Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI.: literature. - Travels in the North of Germany, vol. 2
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CHAPTER XI.: literature. - Thomas Hodgskin, Travels in the North of Germany, vol. 2 
Travels in the North of Germany, describing the Present State of the Social and Political Institutions, the Agriculture, Manufactures, Commerce, Education, Arts and Manners in that Country, particularly in the Kingdom of Hannover (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1820). Vol. 2
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Drama.—Works of Messrs Oehlenschläger and Grillparzer; of Mr Müllner.—Guilt, a tragedy; King Yngurd, a tragedy; possess the characteristics of German literature.—Historical literature of Germany.—General characteristics of its fine literature.—Its faults and beauties.
Perhaps nothing astonishes a Frenchman, who sees his beloved Racine and Corneille honoured for ages, or an Englishman, who only follows the opinions of his forefathers, in professing an unbounded reverence for the single name of Shakespeare, more than the rapidity with which dramatic authors rise to celebrity in Germany, and then sink into forgetfulness. Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe, were honoured in their day, but their dramatic works seem now to be rarely performed. Since they were at the height of their fame, Werner and Körner have glanced on the horizon of literature the meteors of a moment, and are now succeeded by Grillparzer, Oehlenschläger, and Müllner, who shine at present the very suns of dramatic literature. Of Mr Oehlenschläger’s works I know nothing; I saw none of them represented, but heard them much praised. They are said to be constructed on the melo-dramatic principle of horror. He is himself a Dane, and writes in both the German and Danish languages.
Mr Grillparzer is the author of a very tame tragedy, which bears the name of Sappho; but his fame principally rests on a sort of melo-drama, called the Ahn Frau,—Grandmother. The hero of this, who is the chief of a band of robbers, commits incest, murders his father, and burns the mansion of his ancestors. All these pretty amusing horrors were told in a short jumping measure, and they gave such delight to the Germans, that they were represented to more crowded houses, in 1817, 1818, than were ever collected to see the works of Schiller. The inhabitants of Vienna were quite captivated with the beauty of the verse and the elegance of the sentiments. The young people learned them by heart; and as they met in society, as they sauntered in the Prater, and on the public walks, they spouted to one another the well-sounding mouthfuls of sentimental horror. The decorations were good, the palace burned very splendidly and pleasingly, and the vulgar of all countries apply those commendations which belong to the pleasures of sense to the sentiments of the mind. Mr Grillparzer was indebted for much of his good fortune to the machinist. The success, however, of such a piece, and the popularity of its rumbling poetry, was an evidence of a worse taste among the middling classes of people, in the south of Germany, than I was disposed to ascribe to them.
The two tragedies of Mr Adolphus Müllner, which were most popular, and which occupied most of the attention of the theatrical public, were called Die Schuld (Guilt) and König (King) Yngurd. They are very superior to the Ahn Frau. As it is probable they are not known to the English reader, and as they were very popular, the Schuld having been performed at some theatres for more than thirty following nights, and having gone through several editions, I shall give a more particular account of them. Mr Müllner, the author, lives at Weissenfels, which formerly belonged to Saxony, but is at present under the government of Prussia.
Guilt derives its name from the conduct of Count Hugo, of whose whole life it must be considered as a transcript, though only the last day of it is put into action. The time occupied by the whole does not exceed thirty hours, and in this space the author has contrived, with great art, to give the whole life of his hero. His parents are Spaniards. Before he was born his mother refuses alms to a gypsey woman. The gypsey is displeased, and prophesies to the lady, that she shall bring forth her child with great pain; that, if a boy, he shall murder his elder brother, and, if a girl, the elder brother shall murder her. The first part of the prophecy is fulfilled,—Hugo is brought into the world after painful labour; and the mother endeavours to avoid the fulfilment of the latter part of it, by giving him to a noble Scandinavian lady. She carries Hugo to the north, presents him to her husband as his son, but afterwards tells him the secret; and, as he has no other male issue, he procures for Hugo the investiture of his family estates. Hugo grows up to be a handsome hero, a Mars and an Adonis. He leads armies to victory, and, “as the females weave him a myrtle crown, their young bosoms heave with the sighs of love.” Even his supposed sister warms with the holy fire of sister’s love, but which she feels to be impure when she discovers that he is not her brother. He is described,
His supposed father dies, and deprives him of his peace by telling him the secret of his birth. The impulse of nature then drives him from Norway to Spain.
