The German Classics of The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Vol. II
Editor-in-Chief: Kuno Francke
Part 8 out of 9
Remembering his promise to show me again his Marienbad Elegy at a
fitting opportunity, Goethe arose, put a light on the table, and gave
me the poem. I was delighted to have it once more before me. He quietly
seated himself again, and left me to an undisturbed perusal of the
After I had been reading a while, I turned to say something to him, but
he seemed to be asleep. I therefore used the favorable moment, and read
the poem again and again with a rare delight. The most youthful glow of
love, tempered by the moral elevation of the mind, seemed to me its
pervading characteristic. Then I thought that the feelings were more
strongly expressed than we are accustomed to find in Goethe's other
poems, and imputed this to the influence of Byron--which Goethe did not
"You see the product of a highly impassioned mood," said he. "While I
was in it I would not for the world have been without it, and now I
would not for any consideration fall into it again.
"I wrote that poem immediately after leaving Marienbad, while the
feeling of all I had experienced there was fresh. At eight in the
morning, when we stopped at the first stage, I wrote down the first
strophe; and thus I went on composing in the carriage, and writing down
at every stage what I had just composed in my head, so that by the
evening the whole was on paper. Thence it has a certain directness, and
is, as I may say, poured out at once, which may be an advantage to it as
"It is," said I, "quite peculiar in its kind, and recalls no other poem
"That," said he, I "may be, because I staked upon the present moment as
a man stakes a considerable sum upon a card, and sought to enhance its
value as much as I could without exaggeration."
These words struck me as very important, inasmuch as they threw a light
on Goethe's method so as to explain that many-sidedness which has
excited so much admiration.
_Friday, January 2._--Dined at Goethe's, and enjoyed some cheerful
conversation. Mention was made of a young beauty belonging to the Weimar
society, when one of the guests remarked that he was on the point of
falling in love with her, although her understanding could not exactly
be called brilliant.
"Pshaw," said Goethe, laughing, "as if love had anything to do with the
understanding. The things that we love in a young lady are something
very different from the understanding. We love in her beauty,
youthfulness, playfulness, trustingness, her character, her faults, her
caprices, and God knows what _'je ne sais quoi'_ besides; but we do not
_love_ her understanding. We respect her understanding when it is
brilliant, and by it the worth of a girl can be infinitely enhanced in
our eyes. Understanding may also serve to fix our affections when we
already love; but the understanding is not that which is capable of
firing our hearts, and awakening a passion."
We found much that was true and convincing in Goethe's words, and were
very willing to consider the subject in that light. After dinner, and
when the rest of the party had departed, I remained sitting with Goethe,
and conversed with him on various interesting topics.
We discoursed upon English literature, on the greatness of Shakespeare,
and on the unfavorable position held by all English dramatic authors who
had appeared after that poetical giant.
"A dramatic talent of any importance," said Goethe, "could not forbear
to notice Shakespeare's works, nay, could not forbear to study them.
Having studied them, he must be aware that Shakespeare has already
exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its
heights and depths, and that, in fact, there remains for him, the
aftercomer, nothing more to do. And how could one get courage only to
put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest, appreciating
spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were
already in existence!
"It fared better with me fifty years ago in my own dear Germany. I could
soon come to an end with all that then existed; it could not long awe
me, or occupy my attention. I soon left behind me German literature, and
the study of it, and turned my thoughts to life and to production. So on
and on I went in my own natural development, and on and on I fashioned
the productions of epoch after epoch. And at every step of life and
development, my standard of excellence was not much higher than what at
such step I was able to attain. But had I been born an Englishman, and
had all those numerous masterpieces been brought before me in all their
power, at my first dawn of youthful consciousness, they would have
overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have
gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, but should have had to
bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new
I turned the conversation back to Shakespeare. "When one, to some
degree, disengages him from English literature," said I, "and considers
him transformed into a German, one cannot fail to look upon his gigantic
greatness as a miracle. But if one seeks him in his home, transplants
oneself to the soil of his country, and to the atmosphere of the century
in which he lived; further, if one studies his contemporaries, and his
immediate successors, and inhales the force wafted to us from Ben
Jonson, Massinger, Marlowe, and Beaumont and Fletcher, Shakespeare
still, indeed, appears a being of the most exalted magnitude; but still,
one arrives at the conviction that many of the wonders of his genius
are, in some measure, accessible, and that much is due to the powerfully
productive atmosphere of his age and time."
"You are perfectly right," returned Goethe. "It is with Shakespeare as
with the mountains of Switzerland. Transplant Mont Blanc at once into
the large plain of Lueneburg Heath, and we should find no words to
express our wonder at its magnitude. Seek it, however, in its gigantic
home, go to it over its immense neighbors, the Jungfrau, the
Finsteraarhorn, the Eiger, the Wetterhorn, St. Gotthard, and Monte Rosa;
Mont Blanc will, indeed, still remain a giant, but it will no longer
produce in us such amazement."
"Besides, let him who will not believe," continued Goethe, "that much of
Shakespeare's greatness appertains to his great vigorous time, only ask
himself the question, whether a phenomenon so astounding would be
possible in the present England of 1824, in these evil days of
criticising and hair-splitting journals?"
"That undisturbed, innocent, somnambulatory production, by which alone
anything great can thrive, is no longer possible. Our talents at present
lie before the public. The daily criticisms which appear in fifty
different places, and the gossip that is caused by them amongst the
public, prevent the appearance of any sound production. In the present
day, he who does not keep aloof from all this, and isolate himself by
main force, is lost. Through the bad, chiefly negative, aesthetical and
critical tone of the journals, a sort of half culture finds its way into
the masses; but to productive talent it is a noxious mist, a dropping
poison, which destroys the tree of creative power, from the ornamental
green leaves, to the deepest pith and the most hidden fibres.
"And then how tame and weak has life itself become during the last two
shabby centuries. Where do we now meet an original nature? and where is
the man who has the strength to be true, and to show himself as he is?
This, however, affects the poet, who must find all within himself, while
he is left in the lurch by all without."
The conversation now turned on _Werthe_. "That," said Goethe, "is a
creation which I, like the pelican, fed with the blood of my own heart.
It contains so much from the innermost recesses of my breast--so much
feeling and thought, that it might easily be spread into a novel of ten
such volumes. Besides, as I have often said, I have only read the book
once since its appearance, and have taken good care not to read it
again. It is a mass of congreve-rockets. I am uncomfortable when I look
at it; and I dread lest I should once more experience the peculiar
mental state from which it was produced."
I reminded him of his conversation with Napoleon, of which I knew by the
sketch amongst his unpublished papers, which I had repeatedly urged him
to give more in detail. "Napoleon," said I, "pointed out to you a
passage in _Werther_, which, it appeared to him, would not stand a
strict examination; and this you allowed. I should much like to know
what passage he meant."
"Guess!" said Goethe, with a mysterious smile.
"Now," said I, "I almost think it is where Charlotte sends the pistols
to Werther, without saying a word to Albert, and without imparting to
him her misgivings and apprehensions. You have given yourself great
trouble to find a motive for this silence, but it does not appear to
hold good against the urgent necessity where the life of the friend was
"Your remark," returned Goethe, "is really not bad; but I do not think
it right to reveal whether Napoleon meant this passage or another.
However, be that as it may, your observation is quite as correct as
I asked the question, whether the great effect produced by the
appearance of _Werther_ was really to be attributed to the period. "I
cannot," said I, "reconcile to myself this view, though it is so
extensively spread. _Werther_ made an epoch because it appeared--not
because it appeared at a certain time. There is in every period so much
unexpressed sorrow--so much secret discontent and disgust for life, and,
in single individuals, there are so many disagreements with the
world--so many conflicts between their natures and civil regulations,
that _Werther_ would make an epoch even if it appeared today for the
"You are quite right," said Goethe; "it is on that account that the book
to this day influences youth of a certain age, as it did formerly. It
was scarcely necessary for me to deduce my own youthful dejection from
the general influence of my time, and from the reading of a few English
authors. Rather was it owing to individual and immediate circumstances
which touched me to the quick, and gave me a great deal of trouble, and
indeed brought me into that frame of mind which produced _Werther_. I
had lived, loved, and suffered much--that was it."
"On considering more closely the much-talked-of _Werther_ period, we
discover that it does not belong to the course of universal culture, but
to the career of life in every individual, who, with an innate free
natural instinct, must accommodate himself to the narrow limits of an
antiquated world. Obstructed fortune, restrained activity, unfulfilled
wishes, are not the calamities of any particular time, but those of
every individual man; and it would be bad, indeed, if every one had not,
once in his life, known a time when Werther seemed as if it had been
written for him alone."
_Sunday, January_ 4.--Today, after dinner, Goethe went through a
portfolio, containing some works of Raphael, with me. He often busies
himself with Raphael, in order to keep up a constant intercourse with
that which is best, and to accustom himself to muse upon the thoughts of
a great man. At the same time, it gives him pleasure to introduce me to
We afterwards spoke about the _Divan_--especially about the "book of
ill-humor," in which much is poured forth that he carried in his heart
against his enemies.
"If I have, however," continued he, "been very moderate: if I had
uttered all that vexed me or gave me trouble, the few pages would soon
have swelled to a volume.
"People were never thoroughly contented with me, but always wished me
otherwise than it has pleased God to make me. They were also seldom
contented with my productions. When I had long exerted my whole soul to
favor the world with a new work, it still desired that I should thank it
into the bargain for considering the work endurable. If any one praised
me, I was not allowed, in self-congratulation, to receive it as a
well-merited tribute; but people expected from me some modest
expression, humbly setting forth the total unworthiness of my person and
my work. However, my nature opposed this; and I should have been a
miserable hypocrite, if I had so tried to lie and dissemble. Since I was
strong enough to show myself in my whole truth, just as I felt, I was
deemed proud, and am considered so to the present day.
"In religious, scientific, and political matters, I generally brought
trouble upon myself, because I was no hypocrite, and had the courage to
express what I felt.
"I believed in God and in Nature, and in the triumphs of good over evil;
but this was not enough for pious souls; I was also required to believe
other points, which were opposed to the feeling of my soul for truth;
besides, I did not see that these would be of the slightest service to
"It was also prejudicial to me that I discovered Newton's theory of
light and color to be an error, and that I had the courage to contradict
the universal creed. I discovered light in its purity and truth, and I
considered it my duty to fight for it. The opposite party, however, did
their utmost to darken the light; for they maintained that _shade is a
part of light_. It sounds absurd when I express it; but so it is: for
they said that _colors_, which are shadow and the result of shade, _are
light itself_, or, which amounts to the same thing, _are the beams of
light, broken now in one way, now in another_."
Goethe was silent, whilst an ironical smile spread over his expressive
countenance. He continued--
"And now for political matters. What trouble I have taken, and what I
have suffered, on that account, I cannot tell you. Do you know my
"Yesterday, for the first time," returned I, "I read the piece, in
consequence of the new edition of your works; and I regret from my heart
that it remains unfinished. But, even as it is, every right-thinking
person must coincide with your sentiments."
