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Politics Defeat Poetry

Strife will Continue to Exist            

Liberalism Seeks to Remove Revolution’s Causes

Poetry: the Universal Possession of Mankind                          

Poetry Deals with the Specific           

Bring Life’s Activity to a Focus              

Philosophy and Religion in Poetry                            

Benefit from the Past            

Look back to Gain Perspective

Literary Revolutions Bring Benefits

Appreciate the Skills of the Theater

Identifying Useful Criticism








Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was born in Frankfort-on-Main, Germany,. He was taught at home by his father, a man of independent means, and by tutors. His home, with its many rooms, offered him books, art treasures, antiquities, and a puppet theater. Goethe wrote a novel made up of letters in different languages, a prose epic, and religious poems before going on to the University of Leipzig in1675. There, he learned to write love poems in the artificial style of Anacreon. He also wrote two small plays in Alexandrines, a pastoral comedy, and Die Mitschuldigen, incongruously mixing comedy and tragedy. Goethe studied drawing at Leipzig and also gained a general introduction to art. His studies were cut short by illness, and he returned to Frankfort for a long, reflective recovery, studying books of philosophy, alchemy, astrology, and religious mysticism.


When Goethe recovered, his father sent him to Strassburg to study law, to which Goethe added other studies, including medicine. He met Johann Gottfried von Herder there, an influential writer who turned Goethe’s thoughts to the beauty of German folk songs, nature, gothic architecture, and Shakespeare. Goethe, Herder, and Justus Möser produced a pamphlet rejecting poetry imitative of the classics and initiating the iconoclastic Sturm und Drang movement, which sought to bring rousing action and high emotionalism to art. A love affair resulted in poems that opened a new era in German lyric poetry.


Having received his degree, Goethe returned to Frankfurt in 1771 to take up law. The next four years were among the most productive in Goethe’s literary career. He published Götz von Berlichingen, a play with skillful characterization and dramatic structure, marking Goethe’s entry into Sturm und Drang. There followed another play, Clavigo, the novel Werthers Leiden, and poetry that represented the climax of Goethe’s poetic art. An abundance of dramas and dramatic satires appeared or were conceived (Egmont) during this period. Among works that emerged as fragments at this time were Caesar, Mahomet, Prometheus, and Faust.


In 1775 Goethe was invited to the court of the Grand Duke of Weimar. This principality became his home for the rest of his life. There Goethe was given a position of responsibility in matters of state. His concerns included the important areas of mining and agriculture, which led to his growing interest in science. Goethe was later appointed director of the ducal theater at Weimar, occupying this position for twenty two years. His literary output continued, and included lyrics and ballads, a novel about the theater and the play Iphigenie auf Tauris. This last was cast into an iambic version and marked a turn toward a new classical phase of writing, following a visit in 1787 to Rome to view classical antiquities. Goethe finished Egmont in Italy and began re-working Faust in his new classical style, rejecting Sturm und Drang. His son was born in 1789.


In following his scientific interests, Goethe studied the comparative morphology of plants and began to recognize the importance of evolution. He also pursued studies in optics, geology and archeology. Goethe was present in campaigns against the French that led to a German defeat at Valmy and the siege of Mainz. He later wrote about these experiences and about the criticism he received for not becoming a poet glorifying war. At about this time, he revised his novel about the theater, which appeared with resounding success as Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjarhe. In this, Goethe was encouraged by a younger poet, Johann Schiller, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Schiller also encouraged Goethe to complete the first part of Faust. This was published in 1808 and was received enthusiastically by the Romantic movement that had recently emerged.


The story of Faust emerged at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, although it had roots in early Jewish legends. By the Seventeenth century, the character portrayed changed from a wandering charlatan and swindler to an accomplished and well-connected magician. As such, Faust plays became a means of illustrating the perils of questioning established church doctrine through scientific and humanistic studies. Goethe, working on his version of the play throughout his life, incorporated his changing humanistic interests into the script, and essentially reversed the story: Faust, exploring a vast range of cultural and scientific interests, ultimately triumphs as a humanist, whereas the devil, Mephistopheles, loses. As such, Goethe’s play, with Part 2 being published after his death, represents an enormous mixture of scenes of staggering range, includes fascinating characters, and has become a classic of the German theater.