Instead of finding his parents, he forms a friendship with a Spanish nobleman, (Don Carlos,) saves his life at a bull-fight, but falls in love with his wife, who, having been early betrothed, has no love for her husband, and returns the passion of Hugo. The jealousy of the husband is excited; Hugo fears his revenge, and, to save himself and gain the lady, he murders her husband. He marries her, and returns with her to the north. Here the scene of the action is laid, and the drama opens on the anniversary of the murder, by displaying Elvira (the wife) alone in a large hall, and having just ended playing on the harp. The last tones die away as she speaks. The opening sentence is perhaps one of the best in the whole poem:—
When this is ended, a harp-string breaks with some noise, and the instrument falls “threatening to the earth.” For even instruments can be made, by skilful authors, to perform a part. This is looked on by Elvira as a sort of answer to the complaints she has just made. Guilt is full of fears. Hugo is at the moment hunting, and she is alarmed for his life, and immediately, though wrongly, concludes, as the usual time of his return is past, that some accident has happened to him.
A curious concatenation of events leads Valeros, the father of the murdered Carlos, to visit Hugo, and to arrive at this time in search of the murderer of his son. He had been in America, and only first suspects that Carlos was murdered on seeing the corpse at his return, when the conviction “flashes on him like the rising of the meteor of the north.” He seeks the murderer with a mingled desire to be revenged on him and to weep on his bosom. Without knowing that Hugo is his son, and without knowing that this son is the murderer of his brother, he feels from
“The secret impulse of nature.”
he knows not what of suspicion, anger, and love. After the arrival of Valeros circumstances lead to an explanation. He discovers that Hugo is his son, and Hugo, at the same time, learns that Carlos was his brother. After talking of dying on the scaffold, after a duel has almost taken place between the son and the father, and after sundry long speeches and plans of the amiable active Jerta, (the daughter of the house which had adopted Hugo,) he and Elvira kill themselves. They exemplify, by their death, the effects of Guilt. All these murders are sometimes called by German critics the necessary rounding of the piece,—“die nöthige Rundung.” The only action, therefore, of this drama, except secondary and unimportant parts, is the arrival of Valeros, the explanation, and the murder at the end. All the rest is narration.
It can scarcely be denied that the whole fable is simple and plain; but these are all its merits. An absurd fatality reigns throughout, that, compelling the agents to be guilty, makes us pity, not condemn, the murderer.
The chief incident which is the foundation of all the errors and crimes which are afterwards committed, is evidently an imitation of the prophecy to Macbeth. It is, however, a bad imitation. The prophecy to Macbeth works only on his own passions. It lives in his own knowledge, and moulds his own heart to the evil deeds which he commits. The prediction of the gipsy might naturally have so worked on the fears of the mother as to induce her to part with her child. But Hugo knew nothing of it, and when he was disposed of, all its influence ought to have ceased. It did not exist in his heart, and could have no power over his passions. The author, however, has perfectly fulfilled it, and, by so doing, he has, as far as lay in his power, absurdly lent the authority of reason to the errors of superstition. He makes Hugo, by nature, a hero, and, to fulfil the saying of a gipsy, he degrades him to be the mean assassin of his friend. This hero is also made to faint like a child. He lightens his bosom by confessing his guilt, and yet he murders himself. He himself says, “The fire is burnt out, and the house stands in peace.” He may hope for pardon,—he might be contented to live, for the author has already degraded him to be a sentimental driveller; but that would not have answered the purposes of tragedy. He is a high-spirited nobleman, and he is made to talk of seeking peace on the scaffold, which he describes also, in his agony, very poetically. In short, we seek in vain for any thing very natural either in the action or sentiment of this piece; and such a production could only have acquired popularity among a people who were as yet ill qualified to judge of its merits. The approbation bestowed on it came from that same half-in-formed sentimental part of the pleasure-seeking population, all whose feelings are factitious, and who gave so much applause to the author of the Ahn Frau.
