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REVIEW OF MADAME DE STAËL’S ‘DE L’ALLEMAGNE.’ * - Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works 
The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871).
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REVIEW OF MADAME DE STAËL’S ‘DE L’ALLEMAGNE.’*
Till the middle of the eighteenth century, Germany was, in one important respect, singular among the great nations of Christendom. She had attained a high rank in Europe by discoveries and inventions, by science, by abstract speculation as well as positive knowledge, by the genius and the art of war, and above all, by the theological revolution, which unfettered the understanding in one part of Europe, and loosened its chains in the other; but she was without a national literature. The country of Guttenberg, of Copernicus, of Luther, of Kepler, and of Leibnitz, had no writer in her own language, whose name was known to the neighbouring nations. German captains and statesmen, philosophers and scholars, were celebrated; but German writers were unknown. The nations of the Spanish peninsula formed the exact contrast to Germany. She had every mark of mental cultivation but a vernacular literature: they, since the Reformation, had ceased to exercise their reason; and they retained only their poets, whom they were content to admire, without daring any longer to emulate. In Italy, Metastasio was the only renowned poet; and sensibility to the arts of design had survived genius: but the monuments of ancient times still kept alive the pursuits of antiquities and philology; and the rivalship of small states, and the glory of former ages, preserved an interest in literary history. The national mind retained that tendency towards experimental science, which it perhaps principally owed to the fame of Galileo; and began also to take some part in those attempts to discover the means of bettering the human condition, by inquiries into the principles of legislation and political economy, which form the most honourable distinction of the eighteenth century. France and England abated nothing of their activity. Whatever may be thought of the purity of taste, or of the soundness of opinion of Montesquieu and Voltaire, Buffon and Rousseau, no man will dispute the vigour of their genius. The same period among us was not marked by the loss of any of our ancient titles to fame; and it was splendidly distinguished by the rise of the arts, of history, of oratory, and (shall we not add?) of painting. But Germany remained a solitary example of a civilized, learned, and scientific nation, without a literature. The chivalrous ballads of the middle age, and the efforts of the Silesian poets in the beginning of the seventeenth century, were just sufficient to render the general defect more striking. French was the language of every court; and the number of courts in Germany rendered this circumstance almost equivalent to the exclusion of German from every society of rank. Philosophers employed a barbarous Latin,—as they had throughout all Europe, till the Reformation had given dignity to the vernacular tongues, by employing them in the service of Religion, and till Montaigne, Galileo, and Bacon, broke down the barrier between the learned and the people, by philosophizing in a popular language; and the German language continued to be the mere instrument of the most vulgar intercourse of life. Germany had, therefore, no exclusive mental possession: for poetry and eloquence may, and in some measure must be national; but knowledge, which is the common patrimony of civilized men, can be appropriated by no people.
A great revolution, however, at length began, which in the course of half a century terminated in bestowing on Germany a literature, perhaps the most characteristic possessed by any European nation. It had the important peculiarity of being the first which had its birth in an enlightened age. The imagination and sensibility of an infant poetry were in it singularly blended with the refinements of philosophy. A studious and learned people, familiar with the poets of other nations, with the first simplicity of nature and feeling, were too often tempted to pursue the singular, the excessive, and the monstrous. Their fancy was attracted towards the deformities and diseases of moral nature;—the wildness of an infant literature, combined with the eccentric and fearless speculations of a philosophical age. Some of the qualities of the childhood of art were united to others which usually attend its decline. German literature, various, rich, bold, and at length, by an inversion of the usual progress, working itself into originality, was tainted with the exaggeration natural to the imitator, and to all those who know the passions rather by study than by feeling.
Another cause concurred to widen the chasm which separated the German writers from the most polite nations of Europe. While England and France had almost relinquished those more abstruse speculations which had employed them in the age of Gassendi and Hobbes, and, with a confused mixture of contempt and despair, had tacitly abandoned questions which seemed alike inscrutable and unprofitable, a metaphysical passion arose in Germany, stronger and more extensive than had been known in Europe since the downfall of the Scholastic philosophy. A system of metaphysics appeared, which, with the ambition natural to that science, aspired to dictate principles to every part of human knowledge. It was for a long time universally adopted. Other systems, derived from it, succeeded each other with the rapidity of fashions in dress. Metaphysical publications were multiplied almost to the same degree, as political tracts in the most factious period of a popular government. The subject was soon exhausted, and the metaphysical passion seems to be nearly extinguished: for the small circle of dispute respecting first principles, must be always rapidly described; and the speculator, who thought his course infinite, finds himself almost instantaneously returned to the point from which he began. But the language of abstruse research spread over the whole German style. Allusions to the most subtile speculations were common in popular writings. Bold metaphors, derived from their peculiar philosophy, became familiar in observations on literature and manners. The style of Germany at length differed from that of France, and even of England, more as the literature of the East differs from that of the West, than as that of one European people from that of their neighbours.