Throughout his life Goethe had passionate love affairs that provided much of the material for his plays and novels. Gretchen, Anna, Susanne, Friederike, Charlotte, Lotte, Lili, Charlotte, various Italians, Christiane (who married Goethe in 1806), Bettina, Minna, Marianne, and Ulrike, all contributed to his literary output, often providing the raw material for explorations of his own character and that of others.


With such a range of humanistic interests and literary works, it is difficult to provide representative extracts in a short space. Here, excerpts are presented from some of the conversations Goethe had with a younger colleague as he looked back over a long life.




Politics Defeat Poetry


1 If a poet would work politically, he must give himself up to a party. As soon as he does that, he is lost as a poet: he must bid farewell to his free spirit, his unbiased view, and draw over his ears the cap of bigotry and blind hatred.

    The poet, as a man and citizen, will love his native land. But the native land of his poetic powers and poetic action is the good, noble, and beautiful. As such, it is confined to no particular province or country. The poet seizes what he finds and forms it into art wherever it is. In this he is like an eagle who hovers with free gaze over whole countries, and to whom it is of no consequence whether the hare he pounces on is running in Prussia or in Saxony.


2 And, then, what is meant by love of one's country? what is meant by patriotic deeds? If the poet has employed a life in battling with pernicious prejudices, in setting aside narrow views, in enlightening minds, purifying tastes, ennobling the feelings and thoughts of his countrymen, what better could he have done? How could he have acted more patriotically?


3 I hate all bungling like sin, but most of all bungling in state affairs, which produces nothing but mischief for thousands and millions.

    You know that, on the whole, I care little what is written about me. But it still reaches my ears, and I know well enough that, hard as I have toiled throughout my life, all my labors are as nothing in the eyes of certain people, just because I have disdained to mingle in political parties. To please such people I would have had to become a member of a Jacobin club, and preached bloodshed and murder.


4 I have never affected anything in my poetry. I have never uttered anything which I have not experienced, and which has not urged me to production. I have only composed love songs when I have loved. How could I write songs of hatred without hating! And, between ourselves, I did not hate the French, although I thanked God that we were free from them. How could I, to whom culture and barbarism are alone of importance, hate a nation that is among the most cultivated of the earth, and to which I owe so great a part of my own cultivation?


5 Altogether, national hatred is something peculiar. You will always find it strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture. But there is an upper degree where it vanishes altogether, and where one stands to a certain extent above nations, and feels the well-being or sorrow of a neighboring people, as if it had happened to one's own. This degree of culture was conformable to my nature, and I had become strengthened in it long before I had reached my sixtieth year.



Strife Will Continue to Exist


6 I had the great advantage of being born at a time when the greatest events which agitated the world occurred, and such have continued to occur during my long life; so that I am a living witness of the Seven Years' War, of the separation of America from England, of the French Revolution, and of the whole Napoleon era, with the downfall of that hero, and the events that followed. Thus I have experienced results and gained insights impossible to those who are born now and must learn all these things from books, which they will not understand.

    What the next years will bring I cannot predict; but I fear we shall not soon have repose. It is not given to the world to be contented. The great are not such that there will be no abuse of power. The masses not such that, in hope of gradual improvement, they will be contented with a moderate condition. If we could perfect human nature, we might expect a perfect state of things. But, as it is, there will always be a wavering hither and thither. One group must suffer while the other is at ease. Envy and egotism will be always at work like bad demons, and party strife will be without end.


7 It is a great folly to hope that other men will harmonize with us: I have never hoped this. I have always regarded each man as an independent individual, whom I endeavored to study and to understand with all his peculiarities, but from whom I desired no further sympathy. In this way I have been able to converse with every man. This way alone produces the knowledge of various characters and the dexterity necessary for the conduct of life. For it is in a conflict with natures opposed to his own that a man must collect his strength to fight his way through. By this means the different sides of our character are brought out and developed, so that we soon feel ourselves a match for every foe. You should do the same. You have more capacity for it than you imagine. Indeed, you must at all events plunge into the great world, whether you like it or not.



Liberalism Seeks to Remove Revolution’s Causes


8 You know how greatly I rejoice at every improvement, of which the future gives us some prospect. But, as I said, all violent transitions are revolting to my mind, for they are not conformable to nature.