The work is written, however, with great fluency and ease. The opening passage, which has already been given, breathes something like the tender melancholy of poetry, and the fears of Elvira, which make her see signs of death in every thing, is also poetical.
The boy Otto, the son of Elvira, is sketched with all the softness and gentleness which belong to German boys, and both he and the steady Jerta serve as admirable foils to the guilty Hugo and Elvira. Hugo himself appears to be an example of the fact, that the Germans are in general inadequate to conceive any character consistently great. He is a murderer, but a soft, and a subdued, and almost a whining murderer, in whom the agony of guilt amounts to lassitude of body, folding of hands, fainting, and, at length, death.
The work contains some other tolerable good passages. Valeros describes the ship leaving a port,
Hugo describes his friendship with Carlos as like two streams that become a deep water by uniting.
There is, however, in the work much commonplace, and many truly low and vulgar phrases and sentiments. Jerta compares Elvira to a corpse with open eyes. (p. 46.) Elvira describes her husband as a ravenous beast, and Hugo her as a revengeful fury. (p. 68.) Many passages are written only for the sake of the miserable sound. At pages 21, 52, 75, the reader may see specimens of this failure.
I had the pleasure of seeing this tragedy performed, and, notwithstanding its horrors, I felt more wearied than amused. Unfortunately, it derived little embellishment from the performance. The theatre of Hannover is notoriously one of the worst provided with performers of all the theatres of Germany, and on this occasion the whole strength of the company was not put forth.
King Yngurd, though it deserves more praise than Guilt, was less popular. It has the advantage of being in five acts, and it required two nights to perform it; while Guilt is comprised in four, and could be performed in one night. Theatrical amusements are cheaper in Germany than in England, and a proportionably larger part of the population participate in them. On this point the Germans are fast following the steps of the French and Italians. The theatre is a part of the fine arts, and is become to the inhabitants of towns a necessary amusement. Most of the cities have theatres, and there is not a single sovereign of Germany on whose civil list the theatre does not appear as a considerable expence. It was at first a sort of plaything, a doll, for grown-up babies at courts; and, by dint of their patronage and bolstering up, it has now come to be considered as belonging to the pursuits and taste of the nation. And at present the Germans encourage the drama as much as any people of Europe.
King Yngurd is entirely the production of the author’s imagination. He tells his reader “not to seek in books of history for the source of his song,” but affirms, “that, in composing it, he has sought after that truth which never was and yet always is.” He means, I believe, to give to his fictitious characters such emblems of our nature, that they may be taken as models, not of individuals, but of the whole species. The characters are not to be found either in history or in nature, though it is possible Buonaparte may have suggested Yngurd.
The era of the fable is 900 or 1000 years before the birth of Christ, and the scene is laid in the south of Norway. Of this country at that period we have no knowledge, and therefore the author was perfectly at liberty to give his dramatis personœ any characteristics he pleased. All that readers or critics can require is, that they should be consistently kept up throughout, and be consistent with one another. The critic can only judge of those works of the imagination which are purely imaginary, and have no real types, as the author directs him. He has no other guide but the work itself.
Yngurd is the son of peasants; he raises himself by his valour to command the armies of Norway. He marries Irma, the daughter of the king,—and, with the approbation of the States, he succeeds him on the throne. The king leaves a wife, named Brunhilde, behind him, who, after his death, gives birth to Oscar. Irma spreads a report that Oscar is illegitimate, and he is excluded from the throne. His mother retires with him to the court of her brother Alf, king of Denmark. When Oscar is sixteen years old, his uncle invades Norway to place him on the throne. This is the period when the action commences. He is aided by a party who dislike the origin and severity of Yngurd. “He wants an ounce of royal blood,” and he is always engaged in war, as necessary to support his power.
Through the defection of this party, Yngurd is on the point of losing a battle; and he who had been till then a hero, full of noble and eminent virtues, blinded by anxiety and ambition to maintain the crown, formally asks the aid of the devil.