Hence it partly arose, that while physical and political Germany was so familiar to foreigners, intellectual and literary Germany continued almost unknown. Thirty years ago,* there were probably in London as many Persian as German scholars. Neither Goethe nor Schiller conquered the repugnance. Political confusions, a timid and exclusive taste, and the habitual neglect of foreign languages, excluded German literature from France. Temporary and permanent causes contributed to banish it, after a short period of success, from England. Dramas, more remarkable for theatrical effect, than dramatical genius, exhibited scenes and characters of a paradoxical morality (on which no writer has animadverted with more philosophical and moral eloquence than Mad. de Stael),—unsafe even in the quiet of the schools, but peculiarly dangerous in the theatre, where it comes into contact with the inflammable passions of ignorant multitudes,—and justly alarming to those who, with great reason, considered domestic virtue as one of the privileges and safeguards of the English nation. These moral paradoxes, which were chiefly found among the inferior poets of Germany, appeared at the same time with the political novelties of the French Revolution, and underwent the same fate. German literature was branded as the accomplice of freethinking philosophy and revolutionary politics. It happened rather whimsically, that we now began to throw out the same reproaches against other nations, which the French had directed against us in the beginning of the eighteenth century. We were then charged by our polite neighbours with the vulgarity and turbulence of rebellious upstarts, who held nothing sacred in religion, or stable in government; whom—
“No king could govern, and no God could please;”*
and whose coarse and barbarous literature could excite only the ridicule of cultivated nations. The political part of these charges we applied to America, which had retained as much as she could of our government and laws; and the literary part to Germany, where literature had either been formed on our models, or moved by a kindred impulse, even where it assumed somewhat of a different form. The same persons who applauded wit, and pardoned the shocking licentiousness of English comedy, were loudest in their clamours against the immorality of the German theatre. In our zeal against a few scenes, dangerous only by over-refinement, we seemed to have forgotten the vulgar grossness which tainted the whole brilliant period from Fletcher to Congreve. Nor did we sufficiently remember, that the most daring and fantastical combinations of the German stage, did not approach to that union of taste and sense in the thought and expression, with wildness and extravagance in the invention of monstrous character and horrible incident, to be found in some of our earlier dramas, which, for their energy and beauty, the public taste has lately called from oblivion.
The more permanent causes of the slow and small progress of German literature in France and England, are philosophically developed in two beautiful chapters of the present work.† A translation from German into a language so different in its structure and origin as French, fails, as a piece of music composed for one sort of instrument when performed on another. In Germany, style, and even language, are not yet fixed. In France, rules are despotic: “the reader will not be amused at the expense of his literary conscience; there alone he is scrupulous.” A German writer is above his public, and forms it: a French writer dreads a public already enlightened and severe; he constantly thinks of immediate effect; he is in society, even while he is composing; and never loses sight of the effect of his writings on those whose opinions and pleasantries he is accustomed to fear. The German writers have, in a higher degree, the first requisite for writing—the power of feeling with vivacity and force. In France, a book is read to be spoken of, and must therefore catch the spirit of society: in Germany, it is read by solitary students, who seek instruction or emotion; and, “in the silence of retirement, nothing seems more melancholy than the spirit of the world.” The French require a clearness which may sometimes render their writers superficial: and the Germans, in the pursuit of originality and depth, often convey obvious thoughts in an obscure style. In the dramatic art, the most national part of literature, the French are distinguished in whatever relates to the action, the intrigue, and the interest of events: but the Germans surpass them in representing the impressions of the heart, and the secret storms of the strong passions.
This work will make known to future ages the state of Germany in the highest degree of its philosophical and poetical activity, at the moment before the pride of genius was humbled by foreign conquest, or the national mind turned from literary enthusiasm by struggles for the restoration of independence. The fleeting opportunity of observation at so extraordinary a moment, has happily been seized by one of those very few persons, who are capable at once of observing and painting manners,—of estimating and expounding philosophical systems,—of feeling the beauties of the most dissimilar forms of literature,—of tracing the peculiarities of usages, arts, and even speculations, to their common principle in national character,—and of disposing them in their natural place as features in the great portrait of a people.
The attainments of a respectable traveller of the second class, are, in the present age, not uncommon. Many persons are perfectly well qualified to convey exact information, wherever the subject can be exactly known. But the most important objects in a country can neither be numbered nor measured. The naturalist gives no picture of scenery by the most accurate catalogue of mineral and vegetable produce; and, after all that the political arithmetician can tell us of wealth and population, we continue ignorant of the spirit which actuates them, and of the character which modifies their application. The genius of the philosophical and poetical traveller is of a higher order. It is founded in the power of catching, at a rapid glance, the physiognomy of man and of nature. It is, in one of its parts, an expansion of that sagacity which seizes the character of an individual, in his features, in his expression, in his gestures, in his tones,—in every outward sign of his thoughts and feelings. The application of this intuitive power to the varied mass called a “nation,” is one of the most rare efforts of the human intellect. The mind and the eye must co-operate, with electrical rapidity, to recall what a nation has been, to sympathize with their present sentiments and passions, and to trace the workings of national character in amusements, in habits, in institutions and opinions. There appears to be an extemporaneous facility of theorizing, necessary to catch the first aspect of a new country,—the features of which would enter the mind in absolute confusion, if they were not immediately referred to some principle, and reduced to some system. To embody this conception, there must exist the power of painting both scenery and character,—of combining the vivacity of first impression with the accuracy of minute examination,—of placing a nation, strongly individualized by every mark of its mind and disposition, in the midst of ancient monuments, clothed in its own apparel, engaged in its ordinary occupations and pastimes amidst its native scenes, like a grand historical painting, with appropriate drapery, and with the accompaniments of architecture and landscape, which illustrate and characterize, as well as adorn.
The voice of Europe has already applauded the genius of a national painter in the author of Corinne. But it was there aided by the power of a pathetic fiction, by the variety and opposition of national character, and by the charm of a country which unites beauty to renown. In the work before us, she has thrown off the aid of fiction; she delineates a less poetical character, and a country more interesting by expectation than by recollection. But it is not the less certain that it is the most vigorous effort of her genius, and probably the most elaborate and masculine production of the faculties of woman. What other woman, indeed, (and we may add how many men,) could have preserved all the grace and brilliancy of Parisian society in analyzing its nature,—explained the most abstruse metaphysical theories of Germany precisely, yet perspicuously and agreeably,—and combined the eloquence which inspires exalted sentiments of virtue, with the enviable talent of gently indicating the defects of men or of nations, by the skilfully softened touches of a polite and merciful pleasantry?