"I wrote it at the time of the French Revolution," continued Goethe,
"and it may be regarded, in some measure, as my political confession of
faith at that time. I have taken the countess as a type of the nobility;
and, with the words which I put into her mouth, I have expressed how the
nobility really ought to think. The countess has just returned from
Paris; she has there been an eye-witness of the revolutionary events,
and has drawn, therefore, for herself, no bad doctrine. She has
convinced herself that the people may be ruled, but not oppressed, and
that the revolutionary outbreaks of the lower classes are the
consequence of the injustice of the higher classes. 'I will for the
future,' says she, 'strenuously avoid every action that appears to me
unjust, and will, both in society and at court, loudly express my
opinion concerning such actions in others. In no case of injustice will
I be silent, even though I should be cried down as a democrat.'
"I should have thought this sentiment perfectly respectable," continued
Goethe; "it was mine at that time, and it is so still; but as a reward
for it, I was endowed with all sorts of titles, which I do not care to
"One need only read _Egmont_," answered I, "to discover what you think.
I know no German piece in which the freedom of the people is more
advocated than in this."
"Sometimes," said Goethe, "people do not like to look on me as I am,
but turn their glances from everything which could show me in my true
light. Schiller, on the contrary--who, between ourselves, was much more
of an aristocrat than I am, but who considered what he said more than
I--had the wonderful fortune to be looked upon as a particular friend of
the people. I give it up to him with all my heart, and console myself
with the thought that others before me had fared no better.
"It is true that I could be no friend to the French Revolution; for its
horrors were too near me, and shocked me daily and hourly, whilst its
beneficial results were not then to be discovered. Neither could I be
indifferent to the fact that the Germans were endeavoring, artificially,
to bring about such scenes here, as were, in France, the consequence of
a great necessity.
"But I was as little a friend to arbitrary rule. Indeed, I was perfectly
convinced that a great revolution is never a fault of the people, but of
the government. Revolutions are utterly impossible as long as
governments are constantly just and constantly vigilant, so that they
may anticipate them by improvements at the right time, and not hold out
until they are forced to yield by the pressure from beneath.
"Because I hated the Revolution, the name of the '_Friend of the powers
that be_' was bestowed upon me. That is, however, a very ambiguous
title, which I would beg to decline. If the 'powers that be' were all
that is excellent, good, and just, I should have no objection to the
title; but, since with much that is good there is also much that is bad,
unjust, and imperfect, a friend of the 'powers that be' means often
little less than the friend of the obsolete and bad.
"But time is constantly progressing, and human affairs wear every fifty
years a different aspect; so that an arrangement which, in the year
1800, was perfection, may, perhaps, in the year 1850, be a defect.
"And, furthermore, nothing is good for a nation but that which arises
from its own core and its own general wants, without apish imitation of
another; since what to one race of people, of a certain age, is a
wholesome nutriment, may perhaps prove a poison for another. All
endeavors to introduce any foreign innovation, the necessity for which
is not rooted in the core of the nation itself, are therefore foolish;
and all premeditated revolutions of the kind are I unsuccessful, _for
they are without God, who keeps aloof from such bungling_. If, however,
there exists an actual necessity for a great reform amongst a people,
God is with it, and it prospers. He was visibly with Christ and his
first adherents; for the appearance of the new doctrine of love was a
necessity to the people. He was also visibly with Luther; for the
purification of the doctrine corrupted by the priests was no less a
necessity. Neither of the great powers whom I have named was, however, a
friend of the permanent; much more were both of them convinced that the
old leaven must be got rid of, and that it would be impossible to go on
and remain in the untrue, unjust, and defective way."
_Tuesday, January 27._--Goethe talked with me about the continuation of
his memoirs, with which he is now busy. He observed that this later
period of his life would not be narrated with such minuteness as the
youthful epoch of _Dichtung and Wahrheit_. "I must," said he, "treat
this later period more in the fashion of annals: my outward actions must
appear rather than my inward life. Altogether, the most important part
of an individual's life is that of development, and mine is concluded in
the detailed volumes of _Dichtung and Wahrheit_. Afterwards begins the
conflict with the world, and that is interesting only in its results.
"And then the life of a learned German--what is it? What may have been
really good in my case cannot be communicated, and what can be
communicated is not worth the trouble. Besides, where are the hearers
whom one could entertain with any satisfaction?
"When I look back to the earlier and middle periods of my life, and now
in my old age think how few are left of those who were young with me, I
always think of a summer residence at a bathing-place. When you arrive,
you make acquaintance and friends of those who have already been there
some time, and who leave in a few weeks. The loss is painful. Then you
turn to the second generation, with which you live a good while, and
become most intimate. But this goes also, and leaves us alone with the
third, which comes just as we are going away, and with which we have,
properly, nothing to do.
"I have ever been esteemed one of Fortune's chiefest favorites; nor will
I complain or find fault with the course my life has taken. Yet, truly,
there has been nothing but toil and care; and I may say that, in all my
seventy-five years, I have never had a month of genuine comfort. It has
been the perpetual rolling of a stone, which I have always had to raise
anew. My annals will render clear what I now say. The claims upon my
activity, both from within and without, were too numerous.
"My real happiness was my poetic meditation and production. But how was
this disturbed, limited, and hindered by my external position! Had I
been able to abstain more from public business, and to live more in
solitude, I should have been happier, and should have accomplished much
more as a poet. But, soon after my _Goetz and Werther_, that saying of a
sage was verified for me--'If you do anything for the sake of the world,
it will take good care that you shall not do it a second time.'
"A wide-spread celebrity, an elevated position in life, are good
things. But, for all my rank and celebrity, I am still obliged to be
silent as to the opinion of others, that I may not give offense. This
would be but poor sport, if by this means I had not the advantage of
learning the thoughts of others without their being able to learn mine."
* * * * *
Wednesday, February 25.--Today, Goethe showed me two very remarkable
poems, both highly moral in their tendency, but in their several motives
so unreservedly natural and true, that they are of the kind which the
world styles immoral. On this account he keeps them to himself, and does
not intend to publish them.
"Could intellect and high cultivation," said he, "become the property of
all, the poet would have fair play; he could be always thoroughly true,
and would not be compelled to fear uttering his best thoughts. But, as
it is, he must always keep on a certain level; must remember that his
works will fall into the hands of a mixed society; and must, therefore,
take care lest by over-great openness he may give offense to the
majority of good men. Then Time is a strange thing. It is a whimsical
tyrant, which in every century has a different face for all that one
says and does. We cannot, with propriety, say things which were
permitted to the ancient Greeks; and the Englishmen of 1820 cannot
endure what suited the vigorous contemporaries of Shakespeare; so that,
at the present day, it is found necessary to have a Family Shakespeare."
"Then," said I, "there is much in the form also. The one of these two
poems, which is composed in the style and metre of the ancients, would
be far less offensive than the other. Isolated parts would displease,
but the treatment throws so much grandeur and dignity over the whole,
that we seem to hear a strong ancient, and to be carried back to the age
of the Greek heroes. But the other, being in the style and metre of
Messer Ariosto, is far more hazardous. It relates an event of our day,
in the language of our day, and as it thus comes quite unveiled into
our presence, the particular features of boldness seem far more
"You are right," said he; "mysterious and great effects are produced by
different poetical forms. If the import of my Romish elegies were put
into the measure and style of Byron's _Don Juan_, the whole would be
The French newspapers were brought. The campaign of the French in Spain
under the Duke d'Angouleme, which was just ended, had great interest for
Goethe. "I must praise the Bourbons for this measure," said he; "they
had not really gained the throne till they had gained the army, and that
is now accomplished. The soldier returns with loyalty, to his king; for
he has, from his own victories, and the discomfitures of the many-headed
Spanish host, learned the difference between obeying one and many. The
army has sustained its ancient fame, and shown that it is brave in
itself, and can conquer without Napoleon."
Goethe then turned his thoughts backward into history, and talked much
of the Prussian army in the Seven Years' War, which, accustomed by
Frederic the Great to constant victory, grew careless, so that, in after
days, it lost many battles from over-confidence. All the minutest
details were present to his mind, and I had reason to admire his
"I had the great advantage," said he, "of being born at a time when the
greatest events which agitated the world occurred, and such have
continued to occur during my long life; so that I am a living witness of
the Seven Years' War, of the separation of America from England, of the
French Revolution, and of the whole Napoleon era, with the downfall of
that hero, and the events which followed. Thus I have attained results
and insight impossible to those who are born now and must learn all
these things from books which they will not understand.
"What the next years will bring I cannot predict; but I fear we shall
not soon have repose. It is not given to the world to be contented; the
great are not such that there will be no abuse of power; the masses not
such that, in hope of gradual improvement, they will be contented with a
moderate condition. Could we perfect human nature, we might also expect
a perfect state of things; but, as it is, there will always be a
wavering hither and thither; one part must suffer while the other is at
ease, envy and egotism will be always at work like bad demons, and party
strife will be without end.
"The most reasonable way is for every one to follow his own vocation to
which he has been born, and which he has learned, and to avoid hindering
others from following theirs. Let the shoemaker abide by his last, the
peasant by his plough, and let the king know how to govern; for, this is
also a business which must be learned, and with which no one should
meddle who does not understand it."
Returning to the French papers, Goethe said: "The liberals may speak,
for when they are reasonable we like to hear them; but with the
royalists, who have the executive power in their hands, talking comes
amiss--they should act. They may march troops, and behead and hang--that
is all right; but attacking opinions, and justifying their measures in
public prints, does not become them. If there were a public of kings,
they might talk.
"For myself," he continued, "I have always been a royalist. I have let
others babble, and have done as I saw fit. I understood my course, and
knew my own object. If I committed a fault as a single individual, I
could make it good again; but if I committed it jointly with three or
four others, it would be impossible to make it good, for among many
there are many opinions."
Goethe was in excellent spirits today. He showed me Frau von Spiegel's
album, in which he had written some very beautiful verses. A place had
been left open for him for two years, and he rejoiced at having been
able to perform at last an old promise. After I had read the "Poem to
Frau von Spiegel," I turned over the leaves of the book, in which I
found many distinguished names. On the very next page was a poem by
Tiedge, written in the very spirit and style of his _Urania_. "In a
saucy mood," said Goethe, "I was on the point of writing some verses
beneath those; but I am glad I did not. It would not have been the first
time that, by rash expressions, I had repelled good people, and spoiled
the effect of my best works.
