Goethe by Thomas Carlyle

Of a nature so rare and complex as Goethe’s it is difficult to form a true comprehension; difficult even to express what comprehension one has formed. In Goethe’s mind, the first aspect that strikes us is its calmness, then its beauty; a deeper inspection reveals to us its vastness and unmeasured strength. This man rules, and is not ruled. The stern and fiery energies of a most passionate soul lie silent in the centre of his being; a trembling sensibility has been inured to stand, without flinching or murmur, the sharpest trials. Nothing outward, nothing inward, shall agitate or control him. The brightest and most capricious fancy, the most piercing and inquisitive intellect, the wildest and deepest imagination; the highest thrills of joy, the bitterest pangs of sorrow: all these are his, he is not theirs. While he moves every heart from its steadfastness, his own is firm and still: the words that search into the inmost recesses of our nature, he pronounces with a tone of coldness and equanimity; in the deepest pathos he weeps not, or his tears are like water trickling from a rock of adamant. He is king of himself and of his world; nor does he rule it like a vulgar great man, like a Napoleon or Charles Twelfth, by the mere brute exertion of his will, grounded on no principle, or on a false one: his faculties and feelings are not fettered or prostrated under the iron sway of Passion, but led and guided in kindly union under the mild sway of Reason; as the fierce primeval elements of Nature were stilled at the coming of Light, and bound together, under its soft vesture, into a glorious and beneficent Creation.

This is the true Rest of man; no stunted unbelieving callousness, no reckless surrender to blind Force, no opiate delusion; but the harmonious adjustment of Necessity and Accident, of what is changeable and what is unchangeable in our destiny; the calm supremacy of the spirit over its circumstances; the dim aim of every human soul, the full attainment of only a chosen few. It comes not unsought to any; but the wise are wise because they think no price too high for it. Goethe’s inward home has been reared by slow and laborious efforts; but it stands on no hollow or deceitful basis: for his peace is not from blindness, but from clear vision; not from uncertain hope of alteration, but from sure insight into what cannot alter. His world seems once to have been desolate and baleful as that of the darkest sceptic: but he has covered it anew with beauty and solemnity, derived from deeper sources, over which Doubt can have no sway. He has inquired fearlessly, and fearlessly searched out and denied the False; but he has not forgotten, what is equally essential and infinitely harder, to search out and admit the True. His heart is still full of warmth, though his head is clear and cold; the world for him is still full of grandeur, though he clothes it with no false colours; his fellow-creatures are still objects of reverence and love, though their basenesses are plainer to no eye than to his. To reconcile these contradictions is the task of all good men, each for himself, in his own way and manner; a task which, in our age, is encompassed with difficulties peculiar to the time; and which Goethe seems to have accomplished with a success that few can rival. A mind so in unity with itself, even though it were a poor and small one, would arrest our attention, and win some kind regard from us; but when this mind ranks among the strongest and most complicated of the species, it becomes a sight full of interest, a study full of deep instruction.

Such a mind as Goethe’s is the fruit not only of a royal endowment by nature, but also of a culture proportionate to her bounty. In Goethe’s original form of spirit we discern the highest gifts of manhood, without any deficiency of the lower: he has an eye and a heart equally for the sublime, the common, and the ridiculous; the elements at once of a poet, a thinker, and a wit. Of his culture we have often spoken already; and it deserves again to be held up to praise and imitation. This, as he himself unostentatiously confesses, has been the soul of all his conduct, the great enterprise of his life; and few that understand him will be apt to deny that he has prospered. As a writer, his resources have been accumulated from nearly all the provinces of human intellect and activity; and he has trained himself to use these complicated instruments with a light expertness which we might have admired in the professor of a solitary department. Freedom, and grace, and smiling earnestness are the characteristics of his works: the matter of them flows along in chaste abundance, in the softest combination; and their style is referred to by native critics as the highest specimen of the German tongue. On this latter point the vote of a stranger may well be deemed unavailing; but the charms of Goethe’s style lie deeper than the mere words; for language, in the hands of a master, is the express image of thought, or rather it is the body of which thought is the soul; the former rises into being together with the latter, and the graces of the one are shadowed forth in the movements of the other. Goethe’s language, even to a foreigner, is full of character and secondary meanings; polished, yet vernacular and cordial, it sounds like the dialect of wise, ancient, and true-hearted men: in poetry, brief, sharp, simple, and expressive; in prose, perhaps still more pleasing; for it is at once concise and full, rich, clear, unpretending and melodious; and the sense, not presented in alternating flashes, piece after piece revealed and withdrawn, rises before us as in continuous dawning, and stands at last simultaneously complete, and bathed in the mellowest and ruddiest sunshine. It brings to mind what the prose of Hooker, Bacon, Milton, Browne, would have been, had they written under the good, without the bad influences, of that French precision, which has polished and attenuated, trimmed and impoverished, all modern languages; made our meaning clear, and too often shallow as well as clear.

