The Maclise Portrait-Gallery/The Baron von Goethe


For the exquisite prose sketch which accompanied this portrait on its first appearance at the court of "Regina," was called into requisition the pen of an Englishman of letters who, at that time, and even now, may be said to have done more than any other scholar to bring his countrymen acquainted with the riches of German literature. I need hardly say that I allude to Thomas Carlyle, among whose Critical and Miscellaneous Essays this smaller gem is included. Nothing would have given me greater satisfaction than to quote so beautiful and characteristic a piece of writing in its entirety; but as it is so readily accessible, I content myself with pointing out its character, and the place where it is to be found. The portrait which it so happily illustrates, and which is here before us, was not taken ad vivum, but copied from one by Stieler of Munich. "It proved," says a note to my edition,—an American one,—of Carlyle, "a total failure and involuntary caricature,—resembling, as was said at the time, a wretched old-clothes man, carrying behind his back a hat which he seemed to have stolen." This passage I only transcribe to express some dissent from the opinion expressed in it, the portrait,—this copy of which is set down to Thackeray, with much probability, in the Autographic Mirror, 1864,—appearing to me, in many respects, a worthy and suggestive resemblance of the great patriarch of German literature, and indicating to some extent that decision of character and potency of will, by means of which, as we are told, he was once able to ward off an infectious fever by which he was menaced.

It is as the author of Faust[1] that Goethe here appears before us, and it is probably with this divine production that his name is still, and ever will be, more intimately associated, than with any other of his works, transcendantly great as many of them are. I was yet young in German when I commenced the study of this immortal work, and knew little of it besides

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the contents of my Lesebuch, and the "Studenten Lieder," carolled nightly in a Parisian mansarde by a joyous group from the Fatherland,—myself the only "Engländer"—dispersed for ever this many a long day, like that "gallant company" whose fate awoke the regrets of him who sung, in Byron's line, how Corinth of the double sea was lost and won. Strong was the dissuasion from friendly voices, who told of the manifold difficulties of a work the interpretation of which had baffled the strongest minds of Germany; still, nothing daunted, I adventured, and soon found, to my own surprise, that, aided by my Wörterbuch and Mr. Hayward's admirable prose translation, I was making easy and satisfactory progress in my delightful task. The obstacles arising from grammatical construction I found to be neither numerous nor important; while the obscurities of meaning,—of which, doubtless, there are many and great,—hardly affected the continuity of progress, or diminished the pleasure which the mere poetry afforded. I therefore have said thus much in venturing to recommend a like experiment to those other students of High Dutch to whom the fancied difficulties of Faust have hitherto made it a sealed book.

Many a deep impression have the waves of time washed away since those early days, but I yet recall, in all their vivid glow, the feeling which the first reading of this sublime poem awakened in my soul. It was as a wind to awaken each slumbering emotion of the mind; a lightning flash to kindle every current of sympathy; a mirror reflecting to the spirit's gaze its own unfamiliar characters and lineaments. It possesses an infinite variety which is never staled by custom, and each new perusal will bring you under the dominion of words that ring in the brain and take possession of the thoughts as no other poem or work but this,—and Shakespeare,—alone can ever do. I read it wandering through Rhineland,—in native Frankfort,—in friendly Weimar,—and in beautiful Berlin, "light of the world;"[2]—and longer study and wider apprehension have only increased the opinion I then formed of the beauty of its poetry, the profundity of its meaning, and the almost universality of its significance.

What manner of book, then, is this? What is its meaning and object? Primarily, Faust may be considered simply as a dramatic poem, having for its object, like the Doctor Faustus of our own "Marlowe of the mighty line," the exhibition and illustration of the old tradition of a scholar, who, made mad by hard study and much learning, has, or believes that he has, intercourse with the Evil One, in the guise of Mephistopheles.[3] This is the superficial, and, as far as it goes, a correct view. But then, if we would gain a clue to its further interpretation, and a better hope of fairly plucking the heart out of its mystery, we must not forget that we have the author's own testimony as to the almost entirely subjective character of the work, and the passionate and perplexed condition of his mind at the time of its composition;[4] and thus endeavour to regard it as an autopathography, shadowing forth the spiritual life of its author, and the pains and sorrows through whose purging fires his soul passed to its eventide grandeur and serenity.

