Page images

speculated with absolute certainty of large returns. But his sense of honor was too delicately scrupulous to permit of his using such knowledge; and he saw men growing rich all round him, without a murmur that conscience forbade him to do the same.

His Berlin friends cherished sanguine expectations that Frederic would recognize his worth, and offer him the now vacant post of Royal Librarian. This spurred him on to complete and publish his "Laocoon." The world gained much, but Lessing nothing. It is doubtful whether Frederic ever turned a page of it. His eagle eye blinked darkly when the question came of recognizing the grandest man in all his kingdom. Despising the literature of his own tongue, infatuated with the idea of the superiority of every thing French, too avaricious to be willing to pay a respectable salary, he sought out in France a second-rate man, and left Lessing to his poverty. And once more we find the foremost literary man in Europe earning his scanty daily bread by what chance. job-writing he can obtain. The "Laocoon," however, was published.

It is a fragment after all, this "Laocoon;" but what a fragment! The immediate impulse to its composition seems to have lain in a single passage of Winckelmann's, in which a comparison is instituted between the famous marble group of Laocoon and his sons in the coils of the avenging serpents, and the well-known description of the same scene in Virgil. Winckelmann places the poet below the sculptor, and gives his reasons for so doing. They are more than insufficient to justify his judgment, and Lessing's keen eye pierced at once to the source of the confusion, the carrying over into the domain of poetry, and erecting there as standards, the laws which hold true of sculpture only. Keeping clearly before him the fundamental truth which Goethe afterwards enunciated in the words, " Art should be discussed only in the presence of works of art,"-a procedure ever spontaneous with Lessing, who hated the barrenness of naked abstractions, and gloried in the inspiring teaching of the living incarnations,

he proceeds at once to develop and illustrate his

[ocr errors]

positions from "the eternal types of Homer and of Sophocles." What poetry can express, and what it cannot; what plastic art can express, and what it cannot; the limits, the power, the range, the glory of each, this is his theme: and with what absolute mastery he handles it! Intellect, imagination, and heart are alike stimulated and charmed as we move along. What rarest union of keen analysis with glow of feeling! The accuracy of the surveyor, running his lines and angles with such precision, that the most imbittered litigants might as well think to dispute the parallax of the sun or moon as question them! The triumphant art of the landscape-gardener filling in the sharply measured tracts with a wealth of stately forests, and winding lakes, and stretches of velvet lawn, and gorgeous masses of flowering shrubs! Lessing does not give us the bare results of a hidden process. He carries us through the process with him. We become identified with him. So wonderfully vital in his style, so complete a revealer of the man himself, of the man all warm and eager and alive with the chase after truth, that a contagious sympathy seizes upon the reader, and teacher and taught, each shouts "Evoja!" at the same moment. Illustration upon illustration from the works of master-spirits help the dawning light of eternal principles to break in fulness upon our minds. We are taught by such as have authority. The scribes, with their frivolities and technicalities, are allowed no hearing. It is like studying naval tactics with Nelson at the Nile and at Trafalgar, or architecture in the presence of the Parthenon or York Minster. And when we lay down the work, we feel that the intellect has been fortified with foundation principles, our appreciation of beauty intensified, and that henceforth we are capable both of a deeper and a more enlightened admiration. We have learned, too, an invaluable lesson in method, which will help us in our private studies all through life.

A thoughtful reading of the "Laocoon" enables one to understand clearly enough the sacred importance Lessing attached to the vocation of the critic. We see how his deep sense of this partook of the nature of worship itself, and

enter thoroughly into his stern indignation at all trifling profaners of such a calling. His countrymen call him their second Luther, and rightly. The two men are full-blood brothers in the spirit. In heroism, in power of wrath and love, in sense of moral obligation, in respect for the common people, in belief that the grandest truth is meant for the humblest being, in resolve to do battle ever against all enemies of the general good, they stand side by side, and tower head and shoulders above all others of their race. As were to Luther popes and princes and bishops God's enemies and nothing more, when they dared to veil the glory from above; so, too, to Lessing were the most potent names of Europe, when he found them barbarizing and corrupting the general taste, and robbing the world of the rich and perennial sources of joy and purification that lie waiting in the works of the long line of earth's exalted spirits. No matter from what quarter proceeded any hurtful criticism or noxious work of art, from bosom friend in Berlin, or incense-reeking, servilely dreaded hierarch, Voltaire, in France, he let fly at once his scathing bolt.

