The outstanding feature of the remarkable "Conversations with Eckermann" is this, that the compilation furnishes an altogether unique record of the working of Goethe's mature mind. For Goethe's age at the period when the "Conversations" begin is seventy-three, and eighty-two when they end. John Peter Eckermann published his work in 1836. In 1848 appeared an additional portion. Eckermann, born at Winsen, in Hanover, was the son of a woollen draper. He received an excellent education, and studied art, under Ramber, in Hanover, but soon became enamoured of poetry through the influence of Körner and of Goethe. He became the intimate friend of Goethe, and lived with him for several years. In describing the friendship, Eckermann says, "My relation to him was peculiar, and of a very intimate kind. It was that of the scholar to the master, of the son to the father, of the poor in culture to the rich in culture. His conversation was as varied as his works. Winter and summer, age and youth, seemed with him to be engaged in a perpetual strife and change." Goethe was one of the world's most brilliant conversationalists, ranking in this respect with Coleridge.
I.--On Poets and Poetry
Weimar, June 10, 1823. I reached here a few days ago, but have not seen Goethe until to-day. He gave me a most cordial reception. I esteem this the most fortunate day of my life. Goethe was dressed in a blue frock-coat. He is a sublime figure. His first words were concerning my manuscript. "I have just come from you" said he. He meant that he had been reading it all the morning. He commented it enthusiastically. We talked long together. But I could say little for I could not look at him enough, with his strong, brown face, full of wrinkles, each wrinkle being full of expression. He spoke like some old monarch. We parted affectionately, for every word of his breathed kindness.
Jena, September 8, 1823. Yesterday morning I had the happiness of another interview with Goethe. What he said to me was quite important, and will have a beneficial influence on all my life. All the young poets of Germany should have the benefit of it. "Do not," said he, "attempt to produce a great work. It is just this mistake which has done harm to our best minds. I have myself suffered from this error. What have I not dropped into the well! The present must assert its rights, and so the poet will and should give out what presses on him. But if one has a great work in his head, it expels everything else and deprives life for the time of all comfort. If as to the whole you err, all time and trouble are lost. But if the poet daily grasps the present, treating with fresh sentiment what it offers, he always makes sure of something good. If sometimes he does not succeed, at any rate he has lost nothing. The world is so great and rich, and life is so manifold, that occasions for poems are never lacking. But they must all be poems for special occasions (Gelegenheitsgedichte). All my poems are thus suggested by incidents in real life. I attach no value to poems snatched out of the air. You know Furnstein, the so-called poet of nature? He has written the most fascinating poem possible on hop-culture. I have suggested to him that he should write songs on handicrafts, especially a weaver's song, for he has spent his life from youth amongst such folk, and he understands the subject through and through."
February 24, 1824. At one to-day I went to Goethe's. He showed me a short critique he had written on Byron's "Cain," which I read with much interest. "We see," said he, "how the defectiveness of ecclesiastical dogmas affects such a mind as Byron's, and how by such a piece he seeks to emancipate himself from doctrine which has been thrust on him. Truly the English clergy will not thank him, but I shall wonder whether he will not proceed to treat Bible subjects, not letting slip such topics as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah."
February 25, 1824. Goethe was in high spirits at table. He showed me Frau von Spiegel's album, in which he had written some very beautiful verses. For two years a place had been left open for him, and he was delighted that at length he had been able to fulfil an old promise. Noticing on another page of the album a poem by Tiedge in the style of his "Urania," Goethe observed that he had suffered considerably from Tiedge's "Urania," for at one time nothing else was sung and recited. Said he, "Wherever you went, you found 'Urania' on the table, and that poem and immortality were the subjects of every conversation. By no means would I lose the happiness of believing in a future existence, and indeed I would say with Lorenzo de Medici that all they are dead, even for this life, who believe in no other.
"But such incomprehensible matters lie too far off to be a theme of daily meditation and thought-distracting speculation. And further, let him who believes in immortality be happy in silence; he has no reason to hold his head high because of his conviction. Silly women, priding themselves on believing with Tiedge in immortality, have been offended at my declaring that in the future state I hoped I should meet none of those who had believed in it here. For how I should be tormented! The pious would crowd about me, saying, 'Were we not right? Did we not predict it? Has it not turned out exactly so?' And thus even up yonder there would be everlasting ennui."
