Quincey, Thomas De: Goethe Then and Now

Extracts from the 8th edition (1852-1860) of Encyclopaedia Britannica

It now remains to say a few words by way of summing up his pretensions as a man, and his intellectual power in the age to which he belonged. His rank and value as a moral being are so plain as to be legible to him who runs. Everybody must feel that his temperament and constitutional tendency was of that happy quality, the animal so nicely balanced with the intellectual, that with any ordinary measure of prosperity he could not be otherwise than a good man. . . . Yet at the same time we cannot disguise from ourselves that the moral temperament of Goethe was one which demanded prosperity: had he been called to face great afflictions, singular temptations, or a billowy and agitated course of life, our belief is that his nature would have been found unequal to the strife; he would have repeated the mixed and moody character of his father. Sunny prosperity was essential to his nature; his virtues were adapted to that condition. And happily that was his fate. He had no personal misfortunes; his path was joyous in this life; and even the reflex sorrow from the calamities of his friends did not press too heavily οn his sympathies; none of these were in excess either as to degree or duration. …

Goethe, however, in a moral estimate, will be viewed pretty uniformly. But Goethe intellectually, Goethe as a power acting upon the age in which he lived, that is another question. Let us put a case; suppose that Goethe’s death had occurred many years ago, say in the year 1785, what would have been the general impression? Would Europe have felt a shock? Would Europe have been sensible even of the event? Not at all: it would have been obscurely noticed in the newspapers of Germany, as the death of a novelist who had produced some effect about ten years before. Ιn 1832, it was announced by the post-horns of all Europe as the death of him who had written the Wilhelm Meister, the Iphigenie, and the Faust, and who had been enthroned by some of his admirers οn the same seat with Homer and Shakespeare, as composing what they termed the trinity of men of genius. And yet it is a fact, that, in the opinion of some amongst the acknowledged leaders of our οwn literature for the last twenty-five years, the Werther was superior to all which followed it, and for mere power was the paramount work of Goethe. For ourselves, we must acknowledge our assent upon the whole to this verdict; and at the same time we will avow our belief that the reputation of Goethe must decline for the next generation or two, until it reaches its just level.

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