But Goethe’s culture as a writer is perhaps less remarkable than his culture as a man. He has learned not in head only, but also in heart: not from Art and Literature, but also by action and passion, in the rugged school of Experience. If asked what was the grand characteristic of his writings, we should not say knowledge, but wisdom. A mind that has seen, and suffered, and done, speaks to us of what it has tried and conquered. A gay delineation will give us notice of dark and toilsome experiences, of business done in the great deep of the spirit; a maxim, trivial to the careless eye, will rise with light and solution over long perplexed periods of our own history. It is thus that heart speaks to heart, that the life of one man becomes a possession to all. Here is a mind of the most subtle and tumultuous elements; but it is governed in peaceful diligence, and its impetuous and ethereal faculties work softly together for good and noble ends. Goethe may be called a Philosopher; for he loves and has practised as a man the wisdom which, as a poet, he inculcates. Composure and cheerful seriousness seem to breathe over all his character. There is no whining over human woes: it is understood that we must simply all strive to alleviate or remove them. There is no noisy battling for opinions; but a persevering effort to make Truth lovely, and recommend her, by a thousand avenues, to the hearts of all men. Of his personal manners we can easily believe the universal report, as often given in the way of censure as of praise, that he is a man of consummate breeding and the stateliest presence: for an air of polished tolerance, of courtly, we might almost say majestic repose, and serene humanity, is visible throughout his works. In no line of them does he speak with asperity of any man; scarcely ever even of a thing. He knows the good, and loves it; he knows the bad and hateful, and rejects it; but in neither case with violence: his love is calm and active; his rejection is implied, rather than pronounced; meek and gentle, though we see that it is thorough, and never to be revoked. The noblest and the basest he not only seems to comprehend, but to personate and body forth in their most secret lineaments: hence actions and opinions appear to him as they are, with all the circumstances which extenuate or endear them to the hearts where they originated and are entertained. This also is the spirit of our Shakespeare, and perhaps of every great dramatic poet. Shakespeare is no sectarian; to all he deals with equity and mercy; because he knows all, and his heart is wide enough for all. In his mind the world is a whole; he figures it as Providence governs it; and to him it is not strange that the sun should be caused to shine on the evil and the good, and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

Goethe has been called the German Voltaire; but it is a name which does him wrong, and describes him ill. Except in the corresponding variety of their pursuits and knowledge, in which, perhaps, it does Voltaire wrong, the two cannot be compared. Goethe is all, or the best of all, that Voltaire was, and he is much that Voltaire did not dream of. To say nothing of his dignified and truthful character as a man, he belongs, as a thinker and a writer, to a far higher class than this enfant gate du monde qu’il gata. He is not a questioner and a despiser, but a teacher and a reverencer; not a destroyer, but a builder-up; not a wit only, but a wise man. Of him Montesquieu could not have said, with even epigrammatic truth: Il a plus que personne l’esprit que tout le monde a. Voltaire was the cleverest of all past and present men; but a great man is something more, and this he surely was not.

As poets, the two live not in the same hemisphere, not in the same world. Of Voltaire’s poetry, it were blindness to deny the polished intellectual vigour, the logical symmetry, the flashes that from time to time give it the colour, if not the warmth, of fire: but it is in a far other sense than this that Goethe is a poet; in a sense of which the French literature has never afforded any example. We may venture to say of him, that his province is high and peculiar; higher than any poet but himself, for several generations, has so far succeeded in, perhaps even has steadfastly attempted. In reading Goethe’s poetry, it perpetually strikes us that we are reading the poetry of our own day and generation. No demands are made on our credulity; the light, the science, the scepticism of the age, are not hid from us. He does not deal in antiquated mythologies, or ring changes on traditionary poetic forms; there are no supernal, no infernal influences, for Faust is an apparent rather than a real exception: but there is the barren prose of the nineteenth century, the vulgar life which we are all leading; and it starts into strange beauty in his hands; and we pause in delighted wonder to behold the flower of Poesy blooming in that parched and rugged soil. This is the end of his Mignons and Harpers, of his Tassos and Meisters. Poetry, as he views it, exists not in time or place, but in the spirit of man; and Art, with Nature, is now to perform for the poet, what Nature alone performed of old. The divinities and demons, the witches, spectres, and fairies, are vanished from the world, never again to be recalled: but the Imagination which created these still lives, and will forever live in man’s soul; and can again pour its wizard light over the Universe, and summon forth enchantments as lovely or impressive, and which its sister faculties will not contradict. To say that Goethe has accomplished all this, would be to say that his genius is greater than was ever given to any man: for if it was a high and glorious mind, or rather series of minds, that peopled the first ages with their peculiar forms of poetry, it must be a series of minds much higher and more glorious that shall so people the present. The angels and demons that can lay prostrate our hearts in the nineteenth century must be of another and more cunning fashion than those that subdued us in the ninth. To have attempted, to have begun this enterprise, may be accounted the greatest praise. That Goethe ever meditated it, in the form here set forth, we have no direct evidence: but indeed such is the end and aim of high poetry at all times and seasons; for the fiction of the poet is not falsehood, but the purest truth; and if he would lead captive our whole being, not rest satisfied with a part of it, he must address us on interests that are, not that were, ours; and in a dialect which finds a response, and not a contradiction, within our bosoms.