April 14, 1824. I went, about one, for a walk with Goethe. We conversed on the style of different authors. Said he, "Philosophical speculation is, on the whole, a hindrance to the Germans, for it tends to induce a tendency to obscurantism. The nearer they approach to certain philosophical schools, the worse they write. Those Germans write best who, as business men, and men of real life, confine themselves to the practical. Thus, Schiller's style is the noblest and most impressive, as soon as he ceases to philosophise, as I see from his highly interesting letters, on which I am now busy. Many of our genial German women in their style excel even many of our famous male writers.
"The French, in their style, are consistent with their general character. They are sociable by nature and as such never forget the public whom they address. They take the trouble to be clear in order to convince, and agreeable in order to please. The English, as a rule, write well, as born orators and as practical and realistic men. Altogether, the style of a writer is a true reflection of his mind. If anyone would acquire a lucid style, let him first be clear in his thoughts; if he would command a noble style, he must first possess a noble character."
May 2, 1824. During a drive over the hills through Upper Weimar we could not look enough at the trees in blossom. We remarked that trees full of white blossom should not be painted, because they make no picture, just as birches with their foliage are unfit for the foreground of a picture, because the delicate foliage does not adequately balance the white trunk. Said Goethe, "Ruysdael never placed a foliaged birch in the foreground, but only broken birch stems, without leaves. Such a trunk suits the foreground admirably, for its bright form stands out most powerfully."
After some slight discussion of other subjects, we talked of the erroneous tendency of such artists as would make religion art, while their art ought to be religion. Goethe observed, "Religion stands in the same relation to art as every other higher interest of life. It is merely to be regarded as a material, which has equal claims with all other vital materials. Also, faith and unbelief are not those organs with which a work of art is to be comprehended. Far otherwise; totally different human powers and capacities are required for such comprehension. Art must appeal to those organs with which we can apprehend it, or it misses its aim. A religious material may be a good subject for art, but only if it possesses general human interest. Thus, the Virgin with the Child is a good subject that may be treated a hundred times, and will always be seen again with pleasure."
November 24, 1824. In a conversation this evening concerning Roman and Greek history, Goethe said, "Roman history is certainly no longer suited to our time. We have become too humane for the triumphs of Cæsar to be anything but repellent to us. So also does Greek history offer little to allure us. The resistance to a foreign enemy is indeed glorious, but the constant civil wars of states against each other are intolerable. Besides, the history of our own time is overwhelmingly important. The battles of Leipzig and Waterloo eclipse Marathon, and such heroes as Blücher and Wellington are rivals of those of antiquity."
January 10, 1825. In accordance with his deep interest in the English, Goethe requested me to introduce to him the young Englishmen staying here. I took this afternoon Mr. H., a young English officer, who, in the course of the conversation, mentioned that he was reading "Faust," but found it somewhat difficult.
Said Goethe, laughing, "Really, I should not have recommended you to undertake 'Faust.' It is mad stuff, and goes beyond all usual feeling. But as you have done it of your own accord, without asking me, you will see how you get through. Faust is so strange an individual that only a few persons can sympathise with his inner condition. Then the character of Mephistopheles is also very difficult, because of his irony, and also because he is the living result of an extensive acquaintance with the world. But you will see what light comes to you.
"'Tasso,' on the other hand, lies far nearer to the common feeling of mankind, and the elaboration of its form is favourable to an easier understanding of it. What is chiefly needed for reading 'Tasso' is that one should be no longer a child, and should not have been deprived of good society."
October 15, 1825. I found Goethe this evening in a very elevated mood, and had the happiness of hearing from him many significant observations. Concerning the state of the newest literature, he said, "Want of character in individual investigators and writers is the source of all the evils in our most recent literature. Till now the world believed in the heroism of Lucretia and of Mucius Scævola, and allowed itself thus to be stimulated and inspired. But now comes historical criticism, and says that those persons never lived, but are to be regarded as fables and fictions, imagined by the great mind of the Romans. What are we to do with so pitiful a truth? And if the Romans were great enough to invent such stories, we should at least be great enough to believe them."
