by the recast of the house under the name of “repairs,” (to evade a city bye-law, ) afterwards executed by his father; but such was the house of Goethe’s infancy, and in all other circumstances of style and furnishing equally antique.

The spirit of society in Frankfort, without a court, a university, or a learned body of any extent, or a resident nobility in its neighborhood, could not be expected to display any very high standard of polish. Yet, on the other hand, as an independent city, governed by its own separate laws and tribunals, (that privilege of autonomy so dearly valued by ancient Greece,) and possessing besides a resident corps of jurisprudents and of agents in various ranks for managing the interests of the German emperor and other princes, Frankfort had the means within herself of giving a liberal tone to the pursuits of her superior citizens, and of cooperating in no inconsiderable degree with the general movement of the times, political or intellectual. The memoirs of Goethe himself, and in particular the picture there given of his own family, as well as other contemporary glimpses of German domestic society in those days, are sufficient to show that much knowledge, much true cultivation of mind, much sound refinement of taste, were then distributed through the middle classes of German society; meaning by that very indeterminate expression those classes which for Frankfort composed the aristocracy, viz., all who had daily leisure, and regular funds for employing it to advantage. It is not necessary to add, because that is a fact applicable to all stages of society, that Frankfort presented many and various specimens of original talent, moving upon all directions of human speculation.

Yet, with this general allowance made for the capacities of the place, it is too evident that, for the most part, they lay inert and undeveloped. In many respects Frankfort resembled an English cathedral city, according to the standard of such places seventy years ago, not, that is to say, like Carlisle in this day, where a considerable manufacture exists, but like Chester as it is yet. The chapter of a cathedral, the resident ecclesiastics attached to the duties of so large an establishment, men always well educated, and generally having families, compose the original nucleus, around which soon gathers all that part of the local gentry who, for any purpose, whether of education for their children, or of social enjoyment for themselves, seek the advantages of a town. Hither resort all the timid old ladies who wish for conversation, or other forms of social amusement; hither resort the valetudinarians, male or female, by way of commanding superior medical advice at a cost not absolutely ruinous to themselves; and multitudes besides, with narrow incomes, to whom these quiet retreats are so many cities of refuge.

Such, in one view, they really are; and yet in another they have a vicious constitution. Cathedral cities in England, imperial cities without manufactures in Germany, are all in an improgressive condition. The public employments of every class in such places continue the same from generation to generation. The amount of superior families oscillates rather than changes; that is, it fluctuates within fixed limits; and, for all inferior families, being composed either of shopkeepers or of menial servants, they are determined by the number, or, which, on a large average, is the same, by the pecuniary power, of their employers. Hence it arises, that room is made for one man, in whatever line of dependence, only by the death of another; and the constant increments of the population are carried off into other cities. Not less is the difference of such cities as regards the standard of manners. How striking is the soft and urbane tone of the lower orders in a cathedral city, or in a watering place dependent upon ladies, contrasted with the bold, often insolent, demeanor of a self-dependent artisan or mutinous mechanic of Manchester and Glasgow.

Children, however, are interested in the state of society around them, chiefly as it affects their parents. Those of Goethe were respectable, and perhaps tolerably representative of the general condition in their own rank. An English authoress of great talent, in her Characteristics of Goethe, has too much countenanced the notion that he owed his intellectual advantages exclusively to his mother. Of this there is no proof. His mother wins more esteem from the reader of this day, because she was a cheerful woman, of serene temper, brought into advantageous comparison with a husband much older than herself, whom circumstances had rendered moody, fitful, sometimes capricious, and confessedly obstinate in that degree which Pope has taught us to think connected with inveterate error:

“Stiff in opinion, always in the wrong,”

unhappily presents an association too often actually occurring in nature, to leave much chance for error in presuming either quality from the other. And, in fact, Goethe’s father was so uniformly obstinate in pressing his own views upon all who belonged to him, whenever he did come forward in an attitude of activity, that his family had much reason to be thankful for the rarity of such displays. Fortunately for them, his indolence neutralized his obstinacy. And the worst shape in which his troublesome temper showed itself, was in what concerned the religious reading of the family. Once begun, the worst book as well as the best, the longest no less than the shortest, was to be steadfastly read through to the last word of the last volume; no excess of yawning availed to obtain a reprieve, not, adds his son, though he were himself the leader of the yawners. As an illustration, he mentions Bowyer’s History of the Popes; which awful series of records, the catacombs, as it were, in the palace of history, were actually traversed from one end to the other of the endless suite by the unfortunate house of Goethe. Allowing, however, for the father’s unamiableness in this one point, upon all intellectual ground both parents seem to have met very much upon a level. Two illustrations may suffice, one of which occurred during the infancy of Goethe. The science of education was at that time making its first rude motions towards an ampler development; and, amongst other reforms then floating in the general mind, was one for eradicating the childish fear of ghosts, &c. The young Goethes, as it happened, slept not in separate beds only, but in separate rooms; and not unfrequently the poor children, under the stinging terrors of their lonely situation, stole away from their “forms,” to speak in the hunter’s phrase, and sought to rejoin each other. But in these attempts they were liable to surprises from the enemy; papa and mamma were both on the alert, and often intercepted the young deserter by a cross march or an ambuscade; in which cases each had a separate policy for enforcing obedience. The father, upon his general system of “perseverance,” compelled the fugitive back to his quarters, and, in effect, exhorted him to persist in being frightened out of his wits. To his wife’s gentle heart that course appeared cruel, and she reclaimed the delinquent by bribes; the peaches which her garden walls produced being the fund from which she chiefly drew her supplies for this branch of the secret service. What were her winter bribes, when the long nights would seem to lie heaviest on the exchequer, is not said. Speaking seriously, no man of sense can suppose that a course of suffering from terrors the most awful, under whatever influence supported, whether under the naked force of compulsion, or of that connected with bribes, could have any final effect in mitigating the passion of awe, connected, by our very dreams, with the shadowy and the invisible, or in tranquillizing the infantine imagination.

