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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 5/The German Popular Legend of Doctor Faustus

< The Atlantic Monthly‎ | Volume 2‎ | Number 5



We doubt whether any popular legend has ever taken deeper root among the common people and spread farther in the world than the story of Dr. Faustus and his reckless compact with the Evil One. We do not intend to compare it, of course, to those ancient traditions which seem to have constituted a tie of relationship between the most distant nations in times anterior to history. These are mostly of a mythological character,—as, for instance, those referring to the existence of elementary spirits. Their connection with mankind has, in the earliest times, occupied the imagination of the most widely different races. A certain analogy we can easily explain by the affinity of human hearts and human minds. But when we find that exactly the same tradition is reechoed by the mountains of Norway and Sweden in the ballad of "Sir Olaf and the Erl-king's Daughter," which the milkmaid of Brittany sings in the lay of the "Sieur Nann and the Korigan," and in a language radically different from the Norse,—when, here and there, the same forms of superstition meet us in the ancient popular popular poetry of the Servians and modern Greeks, which were familiar to the Teutonic and Cambrian races of early centuries,—must we not believe in a primeval intimate connection between distant nations? are we not compelled to acknowledge that there must have existed, in those remote times, means of communication unknown to us?

We repeat, however, that, in calling the legend of Dr. Faustus the most widely-spread we know of, we cannot allude to these primitive traditions, the circulation of which is perfectly mysterious. We speak of such popular legends as admit of their origin being traced. Among these the Faustus-tradition maybe called comparatively new. To us Americans, indeed, whose history commences only with the modern history of Europe, a period of three hundred years seems quite a respectable space of time. But to the Germans and the Scandinavians, from whose popular lore the names of Horny Siegfried and Dietric of Berne, (Theodoric the Great,) and of Roland, are not yet completely erased, a story of the sixteenth century must appear comparatively modern.

The popularity of the legend of Faustus, although of German origin, was, almost from its first rise, not confined to German lands. The French, Dutch, and English versions of the poor Doctor's adventurous life are but very little younger than his German biographies; and it was about the same time that he was made the subject of a tragedy by Marlowe, one of the most gifted of Shakspeare's dramatic predecessors. We are not afraid of erring, when we ascribe the uncommon popularity and rapid circulation of this legend principally to its deep and intrinsic moral interest. Faustus's time of action was exactly the period of the great religious reformation which shook all Europe. During the sixteenth century, even the untaught and illiterate classes learned to watch more closely over the salvation of their souls than when they felt themselves safe beneath the guardianship of the Holy Mother Church. And to those who remained under the guidance of the latter, the dangers of learning and independent thinking, and of meddling with forbidden subjects, were pointed out by the monks with two-fold zeal. It cannot, therefore, surprise us, that the life and death of a famous contemporary, who for worldly goods and worldly wisdom placed his soul at stake, excited a deep and general interest. In one feature, indeed, his history bears decidedly the stamp of the great moral revolution of the time: we mean its awful end. There two legends of the Middle Ages—and perhaps many more—in which the fundamental ideas are the same. The two Saints, Cyprianus, (the "Magico Prodigioso" of Calderon,) and Bishop Theophilus, (the hero of Conrad of Wuerzburg,) were both tempted by the Devil with worldly goods and worldly prosperity, and allured into the pool of sin perhaps deeper than Faustus; but repentance and penitence saved them, and secured to them finally a place among the saints of the Church. But for Faustus there is no compromise; his awful compact is binding; and whatever hope of his salvation modern poetry has excited for the unfortunate Doctor is, to say the least, in direct contradiction of the popular legend.

Faustus was the Cagliostro of the sixteenth century. It is not an easy task to find the few grains of historical truth referring to him, among the chaff of popular fiction that several centuries have accumulated around his name. A halo so mysterious and miraculous surrounds his person, that not only have various other famous individuals, who lived long before or after him, been completely amalgamated with him, but even his real existence has been denied, and not much over a hundred years after his death he was declared by scholars to be a mere myth. A certain J. C. Duerr attempted to prove, in a learned "Dissertatio Epistolica de Johanne Fausto," (printed at Altorf, in 1676,) that the magician of that name had never existed, and that all the strange things which had been related of him referred to the printer John Faust, or Fust,—who had, indeed, been confounded with him before, although he lived nearly a century earlier. And when we think of the superstitious fear and monkish prejudice with which the great invention of printing was at first regarded, such a confusion of two persons of similar name, and both, in the eyes of a dark age, servants of Satan, cannot surprise us. Our John Faustus was also sometimes confounded with two younger contemporaries, one of whom was called Faustus Socinus, and made Poland the chief theatre of his operations; the other, George Sabellicus, expressly named himself Faustus Junior, also Faustus Minor. Both were celebrated necromancers and astrologers, who probably availed themselves of the advantage derived from the adoption of the famous name of Faustus.[1]

A second attempt to prove the historical nonentity of Dr. Faustus was made at Wittenberg, in the year 1683. Some of his popular biographers had claimed for him a professorship at that celebrated university, or at least brought him into connection with it,—a pretension which the actual professors of that learned institution thought rather prejudicial to their honor, and which they were desirous of seeing refuted. Stimulated, as it would seem, by a zeal of this kind, J. G. Neumann wrote a "Dissertatio de Fausto Præstigiatore," in which he not only tried to prove that Dr. Faustus had never been at Wittenberg, but pronounced his whole story fabulous. An attempt like this would not surprise us in our own time, the age of historical skepticism; but the seventeenth century gave credit to narratives having much slighter foundation. Although this dissertation was full of historical mistakes and erroneous statements, it made some sensation, as is proved by its four successive editions. It was also translated into German. All Neumann's endeavors, however, could not stand against the testimony of contemporaries, who partly had known Faustus personally, partly had heard of him from living witnesses, and allude to his death as an occurrence of recent date.