Assistance is immediately granted him; he wins the battle; and Oscar falls into his hands. Oscar, from being a dreaming sort of enthusiastic child,
is converted, by his love to Asla, the daughter of Yngurd, to a hero. He claims his rights before the assembled nobility in a manner that alarms Yngurd, who is now given to the powers of darkness. Evil predominates in his mind over good, and he orders his favourite attendant to murder Oscar. Macduff, a Scotchman, has not courage enough to perform it, but shuts Oscar up in a retired part of the castle, from whence he attempts to escape, and is dashed to pieces on the rocks. Asla jumps after him, and is also killed; and her mother dies with fear and grief. Oscar’s death is attributed to Yngurd. The rebel party gathers strength, and attacks him. He disperses them with his “lion’s voice,” kills their leader, but falls himself by the spear of some obscure warrior. As he dies, he presents the crown of Norway to Alf, who thus unites it with the crown of Denmark. Brunhilde had before gone mad from the effects of heating herself in battle, and from dreaming Oscar was murdered. In the course of the play, therefore, there are only five persons who die, or who are killed, and one goes mad.
This is tragic enough. It is enough to justify classing Yngurd with the other monstrous productions of the German theatre. There are other apparent faults in the piece. Asla is rather a lovely and a novel character—an enthusiastic, gentle, and dreaming maiden, warmly attached to her mother and her home till her sixteenth year, when she dreams—
And this dream gives her the power to curse and hate both her father and mother, and to tell them “she could leave them in death.” She says to her mother—
This is most perverse, unnatural, and immoral. The language in which all this is told is beautiful, but the whole sentiment could only have been conceived and put into words by a person who had always lived out of the reach of good example and sound remark. There are some other faults which are the result of dreaming; for it is only the dreams which the muses bring before the mind that are fit for poetry. Irma, Oscar, Brunhilde, Asla, all dream or prophesy through the piece. It is a fault, also, to make Yngurd fall at once from his high place and thoughts to despicable and deadly fears and deeds. It is only accounted for by the influence of Satan. Poor human nature, tortured by all its evil passions, is not bad enough for the purposes of the poet, and he gives it the devil as a helpmate. Yngurd’s character is throughout noble and well sustained till the sudden fall.
He surprises his nobility, and gains them by a very noble address.—(p. 42.) In like manner, he trusts himself in the camp of his enemy, and behaves equally well. “The peasant trusts when a prince promises.” He is described as such by Oscar, and he makes a long prayer; but the moment before that battle begins, in which he implores assistance from the evil powers. “King of kings,” he says, “ruler of the world, thy name is peace. War is the seed of hell. It is thy holy and perfect will that the guilty fall; therefore, in battle, I have never prayed for victory. What is right fulfil; but still the beating of the blood, father of courage. The will of princes is hard like metal; like gold, mixed with dross. There is an eternal war betwixt the heart and the head. Melt the ore here. (Laying his hand on his breast.) Make the soul loose from its bonds. Destroy necessity, that I may be free to choose.”
Yet the author, soon after, fouls the mind of such a man, so noble, so daring, so pious, too, with the crime of murder. With this exception, Yngurd seems one of the most manly of the pure poetical creations of the whole German drama.
This play is, by no means, without gentle sentiments and feelings, some specimens of which I shall add. They principally describe the character of Oscar and Asla.—Oscar says,
I dare not venture to quote any more. In its diction, in the vigour of the conceptions, and in the spirit of its characters—in its weaknesses, its sentimentality, and in what the Germans so expressively call “Schwärmery”—in the softness and gentleness of many of its expressions—yes, even in its length and in the vulgar horror of some of its phrases, such as “the mouth of death wide open stood as if he hungered”—Yngurd is a good specimen of the present dramatic literature of our neighbours. Mr Müllner, its author, may be estimated as one of the most rising poets of Germany.
It is by no means consistent with the title of this work to discuss the merits or demerits of German literature. To do that properly would require me to read much more than I have read, and would probably also demand a work at least half as large as the whole of this. But I may be permitted to remark, that German literature has been unjustly condemned in the gross from some few examples of such pieces as those I have already mentioned, and from all the different kinds of literature having been confounded together. At the same time, the lovers of novelty have despised the laws of taste; and have praised this literature more than it deserved.
