Goethe’s Literary Essays – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Professor Spingarn has done students of literature a real favor; for he has gathered into a single and well-made volume, golden pages from one of the great masters of literature. As divergent-minded judges as Carlyle, Matthew Arnold and Sainte-Beuve acclaimed Goethe the supreme literary critic of all time and, whatever might be said against so superlative an opinion, certainly Goethe’s many-sidedness, his undoubted genius, and his keen insight all conspired to give his judgments on literature a value too great to be ignored. All phases of his critical activity are represented in this excellent volume, which is the work of several translators, all of high standard. Goethe was keenly interested in French and in English literature, no less than in German, and for the English reader there will be much to stimulate thought in his sympathetic appreciation of Shakespeare. Those of us who have found the great dramatist’s plays strangely failing in power to lift us out of ou selves, can find much to ponder over in Goethe’s declaration: “Shakespeare gets his effect by means of the living word, and it is for this reason that one should hear him read, for then the attention is not distracted either by a too adequate or too in adequate stage-setting. There is no higher . . . pleasure than to sit with closed eyes and hear a naturally expressive voice recite, not declaim, a play of Shakespeare’s.” Goethe was no hard and fast critic, and as he re-read a book and found that it appealed to him in a new light, he did not hesitate to revise his earlier opinions and even to call attention to corrected impressions or reversals of judgments. It was because of his open-mindedness to new impressions that his critical dicta appear perennially fresh and stimulate the reader by their frankness and their vitality. The task of collecting these admirable and valuable essays required a scholar. It found one in Professor Spingarn, to whom the lovers of the best in literature owe genuine gratitude for this volume. The essays are grouped under The theory of art – The theory of literature – On Shakespeare – On other writers – Extracts from the conversations with Eckermann.
Goethe’s Literary Essays.
Excerpt from the text:
As I wandered about at your grave, noble Erwin, in order to pour out my veneration for you at the sacred spot itself, I looked for the stone which bore this inscription: “Anno Domini 1318, XVI. Kal. Febr. obiit Magister Ervinus, Gubernator Fabricae Ecclesiae Argentinensis;” and when I could not find it and none of your countrymen could point it out to me, I became sad of soul, and my heart, younger, warmer, more tender and better than it is now, vowed a memorial to you, of marble or sandstone, as might be in my power, when I came into the peaceful enjoyment of my fortune.
But what need have you for a memorial! You have built the most splendid memorial for yourself; and although the ants who crawl around there do not trouble themselves about your name, yet you have a destiny like that of the builder who heaped up mountains into the clouds.
To few has it been granted to create such mighty ideas in their minds, complete, gigantic, and consistently beautiful down to the last detail, like trees of God: to fewer was it given to find a thousand willing hands to work, to excavate the rocky foundation, to conjure up towering structures upon it, and then when dying to sav to their sons, — I remain with you in the works of mv genius: carry on to its completion in the clouds what I have begun.
What need have you for memorials! and from me! When the rabble utters sacred names, it is either superstition or blasphemy. Those of feeble spirit and taste will always have their head tamed before your mighty work, and genuine souls will come to know you without a guide.
Therefore, honored man, before I venture again my patched-up bark upon the ocean, destined as it is more likely to death than to fame and fortune, see, here in this grove where bloom the names of my loves, I cut yours on a beech-tree which lifts its slender trunk high in the air like your own tower, and I bans’ on it too this handkerchief filled with gifts, not unlike that sheet which was let down from the clouds to the holy apostle, full of clean and unclean beasts; for this is full of flowers and buds and leaves, and some dried grass and moss and fungi, which on my walk through these uninteresting regions I coldly gathered as a pastime for my botanical collection, — I dedicate them to death in your honor.
What a trivial style, says the Italian, and passes by. Childishness, lisps the Frenchman, and snaps his finger against his snuff-box a la Grecque. What have you done that you dare to despise?
But you. Italian, you have let the genius of the ancients, arising from its grave, fetter and bind your own.. You crept to beg for artistic knowledge from the splendid relics of the olden time, you patched together palaces from these sacred ruins, and consider yourself the guardian of the secrets of art, because you can give account of the measurements by inch and line of enormous buildings. Had you felt more than you measured, had the spirit of the gigantic structures at which you gazed come to you, you would not have imitated merely because they did it thus and it is beautiful. But you would have created your own designs, and there would have flowed out of them living beauty to instruct you.
Thus upon your shortcomings you have plastered a whitewashing, a mere appearance of truth and beauty. The splendid effect of pillars struck you, you wished to use them in your building and have great rows of columns too; so you encircled St. Peter’s with marble passageways, which lead nowhere in particular, so that mother Nature, who despises and hates the inappropriate and the unnecessary, drove your rabble to prostitute that splendor for public ” cloaca,” with the result that you turn away your eyes and hold your nose before the wonder of the world.
Everything goes the same way: the whim of the artist serves the caprice of the rich man; the writer of travels stands agape, and our beaux esprits, called philosophers, wrest out of formless myths facts and principles of art to be applied to the present day: and their evil genius murders sincere men at the threshold of these mysteries.
More harmful to the genius than examples are rules. Before his time individual men may have worked up individual parts and aspects. He is the first from whose mind come the parts grown together into one ever-living whole. But a school or a rule fetters all the power of his insight and his activity. What is it to us, you modern French philosophical critic, that the first inventor, responding to necessity, stuck four trunks in the ground, bound on them four poles and covered it all with branches and moss? To determine from this what is appropriate for our present needs is like demanding that your new Babylon be ruled by the old despotic patriarchal father-right.
And in addition it is not true that this house of yours is the most primitive form in the world. That with two poles in front crossed at the end, two in back and one lying straight between them for a ridge-pole is, as we can notice every day in the huts in the fields and vineyards, a far more primitive invention, from which you could hardly abstract a principle for your pig-pen.
