Frederick the Great: On German literature

[Extract]

From: James Harvey Robinson Readings in European History, The Atheneum Press, Boston , 1906. (Note: When he wrote the following estimation, Lessing had finished his work and Goethe had already published Goetz, Werther and Wilhelm Meister ; Schiller published his first tragedy the following year.)

YOU ARE SURPRISED, sir, that I do not add my voice to yours in applauding the progress which, according to you, German literature is making from day to day. I love our common country as well as you, and for that very reason I abstain from praising it until it has deserved praise. …

Let us look for a moment at our country; I hear a jargon spoken which is devoid of every grace, and which each one manipulates according to his own fancy. with no discrimination in the choice of terms,- indeed, the most appropriate and expressive words are wholly neglected, and the real meaning is drowned in a flood of verbiage.

I have been trying to unearth our Homers, our Virgils, our Anacreons, Horaces, our Demosthenes, our Ciceros, our Thucydides, our Livys; but I find nothing; I might have spared my pains. Let us be sincere and admit frankly that up to this time literature has not flourished on our soil. Germany has had its philosophers who can bear comparison with the ancients, -who have even surpassed them in some respects,- but as to belles-lettres, let us confess our poverty. …

In order to convince yourself of the bad taste that reigns in Germany, you have only to frequent the theater. There you will see presented the abominable plays of Shakespeare translated into our language, and the whole audience transported with delight by these absurd farces, fit only for the savages of Canada. I speak of them thus because they sin against every rule of the drama. These rules are not arbitrary: Aristotle in his Poetics prescribes the unity of time, of place, and of action as the only possible means of making tragedy interesting.

One may perhaps forgive Shakespeare for his fantastic eccentricities, for one must not expect maturity of the arts at the time of their birth. But now we have a Goetz von Berlichingen appearing on the scene, a detestable imitation of those wretched English plays, and the pit applauds it enthusiastically and demands the repetition of its disgusting platitudes. …

Give us Medicis for rulers and we shall see genius unfold; without Augustus we cannot have Virgils. We shall yet have our classic authors; every one will wish to read them alike for pleasure and profit; our neighbors will learn German, and our language, polished and perfected by our writers, will be spoken, not in court circles only, but throughout the length and breadth of Europe. This happy time is not here, but it approaches. I prophesy that it will come, though I shall not see it; my age forbids that hope. I am like Moses alone, -I do not mean to put myself on a level with him in any respect; but as for the “promised land” of our literature, it is far more to be desired than the bleak and arid rocks of the sterile Idumea.

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