Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. IV. Representative Men: Seven Lectures
VII. Goethe; or, the Writer
I FIND1 a provision in the constitution of the world for the writer, or secretary, who is to report the doings of the miraculous spirit of life that everywhere throbs and works. His office is a reception of the facts into the mind, and then a selection of the eminent and characteristic experiences.
Nature will be reported. All things are engaged in writing their history. The planet, the pebble, goes attended by its shadow. The rolling rock leaves its scratches on the mountain; the river its channel in the soil; the animal its bones in the stratum; the fern and leaf their modest epitaph in the coal. The falling drop makes its sculpture in the sand or the stone. Not a foot steps into the snow or along the ground, but prints, in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march. Every act of the man inscribes itself in the memories of his fellows and in his own manners and face. The air is full of sounds; the sky, of tokens; the round is all memoranda and signatures, and every object covered over with hints which speak to the intelligent.
In nature, this self-registration is incessant, and the narrative is the print of the seal. It neither exceeds nor comes short of the fact. But nature strives upward; and, in man, the report is something more than print of the seal. It is a new and finer form of the original. The record is alive, as that which it recorded is alive. In man, the memory is a kind of looking-glass, which, having received the images of surrounding objects, is touched with life, and disposes them in a new order.2 The facts do not lie in it inert; but some subside and others shine; so that we soon have a new picture, composed of the eminent experiences. The man coöperates. He loves to communicate; and that which is for him to say lies as a load on his heart until it is delivered. But, besides the universal joy of conversation, some men are born with exalted powers for this second creation. Men are born to write. The gardener saves every slip and seed and peach-stone: his vocation is to be a planter of plants. Not less does the writer attend his affair. Whatever he beholds or experiences, comes to him as a model and sits for its picture. He counts it all nonsense that they say, that some things are undescribable. He believes that all that can be thought can be written, first or last; and he would report the Holy Ghost, or attempt it. Nothing so broad, so subtle, or so dear, but comes therefore commended to his pen, and he will write. In his eyes, a man is the faculty of reporting, and the universe is the possibility of being reported. In conversation, in calamity, he finds new materials; as our German poet said, Some god gave me the power to paint what I suffer. He draws his rents from rage and pain. By acting rashly, he buys the power of talking wisely. Vexations and a tempest of passion only fill his sail; as the good Luther writes, When I am angry, I can pray well and preach well: and, if we knew the genesis of fine strokes of eloquence, they might recall the complaisance of Sultan Amurath, who struck off some Persian heads, that his physician, Vesalius, might see the spasms in the muscles of the neck.3 His failures are the preparation of his victories. A new thought or a crisis of passion apprises him that all that he has yet learned and written is exoteric,is not the fact, but some rumor of the fact. What then? Does he throw away the pen? No; he begins again to describe in the new light which has shined on him,if, by some means, he may yet save some true word. Nature conspires. Whatever can be thought can be spoken, and still rises for utterance, though to rude and stammering organs. If they can not compass it, it waits and works, until at last it moulds them to its perfect will and is articulated.
This striving after imitative expression, which one meets every where, is significant of the aim of nature, but is mere stenography. There are higher degrees, and nature has more splendid endowments for those whom she elects to a superior office; for the class of scholars or writers, who see connection where the multitude see fragments, and who are impelled to exhibit the facts in order, and so to supply the axis on which the frame of things turns. Nature has dearly at heart the formation of the speculative man, or scholar. It is an end never lost sight of, and is prepared in the original casting of things. He is no permissive or accidental appearance, but an organic agent, one of the estates of the realm, provided and prepared from of old and from everlasting, in the knitting and contexture of things. Presentiments, impulses, cheer him. There is a certain hear in the breast which attends the perception of a primary truth, which is the shining of the spiritual sun down into the shaft of the mine. Every thought which dawns on the mine, in the moment of its emergence announces its own rank,whether it is some whimsy, or whether it is a power.
If he have his incitements, there is, on the other side, invitation and need enough of his gift. Society has, at all times, the same want, namely of one sane man with adequate powers of expression to hold up each object of monomania in its right relations. The ambitious and mercenary bring their last new mumbo-jumbo, whether tariff, Texas, railroad, Romanism, mesmerism, or California; and, by detaching the object from its relations, easily succeed in making it seen in a glare; and a multitude go mad about it, and they are not to be reproved or cured by the opposite multitude who are kept from this particular insanity by an equal frenzy on another crotchet. But let one man have the comprehensive eye that can replace this isolated prodigy in its right neighborhood and bearings,the illusion vanishes, and the returning reason of the community thanks the reason of the monitor.4
The scholar is the man of the ages, but he must also wish with other men to stand well with his contemporaries. But there is a certain ridicule, among superficial people, thrown on the scholars or clerisy, which is of no import unless the scholar heed it. In this country, the emphasis of conversation and of public opinion commends the practical man; and the solid portion of the community is named with significant respect in every circle. Our people are of Bonapartes opinion concerning ideologists. Ideas are subversive of social order and comfort, and at last make a fool of the possessor. It is believed, the ordering a cargo of goods from New York to Smyrna, or the running up and down to procure a company of subscribers to set a-going five or ten thousand spindles, or the negotiations of a caucus and the practising on the prejudices and facility of country-people to secure their votes in November,is practical and commendable.