In a short introduction, the principal nations of Europe are derived from three races,—the Sclavonic, the Latin, and the Teutonic. The imitative and feeble literature,—the recent precipitate and superficial civilization of the Sclavonic nations, sufficiently distinguish them from the two great races. The Latin nations, who inhabit the south of Europe, are the most anciently civilized: social institutions, blended with Paganism, preceded their reception of Christianity. They have less disposition than their northern neighbours to abstract reflection, they understand better the business and pleasures of the world; they inherit the sagacity of the Romans in civil affairs, and “they alone, like those ancient masters, know how to practice the art of domination.” The Germanic nations, who inhabit the north of Europe and the British islands, received their civilization with Christianity: chivalry and the middle ages are the subjects of their traditions and legends; their natural genius is more Gothic than classical; they are distinguished by independence and good faith,—by seriousness both in their talents and character, rather than by address or vivacity. “The social dignity which the English owe to their political constitution, places them at the head of Teutonic nations, but does not exempt them from the character of the race.” The literature of the Latin nations is copied from the ancients, and retains the original colour of their polytheism: that of the nations of Germanic origin has a chivalrous basis, and is modified by a spiritual religion. The French and Germans are at the two extremities of the chain; the French considering outward objects, and the Germans thought and feeling, as the prime movers of the moral world. “The French, the most cultivated of Latin nations, inclines to a classical poetry: the English, the most illustrious of Germanic ones, delights in a poetry more romantic and chivalrous.”
The theory which we have thus abridged is most ingenious, and exhibits in the liveliest form the distinction between different systems of literature and manners. It is partly true; for the principle of race is doubtless one of the most important in the history of mankind; and the first impressions on the susceptible character of rude tribes may be traced in the qualities of their most civilized descendants. But, considered as an exclusive and universal theory, it is not secure against the attacks of sceptical ingenuity. The facts do not seem entirely to correspond with it. It was among the Latin nations of the South, that chivalry and romance first flourished. Provence was the earliest seat of romantic poetry. A chivalrous literature predominated in Italy during the most brilliant period of Italian genius. The poetry of the Spanish peninsula seems to have been more romantic and less subjected to classical bondage than that of any other part of Europe. On the contrary, chivalry, which was the refinement of the middle age, penetrated more slowly into the countries of the North. In general, the character of the literature of each European nation seems extremely to depend upon the period at which it had reached its highest point of cultivation. Spanish and Italian poetry flourished while Europe was still chivalrous. French literature attained its highest splendour after the Grecian and Roman writers had become the object of universal reverence. The Germans cultivated their poetry a hundred years later, when the study of antiquity had revived the knowledge of the Gothic sentiments and principles. Nature produced a chivalrous poetry in the sixteenth century;—learning in the eighteenth. Perhaps the history of English poetry reflects the revolution of European taste more distinctly than that of any other nation. We have successively cultivated a Gothic poetry from nature, a classical poetry from imitation, and a second Gothic from the study of our own ancient poets.
To this consideration it must be added, that Catholic and Protestant nations must differ in their poetical system. The festal shows and legendary polytheism of the Catholics had the effect of a sort of Christian Paganism. The Protestant poetry was spiritualized by the genius of their worship, and was undoubtedly exalted by the daily perusal of translations of the sublime poems of the Hebrews,—a discipline, without which it is probable that the nations of the West never could have been prepared to endure Oriental poetry. In justice, however, to the ingenious theory of Mad. de Stael, it ought to be observed, that the original character ascribed by her to the Northern nations, must have disposed them to the adoption of a Protestant faith and worship; while the Popery of the South was naturally preserved by an early disposition to a splendid ceremonial, and a various and flexible mythology.
The work is divided into four parts:—on Germany and German Manners; on Literature and the Arts; on Philosophy and Morals; on Religion and Enthusiasm.
The first is the most perfect in its kind, belongs the most entirely to the genius of the writer, and affords the best example of the talent for painting nations which we have attempted to describe. It seems also, as far as foreign critics can presume to decide, to be in the most finished style of any composition of the author, and more securely to bid defiance to that minute criticism, which, in other works, her genius rather disdained than propitiated. The Germans are a just, constant, and sincere people; with great power of imagination and reflection; without brilliancy in society, or address in affairs; slow, and easily intimidated in action; adventurous and fearless in speculation; often uniting enthusiasm for the elegant arts with little progress in the manners and refinements of life; more capable of being inflamed by opinions than by interests; obedient to authority, rather from an orderly and mechanical character than from servility; having learned to value liberty neither by the enjoyment of it, nor by severe oppression; divested by the nature of their governments, and the division of their territories, of patriotic pride; too prone in the relations of domestic life, to substitute fancy and feeling for positive duty; not unfrequently combining a natural character with artificial manners, and much real feeling with affected enthusiasm; divided by the sternness of feudal demarcation into an unlettered nobility, unpolished scholar, and a depressed commonalty; and exposing themselves to derision, when, with their grave and clumsy honesty, they attempt to copy the lively and dexterous profligacy of their Southern neighbours.
In the plentiful provinces of Southern Germany, where religion, as well as government, shackle the activity of speculation, the people have sunk into a sort of lethaigic comfort and stupid enjoyment. It is a heavy and monotonous country, with no arts, except the national art of instrumental music,—no literature,—a rude utterance,—no society, or only crowded assemblies, which seemed to be brought together for ceremonial, more than for pleasure,—“an obsequious politeness towards an aristocracy without elegance.” In Austria, more especially, are seen a calm and languid mediocrity in sensations and desires,—a people mechanical in their very sports, “whose existence is neither disturbed nor exalted by guilt or genius, by intolerance or enthusiasm,”—a phlegmatic administration, inflexibly adhering to its ancient course, and repelling knowledge, on which the vigour of states must now depend,—great societies of amiable and respectable persons—which suggest the reflection, that “in retirement monotony composes the soul, but in the world it wearies the mind.”