December 25, 1825. I found Goethe alone this evening, and passed with him some delightful hours. The conversation at one time turned on Byron, especially on the disadvantage at which he appears when compared with the innocent cheerfulness of Shakespeare, and on the frequent and usually not unmerited blame which he drew on himself by his manifold works of negation. Said Goethe, "If Byron had had the opportunity of working off all the opposition that was in him, by delivering many strong speeches in parliament, he would have been far purer as a poet. But as he scarcely ever spoke in parliament, he kept in his heart all that he felt against his nation, and no other means than poetical expression of his sentiments remained to him. I could therefore style a great part of his works of negation suppressed parliamentary speeches, and I think the characterisation would suit them well."
IV.--"Faust" and Victor Hugo
May 6, 1827. At a dinner-party at Goethe's, after conversation on certain poems, he said, "The Germans are certainly strange people. They make life much more burdensome to themselves than they ought by their deep thoughts and ideas, which they seek everywhere and fix on everything. Only have the courage to surrender yourself to your impressions, permit yourself to be moved, instructed and inspired for something great. But never imagine that all is vanity, if it is not abstract thought and idea.
"Next they come and ask what idea I meant to embody in my 'Faust'? As if I knew that myself, and could inform them. From Heaven through the world to hell would, indeed, be something; but that is no idea, only a course of action. And further, that the devil loses the wager, and that a man, continually struggling from difficult errors towards something better, should be redeemed, is truly a more effective, and to many a good, enlightening thought; but it is no idea lying at the basis of the whole, and of each individual scene. It would have been a fine thing, indeed, if I had strung so rich and diversified a life as I have brought to view in 'Faust' upon the slender thread of one single, pervading idea.
"It was altogether out of my province, as a poet, to strive to embody anything abstract. I received in my mind impressions of an animated, charming, hundredfold kind, just as a lively imagination presented them; and as a poet I had nothing more to do than artistically to elaborate these impressions, and so to present them that others might receive like impressions. But I am somewhat of the opinion that the more incommensurable, and the more incomprehensible to the understanding a poetic production is, so much the better it is."
June 20, 1831. At Goethe's, after dinner, the conversation fell upon the use and misuse of terms. Said he, "The French use the word 'composition' inappropriately. The expression is degrading as applied to genuine productions of art and poetry. It is a thoroughly contemptible word, of which we should seek to get rid as soon as possible.
"How can one say, Mozart has composed 'Don Juan'! Composition! As if it were a piece of cake or biscuit, which had been mixed together with eggs, flour, and sugar! It is a spiritual creation, in which the details as well as the whole are pervaded by one spirit. Consequently, the producer did not follow his own experimental impulse, but acted under that of his demoniac genius."
June 27, 1831. We conversed about Victor Hugo. "He has a fine talent," said Goethe. "But he is altogether ensnared in the unhappy romantic tendency of his time, by which he is constrained to represent, side by side with the beautiful, the most hateful and intolerable. I have recently read his 'Notre Dame de Paris,' and needed no little patience to endure the horror that I felt. It is the most abominable book ever written! And one is not even compensated by truthful representation of human nature or character. On the contrary, his book is totally destitute of nature and truth. The so-called acting personages whom he brings forward are not men with living flesh and blood, but miserable wooden puppets, moved according to his fancy and made to produce all sorts of contortions and grimaces. But what kind of an age is this, which not only makes such a book possible, but even finds it endurable and delightful!"
V.--On the Bible
Sunday, March 11, 1832. This evening for an hour Goethe talked on various excellent topics. I had purchased an English Bible, but found to my great regret that it did not include the Apocrypha, because these were not considered genuine and divinely inspired. I missed the truly noble Tobias, the wisdom of Solomon and Jesus Sirach, all writings of such deeply spiritual value, that few others equal them. I expressed to Goethe my regret at the narrow exclusiveness thus manifested. He entirely agreed with me.
"Still," said he, "there are two points of view from which Biblical subjects may be regarded. There is that of primitive religion, of pure nature and reason, which is of divine origin. This will ever remain the same, and will endure as long as divinely endowed beings exist. It is, however, only for the elect, and is far too high and noble to become universal.
