Julian Schmidt: A German Critic

ALONG with the enormous and steady increase in the number of new books, there has been felt very keenly of late years the need of such convenient abstracts as shall enable readers and students to determine which of the latest works on the subjects that interest them it is best to read, and this want criticism undertakes to supply by condensing the information and by giving a trustworthy opinion. Since, however, a conscientious critic has as keen an eye for the inferences which the author may draw from the facts he has collected as for the accuracy of the facts themselves, there is always a possibility of a very serious difference of opinion between an author and his critic. A faultless critic will probably not be found until the time when he is not needed, when there are only faultless books written. Meanwhile, his position is a most useful one from the opportunity it gives him of pointing out errors of taste and fact, as well as of helping the author by bringing another practiced mind to the discussion of the same problem. To the reader he can suggest tempering the praise to the level it would naturally fall to in the space of a fortnight or so, he can show that the egg which has just been laid is not a roc’s egg, or he can call attention to those merits which might have otherwise escaped notice. He can be useful, or by his errors he can be most mischievous.

In reading criticisms as well as the books discussed, so far at least as they concern general literature, what we especially care for is that the writer should give us a great deal of himself; that is, that we should be able to see the working of his mind, the reasoning he follows, and, as far as possible, the grounds of the impressions be receives and defends. His mere word is not sufficient; before we can trust him we must know his method. At times he will be able to explain to us the causes of our like or dislike; by showing us the application of a general principle to which we assent, he may give us the means of comprehending what has embarrassed us; but if we swallow his judgments without conviction, his influence is bad, although the blame is ours.

No critic has held so high a place as Sainte - Beuve. His wonderful insight, the result of his great sympathy, strengthened by wide experience; his extreme accuracy in matters of fact; his rare candor and readiness to be convinced that he was wrong in matters of opinion; and his charming manner, which enabled him to reprove as if he were paying a compliment, made a rare combination of the qualities most needed by a critic. He shows, too, how important is study for the proper discharge of the duties he undertook. He is well known to us in this country. Another critic, a German, Julian Schmidt, is less well known, and this is probably due in great measure to the fact that although a respectable knowledge of German is by no means rare here, there are yet comparatively few who do not content themselves with having read so many of Schiller’s plays and so much of Goethe and Lessing, but who are deterred by the difficulty of the language from reading German except as so much taskwork; as they read Paradise Regained, for instance. Time will alter this, and although many besides these dilettanti read German books in the course of professional study, the general literature is too meagre to tempt the multitude. It is not, however, that we would call attention to Mr. Schmidt on the ground of his being a popular writer, although, as we shall try to show, he has many of the qualities which may attract almost any reader, but it is as a deep thinker and a wise critic that he demands consideration.

His principal writings are the Geschichte des geistigen Lebens in Deutschland von Leibnitz his auf Lessing’s Tod, 1681-1781, in two large volumes; the Geschichte der Deutschen Literatur seit Lessing’s Tod, in three volumes; and the Geschichte der Französischen Literatur seit Ludwig XYL, 1774, in two volumes.

The history of a literature is by no means easy to write; and most of those which have been written it is even harder to read. Until within a few years, those of us who were interested in English literature found for our only guides those meagre collections of extracts, with dates and certain biographical facts, which were styled histories of English literature, but were of no use except as convenient books of reference when we were in doubt about the year of some author’s birth, or some such matter. As for criticism, there was none, or if there was any, it was of the wildest kind; as, for example, in one used as a text-book a few years ago, in a notice of Mrs. Browning, she was said to have married “ Robert Browning, himself no mean poet; ” and that was all the notice he received: and as for any comprehensive view of literature, the influences that affected writers, their effect on their times, a complete account of their work, there was nothing of the sort. Nowhere, in such histories, is there any other opinion apparent than that literature is the publication of books. Taine’s History of English Literature has done our own work for us in a way that is a great improvement on even the best that preceded him. In the first place, his book is exceedingly interesting, and although there are radical objections to the theory which the history is written to confirm, his broad views can do service at least by arousing the student’s independent thought. Then there is in his judgments less echoing of the universal opinion than we English-speaking people would be likely to show, and yet he avoids many of the errors into which, as a Frenchman, he would be most likely to fall. The great fault of the book is that it explains everything except the great writers, and it is just the great writers who have made English literature what it is. Sainte-Beuve put his finger on the weak spot -when he said: 1 “ In general, there is only one mind, one particular form of intelligence to create this or that masterpiece. As for historical witnesses, there may be others of equal value, but I cannot conceive of any in matters of taste. Imagine one great talent less, imagine the mold or, better, the magic mirror of a single real poet broken in the cradle at his birth, there will never be another which will hold exactly the same place. Of every true poet there is but a single copy.

