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“Mind, above all, you stick to words, Thus through the safe gate you will go Into the fane of certainty; For when ideas begin to fail A word will aptly serve your turn,” etc.
Goethe recited this pa.s.sage laughing, and seemed altogether in the best humor. “It is a good thing,” said he, “that all is already in print, and I shall go on printing as long as I have anything to say against false doctrine, and those who disseminate it.
“We have now excellent men rising up in natural science,” he continued, after a pause, “and I am glad to see them. Others begin well, but afterwards fall off; their predominating subjectivity leads them astray.
Others, again, set too much value on facts, and collect an infinite number, by which nothing is proved. On the whole, there is a want of originating mind to penetrate back to the original phenomena, and master the particulars that make their appearance.”
A short visit interrupted our discourse, but when we were again alone the conversation returned to poetry, and I told Goethe that I had of late been once more studying his little poems, and had dwelt especially upon two of them, viz., the ballad about the children and the old man, and the “Happy Couple” (_die glucklichen Gatten_).
“I myself set some value on these two poems,” said Goethe, “although the German public have hitherto not been able to make much out of them.”
“In the ballad,” I said, “a very copious subject is brought into a very limited compa.s.s, by means of all sorts of poetical forms and artifices, among which I especially praise the expedient of making the old man tell the children’s past history down to the point where the present moment comes in, and the rest is developed before our eyes.”
“I carried the ballad a long time about in my head,” said Goethe, “before I wrote it down. Whole years of reflection are comprised in it, and I made three or four trials before I could reduce it to its present shape.”
“The poem of the ‘Happy Couple,'” continued Goethe, “is likewise rich in _motives_; whole landscapes and pa.s.sages of human life appear in it, warmed by the sunlight of a charming spring sky, which is diffused over the whole.”
“I have always liked that poem,” said Goethe, “and I am glad that you have regarded it with particular interest. The ending of the whole pleasantry with a double christening is, I think, pretty enough.”
We then came to the _Burgergeneral_ (Citizengeneral); with respect to which I said that I had been lately reading this piece with an Englishman, and that we had both felt the strongest desire to see it represented on the stage. “As far as the spirit of the work is concerned,” said I, “there is nothing antiquated about it; and with respect to the details of dramatic development, there is not a touch that does not seem designed for the stage.”
“It was a very good piece in its time,” said Goethe, “and caused us many a pleasant evening. It was, indeed, excellently cast, and had been so admirably studied that the dialogue moved along as glibly as possible.
Malcolmi played Marten, and nothing could be more perfect.
“The part of Schnaps,” said I, “seems to me no less felicitous. Indeed, I should not think there were many better or more thankful parts in the repertoire. There is in this personage, as in the whole piece, a clearness, an actual presence, to the utmost extent that can be desired for a theatre. The scene where he comes in with the knapsack, and produces the things one after another, where he puts the _moustache_ on Marten, and decks himself with the cap of liberty, uniform, and sword, is among the best.” “This scene,” said Goethe, “used always to be very successful on our stage. Then the knapsack, with the articles in it, had really an historical existence. I found it in the time of the Revolution, on my travels along the French border, when the emigrants, on their flight, had pa.s.sed through, and one of them might have lost it or thrown it away. The articles it contained were just the same as in the piece. I wrote the scene upon it, and the knapsack, with all its appurtenances, was always introduced, to the no small delight of our actors.”
The question whether the _Burgergeneral_ could still be played with any interest or profit, was for a while the subject of our conversation.
Goethe then asked about my progress in French literature, and I told him that I still took up Voltaire from time to time, and that the great talent of this man gave me the purest delight.
“I still know but little of him,” said I; “I keep to his short poems addressed to persons, which I read over and over again, and which I cannot lay aside.”
“Indeed,” said Goethe, “all is good which is written by so great a genius as Voltaire, though I cannot excuse all his profanity. But you are right to give so much time to those little poems addressed to persons; they are unquestionably among the most charming of his works.
There is not a line which is not full of thought, clear, bright, and graceful.”
“And we see,” said I, “his relations to all the great and mighty of the world, and remark with pleasure the distinguished position taken by himself, inasmuch as he seems to feel himself equal to the highest, and we never find that any majesty can embarra.s.s his free mind even for a moment.”
“Yes,” said Goethe, “he bore himself like a man of rank. And with all his freedom and audacity, he ever kept within the limits of strict propriety, which is, perhaps, saying still more. I may cite the Empress of Austria as an authority in such matters; she has repeatedly a.s.sured me, that in those poems of Voltaire’s, there is no trace of crossing the line of _convenance_.”
“Does your excellency,” said I, “remember the short poem in which he makes to the Princess of Prussia, afterwards Queen of Sweden, a pretty declaration of love, by saying that he dreamed of being elevated to the royal dignity?”
“It is one of his best,” said Goethe, and he recited the lines–
“Je vous aimais, princesse, et j’osais vous le dire; Les Dieux et mon reveil ne m’ont pas tout ote, Je n’ai perdu que mon empire.”
“How pretty that is! And never did poet have his talent so completely at command every moment as Voltaire. I remember an anecdote, when he had been for some time on a visit to Madame du Chatelet. Just as he was going away, and the carriage was standing at the door, he received a letter from a great number of young girls in a neighboring convent, who wished to play the ‘Death of Julius Caesar’ on the birthday of their abbess, and begged him to write them a prologue. The case was too delicate for a refusal; so Voltaire at once called for pen and paper, and wrote the desired prologue, standing, upon the mantlepiece. It is a poem of perhaps twenty lines, thoroughly digested, finished, perfectly suited to the occasion, and, in short, of the very best cla.s.s.”
