“To speak out plainly,” he began, “it is my wish that you should pass this winter with me in Weimar.” These were his first words. Approaching closer to me, he continued thus: “With respect to poetry and criticism, you are in the best possible condition. You have a natural foundation for them. They are your profession, to which you must adhere, and which will soon bring you a good livelihood. But yet there is much, not strictly appertaining to this department, which you ought to know.

It is, however, a great point that you should not expend much time upon this, but get over it quickly. This you shall do with us this winter in Weimar, and you will wonder to find what progress you have made by Easter. You shall have the best of everything; because the best means are in my hands. Thus you will have laid a firm foundation for life. You will have attained a feeling of comfort, and will be able to appear anywhere with confidence.”

He introduced the conversation by asking me whether I had written any poems this summer. I replied that I had indeed written some, but that on the whole I lacked the feeling of ease requisite for production.

“Beware,” said he, “of attempting a large work. It is exactly that which injures our best minds, even those distinguished by the finest talents and the most earnest efforts. I have suffered from this cause, and know how much it injured me. What have I not let fall into the well? If I had written all that I well might, a hundred volumes would not contain it.

The Present will have its rights; the thoughts and feelings which daily press upon the poet will and should be expressed. But, if you have a great work in your head nothing else thrives near it, all other thoughts are repelled, and the pleasantness of life itself is for the time lost. What exertion and expenditure of mental force are required to arrange and round off a great whole, and then what powers, and what a tranquil, undisturbed situation in life, to express it with the proper fluency.

If you have erred as to the whole, all your toil is lost; and further, if, in treating so extensive a subject, you are not perfectly master of your material in the details, the whole will be defective, and censure will be incurred. Thus, for all his toil and sacrifice, the poet gets, instead of reward and pleasure, nothing but discomfort and a paralysis of his powers. But if he daily seizes the present, and always treats with a freshness of feeling what is offered him, he always makes sure of something good, and if he sometimes does not succeed, has, at least, lost nothing.

There is August Hagen, in Königsberg, a splendid talent: have you ever read his ‘Alfred and Lisena?’ There you may find passages which could not be better; the situations on the Baltic, and the other particulars of that locality, are all masterly. But these are only fine passages; as a whole, it pleases nobody. And what labour and power he has lavished upon it; indeed, he has almost exhausted himself. Now, he has been writing a tragedy.”

Here Goethe smiled, and paused for a moment. I took up the discourse, and said that, if I was not mistaken, he had advised Hagen (in ‘Kunst und Alterthum’) to treat only small subjects. “I did so, indeed,” he replied; “but do people conform to the instructions of us old ones? Each thinks he must know best about himself, and thus many are lost entirely, and many for a long time go astray.

Now it is no more the time to blunder about – that belonged to us old ones; and what was the use of all our seeking and blundering, if you young people choose to go the very same way over again. In this way we can never get on at all. Our errors were endured because we found no beaten path; but from him who comes later into the world more is required; he must not be seeking and blundering, but should use the instructions of the old ones to proceed at once on the right path. It is not enough to take steps which may some day lead to a goal; each step must be itself a goal and a step likewise.

Carry these words about with you, and see how you can apply them to yourself. Not that I really feel uneasy about you, but perhaps by my advice I help you quickly over a period which is not suitable to your present situation. If you treat, at present, only small subjects, freshly dashing off what every day offers you, you will generally produce something good, and each day will bring you pleasure. Give what you do the pocket-books and periodicals, but never submit yourself to the requisition of others; always follow your own sense.

The world is so great and rich, and life so full of variety, that you can never want occasions for poems. But they must all be occasional poems; that is to say, reality must give both impulse and material for their production. A particular case becomes universal and poetic by the very circumstance that it is treated by a poet. All my poems are occasional poems, suggested by real life, and having therein a firm foundation. I attach no value to poems snatched out of the air.

Let no one say that reality wants poetical interest; for in this the poet proves his vocation, that he has the art to win from a common subject an interesting side. Reality must give the motive, the points to be expressed, the kernel, as I may say; but to work out of it a beautiful, animated whole, belongs to the poet.

You know Fürnstein, called the Poet of Nature; he has written the prettiest poem possible, on the cultivation of hops. I have now proposed to him to make songs for the different crafts of working-men, particularly a weaver’s song, and I am sure he will do it well, for he has lived among such people from his youth; he understands the subject thoroughly, and is therefore master of his material.

That is exactly the advantage of small works; you need only choose those subjects of which you are master. With a great poem, this cannot be: no part can be evaded; all which belongs to the animation of the whole, and is interwoven into the plan, must be represented with precision. In youth, however, the knowledge of things is only one-sided. A great work requires many sidedness, and on that rock the young author splits.”

I told Goethe that I had contemplated writing a great poem upon the seasons, in which I might interweave the employments and amusements of all classes.

“Here is the very case in point,” replied Goethe; “you may succeed in many parts, but fail in others which refer to what you have not duly investigated. Perhaps you would do the fisherman well, and the huntsman ill; and if you fail anywhere, the whole is a failure, however good single parts may be, and you have not produced a perfect work. Give separately the single parts to which you are equal, and you make sure of something good.

I especially warn you against great inventions of your own; for then you would try to give a view of things, and for that purpose youth is seldom ripe. Further, character and views detach themselves as sides from the poet’s mind and deprive him of the fulness requisite for future productions. And, finally, how much time is lost in invention, internal arrangement, and combination, for which nobody thanks us, even supposing our work is happily accomplished.

With a given material, on the other hand, all goes easier and better. Facts and characters being provided, the poet has only the task of animating the whole. He preserves his own fulness, for he needs to part with but little of himself, and there is much less loss of time and power, since he has only the trouble of execution.

Indeed, I would advise the choice of subjects which have been worked before. How many Iphigenias have been written! yet they are all different, for each writer considers and arranges the subject differently; namely, after his own fashion.

But, for the present, you had better lay aside all great undertakings. You have striven long enough; it is time that you should enter into the cheerful period of life, and for the attainment of this, the working out of small subjects is the best expedient.”

“I understand now,” said he, “why you talked to me at Jena, of writing a poem on the seasons. I now advise you to do so; begin at once with Winter. You seem to have a special sense and feeling for natural objects.

Only two words would I say about your poems. You stand now at that point where you must necessarily break through to the really high and difficult part of art – the apprehension of what is individual. You must do some degree of violence to yourself to get out of the Idea. You have talent, and have got so far; now you must do this.

You have lately been at Tiefurt; that might now afford a subject for the attempt. You may perhaps go to Tiefurt and look at it three or four times before you win from it the characteristic side, and bring all your means (motive) together; but spare not your toil; study it throughout, and then represent it; the subject is well worth this trouble.

I should have used it long ago, but I could not; for I have lived through those important circumstances, and my being is so interwoven with them, that details press upon me with too great fulness. But you come as a stranger; you let the Castellan tell you the past, and you will see only what is present, prominent, and significant.”

I promised to try, but could not deny that this subject seemed to me very far out of my way, and very difficult.

“I know well,” said he, “that it is difficult; but the apprehension and representation of the individual is the very life of art. Besides, while you content yourself with generalities, every one can imitate you; but, in the particular, no one can – and why? because no others have experienced exactly the same thing.

And you need not fear lest what is peculiar should not meet with sympathy. Each character, however peculiar it may be, and each object which you can represent, from the stone up to man, has generality; for there is repetition everywhere, and there is nothing to be found only once in the world.

At this step of representing what is individual,” continued Goethe, “begins, at the same time, what we call composition.”

This was not at once clear to me, though I refrained from questions. “Perhaps,” thought I, “he means the blending of the Ideal with the Real, the union of that which is external with that which is innate. But perhaps he means something else.” Goethe continued:

“And be sure you put to each poem the date at which you wrote it.” I looked at him inquiringly, to know why this was so important. “Your poems will thus serve,” he said, “as a diary of your progress. I have done it for many years, and can see its use.”