9 The true liberal endeavors to effect as much good as he can, with the means which he has at command. But he would not exterminate evils, which are often inevitable, with fire and sword. He endeavors, by a judicious progress, to remove glaring defects gradually, without at the same time destroying an equal amount of good by violent measures. He contents himself in this ever imperfect world with what is good, until time and circumstances favor his attaining something better.


10 It is strange, very strange, how easily one falls into a false position with respect to public opinion. I do not know that I ever joined in any way against the people; but it is now settled, once for all, that I am no friend to the people. I am, indeed, no friend to the revolutionary mob, whose object is robbery, murder, and destruction, and who, behind the mask of public welfare, have their eyes only upon the meanest egotistical aims. I am no friend to such people, any more than I am a friend of a Louis XV. I hate every violent overthrow, because as much good is destroyed as is gained by it. I hate those who achieve it, as well as those who give cause for it. But am I, therefore, no friend to the people? Does any right-minded man think otherwise?


11 It is true that I could be no friend to the French Revolution; for its horrors were too near me, and shocked me daily and hourly, while its beneficial results were not then to be discovered. Neither could I be indifferent to the fact that the Germans were endeavoring, artificially, to bring about such scenes here, as were in France the consequence of a great necessity.

    But I was as little a friend to arbitrary rule. Indeed, I was perfectly convinced that a great revolution is never a fault of the people, but of the government. Revolutions are utterly impossible as long as governments are constantly just and constantly vigilant, so that they may anticipate them by improvements at the right time, and not hold out until they are forced to yield by the pressure from beneath.


12 It is further said that I am a servant, a slave to princes, as if that were saying anything. Do I then serve a tyrant—a despot? Do I serve one who lives at the cost of the people, only for his own pleasures? Such princes and such times lie, God be praised, far behind us. I have been intimately connected with the Grand Duke for half a century, and have, during half a century striven and worked with him. I would speak falsely if I were to say that I have known a single day in which the Grand Duke has not thought of doing and executing something tending to the benefit of the land, and fitted to improve the condition of individuals. As for himself personally, what has he got from his princely station but toil and trouble? Is his dwelling, his apparel, or his table better appointed than that of any wealthy private man? Only go into our seaport towns and you will find the kitchen and cellar of any considerable merchant better appointed than his.



Poetry: the Universal Possession of Mankind


13 I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere, and at all times, in hundreds and hundreds of men. One rises to it a little better than another, and swims on the surface a little longer—that is all. Herr von Matthisson must not think he is the man, nor must I think that I am the man; but each must say to himself that the gift of poetry is by no means so very rare, and that nobody need think very much o£ himself because he has written a good poem.


14 In poetry, especially in that which is unconscious, before which reason and understanding fall short, and which therefore produces effects so far surpassing all conception, there is always something demonic.

    So is it with music, in the highest degree, for it stands so high that no understanding can reach it, and an influence flows from it which masters all, and for which none can account. Hence, religious worship cannot dispense with it; it is one of the chief means of working upon men miraculously. Thus the daemonic loves to throw itself into significant individuals, especially when they are in high places, like Frederic and Peter the Great.


15 [In Marienbad] You see the product of a highly impassioned mood. While I was in it I would not for the world have been without it, and now I would not for any consideration fall into it again.

    I wrote that poem immediately after leaving Marienbad, while the feeling of all I had experienced there was fresh. At eight in the morning, when we stopped at the first stage, I wrote down the first stanza; and thus I went on composing in the carriage. I wrote down at every stage what I had just composed in my head, so that by the evening the whole was on paper. From this it has a certain directness and is, I may say, poured out at once, which may be an advantage to it as a whole . . . I staked upon the present moment as a man stakes a considerable sum upon a card, and sought to enhance its value as much as I could without exaggeration.


16 If imagination did not originate things which must ever be problems to the understanding, there would be little for the imagination to do. It is this which separates poetry from prose; in which understanding always is, and always should be, at home.



Poetry Deals with the Specific


17 The world is so great and rich, and life so full of variety, that you can never want occasions for poems. But they must all be poems for a special event; that is to say, reality must give both impulse and material for their production. A particular case becomes universal and poetic by the very circumstance that it is treated by a poet. All my poems are special poems, suggested by real life, and having therein a firm foundation. I attach no value to poems snatched out of the air.