All literature may be divided into two parts, each of which, from having qualities different from the other, deserves to be separately considered. These are the literature of facts, and the literature of imagination. To the first belong such writings as philosophical, political, biographical, moral, and historical—to the other, dramas, novels, romances, &c. The former must be judged of by a standard different from the latter. It must strictly conform to truth; it must be an accurate and complete representation of facts. The other must conform to taste. The former reflects nature as a perfect mirror. The latter rather refracts and transmits her. It changes her correct and her lovely form, but it decks her with all the beauty of colours. Taste is entirely artificial, and is the result of cultivation; it depends on opinion, and varies in every country. The literature of imagination, therefore, of each nation, which must conform to its taste, is different from that of every other nation; while their literatures of facts, though they have still some national differences, resemble one another. The works of Shakespeare and Racine have scarcely any resemblance, though they both bear the name of dramas; and the works of each are vastly admired by the nation in whose language they are written. The historical works of Voltaire and Hume, the philosophical writings of Locke and Condillac, of Degerando and Mr Stewart, are all so much of the same family, that there is little other difference between them than the language.
When nations readily and freely communicate with each other, their respective literatures of facts may be so much more readily imitated than their literatures of imagination; and what is excellent in the former is so much easier seen, and so much more certain, than what is excellent in the latter, that the former will always resemble one another much more than the latter. The historical and philosophical literature of the Germans resembles the same species of literature of the other enlightened countries of Europe. Since the year 1770, the Germans have adopted, imitated, and improved the manner of writing history, which was introduced about that period; and their historical literature now equals, and perhaps surpasses, in extent, in accuracy of research, and profundity of thought, that of any other people of Europe. In one point it is superior. The extensive knowledge and the industry of the Germans allows them, in general, to acquire so great a mastery of the subject they treat, that they arrange it in a most accurate, minute, and comprehensive manner. Vivacity and profundity may be occasionally missed, but a misplaced remark is never made. The separate histories of the church, of philosophy, of languages, and of the arts, which are written in the German language, are considered to be unequalled for depth of research, and accuracy of arrangement. It is no exaggeration to say, that the historical literature of the Germans equals the historical literature of any other people.
Schlozer and Spittler may be considered as the fathers of German historical literature; and Herren, Luden, and Rotteck, are amongst the youngest and the worthiest of their sons. The two former were professors at Göttingen: Herren has been mentioned. Luden is professor of history at Jena, and Rotteck at Freyburg in Baden. From one of the works of Spittler I have had frequent occasion to quote; and he is also the author of a History of the Christian Church, and a History of Wirtemberg, both of which are very highly praised. He was a native of this latter country, but he lived, and wrote, and taught at Göttingen till he was called back to Wirtemberg to fill the office of a minister of state.
At Göttingen he seems to have been the idol of his friends, who still speak of him with the greatest enthusiasm. His writings have the defect of being sometimes obscure from a laboured and artificial construction of his periods, and from his hinting at events rather than narrating them. But the manner in which he traces causes and effects, and philosophises in his history, is deserving admiration. He spares no species of injustice, and he marked more accurately than any preceding German historian the effects of lawless power. He has one fault that is seldom found in German authors—a want of minuteness, or he writes so well that you feel disappointed he has left any thing unsaid it was possible for him to say. As an historian he is much superior to Schiller. The histories of the thirty years’ war, and of the separation of the Netherlands from Spain, will always rank the latter among the historians of his country, and as one of the greatest improvers of its language and literature. But these two compositions must rather be considered as splendid descriptions of some leading characters and events, than as regular histories of these two remarkable periods.
I might here give a short passage from a universal history by Mr Rotteck, the latest writer I am acquainted with, to shew the spirit of the present historical literature of the Germans; but, as it is opposed to some favourite religious opinions, and as I do not know exactly the limits of our libel laws, I must abstain from doing it. It is highly remarkable, as a specimen of the doctrines which are both generally believed and taught in Germany; and as a proof that freedom of discussion on matters of religion is carried further there than in our country. The work in which it is to be found was employed by the author in his lectures, and it is intended by him for the instruction of young men, and the amusement of those more advanced in life. When such passages are found in historical books, they are strong evidence of the general taste. If they were put into the hands of young men in England, they would excite some disturbance. The author would probably be called an enemy of religion, and would be clamorously assailed. He has, however, been promoted by his sovereign to a higher professorship since he published this work. He is not to be considered as a regular combatant on the subject of religion, but as merely expounding opinions which are generally received. If such sentiments as are to be found in this book appeared in our country, in a work expressly written to oppose the claims of the Jews to the honour of a particular inspiration, it would be thought we were making a progress in rational knowledge. But if they were found in our school-books, and if they were taught in our universities, without occasioning persecution, we should be set down as totally emancipated from the intolerant dominion and principles of Jewish priests.