A second illustration involves a great moral event in the history of Goethe, as it was, in fact, the first occasion of his receiving impressions at war with his religious creed. Piety is so beautiful an ornament of the youthful mind, doubt or distrust so unnatural a growth from confiding innocence, that an infant freethinker is heard of not so much with disgust as with perplexity. A sense of the ludicrous is apt to intermingle; and we lose our natural horror of the result in wonder at its origin. Yet in this instance there is no room for doubt; the fact and the occasion are both on record; there can be no question about the date; and, finally, the accuser is no other than the accused. Goethe’s own pen it is which proclaims, that already, in the early part of his seventh year, his reliance upon God as a moral governor had suffered a violent shock, was shaken, if not undermined. On the 1st of November, 1755, occurred the great earthquake at Lisbon. Upon a double account, this event occupied the thoughts of all Europe for an unusual term of time; both as an expression upon a larger scale than usual of the mysterious physical agency concerned in earthquakes, and also for the awful human tragedy 36 Of this no picture can ever hope to rival that hasty one sketched in the letter of the chaplain to the Lisbon factory. The plague of Athens as painted by Thucydides or Lucretius, nay even the fabulous plague of London by De Foe, contain no scenes or situations equal in effect to some in this plain historic statement. Nay, it would perhaps be difficult to produce a passage from Ezekiel, from Aeschylus, or from Shakspeare, which would so profoundly startle the sense of sublimity as one or two of his incidents, which attended either the earthquake itself, or its immediate sequel in the sudden irruption of the Tagus. Sixty thousand persons, victims to the dark power in its first or its second avatar, attested the Titanic scale upon which it worked. Here it was that the shallow piety of the Germans found a stumbling-block. Those who have read any circumstantial history of the physical signs which preceded this earthquake, are aware that in England and Northern Germany many singular phenomena were observed, more or less manifestly connected with the same dark agency which terminated at Lisbon, and running before this final catastrophe at times so accurately varying with the distances, as to furnish something like a scale for measuring the velocity with which it moved. These German phenomena, circulated rapidly over all Germany by the journals of every class, had seemed to give to the Germans a nearer and more domestic interest in the great event, than belonged to them merely in their universal character of humanity. It is also well known to observers of national characteristics, that amongst the Germans the household charities, the pieties of the hearth, as they may be called, exist, if not really in greater strength, yet with much less of the usual balances or restraints. A German father, for example, is like the grandfather of other nations; and thus a piety, which in its own nature scarcely seems liable to excess, takes, in its external aspect, too often an air of effeminate imbecility. These two considerations are necessary to explain the intensity with which this Lisbon tragedy laid hold of the German mind, and chiefly under the one single aspect of its undistinguishing fury. Women, children, old men—these, doubtless, had been largely involved in the perishing sixty thousand; and that reflection, it would seem from Goethe’s account, had so far embittered the sympathy of the Germans with their distant Portuguese brethren, that, in the Frankfort discussions, sullen murmurs had gradually ripened into bold impeachments of Providence. There can be no gloomier form of infidelity than that which questions the moral attributes of the Great Being, in whose hands are the final destinies of us all. Such, however, was the form of Goethe’s earliest scepticism, such its origin; caught up from the very echoes which rang through the streets of Frankfort when the subject occupied all men’s minds. And such, for anything that appears, continued to be its form thenceforwards to the close of his life, if speculations so crude could be said to have any form at all. Many are the analogies, some close ones, between England and Germany with regard to the circle of changes they have run through, political or social, for a century back. The challenges are frequent to a comparison; and sometimes the result would be to the advantage of Germany, more often to ours. But in religious philosophy, which in reality is the true popular philosophy, how vast is the superiority on the side of this country. Not a shopkeeper or mechanic, we may venture to say, but would have felt this obvious truth, that surely the Lisbon earthquake yielded no fresh lesson, no peculiar moral, beyond what belonged to every man’s experience in every age. A passage in the New Testament about the fall of the tower of Siloam, and the just construction of that event, had already anticipated the difficulty, if such it could be thought. Not to mention, that calamities upon the same scale in the earliest age of Christianity, the fall of the amphitheatre at Fidenae, or the destruction of Pompeii, had presented the same problem at the Lisbon earthquake. Nay, it is presented daily in the humblest individual case, where wrong is triumphant over right, or innocence confounded with guilt in one common disaster. And that the parents of Goethe should have authorized his error, if only by their silence, argues a degree of ignorance in them, which could not have coexisted with much superior knowledge in the public mind.

