Literary Aspects of the Romantic School

Die Botschaft hör’ ich wohl, allein mir fehlt der
Das Wunder ist des Glaubens liebstes Kind.


LUDWIG TIECK, the literary chieftain of the German Romantic School, was, with due allowance for the natural differences between a romanticist and a classicist, a kind of Goethe in miniature.

The serene old Jupiter at Weimar absorbed in his own large self all the diversified and frequently conflicting currents which agitated his times; they mingled with his being, became the fibre of his mind, and are recognizable as the spiritual atmosphere (different at the different periods of his life) pervading his writings. We therefore speak of Goethe’s Storm and Stress or Werther period, of his Meister period, etc., but we have no Faust period, because Faust embraces the poet’s whole life, spanning it like a vast phantasmagoric arch from youth to the very grave, and binding the century that died to the one that was born.

Viewed as a whole, Tieck’s poetical career, rivaling in length, at least, that of Goethe, presents a succession of chapters of literary history one of which exceeds the other in interest; and still William Lovell, Prince Zerbino, St. Genevieve, or in fact any individual work from his pen, viewed by itself, is singularly unsatisfactory and incomplete, and hardly seems to warrant the praise which nevertheless may be justly bestowed upon the whole. The significance of Tieck’s career has been variously estimated by critics and biographers, some deeming him great and others small, but all agreeing to regard his life in its tout ensemble as a most important series of documents in the annals of German literary history; it ran during four decades parallel with that of Goethe, without becoming absorbed in it, and by its very distinctness supplementing what was lacking in the life of the Weimar autocrat to make it the full and complete expression of the intellectual life of the Fatherland. When we called him a Goethe in miniature we did not, of course, thereby mean to imply that he followed in the latter’s footsteps, imitating on a smaller scale and with painstaking care what his master had wrought in the ardor of primal creation, but rather that he fulfilled in a different sphere a similar mission, standing in the Romantic camp as the facile princeps, as Goethe did among the classicists. It may appear strange now to compare the two; for Tieck is, outside of Germany, well-nigh forgotten, while Goethe’s far - resounding name is still echoing through the literatures of all nations; but if we imagine ourselves the contemporaries of both, and estimate the relative value of the principles which each represented, and the influence of each upon his times, the comparison, although unequal, will no longer seem absurd.

Ludwig Tieck was born in Berlin in the year 1773, and his boyhood and youth consequently fell at a time when the Enlightenment1 was in its fullest bloom. His father was strongly influenced by the barren and unimaginative philosophy of the worthy Nicolai, and the school in which young Tieck received his early education was a very hot-bed of utilitarian enlightenment. But almost simultaneously the first productions of the Storm and Stress period began to attract attention. The translations of Shakespeare, Goethe’s Götz, and Schiller’s Robbers had called into being a dramatic literature, the chief characteristic of which was strength, that is, primitively direct expressions of passion, unrefined by taste, culture, or even common decency. It was the old protest against the so-called artificial order of society to which Rousseau had half a century before given so powerful an utterance, and before him, in a somewhat gentler form, Bernardin de St. Pierre, in his Paul and Virginia. But the Teutons had profited little by the experience of their Gallic neighbors, and men like Klinger, Lenz, and the painter Müller continued in the eighth and ninth decades of the eighteenth century to repeat the world-old declamations about nature, deeming their approach to nature always in direct proportion to their removal from accepted propriety. The boldly unconventional character of these declamations may be fairly judged by the notorious remark of the second trooper in the third act of Götz von Berlichingen.

