The Life and Works of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, From the German of Adolf Stahr


By E. P. EVANS, P. D., Professor of Modern Languages and Literature in the University of Michigan. Boston : William V. Spencer.

THOMAS CARLYLE, writing of German literature in the Edinburgh Review some forty years ago, exemplified the prevailing ignorance of that literature among the English in the early part ot this century by the fact that in Pinkerton’s Geography, published 1811, the sole representative of literary Germany named by the geographer is Gottsched (misspelt Gottshed), who “ first introduced,” it is said, “ a more refined style.” The fact is even more significant than the Scotch reviewer has figured itNot only was Gottsched at that time as obsolete in Germany as Blackmore or Dennis in England, and his name consigned to the dunciads, but Lessing, the true founder of modern German literature, had been dead thirty years, and long since acknowledged by his fellow-countrymen as their intellectual leader in every department of literature illustrated by his genius.
England and America have learned something about Lessing since then, — enough at least to receive with a cordial welcome the faithful portraiture of the man and his labors by his latest biographer, Adolf Stahr. In doing this work into English, Professor Evans has done a good thing, for which all lovers of German literature who may want access to the original, and not only they, but all who love to read of great men, will give him thanks. The translation is a happy thought most happily executed. No man in this country possesses greater qualifications for such an undertaking than Professor Evans. His easy, idiomatic, and yet faithful version gives ample proof of the author’s many-sided fitness for the work, and the loving care bestowed upon it.
We have called Lessing the founder of modern German literature. There is scarcely another instance in literary history in which an individual represents with such prophetic originality, and marks with so sharp a separation, the commencement of a new epoch. Of the writers who preceded him in the province of what is called “ polite literature,” few only have survived the great revolution initiated by him,—survived as names, not as powers. Gellert alone, whom Frederick the Great pronounced “ le plus raisonnable de tous les savans Allemands,” has even in this century retained a wide popularity. Lessing’s reform was an appeal from, the arbitrary rules and artificial models of the French school which then dominated the German mind, to everlasting principles founded in the nature of man. In applying these principles to the drama, he was the first to liberate his countrymen from the thraldom of Gallicism, proving that the French tragedians in the matter of the “ Unities,” their standard and boast, had misinterpreted and misapplied the canons of Aristotle on which they relied. And what is more important, he was the first to assert, and on critical grounds to maintain, the transcendent greatness of Shakespeare, — the first not only in Germany, but the first in the world. He marks as distinctly a new era of Shakespeare criticism as of German literature. Apart from all other merits, his early championship of Shakespeare is a service for which England owes him everlasting thanks. Let it never be forgotten, that before his own nation had learned to fully appreciate the immortal dramatist, — at the time, and even before the time,1 when Dr. Johnson, with very imperfect vision, was apologetically defending him, conceding very serious qualifications, such as, e. g., that in tragedy he comes short of the ability he displays in comedy, that “ in his tragic scenes there is always something wanting,” and that “ neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy,” — at a time when Hume pronounced him incapable of “ furnishing proper entertainment to a refined and intelligent audience,” — this foreigner, this German, was instructing his compatriots to regard him as not only immeasurably superior to Corneille and Racine, but as occupying in dramatic poetry the same place of supreme elevation which the world accords to Homer In the epopee. Speaking of Wcisse’s protestation that in his (Weisse’s) Richard III. he had not plagiarized Shakespeare, whose Richard indeed he had never read, Lessing says in the Dramaturgic: “ That is supposing that a plagiarism from Shakespeare is possible. But what was said of Homer, — that one shall sooner wrest from Hercules his club than steal one of Homer’s verses, — is perfectly applicable to Shakespeare. On the most insignificant of his beauties he has set a stamp which proclaims to the world, ‘ This is Shakespeare’s,’and woe to the foreign beauty that has the hardihood to seek a place by its side ! ”
The large acquaintance not only with Shakespeare, but with his predecessors and successors on the English stage, the thorough knowledge of the English, French, Italian, Spanish, as well as the ancient drama displayed in these dramaturgical essays, is something marvellous even in a German, and yet is but a part of that immense erudition which belonged to the man, and which, being duly assimilated, quickened without encumbering the action of his mind.
