THE appearance of Herr Paul Heyse’s Merlin,1 in the sixtieth year of the author’s age, recalls the fact that this is the age Goethe had reached when he wrote Die Wahlverwandtschaften ; and just as Goethe went back, in the latter novel, to the idea that had given origin to Werther, so, by a further singular coincidence, does Merlin revive the moral that underlies Kinder der Welt. In Goethe’s case, what is depicted is the conflict that arises when the passions of the individual run counter to the conventions of society. In Herr Paul Heyse’s two romances, Kinder der Welt and Merlin, the Faustus creed is preached, that men may work out their own salvation without the conventional props of either society or religion. The hero of Kinder der Welt, who is wanting in all concern for social laws and regard for orthodoxy, is represented as being none the less happy and successful, inasmuch as he progresses steadily along the pathway of art. His duplicate, George, in Merlin, fails so to progress because he commits a fault, gives himself up to inactivity and remorse, — to remorse, which is retrospection, the very reverse of progress, — and ends, in consequence, most miserably.
The substance of the philosophy of the early romance is maintained intact, but Merlin adds to its pagan, masculine creed a provisional clause, — the clause, namely, that man may work out his own salvation, provided only he works. From the moral standpoint, this clause is, therefore, the new element which the book offers. And the fact that the spirit of the provision is qualifying reminds one again of Goethe and Die Wahlverwandtschaften; for what is the mortal resignation of the baron, in Goethe’s later novel, but a modification of the mortal despair of Werther, the hero of the poet’s younger days ? Indeed, authors seldom lose altogether the insights of their youth, but, as we see, they broaden them. In old age the outer eye is farsighted. The inner eye, on the contrary, sees distant extremes in youth, — sees perfect success or Werther-like despairs. Betimes the spiritual eye takes note of averages and exceptions. And just as society makes laws first, then equity, so do poets first write books, then publish addenda ; Merlin being such an addendum, — an addendum made by the author, in the decline of lite, to the foregoing works of his early manhood.
At the opening of the tale, the hero, George, is standing in the market place of a provincial city. At a little distance, on the opposite side of the Platz, there is a lank young fellow, in illfitting clothes, who wanders among the various groups of market wives. Sometimes he is in the full light of the early morning sunshine ; then he disappears under the shadow of one of the umbrellas that are planted like colossal mushrooms in the stone pavement of the square. In one hand he carries a violin case ; in the other he holds a bunch of fresh pink radishes. Presently he slips into a dark, open doorway of a house, and opens the case. Within lie ensconced a piece of raw red meat, a heap of white eggs, and some small yellow carrots. He is about adding the radishes surreptitiously to the pretty bit of still life, when George claps him on the shoulder. Philip Flaut is his bosom friend, his faithful, doglike admirer, the most simple-hearted, most gifted Bohemian that ever settled in a conservative town, and had the agonizing happiness of falling in love with the daughter of its conservative rector. At present this daughter is a resident of Philip’s châteauxen Espagne, so Philip keeps house alone, cooking his own frugal meals. George looks around the den, and declares he wants one exactly like it. Flaut laughs aloud. Let him go to the deuce with his nonsense, not come to him with it. It is quite true, however, and George explains that he has finished his course in law, has traveled, and has taken his degrees, all to please his father. Now, however, that the next step to be taken is oiie into a permanent profession, he has quarreled with his father, and has entered the profession of his own choice, — authorship, that is. Here he is with seventy-five cents and a manuscript in his pocket, and that is his whole fortune.
Philip, the hungry but happy idealist, blesses him. He loves him more than ever now that he is poor, The father of George’s betrothed, however, whom George visits next, politely and timidly invites him, as if he were a stranger, a madman indeed, to please quit the house for good and all. He, Herr Wittekind, the foremost hanker of ―, has no notion of letting his financial friends fancy that there is a weak spot in his discreet, well-kept, and pomaded head by finding him doing such a thing as countenancing a voluntary beggar. No, indeed. Precisely of the same mind, too, is the hook publisher of the town ; for George, who goes to him this time with the purpose of selling poems instead of buying them, meets with a cordial reception until he makes his business known, and then he gets a frigid adieu.
