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more vigorously. To his residence in Breslau we owe these two noble productions, the play "Minna von Barnhelm," and "The Laocoon."
"Minna von Barnhelm" is one of those dramatic pieces which keep themselves young and attractive from generation to generation, because they feed an enduring interest in human nature. It is a page out of life. Its characters are not personified qualities, but flesh-and-blood men and women. Even to this very day, Germany can boast no second comedy which so absolutely mirrors the national life. Its appearance constitutes an epoch in the literary history of the nation. It turned away attention from the old stock-subjects, traditional characters, and conventional rhetoric of the stage, and brought about a return to nature. It awakened a new consciousness of the infinitely rich and varied elements of pathos and fun and suffering and triumph and virtue and guilt, lying open in the common life all around us and within us. We learn more from it of how men thought and felt in the stern days of Frederic's wars than from volumes of ordinary histories. The tavern-keepers, the chambermaids, the officers' bodyservants, the sergeant, the colonel, old Fritz himself, the loves of high life and low, of parlor and kitchen, are brought in vivid distinctness before us. It is the next thing to being there ourselves. Nay, we are there to all real intents. We lay the play down with thankfulness that the life of one more period is henceforth a reality to us. Nor is this all. It has added another figure to that Pantheon of human nobilities through which every aspiring mind loves to wander. In Major von Tellheim, the hero of the piece, we learn to know a man at once grand and of a distinctive cast of grandeur, no mere lay-figure, on which are draped certain moral or professional generalities, but the culminating product of the most characteristic forces of the time, working through a high-strung, responsive soul. He is a brave officer, on whom unjust suspicion has fallen. He has descended, step by step, into humiliating poverty, when the frank-hearted young Saxon woman Minna, to whom, in brighter days, he had been betrothed, discovers him. To her warm, generous soul, the
whole sad history is ended in that hour. She is rich they will marry; they will be, oh, how happy! No: never while stain rests on him. He will link the destiny of no gentle soul with his dishonored name. It is the old tragical story of the proud soul that would rather live in hell, its honor acknowledged, than be happy in heaven, the least breath sullying it. And yet the character is absolutely original. It is a pride that stands on no mere beggarly points of conventional honor. There is in the man such towering sense of grand integrity, such absolute identification of personal qualities with all that is worthiest of salvos of admiration, that to sully his name means to him to sully eternal right and truth. He asks no favor; only justice. The whole world ought to, shall, see him as he is. The king himself must acknowledge himself in the wrong. We may call such pride a weakness, if we will, a slavery, after all, to the vanity of human breath. But it rests on a self-confidence so supreme, on a wrath, that rectitude like his should be called in question, so righteously ablaze; its proportions are so grand, its trampling under foot the thought of home and happiness, and every form of joy, sooner than bring taint upon a gentle woman, is so heroic, that it affects us with the awe we feel in the presence of the bleak mountain and the desert ocean. There is such mass and power about it, that it becomes sublime. And we rejoice to feel, that, even in the dreary days of Frederic's wars, humanity took on such lordly shapes.
Lessing had nearly completed his "Laocoon," when he resolved to throw up his situation, and leave Breslau. He had spent nearly five years there; the war was over; henceforth the position meant but so much a year and routine work: he must be off for fresh scenes and pastures new. He left his post as poor as he had entered on it, with but one exception. He had made a large and choice collection of books. He might have acquired an ample fortune, as did his associates, in Breslau. He had known, before their public announcement, the various adulterations of the currency, to which Frederic from time to time was driven, and the various undertakings which would affect the value of stocks. He could have
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
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 "Evonza!" 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.
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