In the rigorous climate and gloomy towns of Protestant Germany only, the national mind is displayed. There the whole literature and philosophy are assembled. Berlin is slowly rising to be the capital of enlightened Germany. The Duchess of Weimar, who compelled Napoleon to respect her in the intoxication of victory, has changed her little capital into a seat of knowledge and elegance, under the auspices of Goethe, Wieland, and Schiller. No European palace has assembled so refined a society since some of the small Italian courts of the sixteenth century. It is only by the Protestant provinces of the North that Germany is known as a lettered and philosophical country.
Moralists and philosophers have often remarked, that licentious gallantry is fatal to love, and destructive of the importance of women. “I will venture to assert,” says Mad. de Stael, “against the received opinion, that France was perhaps, of all the countries of the world, that in which women had the least happiness in love. It was called the ‘paradise’ of women, because they enjoyed the greatest liberty; but that liberty arose from the negligent profligacy of the other sex.” The observations* which follow this remarkable testimony are so beautiful and forcible, that they ought to be engraven on the mind of every woman disposed to murmur at those restraints which maintain the dignity of womanhood.
Some enthusiasm, says Mad. de Stael, or, in other words, some high passion, capable of actuating multitudes, has been felt by every people, at those epochs of their national existence, which are distinguished by great acts. Four periods are very remarkable in the progress of the European world: the heroic ages which founded civilization; republican patriotism, which was the glory of antiquity; chivalry, the martial religion of Europe; and the love of liberty, of which the history began about the period of the Reformation. The chivalrous impression is worn out in Germany; and, in future, says this generous and enlightened writer, “nothing great will be accomplished in that country, but by the liberal impulse which has in Europe succeeded to chivalry.”
The society and manners of Germany are continually illustrated by comparison or contrast with those of France. Some passages and chapters on this subject, together with the author’s brilliant preface to the thoughts of the Prince de Ligne, may be considered as the first contributions towards a theory of the talent—if we must not say of the art—of conversation, which affords so considerable a part of the most liberal enjoyments of refined life. Those, indeed, who affect a Spartan or monastic severity in their estimate of the society of capitals, may almost condemn a talent, which in their opinion only adorns vice. But that must have a moral tendency which raises society from slander or intoxication, to any contest and rivalship of mental power. Wit and grace are perhaps the only means which could allure the thoughtless into the neighbourhood of reflection, and inspire them with some admiration for superiority of mind. Society is the only school in which the indolence of the great will submit to learn. Refined conversation is at least sprinkled with literature, and directed, more often than the talk of the vulgar, to objects of general interest. That talent cannot really be frivolous which affoids the channel through which some knowledge, or even some respect for knowledge, may be insinuated into minds incapable of labour, and whose tastes so materially influence the community. Satirical pictures of the vices of a great society create a vulgar prejudice against their most blameless and virtuous pleasures. But, whatever may be the vice of London or Paris, it is lessened, not increased, by the cultivation of every liberal talent which innocently fills their time, and tends, in some measure, to raise them above malice and sensuality. And there is a considerable illusion in the provincial estimate of the immoralities of the capital. These immoralities are public, from the rank of the parties; and they are rendered more conspicuous by the celebrity, or perhaps by the talents, of some of them. Men of letters, and women of wit, describe their own sufferings with eloquence,—the faults of others, and sometimes their own, with energy: their descriptions interest every reader, and are circulated throughout Europe. But it does not follow that the miseries or the faults are greater or more frequent than those of obscure and vulgar persons, whose sufferings and vices are known to nobody, and would be uninteresting if they were known.
The second, and most generally amusing, as well as the largest part of this work, is an animated sketch of the literary history of Germany, with criticisms on the most celebrated German poets and poems, interspersed with reflections equally original and beautiful, tending to cultivate a comprehensive taste in the fine arts, and to ingraft the love of virtue on the sense of beauty. Of the poems criticised, some are well known to most of our readers. The earlier pieces of Schiller are generally read in translations of various merit, though, except the Robbers, they are not by the present taste of Germany placed in the first class of his works. The versions of Leonora, of Oberon, of Wallenstein, of Nathan, and of Iphigenia in Tauris, are among those which do the most honour to English literature. Goetz of Berlichingen has been vigorously rendered by a writer, whose chivalrous genius, exerted upon somewhat similar scenes of British history, has since rendered him the most popular poet of his age.
An epic poem, or a poetical romance, has lately been discovered in Germany, entitled ‘Niebelungen,’ on the Destruction of the Burgundians by Attila; and it is believed, that at least some parts of it were composed not long after the event, though the whole did not assume its present shape till the completion of the vernacular languages about the beginning of the thirteenth century. Lu ther’s version of the Scriptures was an epoch in German literature. One of the innumerable blessings of the Reformation was to make reading popular by such translations, and to accustom the people to weekly attempts at some sort of argument or declamation in their native tongue. The vigorous mind of the great Reformer gave to his tianslation an energy and conciseness, which made it a model in style, as well as an authority in language. Hagedorn, Weiss, and Gellert, copied the French without vivacity; and Bodmer imitated the English without genius.