"Then there is the point of view of the Church, which is of a more human nature. This is fallible and fickle, but, though perpetually changing, it will last as long as there are weak human beings. The light of cloudless divine revelation is far too pure and radiant for poor, weak man. But the Church interposes as mediator, to soften and moderate, and all are helped. Its influence is immense, through the notion that as successor of Christ it can relieve the burden of human sin. To secure this power, and to consolidate ecclesiasticism is the special aim of the Christian priesthood.
"Therefore it does not so much ask whether this or that book in the Bible effects a great enlightenment of the mind, it much more looks to the Mosaic and prophetic and Gospel records for allusions to the fall of man, and the advent to earth and death of Christ, as the atonement for sin. Thus you see that for such purposes the noble Tobias, the wisdom of Solomon, and the sayings of Sirach have little weight.
"Still, the question as to authenticity in details of the Bible is truly singular. What is genuine but the really excellent, which harmonises with the purest reason and nature, and even now ministers to our highest development? What is spurious but the absurd, hollow, and stupid, which brings no worthy fruit? If the authenticity of a Biblical writing depends on the question whether something true throughout has been handed down to us, we might on some points doubt the genuineness of the Gospels, of which Mark and Luke were not written from immediate presence and experience, but long afterwards from oral tradition. And the last, by the disciple John, was written in his old age.
"Yet I hold all four evangelists as thoroughly genuine, for there is in them the reflection of a greatness which emanated from the person of Jesus, such as only once has appeared on earth. If anyone asks whether it is in my nature to pay Him devout reverence, I say--'Surely, yes!' I bow before Him as the divine revelation of the highest principle of morality. If I am asked whether it is in my nature to revere the sun, again I say--'Surely, yes!' For the sun is also a manifestation of the highest, and, indeed, the mightiest which we children of earth are allowed to behold. But if I am asked whether I am inclined to bow before a thumb-bone of the apostle Peter or Paul, I say, 'Spare me, and stand off with your absurdities!'
"Says the apostle, 'Quench not the spirit.' The high and richly-endowed clergy fear nothing so much as the enlightenment of the lower orders. They withheld the Bible from them as long as possible. What can a poor member of the Christian church think of the princely pomp of a richly endowed bishop, when against this he sees in the Gospels the poverty of Christ, travelling humbly on foot with His disciples, while the princely bishop drives along in a carriage drawn by six horses!
"We do not at all know," continued Goethe, "all that we owe to Luther and the Reformation generally. We are emancipated from the fetters of spiritual narrowness. In consequence of our increasing culture, we have become capable of reverting to the fountain-head, and of comprehending Christianity in its purity. We have again the courage to stand with firm feet upon God's earth, and to realise our divinely endowed human nature. Let spiritual culture ever go on advancing, let the natural sciences go on ever gaining in breadth and depth, and let the human mind expand as it may, it will never go beyond the elevation and moral culture of Christianity as it shines and gleams in the Gospel!
"But the more effectually we Protestants advance in our noble development, so much the more rapidly will the Catholics follow. As soon as they feel themselves caught in the current of enlightenment, they must go on to the point where all is but one.
"The mischievous sectism of Protestantism will also cease, and with it alienation between father and son, brother and sister. For as soon as the pure teaching and love of Christ, as they really are, are comprehended and consistently practised, we shall realise our humanity as great and free, and cease to attach undue importance to mere outward form.
"Furthermore, we shall all gradually advance from a Christianity of word and faith to one of feeling and action."
The conversation next turned on the question how far God is influencing the great natures of the present world. Said Goethe, "If we notice how people talk, we might almost believe them to be of opinion that God had withdrawn into silence since that old time before Christ, and that man was now placed on his own feet, and must see how he can get on without God. In religious and moral matters a divine influence is still admitted, but in matters of science and art it is insisted that they are merely earthly, and nothing more than a product of pure human powers.
"But now let anyone only attempt with human will and human capabilities to produce something comparable with the creations that bear the names of Mozart, Raphael, or Shakespeare. I know right well that these three noble men are not the only ones, and that in every department of art innumerable excellent minds have laboured, who have produced results as perfectly good as those mentioned. But, if they were as great as those, they transcended ordinary human nature, and were in just the same degree divinely gifted."
Goethe was silent, but I cherished his great and good words in my heart.