    Let no one say that reality wants poetical interest. For in this the poet proves his vocation—that he has the art to win from a common subject an interesting side. Reality must give the motive, the points to be expressed, the kernel, I might say. But to work out of it a beautiful, animated whole, belongs to the poet.


18 I especially warn you against great inventions of your own; for then you would try to give a view of things, and for that purpose youth is seldom ripe. Further, character and views detach themselves as sides from the poet's mind, and deprive him of the fullness requisite for future productions. And, finally, how much time is lost in invention, internal arrangement, and combination, for which nobody thanks us, even supposing our work is happily accomplished.

    With a given material, on the other hand, all goes easier and better. Facts and characters being provided, the poet has only the task of animating the whole. He preserves his own fullness, for he needs to part with but little of himself, and there is much less loss of time and power, since he has only the trouble of execution. Indeed, I would advise the choice of subjects which have been worked before. How many Iphigenias have been written! Yet they are all different, for each writer considers and arranges the subject differently, namely, after his own fashion.


19 The poet should seize the particular, and he should, if there be anything sound in it, thus represent the universal. English history is excellent for poetry, because it is something genuine, healthy, and therefore universal, which repeats itself over and over again. The French history, on the contrary, is not for poetry, as it represents an era that cannot come again. The literature of the French, so far as it is founded on that era, stands as something of merely particular interest, which must grow old with time.


20 I have never observed nature with a view to poetical production. But, because my early drawing of landscapes and my later studies in natural science led me to a constant, close observation of natural objects, I have gradually learned nature by heart even to the minutest details. And so, when I need anything as a poet, it is at my command, and I cannot easily sin against truth. Schiller had not this observation of nature. The localities of Switzerland, which he used in William Tell, were all related to him by me. But he had such a wonderful mind, that even on hearsay, he could make something that possessed reality.


21 One must be an old practitioner to understand how to cut. Schiller was particularly great in that. I once saw him, on the occasion of his Musenalmanach, reduce a pompous poem of twenty two stanzas to seven; and no loss resulted from this terrible operation. On the contrary, those seven stanzas contained all the good and effective thoughts of the twenty two.


22 To write prose, one must have something to say; but he who has nothing to say can still make verses and rhymes, where one word suggests the other, and at last something comes out, which in fact is nothing, but looks as if it were something.



Bring Life’s Activity to a Focus


23 My real happiness was my poetic meditation and production. But how much this was disturbed, limited, and hindered by my external position! Had I been able to abstain more from public business, and to live more in solitude, I would have been happier, and would have accomplished much more as a poet. But, soon after my Goetz and Werther, that saying of a sage was verified for me—"if you do anything for the sake of the world, it will take good care that you shall not do it a second time."


24 Beware of attempting a large work. It is exactly that which injures our best minds, even those distinguished by the finest talents and the most earnest efforts. I have suffered from this cause, and know how much it injured me. What have I not let fall into the well? If I had written all that I well might, a hundred volumes would not contain it.

    The present will have its rights; the thoughts and feelings which daily press upon the poet will and should be expressed. But, if you have a great work in your head, nothing else thrives near it, all other thoughts are repelled, and the pleasantness of life itself is for the time lost. What exertion and expenditure of mental force are required to arrange and round off a great whole, and then what powers and tranquil, undisturbed situation in life are needed to express it with the proper fluency. If you have erred as to the whole, all your toil is lost; and further, if, in treating so extensive a subject, you are not perfectly master of your material in the details, the whole will be defective, and censure will be incurred.


25 It is not the mass of creations and deeds proceeding from a person that indicates the productive man. We have, in literature, poets who are considered very productive, because volume after volume of their poems has appeared. But, in my opinion, these people ought to be called thoroughly unproductive; for what they have written is without life and durability. Goldsmith, on the contrary, has written so few poems that their number is not worth mentioning; but, nevertheless, I must pronounce him to be a thoroughly productive poet. . . because the little that he has written has an inherent life that can sustain itself.



Philosophy and Religion in Poetry


26 On the whole, philosophical speculation is injurious to the Germans, as it tends to make their style vague, difficult, and obscure. The stronger their attachment to certain philosophical schools, the worse they write. Those Germans who, as men of business and actual life, confine themselves to the practical, write the best. Schiller's style is most noble and impressive whenever he leaves off philosophizing, as I observe every day in his highly interesting letters, with which I am now busy.

