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STATE OF GERMAN LITERATURE. SKETCHES OF THE MOST
Above a century ago, the Père Bouhours propounded to himself the pregnant question: "Si un Allemand peut avoir de l'esprit?” Had the Père Bouhours bethought him of what country Kepler and Leibnitz were, or who it was that gave to mankind the three great elements of modern civilization, Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant Religion, it might have thrown light on his inquiry. Had he known the "Niebelungen Lied;" and where “Reinecke Fuchs,” and “Faust,” and the “Ship of Fools," and four-fifths of all the popular mythology, humour, and romance to be found in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, took its rise ; had he read a page or two of Ulrich Hutten, Opitz, Paul Flemming, Logau, or even Lohenstein and Hoffmannswaldau, all of whom had already lived and written in his day; had the Père Bouhours taken this trouble, who knows but he might have found, with whatever amazement, that a German could actually have a little esprit, or perhaps even something better? No such trouble was requisite for the Père Bouhours. Motion in vacuo is well known to be speedier and surer than through a resisting medium, especially lo imponderous bodies; and so the light Jesuit, unimpeded by facts or principles of any kind, failed not to reach his conclusion, and, in a comfortable frame of mind, to decide, negatively, that a German could not have any literary talent.
Thus did the Père Bouhours evince that he had “ a pleasant wit;” but in the end he has paid dear for it. The French, themselves, have long since begun to know something of the Germans, and something also of their critical Daniel; and now it is by this one untimely joke that the hapless Jesuit is doomed to live; for the blessing of full oblivion is denied him, and so he hangs, suspended in his own noose, over the dusky pool which he struggles toward, but for a great while will not reach. Might his fate but serve as a warning to kindred men of wit, in regard to this and so many other subjects! For surely the pleasure of despising, at all times and in itself a dangerous luxury, is much safer after the toil of examining than before it.
We differ from the Père Bouhours in this matter, and must endeavour to discuss it differently. There is, in fact, much in the present aspect of German Literature not only deserving notice, but deep consideration from all thinking men, and far too complex for being handled in the way of epigram. It is always advantageous to think justly of our neighbours, nay, in mere common honesty, it is a duly; and, like every other duty, brings
* Outlines for the History and Criticism of Polite Literature in Germany; by Franz Horn.-Vol. xlvi. page 306. October, 1827.
its own reward. Perhaps at the present era this duty is more essential than ever : an era of such promise and such threatening,—when so many elements of good and evil are everywhere in conflict, and human society is, as it were, struggling to body itself forth anew, and so many coloured rays are springing up in this quarter and in that, which only by their union can produce pure light. Happily too, though still a difficult
, it is no longer an impossible duty; for the commerce in material things has paved roads for commerce in things spiritual, and a true thought, or a noble creation, passes lightly to us from the remotest countries, provided only our minds be open to receive it. This, indeed, is a rigorous proviso, and a great obstacle lies in it; one which to many must be insurmountable, yet which it is the chief glory of social culture to surmount. For, if a man, who mistakes his own contracted individuality for the type of human nature, and deals with whatever contradicts him as if it contradicted this, is but a pedant, and without true wisdom, be he furnished with partial equipments as he may,—what better shall we think of a nation that, in like manner, isolates itself from foreign influence, regards its own modes as so many laws of nature, and rejects all that is different as unworthy even of examination.
