A Curiosity of Literature

GOETHE’S Correspondence with a Child ” is one of those phenomenal appearances in literature to which every critic of the great poet has lent his own interpretation. Many, indeed most, readers of these letters have regarded them with admiration, as the poetic outburst of a precocious and fervid imagination ; but they have met with sterner criticism, and even wholesale denunciation. It is not the province of this article to discuss their merits, but to tell a curious and true story of the author, which, it is believed, is known but to very few.

After Goethe’s death, the gifted and eccentric author “ Bettina ” determined to publish these letters, and did so, meeting with great success. They brought her immense literary fame, beside the substantial guerdon of seven thousand dollars, — all of which she determined to devote to a monument to her great Goethe, the design of which she drew herself. But her ideas were so colossal that seven thousand dollars were not enough, and she determined to pledge all in an English translation and edition of her letters, hoping to double it. To this end she employed two English scholars, an Oxford and then a Cambridge student, to translate for her. But their terse, abrupt, English - sounding sentences offended her musical ear, and she determined to translate the book herself.

Having completed the work to her satisfaction (a description of her troubles is given in her “ Preamble ”), and having spent all her seven thousand dollars in the printing, binding, and gilding the edges of her volumes, the immense edition of ten thousand copies was sent to the famous London firm of Longmans, Brown, and Orme, without previous understanding on their part as to the reception of this curious freight.

She Sent them some half-dozen inspection copies, and two presentation copies, one for Prince Albert and one for Carlyle ; but although months and weeks passed by, poor Bettina heard nothing from her translation. She wrote to Longmans, and to her nephew in London, Mr. Brentano, who, strange to say, did not answer her letters or interest himself in her adventure. Finally she put her case in the hands of a gentleman going from Berlin to London, and begged of him to inquire into the fate of her lost loves. He did so, and found that the cases containing the ten thousand volumes had never been removed from the custom-house, nor did Messrs. Longmans intend to remove them. Mr. Brentano was not in receipt of any moneys from his romantic aunt with which to pay the heavy charges accumulated on them ; and the end was prosaic enough : they were simply sold as unclaimed matter, and probably went back to the manufacturers as “ stock.”

Meantime she had given to the wife of her kindly friend (the only one, it seems, who ever interested himself enough in her great work even to inquire for it) a copy, with an autograph note on the outside, which is now perhaps the only copy in this country of this very remarkable book.

These friends have carefully kept it, not alone from the affection they felt for her, but because they discern in it something noble and true and tender. As she says herself, “ The deed was intrepid and the execution was high and undaunted to the utmost moment ! ”

It is impossible not to laugh at her mistakes, but who will not be affected by her address to the Longmans (as if publishers were human)? “If there are still other Englishmen who, as Byron would have done, are inclined to preserve in their deep mind and protect such youthfully inspirited feelings, I should like they scan the pages of my Diary ” ; and by her delicate and sweet mistake about “struggling for her version as an animal does for its young ” ? These and many other instances present this gifted woman in a new and rather piteous light, preserving as she did, with undying constancy, the peculiar romance of her youth, and regarding no labor or self-sacrifice as onerous which should redound to the credit and glory of the great Goethe.

Bettina’s history is well known ; but a brief recapitulation of it, garnered from the recollections of the faithful friend who has preserved her little book, may not be out of place here.

She was born of a wealthy Italian family, whose ancestors had settled at Frankfort, and her maiden name was Elizabeth Brentano. She fell in love with Goethe when she was sixteen and he sixty, and his vanity induced him to receive and reply to those wonderful letters now so well known to readers of all countries as “ Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child.”She was born in 1785, and married in 1811 Baron Joachim von Arnim, himself a distinguished poet, and renowned for his personal beauty. He died in 1831, leaving Madame von Arnim with three beautiful daughters, all of whom survive, and are said still to be the flowers of the German court. Encouraged by the splendid success of her first literary effort, Bettina wrote a novel called “ Günderode.” It was again in the form of letters, and consisted of the correspondence of a young German lady of noble family, who committed suicide because of her intense passion for a distinguished philologist. This novel had great popularity, and the young German “girls of the period,” the young and sentimental wives, the flaxen-haired, blue-eyed “ femmes incomprises ” of all Germany, wept over it as their grandmothers had wept sixty years before over the “ Sorrows of Werther.”

