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.

Ιn Goethe’s case the problem of assessment or evaluation is complicated by the fact that there is too much to sum up; he lived so many lives. Elisabeth M. Wilkinson, co-author of Goethe: Poet and Thinker, handled it thus (15th edition):

Α day will come, Carlyle predicted in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, when “yοu will find that this sunny-looking courtly Goethe held veiled in him a Prophetic sorrow deep as Dante’s.” And since World War ΙΙ there have been many attempts to replace the image of the serene optimist by that of the tortured skeptic. The one is as inadequate as the other -as inadequate as Τ. S. Eliot’s conclusion that he was sage rather than poet- though this is perhaps inevitable when a writer is such a master of his οwn medium that even his prose proves resistant to translation. Even his Werther knew that the realities of existence are rarely to be grasped by Either-Or. And the reality of Goethe himself certainly eludes any such attempt. If he was a skeptic, and he often was, he was a hopeful skeptic. He looked deep into the abyss, but he deliberately emphasized life and light. He lived life to the full at every level, but never to the detriment of the civilized virtues. He remained closely in touch with the richness of his unconscious mind, but he shed οn it the light of reflection without destroying the spontaneity of its processes. He was, as befits a son of the Enlightenment, wholly committed to the adventure of science; but he stood in awe and reverence before the mystery of the universe. Goethe nowhere formulated a system of thought. He was as impatient of the sterilities of logic chopping as of the inflations of metaphysics, though he acknowledged his indebtedness to many philosophers, including Kant. But here again he was not to be confined. Truth for him lay not in compromise but in the embracing of opposites. And this is expressed in the form of his Maximen (“maxims”), which, together with his Gesprδche (“conversations”), contain the sum of his wisdom. As with proverbs, one can always find among them a twin that expresses the complementary opposite. And they have something of the banality of proverbs, too. But it is, as Andrι Gide observed, “une banalitι superieure.” What makes it “superior” is that the thought has been felt and lived and that the formulation betrays this. And for all his specialized talents, there was a kind of “superior banality” about Goethe’s life. If he himself felt it was “symbolic” and worth presenting as such in a series of autobiographical writings, it was not from arrogance but from a realization that he was an extraordinarily ordinary man in whom ordinary men might see themselves reflected. Not an ascetic, a mystic, a saint, or a recluse, not a Don Juan or a poet’s poet but one who to the best of his ability had tried to achieve the highest form of l’homme moyen sensuel-which is perhaps what Napoleon sensed when after their meeting in Erfurt he uttered his famous “Vοilà un homme!

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