But this is not all. Faust is a work of supreme genius, and consequently possesses in a superlative degree, quite apart from its mere objective and exoteric form, that invariable and critical characteristic of all works of genius, by virtue of which they become interfused with, and reciprocated by, the various idiosyncrasies, mental and moral, to which they gain access, in such manner that, imparting and deriving, informing and informed, generating and acquiring new life, their assimilation with the receptive soul and intellect becomes so complete, that the mutual agencies and relations of these with them are thenceforth and evermore indissoluble and indiscriminable.

Hence it is that the esoteric interpretations of Faust are almost as numerous as its readers; each one giving that of which his own mind is the unconscious factor. In this way, one student has held that the poet merely intended to convey a body of practical lessons on the wisdom of life; another, that his object was a delineation of the eternal struggle between the component elements, corporeal and psychical, of the human dualism; a third, that the poem is to be regarded as an ἐιρήνευσις, a striving to reconcile the great contradictions of the world, and establish peace between the real and the ideal; a fourth, that the leading idea,—as in the Apuleian fable of Cupid and Psyche,—is the redemption of the soul, polluted by sensual passion, through the purifying influence of a childlike and innocent love; a fifth,—and this, if my memory does not lead me astray, was the opinion of our own Coleridge, who thought, in this view, that the book was a failure,[5]—that the dramatic action was intended to evolve the consequences of a misology, or hatred and depreciation of learning, caused by an originally intense thirst for knowledge baffled, like that which in Cornelius Agrippa produced his ever memorable diatribe on the Vanity of the Arts and Sciences;[6] while others, lastly, have regarded the piece as nothing more nor less than a daring attempt to afford a pantheistic solution of the great enigma of the universe.

Now there is an entire absence of evidence, external as well as internal, as to the truth and value of either, or any, of these fanciful hypotheses. The student is therefore free to adopt which he pleases, to evolve a new one for himself if he thinks fit, or simply luxuriate sensuously in the objective beauties of language and rhythm. But in any case, the theory formed must be regarded and pursued as a radiating path from a common central standpoint,—the exhibition and illustration of the nursery story, suggested emphatically to the mind of the poet by the similarity of his own feelings, with regard to the acquisition of knowledge and the conviction of its vanity and ineptitude, to those of the hero of the old familiar tradition.

Faust is, I repeat, a work of supreme genius; worthy to take its place, as it undoubtedly will through the ages, in succession to the four or five sublime cardinal productions of the human intellect,—to the Œdipus of Sophocles, to what time has left us of the divine trilogy of Æschylus, to the Divine Comedy of Dante, and to the Hamlet of Shakespeare. But if it is thus grand in conception, it is no less perfect in mechanical execution. In this aspect it is perfect. It has none of the affected ruggedness and the studied obscurity, which seems now-a-days necessary to tickle a palate cloyed with the vapid graces and luscious sweets of the old school. I do not believe that there is a halting rhythm, a faulty line, or an imperfect rhyme in the entire poem, which thus stands forth in antipodal majesty and beauty, contrasted with those monstrous superfœtations of conceit upon inanity,—if not mere impostures,—which, native in origin or imported from America, have in these latter years brought burning disgrace upon the sacred name of poetry.[7]