John Faustus, or rather, after the German form of his name, Faust, was born in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, probably not before the year 1490. According to the oldest "Volksbuch" (People's Book) which bears his name,[2] his parents then lived at Roda, in the present Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. The same place is likewise named as his native village by G. R. Widmann, his first regular biographer, who says that his father was a peasant.[3] Although these two works are the foundation of the great number of later ones referring to the same subject, some of these latter deviate with respect to Faustus's birthplace. J. N. Pfitzer, for instance, who, seventy years after Widmann, published a revised and much altered edition of his book, makes Faust see the light at Saltwedel, a small town belonging then to the principality of Anhalt, and must have had his reasons for this amendment. A confusion of this kind may, indeed, have early arisen from a change of residence of our hero's parents during his infancy. But the oldest Volksbuch was written nearly forty years after the death of Faustus, and Widmann's work appeared even ten years later,—both, indeed, professing to be founded on the Doctor's writings, as well as on an autobiographical manuscript, discovered in his library after his death. Perhaps, however, the assertion of two of his contemporaries, one of whom was personally acquainted with him, is more entitled to credit in this respect. Joh. Manlius and Joh. Wier—the latter in his biography of Cornelius Agrippa—name Kundlingen, in Würtemberg, as his birthplace. Manlius, in his work, "Collectanea Locorum Communium," (Basel, 1600,) speaks of him as of an acquaintance. He says that Faustus studied at Krakow, in Poland, where there was a regular professorship of Magic, as was the case at several universities. Others let him make his studies at Ingolstadt, and acquire there the honors of a Doctor of Medicine. Both these statements may be true, as also that he was for some time the companion and pupil of Cornelius Agrippa, of Nettesheim, the celebrated scholar, whose learning and mysterious researches after the philosopher's stone brought him, like many other wise men of the age, into suspicion of witchcraft. Agrippa had a pet dog, black, like the mystical companion of Dr. Faustus, and, in the eyes of a superstitious multitude, like him, the representative of the Evil One. Black dogs seem to have been everywhere considered as rather suspicious creatures. The Pope Sylvester II. had also a favorite black poodle, in whom the Devil was supposed to have taken up his abode. According to Wier, however, Agrippa's black dog was quite a harmless beast, and remarkable only for the childlike attachment which the great philosopher had for him. It may be worth remarking, that this writer, although he speaks of Faustus in his biography of Agrippa, makes no mention of his ever having been a friend or scholar of the latter.

In several of the old stories of Faustus, we read that he had a cousin at Wittenberg, who took him as a boy to his house, brought him up, and made him his heir when he died. If this was true, it would be more probable that he was a native of Saxony than of Suabia. It is, however, more probable that this narrative rests on one of the numerous cases found in old writings in general, and above all in the history of Faustus, in which the names Wittenberg and Würtemberg are confounded. Our hero's abode at the former place was very probably merely that of a traveller; he left there, as we shall soon see, a very unenviable reputation. It is true that Saxony was the principal scene of the Doctor's achievements; but this very circumstance makes it improbable that he was born and brought up there, as it is well known that "a prophet hath no honor in his own country."

Faust's studies were not confined to medicine and the physical sciences. He was also considered eminent as a philologist and philosopher. Physiology, however, with its various branches and degenerate offshoots, was the idol of the scholars of that age, and of Faustus among the rest. A passionate desire to fathom the mysteries of Nature, to dive into the most hidden recesses of moral and physical creation, had seized men of real learning, and seduced them into mingling absurd astrological and magical fancies with profound and scholarlike researches. The deepest thinkers of their time, like Nostradamus, Cardan, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, Thomas Campanella, flattered themselves that they could enter, by means of art and science, into communion with good or evil spirits, on whose aid they depended for obtaining knowledge, fame, wealth, and worldly honors and enjoyments. Faustus was one of those whom a passion for inquiry, in league with a powerful, sensual nature, led astray. What had been originally an honest thirst for knowledge, a deep interest in the supernatural, became gradually a morbid craving after the miraculous, the pretension of having attained the unattainable, and the attempt to represent it by means of vulgar jugglery.

Dr. Faustus seems at first to have settled as a practising physician, and at this period of his life Wagner appears as his famulus; for we never find this Philister among scholars as a companion of the travelling Faustus, although his connection with him was apparently lasting. According to the popular legend, the Doctor made him his heir, and expressly obtained for him Auerhahn, (Heathcock,) a familiar spirit in the shape of a monkey. This was a sort of caricature of Mephistopheles, who became, through his ludicrous clumsiness, a pet-devil of the populace in the puppet-shows, particularly in Holland. Widmann calls Wagner Waiger; while in all other publications referring to him he bears his right name, Christoph Wagner.

What city it was where Faustus lived before the reputation of witchcraft made him the subject of so much talk remains unsettled. Wittenberg and Ingolstadt are alternately named. Some of his biographers relate, that he led a loose and profligate life, and soon wasted his cousin's inheritance. Others represent him as a deep, secluded student, laying hold of one science after another, and unsatisfied by them all, until he found, by means of his physical and chemical experiments, the secret path to the supernatural, and, in order to reap their full fruits, allied himself with the hellish powers. Faustus himself tells us, in his "Mirakel-, Kunst-, und Wunder-buch," (or rather, the author of this book makes him tell us,) how his intercourse with the Devil commenced almost accidentally and against his intentions:—

"I, Doctor Johann Faust, who apply myself to the Free Arts, having read many kinds of books from my youth, happened once to light upon a book that contained various conjurations of the spirits. Feeling some desire to enlarge my ideas on these things, having, indeed, at the beginning, small belief that the prescriptions of that book would so soon be verified, I tried them only for an experiment. Nevertheless, I became aware that a mighty spirit, named Astaroth, presented himself before me, and asked me wherefore I had cited him. Then, hurried as I was, I did not know how to make up my mind otherwise than to demand that he should be serviceable to me in various wishes and desires, which he promised conditionale, asking to make a compact with me. To do this I was at first not inclined; but as I was only provided with a bad circle, being merely experimenting, I did not dare to bid him defiance, but was obliged to yield to the circumstances. I therefore made up my mind, inasmuch as he would serve me, and would be bound to me a certain number of years. This being settled, this spirit presented to me another, named Mochiel, who was commanded to serve me. I asked him how quick he was. Answer: 'Like the wind.' 'Thou shalt not serve me! get thee back to whence thou earnest!' Now came Aniguel; he answered, that he was as quick as the bird in the air. 'Thou art still too slow,' I replied; 'begone!' At the same moment a third stood before me, named Aziel; this one, too, I asked how quick he was. 'Quick as the thought of man.' 'Right for me! thee will I keep!' And I accepted him. This spirit has served me long, as has been made known by many writings."