“ I will take another example of this unique quality of talent. Paul and Virginia certainly hears the traces of its epoch; but if Paul and Virginia had never been written, it might have been maintained by all sorts of special and plausible reasoning that it was impossible for so innocent a book to appear amid the corruption of the eighteenth century; Bernardin de Saint Pierre was the only man who could write it. There is nothing, I say again, so unexpected as talent, and it would not he talent if it were not unexpected, if it were not alone among many, alone among all.

“I may not explain myself clearly; but that is just the point which M. Taine’s method and process does not explain. There is always something left over, eluding all the meshes of his net, however fine it may be, and that is what is called the individuality of talent, of genius. The wise critic attacks and surrounds it like an engineer; he incloses it, and goes all around it under the pretext of establishing all the indispensable conditions; these conditions, it is true, have their influence on the personal individuality and originality; they excite it, and call it out, enable it to act or react, but they do not create it. That particle which Horace calls divine (divinœ particulam aurœ), and which is indeed so, at least in the primitive and natural meaning of the word, has so far baffled science, and still remains unexplained.”

In Germany there has been no lack of literary histories, from the compendium of dates, names, and titles of books, to the philosophical, thorough treatises of Gervinus and others. On the -whole, we can, without decrying his rivals, give the palm to Julian Schmidt. His first merit is one which is peculiar to his nation, and that is the power of patient attention even to what might seem like petty details. In Taine we find great omissions; there is hardly a word, for instance, said about Keats; but no such charge can be brought against Schmidt. In many German writers there is the same trait, which, like every other virtue, if it is not controlled is apt to run into excess; mole-hills and mountains assume equal value, and the result is a landscape without perspective. White this fault is conspicuous in almost everything the Germans write, and in another light is the groundwork of their excellence, it is nowhere more noticeable than in their writings about their literature, For this there are several secondary reasons, in addition to the universal tendency of the German when he takes his pen in his hand; among these is the small compass of their literature, which leads to a disproportionate estimation of every line that has been written by the great authors, and to the undue prominence which has been enjoyed by the writings of inferior men, who, if they had written in English, would have been completely forgotten, and their books left to the dusty obscurity of large libraries. Especially is this true of the period between Leibnitz and Lessing’s death, when the German mind was in leading-strings. None but the most thorough students, if thoroughness is the right term for those who are tempted to do their work by a wish for pedantic accuracy rather than for the good they are to derive from it, will be able to give much time and attention to that dreary waste. So much, it should be understood, may be said of foreigners, we should he unwilling to direct the course of any one studying his own literature ; but no English or French speaking man is likely to be tempted by the dull beginnings of German literature. Their work reads like the enforced school exercises of boys, which even the most enthusiastic biographers generally omit, and which have but little merit in comparison with what they write later, when they really have something to say. There was none of the lightness of an independent school, none of the naive charm of beginners, but, when we glance at the rest of Europe, rather the clumsiness of raw recruits in comparison with the ease of practiced soldiers. If there is anything iconoclastic in this denunciation, there is also superstition in praising books no one can read.