A youth so sensitive as Tieck could not escape receiving a reflex tinge from a school so aggressive, and moreover so positive in its color, as the Storm and Stress; and his youthful dramas, The Parting and Karl von Berneck, rival in noisy declamation and violence the works of the professed adherents of the school. It is worthy of notice, however, that even these childishly immature productions contain a distinctly new motive which henceforth runs like a vital fibre through all Tieck’s writings, and through him has become part, and indeed a distinguishing trait, of the Romantic literature. Whether this new motive is really a gain may perhaps be questioned; as a means of intensifying horror, Tieck has at least proved it to be exceedingly effective. To give an idea of what in its inmost essence it really is may be very difficult,— as difficult as to make an aroma present to the senses by explaining it. Julian Schmidt devotes several pages of very learned writing to it, and only succeeds in convincing you that the thing must be very hard to understand. Haym now and then refers to it in rather vague terms, and treats you to some exceedingly fine remarks, but leaves you not very much wiser than you were before. Heine, with the true instinct of the poet, avoids all explanations, but, while waxing warm in the praise of Tieck, unconsciously falls into his own style of writing, and thereby gives you a fairer idea of what Tieck is than if he had attempted to convince you scientifically why you ought or ought not to like him.

There is, in spite of beauties of detail, a horribly damp and sultry atmosphere pervading these effusions of Tieck’s youthful muse; he revels in blood and atrocities of every description, and the whole imaginary scene hangs heavy as a nightmare upon the reader’s vision, attracting him by an uncomfortable fascination, and compelling him to gaze at the ghastly spectacle to the bitter end; and the end is universally tragic. In The Parting, for instance, there is hardly a single survivor. The dramatis personœ? have apparently no power of selfdetermination; they are the tools of certain mysterious powers outside and above them; they go about as in a trance, murdering those that are dearest to them, and from beginning to end acting and talking in the most irresponsible fashion. The fatalism of Greek tragedy, although entailing sorrow and suffering upon the innocent, was a clear, rational, and almost cheerful affair compared to the groping horror of these dark and unaccountable deeds.

A short drama, Almansur, full of fatalistic philosophy and strongly tinctured with Rousseau, and a long Oriental tale, Abdallah, are monuments of their author’s extraordinary precocity and industry, rather than of genius.

The work which was first to bring Tieck prominently before the public was William Lovell, a two-volume romance, suggested by the Paysan Pervert! of Rétif de la Bretonne. The ostensible purpose of this book is to trace with minute psychological realism the downward career of a sensitive, passionate, and uncorrupted youth. And what purpose could be more revolting, more distasteful, more unworthy of a poet! But the author was then only twenty-two years old, and happily had not yet pierced, even with his imagination, to those deepest depths of human misery and sin which he is here pretending to sound. We marvel at the vividness of his colors, his analytical skill and his abundant rhetorical resources; but rhetoric is a poor substitute for passion, and where the genuine vital force is lacking you cannot make up for its loss, as Tieck has attempted to do, by an excess of analysis. In William Lovell we are rather astounded and fascinated than really interested; the hero becomes at last too vile to deserve any sympathy, and moreover we have a haunting sense of the unreality of all his crimes as well as his sufferings, and wait with calm resignation for the moment when we as well as he shall wake up to find that all these horrors were merely the vanishing visions of a dream. Thus in spite of all the ingenuity which the author has expended upon the outfit of his hero, the reader can hardly suppress a sigh of relief when finally he has left Lovell dead on the Roman Campagna, where at last he reaps the fruit of his numerous misdoings.

After having spent a few years at the universities of Halle and Göttingen, where he had devoted himself with enthusiastic zeal to the study of Shakespeare and the older English dramatists, Tieck returned in 1794 to Berlin, rented a summer - house outside of the gates, and soon gathered about him a most congenial circle of eager admirers and friends. Among these the gentle and lovable Wackenroder has left a brief and pathetic literary record behind him. From their earliest school - days Tieck and he had felt strongly drawn towards each other, and while the former rapidly developed the abundant resources of his mind, while he forecast the years by the daring complexity of his plans, the latter, checked in his progress by the blight of a deadly disease, clung with a touching, almost maidenly devotion to his stronger friend, entering with ardent faith and sympathy into all his hopes of literary greatness.

