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Goethe and No End

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

Goethe: Man and Poet. By Henry W. Ncvinson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.75. Challenge to Defeat: Modem Man in Goethe’s World and Spenglcr’s Century, By William Harlan Hale. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. The Life and Work of Goethe, 1749-1832. By J. G. Robertson. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd. 12/6.

“Shakespere und kein Ende”—these were the words chosen by Goethe as the title for a series of Shakespeare studies, the first of which was published by the German poet in 1813, the last in 1816. “Goethe und kein Ende” seems an apt designation for the rising tide of Goethe interpretations which began with Gundolf’s profound and monumental biography in 1916 and has reached flood-stage with the one-hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death. In 1916 little or nothing remained to be added to our factual knowledge of Goethe’s life. The wealth of material and the meticulous care of German scholarship had seen to that, though there is never any telling, it seems, in Goethe’s case, when some priceless early version, such as the “Urfaust” or “Wilhelm Master’s Theatrical Mission,” may turn up in manuscript. But the day of checking the great man’s laundry-list or of noting, to use the words of the hard-boiled top-sergeant in “Wallenstein’s Camp,” “How he clears his throat and how he spits” are happily passed.

That day had its worth. It laid a foundation for a knowledge of a great personality such as we possess of no other of the great ones of poetry or of life. Goethe says somewhere in his autobiography that it is what is left of poetry when translated into the prose of another language that makes greatness. It may be that what the mind and soul of a great personality really mean sub specie aeternitatis is most clearly seen when interpreted by thinkers of another tongue. These, at any rate, are free from exclamatory patriotic admiration, from nationalistic awe; are not overcome with wonder at “our” Jack Horner’s plum. How Goethe’s mind and soul transcend the parochialism of nation and of language is manifested in such works as Georg Brandes’ great biography, in Benedetto Croce’s “Goethe,” and in a long line of other continental studies. Especially notable are the British contributions, such as Professor Hume Brown’s “Life of Goethe” and “Goethe and Faust: an Interpretation,” by F. M. Stawell and G. Lowes Dickinson. And now the three books, around which rather than about which this article is written, come to take their place among the most readable and most illuminating interpretations of Goethe as poet, as thinker, and as man.

Goethe begins his “Shakespeare und kein Ende” with the sentence: “So much has already been said about Shakespeare that it might seem as if there were nothing left to say; and yet mind has this peculiar quality; it eternally stirs mind to further effort.” And thus it is with Goethe. To each man, perhaps, his own Goethe—but behind each interpretation the common stimulus of the greatest mind since Shakespeare. This common stimulus binds together the three works we have before us, though in many respects they stand in strong contrast to each other.

Professor Robertson and Mr. Henry W. Nevinson look back on many years of distinguished achievement, the one as professor and historian of German literature, the other, for more than a generation, as commentator, interpreter, and active participant of the great world of international politics and war. Mr. Hale looks forward—he is twenty-one years old—and as one reads his clear, concise, and perfectly phrased sentences, somehow saturated with youth’s joyous conviction, and follows his close and acute reasoning, one thinks of that infant prodigy, Schopenhauer, with “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” completed at twenty-one. Thinks by way of contrast, though; for, except for Mr. Hale’s youth and style, none of our three writers bears other resemblance to the great pessimist. To be sure, it may be said good-humoredly of Professor Robertson, as Mephisto said of Faust, “Ihm steckt der Doktor noch im Leib” (“Scratch him, you’ll find the Ph. D.”). He must do his duty as critic and so finds aesthetic fault with the optimism that, after “Werther,” “Egmont,” and the Margaret of the “Urfaust,” kept Goethe from stark tragic conclusions and led the poet in “Egmont” to mitigate the tragic effect by a romantic vision. None the less, Professor Robertson, like Mr. Nevinson and Mr. Hale, recognizes in this optimism the vital core around which grew a great life; and even Professor Robertson would probably personally prefer the production of a great life to that of a perfect tragedy.

There is no doubt where Mr. Nevinson and young Mr. Hale stand. To Mr. Nevinson, Goethe is the poet “of whom Heine said that his songs were simply the best in the world, and Heine knew the meaning of song. This was the poet who poured all the life of spring into his song of May, who sang of the wild rose and of the wanderer in the storm and of the hunter at night, and of peasants dancing under the limes while loud the fiddles screamed, and of Prometheus defying the Father of Heaven, and of many a strange mood of love and longing. He sang also of the rat that lived in a cellar, and of the flea that was a king’s pet and tyrannized over the whole Court. As we think of him, we see the quiet fisherman beside the river and hear a sweet voice enticing him down into its mysterious depths; or we stand on a cliff beside the King in Thule, and watch his gold cup drinking the salt water far below; or we hear the clatter of a horse’s hoofs through storm and wind; the man rides fast, but the child in his arms sees a shadowy form moving faster—grey as the old willows or the meadow mists, and whispering promises of a child’s delight.” But he is also the man Goethe„ throughout whose life “we feel a certain healthy completeness, an active sympathy open to all classes of mankind and to all races,” and he is the seer Goethe, who concludes the poem “Symbolum,” with which he welcomes his only son into the mysteries of Freemasonry, with the words (Carlyle was fond of quoting them), “We bid you hope.”

And do we find Goethe’s optimism acceptable to Mr. Hale? In German one would answer, “Erst recht!”—in the current American vernacular, “I’ll say we do!” To Mr. Hale, Goethe’s optimism and its rational foundation are sword and buckler, shining armour and piercing lance, with which he joyously takes up the challenge of Spenglerian defeatism. As I read this “Challenge to Defeat,” I smile ironically—at myself. Some other professor of German literature once thought he was teaching “young Hale” something about Goethe. He was merely “a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.” Mr. Hale has assimilated Goethe, the sage and seer, as few lifelong and long-lived Goetheans have. “The Devil, he is old,” says Mephistopheles to youth, “get old and you’ll understand him.” But Mr. Hale’s youth understands something older than the Devil—it understands “das ewig Wahre, Schone, Gute”—what the eighty-year old Goethe meant when he sang triumphantly, “Und sehe in allem die ewige Zier.” Mr. Hale has assimilated too what seems to him the opposite of “eternal beauty’s plan”—Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West.” Spengler proclaims Goethe as his master. So Mephistopheles accepts servitude to Faust, “Bin ich dcin Diener, bin dein Knecht.” Mephistopheles mirrors Faust, Spengler mirrors Goethe— but as is the property of mirrors, Mephisto’s right is Faust’s left; Splcngler’s right is Goethe’s left; and vice versa. This in short is the theme of William Harlan Hale’s “Challenge to Defeat: Modern Man in Goethe’s World and Spengler’s Century.”

A great poet, a great mind, a great man: the reaction to these of three eminent personalities—of a distinguished specialist in the history of literature, of a publicist whose character has been formed in the rushing torrent of contemporary world-history, of a youth to whom mastery of language has been given to express what he thinks and feels, —these the reader will find in Professor Robertson’s “Life and Work of Goethe,” in Mr. Nevinson’s “Goethe: Man and Poet,” in Mr. Hale’s “Challenge to Defeat.” And binding all three together is the concept for whose definition Professor Hume Brown cites an extract from an article by M. Bergson: “If then, in every province, the triumph of life is expressed by creation, might we not think that the ultimate reason of human life is a creation, which in distinction from that of the artist or man of science, can be pursued at every moment and by all men alike: I mean the creation of self by self, the continual enrichment of personality by elements which it does not draw from outside, but causes to spring forth from itself.”


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