Frederic had rejected Lessing. But many months had not elapsed when he was called to a work which he hailed with rare delight. An effort was to be made in Hamburg to create a theatre worthy of the name. Ballets and all such fripperies were to be discarded. The production of a national dramatic literature was to be in every way encouraged. A journal was to be established in which every thing in each nightly presentation - the play itself, the actors, to their very gait and dress were to be criticised from the standpoint of absolute principle. The audiences were to be trained to know the good, and reject the bad. He must come on, and take absolute control. And he went.

[ocr errors]

Of course the grand scheme came to nought. Generous and patriotic as was the spirit which prompted it, it was asking too much of human nature. No Rhadamanthus, like Lessing, could many weeks sit in judgment on thin-skinned mortals, without the accompaniments of a prisoners' bar, with flanking constables, to hold fast the victims, or a three-headed

Cerberus to keep the peace. But neither were constables, nor was Cerberus, in the contract. Lessing loved truth, and longed to be purified by it: the actors loved lies, and did not want to be purified at all. Lessing was dead in earnest, and regarded the theatre as a moral agency; the audiences cared only for sentimentalities, for excitement, for fun. But the experiment lasted long enough to give the world the noble series of papers which constitute the "Hamburg Dramaturgy."

The "Hamburg Dramaturgy" is a striking illustration of the fact before adverted to, that, in the hands of Lessing, an inferior work is made, through its very faults, to teach as pregnant lessons as a worthy one through its merits. In the light of the glaring contrast presented by the plays he so mercilessly dissects and exposes in all their nakedness to works deserving of our reverence, we are made to feel, as perhaps in no other way were possible, the informing spirit of the truly great. And yet they were not all vulgar names and reputations which Lessing riddled. He grappled hand to hand with such authorities as Corneille and Voltaire only the more eagerly, not because they were foemen worthy of his steel, for they were but babies in his grasp,but because they were vast powers of evil influence, corrupters of all Europe, Antichrists in the world of letters. A flattering French critic had asserted that Love itself had dictated Voltaire's "Zaire." "Gallantry rather," was Lessing's scathing answer. Here lay the root of the perversion. Gallantry mistaken for love, bombast for eloquence, monstrosity for sublimity, rant for earnestness, prudery for purity, shocking madhouse horrors for tragic interest, these were what he saw the whole world gaping at, imitating, lauding to the skies. And yet the arch-corrupters, Corneille and Voltaire, had boasted themselves lineal descendants from the Greeks, renewers of Greek art, champions of the fundamental laws. laid down by Aristotle!

[ocr errors]

It was an ill day for them when they had mentioned Aristotle. To them, Aristotle was a fetish, ignorantly worshipped. To Lessing, he was a grand lawgiver, reverenced because understood. There are few things in all criticism equal to

the clear-sighted analysis Lessing makes of the famous dictum of Aristotle as to the purifying influence wrought by tragedy through sympathy and fear, and his remorseless application of the results obtained to the tragedies of Corneille and Voltaire. He shows that the passions to be purified through sympathy and fear are "our sympathy and our fear themselves."

When we rise from a thoughtful reading of a "Hamlet" or a "Lear," we feel that we have been carried into the very depths of this mysterious drama of humanity, in which we ourselves are likewise sufferers and actors. The entrancing joys, theterrible vicissitudes, the insoluble problems, the dreads, the hopes, the whole circle of thoughts and events which come sweeping in upon the human soul in life itself, have been brought to bear upon us. Our sympathies and our fears alike have been educated and been purified. Were these first too cold, they have been set aglow; were they excessive, sentimental, weak, the eternal connection of justice and discipline with suffering has toned and braced them. Were our fears too sluggish, our sense of immunity from evil too rooted, the awful realities of life have inspired a salutary dread. Were they too ready to startle and unnerve us, we have been shown the real calamities which overtake man, and the limits that hedge them in; and have been brought face to face with the compensations which attend them. It is salutary for man to have his fears and sympathies thus wrought upon and modified. It links him in with the great common fate of his fellows, and shows him how to bear himself. A very different thing is this, as the dramatist's end, from a gross sensation aim at creating horror by a hideous medley of ghastly atrocities, incomprehensible crimes, earthquakes, eruptions, fire, and flood. Such work as this he may leave to the agents of " Accident-Insurance Companies," who, to quicken the sense of human vicissitude and induce the purchase of policies, think to compass their object by heaping together in a single picture, lit up by a glaring conflagration, a frightful railroad collision, a runaway stage-coach plunging over a precipice, an annihilating steamboat explosion, and a



« PreviousContinue »