I mentioned how pleased I was to see how, in that journey, he had taken an interest in everything, and apprehended everything; shape and situation of mountains, with their species of stones; soil, rivers, clouds, air, wind, and weather; then cities, with their origin and growth, architecture, painting, theatres, municipal regulations and police, trade, economy, laying out of streets, varieties of human race, manner of living, peculiarities; then again, politics, martial affairs, and a hundred things beside.

He answered, “But you find no word upon music, because that was not within my sphere. Each traveller should know what he has to see, and what properly belongs to him, on a journey.”

We then talked about the natural sciences, especially about the narrow-mindedness with which learned men contend amongst themselves for priority. “There is nothing,” said Goethe, “through which I have learned to know mankind better, than through my philosophical exertions. It has cost me a great deal, and has been attended with great annoyance, but I nevertheless rejoice that I have gained the experience.”

I remarked, that in the sciences, the egotism of men appears to be excited in a peculiar manner; and when this is once called into action, all infirmities of character very soon appear.

“Scientific questions,” answered Goethe, “are very often questions of existence. A single discovery may make a man renowned, and lay the foundation of his worldly prosperity. It is for this reason that, in the sciences, there prevails this great severity, this pertinacity, and this jealousy concerning the discovery of another.

In the sphere of æsthetics, everything is deemed more venial; the thoughts are, more or less, an innate property of all mankind, with respect to which the only point is the treatment and execution and, naturally enough, little envy is excited. A single idea may give foundation for a hundred epigrams; and the question is, merely, which poet has been able to embody this idea in the most effective and most beautiful manner.

But in science the treatment is nothing, and all the effect lies in the discovery. There is here little that is universal and subjective, for the isolated manifestations of the laws of nature lie without us all sphinx-like, motionless, firm, and dumb. Every new phenomenon that is observed is a discovery – every discovery a property. Now only let a single person meddle with property, and man will soon be at hand with all his passions.”

“However,” continued Goethe, “in the sciences, that also is looked upon as property which has been handed down or taught at the universities. And if any one advances anything new which contradicts, perhaps threatens to overturn, the creed which we have for years repeated, and have handed down to others, all passions are raised against him, and every effort is made to crush him.

People resist with all their might; they act as if they neither heard nor could comprehend; they speak of the new view with contempt, as if it were not worth the trouble of even so much as an investigation or a regard, and thus a new truth may wait a long time before it can make its way.

A Frenchman said to a friend of mine, concerning my theory of colours, ‘We have worked for fifty years to establish and strengthen the kingdom of Newton, and it will require fifty years more to overthrow it.’

The body of mathematicians has endeavoured to make my name so suspected in science that people are afraid of even mentioning it. Some time ago, a pamphlet fell into my hands, in which subjects connected with the theory of colours were treated: the author appeared quite imbued with my theory, and had deduced everything from the same fundamental principles.

I read the publication with great delight, but, to my no small surprise, found that the author did not once mention my name. The enigma was afterwards solved. A mutual friend called on me, and confessed to me that the clever young author had wished to establish his reputation by the pamphlet, and had justly feared to compromise himself with the learned world, if he ventured to support by my name the views he was expounding. The little pamphlet was successful, and the ingenious young author has since introduced himself to me personally, and made his excuses.”

“This circumstance appears to me the more remarkable,” said I, “because in everything else people have reason to be proud of you as an authority, and every one esteems himself fortunate who has the powerful protection of your public countenance.

With respect to your theory of colours, the misfortune appears to be, that you have to deal not only with the renowned and universally acknowledged Newton, but also with his disciples, who are spread all over the world, who adhere to their master, and whose name is legion. Even supposing that you carry your point at last, you will certainly for a long space of time stand alone with your new theory.”

“I am accustomed to it, and prepared for it.” returned Goethe. “But say yourself,” continued he, “have I not had sufficient reason to feel proud, when for twenty years I have been forced to own to myself that the great Newton and all mathematicians and august calculators with him, have fallen into a decided error respecting the theory of colours; and that I, amongst millions, am the only one who knows the truth on this important subject?

With this feeling of superiority, it was possible for me to bear with the stupid pretensions of my opponents. People endeavoured to attack me and my theory in every way, and to render my ideas ridiculous; but, nevertheless, I rejoiced exceedingly over my completed work. All the attacks of my adversaries only serve to expose to me the weakness of mankind.”

“Pshaw,” said Goethe, laughing, “as if love had anything to do with the understanding. The things that we love in a young lady are something very different from the understanding. We love in her beauty, youthfulness, playfulness, trustingness, her character, her faults, her caprices, and God knows what ‘je ne sais quoi’ besides; but we do not love her understanding.

We respect her understanding when it is brilliant, and by it the worth of a girl can be infinitely enhanced in our eyes. Understanding may also serve to fix our affections when we already love; but the understanding is not that which is capable of firing our hearts, and awakening a passion.”

We discoursed upon English literature, on the greatness of Shakspeare; and on the unfavourable position held by all English dramatic authors who had appeared after that poetical giant.

“A dramatic talent of any importance,” said Goethe, “could not forbear to notice Shakspeare’s works, nay, could not forbear to study them. Having studied them, he must be aware that Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths, and that, in fact, there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do.

And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!”

“It fared better with me fifty years ago in my own dear Germany. I could soon come to an end with all that then existed; it could not long awe me, or occupy my attention. I soon left behind me German literature, and the study of it, and turned my thoughts to life and to production.

So on and on I went in my own natural development, and on and on I fashioned the productions of epoch after epoch. And at every step of life and development, my standard of excellence was not much higher than what at such step I was able to attain.

But had I been born an Englishman, and had all those numerous masterpieces been brought before me in all their power, at my first dawn of youthful consciousness, they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, but should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.”

I turned the conversation back to Shakespeare. “When one, to some degree, disengages him from English literature,” said I, “and considers him transformed into a German, one cannot fail to look upon his gigantic greatness as a miracle.

But if one seeks him in his home, transplants oneself to the soil of his country, and to the atmosphere of the century in which he lived; further, if one studies his contemporaries, and his immediate successors, and inhales the force wafted to us from Ben Jonson, Massinger, Marlow, and Beaumont and Fletcher, Shakespeare still, indeed, appears a being of the most exalted magnitude; but still, one arrives at the conviction that many of the wonders of his genius are, in some measure, accessible, and that much is due to the powerfully productive atmosphere of his age and time.”

“You are perfectly right,” returned Goethe. “It is with Shakspeare as with the mountains of Switzerland. Transplant Mont Blanc at once into the large plain of Lüneburg Heath, and we should find no words to express our wonder at its magnitude.

Seek it, however, in its gigantic home, go to it over its immense neighbours, the Jungfrau, the Finsteraarhorn, the Eiger, the Wetterhorn, St. Gothard, and Monte Rosa; Mont Blanc will, indeed, still remain a giant, but it will no longer produce in us such amazement.”

“Besides, let him who will not believe,” continued Goethe, “that much of Shakespeare’s greatness appertains to his great vigorous time, only ask himself the question, whether a phenomenon so astounding would be possible in the present England of 1824, in these evil days of criticizing and hair-splitting journals?

That undisturbed, innocent, somnambulatory production, by which alone anything great can thrive, is no longer possible. Our talents at present lie before the public. The daily criticisms which appear in fifty different places, and the gossip that is caused by them amongst the public, prevent the appearance of any sound production. In the present day, he who does not keep aloof from all this, and isolate himself by main force, is lost.