If I were to compare action of a much higher strain with a life of contemplation, I should not venture to pronounce with much confidence in favor of the former. Mankind have such a deep stake in inward illumination, that there is much to be said by the hermit or monk in defence of his life of thought and prayer. A certain partiality, a headiness and loss of balance, is the tax which all action must pay. Act, if you like,but you do it at your peril. Mens actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted and who has not been the victim and slave of his action. What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again. The first act, which was to be an experiment, becomes a sacrament. The fiery reformer embodies his aspiration in some rite or covenant, and he and his friends cleave to the form and lose the aspiration. The Quaker has established Quakerism, the Shaker has established his monastery and his dance; and although each prates of spirit, there is no spirit, but repetition, which is anti-spiritual. But where are his new things of to-day? In actions of enthusiasm this drawback appears, but in those lower activities, which have no higher aim than to make us more comfortable and more cowardly; in actions of cunning, actions that steal and lie, actions that divorce the speculative from the practical faculty and put a ban on reason and sentiment, there is nothing else but drawback and negation. The Hindoos write in their sacred books, Children only, and not the learned, speak of the speculative and the practical faculties as two. They are but one, for both obtain the selfsame end, and the place which is gained by the followers of the one is gained by the followers of the other. That man seeth, who seeth that the speculative and the practical doctrines are one. For great action must draw on the spiritual nature. The measure of action is the sentiment from which it proceeds. The greatest action may easily be one of the most private circumstance.
This disparagement will not come from the leaders, but from inferior persons. The robust gentlemen who stand at the head of the practical class, share the ideas of the time, and have too much sympathy with the speculative class. It is not from men excellent in any kind that disparagement of any other is to be looked for. With such, Talleyrands question is ever the main one; not, is he rich? is he committed? is he well-meaning? has he this or that faculty? is he of the movement? is he of the establishment?but, Is he anybody? does he stand for something? He must be good of his kind. That is all that Talleyrand, all that State-street, all that the common-sense of mankind asks. Be real and admirable, not as we know, but as you know. Able men do not care in what kind a man is able, so only that he is able. A master likes a master, and does not stipulate whether it be orator, artist, craftsman, or king.5
Society has really no graver interest than the well-being of the literary class. And it is not to be denied that men are cordial in their recognition and welcome of intellectual accomplishments. Still the writer does not stand with us on any commanding ground. I think this to be his own fault. A pound passes for a pound. There have been times when he was a sacred person: he wrote Bibles, the first hymns, the codes, the epics, tragic songs, Sibylline verses, Chaldean oracles, Laconian sentences, inscribed on temple walls. Every word was true, and woke the nations to new life. He wrote without levity and without choice. Every word was carved before his eyes into the earth and the sky; and the sun and stars were only letters of the same purport and of no more necessity. But how can he be honored when he does not honor himself; when he loses himself in a crowd; when he is no longer the lawgiver, but the sycophant, ducking to the giddy opinion of a reckless public; when he must sustain with shameless advocacy some bad government, or must bark, all the year round, in opposition; or write conventional criticism, or profligate novels, or at any rate write without thought, and without recurrence by day and by night to the sources of inspiration?
Some reply to these questions may be furnished by looking over the list of men of literary genius in our age. Among these no more instructive name occurs than that of Goethe to represent the powers and duties of the scholar or writer.6
I described Bonaparte as a representative of the popular external life and aims of the nineteenth century. Its other half, its poet, is Goethe, a man quite domesticated in the century, breathing its air, enjoying its fruits, impossible at any earlier time, and taking away, by his colossal parts, the reproach of weakness which but for him would lie on the intellectual works of the period.7 He appears at a time when a general culture has spread itself and has smoothed down all sharp individual traits; when, in the absence of heroic characters, a social comfort and coöperation have come in. There is no poet, but scores of poetic writers; no Columbus, but hundreds of post-captains, with transit-telescope, barometer and concentrated soup and pemmican; no Demosthenes, no Chatham, but any number of clever parliamentary and forensic debaters; no prophet or saint, but colleges of divinity; no learned man, but learned societies, a cheap press, reading-rooms and book-clubs without number. There was never such a miscellany of facts. The world extends itself like American trade. We conceive Greek or Roman life, life in the Middle Ages, to be a simple and comprehensible affair; but modern life to respect a multitude of things, which is distracting.
Goethe was the philosopher of this multiplicity; hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy to cope with this rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and by his own versatility to dispose of them with ease; a manly mind, unembarrassed by the variety of coats of convention with which life had got encrusted, easily able by his subtlety to pierce these and to draw his strength from nature, with which he lived in full communion.8 What is strange too, he lived in a small town, in a petty state, in a defeated state, and in a time when Germany played no such leading part in the worlds affairs as to swell the bosom of her sons with any metropolitan pride, such as might have cheered a French, or English, or once, a Roman or Attic genius. Yet there is no trace of provincial limitation in his muse. He is not a debtor to his position, but was born with a free and controlling genius.
The Helena, or the second part of Faust, is a philosophy of literature set in poetry; the work of one who found himself the master of histories, mythologies, philosophies, sciences and national literatures, in the encyclopædical manner in which modern erudition, with its international intercourse of the whole earths population, researches into Indian, Etruscan and all Cyclopean arts; geology, chemistry, astronomy; and every one of these kingdoms assuming a certain aerial and poetic character, by reason of the multitude. One looks at a king with reverence; but if one should chance to be at a congress of kings, the eye would take liberties with the peculiarities of each. These are not wild miraculous songs, but elaborate forms to which the poet has confided the results of eighty years of observation.9 This reflective and critical wisdom makes the poem more truly the flower of this time. It dates itself. Still he is a poet,poet of a prouder laurel than any contemporary, and, under this plague of microscopes (for he seems to see out of every pore of his skin), strikes the harp with a heros strength and grace.
