SUCH is the motto prefixed by Goethe to the last books of “Dichtung und Wahrheit” [Fancy and Truth]. These books record the hour of turning tide in his life, the time when he was called on for a choice at the “Parting of the Ways.” From these months, which gave the sum of his youth, the crisis of his manhood, date the birth of Egmont, and of Faust too, though the latter was not published so early. They saw the rise and decline of his love for Lili, apparently the truest love he ever knew. That he was not himself dissatisfied with the results to which the decisions of this era led him, we may infer from his choice of a motto, and from the calm beauty with which he has invested the record.
The Parting of the Ways! The way he took led to court-favor, wealth, celebrity, and an independence of celebrity. It led to large performance, and a wonderful economical management of intellect. It led Faust the Seeker from the hights of his own mind to the trodden ways of the world. There, indeed, he did not lose sight of the mountains, but he never breathed their keen air again.
After this period we find in him rather a wide and deep Wisdom, than the inspirations of Genius. His faith, that all must issue well, wants the sweetness of piety, and the God he manifests to us is one of law or necessity, rather than of intelligent love. As this God makes because he must, so Goethe, his instrument, observes and recreates because he must, observing with minutest fidelity the outward exposition of nature, never blinded by a sham, or detained by a fear, he yet makes us feel that he wants insight to her sacred secret. The calmest of writers does not give us repose, because it is too difficult to find his centre. Those flame-like natures, which he undervalues, give us more peace and hope through their restless aspirations, that he with his hearth-enclosed fires of steady fulfilment. For, true as it is, that God is every where, we must not only see him, but see him acknowledged. Through the consciousness of man “shall not Nature interpret God?” We wander in diversity, and, with each new turning of the path, long anew to be referred to the One.
Of Goethe, as of other natures, where the intellect is too much developed in proportion to the moral nature, it is difficult to speak without seeming narrow, blind, and impertinent. For such men see all that others live, and, if you feel a want of a faculty in them, it is hard to say they have it not lest next moment they puzzle you by giving some indication of it. Yet they are not, nay know not, they only discern. The difference is that between sight and life, prescience and being, wisdom and love. Thus with Goethe. Naturally of a deep mind and shallow heart, he felt the sway of the affections enough to appreciate their working in other men, but never enough to receive their inmost regenerating influence.
How this might have been had he ever once abandoned himself entirely to a sentiment, it is impossible to say. But the education of his youth seconded, rather than balanced his natural tendency. His father was a gentlemanly Martinet; dull, sour, well-informed, and of great ambition as to externals. His influence on the son was wholly artificial. He was always turning his powerful mind from side to side in search of information, for the attainment of what are called accomplishments. The mother was a delightful person in her way; open, genial, playful, full of lively talent, but without earnestness of soul. She was one of those charming but not noble persons, who take the day and the man as the find them, seeing the best that is there already, but never making the better grow there. His sister, though of graver kind, was social and intellectual, not religious or tender. The mortifying repulse of his early love checked the few pale buds of faith and tenderness that his heart put forth. His friends were friends of the intellect merely; —altogether he seemed led by destiny to the place he was to fill.
Pardon him, World, that he was too worldly. Do not wonder, Heart, that he was so heartless. Believe, Soul, that one so true as far as he went, must yet be initiated into the deeper mysteries of Soul. Perhaps even now he sees that we must accept limitations, only to transcend them; work in processes, only to detect the organizing power which supersedes them; and that Sphynxes of fifty-five volumes might well be cast into the abyss before the single word that solves them all.
Now when I think of Goethe, I seem to see his soul, all the variegated plumes of knowledge, artistic form burnt from it by the fires of divine love, wingless, motionless, unable to hide from itself in any subterfuge of labor, saying again and again the simple words which he would never directly say on earth—God beyond Nature—Faith beyond Sight—the Seeker nobler than the Meister.
For this mastery that Goethe prizes seems to consist rather in the skilful use of means than in the clear manifestation of ends. His master, indeed, makes acknowledgement of a divine order, but the temporal uses are always uppermost in the mind of the reader. But of this more at large in reference to his works.
Apart from this want felt in his works, there is a littleness in his aspect as a character. Why waste his time in Weimar court entertainments? His duties as minister were not unworthy of him, though it would have been, perhaps, finer, if he had not spent so large a portion of that prime of intellectual life from five-and-twenty to forty upon them.
But granted that the exercise these gave his faculties, the various lore they brought, and the good they did to the community, made them worth his doing, —why that perpetual dangling after the royal family, why all that verse-making for the albums of serene highnesses, and those pretty poetical entertainments for the young princesses, and that cold setting himself apart from his true peers, the real sovereigns of Weimar, Herder, Wieland, and the others? The excuse must be found in circumstances of his time and temperament, which made the character of man of the world and man of affairs more attractive to him than the children of nature can conceive it to be in the eyes of one who is capable of being a consecrated bard. * * * *
“Goethe.” New York Tribune, 16 July 1841, p. 1.