Изображения страниц

than with him a higher happiness and ampler scope for its affections. Not that he did not love her. “Had I been obliged to renounce her,” he says many years after, “I will not undertake that I should not have become Werther." But the young Lotte's heart was already at home; she was wisely true to her first affection, for, as a husband, to have exchanged Kestner for Goethe, would have been to become the victim of a splendid illusion. One of those women in whom an innocent, almost childish gaiety of demeanour hides a gentle but firm will, clearsightedness in practical matters, and an instinctive control over those around them, she knew how to draw a proper line for her impetuous admirer, which it is clear from every part of the evidence he never ventured to transgress.

It is needless to say that she enjoyed his company, and was flattered by his devotion, and the frank Kestner gave him a place in his heart second only to that occupied by his lifelong friend, Von Hennings. The three were bound together in close and enduring ties. Perhaps it was the purest and deepest attachment Goethe ever experienced. His position indeed was a dangerous one for his own peace, if not for that of others. But he could at any moment be master of himself. His was one of those natures, which, while seeming to yield to every impulse of their being, and to be swept onward with irresistible and reckless speed, are really only enjoying the pace, and have a cool head and a steady hand upon the reins. They stop dead just at the edge of the precipice. They snap the bonds of habit and self-indulgence, and stand free. So here, suddenly and without leave-taking, Goethe tore himself from Wetzlar. It was well and wisely done, and not without effort; and we love rather to trust to the tone of some of these letters, and think that a disinterested regard for the peace and happiness of his friends, mingling with the suggestions of his own judgment, determined his conduct, than to believe with the autobiography, that he was tempted away by the desire to visit the Rhine in company with Merk, or that the approaching marriage of the lovers induced him “to withdraw voluntarily before he should be driven away by the sight of what would be intolerable."

The effort cost him much, and was a source of grief to the whole household. “Er ist fort,” he wrote to Kestner, “ He is gone, Kestner; when you receive this note, he is gone.” “I looked at the books and the note,” says Kestner, “ and thought of what it said, “He is gone,' and was quite cast down.” The children in the Teutsches Haus murmured sadly, “Dr. Goethe ist fort." The Privy Councilloress Langen thought him very ill

[ocr errors]

bred to go without leave-taking, and the tears stood in the lovely Lotte's eyes as she read his parting letter. Yet, on the whole, she was glad he was gone, as she had no heart left with which to reward his devotion. He left on the 11th of September, 1772, and never saw her again except on the occasion of a single day's visit to Wetzlar, until after he had attained his seventieth year, when she visited a sister at Weimar, herself at an advanced age, and the mother of twelve children.

Immediately after his departure, however, he commenced an active correspondence with Kestner, which was continued up to the death of the latter in 1800. It is Goethe's share in this (for Kestner's letters have not been preserved) which forms the bulk of the present work; to these (besides other unimportant additions) are annexed two or three simple and interesting letters of Kestner bearing on the same period.

This episode in Goethe's life is described briefly from his own remembrance in the “ Autobiography;" but these letters furnish a closer, truer view of his relations, in one direction at least. It is evident from them, that his heart was more deeply moved than his own account admits. Any indication of, and discrepancy between, the pictures, affords us some measure of the self-delineative value to be attached to these early remembrances, and may serve to put us on our guard against estimating Goethe's youthful character too closely by the cold and measured disquisitions of his age. Devoted to the idea of self-culture, with no object for his affections above and beyond himself, with no service to which to devote his gigantic powers and endowments, increasing years added to his vast knowledge of life and art, but wrapt him in a closer self-absorption, and his unused affections dwindled away like branches from which the sap is diverted; so that the records of his life are little more than an analysis and a history of his own development, and instead of a simple narrative, we have a philosophic investigation into how he came to be that which he was. Even when he writes of the bright, enchanting days of his fondest attachments, the heart is silent, and the imagination must supply its place. He can draw a picture of his love for Lili, full of the “ breath of earlier years ;” not because the heart has a faithful memory, but “because those scenes are poetical, and I can by the power of poetry supply the want of the youthful feelings of love."

And coldness and independence of heart were not only the unconscious results of a devotion to self-development, they were the cultivated fruits of Goethe's philosophy. His error was fatal and fundamental when he subordinated life to art, instead of art to life. And even granting that it be permissible

for a man to make art his religion, it is still surely a mistake to conceive that isolation of the heart is a true condition for the highest development of the artist; but so Goethe thought. Partly it was his nature. From his mother he inherited keen susceptibilities to pleasure and pain. Passion, call it rather fire, he had in abundance; but he wanted warmth, depth, and permanence of feeling. Justly called the “many-sided” in one point of view, there is another in which he presents one of the most remarkable instances that the world has seen of onesidedness of nature. He is a great creative artist, sustained purely by observation and intuition. He is incapacitated from approaching men by sympathy; he cannot extend his knowledge of the heart through the heart. So false a relative value does he place upon two parts of our nature, that he deliberately rates the sympathies of intellectual activity above those of the affections. Of Jacobi he says :

“His relation to me was peculiar. He loved me personally, without sympathizing with or even approving my efforts : only the sentiment of friendship bound us together. But the beauty of my connexion with Schiller was, that we found the strongest bond of union in our exertions to reach a common aim, and had no need of what is commonly called friendship.”