Of the philosophical literature of the Germans something has been already said. Apparently because it is less interesting to mankind, this species of literature has been far less improved by the Germans than their historical literature, and it yet retains many scholastic distinctions and incongruities. Its chief characteristics, so far as I am acquainted with it, are, a multitude of words, a great many artificial distinctions, and a great want of accurate thought. It is the worst part of the German literature of facts. The chief principles which the German philosophers have followed, namely, that philosophy has nothing to do with facts, and is above them; that it consists in what they are pleased to call pure reason, is the great cause why their philosophy is in general little more than words grammatically arranged. Their whole philosophy signifies and explains nothing. It is obvious that the political literature of any people, if both the form and the matter of it be not borrowed from some other people, will take its colour from their political education. It is equally obvious, from the situation of their country, that the political education of the Germans has hitherto been very bad; and, consequently, their political writings, except treatises on political economy, the matter of which they have borrowed from others, are in general shallow, metaphysical, and theoretical. The interest, however, which the subject excites, stimulates so many powerful minds to inquire into it, that the political literature of Germany is more rapidly improving than any other. In fact, the attention of most of the powerful minds in the whole country is now ardently and devotedly given to political literature, and we may expect greater advances to be made in it than in any other branch of literature.
The great faults of the German literature of imagination seem to be a great want of sublimity, and a burlesque, overstrained, and rather horrible imitation of this quality. There is a perpetual effort, on the part of their authors, to sustain the characters of their pieces at a pitch beyond nature. Suffering is made horrible. Their heroes are merely men who despise the common rules of life. They are more outrageous and extraordinary than sublime,—more extravagant than virtuous or vicious. Such is Charles Moore, Don Carlos, and Marquis Posa. It seems as if the authors had thought all the usual sources of pleasure were exhausted, and that they must seek novelty, though at the expence of consistency and truth. They began to write when other nations had long written, and, as other authors had carefully avoided absurdity, it remained to be adopted as a novelty. Their works, which contain any sublimity, such as The Robbers, Cabal and Love, and the Don Carlos of Schiller, seem also to abound in an overstrained semblance. Faust, and Gotz of Berlichingen, Wallenstein, and Maria Stuart, ought to be exempted from this censure. The first is coolly and calmly devilish throughout. Gotz is an accurate picture of the manners of former times, and is true to nature. Faust derives its great merit from a similar cause. It is an old woman’s tale, all the circumstances of which are carefully preserved and put into elegant language. The great merit of the heaven-born genius is, that he perpetuates the errors of the nursery. It is less an imitation of nature than an imitation of some superstitions of which we have all heard, and in which most of us have been taught to believe.
The literature of imagination may refract, but ought not to distort nature. It must present to us some familiar features, or we regard its works as monsters. The German muse has given birth to more “mooncalves and sooterkins than any of the sisterhood.” Many of the writings of the Germans want rationality and good sense. How absurd is it in Goethe to give Faust the power of a devil to seduce a naturally weak woman. It is arming a giant with thunder to conquer a defenceless dwarf; it is like bringing artillery against a town which is ready to open its gates to a single soldier. In the same manner he has worked up a combination of events which is almost miraculous, to attach a wandering player (Withelm Meister) to a nobleman, Lothario; as if he had not given the poor being, from his creation, a sufficient stock of vanity to make a nod from such a man as a nobleman the very summit of his ambition. The charming absurdities, as they may be called, of his Egmont are still greater; and yet Goethe is thought by the Germans to be the very prince of observers of human nature. Many of them describe him as having pryed into all the secrets of the human heart, particularly of the female heart; and to be so well acquainted with it as if the hearts of all mankind had been concocted into one, and given to him for inspection. He is in general, particularly in the south of Germany, much more praised and admired than Schiller.