Through the bad, chiefly negative, æsthetical and critical tone of the journals, a sort of half culture finds its way into the masses; but to productive talent it is a noxious mist, a dropping poison, which destroys the tree of creative power, from the ornamental green leaves, to the deepest pith and the most hidden fibres.

And then how tame and weak has life itself become during the last two shabby centuries. Where do we now meet an original nature? and where is the man who has the strength to be true, and to show himself as he is? this, however, affects the poet, who must find all within himself, while he is left in the lurch by all without.”

“People were never thoroughly contented with me, but always wished me otherwise than it has pleased God to make me. They were also seldom contented with my productions. When I had long exerted my whole soul to favour the world with a new work, it still desired that I should thank it into the bargain for considering the work endurable.

If any one praised me, I was not allowed, in self congratulation, to receive it as a well-merited tribute; but people expected from me some modest expression, humbly setting forth the total unworthiness of my person and my work. However, my nature opposed this; and I should have been a miserable hypocrite, if I had so tried to lie and dissemble. Since I was strong enough to show myself in my whole truth, just as I felt, I was deemed proud, and am considered so to the present day.

In religious, scientific, and political matters, I generally brought trouble upon myself, because I was no hypocrite, and had the courage to express what I felt.

I believed in God and in Nature, and in the triumph of good over evil; but this was not enough for pious souls: I was also required to believe other points, which were opposed to the feeling of my soul for truth; besides, I did not see that these would be of the slightest service to me.

It was also prejudicial to me that I discovered Newton’s theory of light and colour to be an error, and that I had the courage to contradict the universal creed. I discovered light in its purity and truth, and I considered it my duty to fight for it.

The opposite party, however, did their utmost to darken the light; for they maintained that shade is a part of light. It sounds absurd when I express it; but so it is: for they said that colours, which are shadow and the result of shade, are light itself, or, which amounts to the same thing, are the beams of light, broken now in one way, now in another.”

Goethe talked with me about the continuation of his memoirs, with which he is now busy. He observed that this later period of his life would not be narrated with such minuteness as the youthful epoch of “Dichtung und Wahrheit.”

“I must,” said he, “treat this later period more in the fashion of annals: my outward actions must appear rather than my inward life. Altogether, the most important part of an individual’s life is that of development, and mine is concluded in the detailed volumes of ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit.’ Afterwards begins the conflict with the world, and that is interesting only in its results.

“And then the life of a learned German—what is it? What may have been really good in my case cannot be communicated, and what can be communicated is not worth the trouble. Besides, where are the hearers whom one could entertain with any satisfaction?

When I look back to the earlier and middle periods of my life, and now in my old age think how few are left of those who were young with me, I always think of a summer residence at a bathing-place. When you arrive, you make acquaintance and friends of those who have already been there some time, and who leave in a few weeks. The loss is painful.

Then you turn to the second generation, with which you live a good while, and become most intimate. But this goes also, and leaves us alone with the third, which comes just as we are going away, and with which we have, properly, nothing to do.

I have ever been esteemed one of Fortune’s chiefest favourites; nor will I complain or find fault with the course my life has taken. Yet, truly, there has been nothing but toil and care; and I may say that, in all my seventy-five years, I have never had a month of genuine comfort.

It has been the perpetual rolling of a stone, which I have always had to raise anew. My annals will render clear what I now say. The claims upon my activity, both from within and without, were too numerous.

My real happiness was my poetic meditation and production. But how was this disturbed, limited, and hindered by my external position! Had I been able to abstain more from public business, and to live more in solitude, I should have been happier, and should have accomplished much more as a poet.

But, soon after my ‘Goetz’ and ‘Werther,’ that saying of a sage was verified for me – ‘If you do anything for the sake of the world, it will take good care that you shall not do it a second time.’

A wide-spread celebrity, an elevated position in life, are presumably good things. But, for all my rank and celebrity, I am still obliged to be silent as to the opinion of others, that I may not give offence.

This would be but poor sport, if by this means I had not the advantage of learning the thoughts of others without their being able to learn mine.”

We looked, afterwards, at a long series of copper-plates, from pictures by modern artists, in one of the French galleries. The invention displayed in these pictures was almost uniformly weak, and among forty we barely found four or five good ones.

These were a girl dictating a love-letter; a woman in a house to let, which nobody will take! “catching fish;” and musicians before an image of the Madonna. A landscape, in Poussin’s manner, was not bad; on looking at this, Goethe said, “Such artists get a general idea of Poussin’s landscapes, and work upon that.

We cannot style their pictures good or bad: they are not bad, because, through every part, you catch glimpses of an excellent model. But you cannot call them good, because the artists usually want the great personal peculiarity of Poussin. It is just so among poets, and there are some who, for instance, would make a very poor figure in Shakespeare’s grand style.”

I agreed with him, and said that I had made this experience at the university, since, of all that was said in the lectures, I had only retained that, of which I could, through the tendency of my nature, make a practical application; on the contrary, I had completely forgotten all that I had been unable to reduce to practice.

“I have,” said I, “heard Heeren’s lectures on ancient and modern history, and know now nothing about the matter. But if I studied a period of history for the sake of treating it dramatically, what I learned would be safely secured to me for ever.”

“Altogether,” said Goethe, “they teach in academies far too many things, and far too much that is useless. Then the individual professors extend their department too much – far beyond the wants of their hearers. In former days lectures were read in chemistry and botany as belonging to medicine, and the physician could manage them.

Now, both these have become so extensive, that each of them requires a life; yet acquaintance with both is expected from the physician. Nothing can come of this; one thing must be neglected and forgotten for the sake of the other. He who is wise puts aside all claims which may dissipate his attention, confines himself to one branch, and excels in that.”

He shows me only what is perfect in its kind, and endeavours to make me apprehend the intention and merit of the artist, that I may learn to pursue the thoughts of the best, and feel like the best. “This,” said he, “is the way to cultivate what we call taste. Taste is only to be educated by contemplation, not of the tolerably good, but of the truly excellent.

I, therefore, show you only the best works; and when you are grounded in these, you will have a standard for the rest, which you will know how to value, without overrating them. And I show you the best in each class, that you may perceive that no class is to be despised, but that each gives delight when a man of genius attains its highest point.”

“There are,” said Goethe, “excellent men, who are unable to do anything impromptu, or superficially, but whose nature demands that they should quietly and deeply penetrate into every subject they may take in hand. Such minds often make us impatient, for we seldom get from them what we want at the moment; but in this way alone the noblest tasks are accomplished.”

I turned the conversation to Ramberg. “He,” said Goethe, “is an artist of quite a different stamp, of a most genial talent, and indeed unequalled in his power of impromptu. At Dresden, he once asked me to give him a subject. I gave him Agamemnon, at the moment when, on his return from Troy, he is descending from his chariot, and is seized with a gloomy feeling, on touching the threshold of his house.

You will agree that this is a subject of a most difficult kind, and, with another artist, would have demanded the most mature deliberation. But the words had scarcely passed my lips, before Ramberg began to draw, and, indeed, I was struck with admiration, to see how correctly he at once apprehended his subject. I cannot deny that I should like to possess some drawings by Ramberg.”

We talked then of other artists, who set to work in a superficial way, and thus degenerated into mannerism.

“Mannerism,” said Goethe, “is always longing to have done, and has no true enjoyment in work. A genuine, really great talent, on the other hand, finds its greatest happiness in execution. Roos is unwearied in drawing the hair and wool of his goats and sheep, and you see by his infinite details that he enjoyed the purest felicity in doing his work, and had no wish to bring it to an end.

Inferior talents do not enjoy art for its own sake; while at work they have nothing before their eyes but the profit they hope to make when they have done. With such worldly views and tendencies, nothing great was ever yet produced.”