"However," continued Goethe, "I have had to endure not a little from
Tiedge's _Urania_; for, at one time, nothing was sung and nothing was
declaimed but this same Urania. Wherever you went, you found _Urania_ on
the table. _Urania_ and immortality were the topics of every
conversation. I would by no means dispense with the happiness of
believing in a future existence, and, indeed, would say, with Lorenzo
de' Medici, that those are dead even for this life who hope for no
other. But such incomprehensible matters lie too far off to be a theme
of daily meditation and thought-distracting speculation. Let him who
believes in immortality enjoy his happiness in silence, he has no reason
to give himself airs about it. The occasion of Tiedge's _Urania_ led me
to observe that piety, like nobility, has its aristocracy. I met stupid
women, who plumed themselves on believing, with Tiedge, in immortality,
and I was forced to bear much dark examination on this point. They were
vexed by my saying I should be well pleased if, after the close of this
life, we were blessed with another, only I hoped I should hereafter meet
none of those who had believed in it here. For how should I be
tormented! The pious would throng around me, and say, 'Were we not
right? Did we not predict it? Has not it happened just as we said?' And
so there would be ennui without end, even in the other world.
"This occupation with the ideas of immortality," he continued, "is for
people of rank, and especially ladies, who have nothing to do. But an
able man, who has some thing regular to do here, and must toil and
struggle and produce day by day, leaves the future world to itself, and
is active and useful in this. Thoughts about immortality are also good
for those who have not been very successful here; and I would wager
that, if the good Tiedge had enjoyed a better lot, he would also have
had better thoughts."
* * * * *
_Tuesday, November 9_.--I passed this evening with Goethe. We talked of
Klopstock and Herder; and I liked to listen to him, as he explained to
me the merits of those men.
"Without those powerful precursors," said Goethe, "our literature could
not have become what it now is. When they appeared, they were before
their age, and were obliged, as it were, to drag it after them; but now
the age has far outrun them, and they who were once so necessary and
important have now ceased to be _means to an end_. A young man who would
take Klopstock and Herder for his teachers nowadays would be far
We talked over Klopstock's _Messiah_ and his Odes, touching on their
merits and their defects. We agreed that he had no faculty for observing
and apprehending the visible world, or for drawing characters; and that
he therefore wanted the qualities most essential to the epic and
dramatic poet, or, perhaps it might be said, to the poet generally.
"An ode occurs to me," said Goethe, "where he makes the German Muse run
a race with the British; and, indeed, when one thinks what a picture it
is, where the two girls run one against the other, throwing about their
legs and kicking up the dust, one must assume that the good Klopstock
did not really have before his eyes such pictures as he wrote, else he
could not possibly have made such mistakes."
I asked how he had felt towards Klopstock in his youth. "I venerated
him," said Goethe, "with the devotion which was peculiar to me; I looked
upon him as my uncle. I revered whatever he had done, and never thought
of reflecting upon it, or finding fault with it. I let his fine
qualities work upon me; for the rest, I went my own way."
We came back to Herder, and I asked Goethe which of his works he
thought the best. "_His Idea for the History of Mankind" (Ideen zur
Geschichte der Menschheit)_, replied Goethe, "are undoubtedly the best.
In after days, he took the negative side, and was not so agreeable."
"Considering the great weight of Herder," said I, "I cannot understand
how he had so little judgment on some subjects. For instance, I cannot
forgive him, especially at that period of German literature, for sending
back the manuscript of _Goetz von Berlichingen_ without any praise of
its merits, and with taunting remarks. He must have utterly wanted
organs to perceive some objects."
"Yes, Herder was unfortunate in this respect," replied Goethe; "nay,"
added he, with vivacity, "if his spirit were present at this
conversation, it would not understand us."
"On the other hand," said I, "I must praise Merck, who urged you to
"He was indeed an odd but important man," said Goethe. "'Print the
thing,' quoth he, 'it is worth nothing, but print it.' He did not wish
me to make any alteration in it, and he was right; for it would have
been different, but not better."
_Wednesday, November 24_.--I went to see Goethe this evening, before
going to the theatre, and found him very well and cheerful. He inquired
about the young Englishmen who are here. I told him that I proposed
reading with Mr. Doolan a German translation of Plutarch. This led the
conversation to Roman and Grecian history; and Goethe expressed himself
"The Roman history," said he, "is no longer suited to us. We have become
too humane for the triumphs of Caesar not to be repugnant to our
feelings. Neither are we much charmed by the history of Greece. When
this people turns against a foreign foe, it is, indeed, great and
glorious; but the division of the states, and their eternal wars with
one another, where Greek fights against Greek, are insufferable.
Besides, the history of our own time is thoroughly great and important;
the battles of Leipsic and Waterloo stand out with such prominence that
that of Marathon and others like it are gradually eclipsed. Neither are
our individual heroes inferior to theirs; the French Marshals, Bluecher,
and Wellington, vie with any of the heroes of antiquity."
We then talked of the late French literature, and the daily increasing
interest in German works manifested by the French.
"The French," said Goethe, "do well to study and translate our writers;
for, limited as they are both in form and motives, they can only look
without for means. We Germans may be reproached for a certain
formlessness; but in matter we are their superiors. The theatrical
productions of Kotzebue and Iffland are so rich in motives that they may
pluck them a long time before all is used up. But, especially, our
philosophical Ideality is welcome to them; for every Ideal is
serviceable to revolutionary aims.
"The French have understanding and _esprit_, but neither a solid basis
nor piety. What serves the moment, what helps his party, seems right to
the Frenchman. Hence they praise us, never from an acknowledgment of our
merits, but only when they can strengthen their party by our views."
We then talked about our own literature, and of the obstacles in the way
of some of our latest young poets.
"The majority of our young poets," said Goethe, "have no fault but this,
that their subjectivity is not important, and that they cannot find
matter in the objective. At best, they only find a material, which is
similar to themselves, which corresponds to their own subjectivity; but
as for taking the material on its own account, when it is repugnant to
the subjectivity, merely because it is poetical, such a thing is never
"Still, as I have said, if we only had important personages, formed by
great studies and situations in life, it might still go well with us,
at least as far as our young lyric poets are concerned."
_Monday, January 10._--Goethe, consistently with his great interest for
the English, has desired me to introduce to him the young Englishmen who
are here at present.
After we had waited a few minutes, Goethe came in, and greeted us
cordially. He said to Mr. H., "I presume I may address you in German, as
I hear you are already well versed in our language." Mr. H. answered
with a few polite words, and Goethe requested us to be seated.
Mr. H.'s manners and appearance must have made a good impression on
Goethe; for his sweetness and mild serenity were manifested towards the
stranger in their real beauty. "You did well," said he "to come hither
to learn German; for here you will quickly and easily acquire, not only
a knowledge of the language, but also of the elements on which it rests,
our soil, climate, mode of life, manners, social habits, and
constitution, and carry it away with you to England."
Mr. H. replied, "The interest taken in the German language is now great,
so that there is now scarcely a young Englishman of good family who does
not learn German."
"We Germans," said Goethe, good-humoredly, "have, however, been half a
century before your nation in this respect. For fifty years I have been
busy with the English language and literature; so that I am well
acquainted with your writers, your ways of living, and the
administration of your country. If I went over to England, I should be
no stranger there.
"But, as I said before, your young men do well to come to us and learn
our language; for, not only does our literature merit attention on its
own account, but no one can deny that he who now knows German well can
dispense with many other languages. Of the French, I do not speak; it is
the language of conversation, and is indispensable in traveling,
because everybody understands it, and in all countries we can get on
with it instead of a good interpreter. But as for Greek, Latin, Italian,
and Spanish, we can read the best works of those nations in such
excellent German translations, that, unless we have some particular
object in view, we need not spend much time upon the toilsome study of
those languages. It is in the German nature duly to honor, after its
kind, everything produced by other nations, and to accommodate itself to
foreign peculiarities. This, with the great flexibility of our language,
makes German translations thoroughly faithful and complete. And it is
not to be denied that, in general, you get on very far with a good
translation. Frederick the Great did not know Latin, but he read Cicero
in the French translation with as much profit as we who read him in the
Then, turning the conversation on the theatre, he asked Mr. H. whether
he went frequently thither. "Every evening," he replied, "and find that
I thus gain much towards the understanding of the language."
"It is remarkable," said Goethe, "that the ear, and generally the
understanding, gets the start of speaking; so that a man may very soon
comprehend all he hears, but by no means express it all."
"I experience daily," said Mr. H., "the truth of that remark. I
understand very well whatever I hear or read; I even feel when an
incorrect expression is made use of in German. But when I speak, nothing
will flow, and I cannot express myself as I wish. In light conversation
at court, jests with the ladies, a chat at balls, and the like, I
succeed pretty well. But, if I try to express an opinion on any
important topic, to say anything peculiar or luminous, I cannot get on."
"Be not discouraged by that," said Goethe, "since it is hard enough to
express such uncommon matters in one's own mother tongue."
He then asked what Mr. H. read in German literature. "I have read
_Egmont_," he replied, "and found so much pleasure in the perusal that
I returned to it three times. _Torquato Tasso_, too, has afforded me
much enjoyment. Now I am reading _Faust_, but find that it is somewhat
Goethe laughed at these last words. "Really," said he, "I would
not have advised you to undertake _Faust_. It is mad stuff, and
goes quite beyond all ordinary feeling. But since you have done it of
your own accord, without asking my advice, you will see how you will get
through. Faust is so strange an individual that only few can sympathize
with his internal condition. Then the character of Mephistopheles is, on
account of his irony, and also because he is a living result of an
extensive acquaintance with the world, also very difficult. But you will
see what lights open upon you. _Tasso_, on the other hand, lies far
nearer the common feelings of mankind, and the elaboration of its form
is favorable to an easy comprehension of it."
"Yet," said Mr. H., "_Tasso_ is thought difficult in Germany, and people
have wondered to hear me say that I was reading it."
"What is chiefly needed for _Tasso_," replied Goethe, "is that one
should be no longer a child, and should have been in good society. A
young man of good family, with sufficient mind and delicacy, and also
with enough outward culture, such as will be produced by intercourse
with accomplished men of the higher class, will not find' Tasso
The conversation turning upon _Egmont_, he said, "I wrote _Egmont_ in
1775--fifty years ago. I adhered closely to history, and strove to be as
accurate as possible. Ten years afterwards, when I was in Rome, I read
in the newspapers that the revolutionary scenes in the Nether lands
there described were exactly repeated. I saw from this that the world
remains ever the same, and that my picture must have some life in it."
Amid this and similar conversation, the hour for the theatre had come.
We arose, and Goethe dismissed us in a friendly manner.
As we went homeward, I asked Mr. H. how he was pleased with Goethe. "I
have never," said he, "seen a man who, with all his attractive
gentleness, had so much native dignity. However he may condescend, he is
always the great man."
Professor Riemer was announced, Rehbein took leave, and Riemer sat down
with us. The conversation still turned on the _motives_ of the Servian
love-poems. Riemer was acquainted with the topic, and made the remark
that, according to the table of contents given above, not only could
poems be made, but that the same motives had been already used by the
Germans, without any knowledge that they had been treated in Servia. He
mentioned some poems of his own, and I mentioned some poems by Goethe,
which had occurred to me during the reading.
"The world," said Goethe, "remains always the same; situations are
repeated; one people lives, loves, and feels like another; why should
not one poet write like another? The situations of life are alike; why,
then, should those of poems be unlike?"