Whether it was this quick Aziel, or Astaroth himself, who became Faustus's travelling-companion under the name of Mephistopheles, or whether the prince of the lower regions in person condescended to play that part, we do not know; but in all popular stories of the Doctor, his servant bears the latter name,—while in the various books in which, under the name of Hoellenzwang, the system of his magic is laid down, he is called Aziel.

In possession of such a power, Faustus soon became tired of his lonely study. He craved the world for his theatre. His travels seem in reality to have been very extensive, while in the popular stories a magic mantle carried him over the whole globe. Conrad Gesner, the great physiologist, who speaks of him with some respect as a physician, comparing him with Theophrastus Paracelsus, reckons him among the scholastici vagantes, or fahrende Schueler, an order of men already considerably in the decline, and grown disreputable at that period. As early as the thirteenth century, we find the custom in Germany, of young clergymen who did not belong to any monkish order travelling through the land to get a living,—here by instructing in schools for a certain period,—there by temporarily serving in churches as choristers, sacristans, or vicars,—often, too, as clerks and copyists to lawyers or other private men. When they could no longer find a livelihood at one place, they went to another. Their offices became, in course of time, of the most varied and unsuitable order. They were generally received and treated with hospitality, and this may have been one reason why all kinds of adventurers were ready to join them. Their unstable mode of life easily explains their frequenting the society of other vagabonds, who traversed the country as jugglers, treasure-diggers, quacks, or sorcerers, and that their clerical dignity did not prevent their occasionally adopting these professions themselves. The Chronicle of Limburg, in speaking of the Diet of Frankfurt in 1397, says: "The number of princes, counts, noblemen, knights, and esquires, that met there, amounted to five thousand one hundred and eighty-two"; adding: "Besides these, there were here four hundred and fifty persons more, such as fahrende Schueler, wrestlers, musicians, jumpers, and trumpeters." The character of the clergy having sunk so low, the Church declared itself against the custom, and at several German councils theological students were expressly forbidden to lead this roving life. It required, however, considerable time for the ancient custom to become extinct, and we learn, among others, from Conrad Gesner, that it still existed at the time of the Reformation.

The part played by Faustus was at first in some degree respectable, and that of a scholar. An old Erfurt Chronicle tells us that he had come to that city and obtained permission from the university to deliver a course of lectures on Homer. A dark rumor of his magic powers had preceded him; the students, therefore, thronged to hear him, and, deeply interested, requested him to let them see the heroes of Homer by calling them from their graves. Faustus appointed another day for this, received the excited youths in a dark chamber, commanded them to be perfectly silent, and made the great men of the Greek bard rise up, one by one, before their eyes. At length Polyphemus appeared; and the one-eyed Cyclops, with his red hair, an iron spear in his hand, and, to designate him at once as a cannibal, two bloody human thighs in his mouth, looked so hideous, that the spectators were seized with horror and disgust, the more so that the wily magician professed to have some difficulty in dismissing the monster. Suddenly a violent shake of the whole house was felt; the young men were thrown one over another, and were seized with terror and dismay. Two of the students insisted upon having already felt the teeth of the Cyclops.—This ridiculous story was soon known throughout the city, and confirmed the suspicions of the Franciscan monks and magistrates, that the learned guest was in league with the Evil One. It is said that Faustus had previously offered to procure for them the manuscripts of the lost comedies of Terence and Plautus, and to leave them for a short time in their hands, to be copied,—but that the fathers of the city and of the university declined, because they believed this could be done only by sorcery, or with the help of Satan. Now they, sent to him the Guardian of the Convent, Dr. Klinger, in order to convert him and to have masses read for him, for the purpose of delivering him from his hellish connection. But Faustus opposed, was by the clergy solemnly delivered to the Devil, and, in consequence, banished from the city by the magistrates.

We do not know whether it was for similar juggleries, that, when at Wittenberg, the Elector John the Steadfast ordered him to be arrested, as Manlius relates. He saved himself by flight Melancthon, in one of his letters, mentions having made his acquaintance; the whole tone of the allusion, however, expresses contempt.

The character of the miracles he performed soon ceased to have the literary tincture of the one related above, and they became mere vulgar juggleries and exhibitions of legerdemain, suited to the taste of the multitude. Scholars turned their backs on him, and we find him only among tipplers and associates of the lowest kind. At one of their carousals his half-intoxicated companions asked him for a specimen of his witchcraft. He declared himself willing to gratify them in any request. They then demanded that he should make a grape-vine full of ripe fruit grow out of the table around which they sat. Faustus enjoined complete silence, ordered them to take their knives and keep themselves in readiness for cutting the fruit, but not to stir before he gave them leave. And, behold, before the eyes of the gaping youths, while they themselves were enveloped in a magic mist, there arose a great vine, with as many bunches of grapes as there were persons in the room. Suddenly the obscuring mist dissolved, and each one saw the others with their hands at their own noses, ready to cut them off, as the promised grapes. But the vine and the magician had disappeared, and the disenchanted drunkards were left to their own rage.

