Goethe's Limitations as Man and Poet
IN reading Grimm’s Life and Times of Goethe 1 we have wondered anew at that defect of the great man’s nature which renders him, to us, an almost incomprehensible, half-human being, — we mean the absolute coldness of heart which seems to have served to advance his giant intellectual growth, while it kept him morally dwarfed. It is hard to conceive of a man born without a heart, but on close inspection one is forced to look on Goethe as a being as really destitute of the normal human affections as though he had actually come into the world unfurnished with the genuine flesh-and-blood organ, but with some subtly-working mechanism in its place, which nature put there for once by way of an experiment. Our minds do not readily take in such a singular conception of a man, and at first we interpret his speech and actions as meaning what they would mean in any ordinary mortal. But the delusion discovers itself after a time. As students of human character we know the difference between sentiments and affections proper, and we discern that this man, so abundantly supplied with the former, was yet a very pauper in his lack of those feelings which enrich the commonest of mankind. He never felt his poverty ; was never conscious of wanting that which most men value as among the
most precious things of life. The joy springing from the interchange of affection, like all things most worth having, must be paid for with a price, — the possibility of exquisite suffering; and if Goethe lost the satisfactions of true and enduring love, he also escaped its corresponding pangs. His coldness was the antiseptic that kept him from decay : it does not astonish us to learn that at eighty-three, with his marvelous faculties still alert and his body comparatively unworn, his enjoyment of mere living was full and fresh as it had ever been. Neither his own losses, nor the pains of sympathy for others, — for his friends, or for mankind at large, — had ever bruised or scarred his soul. It may be said, indeed, that losses of his own he never had. From the beginning the world gave him all that he most craved. One estranged friend he could always replace with another. His so-called friendships were either comfortable intimacies or profitable intellectual companionships ; even his relation with Schiller was rather one of this latter sort than a giving of heart for heart. Schiller took the place of Herder, from whom, after an intercourse of long years, Goethe “ silently turned away.” The difference of character between Schiller and Goethe in this respect is shown in a sentence of Grimm’s : “ As critics [useful literary companions] he could henceforth wholly dispense with Körner and Humboldt, but they remained ever dear to Schiller’s heart.” After a ten years’ intimacy with Frau von Stein, during which she had been “ made the arbitress of his fate and of his intellectual achievements ; with unvarying fidelity surrounded by no end of flattering proofs of his care ; all her best faculties developed by him ; raised to be the envied participator in his mental life, — of all this she sees herself, wholly unprepared, and without, apparent fault of her own, suddenly deprived, and cast down from her exalted position into a gloomy void which she could never fill by any effort of her own.” Goethe had simply had enough of her, and after a short period of constrained intercourse, most painful and inexplicable to her, Frau von Stein hastened from Weimar and Goethe, who sent after her a farewell letter, in which she “ felt that she was dismissed.” The man’s personal fascination must have been great indeed which could make a woman forgive such conduct, and receive him in later years into her society again.
At the time when Schiller, ardently desirous of Goethe’s friendship, was making such advances toward it as were consistent with self-respect, only to be repulsed by Goethe’s frigid indifference, his hurt feelings led him to write of Goethe thus : “ He never overflows, even to his nearest friends, and is never to be caught unaware. I truly believe he is an egoist to an unusual degree.
. . . He makes his presence felt beneficently, but only like a god,—without giving himself. This conduct seems to me consistent and systematic, and calculated to insure the highest enjoyment of self-love. But of such a character men should not make an idol. To me he is hateful in this regard, although I love his genius with my whole heart, and have an exalted idea of him.” Outside the magic circle of Goethe’s present influence Schiller could judge the genius thus accurately; yet he too yielded to the spell, when at last it was brought to work on him.
Goethe’s connection with Christiane Vulpius, the woman who afterwards became his wife, may be an exception to the rule of his relationships. Men often marry without affection, simply because they have arrived at an age when the comforts of a home and a faithful attendant seem necessary to them. Goethe’s marriage may have been no more than this, and his grief at her death and the consequent breaking up of his domesticity proves nothing; still, we are willing to believe that somewhere, deep within, a spark of the fire of a disinterested love kept the vital warmth alive in him.