In the mean while the ancient Nicolai, ever active and full of enterprise for the advancement of his utilitarian cause, had made the acquaintance of William Lovell’s author, and had with a view to mutual benefit proposed to him a kind of literary copartnership; and Tieck, with whom the need to find a market for his productions was imperative, had consented to overlook the divergence of their views and to grind off at a fixed rate “enlightened” and instructive tales for the edification of the bellelettristic public of the capital. It was indeed a novel position for the future chief of Romanticism to find himself thus in the hire of the very party against which he was soon to direct the keenest arrows of his criticism. But Tieck, conscious only of his own inward wealth, and as yet unhampered by any fixed theories of art, was well content only to yield to the momentary joy of creating, heedless as to the name of the cause which he indirectly served. Nicolai had for several years past been publishing a kind of treasury of novels, entitled Ostrich Feathers (Strauszfedern), mostly free adaptations of second-rate French stories, which with a slight admixture of moralizing and “ enlightened sentiment ” had found extraordinary favor with the constituents of circulating libraries. Tieck was now entrusted with the continuation of this laudable enterprise, and in his first efforts even exceeded the expectations of his employer. But soon his rebellious fancy refused to submit to the bondage of spirits far inferior to itself; the French models were thrown aside, and one original tale followed another with astounding rapidity. Nicolai was enchanted. The very titles of these tales show how well the fertile scribbler knew what was demanded of him; here we have, for instance, The Sensitive Ulrich, The Talented Termer, The Friend of Nature, etc. Presently, however, some playful sprite began to whisper his mischievous suggestions into Tieck’s ear; it would be capital sport if he could smuggle in his own sentiments in a sufficiently deceptive disguise, and thus beguile the old Philistine into publishing veiled satires and ridicule of himself and all his rationalistic sophistry. Nicolai ran into the snare, but at length began to suspect mischief, and the unnatural partnership came to an end. It seems, however, that the “ enlightened ” impetus which the Romanticist had received from his publisher must have carried him somewhat beyond his original intention; for in his next romance, Peter Leberecht, he still occupies the same position as in the first Ostrich Feathers, turns his weapons against himself, and ridicules the gratuitous horrors with which but a short time before he had regaled his readers in William Lovell and Abdallah.

After all these youthful vagaries and aimless wanderings between the various literary camps, Tieck seems at last to have found his own true self. That enchanted wonder-world which lies glimmering in the old German märchens, ballads, and folk-lore had long beckoned to him from afar, and he was now ready to cast aside all wasteful trifling and obey the call. Wackenroder had been the first to call his attention to those old, poorly - printed Volksbücher, with the coarse wood-cuts, which had for centuries been circulating among the peasantry, and which may still be picked up at the bookstalls of the Leipsic fairs; but Tieck was then deep in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and had no time to listen to nursery tales. Erelong, however, Wackenroder prevails; his friend begins to look more favorably upon the old legends, and after the reading of St. Genevieve and The Children of Heymon his enthusiasm breaks out into full blaze. It is impossible, within the space here allotted us, to give even the briefest characteristic of the numerous dramatic and novelistic adaptations of the national legends with which he flooded the market and the stage during the next twenty years; among the dramas The Life and Death of St. Genevieve has been accorded a foremost place, and among his many excellent tales the critics usually give the preference to The Blonde Eckbert, Tannhaüser, The Faithful Eckart, and The Runenberg, all of which are included in the collection of Phantasies.

Tieck’s manner of treating the old stories seems to depend greatly upon the mood in which they happen to find him. Sometimes, as in The Children of Heymon, he strives to reproduce in himself that simple primitive credulity for which no absurdity is too startling, no miracle too great for belief. It is the mood in which a nurse with an accompaniment of vivid gestures tells a child about Jack the Giant-Killer, and Puss in Boots, and it presupposes in the child an uncritical acceptance even of the most incredible statement. It was in the childhood of nations that these legends came into being, and it is to the still existing reminiscences of the primitive state that you must appeal for interest in tales of this order. Even the prosiest Philistine has some recollection of the startled wonder and delight with which he once gazed into the enchanted world of the Arabian Nights, and, if gently and skillfully touched, those long tuneless strings may once more be brought to vibrate. Tieck was such a magician, who touched with his wand and opened the tuneless chamber in the Philistine heart.