Unabashed, however, by either the money man or the book man, he wends his way to the theatre. The director has a tragedy of his entitled Rosamunda ; and there is a tragédienne in the troupe, Hannah Fork by name, of imposing height and native grandeur of mien, just the right person for acting the part of his Longobard princess. Does the director not think so himself ? At present she is kept in an unnaturally strained state of mind through the presence of an officer to whom she is engaged. But once upon the stage, in a congenial rôle, she would transport the audience. Not an audience nowadays in such a piece, answers the director brusquely. An audience nowadays does not care for the acting, but for the tendency of a play. Nor does it want dramas the scenes of which are laid in times before the Thirty Years’ War. Such dramas may be read ; they are not looked at. What the public wants is something real, something relating to the burning questions of the day. Rosamunda will not do ; it is too literary. If he had only made it modern in scene, now, and written it in prose!
“ All right,” George says dryly. " I will. I ’ll do it to-morrow. I ’ll make it anti-Jewish in tendency, and write it in prose. I ’ll kill poetry for you.”
The director agrees. It is his care to see that his business is not killed, and he urges a little actress who is present to encourage the author really to work out the scheme of a new Rosamunda.
Oh, he will, George assures him, he will. The realists of the day are constantly boasting of their art as if it were difficult. He will give them a proof of the fact that if idealists do not write like them, it is because they will not, not because they cannot. As for the little actress, Esther, George keeps out of her way. His senses are fascinated by the creature, but his soul loathes her as it does mere cleverness in writing.
What is his surprise, on coming into his lodging, later, to find an invitation to dinner at Herr Wittekind’s ; at the very house out of which he had but just been turned! George conceives that Lili is behind the matter. Nor is his surmise wrong. Yet Herr Wittekind, under the cheering influence of his excellent champagne, fancies suddenly that the invitation was the result of his own second thought. He sees now that it will increase his financial credit to marry his daughter to George. By Jove! the man must be thought pretty rich who can afford a son-in-law who is a poet. On the spot he asks the company at his table if the scheme is not a capital business trick; and he drinks a toast to George, which George replies to by vowing to himself to relinquish Lili until he has a competency of his own, and by publicly assuring Herr Wittekind that never will he accept a single farthing of his money.
He leaves town afterwards for a farmhouse in the country. Here the only persons whom he sees are his landlord, a very sick man, who is abhorred by his heartless young wife; Abel, the doctor of the factory in a neighboring village; and the hired man. The last steals into the woods with his mistress by night, and George, who sees them from his window, thinks, with a smile of contempt, that a realist in his place would use the pair as material for a romance.
There is a scene in which the actress Esther appears in his lodging, her white, full arms and bosom clothed in a transparent lace, her insidious errand being to request for herself the chief rôle in the revised Rosamunda. George tells her the part has been promised to Hannah Fork. As for the drama itself, which he had rewritten in four weeks, yet which had been accepted by the director and praised by his troupe, George expresses his opinion of that when he tells Abel that society used to take tobacco snuff; now it takes the intellectual stuff manufactured by the man of Bayreuth and the men of the qnartier Latin.
For himself, he clings with every fibre of his mind to Aristotle and his doctrine of uplifting terror as the true effect of tragedy. So he returns with a sense of deep relief from his anti-Jewish play to the completion of a drama that has the heroic Madame Roland as its central figure. When it is done, at the close of a half-year, he reads it aloud to his friends. They are every one profoundly impressed. All the same, they doubt if he will find a manager in the land to put it upon the stage ; and a friendly journalist tells him that Germans will not stand a French character that is magnanimous. Frenchmen must be represented as either immoral or silly, or be wholly ignored.