To revert for a brief moment to Faust. I do not know that a Goethiana has yet been published, though Goethe, like Shakespeare and Voltaire, has created a literature of his own, and needs a bibliographer. The Meisterstück itself has, either in part or whole, been translated a score of times into English—by Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, Hayward (prose), Talbot, Anster, Blackie, Syme, Sir George Lefevre, Captain Knox, Filmore, Archer Gurney,[8] Bernays (prose), Anna Swanwick (for Bohn's Library), John Hills, Theodore Martin, Bayard Taylor, Galvan, and others, in part by Shelley and Carlyle, and anonymously (1834),—and there is already a whole library of Vorlesungen and "Essays." A paper, on "The English Translations of Goethe's Faust," will be found in the Cornhill Magazine, for September, 1872; but the English reader may be well content with the prose translation of Mr. A. Hayward, of which many editions have already appeared,[9] with its admirable introduction and elucidatory notes; the "Remarks" upon this by D. Boileau (1834, 8vo); Dr. Koller's Faust Papers (1835, small 8vo); and the metrical version of Anna Swanwick, published by H. G. Bohn, which is at once faithful and mellifluous. In the original German, the editions are of course innumerable; from the duodecimo at half a thaler, to the magnificent folio (Stuttgardt, 1854) with the twenty-four beautiful illustrations of Engelbert Siebertz, which will take the heart out of a ten-pound note.

To the "second part" of Faust, I cannot now do more than briefly allude; and can neither here attempt to offer a solution, or a demonstration of its relative continuity in respect to the earlier poem. According to Eckermann, who was a kind of "Boswell" to the great man, Goethe affirmed that in it was displayed a far richer world than in the former part; that it was less subjective in character: and that the atmosphere was higher, broader, clearer and more passionless. For a paper on it, reference may be made to Fraser's Magazine, October, 1863. It has been translated into prose by Dr. Bernays; into verse by Archer Gurney (1842), and later (1871) by the late Mr. Bayard Taylor.

It is a natural enough transition from Faust to Reynard the Fox. Of this charming apologue of the Middle Ages, which Grimm would claim to be of German or Flemish origin, but which is clearly traceable to that fertile source of fictitious story, the fables of Bidpai, an English version was among the earliest productions of the press of Caxton,—re-edited by Mr. Thoms for the Percy Society in 1844. Retaining its hold upon the public through the intervening centuries, it has continued to appear in every variety of form, in prose and in verse, down to the version by Mr. Holloway in 1852. But it is in the Reineke Fuchs of Goethe that the still verdant allegory has been wrought to a pitch of consummate perfection, as an exhibition of the triumph of cunning and hypocrisy, and a trenchant satire upon the world and its ways. This, too, may be had of any size, and at any price; but the lover of luxurious editions will look out for an original copy of the pracht-Ausgabe, in quarto form, with the exquisite illustrations, either on steel or wood, according to price, from the designs of Wilhelm von Kaulbach. If, on the other hand, he is innocent of German, he may console himself with the spirited and Hudibrastic rendering of Goethe's version by Thomas James Arnold (1855, 8vo, pp. 320), with the clever illustrations of Joseph Wolf; or the later issue of the same (royal 8vo, 1861), with the seventy wood-cut designs of Von Kaulbach, from the larger work; or, finally, the version by E. W. Holloway, 1852, quarto, with the thirty-seven engravings on steel from the designs of H. Leutemann.

Such is the fullness and manysidedness of the genius of Goethe, and so full of energy and activity his long literary career, that the briefest notice of his various productions would demand a far greater space than I have here at my disposal. It is to him that the Germans are, in a great measure, indebted for the present condition of their noble language, and their appreciation of its qualities and capabilities. When the Sorrows of Werther, in 1774, announced the dawn of a genius which was destined for immortality, the dispute between the adherents of Gottsched and Bodmer was yet unsettled, and it was still an open question whether the nascent literature was to receive its early influence from the traditions and examples of the French or English writers. It was Goethe unquestionably, who, by his earlier works, helped, in the face of reproach and ridicule, to decide the wavering national taste. It was mainly by his example that the language was freed from formal restraint; that heterogeneous accretions were excluded; and its powers of expression developed by the formation of notional compounds, in accordance with the rules of verbal analogy. Hence it is that the German language, by an ever-changing co-ordination of its own primal elements, is, after the Greek, perhaps the richest and most flexible of the various modes of human speech; and that the Germans possess the advantage, enjoyed to a large extent by ourselves, of being able to study, in almost archetypal perfection, the masterpieces of other literatures. The French, on the other hand, have scarcely a good translation in their language, while their "creaking lyre," once the envy of the Germans, is ill adapted, at least for the higher forms of poetical expression. The German, indeed, it essentially the language of poetry; while, were I called upon to assign to the other idioms of Europe the department for which each was best fitted, I should indicate the English for oratory, the French for conversation, the Italian for song, and the Spanish for love—that is, the expression of the tender passion.

