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STATE OF GERMAN LITERATURE. SKETCHES OF THE MOST
Above a century ago, the Père Bouhours propounded to himself the pregnant question: "Si un Allemand peut avoir de l'esprit?" Had the Père Bouhours bethought him of what country Kepler and Leibnitz were, or who it was that gave to mankind the three great elements of modern civilization, Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant Religion, it might have thrown light on his inquiry. Had he known the “ Niebelungen Lied;" and where “Reinecke Fuchs," and “Faust,” and the “Ship of Fools," and four-fifths of all the popular mythology, humour, and romance to be found in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, took its rise ; had he read a page or two of Ulrich Hutten, Opitz, Paul Flemming, Logau, or even Lohenstein and Hoffmannswaldau, all of whom had already lived and written in his day; had the Père Bouhours taken this trouble, who knows but he might have found, with whatever amazement, that a German could actually have a little esprit, or perhaps even something better? No such trouble was requisite for the Père Bouhours. Motion in vacuo is well known to be speedier and surer than through a resisting medium, especially to imponderous bodies; and so the light Jesuit, unimpeded by facts or principles of any kind, failed not to reach his conclusion, and, in a comfortable frame of mind, to decide, negatively, that a German could not have any literary talent.
Thus did the Père Bouhours evince that he had “ a pleasant wit;” but in the end he has paid dear for it. The French, themselves, have long since begun to know something of the Germans, and something also of their critical Daniel; and now it is by this one untimely joke that the hapless Jesuit is doomed to live; for the blessing of full oblivion is denied him, and so he hangs, suspended in his own noose, over the dusky pool which he struggles toward, but for a great while will not reach. Might his fate but serve as a warning to kindred men of wit, in regard to this and so many other subjects! For surely the pleasure of despising, at all times and in itself a dangerous luxury, is much safer after the toil of examining than before it.
We differ from the Père Bouhours in this matter, and must endeavour to discuss it differently. There is, in fact, much in the present aspect of German Literature not only deserving notice, but deep consideration from all thinking men, and far too complex for being handled in the way of epigram. It is always advantageous to think justly of our neighbours, nay, in mere common honesty, it is a duty; and, like every other duty, brings
* Outlines for the History and Criticism of Polite Literature in Germany ; by Franz Horn.-Vol. xlvi. page 306. October, 1827.
its own reward. Perhaps at the present era this duty is more essential than pver: an era of such promise and such threatening, -when so many elements of good and evil are everywhere in conflict, and human society is, as il were, struggling to body itself forth anew, and so many coloured rays are springing up in this quarter and in that, which only by their union can produce pure light. Happily too, though still a difficult, it is no longer an impossible duty; for the commerce in material things has paved roads for commerce in things spiritual, and a true thought, or a noble creation, passes lightly to us from the remotest countries, provided only our minds be open to receive it. This, indeed, is a rigorous proviso, and a great obstacle lies in it; one which lo many must be insurmountable, yet which it is the chief glory of social culture to surmount. For, if a man, who mistakes his own contracted individuality for the type of human nature, and deals with whatever contradicts him as if it contradicted this, is but a pedant, and without true wisdom, be he furnished with partial equipments as he may,—what better shall we think of a nation that, in like manner, isolates itself from foreign influence, regards its own modes as so many laws of nature, and rejects all that is different as unworthy even of examination.
of this narrow and perverted condition the French, down almost to our own limes, have afforded a remarkable and instructive example; as indeed of late they have been often enough upbraidingly reminded, and are now themselves, in a manlier spirit, beginning to admit. That our countrymen have at any time erred much in this point cannot, we think, truly be alleged against them. Neither shall we say with some passionate admirers of Germany, that to the Germans in particular they have been unjust. It is true, the literature and character of that country, which, within the last half century, have been more worthy perhaps than any other of our study and regard, are still very generally unknown to us, or, what is worse, misk nown;i but for this there are not wanting less offensive reasons. That the false and tawdry ware, which was in all hands, should reach us before the chaste and truly excellent, which it required some excellence to recognise; that Kotzebue's insanity should have spread faster, by some fisty years, than Lessing's wisdom; that Kant's Philosophy should stand in the background as a dreary and abortive dream, and Gall's Craniology be held out to us from every booth as a reality ;-all this lay in the nature of the caso. That many readers should draw conclusions from imperfect premises, and by the imports judge too hastily of the stock imported from, was likewise natural. No unfair bias, no unwise indisposition, that we are aware of, has ever been at work in the matter; perhaps at worst, a degree of indolence, a blameable incuriosity to all products of foreign genius : for what more do we kuow of recent Spanish or Italian literature than of German ; of Grossi and Manzoni, of Campomanes or Jovellanos, than of Tieck and Richter? Wherever German art, in those forms of it which need no interpreter, has addressed us immediately, our recognition of it has been prompt and hearty; from Dürer to Mengs, from Händel to Weber and Beethoven, we have welcomed the painters and musicians of Germany, not only to our praise, but to our affections and beneficence. Nor, is in their literature we have been more backward, is the literature itself without share in the blame. Two centuries ago, translations from the German were comparatively frequent in England: Luther's Table-Talk is still a venerable classic in our language; nay Jacob Böhme has found a place among us, and this not as a dead letter, but as a living apostle to a still living sect of our religionists. In the next century, indeed, translation ceased; but then it was in a great measure because there was little worth translating. The horrors of the Thirty Years' War, followed by the conquests and conflagrations of Louis the Fourteenth, had desolated the country; French influence, extending from the courts of princes to the closets of the learned, lay like a baleful incubus over the far nobler mind of Germany; and all true nationality vanished from its literature, or was heard only in faint tones, which lived in the hearts of the people, but could not reach with any effect to the cars of foreigners.* And now that the genius of the country has awaked in its old strength, our attention to it has certainly awakened also; and if we yet know little or nothing of the Germans, it is not because we wilfully do them wrong, but in good part because they are somewhat difficult to know.
