Conversations With Goethe in the Last Years of his Life

Translated from the German of Eckermann by S. M. Fuller

Translator’s Preface

This book cannot fall to interest all who are desirous to understand the character and opinions of Goethe, or the state of literary society in Germany. The high opinion which Goethe entertained of Ecker­mann’s fidelity, judgment, and comprehension of himself, is sufficiently proved, by his appointing him editor of his Posthumous Works. The light in which this book is regarded by the distinguished circle of which Goethe was the glory, may be seen by a reference to the first volume of Mrs. Jameson’s late work, “Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada.”

It is, obviously, a most faithful record. Perhaps there is no instance in which one mind has been able to give out what it received from another, so little colored by its own substance. It is true that the simple reverence, and thorough subordination to the mind of Goethe, which make Eckermann so transparent a medium, prevent his being of any value as an interpreter. Never was satellite more completely in harmony with his ruling orb. He is merely the sounding-board to the various notes played by the master’s hand; and what we find here is, to all intents and purposes, not conversation, but monologue. A finer book might be made by selections from Goethe’s miscellanies; but here some subjects are brought forward on which he never wrote. The journal form gives an ease and life to the discussion, and what is wanting in fulness and beauty is made up to us by the pleasure we always take in the unpremeditated flow of thought, and in seeing what topics come up naturally with such a person as Goethe.

An imperial genius must have not only willing subjects, bot good instruments. Eckermann has all the merit of an intelligent minister and a discreet secretary. He is ruled and modelled, but not blinded, by Goethe. When we look at the interesting sketch of his youthful struggles, and see what obligations he owed to Goethe, as well before as after their personal acquaintance, we cannot blame him for his boundless gratitude to the sun which chased away so many clouds from his sky. He seems, indeed, led onward to be the foster-child and ready helper of this great man, and could not so well have filled this place, if he had kept sufficiently aloof to satisfy our pride. I say our pride, because we are jealous for minds which we see in this state of subordi­nation. We feel it too dangerous to what is most valuable in character; and, rare as independence is, we cannot but ask it from all who live in the light of genius.

Still, our feeling towards Eckermann is not only kindly, but respectful. He is not ridiculous, like Boswell, for no vanity or littleness sullies his sincere enthusiasm. In these sober and enlightened days, we rebel against man-worship, even though it be hero-­worship. But how could this person, so rich in natural gifts, So surrounded by what was bright, beautiful, and courtly, and at so high a point of culture, fail to be overpowering to an obscure youth, whose abilities he had been the chief means or unfolding? It could not be otherwise than that Eckermann should sit at his feet, and live on his bounty. Enough for the disciple to know how to use what he received with thoughtful gratitude. That Goethe also knew how to receive is evident from his correspondences with Zelter, Schiller, and Meyer,—relations which show him in a better light than this with Eckermann, because the parties were on more equal terms.

Those letters, or the substance of them, will, some time, be published here. Meanwhile, the book before us has merits which they no not possess. It paints Goethe to us as he was in the midst of his family, and in his most careless or weary hours. Under such cir­cumstances, whatever may be thought of his views, (and they are often still less suited to our public than to that of Germany,) his courteous grace, his calm wisdom, and reliance on the harmony of his faith with his nature, must be felt, by the unprejudiced reader, to be beautiful and rare.

And here it may not be amiss to give some intima­tion (more my present limits do not permit) of the grounds on which Goethe is, to myself, an object of peculiar interest and constant study.

I hear him much assailed by those among us who know him, some few in his own language, but most from translations of “Wilhelm Meister” and “Faust.” These, his two great works, in which he proposed to himself the enigma of life, and solved it after his fashion, were, naturally enough, selected, in preference to others, for translating. This was, for all but the translators, unfortunate, because these two, above all others, require a knowledge of the circumstances and character from which they rose, to ascertain their scope and tendency.

It is sneeringly said, “Those persons who are so fanatical for German literature always say, if you object to any of their idols, that you are not capable of appreciating them.” And it is truly, though oftentimes too impatiently, said. The great movement in German literature is too recent to be duly esti­mated, even by those most interested to examine it. The waves have scarce yet ebbed from this new continent, and those who are visiting its shores, see so much that is new and beautiful, that of their many obligations to-the phenomenon, the chief is, as yet, that of the feeling of fresh creative life at work there. No wonder that they feel vexed at those who declare, from an occasional peep through a spy-glass, that they see no new wonders for geology; that they can botanize all the flowers, and find nothing worthy of fresh attempts at classification; and that there are no birds except a few sea-gulls. Would these hasty critics but recollect how long it was before similar movements in Italy, Spain, France, and England, found their proper place in the thoughts of other nations, they would  not think fifty years’ investigation too much for fifty years’ growth, and would no longer provoke the ire of those who are lighting their tapers at the German torch. Meanwhile it is silly to be in a pet always; and dis­dainful answers have been recognized as useless since Solomon’s time, or earlier. What could have been the reason they were not set aside, while that wise prince lived, once for all?

