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Göthe's Female Characters.
peculiar view of the relations between the sexes, under which man is the courted party, and woman the submissive worshipper, is brought out in the principal characters. Whether, in the odd vicissitudes of the world, the element introduced by chivalry into these relations has expended itself, and later refinement is likely to bring us back from adoring Gloriana and Angelica, to being adored by Chryseis and Briseis, we will not undertake to foretell; though the popularity of such writers as Göthe and Byron would certainly seem to point that way.
His Faust,' Egmont, Edward' in the Wahlverwandtschaften, Wilhelm • Meister,' are all either condescending divinities, or mere male coquettes; and his most attractive female characters seem all to belong to poor Helena's sect:
• Thus, Indian-like,
But knows of him no more.' Nay, the curious reader may even remark, in connexion with this subject, on the fondness of his heroines, particularly in • Wilhelm Meister, for assuming male attire - a topic on which Varnhagen von Ense has a luculent dissertation, showing
a that it is connected with some of the deepest historical meanings of the eighteenth century, the Reformation, and the Revolution; but which may also be, in part, an expression of the same prevailing view of the female nature as imitative and dependent. And we may pursue the same pervading thread of imagination in the most dramatic specimens of Göthe's ballad poetry, such as the Bride of Corinth,' and the God and the Bayadere.'
Such, in some of the more important points of his character, was the man for whom Destiny had reserved so marked a place, in an age when the fiercest passions and wildest enthusiasm were at work in the European world, recasting its social institutions and remodelling the temper of its inhabitants. The
greatest men,' saith the fair blue-stocking of the Wahlverwandtschaften, Ottilia, in her Diary, ‘are always connected with their age through some one weakness. If this can be predicated of Göthe, his weakness rather lay in an intense desire to shrink from its violent emotions to combat in himself all tendency to share in its passions — to let the storm pass by, and avoid meddling with those who attempted to direct it. And this it is, more than any other quality, which has rendered him, not unjustly, unpopular with great part of the living generation. It is felt that he owed a corresponding debt to the country which worshipped him, and that he died without discharging it. not through mere accident, or the force of mere scholastic causes,
that the sect of the Epicureans prevailed at Rome during the last agitated century of its Republic, while Stoicism became the reigning intellectual fashion under the empire. For refined and cultivated minds, when looking for shelter from the evils of the times in a world of their own, naturally try to make that world as unlike as possible to the external one. They seek refuge in philosophic self-indulgence from the furious passions, the exaggerated sentiments of an age of civil turmoil; while, on the same principle of contrast, they court, at least in imagination, the excitements of ascetic virtue, amidst the corrupt stagnation of despotism, To preserve the tranquillity of Epicurus in the busy political times on which he had fallen, was Göthe's constant and patient endeavour. The French Revolution came to disturb the dreams of art and imaginative science, in which his Italian sojourn had lapped him. He had no sympathy with its principles, and hated its agents. But to call out another enthusiasm to oppose it was utterly alien from his feelings. His trumpet sounded, indeed, a note of defiance — but a very faint one in Herman and Dorothea. But what is the moral of the poem, as summed up in the energetic lines which close it? Seek steadfastness during days of political trial in self-reliance, and take good care of your property:
* Desto fester sey bei der allgemeinen Erschüttrung,
Fest uns halten, und fest der schönen Güter Besitzthum.' But when the tumult of revolution had ended in military supremacy, and Germany lay prostrate under the armed might of its conqueror, then it was, in the hour of his country's greatest need, that he most deeply disappointed the hopes of the ardent and pure-minded portion of its people. Not a generous sentiment escaped him; hardly even an exhortation to resolute and high-minded endurance. Keep to yourselves, was the answer of the oracle to inquiring millions ; let the evil days pass by; use whatever of æsthetic and social enjoyment the conqueror has left you. Even the oppressions which the gallant German spirit of his intimate friend, the Grand Duke of Weimar, had to endure from Napoleon, called forth from him scarcely a feeble spark of indignation. In his . Tag und Jahres Hefte, his skeleton memoirs of his life during all this period, there is a studied abstinence from all allusion to political events; an affectedly exclusive attention to the trivial vicissitudes of the stage and criticism at Weimar. He never concealed his adıniration for the tyrant himself, whom he professed to venerate as one of the • Dämonische Männer,'— the Genii of the earth, and encouraged
Göthe's Political Indifference.
a kind of worship of Napoleon in his own family ; — Napoleon, who had done him the honour of suggesting some corrections in a forthcoming edition of Werter! - How could I have taken
up arms without hate?' was his defence of himself to Eckermann, and I never hated the French. How could I, to whom
nothing is of importance except cultivation and barbarism, hate one of the most cultivated nations in the world, and one i to which I owe so large a portion of my own developement!' It is really a relief to reflect on the Nemesis which followed-on the sense of weariness and self-abasement with which the poet must have come forward in 1815, as the old hack laureate of Germany, to dedicate odes of courtly patriotism to the Allied Sovereigns, and compliment the nation on the waking of Epimenides.'