Goethe, in his Memoirs, (Book VI.,) commends his father for the zeal with which he superintended the education of his children. But apparently it was a zeal without knowledge. Many things were taught imperfectly, but all casually, and as chance suggested them. Italian was studied a little, because the elder Goethe had made an Italian tour, and had collected some Italian books, and engravings by Italian masters. Hebrew was studied a little, because Goethe the son had a fancy for it, partly with a view to theology, and partly because there was a Jewish quarter, gloomy and sequestrated, in the city of Frankfort. French offered itself no doubt on many suggestions, but originally on occasion of a French theatre, supported by the staff of the French army when quartered in the same city. Latin was gathered in a random way from a daily sense of its necessity. English upon the temptation of a stranger’s advertisement, promising upon moderate terms to teach that language in four weeks; a proof, by the way, that the system of bold innovations in the art of tuition had already commenced. Riding and fencing were also attempted under masters apparently not very highly qualified, and in the same desultory style of application. Dancing was taught to his family, strange as it may seem, by Mr. Goethe himself. There is good reason to believe that not one of all these accomplishments was possessed by Goethe, when ready to visit the university, in a degree which made it practically of any use to him. Drawing and music were pursued confessedly as amusements; and it would be difficult to mention any attainment whatsoever which Goethe had carried to a point of excellence in the years which he spent under his father’s care, unless it were his mastery over the common artifices of metre and the common topics of rhetoric, which fitted him for writing what are called occasional poems and impromptus. This talent he possessed in a remarkable degree, and at an early age; but he owed its cultivation entirely to himself.

In a city so orderly as Frankfort, and in a station privileged from all the common hardships of poverty, it can hardly be expected that many incidents should arise, of much separate importance in themselves, to break the monotony of life; and the mind of Goethe was not contemplative enough to create a value for common occurrences through any peculiar impressions which he had derived from them. In the years 1763 and 1764, when he must have been from fourteen to fifteen years old, Goethe witnessed the inauguration and coronation of a king of the Romans, a solemn spectacle connected by prescription with the city of Frankfort. He describes it circumstantially, but with very little feeling, in his Memoirs. Probably the prevailing sentiment, on looking back at least to this transitory splendor of dress, processions, and ceremonial forms, was one of cynical contempt. But this he could not express, as a person closely connected with a German court, without giving much and various offence. It is with some timidity even that he hazards a criticism upon single parts of the costume adopted by some of the actors in that gorgeous scene. White silk stockings, and pumps of the common form, he objects to as out of harmony with the antique and heraldic aspects of the general costume, and ventures to suggest either boots or sandals as an improvement. Had Goethe felt himself at liberty from all restraints of private consideration in composing these Memoirs, can it be doubted that he would have taken his retrospect of this Frankfort inauguration from a different station; from the station of that stern revolution which, within his own time, and partly under his own eyes, had shattered the whole imperial system of thrones, in whose equipage this gay pageant made so principal a figure, had humbled Caesar himself to the dust, and left him an emperor without an empire? We at least, for our parts, could not read without some emotion one little incident of these gorgeous scenes recorded by Goethe, namely, that when the emperor, on rejoining his wife for a few moments, held up to her notice his own hands and arms arrayed in the antique habiliments of Charlemagne, Maria Theresa—she whose children where summoned to so sad a share in the coming changes—gave way to sudden bursts of loud laughter, audible to the whole populace below her. That laugh on surveying the departing pomps of Charlemagne, must, in any contemplative ear, have rung with a sound of deep significance, and with something of the same effect which belongs to a figure of death introduced by a painter, as mixing in the festal dances of a bridal assembly.

These pageants of 1763–64 occupy a considerable space in Goethe’s Memoirs, and with some logical propriety at least, in consideration of their being exclusively attached to Frankfort, and connected by manifold links of person and office with the privileged character of the city. Perhaps he might feel a sort of narrow local patriotism in recalling these scenes to public notice by description, at a time when they had been irretrievably extinguished as realities. But, after making every allowance for their local value to a Frankfort family, and for their memorable splendor, we may venture to suppose that by far the most impressive remembrances which had gathered about the boyhood of Goethe, were those which pointed to Frederick of Prussia. This singular man, so imbecile as a pretender to philosophy and new lights, so truly heroic under misfortunes, was the first German who created a German interest, and gave a transient unity to the German name, under all its multiplied divisions. Were it only for this conquest of difficulties so peculiar, he would deserve his German designation of Fred. the Unique, (Fritz der einzige.) He had been partially tried and known previously; but it was the Seven Years’ War which made him the popular idol. This began in 1756; and to Frankfort, in a very peculiar way, that war brought dissensions and heart-burnings in its train. The imperial connections of the city with many public and private interests, pledged it to the anti-Prussian cause. It happened also that the truly German character of the reigning imperial family, the domestic habits of the empress and her young daughters, and other circumstances, were of a nature to endear the ties of policy; self-interest and affection pointed in the same direction. And yet were all these considerations allowed to melt away before the brilliant qualities of one man, and the romantic enthusiasm kindled by his victories. Frankfort was divided within herself; the young and the generous were all dedicated to Frederick. A smaller party, more cautious and prudent, were for the imperialists. Families were divided upon this question against families, and often against themselves; feuds, begun in private, issued often into public violence; and, according to Goethe’s own illustration, the streets were vexed by daily brawls, as hot and as personal as of old between the Capulets and Montagues.

These dissensions, however, were pursued with not much personal risk to any of the Goethes, until a French army passed the Rhine as allies of the imperialists. One corps of this force took up their quarters in Frankfort; and the Comte Thorane, who held a high appointment on the staff, settled himself for a long period of time in the spacious mansion of Goethe’s father. This officer, whom his place made responsible for the discipline of the army in relation to the citizens, was naturally by temper disposed to moderation and forbearance. He was indeed a favorable specimen of French military officers under the old system; well bred, not arrogant, well informed, and a friend of the fine arts. For painting, in particular, he professed great regard and some knowledge. The Goethes were able to forward his views amongst German artists; whilst, on the other hand, they were pleased to have thus an opportunity of directing his patronage towards some of their own needy connections. In this exchange of good offices, the two parties were for some time able to maintain a fair appearance of reciprocal good-will. This on the comte’s side, if not particularly warm, was probably sincere; but in Goethe the father it was a masque for inveterate dislike. A natural ground of this existed in the original relations between them. Under whatever disguise or pretext, the Frenchman was in fact a military intruder. He occupied the best suite of rooms in the house, used the furniture as his own; and, though upon private motives he abstained from doing all the injury which his situation authorized, (so as in particular to have spread his fine military maps upon the floor, rather than disfigure the decorated walls by nails,) still he claimed credit, if not services of requital, for all such instances of forbearance. Here were grievances enough; but, in addition to these, the comte’s official appointments drew upon him a weight of daily business, which kept the house in a continual uproar. Farewell to the quiet of a literary amateur, and the orderliness of a German household. Finally, the comte was a Frenchman. These were too many assaults upon one man’s patience. It Will be readily understood, therefore, how it happened, that, whilst Goethe’s gentle minded mother, with her flock of children, continued to be on the best terms with Comte Thorane, the master of the house kept moodily aloof, and retreated from all intercourse.

Goethe, in his own Memoir, enters into large details upon this subject; and from him we shall borrow the denouement of the tale. A crisis had for some time been lowering over the French affairs in Frankfort; things seemed ripening for a battle; and at last it came. Flight, siege, bombardment, possibly a storm, all danced before the eyes of the terrified citizens. Fortunately, however, the battle took place at the distance of four or five miles from Frankfort. Monsieur le Comte was absent, of course, on the field of battle. His unwilling host thought that on such an occasion he also might go out in quality of spectator; and with this purpose he connected another, worthy of a Parson Adams. It is his son who tells the story, whose filial duty was not proof against his sense of the ludicrous. The old gentleman’s hatred of the French had by this time brought him over to his son’s admiration of the Prussian hero. Not doubting for an instant that victory would follow that standard, he resolved on this day to offer in person his congratulations to the Prussian army, whom he already viewed as his liberator from a domestic nuisance. So purposing, he made his way cautiously to the suburbs; from the suburbs, still listening at each advance, he went forward to the country; totally forgetting, as his son insists, that, however completely beaten, the French army must still occupy some situation or other between himself and his German deliverer. Coming, however, at length to a heath, he found some of those marauders usually to be met with in the rear of armies, prowling about, and at intervals amusing themselves with shooting at a mark. For want of a better, it seemed not improbable that a large German head might answer their purpose. Certain signs admonished him of this, and the old gentleman crept back to Frankfort. Not many hours after came back also the comte, by no means creeping, however; on the contrary, crowing with all his might for a victory which he averred himself to have won. There had in fact been an affair, but on no very great scale, and with no distinguished results. Some prisoners, however, he brought, together with some wounded; and naturally he expected all well disposed persons to make their compliments of congratulation upon this triumph. Of this duty poor Mrs. Goethe and her children cheerfully acquitted themselves that same night; and Monsieur le Comte was so well pleased with the sound opinions of the little Goethes, that he sent them in return a collection of sweetmeats and fruits. All promised to go well; intentions, after all, are not acts; and there certainly is not, nor ever was, any treason in taking a morning’s walk. But, as ill luck would have it, just as Mr. Goethe was passing the comte’s door, out came the comte in person, purely by accident, as we are told; but we suspect that the surly old German, either under his morning hopes or his evening disappointments, had talked with more frankness than prudence. “Good evening to you, Herr Goethe,” said the comte; “you are come, I see, to pay your tribute of congratulation. Somewhat of the latest, to be sure; but no matter.” “By no means,” replied the German;” by no means; mit nichten. Heartily I wished, the whole day long, that you and your cursed gang might all go to the devil together. “Here was plain speaking, at least. The Comte Thorane could no longer complain of dissimulation. His first movement was to order an arrest; and the official interpreter of the French army took to himself the whole credit that he did not carry it into effect. Goethe takes the trouble to report a dialogue, of length and dulness absolutely incredible, between this interpreter and the comte. No such dialogue, we may be assured, ever took place. Goethe may, however, be right in supposing that, amongst a foreign soldiery, irritated by the pointed contrasts between the Frankfort treatment of their own wounded, and of their prisoners who happened to be in the same circumstances, and under a military council not held to any rigorous responsibility, his father might have found no very favorable consideration of his case. It is well, therefore, that after some struggle the comte’s better nature triumphed. He suffered Mrs. Goethe’s merits to outweigh her husband’s delinquency; countermanded the order for arrest, and, during the remainder of their connection, kept at such a distance from his moody host as was equally desirable for both. Fortunately that remainder was not very long. Comte Thorane was soon displaced; and the whole army was soon afterwards withdrawn from Frankfort.