The objections usually made, though not without a foundation in truth, are such as would answer themselves on a more thorough acquaintance with the subject. In France and England there has seemed an approximation, of late, to juster views. Yet, in a recent number of “Blackwood’s Magazine,” has appeared an article as ignorant (and that is a strong word) as any thing that has ever been written about Goethe.

The objections, so far as I know them, may be resolved into these classes­—

He is not a Christian;
He is not an Idealist;
He is not a Democrat;
He is not Schiller.

If by Christian be meant the subordination of the intellectual to the spiritual, I shall not deny that with Goethe the reverse was the case. He sought always for unity; but the want with him was chiefly one of the intellect. A creative activity was his law. He was far from insensible to spiritual beauty in the human character. He has imbodied it in its finest forms; but he merely put it in, what seemed to him, its place, as the key-stone of the social arch, and paints neither that nor any other state with partiality. Such was his creed as a writer. “I paint,” he seems to say, “what I have seen; choose from it, or take it all, as you will or can.” In his love of form Goethe was a Greek; constitutionally, and by the habit of his life, averse to the worship of sorrow. His God was rather the creative and upholding than the paternal spirit; his religion, that all his powers must be unfolded; his faith, “that nature could not dispense with Immortality.” In the most trying occasions of his life, he referred to “the great Idea of Duty which alone can hold us upright.” Renunciation, the power of sacrificing the temporary for the permanent, is a leading idea in one of his great works, “Wilhelm Meister.” The thought of the Catholic Dante is repeated in his other great work, (“Faust,”) where Margaret, by her innocence of heart, and the resolute aversion to the powers of darkness, which her mind, in its most shattered state, does not forget, redeems not only her own soul, but that of her erring lover. The virgin Ottilia, who immolates herself to avoid the possibility of spotting her thoughts with passion, give to that much-abused book (Die Wahlverwandtschaften) the pathetic moral of the pic­tures of the Magdalen. His two highest female characters, Natalia and Makaria, are representations of beneficence and heavenly wisdom. Iphigenia, by her steadfast truth, hallows all about her, and disarms the powers of hell. Such traits as these may be accumulated; yet it remains not the less true that Goethe was not what is called a spiritual writer. Those who can­not draw their moral for themselves had best leave his books alone; they require the power as life does. This advantage only does he give, or intend to give you, of looking at life brought into a compass con­venient to your eye, by a great observer and artist, and at times when you can look uninterrupted by action, undisturbed by passion.

He was not an Idealist; that is to say, be thought not so much of what might be as what is. He did not seek to alter or exalt Nature, but merely to select from her rich stores. Here, indeed, even as an artist, be would always have stopped short of the highest excellence, if he had not at times been inspired beyond his knowledge and his will. Had his views been dif­ferent, his peculiar powers of minute, searching, and extended observation would have been much injured; as, instead of looking at objects with the single aim of ascertaining their properties, he would have examined them only to gain from them what most favored his plans. I am well satisfied that “he went the way that God and Nature called him.”

He was an Aristocrat. And, in the present day, hostility arises instinctively against one who does not be­lieve in the people, and whose tastes are in favor of a fixed external gradation. My sympathies are with the great onward movement now obvious throughout the civilized world; my hope is that we may make a fair experiment whether men can be educated to rule themselves, and communities be trusted to choose their own rulers. This is, it seems, the present tendency of the Ages; and, had I influence, I would not put a straw in the way. Yet a minority is needed to keep these liberals in check, and make them pause upon their measures long enough to know what they are doing; for, as yet, the caldron of liberty has shown a constant disposition to overboil. The artist and literary man is naturally thrown into this body, by his need of repose, and a firm ground to work in his proper way. Certainly Goethe by nature belonged on that side; and no one, who can under­stand the structure of his mind, instead of judging him by his outward relations, will impute to him unworthy motives, or think he could, being what he was, hold other opinions. And is not this all which is important? The gates that keep out the water while the ship is building have their place also, as well as the ship itself, or the wind which fills the sails. To be sincere, consistent, and intelligent in what one believes is what is important; a higher power takes care of the rest.