In fact, prepossessions of all sorts naturally enough find their place here. A country which has no national literature, or a literature too insignificant to force iis way abroad, must always be, to its neighbours, at least in every important spiritual respect, an unknown and misestimated country. Ils towns may figure in our maps; its revenues, population, manufactures, political connexions, may be recorded in statistical books : but the character of the people has no symbol and no voice; we cannot know them by speech and discourse, but only by mere sight and outward observation of their manners and procedure. Now, if both sight and speech, if both travellers and native literature, are found but ineffectual in this respect, how incalculably more so the former alone! To seize a character, even that of one man, in its life and secret mechanism, requires a philosopher; to delineate it with truth and impressiveness is work for a poet. How then shall one or two sleek clerical tutors, with here and here a tedium-stricken esquire, or speculative half-pay captain, give us views on such a subject? How shall a man, to whom all characters of individual men are like sealed books, of which he sees only the title and the covers, decipher, from his four
Not that the Germans were idle, or altogether engaged. as we too loosely suppose, in the work of commentary and lexicography. On the contrary, they rhymed and romanced with due vigour as lo quantity; only the quality was bad. Two facts on this head may deserve mention: In the year 1749, there were found in the library of one virtuoso no fewer than 300 volumes of devotional poetry, containing, says Horn, “a treasure of 33,712 German hymos;" and much about the same period, one of Gotisched's scholars had amassed as many as 1500 German novels, all of the 17th century. The hymns we understand to be much better than the novels, or rather, perhaps, the novels to be much worse than the hymns. Neither was critical study neglected, nor indeed honest endeavour on all hands to attain improvement: witness the strange books from time to time put forth, and the still stranger institutions established for this purpose. Among the former, we have the“ Poetical Fannel” (Poetische Trichter), manufactured ai Nurnberg in 1650, and professing, within six hours, to pour in the whole essence of this difficult art into the most unfurnished head. Nürnberg also was the chief seat of the famous Meistersänger and their Sangerzünfte, or Singer: guilds, in which poetry was taught and practised, like any other handicraft, and this by sober and well-meaning men, chiefly artisans, who could not understand why labour, which manufactured so many things, should not also manufacture another. Of these tuneful guild-brethren, Hans Sachs. by trade a shoemaker, is greatly the most noted and most notable. His father was a tailor; he himself learned the mystery of song under one Nunnebeck, a weaver. He was an adherent of his great contemporary Luther, who has even deigned to acknowledge bis services in the cause of the Reformation : how diligent a labourer Sachs must have been, will appear from the fact, that in his 74th year (1568), on examining his stock for publication, he found that he had written 6048 poetical pieces, among which were 208 tragedies and comedies : and this besides having all along kept house, like an honest Nurnberg burgber, by assiduous and sufficient shoe-making! Hans is not without genius, and a shrewd irony; and above all, the most gay, child-like, yet devout and solid character. A man neither to be despised nor patronised, but left standing on his own basis, as a singularmoduct, and a still lexible symbol, and clear mirror, of the time and country where he lived. His best piece known 10 ils, and many are well worth perusing, is the Fastnachtsspiel (Shrovetide Farce) of the Nurrenschneiden, where a doctor cures a bloated and lethargic patient by culling out half a dozen Fools from his interior!
wheeled vehicle, and depict to us, the character of a nation? He courageously depicts his own optical delusions; notes this to be incomprehensible, that other to be insignificant; much to be good, much to be bad, and most of all indifferent; and so, with a few flowing strokes, completes a picture which, though it may not even resemble any possible object, his countrymen are to take for a national portrait. Nor is the fraud so readily detected : for the character of a people has such complexity of aspect, that even the honest observer knows not always, not perhaps after long inspection, what to determine regarding it. From his, only accidental, point of view, the figure stands before him like the tracings on veined marble, -a mass of mere random lines, and tints, and entangled strokes, out of which a lively fancy may shape almost any image. But the image he brings along with him is always the readiest; this is tried, it answers as well as another; and a second voucher now testifies its correctness. Thus cach, in conlident tones, though it may be with a secret misgiving, repeats its precursor; the hundred times repeated comes in the end to be believed : the foreign nalion is now once for all understood, decided on, and registered accordingly; and dunce the thousandth writes of it like unce the first.