Philip Flaut determines to compose an overture to the drama; the only thing against it, in his mind, being Abel’s liking for it. This doctor, he jealously thinks, is altogether too much attracted towards Dora, the rector’s daughter. He tells her so, too. Dora bursts into laughter, and for a reply begs that he will march straight to her father. She cannot stand finding bits of cabbage leaves in her music-master’s violin case any longer. She will have to marry him, or he will ruin that case. But alas ! the austere rector cares nothing for the domestic disorder of the bashful musician’s house. From his point of view, Philip’s soul is in a far worse state than his habitation. Hence he advises him sternly to become a Christian before thinking of becoming his son-in-law, — advice that strikes honest Flaut like a doom, as indeed it does the reader, also, considering what insights he has been given into the innate paganism of the Bohemian’s mind.
With the episode of Philip’s wooing the middle of the romance is reached. The threads of the story are in a state of utmost complication. From here on, therefore, they begin either to untangle, or to tighten further into fateful, inextricable knots. For Philip, matters set themselves to rights. The rector dies, and he marries Dora ; Heaven’s fiat putting that of the deceased to naught. So also does the father of George die, leaving so large a fortune that George becomes independent, and weds Lili. But the social knot, as it proves, is not the Gordian one in the destiny of the hero of the tale. That tangle, characteristically enough, is literary. George is represented as putting his foot into its meshes when be consents at last to write a play for the coquettish Esther, — to put off writing heroic tragedies, like his unsuccessful Spartacus, in order to compose a taking piece on Merlin. The step is from the ideal plane of historical drama to that of melodrama, and is a step downward in his art. The consequence of taking it is an almost immediate moral misstep, likewise; for George, like a second Merlin, gives way, in Berlin, on the night of the première, to the seductive charms of his temptress.
At home, later, where Lili had succumbed to a contagious disease, caught from their children during his absence, George, as we have said, surrenders himself wholly to sentiments of self-disgust and remorse. His literary work is allowed to remain fragmentary. He neglects his health so that the physical forces degenerate; then his mind grows ill. Esther reappears, and the unexpected sight of her is the cause of an outbreak of insanity, and poor Flaut takes him to an insane asylum. Here George reads through the palings of his ward to Hannah Fork in the adjoining ward, — for Hannah’s wrath with him she loved has wrought at last a real madness in her brain. — and from talking with her of tragedy he comes in time to writing a drama. This is founded on the Biblical account of John the Baptist, and George gains permission to enact it in the hall of the asylum, he playing John to Hannah’s Herodias. With mad cunning, he concocts a scheme that he keeps secret in his own morbid mind until the opening night. Then Hannah, in her role as Herodias, lifts the cloth from the bloodstained platter, to be met with the sight of genuine blood and an actual human head, — George’s own !
There can hardly be imagined, we should say, a scene and moment more original. Upon one side is the raised platform, and on it the crack-brained, tall tragédienne, in complete poise of soul and with grisly, quiet deportment; upon the other is the dark room below, its spectators all stiffening with one harrowing apprehension.
Herr Heyse might well have made use of the inspiration as an effective close to the madhouse scenes and his hero’s life. But evidently the desire not to let an opportunity pass for showing that the true idealist adopts the current sensational methods of realistic writers only when he has become diseased was too urgent and strong for the author. George’s daring, therefore, is represented as being a trick ; for, although the face in the platter is real, the lips that Hannah kisses are warm, and the eyes that droop for the audience are moved by vital muscles, not by mechanism, beneath the bottomless platter the head is still joined firmly to George’s shoulders. The reader has many pages more to peruse ere a suicidal hand is at last turned in earnest against that head.