The reader will be aware that this is the tale of which Goethe availed himself in representing Faustus's visit to Auerbach's cellar at Leipzig. Whether it really occurred there is not stated; but that Faustus was said to have been at Leipzig, and even in Auerbach's cellar, is an historical fact, attested by two pictures still extant at this famous old tavern, where many of our curious American travellers may have seen them. These pictures, which have been retouched and renovated more than once,—last in 1759,—are marked at the top with the date 1525. Whether this means the year in which they were painted, or that in which Faustus performed the great feat which the scene represents, remains uncertain. As it occurred in the beginning of his career, upon which we may assume him to have entered somewhere between 1520 and 1525, the date is quite likely to refer to the time of the feat; but, to judge from the costumes and several other signs, the pictures cannot have been painted much later. They were evidently made expressly for the locality, sloping off on both sides at the top, to suit the shape of the vault. The German inscription at the foot of one of the pictures indicates that it was written after the Doctor's death, which must have occurred between 1540 and 1550; but it is probable that these verses were added at a later time, the more so as the traces of an older inscription, now no longer legible, may still be discovered. One of these curious paintings represents Faustus in company with students and musicians sitting around a table covered with dishes and bottles. Faustus is lifting his goblet with one hand, and with the other beating time on the table to the music. At the bottom we read the following verse in barbarous Latin:—

"Vive. Bibe. Obgregare. Memor Fausti hujus. et hujus
Pœnæ. Aderat claudo hæc. Ast erat ampla Gradu. 1525."[4]

The other picture shows us the same jolly party risen from table, and all expressing their wonder and astonishment, as Dr. Faustus is just riding out of the door on a wine-tub. Beneath it is the following inscription in German:—

"Dr. Faustus zu dieser Frist
Aus Auerbach's Keller geritten ist,
Auf einem Fass mit Wein geschwind,
Welches gesehn manch Mutterkind.
Solches durch seine subtilne Kunst hat gethan,
Und des Teufels Lohn empfangen davon. 1525."[5]

On neither of the two pictures does Mephistopheles appear, unless he is meant to be represented in the shape of the black dog. It is not, however, Goethe's poodle that meets us here, but a sleek little creature with a collar around his neck, looking very much like a wooden toy-dog.

Most of the tricks and pranks reported of Dr. Faustus are of the same absurd kind, though not all of so harmless a character. According to the popular legend, he travelled like a great lord, had the spirits pave the highways for him when he rode in the post-coach,—it seems, then, that he did not always use his mantle,—and lived in the taverns at which he stopped with an unheard-of luxury. On his departure, he paid the hosts in a princely manner; but scarcely was he out of sight, when the gold in the receiver's hand was changed to straw, or to round slices of gilded horn,—a shabby trick indeed, as he could have as much money as he liked.

How much we have to believe of all these popular stories we may learn from Dr. Phil. Begardi's "Zeyger der Gesundtheyt," (Guide to Health,) a book published in 1539, at Worms, at a time when Faustus seems to have already disappeared from Germany, after having lost caste there completely, and when he was trying his fortune in other countries.

"There is still another famous man," says Begardi, "whose name I would rather not mention at all, only that he himself would not wish to remain hidden or unknown. For he was roving, some years ago, through all the different countries, principalities, and kingdoms, and has made known his name and his great skill, boasting not only of his medical science, but likewise of Chiromancy, Necromancy, Physiognomy, Visions in Crystals, and more arts of the kind. And he called himself Faustus, a celebrated experienced master, philosophum philosophorum, etc. But the number of those who have complained to me of having been cheated by him is very great. Well, his promises were likewise very great, just like those of Thessalus, (in Galen's time,) and his reputation like that of Theophrastus; but in deeds he was, I hear, found small and deceitful. But in taking and receiving money he was never slow, and was off before any one knew it."

Thus we see the historical Faustus, the esteemed scholar, the skilful physician, gradually merged in the juggler, the quack, the adventurer, and the impostor. The popular legend follows him to foreign countries. His magic mantle carries him, in eight days, over the whole world, and even into the Infernal regions. He is honorably received at the Emperor's court at Innspruck, introduces himself invisibly at Rome, into the Vatican, where the Pope and his cardinals are assembled at a banquet, snatches away his Holiness's plate and cup from before his mouth, and, enraged at his crossing himself, boxes his ears. In the puppet-shows he figures mostly at the court of the Duke of Parma. In Venice his daring spirit presumed too far. He announced an exhibition of a flight to heaven. But Mephistopheles, who had hitherto satisfied his most extravagant demands, though often with grumbling, would not permit that feat. In the midst of a staring, wondering multitude, Faustus rose to a certain height by means of his own Satanic skill, acquired in his long intercourse with the Devil. But now the latter showed that he was still his master. He suddenly hurled him from on high, and he fell half dead upon the ground. The twenty-four years of the compact, however, were not yet ended, and he was therefore restored to life by the same hellish power.

In a very trite, popular ballad, which we find in "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," we see, that, when the travellers came to Jerusalem, the Devil declined still another request. Faustus wishes him to make a picture of Christ crucified, and to write under it his holy name. But the Devil declared that he would rather give him back his signature than be obliged to do such a thing, and succeeded in turning the Doctor's mind from the subject by showing him, instead, a picture of Venus.

Popular imagination seems to have been inexhaustible in stories of this kind. But, after the twenty-four years of vile enjoyments, the hour of retribution came at last. According to our scanty historical notices, Faustus died an unnatural death: he was found dead in his bed, at his birthplace, Kundlingen, with his neck twisted. How such a death must have confirmed all the superstitious rumors about him the reader will easily conceive. But, according to the popular legend, his end was still more terrible. He seems to have returned to his own country, and scholars, worthy young men, surround him once more, and become much attached to him. From this one would suppose him to have been at Wittenberg, or Ingoldstadt, or any university city, but, instead of this, we find him in a little Saxon village, called Rimlich. The twenty-fourth year draws to its close. At last, at the eleventh hour, Faustus bethinks himself to repent; but it is too late. His end, related in the simple language of the Volksbuch, is truly awful. He dismisses his sympathizing friends, bidding them not to be disturbed by any noises in the night. At midnight a terrible storm arises; it reaches its height amid thunder and lightning. The friends hear a fearful shriek. They rise and pray. But when, in the morning, they enter his room, they are horror-struck at seeing his limbs scattered round, and the walls, against which the fiend had dashed him to pieces, covered with his blood. His body was found in the court-yard on a dung-hill.

The horror of this end made a peculiarly awful impression on the popular mind. During the Thirty Years' War, it once happened that a troop of Catholic soldiers broke into a village in Saxony, on the Elbe, named Breda. They were just about to plunder one of the principal houses, when the judge of the place, who, it seems, was a shrewd man, stepped out and told them that this village was the one where Dr. Faustus was carried off by the Devil, and that in this very house the blood of the Doctor was still to be seen on the walls. The soldiers were seized with terror, and left the village.