Later in life the versatile and restless Bettina became a great politician, and wrote a book entitled “This Book belongs to the King.” But it failed signally to please the king, who withdrew the sunshine of his favor, which she had dearly prized. She wrote one more book deeply tinged with the political and social ideas of the times, called “Conversations with a Demon,” but this was also a failure.

She died in 1859, after a long, prosperous, and distinguished career, having always enjoyed a good position in society, which she ennobled by her devotion to literature. She seems to have been always highly respected by her own countrymen, who, of all the nations of the earth, alone can fully comprehend her.

A faithful copy of her “Preface and Preamble,” and selections from such parts of her letters as seemed most curious, has been made, taking great care to preserve the mistakes, — as difficult a matter as it is for an actor to commit to memory the part of “ Oblivious Top,” which consists in remembering to forget. To the students of the two languages, Bettina’s search for some English equivalent for the high-resounding German speech will recall an old trouble, while her desperate struggle for a word, resulting often in “ creating one from the depths of her own consciousness,” cannot fail to amuse everybody. Frequently she is befogged, and goes off into total obscurity and intellectual shipwreck; sometimes she hits on a phrase of great beauty, as where she says, “ The trim towers of the castle rose up, as if swearing an oath and again in describing the sun’s power in opening a bud she says, “It cannot again return to the cool closet of unconscious darkness.”

This rare and precious volume is enriched by her own design for the Goethe monument. Jupiter Tonans seems to have been her model for the gigantic creature, who sits, half draped, in a huge arm-chair, with wreaths on his head and in his hands, while in classical nudity the youthful Psyche leans on his knee, clasping, in a pair of very thin arms, his lyre, — to reach which she stands painfully on tiptoe. The drawing is far from perfect, and perhaps one is reconciled to the fact that this dream of art has never been perpetuated in marble. The readers of the letters will remember how fond she was of calling herself “ his Psyche ! ” And her own inimitable description of this model is given in the quotations which follow.

Poor Bettina! — after having been, as she says herself, “grated up in the dictionary of good Johnson, to no boot,” — let us hope that she may find at this late day some grateful recognition of her heroic effort.

Bettina’s own Translation of her Letters to Goethe.



GENTLEMEN ! — The noble cup of your mellifluous tongue, so often brimmed with immortality, here filled with odd but pure and fiery draught, do not refuse to taste if you relish its spirit to be home felt, though not home born.



The translating of Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child into English, was generally disapproved of, previous to its publication in Germany, the well-renowned Mrs. Austin by regard for the great German Poet proposed to translate it ; but after having perused it with attention, the Literate and the most famed Booksellers of London thought unadvisable the publication of a book that in every way widely differed from the spirit and feeling of the English, and therefore it could not be depended upon for exciting their interest. Mrs. Austin, by her gracious mind to comply with my wishes, proposed to publish some fragments of it, but as no musician ever likes to have only those passages of his composition executed that blandish the ear, I likewise refused my assent to the maiming of a work that not by my own merit, but by chance and nature became a work of art, that only in the untouched developement of its genius might judiciously be enjoyed and appraised. I stood in awe of these authorities, so familiar with the literary relations of England, and with regret I gave up tiie dreamed delight of being read and named by the English ; but a good or bad demon, I know not which, made me forget my wits, with the most alluring charms, tempting me to this enterprise even in the moment, when German newspapers and Reviews were demonstrating it to be nonsense and a failed speculation for Goethe’s monument or for the spreading of his glory abroad.

The Poet being not so comprshened and beloved in his whole grandeur by stranger as in his native land, the English would greatly be inclined to construe his bearing to the child in these letters as the unkindest egotism ; and the most affected, or also incomprehensible passion in the child.

These objections disposed me highly to the contrary. I became still more persuaded that if the inspiration, excited in Germany by that peace-radiating power of Goethe over a juvenile temper, depended on a genuine cause, then it must be real, for English as well as German, and if that be true what a great German Philosopher maintains that the perception for philosophic revelation is innate in English people, then I can hope that my confidence may become a delightful means of intelligence for me with the English.