The story, only the moral and general outlines of which are given here, covers in the original nine hundred pages. That the author should have been able to write it, as he declares he did, in the six weeks of the summer of 1891 is a fact that can be explained only by learning that the main contents of the romance are the ripened fruit of previous years of reflection : the writing was a gathering in rather than a sowing of ideas ; a harvest, not a new creation. All the chief incidents of the plot were ready drawn twenty years ago or more, those of the earlier chapters being founded upon events in his own life. The experiences which he underwent when he resigned the prospects offered by a lucrative profession in Berlin, in order to pursue literature in Munich, against the will of the elder (Professor) Heyse, had supplied him with the material necessary for the introductory narrative of the novel, and the picturesque market of der Thal, that had caught his eye on entering Munich, afforded a good scene for the opening description. Then, as for the store of sentiments needful in working up a portraiture of George’s character as that of a man of proud independence, Heyse found himself in possession of that in 1868, when King Ludwig II. withdrew the pension of the poet Geibel. It was done as a punishment for Geibel s liberalism in politics, in a despotic manner, and Heyse, out of disgust, for the sake of the dignity of the profession of poetry, threw up his own pension. Similarly, too. with the experiences that he went through in respect to his early drama, Francesca di Rimini : the realism of that piece and the criticism which it met with suggested all that he needed for describing what his hero lived through in regard to his drama Rosamunda. The very reasons that made Heyse repudiate Francesca di Rimini serve as grounds why George disavows his revised Rosamunda. In like manner are the experiences that the publication of the Goddess of Reason called forth in 1881 used in the episode of Madame Roland, and those which accompanied the production of Alcibiades in the account of George’s drama Spartacus.
Merlin, in short, was for many years the author’s mental diary; and unless his present intention not to write his memoirs he given up, the literary student will hardly come into possession of a better guide through certain circumstances of Herr Heyse’s literary life than this romance affords. It fills a place among his books corresponding to that which The Mill on the Floss fills among the writings of George Eliot; there are more personal reminiscences, or rather more analogies of personal reminiscences, in Merlin’s pages than have been confided to any other book. The complete author is here, even in such details as his methods and habils of work. For, like his hero, Herr Heyse writes only in the morning, as a rule, while capable, under the pressure of inspiration, of working from twelve to fourteen hours a day. His facility of expression is remarkable; and although he rewrites his dramas several times, all his short stories have been composed in two or three sittings, and been published just as they were penned at the first writing. The personages of his tales, too, like those of his hero’s, are creations of imagination ; never does he model them (at least consciously) after his acquaintances in actual life. Just as George closes the window of his chamber that he may not see the peasant’s wife as she sneaks at evening into the woods with her paramour, so does Heyse exclude from his poetic vision the gross figures of Labor and vile Lust. The factory in Merlin is kept characteristically in the background of the tale, whereas an open-air sermon of the factory doctor’s is allowed to rise by force of innate grandeur into memorable prominence. George Falkner’s scorn of fashion in literature, finally, and the front that he starts out to maintain against it, answer, in this symbolical and disguised biography, to the author’s own literary attitude.
The motto which, like a bugle note of defiance, opens the tale of Merlin —
Nicht soll ’s der Welt zulieb geschen ” —
could accompany nearly all of Heyse’s works ; his latest volume of short stories, Aus den Vorgebirgen, as well as his new drama, Wahrheit.
The style in Merlin is broad throughout, and is the same for narrations, descriptive paragraphs, and conversations. A closer likeness to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and Elective Affinities, in this particular, has not been produced of late years. Like these books, moreover, Merlin abounds with matter superfluous, with Confessions of a Beautiful Soul, in the form of poems, aphorisms, and fragments of tragedies : it is, in short, a genuine poet’s vade mecum, or precisely that which nearly every notable German romance of the elder novelists has been for three generations past. M. Brunetière describes “ vade mecura ” as the roman teutonique. The same type of novel was in vogue in France, hut died out with the followers of Lamartine. Why does it survive in the Fatherland ? M. Brunetière thinks it is because the geographical boundaries of Germany are “ sans contours arrêtes, et l’esprit allemand, naturellement informe, se meut à l’aise.” But if this be true, how has it come to pass that America should have evolved the opposite type of novel, the concise short story? — a type as peculiar for its exaggerated exclusion of as much as possible as is the vade mecum of the Germans in its inclusion of as much as possible.
- Merlin. Roman. Von PAUL HEYSE. Berlin : Verlag Wm. Hertz. 1892.↩