The wonder of the book is its superior intelligence. In the menstruum of this mans wit, the past and the present ages, and their religions, politics and modes of thinking, are dissolved into archetypes and ideas. What new mythologies sail through his head! The Greeks said that Alexander went as far as Chaos; Goethe went, only the other day, as far; and one step farther he hazarded, and brought himself safe back.
There is a heart-cheering freedom in his speculation. The immense horizon which journeys with us lends its majesty to trifles and to matters of convenience and necessity, as to solemn and festal performances. He was the soul of his century. If that was learned, and had become, by population, compact organization and drill of parts, one great Exploring Expedition, accumulating a glut of facts and fruits too fast for any hitherto-existing savans to classify,this mans mind had ample chambers for the distribution of all. He had a power to unite the detached atoms again by their own law. He has clothed our modern existence with poetry. Amid littleness and detail, he detected the Genius of life, the old cunning Proteus, nestling close beside us, and showed that the dulness and prose we ascribe to the age was only another of his masks:
that he had put off a gay uniform for a fatigue dress, and was not a whit less vivacious or rich in Liverpool or the Hague than once in Rome or Antioch. He sought him in public squares and main streets, in boulevards and hotels; and, in the solidest kingdom of routine and the senses, he showed the lurking dæmonic power; that, in actions of routine, a thread of mythology and fable spins itself: and this, by tracing the pedigree of every usage and practice, every institution, utensil and means, home to its origin in the structure of man.11 He had an extreme impatience of conjecture and of rhetoric. I have guesses enough of my own; if a man write a book, let him set down only what he knows. He writes in the plainest and lowest tone, omitting a great deal more than he writes, and putting ever a thing for a word. He has explained the distinction between the antique and the modern spirit and art. He has defined art, its scope and laws. He has said the best things about nature that ever were said.12 He treats nature as the old philosophers, as the seven wise masters did,and, with whatever loss of French tabulation and dissection, poetry and humanity remain to us; and they have some doctoral skill. Eyes are better on the whole than telescopes or microscopes. He has contributed a key to many parts of nature, through the rare turn for unity and simplicity in his mind. Thus Goethe suggested the leading idea of modern botany, that a leaf or the eye of a leaf is the unit of botany, and that every part of a plant is only a transformed leaf to meet a new condition; and, by varying the conditions, a leaf may be converted into any other organ, and any other organ into a leaf. In like manner, in osteology, he assumed that one vertebra of the spine might be considered as the unit of the skeleton: the head was only the uttermost vertebræ transformed. The plant goes from knot to knot, closing at last with the flower and the seed. So the tape-worm, the caterpillar, goes from knot to knot and closes with the head. Man and the higher animals are built up through the vertebræ, the powers being concentrated in the head. In optics again he rejected the artificial theory of seven colors, and considered that every color was the mixture of light and darkness in new proportions. It is really of very little consequence what topic he writes upon. He sees at every pore, and has a certain gravitation towards truth. He will realize what you say. He hates to be trifled with and to be made to say over again some old wifes fable that has had possession of mens faith these thousand years. He may as well see if it is true as another. He sifts it. I am here, he would say, to be the measure and judge of these things. Why should I take them on trust? And therefore what he says of religion, of passion, of marriage, of manners, of property, of paper-money, of periods of belief, of omens, of luck, or whatever else, refuses to be forgotten.
Take the most remarkable example that could occur of this tendency to verify every term in popular use. The Devil had played an important part in mythology in all times. Goethe would have no word that does not cover a thing. The same measure will still serve: I have never heard of any crime which I might not have committed. So he flies at the throat of this imp. He shall be real; he shall be modern; he shall be European; he shall dress like a gentleman, and accept the manners, and walk in the streets, and be well initiated in the life of Vienna and of Heidelberg in 1820,or he shall not exist. Accordingly, he stripped him of mythologic gear, of horns, cloven foot, harpoon tail, brimstone and blue-fire, and instead of looking in books and pictures, looked for him in his own mind, in every shade of coldness, selfishness and unbelief that, in crowds or in solitude, darkens over the human thought,and found that the portrait gained reality and terror by every thing he added and by every thing he took away. He found that the essence of this hobgoblin which had hovered in shadow about the habitations of men ever since there were men, was pure intellect, applied,as always there is a tendency,to the service of the senses: and he flung into literature, in his Mephistopheles, the first organic figure that has been added for some ages, and which will remain as long as the Prometheus.13
I have no design to enter into any analysis of his numerous works. They consist of translations, criticism, dramas, lyric and every other description of poems, literary journals and portraits of distinguished men. Yet I cannot omit to specify the Wilhelm Meister.