“I am very desirous to read it,” said I.
“I doubt,” said Goethe, “whether you will find it in your collection. It has only lately come to light, and, indeed, he wrote hundreds of such poems, of which many may still be scattered about among private persons.”
“I found of late a pa.s.sage in Lord Byron,” said I, “from which I perceived with delight that even Byron had an extraordinary esteem for Voltaire. We may see in his works how much he liked to read, study, and make use of Voltaire.
“Byron,” said Goethe, “knew too well where anything was to be got, and was too clever not to draw from this universal source of light.”
The conversation then turned entirely upon Byron and several of his works, and Goethe found occasion to repeat many of his former expressions of admiration for that great genius.
“To all that your excellency says of Byron,” said I, “I agree from the bottom of my heart; but, however great and remarkable that poet may be as a genius, I very much doubt whether a decided gain for pure human culture is to be derived from his writings.”
“There I must contradict you,” said Goethe; “the audacity and grandeur of Byron must certainly tend towards culture. We should take care not to be always looking for it in the decidedly pure and moral. Everything that is great promotes cultivation as soon as we are aware of it.”
_Thursday, February 12_.–Goethe read me the thoroughly n.o.ble poem, “Kein Wesen kann zu nichts zerfallen” (No being can dissolve to nothing), which he had lately written.
“I wrote this poem,” said he, “in contradiction to my lines–
‘Denn alles muss zu nichts zerfallen Wenn es im Seyn beharren will,’ etc.
(‘For all must melt away to nothing Would it continue still to be’)–
which are stupid, and which my Berlin friends, on the occasion of the late a.s.sembly of natural philosophers, set up in golden letters, to my annoyance.”
The conversation turned on the great mathematician, Lagrange, whose excellent character Goethe highly extolled.
“He was a good man,” said he, “and on that very account, a great man.
For when a good man is gifted with talent, he always works morally for the salvation of the world, as poet, philosopher, artist, or in whatever way it may be.
“I am glad,” continued Goethe, “that you had an opportunity yesterday of knowing Coudray better. He says little in general society, but, here among ourselves, you have seen what an excellent mind and character reside in the man. He had, at first, much opposition to encounter, but he has now fought through it all and enjoys the entire confidence and favor of the court. Coudray is one of the most skilful architects of our time. He has adhered to me and I to him, and this has been of service to us both. If I had but known him fifty years ago!”
We then talked about Goethe’s own architectural knowledge. I remarked that he must have acquired much in Italy.
“Italy gave me an idea of earnestness and greatness,” said he, “but no practical skill. The building of the castle here in Weimar advanced me more than anything. I was obliged to a.s.sist, and even to make drawings of entablatures. I had a certain advantage over the professional people, because I was superior to them in intention.”
We talked of Zelter.
“I have a letter from him,” said Goethe, “in which he complains that the performance of the oratorio of the Messiah was spoiled for him by one of his female scholars, who sang an aria too weakly and sentimentally.
Weakness is a characteristic of our age. My hypothesis is, that it is a consequence of the efforts made in Germany to get rid of the French.
Painters, natural philosophers, sculptors, musicians, poets, with but few exceptions, all are weak, and the general ma.s.s is no better.”
“Yet I do not give up the hope,” said I, “of seeing suitable music composed for _Faust_.”
“Quite impossible!” said Goethe. “The awful and repulsive pa.s.sages which must occasionally occur, are not in the style of the time. The music should be like that of Don Juan. Mozart should have composed for _Faust_. Meyerbeer would, perhaps, be capable; but he would not touch anything of the kind; he is too much engaged with the Italian theatres.”
Afterwards–I do not recollect in connection to what–Goethe made the following important remark:
“All that is great and skilful exists with the minority. There have been ministers who have had both king and people against them, and have carried out their great plans alone. It is not to be imagined that reason can ever be popular. Pa.s.sions and feelings may become popular; but reason always remains the sole property of a few eminent individuals.”
_Sunday, December_ 6.–Today, after dinner, Goethe read me the first scene of the second act of _Faust_. The effect was great, and gave me a high satisfaction. We are once more transported into Faust’s study, where Mephistopheles finds all just as he had left it. He takes from the hook Faust’s old study-gown, and a thousand moths and insects flutter out from it. By the directions of Mephistopheles as to where these are to settle down, the locality is brought very clearly before our eyes. He puts on the gown, while Faust lies behind a curtain in a state of paralysis, intending to play the doctor’s part once more. He pulls the bell, which gives such an awful tone among the old solitary convent halls, that the doors spring open and the walls tremble. The servant rushes in, and finds in Faust’s seat Mephistopheles, whom he does not recognize, but for whom he has respect. In answer to inquiries he gives news of Wagner, who has now become a celebrated man, and is hoping for the return of his master. He is, we hear, at this moment deeply occupied in his laboratory, seeking to produce a Homunculus. The servant retires, and the bachelor enters–the same whom we knew some years before as a shy young student, when Mephistopheles (in Faust’s gown) made game of him. He is now become a man, and is so full of conceit that even Mephistopheles can do nothing with him, but moves his chair further and further, and at last addresses the pit.