At length Klopstock, an imitator of Milton, formed a German poetry, and Wieland improved the language and versification, though this last accomplished writer has somewhat suffered in his reputation, by the recent zeal of the Germans against the imitation of any foreign, but especially of the French school. “The genius of Klopstock was inflamed by the perusal of Milton and Young.” This combination of names is astonishing to an English ear. It creates a presumption against the poetical sensibility of Klopstock, to find that he combined two poets, placed at an immeasurable distance from each other; and whose whole superficial resemblance arises from some part of Milton’s subject, and from the doctrines of their theology, rather than the spirit of their religion. Through all the works of Young, written with such a variety of temper and manner, there predominates one talent,—inexhaustible wit, with little soundness of reason or depth of sensibility. His melancholy is artificial, and his combinations are as grotesque and fantastic in his Night Thoughts as in his Satires. How exactly does a poet characterise his own talent, who opens a series of poetical meditations on death and immortality, by a satirical epigram against the selfishness of the world? Wit and ingenuity are the only talents which Milton disdained. He is simple in his conceptions, even when his diction is overloaded with gorgeous learning. He is never gloomy but when he is grand. He is the painter of love, as well as of terror. He did not aim at mirth; but he is cheerful whenever he descends from higher feelings: and nothing tends more to inspire a calm and constant delight, than the contemplation of that ideal purity and grandeur which he, above all poets, had the faculty of bestowing on every form of moral nature. Klopstock’s ode on the rivalship of the muse of Germany with the muse of Albion, is elegantly translated by Mad de Stael; and we applaud her taste for preferring prose to verse in French translations of German poems.
After having spoken of Winkelmann and Lessing, the most perspicuous, concise, and lively of German prose-writers, she proceeds to Schiller and Goethe, the greatest of German poets. Schiller presents only the genius of a great poet, and the character of a virtuous man. The original, singular, and rather admirable than amiable mind of Goethe,—his dictatorial power over national literature,—his inequality, caprice, originality, and fire in conversation,—his union of a youthful imagination with exhausted sensibility, and the impartiality of a stern sagacity, neither influenced by opinions nor predilections, are painted with extraordinary skill.
Among the tragedies of Schiller which have appeared since we have ceased to translate German dramas, the most celebrated are, Mary Stuart, Joan of Arc, and William Tell. Such subjects as Mary Stuart generally excite an expectation which cannot be gratified. We agree with Madame de Stael in admiring many scenes of Schiller’s Mary, and especially her noble farewell to Leicester. But the tragedy would probably displease English readers, to say nothing of spectators. Our political disputes have given a more inflexible reality to the events of Elizabeth’s reign, than history would otherwise have bestowed on facts equally modern. Neither of our parties could endure a Mary who confesses the murder of her husband, or an Elizabeth who instigates the assassination of her prisoner. In William Tell, Schiller has avoided the commonplaces of a republican conspiracy, and faithfully represented the indignation of an oppressed Helvetian Highlander.
Egmont is considered by Mad de Stael as the finest of Goethe’s tragedies, written, like Werther, in the enthusiasm of his youth. It is rather singular that poets have availed themselves so little of the chivalrous character, the illustrious love, and the awful malady of Tasso. The Torquato Tasso of Goethe is the only attempt to convert this subject to the purposes of the drama. Two men of genius, of very modern times, have suffered in a somewhat similar manner: but the habits of Rousseau’s life were vulgar, and the sufferings of Cowper are both recent and sacred. The scenes translated from Faust well represent the terrible energy of that most odious of the works of genius, in which the whole power of imagination is employed to dispel the charms which poetry bestows on human life,—where the punishment of vice proceeds from cruelty without justice, and “where the remorse seems as infernal as the guilt.”
Since the death of Schiller, and the desertion of the drama by Goethe, several tragic writers have appeared, the most celebrated of whom are Werner, the author of Luther and of Attila, Gerstenberg, Klinger, Tieck, Collin, and Oehlenschlager, a Dane, who has introduced into his poetry the terrible mythology of Scandinavia.
The result of the chapter on Comedy seems to be, that the comic genius has not yet arisen in Germany German novels have been more translated into English than other works of literature; and a novel by Tieck, entitled ‘Sternbald,’ seems to deserve translation. Jean Paul Richter, a popular novelist, but too national to bear translation, said, “that the French had the empire of the land, the English that of the sea, and the Germans that of the air.”
Though Schiller wrote the History of the Belgic Revolt, and of the Thirty Years’ War, with eloquence and the spirit of liberty, the only classical writer in this department is J. de Muller, the historian of Switzerland. Though born in a speculative age, he has chosen the picturesque and dramatic manner of ancient historians; and his minute erudition in the annals of the Middle Ages supplies his imagination with the particulars which characterise persons and actions. He abuses his extent of knowledge and power of detail; he sometimes affects the sententiousness of Tacitus; and his pursuit of antique phraseology occasionally degenerates into affectation. But his diction is in general grave and severe; and in his posthumous Abridgment of Universal History, he has shown great talents for that difficult sort of composition,—the power of comprehensive outline, of compression without obscurity, of painting characters by few and grand strokes, and of disposing events so skilfully, that their causes and effects are seen without being pointed out. Like Sallust, another affecter of archaism, and declaimer against his age, his private and political life is said to have been repugnant to his historical morality. “The reader of Muller is desirous of believing that of all the virtues which he strongly felt in the composition of his works, there were at least some which he permanently possessed.”