I was not acquainted with the English tongue, therefore relied upon the consciousness of my translators ; the recapitulating of their version I tried to follow with comparing it to the German text. Often my ear was hurt by words lack of musical rhythm, that in the German text by their harmonious sound and even by the union of the single part awakes poetic sensation, must yield to have them supplied by such as want all lofty strain ; to all my objections my relentless translator opposed the impossibility of translating it, the rigour against any arbitrariness in that language ; and besides its penury that allows no great choice, it consisting in but thirty thousand words. I thought if I only did know them, to be sure I would find the right.

The printing had almost come to end when by a variance between the printer and translator, it was interrupted ; then by the inspiration of despair, I ventured to continue translating. I never could have guessed those difficulties that fell more heavily upon me, than upon any knight-errant who tries with the help of propitious spirits to overcome impossibilities. What erroneous ways have I hastened through; how often have I ferreted for words that do not exist, or bolted expressions of-, fered in so many diversing shapes that the choice disturbed me highly ; how often in the night, the word for which I had pried with despair the whole day in every nook of my head, awakened me in a hurry out of deep sleep, and how felt I delighted when suddenly it was found. I held it between my lips as a pearl or diamond found in the dark, and in the morning I ran to the book to write it down, nay, I was like a blind man going to work without a guide. What a copiousness of words with their flexure overflowed me, how abundantly gracious seemed to me those varieties of flexions. I would have them all enweaved in my version, and desponded in choosing the finest, the noblest, the most eloquent, and euphonical among all. Often having studied the whole night, when in the morning I would peruse it, I was obliged to study it anew by help of the Dictionary. My inquiries led me upon thorns and thistles on a misty path, where I could not see a step before my feet, but where I fell upon so beauteous expressions I would compound with my text, though I did not know how to make use of them ; the strange etymologies even as blossom-dust transported by sedulous bees from foreign lands to their homely field, variegating the flowerage of their words. Vulgar people know not of the treasures upon tlreir lips, by which genius produces the honey-dropping fruit. Then I fell in love with this language that tormented me so much, that I almost got a fever of despair. Unconsciously I pursued my task confiding in my genius, that would preserve me from doing any harm by unfit or even unusual expressions, and persisted often in my wrong way, when my advisers would have subverted my construction as they were absurdities, often my version larded with uncommon or obsolete expressions gave way to misunderstanding then I could not ally the correction with my meaning, and would not be disputed out of my wits impassionated as I was for my traced-out turn, for which I had rummaged dictionary and poetry and never would yield till the last sheet which to-day will come in the press and I am like one to whom after a long prison spring is bestowed in the free air. Forsooth I saw in the last year no roses, no tree blowing ; my intelligence lay narrowly grated up in the dictionary of good Johnson, and the grammars that I took to my couch and fell asleep on them, and had also a very hard bed to no boot, for I had unfortunately in no language a grammatical learning; all its terms were unknown to me, and their inferences incomprehensible; and those who would advise me frightened me out of my wits. I struggled for my version as does an animal for its young and suffers them not to be touched by an indiscreet hand, but licks them clean again ; so it was with me instinctively and with great labor I tried to overcome all the corrections by a deeper inducement, while people laughed at my relucting and said that I would never come to a good issue, hence it cannot be otherwise that all what might be strange ; or even never heard of; that must be imputed to my persevering obstinacy against the better knowing of my advisers. However I hope not to be accused of presumption by inducing me to such unheard of doing, for even after the refusal of Mrs. Austin I had not failed summoning her once more insistingly to favor the English with her translation ; but the supposition, as if it were impossible, that this book could be translated, nor even comprehended, nor valued by others but the Germans, provoked mydesire to an almost unmanageable passion that it should be read and liked by the English and as their Reviews at least proved so finely their feeling-out of the primitive element of this love, and how unimpaired, undisturbed and how much plainer than to my countrymen appeared to them that paternal relation of Goethe’s delicious hearty affection to the child, from whose ecstacy he explored a sweet nurture for his immortality ; then I plucked up a good heart, spite of all warning to go adrift on the floods, mastless and without a sail, like a cast-off reefer trusting in my good luck to find a new fatherland for this book of love, I risked the little sum gained by the German edition, shall I prosperously succeed, then we shall be obliged for Goethe’s monument to the English nation, should I even be destined to suffer shipwreck on those shores which I had hoped would receive me with avitous greatness of mind ; should the German prophets be in the right in laughing at my silliness and boasting already of having predicted the English 1 would never have an interest for this book, I will however not repent for the inducement was not poor, the deed was intrepid, and the exertion was high and undaunted till the utmost moment. Had Byron still lived he would have praised my attempt, praised and loved me for the book’s sake for he was of a generous mind, propending to all uncommon affections, he discriminated humane feelings also in a strange vesture ; he would have studied these leaves I wrote in the spring of my age under the inspiration of one who like him comes to bloom but once after a thousand years. I must sigh that he lives no more ! for I might have committed it to his protection, as a field fully teeming with young gems that dreamingly thrive into their blossom, then I would have been hallowed in his shelter, and he would have bestowed on me his gentle goodly graces and this would have exceedingly blessed me. But now as I have no friend yonder, and no connexion, I am like a bird that flies from its nest over the ocean, or a plant to climate in a foreign land, must dole till it is rivetted in the soil, therefore I beseech Mr. Longman, who grants me the honor of publishing my little book to get this preamble inserted in the quarterly or Edinburgh reviews, for informing, that if there are still other Englishmen who, as Byron would have done, are inclined to preserve in their deep mind and protect such youthfully inspirited feelings, I should like they scan the pages of my Diary.