“On the whole,” said Goethe, “Philosophical speculation is an injury to the Germans, as it tends to make their style vague, difficult, and obscure. The stronger their attachment to certain philosophical schools, the worse they write.

Those Germans who, as men of business and actual life, confine themselves to the practical, write the best. Schiller’s style is most noble and impressive whenever he leaves off philosophizing, as I observe every day in his highly interesting letters, with which I am now busy.

There are likewise among the German women, genial beings who write a really excellent style, and, indeed, in that respect surpass many of our celebrated male writers.

The English almost always write well; being born orators and practical men, with a tendency to the real.

The French, in their style, remain true to their general character. They are of a social nature, and therefore never forget the public whom they address; they strive to be clear, that they may convince their reader – agreeable, that they may please him.

Altogether, the style of a writer is a faithful representative of his mind; therefore, if any man wish to write a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.”

Goethe then spoke of his antagonists as a race which would never become extinct. “Their number,” said he, “is legion; yet they may be in some degree classified.

First, there are my antagonists from stupidity – those who do not understand me, and find fault with me without knowing me. This large company has wearied me much in the course of my life; yet shall they be forgiven, for they knew not what they did.

The second large class is composed of those who envy me. These grudge me the fortune and the dignified station I have attained through my talents. They pluck at my fame, and would like to destroy me. If I were poor and miserable, they would assail me no more.

There are many who have been my adversaries, because they have failed themselves. In this class are many of fine talent, but they cannot forgive me for casting them into the shade.

Fourthly, there are my antagonists from reasons. For, as I am a human being, and as such have human faults and weaknesses, my writings cannot be free from them.

Yet, as I was constantly bent on my own improvement, and always striving to ennoble myself, I was in a state of constant progress, and it often happened that they blamed me for faults which I had long since left behind. These good folks have injured me least of any, as they shot at me, when I was already miles distant.

Generally when a work was finished, it became uninteresting to me; I thought of it no more, but busied myself with some new plan.

Another large class comprises those who are adversaries, because they differ from me in their views and modes of thought. It is said of the leaves on a tree, that you will scarcely find two perfectly alike, and thus, among a thousand men, you will scarce find two, who harmonize entirely in their views and ways of thinking.

This being allowed, I ought less to wonder at having so many opponents, than at having so many friends and adherents. My tendencies were opposed to those of my time, which were wholly subjective; while in my objective efforts, I stood quite alone to my own disadvantage.

“And then,” continued I, “I usually carry into society my likes and dislikes, and a certain need of loving and being beloved; I seek a nature which may harmonize with my own; I wish to give myself up to this, and to have nothing to do with the others.”

“This natural tendency of yours,” replied Goethe, “is indeed not of a social kind; but what would be the use of culture, if we did not try to control our natural tendencies? It is a great folly to hope that other men will harmonize with us; I have never hoped this.

I have always regarded each man as an independent individual, whom I endeavoured to study, and to understand with all his peculiarities, but from whom I desired no further sympathy. In this way have I been enabled to converse with every man, and thus alone is produced the knowledge of various characters, and the dexterity necessary for the conduct of life.

For it is in a conflict with natures opposed to his own that a man must collect his strength to fight his way through, and thus all our different sides are brought out and developed, so that we soon feel ourselves a match for every foe. You should do the same; you have more capacity for it than you imagine; indeed, you must at all events plunge into the great world, whether you like it or not.”

“To make an epoch in the world,” said he, “two conditions are notoriously essential – a good head and a great inheritance.

Napoleon inherited the French Revolution; Frederick the Great, the Silesian War; Luther, the darkness of the Popes; and I, the errors of the Newtonian theory.

The present generation has no conception of what I have accomplished in this matter, but posterity will grant that I have by no means come into a bad inheritance!”

“You appear, then, to intimate,” returned I, “that the more one knows, the worse one observes.”

“Certainly,” said Goethe, “when the knowledge which is handed down is combined with errors. As soon as any one belongs to a certain narrow creed in science, every unprejudiced and true perception is gone.

The decided Vulcanist always sees through the spectacles of a Vulcanist; and every Neptunist, and every professor of the newest elevation-theory, through his own. The contemplation of the world, with all these theorists, who are devoted to an exclusive tendency, has lost its innocence, and the objects no longer appear in their natural purity.

If these learned men, then, give an account of their observations, we obtain, notwithstanding their love of truth as individuals, no actual truth with reference to the objects themselves; but we always receive these objects with the taste of a strong, subjective mixture.

I am, however, far from maintaining that an unprejudiced, correct knowledge is a drawback to observation. I am much more inclined to support the old truth, that we, properly speaking, have only eyes and ears for what we know.

The musician by profession hears, in an orchestral performance, every instrument and every single tone, whilst one unacquainted with the art is wrapped up in the massive effect of the whole. A man merely bent upon enjoyment sees in a green or flowery meadow only a pleasant plain, while the eye of a botanist discovers an endless detail of the most varied plants and grasses.”

Still everything has its measure and goal, and as it has been said in my ‘Goetz von Berlichingen,’ that the son, from pure learning, does not know his own father, so in science do we find people who can neither see nor hear through sheer learning and hypothesis.

Such people look at once within; they are so occupied by what is revolving in themselves, that they are like a man in a passion, who passes his dearest friends in the street without seeing them. The observation of nature requires a certain purity of mind, which cannot be disturbed or pre-occupied by anything.

The beetle on the flower does not escape the child; he has devoted all his senses to a single, simple interest; and it never strikes him that, at the same moment, something remarkable may be going on in the formation of the clouds to distract his glances in that direction.”

“Then,” returned I, “children and the child-like would be good hod-men in science.”

“Would to God!” exclaimed Goethe, “we were all nothing more than good hod-men. It is just because we will be more, and carry about with us a great apparatus of philosophy and hypothesis, that we spoil all.”

“However,” continued he, “although Byron has died so young, literature has not suffered an essential loss, through a hindrance to its further extension. Byron could, in a certain sense, go no further.

He had reached the summit of his creative power, and whatever he might have done in the future, he would have been unable to extend the boundaries of his talent. In the incomprehensible poem, ‘The Vision of Judgment,’ he has done the utmost of which he was capable.”

The discourse then turned upon the Italian poet, Torquato Tasso, and his resemblance to Lord Byron, when Goethe could not conceal the superiority of the Englishman, in spirit, grasp of the world, and productive power.

“One cannot,” continued he, “compare these poets with each other, without annihilating one by the other. Byron is the burning thorn-bush which reduces the holy cedar of Lebanon to ashes. The great epic poem of the Italian has maintained its fame for centuries; but yet, with a single line of ‘Don Juan,’ one could poison the whole of ‘Jerusalem delivered.’”

“One of her poems,” said he, “in which she describes the country near her home, is of a highly peculiar character. She has a good tendency towards outward objects, and is besides not destitute of valuable internal qualities. We might indeed find much fault with her; but we will let her alone, and not disturb her in the path which her talent will show her.”

“The world,” said Goethe, “remains always the same; situations are repeated; one people lives, loves, and feels like another; why should not one poet write like another? The situations of life are alike; why, then, should those of poems be unlike?”

“This very similarity in life and sensation,” said Riemer, “makes us all able to appreciate the poetry of other nations. If this were not the case, we should never know what foreign poems were about.”

“I am, therefore,” said I, “always surprised at the learned, who seem to suppose that poetizing proceeds not from life to the poem, but from the book to the poem. They are always saying, ‘He got this here; he got that there.’

If, for instance, they find passages in Shakspeare which are also to be found in the ancients, they say he must have taken them from the ancients. Thus there is a situation in Shakspeare, where, on the sight of a beautiful girl, the parents are congratulated who call her daughter, and the youth who will lead her home as his bride.