In reply to those who object to him that he is not Schiller, it may be remarked that Shakspeare was not Milton, nor Ariosto Tasso. It was, indeed, unnecessary that there should be two Schillers, one being sufficient to represent a certain class of thoughts and opinions. It would be well if the admirers of Schiller would learn from him to admire and profit by his friend and coadjutor, as he himself did.

Schiller was wise enough to judge each nature by its own law, great enough to understand greatness of an order different from his own. He was too well aware of the value of the more beautiful existences to quarrel with the rose for not being a lily, the eagle for not being a swan.

I am not fanatical as to the benefits to be derived from the study of German literature. I suppose, indeed, that there lie the life and learning of the century, and that he who does not go to those sources can have no just notion of the workings of the spirit in the European world these last fifty years or more; but my tastes are often displeased by German writers, even by Goethe—of German writers the most English and most Greek. To cultivate the tastes, we must go to another school; but I wish that we could learn from the Germans habits of more liberal criticism, and leave the way of judging from comparison or personal predilections. If we must draw parallels, we ought to be sure that we are capable of a love for all greatness as fervent as that of Plutarch’s time. Perhaps it may be answered that the comparison between Goethe and Schiller began in Germany: it did so, but arose there from circumstances with which we have nothing to do. Generally, the wise German criticises with the positive degree, and is well aware of the danger in using the comparative.

For the rest, no one who has a higher aim in read­ing German books than mere amusement; no one who knows what it is to become acquainted with a literature as literature, in its history of mutual influences, diverse yet, harmonious tendencies, can leave aside either Schil­ler or Goethe; but far, far least the latter. It would be leaving Augustus Caesar out of the history of Rome because he was not Brutus.

Having now confessed to what Goethe is not, I would indicate, as briefly as possible, what, to me, he is.

Most valuable as a means of balancing the judg­ment and suggesting thought from his antagonism to the spirit of the age. He prefers the perfecting of the few to the slight improvement of the many. He believes more in man than men, effort than success, thought than action, nature than providence. He does not insist on my believing with him. I would go up often into this fortress, and look from its battle­ments, to see how goes the fight below. I need not fear to be detained. He knows himself too well to ask any thing of another except to know him.

As one of the finest lyric poets of modem times. Bards are also prophets; and woe to those who refuse to hear the singer, to tender him the golden cup of homage. Their punishment is in their fault.

As the best writer of the German language, who has availed himself of all its advantages of richness and flexibility, and added to them a degree of lightness, grace, clearness, and precision, beyond any other writer of his time; who has, more than any other, tended to correct the fantastic, cumbrous, centipede ‘style indigenous to Germany.

As a critic, on art and literature, not to be surpassed in independence, fairness, powers of sympathy, and largeness of view.

As almost the finest observer of his time of human nature, and almost as much so of external nature. He has great delicacy of penetration, and a better tact at selecting objects than almost any who has looked at the time of which I am a child. Could I omit to study this eighty years’ journal of my parent’s life, traced from so commanding a position, by so sure a hand, and one informed by so keen and cultivated an eye? Where else shall we find so large a mirror, or one with so finely decorated a frame?

As a mind which has known how to reconcile indi­viduality of character with universality of thought; a mind which, whatever be its faults, ruled and relied on itself alone; a nature which knew its law, and revolved on its proper axis, unrepenting, never bustling, always active, never stagnant, always calm.

A distinguished critic speaks of Goethe as the con­queror of his century. I believe I do not take so admiring a view of the character of Goethe as this, his only competent English critic. I refer to Mr. Carlyle. But so far as attaining the object he himself proposed, a choice of aim, a “wise limitation,” and unwearied constancy in the use of means; so far as leaving behind the limbo of self-questioning uncertainty in which most who would fain think as well as act are wading, and bringing his life into an uninterrupted harmony with his thought, he did indeed conquer. He knew both what he sought and how to seek it—a great matter!

I am not a blind admirer of Goethe. I have felt what others feel, and seen what others see. I, too, have been disturbed by his aversion to pain and isolation of heart. I a1so have looked in vain for the holy and. heroic elements. Nor do I believe that any degree of objectivity is inconsistent with a partiality for what is noblest in individual characters. Shakspeare is a proof to the contrary. As a critic, he does not treat subjects masterly. He does not give you, at once, a central point, and make you feel the root of the matter; but you must read his essays as aggregates of thoughts, rather clustering round than unfolding the subject. In his later years, he lost his architectural vigor; and his works are built up like the piles in Piranesi’s “Visions” of galleries and balconies connected only by cobweb ladders. Many of his works I feel to be fragmentary and inadequate. I am even disposed to deny him the honors most generally awarded him—those of the artist. I think he had the artist’s eye, and the artist’s hand, but not the artist’s love of structure.

