Is that of a Philistine, in the least opprobrious sense of the term. It is one that has long been applied in Ger many to petty cavillers and incompetent critics. I do not wish to convey a sense so disrespectful in speaking of Menzel. He has a vigorous and brilliant mind, and a wide, though imperfect, culture. He is a man of talent, but talent cannot comprehend genius. He judges of Goethe as a Philistine, inasmuch as he does not enter into Canaan, and read the prophet by the light of his own law, but looks at him from without, and tries him by a rule beneath which he never lived. That there was something he saw, what that something was not he saw, but what it was he could not see, none could see; it was something to be felt and known at the time of its apparition, but the sight of it was reserved to a day far enough removed from its sphere to get a commanding point of view. Has that day come? —A little while ago it seemed so; certain features of Goethe’s personality, certain results of his tendency, had become so manifest. But as the hours mature the plants he planted, they shed a new seed for a yet more noble growth. A wider experience, a deeper insight, make rejected words come true, and bring a more refined perception of meaning already discerned. Like all his elder brothers of the elect band, the forlorn hope of humanity, he obliges us to live and grow, that we may walk by his side; vainly we strive to leave him behind in some niche of the hall of our ancestors, a few steps onward and we find him again, of yet serener eye and more towering mien than on his other pedestal. Former measurements of his size have, like the girdle bound by the nymphs round the infant Apollo, only served to make him outgrow the unworthy compass. The still rising sun, with its broader light, shows us it is not yet noon. In him is soon perceived a prophet of our own age, as well as a representative of his own, and we doubt whether the revolutions of the century be not required to interpret the quiet depths of his Saga.
Sure it is that none has yet found his place, as sure that none can claim to be his peer, who has not sometime, aye, and for a long time, been his pupil!
Yet much truth has been spoken of him in detail, some by Menzel, but in so superficial a spirit, and with so narrow a view of its bearings, as to have all the effect of falsehood. Such denials of the crown can only fix it more firmly on the bead of the “O1d Heathen.” To such, the best answer may be given in the words of Bettina Brentano, “The others criticize thy works; —I only know that they lead us on and on (fort and fort) till we live in them.” And thus will all criticism end in making more men and women read these works, and on and on, till they forget whether the author be a patriot or a moralist, in the deep humanity of thought, the breathing nature of the scene. While words they have accepted with immediate approval fade from memory, these oft-denied words of keen, cold truth return with every new force and significance.
Man should be true, wise, beautiful, pure, and aspiring. This man was true and wise, capable of all things. Because he did not in one short life complete his circle, can we afford to lose him out of sight? Can we, in a world where so few men have in any degree redeemed their inheritance, neglect a nature so rich and so manifestly progressive?
Historically considered, Goethe needs no apology. His so called faults fitted him all the better for the part he had to play. In cool possession of his wide-ranging genius, he taught the imagination of Germany, that the highest flight should be associated with a steady sweep and undazzled eye of the eagle. Was he too much the connoisseur, did he attach too great an importance to the cultivation of taste, where just then German literature so much needed to be refined, polished, and harmonized? Was he too skeptical, too much an experimentalist; how else could he have formed himself to be the keenest, and, at the same time, most nearly universal of observers, teaching theologians, philosophers, and patriots that nature comprehends them all, commands them all, and that no one development of life must exclude the rest. Do you talk, (in the easy cant of the day,) of German obscurity, extravagance, pedantry, and bad taste, —and will you blame this man, whose Greek—English—Italian—German mind steered so clear of these rocks and shoals, clearing, adjusting, and calming on each side, wherever he turned his prow? Was he not just enough of an idealist, just enough of a realist, for his peculiar task? If you want a moral enthusiast, is not there Schiller? If piety, or pure mystic sweetness, who but Novalis? Exuberant sentiment, that treasures each withered leaf in a tender breast, look to your Richter. Would you have men to find plausible meaning for the deepest enigma, or to hang up each map of literature, well painted and dotted on its proper roller, there are the Schlegels. Men of ideas were numerous as migratory crows in autumn, and Jacobi wrote the heart into philosophy (as well as he could.) Who could fill Goethe’s place to Germany, and to the world, of which she is now the teacher? His much-reviled, aristocratic turn was at that time a reconciling element. It is plain why he was what he was, for his country and for his age.