Wilhelm Meister is a novel in every sense, the first of its kind, called by its admirers the only delineation of modern society,as if other novels, those of Scott for example, dealt with costume and condition, this with the spirit of life. It is a book over which some veil is still drawn. It is read by very intelligent persons with wonder and delight. It is preferred by some such to Hamlet, as a work of genius. I suppose no book of this century can compare with it in its delicious sweetness, so new, so provoking to the mind, gratifying it with so many and so solid thoughts, just insights into life and manners and characters; so many good hints for the conduct of life, so many unexpected glimpses into a higher sphere, and never a trace of rhetoric or dulness. A very provoking book to the curiosity of young men of genius, but a very unsatisfactory one. Lovers of light reading, those who look in it for the entertainment they find in a romance, are disappointed. On the other hand, those who begin it with the higher hope to read in it a worthy history of genius, and the just award of the laurel to its toils and denials, have also reason to complain. We had an English romance here, not long ago, professing to embody the hope of a new age and to unfold the political hope of the party called Young England,in which the only reward of virtue is a seat in Parliament and a peerage. Goethes romance has a conclusion as lame and immoral. George Sand, in Consuelo and its continuation, has sketched a truer and more dignified picture. In the progress of the story, the characters of the hero and heroine expand at a rate that shivers the porcelain chess-table of aristocratic convention: they quit the society and habits of their rank, they lose their wealth, they become the servants of great ideas and of the most generous social ends; until at last the hero, who is the centre and fountain of an association for the rendering of the noblest benefits to the human race, no longer answers to his own titled name; it sounds foreign and remote in his ear. I am only man, he says; I breathe and work for man; and this in poverty and extreme sacrifices.14 Goethes hero, on the contrary, has so many weaknesses and impurities and keeps such bad company, that the sober English public, when the book was translated, were disgusted. And yet it is so crammed with wisdom, with knowledge of the world and with knowledge of laws; the persons so truly and subtly drawn, and with such few strokes, and not a word too much,the book remains ever so new and unexhausted, that we must even let it go its way and be willing to get what good from it we can, assured that it has only begun its office and has millions of readers yet to serve.
The argument is the passage of a democrat to the aristocracy, using both words in their best sense. And this passage is not made in any mean or creeping way, but through the hall door. Nature and character assist, and the rank is made real by sense and probity in the nobles. No generous youth can escape this charm of reality in the book, so that it is highly stimulating to intellect and courage.15
The ardent and holy Novalis characterized the book as thoroughly modern and prosaic; the romantic is completely levelled in it; so is the poetry of nature; the wonderful. The book treats only of the ordinary affairs of men: it is a poeticized civic and domestic story. The wonderful in it is expressly treated as fiction and enthusiastic dreaming:and yet, what is also characteristic, Novalis soon returned to this book, and it remained his favorite reading to the end of his life.
What distinguishes Goethe for French and English readers is a property which he shares with his nation,a habitual reference to interior truth. In England and in America there is a respect for talent; and, if it is exerted in support of any ascertained or intelligible interest or party, or in regular opposition to any, the public is satisfied. In France there is even a greater delight in intellectual brilliancy for its own sake. And in all these countries, men of talent write from talent. It is enough if the understanding is occupied, the taste propitiated,so many columns, so many hours, filled in a lively and creditable way. The German intellect wants the French sprightliness, the fine practical understanding of the English, and the American adventure; but it has a certain probity, which never rests in a superficial performance, but asks steadily, To what end? A German public asks for a controlling sincerity. Here is activity of thought; but what is it for? What does the man mean? Whence, whence all these thoughts?16
Talent alone can not make a writer. There must be a man behind the book; a personality which by birth and quality is pledged to the doctrines there set forth, and which exists to see and state things so, and not otherwise; holding things because they are things. If he can not rightly express himself to-day, the same things subsist and will open themselves to-morrow. There lies the burden on his mind,the burden of truth to be declared,more or less understood; and it constitutes his business and calling in the world to see those facts through, and to make them known. What signifies that he trips and stammers; that his voice is harsh or hissing; that his method or his tropes are inadequate? That message will find method and imagery, articulation and melody. Though he were dumb it would speak. If not,if there be no such Gods word in the man,what care we how adroit, how fluent, how brilliant he is?
It makes a great difference to the force of any sentence whether there be a man behind it or no. In the learned journal, in the influential newspaper, I discern no form; only some irresponsible shadow; oftener some moneyed corporation, or some dangler who hopes, in the mask and robes of his paragraph, to pass for somebody. But through every clause and part of speech of a right book I meet the eyes of the most determined of men; his force and terror inundate every word; the commas and dashes are alive; so that the writing is athletic and nimble,can go far and live long.
In England and America, one may be an adept in the writings of a Greek or Latin poet, without any poetic taste or fire. That a man has spent years on Plato and Proclus, does not afford a presumption that he holds heroic opinions, or undervalues the fashions of his town.17 But the German nation have the most ridiculous good faith on these subjects: the student, out of the lecture-room, still broods on the lessons; and the professor can not divest himself of the fancy that the truths of philosophy have some application to Berlin and Munich. This earnestness enables them to outsee men of much more talent. Hence almost all the valuable distinctions which are current in higher conversation have been derived to us from Germany. But whilst men distinguished for wit and learning, in England and France, adopt their study and their side with a certain levity, and are not understood to be very deeply engaged, from grounds of character, to the topic or the part they espouse,Goethe, the head and body of the German nation, does not speak from talent, but the truth shines through: he is very wise, though his talent often veils his wisdom. How ever excellent his sentence is, he has somewhat better in view. It awakens my curiosity. He has the formidable independence which converse with truth gives: hear you, or forbear, his fact abides; and your interest in the writer is not confined to his story and he dismissed from memory when he has performed his task creditably, as a baker when he has left his loaf; but his work is the least part of him. The old Eternal Genius who built the world has confided himself more to this man than to any other.
