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German Romanticism: Wholesale and Retail

ISSUE:  Autumn 1925

Humanismus und Rotnantik.
By H. A. Korff. Leipzig: Verlag von J. J. Weber. $1.75.

Die deutsche Romantik. By Alois Stockmann. Freid-burg im Breisgau: Herder & Co. $2.

Die blaue Blume. By Cajetan Osswald. Munich: Gesell-schaft fur christliche Kunst. $2.

Romantik-Land. By Ludwig Benninghoff. Hamburg: Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt. $3.

Rahel und Alexander von der Marwitz in ihren Brief en. By Heinrich Meisner. Gotha: F. A. Perthes Verlag. $3.

Die Entstehung der Rheinromantik. By Heinz Stephan. Koeln: Rheinland Verlag. $1.75.

Shortly after the outbreak of the World War, Professor Gilbert Murray came to this country to lay the cause of the Allies before the American people. While in New York he was invited up to Barnard College to address the students at chapel. The presiding officer of the day introduced him as the greatest of living Greek scholars. He replied by remarking that that was a genteel introduction but that it was inaccurate; that his colleague Professor Willamowitz-Moellendorf of the University of Berlin was entitled to that splendid honor. This was a quite generous manifestation of what we know as British fair play.

Gilbert Murray contended however on the same occasion and in the same connection that the great trouble with Ger ­man scholarship was that while it might be matchless in the matter of details it fell down with miserable frequency when it came to drawing the big and correct conclusion. And this attitude on his part throws a light on British fair play which we should never allow to fade into invisibility. When an Englishman indulges in fair play he does so with his ethical hand on his moral sword. What he means is this: You beat me fairly. But wait! I have learned a lesson from the encounter.

The present writer is poles removed from planning a classical “knock-out” to a Gilbert Murray. Twenty-five years of rather intimate association with German scholar ­ship, however, have convinced him that the Murray theory, which is rather widely accepted, is erroneous. The fact is, the Germans are as expert in wholesale scholarship as in retail. If the subject is big and the conclusion broad, the German scholar may make a mistake; he may suffer a de ­railment, that will make him look a bit paltry in the eyes of posterity. But so may the scholar of any nationality. What do the names—to proceed quite at random—of Lecky, Hume, Hobbes, Gibbon, Carlyle, Bentham, Burke mean to ­day? Do men go to them for assurance in 1925? Or are they approached simply as illustrious visualizations of the ages in which they lived? And did a scholar, on the other hand, ever attempt a more comprehensive and momentarily fetching conclusion than the one reached by Spengler in his “Decadence of the Occident,” or by Keyserling in his “Travel Diary of a Philosopher,” or by Steiner in his Three-fold Commonwealth,” or by Vaihinger in his “As If” philosophy?

Of the six volumes before us, the first two are general and draw the grand conclusion; the third and fourth depict and illustrate a subject that is quite if not hopelessly compre ­hensive in itself; the fifth furnishes the material for conclu ­sion-drawing; and the sixth represents that admirable type of detailed scholarship for which Gilbert Murray could give the Germans credit even at the dark hour when they were hacking their way on toward the English coast towns, towns that they failed to reach because their politico-commercial sense was faulty, their foresight from the point of view of mihtary strategy very bad. But the hindsight of their scholars may be very good, and it is in truth as good as that of any nation. We dare not lose sight of the fact, inciden ­tally, that the Germans publish 35,000 volumes a year, or as many as are published annually in England, France and the United States combined. A Willamowitz-Moellendorf has then three times as many chances to make mistakes as a Gilbert Murray, and three times as many chances to avoid mistakes.

Of these six books, Korff’s “Humanism and Romanticism” is as condensed and compact as a novel by May Sin ­clair, while the theme that is treated, in only 140 pages, is nothing less than the evolution of man’s conception of man from the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century to German Romanticism in the nineteenth. Korff argues that an “overwhelming majority” of immortal literature is based on man, and that man’s idea of what a man should be varies from spiritual movement to spiritual movement. He tabu ­lates and illustrates the varying views of man, or humanity, during the days of Dante’s Catholicism, Luther’s humanism, Lessing’s rationalism, young Goethe’s Storm and Stress, old Goethe’s classicism, and Novalis’s bud-bursting roman ­ticism. It is a profound and illuminating treatise from which emerge a number of broad general thoughts, includ ­ing It is hard, if not quite impossible, to draw the grand conclusion, for times change and men with them. What seems sound to-day is superseded to-morrow. Litera ­ture “for the ages?” That is possible only where the “lit ­erature” is of such intrinsic beauty that man’s sympathy with it fades only with the cessation of time, an incident that is yet to occur in a world that knows eternity. Literature on the contrary that owes its entire merit to thoughtful conclu ­sions cannot hope to enjoy the good will of all men, for men think differently at different times. Even so thoughtful a writer as Darwin is not accepted in all quarters.

