Goethe In Britain

Rosemary Ashton

  • Goethe’s Plays translated by Charles Passage
    Benn, 626 pp, £12.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 510 00087 8
  • The Classical Centre: Goethe and Weimar 1775-1832 by T.J. Reed
    Croom Helm, 271 pp, £14.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 85664 356 4
  • Goethe on Art translated by John Gage
    Scolar, 251 pp, £10.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 85967 494 0
  • The Younger Goethe and the Visual Arts by W.D. Robson-Scott
    Cambridge, 175 pp, £19.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 521 23321 6

In 1827, Thomas Carlyle, already the translator of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, was invited by Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, to ‘Germanise the public’. Jeffrey issued the invitation cautiously, even negatively, asking Carlyle to temper his enthusiasm for ‘your German divinities’ – an enthusiasm he could scarcely understand, let alone share. Indeed, two years earlier Jeffrey had reviewed Carlyle’s Meister translation, censoring the work as ‘eminently absurd, puerile, incongruous, vulgar and affected’. Carlyle fulfilled the task set him by his amused, semi-reluctant editor with the influential essay ‘The State of German Literature’. As a result of this and other articles on German literature, Carlyle became the most celebrated Germanist of his age. It was Carlyle, as G.H. Lewes acknowledged in his Life of Goethe (1855), ‘who first taught England to appreciate Goethe’.

There is evidence that the task which Carlyle fulfilled for the Victorians needs doing again today. The greatest German author appears to have become once more unpalatable to British literary taste. Some years ago D.J. Enright asked the question: ‘Aimez-Vous Goethe?’ The rest of his essay title supplied the answer: ‘An Enquiry into English Attitudes of Non-Liking towards German Literature’. In the introduction to their translation of the Italian Journey (1962), W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer sought to explain and excuse British ignorance of, and indifference to, Goethe by drawing attention to the undeniable fact that his work is particularly resistant to translation into English. This is to be expected in the case of Goethe’s lyric poetry, which sings with serene quasi-simplicity, and of Faust, with its bewildering range of tones, from the gothic to the austere, from bawdy comedy to reverent pathos. But even the great novels, Wilhelm Meister and Elective Affinities, seem not to yield their secrets in English.

No doubt this is because Goethe’s mode, in prose as well as poetry, is persistently paradoxical. Full of gravitas and symbolism yet pervasively self-critical and ironic, his works elude and exasperate us, for, as Enright wittily pointed out, we expect the monumental to stand still. Thomas Mann, who has fared better abroad than his compatriot and coironist, consistently resorted to paradox when describing Goethe’s genius. Goethe’s language is, wrote Mann, ‘gesittetverwegen’ (approximately ‘well-bred and daring’), ‘heiter’ (approximately ‘serene’), it is characterised by ‘vernünftiger Zauber’ (‘common-sense magic’). Clearly the problems faced by, first, the would-be translator of Goethe, and secondly, the would-be reader of Goethe in translation, are daunting.

Fortunately, a number of translators and scholars are now turning their attention to the task. Faust I and II, Werther and Elective Affinities are available in good translations.[*] There is Auden’s Italian Journey. A new translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Waidson appeared recently, with the promise of the Travels to follow. Now Charles Passage, already translator of the two Fausts, has brought out a large volume containing translations of all Goethe’s other major plays, and brief accounts of more than forty other plays, fragments, sketches, operettas, masks and adaptations. Passage faithfully renders Goethe’s prose in prose, his iambic rhyme in iambic rhyme, his blank verse in blank verse. But his blank verse is preposterous: successive lines are left hanging limply on prepositions, subjects are cruelly separated from their verbs:

I am not ready yet, like you, Orestes,
To go down to that realm of shades. Through all
The tangled paths that seem to lead down to
Black night, I still keep thinking of how we
Can wind our way back up to life again.

Passage manages some of the climactic moments of Goethe’s stately plays better than this one from Iphigenia in Tauris, and his rendering of the early comedies, The Lover’s Whim and Fellow Culprits, written in rhyming couplets, is lively: but on the whole his translations are laboured.

Nevertheless, this volume is useful because it directs attention to the variety of Goethe’s attempts in the drama, and, above all, to his natural inclination to experiment, both with the form and with the ‘Stoff’ of his plays. The latter is always taken from Goethe’s experience. Perhaps no other writer so consistently wrought his personal, amorous, artistic and social successes and failures into great art. Goethe had an extraordinary way of shedding his sicknesses in books, from the fictionalising (and exorcising) of his youthful maladroit love for Charlotte Kestner in Werther to the dramatisation of his intellectual relationship with Charlotte von Stein in Iphigenia and the ironic-painful expression of his old man’s fancy for a young girl in the Marienbad Elegies. This characteristic of Goethe’s art – seeking in each work the right form to express poetically his own recent raw experience – is one to which T.J. Reed, in his excellent account of Goethe in Weimar, The Classical Centre, pays close attention. As he says, Goethe’s poetry ‘was all born of particular occasions’. Reed persuasively shows how Goethe emerged, during what Friedrich Schlegel called the ‘age of non-literature’ in Germany, to create, and then occupy, a ‘classical centre’, to raise a literary standard to which others, older critics like Herder and Wieland and ambitious young Romantics like the Schlegels, referred as a model for both emulation and deviation. In late 18th-century Germany, more than anywhere else, the poet had to create the taste by which he was to be enjoyed. Reed stresses the peculiarity of the German case. Goethe’s ‘decisive importance for German literature lies in the timing of his contribution, and in the contrast between its richness and the relative dearth which preceded him. By 1770 Germany still had little to set beside the flourishing literary traditions of France, Spain, England. Goethe’s work thus came as a fulfilment of the need – the conscious expectation, even – felt by a culture which lacked the essentials of literary tradition: native masterpieces and agreed criteria.’