I dare not say that Goethe ascended to the highest grounds from which genius has spoken. He has not worshipped the highest unity; he is incapable of a self-surrender to the moral sentiment. There are nobler strains in poetry than any he has sounded. There are writers poorer in talent, whose tone is purer, and more touches the heart. Goethe can never be dear to men. His is not even the devotion to pure truth; but to truth for the sake of culture. He has no aims less large than the conquest of universal nature, of universal truth, to be his portion: a man not to be bribed, nor deceived, nor overawed; of a stoical self-command and self-denial, and having one test for all men,What can you teach me? All possessions are valued by him for that only; rank, privileges, health, time, Being itself.
He is the type of culture, the amateur of all arts and sciences and events; artistic, but not artist; spiritual, but not spiritualist. There is nothing he had not right to know: there is no weapon in the armory of universal genius he did not take into his hand, but with peremptory heed that he should not be for a moment prejudiced by his instruments. He lays a ray of light under every fact, and between himself and his dearest property. From him nothing was hid, nothing withholden. The lurking dæmons sat to him, and the saint who saw the dæmons; and the metaphysical elements took form. Piety itself is no aim, but only a means whereby through purest inward peace we may attain to highest culture. And his penetration of every secret of the fine arts will make Goethe still more statuesque. His affections help him, like women employed by Cicero to worm out the secret of conspirators. Enmities he has none. Enemy of him you may be,if so you shall teach him aught which your good-will can not, were it only what experience will accrue from your ruin. Enemy and welcome, but enemy on high terms. He can not hate anybody; his time is worth too much. Temperamental antagonisms may be suffered, but like feuds of emperors, who fight dignifiedly across kingdoms.18
His autobiography, under the title of Poetry and Truth out of my Life, is the expression of the ideanow familiar to the world through the German mind, but a novelty to England, Old and New, when that book appearedthat a man exists for culture; not for what he can accomplish, but for what can be accomplished in him. The reaction of things on the man is the only noteworthy result. An intellectual man can see himself as a third person; therefore his faults and delusions interest him equally with his successes. Though he wishes to prosper in affairs, he wishes more to know the history and destiny of man; whilst the clouds of egotists drifting about him are only interested in a low success.
This idea reigns in the Dichtung and Wahrheit and directs the selection of the incidents; and nowise the external importance of events, the rank of the personages, or the bulk of incomes. Of course the book affords slender materials for what would be reckoned with us a Life of Goethe;few dates, no correspondence, no details of offices or employments, no light on his marriage; and a period of ten years, that should be the most active in his life, after his settlement at Weimar, is sunk in silence. Meantime certain love affairs that came to nothing, as people say, have the strangest importance: he crowds us with details:certain whimsical opinions, cosmogonies and religions of his own invention, and especially his relations to remarkable minds and to critical epochs of thought:these he magnifies. His Daily and Yearly Journal, his Italian Travels, his Campaign in France and the historical part of his Theory of Colors, have the same interest. In the last, he rapidly notices Kepler, Roger Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Voltaire, etc.; and the charm of this portion of the book consists in the simplest statement of the relation betwixt these grandees of European scientific history and himself; the mere drawing of the lines from Goethe to Kepler, from Goethe to Bacon, from Goethe to Newton. The drawing of the line is, for the time and person, a solution of the formidable problem, and gives pleasure when Iphigenia and Faust do not, without any cost of invention comparable to that of Iphigenia and Faust.
This lawgiver of art is not an artist. Was it that he knew too much, that his sight was microscopic and interfered with the just perspective, the seeing of the whole? He is fragmentary; a writer of occasional poems and of an encyclopædia of sentences. When he sits down to write a drama or a tale, he collects and sorts his observations from a hundred sides, and combines them into the body as fitly as he can. A great deal refuses to incorporate: this he adds loosely as letters of the parties, leaves from their journals, or the like. A great deal still is left that will not find any place. This the bookbinder alone can give any cohesion to; and hence, notwithstanding the looseness of many of his works, we have volumes of detached paragraphs, aphorisms, Xenien,19 etc.
I suppose the worldly tone of his tales grew out of the calculations of self-culture. It was the infirmity of an admirable scholar, who loved the world out of gratitude; who knew where libraries, galleries, architecture, laboratories, savans and leisure were to be had, and who did not quite trust the compensations of poverty and nakedness. Socrates loved Athens; Montaigne, Paris; and Madame de Staël said she was only vulnerable on that side (namely, of Paris). It has its favorable aspect. All the geniuses are usually so ill-assorted and sickly that one is ever wishing them somewhere else. We seldom see anybody who is not uneasy or afraid to live. There is a slight blush of shame on the cheek of good men and aspiring men, and a spice of caricature. But this man was entirely at home and happy in his century and the world. None was so fit to live, or more heartily enjoyed the game. In this aim of culture, which is the genius of his works, is their power. The idea of absolute, eternal truth, without reference to my own enlargement by it, is higher. The surrender to the torrent of poetic inspiration is higher; but compared with any motives on which books are written in England and America, this is very truth, and has the power to inspire which belongs to truth. Thus has he brought back to a book some of its ancient might and dignity.
Goethe, coming into an over-civilized time and country, when original talent was oppressed under the load of books and mechanical auxiliaries and the distracting variety of claims, taught men how to dispose of this mountainous miscellany and make it subservient. I join Napoleon with him, as being both representatives of the impatience and reaction of nature against the morgue of conventions,two stern realists, who, with their scholars, have severally set the axe at the root of the tree of cant and seeming, for this time and for all time. This cheerful laborer, with no external popularity or provocation, drawing his motive and his plan from his own breast, tasked himself with stints for a giant, and without relaxation or rest, except by alternating his pursuits, worked on for eighty years with the steadiness of his first zeal.
It is the last lesson of modern science that the highest simplicity of structure is produced, not by few elements, but by the highest complexity. Man is the most composite of all creatures; the wheel-insect, volvox globator, is at the other extreme. We shall learn to draw rents and revenues from the immense patrimony of the old and the recent ages. Goethe teaches courage, and the equivalence of all times; that the disadvantages of any epoch exist only to the faint-hearted. Genius hovers with his sunshine and music close by the darkest and deafest eras. No mortgage, no attainder, will hold on men or hours. The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world. The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know; in the high refinement of modern life, in arts, in sciences, in books, in men, to exact good faith, reality and a purpose; and first, last, midst and without end, to honor every truth by use.20
Note 1. In the third decade of the nineteenth century New England was introduced to German thought and literature by Everett, Frothingham, Norton, Ticknor and others of her brilliant or ambitious scholars, returning from foreign travel, and from courses at continental universities to which they had been incited by the study of Coleridge. In his Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England, in the volume Lectures and Biographical Sketches, Mr. Emerson tells of the awakening influence of this breeze from Germany when he was an undergraduate and a divinity student. His older brother William, destined, like his ancestry for several generations, for the ministry, graduating from Harvard at the age of seventeen, had after four years of school-teaching gone to Göttingen to study, as soon as the earnings of Ralph and Edward left him free to leave the family, of which since his fathers death he had shared with his mother the heavy responsibility. Williams mind was exact and judicial and his conscience active. The German philosophy and the Biblical criticism shook his belief in the forms and teachings of the religion in which he had been brought up. There is a letter, still preserved in the family, to his honored step-grandfather, the Rev. Ezra Ripley of Concord, in which he respectfully but with great clearness states his reasons for thinking that the rite of the Lords Supper was not authoritatively established by Jesus for perpetual observance as a sacrament by Christians. His brother Waldo several years later parted with his church on this issue, and, in his sermon explaining his reasons, does not urge primarily his own feeling that, as a form, it is a hindrance rather than a help to true devotion and unsuited to our race and our day, but enters, in a way unusual and remarkable for him, into a critical and systematic consideration of the scriptural authorities for the rite. There is hardly room for doubt that this argument was supplied by the elder brother. To William, beset by distressing doubt at Göttingen, it occurred that, but eighty miles away at Weimar, lived the wisest man of the age. He forthwith sought him out, was kindly received, and laid his doubts before him. He hoped, no doubt, that Goethe could clear these up, and show some way in which he could honorably and sincerely exercise the priestly office. The counsel which he received was in effectfor unhappily there is no written record and the story rests on family traditionto persevere in his profession, comply with the usual forms, preach as best he could, and not trouble his family and his hearers with his doubts. Happily the youth, at this parting of the ways where the great mind of the age acted the part of the Tempter, turned his back, and again listened to the inward voice. He left the ancestral path, gave up at the age of twenty-four his plan of life for which he had been with diligence and sacrifice preparing himself, and studied law. He was an honorable and successful practitioner, but his standard of work, and the sacrifices and heroic asceticism of his early life made him a sufferer all his days. This counsel of Goethes to William to do the expedient, not the heroic, must have made a lasting impression on the younger brothers mind, and, soon after, Wilhelm Meister, translated by Carlyle in 1824, must, in spite of its breadth and its fascination, have shocked the young New England minister with its lax continental morals. After his visit to Carlyle at Ecclefechan in 1834, his love for and faith in his friend led Emerson to comply with his urgency that he study Goethe. For Carlyles sake immediately on his return he procured Goethes Collected Works in the original and, hitherto unacquainted with German, set himself to read them in the original.
NOVEMBER 20, 1834.
Far, far better seems to me the unpopularity of this Philosophical Poem (shall I call it?), Sartor Resartus, than the adulation that followed your eminent friend Goethe. With him I am becoming better acquainted, but mine must be a qualified admiration. It is a singular piece of good-nature in you to apotheosize him. I cannot but regard it as his misfortune, with conspicuous bad influence on his genius,that velvet life he led . Then the Puritan in me accepts no apology for bad morals in such as he. We can tolerate vice in a splendid nature whilst that nature is battling with the brute majority in defence of some human principle. The sympathy his manhood and his misfortunes call out adopts even his faults; but genius pampered, acknowledged, crowned, can only retain our sympathy by turning the same force once expended against outward enemies now against inward, and carrying forward and planting the standard of Oromasdes so many leagues farther on into the envious Dark. In his answer Carlyle said: I will tell you in a word why I like Goethe: his is the only healthy mind, of any extent, that I have discovered in Europe for long generations; it was he that first convincingly proclaimed to me (convincingly, for I saw it done): Behold, even in this scandalous Sceptico-Epicurean generation, when all is gone but hunger and cant, it is still possible that Man be a Man! For which last Evangel, the confirmation and rehabilitation of all other Evangels whatsoever, how can I be too grateful? On the whole, I suspect you yet know only Goethe the Heathen (Ethnic); but you will know Goethe the Christian by and by, and like that one far better. In the journal of 1836 Mr. Emerson records that he has been reading our wise, but sensual, loved and hated Goethe, on the open secret of life: There sits he at the centre of all visibles and knowables, blowing bubble after bubble, so transparent, so round, so coloured, that he thinks and you think they are pretty good miniatures of the all. Such attempts are all his minor poems, proverbs, Xenien, parables. Have you read the Welt Seele? The danger of such attempts as this striving to write universal poetry is,that nothing is so shabby as to fail. Yes, you may write an ill romance or play, and t is no great matter. Better men have done so; but when what should be greatest truths flat out into shallow truisms, then are we all sick. But much I fear that Time, the serene Judge, will not be able to make out so good a verdict for Goethe as did and doth Carlyle. I am afraid that under his faith is no-faith,that under his love is love-of-ease. However his mind is Catholic as ever any was. Affection for Carlyle gave at first a great impulse towards the work of tunnelling through this mountain of universal learning in hard German, which never became easy for Mr. Emerson to read, but as he read, real interest grew in this mighty mind and the eye which
bounded to the horizons edge
And searched with the suns privilege.