More than one generation has passed away since that which first wept over the sufferings of the youthful Werther (1774), or imitated his eccentricities. It is a work of true genius, instinct with profound pathos and energic passion. We have two or three translations; but all are more or less inadequate, and this may account for the comparative oblivion into which it has fallen.

There is one little point in Wilhelm Meister (1795) which may be worthy of mention, as it exhibits Goethe, who, it will be remembered, was educated for the bar, as an original and accurate observer of medical symptoms. He states that his father was attacked by right hemiplegia, and describes, in a clear and simple manner, how this was accompanied by aphasia, or loss of the proper use of speech. Now this is interesting, inasmuch as we have no description of the phenomenon by a medical author before 1836, in Trousseau's Clinical Medicine (Sydenham Society), and Reynolds's System of Medicine, 2nd ed. vol. ii. p. 454. I need not say that Wilhelm Meister, with its exquisite creation of Mignon, is known to us by the powerful version of Carlyle.

In the drama of Egmont occurs the character of "Clara," than which exists no more lovely example of the constancy and devotion of woman. The Iphigenia auf Tauris is a classical production, refreshing to the vexed spirit as a Greek statue. It has been pronounced almost worthy of Sophocles himself; but fine as it undoubtedly is, it must be held inferior, alike in theme and treatment, to the Samson Agonistes of Milton,—the most successful attempt of a modern, according to Goethe himself, to catch life from the breath of the antique spirit. Those who are curious to see how it reads in Greek may turn to the masterly version of Theodore Koch, or those parts of it which have been translated by Professor Hermann of Leipsic.

An evergreen favourite is Hermann and Dorothea (1797), an idyllic epos of truly Homeric character, written after the ancient models in hexameters, full of pastoral beauty and axiomatic wisdom. Then there is the Wahlverwandschaften (1809), a romance of great beauty and power, but, perhaps to some minds, dangerous in theory; Cellini (1803), in its Italianized German;[10] Dichtung und Wahrheit, a biopathography of intense interest; ballads, songs and minor poems, exhibiting elegance, facility and consummate finish; and lastly, his correspondence with Lavater, Schiller, Von Bernsdorff, Zeller, Schultz, and Bettina von Arnim, geborene Brentano,—embodying a vast amount of literature and criticism.

In English, we have Mrs. Austin's Characteristics of Goethe; the various essays of Thomas Carlyle; Eckermann's Conversations; and the masterly and exhaustive life by the late G. H. Lewes. Reference may also be made with profit to the Critical Essays and Literary Notes of the late Bayard Taylor (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1880, 8vo). Here especially are two chapters on Weimar, in which are graphic sketches of the still surviving members of the circle of which Goethe was once the centre. The admirable Lectures on Goethe of Hermann Grimm had not appeared when these essays were originally printed; but the essential estimate of Goethe's moral character by the two men will not be found to differ greatly. Any way, we have much yet to learn from the unpublished diaries and other important documents still in the possession of the great man's grandsons, and which they have yet refused to impart to the public. Bayard Taylor has no great opinion of the Life by Lewes, which he considered not a biography, but an elaborate apology; written by a man, clever no doubt, but informed by no real sympathy with the spirit of the masters life.

