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It is always by casting these isolated piercing glances in two or three directions that Goethe produces his vivid impressions. When Hermann and Dorothea, for instance, are walking by moonlight to the village, there is no attempt to paint the scene; but each object, as it comes in view, is made to flash on the eye of the reader. Thus :
6' How sweet is the glorious moonshine, as clear it is as the daylight;
I can surely see in the town the houses and courtyards quite plainly,
shadow.” When Goethe returned from Italy in 1788, his genius had reached its highest maturity. Faust (his greatest work) was virtually written, though afterwards modified, and not published for eighteen years. Iphigenia and Egmont had received their last touches, and Tasso was all but finished. The really fine part of Wilhelm Meister was in existence; all that he added afterwards was a dreary superinduced element of “high art," a painful “hall of the past,” — except indeed the religious episode, which is a study from memory, a reproduction of the “experience” of a gentle mystic whom both he and his mother had dearly loved. Hermann und Dorothea is the only great poem of any length which he wrote afterwards, in 1796, and it is far the most perfect, though not the richest of them all.
During his Italian residence he had only fallen in love once. He returned reluctantly to the north, like a child from a Christmas visit, feeling that every thing at home was old and slow, and that he, coming from the sweet south, was bringing “gold for brass, what was worth a hundred oxen for what was worth ten.” Even the Frau von Stein was tedious; the Italian lady. had displaced her. In this mood he fell in with Christiane Vulpius, a girl of no culture and considerably lower rank than himself, who, after being for seventeen years his mistress, became in 1806 his wife. There can be no doubt that he was passionately in love at first, and that this passion ripened afterwards into a real and deeper affection, which had sufficient strength, when he found his heart attracted to another, to enable him to resist the danger and remain faithful to the mother of his child, in spite of serious estranging influences arising from her intemper
Goethe's connection with Christiane, if judged by the lax morality of his age,—by which alone we can fairly judge him, when we have once admitted, as we must do, that he was in no way morally purer than his age—that, indeed, in his estimate of these matters he had become less pure since his resi
289 dence in Weimar,—was surely not the most guilty of his life. It is in its origin that it is most offensive. That he should either allow himself to encourage passion without love, and feel no horror, no self-abasement, but rather immortalise it by using it as literary capital for “elegies;” or, on the other hand, if he did feel real love for this poor girl, that he could endure to write about her to friends in the tone of his letters to the Frau von Stein,-is one of those facts concerning Goethe which makes one feel that a wider gulf divided his nature from purity and fidelity than any merely passionate sins could create. During the first months of his liaison he writes, in answer to the Frau von Stein's remonstrances, “And what is this relation? Who is beggared by it? Who lays any claim to the feelings I give to the poor creature? who to the hours I pass with her ?” And again: “I will say nothing in excuse; but I beg thee to help me, so that the relation which is so objectionable to thee may not become yet worse, but remain as it is. Give me thy confidence again ; look at the thing in a natural light; allow me to speak to thee quietly and reasonably about it, and I may hope that all will be once more right between us. That a man should write in this tone about a woman he really loved, and keep her in so humiliating a position, in which he knew that she was a mark for the contempt of his friends, is hardly credible. And yet, if he did not really love her, that he should have felt no selfreproach and disgust at his own conduct, while he calmly worked it up into poetry, is still more revolting and still more incredible. The truth seems to be that he did really love her, and yet was insensible to the dishonour to himself and to her implied in writing and thinking of his relation to her in this way, and per
, mitting his friends' neglect. Mr. Lewes says that Christiane declared later she had herself resisted the marriage. Possibly she may have wished to excuse Goethe; possibly it really was so; but the decision lay with him, and no false theories can relieve him from the charge of permitting a permanent dishonour to rest upon the woman who was to him in the place of a wife. He took her to live with him immediately on the birth of his son, and never again forsook her. But we may well believe, that one great exciting cause for the habits of intemperance in her which caused him so much misery was the consciousness of her miserable position in society,--slighted as she was by the very friends whom Goethe most honoured and loved, Goethe permitting the slight. Schiller never seems to have sent her one greeting in his letters, nor even alludes to her existence; while Goethe's messages to Schiller's wife are constant and courteous. Contrasts of this kind should surely have stung him to the quick, if he really honoured and loved her as a wife.