The estimate of literary Germany would not be complete, without the observation that it possesses a greater number of laborious scholars, and of useful books, than any other country. The possession of other languages may open more literary enjoyment: the German is assuredly the key to most knowledge. The works of Fulleborn, Buhle, Tiedemann, and Tennemann, are the first attempts to form a philosophical history of philosophy, of which the learned compiler Brucker had no more conception than a monkish annalist of rivalling Hume. The philosophy of literary history is one of the most recently opened fields of speculation. A few beautiful fragments of it are among the happiest parts of Hume’s Essays. The great work of Madame de Stael On Literature, was the first attempt on a bold and extensive scale. In the neighbourhood of her late residence,* and perhaps not uninfluenced by her spirit, two writers of great merit, though of dissimilar character, have very recently treated various parts of this wide subject; M. de Sismondi, in his History of the Literature of the South, and M. de Barante, in his Picture of French Literature during the Eighteenth Century. Sismondi, guided by Bouterweck and Schlegel, hazards larger views, indulges his talent for speculation, and seems with difficulty to suppress that bolder spirit, and those more liberal principles, which breathe in his History of the Italian Republics. Barante, more thoroughly imbued with the elegancies and the prejudices of his national literature, feels more delicately the peculiarities of great writers, and traces with a more refined sagacity the immediate effects of their writings. But his work, under a very ingenious disguise of literary criticism, is an attack on the opinions of the eighteenth century; and it will assuredly never be honoured by the displeasure either of Napoleon, or of any of his successors in absolute power.
One of our authoress’ chapters is chiefly employed on the works and system of William and Frederic Schlegel;—of whom William is celebrated for his Lectures on Dramatic Poetry, for his admirable translation of Shakespeare, and for versions, said to be of equal excellence, of the Spanish dramatic poets; and Frederic, besides his other merits, has the very singular distinction of having acquired the Sanscrit language, and studied the Indian learning and science in Europe, chiefly by the aid of a British Orientalist, long detained as a prisoner at Paris. The general tendency of the literary system of these critics, is towards the manners, poetry, and religion of the Middle Ages. They have reached the extreme point towards which the general sentiment of Europe has been impelled by the calamities of a philosophical revolution, and the various fortunes of a twenty years’ universal war. They are peculiarly adverse to French literature, which, since the age of Louis XIV., has, in their opinion, weakened the primitive principles common to all Christendom, as well as divested the poetry of each people of its originality and character. Their system is exaggerated and exclusive: in pursuit of national originality, they lose sight of the primary and universal beauties of art. The imitation of our own antiquities may be as artificial as the copy of a foreign literature. Nothing is less natural than a modern antique. In a comprehensive system of literature, there is sufficient place for the irregular works of sublime genius, and for the faultless models of classical taste. From age to age, the multitude fluctuates between various and sometimes opposite fashions of literary activity. These are not all of equal value; but the philosophical critic discovers and admires the common principles of beauty, from which they all derive their power over human nature.
The Third Part of this work is the most singular. An account of metaphysical systems by a woman, is a novelty in the history of the human mind; and whatever may be thought of its success in some of its parts, it must be regarded on the whole as the boldest effort of the female intellect. It must, however, not be forgotten, that it is a contribution rather to the history of human nature, than to that of speculation; and that it considers the source, spirit, and moral influence of metaphysical opinions, more than their truth or falsehood. “Metaphysics are at least the gymnastics of the understanding.” The common-place clamour of mediocrity will naturally be excited by the sex, and even by the genius of the author. Every example of vivacity and grace, every exertion of fancy, every display of eloquence, every effusion of sensibility, will be cited as a presumption against the depth of her researches, and the accuracy of her statements. On such principles, the evidence against her would doubtless be conclusive. But dulness is not accuracy; nor are ingenious and elegant writers therefore superficial: and those who are best acquainted with the philosophical revolutions of Germany, will be most astonished at the general correctness of this short, clear, and agreeable exposition.
The character of Lord Bacon is a just and noble tribute to his genius. Several eminent writers of the Continent have, however, lately fallen into the mistake of ascribing to him a system of opinions respecting the origin and first principles of human knowledge. What distinguishes him among great philosophers is, that he taught no peculiar opinions, but wholly devoted himself to the improvement of the method of philosophising. He belongs neither to the English nor any other school of metaphysics; for he was not a metaphysician. Mr. Locke was not a moralist; and his collateral discussions of ethical subjects are not among the valuable parts of his great work. “The works of Dugald Stewart contain so perfect a theory of the intellectual faculties, that it may be considered as the natural history of a moral being.” The French metaphysicians of the eighteenth century, since Condillac, deserve the contempt expressed for them, by their shallow, precipitate, and degrading misapplications of the Lockian philosophy. It is impossible to abridge the abridgment here given of the Kantian philosophy, or of those systems which have arisen from it, and which continue to dispute the supremacy of the speculative world. The opinions of Kant are more fully stated, because he has changed the general manner of thinking, and has given a new direction to the national mind. Those of Fichte, Schelling, and his other successors, it is of less importance to the proper purpose of this work to detail; because, though their doctrines be new, they continue and produce the same effect on national character, and the same influence on sciences and arts. The manner of philosophising remains the same in the Idealism of Fichte, and in the Pantheism of Schelling. Under various names and forms, it is the general tendency of the German philosophy to consider thought not as the produce of objects, or as one of the classes of phenomena, but as the agent which exhibits the appearance of the outward world, and which regulates those operations which it seems only to represent. The philosophy of the human understanding is, in all countries, acknowledged to contain the principles of all sciences; but in Germany, metaphysical speculation pervades their application to particulars.
The subject of the Fourth Part is the state of religion, and the nature of all those disinterested and exalted sentiments which are here comprehended under the name of ‘enthusiasm.’ A contemplative people like the Germans have in their character the principle which disposes men to religion. The Reformation, which was their Revolution, arose from ideas. “Of all the great men whom Germany has produced, Luther has the most German character. His firmness had something rude; his conviction made him opinionated; intellectual boldness was the source of his courage; in action, the ardour of his passions did not divert him from abstract studies; and though he attacked certain dogmas and practices, he was not urged to the attack by incredulity, but by enthusiasm.”