Extracts from the “Book of Love,” as she calls her Letters.


Here between the vine-hills stands a temple like the Diana’s temple at Ephesus. Yesterday at sunset I saw it lay in the distance it lighted so daring, so proudly beneath the storm clouds, the lightning’s fork entoiled it. So I fancy thy lightening brow like the cupola of yon temple, beneath whose eaves the birds sheltered their stormruffled plumage even so proudly settled and swaying around !

Where would the brook have led me ?

Yes, Sir ! I see the rush and stream, I see thee artfully play, I see thee day after day calmly wander and bend thy path suddenly away out of the realm of confidence careless that a loving heart which was fancying there its home, should remain deserted.

Thus the rivulet, on the banks of which I played away my childhood, painted to me in its undulating crystal the features of my destiny, and at that time I already bemoaned that they felt not related to me.

Now I will tell thee also the story of my second kiss, it followed almost immediately upon the first, and what dost thou think of thy girl, that she is become so light-minded ? Yes, that once I was very lightly-minded and to a friend of thine, — the bell rings hastily I spring to open the door ; a man in black dress, of stern appearance, with somewhat inflamed eyes, enters — even before announcing his name, or saying what is his business, he kisses me, even before I bethink myself. I give him a box on the ear, and only then I look furiously in his face and become aware of a friendly countenance which seems not at all frightened and not irritated at his proceeding. To escape my dilemma — for I did not know if I had done right or wrong— I quickly open to him the doors of my grandmother’s apartment. Then my surprize was suddenly changed to fright, when I heard her exclaim in great ecstacy, “ Herder, my Herder ! Is it possible that your way should have led you into this whimsical cricket-hut ? be a thousand times embraced ! ” and here followed these thousands in-armings during which I gently sneaked away, and wished that in the throng of caresses the one might be drowned, which was replied to him with a box on the ear, but no ! he forgot neither kiss nor flap !

Alas master ! — in the beginning of the year the sun is mild, he flatters the young germs, then he slits the shoot, and becomes still more cogent; the bud cannot inclose itself again in the cool closet of unconscious darkness, its blossom falls as a sacrifice to the glowing beam which had first allured it

Do not forget, Goethe, how I learned to love thee, that I knew nothing of thee, but that thou wast maliciously mentioned in my presence my aunt spoke of thy free-thinking, and that thou dist not believe in the Devil, in that same moment I did not believe in the Devil, and was wholly thine, and I loved thee, without knowing that thou wast the poet of whom the world expected so great things, that I heard later, then I only knew that people blamed thee and my heart said, “ No, he is greater ; he is more beauteous than all.”