It has been already remarked, that German philosophers consider philosophy as above facts; the poets have adopted a similar principle with regard to poetry, but they have carried it to a more extravagant length. Their constant object is to describe what they call the ideal—Ideale;—they disdain matter of fact, and they run into absurdity from forsaking that nature which is the only sure guide. The ideal of every individual differs from the ideal of every other, but we call that true and beautiful which conforms to that ideal which is common to the greatest number of persons; and an individual who will follow his own notion of ideal beauty, without regard to the notions of other people, must often necessarily be thought by them to be absurd. This is the case with German authors. Criticism has now somewhat corrected them; but they have hitherto sought in the clouds of their own imagination for a true representation of the earth. They have found there all sorts of strange forms, and they have spoken of them as having an actual existence.
German literature is also very prolix. Authors think they have never said enough, while they can say any thing more. Nothing is ever hinted and left to the imagination of the reader. Every idea which they can discover in their dissections of the mind is laid as bare as “the anatomist scrapes a bone when he means to demonstrate its parts to his pupils.” This is a tedious more than a glaring fault. Nearly every page of German writing partakes more or less of it. It abounds in their philosophy, their novels, their poetry, and is also visible in their historical writings. The complexity of their sentences may in a great measure be ascribed to their wish to leave nothing unsaid. Every period is lengthened by numerous qualifications and additional remarks, that are not of sufficient importance to form a period of themselves. Perhaps, however, prolixity is a fault which every person finds in a foreign literature. Strangers want so many of the associations which make up the entire charm of trifles, that they can rarely think those minutiæ are of any value which to natives are neither uninteresting nor tedious. The task of reading any work is so different to a stranger and a native, and it is so great a labour to the former, that he necessarily wishes every useless word might be spared.
There are many beauties consistent with these prominent faults, though it is possible my notion of these may not accord with that entertained by many other people. When the Germans will be content with the lowly ambition of copying or of imitating nature, they seem to do it more correctly and more minutely, and perhaps more spiritedly, than any other people. I conceive the little poem by Schiller called Die Glöcke, and the Herrman and Dorothea by Goethe, to be striking examples of this beauty. The latter is a most faithful picture of manners, of the soft, kind, and quiet dispositions, which distinguish the Germans. And the former, though a more spirited poem, gives an equally faithful transcript of many of their everyday thoughts and pursuits.
Another great beauty of the German literature of the imagination, and the only one I shall further add, is, that it contains as great a quantity of light, elegant, gentle, and pleasurable feeling, as any literature I know. Garlands and flowers, and children on the breast, and clear soft days, and gentle requited love, without any of the bitter ingredients of the passion, and the whirling dance, and the friendly greeting, and waggons loaded with corn, the earth smiling with fruits, and acts of kindness, and soft music, the light-blue heaven, and pearling tears, are the images or the passions which constitute the great beauty of German imaginative literature. Werther and the Robbers, the pieces which have excited most attention out of Germany, seem to me to be rather the exceptions to the general character of this literature than to form it. They were probably as much admired for their singularity as from their according either with the character of the Germans or with the general spirit of their literature.
Most of the works of Wieland, all the smaller poems of Schiller, many of those of Goethe, most of the works of Bürger, the idylls of Gessner, the two tragedies of Müllner, and many other works, contain, or rather abound with evidence of a gentle train of pleasurable, contented, good-hearted feeling, which is more a chief characteristic of German poetry, than of any other with which I am acquainted. There seems to be nothing bounding in the joy, and nothing turbulent or boisterous in any of the native and true German literature. Every thing in the land, and in its writings, seems calm, and still, and kind. I may quote, as a more special recent example of this beauty, a little poem published at Leipsic in 1818, called Die Bezauberte Rose,—The Enchanted Rose.—It possesses no merit as a tale; the sentiments are often absurd, but it is full of gentle and quiet pictures of happiness. The author, Ernst Schulze, was a native of Celle, and, after having studied at Göttingen, died there, in 1817, at the age of 29. He was too early called away for the honour of his country, for his own reputation, and for the good of his countrymen.
