Would Goethe Have Accepted Taylor?

— Though I am inclined to agree in general with Mr. Andrews in his estimate of the different English translations of Goethe’s Faust, I think he fails to do justice to one conspicuous quality of Bayard Taylor’s version. Its shortcomings are very ably stated; but these are, to my mind, in a measure compensated for by a poetic afflatus which distinguishes the book, and shows it to be the work of a poet. Mr. Brooks is less successful in reproducing the musical key of the original, and he is far poorer in winged words which seize the spirit of the German as by inspiration. I cannot, for instance, imagine a happier rendering of the line in the dedication,

“ Das strenge Herz es fühlt sich mild und weich,”

than Taylor’s,

“ And the stern heart is tenderly unmanned,”

which certainly accords better with the elegiac key of the poem than Brooks’s,

“ The rigid heart to milder mood gives way,”

or Miss Swanwick’s,

“ A tender mood ray steadfast heart oversways. ”

The same observation holds good in regard to the Easter choruses, though the admirers of Taylor are here perhaps obliged to concede a liberal use of his predecessors, and particularly of Brooks. Taylor followed in this respect the example of his master, who declared (apropos of Mephisto’s song, “ Was machst du mir vor Liebchen’s Thür,” which he had adapted from Shakespeare) that he felt at liberty to use all that came in his way, provided he could improve upon it. And who will question that, considered as poetry, Taylor’s version is here superior to that of Brooks ? Take, for instance, the Chorus of the Disciples, which is the most difficult, and so may serve as a test of the comparative merits of the translators. How ecstatic is the swift dactylic movement of Taylor’s rendering!

“ Has He, victoriously,
Burst from the vaulted
Grave, and all gloriously
Now sits exalted ?
Is He in glow of birth
Rapture creative near ?
Ah ! to the woe of earth
Still are we native here!
We, his aspiring
Followers, Him we miss ;
Weeping, desiring,
Master, Thy bliss ! ”

Excepting the last four lines, which fall a trifle below the key, I regard this as one of the greatest feats of translation in the English language. The alternately rhyming lines,

“ Ist er in Werdelust
Schaffender Freude nah ?
Ach ! an der Erde Brust
Sind wir zum Leide da,”

are rendered with a poetic felicity and vigor which throw Brooks far into the shade. Particularly, the rendering of the almost untranslatable word Werdelust by “ glow of birth,” and the producing of a dactylic rhyme, accurate both as to sense and sound, in “ woe of earth,” can scarcely fail to challenge the admiration of all who know the difficulties which are here so triumphantly overcome. Here is the version of Brooks, and I beg the unprejudiced reader, with an ear for rhythmical effects, to pronounce if it approaches so near to the sublimity of the original: —

“ Risen victorious ?
Sits he, God’s Holy One,
High throned and glorious ?
He, in this blest new birth
Rapture creative knows;
Ah ! on the breast of earth
Taste we still nature’s woes.
Left here to languish,
Lone in a world like this,
Fills us with anguish,
Master, thy bliss.”

Miss Swanwick’s version of this is almost on the level of prose, and makes scarcely the faintest attempt to sound the trumpet note of triumph which rings in the first four lines, and which Taylor has reproduced so finely : —

“He whom we mourned as dead,
Living and glorious,
From the dark grave hath fled,
O’er death victorious.
Almost creative bliss
Waits on his growing powers.
Ah ! Him on earth we miss ;
Sorrow and grief are ours.
Yearning He left his own
’Mid sore annoy.
Ah! we must needs bemoan,
Master, thy joy! ”

I believe I am acquainted with all translations of Faust into English, and I have, after much study, come to the conclusion that Taylor’s approaches nearer to the third order, to which Mr. Andrews refers, than any of the others. If I were to state its claim to superiority in one word, I should say that, generally speaking, it is poetry, while all the others are metrical prose, rising now and then into the regions consecrated to the tuneful Nine. It is not by any means a final and fully satisfactory translation, making all others superfluous; but it gives everywhere evidence of having been written by a man of finer poetic susceptibility and a higher poetic gift than any of his competitors.