Whoever looks into the history of his youth, will be struck by a peculiar force with which all things worked together to prepare him for his office of artist-critic to the then chaotic world of thought in his country. What an unusually varied scene of childhood and of youth! What endless change and contrast of circumstances and influences! Father and mother, life and literature, world and nature, playing into one another’s hands, always by antagonism! Never was a child so carefully guarded by fate against prejudice, against undue bias, against any engrossing sentiment. Nature having given him power of poetical sympathy to know every situation, would not permit him to make himself at home in any. And how early what was most peculiar in his character manifested itself, may be seen in these anecdotes, related by his mother to Bettina.
Of Goethe’s childhood. — “He was not willing to play with other little children, unless they were very fair. In a circle he began suddenly to weep, screaming, ‘Take away the black, ugly child, I cannot bear to have it here.’ He could not be pacified; they were obliged to take him home, and there the mother could hardly console him for the child’s ugliness. He was then only three years old.”
“His mother was surprised, that when his brother Jacob died, who had been his playmate, he shed no tears, but rather seemed annoyed by the lamentations of those around him. But afterwards, when his mother asked whether he had not loved his brother, be ran into his room and brought from under his bed a bundle of papers, all written over, and said he had done all this for Jacob.”
Even so in later years, had he been asked if he had not loved his country and his fellow men, he would not have answered by tears and vows, but pointed to his works.
In the first anecdote is observable that love of symmetry in external relations which, in manhood, made him give up the woman he loved, because she would not have been in place among the old fashioned furniture of his father’s house; and dictated the course which, at the crisis of his life, led him to choose an outward peace rather than an inward joy. In the second, he displays at the earliest age, a sense of his vocation as a recorder, the same which drew him afterwards to write his life into verse, rather than clothe it in action. His indirectness, his aversion to the frankness of heroic meetings, is repulsive and suspicious to generous and flowing natures, yet many of the more delicate products of the mind seem to need these sheaths, lest bird and insect rifle them in the bud. And if this subtlety, isolation, and distance be the dictate of nature, we submit, even as we are not vexed that the wild bee should hide its honey in some old moss-grown tree, rather than in the glass hives of our gardens. We believe it will repay the pains we take in seeking for it, by some peculiar flavor from unknown flowers. Was Goethe the wild bee? We see that even in his boyhood, he showed himself a very Egyptian, in his love for disguises, forever expressing his thought in roundabout ways, which seem idle mummery to a mind of Spartan or Roman mould. Had he some simple thing to tell his friend, he read it from the newspaper, or wrote it into a parable. Did he make a visit, he put on the hat or wig of some other man, and made his bow as Schmidt or Schlosser, that they might stare when he spake as Goethe. He gives, as the highest instance of passionate grief, that he gave up one day watching the tedious ceremonies of the imperial coronation. In daily life many of these carefully recorded passages have an air of platitude, at which no wonder the Edinburgh Review laughed. Yet, on examination, they are full of meaning. And when we see the same propensity writing itself into Ganymede, Mahomet’s song, the Bayadere, and Faust, telling all Goethe’s religion in Mignon and Makaria, all his wisdom in the Western-Eastern Divan, we respect it, accept, all but love it.
This theme is for a volume, and I must quit it now. A brief summary of what Goethe was suffices to vindicate his existence, as an agent in history and a part of nature, but will not meet the objections of those who measure him, as they have a right to do, by the standard of ideal manhood.
Most men, in judging another man, ask, Did he live up to our standard?
But to me, it seems desirable to ask rather, Did he live up to his own?
So possible is it that our consciences may be more enlightened than that of the Gentile under consideration. And if we can find out how much was given him, we are told, in a pure evangelium, to judge thereby how much shall be required.
Now Goethe has given us both his own standard, and the way to apply it. “To appreciate any man, learn first what object he proposed to himself; next, what degree of earnestness he showed with regard to attaining that object.”
And this is part of his hymn for man made in the divine image, “The Godlike.”
Felt within us! “Unfeeling
Still shineth the sun
Over good and evil,
And on the sinner,
Smile as on the best
Moon and stars.
Fate, too &c.
“There can none but man
Perform the Impossible.
Chooseth, and judgeth,
He can impart to the
“He alone may
The Good reward,
The guilty punish,
Mend and deliver;
All the wayward, anomalous
Bind the useful.
“And the Immortals,
Then we reverence
As if they were men, and
Did, on a grand scale,
What the best man in little
Does, or fain would do.
“Let noble man
Be helpful and good;
The Right and the Useful;
Type of those loftier
Beings of whom the heart whispers.”
This standard is high enough. It is what every man should express in action, the poetic in music!