Only in Germany is it possible to see ‘Classicism’ appear as the result of a conscious programme to fill a cultural vacuum. Lessing and Herder consciously played the part of John the Baptist, and Herder, for one, recognised in Goethe the fulfilment of the prophecy. But the picture is not quite so clear and simple as this may suggest. If Reed is right to associate Classicism with ‘ideas of literary status and authority’, ‘ages of cohesion and stability’, ‘cultural community, shared beliefs, social integration’, and, with reference to T.S. Eliot’s essay on the classic, ‘agreed stylistic norms which in turn depend on social order’, he is undoubtedly right also to stress the peculiarity of the birth of German Classicism at a time when few, if any, of these criteria were met. But in so isolating the great flowering of German genius, he finds himself claiming on the opposite side a uniformity of Classicisms outside Germany. This raises the awkward problem of whether English Classicism is to be found, as in accordance with his definition it must be, in the Augustan age, or whether we do not really have to separate the idea of the ‘Classical’ from that of the ‘classic’ in order to give status to our view of the Elizabethan age, particularly Shakespeare, as the true high point of English literature.

Reed’s dilemma here is matched by the difficulties which German theorists of the late 18th century encountered in writing their manifestos about Classicism versus Romanticism, the ancient versus the modern, the naive versus the reflective. All recognised Shakespeare’s greatness: but was he serene, unconscious, in harmony with his world, as Schiller thought, or modern and self-conscious, as Friedrich Schlegel described him? Reed wisely avoids going into detail on this question, or indeed on Italian or Spanish ‘Classicisms’, which present problems of their own. His main point is that Goethe’s works can be seen as Classical (though in a way peculiar to Goethe and to Germany) and at the same time as classic. He is, of course, right to see Germany against the particular background of French Neo-Classical culture, since it was to French ‘rules’ that most 18th-century German literary attempts remained slavish. Paradoxically, then, German Classicism arose, abruptly, through a sturdy revolt against the unities in drama and against the tyranny of a foreign culture.

In spite of these difficulties of definition, Reed offers a clear, finely written, dramatic account of the double peculiarity of the great age of German literature: the stony ground from which it grew and the extraordinary flower it bore in Goethe’s works – works so unclassical in any of the senses attributed to the term, yet in the status they acquired for Germans so quintessentially classical.

A similar theme is developed by John Gage in his introduction to Goethe’s critical writings on art. As he says, Goethe’s taste in art may be called Classical, but we must constantly qualify the term to embrace Goethe’s appreciation, at different times, of the baroque classicism of his teacher, Oeser, the mannerist classicism of Fuseli and Girodet, and the realist classicism of David. Goethe, for long a serious and mediocre painter, was a better critic than he was a theorist. Against the arid connoisseurship of the proselytising essays in his periodical Propyläen – too conscious an attempt to educate public taste – the essays on Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’, Rembrandt, Rubens and Strasbourg Cathedral are remarkable for their eye for detail, their verbal virtuosity, and for their affirmation of the value of experiment. Writing of the enormous size of the figures in ‘The Last Supper’, he notes: ‘It is long since acknowledged, that only the greatest masters can succeed in exhibiting the human face, upon a colossal scale, in painting. The form of man, particularly the countenance, is according to the laws of nature, confined within a certain space, beyond which it ceases to appear regular, characteristic, beautiful and expressive. Make the experiment, and look at yourself, in a concave mirror, and you will be terrified at the inanimate, unmeaning monstrosity, which, like a Medusa, meets your eye.’

It is good to have this anthology, with its generous illustrations, of Goethe’s views on art. We learn from it how consistently Goethe applied the criteria of organic unity (as early as 1798 in the introduction to the Propyläen), truth to nature (on Rembrandt, 1816), the importance of the characteristic as well as the beautiful in art (on Strasbourg Cathedral, 1772), and the supra-natural laws which govern works of art. These are analogous with, but different from (and higher than), natural laws: ‘The artist has a twofold relationship to nature; he is at once her master and her slave’ (on Rubens, 1827). Gage’s collection of Goethe’s thoughts on the visual arts is in many ways complementary to Reed’s book on his literary works, and it is complemented by a book about Goethe as art critic. W.D. Robson-Scott’s approach is through biography. Indeed, the book’s strength lies in its attention to such details as the art works Goethe knew as a child both in his father’s collection and in his home city of Frankfurt, and the stress Goethe himself placed on his practice as an artist and art critic in his youth. The result of thus following Goethe’s early development is to confirm the impression made by Gage’s non-chronological selection: of Goethe’s variety and consistency.

[*] I would recommend the recently reprinted Penguin editions of Faust I and II, translated by Philip Wayne, and of Elective Affinities, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, and Catherine Hutter’s Sorrows of Young Werther (Signet Classics, 1962).