    There are likewise among the German women, genial beings who write a really excellent style, and, indeed, in that respect surpass many of our celebrated male writers.

    The English almost always write well; being born orators and practical men, with a tendency to the real.

    The French, in their style, remain true to their general character. They are of a social nature, and therefore never forget the public whom they address; they strive to be clear, that they may convince their reader—agreeable, that they may please him.

    Altogether, the style of a writer is a faithful representative of his mind; therefore, if any man wish to write a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.


27 Religion stands in the same relation to art as any other of the higher interests in life. It is merely to be looked upon as a material, with similar claims to any other vital material. Faith and want of faith are not the organs with which a work of art is to be apprehended. On the contrary, human powers and capacities of a totally different character are required. Art must address itself to those organs with which we apprehend it; otherwise it misses its effect. Religious material may be a good subject for art, but only in so far as it possesses general human interest. The Virgin with the Child is on this account an excellent subject, and one that may be treated a hundred times, and always seen again with pleasure.


28 The occasion of Tiedge's Urania led me to observe that piety, like nobility, has its aristocracy. I met stupid women, who plumed themselves on believing, with Tiedge, in immortality, and I was forced to bear much dark examination on this point. They were vexed by my saying I should be well pleased if after the close of this life we were blessed with another. Only I hoped I should meet in the hereafter none of those who had believed in it here. For how I would be tormented! The pious would throng around me, and say, Were we not right? Did we not predict it? Has not it happened just as we said? And so there would be ennui without end even in the other world.

    This occupation with the ideas of immortality is for people of rank, and especially ladies, who have nothing to do. But an able man, who has something regular to do here, and must toil and struggle and produce day by day, leaves the future world to itself, and is active and useful in this. Thoughts about immortality are also good for those who have not been very successful here; and I would wager that, if the good Tiedge had enjoyed a better lot, he would also have had better thoughts.



Benefit from the Past


29 People are always talking about originality; but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. And, after all, what can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favor.

    However, the time of life in which we are subjected to a new and important personal influence is by no means a matter of indifference. That Lessing, Winckelmann, and Kant were older than I, and that the first two acted upon my youth, the last on my advanced age—this circumstance was for me very important. Again, that Schiller was so much younger than I, and engaged in his freshest strivings, just as I began to be weary of the world—just, too, as the brothers von Humboldt and Schlegel were beginning their career under my eye—was of the greatest importance. I derived from it unspeakable advantages. . .I owe much to the Greeks and French; I am infinitely indebted to Shakespeare, Sterne, and Goldmith; but in saying this I do not show the sources of my culture; that would be an endless as well as an unnecessary task. What is important is to have a soul which loves truth, and receives it wherever it finds it.


30 Even the greatest genius would not go far if he tried to owe everything to his own internal self. But many very good men do not comprehend that; and they grope in darkness for half a life, with their dreams of originality. I have known artists who boasted of having followed no master, and of having to thank their own genius for everything. Fools! As if that were possible at all; and as if the world would not force itself upon them at every step, and make something of them in spite of their own stupidity.


31 We see that the young man has talent; however, you should not praise, but rather blame him, for learning everything by himself. A man of talent is not born to be left to himself, but to devote himself to art and good masters, who will make something out of him. I have lately read a letter from Mozart where, in reply to a baron who had sent him his composition, he writes somewhat in this fashion:

     "You dilettanti must be blamed for two faults, since two you generally have. Either you have no thoughts of your own, and take those of others, or, if you have thoughts of your own, you do not know what to do with them."

    Is this not excellent? and does not this fine remark, which Mozart makes about music, apply to all other arts?



Look Back To Gain Perspective


32 When one is old, one thinks of worldly matters otherwise than when one is young. Thus I cannot but think that the demons, to tease and make sport with men, have placed among them single figures, which are so alluring that every one strives after them, and so great that nobody reaches them. Thus they set up Raphael, with whom thought and act were equally perfect; some distinguished followers have approached him, but none have equaled him. Thus, too, they set up Mozart as something unattainable in music; and thus Shakespeare in poetry.


33 People always fancy that we must become old to become wise; but, in truth, as years advance, it is hard to keep ourselves as wise as we were. Man becomes, indeed, in the different stages of his life, a different being; but he cannot say that he is a better one, and, in certain matters, he is as likely to be as right in his twentieth as in his sixtieth year.