And because the same thing occurs in Homer, Shakspeare, forsooth, has taken it from Homer. How odd! As if one had to go so far for such things, and did not have them before one’s eyes, feel them and utter them every day.”

“Ah, yes,” said Goethe, “it is very ridiculous.”

“Lord Byron, too,” said I, “is no wiser, when he takes ‘Faust’ to pieces, and thinks you found one thing here, the other there.”

“The greater part of those fine things cited by Lord Byron,” said Goethe, “I have never even read, much less did I think of them, when I was writing ‘Faust.’ But Lord Byron is only great as a poet; as soon as he reflects, he is a child.

He knows not how to help himself against the stupid attacks of the same kind made upon him by his own countrymen. He ought to have expressed himself more strongly against them. ‘What is there is mine,’ he should have said, ‘and whether I got it from a book or from life, is of no consequence; the only point is, whether I have made a right use of it.’

Walter Scott used a scene from my ‘Egmont,’ and he had a right to do so; and because he did it well, he deserves praise. He has also copied the character of Mignon in one of his romances; but whether with equal judgment, is another question. Lord Byron’s transformed Devil is a continuation of Mephistophiles, and quite right too. If, from the whim of originality, he had departed from the model, he would certainly have fared worse.

Thus, my Mephistophiles sings a song from Shakspeare, and why should he not? Why should I give myself the trouble of inventing one of my own, when this said just what was wanted. If, too, the prologue to my ‘Faust’ is something like the beginning of Job, that is again quite right, and I am rather to be praised than censured.”

Goethe agreed with me, and laughed to think that Lord Byron, who, in practical life, could never adapt himself, and never even asked about a law, finally subjected himself to the stupidest of laws – that of the three unities.

“He understood the purpose of this law,” said he, “no better than the rest of the world. Comprehensibility is the purpose, and the three unities are only so far good as they conduce to this end. If the observance of them hinders the comprehension of a work, it is foolish to treat them as laws, and to try to observe them.

Even the Greeks, from whom the rule was taken, did not always follow it. In the ‘Phaeton’ of Euripides, and in other pieces, there is a change of place, and it is obvious that good representation of their subject was with them more important than blind obedience to law, which, in itself, is of no great consequence.

The pieces of Shakespeare deviate, as far as possible, from the unities of time and place; but they are comprehensible – nothing more so – and on this account, the Greeks would have found no fault in them. The French poets have endeavoured to follow most rigidly the laws of the three unities, but they sin against comprehensibility, inasmuch as they solve a dramatic law, not dramatically, but by narration.”

“I call to mind the ‘Feinde’ (enemies) of Houwald. The author of this drama stood much in his own light, when, to preserve the unity of place, he sinned against comprehensibility in the first act, and altogether sacrificed what might have given greater effect to his piece to a whim, for which no one thanks him.

I thought, too, on the other hand, of ‘Goetz von Berlichingen,’ which deviates as far as possible from the unity of time and place; but which, as everything is visibly developed to us, and brought before our eyes, is as truly dramatic and comprehensible as any piece in the world.

I thought, too, that the unities of time and place were natural, and in accordance with the intention of the Greeks, only when a subject is so limited in its range that it can develop itself before our eyes with all its details in the given time; but that with a large action, which occurs in several places, there is no reason to be confined to one place, especially as our present stage arrangements offer no obstacle to a change of scene.”

Goethe continued to talk of Lord Byron. “With that disposition,” said he, “which always leads him into the illimitable, the restraint which he imposed upon himself by the observance of the three unities becomes him very well. If he had but known how to endure moral restraint also! That he could not was his ruin; and it may be aptly said, that he was destroyed by his own unbridled temperament.

“But he was too much in the dark about himself. He lived impetuously for the day, and neither knew nor thought what he was doing. Permitting everything to himself, and excusing nothing in others, he necessarily put himself in a bad position, and made the world his foe.

At the very beginning, he offended the most distinguished literary men by his ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.’ To be permitted only to live after this, he was obliged to go back a step. In his succeeding works, he continued in the path of opposition and fault-finding.

Church and State were not left unassailed. This reckless conduct drove him from England, and would in time have driven him from Europe also. Everywhere it was too narrow for him, and with the most perfect personal freedom he felt himself confined; the world seemed to him a prison. His Grecian expedition was the result of no voluntary resolution; his misunderstanding with the world drove him to it.

The renunciation of what was hereditary and patriotic not only caused the personal destruction of so distinguished a man, but his revolutionary turn, and the constant mental agitation with which it was combined, did not allow his talent a fair development.

Moreover, his perpetual negation and fault-finding is injurious even to his excellent works. For not only does the discontent of the poet infect the reader, but the end of all opposition is negation; and negation is nothing.

If I call bad bad, what do I gain? But if I call good bad, I do a great deal of mischief. He who will work aright must never rail, must not trouble himself at all about what is ill done, but only to do well himself. For the great point is, not to pull down, but to build up, and in this humanity finds pure joy.”

“Lord Byron,” continued Goethe, “is to be regarded as a man, as an Englishman, and as a great genius. His good qualities belong chiefly to the man, his bad to the Englishman and the peer, his talent is incommensurable.

All Englishmen are, as such, without reflection, properly so called; distractions and party spirit will not permit them to perfect themselves in quiet. But they are great as practical men.

Thus, Lord Byron could never attain reflection on himself, and on this account his maxims in general are not successful, as is shown by his creed, ‘much money, no authority,’ for much money always paralyzes authority.

But where he will create he always succeeds; and we may truly say that with him inspiration supplies the place of reflection. He was always obliged to go on poetizing, and then everything that came from the man, especially from his heart, was excellent. He produced his best things, as women do pretty children, without thinking about it or knowing how it was done.

He is a great talent, a born talent, and I never saw the true poetical power greater in any man than in him. In the apprehension of external objects, and a clear penetration into past situations, he is quite as great as Shakespeare. But as a pure individuality, Shakespeare is his superior.

his was felt by Byron, and on this account he does not say much of Shakespeare, although he knows whole passages by heart. He would willingly have denied him altogether; for Shakespeare’s cheerfulness is in his way, and he feels that he is no match for it. Pope he does not deny, for he had no cause to fear him. On the contrary, he mentions him, and shows him respect when he can, for he knows well enough that Pope is a mere foil to himself.”

Goethe seems inexhaustible on the subject of Byron, and I felt that I could not listen enough. After a few digressions, he proceeded thus: “His high rank as an English peer was very injurious to Byron; for every talent is oppressed by the outer world, how much more, then, when there is such high birth and so great a fortune.

A certain middle rank is much more favorable to talent, on which account we find all great artists and poets in the middle classes. Byron’s predilection for the unbounded could not have been nearly so dangerous with more humble birth and smaller means.

But as it was, he was able to put every fancy into practice, and this involved him in innumerable scrapes. Besides, how could one of such high rank be inspired with awe and respect by any rank whatever? He spoke out whatever he felt, and this brought him into ceaseless conflict with the world.

“It is surprising to remark,” continued Goethe, “how large a portion of the life of a rich Englishman of rank is passed in duels and elopements. Lord Byron himself says that his father carried off three ladies. And let any man be a steady son after that.

Properly speaking, he lived perpetually in a state of nature, and with his mode of existence the necessity for self-defense floated daily before his eyes. Hence his constant pistol shooting. Every moment he expected to be called out.

He could not live alone. Hence, with all his oddities, he was very indulgent to his associates. He one evening read his fine poem on the death of Sir John Moore, and his noble friends did not know what to make of it. This did not move him, but he put it away again. As a poet, he really showed himself a lamb. Another would have commended them to the devil.”

I remarked, “Older persons, who lived in those times, cannot praise highly enough the elevated position which the Weimar theatre then held.”