"This very similarity in life and sensation," said Riemer, "makes us all
able to appreciate the poetry of other nations. If this were not the
case, we should never know what foreign poems were about."
"I am, therefore," said I, "always surprised at the learned, who seem to
suppose that poetizing proceeds not from life to the poem, but from the
book to the poem. They are always saying, 'He got this here; he got that
there.' If, for instance, they find passages in Shakespeare which are
also to be found in the ancients, they say he must have taken them from
the ancients. Thus there is a situation in Shakespeare, where, on the
sight of a beautiful girl, the parents are congratulated who call her
daughter, and the youth who will lead her home as his bride. And
because the same thing occurs in Homer, Shakespeare, forsooth, has
taken it from Homer. How odd! As if one had to go so far for such
things, and did not have them before one's eyes, feel them and utter
them every day." "Ah, yes," said Goethe, "it is very ridiculous."
"Lord Byron, too," said I, "is no wiser, when he takes _Faust_ to
pieces, and thinks you found one thing here, the other there."
"The greater part of those fine things cited by Lord Byron," said
Goethe, "I have never even read, much less did I think of them, when
I was writing _Faust_. But Lord Byron is great only as a poet; as
soon as he reflects, he is a child. He knows not how to help himself
against the stupid attacks of the same kind made upon him by his own
countrymen. He ought to have expressed himself more strongly against
them. 'What is there is mine,' he should have said, 'and whether I got
it from a book or from life, is of no consequence; the only point is,
whether I have made a right use of it.' Walter Scott used a scene from
my _Egmont_, and he had a right to do so; and because he did it
well, he deserves praise. He has also copied the character of my Mignon
in one of his romances; but whether with equal judgment, is another
question. Lord Byron's transformed Devil is a continuation of
Mephistopheles, and quite right too. If, from the whim of originality,
he had departed from the model, he would certainly have fared worse.
Thus, my Mephistopheles sings a song from Shakespeare, and why should
he not? Why should I give myself the trouble of inventing one of my
own, when this said just what was wanted. If, too, the prologue to my
_Faust_ is something like the beginning of Job, that is again
quite right, and I am rather to be praised than censured."
Goethe was in the best humor. He sent for a bottle of wine, and filled
for Riemer and me; he himself drank Marienbad water. He seemed to have
appointed this evening for looking over, with Riemer, the manuscript of
the continuation of his autobiography, perhaps in order to improve it
here and there, in point of expression. "Let Eckermann stay and hear it
too," said Goethe; which words I was very glad to hear, and he then laid
the manuscript before Riemer, who began to read, commencing with the
I had already, in the course of the summer, had the pleasure of
repeatedly reading and reflecting on the still unpublished record of
those years, down to the latest time. But now to hear them read aloud in
Goethe's presence, afforded quite a new enjoyment. Riemer paid especial
attention to the mode of expression; and I had occasion to admire his
great dexterity, and his affluence of words and phrases. But in Goethe's
mind the epoch of life described was revived; he revelled in
recollections, and on the mention of single persons and events, filled
out the written narrative by the details he orally gave us. That was a
precious evening! The most distinguished of his contemporaries were
talked over; but the conversation always came back to Schiller, who was
so interwoven with this period, from 1795 to 1800. The theatre had been
the object of their united efforts, and Goethe's best works belong to
this time. _Wilhelm Meister_ was completed; _Hermann and Dorothea_
planned and written; _Cellini_ translated for the "Horen;" the "Xenien"
written by both for Schiller's _Musenalmanach_; every day brought with
it points of contact. Of all this we talked this evening, and Goethe had
full opportunity for the most interesting communications.
"_Hermann and Dorothea_," said he, "is almost the only one of my larger
poems which still satisfies me; I can never read it without strong
interest. I love it best in the Latin translation; there it seems to me
nobler, and as if it had returned to its original form."
_Wilhelm Meister_ was often a subject of discourse. "Schiller blamed me
for interweaving tragic elements which do not belong to the novel. Yet
he was wrong, as we all know. In his letters to me, there are most
important views and opinions with respect to _Wilhelm Meister_. But this
work is one of the most incalculable productions; I myself can scarcely
be said to have the key to it. People seek a central point, and that is
hard, and not even right. I should think a rich, manifold life, brought
close to our eyes, would be enough in itself, without any express
tendency, which, after all, is only for the intellect. But if anything
of the sort is insisted upon, it will perhaps be found in the words
which Frederic, at the end, addresses to the hero, when he says--'Thou
seem'st to me like Saul, the son of Kish, who went out to seek his
father's asses, and found a kingdom.' Keep only to this; for, in fact,
the whole work seems to say nothing more than that man, despite all his
follies and errors, being led by a higher hand, reaches some happy goal
We then talked of the high degree of culture which, during the last
fifty years, had become general among the middle classes of Germany, and
Goethe ascribed the merit of this not so much to Lessing as to Herder
and Wieland. "Lessing," said he, "was of the very highest understanding,
and only one equally great could truly learn of him. To a half faculty
he was dangerous." He mentioned a journalist who had formed himself on
Lessing, and at the end of the last century had played a part indeed,
but far from a noble one, because he was so inferior to his great
"All Upper Germany," said he, "is indebted to Wieland for its style. It
has learned much from him; and the capability of expressing itself
correctly is not the least."
On mentioning the _Xenien_, he especially praised those of
Schiller, which he called sharp and biting, while he called his own
innocent and trivial.
"The _Thierkreis_ (Zodiac), which is by Schiller," said he, "I always
read with admiration. The good effects which the _Xenien_ had upon the
German literature of their time are beyond calculation." Many persons
against whom the _Xenien_ were directed, were mentioned on this
occasion, but their names have escaped my memory.
After we had read and talked over the manuscript to the end of the year
1800, interrupted by these and innumerable other observations from
Goethe, he put aside the papers, and had a little supper placed at one
end of the table at which we were sitting. We partook of it, but Goethe
did not touch a morsel; indeed, I have never seen him eat in the
evening. He sat down with us, filled our glasses, snuffed the candles,
and intellectually regaled us with the most agreeable conversation. His
remembrance of Schiller was so lively, that the conversation during the
latter part of the evening was devoted to him alone.
Riemer spoke of Schiller's personal appearance. "The build of his limbs,
his gait in the street, all his motions," said he, "were proud; his eyes
only were soft."
"Yes," said Goethe, "everything else about him was proud and majestic,
only the eyes were soft. And his talent was like his outward form. He
seized boldly on a great subject, and turned it this way and that, and
handled it this way and that. But he saw his object, as it were, only in
the outside; a quiet development from its interior was not within his
province. His talent was desultory. Thus he was never decided--could
never have done. He often changed a part just before a rehearsal.
"And, as he went so boldly to work, he did not take sufficient pains
about _motives_. I recollect what trouble I had with him, when he wanted
to make Gessler, in Tell, abruptly break an apple from the tree, and
have it shot from the boy's head. This was quite against my nature, and
I urged him to give at least some motive to this barbarity, by making
the boy boast to Gessler of his father's dexterity, and say that he
could shoot an apple from a tree at a hundred paces. Schiller, at first,
would have nothing of the sort: but at last he yielded to my arguments
and intentions, and did as I advised him. I, on the other hand, by too
great attention to _motives_, kept my pieces from the theatre. My
_Eugenie_ is nothing but a chain of _motives_, and this cannot
succeed on the stage.
"Schiller's genius was really made for the theatre. With every piece he
progressed, and became more finished; but, strange to say, a certain
love for the horrible adhered to him from the time of _The Robbers_,
which never quite left him even in his prime. I still recollect
perfectly well, that in the prison scene in my 'Egmont,' where the
sentence is read to him, Schiller would have made Alva appear in the
background, masked and muffled in a cloak, enjoying the effect which the
sentence would produce on Egmont. Thus Alva was to show himself
insatiable in revenge and malice. I, however, protested, and prevented
the apparition. He was a great, odd man.
"Every week he became different and more finished; each time that I saw
him, he seemed to me to have advanced in learning and judgment. His
letters are the fairest memorials of him which I possess, and they are
also among the most excellent of his writings. His last letter I
preserve as a sacred relic, among my treasures." He rose and fetched it.
"See and read it," said he; giving it to me.
It was a very fine letter, written in a bold hand. It contained an
opinion of Goethe's notes to "Rameau's Nephew," which exhibit French
literature at that time, and which he had given Schiller to look over. I
read the letter aloud to Riemer.
"You see," said Goethe, "how apt and consistent is his judgment, and
that the handwriting nowhere betrays any trace of weakness. He was a
splendid man, and went from us in all the fulness of his strength. This
letter is dated the 24th of April, 1805. Schiller died on the 9th of
We looked at the letter by turns, and were pleased both with the clear
style and the fine handwriting. Goethe bestowed several other words of
affectionate reminiscence upon his friend, until it was nearly eleven
o'clock, and we departed.
* * * * *
_Wednesday, October_ 15.--I found Goethe in a very elevated mood this
evening, and had the pleasure of hearing from him many significant
remarks. We talked about the state of the newest literature, when Goethe
expressed himself as follows:
"Deficiency of character in individual investigators and writers is," he
said, "the source of all the evils of our newest literature.
"In criticism, especially, this defect produces mischief to the world,
for it either diffuses the false instead of the true, or by a pitiful
truth deprives us of something great, that would be better.
"Till lately, the world believed in the heroism of a Lucretia--of a
Mucius Scaevola--and suffered itself, by this belief, to be warmed and
inspired. But now comes your historical criticism, and says that those
persons never lived, but are to be regarded as fables and fictions,
divined by the great mind of the Romans. What are we to do with so
pitiful a truth? If the Romans were great enough to invent such stories,
we should at least be great enough to believe them.
"Till lately, I was always pleased with a great fact in the thirteenth
century, when the Emperor Frederic the Second was at variance with the
Pope, and the north of Germany was open to all sorts of hostile attacks.
Asiatic hordes had actually penetrated as far as Silesia, when the Duke
of Liegnitz terrified them by one great defeat. They then turned to
Moravia, but were here defeated by Count Sternberg. These valiant men
had on this account been living in my heart as the great saviors of the
German nation. But now comes historical criticism, and says that these
heroes sacrificed themselves quite uselessly, as the Asiatic army was
already recalled, and would have returned of its own accord. Thus is a
great national fact crippled and destroyed, which seems to me most
After these remarks on historical critics, Goethe spoke of another class
of seekers and literary men.
"I could never," said he, "have known so well how paltry men are, and
how little they care for really high aims, if I had not tested them by
my scientific researches. Thus I saw that most men care for science only
so far as they get a living by it, and that they worship even error when
it affords them a subsistence.
"In _belles lettres_ it is no better. There, too, high aims and genuine
love for the true and sound, and for their diffusion, are very rare
phenomena. One man cherishes and tolerates another, because he is by him
cherished and tolerated in return. True greatness is hateful to them;
they would fain drive it from the world, so that only such as they might
be of importance in it. Such are the masses; and the prominent
individuals are not better.