Yesterday the sky was blue, to-day ruby died, and emeraldy, and there in the nest where it covers the earth, it chases the light in saffron garb out of its couch.

For a moment desirous love may disport seeing whole nature slumbering soak.

Walk over a meadow’s carpet in stillful star-fulgid night, there when thou dost bend down to the green, thou wilt perceive the millions of dream - visions, which crowd there, where one often borrows from the other whim, oddness and hues, then thou wilt feel that this dream-world soars up into the bosom of the advesting one and mirrors itself in thy spirit as revelation.

(On seeing the Duke of Weimar and Goethe together.)

To view the two friends walking to and fro, elevated in mind and benevolence, that was a solemn aspect for the people and they all whispered to one another, what a seldom couple !

The deeper the well forth-springs, the sweetlier they become bousy by the draught ; the more ebriety wafts them aloft, the more ardently for the well they pant; till once peering above the stars they do not return, for all will return there above by their own inspiration again to be found, the tunes gulping from the well are silence — drunken — and this is the pause-swaying music with silence to inebriate the tunes.

“ Thou wbimsey moon,” said I, “givest whims that like yon catching clouds impetuously roll on, after each other to veil my hap, and as thy vapour dividing light victoriously breaks forth, to defy the nubiferous gale, thus darts on me the glance of him whose knees I here embrace. — So moon thou art the secret divine, and like thee moon he is the secret divine, who like thee, onesided moon, pours down his light over the want of love.” And now in the dazzling glimmer of my tears I see him cloud-compelling with a silver-lining path casting a chain to me to follow.

I lack! — hard before he stepped this cloudy style, his breath agrees still with the air, I might drink it, I dare not, I am not strong to bear the violence impassionate that prances ov'r the bounds. Ob lead me ov’r the plain, where once my genius led me to meet with him, in the season, where youth gemm’d its blossmes when first the eye opened to light and he fully darting engaged my look and darkened each other light to me.”

After Goethe’s Death.

His pride ! his sacred pride in his beauty. They say, it were not possible, he having already been sixty years of age, when I had firstly seen him, and I a fresh rose — Oh there is a difference between the freshness of youth and that beauty by the divine spirit inculcated to human features, through which inspiration perspires a halo, and unhurt by lowness its fragrance freely evolves.

Beauty is secluded from what is low, and isolated by what is noble, being in itself and having its own sanction, to keep vigil between it and the world. Beauty fades not. its bloom only loosens from the stem that bore it. its bloom sinks not in dust, it is winged and ascends to Heaven. They who saw him, must yield, that beauty which by other men only invest the outer shape with a higher spirit, here in its appearance withal, streams forth from it, and rules over it. and so bails his claim to the celestial,

Goethe, I yield to thy beauteousness and would not a second time tempt thee as then in Weimar in the library at the pillar fronting thy bust, which in the fortieth year of thy age evolved the full harmony of thy immarcessible beauty. There thou hast led the young maiden, and thou, wrapt in thy green mantle leanedest on the pillar sounding if in these rejuvened features, she should remind the present friend, but I would not mind it;— alas, cheery love, visions secret merriment would not let it ’scape from out my lips. — “ Well ” he impatiently asked, — “ he must have been a beautiful man” I said, “ Yes ! forsooth, he could say in his time he was a beautiful man,” — said Goethe irritated ; — I would come near him and with soothing implore him, he escaped he held me aloof, and when I touched his hand, he slung me from him, for a moment I was perplexed,— “ stay, like this image, I cried; then I will woo thee calm again, wilt thou not? well! then I forsake the living one, and kiss the stone so long, till grudgingly thou hast snatched me from it.” I embraced the bust, I bent my brow on this majestic brow, I kissed these marble lips, I lent cheek to cheek, suddenly he raised me from it in his arms, “’t is time said I for nearly I bad abandoned me to this stone,” he lifted me high in his arms, this man of threescore years, he looked up to me, and gave me sweet names, “child of my good stars ! child of my Gods ! thou liest in the cradle of my breast.” What beautiful words were that in which he harboured me, what a hallowed music by which he immortalized me ! After having awhile thus ardently beheld me he let me down, wrapt my arm into his mantle, and held my hand on his throbbing breast, and so with lingering paces we went home. I said “how thy heart beats!” “it beats not for me ” he replied “ the seconds that with such a throbbing assault my heart they with impassionate violence rush upon thee, thou also thrivest the irretrievable time for me to forego.”