“I will not deny that it was something,” returned Goethe. “The main point, however, was this, that the Grand Duke left my hands quite free, and I could do just as I liked. I did not look to magnificent scenery, and a brilliant wardrobe, but I looked to good pieces. From tragedy to farce, every species was welcome; but a piece was obliged to have something in it to find favour.

It was necessary that it should be great and clever, cheerful and graceful, and, at all events, healthy and containing some pith. All that was morbid, weak, lachrymose, and sentimental, as well as all that was frightful, horrible, and offensive to decorum, was utterly excluded; I should have feared, by such expedients, to spoil both actors and audience.

By means of good pieces, I raised the actors; for the study of excellence, and the perpetual practice of excellence, must necessarily make something of a man whom nature has not left ungifted. I was, also, constantly in personal contact with the actors.

I attended the first rehearsals, and explained to every one his part; I was present at the chief rehearsals, and talked with the actors as to any improvements that might be made; I was never absent from a performance, and pointed out the next day anything which did not appear to me to be right.”

“A great deal,” said Goethe, “may be done by severity, more by love, but most by clear discernment and impartial justice, which pays no respect to persons.

I had to beware of two enemies, which might have been dangerous to me. The one was my passionate love of talent, which might easily have made me partial. The other I will not mention, but you can guess it.

At our theatre there was no want of ladies, who were beautiful and young, and who were possessed of great mental charms. I felt a passionate inclination towards many of them, and sometimes it happened that I was met half way.

But I restrained myself, and said, No further! I knew my position, and also what I owed to it. I stood here, not as a private man, but as chief of an establishment, the prosperity of which was of more consequence to me than a momentary gratification. If I had involved myself in any love affair, I should have been like a compass, which cannot point right when under the influence of a magnet at its side.

By thus keeping myself quite clear, and always remaining master of myself, I also remained master of the theatre, and I always received that proper respect, without which all authority is very soon at an end.”

This confession of Goethe’s deeply impressed me. I had already heard something of this kind about him from others, and I rejoiced now to hear its confirmation from his own mouth. I loved him more than ever, and took leave of him with a hearty pressure of the hand.

This evening at Goethe’s. Since conversation upon the theatre and theatrical management were now the order of the day, I asked him upon what maxims he proceeded in the choice of a new member of the company.

“I can scarcely say,” returned Goethe; “I had various modes of proceeding. If a striking reputation preceded the new actor, I let him act, and saw how he suited the others; whether his style and manner disturbed our ensemble, or whether he would supply a deficiency.

If, however, he was a young man who had never trodden a stage before, I first considered his personal qualities; whether he had about him anything prepossessing or attractive, and, above all things, whether he had control over himself.

For an actor who possesses no self-possession, and who cannot appear before a stranger in his most favourable light, has, generally speaking, little talent. His whole profession requires continual self-denial, and a continual existence in a foreign mask.

If his appearance and his deportment pleased me, I made him read, in order to test the power and extent of his organ, as well as the capabilities of his mind. I gave him some sublime passage from a great poet, to see whether he was capable of feeling and expressing what was really great; then something passionate and wild, to prove his power.

I then went to something marked by sense and smartness, something ironical and witty, to see how he treated such things, and whether he possessed sufficient freedom. Then I gave him something in which was represented the pain of a wounded heart, the suffering of a great soul, that I might learn whether he had it in his power to express pathos.

If he satisfied me in all these numerous particulars, I had a well-grounded hope of making him a very important actor. If he appeared more capable in some particulars than in others, I remarked the line to which he was most adapted. I also now knew his weak points, and, above all, endeavoured to work upon him so that he might strengthen and cultivate himself here.

If I remarked faults of dialect, and what are called provincialisms, I urged him to lay them aside, and recommended to him social intercourse and friendly practice with some member of the stage who was entirely free from them.

I then asked him whether he could dance and fence; and if this were not the case, I would hand him over for some time to the dancing and fencing masters.

If he were now sufficiently advanced to make his appearance, I gave him at first such parts as suited his individuality, and I desired nothing but that he should represent himself.

If he now appeared to me of too fiery a nature, I gave him phlegmatic characters; if too calm and tedious, I gave him fiery and hasty characters, that he might thus learn to lay aside himself, and assume foreign individuality.”

The conversation turned upon the casting of plays, upon which Goethe made among others, the following remarkable observations:

“It is a great error to think,” said he, “that an indifferent piece may be played by indifferent actors. A second or third rate play can be incredibly improved by the employment of first-rate powers, and be made something really good. But if a second or third rate play be performed by second or third rate actors, no one can wonder if it is utterly ineffective.

Second-rate actors are excellent in great plays. They have the same effect that the figures in half shade have in a picture; they serve admirably to show off more powerfully those which have the full light.”

Goethe shewed me this evening a letter from a young student, who begs of him the plan for the second part of ” Faust,” with the design of completing the work himself.

In a straightforward, good- humoured, and candid tone, he freely sets forth his wishes and views, and at last, without reserve, utters his conviction that all other literary efforts of later years have been nought, but that in him a new literature is to bloom afresh.

If I met a young man who would set about continuing Napoleon’s conquest of the world, or a young dilettante in architecture, who attempted to complete the Cathedral of Cologne, I should not be more surprised, nor find them more insane and ridiculous, than this young poetical amateur, who fancies he could write a second part of” Faust” merely because he has a fancy to do so.

Indeed, I think it more possible to complete the Cathedral of Cologne, than to continue “Faust” on Goethe’s plan. For the former object might, at any rate, be attained mathematically; it stands visibly before our eyes, and may be touched with our hands; but what line or measure could avail for a mental invisible work, which wholly depends on the subjective peculiarity of the artist, in which the first discovery is everything, and which, for its material requires a great life actually experienced, and for its execution, a technical skill heightened to perfection by the practice of years.

He who esteems such a work easy, or even possible, has certainly a very moderate talent, since he has not even a suspicion of the high and the difficult; and it may be fairly maintained, that if Goethe had completed his “Faust” with only a deficiency of a few lines, such a youth would be unequal to supply the small gap.

I will not inquire whence the young men of our day acquire the notion that they are born with that which has hitherto been attained only by the study and experience of many years, but I think I may observe that this presumptuousness, now so common in Germany, which audaciously strides over all the steps of gradual culture, affords little hope of future masterpieces.

“The misfortune,” said Goethe, “in the state is, that nobody can enjoy life in peace, but that everybody must govern; and in art, that nobody will enjoy what has been produced, but every one wants to reproduce on his own account. Again, no one thinks to be furthered in his own way by a work of poetry, but every one will do the same thing over again.

There is, besides, no earnestness to approach the Whole, no willingness to do anything for the sake of the Whole; but each one tries to make his own Self observable, and to exhibit it as much as possible to the world.

This false tendency is shown everywhere, and people imitate the modern musical virtuosi, who do not select those pieces which give the audience pure musical enjoyment, so much as those in which they can gain admiration by the dexterity they have acquired. Everywhere there is the individual who wants to show himself off to advantage, nowhere one honest effort to make oneself subservient to the Whole.

Hence it is that men acquire a bungling mode of production, without knowing it. Children make verses, and go on till they fancy, as youths, they can do something, until at last manhood gives them insight into the excellence that exists, and then they look back in despair on the years they have wasted on a false and highly futile effort.

Nay, many never attain a knowledge of what is perfect, and of their own insufficiency, and go on doing things by halves to the end of their days.

It is certain that if every one could early enough be made to feel how full the world is already of excellence, and how much must be done to produce anything worthy of being placed beside what has already been produced, of a hundred youths who are now poetizing scarcely one would feel enough courage, perseverance, and talent to work quietly for the attainment of a similar mastery.

Many young painters would never have taken their pencils in hand if they could have felt, known, and understood early enough what really produced a master like Raphael.”