Those writers who brought Germany into line with the rest of the world stand out higher above the general low level, and, of course, derived the impetus in great measure from foreign sources. It is important, however, to know their relation to their predecessors, and this task Schmidt performs most admirably, He is like an entertaining guide who makes one forget the monotony of the dusty highway. For us all the interest of the first-named history, that covering the time from Leibnitz to Lessing’s death, centres about Lessing. About most of the book-makers who preceded him we can feel no more curiosity than about the sign-painters of the time; they are like our often-mentioned epicwriters of the last century, who serve as examples of tiresomeness, but whom we are careful never to read. With Lessing the history of what may fairly he called German literature begins, and it is at this point that most readers will care to open Schmidt’s volumes. Whether it is an interesting period, however, or one of dull monotony, that he is discussing, he is equally imperturbable, never impatient, and never indiscreet. The effect of training could not be better exemplified. He has undertaken to write the history of a literature, and he does his work conscientiously; it is not merely a presentation of the agreeable places, it is a fair, impartial record, which also avoids the other fault, that of pedantry. If there were dull expanses in the literature, it is not his fault; he does not waste too much time over them, but he does not pass over them with a word, in order to make his books more readable.

Since the history of literature is closely connected with that of the politics, the religion, and the general development of the country, all these matters are brought in, so far as they are of importance to the especial subject the author is treating. The chronological order is adopted, and although this has the bad effect of diverting the reader’s attention from the consideration of one man to the examining of the influences which helped produce another’s book, which appeared at the same time, it keeps us from the danger of making up our minds too hastily about the verdict, which we are apt to give in a very brief form when it is our ancestors whom we are studying. These qualities, themselves the result of great patience on the part of the author, require the exercise of the same virtue, on the part of the reader. This distraction is a noticeable hindrance to forming speedy opinions; we prefer to have our way made easier, to find all the important adjectives underlined. If, however, we are willing to take the trouble, it is in our power to form a fairer judgment in this way; the difficulty is due to the constant necessity of revising our opinion, but it is only by such revision, by constant correction and addition, that we can hope to get at the truth. Schmidt avoids accumulating unnecessary details, but he also is careful not to leave out anything of importance. We are all familiar with the fault, so common among the Germans, of giving the reader all the information that the most careful industry can accumulate, and leaving to him the task of arranging it and drawing the lesson to be learned. It is as if a carpenter were to heap up planks and beams and mortar and bricks, and call it building a house. For the collecting of facts nothing can equal the energy of the Germans, but we cannot help feeling how well it would have been if some judicious selection had been made, and a great deal of the material rejected. With the French, on the other hand, there is often the tendency to sacrifice inconvenient facts to the symmetry of the result. Mr. Schmidt cannot be said to be wholly free from the fault of his race; we are conscious at times of unnecessary thoroughness; when a word would do, he utters a whole sentence. He has the faults of his virtues, like all the rest of us. Mr. Schmidt lacks the lightness of touch so conspicuous in Sainte-Beuve; he does not flatter the reader by letting him make the discoveries; in other words, he is not a Frenchman: he is, however, one of the most readable of the Germans. While he has this deficiency which indeed is so common that the reverse may be considered a luxury, we find he has many other excellent qualities besides those we have mentioned. He keeps more nearly at the same level than almost any critic; nothing deprives him of his presence of mind. The same phlegm which keeps him patient when he is plowing his way through some dreary morass, helps him to be cool when he comes to anything he admires. We do not remember a single case where he loses his head with the intoxication of lavish praise, which has to be withdrawn a month or two later when the object of it has taken its proper position of unimportance in the scale of things. It is not mere timidity, hiding behind a mask of cynical severity, which is the cause of this accuracy, but rather the hard-won determination to submit everything to those tests which time and experience have established. This is the only way to be proof against error; and the cautious man will hold his peace until he has fairly considered the matter in this light. As for Sainte-Beuve, it was by no means rare for him to sound a note of praise one day which was wholly disproportionate to the worth of the object. Such a mistake was very human; what was rarer was his willingness to acknowledge his error. His exaggerated recommendation of Feydeau’s Fanny is an example of this.