In writing to his friend in April, 1840, Mr. Emerson said: You asked me if I read German, and I forget if I have answered. I have contrived to read almost every volume of Goethe, and I have fifty-five, but I have read nothing else [i.e. in German]: but I have not now looked even into Goethe for a long time. There is no great need that I should discourse to you on books, least of all on his books; but in a lecture on Literature, in my course last winter, I blurted all my nonsense on that subject, and who knows but Margaret Fuller may be glad to print it and send it to you? This paper appeared in the Dial in Thoughts on Modern Literature, now included in the volume Natural History of Intellect. Though Goethe opened vistas of knowledge and thought, the gods were speaking in the breath of the wood a purer word, and the new day shed fresher light on things and men. So he wrote in one of the pocket volumes:
Six thankful weeks,and let it be
A meter of prosperity,
In my coat I bore this book,
And seldom therein could I look,
For I had too much to think,
Heaven and earth to eat and drink.
Is he hapless who can spare
In his plenty things so rare?
Always in his praise of Goethe there was a reserve, a protest spoken or unspoken, but, with all abatements, he acknowledged the debt of mankind to him. In the essay in this volume it is noticeable how he refrains from the obvious criticisms of Goethes morals, of which he thought enough had been said in Old and New England. He wrote, in 1844, of strictures by a clergyman on Goethes religious speculations: pleased the people of Boston by railing at Goethe in his Phi Beta Kappa oration because Goethe was not a New England Calvinist. If our lovers of greatness and goodness after a local type and standard could expand their scope a little, they would see that a worshipper of truth, and a most subtle perceiver of truth like Goethe, with his impatience of all falsehood and scorn of hypocrisy, was a far more useful man and incomparably more helpful ally to religion than ten thousand lukewarm church members who keep all the traditions and leave a tithe of their estates to establish them. But this clergyman should have known that the movement which in America created these Unitarian dissenters of which he is one, began in the mind of this great man he traduces; that he is precisely the individual in whom the new ideas appeared and opened to their greatest extent and with universal application, which more recently the active scholars in the different departments of Science, of State, and of the Church have carried in parcels and thimblefuls to their petty occasions. In the Poems he bids the severe critic of the dead Goethes shortcomings consider, instead, his great debt to him for his vast achievement.
Note 2. The old doctrine of the Flowing again in the living record of the living, changing fact,flowing Nature as the apparition of the living God. Going down to the river, whether of Memory or Experience, we find the river the same, but the waters not those of yesterday. The motto of Spiritual Laws is suggested here. [back]
Note 3. As a further instance of his doctrine of Compensation, Mr. Emerson might have mentioned that when the great anatomist Vesalius had the luck to have this vivisecting experiment performed for him by the amiable Sultan, he was on an enforced pilgrimage to the Holy Land at the edict of the Inquisition in expiation of his heresy in saying that Galens descriptions, being founded on dissections of animals, were incorrect concerning men. [back]
Note 4. Let the scholar not quit his belief that a pop-gun is a pop-gun, though the ancient and honourable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.The American Scholar, Nature, Addresses and Lectures. [back]
Note 5. The thoughts of this paragraph are strongly presented in Aristocracy, and those in the next, on the importance and duty of the Writer, in The Scholar and The Man of Letters, all in Lectures and Biographical Sketches. [back]
Note 6. Having all respect, and more,wonder,at Goethes vast mental range and insight, and at his enormous work and achievement, Mr. Emerson chooses instructive, and no stronger word; for, as to duties, he felt that the lesson was in what was done, and what left undone. [back]
Note 7. Journal, 1851. Goethe is the pivotal man of the old and new times with us. He shuts up the old, he opens the new. No matter that you were born since Goethe died,if you have not read Goethe, or the Goethans, you are an old fogy, and belong with the antediluvians. [back]
Note 8. Journal, 1836. Goethe the observer. What sagacity! what industry of observation! what impatience of words! To read Goethe is an economy of time; for you shall find no word that does not stand for a thing, and he is of that comprehension as to see the value of truth. But I am provoked with his Olympian self-complacency. Journal, 1837. A characteristic of Goethe is his choice of topics. What an eye for the measure of things! Perhaps he is out in regard to Byron, but not of Shakespeare; and in Byron he has grasped all the peculiarities. Paper money; periods of belief; cheerfulness of the poet; French Revolution; how just are his views of these trite things! What a multitude of opinions and how few blunders! The estimate of Sterne I suppose to be one. [back]