The external lineaments of the great author are well preserved for us by the excellent portrait in the ordinary German editions of Faust: the engravings from the portrait by George Dawe, R.A.; the monument in Frankfort by Schwanthaler; the jove-like bust of Rauch; and the marble effigy in the library of his native city, where we see him in sitting posture, by Marchesi.

To this illustrious man a long and prosperous career was allotted. Born at Frankfort-on-the-Maine, August 28, 1749, he reigned for more than half a century at Weimar, the acknowledged primate of the intellectual life of Germany. Of him, Lord Byron, in the dedication of Werner, professed himself "one of his humblest admirers;" and in that of Sardanapalus, addressed him as "the first of existing writers, who has created the literature of his own country, and illustrated that of Europe." He belonged to the ministry,—was the friend and counsellor of his own sovereign,—and received honourable distinctions from other monarchs. But the "paths of glory," and those of obscurity, converge alike to one common centre; and after an existence of nearly a century, which had been entirely devoted to science, literature, and art, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe rendered up his spirit at Weimar, on the 22nd of March, 1832, in the eighty-third year of his age, with the memorable words upon his lips,—to which some would apply a secondary meaning,—"Dass mehr Licht hereinkomme."

"Rest thou soft in heavenly slumbers,
Near thy friend and prince reclined;
For thy life was nobly spent,
In culturing thine age's mind.
Till space and time have passed away,
Thy name shall live in mortal breast;
Then rest thee on thy tranquil couch
By earth adored: in Heaven thrice blessed.

A last word upon the first. Fraser, in the heading of this portrait, fell into the same error which Byron had previously done, in his letter to "Baron Goethe." (Prefatory matter to Marino Faliero.) The fact is, Goethe was ennobled, having the "Von" prefixed to his name; but he never received the tide of "Baron." To speak of him with this prefix to his name is no less absurd than to say "Lord Gladstone."

  1. This poem, which is styled by Bunsen "Die Tragödie der Seele," was commenced as far back as 1774, when some of the episodes were sketched out. The whole was remodelled in 1790 by the author, when the first separate edition, entitled Faust ein Fragment, was given to the world. But the complete poem, such as we now possess it, was not published till 1806.
  2. "Lumen Orbi,"—anagram of Berolinum.
  3. See a paper on "The Devil and Dr. Faustus," in the Cornhill Magazine, December, 1866.
  4. Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe, vol. ii. p. 342.
  5. Quarterly Review, vol. iii. p. 21.
  6. De Incertitudine et Vanitate Omnium Scientiarum et Artium, Francofurti, 1714.
  7. Take, for instance, the notable "Walt Whitman" hoax. An eminent literator, Mr. W. M. Rossetti, laid a cunning plot to test the gullibility of the public in matters of taste and criticism. He dug up an American "poet" who had never written a word of poetry in his life; and who, in all he had written, was bombastic, coarse, conceited, and irreverent, or generally meaningless. He reprinted him in England, wrote an eulogistic preface, and engaged some really clever fellows,—Professor Dowden, A. C. Swinburne, Robert Buchanan, etc.—to aid the scheme by unstinted and indiscriminate laudation. The bait took. Men who had never read Washington Irving or Whittier echoed the cuckoo-cry, and "Walt Whitman" was the noblest Transatlantic "tone " yet heard! Professor Bayne, in an able article in the Contemporary Review (December, 1875), pretty well shook the bran out of the puppet "poet;" but the impetus he got at starting still carries him on, and like a spent ball, he may yet roll on languidly for a time. The book is worth having, too, as a literary curiosity.
  8. The manifold faults and errors of Mr. Gurney's version are pointed out in the Westminster Review, vol. xxxviii. p. 532.
  9. The eighth edition lies before me, published in 1864, 12mo; but I question whether the translator has made any alterations or additions of any importance since the second (Moxon, 1834), a handsome volume in octavo. Mr. Hayward's translation is reviewed in Fraser's Magazine, May, 1833, p. 532.
  10. Translated into English by the late John Oxenford. (H. G. Bohn, 1848, 8vo.)