With the aid of literary and intellectual intercourse, much of this falsehood may, no doubt, be corrected; yet even here, sound judgment is far from easy; and most national characters are still, as Hume long ago complained, the product rather of popular prejudice than of philosophic insight. That the Germans, in particular, have by no means escaped such misrepresentation, nay perhaps have had more than the common share of it, cannot, in their circumstances, surprise us. From the times of Opitz and Flemming to those of Klopstock and Lessing,—that is, from the early part of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century,—they had scarcely any literature known abroad, or deserving to be known : their political condition, during the same period, was oppressive and every way unfortunale externally; and at home, the nation, split into so many factions and petly states, had lost all feeling of itself as of a nation; and its energies in arts as in arms were manifested only in detail, too often in collision, and always under foreign influence. The French, at once their plunderers and their scoffers, described them to the rest of Europe as a semi-barbarous people ; which comfortable fact the rest of Europe was willing enough to take on their word. During the greater part of last century, the Germans, in our intellectual survey of the world, were quietly omitted ; a vague contemptuous ignorance prevailed respecting them; it was a Cimmerian land, where if a few sparks did glimmer, it was but so as to testify their own existence, too feebly to enlighten us.* The Germans passed for apprentices in all provinces of art; and many foreign craftsmen scarcely allowed them so much.
Madame de Staël's book has done away with this : all Europe is now aware that the Germans are something; something independent, and apart from others; nay, something deep, imposing, and if not admirable, wonderful. What that something is, indeed, is still undecided; for this gifted
* So late as the year 1811, we find, from Pinkerton's Geography, the sole representative of German literature to be Gouished (with his name wrong spelt), " who first introduced a niore refined style.” Gotisched has been dead the greater part of a century, and for the last fifty years ranks among the Germans somewhat as Prynne or Alexander Ross does amoug ourselves. A man of a cold, rigid, perseverant character, who mistook himself for a poet and the perfection of critics, and had skill to pass current during the greater part of his literary life for such. On the strength of his Boileau and Batteux, he long reigned supreme; but it was like Night, in rayless majesty, and over a slumbering people. They awoke, before his death, and hurled him, perhaps too indignantly, into his native abyss.
lady's Allemagne, in doing much to excite curiosity, has still done little to satisfy or even direct it. We can no longer make ignorance a boast, but we are yet far from having acquired right knowledge; and cavillers, excluded from contemptuous negation, have found a resource in almost as contemptuous assertion. Translators are the same faithless and stolid race that they have ever been : the particle of gold they bring us over is hidden, from all but the most patient eye, among shiploads of yellow sand and sulphur. Gentle Dulness too, in this as in all other things, still loves her joke. The Germans, though much more attended to, are perhaps not less mistaken than before.
Doubtless, however, there is in this increased attention a progress towards the truth ; which it is only investigation and discussion that can help us to find. The study of German literature has already taken such firm root among us, and is spreading so visibly, that by and by, as we believe, the true character of it must and will become known. A result, which is to bring us into closer and friendlier union with forty millions of civilized men, cannot surely be otherwise than desirable. If they have precious truth to impart, we shall receive it as the highest of all gifts; if error, we shall not only reject it, but explain it and trace out its origin, and so help our brethren also to reject it. "In either point of view, and for all profitable purposes of national intercourse, correct knowledge is the first and indispensable preliminary.
Meanwhile errors of all sorts prevail on this subject : even among men of sense and liberality we have found so much hallucination, so many groundless or half-grounded objections to German literature, that the tone in which a multitude of other men speak of it cannot appear extraordinary. To much of this even a slight knowledge of the Germans would furnish a sufficient answer. But we have thought it might be useful were the chief of these objections marshalled in distinct order, and examined with what degree of light and fairness is at our disposal. In altempting this, we are vain enough, for reasons already stated, to fancy ourselves discharging what is in some sort a national duty. It is unworthy of one great people to think falsely of another; it is unjust, and therefore unworthy. Of the injury it does to ourselves we do not speak, for that is an inferior consideration : yet surely if the grand principle of free intercourse is so profitable in material commerce, much more must it be in the commerce of the mind, the products of which are thereby not so much transported out of one country into another, as multiplied over all, for the benefit of all, and without loss to aạy. If that man is a benefactor to the world who causes two cars of corn to grow where only one grew before, much more is he a benefactor who causes two truths to grow up together in harmony and mutual confirmation, where before only one stood solitary, and, on that side at least, intolerant and hostile.
In dealing with the host of objections which front us on this subject, we think it may be convenient to range them under (wo principal heads. The first, as respects chiefly unsoundness or imperfection of sentiment; an error which may in general be denominated Bad Taste. The second, as respects chiefly a wrong condition of intellect; an error which may be signated by ihe general title of Mysticism. Both of these, no doubt, are partly connected; and each, in some degree, springs from and returns into the other; yet, for present purposes, the division may be precise enough.