This plain and primitive method, however, involved great self-abnegation on the author’s part; and just at this time he longed to give vent to the warm and passionate life which labored within him. Thus in his next märchens we detect again something of the mood with which we have been made familiar in Lovell and Abdallah; the tale is now no longer its own object and end, — it is merely the vehicle of some individual sentiment, mood, or passion. It is a sensitive, quickly responsive instrument, through which the poet may give utterance to his sorrow and yearning and doubt. Most clumsily and inartistically has Tieck done this in his Love-Story of the Beautiful Magelone and the Count Peter of Provence, where the hero philosophizes over his love in a feeble lyrical strain, loses himself in rapturous contemplations of nature, sings jingling and meaningless love-songs, and strikes tragic attitudes, all in the latest improved Romantic fashion. Incomparably better is the style of The Runenberg and The Blonde Eckbert; here Tieck is trying to find an embodiment for those deep, unutterable emotions which are too fleeting for words to grasp, but still are more or less consciously present with all of us. These “anonymous feelings of the soul,” as Novalis calls them, can be made intelligible only by being brought into action; you cannot explain them except by describing or producing that combination of circumstances which will arouse them. That inexplicable, mysterious shudder which seizes one in reading these apparently harmless tales, whence does it arise if not from some half - conscious under-current of our being, to which an indefinable element in this author appeals ? And here we have at last arrived at that new element or motive in Tieck to which we referred in speaking of The Parting and Karl von Berneck. Notice, in perusing Heine’s description of these märchens, if you do not feel, as it were, physically at least, a faint touch of that awe and mysterious intensity of which he speaks. Although of course the effect must be greatly weakened in translation, we are still conscious that something of the indefinable mystery remains: “ In these tales there reigns a mysterious intensity, a strange intimacy with nature, especially with plants and stones. The reader feels as if he were in an enchanted forest: he listens to the melodious rush of subterranean fountains; he imagines many a time amid the whispering of the trees that he hears his own name called; the broad-leaved vines often wind themselves perilously about his feet; strange wonder-magic flowers gaze at him with their many-colored, yearning eyes; invisible lips kiss his cheeks with delusive tenderness; tall fungi like golden bells stand ringing at the foot of the trees; large, silent birds sit rocking upon the boughs, and nod with their long, wiselooking bills; all is breathing, listening, shudderingly expectant; then suddenly the soft bugle is heard, and upon a white palfrey a beautiful maiden rushes past you, with waving plumes on her hat, and a falcon upon her hand. And this beautiful maiden is so very beautiful, so blonde, with eyes like violets, so smiling and still so grave, so true and still so roguish, so chaste and yet so passionate, like the fancy of our excellent Ludwig Tieck. Yes, his fancy is a gracious mediæval maiden who hunts fabulous beasts in a magic forest; hunts, perhaps, that rare unicorn which can be caught only by a pure virgin.”

This is not criticism, but it is better than criticism; it is not negatively analytical, but conveys by a certain happy, instinctive choice of adjectives some of the more positive qualities of the poets, and indeed those very qualities which are surest to escape analysis.

We fondly believe that in an enlightened age like ours, when science mercilessly penetrates to the causes of every cherished mystery, the range of the terrible is gradually reduced to a mere vanishing quantity; but no amount of scientific reasoning can conquer the tremor which a timid person feels in a dark hall or in an empty church at midnight. The small territory of clear daylight fact which we have conquered for ourselves is on all sides surrounded by a far vaster realm of mystery, and whenever the flood-gates are opened to this realm, our reason refuses to do our bidding, and we are on the verge of insanity. It is on the boundary between these two realms of reason and mystery that Tieck has laid the scene of his fairy-tales; he is perpetually setting the gates ajar, and while we dwell on situations which on the surface appear only grotesque and comical, we involuntarily shudder. He knows exactly where to touch us to find our reason weak and our sense of mystery the more active. Vulgar ghost - stories he seldom deals with, but frequently with those situations in which some undeniably real but unexplained psychological element overmasters the will and urges it on to deeds for which the individual is hardly himself responsible. According to Tieck, the germ of insanity is implanted in us all, and the moment we become conscious of its presence, we are already half-way under its sway.