Then comes the question, what occupation shall a man choose, that he may neither overstep his proper limits nor do too little?

He whose business it is to overlook many departments, to judge, to guide others, should endeavour to attain the best insight into many departments. Thus a prince or a future statesman cannot be too many-sided in his culture; for many-sidedness belongs to his craft.

The poet, too, should strive after manifold knowledge, for his subject is the whole world, which he has to handle and to express.

However, the poet should not try to be a painter, but content himself with reflecting the world in words, just as the allows the actor to bring it before our eyes by personally exhibiting himself.

Insight and practical activity are to be distinguished, and we ought to reflect that every art, when we reduce it to practice, is something very great and difficult, and that mastery in it requires a life.

Thus Goethe strove for insight into many things, but has practically confined himself to one thing only. Only one art has he practiced, and that in a masterly style, viz. the art of writing German (Deutsch zu schreiben). That the matter which he uttered is of a many-sided nature is another affair.

“Nothing,” continued Goethe, “is more dangerous to the well-being of a theatre than when the director is so placed, that a greater or less receipt at the treasury does not affect him personally, and he can live on in careless security, knowing that, however the receipts at the treasury may fail in the course of the year, at the end of that time he will be able to indemnify himself from another source. It is a property of human nature soon to relax when not impelled by personal advantage or disadvantage. Now, it is not desirable that a theatre, in such a town as Weimar, should support itself, and that no contribution from the Prince’s treasury should be necessary. But still everything has its bounds and limits, and a thousand dollars yearly, more or less, is by no means a trifling matter, particularly as diminished receipts and deteriorations are dangers natural to a theatre; so that there is a loss not only of money, but also of honour.

“I read some pieces of Molière’s every year, just as, from time to time, I contemplate the engravings after the great Italian masters. For we little men are not able to retain the greatness of such things within ourselves; we must therefore return to them from time to time, and renew our impressions.

“People are always talking about originality; but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. And, after all, what can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.

“There is one thing more to which I called his attention. I have seen many of his studies from nature: they were excellent, and executed with great energy and life; but they were all isolated objects, of which little can afterwards be made when one comes to inventions of one’s own.

I have now advised him never for the future to delineate an isolated object, such as single trees, single heaps of stones, or single cottages, but always to add a background and some surrounding objects.

And for the following reasons. In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it. A single object, I grant, may strike us as particularly picturesque: it is not, however, the object alone which produces this effect, but it is the connection in which we see it, with that which is beside, behind, and above it, all of which contributes to that effect.

Thus during a walk I may meet with an oak, the picturesque effect of which surprises me. But if I represent it alone, it will perhaps no longer appear to me as it did, because that is wanting which contributed to and enhanced the picturesque effect in nature.

Thus, too, a wood may appear beautiful through the influence of one particular sky, one particular light, and one particular situation of the sun. But if I omit all these in my drawing, it will perhaps appear without any force, and as something indifferent to which the proper charm is wanting.

Further; there is in nature nothing beautiful which is not produced (motivirt) as true in conformity with the laws of nature. In order that that truth of nature may also appear true in the picture, it must be accounted for by the introduction of the influential circumstances.

I find by a brook well-formed stones, the parts of which exposed to the air are in a picturesque manner covered with green moss. Now it is not alone the moisture of the water which has caused this formation of moss; but perhaps a northerly aspect, or the shade of the trees and bushes, have co-operated in this formation at this part of the brook. If I omit these influential causes in my picture, it will be without truth, and without the proper convincing power.

Thus the situation of a tree, the kind of soil beneath it, and other trees behind and beside it, have a great influence on its formation. An oak which stands exposed to the wind on the western summit of a rocky hill, will acquire quite a different form from that of one which grows below on the moist ground of a sheltered valley.

Both may be beautiful in their kind, but they will have a very different character, and can, therefore, in an artistically conceived landscape, only be used for such a situation as they occupied in nature. And therefore the delineation of surrounding objects, by which any particular situation is expressed, is of high importance to the artist. On the other hand, it would be foolish to attempt to represent all those prosaic casualties which have had as little influence upon the form of the principal objects, as upon its picturesque effect for the moment.

I have imparted the substance of all these little hints to Preller, and I am certain that they will take root and thrive in him – as a born genius.”

We then talked of the æsthetic writers, who labour to express the nature of poetry and the poet in abstract definitions, without arriving at any clear result.

“What need of much definition?” said Goethe. “Lively feeling of situations, and power to express them, make the poet.”

“I could never,” said he, “have known so well how paltry men are, and how little they care for really high aims, if I had not tested them by my scientific researches. Thus I saw that most men only care for science so far as they get a living by it, and that they worship even error when it affords them a subsistence.

“In belles lettres it is no better. There, too, high aims and genuine love for the true and sound, and for their diffusion, are very rare phenomena. One man cherishes and tolerates another, because he is by him cherished and tolerated in return. True greatness is hateful to them; they would fain drive it from the world, so that only such as they might be of importance in it. Such are the masses; and the prominent individuals are not better.

“Many are full of esprit and knowledge, but they are also full of vanity; and that they may shine as wits before the short-sighted multitude, they have no shame or delicacy – nothing is sacred to them.

Madame de Genlis was therefore perfectly right when she declaimed against the freedoms and profanities of Voltaire. Clever as they all may be, the world has derived no profit from them; they afford a foundation for nothing. Nay, they have been of the greatest injury, since they have confused men, and robbed them of their needful support.

After all, what do we know, and how far can we go with all our wit?

Man is born not to solve the problems of the universe, but to find out where the problem begins, and then to restrain himself within the limits of the comprehensible.

His faculties are not sufficient to measure the actions of the universe; and an attempt to explain the outer world by reason is, with his narrow point of view, but a vain endeavour. The reason of man and the reason of the Deity are two very different things.

If we grant freedom to man, there is an end to the omniscience of God; for if the Divinity knows how I shall act, I must act so perforce. I give this merely as a sign how little we know, and to show that it is not good to meddle with divine mysteries.

Moreover, we should only utter higher maxims so far as they can benefit the world. The rest we should keep within ourselves, and they will diffuse over our actions a lustre like the mild radiance of a hidden sun.”

Goethe then showed me a very interesting English work, which illustrated all Shakspeare in copper plates. Each page embraced, in six small designs, one piece with some verses written beneath, so that the leading idea and the most important situations of each work were brought before the eyes. All these immortal tragedies and comedies thus passed before the mind like processions of masks.

“It is even terrifying,” said Goethe, “to look through these little pictures. Thus are we first made to feel the infinite wealth and grandeur of Shakspeare. There is no motive in human life which he has not exhibited and expressed! And all with what ease and freedom!

But we cannot talk about Shakspeare; everything is inadequate. I have touched upon the subject in my ‘Wilhelm Meister,’ but that is not saying much. He is not a theatrical poet; he never thought of the stage; it was far too narrow for his great mind: nay, the whole visible world was too narrow.

He is even too rich and too powerful. A productive nature ought not to read more than one of his dramas in a year if it would not be wrecked entirely. I did well to get rid of him by writing ‘Goetz,’ and ‘Egmont’ and Byron did well by not having too much respect and admiration for him, but going his own way. How many excellent Germans have been ruined by him and Calderon!

Shakspeare gives us golden apples in silver dishes. We get, indeed, the silver dishes by studying his works; but, unfortunately, we have only potatoes to put into them.”

I had now also read Lord Byron’s “Deformed Transformed,” and talked with Goethe about it after dinner.

“Am I not right?” said he; “the first scenes are great – politically great. The remainder, when the subject wanders to the siege of Rome, I will not call poetical, but it must be averred that it is very pointed.”

“To the highest degree,” said I; “but there is no art in being pointed when one respects nothing.”