In all this, what a pointed contrast to Goethe is presented by his contemporary, Madame de Staël! In reading her biography nothing strikes one more than the number and the depth of her attachments, the fervor and the fidelity with ’which she gave herself to her friends. It was this capacity for loving quite as much as her intellectual gifts and social brilliance that drew men and women to her. If, to us, her expressions of affection seem somewhat exaggerated, and we wonder at the overflowing warmth of her regard for so many different persons, it is partly because manners have changed since her time, and we should nowadays distrust the reality of feelings that manifested themselves with such abandon. But there can be no doubt that hers were entirely sincere. Her friendships were the solace and joy of her troublous life, as her ardent, zealous, self-sacrificing affection made the happiness of those to whom it was given. Madame Récamier’s constancy to her friend, which brought her under the displeasure of Napoleon, reflects equal lustre on the characters of both women ; the friend must have been worth much for whom the other was ready to endure exile. Although in her Paris salon and her Coppet home Madame de Staël reigned like a queen among her circle of distinguished guests, the self-love of no one was wounded ; all met with consideration, and, exuberant talker as the hostess was, she knew how to listen as well. The list of her close relationships with men and women is a long one; her friends were of characters and tastes the most diverse, but with her in their midst they learned how to live together in pleasant harmony. At her death there were men, — Sismondi, Constant, and others, — who knew not how to live without her who had been the pivot of their existence. A friend once made she seems never to have lost.
In considering Goethe’s entire life, Grimm remarks “ two fundamental facts : The first was that, so far as we know, he never experienced anything which wholly took him out of himself; and that even when most passionately excited he still retained the power to criticise himself. The second was that Goethe does not mention any living man or any contemporary book that fully meets the wants of his nature ; no man who could excite in him the feeling, " Such I would like to have been!' and no book over which he might have thought, ‘ This is what I would have written, but it is better than I could have written it.’ ” Again : “ He met men with fresh curiosity, loved them while new, but repulsed them unmercifully when the hour for criticism had arrived.” In the latter part of his life he “gave up all idea of friendship, and welcomed to his companionship only those from whom he expected furtherance in his aims. All mankind became transformed into the most deserving object of study.”
Is it surprising, then, that while his old age seemed the perfection of a serenely declining day, yet it lacked in reality its evening glow, its supreme consecration ?
The impression made by the biography by G. H. Lewes (who is reluctant to admit a fault in his hero) is confirmed by Grimm’s Life, although he nowhere makes direct accusation of heartlessness against his great countryman, and is apparently concerned to give facts, not opinions or judgments of his own. The portrait of Goethe given in Grimm’s volume answers remarkably to the conception of his character here put forth. The handsome, cold face, with its clear, all-seeing eyes and mouth of exquisite fineness, seems some artist’s ideal of pure intellect, enriched with imaginative sensibility, and untouched with any color of merely human feeling.
Thackeray’s Fairy Blackstick bestows upon the baby prince, as her best gift, “ a little misfortune.” One cannot but pity the famous Goethe, so constantly attended by good fortune. If only he could have been visited by some of those manifold merciful afflictions that come into the lives of most men, like angels in disguise !
Grimm characterizes Faust as the “ greatest work of the greatest poet of all nations and all times.” That is a German’s estimate of a home product. Faust is undoubtedly the greatest work of a great poet. The dictum of Grimm suggests the question whether Goethe would not have been a greater poet, as well as a nobler man, if he had not been so deeply tainted with the vice of egotism. It appears at first as if his independence of others, his perfect selfpoise, greatly aided his free mental development : it kept him unperturbed by loves and hates, undistracted by conflicting influences, able to follow an idea or aim with calm, fixed gaze as far as it might lead. Yet, considering more closely, the truth seems to be that the advantage of this concentration of force was counterbalanced by a corresponding disability. His self-centred calm was really a hindrance or limitation to the fullest expansion of his intellect, at least on the side of the imagination. In the work of the creative imagination the greatest poet of all nations and all times must surely have power to wander unfettered through the whole range of human passion. Grimm’s idea — and in this he appears to be correct — of the working of Goethe’s creative faculty is that it always needed for its labor the material given by experience ; it was in that he always wrought, and the experience which he chose, as supplying him with the most rich and abundant material, was his own. His own nature was of absorbing interest to him, and it was the study of his life. Since it was in reality a many-sided one, it follows that its analysis was not easily exhausted, and his self-portraiture was fresh and various. Yet there are instincts and emotions to the comprehension of which his own
nature was no clue, nor could he have had that intuition of the feelings of other men which a genuine sympathy gives. It would sound absurd to us to say that Shakespeare, truly the greatest poet of all times, found it needful to search experience, his own or that of others, before his imagination could begin its play. He did not combine in himself the elements of Othello and Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth, nor had be ever beheld their fleshly prototypes. And criticism has plainly shown that, whatever suggestions for his characters he found in the works of earlier authors, they were but the merest hints, hardly the faint outlines, for his breathing realities.
- Life and Times of Goethe. By HERMAN GRIMM. Translated by SARAH HOLLAND ADAMS. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.↩