"---- 's great talents and world-embracing learning might have done much
for his country. But his want of character has deprived the world of
such great results, and himself of the esteem of the country.
"We want a man like Lessing. For how was he great, except in
character--in firmness? There are many men as clever and as cultivated,
but where is such character?
"Many are full of _esprit_ and knowledge, but they are also full of
vanity; and that they may shine as wits before the short-sighted
multitude, they have no shame or delicacy--nothing is sacred to them.
"Madame de Genlis was therefore perfectly right when she declaimed
against the freedoms and profanities of Voltaire. Clever as they all may
be, the world has derived no profit from them; they afford a foundation
for nothing. Nay, they have been of the greatest injury, since they have
confused men and robbed them of their needful support.
"After all, what do we know, and how far can we go with all our wit?
"Man is born not to solve the problems of the universe, but to find out
where the problem begins, and then to restrain himself within the limits
of the comprehensible.
"His faculties are not sufficient to measure the actions of the
universe; and an attempt to explain the outer world by reason is, with
his narrow point of view, but a vain endeavor. The reason of man and the
reason of the Deity are two very different things.
"If we grant freedom to man, there is an end to the omniscience of God;
for if the Divinity knows how I shall act, I must act so perforce. I
give this merely as a sign how little we know, and to show that it is
not good to meddle with divine mysteries.
"Moreover, we should only utter higher maxims so far as they can benefit
the world. The rest we should keep within ourselves, and they will
diffuse over our actions a lustre like the mild radiance of a hidden
_Sunday, December_ 25.--"I have of late made an observation, which I
will impart to you.
"Everything we do has a result. But that which is right and prudent does
not always lead to good, nor the contrary to what is bad; frequently the
reverse takes place. Some time since, I made a mistake in one of these
transactions with booksellers, and was sorry that I had done so. But now
circumstances have so altered, that, if I had not made that very
mistake, I should have made a greater one. Such instances occur
frequently in life, and hence we see men of the world, who know this,
going to work with great freedom and boldness."
I was struck by this remark, which was new to me.
I then turned the conversation to some of his works, and we came to the
elegy _Alexis and Dora_.
"In this poem," said Goethe, "people have blamed the strong, passionate
conclusion, and would have liked the elegy to end gently and peacefully,
without that outbreak of jealousy; but I could not see that they were
right. Jealousy is so manifestly an ingredient of the affair, that the
poem would be incomplete if it were not introduced at all. I myself knew
a young man who, in the midst of his impassioned love for an easily-won
maiden, cried out, 'But would she not act to another as she has acted to
I agreed entirely with Goethe, and then mentioned the peculiar
situations in this elegy, where, with so few strokes and in so narrow a
space, all is so well delineated that we think we see the whole life and
domestic environment of the persons engaged in the action. "What you
have described," said I, "appears as true as if you had worked from
"I am glad it seems so to you," said Goethe. "There are, however, few
men who have imagination for the truth of reality; most prefer strange
countries and circumstances, of which they know nothing, and by which
their imagination may be cultivated, oddly enough.
"Then there are others who cling altogether to reality, and, as they
wholly want the poetic spirit, are too severe in their requisitions. For
instance, in this elegy, some would have had me give Alexis a servant to
carry his bundle, never thinking that all that was poetic and idyllic in
the situation would thus have been destroyed."
From _Alexis and Dora_, the conversation then turned to _Wilhelm
Meister_. "There are odd critics in this world," said Goethe; "they
blamed me for letting the hero of this novel live so much in bad
company; but by this very circumstance that I considered this so-called
bad company as a vase into which I could put everything I had to say
about good society, I gained a poetical body, and a varied one into the
bargain. Had I, on the contrary, delineated good society by the
so-called good society, nobody would have read the book.
"In the seeming trivialities of _Wilhelm Meister_, there is always
something higher at bottom, and nothing is required but eyes, knowledge
of the world, and power of comprehension to perceive the great in the
small. For those who are without such qualities, let it suffice to
receive the picture of life as real life."
Goethe then showed me a very interesting English work, which illustrated
all Shakespeare in copper plates. Each page embraced, in six small
designs, one piece with some verses written beneath, so that the leading
idea and the most important situations of each work were brought before
the eyes. All these immortal tragedies and comedies thus passed before
the mind like processions of masks.
"It is even terrifying," said Goethe, "to look through these little
pictures. Thus are we first made to feel the infinite wealth and
grandeur of Shakespeare. There is no motive in human life which he has
not exhibited and expressed! And all with what ease and freedom!
"But we cannot talk about Shakespeare; everything is inadequate. I have
touched upon the subject in my _Wilhelm Meister_ but that is not saying
much. He is not a theatrical poet; he never thought of the stage; it was
far too narrow for his great mind: nay, the whole visible world was too
"He is even too rich and too powerful. A productive _nature_ ought
not to read more than one of his dramas in a year if it would not be
wrecked entirely. I did well to get rid of him by writing _Goetz_, and
_Egmont_, and Byron did well by not having too much respect and
admiration for him, but going his own way. How many excellent Germans
have been ruined by him and Calderon!
"Shakespeare gives us golden apples in silver dishes. We get, indeed,
the silver dishes by studying his works; but, unfortunately, we have
only potatoes to put into them."
I laughed, and was delighted with this admirable simile.
Goethe then read me a letter from Zelter, describing a representation of
Macbeth at Berlin, where the music could not keep pace with the grand
spirit and character of the piece, as Zelter set forth by various
intimations. By Goethe's reading, the letter gained its full effect, and
he often paused to admire with me the point of some single passage.
"_Macbeth_," said Goethe, "is Shakespeare's best acting play, the one in
which he shows most understanding with respect to the stage. But would
you see his mind unfettered, read _Troilus and Cressida_, where he
treats the materials of the _Iliad_ in his own fashion."
The conversation turned upon Byron--the disadvantage in which he appears
when placed beside the innocent cheerfulness of Shakespeare, and the
frequent and generally not unjust blame which he drew upon himself by
his manifold works of negation.
"If Lord Byron," said Goethe, "had had an opportunity of working off all
the opposition in his character, by a number of strong parliamentary
speeches, he would have been much more pure as a poet. But, as he
scarcely ever spoke in parliament, he kept within himself all his
feelings against his nation, and to free himself from them, he had no
other means than to express them in poetical form. I could, therefore,
call a great part of Byron's works of negation 'suppressed parliamentary
speeches,' and think this would be no bad name for them."
We then mentioned one of our most modern German poets, Platen, who had
lately gained a great name, and whose negative tendency was likewise
disapproved. "We cannot deny," said Goethe, "that he has many brilliant
qualities, but he is wanting in--love. He loves his readers and his
fellow-poets as little as he loves himself, and thus we may apply to him
the maxim of the apostle--'Though I speak with the tongues of men and
angels, and have not love (charity), I am become as sounding brass and a
tinkling cymbal.' I have lately read the poems of Platen, and cannot
deny his great talent. But, as I said, he is deficient in _love_, and
thus he will never produce the effect which he ought. He will be feared,
and will be the idol of those who would like to be as negative as
himself, but have not his talent."
* * * * *
_Thursday evening, January_ 18.--The conversation now turned wholly on
Schiller, and Goethe proceeded thus: "Schiller's proper productive
talent lay in the ideal; and it may be said he has not his equal in
German or any other literature. He has almost everything that Lord Byron
has; but Lord Byron is his superior in knowledge of the world. I wish
Schiller had lived to know Lord Byron's works, and wonder what he would
have said to so congenial a mind. Did Byron publish anything during
I could not say with certainty. Goethe took down the Conversations
Lexicon, and read the article on Byron, making many hasty remarks as he
proceeded. It appeared that Byron had published nothing before 1807, and
that therefore Schiller could have seen nothing of his.
"Through all Schiller's works," continued Goethe, "goes the idea of
freedom; though this idea assumed a new shape as Schiller advanced in
his culture and became another man. In his youth it was physical freedom
which occupied him, and influenced his poems; in his later life it was
"Freedom is an odd thing, and every man has enough of it, if he can
only satisfy himself. What avails a superfluity of freedom which we
cannot use? Look at this chamber and the next, in which, through the
open door, you see my bed. Neither of them is large; and they are
rendered still narrower by necessary furniture, books, manuscripts, and
works of art; but they are enough for me. I have lived in them all the
winter, scarcely entering my front rooms. What have I done with my
spacious house, and the liberty of going from one room to another, when
I have not found it requisite to make use of them?
"If a man has freedom enough to live healthy, and work at his craft, he
has enough; and so much all can easily obtain. Then all of us are only
free under certain conditions, which we must fulfil. The citizen is as
free as the nobleman, when he restrains himself within the limits which
God appointed by placing him in that rank. The nobleman is as free as
the prince; for, if he will but observe a few ceremonies at court, he
may feel himself his equal. Freedom consists not in refusing to
recognize anything above us, but in respecting something which is above
us; for, by respecting it, we raise ourselves to it, and by our very
acknowledgment make manifest that we bear within ourselves what is
higher, and are worthy to be on a level with it.
"I have, on my journeys, often met merchants from the north of Germany,
who fancied they were my equals, if they rudely seated themselves next
me at table. They were, by this method, nothing of the kind; but they
would have been so if they had known how to value and treat me.
"That this physical freedom gave Schiller so much trouble in his
youthful years, was caused partly by the nature of his mind, but still
more by the restraint which he endured at the military school. In later
days, when he had enough physical freedom, he passed over to the ideal;
and I would almost say that this idea killed him, since it led him to
make demands on his physical nature which were too much for his
"The Grand Duke fixed on Schiller, when he was established here, an
income of one thousand dollars yearly, and offered to give him twice as
much in case he should be hindered by sickness from working. Schiller
declined this last offer, and never availed himself of it. 'I have
talent,' said he, 'and must help myself.' But as his family enlarged of
late years, he was obliged, for a livelihood, to write two dramas
annually; and to accomplish this, he forced himself to write days and
weeks when he was not well. He would have his talent obey him at any
hour. He never drank much; he was very temperate; but, in such hours of
bodily weakness, he was obliged to stimulate his powers by the use of
spirituous liquors. This habit impaired his health, and was likewise
injurious to his productions. The faults which some wiseacres find in
his works I deduce from this source. All the passages which they say are
not what they ought to be, I would call pathological passages; for he
wrote them on those days when he had not strength to find the right and
true motives. I have every respect for the categorical imperative. I
know how much good may proceed from it; but one must not carry it too
far, for then this idea of ideal freedom certainly leads to no good."
Amid these interesting remarks, and similar discourse on Lord Byron and
the celebrated German authors, of whom Schiller had said that he liked
Kotzebue best, for he, at any rate, produced something, the hours of
evening passed swiftly along, and Goethe gave me the novel, that I might
study it quietly at home.