In his fifteenth year Goethe was entangled in some connection with young people of inferior rank, amongst whom was Margaret, a young girl about two years older than himself, and the object of his first love. The whole affair, as told by Goethe, is somewhat mysterious. What might be the final views of the elder parties it is difficult to say; but Goethe assures us that they used his services only in writing an occasional epithalamium, the pecuniary acknowledgment for which was spent jovially in a general banquet. The magistrates, however, interfered, and endeavored to extort a confession from Goethe. He, as the son of a respectable family, was to be pardoned; the others to be punished. No confession, however, could be extorted; and for his own part he declares that, beyond the offence of forming a clandestine connection, he had nothing to confess. The affair terminated, as regarded himself, in a severe illness. Of the others we hear no more.

The next event of importance in Goethe’s life was his removal to college. His own wishes pointed to Goettingen, but his father preferred Leipsic. Thither accordingly he went, but he carried his obedience no farther. Declining the study of jurisprudence, he attached himself to general literature. Subsequently he removed to the university of Strasburg; but in neither place could it be said that he pursued any regular course of study. His health suffered at times during this period of his life; at first from an affection of the chest, caused by an accident on his first journey to Leipsic; the carriage had stuck fast in the muddy roads, and Goethe exerted himself too much in assisting to extricate the wheels. A second illness connected with the digestive organs brought him into considerable danger.

After his return to Frankfort, Goethe commenced his career as an author. In 1773, and the following year, he made his maiden essay in Goetz of Berlichingen, a drama, (the translation of which, remarkably enough, was destined to be the literary coup d’essai of Sir Walter Scott,) and in the far-famed Werther. The first of these was pirated; and in consequence the author found some difficulty in paying for the paper of the genuine edition, which part of the expense, by his contract with the publisher, fell upon himself. The general and early popularity of the second work is well known. Yet, except in so far as it might spread his name abroad, it cannot be supposed to have had much influence in attracting that potent patronage which now began to determine the course of his future life. So much we collect from the account which Goethe himself has left us of this affair in its earliest stages.

“I was sitting alone in my room,” says he, “at my father’s house in Frankfort, when a gentleman entered, whom at first I took for Frederick Jacobi, but soon discovered by the dubious light to be a stranger. He had a military air; and announcing himself by the name of Von Knebel, gave me to understand in a short explanation, that being in the Prussian service, he had connected himself, during a long residence at Berlin and Potsdam, with the literati of those places; but that at present he held the appointment from the court of Weimar of travelling tutor to the Prince Constantine. This I heard with pleasure; for many of our friends had brought us the most interesting accounts from Weimar, in particular that the Duchess Amelia, mother of the young grand duke and his brother, summoned to her assistance in educating her sons the most distinguished men in Germany; and that the university of Jena cooperated powerfully in all her liberal plans. I was aware also that Wieland was in high favor; and that the German Mercury (a literary journal of eminence) was itself highly creditable to the city of Jena, from which it issued. A beautiful and well-conducted theatre had besides, as I knew, been lately established at Weimar. This, it was true, had been destroyed; but that event, under common circumstances so likely to be fatal as respected the present, had served only to call forth the general expression of confidence in the young prince as a restorer and upholder of all great interests, and true to his purposes under any calamity.” Thinking thus, and thus prepossessed in favor of Weimar, it was natural that Goethe should be eager to see the prince. Nothing was easier. It happened that he and his brother Constantine were at this moment in Frankfort, and Von Knebel willingly offered to present Goethe. No sooner said than done; they repaired to the hotel, where they found the illustrious travellers, with Count Goertz, the tutor of the elder.