What has been said in the comparison between Schmidt and his great French contemporary, with regard to delicacy of touch, is not to be taken as indicating that the German has not the power of compressing what he has to say into a moderate compass. Par from it; very often he crowds a great deal of meaning into a few lines, which cover the whole ground in a very satisfactory way. They lack Sainte-Beuve’s easy grace, but they have their own solid merit. Such, for example, may be seen in the following accurate and thorough characterization of Ranke, which we translate from the third volume of the Geschichte der Deutschen Literatur seat Lessing’s Tod. He says, speaking of his History of the Popes: —

“ There was perhaps a hidden charm for him in the fact that the renaissance of the church, unlike its first struggle for recognition, was not due to efforts of great men, but to a universal tendency which carried every one along with it, whether willing or unwilling. Fordrawing a Gregory VII., an Innocent III., an Alexander III., a broad stroke is needed; they require to be painted in bold colors; there are few delicate, subtle qualities to be found in them. But to paint the transition from a Leo X. to a Pius V., a Sixtus V., to catch the delicate shades in which the imperceptible but ever active ecclesiastical mind is expressed on these insignificant but attractive physiognomies, is a pleasant task for a diplomat who hides gentle irony beneath courteous reverence, where apparent simplicity is the best protection. What a rich gallery, and yet what artistic moderation! The Popes appear in a threefold relation: as rulers with an enormous power stretching over the whole world; as local magnates interested in petty questions of government and local politics; last of all, as belonging to the most refined nation in respect to science and art, as protectors of the great city which has not. yet forgotten that it was once the head-quarters of culture. We are made at home in the narrow chambers of the conclave, we are introduced to every interesting face; we go about in the city, we see new Rome arise, its palaces.

its streets, its citizens; we learn the origin of every family, of every class; the pictures and statues are brought before our eyes, we see the obelisk set up, St. Peter’s built. Then we follow those sent by the nepotism of the Popes to their estates as they go forth to take possession of their grants; then we become acquainted with their neighbors, with the country-people; we take a personal interest in the political complications. Imperceptibly the stage widens. We travel to different courts company with well-known legates. The religious and political relations of nations are set before us one after another; we take an interest in the learned and cultivated men of the neighborhood; we examine the paintings and antiquities; we even, like true men of the world, pay some attention to what is doing in philosophy, but without too intricate a study of single points; and at the same time through the Propaganda, which embraces the whole world, we receive the fullest information from distant parts. Being made thus personally familiar with the great circle of the activity of the Popes, we can, when weary, return to the capitol without losing a single side of the great picture. . . .

“ In general cultivation Ranke has a great advantage over active politicians; he is at home everywhere, in literature and art, in the by-ways of religious development and philosophy. For individuals he has the sharp eye which generally only intelligent women have. We miss, however, the manly seriousness which neither æthetical satisfaction nor personal sympathy can divert when it is necessary to be impartial. In the criticism of facts he is severe; in his judgment of moral questions, however, he shows a certain timidity in his effort to treat them impersonally. . . . Ranke has a delicate appreciation of what is agreeable and important, but this sensitiveness is somewhat that of a dilettante; he knows neither wrath nor hate, and he has to bring himself artificially to enthusiasm and belief. The moral feeling, the historic power which calls forth great deeds, is with him only an object, it is not within him. He stands outside of events like a diplomat, his sympathy does not. come from the heart. This sort of sympathy limits his power of observation, by confining it to single points and to externals. A cultivated man will not confine himself to the rough outline; he will take great pleasure in following up hidden motives, he will examine with impartial benevolence every appearance of intelligence; but this benevolence is not the living, animating sympathy, the pure enthusiasm, without which we can have no really comprehensive treatment, and which alone makes possible a true appreciation of the subject.”

This is not describing a man with a single word, but those men who can be described with one word are not the most interesting in the world; and this extract, to our thinking, contains a very well-balanced estimate of an important writer. It shows the author’s deliberateness and care; at other times he is less majestic, and he sweeps away cobwebs without reading the riot-act.