* * * * *
_Wednesday, February 21_.--Dined with Goethe. He spoke much, and with
admiration, of Alexander von Humboldt, whose work on Cuba and Colombia
he had begun to read and whose views as to the project for making a
passage through the Isthmus of Panama appeared to have a particular
interest for him. "Humboldt," said Goethe, "has, with a great knowledge
of his subject, given other points where, by making use of some streams
which flow into the Gulf of Mexico, the end may be perhaps better
attained than at Panama. All this is reserved for the future, and for an
enterprising spirit. So much, however, is certain, that, if they succeed
in cutting such a canal that ships of any burden and size can be
navigated through it from the Mexican Gulf to the Pacific Ocean,
innumerable benefits would result to the whole human race, civilized and
uncivilized. But I should wonder if the United States were to let an
opportunity escape of getting such work into their own hands. It may be
foreseen that this young state, with its decided predilection to the
West, will, in thirty or forty years, have occupied and peopled the
large tract of land beyond the Rocky Mountains. It may, furthermore, be
foreseen that along the whole coast of the Pacific Ocean, where nature
has already formed the most capacious and secure harbors, important
commercial towns will gradually arise, for the furtherance of a great
intercourse between China and the East Indies and the United States. In
such a case, it would not only be desirable, but almost necessary, that
a more rapid communication should be maintained between the eastern and
western shores of North America, both by merchant-ships and men-of-war,
than has hitherto been possible with the tedious, disagreeable, and
expensive voyage round Cape Horn. I therefore repeat, that it is
absolutely indispensable for the United States to effect a passage from
the Mexican Gulf to the Pacific Ocean; and I am certain that they will
"Would that I might live to see it!--but I shall not. I should like to
see another thing--a junction of the Danube and the Rhine. But this
undertaking is so gigantic that I have doubts of its completion,
particularly when I consider our German resources. And thirdly, and
lastly, I should wish to see England in possession of a canal through
the Isthmus of Suez. Would I could live to see these three great works!
it would be well worth the trouble to last some fifty years more for the
* * * * *
_Thursday, May 3_.--The highly successful translation of Goethe's
dramatic works, by Stapfer, was noticed by Monsieur J. J. Ampere in the
_Parisian Globe_ of last year, in a manner no less excellent, and this
affected Goethe so agreeably that he very often recurred to it, and
expressed his great obligations to it.
"Ampere's point of view is a very high one," said he.
"When German critics on similar occasions start from philosophy, and in
the consideration and discussion of a poetical production proceed in a
manner that what they intend as an elucidation is only intelligible to
philosophers of their own school, while for other people it is far more
obscure than the work upon which they intended to throw a light, M.
Ampere, on the contrary, shows himself quite practical and popular. Like
one who knows his profession thoroughly, he shows the relation between
the production and the producer, and judges the different poetical
productions as different fruits of different epochs of the poet's life.
"He has studied most profoundly the changing course of my earthly
career, and of the condition of my mind, and has had the faculty of
seeing what I have not expressed, and what, so to speak, could only be
read between the lines. How truly has he remarked that, during the first
ten years of my official and court life at Weimar, I scarcely did
anything; that despair drove me to Italy; and that I there, with new
delight in producing, seized upon the history of Tasso, in order to free
myself, by the treatment of this agreeable subject, from the painful and
troublesome impressions and recollections of my life at Weimar. He
therefore very happily calls Tasso an elevated Werther.
"Then, concerning Faust, his remarks are no less clever, since he not
only notes, as part of myself, the gloomy, discontented striving of the
principal character, but also the scorn and the bitter irony of
In this, and a similar spirit of acknowledgment, Goethe often spoke of
M. Ampere. We took a decided interest in him; we endeavored to picture
to ourselves his personal appearance, and, if we could not succeed in
this, we at least agreed that he must be a man of middle age to
understand the reciprocal action of life and poetry on each other. We
were, therefore, extremely surprised when M. Ampere arrived in Weimar a
few days ago, and proved to be a lively youth, some twenty years old;
and we were no less surprised when, in the course of further
intercourse, he told us that the whole of the contributors of the.
_Globe_, whose wisdom, moderation, and high degree of cultivation we had
often admired, were only young people like himself.
"I can well comprehend," said I, "that a person may be young and may
still produce something of importance--like Merimee, for instance, who
wrote excellent pieces in his twentieth year; but that any one at so
early an age should have at his command such a comprehensive view, and
such deep insight, as to attain such mature judgment as the gentlemen of
the _Globe_, is to me something entirely new."
"To you, in your Heath," returned Goethe, "it has not been so easy;
and we others also, in Central Germany, have been forced to buy our
little wisdom dearly enough. Then we all lead a very isolated miserable
sort of life! From the people, properly so called, we derive very little
culture. Our talents and men of brains are scattered over the whole of
Germany. One is in Vienna, another in Berlin, another in Koenigsberg,
another in Bonn or Dueseldorf--all about a hundred miles apart from one
another, so that personal contact and personal exchange of thought may
be considered as rarities. I feel what this must be, when such men as
Alexander von Humboldt come here, and in one single day lead me nearer
to what I am seeking and what I require to know than I should have done
for years in my own solitary way."
"But now conceive a city like Paris, where the highest talents of a
great kingdom are all assembled in a single spot, and by daily
intercourse, strife, and emulation, mutually instruct and advance each
other; where the best works, both of nature and art, from all the
kingdoms of the earth, are open to daily inspection; conceive this
metropolis of the world, I say, where every walk over a bridge or
across a square recalls some mighty past, and where some historical
event is connected with every corner of a street. In addition to all
this, conceive not the Paris of a dull, spiritless time, but the
Paris of the nineteenth century, in which, during three generations,
such men as Moliere, Voltaire, Diderot, and the like, have kept up
such a current of intellect as cannot be found twice in a single spot
in the whole world, and you will comprehend that a man of talent like
Ampere, who has grown up amid such abundance, can easily be something
in his four-and-twentieth year.
"You said just now," said Goethe, "that you could well understand how
any one in his twentieth year could write pieces as good as those of
Merimee. I have nothing to oppose to this; and I am, on the whole, quite
of your opinion that good productiveness is easier than good judgment in
a youthful man. But, in Germany, one had better not, when so young as
Merimee, attempt to produce anything so mature as he has done in his
pieces of _Clara Gazul_. It is true, Schiller was very young when he
wrote his _Robbers_, his _Love and Intrigue_, his _Fiesco_; but, to
speak the truth, all three pieces are rather the utterances of an
extraordinary talent than signs of mature cultivation in the author.
This, however, is not Schiller's fault, but rather the result of the
state of culture of his nation, and the great difficulty which we all
experience in assisting ourselves on our solitary way.
"On the other hand, take up Beranger. He is the son of poor parents, the
descendant of a poor tailor; at one time a poor printer's apprentice,
then placed in some office with a small salary; he has never been to a
classical school or university; and yet his songs are so full of mature
cultivation, so full of wit and the most refined irony, and there is
such artistic perfection and masterly handling of the language that he
is the admiration, not only of France, but of all civilized Europe.
"But imagine this same Beranger--instead of being born in Paris, and
brought up in this metropolis of the world--the son of a poor tailor in
Jena or Weimar, and let him commence his career, in an equally miserable
manner, in such small places--then ask yourself what fruit would have
been produced by this same tree grown in such a soil and in such an
"Therefore, my good friend, I repeat that, if a talent is to be speedily
and happily developed, the great point is that a great deal of intellect
and sound culture should be current in a nation.
"We admire the tragedies of the ancient Greeks; but, to take a correct
view of the case, we ought rather to admire the period and the nation in
which their production was possible than the individual authors; for
though each of these pieces differs a little from every other, and
though one of these poets appears somewhat greater and more finished
than the other, still, taking all things together, only one decided
character runs through the whole.
"This is the character of grandeur, fitness, soundness, human
perfection, elevated wisdom, sublime thought, pure, strong intuition,
and whatever other qualities one might enumerate. But when we find all
these qualities, not only in the dramatic works that have come down to
us but also in lyrical and epic works, in the philosophers, the orators,
and the historians, and in an equally high degree in the works of
plastic art that have come down to us, we must feel convinced that such
qualities did not merely belong to individuals, but were the current
property of the nation and the whole period.
"Now, take up Burns. How is he great, except through the circumstance
that the whole songs of his predecessors lived in the mouth of the
people--that they were, so to speak, sung at his cradle; that, as a boy,
he grew up amongst them, and the high excellence of these models so
pervaded him that he had therein a living basis on which he could
proceed further? Again, why is he great, but from this, that his own
songs at once found susceptible ears amongst his compatriots; that, sung
by reapers and sheaf-binders, they at once greeted him in the field; and
that his boon-companions sang them to welcome him at the ale-house?
Something was certainly to be done in this way.
"On the other hand, what a pitiful figure is made by us Germans! Of our
old songs--no less important than those of Scotland--how many lived
among the people in the days of my youth? Herder and his successors
first began to collect them and rescue them from oblivion; then they
were at least printed in the libraries. Then, more lately, what songs
have not Buerger and Voss composed! Who can say that they are more
insignificant or less popular than those of the excellent Burns? but
which of them so lives among us that it greets us from the mouth of the
people? They are written and printed, and they remain in the libraries,
quite in accordance with the general fate of German poets. Of my own
songs, how many live? Perhaps one or another of them may be sung by a
pretty girl to the piano; but among the people, properly so called, they
have no sound. With what sensations must I remember the time when
passages from Tasso were sung to me by Italian fishermen!
"We Germans are of yesterday. We have indeed been properly cultivated
for a century; but a few centuries more must still elapse before so much
mind and elevated culture will become universal amongst our people that
they will appreciate beauty like the Greeks, that they will be inspired
by a beautiful song, and that it will be said of them 'it is long since
they were barbarians.'"
_Tuesday, December 16_.--I dined today with Goethe alone, in his
work-room. We talked on various literary topics.
"The Germans," said he, "cannot cease to be Philistines. They are now
squabbling about some verses, which are printed both in Schiller's works
and mine, and fancy it is important to ascertain which really belong to
Schiller and which to me; as if anything could be gained by such
investigation--as if the existence of such things were not enough.
Friends, such as Schiller and I, intimate for years, with the same
interests, in habits of daily intercourse, and under reciprocal
obligations, live so completely in each other that it is hardly possible
to decide to which of the two the particular thoughts belong.
"We have made many distiches together; sometimes I gave the thought, and
Schiller made the verse; sometimes the contrary was the case; sometimes
he made one line, and I the other. What matters the mine and thine? One
must be a thorough Philistine, indeed, to attach the slightest
importance to the solution of such questions."
"Something similar," said I, "often happens in the literary world, when
people, for instance, doubt the originality of this or that celebrated
man, and seek to trace out the sources from whence he obtained his
"That is very ridiculous," said Goethe; "we might as well question a
strong man about the oxen, sheep, and swine, which he has eaten, and
which have given him strength.
"We are indeed born with faculties; but we owe our development to a
thousand influences of the great world, from which we appropriate to
ourselves what we can, and what is suitable to us. I owe much to the
Greeks and French; I am infinitely indebted to Shakespeare, Sterne, and
Goldsmith; but in saying this I do not show the sources of my culture;
that would be an endless as well as an unnecessary task. What is
important is to have a soul which loves truth, and receives it wherever
it finds it.
