« EelmineJätka »
THERE was no life of Goethe in existence when I first began mine, now nearly ten years ago. The meagre notices by Scühtz and Döring were little more than abridgments of the autobiographical sketch published under the title of Poetry and Truth from my Life. Readers unacquainted with this Autobiography may perhaps imagine that the existence of such a work, coupled with the absence of any attempt at a fuller biography, is a proof that, by Germans at least, no biography was wanted. I will not pause to show in detail how false such a conclusion would be, but content myself with the proof which is carried in the fact that, since my intended undertaking was made known, two substantial biographies have appeared, one in four volumes, the other in two. Herr Viehoff declares in his preface that he considered the honor of German literature was at stake if an Englishman were allowed to be the first biographer of the great German; and to prevent such a scandal, he resolved
on the devotion of German diligence and German fidelity' to the task. The result has been a laborious work in four volumes, containing in all 2,564 pages.* Yet in spite of this mass of material, much valuable matter finds no place in his pages : partly because it has been published since he wrote, and partly because he had no access to unpublished material. Indeed, he has confined himself so exclusively to printed matter, that he has not even visited Weimar, where seven-and-fifty years of Goethe's life were passed. Thus he writes of Goethe as he might write of Cicero. A similar defect is noticeable in Herr Schäfer's Biography. f By more compact treatment, and by the omission of critical considerations on the various works, Herr Schäfer brings his material within two volumes. Not only is this work somewhat richer than Viehoff's, it is also preferred by the Germans on account of its compactness.
It would ill become me to express any opinion on the merits of these performances; but it would be still worse to omit the amplest acknowledgment of the aid I have derived from them. The first volume of Viehoff reached me only when I had already completed my first volume, and made me
* Goethe's Leben : von Heinrich Viehoff, 1847–1853. | Goethe's Leben : von J. W. Schäfer, 1851.
regret that I had not earlier been able to take advantage of it; in rewriting this volume, as well as in writing the second, I have made the freest use both of his and of Schäfer's work. Acknowledgment of assistance is a cardinal point in literary courtesy too often neglected; and my book is in spirit, form and matter so widely different from those of Viehoff and Schäfer, containing so much which they have not, and omitting so much which they contain, that a reader who should make a comparison, remembering that the same sources were open to me as to them, would probably form no idea of the assistance I have received; I am therefore the more anxious to acknowledge it.
Nor can I let this opportunity pass without recording my debt to Mrs. Austin's delightful work Goethe and his Contemporaries, of which Falk's Reminiscences forms the nucleus. This book was a loved companion long before I could read German; and, in common with many readers, I felt very grateful to Mrs. Austin for the mass of details, and occasional fine remark, with which she gave us glimpses of that distant world. The book has been of service to me in more than one chapter of this biography. The reader is advised to get it at once, together with Mr. Oxenford's translation of Eckermann's Conversations ; for not only will they charm
by their contents, but assist him in forming a conception of Goethe as he was in the decline of life.
Mr. Oxenford has also translated the Wahrheit und Dichtung,* so that the English reader may judge how far the Autobiography renders a biography superfluous. One objection, indeed, will occur at the outset: Goethe lived to the age of eighty-two, and his Autobiography only includes the first five or sixand-twenty years. Nor will the Annals (Tag und Jahres Hefte) supply the deficiency. A more serious objection, however, rises from the nature of the work. That work has great charm, but the charm is scarcely, if at all, the kind which belongs to Autobiography. Its calm artistic delineation of men, scenes and influences, and the occasional episodes of winning grace, however we may prize them, only approximate to Autobiography ; left as they are without the precise detail, and above all without the direct eloquent egotism which constitutes the value and the interest of such works. Liberal enough in dissertation, and in record of details respecting others, he is provokingly reticent about himself; nay, in one place, he actually apologizes for speaking of himself; which in an Autobiography is surely misplaced modesty ?
* In Bohn's Standard Library, vol. xxxi.