Page images
PDF
EPUB

It is certain that he never caught the infection of Gallic politics which so ravaged Germany at the close of the last century; he had, therefore, no democratic sentiments to parade in the uniforms of the War of Liberation.

France's sorrowful plight well may our Great ones consider;

But forsooth our Little ones may consider it more.

Down to dust went the Great: but who then protected the million

The million against? The tyrant of mobs was the mob.

But the diplomatic game of kings was equally repulsive to him.

Say, then, do we not right? The People is made for deceiving.
See, now,
how clumsy It is; see, now, how wild and absurd!
Clumsy and wild are all brutish men who have been cheated:
Only be honest, and you will make them human again.

Another sensible epigram is thus translated by Mr.
Carlyle :-

"No Apostle-of-Liberty much to my heart ever found I;

License, each for himself, this was at bottom their want. Liberator of many! first dare to be Servant of many;

What a business is that, would'st thou know it, go try!"

This Goethe tried, and, recognizing the true object of his powers, he served his countrymen with a language embalmed in a style; to science he contributed vitally organic ideas, to art and culture the wisest maxims of nature and simplicity, and to literature some imperishable memorials of lyric and dramatic genius.

2

"Art thou called to politics," says Carlyle, "work therein, as this man would have done, like a real and not an imaginary workman. Understand well, meanwhile, that to no man is his political constitution ‘a life, but only a house wherein his life is led;' and hast thou a nobler task than such house-pargeting and smokedoctoring, and pulling down of ancient rat-inhabited walls, leave such to the proper craftsman; honor the higher Artist, and good-humoredly say with him, — "All this is neither my coat nor my cake,

Why fill my hand with other men's charges?

The fishes swim at ease in the lake,

And take no thought of the barges."

All this we may safely concede to the poet, though at the same time we suspect that if we had been contemporaries of those patriot-spokesmen of Germany, - Fichte, Körner, Arndt, and the rest, our hearts would have

caught the pulses of their words.

Goethe's indifference to political issues resulted from the same instinct which bade him also dread them because they threatened the pursuance of his characteristic work. In 1792, he followed his Duke, Carl August of Weimar, who volunteered as Colonel of a regiment which invaded France with the allies in the name of Louis XVI.; but friendship and curiosity were the ruling motives, and his mind was chiefly interested in the new groups of men and manners which he met, the sad or humorous espisodes of the field, his feelings under fire

and in the trenches. Already he was absorbed in speculations that drifted toward an anti-Newtonian theory of color; the muddy pools in the autumn fields across which the troops were laboring charmed him with freaks of light that suggested something to his theory. The frivolous character of the Emigrès, who expected that the Allies would promenade gaily to Paris amid the welcomes of an afflicted people, reconciled him to the vanishing prospect of a restoration of legitimacy. The mildness of his tone in discussing the political situation sometimes caused him to be mistaken for a republican. But he detested the excesses of both Jacobins and Royalists, and only expected a fortunate campaign on the ground of the reports that not a single party of the French people was capable of resistance. When he was undeceived, as the Allies fell back at every touch of the French impetuosity, his solicitudes were inspired entirely by personal friendships, with a shade of chagrin at the blunders of the German leaders.

At length the cannonade of Valmy, Sept. 28, 1792, dissipated the illusions of the Allies, and broke up their secret intrigues in the interest of Louis; for Dumourier was only amusing them while his batteries were getting into position. At the close of that day, Goethe was the only clear and tranquil man; in the night-circle of officers he uttered his presage of the future: "From this place and from this day forth begins a new era in the world's history, and you all can say that you were

present at its birth." Yonder in speaking silence the guns of Dumourier lent their weight of metal to his words.

In dispassionate moments of our own we can perceive that he always divined too clearly to please the politicians, and too coolly to suit a popular enthusiasm.

"When parties arise, at see-saw the people go playing;

Many years pass away ere in a poise they unite."

Once by way of vindication he wrote thus: "It should be to the credit of an actively productive mind, of a man who has true sentiments toward the Fatherland, and would nourish a native literature, when the upturning of all existing conditions shocks him; since it cannot convey to him the least inkling of what better or even different state of things may flow out of it. People ought to concede that he is rightly irked to see such influences extend so over Germany that cracked and even unworthy persons seize the helm."

Here is a letter which he despatched to his friend Jacobi, just before departing to join the camp:

"FRANKFORT, Aug. 18, 1792.

"I shall go on Monday to Mainz, and thence immediately rejoin the army. Tent and sutler's fare are a bad offset to my mother's house, bed, cuisine, and cellar; especially as I take not the smallest interest in the destruction of aristocratic or democratic sinners. I have seen my old friends and my prosperous native place again with joy; but there is no society where I can

bear to linger long, for where two or three are gathered together, straightway the four-year old song of pro and contra is ground out again, and that too not with variations, but the crude theme. So I wish myself back among the Thuringian hills, where I can still shut up the house and garden. And for this reason I advise you to stay at home, for nobody wants to travel in order to hear and see at every halt the same old thing. Unfortunately the newspapers go everywhere, and they are my most dangerous enemies."

He was even completely indifferent to the circumstances and the fields of old battles which changed the political complexion of an epoch. On his Italian journey in 1786-87, reaching Palermo, a maladroit guide interrupted his enjoyment of the blooming landscape by explaining that it was the very scene of one of Hannibal's greatest battles. Goethe answered petulantly, “It is bad enough that the crops should be every now and then trampled under foot, if not always by elephants then by horses and men, without vexing the imagination by drawing it from its reverie of peace to recall such horrors."

And one day an English bishop, taking him severely to task for the bad influence of his "Werther," was thus neatly put on the defensive: "Pray, hold! If you talk in this way about that poor Werther, what tone will you assume toward the great men of earth, who for a single expedition send into the field a hundred thousand men who excite each other to murder and contrive mutually to kill, say, twenty-five thousand, not to mention burn

« PreviousContinue »