The Goethe-Carlyle Correspondence

THIS Correspondence 1 has the character of a literary episode. It presents several aspects, all of them simple. The sight of Carlyle himself in an attitude of ordinary human respect toward a mortal creature still in the flesh is in itself a pleasing spectacle; and he is here to be observed in the postures of practical hero-worship. To Goethe, the writer, Carlyle believed himself to be under great obligation for light upon the universal mystery, and for counsel in the conduct of life ; and to Goethe, the man, he accordingly expressed his fervent gratitude, as bright youths in similar circumstances are so often tempted of the devil to do, by inditing a letter to the ruling genius of the hour under whose intellectual sway he happened to be born. In this case the usual unfortunate disillusion did not follow: the “ spiritual father ” showed himself truly paternal, smiled benignity upon the plans, fortunes, and various activities of the young man ; and the “ grateful son,” in his turn, sent his tribute of translations, eulogistic critiques, and epistolary compliments to the sage at Weimar. The influence of Goethe certainly was the most powerful external stimulus in the literary life of Carlyle, and the friendly recognition which the latter received from the great man, while still obscure and unsuccessful, was no doubt a comfort, and perhaps a support; the gratitude of Carlyle was sincere, and his service to the fame of his master was considerable. But the relationship established by the Correspondence was personal, not intellectual; if one opens this volume with any expectation of finding wisdom in it, he will come to grief; that side of the connection must be sought in the works of the two authors. In these letters they express their individuality, not their genius ; they are, on page after page, men leading an every-day life.

To the fashion of our times there seems to be something peculiar in the general tone of these letters, which is not altogether explained by reminding ourselves that of the two persons engaged one was old, the other young; one the oracular voice, the other an acolyte ; one the shining great original, the other a Scotch translator. These differences do not account for what appears to he a lack of naturalness, or at least of that openness which is the charm of familiar literary correspondence. This Correspondence is very literary, but more formal than familiar: the principal figure in it is the monarch of literary Europe, who is also a court chamberlain ; and both the participants are aware of the value of ceremony in adjusting human relations. The consequence is, to be frank, that Goethe is undeniably heavy in his communications, and Carlyle is preternaturally solemn, even for a young Scotchman of his severe ilk. Goethe’s heaviness is unquestionably natural; but, quite as plainly, Carlyle is minding his manners. One rubs his eyes, and asks if this is the Carlyle we know. How much he was warped from his native bent it is easy to observe by the contrast of the few contemporary letters to personal friends which interleave the main Correspondence. In them he speaks out like a man ; but in reading the others, and especially the earlier of them, one is reminded of nothing so often as of the dedicatory epistles to that bygone worthy, over whose disestablishment by Johnson Carlyle rejoiced, — the Patron. As to the documentary missives that came from Weimar, Carlyle himself kept up a silent thinking. What does he say confidentially to brother John, now on his travels, and possibly to be in the actual presence of the great man ?

“ To a certainty you must come round by Weimar, as you return, and see this world’s wonder, and tell us on your sincerity what manner of man he is, for daily he grows more inexplicable to me. One letter is written like an oracle, the next shall be too redolent of twaddle. How is it that the author of Faust and Meister can tryste himself with such characters as ‘ Herr—’ (the simplest and stupidest man of his day, a Westmoreland Gerundgrinder and cleishbotham) and ‘ Captain—' (a little wizened. cleanly man, most musical, most melancholy)? . . . For myself, unshaken in my former belief, though Jane rather wavers,” etc.

“ Twaddle ” ! But whether it was the curious testimonial of Carlyle’s fitness to be a Scotch professor, which he had just received, and which is the most Shandean document of the kind within our knowledge, or whether it was the gracious welcome given to the Herr and Captain blanked in such unmistakable Carlylese, that drew forth this improper expression, does not appear. One concludes that it was as well that “ the pair, ’ as the Carlyles, man and wife, are usually designated in these pages, did not make their wished-for journey to Weimar. It was much better to exchange books and trinkets, and live at the ends of the earth.

Yet what lias been said above is only a part of the story, and the least agreeable part. From another point of view, this memorial of the acquaintance of these two illustrious men is more attractive. It is without intellectual value, not unnaturally; these two men have expressed themselves so fully in their books that nothing fresh or striking in the way of thought could be anticipated: but as an exhibition of kindness and good-will on Goethe’s part, and of reverence and discipleship on Carlyle’s, the Correspondence has a human interest, and it serves also as a landmark in English literary history. To Goethe Carlyle was only a translator and student of German literature, engaged in the active propagandism of the fame and name of himself and his compatriots. He praised him, indeed, in general terms, and predicted a future for him ; but there is no intimation that he saw any original genius in him except what could be usefully employed in continuing the business of translating his own works and writing manuals of German literature ; and the tone and matter of Eckermann’s letters indicate that this was in fact all that the name of Carlyle meant at Weimar.

At that time Carlyle had given no sign of being capable of work other than critical review, of a longer or shorter kind. He was then the principal channel by which German literature was being communicated to the English people, and it was this circumstance, practically, that made Goethe his correspondent. The latter’s heart was in the work of extending German ideas into other languages, and promoting a general intellectual commerce among civilized nations, and he found in Carlyle a ready and able assistant; and inasmuch as all that was being done in England then in disseminating German thought was a matter of interest to Goethe, it happens that this Correspondence represents fairly well the historic moment when the later literary influence of Germany began to be effective on English soil. This interest of the letters is merely incidental and for scholars ; but it helps us to understand the facts of Carlyle’s relation to Goethe, which really sprang out of his usefulness as a hack-writer on the magazines and as a translator. We do not have here the communion of two equal friends, as in the letters between Carlyle and Emerson, or of two original minds actively giving or receiving influence ; there is nothing of this, but only compliments, attentions, and talk incidental to the German propaganda.

This being understood, it is altogether delightful to observe in what kindly and intimate ways Goethe varied and enriched the slight connection between himself and his practically unknown admirer, how thoughtful he was, what true and natural good-feeling he showed, until the acquaintance did really ripen into a warm mutual friendliness. This is the charming thing in the volume, in view of which one forgets that Goethe was anything more than a pleasant and polite old gentleman, much engaged in the little affairs of age, and sorry that his head could no longer furnish a lock of hair for that one of “ the worthy wedded pair ” who had sent him a lock from her own ; and forgets, too, that Carlyle, although still undistinguished, was by no means a youth when he was writing the most decorous compositions he ever penned. One enters into the spirit of it, and enjoys the self-complacent, kindmannered old poet and the meek and not altogether unsuspecting Scotchman ; for in no other place does Carlyle appear so unmitigably Scotch as in this book. At short intervals, too, one stops to admire the editing. It would have been so easy to make this collection irretrievably dull that he is more than grateful to the skillful hand that has neglected no opportunity to light up the pages and make them live, has cited so judiciously and illustratively from other books, and has succeeded in composing so much unpromising matter into an episode, as we have called it, of literary history that will long have interest and value. It is mere truth to say that the volume owes more to its editor than to Goethe or Carlyle.

  1. Correspondence between Goethe and CarlyleEdited by CHARLES ELIOT NORTON. London : Macmillan & Co. New York. 1887.