Since Mr. Lewes's book was published, letters have appeared from Goethe and his wife to Dr. Nicolaus Meyer of Bremen, a medical student in Jena in 1798, who resided in Goethe's house in the winter 1799-1800. The correspondence adds little to what we knew; but the letters from Christiane Vulpius (who in 1806 became Christiane Goethe) confirm Mr. Lewes's conception of her as an uncultivated but not vulgar person; and one or two show great depth of feeling. The editor intimates that they were poorly spelt and worse written; but in those days many ladies of rank had little knowledge of this kind. The lettersboth Goethe's and his wife's—are mostly about herrings, butter, and port wine. Goethe's letters are seldom very good.
He saved up his best things for type. One does not expect literary merit from Christiane Vulpius. But her letters are simple, housewifely, and friendly. It seems she had a genius for jams, which had in part gained her Meyer's esteem. Parts of one or two letters, written in 1805, during a dangerous illness of Goethe's, give a glimpse of the thread of pain in her life. She tells Meyer that Goethe has now for three months back never had an hour of health, and frequently periods when one fancies he must die. Think only of me who have not, excepting yourself and him, a single friend in the world ; and you, dear friend, by reason of the distance, are as good as lost. . . . Here there is no friend to whom I could tell all that lies on my heart. I might have many; but I cannot again form such a friendship with any one, and shall be forced to tread my path alone.” Seldom, indeed, in these letters, does she express feeling of this kind, which gives it more meaning when it is expressed. She says again, "I live a life of pure anxiety.” Then she writes a better account, adding, that though better, she fears “it is but patchwork. O God, when I think a time may come when I may stand absolutely alone, many a cheerful hour is made wretched.”* The sentence in which Goethe announces to Meyer, in 1806, his own marriage, is characteristic. He speaks of the French occupation of Weimar, and the misery it caused, and adds: “In order to cheer these sad days with a festivity, I and my little home-friend (Hausfreundinn) yesterday resolved to enter with full formality into the state of holy matrimony, with which notification, I entreat you to send us a good supply of butter and other provisions that will bear carriage.”
* We have before alluded to the fact, that Goethe's passion for Minna Herzlieb gave rise to his novel of the Elective Affinities, and is depicted in the love of Edward for Ottilie. It seems, now, not improbable that Meyer's friendship for Christiane Vulpius at least suggested the relation of the Captain to Charlotte in the same novel. He must have been at least six or seven years younger than Christiane, as he was born in 1775. But it seems from these letters that the friendship between them had been strong, and not without sentiment. Christiane keeps Meyer's picture in her room, and speaks of the constant pleasure and comfort that she derived from looking at it. It was after, and immediately after, Meyer's own marriage in 1806, that Goethe determined on this step, and announced it to him in the curious form given above. There is no allusion at all to her marriage in any of Christiane's letters to Meyer. She speaks of his own marriage thus : “I have been especially pleased to hear that you have at last resolved to enter the state of holy matrimony, in which I heartily wish you happiness, and believe that you will also be convinced of these my sentiments.” Meyer and his wife visited 'Weimar on their wedding journey : a great chasm in the correspondence occurs immediately afterwards.
On the friendship for Schiller, and the other influences which surrounded Goethe's later years, we have no space left to comment. Early in the new century, Goethe's growing attachment to Minna Herzlieb seems to have given rise to one of the richest groups of minor poems that he ever wrote; and of one of these so beautiful a translation has come into our hands, that we venture to hope it will at least convey some feeling of the charm of Goethe's little ballads :
The Will Castle.
Aloft stands a castle hoary
Seemed a gay entertainment to burst
Goethe seems ultimately to have battled firmly with, and finally subdued, the affection which thus renewed the freshness of his poetry with a second spring of even greater beauty than the first; but the whole story, as he has embodied it in the Elective Affinities, is a thoroughly repulsive one, and no mind but one so destitute as Goethe's of natural awe and remorse for the most humiliating class of sins, could have given such experience publicity in a work of art. The book betrays, in spite of its power, some of the diffuseness of age; a very great part of it is devoted to describing the laying down of a new gravel-walk and the making of a summer-house.
In 1816 his wife died; and Goethe's burst of grief was very great. We are told* that he utterly lost his presence of mind, kneeled down beside her deathbed, and seizing her hands, cried out, “ Thou wilt not forsake me! No, no; thou durst not forsake me.” The verse he wrote on the day of her death has more true affection than all his poems of passion together.
The last sixteen years of Goethe's life were passed in tranquil labour at the completion of his unfinished works. Now and then he wrote a lovely little poem. In 1818, when he was in his 70th year, came one of those little flashes of song which, he tells
• Preface to Meyer's Correspondence.