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American writer,* and represents so truly a characteristic phase of Goethe's mind, that we give it as a pendant to Mr. Lewes's translation from the Prometheus.
“ Within my ear there rings that ancient song,
Forgotten was it and forgotten gladly, -
• The gods be your terror,
Ye children of men;
• Mr. N. L. Frothingham. “Metrical Pieces, translated and original.” Boston, Crosby and Nichols, 1855. A word or two is altered.
That terrible music
The metre, like the thought, has a heathen cast. It speaks of cold elevation above all human prayers.
In the autumn of 1786 Goethe “stole away" from Carlsbad, having received secret permission from the duke, for a lengthened journey in Italy which had long been the dream of his life. Mr. Lewes has made no use of the finely characteristic touches which Goethe's journal-letters of this tour contain. He speaks of them as of little interest. To us they seem the most fascinating and delightful of the prose works of Goethe. They not only illustrate his character, as it showed itself in the quiet isolated study of beauty, but they explain more than any other of his works the common ground in his mind where science and poetry met. We must give two very characteristic glimpses into his character which the incidents of this journey furnish. On his way to Venice he turned aside to visit the Lago di Garda, and took his way down the lake in a boat. A strong south wind obliged them to put in to Malsesina, on the east side of the lake, a little spot in the Venetian territory close to the (then) boundary between the Venetian and Austrian states. Goethe went up to sketch the old dismantled castle. He was absolutely alone and unknown—had not even introductions to any authorities in Venice. The stranger was observed, and soon many of the villagers had assembled round him with signs of displeasure. One man seized his drawing, and tore it up. Others fetched the podesta. Goethe found that he was taken for an Austrian spy sent to make drawings of the strong points on their boundary. The podesta's clerk was threatening, the podesta himself was a captive to his clerk. Goethe was near being sent as a prisoner to Verona to account for his conduct. Instead of feeling nervous and embarrassed, however, he was enjoying the scene, and undertaking to instruct the Italian peasants in the pleasures and pursuits of an artist. “I stood on my steps, leaning with my back against the door, and surveyed the constantly increasing crowd. The curious dull glances, the good-natured expression in most faces, and all that usually characterises a mob, gave me the most agreeable impression." He assured them all, in his best Italian, that he drew for beauty and not for political designs. He explained that they could not possibly see so much beauty in the old castle, which they had known all their lives, as he did. The morning sun threw tower, walls, and rocks into the most picturesque light, and he began to describe the picture to them with a painter's enthusiasm. These picturesque objects being,
however, in the rear of his audience, who did not wish to turn quite away from him, “they twisted round their heads like the birds which they call wrynecks,' in order to see with their eyes what I was thus glorifying to their ears."
This ridiculous scene vividly reminded Goethe of the “chorus of birds” in the play of Aristophanes, and with intense amusement, he would not let them off without a detailed dissertation on every element of beauty in the picture, particularly dwelling on the ivy which hung about the walls. His presence of mind extricated him from the scrape.
A still more characteristic incident occurs on his voyage from Sicily back to Naples. The ship should bave passed the straits between the Island of Capri and the mainland. Evening came on; Vesuvius glowed brightly; sheet-lightning was in the air; it was a dead calm; the captain had missed the course; a very slow but decided under-current was drifting them straight on the rocks of Capri; the herdsmen were visible on the rocks, shouting that the ship would strand; on deck was a crowd of Italian peasants—men, women, and children; handkerchiefs were held up to try and find a breath of air by which they might be saved; the women screamed reproaches on the captain, and all was shrieking and confusion. “I,” says Goethe, “to whom anarchy had ever been more hateful than death itself, found it impossible to be longer silent. I stood up, and represented to them that their cries and shrieks were stunning the ears and brains of those from whom alone help could be expected. As for you, I said, retire into yourselves, and then put up your most fervent prayers to the Mother of God, with whom it alone rests, whether she will intercede with her Son to do for you what He once did for the apostles, when, on the stormy lake of Tiberias, the waves were already washing into the ship while the Lord slept; and yet, when the helpless disciples awakened Him, He immediately commanded the winds to be still, as He can now command the breeze to blow, if it be His holy will.” These words had the best effect. The women fell on their knees, left off abusing the captain, and fell to prayer. They were so near the rocks, that the men seized hold of beams to stave the ship off, directly they should be able to reach them. “My sea-sickness, which returned in spite of all this, compelled me to go down to the cabin. I threw myself half-stunned on my mattress, and yet with a certain pleasant sensation, which seemed to emanate from the sea of Tiberias; for the picture in Merian's illustrated Bible hovered quite clearly before my eyes. And thus the force of all sensuous-moral impressions is always strongest when men are quite thrown back into themselves." Goethe lay here “ halfasleep,” with death impending, till his companion came down to inform him a light breeze had just sprung up to save them. There is no incident more characteristic of the calm self-possessed artist in Goethe's whole life: the “musician adapting himself to his instrument;" playing thus skilfully on strings which were deficient in his own mind, in order to bring out tones of feeling for which there were ulterior reasons; then lying down to dream so vividly of what he really held to be but a picturesque legend, that all the awe of death was held at a distance by the vivid light of that “inward eye which is the bliss of solitude.” This one scene brings out the secret at once of the man's vast personal influence, and of the poet's yielding wax-like imagination, more vividly than any incident of his life. We wonder much that Mr. Lewes bas omitted to give it.