Note 9. Journal, 1851. One listens to the magnifying of Goethes poem by his critic, and replies, Yes, it is good, if you all agree to come in, and be pleased; and you fall into another company and mood, and like it not. It is so with Wordsworth. But to Shakespeare alone God granted the power to dispense with the humours of his company. They must needs all take his. He is always good; and Goethe knew it, and said, It is as idle to compare Tieck to me as me to Shakespeare. I looked through the first part of Faust to-day and found it a little too modern and intelligible. We can make such a fabric at several mills, though a little inferior [referring to Baileys Festus and Brownings Paracelsus]. The miraculous, the beauty which we can manufacture at no mill, can give no account of, it wants. The cheerful, radiant, profuse beauty of which Shakespeare, of which Chaucer, had the secret. Some of the above extracts and more concerning Faust are printed in Papers from the Dial; Thoughts on Modern Literature, in the volume Natural History of Intellect. Again of the second part of Faust he wrote in the journal of 1843: In Helena, Faust is sincere and represents actual cultivated, strong-natured man. The book would be farrago without the sincerity of Faust. I think the second part of Faust the grandest enterprise of literature that has been attempted since the Paradise Lost. Journal, Aug. 18, 1832. To be genuine. Goethe, they say, was wholly so. The difficulty increases with the gifts of the individual. A ploughboy can be, but a minister, an orator, an ingenious thinker, how hardly! George Fox was. What I am in words, he said, I am the same in life. Swedenborg was. My writings will be found, he said, another self. George Washington was,the irreproachable Washington. [back]
Note 10. This line is probably a translation from some Arabic or Persian source, from the connection in which it appears in the note-book. [back]
Note 11. Journal, 1831. As Historys best use is to enhance our estimate of the present hour, so the value of such an observer as Goethe, who draws out of our consciousness some familiar fact, and makes it glorious by showing it in the light of this [hour], is this, that he makes us prize all our being by suggesting its inexhaustible wealth; for we feel that all our experience is thus convertible into jewels. He moves our wonder at the mystery of our life. [back]
Note 12. Journal, 1839. Goethe unlocks the faculties of the artist more than any writer. He teaches us to treat all subjects with greater freedom, and to skip over all obstruction, time, place, name, usage, and come full and strong on the emphasis of the fact. Journal, 1856. When Goethe says, Nature, love, truth, insight, it is quite another thing than if some one else used those words. [back]
Note 13. In the essay called Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England, Mr. Emerson thus spoke of the first part of Faust, always distasteful to him: The age of arithmetic and of criticism has set in the age of analysis and detachment . In literature the effect appeared in the decided tendency of criticism. The most remarkable literary work of the age has for its hero and subject precisely this introversion: I mean the poem of Faust. And again in The Man of Letters in the same volume he says: Our profoundest philosophy (if it were not contradiction in terms) is skepticism. The great poem of the age is the disagreeable poem of Faust, of which the Festus of Bailey and the Paracelsus of Browning are English variations. Goethe, the surprising intellect of modern times, apprehends the spiritual but is not spiritual. [back]
Note 14. Among the few novels that Mr. Emerson read he always praised Consuelo. [back]
Note 15. One merit noted in Wilhelm Meister is this, from the journal: Goethe certainly had good thoughts on the subject of female culture. How respectful to woman and hopeful are the portraits in Wilhelm Meister. The book is considered at some length in the Thoughts on Modern Literature. In its realism Mr. Emerson finds thus much to his liking,an eventual good coming out of mistakes and failures, a Power
Forging, through swart arms of offence,
The silver seat of Innocence.
But he regrets that a mind like Goethes chooses to paint the Actual. He sets him down as the poet of this, and not of the Ideal, the poet of limitation, not of possibility; of this world, and not of religion and hope; in short, if we may say so, the poet of prose, and not of poetry. He accepts the base doctrine of Fate, and gleans what straggling joys may yet remain out of its ban. Lacking a moral sense proportionate to his powers, the cardinal fact of health or disease he failed in the high sense to be a creator, and, with divine endowments, drops by irreversible decree into the common history of genius. [back]
Note 16. Journal, 1844. Goethe with his extraordinary breadth of experience and culture, the security with which, like a great continental gentleman, he looks impartially over all literatures of the mountains, the provinces and the sea, and avails himself of the best in all, contrasts with the vigour of the English, and superciliousness and flippancy of the French. His perfect taste, the austere felicity of his style. It is delightful to find our own thought in so great a man. [back]
Note 17. But a few years after this passage was written Mr. Emerson had occasion to write the like with more vigor and feeling concerning American statesmen; as thus: Very little reliance must be put on the common stories that circulate of this great senators or that great barristers learning, their Greek, their varied literature. That ice wont bear. Reading! do you mean that this senator or that lawyer who stood by and allowed the passage of infamous laws was a reader of Greek books? That is not the question, but to what purpose did they read . They read that they might know, did they not? Well, these men did not know . They were utterly ignorant of that which every boy or girl of fifteen knows perfectly,the rights of men and women. The Man of Letters, Lectures and Biographical Sketches. [back]
Note 18. Yet Mr. Emerson felt that Goethe fell short of the highest culture thus elsewhere defined by him: The foundation of culture, as of character, is at last the moral sentiment. This is the fountain of power, preserves its eternal newness, draws its own rent out of every novelty of science. Science corrects the old creeds . Yet it does not surprise the moral sentiment. That was older, and awaited expectant these larger insights.Progress of Culture, Letters and Social Aims. [back]
Note 19. Xenien, from the Greek, was used by Goethe and Schiller to denote epigrams. [back]
Note 20. Some unfinished verses of Emersons, which scarce need an ending, may serve perhaps for the moral.