Forest solitude, church-yards at midnight, ruins of convents and baronial castles, in fact, all the things which we are now apt to call Romantic, are the favorite haunts of Tieck’s muse. It is he and his school who have the doubtful merit of having introduced all these sepulchral situations into literature; and the Romanticists of other lands — Walter Scott in the British Isles, Victor Hugo in France, and Ingemann in Denmark— have enlarged the original répertoire, until at present we are almost able to draw a distinct line between that order of natural phenomena and human emotions which is Romantic and that which is not. Tieck was excessively fond of moonlight, and literally flooded his tales with its soft, dim splendor; therefore moonlight is now Romantic. He never allows a hero to make a declaration of love without a near or distant accompaniment of horn or bugle (Schalmei and Waldhorn); accordingly, the bugle is called a Romantic instrument. He showed a great preference for the Middle Ages, and has the very decided merit of having revived the interest in mediæval history and literature; therefore the Middle Ages are to-day regarded as the most Romantic period of history, and their literature is par excellence the Romantic literature; and so on in infinitum.

Happily, Tieck wrote his best tales and dramas before A. T. Hoffmann, Achim von Arnim, and the other socalled Late - Romanticists (Spätromantiker) had yet reduced the art of arousing sensations of horror to a complete system, and thereby vulgarized it. In the productions belonging to his best period, at least, he refrains from those violent and purely physical effects which in these latter days have made the Romantic name synonymous with literary clap-trap and charlatanism; and when men of Hoffmann’s and Brentano’s calibre had brought the school into irrevocable decay, he gradually withdrew from it, and joined the ranks of its opponents.

As a poet in the more specific sense of a writer of verse, Tieck holds a position peculiarly his own within the German literature. His prose writings are abundantly sprinkled with verse, some mere deliciously musical jingle, and some rare expressions of rare moods, deficient in passion, but charged with color and melody. In fact, at no time of his life does he appear to have harbored passionate convictions; he had strong likes and dislikes, but his hostility to one idea and his preference for another were determined by the unchangeable laws of his being, and were seldom or never the results of conscious reasoning. In his verse it is exceedingly difficult to lay hold of a single definitely expressed proposition to which you may confidently assent, or which you may combat. The rhythmical flow of words, the exquisite cadences of melody, the soothing, luring, coaxing, caressing concord of sweet sounds, charm the ear and lull the reason into slumber. It is all so delicious, so rich and soft; you ask nothing more. Tieck was himself well aware of these qualities in his songs, and like a genuine Romanticist he immediately established the doctrine that in poetry sense should be secondary to sound. It was Wackenroder who had first caught the musical mania, and Tieck, who was of an impressible temperament, systematized his friend’s dithyrambic utterances, and raised them to the dignity of a new poetic doctrine. The more exalted the sentiment of a poem is, the more it is apt to rise above the region where articulation is possible, and approach the disembodied, inarticulate sound. Music — i. e., inarticulate harmony ― existed before the spoken language; poetry is a return to primitive utterance, and appeals directly to the deepest emotions, and more by its music than by its meanings Love, the most primitive of all emotions, has hardly any need of language.

“ Liebe denkt in süszen Tönen,
Denn Gedanken steh'n zu fern,
Nur in Tönen mag sie gern,
Alles, was sie will, verschönen.
Drum ist ewig uns zugegen,
Wenn Musik mit Klängen spricht,
Ihr die Sprache nicht gebricht,
Halde Lieb' auf allen Wegen :
Liebe kann sich nicht bewegen,
Leihet sie den Othem nicht.”

This, in brief, is the poetic philosophy of Tieck, and through him and Novalis it has at length become an accepted tenet with the school.