But I will stop here, and wait till the time when I shall have room to substantiate, my charges. I flatter myself I have now found fault enough to prove me a worthy critic, after the usual fashion. Mostly, I prefer levelling upwards, in the way recommended by Goethe in speaking of the merchants he met while travelling.

While it is so undesirable that any man should receive what he has not examined, a far more frequent danger is that of flippant irreverence. Not all that the heavens contain is obvious to the unassisted eye of the careless spectator. Few men are great, almost as few able to appreciate greatness. The critics have written little upon the “Iliad,” in all these ages, which Alexander would have thought worth keeping with it in his golden box. Nor Shakspeare, nor Dante, nor Calderon, has as yet found a sufficient critic, though Coleridge and the Schlegels have lived since they did. The greatness of Goethe his nation has felt for more than half a century; the world is beginning to feel it, but time may not yet have ripened his critic; especially as the grand historical standing point is the only one from which a comprehensive view could be taken of him.

Meanwhile, it is safer to take off the hat and shout Vivat! to the conqueror who may become a permanent sovereign, than to throw stones and mud from the gutter. The star shines, and that it is with no borrowed light, his foes are his voucher. And every planet is a portent to the world; but whether for good or ill, only he can know who has science for many calculations. Not he who runs can read these books, or any books of any worth. I am content to describe him in the terms Hamlet thought sufficiently honorable to him he honored most:­—

“He was a man, take him for all in all,
We shall not look upon his like again.”

As such, worth our study;—and more to us than elder great men, because of our own day, and busied most with those questions which lie nearest us.

With regard to the manner in which the task of translation has been performed, I have been under some disadvantages, which should be briefly mentioned. I thought the book would be an easy one to translate, as, for a book of table-talk, so much greater liberty would be allowed, and so much less care demanded, than for a classical work, or one of science. But the wide range of topics, and the use of coterie technics, have made it more difficult, and less fit for the amusement of leisure hours, than was expected. Some of these technics I have used as they stood, such as motiv, grandiose, and apprehensive, the last-­named of which I do not understand; the first, Mrs. Jameson has explained, in a note to the “Winter Studies.” Generally, my acquaintance with Goethe’s works, on the same subjects, makes me confident that I have the thought.

Then I was unexpectedly obliged, by ill health, to dictate a considerable part of it. I was not accustomed to this way of getting thoughts put upon paper, and do not feel as well satisfied with these pages as with those written by my own hand. I have, however, looked them over so carefully, that I think there can be no inaccuracies of consequence.

But, besides,—it being found that the two German volumes would not, by any means, make two, yet were too much for one of the present series,—it seemed necessary, in some way, to compress or curtail the book. For this purpose, passages have been omitted relating to Goethe’s theory of colors. These contain accounts of experiments made by Eckermann, and remarks of Goethe’s suggested by them. As the Farbenlehre is scarcely known here, I thought these would not now be interesting, and that, if the work to which they refer should by and by be translated, they might to better advantage be inserted in an appendix. And I was glad to dispense with them, because I have no clear understanding of the subject, and could not have been secure of doing them justice.

I have also omitted Eckermann’s meagre record of his visit to Italy, some, discussions about a novel of Goethe’s, not yet translated, which would scarcely be intelligible to those who have not read it, and occasionally other passages, which seemed to me expletive, or so local as, to be uninteresting. I have also frequently condensed Eckermann’s remarks, and sometimes, though more rarely, those of his patron.

I am aware that there is a just prejudice against paraphrastic or mutilated translations, and that, in this delicate process, I have laid myself open to much blame. But I have done it with such care, that I feel confident the substance of the work, and its essential features, will be found here, and hope, if so, that any who may be acquainted with the original, and regret omissions, will excuse them. These two rules have been observed,—not to omit even such details as snuffing the candles and walking to the stove, (given by the good Eckermann with that truly German minuteness which, many years ago, so provoked the wit of Mr. Jeffrey,) when they seem needed to finish out the picture, either of German manners, or Goethe’s relations to his friends or household. Neither has any thing been omitted which would cast either light or shade on his character. I am sure that nothing has been softened or extenuated, and believe that Goethe’s manners, temper, and opinions, wear here the same aspect that they do in the original.

I have a confidence that the translation is, in the truest sense, faithful, and trust that those who find the form living and symmetrical, will not be inclined severely to censure some change in the cut or make of the garment in which it is arrayed.

Jamaica Plain, May 23, 1839.

Conversations With Goethe in the Last Years of his Life,
Translated from the German of Eckermann by S. M. Fuller
(Boston: Hilliard, Gray, 1839) pp. vii-xxvi