Lessing's Nathan the Wise


Translated from the German by Miss ELLEN FROTHINGHAM. I vol. 12mo. New York: Leypoldt and Holt.
THE appearance of a new translation of Lessing’s master-work is another indication of the wide interest that people abroad and at home are feeling in the man, the like of whom Goethe told Eckermann the world needed. The enthusiasm of his countrymen would seem to increase as time goes by. There is no end of pamphlets about him as critic, philosopher, reformer. The literature created by the “Nathan” alone, as summed up in Naumann’s recent Catalogue raisonné, occupies with the merest description of works one hundred and twenty-five pages. Germany’s most eminent names are on the list of writers who have devoted their talent to the interpretation and spread of Lessing’s ideas.
Till lately, Lessing has been hardly better known in France than here. The “ Nathan ” was translated there by Friedel and Bonneville as early as 1783. Twice it has been adapted for the stage ; once as a versified drama in three acts; and once as a “ Comédie Héroïque,” whatever that may be, in prose. Baron de Barante made a French version of it in 1823. Hermann Hirsch attempted in 1863 the same feat. Three years ago, M. Arthur Arnould enlightened the Parisians by telling them they would find the piece “ very childish ” as a work of art. “ Modern readers,” he says, “ will be astonished at the simplicity of this revolutionary undertaking, at a time when Voltaire was filling the whole world with his name and ideas.” M. Ernest è, in his recent “ Christianisme Moderne,” a study on Lessing, has the honor of introducing him to the French as “ the man who opened in Germany new paths of religious thought ; than whom no one is better fitted to meet the taste of our people, no one better qualified to make the general public acquainted with the problems of theology.”
“Nathan the Wise” was translated into Dutch by an unknown hand in 1780 : into Danish, in 1799, by Rahbeck ; into Swedish, in 1841 ; into Polish, in 1867 ; and into Modern Greek, under the title, “The Wise Old Jew of Kaliourgos.” The last version was published in 1840. The merit of these translations does not concern us now.
England showed her appreciation long ago. Macaulay pronounced Lessing the foremost European critic. As early as 1781 aversion of “Nathan the Wise,” made by E. E. Raspe, was published in London. It attracted little notice. Ten years later, in 1791, William Taylor’s translation appeared. This version, which was printed in the Edinburgh and the Retrospective Reviews, reached a second edition in 1005, and was afterwards reprinted in Mr. Taylor’s “ Historic Survey of German Poetry,” London, 1828— 1830. Lowndes pronounced this “an excellent translation” ; but it falls far short of the best modern standard. A third translation of the poem, exceedingly literal, by Dr. Adolph Reich, was published in London, in 1860 ; and a fourth translation was offered in manuscript to Messrs. Leypoldt and Holt, on their announcing a purpose to include “ Nathan the Wise ” in their foreign series, along with the Frithiof Saga and the Kalevala, the latter translated by the late John A. Porter, of Yale College.
In America Lessing is little known. The republication of Stahr’s “Life of Lessing” made the better class of the reading public acquainted with his private history and his genius. Mr. Lowell’s article in the North American Review has eloquently presented the man’s claims to honor ; but his masterpieces have never found their way to the American mind. This is the more singular, as Lessing was a modern man. He lived far in advance of his own age and his own people, and will come into full enjoyment of his intellectual existence, towards the close of the nineteenth century. He was a man, too, for America. He walked large over the continent of thought as we do ; he kept step with those who walk largest. His place is with the most enlightened as well as the bravest of our liberal teachers. The sudden interest in him proves that he is needed, and that he comes to call. In the present condition of speculative thought, particularly on the subject of religion, his contribution of criticism and of faith, of sight and of insight, will be the more valuable for having been prepared when and where it was,—in the last century, in the seclusion of Germany, under the action of purely literary powers, within limits that gave him every intellectual facility, and shut out political and social distractions. His thought comes to us in perfect form of art, and with the least possible alloy.
Lessing was a clear, cordial, devout Theist. His “Nathan der Weise ” was his confession of faith. We may say more than this. We may call it the confession of faith of the modern Theist. At first sight it seems to be an effort to decide between the claims of the three great religions, — Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism. A second glance gives assurance that no such thought as this could have so much as passed across Lessing’s mind. It looks as if he meant to harmonize the three religions by showing that charity was the heart of them all. But this interpretation does not satisfy, either. A careful study of the poem convinces us that Lessing meditated nothing less than an illustration in dramatic form of the essence of religion itself. The characters represent in all its phases and contrasts that quality of self-abnegation which is the soul of faith. Engaging as a story, vivid as a drama, brilliant as a poem, it is very profound and rich as a work of religious philosophy. The reading of it combines instruction with delight.
Miss Frothingham undertook her translation some years ago, as a work of love, and in the same spirit she completed it. Its publication was suggested by the announcement of a purpose to present the poem to the American people. It was submitted, prior to acceptance, to the severe scrutiny of sharp-eyed critics, good scholars, and men whose enthusiasm for Lessing made them very jealous of his honor. From their hands the manuscript went back to the translator’s for final revision. The public may, therefore, rest satisfied that this is no job work, done to order. Miss Frothingham’s version was selected because by competent judges, German as well as English, it was considered better than any existing translations.
To say it is perfect would be claiming too much. That can never be said. Of the correctness of rendering, in some few passages, there may be a question ; but they are passages on whose precise shade of meaning German scholars differ. We have noticed lines that would have been stronger had the phrase been more condensed. Here and there it struck us that a more literal rendering would be an improvement. But on the whole the work is exceedingly well done. It is faithful and elegant. It reads like a piece that was originally written in English. To those who are uninitiated into the mysteries of turning thoughts from one language into another, the smoothly flowing, bright, poetical verse will seem to be the only form of verse that was suited to express the idea. As a work of art, inwardly and outwardly, it stands at the head of the series of which it forms a part.
A short account of Lessing’s life and labors introduces the poem to the reader. An appendix gives, in condensed form, Kuno Fischer’s admirable essay on “Nathan the Wise,” for the interest of all who may peruse it, and for the instruction of all who may wish a deeper interpretation of the piece than their own intelligence reveals.