     We see the world one way from a plain, another way from the heights of a promontory, another from the glacier fields of the primary mountains. We see, from one of these points, a larger piece of the world than from the other; but that is all, and we cannot say that we see more truly from any one than from the rest. When a writer leaves monuments on the different steps of his life, it is chiefly important that he should have an innate foundation and good will; that he should, at each step, have seen and felt clearly, and that, without any secondary aims, he should have said distinctly and truly what has passed in his mind. Then will his writings, if they were right at the step where they originated, remain always right, however the writer may develop or alter himself in later times.



Literary Revolutions Bring Benefits


34 Extremes are never to be avoided in any revolution. In a political one, nothing is generally desired in the beginning but the abolition of abuses; but before people are aware, they are deep in bloodshed and horror. Thus the French, in their present literary revolution, desired nothing at first but a freer form; however, they will not stop there, but will reject the traditional contents together with the form. They begin to declare the representation of noble sentiments and deeds as tedious, and attempt to treat of all sorts of abominations. Instead of the beautiful subjects from Grecian mythology, there are devils, witches, and vampires; and the lofty heroes of antiquity must give place to jugglers and galley slaves. This is piquant! This is effective! But after the public has once tasted this highly seasoned food, and has become accustomed to it, it will always long for more, and that stronger.


35 A young man of talent, who would produce an effect and be acknowledged, and who is great enough to go his own way, must accommodate himself to the taste of the day—indeed, he must seek to outdo his predecessors in the horrible and frightful. But in this chase after outward means of effect, all profound study, and all gradual and thorough development of the talent and the man from within, is entirely neglected. And this is the greatest injury which can befall a talent. On the other hand, literature in general will gain by this tendency of the moment. . .

    The extremes and excrescences which I have described will gradually disappear; but at last this great advantage will remain—besides a freer form, richer and more diversified subjects will have been attained, and no object of the broadest world and the most manifold life will be any longer excluded as unpoetical. I compare the present literary epoch to a state of violent fever, which is not in itself good and desirable, but of which improved health is the happy consequence. That abomination which now often constitutes the whole subject of a poetical work, will in future only appear as an useful expedient; in fact, the pure and the noble, which is now abandoned for the moment, will soon be sought after again with additional ardor.



Appreciate the Skills of the Theater


36 Any one who is sufficiently young, and who is not quite spoiled, could not easily find any place that would suit him so well as a theater. No one asks you any questions: you need not open your mouth unless you choose. On the contrary, you sit quite at your ease like a king, and let everything pass before you, and recreate your mind and senses to your heart's content. There is poetry, there is painting, there are singing and music, there is acting, and what not besides. When all these arts, and the charm of youth and beauty heightened to an important degree, work in concert on the same evening, it is a bouquet to which no other can compare.


37 Writing for the stage is something peculiar, and he who does not understand it thoroughly, had better leave it alone. Every one thinks that an interesting fact will appear interesting on the boards—nothing of the kind! Things may be very pretty to read, and very pretty to think about; but as soon as they are put upon the stage the effect is quite different, and that which has charmed us in the closet will probably fall flat on the boards.. . . Writing for the stage is a trade that one must understand, and requires a talent that one must possess. Both are uncommon, and where they are not combined, we shall scarcely have any good result.


38 I do not object to a dramatic poet having a moral influence in view. But when the point is to bring his subject clearly and effectively before his audience, his moral purpose proves of little use, and he needs much more a faculty for delineation and a familiarity with the stage to know what to do and what to leave undone. If there be a moral in the subject, it will appear, and the poet has nothing to consider but the effective and artistic treatment of his subject. If a poet has as high a soul as Sophocles, his influence will always be moral, let him do what he will, Besides, he knew the stage, and understood his craft thoroughly.


39 Supposing, however, that the bodily constitution of a dramatic poet were not so strong and excellent, and that he were, on the contrary, subject to frequent illness and weakness, the productiveness necessary for the daily construction of his scenes would very frequently cease, and would often fail him for whole days. If now, by some spirituous liquor, he tried to force his failing productiveness, and supply its deficiencies, the method would certainly revive him, but it would be discoverable in all the scenes which he had written under such influence, to their great disadvantage. My counsel is, therefore, to force nothing, and rather to trifle and sleep away all unproductive days and hours, rather than on such days to compose something which will afterward give one no pleasure.