The story of Faustus's adventurous life and shocking death, with its impressive lessons, appears at first to have been kept extant only by oral tradition. Nearly forty years passed before it was written down and printed. But then, indeed, the book was received with so much favor, that not only several new and enlarged editions appeared in a short time, but many similar works were published soon after, which, though founded on the oldest Volksbuch (of 1588) and Widmann's "Histories," were yet abundant in new facts and inventions. And that not to the illiterate classes alone was the subject interesting is proved by the circumstance that a Latin version of the first Volksbuch was advertised, and (probably) appeared. On the title-pages of all these books it is expressly stated that they were written as a warning to, and for the edification of, Christian readers. In 1712, a book was published at Berlin, under the title, "Zauberkuenste und Leben Dr. Fausti," (The Magic Arts and Life of Dr. Faust,) as the author of which Christoph Wagner was named. Wagner himself became the subject of a biographical work.

Of still greater effect was Faustus's history on the stage. Through the whole of the seventeenth, as well as the first half of the eighteenth century, it remained one of the favorite subjects of puppet-shows, popular melodramas, exhibitions of ombres chinoises, and pantomimes. The more the awful event, with its moral lessons, receded into the background of time, the more it lost its serious and impressive character, until it became a mere burlesque, and Hanswurst and Casperle its principal figures.

The "Historie" had scarcely appeared, when it was translated into Dutch, and the later publication of other similar works did not prevent the demand for several new editions. These Dutch books were illustrated, as were also the newer German ones. Only a little later, two French versions were published, one of which was even reprinted at Paris as late as 1712.

In Holland, our hero excited no small interest even among the artists. There are extant several portraits of Faustus painted by Rembrandt,—whether ideal, or copied from older pictures, is not known. Another Dutch painter, Christoph von Sichem, represented two scenes from the life of the celebrated magician; and of these productions engravings still exist. On the one, we see Faustus and Mephistopheles,—the latter dressed like a monk, as, according to the popular tales, he mostly appeared. On the other, Wagner and Auerhahn, (or Auerhain,)—the latter in the shape of a monkey. There is a striking contrast between Faustus and Wagner. The first is a well-dressed man, in deep meditation; globes and instruments of science surround him;—the other the impersonation of vulgarity. Various scenes from Faustus's life adorn the walls. Christoph von Sichem was born in 1580, and flourished at Amsterdam during the first quarter of the seventeenth century. These pictures were consequently made when the whole interest of the public for Faustus and his companions was still fresh.

Some books seem, to have teen published by Faustus during his lifetime,—at least, his biographers allude to them; but it was only after his death that the work which gave his name its chief reputation became known. This was his peculiar System of Magic, called "Faust's Hoellenzwang" (Compulsion of Hell). Wagner, who was said to be his heir, published it first under the title of "Dr. Johannis Faust's Magia Celeberrima, und Tabula Nigra, oder Hoellenzwang." It contained all the different forms of conjuration, as well for the citation as for the dismissal of spirits. There are, besides this, several other similar works extant, such as his "Schwarzer Mohrenstern," "Der schwarze Rabe," the "Mirakel-, Kunst-, und Wunder-buch," already mentioned, and several more, containing about the same matter, and most of them written in his name. Of all these productions only manuscripts are known to remain, although they are all professedly copies of printed works. The most singular thing is, that, while they are represented as having been published after the magician's death, some of them are, nevertheless, marked with dates as early as 1509, 1510, and 1511,—and with the names of Lion, (Lyons,) London, etc., as the places where they were printed. These circumstances make their authenticity very doubtful, even if we allow for mistakes made by the copyists.

Although so large a part of Faustus's life was, according to the popular legend, spent in Italy, we are not aware that this legend was ever current among the Italian people. Some unfortunate attempts have been made to engraft the story of Don Giovanni upon this German stock, but, as it seems to us, by very arbitrary arguments and conclusions. The career of a mere rake, who shuns no means of gratifying his low appetites, has little analogy with that of an originally honest inquirer, led astray by the want of faith and his sensual nature. The only resemblance is in the end. There was at first more apparent success in the endeavor to transplant the tale to Spain, where Calderon's "Magico Prodigioso" was taken by some critics for a representation of it. The foundation of Calderon's drama, as mentioned before, is rather the legend of St. Cyprianus. More may be said in favor of the radical identity of the stories of Faustus with some popular legends of the Poles, referring to a necromancer called Twardowski. But Polish scholars will not admit this; at least, they object to giving up their great magician, and some attempts have even been made from that side to prove that theirs is the original whom the Germans appropriated under the name of Faust.

The most interesting result of the publication of the Volksbuch appeared in England, where it fell, for the first, and in a hundred and fifty years the only time, into the hands of a poet. Mr. Collier, in his "History of English Dramatic Poetry," says,—"In 1588, a ballad of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus was licensed to be printed"; and adds,—"This would, according to the language of the time, have meant any composition in verse, even the play," (of Marlowe,) and subsequently mentions the same circumstance with reference to "the old romance of Dr. Faustus." On this, Mr. A. Dyce (Works of Christopher Marlowe, 1850, I. p. xvi., note) remarks,—"When Mr. Collier states that the old romance of Faustus was entered into the Stationers' books in 1588, (according to a note on Henslowe's Diary, p. 42,) he meant, I apprehend, the old ballad." If we bear in mind that the first German History of Dr. Faustus did not appear before the same year, we should also conclude that he must have meant the ballad, as a translation could hardly have been made in so short a time. But considering, on the other hand, that the tragedy, which cannot have been composed later than 1589 or 1590, (as the poet, who was murdered in 1593, wrote several pieces after the one in question,) is evidently and without the least doubt founded on the Volksbuch, often adopting the very language of its English version, we must conclude that a translation of the German work was made immediately after its appearance, or possibly even from the manuscript,—which Spiess, the German editor, professes to have obtained from Spires. Although the word "ballad" was not properly employed for prose romances, it may have been thus used in Henslowe's Diary by mistake. We are not aware that any old English version of this "History of Dr. Faustus" is now extant; that from which Mr. Dyce quotes is of 1648. Marlowe's tragedy was first entered in the Stationers' books in 1600-1, but brought upon the stage many years before. In 1597, it had already been played so often that additions were required. Philips, who wrote about fifty years later, remarks, that, "of all that Marlowe hath written to the stage, his 'Dr. Faustus' has made the greatest noise with its devils and such-like tragical sport." In course of time it was "made into a farce, with the Humors of Harlequin and Scaramouch," and represented through the whole kingdom, like similar compositions, with immense applause.