Wackenroder, in the mean while, had begun to give vent to the fullness of his heart, not only indirectly through his influence on his friend, but also in independent productions. In the summer of 1796 he had with Tieck made a pilgrimage to Dresden, where the miraculous Madonnas of Rafael and Holbein had suddenly unsealed his lips and enabled him to find a fitting expression for his rapturous worship and enthusiasm. The tongue of flame had descended upon him, and he began to speak in strange languages. In his Heart Effusions of an Art-Loving Friar (a most discouraging title) he gives the first impetus to that extravagant Madonna-worship which, in connection with his mediæval yearnings, at last assumed the phase of “ artistic Catholicism,” and ended with sending more than half of the prominent Romanticists to the bosom of the " only saving church.” With Wackenroder, this Catholic tendency sprung from a sincere, child-like faith, which willingly reposed in authority, and to which miracles were not only no stumbling-blocks, but on the contrary the most beautiful and most natural revelation of the divine. But it will always remain a matter of surprise that Tieck, with his “enlightened” reminiscences and his naturally skeptic temperament, could have entered with such vehemence into the religious ecstasies of his companion. Again, as in the case of his connection with Nicolai, we see him assume the cloak of another, and wear it with even more grace than the real owner. And still, this ready adaptability on his part was not hypocrisy; it was rather that sort of æsthetic belief which enthusiastic men are very apt to contract during some period of their lives; they desire so ardently to believe, that at length they persuade themselves that belief is theirs.

Wackenroder’s religious reverence, not only for art in the abstract but also for the individual works of art, is mirrored on every page of those of Tieck’s writings which date back to this period, and especially in the romance, Sternbald’s Wanderings, a book written under Wackenroder’s inspiration, and as a tribute to his and the author’s friendship. This Sternbald, with the subtitle Eine Alt-Deutsche Geschichte, like half the romances of that day, seems a feeble echo of Wilhelm Meister. In sentiment it is as widely removed from that singular virtuoso performance as the dim Romantic twilight is from the daylight of pagan, rationalistic Weimar; nevertheless Sternbald could never have been, if Meister had not been. Who knows if (like Novalis’s Ofterdingen) it was not written as a conscious protest against the cheerful paganism of the Weimar school?

Franz Sternbald, a young German painter, and a pupil of Albrecht Dürer’s, starts out from Nuremberg, on his way to Italy. While wandering on he falls in with a great many people who invariably sing a song, weep, and tell him their history. A most extraordinary autobiographical mania seems to possess everybody; no man thinks of withholding the deepest secrets of his heart for more than five minutes; then usually a bugle comes in very conveniently, and either the tale or the bugle moves both parties to tears, whereupon they sing another song and exchange opinions regarding art, the one topic with which high and low are familiar, and touching which they have the most ingenious theories. Everybody’s birth is wrapped in mystery, which gives a charming uncertainty to the family relations of the hero and those of the poetic adventurers with whom he consorts. Unfortunately, the book was never finished, and to clear up the numerous entanglements of kinship the author is obliged to sum up the unwritten portion of the tale in an epilogue, in which he explains who were in paternal and who in fraternal relations, etc., and assures the reader that in the end they were all very happy.

It is difficult to read a novel of the eighteenth century without feeling what great strides we have made in that branch of writing during the last seventy years. How much more entertaining, how much truer, purer, and more artistic is the work of those whom we call the average writers of the present day, than were those clumsily moral or lasciviously virtuous romances in which our slimwaisted grandmothers delighted! In the course of one’s reading one is constantly astonished to see what an amount of space the literary histories devote to books which, if they had been written to-day, would hardly have been honored with a notice in our monthly reviews. Characterization of the kind which we find even in the minor novelists of our day is seldom attempted in these Romantic extravaganzas. Everybody moves about as in a fever-dream, the most unheard-of things are continually happening, and nobody is really responsible either for himself or for anybody else. The fact that a man determines to do something is no reason whatever why he should do it; it is rather a reason why he should leave it undone or do the very opposite. Human will is at the mercy of strange, mysterious powers, which thwart it, play with it, and urge it on to the most arbitrary deeds. This is the tendency in most of Tieck’s novels, as in those of Brentano, Arnim, Hoffmann, and his other successors. And even at the present day the tendency survives; it is not many years since a legitimate heir to the Romantic doctrine, Hermann Grimm, published a two-volume novel, entitled Invincible Forces, in which the philosophy of the school is once more distinctly revived.