Such Göthe remained during the less violent but more deeplyseated disturbances of political society in his later years. We are not among those who quarrel with him for not having been a democrat, or a German-Unionist, from 1815 to 1830,- reproaches which, however popular some years ago, have lost some of their force, at least with thinking men, in the year 1850. Nor do we think it necessary to assume the indignation with which German liberalism regarded his conduct in the matter of the prosecution of Oken, the editor of the Isis, and his opposition to the freedom of the press. In this, as on the occasion of Fichte's expulsion from Weimar in 1798, Göthe, probably, did no more than his official duty, although he certainly seems to have done it with no reluctance. His real offence consisted, not in adopting this or that class of opinions, but in repressing all political faith whatever; in encouraging, as far as in him lay, men of thoughtful disposition to keep aloof from all public movement as unworthy of them, or, at best, to substitute for political activity a kind of dilettante meddling with the organization of labour-(a notion, by the way, into which entered a good deal of Socialism, according to Göthe's particular manner of conceiving it); and in teaching them to consider this, as well as all other concerns, far subordinate to the grand object of developing their own powers of enjoyment, and so turning up the soil of the heart and intellect as to enable it to receive to the best advantage all the genial influences of life. It was the popularity of this doctrine, more, perhaps, than any other cause, which kept back talent and honesty from state affairs, handed over the multitudes of the German population exclusively to the control of fanatical or interested demagogues, and leaves the country even now without the formation of any strong and massive public opinion, between democracy on one hand and bayonets on the other.
Göthe’s unpatriotic spirit has been severely commented on in
later times by his enemies, and scarcely defended by his admirers. Nothing but the amiable simplicity of a biographer could find in it an overflow of feeling, too big to vent itself in words, or could extend the same apology to his coldness on subjects of religion and ethics. • In the depths of his heart,' says Dünzer, “there pulsated the warmest feelings for a free, united,
and powerful Germany. That he did not display this senti‘ment ostentatiously to the world, but kept it close within him• self, as fearing to desecrate it by any publicity, is to be ex‘plained by the same reservedness of disposition which hindered • him from giving outward expression to all his other holiest
feelings— belief in God, hope of immortality, love of his wife, i-whence malicious misunderstanding has often enough been
pleased to deny him these feelings altogether; and in particu• lar bis profound respect for the sanctity of the connubial tie;
as to which (to the astonishment of Oberhofprediger Reinhard) • he held the severest principles.'
It is not, however, in respect of his connexion with the mere political movements of the time that Göthe has to render before the tribunal of posterity a serious account for the good and evil use made of his extraordinary genius. His is a far heavier responsibility. It is on the interior relations of society, and on the moral progress of man, that the peculiar and fatal characteristic of his philosophy, the deification of Self, has had far more extensive and enduring effect. No one, well acquainted with his writings, and uninfluenced by that strong delusion which he contrived to throw round those who entered within his Castle of Indolence, can be misled by the deceitful show of virtuous feeling with which he invests the merest selfishness; the Pantheistic colouring which he gives to the merest irreligion; or his own pompous assertions of his virtuous tendencies, and declamations on the beauty of those ethical laws of which he was, consciously or not, sapping the very foundations. What is • Wilhelın Meister,' — purposeless, unmeaning as it is as a simple work of art, a collection of stories ill strung together by
a a disjointed narrative, and of dramatis persone without plot or action,- this menagerie of tame animals,' as Niebuhr called it, - but an elaborate exposition of the vanity of all aspirations of the soul beyond itself: a long lecture on the duty of cultivated and rational enjoyment, of subjecting every irregular impulse to the grand object of harmoniously blending sensual and intellectual delights in the nicest proportions ? Wilhelm Meister,' (such was the oracle which Göthe delivered to Eckermann) is a • most incalculable production! I myself can scarcely be said to have the key! The critic seeks a central point, which is in
Göthe's Social Philosophy.
truth hard to find! Others, guided by very simple instincts, thought they found the key without difficulty. Some religious men (Leopold Stolberg, and Göthe's own brother-in-law, Schlosser,) were weak enough to deem it worthy of an Auto-daFé; Stolberg, however, excepting from the flames the sixth book, which he bound by itself as a manual of Pietism. Other admirers of the poet have taken similar pains to find out a moral tendency in the · Wahlverwandtschaften’; Göthe himself was pleased to say (to the astonishment of others besides Oberhofprediger Reinhard), that it was an “act of homage to the sanc. tity of the conjugal tie ;' but sounder-hearted readers will probably pronounce with Vilmar (* Geschichte der Deutschen • classischen Literatur,' vol. ii. p. 231.), that its leading thought merely is, that subordination to duty is mental discase,
, • • obedience to sentiment is mental health ;' a leading thought,' of which, since Göthe's death, eminent female writers, both French and German, have been the chief propounders.
From such moral absurdities as these, when thus exhibited as mere fragments of a system, many minds of the purer class will turn away, not only with aversion, but without even that kind of interest which bolder profligacy inspires. But to judge of the real power of Göthe in this respect, the reader must be familiar with his writings in general, and impregnated with that peculiar sympathy which genius such as his will, in the long run, elicit in those who become familiar with it. Then it will be felt that of all false religions, his is the most subtle, the most tempting, the most attractive, from its very approximation to the truth. It flatters the evil nature of man, not, primarily, through appeals to his passion, or bis intellect, or his generous feelings, but to that which is dearer than either,- his pride: the pride of conquest, to be achieved over himself and the world alike: the pride of exclusiveness, like that felt by the initiated of those ancient mysteries from which the dull in mind and the feeble in courage were contemptuously excluded: the pride of becoming, in imagination, as a God, knowing good and evil.
Your victory, says this philosophy to its catechumen, must first be over yourself. You are beset by the temptations of the world and the flesh, the lust of the eye and the pride of life. These are not of themselves evil; nor is the utmost enjoyment of them in itself inconsistent with that transcendent tranquillity, the chief good and object of our earthly pilgrimage. All evil lies in the opposition between our own natures, imperfect as we are in our perceptions, capricious in our longings, unreasonable in our expectations, and that orderly reality which, under