“The right of examining what we ought to believe, is the foundation of Protestanism.” Though each of the first Reformers established a practical Popery in his own church, opinions were gradually liberalised, and the temper of sects was softened. Little open incredulity had appeared in Germany; and even Lessing speculated with far more circumspection than had been observed by a series of English writers from Hobbes to Bolingbroke. Secret unbelievers were friendly to Christianity and Protestantism, as institutions beneficial to mankind, and far removed from that anti-religious fanaticism which was more naturally provoked in France by the intolerant spirit and invidious splendour of a Catholic hierarchy.
The reaction of the French Revolution has been felt throughout Europe, in religion as well as in politics. Many of the higher classes adopted some portion of those religious sentiments of which they at first assumed the exterior, as a badge of their hostility to the fashions of France. The sensibility of the multitude, impatient of cold dogmatism and morality, eagerly sought to be once more roused by a religion which employed popular eloquence, and spoke to imagination and emotion. The gloom of general convulsions and calamities created a disposition to seriousness, and to the consolations of piety; and the disasters of a revolution allied to incredulity, threw a more than usual discredit and odium on irreligious opinions. In Great Britain, these causes have acted most conspicuously on the inferior classes; though they have also powerfully affected many enlightened and accomplished individuals of a higher condition. In France, they have produced in some men of letters the play of a sort of poetical religion round the fancy: but the general effect seems to have been a disposition to establish a double doctrine,—a system of infidelity for the initiated, with a contemptuous indulgence and even active encouragement of superstition among the vulgar, like that which prevailed among the ancients before the rise of Christianity. This sentiment (from the revival of which the Lutheran Reformation seems to have preserved Europe), though not so furious and frantic as the atheistical fanaticism of the Reign of Terror, is, beyond any permanent condition of human society, destructive of ingenuousness, good faith, and probity,—of intellectual courage, and manly character,—and of that respect for all human beings, without which there can be no justice or humanity from the powerful towards the humble.
In Germany the effects have been also very remarkable. Some men of eminence in literature have become Catholics. In general, their tendency is towards a pious mysticism, which almost equally loves every sect where a devotional spirit prevails. They have returned rather to sentiment than to dogma,—more to religion than to theology. Their disposition to religious feeling, which they call ‘religiosity,’ is, to use the words of a strictly orthodox English theologian, “a love of divine things for the beauty of their moral qualities.” It is the love of the good and fair, wherever it exists, but chiefly when absolute and boundless excellence is contemplated in “the first good, first perfect, first fair.” This moral enthusiasm easily adapts itself to the various ceremonies of worship, and even systems of opinion prevalent among mankind. The devotional spirit, contemplating different parts of the order of nature, or influenced by a different temper of mind, may give rise to very different and apparently repugnant theological doctrines. These doctrines are considered as modifications of human nature, under the influence of the religious principle,—not as propositions which argument can either establish or confute, or reconcile with each other. The Ideal philosophy favours this singular manner of considering the subject. As it leaves no reality but in the mind, it lessens the distance between belief and imagination; and disposes its adherents to regard opinions as the mere play of the understanding,—incapable of being measured by any outward standard, and important chiefly from reference to the sentiment, from which they spring, and on which they powerfully react. The union of a mystical piety, with a philosophy verging towards idealism, has accordingly been observed in periods of the history of the human understanding, very distant from each other, and, in most of their other circumstances, extremely dissimilar. The same language, respecting the annihilation of self, and of the world, may be used by the sceptic and by the enthusiast. Among the Hindu philosophers in the most ancient times,—among the Sufis in modern Persia,—during the ferment of Eastern and Western opinions, which produced the latter Platonism,—in Malebranche and his English disciple Norris,—and in Berkeley himself, though in a tempered and mitigated state,—the tendency to this union may be distinctly traced. It seems, however, to be fitted only for few men; and for them not long. Sentiments so sublime, and so distant from the vulgar affairs and boisterous passions of men, may be preserved for a time, in the calm solitude of a contemplative visionary; but in the bustle of the world they are likely soon to evaporate, when they are neither embodied in opinions, nor adorned by ceremonies, nor animated by the attack and defence of controversy. When the ardour of a short-lived enthusiasm has subsided, the poetical philosophy which exalted fancy to the level of belief, may probably leave the same ultimate result with the argumentative scepticism which lowered belief to the level of fancy.
An ardent susceptibility of every disinterested sentiment,—more especially of every social affection,—blended by the power of imagination with a passionate love of the beautiful, the grand, and the good, is, under the name of ‘enthusiasm,’ the subject of the conclusion,—the most eloquent part (if we perhaps except the incomparable chapter on ‘Conjugal Love,) of a work which, for variety of knowledge, flexibility of power, elevation of view, and comprehension of mind, is unequal among the works of women; and which, in the union of the graces of society and literature with the genius of philosophy, is not surpassed by many among those of men. To affect any tenderness in pointing out its defects or faults, would be an absurd assumption of superiority: it has no need of mercy. The most obvious and general objection will be, that the Germans are too much praised. But every writer must be allowed to value his subject somewhat higher than the spectator: unless the German feelings had been adopted, they could not have been forcibly represented. It will also be found, that the objection is more apparent than real. Mad. de Staël is indeed the most generous of critics; but she almost always speaks the whole truth to intelligent ears; though she often hints the unfavourable parts of it so gently and politely, that they may escape the notice of a hasty reader, and be scarcely perceived by a gross understanding. A careful reader, who brings together all the observations intentionally scattered over various parts of the book, will find sufficient justice (though administered in mercy) in whatever respects manners or literature. It is on subjects of philosophy that the admiration will perhaps justly be considered as more undistinguishing. Something of the wonder excited by novelty in language and opinion still influences her mind. Many writers have acquired philosophical celebrity in Germany, who, if they had written with equal power, would have been unnoticed or soon forgotten in England. Our theosophists, the Hutchinsonians, had as many men of talent among them, as those whom M. de Staël has honoured by her mention among the Germans: but they have long since irrecoverably sunk into oblivion. There is a writer now alive in England,* who has published doctrines not dissimilar to those which Mad. de Staël ascribes to Schelling. Not withstanding the allurements of a singular character, and an unintelligible style, his paradoxes are probably not known to a dozen persons in this busy country of industry and ambition. In a bigoted age, he might have suffered the martyrdom of Vanini or Bruno: in a metaphysical country, where a new publication was the most interesting event, and where twenty universities, unfettered by Church or State, were hotbeds of speculation, he might have acquired celebrity as the founder of a sect.