Thus none of your conclusions are able to rise into the region of truth, but all hang in the lower atmosphere of your system. You wish to teach us what we ought to use, since what we do use, according to your principles cannot be justified.
The column is very dear to you, and in another clime you would be prophet. You say: The column is the first essential ingredient of a building, and the most beautiful. What noble elegance of form, what pure grandeur, when they are placed in a row! Only guard against using them inappropriately; it is their nature to be free and detached. Alas for the unfortunates who try to join the slender shape of them to heavy walls!
Yet it seems to me, dear abbe, that the frequent repetition of this impropriety of building columns into walls, so that the moderns have even stuffed the intercolumnia of ancient temples with masonry, might have aroused in your mind some reflections. If your ears were not deaf to the truth, these stones would have preached a sermon to you.
Columns are in no way an ingredient in our dwellings; they contradict rather the style of all our buildings. Our houses have not their origin in four columns placed in four corners. They are built out of four walls on four sides, which take the place of columns, indeed exclude all columns, and where these are used to patch up, they are an encumbrance and a superfluity. This is true of our palaces and churches, with the exception of a few cases, which I do not need to mention.
Thus your buildings exhibit mere surface, which, the broader it Is extended, — the higher it is raised to the sky, — the more unendurable must become the monotony which oppresses the soul. But Genius came to our aid, and said to Erwin von Steinbach: Diversify the huge wall, which you are to raise heavenward, so that it may soar like a lofty, far-spreading tree of God, which with a thousand branches, millions of twigs, and leaves like the sand of the sea, proclaims everywhere the glory of God, Its Master.
When I went for the first time to the Minster, my head was full of the common cant of ” good taste.” From hearsay, I was an admirer of the harmony of mass, the purity of form, and was a sworn enemy to the confused arbitrariness of Gothic adornment. Under the term, ” Gothic,” like the article in a dictionary, I piled all the misconceptions which had ever come into my head, of the indefinite, the unregulated, the unnatural, the patched-up, the strung-together, the superfluous, in art. No wiser than a people which calls the whole foreign world, ” barbarous,” everything was Gothic to me that did not fit into my system, from the turned wooden dolls and pictures of gay colors, with which the bourgeois nobility decorate their houses, to the dignified relics of the older German architecture, my opinion of which, because of some bizarre scrollwork, had been that of everybody, — ” Quite buried in ornamentation! “; consequently I had an aversion to seeing it, such as I would have before a malformed bristling monster.
With what unexpected emotions did the sight surprise me when I actually saw it! An impression of grandeur and unity filled my soul, which, because it consisted of a thousand harmonizing details, I could taste and enjoy, but by no means understand and explain. They say it is thus with the rapture of heaven. How often I returned to enjoy this heavenly-earthly rapture, to embrace the stupendous genius of our older brothers in their works. How often I returned to view from every side, at every distance, in every light of the day, its dignity and splendor. Hard it is for the mind of man when his brother’s work is so elevated that he can only bow down and pray. How often has the evening twilight refreshed with its friendly calm my eyes wearied by too much gazing; it made countless details melt together into a complete whole and mass, and now, simple and grand, it stood before my eyes, and, full of rapture, my power unfolded itself both to enjoy and to understand it at once. There was revealed to me in soft intimations the genius of the great builder. “Why are you astonished?” He whispered to me. “All these masses were necessary, and do you not see them in all the older churches of my city? Only I have given harmonious proportion to their arbitrary vastnesses. See how, over the principal entrance which commands two smaller ones on either side, the wide circle of the window opens which corresponds to the nave of the church and was formerly merely a hole to let the light in; see how the bell-tower demands the smaller windows! All this was necessary, and I designed it with beauty. But what of these dark and lofty apertures here at the side which seem to stand so empty and meaningless? In their bold slender forms I have hidden the mysterious strength which was to raise both of those towers high in the air, of which alas only one stands there sadly, without the crown of five towers which I had planned for it, so that to it and its royal brother the country about would do homage.” And so he parted from me, and I fell into a sympathetic mood of melancholy, until the birds of morning, which dwelt in its thousand orifices, greeted the sun joyously and waked me out of my slumber. How freshly it shone in the morning rays, how joyfully I stretched my arms towards it, surveying its vast harmonious masses, animated by countless delicate details of structure! as in the works of eternal Nature, every form, down to the smallest fibril, alive, and everything contributing to the purpose of the whole 1 How lightly the monstrous, solidly grounded building soared into the air! how free and delicate everything about it, and yet solid for eternity! To your teaching, noble genius, I owe thanks that I did not faint and sink before your heights and depths, but that into my soul flowed a drop of that calm rapture of the mighty soul which could look on this creation, and like God say, — ” It is good! “
And now I ought not to be angry, revered Erwin, when the German critic and scholar, taking the cue from envious neighbors, and misjudging the superiority of your work, belittles it by the little understood term, ” Gothic “; since he ought rather to give thanks that he can proclaim loudly that this is German architecture, — our architecture, — whereas the Italians cannot boast of any distinctively native style, much less the French. And if you are not willing to admit to yourself this superiority, at least show us then that the Goths have already built in this style, — in which effort you may encounter some difficulties. And finally, if you cannot demonstrate that there was a Homer already before Homer, then we will gladly allow the story of small attempts, successful and unsuccessful, and come reverently back to the, work of the master who first drew the scattered elements together into one living whole. And you, my dear brother in the spirit, in your search for truth and beauty, close your ears to the loud talk about the plastic arts, — come, enjoy, survey. Beware of desecrating the name of your noblest artist, and hasten here that you may enjoy and see his glorious work. If it makes an unfavorable impression or none, then farewell, hitch up, and take the road straight for Paris.