40 It is a great error to think that an indifferent piece may be played by indifferent actors. A second or third rate play can be incredibly improved by the employment of first-rate actors, and be made something really good. But if a second or third rate play be performed by second or third rate actors, no one can wonder if it is utterly ineffective.

    Second-rate actors are excellent in great plays—they have the same effect that the figures in half shade have in a picture; they serve admirably to show off more powerfully those who have the full light.


41 If a talent is to be speedily and happily developed, the great point is that a great deal of intellect and sound culture should be current in a nation.

We admire the tragedies of the ancient Greeks; but to take a correct view of the case we ought to admire the period and the nation in which their production was possible rather than the individual authors. For though these pieces differ a little from each other, and though one of these poets appears somewhat greater and more finished than the other, still, taking all things together, only one decided character runs through the whole. This is the character of grandeur, fitness, soundness, human perfection, elevated wisdom, sublime thought, pure, strong intuition, or whatever other qualities one might enumerate. But when we find all these qualities, not only in the dramatic works that have come down to us, but also in lyrical and epic works, in the philosophers, the orators, and the historians, and in an equally high degree in the works of the plastic arts that have come down to us, we must feel convinced that such qualities did not merely belong to individuals, but were the current property of the nation and the whole period.



Identifying Useful Criticism


42 Everywhere, we learn only from those whom we love. There is a favorable disposition toward me in the young talents who are now growing up, but I very rarely found it among my contemporaries. No, I can scarcely name one man, of any weight, who was perfectly satisfied with me. Even with Werther, people found so much fault that if I had erased every passage that was censured, scarcely a line of the whole book would have been left. However, all the censure did me no harm, for these subjective judgments of individuals, important as they may be, are at least rectified by the masses. He who does not expect a million of readers should not write a line.

    For twenty years, the public has been disputing which is the greatest, Schiller or I. It ought to be glad that it has got a couple of fellows about whom it can dispute.


43 Deficiency of character in individual critics and writers is the source of all the evils of our newest literature.

    In criticism, especially, this defect produces mischief to the world, for it either diffuses the false instead of the true, or by a pitiful truth deprives us of something great.

    Until recently, the world believed in the heroism of a Lucretia—of a Mucius Scaevola. By this belief the world allowed itself to be warmed and inspired. But now along comes your historical critic and says that those persons never lived, but are to be regarded as fables and fictions, devised by the great minds of the Romans. What are we to do with so pitiful a truth? If the Romans were great enough to invent such stories, we should at least be great enough to believe them.


44 It is not to be denied that Schlegel knows a great deal, and one is almost terrified by his extraordinary attainments and his extensive reading. But this is not enough. All the learning in the world is still no judgment. His criticism is completely one-sided, because in all theatrical pieces he merely focuses on the skeleton of the plot and arrangement, and points out only small points of resemblance to great predecessors. He does not trouble himself in the least as to what the author brings forward of graceful life and the culture of a magnificent soul. But of what use are all the arts of genius, if we do not find in a theatrical piece the amiable or great personality of the author? This alone influences the cultivation of the people.


45 I cannot help laughing at the aesthetic folks who torment themselves in endeavoring with abstract words to reduce to a concept that inexpressible thing we call beauty. Beauty is a primeval phenomenon. It never makes an appearance itself, but is a visible reflection in a thousand different utterances of the creative mind. It is as various as nature herself.


46 Our German aesthetical people are always talking about poetical and unpoetical objects; and, in one respect, they are not quite wrong. Yet, at bottom, no real object is unpoetical, if the poet knows how to use it properly.

47 What is the use of the whole lumber of rules belonging to a stiff antiquated time, and what is the use of all the noise about classical and romantic! The point is for a work to be thoroughly good and then it is sure to be classical.





Adapted from Conversations with Eckermann, by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Peter Eckermann. M. Walter Dunne, New York, 1901.


Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by Louis MacNiece, edited by Victor Lange. Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1994.


Authors born between 1700 and 1800 CE

Smith ] Paine ] Jefferson ] Condorcet ] Bentham ] [ Goethe ] Wollstonecraft ] Comte ]



Introduction and adaptation of  extracts Copyright © Rex Pay 2005