Throughout the whole of his criticism of German authors Schmidt retains his coolness. As is natural, he does not see them or judge them as a foreigner would. He accepts them, as it were, with more readiness than might seem desirable to those who forget that he is not giving us a list of his likes and dislikes, but a history of what has occurred. To all but the most zealous students of German literature, and its most ardent admirers, his books will seem disproportionate to the subject. When one compares German literature with that of the French, or, more especially, of the English, it is easy to see that what in our language we have almost forgotten outweighs all save a very few masterpieces of the Germans. There is a certain pride of conquest which renders us very lenient critics of what we acquire in a foreign tongue. There are certain peculiarities of the German nature, which at one time or another of their lives almost all human beings share; many of them are observable in early youth, and the reader of course rejoices at finding them in resounding verse, especially when he has worked his way to translating them fluently by many hours' hard work with grammar and dictionary. Then the unfailing respect with which German critics treat every man, who claims to have filled a want in their literature, imposes on the rest of mankind. Not that we would brand the Germans as outside barbarians, nor yet deny them the gratitude they deserve for those few masterpieces which stand out alone, or for those poems of theirs which so well and easily express a love of nature and at the same time sympathy with man; but we would merely ask if it is not possible that their literature has been, on the whole, overrated.

It certainly affords the student a wonderful example of sudden and great success; it flashed with unexpected brilliancy from a land where old-fashioned rules and hindrances would have seemed to lay the heaviest weights on intellectual movement, and no one can fairly refuse his admiration. But, it may be asked, does not the position of the Germans towards it in some ways remind the observer of that of a selfmade man towards those conventional laws which carefully educated people are taught from the cradle to respect ? The graceless manner of German writers is doubtless due partly to their cumbersome language, which, as Mr. Lowell says in his essay on Lessing, in Among my Books, “ has a fatal genius for going stern foremost, for yawing, and for not minding the helm without some ten minutes’ notice in advance;” their education, too, renders them fonder of thoroughness than of elegance : but besides all these influences there seems to be on their part a sort of willful clinging to uncouthness out of mistaken patriotism, the same feeling, by the way, that is successfully appealed to by those lovers of their country among the Germans who are averse to the abandonment of their sight-destroying text. The awkwardness with which even Goethe used German prose has probably had some effect in making his successors indifferent to the qualities of grace and ease, which other nations consider of great importance. His example has always been of great weight, and could easily turn the balance against those softer charms which delighted foreigners. This peculiarity of his fellow-countrymen does not strike Mr. Schmidt so strongly as many others. It is not, to be sure, the most important point in the examination of a literature, but it has almost certainly the mischievous effect of making what is dull impose on the reader by its airs of wisdom. Ease suggests falseness, and clumsiness profundity; just as in social life the man who is negligent of his attire is commonly held to have a deeper character than his welldressed neighbor.

With regard to the weightier matters of the law, Mr. Schmidt is a most observant critic. Through all the vagaries of the German writers as they have been affected by the different waves of thought and feeling during the last hundred years, he maintains the same tone of impartiality. He is always cool, but it is against pretense, and the efforts of would-be great men to let their genius apologize for offenses against good taste, that he is more especially severe. Everything he brings to the test of common-sense, by which we mean the fair average opinion of educated people.

This quality of his intelligence is perhaps even more clearly marked in his history of French literature during the last hundred years. It is curious to observe the different ways in which we outsiders approach French literature. Some, descended in a straight line from those who always spoke of that people as eaters of frogs, have no patience with their ways, and while they may be induced against their will to allow that sometimes they possess not wholly unamusing qualities, the general tone of their minds is one of contempt for them. On the other hand, there are those who are ready and anxious to forget all those prejudices and deeply settled opinions which are pretty sure to grow about a man who is a father of a family and in active business, on the subjects of morality, the respect due one’s neighbor’s wife, the spotlessness of the professionally vicious, and such matters, on which the verdict of society is brief but impressive. The laws of right-doing seem to affect their judgments as much as do the shifting rules of fashion about the buttons on their coat-sleeves. Propriety seems like a thin web spun in the empty air. Any attempt to apply those tests which we bring to bear in real life is denounced as prudery. Such are two extremes as we all see them among our friends. Doubtless the intolerance of each side has had its effect in deafening the ears of the other, thereby complicating a question which it is by no means easy to settle. Mr. Schmidt writes with no malevolent desire of showing any inferiority of the French, nor yet does he start with the condition that in their favor the world is to be looked at upside down.