Upon this occasion an accident, rather than any previous reputation of Goethe, was probably the determining occasion which led to his favor with the future sovereign of Weimar. A new book lay upon the table; that none of the strangers had read it, Goethe inferred from observing that the leaves were as yet uncut. It was a work of Moser, (Patriotische Phantasien;) and, being political rather than literary in its topics, it presented to Goethe, previously acquainted with its outline, an opportunity for conversing with the prince upon subjects nearest to his heart, and of showing that he was not himself a mere studious recluse. The opportunity was not lost; the prince and his tutor were much interested, and perhaps a little surprised. Such subjects have the further advantage, according to Goethe’s own illustration, that, like the Arabian thousand and one nights, as conducted by Sultana Scheherezade, “never ending, still beginning,” they rarely come to any absolute close, but so interweave one into another, as still to leave behind a large arrear of interest In order to pursue the conversation, Goethe was invited to meet them soon after at Mentz. He kept the appointment punctually; made himself even more agreeable; and finally received a formal invitation to enter the service of this excellent prince, who was now beginning to collect around him all those persons who have since made Weimar so distinguished a name in connection with the German literature. With some opposition from his father, who held up the rupture between Voltaire and Frederick of Prussia as a precedent applying to all possible connections of princes and literati, Goethe accepted the invitation; and hence forwards, for upwards of fifty-five years, his fortunes were bound up with those of the ducal house of Weimar.

The noble part which that house played in the great modern drama of German politics is well known, and would have been better known had its power been greater. But the moral value of its sacrifices and its risks is not the less. Had greater potentates shown equal firmness, Germany would not have been laid at the feet of Napoleon. In 1806 the grand duke was aware of the peril which awaited the allies of Prussia; but neither his heart nor his conscience would allow of his deserting a friend in whose army he held a principal command. The decisive battle took place in his own territory, and not far from his own palace and city of Weimar. Personally he was with the Prussian army; but his excellent consort stayed in the palace to encourage her subjects, and as far as possible to conciliate the enemy by her presence. The fortune of that great day, the 14th of October, 1806, was decided early; and the awful event was announced by a hot retreat and a murderous pursuit through the streets of the town. In the evening Napoleon arrived in person; and now came the trying moment. “The duchess,” says an Englishman well acquainted with Weimar and its court, “placed herself on the top of the staircase to greet him with the formality of a courtly reception. Napoleon started when he beheld her, Qui etes vous? he exclaimed with characteristic abruptness. Je suis la Duchesse de Weimar. Je vous plains, he retorted fiercely, J’ecraserai votre mari; he then added, ‘I shall dine in my apartment,’ and rushed by her. The night was spent on the part of the soldiery in all the horrid excesses of rapine. In the morning the duchess sent to inquire concerning the health of his majesty the emperor, and to solicit an audience. He, who had now benefited by his dreams, or by his reflections, returned a gracious answer, and invited himself to breakfast with her in her apartment.” In the conversation which ensued, Napoleon asked her if her husband were mad, upon which she justified the duke by appealing to his own magnanimity, asking in her turn if his majesty would have approved of his deserting the king of Prussia at the moment when he was attacked by so potent a monarch as himself. The rest of the conversation was in the same spirit, uniting with a sufficient concession to the circumstances of the moment a dignified vindication of a high-minded policy. Napoleon was deeply impressed with respect for her, and loudly expressed it. For her sake, indeed, he even affected to pardon her husband, thus making a merit with her of the necessity which he felt, from other motives, for showing forbearance towards a family so nearly allied to that of St. Petersburg. In 1813 the grand duke was found at his post in that great gathering of the nations which took place on the stupendous fields of Leipsic, and was complimented by the allied sovereigns as one of the most faithful amongst the faithful to the great cause, yet undecided, of national independence.

With respect to Goethe, as a councillor so near the duke’s person, it may be supposed that his presence was never wanting where it promised to be useful. In the earlier campaigns of the duke, Goethe was his companion; but in the final contest with Napoleon be was unequal to the fatigues of such a post. In all the functions of peace, however, he continued to be a useful servant to the last, though long released from all official duties. Each had indeed most honorably earned the gratitude of the other. Goethe had surrendered the flower of his years and the best energies of his mind to the service of his serene master. On the other hand, that master had to him been at once his Augustus and his Maecenas; such is his own expression. Under him he had founded a family, raised an estate, obtained titles and decorations from various courts; and in the very vigor of his life he had been allowed to retire, with all the honors of long service, to the sanctuary of his own study, and to the cultivation of his leisure, as the very highest mode in which he could further the public interest.

The life of Goethe was so quiet and so uniform after the year 1775, when he may first be said to have entered into active life, by taking service with the Duke of Weimar, that a biographer will find hardly any event to notice, except two journeys to Italy, and one campaign in 1792, until he draws near the close of his long career. It cannot interest an English reader to see the dates of his successive appointments. It is enough to know that they soon raised him to as high a station as was consistent with literary leisure; and that he had from the beginning enjoyed the unlimited confidence of his sovereign. Nothing remained, in fact, for the subject to desire which the prince had not previously volunteered. In 1825, they were able to look back upon a course of uninterrupted friendship, maintained through good and evil fortunes, unexampled in their agitation and interest for fifty years. The duke commemorated this remarkable event by a jubilee, and by a medal in honor of Goethe. Full of years and honor, this eminent man might now begin to think of his departure. However, his serenity continued unbroken nearly for two years more, when his illustrious patron died. That shock was the first which put his fortitude to trial. In 1830 others followed; the duchess, who had won so much admiration from Napoleon, died; then followed his own son; and there remained little now to connect his wishes with the earth. The family of his patron he had lived to see flourishing in his descendants to the fourth generation. His own grandchildren were prosperous and happy. His intellectual labors were now accomplished. All that remained to wish for was a gentle dismission. This he found in the spring of 1832. After a six days’ illness, which caused him no apparent suffering, on the morning of the 22d of March he breathed away as if into a gentle sleep, surrounded by his daughter-in-law and her children. Never was a death more in harmony with the life it closed; both had the same character of deep and absolute serenity.