In this as in the other writings of Mad. de Staël, the reader (or at least the lazy English reader) is apt to be wearied by too constant a demand upon his admiration. It seems to be part of her literary system, that the pauses of eloquence must be filled up by ingenuity. Nothing plain and unornamented is left in composition. But we desire a plain groundwork, from which wit or eloquence is to arise, when the occasion calls them forth, The effect would be often greater if the talent were less. The natural power of interesting scenes or events over the heart, is somewhat disturbed by too uniform a colour of sentiment, and by the constant pursuit of uncommon reflections or ingenious turns. The eye is dazzled by unvaried brilliancy. We long for the grateful vicissitude of repose.
In the statement of facts and reasonings, no style is more clear than that of Mad. de Staël;—what is so lively must indeed be clear: but in the expression of sentiment she has been often thought to use vague language. In expressing either intense degrees, or delicate shades, or intricate combinations of feeling, the common reader will seldom understand that of which he has never been conscious; and the writer placed on the extreme frontiers of human nature, is in danger of mistaking chimeras for realities, or of failing in a struggle to express what language does not afford the means of describing. There is also a vagueness incident to the language of feeling, which is not so properly a defect, as a quality which distinguishes it from the language of thought. Very often in poetry, and sometimes in eloquence, it is the office of words, not so much to denote a succession of separate ideas, as, like musical sounds, to inspire a series of emotions, or to produce a durable tone of sentiment. The terms ‘perspicuity’ and ‘precision,’ which denote the relations of language to intellectual discernment, are inapplicable to it when employed as the mere vehicle of a succession of feelings. A series of words may, in this manner, be very expressive, where few of them singly convey a precise meaning: and men of greater intellect than susceptibility, in such passages as those of Mad. de Staël,—where eloquence is employed chiefly to inspire feeling,—unjustly charge their own defects to that deep, moral, and poetical sensibility with which they are unable to sympathise.
The few persons in Great Britain who continue to take an interest in speculative philosophy, will certainly complain of some injustice in her estimate of German metaphysical systems. The moral painter of nations is indeed more authorised than the speculative philosopher to try these opinions by their tendencies and results. When the logical consequences of an opinion are false, the opinion itself must also be false: but whether the supposed pernicious influence of the adoption, or habitual contemplation of an opinion, be a legitimate objection to the opinion itself, is a question which has not yet been decided to the general satisfaction, nor perhaps even stated with sufficient precision.
There are certain facts in human nature, derived either from immediate consciousness or unvarying observation, which are more certain than the conclusions of any abstract reasoning, and which metaphysical theories are destined only to explain. That a theory is at variance with such facts, and logically leads to the denial of their existence, is a strictly philosophical objection to the theory:—that there is a real distinction between right and wrong, in some measure apprehended and felt by all men,—that moral sentiments and disinterested affections, however originating, are actually a part of our nature,—that praise and blame, reward and punishment, may be properly bestowed on actions according to their moral character,—are principles as much more indubitable as they are more important than any theoretical conclusions. Whether they be demonstrated by reason, or perceived by intuition, or revealed by a primitive sentiment, they are equally indispensable parts of every sound mind. But the mere inconvenience or danger of an opinion can never be allowed as an argument against its truth. It is indeed the duty of every good man to present to the public what he believes to be truth, in such a manner as may least wound the feelings, or disturb the principles of the simple and the ignorant: and that duty is not always easily reconcilable with the duties of sincerity and free inquiry. The collision of such conflicting duties is the painful and inevitable consequence of the ignorance of the multitude, and of the immature state, even in the highest minds, of the great talent for presenting truth under all its aspects, and adapting it to all the degrees of capacity or varieties of prejudice which distinguish men. That talent must one day be formed; and we may be perfectly assured that the whole of truth can never be injurious to the whole of virtue. In the mean time philosophers would act more magnanimously, and therefore, perhaps, more wisely, if they were to suspend, during discussion,* their moral anger against doctrines which they deem pernicious; and, while they estimate actions, habits, and institutions, by their tendency, to weigh opinions in the mere balance of reason. Virtue in action may require the impulse of sentiment, and even of enthusiasm: but in theoretical researches, her champions must not appear to decline the combat on any ground chosen by their adversaries, and least of all on that of intellect. To call in the aid of popular feelings in philosophical contests, is some avowal of weakness. It seems a more magnanimous wisdom to defy attack from every quarter, and by every weapon; and to use no topics which can be thought to imply an unworthy doubt whether the principles of virtue be impregnable by argument, or to betray an irreverent distrust of the final and perfect harmony between morality and truth.
[* ] From the Edinburgh Review, vol. xxii. p. 168.—Ed.
[* ] Written in 1813.—Ed.
[* ] Absalom and Achitophel.—Ed.
[† ] Part ii., chap. 1, 2.
[* ] Part i. chap. 4.
[* ] Coppet, near Geneva.
[* ] Probably Mr. William Taylor, of Norwich.—Ed.
[* ] The observation may be applied to Cicero and Stewart, as well as to Mad. de. Staël.