How Goethe has fulfilled these conditions in addressing us, an inspection of his works, but no description, can inform us. Let me advise the reader to study them, and see. If he come to the task with an opinion that poetry is an amusement, a passive recreation; that its highest object is to supply a languid mind with fantastic shows and indolent emotions, his measure of enjoyment is likely to be scanty, and his criticisms will be loud, angry, and manifold. But if he know and believe that poetry is the essence of all science, and requires the purest of all studies; if he recollect that the new may not always be the false; that the excellence which can be seen in a moment is not usually a very deep one; above all, if his own heart be full of feelings and experiences, for which he finds no name and no solution, but which lie in pain imprisoned and unuttered in his breast, till the Word be spoken, the spell that is to unbind them, and bring them forth to liberty and light; then, if I mistake not, he will find that in this Goethe there is a new world set before his eyes; a world of Earnestness and Sport, of solemn cliff and gay plain; some such temple—far inferior, as it may well be, in magnificence and beauty, but a temple of the same architecture—some such temple for the Spirit of our age, as the Shakespeares and Spensers have raised for the Spirit of theirs.

This seems a bold assertion: but it is not made without deliberation, and such conviction as it has stood within my means to obtain. If it invite discussion, and forward the discovery of the truth in this matter, its best purpose will be answered. Goethe’s genius is a study for other minds than have yet seriously engaged with it among us. By and by, apparently ere long, he will be tried and judged righteously; he himself, and no cloud instead of him; for he comes to us in such a questionable shape, that silence and neglect will not always serve our purpose. England, the chosen home of justice in all its senses, where the humblest merit has been acknowledged, and the highest fault not unduly punished, will do no injustice to this extraordinary man. And if, when her impartial sentence has been pronounced and sanctioned, it shall appear that Goethe’s earliest admirers have wandered too far into the language of panegyric, I hope it may be reckoned no unpardonable sin. It is spirit-stirring rather than spirit-sharpening, to consider that there is one of the Prophets here with us in our own day: that a man who is to be numbered with the Sages and Sacri Vates, the Shakespeares, the Tassos, the Cervanteses of the world, is looking on the things which we look on, has dealt with the very thoughts which we have to deal with, is reigning in serene dominion over the perplexities and contradictions in which we are still painfully entangled.

That Goethe’s mind is full of inconsistencies and shortcomings, can be a secret to no one who has heard of the Fall of Adam. Nor would it be difficult, in this place, to muster a long catalogue of darknesses defacing our perception of this brightness: but it might be still less profitable than it is difficult; for in Goethe’s writings, as in those of all true masters, an apparent blemish is apt, after maturer study, to pass into a beauty. His works cannot be judged in fractions, for each of them is conceived and written as a whole; the humble and common may be no less essential there than the high and splendid: it is only Chinese pictures that have no shade. There is a maxim, far better known than practised, that to detect faults is a much lower occupation than to recognize merits. We may add also, that though far easier in the execution, it is not a whit more certain in the result. What is the detecting of a fault, but the feeling of an incongruity, of a contradiction, which may exist in ourselves as well as in the object? Who shall say in which? None but he who sees this object as it is, and himself as he is. We have all heard of the critic fly; but none of us doubts the compass of his own vision. It is thus that a high work of art, still more that a high and original mind, may at all times calculate on much sorriest criticism. In looking at an extraordinary man, it were good for an ordinary man to be sure of seeing him, before attempting to oversee him. Having ascertained that Goethe is an object deserving study, it will be time to censure his faults when we have clearly estimated his merits; and if we are wise judges, not till then.

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