Goethe laughed. “You are not quite wrong,” said he. “We must, indeed, confess that the poet says more than ought to be said. He tells us the truth, but it is disagreeable, and we should like him better if he held his peace.

There are things in the world which the poet should rather conceal than disclose; but this openness lies in Byron’s character, and you would annihilate him if you made him other than he is.”

“Yes,” said I, “he is in the highest degree pointed. How excellent, for instance, is this passage –

The devil speaks truth much oftener than he’s deemed;
He hath an ignorant audience?”

“That is as good and as free as one of my Mephistophiles’ sayings.”

At table, the ladies praised a portrait by a young painter. “What is most surprising,” they added, “he has learned everything by himself.” This could be seen particularly in the hands, which were not correctly and artistically drawn.

“We see,” said Goethe, “that the young man has talent; however, you should not praise, but rather blame him, for learning everything by himself. A man of talent is not born to be left to himself, but to devote himself to art and good masters, who will make something out of him.

I have lately read a letter from Mozart, where, in reply to a Baron who had sent him his composition, he writes somewhat in this fashion:

“‘You dilettanti must be blamed for two faults, since two you generally have; either you have no thoughts of your own, and take those of others, or, if you have thoughts of your own, you do not know what to do with them.’

Is not this capital? and does not this fine remark, which Mozart makes about music, apply to all other arts?”

Goethe continued: “Leonardo da Vinci says, ‘If your son has not sense enough to bring out what he draws by a bold shadowing, so that we can grasp it with our hands, he has no talent.’

Further, Leonardo da Vinci says, ‘If your son is a perfect master of perspective and anatomy, send him to a good master.’”

“And now,” said Goethe, “our young artists scarcely understand either when they leave their masters. So much have times altered.”

“Our young painters,” continued Goethe, “lack heart and intellect. Their inventions express nothing and effect nothing: they paint swords which do not cut, and arrows which do not hit; and I often think, in spite of myself, that all intellect has vanished from the world.”

“And yet,” I replied, “we should naturally think that the great military events of latter years would have stirred the intellect.”

“They have stirred the will more than the intellect,” said Goethe, “and the poetical intellect more than the artistical, while all naïveté and sensuousness are lost. Without these two great requisites how can a painter produce anything in which we can take any pleasure?”

The conversation turned upon painting, and on the mischief of the antiquity-worshipping school. “You do not pretend to be a connoisseur,” said Goethe; “but I will show you a picture, in which, though it has been painted by one of the best living German artists, you will at the first glance be struck by the most glaring offences against the primary laws of art.

You will see that details are nicely done, but you will be dissatisfied with the whole, and will not know what to make of it; and this not because the painter has not sufficient talent, but because his mind, which should have directed his talent, is darkened, like that of all the other bigots to antiquity; so that he ignores the perfect masters, and, going back to their imperfect predecessors, takes them for his patterns.

Raphael and his contemporaries broke through a limited mannerism, to nature and freedom. And now our artists, instead of being thankful, using these advantages, and proceeding on the good way, return to the state of limitation.

This is too bad, and it is hard to understand such darkening of the intellect. And since in this course they find no support in art itself, they seek one from religion and faction – without these two they could not sustain themselves in their weakness.”

“There is,” continued Goethe, “through all art a filiation. If you see a great master, you will always find that he used what was good in his predecessors, and that it was this which made him great.

Men like Raphael do not spring out of the ground. They took root in the antique, and the best which had been done before them. Had they not used the advantages of their time, there would be little to say about them.”

“Freedom is an odd thing, and every man has enough of it, if he can only satisfy himself. What avails a superfluity of freedom which we cannot use? Look at this chamber and the next, in which, through the open door, you see my bed. Neither of them is large; and they are rendered still narrower by necessary furniture, books, manuscripts, and works of art; but they are enough for me.

I have lived in them all the winter, scarcely entering my front rooms. What have I done with my spacious house, and the liberty of going from one room to another, when I have not found it requisite to make use of them?

If a man has freedom enough to live healthy, and work at his craft, he has enough; and so much all can easily obtain. Then all of us are only free under certain conditions, which we must fulfill. The citizen is as free as the nobleman, when he restrains himself within the limits which God appointed by placing him in that rank. The nobleman is as free as the prince; for, if he will but observe a few ceremonies at court, he may feel himself his equal.

Freedom consists not in refusing to recognize anything above us, but in respecting something which is above us; for, by respecting it, we raise ourselves to it, and by our very acknowledgement make manifest that we bear within ourselves what is higher, and are worthy to be on a level with it.”

Some reflections were here made upon the productions of our newest young poets, and it was remarked that scarce one of them had come out with good prose.

“That is very easily explained.” said Goethe; “to write prose, one must have something to say; but he who has nothing to say can still make verses and rhymes, where one word suggests the other, and at last something comes out, which in fact is nothing, but looks as if it were something.”

The conversation then turned upon the “Antigone” of Sophocles, and the high moral tone prevailing in it: and, lastly, upon the question – how the moral element came into the world?

“Through God himself,” returned Goethe, “like everything else. It is no product of human reflection, but a beautiful nature inherent and inborn. It is, more or less, inherent in mankind generally, but to a high degree in a few eminently gifted minds.

These have, by great deeds or doctrines, manifested their divine nature; which, then, by the beauty of its appearance, won the love of men, and powerfully attracted them to reverence and emulation.

A consciousness of the worth of the morally beautiful and good could be attained by experience and wisdom, inasmuch as the bad showed itself in its consequences as a destroyer of happiness, both in individuals and the whole body, while the noble and right seemed to produce and secure the happiness of one and all. Thus the morally beautiful could become a doctrine, and diffuse itself over whole nations as something plainly expressed.”

“One should not study contemporaries and competitors, but the great men of antiquity, whose works have, for centuries, received equal homage and consideration. Indeed, a man of really superior endowments will feel the necessity of this, and it is just this need for an intercourse with great predecessors, which is the sign of a higher talent.

Let us study Molière, let us study Shakspeare, but above all things, the old Greeks, and always the Greeks.”

“For highly endowed natures,” remarked I, “the study of the authors of antiquity may be perfectly invaluable; but, in general, it appears to have little influence upon personal character. If this were the case, all philologists and theologians would be the most excellent of men.

But this is by no means the case; and such connoisseurs of the ancient Greek and Latin authors are able people or pitiful creatures, according to the good or bad qualities which God has given them, or which they have inherited from their father and mother.”

“There is nothing to be said against that,” returned Goethe; “but it must not, therefore, be said, that the study of the authors of antiquity is entirely without effect upon the formation of character. A worthless man will always remain worthless, and a little mind will not, by daily intercourse with the great minds of antiquity, become one inch greater.

But a noble man, in whose soul God has placed the capability for future greatness of character, and elevation of mind, will, by a knowledge of, and familiar intercourse with, the elevated natures of ancient Greeks and Romans, every day make a visible approximation to similar greatness.”

I asked Goethe which of the new philosophers he thought the highest.

“Kant,” said he, “beyond a doubt. He is the one whose doctrines still continue to work, and have penetrated most deeply into our German civilization. He has influenced even you, although you have never read him; now you need him no longer, for what he could give you, you possess already.

If you wish, by and by, to read something of his, I recommend to you his ‘Critique on the power of Judgment,’ in which he has written admirably upon rhetoric, tolerably upon poetry, but unsatisfactorily on plastic art.”

“I cannot help laughing at the æsthetical folks,” said Goethe, “who torment themselves in endeavouring, by some abstract words, to reduce to a conception that inexpressible thing to which we give the name of beauty.

Beauty is a primeval phenomenon, which itself never makes its appearance, but the reflection of which is visible in a thousand different utterances of the creative mind, and is as various as nature herself.”