Marlowe's "Faustus" has been judged rather favorably by modern English critics. Mr. Hazlitt calls it, "though an imperfect and unequal performance, Marlowe's greatest work." Mr. Hallam remarks,—"There is an awful melancholy about Marlowe's Mephistopheles, perhaps more impressive than the malignant mirth of that fiend in the renowned work of Goethe." Charles Lamb even preferred Marlowe's "Faustus," as a whole, to the latter! Mr. Collier calls it "a drama of power, novelty, interest, and variety." So, indeed, it is; but all that power, interest, novelty, and variety do not belong to Marlowe, but to the prose romance, after which he wrote. Indeed, he followed it so closely,—as every reader can see for himself, by reading the play in Dyce's edition, and comparing it with the notes under the text,—that sometimes whole scenes are copied, and even whole speeches, as, for instance, that of the Emperor Charles V. The coarse buffoonery, in particular, of which the work is full, is retained word for word. Of the countless absurdities and prolixities of the Volksbuch, Marlowe has, of course, omitted a great deal, and condensed the story to the tenth part of its original length; but the fundamental idea, the plot, and the characters, belong exclusively to the original. Marlowe's poetical merit lies partly in the circumstance that he was the first to feel the depth and power of that idea, partly in the thoughts and pictures with which some speeches, principally the monologues of Faustus himself, are interwoven. The Faustus of Marlowe is the Faust of the legend, tired of learning because it is so unproductive, and selling his soul, not for knowledge, but for wealth and power. His investigating conversations with Mephistopheles, his inquiries, and the answers of the latter, are almost as shallow and childish as those in the People's Book; and Faustus himself remarks, on the information which his companion gives him,—

"Those slender trifles Wagner could decide;
Has Mephistopheles no greater skill?"

This latter, indeed, seems to us, in spite of the admiration of English critics, a decided failure. There is in him no trace of either the cruel, icy-cold malignity of the fiend of Goethe, or the awful grandeur of Milton's Tempter. It cannot be said that Marlowe's Devil seduces Faustus. He is almost on the verge of repentance himself; of the two, he is decidedly the better Christian. The proposition of the compact comes from Faustus himself, and Mephistopheles only accepts it. Marlowe's Faustus knows nothing of the feeling of aversion and disgust with which Goethe's Faust sees himself bound to his hellish companion; he calls him, repeatedly, "sweet Mephistopheles," and declares,—

"Had I as many souls an there be stars,
I'd give them all for Mephistopheles."

Mr. Hallam, in comparing Marlowe's production with Goethe's, remarks,—"The fair form of Margaret is wanting." As if this were all that was wanting! Margaret belonged, indeed, exclusively to Goethe. But Helena, the favorite ideal of beauty of all old writers, is introduced in the popular tale, and so, too, in Marlowe. Faustus conjures up her spirit at the request of the students. Her beauty is described with glowing colors; "it would," says the old romance, "nearly have enflamed the students, but that they persuaded themselves she was a spirit, which made them lightly passe away such fancies." Not so Faustus; although he is already in the twenty-third year of his compact, he himself falls in love with the spirit, and keeps her with him until his end. In all this, Marlowe follows closely; though he has good taste enough to suppress the figure of the little Justus Faustus, who was the fruit of this union.

It now only remains to us to consider the way in which modern poets have apprehended the idea of the Faust-fable. None of the German dramas and operas which the seventeenth century produced, though they never failed to draw large audiences, could be compared, in poetical value, to Marlowe's tragedy. The German stage of that period was of very low standing, and the few poets who wrote for it, as, for instance, Lohenstein, preferred foreign subjects,—the more remote in space and time, the better. The writers of neither the first nor the second Silesian school were exactly the men to appreciate the depth of a legend like that of Faustus,—still less the watery poets of the beginning of the eighteenth century. Lessing, who, with his sharp, sound criticism, and his clear perception of the beautiful, led the way to a higher state of things in literature, appears also to have been the first to discover the deep meaning buried in the popular farces of Faustus. He pronounced it worthy the genius of a Shakspeare, and himself attempted to make it the subject of a tragedy. How much it occupied his mind we may conclude from the circumstance that he seems to have made for it two plans, essentially different from each other. We can only regret that they were never executed. Although Lessing was not a poetical genius like Goethe, the power and acuteness of his mind were so eminent, the force of his critical faculties was so penetrating, that his treatment of a subject of so much depth and intrinsic poetry would have been of the highest interest. This expectation is also justified by the few sketches of single scenes which are all that remain of his plans. One of the latter is, indeed, also in so far remarkable, as we see from it that Lessing's mind inclined to the modern view, according to which Faustus ought to be and would be finally saved. One of the devils describes him, before temptation, as "a solitary, thinking youth, entirely devoted to wisdom,—living, breathing, only for wisdom and knowledge,—renouncing every passion but the one for truth,—highly dangerous to thee [Satan] and to us all, if he were ever to be a teacher of the people." Satan resolves at once to seduce and destroy him. But Faustus's good angel has mercy on him. He buries him in a deep sleep, and creates in his place a phantom, with which the cheated devils try successfully the whole process of temptation and seduction. All this appears to Faustus in a dream. He awakes; the Devil discovers his error, and flies with shame and fury, and Faustus, thanking Providence for its warning, clings to truth and virtue more firmly than ever.

The other plan, to judge from the fragment we possess, is less fanciful, and seems to follow more closely the popular tradition, according to which the temptations of Faustus were by no means external, but lay deep in his individual mind. In one of its lightly-sketched scenes, the poet has evidently availed himself of the one from the Miracle-Book heretofore mentioned, and, indeed, with a great deal of force. Faustus, impatient and annoyed at the slow process of human action, desires the quickest servant from hell, and successively cites seven spirits. One after another he rejects. The arrows of the plague, the wings of the winds, the beams of light, are all not quick enough for him. The fifth spirit rises:—

"Faustus. How quick art thou?

"Fifth Spirit. As quick as the thoughts of men.

"Faustus. That is something!—But the thoughts of men are not always quick. They are slothful when truth and virtue demand them. Thou canst be quick, if thou wilt. But who will warrant me thy being always quick?—No, I trust thee as little as I ought to have trusted myself.—Ah!—(to the sixth spirit.) Now tell me how quick thou art!

"Sixth Spirit. As quick as the vengeance of the Avenger. "Faustus. Of the Avenger? Of what Avenger?

"Sixth Spirit. Of the All-powerful, the Terrible, who has kept vengeance for himself alone, because vengeance is his delight.

"Faustus. Devil, thou blasphemest, for I see thou art trembling!—Quick, thou sayest, as the vengeance of———no! he may not be named among us! Quick, thou sayest, is his vengeance? Quick? And I still live? And I still sin?

"Sixth Spirit. That he suffereth thee still to sin is the beginning of his vengeance.

"Faustus. Oh that a Devil should teach me this!—But no, his vengeance is not quick; if thou art no quicker, begone!—(To the seventh spirit.) How quick art thou?

"Seventh Spirit. Unsatisfiable (unzuvergnuegender) mortal! If I, too, am not quick enough for thee——

"Faustus. Tell me, then, how quick?

"Seventh Spirit. No more nor less than the transition from Good to Evil.

"Faustus. Ha! thou art my devil! Quick as the transition from Good to Evil!—Yes, that is quick! Nothing is quicker!—Away from here, ye horrors of Orcus! Away!—Quick as the transition from Good to Evil!—I have learned how quick that is! I know it!"

Lessing had this fragment printed in the "Literaturbriefe," professedly as a specimen of one of the old popular dramas, despised at that time by the higher classes, though Lessing remarks,—"How fond was Germany once of its Dr. Faustus,—and is so, partly, still!" But even this bold reformer of German taste seems not to have had the temerity to come forward at once as the author of a conception so entirely contrary to the reigning rules and the Frenchified taste by which, at the period of the "Literaturbriefe," (1759-1763,) Germany was still subjugated.

We do not know whether some of the young poets who took hold of the subject a short time after were instigated by this fragment of Lessing's, or whether they were moved by the awakening German Genius, who, just at that period, was beginning to return to his national sources for the quenching of his thirst. Between 1770 and 1780, Lenz and Maler Mueller composed, the former his "Hoellenrichter," the latter his dramatized Life of Dr. Faustus. No more appropriate hero could have been found for the young "Kraft-Genies" of the "Sturm und Drang Periode" (Storm and Stress period) of German literature. Schreiber, Soden, Klinger, Schink, followed them, the last-named with several productions referring to the subject. In 1786, Goethe communicated to the world, for the first time, a fragment of that astonishing dramatic poem which has since been acknowledged, by the whole literary public, as his masterpiece, and the most remarkable monument of his great genius.[6] The whole first part of the tragedy, still under the name of a fragment, was not published before 1808. Since then Germany may be said to have been inundated by "Fausts" in every possible shape. Dramas by Nic. Voigt, K. Schoene, Benkowitz,—operas by Adolph Bäurle, J. von Voss, Bernard, (with music by Spohr,)—tales in verse and prose by Kamarack, Seybold, Gerle, and L. Bechstein,—and besides these, the productions of various anonymous writers, followed close upon each other in the course of the next twenty years. Chamisso's tragedy of "Faustus," "in one actus," in truth only a fragment, had already appeared in the "Musenalmanach" of 1804.

To Goethe the legendary literature of his nation had been familiar from his boyhood. Very early in life, and several years before the publication of Maler Müeller's spirited drama, his mind was powerfully impressed by the Faust-fable, and the greater part of the present fragmentary poem was already written and ready for print when Müeller's first sketch, under the title, "Situations in the Life of Dr. Faustus," appeared (1776). As the entire poetry of Goethe was more or less autobiographical,—that is, as all his poetical productions reflect, to a certain extent, his own personal sensations, trials, and experiences,--he fused himself and his inner life into the mould of Faustus, with all his craving for knowledge, his passionate love of Nature, his unsatisfied longings and powerful temptations, adhering closely in all external action to the popular story, though of course in a symbolic spirit Goethe had, as he tells us himself, a happy faculty of delivering himself by poetical production, as well of all the partly imaginary, partly morbid cares and doubts which troubled his mind, as of the real and acute sufferings which tormented him, for a certain period, even to agony. Love, doubt, sorrow, passion, remorse—all found an egress from his soul into a poem, a novel, a parable, a dramatic character, or some other form of poetical expression. He felt as if eased of a burden, after having thus given his feelings body and shape. Thus his works became his history. "Faust," in its two parts, is the production of his lifetime. Conceived in early youth, worked out in manhood, completed in old age, it became a vehicle for all the various commotions of his existence. There is no other poem which contains such a diversity of thought and feeling, such a variety of sentences, pictures, scenes, and situations. For enlarging on the poetical value of this incomparable work this is not the place. Closely as Goethe has followed up the popular legend, it is emphatically and entirely his own production, because it contains his complete self.

Nearly a quarter of a century passed before this extraordinary poem was followed by its second part. It is not difficult to trace in this continuation, published only after the death of the aged poet, the few scenes which may have been composed contemporarily with or soon after the first part; but that the whole is conceived and executed in a totally different spirit not even the most unconditional admirers of Goethe's genius will deny. There is no doubt that he regarded his "Faust" only as a beginning, and always contemplated a continuation. The rôle of Dr. Faustus, the popular magician, was only half-played. Its most brilliant part, his intercourse with the great of the earth and the heroes of the past, had not yet commenced. But as, in the course of advancing life, the poet's views and ideas changed, the mirror of his soul reflected an altered world to him; and as the second part of "Faust" is hardly less an image of himself than the first, it is not unnatural that it is as different from the latter as the Goethe the septuagenarian was from Goethe the youth.