There are two ways to write broadly, conclusively; two ways by which we may treat a subject in wholesale fashion. We may adopt Korff’s method: avoid the data as far as possible and stress as much as possible the philosophy of the business; or bring all the data that are accessible to bear on the subject, in other words, tell a story and let the story speak for itself—somewhat as a person of experience, par ­ticularly a woman, might convene her friends on the front porch and then proceed, her friends interrupting only with such exclamatory ejaculations as: “Well I declare!” “You don’t say so!” “Really?” “Who’d a thought it!”

This is the method that Stockmann has employed. He tells the story of German romanticism from the first faint longing of the romanticists-to-be in the second half of the eighteenth century down through all the metaphysical rati ­ocinations of Novalis, Tieck, and the Schlegels. It is a book of unusual value, for it is the first general treatise to have been written by a Jesuit, and German romanticism has been largely credited with being a Catholic affair. This is a mis ­taken notion. It is largely a matter of chronology. The romanticists did hark back, with quite gratifying effect, to the Middle Ages, and therefore to the days when there was no Protestantism. If Tieck wrote long-drawn-out dramas on Genoveva and Octavianus, he could not have been ex ­pected to have them and their supernumeraries domiciled in Methodist parsonages or Presbyterian manses. Stock ­mann is really less Catholic than many a Protestant writer. He admits that a few Protestants went over to Catholicism but states with a certain show of passion that, primarily, German romanticism was a Protestant movement.

There can be no doubt however that he has retold this old and glorious tale for “his own people.” It is well to remem ­ber that with the separation of the State from the Protestant Church in Germany, and the Weimar Constitution stipu ­lated this quite vigorously, Catholicism has come into a new life in the Fatherland. There are any number of confess ­edly Catholic publishing houses now, so that a man like Father Stockmann, who is also the author of a huge post ­war life of Goethe and another of Thomas More, has a much more fruitful field than in the days when the Doom Kaiser proclaimed himself the vicar of Luther’s God on earth. Stockmann’s church connection, however, cannot be said to have rendered him ineffective or ineffectual. He has told a good tale well, leaving to his readers at all times the privilege of coming to their own conclusions. He has writ ­ten, in other words, the news and invited his people to sup ­ply their own editorials.

Cajetan Osswald has written what might be termed the best “feature story” that romanticism has to offer, that of the marvelous blue flower. He begins with Novalis’s crea ­tion of the blue flower, carries it through the writings of the writers, the paintings of the painters, the statuary of the sculptors, the music of the musicians, and even through the philosophy of the philosophers, for it must be borne in mind that German romanticism was only secondarily a literary movement. It touched all phases of spiritual endeavor and left none the poorer.

The book is richly illustrated: fifty illustrations and four colored plates. It closes with these words:

Romanticism, that of the old Berlin School as well that of the younger Heidelberg School, still has a glorious mis ­sion to perform. It can show German art in 1925 how to find its way out of earthy and earthly decay and mental ex ­travaganza and back to sound thinking and to feeling that is of the people popular. We may, in the language of Lud-wig Richter, regard our earthly and our heavenly home as the two poles of all sound art. Down into the former, art sinks its roots; up into the latter its branches find their way. Have due regard for the significance of this, and art will remain wholesome forever. Benninghoff’s volume is a text-book composed of perti ­nent selections, prose and poetry, from the writings of the main romanticists. All biographic matter is relegated to appended notes. There are a number of striking illustrations strategically placed. Why was it compiled? For it is an expensive book, and is not alone in the field.

Benninghoff answers these questions explicitly in his in ­troduction, which is a booklet in itself. He argues as fol ­lows: The old country is gone. Debris and desolation, doubt and despair are to be found at every turn. Material ­ism is on the rampage at the same time that mysticism has become modern. We need to pray, with Eduard Moerike, for “charming modesty,” for a pure heart, and for a new, clean mind. The best poetry of the best romanticists of a century ago gave us these things in abundance. Conse ­quently, this anthology which, it is hoped, will also serve as a chrestomathy, is offered to the German people.