He interweaves the history of the time with that of the literature from the year 1774 down to the accession of the late emperor. This includes the premonitions of the Revolution as they are to be seen in Beaumarchais, and in the lives of those young Frenchmen who fought in this country; it begins with the time when their literature was in an artificial state, and follows it through its various forms down very nearly to the present time. This period, which includes such interesting names, to mention some of the most prominent, as Madame de Stael, Chateaubriand, Beranger, H. Beyle, Guizot, St. Simon, Mérimée, Sainte-Beuve, Balzac, George Sand, Alfred de Musset, Dumas, and Lamartine, he discusses with his usual candor, clear-sightedness, and thoroughness. With regard to the externals, he sets the history and the politics before us, and the author’s relations to his surroundings; to aid us in comprehending his writings, he describes his method, and furnishes us with plenty of examples of the points he is desirous of making clear. He makes his way through all the winding paths French literature has followed, without undue admiration, as well as without the contempt which is often the nearest approach one makes to impartiality. It is this quality of observing dispassionately which makes Mr. Schmidt so valuable a guide. If in treating of German books his patience is mainly shown by the enormous mass of dullness through which he has gone, it is otherwise here; there is the same equanimity, but we see it in his treatment of those manifestations of modern literature which are elearly enough described by their proper title, French. Not that we are ever left in doubt as to the opinions he holds of any writer, — far from it, — but he utters them with deliberation and with a fair statement of the other side. For example, speaking of George Sand’s earlier novels, those which have given her her notoriety: —

“ George Sand had the. art of a real poet, that of touching the most powerful chords of the heart and setting them in motion. Her warm feeling for nature lent a rich color to her figures. Her enthusiasm was not artificial; in the more passionate moments it lent life and fire to the characters, which for a time gave them an air of reality. Besides, she was not overpowered by her fancy; she had a cool eye and was able to distinguish between dream and reality. Hence those surprising touches of truth to nature, which make us imagine for a time that she has a power of analysis which does not belong to her; when she fails to see anything immediately, no reflection will give it to her. There is a certain monotony in her thoughts, and this often tempts her to affectations, intended to dazzle and surprise us. Her knowledge of the world is limited; her main types of character often reappear in a different dress.

“There is a radical unsoundness in all she writes; it is flattering to weakness, it idealizes common yearnings, and persuades weak natures that they on that very account are noble. Almost invariably a false notion of greatness is inculcated.”

Speaking of the coldness of some of the characters: —

“They never are wholly under the influence of a feeling, they gaze at themselves in a mirror and worship their image. Some fanciful, romantic notion has given them their rôle, and their pride sustains them in it. In their coldness they show nothing of the innocence of a maidenly heart, nor in their passion any of the forgetfulness of self which atones for the sin.”

For an accurate and interesting account of the French literature of the last hundred years we know no book to compare with this. It is one to be studied carefully, and then taken up and read at odd moments; it is so full of wisdom and intelligence that no student of literature can afford to neglect it.2

His three volumes of essays, Bilder aus dem geistigen Leben unsere Zeit, admirably supplement his longer works. The subjects treated are various, some referring to German literary history, others to different foreign authors, Turgénieff, Bulwer, George Eliot, etc. They have already been discussed in the pages of this magazine.

In conclusion, we would renew our praise of this writer, and call the attention of the public to his works. His books, and Taine’s History of English Literature, form good memorials of the more serious criticism of the present day. They instruct while they entertain.

T. S. Perry.

  1. Nouveuux Lundis. Tome huitième, pp. 80, 87.
  2. For a fuller discussiou of this book, see the North American Review for July, 1874.