Meanwhile the literati of Germany became exceedingly impatient for the promised second part; and when the master lingered, and did not himself come forth with the solution of the mystery, the disciples attempted to supply him as well as they could. C. C. L. Schoene and J. D. Hoffmann had both the requisite courage for such an undertaking; and the first even sent his production, with perfect naïveté, to the great master, as the second part of his own work. C. Rosenkranz and Gustav Pfitzer—two very honorable names—also wrote after-plays.

We must confess that we have never felt any desire to see "Faust" continued. It ought to have remained a fragment. Its last scene, perhaps, surpasses, in sublimity and heart-rending power, anything ever written. No light of this world can ever entirely clear up the sacred mystery of the Beyond, but that scene gives us a surety for the salvation of Margaret, and hope for Faust, to every one who has not forgotten the words of the Lord in the second Prologue:—

"Draw down this spirit from its source,
And, canst thou catch him, to perdition
Carry him with thee in thy course;
But stand abashed, if thou must needs confess
That a good man, though passion blur his vision,
Has of the right way still a consciousness."[7]

By the appearance of the second part of "Faust" the magic spell was completely broken. No work of Art of a more chilling, disenchanting character was ever produced. For the striking individuality of the first part, we have here nothing but abstractions; for its deep poetry, symbolism; for its glow and thrilling pathos, a plastic finish, hard and cold as marble; for its psychological truth, a bewildering mysticism. All the fine thoughts and reflections, and all the abundance of poetical passages, scattered like jewels through the thick mist of the whole work, cannot compensate for its total want of interest; and we doubt whether many readers have ever worked their way through its innumerable obscure sayings and mystical allegories without feeling something of the truth of Voltaire's remark: "Tout genre est permis hors le genre ennuyeux."

The impression which the first part of "Faust," the poetical masterpiece of German literature, made among foreigners, was, though in some instances ultimately powerful, yet on the whole surprisingly slow. While the popular legend, in its coarsest shape, had, in its time, spread with the rapidity of a running fire through all countries, the great German poet's conception of it, two hundred years later, found no responding echo in either French or English bosoms. Here and there some eccentric genius may have taken it up, as, for instance, Monk Lewis, who, in 1816, communicated the fundamental idea to Lord Byron, reading and translating it to him vivâ voce, and suggesting to him, in this indirect way, the idea of his "Manfred." But even the more profound among the few German scholars then extant in England did not understand "Faust," and were inclined to condemn it,—as, for instance, Coleridge, who, as we see from his "Table-Talk," misconceived the whole idea of the poem, and found fault with the execution, because it was different from what he fancied he himself would have made of this legend, had he taken it in hand. The first English translation was published in the same year as the first French version, that is, in 1825; both were exceedingly imperfect. Since then several other translations in prose and verse have appeared in both languages, especially in English,—though the "twenty or thirty metrical ones" of which Mr. C. T. Brooks speaks in his preface are probably to be taken as a mere mode of speech,—and lately one by this gentleman himself, in our very midst. This latter comes, perhaps, as near to perfection as it is possible for the reproduction of all idiomatic poetical composition in another language to do. All this indicates that the time for the just appreciation of German literature in general and of Goethe in particular is drawing near at last; that its influence has for some time been felt is proved, among other things, by that paraphrastic imitation of "Faust," Bailey's "Festus."

That a poem like "Faust" could not at first be generally understood is not unnatural. Various interpretations of its seeming riddles have been attempted; and if the volumes of German "Goethe-Literature" are numerous enough to form a small library, those of the "Faust- Literature" may be computed to form the fourth part of it. To the English reader we cannot recommend highly enough, for the full comprehension of "Faust," the commentary on this poem which Mr. Lewes gives in his "Life of Goethe," as perhaps the most excellent portion of that excellent work. Goethe himself has given many a hint on his own conception, and as to how far it was the reflex of his own soul. "The puppet-show-fable of 'Faust,'" he says, "murmured with many voices in my soul. I, too, had wandered into every department of knowledge, and had returned disgusted, and convinced of the vanity of science. And life, too, I had tried under various aspects, and had always come back sorrowing and unsatisfied." "Faust's character," he says in another place, "at the height to which the modern elaboration (Ausbildung) of the old, crude, popular tale has raised it, represents a man, who, feeling impatient and uncomfortable within the general limits of earth, esteems the possession of the highest knowledge, the enjoyment of the fairest worldly goods, inadequate to satisfy his longings even in the least degree, a mind which, turning to every side in search of this satisfaction, ever recedes into itself with increased unhappiness."—He remarks, too, that "the approbation which this poem has met with, far and near, may be owing to the rare peculiarity, that it fixes permanently the developing process of a human mind, which by everything that torments humanity is also pained, by all that troubles it is also agitated, by what it condemns is likewise enthralled, and by what it desires is also made happy."[8]

If this article were devoted to Goethe's "Faust," instead of the popular legend of Faustus, of which the former is only the most eminent apprehension, if would be easy to add to these reasons for the universal "approbation" which it has won still others, founded on the great genius of the poet. This, however, would by far exceed our limits.

  1. Some regard Sabellicus and Faustus Socinus as one and the same person.
  2. Historie von D. Johann Fausten, den weltbeschreyten Zauberer und Schwarzkünstler, etc. Frankfurt a. M. 1588.
  3. Wahrhaftige Historien von den greulichen und abscheulichen Sünden und Lastern, etc., so D. Johannes Faustus, etc., bis an sein schreckliches End hat getrieben, etc., erklärt durch Georg Rudolf Widmann. Hamburg, 1599.
  4. Live, drink, and be merry, remembering this Faust and his punishment. It came slowly, but was in ample measure. 1525.
  5. Dr. Faustus on this day

    From Auerbach's cellar rode away,
    Of a barrel of wine astride,
    Which many mothers'-children eyed;
    This through his subtile art achieved,
    And for it the Devil's reward received.


  6. It first appeared in the fourth volume of his Works. Leipzig. Goeschen. 1786.
  7. Mr. Brooks's translation.
  8. Kunst und Alterthum. B. VI. Heft I., II.

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.