Such is the outline of Goethe’s life, traced through its principal events. But as these events, after all, borrow their interest mainly from the consideration allowed to Goethe as an author, and as a model in the German literature,—that being the centre about which all secondary feelings of interest in the man must finally revolve,—it thus becomes a duty to throw a glance over his principal works. Dismissing his songs, to which has been ascribed by some critics a very high value for their variety and their lyrical enthusiasm; dismissing also a large body of short miscellaneous poems, suited to the occasional circumstances in which they arose; we may throw the capital works of Goethe into two classes, philosophic novels, and dramas. The novels, which we call philosophic by way of expressing their main characteristic in being written to serve a preconceived purpose, or to embody some peculiar views of life, or some aspects of philosophic truth, are three, viz., the Werther’s Leiden; secondly, the Wilhelm Meister; and, lastly, the Wahloer-wand-schaften. The first two exist in English translations; and though the Werther had the disadvantage of coming to us through a French version, already, perhaps, somewhat colored and distorted to meet the Parisian standards of sentiment, yet, as respects Goethe and his reputation amongst us, this wrong has been redressed, or compensated at least, by the good fortune of his Wilhelm Meister, in falling into the hands of a translator whose original genius qualified him for sympathizing even to excess with any real merits in that work. This novel is in its own nature and purpose sufficiently obscure; and the commentaries which have been written upon it by the Hurnboldts, Schlegels, &c., make the enigma still more enigmatical. We shall not venture abroad upon an ocean of discussion so truly dark, and at the same time so illimitable. Whether it be qualified to excite any deep and sincere feeling of one kind or another in the German mind,—in a mind trained under German discipline,—this we will consent to waive as a question not immediately interesting to ourselves. Enough that it has not gained, and will not gain, any attention in this country; and this not only because it is thoroughly deficient in all points of attraction to readers formed upon our English literature, but because in some capital circumstances it is absolutely repulsive. We do not wish to offend the admirers of Goethe; but the simplicity of truth will not allow us to conceal, that in various points of description or illustration, and sometimes in the very outline of the story, the Wilhelm Meister is at open war, not with decorum and good taste merely, but with moral purity and the dignity of human nature. As a novelist, Goethe and his reputation are problems, and likely to continue such, to the countrymen of Mrs. Inchbald, Miss Harriet Lee, Miss Edgeworth, and Sir Walter Scott. To the dramatic works of Goethe we are disposed to pay more homage; but neither in the absolute amount of our homage at all professing to approach his public admirers, nor to distribute the proportions of this homage amongst his several performances according to the graduations of their scale. The Iphigenie is built upon the old subject of Iphigenia in Tauris, as treated by Euripides and other Grecian dramatists; and, if we are to believe a Schlegel, it is in beauty and effect a mere echo or reverberation from the finest strains of the old Grecian music. That it is somewhat nearer to the Greek model than a play after the fashion of Racine, we grant. Setting aside such faithful transcripts from the antique as the Samson Agonistes, we might consent to view Goethe as that one amongst the moderns who had made the closest approximation to the Greek stage. Proximus, we might say, with Quintilian, but with him we must add,” sed lango intervallo; “and if in the second rank, yet nearer to the third than to the first. Two other dramas, the Clavigo and the Egmont, fall below the Iphigenie by the very character of their pretensions; the first as too openly renouncing the grandeurs of the ideal; the second as confessedly violating the historic truth of character, without temptation to do so, and without any consequent indemnification. The Tasso has been supposed to realize an Italian beauty of genial warmth and of sunny repose; but from the common defect of German criticism—the absence of all sufficient illustrations—it is as difficult to understand the true nature and constituents of the supposed Italian standard set up for the regulation of our judgments, as it is to measure the degree of approach made to that standard in this particular work. Eugenie is celebrated for the artificial burnish of the style, but otherwise has been little relished. It has the beauty of marble sculpture, say the critics of Goethe, but also the coldness. We are not often disposed to quarrel with these critics as below the truth in their praises; in this instance we are. The Eugenie is a fragment, or (as Goethe himself called it in conversation) a torso, being only the first drama in a trilogy or series of three dramas, each having a separate plot, whilst all are parts of a more general and comprehensive plan. It may be charged with languor in the movement of the action, and with excess of illustration. Thus, e. g. the grief of the prince for the supposed death of his daughter, is the monotonous topic which occupies one entire act. But the situations, though not those of scenical distress, are so far from being unexciting, that, on the contrary, they are too powerfully afflicting.

The lustre of all these performances, however, is eclipsed by the unrivalled celebrity amongst German critics of the Faust. Upon this it is better to say nothing than too little. How trifling an advance has been made towards clearing the ground for any sane criticism, may be understood from this fact, that as yet no two people have agreed about the meaning of any separate scene, or about the drift of the whole. Neither is this explained by saying, that until lately the Faust was a fragment; for no additional light has dawned upon the main question since the publication of the latter part.