And this office of a judge, who is of the purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and of a sacred oracle, to whom other men may go to ask when they should choose a friend, when face a foe, this great genius does not adequately fulfil. Too often has the priest left the shrine, to go and gather simples by the aid of the spells whose might no pure power needs. Glimpses are found in his works of the highest spirituality, but it is blue sky seen through chinks, in a roof which should never have been built. He has used life to excess. He is too rich for his nobleness, too judicious for his inspiration, too humanly wise for his divine mission. He might have been a priest; he is only a sage.
An Epicurean sage, says the foregoing article. This seems to me unjust. He is also called a debauchee. There may be reason for such terms, but it is partial, and received, as they will be by the unthinking, they are as false as Menzel’s abuse, in the impression they convey. Did Goethe value the present too much? It was not for the Epicurean aim of pleasure, but for use. He, in this, was but an instance of reaction, in an age of painful doubt and restless striving as to the future. Was his private life stained by profligacy? That far largest portion of his life, which is ours, and which is expressed in his works is an unbroken series of efforts to develop the higher elements of our being. I cannot speak to private gossip on this subject, nor even to well-authenticated versions of his private life. Here are sixty volumes, by himself and others, which contain sufficient evidence of a life of severe labor, steadfast forbearance, and an intellectual growth almost unparalleled. That he has failed of the highest fulfilment of his high vocation is certain, but he was neither epicurean nor sensualist, if we consider his life as a whole.
Yet he had failed to reach his highest development, and how was it that he was so content with this incompleteness, nay, the serenest of men? His serenity alone, in such a time of skepticism and sorrowful seeking, gives him a claim to all our study. See how he rides at anchor, lordly, rich in freight, every white sail ready to be unfurled at a moment’s warning. And it must be a very slight survey, which can confound this calm self-trust with selfish indifference of temperament. Indeed, he in various ways, which I shall mention in a future essay, lets us see how little he was helped in this respect by temperament. But we need not his declaration; the case speaks for itself. Of all that perpetual accomplishment, that unwearied constructiveness, the basis must be sunk deeper than in temperament. He never halts, never repines, never is puzzled, like other men; that tranquility, full of life, that ceaseless but graceful motion, “without haste, without rest,” for which we all are striving, he has attained. And is not his lore of the noblest kind, — Reverence the highest, have patience with the lowest. Let this day’s performance of the meanest duty be thy religion. Are the stars too distant, pick up that pebble that lies at thy foot, and from it learn All. Go out, like Saul, the son of Kish, look earnestly after the meanest of thy father’s goods, and a kingdom shall be brought thee. The least act of pure self-renunciation hallows, for the moment, all within its sphere. The philosopher may mislead, the devil tempt, yet innocence, though wounded and bleeding as it goes, must reach at last the holy city. The power of sustaining himself, and guiding others, rewards man sufficiently for the longest apprenticeship. Is not this lore the noblest?
Yes, yes, but still I doubt. ’Tis true, he says all thus in a thousand beautiful forms, but he does not warm, he does not inspire me. In his certainty is no bliss, in his hope no love, in his faith no glow. How is this?
A friend, of a delicate penetration, observed, “His atmosphere was so calm, so full of light, that I hoped he would teach me his secret of cheerfulness. But I found, after long search, that he had no better way, if he wished to check emotion of clear thought, than to go to work. As his mother tells us, ‘My son, if he had a grief, made it into a poem, and so got rid of it.’ This mode is founded in truth, but does not involve the whole truth. I want the method which is indicated by the phrase, ‘Perseverance of the Saints.’”
This touched the very point. Goethe attained only the perseverance of a man. He was true, for he knew that nothing can be false to him who is true, and that to genius nature had pledged her protection. Had he but seen a little farther, he would have given this covenant a higher expression, and been more deeply true to a diviner nature.
I hope, in the next number of the Dial, to give some account of that period, when a too determined action of the intellect limited and blinded him for the rest of his life. I mean only in comparison with what he should have been. Had it been otherwise, what would he not have attained, who, even thus self-enchained, rose to Ulyssean stature. Connected with this is the fact, of which he spoke with such sarcastic solemnity to Eckerman, “My works will never be popular.”
I wish, also, to consider the Faust, Elective Affinities, Apprenticeship and Pilgrimages of Wilhelm Meister, and Iphigenia, as affording indications of the progress of his genius here, of its wants and prospects in future spheres of activity. For the present, I bid him farewell as his friends always have done, in hope and trust of a better meeting.
Source: The Dial (January 1841) pp. 340-347