of this narrow and perverted condition the French, down almost to our own times, have afforded a remarkable and instructive example; as indeed of late they have been often enough upbraidingly reminded, and are now themselves, in a manlier spirit, beginning to admit. That our countrymen have at any time erred much in this point cannot, we think, truly be alleged against them. Neither shall we say with some passionate admirers of Germany, that to the Germans in particular they have been unjust. It is true, the literature and character of that country, which, within the last half century, have been more worthy perhaps than any other of our study and regard, are still very generally unknown to us, or, what is worse, misknown; but for this there are not wanting less offensive reasons. That the false and tawdry ware, which was in all hands, should reach us before the chaste and truly excellent, which it required some excellence to recognise; that Kotzebue's insanity should have spread faster, by some fifty years, than Lessing's wisdom; that Kant's Philosophy should stand in the background as a dreary and abortive dream, and Gall's Craniology be held out to us from
every booth as a reality; -all this lay in the nature of the case. That many readers should draw conclusions from imperfect premises, and by the imports judge too hastily of the stock imported from, was likewise natural. No unfair bias, no unwise indisposition, that we are aware of, has ever been at work in the matter; perhaps at worst, a degree of indolence, a blameable incuriosity to all products of foreign genius : for what more do we know of recent Spanish or Italian literature than of German ; of Grossi and Manzoni, of Campomanes or Jovellanos, than of Tieck and Richter? Wherever German art, in those forms of it which need no interpreter, has addressed us immediately, our recognition of it has been prompt and hearty; from Dürer to Mengs, from Händel to Weber and Beethoven, we have welcomed the painters and musicians of Germany, not only to our praise, but to our affections and beneficence. Nor, if in their literature we have been more backward, is the literature itself without share in the blame. Two centuries ago, translations from the German were comparatively frequent in England: Luther's Table-Talk is still a venerable classic in our language; nay Jacob Böhme has found a place among us, and this not as a dead letter, but as a
living apostle to a still living sect of our religionists. In the next century, indeed, translation ceased; but then it was in a great measure because there was little worth translating. The horrors of the Thirty Years' War, followed by the conquests and conflagrations of Louis the Fourteenth, had desolated the country ; French influence, extending from the courts of princes to the closets of the learned, lay like a baleful incubus over the far nobler mind of Germany; and all true nationality vanished from its literature, or was heard only in faint tones, which lived in the
arts of the people, but could not reach with any effect to the ears of foreigners.* And now that the genius of the country has awaked in its old strength, our attention to it has certainly awakened also; and if we yet know little or nothing of the Germans, it is not because we wilfully do them wrong, but in good part because they are somewhat difficult to know.
In fact, prepossessions of all sorts naturally enough find their place here. A country which has no national literature, or a literature too insignificant to force its way abroad, must always be, to its neighbours, at least in every important spiritual respect, an unknown and misestimated country. Its towns may figure in our maps; its revenues, population, manufactures, political connexions, may be recorded in statistical books : but the character of the people has no symbol and no voice; we cannot know them by speech and discourse, but only by mere sight and outward observation of their manners and procedure. Now, if both sight and speech, if both travellers and native literature, are found but ineffectual in this respect, how incalculably more so the former alone! To seize a character, even that of one man, in its life and secret mechanism, requires a philosopher; to delineate it with truth and impressiveness is work for a poet. How then shall one or two sleek clerical tutors, with here and here a tedium-stricken esquire, or speculative half-pay captain, give us views on such a subject? How shall a man, to whom all characters of individual men are like sealed books, of which he sees only the title and the covers, decipher, from his four
Not that the Germans were idle, or altogether engaged, as we too loosely suppose, in the work of commentary and lexicography. On the contrary, they rhymed and romanced with due vigour as to quantity; only the quality was bad. Two facts on this head may deserve mention : In the year 1749, there were found in the library of one virtuoso no fewer than 300 volumes of devotional poetry, containing, says Horn, a treasure of 33.712 German hymns;" and much about the same period, one of Gottsched's scholars had amassed as many as 1500 German novels, all of the 17th century. The hymns we understand to be much better than the novels, or rather, perhaps, the novels to be much worse than the hymns. Neither was critical study neglected, nor indeed honest Endea vour on all hands to attain improvement : witness the strange books from time to time put forth, and the still stranger institutions established for this purpose. Among the former, we have The Poetical Funnel” (Poetische Trichter), manufactured at Nürnberg in 1650, and professing, within six hours, to pour in the whole essence of this difficult art into the most unfurnished head. Nürnberg also was the chief seat of the famous Meistersänger and their Sängerzünfte, or Singerzuilds, in which poetry was taught and practised, like any other handicraft, and this by sober and well-meaning men, chiefly artisans, who could not understand why labour, which manufactured on many things, should not also manufacture another. Of these tuneful guild-brethren, Hans Sachs. by trade a shoemaker, is greatly the most noted and most notable. His father was a tailor; he himself learned the mystery of song under one Nunnebeck, a weaver. He was an adherent of his great contemporary Luther, who has even deigned to acknowledge his services in the cause of The Reformation : how diligent a labourer Sachs must have been, will appear from the fact, that in his 74th year (1568), on examining his stock for publication, he found that he had written 6048 poetical pieces, among which were 208 tragedies and comedies : and this besides having all along kept house, like an honest Nürnberg burgher, by assiduous and sufficient shoe-making! Hans is not without genius, and a shrewd irony; and above all, the most gay, child- yet devout and solid character. A man neither to be despised nor patronised, but left standing on his own basis, as a singular product, and a still legible symbol, and clear mirror, of the time and country where he lived. His best piece known to us, and many are well worth perusing, is the Fastnachtsspiel
Sbrovetide Farce) of the Narrenschneiden, where a doctor cures a bloated and lethargic patient by cutting out half a dozen Fools from his interior!