Lo ! so finely he snatched the impulse of his heart with sweet expressions, he, the irrefragable Poet.

Here is Bettina’s translation of Goethe’s poem : —


“ Thou look’st so stern, Beloved ! with thy styled
Marble bust here I’d like thee to compare ;
As this, thou givest no sign of living air ;
Likening it to thee, the stone seems mild,

“ The foe doeth parry with his shield for’s best
The friend to us, shows openly his brow.
I strive to thee, whilst thou wilt ’scape me now;
Oh brave it out as does this artful crest.

“ To which of these should I now have recourse ?
Must I of both here suffer cold and wrong
As this is dead, and thou alive’t is said ?

Brief, not to lose more words or make it worse,
This stone, 1 shall caress and woo so long
Till thou art jealous, and wilt me from it led.”

A Description of the Monument.


Ten years after this event which remained so clearly printed in my memory gave way to the inventing of Goethe’s monument. Moritz Bethman from Frankfort on the Main had ordered it, he wished the undeniable true character of the poet to be expressed. He thought me able of performing the idea, though at that time I had never interfered with the arts. Then I remembered Goethe, as he had stood at the brink of the Mountain, his cloak thrown round me on his bosom..... A glorified production of my love, an apotheosis of my inspiration and his glory, thus did Goethe call it. as he saw it for the first time. Goethe sitting with naked breast and arms. The cloak fastened at his neck, thrown back over the shoulders and gathered from beneath his arms to his lap, his left hand which had then pointed to the thunder-storm, now lifted, reposing on the lyre, which stands on his left knee ; his right hand which held my flowers, posing in the same manner, carelessly holds, forgetful of his glory, the full laurel-crown downwards ; his look turned to the clouds. Young Psyche stands before him, as I then did, she lifts herself up on the point of her feet to touch the chord of the Lyre, and he sunk in inspiration, suffers her to do so. On one side of the throne is Mignon, in the garb of an angel with the inscription “ Thus let me look till I be so.”2 On the other side a nice childlike Maenacle stands on her head, with the inscription, “Stretch forth thy little feet up to Heaven and care not ! We praying, stretch up our hands but not guiltless like thee ! ”3

It is now eight years, since with the help of an artist I made a model in clay of this monument; it stands in Frankfort in the museum, they were much inclined to have it executed. At this time Goethe gave up his time as citizen of Frankfort, which maimed the interest for him, and the exertions for the erection of his monument, that till now remained undone. I myself have often thought what my love to him might signify, what would proceed from it, or if it should have been quite in vain ; then I remembered in these last days, that as a child I had often considered, if he died what I should begin, what should become of me, and that I then ever thought: on his grave I would fain have a place on his monument be petrified like those stone-images, which people would erect to his eternal fame, ay, I saw myself in fancy as a little dog, which commonly lies sculptured at the feet of celebrated men and heroes, as a symbol of faithfulness.

do the history of the monument I have still to add, that I brought it myself to Goethe. After having for long looked at it, he burst out a laughing ; I asked “Why, canst thou do nothing else than laugh ? ” and tears choked my voice. — “ Child, my dearest child,” he exclaimed, “ it is joy which loudly shouts in me that thou lovest ! lovest me, for love alone could do so.” And solemnly laying his hands on my head ; “ If the power of my blessing can avail anything, then let it be transferred to thee in thankfulness for this love.” It was the only time that he blessed me in the year 24, on the 5th of September.


Her translation is dated 1838, and was printed at Berlin.

M. E. W. S.

  1. So many of them came in the spring of their age to this little hospitable spot of Germany’s classic soil and were received by Goethe with the kindest condescendance for their scientifical and social interest.
  2. Epigrames of Goethe.
  3. Wilhelm Meister, song of Mignon.