His special vocation was criticism. In that province he has no superior in any land or age. Indeed, that higher kind of criticism of which the present century has produced so many illustrious examples, the criticism which deals not so much with the form and execution as with the interior organism and motive-springs of the works to which it is applied, may be said to have originated with him. In the Laocoön, which many regard as his best performance, the topic of criticism is art; and here he shows himself as much at home as in literature. This celebrated essay is allowed on all sides to be a model of art-criticism and of critical art, remarkable alike for depth of insight and sharp discrimination. Taking for its text the well-known group which furnishes the title, it discusses the relative limits of poetry and painting. Lessing here controverts a position of Winkelmann, whose transcendent merit he reverently acknowledges. Winkelmann had stated the fundamental principle of the Greek masterpieces in painting and sculpture to be simplicity and repose ; Lessing declares it to be beauty. From this fundamental law he deduces all the characteristics and rules of Greek art. It answers for him the muchvexed question why Laocoön is not represented as crying. He does not cry, says Lessing, because crying is a disfigurement of the countenance inadmissible in Grecian art. This law explains the difference between ancient and modern historical painting. With the modern artist, the primary object is the illustration of a passage in history ; with the ancient, the passage in history is only an occasion for the exhibition of a more varied beauty.
Among his other accomplishments, Lessing was the best theologian of his day, and in theology, as everywhere else, was a path - breaker ! His “ Education of the Human Race,” and his publication of the “ Wolfenbiittel Fragments,” exhibit the germs of all that is best in the German neology of recent time.
The leader of his day in every direction, he inaugurated the reign of Teutonic ideas which replaced the Gallic dynasty in the literature of Europe. Together with his great contemporary and compatriot, Kant, he heads the intellectual movement, which, originating in Germany, and spreading thence to the borders of Christendom, constitutes the age in which we live.
It was not modesty, as some aver, but conscientious criticism applied to himself, that led him to disclaim for himself the title of poet. He was not a poet in his own high sense of the term; but his “ Emilia Galotti,” which for four generations has had possession of the German stage, if not a masterpiece of poetic genius, is unquestionably a gem of dramatic art.
It is a proof of Lessing’s greatness, that, after the lapse of nearly a century, he is still modern, still exercises an undiminished, nay, an increasing influence in the world of letters, justifying the saying of Kühne, which Mr. Evans has prefixed to his volumes, — “ To return to Lessing is now to advance.” The significance of this testimony is enhanced if we consider that Lessing was contemporary with Dr. Johnson, who outlived him by two or three years, and whose influence, all powerful in his day, has been in this century a constantly diminishing quantity, and is now altogether effete. What English Writer at present would take Dr. Johnson as model or guide ? As a character he still interests us, as an intellectual power he was and is not.
The contrast is striking in another respect. Dr. Johnson’s last years were crowned with temporal success. He had a government pension, which secured him a comfortable living ; he enjoyed the reflection of himself in the admiring homage of his associates ; he rioted in conscious importance, was flattered by obsequious deference, was a king in his sphere ; and when torn from that sphere by death, he was laid away with distinguished honors in Westminster Abbey, among the honored of the land. Lessing bore to the last “ the whips and scorns of time,” and when his life’s tragedy was over, “ died so poor that the Duke of Brunswick was obliged to bury him at the expense of the state.” And when, not many years since, a grateful posterity undertook the monument which now attests his undisputed claims, “ every trace of the recollection of his grave had vanished, and only after a long and weary search did Dr. Charles Schiller succeed in finding hidden among weeds and briers a little headstone, which, cleared of moss and earth, revealed the name, — LESSING.”
  1. Lessing’s Hamburgische Dramaturgic was mostly written in 1767 ; Dr. Johnson’s Preface, in 1768.