It was in his Italian journey that his poetic powers culminated, and that science and art met in his mind. You see the meeting-point in his descriptions of what he saw. He fits his mind so close to the objects he studies, that he not only takes off a perfect impression of their present condition, but becomes conscious of their secrets of tendency, and has often a glimpse back into what they have been. Goethe discovered, as is well known, that all the parts of a plant-stalk, leaf, stamen, petal, fruit-are but various modifications of the same essential germ, best exhibited in the leaf. It was a most characteristic discovery. But to understand the mental process by which it was made—to prove that it was not, in him, due to a mere scientific tendencyjust look at this glance of his into the essence of a quite different thing,—the amphitheatre, written at Verona : “It ought not to be seen empty, but quite full of men; for, properly speaking, such an amphitheatre is made in order to give the people the imposing spectacle of themselves, to amuse the people with themselves. If any thing worth looking at happens on a flat space, the hindmost seek in every possible way to get on higher ground than the foremost; they get on to benches, roll up casks, bring up carriages, and plank them over, cover any hill in the neighbourhood, and thus a crater forms itself. If the spectacle is often repeated, such a crater is artificially constructed," &c. Now this illustrates the way in which Goethe became so great in criticism, so great in science, so great in description, and so great in the more conscious and less inspired part of his poetry. He moulded himself with such flexible mind to every thing he studied, that he caught not only the existing present, but the state which had just preceded, the state which would follow; he caught the thread as it untwined, he caught not the “being" only (das Seyn), but the “becoming” (das Werden). He had no gift for experimental science. He did not even believe in laws of nature that did not make themselves felt on the living surface of things. He rejected “refractional” theories of light with scorn, because the coincidence that certain geometrical and arithmetical properties attach to the laws of colour (and it really is nothing more than a coincidence) did not explain in any way the living colours as they shine upon the eye. What is it to the living perception that the length of the wave is greater with the red ray than with the violet ray; does length explain any thing about colour? It is only a sort of inward thread of order running through the phenomena, which is quite independent of the essence of the phenomena as they affect the living organs of man. Goethe had no faculty at all for this experimental detection of aids to knowledge, which are not in any way aids to living insight. He thought it a kind of mathematical back-stair to optics, which it was mean to desire ; you ought to look the phenomenon livingly in the face, and explore its symptoms as you do the physiology of a plant or an animal. He used the microscope to detect what is really going on; but he despised an hypothesis which left the physiology of colour just where it was. Indeed, his science and his poetry and his descriptions alike were of the microscopic order; not that they had the confinement of the microscope, for his eye ranged freely; but we mean, that he rather pierced nature and life at many points in succession, letting in gleams of an indefinite vista every where, than combined all he conceived and saw in one co-existing whole. Look at his finest poems and descriptions. It is the intensely vivid gleam thrown on single spots, not the aspect of the whole, that makes you seem to see with your own eyes what he describes. Thus, in his finest poem, Hermann und Dorothea, every touch of description will illustrate what we mean. And the sense of breadth and freedom pervading it is given in the same way by transient glances sidewards and forwards, which open out little vistas of life in many directions, without completing them in any :
“ Und die Hengste rannten nach Hause, begierig des Stalles ;
Aber die Wolke des Staubes quoll unter den mächtigen Hufen.
Sah den Staub sich zerstreun; so stand er ohne Gedanken." What a vivid impression (it is only one or two strokes for a picture, not properly a picture) is here given, by means of pursuing a little side-path of insight into the feelings of horses, and then fixing the eye intensely just on that dreamy cloud of dust in the distance which would most catch the eye of a man in a reverie !
* And the horses started off home, pricking their ears for the stable,
But a cloud of dust grew under the rushing hoofs of their gallop. Long the youth stood still, and watched the dust whirling upwards, Watched the dust settle down,—thus stood he vacant in spirit.