"Besides, the world is now so old, so many eminent men have lived and
thought for thousands of years, that there is little new to be
discovered or expressed. Even my theory of colors is not entirely new.
Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, any many other excellent men, have before me
found and expressed the same thing in a detached form: my merit is, that
I have found it also, that I have said it again, and that I have striven
to bring the truth once more into a confused world.
"The truth must be repeated over and over again, because error is
repeatedly preached among us, not only by individuals, but by the
masses. In periodicals and cyclopaedias, in schools and universities;
everywhere, in fact, error prevails, and is quite easy in the feeling
that it has a decided majority on its side.
"Often, too, people teach truth and error together, and stick to the
latter. Thus, a short time ago, I read in an English cyclopaedia the
doctrine of the origin of Blue. First came the correct view of Leonardo
da Vinci, but then followed, as quietly as possible, the error of
Newton, coupled with remarks that this was to be adhered to because it
was the view generally adopted."
I could not help laughing with surprise when I heard this. "Every
wax-taper," I said, "every illuminated cloud of smoke from the kitchen,
that has anything dark behind it, every morning mist, when it lies
before a steady spot, daily convinces me of the origin of blue color,
and makes me comprehend the blueness of the sky. What the Newtonians
mean when they say that the air has the property of absorbing other
colors, and of repelling blue alone, I cannot at all understand, nor do
I see what use or pleasure is to be derived from a doctrine in which all
thought stands still, and all sound observation completely vanishes."
"My good innocent friend," said Goethe, "these people do not care a jot
about thoughts and observations. They are satisfied if they have only
words which they can pass as current, as was well shown and not
ill-expressed by my own Mephistopheles:
"Mind, above all, you stick to words,
Thus through the safe gate you will go
Into the fane of certainty;
For when ideas begin to fail
A word will aptly serve your turn," etc.
Goethe recited this passage laughing, and seemed altogether in the best
humor. "It is a good thing," said he, "that all is already in print, and
I shall go on printing as long as I have anything to say against false
doctrine, and those who disseminate it.
"We have now excellent men rising up in natural science," he continued,
after a pause, "and I am glad to see them. Others begin well, but
afterwards fall off; their predominating subjectivity leads them astray.
Others, again, set too much value on facts, and collect an infinite
number, by which nothing is proved. On the whole, there is a want of
originating mind to penetrate back to the original phenomena, and master
the particulars that make their appearance."
A short visit interrupted our discourse, but when we were again alone
the conversation returned to poetry, and I told Goethe that I had of
late been once more studying his little poems, and had dwelt especially
upon two of them, viz., the ballad about the children and the old
man, and the "Happy Couple" (_die gluecklichen Gatten_).
"I myself set some value on these two poems," said Goethe, "although the
German public have hitherto not been able to make much out of them."
"In the ballad," I said, "a very copious subject is brought into a very
limited compass, by means of all sorts of poetical forms and artifices,
among which I especially praise the expedient of making the old man tell
the children's past history down to the point where the present moment
comes in, and the rest is developed before our eyes."
"I carried the ballad a long time about in my head," said Goethe,
"before I wrote it down. Whole years of reflection are comprised in it,
and I made three or four trials before I could reduce it to its present
"The poem of the 'Happy Couple,'" continued Goethe, "is likewise rich in
_motives_; whole landscapes and passages of human life appear in it,
warmed by the sunlight of a charming spring sky, which is diffused over
"I have always liked that poem," said Goethe, "and I am glad that you
have regarded it with particular interest. The ending of the whole
pleasantry with a double christening is, I think, pretty enough."
We then came to the _Buergergeneral_ (Citizengeneral); with respect to
which I said that I had been lately reading this piece with an
Englishman, and that we had both felt the strongest desire to see it
represented on the stage. "As far as the spirit of the work is
concerned," said I, "there is nothing antiquated about it; and with
respect to the details of dramatic development, there is not a touch
that does not seem designed for the stage."
"It was a very good piece in its time," said Goethe, "and caused us many
a pleasant evening. It was, indeed, excellently cast, and had been so
admirably studied that the dialogue moved along as glibly as possible.
Malcolmi played Maerten, and nothing could be more perfect.
"The part of Schnaps," said I, "seems to me no less felicitous. Indeed,
I should not think there were many better or more thankful parts in the
repertoire. There is in this personage, as in the whole piece, a
clearness, an actual presence, to the utmost extent that can be desired
for a theatre. The scene where he comes in with the knapsack, and
produces the things one after another, where he puts the _moustache_ on
Maerten, and decks himself with the cap of liberty, uniform, and sword,
is among the best." "This scene," said Goethe, "used always to be very
successful on our stage. Then the knapsack, with the articles in it, had
really an historical existence. I found it in the time of the
Revolution, on my travels along the French border, when the emigrants,
on their flight, had passed through, and one of them might have lost it
or thrown it away. The articles it contained were just the same as in
the piece. I wrote the scene upon it, and the knapsack, with all its
appurtenances, was always introduced, to the no small delight of our
The question whether the _Buergergeneral_ could still be played with any
interest or profit, was for a while the subject of our conversation.
Goethe then asked about my progress in French literature, and I told him
that I still took up Voltaire from time to time, and that the great
talent of this man gave me the purest delight.
"I still know but little of him," said I; "I keep to his short poems
addressed to persons, which I read over and over again, and which I
cannot lay aside."
"Indeed," said Goethe, "all is good which is written by so great a
genius as Voltaire, though I cannot excuse all his profanity. But you
are right to give so much time to those little poems addressed to
persons; they are unquestionably among the most charming of his works.
There is not a line which is not full of thought, clear, bright, and
"And we see," said I, "his relations to all the great and mighty of the
world, and remark with pleasure the distinguished position taken by
himself, inasmuch as he seems to feel himself equal to the highest, and
we never find that any majesty can embarrass his free mind even for a
"Yes," said Goethe, "he bore himself like a man of rank. And with all
his freedom and audacity, he ever kept within the limits of strict
propriety, which is, perhaps, saying still more. I may cite the Empress
of Austria as an authority in such matters; she has repeatedly assured
me, that in those poems of Voltaire's, there is no trace of crossing the
line of _convenance_."
"Does your excellency," said I, "remember the short poem in which he
makes to the Princess of Prussia, afterwards Queen of Sweden, a pretty
declaration of love, by saying that he dreamed of being elevated to the
"It is one of his best," said Goethe, and he recited the lines--
"Je vous aimais, princesse, et j'osais vous le dire;
Les Dieux et mon reveil ne m'ont pas tout ote,
Je n'ai perdu que mon empire."
"How pretty that is! And never did poet have his talent so completely at
command every moment as Voltaire. I remember an anecdote, when he had
been for some time on a visit to Madame du Chatelet. Just as he was
going away, and the carriage was standing at the door, he received a
letter from a great number of young girls in a neighboring convent, who
wished to play the 'Death of Julius Caesar' on the birthday of their
abbess, and begged him to write them a prologue. The case was too
delicate for a refusal; so Voltaire at once called for pen and paper,
and wrote the desired prologue, standing, upon the mantlepiece. It is a
poem of perhaps twenty lines, thoroughly digested, finished, perfectly
suited to the occasion, and, in short, of the very best class."
"I am very desirous to read it," said I.
"I doubt," said Goethe, "whether you will find it in your collection. It
has only lately come to light, and, indeed, he wrote hundreds of such
poems, of which many may still be scattered about among private
"I found of late a passage in Lord Byron," said I, "from which I
perceived with delight that even Byron had an extraordinary esteem for
Voltaire. We may see in his works how much he liked to read, study, and
make use of Voltaire.
"Byron," said Goethe, "knew too well where anything was to be got, and
was too clever not to draw from this universal source of light."
The conversation then turned entirely upon Byron and several of his
works, and Goethe found occasion to repeat many of his former
expressions of admiration for that great genius.
"To all that your excellency says of Byron," said I, "I agree from the
bottom of my heart; but, however great and remarkable that poet may be
as a genius, I very much doubt whether a decided gain for pure human
culture is to be derived from his writings."
"There I must contradict you," said Goethe; "the audacity and grandeur
of Byron must certainly tend towards culture. We should take care not to
be always looking for it in the decidedly pure and moral. Everything
that is great promotes cultivation as soon as we are aware of it."
* * * * *
_Thursday, February 12_.--Goethe read me the thoroughly noble poem,
"Kein Wesen kann zu nichts zerfallen" (No being can dissolve to
nothing), which he had lately written.
"I wrote this poem," said he, "in contradiction to my lines--
'Denn alles muss zu nichts zerfallen
Wenn es im Seyn beharren will,' etc.
('For all must melt away to nothing
Would it continue still to be')--
which are stupid, and which my Berlin friends, on the occasion of the
late assembly of natural philosophers, set up in golden letters, to my
The conversation turned on the great mathematician, Lagrange, whose
excellent character Goethe highly extolled.
"He was a good man," said he, "and on that very account, a great man.
For when a good man is gifted with talent, he always works morally for
the salvation of the world, as poet, philosopher, artist, or in whatever
way it may be.
"I am glad," continued Goethe, "that you had an opportunity yesterday of
knowing Coudray better. He says little in general society, but, here
among ourselves, you have seen what an excellent mind and character
reside in the man. He had, at first, much opposition to encounter, but
he has now fought through it all and enjoys the entire confidence and
favor of the court. Coudray is one of the most skilful architects of our
time. He has adhered to me and I to him, and this has been of service to
us both. If I had but known him fifty years ago!"
We then talked about Goethe's own architectural knowledge. I remarked
that he must have acquired much in Italy.
"Italy gave me an idea of earnestness and greatness," said he, "but no
practical skill. The building of the castle here in Weimar advanced me
more than anything. I was obliged to assist, and even to make drawings
of entablatures. I had a certain advantage over the professional people,
because I was superior to them in intention."
We talked of Zelter.
"I have a letter from him," said Goethe, "in which he complains that the
performance of the oratorio of the Messiah was spoiled for him by one of
his female scholars, who sang an aria too weakly and sentimentally.
Weakness is a characteristic of our age. My hypothesis is, that it is a
consequence of the efforts made in Germany to get rid of the French.
Painters, natural philosophers, sculptors, musicians, poets, with but
few exceptions, all are weak, and the general mass is no better."
"Yet I do not give up the hope," said I, "of seeing suitable music
composed for _Faust_."