During the later years of his life Tieck lived in Dresden, where he chiefly interested himself in the affairs of the theatre. To quote Heine once more, “ He who in his earlier writings had constantly satirized the court counselors as the type of everything ridiculous became himself a royal Saxon court counselor. The Almighty is, after all, a greater satirist than Mr. Tieck.” The Napoleonic wars had devastated Germany and reduced it to a state of political nullity; therefore public men, being forbidden to interfere in public affairs, were obliged to take refuge in the imaginary world of the stage, where they could mold the destinies of nations according to their sovereign will. And Tieck, like so many others, sought this refuge. The dearest friends of his youth were dead, and the school he had founded had fallen into disrepute. As early as 1798, that gentle enthusiast, Wackenroder, had ended his pathetic strivings for the ideal, to continue them where, perhaps, the ideal no longer seems so hopelessly beyond one’s reach. Three years later his other bosom friend, Novalis, had quitted this life which he loved so well. Friedrich Schlegel, whose friendship Tieck had once prized so highly, had after many strange vagaries become respectable, conservative, and a Catholic, and had established himself as a literary grand inquisitor in Vienna; his work on The Language and Wisdom of the Hindoos had at length gained him a strong position among the savans of the day. But just as he had turned the first bright page in the tragic history of his life, he died suddenly from the effects of a too hearty dinner, and evil tongues once more revived the scandal of his youth. To die from overeating — what an end for an idealist! Sic transit gloria mundi!

Of the early Romanticists, then, Tieck was the only survivor, unless, indeed, Augustus Wilhelm Schlegel could still be said to be alive; he who, after his various tragic marriages and his fierce warfare against the literary coryphei of France, now languished as a comfortable fossil at the University of Göttingen. This elder Schlegel had, with his brother Friedrich, founded The Athenæum, and had through the columns of that journal developed a gigantic critical activity, until his quarrel with Schiller and Goethe, and his friendship for Madame de Staël, for a time removed him from the Romantic arena. In spite of all the obloquy, however, which has been so abundantly heaped upon him by Heine and other unscrupulous reviewers, his labors are of too solid a character to be left unnoticed in a review of the school for whose advancement he worked with such laudable zeal. It is to him that the Germans owe their first complete translation of Shakespeare, — a translation which to this day stands unsurpassed. Not poet enough to produce any original work of real worth, he had still a sufficiently tuneful ear to enable him to appreciate and to render rhythmical effects with great nicety.

After having exhausted the dramatic treasures of English literature, Schlegel turned to those of Spain, and began the translation of Calderon and Lope de Vega. On all sides he opened avenues through which foreign culture could flow abundantly into the Fatherland. Friedrich Schlegel and Tieck had labored in the same direction, and it is no vain boast when the Romantic School claims the merit of having widened the national horizon and enabled the German scholar of to-day to approach that cosmopolitan type of manhood which Goethe has foreshadowed in the second part of his Faust.

Another member of The Athenæum circle, the preacher, Schleiermacher, of whose personal history we have communicated some fragments in a previous article,2 had in the year 1802 left Berlin and his Henrietta, and was seeking consolation in his Platonic studies for the privations which fate had inflicted upon him. But before retiring to his rural solitude at Stolpe, he had startled the theological world by a series of literary performances which bore on their face the mark of their Romantic origin. His Discourses on Religion is a most remarkable document, a virtuoso performance of the first order. Considering its philosophical purpose and the profound depths of human thought to which it penetrates, it is clear in the midst of its abstruseness, large in its conception, and in its spirit broad and catholic. There is a healthy, warm-blooded, and broadbreasted humanity about all that Schleiermacher writes, and even if this was his only merit, it would still suffice to make him a phenomenon among theologians. As sound in sentiment — that is, correct, dogmatic, and clerically narrow — he will hardly be regarded either by orthodox or by freethinker. But if he errs, he does so in a large, free fashion, which wins one’s heart and makes his error more lovable than the same amount of unquestioned truth clothed in the severe garb of the Lutheran pulpit. As soon as a chapter is finished, he carries the manuscript to Henrietta, and they criticise and discuss the contents together.