Associated with the regular romanticists were a mighty host of interesting people, people who played important roles in the romantic movement though they themselves wrote but little, in some instances nothing. Of these courti ­ers, male and female, Rahel, born Levin, wife of Karl Varn-hagen von Ense, and the dashing Prussian officer, Alexander von der Marwitz, were two bright particular stars. Hein-rich Meisner has collected and edited their vivacious corre ­spondence, and has therefore made it easier for some stu ­dent of the future to delineate the social life of the German romanticists. The first letter was written by him to her on June 26, 1809, from Nicolsburg, the last from Wiesbaden, by him to her, on December 29, 1813. He was killed at the battle of Montmirail in February, 1814. And such letters: three hundred and ten pages of them! Everything is dis ­cussed with a frankness that might make the angels weep or the devils leap for joy. But they constitute so many pages of real romantic life. Lack of space makes quota ­tion prohibitive just as the contents of the letters themselves would not infrequently make it inadvisable.

And we come to the Rhine, the most famous river in the world, according to Victor Hugo, and the river about which more books have been written than have been devoted to any other inland body of water that is abundantly broad enough to elevate it to a position of dignity that is quite superior to that of a creek while it is so long that it serves as a guide to birds of passage on their spring and autumn flights. Stephan has gone to the very bottom of his subject; he has indulged in all the retail minutiae that make German scholarship famous or infamous depending upon whether the world is at peace or at war. Nor has he allowed the politics to warp his judgment. He uses just three words in a cas ­ual reference to 1914; he is equally laconic with regard to Schneckenburger’s Die Wacht am Rhein and Becker’s RHeinlied. The Rhine in short is a romantic stream, and we are shown how this romanticism was originally discovered and how it has been exploited during the last century and a quarter.

Stephan was given the degree of doctor of philosophy for his book by his Alma Mater, the University of Bonn on the Rhine. This is a case where the doctorate was conferred honoris causa in a very real sense. The study opens with an elaborate reference to Plato and Plotinus, neither of whom has ever been suspected of knowing the Rhine at first hand but both of whom had much to say on the subject of aes ­thetics, and hence their relevancy here. It closes with a quotation from Karl Simrock’s Rhein Ballade. Between these two points lies everything that any intelligent indi ­vidual could ever hope to know about the Rhine from the point of view of romanticism. It is admittedly a bit dry, because it is so packed with facts that there has been no place for the inspiration that goes with home studies. It is a book such as no Englishman has ever attempted in con ­nection with the Thames, nor has any Frenchman ever es ­sayed to render similar homage to the Seine. The wholesale conclusion, which is merely but clearly implied, is that if the Rhine is ever made Germany’s boundary rather than her stream, Germany will involuntarily die all the deaths to which a nation of her make-up may easily succumb.

In a certain German grammar published in this country, in 1913, by the staid house of Heath, there occurs a sentence, the end of which reads as follows: Ein Dutzend Flaschen Rotwein, dessert Geschmack du so gem hast (a dozen bot ­tles of red wine, the taste of which you like so well). In the revised edition of the same grammar, published by the same house, in 1924, that sentence is modified to read as fol ­lows: Ein Dutzend Flaschen Himbeersaft, dessen Gesch ­mack du so gem hast. (A dozen bottles of raspberry juice, the taste of which you like so well.) Insist that this modi ­fication is an act of national wisdom, or contend that it is a concession to near-imbecility, the fact remains that we have changed in the last ten years. The Germans on the con ­trary have remained the same, at least so far as their litera ­ture is concerned, and literature is a faithful reflection and artistic visualization of life.

The Germans are precisely where they were, aesthetically or spiritually, in 1796, when Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister” appeared, which made the formation, in 1798, of a sys ­tematic “Romantic School” seem the right thing to do. The Germans were then in trouble. Eight years later, in 1806, Napoleon owned the country, with the exception of the heart of Prussia, Mark Brandenburg. As a result of this worry, the Germans became romanticists. They are worrying now; and they are romanticists now. Expressionism and Im ­pressionism, which loomed up immediately after the armis ­tice, have run their course. Romanticism, the fleeing from the drab realities to the shadowy nooks of metaphysical in ­trospection, is again in the air. This recrudescence can only be welcomed by non-Germanic peoples; for immortal litera ­ture is always heavily and happily tinged with romanticism. The Germans are immersed in romanticism at this moment. They have their wholesale centers and their retail branches. Some are formulating Ueberblicke, or surveys, that at ­tempt to get at the thing as a whole; others are specialising in Blicke, or glances, of this and that feature of the thing.

German romanticism has always been an international rather than a purely national affair. In the consultation of many heads there is much wisdom—a virtue with which the world as a whole cannot be said to be overloaded in this sev ­enth year since the cessation of military hostilities. As a result of this rebirth of romanticism in Germany, the cause of obscurantism will certainly not be advanced while the cause of enlightenment may.


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