I have limited this characteristic to native and true German literature, because it is not so conspicuous in its drama; and, though this is written in the German language, it is so obviously an overstrained imitation of the drama of other nations, rather than a transcript of their own feelings, that it hardly deserves the name of a true native literature.
[∗]“Though not born in the north, he grew up there, straight and proud like our pines, and seemed early to be selected as the ornament of northern warriors. His soul lay in his eyes, open to the stranger’s view, like the blue of heaven, friendly, firm, and without a spot. Men praised the warrior, strong to support a throne; maidens, as they wove him a myrtle crown, concealed in their bosoms the secret sigh for the victor.”
[†]“A way from here, where nobody was allied to me, the bonds of all-mighty nature drew me to the land of golden fields; which, in dim early-received pictures, glimmering through a cloudy day, lay before me like the past world on the shields of our ancestors.”
[∗]“As the last sound from the harp-string, when struck by a gentle hand, melts into air,—as the circles made by a single drop falling into a crystal lake, spread farther and weaker till they are lost on the flower-covered borders,—so may I fade and float into a better life. Will the hand of fate never softly raise me to my natural home, from the cradle of storms, where I lie, far from my country, fastened by the strong band of love?”
[∗]“To do? Man does nothing. A hidden council rules above him, and he must do as this directs. To do? Call you this a deed? Oh, I beg of you leave that in peace. All, all at last depends for certain that my mother denied a beggar alms.”
[∗]“Hark, the wind wakes on the shore, and the north sea thunders afar. All the stars are hidden, and from the dark arch of heaven the snow comes driven in storms. Whirling like the sand of the desart, it rises again from the ground, and, as earth hides the dead, so it covers the stiffened land like the hillocks over graves.”
[∗]“Soft favourable airs filled the sails of the ship, and the lightly-moved house brought away merrily the pilgrims who were longing for home.”
[†]“Drawn together by a secret power, our lives united themselves like two streams. Alone each winds its modest way through the openings of the mountains, scarcely able to carry a boat, but, united, each enriched by the other, they flow, highly honoured, through the open land, and the proud waves play lightly with the heavy-loaded ships.
[∗]“He seeks victory. He needs fame, because his right is weak. The people will still have something by which to hold.”
[∗]“Away, women! Earth, open out your inmost part, and let me pry into the burning hell! Come here, ye spirits, who mischief work for pastime—who make the miner at the border of the precipice blind and giddy—that his bones are dashed on the iron rocks! Come here and do your deeds in open day; bewilder the victory-drunk Danish host, that they may fall by the swords of one another!
[∗]“Which, soft and white like the garment of the swan, clings like an infant to the bosom of the land,—which glides unfelt into the heart like the tear of childhood.”
[∗]“A young knight, glorious as the day, came with an armed host from the east, and passed on. My gaze went after him, and after him the wish—escape from danger. Another army covered with steel, dark as night, came from the west, and began to range itself in the plain as if for bloody battle. Annihilate it, I cried above to the blue arch of day. Give victory to the spear of the knight. Then I was forced to look on it attentively, and I knew King Yngurd’s army. And I knew, on a foam-covered steed, the helm, and the plume, and the shield of my father; and whirling rose the dust from the earth, and fighting crowds covered the fields. Then I felt as if seized by rude hands, and as if my anxious bosom were to be divided. Yet a terrible desire constrained me to look on the knight. And I saw his colours waving victorious, and quick and joyful flew the blood through my heart. I saw the banner of the king falling; the Norwegians flew; I felt no pain. Yet sudden stopped the flight. I heard the voice of Yngurd cursing; saw him turn him like a lion and seek the tender knight, and I felt my face cold and pale.
[∗]“I can no longer help it. What destroys you, charms me like a sweet game.”
[∗]“He is the flame of heaven. Whoever has fought with him can never more know fear. His is the empire; he is born its master, although he sprung not from a royal line.”
[∗]“These coasts attracted me with soft and unseen power. I dreamt of Norway, ever since I can remember, as children dream on their mother’s breast. How different do I find it! Confused I tread the long-desired land of home, and cannot chase foreboding fears away, that here I am not welcome.