Schleiermacher’s religion is chiefly an æsthetic one, and consists in action. Humanity, he says, is not the universe; “ it is only a single form of it, an embodiment of a single modification of its elements; . . . it is an intermediate link between the individual and God [zwischen dem Einzelnen und dem Einen], a restingpoint on the way to the infinite, and man would have to possess some still higher element of character than his humanity, if he were to refer himself and his existence directly to the universe. This presentiment of something outside and above humanity is the object of all religion.” This, we admit, does not appear especially clear, but German philosophy has never been remarkable for lucidity of expression. In other passages the thought, although still abstruse, is more easily seized. When, for instance, he speaks of “contemplation of the universe” as “the highest formula of religion,” he has thereby felicitously expressed the passively æsthetic nature of his faith. Morality is active and finds its expression in the objective deed; religion is a pious exaltation, a state of the mind, and therefore subjective. But this universal contemplation does not only include self and pious abstractions; it embraces all humanity, and, although in itself passive, is actively fostering feelings of compassion, humility, love, gratitude, etc. These religious feelings must accompany all the deeds of man, “ like sacred music; ” he must do everything with religion, everything from religion. Thus in the end morality is not separable from religion; it is, however, not an aim and end, but an attendant circumstance.

Schleiermacher’s object is to prove that dogmatic theology is not per se religion, and that religion in the higher and wider sense of his definition is not only not at variance with advanced culture, hut that no real culture can exist without it. It is very much the same position which Châteaubriand was to take in his Genie du Christianisme (1802), that much-lauded and much-abused book which suddenly made Christianity fashionable, and reconciled France (i. e., Paris) to the Napoleonic Concordat. The objects of both were identical, but how different their methods! The Gaul undertakes with much elaborate rhetoric to show that Christianity is sensuously attractive, picturesque, and poetic. The Teuton appeals to the deeper needs of the soul, and deduces religion from the fact that man is so constructed that he cannot reach the full completion of his being without it.

Friedrich Schlegel, who excelled in inventing startling formulas for everything under the sun, had naturally enough also found a formula for religion. According to him, religion is the synthesis of art and philosophy; the former strives to give an outward form to the objects in accordance with their inner being, the latter seeks to explore their inmost essence; the two united make religion. “ Religion,” he says again, “ is the all-animating universal soul of culture. Only he can be an artist who has a religion of his own, who has an original view of the infinite. . . . The only opposition to the everywhere germinating religion which we may expect will come from the few real Christians still remaining.

In sharp contrast to this, Schleiermacher maintains that Christianity in its spirit, independent of the dogmatic differences of sects, alone can satisfy the cultivated intellect as well as the deeper, more primitive needs of the human heart. Châteaubriand had emphatically declared Christianity to mean Catholicism; Schleiermacher, with his broader, more cosmopolitan manhood, ignored sectarian partisanship, and strove to rise above the letter which killeth, strove to find the spirit which giveth life.

Schlegel very naturally felt dissatisfied with the position of his friend; he felt that they were divided, and he expressed in a sonnet his judgment of his solution of the religious problem: Schleiermacher stands at the door of a stately temple of wondrous beauty; he opens the door; a solemn, sacred symphony fills the air with sweet, soul-stirring sound; a curtain is drawn aside, and behold, the old Sphinx. The riddle is still unsolved.

And it may be well that neither Schleiermacher nor any one else has as yet definitely solved the riddle. In the strife and infinite divergence fostered by our eagerness and aspiration for truth absolute lies our surest promise of spiritual progress. The Romantic school, through its various representatives, strove to reclaim a nation which was rapidly drifting into artistic paganism. Through Tieck, Wackenroder, and Novalis, it introduced Christianity into literature; through Schleiermacher (paradoxical as the expression may seem), it introduced Christianity into religion. And even if the truth which these men saw was more than half error, they still labored nobly for a noble cause, and surely have not lived in vain.

Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen.

  1. Social Aspects of the German Romantic School, Atlantic Monthly, July, 1875, pages 49, 50.
  2. Social Aspects of the German Romantic School, Atlantic Monthly, July, 1875.