One work there is of Goethe’s which falls into neither of the classes here noticed; we mean the Hermann and Dorothea, a narrative poem, in hexameter verse. This appears to have given more pleasure to readers not critical, than any other work of its author; and it is remarkable that it traverses humbler ground, as respects both its subject, its characters, and its scenery. From this, and other indications of the same kind, we are disposed to infer that Goethe mistook his destination; that his aspiring nature misled him; and that his success would have been greater had he confined himself to the real in domestic life, without raising his eyes to the ideal.

We must also mention, that Goethe threw out some novel speculations in physical science, and particularly in physiology, in the doctrine of colors, and in comparative anatomy, which have divided the opinions of critics even more than any of those questions which have arisen upon points more directly connected with his avowed character of poet.

It now remains to say a few words by way of summing up his pretensions as a man, and his intellectual power in the age to which he belonged. His rank and value as a moral being are so plain as to be legible to him who runs. Everybody must feel that his temperament and constitutional tendency was of that happy quality, the animal so nicely balanced with the intellectual, that with any ordinary measure of prosperity he could not be otherwise than a good man. He speaks himself of his own “virtue,” sans phrase; and we tax him with no vanity in doing so. As a young man even at the universities, which at that time were barbarously sensual in Germany, he was (for so much we collect from his own Memoirs) eminently capable of self-restraint. He preserves a tone of gravity, of sincerity, of respect for female dignity, which we never find associated with the levity and recklessness of vice. We feel throughout, the presence of one who, in respecting others, respects himself; and the cheerfulness of the presiding tone persuades us at once that the narrator is in a healthy moral condition, fears no ill, and is conscious of having meditated none. Yet at the same time we cannot disguise from ourselves, that the moral temperament of Goethe was one which demanded prosperity. Had he been called to face great afflictions, singular temptations, or a billowy and agitated course of life, our belief is that his nature would have been found unequal to the strife; he would have repeated the mixed and moody character of his father. Sunny prosperity was essential to his nature; his virtues were adapted to that condition. And happily that was his fate. He had no personal misfortunes; his path was joyous in this life; and even the reflex sorrow from the calamities of his friends did not press too heavily on his sympathies; none of these were in excess either as to degree or duration.

In this estimate of Goethe as a moral being, few people will differ with us, unless it were the religious bigot. And to him we must concede thus much, that Goethe was not that religious creature which by nature he was intended to become. This is to be regretted. Goethe was naturally pious, and reverential towards higher natures; and it was in the mere levity or wantonness of youthful power, partly also through that early false bias growing out of the Lisbon earthquake, that he falsified his original destination. Do we mean, then, that a childish error could permanently master his understanding? Not so; that would have been corrected with his growing strength. But having once arisen, it must for a long time have moulded his feelings; until corrected, it must have impressed a corresponding false bias upon his practical way of viewing things; and that sort of false bias, once established, might long survive a mere error of the understanding. One thing is undeniable,—Goethe had so far corrupted and clouded his natural mind, that he did not look up to God, or the system of things beyond the grave, with the interest of reverence and awe, but with the interest of curiosity.

Goethe, however, in a moral estimate, will be viewed pretty uniformly. But Goethe intellectually, Goethe as a power acting upon the age in which he lived, that is another question. Let us put a case; suppose that Goethe’s death had occurred fifty years ago, that is, in the year 1785, what would have been the general impression? Would Europe have felt a shock? Would Europe have been sensible even of the event? Not at all; it would have been obscurely noticed in the newspapers of Germany, as the death of a novelist who had produced some effect about ten years before. In 1832, it was announced by the post-horns of all Europe as the death of him who had written the Wilhelm Meister, the Iphigenie, and the Faust, and who had been enthroned by some of his admirers on the same seat with Homer and Shakspeare, as composing what they termed the trinity of men of genius. And yet it is a fact, that, in the opinion of some amongst the acknowledged leaders of our own literature for the last twenty-five years, the Werther was superior to all which followed it, and for mere power was the paramount work of Goethe. For ourselves, we must acknowledge our assent upon the whole to this verdict; and at the same time we will avow our belief that the reputation of Goethe must decline for the next generation or two, until it reaches its just level. Three causes, we are persuaded, have concurred to push it so far beyond the proportion of real and genuine interest attached to his works, for in Germany his works are little read, and in this country not at all. First, his extraordinary age; for the last twenty years Goethe had been the patriarch of the German literature. Secondly, the splendor of his official rank at the court of Weimar; he was the minister and private friend of the patriot sovereign amongst the princes of Germany. Thirdly, the quantity of enigmatical and unintelligible writing which he has designedly thrown into his latter works, by way of keeping up a system of discussion and strife upon his own meaning amongst the critics of his country. These disputes, had his meaning been of any value in his own eyes, he would naturally have settled by a few authoritative words from himself; but it was his policy to keep alive the feud in a case where it was of importance, that his name should continue to agitate the world, but of none at all that he should be rightly interpreted.

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