"Quite impossible!" said Goethe. "The awful and repulsive passages
which must occasionally occur, are not in the style of the time. The
music should be like that of Don Juan. Mozart should have composed for
_Faust_. Meyerbeer would, perhaps, be capable; but he would not touch
anything of the kind; he is too much engaged with the Italian
Afterwards--I do not recollect in connection to what--Goethe made the
following important remark:
"All that is great and skilful exists with the minority. There have been
ministers who have had both king and people against them, and have
carried out their great plans alone. It is not to be imagined that
reason can ever be popular. Passions and feelings may become popular;
but reason always remains the sole property of a few eminent
_Sunday, December_ 6.--Today, after dinner, Goethe read me the first
scene of the second act of _Faust_. The effect was great, and gave
me a high satisfaction. We are once more transported into Faust's study,
where Mephistopheles finds all just as he had left it. He takes from the
hook Faust's old study-gown, and a thousand moths and insects flutter
out from it. By the directions of Mephistopheles as to where these are
to settle down, the locality is brought very clearly before our eyes. He
puts on the gown, while Faust lies behind a curtain in a state of
paralysis, intending to play the doctor's part once more. He pulls the
bell, which gives such an awful tone among the old solitary convent
halls, that the doors spring open and the walls tremble. The servant
rushes in, and finds in Faust's seat Mephistopheles, whom he does not
recognize, but for whom he has respect. In answer to inquiries he gives
news of Wagner, who has now become a celebrated man, and is hoping for
the return of his master. He is, we hear, at this moment deeply occupied
in his laboratory, seeking to produce a Homunculus. The servant retires,
and the bachelor enters--the same whom we knew some years before as a
shy young student, when Mephistopheles (in Faust's gown) made game of
him. He is now become a man, and is so full of conceit that even
Mephistopheles can do nothing with him, but moves his chair further and
further, and at last addresses the pit.
Goethe read the scene quite to the end. I was pleased with his youthful
productive strength, and with the closeness of the whole. "As the
conception," said Goethe, "is so old--for I have had it in my mind for
fifty years--the materials have accumulated to such a degree, that the
difficult operation is to separate and reject. The invention of the
whole second part is really as old as I say; but it may be an advantage
that I have not written it down till now, when my knowledge of the world
is so much clearer. I am like one who in his youth has a great deal of
small silver and copper money, which in the course of his life he
constantly changes for the better, so that at last the property of his
youth stands before him in pieces of pure gold."
We spoke about the character of the Bachelor. "Is he not meant," said I,
"to represent a certain class of ideal philosophers?"
"No," said Goethe, "the arrogance which is peculiar to youth, and of
which we had such striking examples after our war for freedom, is
personified in him. Indeed, every one believes in his youth that the
world really began with him, and that all merely exists for his sake.
"Thus, in the East, there was actually a man who every morning collected
his people about him, and would not go to work till he had commanded the
sun to rise. But he was wise enough not to speak his command till the
sun of its own accord was really on the point of appearing."
Goethe remained a while absorbed in silent thought; then he began as
follows: "When one is old one thinks of worldly matters otherwise than
when one is young. Thus I cannot but think that the demons, to teaze and
make sport with men, have placed among them single figures, which are so
alluring that every one strives after them, and so great that nobody
reaches them. Thus they set up Raffael, with whom thought and act were
equally perfect; some distinguished followers have approached him, but
none have equalled him. Thus, too, they set up Mozart as something
unattainable in music; and thus Shakespeare in poetry. I know what you
can say against this thought; but I only mean natural character, the
great innate qualities. Thus, too, Napoleon is unattainable. That the
Russians were so moderate as not to go to Constantinople is indeed very
great; but we find a similar trait in Napoleon, for he had the
moderation not to go to Rome."
Much was associated with this copious theme; I thought to myself in
silence that the demons had intended something of the kind with Goethe,
inasmuch as he is a form too alluring not to be striven after, and too
great to be reached.
_Wednesday, December 16._--Today, after dinner, Goethe read me the
second scene of the second act of "Faust," where Mephistopheles visits
Wagner, who is on the point of making a human being by chemical means.
The work succeeds; the Homunculus appears in the phial, as a shining
being, and is at once active. He repels Wagner's questions upon
incomprehensible subjects; reasoning is not his business; he wishes to
act, and begins with our hero, Faust, who, in his paralyzed condition,
needs a higher aid. As a being to whom the present is perfectly clear
and transparent, the Homunculus sees into the soul of the sleeping
Faust, who, enraptured by a lovely dream, beholds Leda visited by swans,
while she is bathing in a pleasant spot. The Homunculus, by describing
this dream, brings a most charming picture before our eyes.
Mephistopheles sees nothing of it, and the Homunculus taunts him with
his northern nature.
"Generally," said Goethe, "you will perceive that Mephistopheles
appears to disadvantage beside the Homunculus, who is like him in
clearness of intellect, and so much superior to him in his tendency to
the beautiful and to a useful activity. He styles him cousin; for such
spiritual beings as this Homunculus, not yet saddened and limited by a
thorough assumption of humanity, were classed with the demons, and thus
there is a sort of relationship between the two."
"Certainly," said I, "Mephistopheles appears here in a subordinate
situation; yet I cannot help thinking that he has had a secret influence
on the production of the Homunculus. We have known him in this way
before; and, indeed, in the 'Helena' he always appears as a being
secretly working. Thus he again elevates himself with regard to the
whole, and in his lofty repose he can well afford to put up with a
little in particulars."
"Your feeling of the position is very correct," said Goethe; "indeed, I
have doubted whether I ought not to put some verses into the mouth of
Mephistopheles as he goes to Wagner, and the Homunculus is still in a
state of formation, so that his cooperation may be expressed and
rendered plain to the reader.
"It would do no harm," said I. "Yet this is intimated by the words with
which Mephistopheles closes the scene--
Am Ende hangen wir doch ab
Von Creaturen die wir machten.
We are dependent after all,
On creatures that we make."
"True," said Goethe, "that would be almost enough for the attentive; but
I will think about some additional verses."
"But," said I, "those concluding words are very great, and will not
easily be penetrated to their full extent."
"I think," said Goethe, "I have given them a bone to pick. A father who
has six sons is a lost man, let him do what he may. Kings and
ministers, too, who have raised many persons to high places, may have
something to think about from their own experience."
Faust's dream about Leda again came into my head, and I regarded this as
a most important feature in the composition.
"It is wonderful to me," said I, "how the several parts of such a work
bear upon, perfect, and sustain one another! By this dream of Leda,
_Helena_ gains its proper foundation. There we have a constant allusion
to swans and the child of a swan; but here we have the act itself, and
when we come afterwards to Helena, with the sensible impression of such
a situation, how much more clear and perfect does all appear!"
Goethe said I was right, and was pleased that I remarked this.
"Thus you will see," said he, "that in these earlier acts the chords of
the classic and romantic are constantly struck, so that, as on a rising
ground, where both forms of poetry are brought out, and in some sort
balance each other, we may ascend to 'Helena.'
"The French," continued Goethe, "now begin to think justly of these
matters. Both classic and romantic, say they, are equally good. The only
point is to use these forms with judgment, and to be capable of
excellence. You can be absurd in both, and then one is as worthless as
the other. This, I think, is rational enough, and may content us for a
* * * * *
_Sunday, March 14._--This evening at Goethe's. He showed me all the
treasures, now put in order, from the chest which he had received from
David, and with the unpacking of which I had found him occupied some
days ago. The plaster medallions, with the profiles of the principal
young poets of France, he had laid in order side by side upon tables.
On this occasion, he spoke once more of the extraordinary talent of
David, which was as great in conception as in execution. He also showed
me a number of the newest works, which had been presented to him,
through the medium of David, as gifts from the most distinguished men of
the romantic school. I saw works by St. Veuve, Ballanche, Victor Hugo,
Balzac, Alfred de Vigny, Jules Janin, and others.
"David," said he, "has prepared happy days for me by this present. The
young poets have already occupied me the whole week, and afford me new
life by the fresh impressions which I receive from them. I shall make a
separate catalogue of these much esteemed portraits and books, and shall
give them both a special place in my collection of works of art and my
One could see from Goethe's manner that this homage from the young poets
of France afforded him the heartiest delight.
He then read something from the _Studies_, by Emile Deschamps. He
praised the translation of the _Bride of Corinth_, as faithful, and very
"I possess," said he, "the manuscript of an Italian translation of this
poem, which gives the original, even to the rhymes."
_The Bride of Corinth_ induced Goethe to speak of the rest of his
ballads. "I owe them, in a great measure, to Schiller," said he, "who
impelled me to them, because he always wanted something new for his
_Horen_. I had already carried them in my head for many years; they
occupied my mind as pleasant images, as beautiful dreams, which came and
went, and by playing with which my fancy made me happy. I unwillingly
resolved to bid farewell to these brilliant visions, which had so long
been my solace, by embodying them in poor, inadequate words. When I saw
them on paper, I regarded them with a mixture of sadness. I felt as if I
were about to be separated for ever from a beloved friend."
"At other times," continued Goethe, "it has been totally different with
my poems. They have been preceded by no impressions or forebodings, but
have come suddenly upon me, and have insisted on being composed
immediately, so that I have felt an instinctive and dreamy impulse to
write them down on the spot. In such a somnambulistic condition, it has
often happened that I have had a sheet of paper lying before me all on
one side, and I have not discovered it till all has been written, or I
have found no room to write any more. I have possessed many such sheets
written crossways, but they have been lost one after another, and I
regret that I can no longer show any proofs of such poetic abstraction."
The conversation then returned to the French literature, and the modern
ultra-romantic tendency of some not unimportant men of genius. Goethe
was of opinion that this poetic revolution, which was still in its
infancy, would be very favorable to literature, but very prejudicial to
the individual authors who effect it.
"Extremes are never to be avoided in any revolution," said he. "In a
political one, nothing is generally desired in the beginning but the
abolition of abuses; but before people are aware, they are deep in
bloodshed and horror. Thus the French, in their present literary
revolution, desired nothing at first but a freer form; however, they
will not stop there, but will reject the traditional contents together
with the form. They begin to declare the representation of noble
sentiments and deeds as tedious, and attempt to treat of all sorts of
abominations. Instead of the beautiful subjects from Grecian mythology,
there are devils, witches, and vampires, and the lofty heroes of
antiquity must give place to jugglers and galley slaves. This is
piquant! This is effective! But after the public has once tasted this
highly seasoned food, and has become accustomed to it, it will always
long for more, and that stronger. A young man of talent, who would
produce an effect and be acknowledged, and who is great enough to go his
own way, must accommodate himself to the taste of the day--nay, must
seek to outdo his predecessors in the horrible and frightful. But in
this chase after outward means of effect, all profound study, and all
gradual and thorough development of the talent and the man from within,
is entirely neglected. And this is the greatest injury which can befall
a talent, although literature in general will gain by this tendency of
"But," added I, "how can an attempt which destroys individual talents be
favorable to literature in general?"
"The extremes and excrescences which I have described," returned Goethe,
"will gradually disappear; but at last this great advantage will
remain--besides a freer form, richer and more diversified subjects will
have been attained, and no object of the broadest world and the most
manifold life will be any longer excluded as unpoetical. I compare the
present literary epoch to a state of violent fever, which is not in
itself good and desirable, but of which improved health is the happy
consequence. That abomination which now often constitutes the whole
subject of a poetical work, will in future only appear as an useful
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