And when Eckermann expressed the necessity he felt for a common ground of affection in his intercourse with others

"This tendency of yours," replied Goethe, “is indeed unlikely to fit you for society; for what would be the use of culture, if it did not teach us to modify and control our natural tendencies ? 'Tis mere folly to hope that other men will harmonize with us ; I have never been guided by such motives; I have regarded each man as an independent individual, whom I might study, and whose characteristics I might learn to understand, but from whom I must not expect further sympathy. Only in this way have I been enabled to converse with every man, to obtain the knowledge of various characters, and the dexterity necessary for the conduct of life."

To secure at once a temper and a position proper for that serene observation and unenthralling experience to which his genius prompted him, he held himself aloof from the interests and sympathies of national life, and even of individual feeling. He smiled at the tumult of the world, and put aside the harass of the affections. He was mingled mechanically, not dissolved, in the sea of human affairs.

And it is a relief to turn from the mature results of such a philosophy and experience to the picture afforded by these letters. As yet too exclusive and continuous a self-occupation, and a protracted adherence to false principles, have not cramped the spring of his genius and narrowed his sympathies. It is the young Goethe in the freshness of early life who here stands before us; not seen through the frosted glasses of eighty winters, but stamped in his own words and the contemporaneous impressions produced on men of his own years.

We do not quote from these letters, for they must be read altogether. Apart from the general insight they afford into the character of the writer, they possess little value; written by an unknown man they would have no interest; written by Goethe they have a peculiar value. They throw a softening light on his early character, and display in its most attractive form the affectionate side of his nature. It is the same native kindliness of disposition, which in later years lent a grace to the dignity of his high position; but here it shows warmer and more individual, and is therefore more attractive.

The energetic, impulsive, striving young genius, has thought for the little offices of affection, and his brief notes not only contain the evidence of his attachment to Lotte and his friendship for Kestner, but show a kindly interest in all the members of the family with which he connected so many delightful remembrances. It is impossible, we think, to mistake the genuine friendship which speaks in them. He even institutes a correspondence with Hans Buff, Lotte's younger brother, in order that he may have frequent and detailed accounts of all that goes on in the house; he has messages and kind remembrances for Lengen and Sophie, and Dortlgen and Amalgen; toys and good things for the boys; and loves, evidently, to keep himself alive in the hearts of all.

Early in 1773, the betrothed lovers were actually married, and it is clear from Goethe's expressions, that his heart still retained a deep enough impression to make the occasion a painful one to him.

But the fruits of his love and friendship were yet to be developed. “ Sauf le respect pour votre ami,” wrote a friend to Kestner, “mais il est dangereux d'avoir un auteur pour ami," and he proved the truth of the remark very severely, when in the autumn of 1774, he received from Goethe a copy of “Werther," and found the whole history of their intercourse at Wetzlar in. terwoven into a romance, of which the dramatis persone were so closely modelled after themselves as at once to fix them as the prototypes, and at the same time so far lowered in tone of character as to make the identification anything but agreeable. Kestner had good reason to complain when he saw his wife's name assumed, the peculiarities of her personal attractions, of her home and of her history, set forth, and at the same time found ascribed to her an absence of maidenly reserve which certainly rather disfigures the fictitious Lotte. Worse still, she was represented as even after her marriage sharing half unconsciously in Werther's passion, and at last allowing

him to learn that she did so. To have, moreover, the generous warmth of his own confidence repaid by such a picture as that of the cold suspicious Albert, pained him sensibly.

The editor of the correspondence, who is himself a son of Lotte's, is struck with the inferiority both of the characters and the denouement of the romance, to those of the real life. He makes it the occasion for an exclamation on the wonderful intermingling of boundaries between the good and the beautiful. Here he tells us the actual life was too good, too noble for the purposes of fiction. The improbable excellence had to be debased with a more probable infusion of weakness. “The poet was obliged to descend from the moral height in order to reach the poetical pinnacle which has conducted him to the highest glory of the poet.” The doctrine is worth controverting, that the noblest subject-matter is unfitted for the highest creations of art. Certainly, the present instance goes no way to prove it. Had Goethe's object simply been to produce the most perfect romance in his power, from the materials within his reach, he need not have distorted the history of his Wetzlar life, and mixed it up with the amour and suicide of the unhappy Jerusalem. But often as Goethe protested against moral didactic poems, and defended his own on the ground of their affording simple representments of life and character, he will not unfrequently be found devoting whole works or detached incidents to the development of an intellectual result; or, if he simply represents, it is some type of an historical epoch, or of a general state of feeling. He loves to crystallize these in a work of art; he loves, also, to express his thoughts and his observations on life and human conduct in poetical pictures. He often selects characters, incidents and situations, not for the sake of the simple beauty or passion, but for that of the idea they envelope.

In “ Werther” his object was to reproduce the morbid and gloomy feelings and unsatisfied desires, which, in the absence of any field for important outward action, he found exercising so wide a dominion over the German youth of his time, and which had made the lawfulness of suicide an accepted doctrine among them. To Goethe himself all these feelings were known. Whether he was right in thinking that this temper was due in great measure to the “ gloomy dissatisfaction with life,"contained in the English didactic moral poems, may admit of question; certain it is he was for a short period troubled with a hypochondriacal whim for suicide, and even took his dagger to bed with him in case he should find courage

More wisely he delivered his soul by a book; and

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »