CHAPTER XVII. THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: GERMANY
Poets of the Eighteenth Century: Klopstock, Lessing, Wieland; Prose Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Herder, Kant. Poets of the Nineteenth Century: Goethe, Schiller, Koerner.
THE AGE OF FREDERICK THE GREAT.—In the literature of Germany the eighteenth century, sometimes designated under the title of the age of Frederick the Great, forms a Renaissance or, if preferred, an awakening after a fairly prolonged slumber. This awakening was assisted by a quarrel, sufficiently unimportant in itself, but which proved fertile, between Gottsched, the German Boileau, and Bodmer, the energetic vindicator of the rights of the imagination. In the train of Bodmer came Haller, like him a Swiss; then suddenly Klopstock appeared. The Messiah of Klopstock is an epic poem; it is the history of Jesus Christ from Cana to the Resurrection, with a crowd of episodes dexterously attached to the action. The profound religious sentiment, the grandeur of the setting, the beauty of the scenes, the purity and nobility of the sermon, the Biblical colour so skilfully spread over the whole composition, cause this vast poem, which was perhaps unduly praised on its first appearance, to be one of the finest products of the human mind, even when all reservations are made. German literature revived. As for Gottsched, he was vanquished.
THE POETS.—Then came Lavater, Buerger, Lessing, Wieland. Lavater, a Swiss like Haller, is remembered for his scientific labours, but was also a meritorious poet, and his naive and moving Swiss Hymnshave remained national songs; Buerger was a great poet, lyrical, impassioned, personal, original, vibrating; Wieland, the Voltaire of Germany, although he began by being the friend of Klopstock, witty, facile, light, and graceful, whose Oberon and Agathon preserve the gift of growing old felicitously, is one of the most delightful minds that Germany produced. Napoleon did him the honour of desiring to converse with him as with Goethe.
LESSING.—Lessing, personally, was a great author, and owing to the influence he exercised over his fellow-countrymen, he holds one of the noblest positions in the history of German literature. He was a critic, and in his Dramaturgie of Hamburg and elsewhere, with all his strength, and often unjustly, he combated French literature to arrest the ascendency which, according to his indolent opinion, it exercised over the Germans; and in his Laocooen, with admirable lucidity, he made a kind of classification of the arts. As author, properly speaking, he wrote Fables which to our taste are dry and cold; he made several dramatic efforts none of which were masterpieces, the best being Minna von Barnhelm and Emilia Galotti, and a philosophical poem in dialogue (for it could hardly be termed drama), Nathan the Sage, which possessed great moral and literary beauties.
HERDER.—Herder was the Vico of Germany. Here was the historical philosopher, or rather the thoughtful philosopher on history. He did everything: literary criticism, works of erudition, translations, even personal poems, but his great work was Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. This was the theory of progress in all its breadth and majesty, supported by arguments that are at least spacious and imposing. From Michelet to Quinet, on to Renan, every French author who has at all regarded the unity of the destinies of the human race has drawn inspiration from him. His broad, measured, and highly coloured style is on the level of the subject and conforms to it. Even in an exclusively literary history Kant must not be forgotten, because when he set himself to compose a moral dissertation, as, for example, the one upon lying, he took high rank as a writer.
THE GLORIOUS EPOCH.—Thus is reached the end of the eighteenth close on the beginning of the nineteenth century. In this intermediary epoch shone the most glorious hour of Teutonic literature. Simultaneously Iffland, Kotzebue, Koerner, Schiller, and Goethe were to the fore. This formed a great constellation. Iffland, actor, manager, and author, friend and protector of Schiller, wrote numerous dramas, the principal of which were The Criminal through Ambition, The Pupil, The Hunters, The Lawyers, The Friends of the House. He was realistic without being gloomy. He resembled the French Sedaine. Kotzebue, who was the friend of Catherine of Russia, subsequently disgraced by her, possessed a highly irritable and quarrelsome disposition, and was finally killed in 1819 as a reactionary by a Liberal student, did not fall far short of genius. He wrote a number of dramas and comedies. Those still read with pleasure are Misanthropy and Repentance, Hugo Grotius, The Calumniator, and The Small German Town, which has remained a classic.
KOeRNER.—Koerner, the “Tyrtaeus of Germany,” was simultaneously a brave soldier and a great lyrical poet who was killed on the battlefield of Gadebusch, wrote lyrical poems, dramas, comedies, farces, and, above all, The Lyre and Sword, war-songs imbued with splendid spirit.
SCHILLER.—Schiller is a vast genius, historian, lyrical poet, dramatic poet, critic, and in all these different fields he showed himself to be profoundly original. He wrote The Thirty Years' War ; odes, ballads, dithyrambic poems, such as The Clock, so universally celebrated; dissertations of philosophic criticism, such as The God of Greece and The Artists; finally, a whole repertory of drama (the only point on which it is possible to show that he surpasses Goethe), in which may be remarked his first audacious and anarchical work, The Brigands, then the Conjuration of Fieso, Intrigue and Love, Don Carlos,Wallenstein (a trilogy composed of The Camp of Wallenstein, The Piccolomini, The Death of Wallenstein), Mary Stuart, The Betrothed of Messina, The Maid of Orleans, William Tell. By his example primarily, and by his instruction subsequently (Twelve Letters on Don Carlos, Letters on Aesthetic Education, The Sublime, etc.), he exercised over literature and over German thought an influence at least equal, and I believe superior, to that of Goethe. He was united to Goethe by the ties of a profound and undeviating friendship. He died whilst still young, in 1805, twenty-seven years before his illustrious friend.
GOETHE.—Goethe, whom posterity can only put in the same rank as Homer, is even more universal genius, and has approached yet closer to absolute beauty. Of Franco-German education, he subsequently studied at Strasburg, commencing, whilst still almost a student, with the imperishable Werther, to which it may be said that a whole literature is devoted and, parenthetically, a literature diametrically opposed to what Goethe subsequently became. Then a journey through Italy, which revealed Goethe to himself, made him a man who never ceased to desire to combine classic beauty and Teutonic ways of thinking, and who was often magnificently successful. To put it in another way, Goethe in his own land is a Renaissance in himself, and the Renaissance which Germany had not known in either the sixteenth or seventeenth century came as the gift of Goethe. Immediately after his return from Italy he wrote Tasso (of classic inspiration), Wilhelm Meister (of Teutonic inspiration), Iphigenia (classical), Egmont (Teutonic), etc. Then came Hermann and Dorothea, which was absolutely classic in the simplicity of its plan and purity of lyric verse, but essentially modern in its picture of German customs; The Roman Elegies, The Elective Affinities, Poetry and Truth (autobiography mingled with romance), The Western Eastern Divan, lyrical poems, and finally, the two parts of Faust. In the first part of Faust, Goethe was, and desired to be, entirely German; in the second, through many reveries more or less relative to the theme, he more particularly desires to depict the union of the German spirit with that of classical genius, which formed his own life, and led to intelligent action, which also was a portion of his existence. And for beauty, drama, pathos, ease, phantasy, and fertility in varied invention, nothing has ever surpassed if anything has even equalled the two parts of Faust regarded as a single poem.
Apart from his literary labours, Goethe occupied himself with the administration of the little duchy of Weimar, and in scientific research, notably on plants, animals, and the lines in which he displayed marked originality. He died in 1832, having been born in 1749. His literary career extends over, approximately, sixty years, equal to that of Victor Hugo, and almost equal to that of Voltaire.
THE CONTEMPORANEOUS PERIOD.—After the death of Goethe, Germany could not maintain the same height. Once more was she glorified in poetry by Henry Heine, an extremely original witty traveller, in his Pictures of Travel, elegiac and deeply lyrical, affecting and delightful at the same time in The Intermezzo; by the Austrian school, Zedlitz, Gruen, and the melancholy and deep-thinking Lenau; in prose, above all, by the philosophers, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Hartmann, and lastly Nietzsche—at once philosopher, moralist (after his own manner), and poet, with an astonishing imagination; by the historians Niebuhr (before 1830), Treitschke, Mommsen, etc. Germany seems to have drooped, so far as literature is concerned, despite some happy exceptions (especially in the drama: Hauptmann, Sudermann), since her military triumphs of 1870 and the consequent industrial activity.