Goethe Johann Peter Eckermann:

Conversations with Goethe

October 11, 1828

Goethe (1749-1832)
Eckermann (1792-1854)

Goethe on Literature

Yesterday I received two copies of the 3rd number of the Foreign Review from William Frazier of London, the editor of that periodical, and gave one of them to Goethe. It contained a variety of interesting articles, including a very fine essay by Carlyle on Goethe which I studied this morning.

I went to Goethe a little earlier to dinner, that I might have an opportunity of talking this over with him before the arrival of the other guests. I found him, as I wished, still alone, expecting the company. He wore his black coat and star, with which I so much liked to see him. He appeared today in quite youthful spirits [age 79], and we began immediately to speak on topics interesting to both. Goethe told me that he, likewise, had been looking at Carlyle's article this morning, and thus we were both in a position to exchange our views.

“It is a pleasure to see,” said Goethe, “how the earlier pedantry of the Scotch has changed into earnestness and profundity. When I recollect how the Edinburgh Review treated my works not many years since, and when I now consider Carlyle's merits with respect to German literature, I am astonished at the important steps for the better”

I said, “In Carlyle, I venerate most of all the mind and character which lie at the foundation of his tendencies. The chief point with him is the culture of his own nation; and in the literary productions of other countries, which he wishes to make known to his contemporaries, he pays less attention to the arts of talent, then to the moral elevation which can be attained through such works.”

Goethe said, “Yes, the temper in which he works is always admirable. What an earnest man he is! and how he has studied us Germans! He is almost more at home in our literature than ourselves. At any rate, we cannot vie with him in our researches in English literature.”

“The article,” I said, “is written with a fire and impressiveness which show that there are many prejudices and contradictions to contend with in England. [Goethe's] Wilhelm Meister especially seems to have been placed in an unfavorable light by malevolent critics and bad translators. Carlyle, on the contrary, treats it very well. To the stupid objection that no virtuous lady could read Wilhelm Meister, he cites the late Queen of Prussia, who made herself familiar with the book, and was rightly esteemed one of the first women of her time.”

Some of the guests came in now, whom Goethe received. He then turned to me again, and I continued. “Carlyle has indeed studied Wilhelm Meister and, being so thoroughly penetrated with its value, he would like to see it universally circulated— would like to see every cultivated mind receive similar profit and enjoyment.” Goethe drew me to a window to answer me. “My dear young friend,” he said, “I will confide to you something which may help you a great deal. My works cannot be popular. He who thinks and strives to make them so is in error. They are not written for the multitude, but only for individuals who desire something congenial, and whose aims are like my own.”

He wished to say more; but a young lady who came up interrupted him, and drew him into conversation. I turned to the others, and soon afterward we sat down to table. I could pay no attention to the conversation that was going on; Goethe's words were impressed upon me, and entirely occupied my mind. I thought “Really, a writer like him, an intellect so exalted, a nature so comprehensive, how can he be popular? Can even a small part of him be popular? even those songs which convivial companies o enamored maidens sing, and which again are not for others?

“And, rightly regarded, is not this the case with everything extraordinary? Is Mozart, is Raphael popular? and is not the relation of the world toward these great fountains of overflowing spiritual life like that of some dainty person, who is pleased now and then to snatch up a little that may for a while afford higher enjoyment.” Yes, I continued in my own mind, “Goethe is right. He cannot be popular to his full extent; his works are only for individuals who desire something congenial, and whose pursuits are like his own. They are for contemplative natures, who wish to penetrate into the depths of the world and human nature, and follow in his path. They are for those susceptible of passionate enjoyment, who seek in the poet the bliss and woe of the heart. They are for young poets who would learn how to express their feelings, and how to treat a subject artistically. They are for critics, who find there a model for the best rules of judgment, and also for the means of making a criticism interesting and attractive, so that it may be read with pleasure.

“His works are for the artist, inasmuch as they enlighten his mind generally, and teach him particularly what subjects are suited to works of art; what he should use, and what to leave aside. They are for observer of nature, not only because great laws are discovered and taught him, but, still more, because they give him the method by which the intellect must proceed with nature to make her reveal her mysteries. In short, all those who are making efforts in science or art, may be guests at the richly-provided banquet of his works, and in their productions bear witness to the great general source of light and life from which they have drawn.”

These and similar thoughts were in my head during dinner-time. I thought of individuals, of many a good German artist, of natural philosophers, poets, and critics, who owed to Goethe a great part of their culture. I thought of intellectual Italians, Frenchmen, and Englishmen, who have their eyes upon him, and who have worked in his spirit. In the meanwhile, all around me were jesting and talking, and partaking of the good fare. I spoke now and then a word, but without knowing exactly what I said. A lady put a question to me, to which, it seems, I did not render a very appropriate answer: they all laughed at me. “Let Eckermann alone,” said Goethe. “He is always absent, except when he is at the theatre.” They laughed at me again; but I did not regard it. I felt myself, today, peculiarly happy. I blessed my fate, which, after many singular dispensations, had associated me with the few who enjoy the conversation and intimacy of a man whose greatness I had deeply felt only a few moments since, and whom I now had personally before my eyes, in all his amiability.

Biscuits and some very fine grapes were brought for dessert. The latter had been sent from a distance, and Goethe would not say whence they came. He divided them, and handed me a very ripe branch across the table. “Here, my good friend,” he said, “eat these sweets, and much good may they do you.” I highly enjoyed the grapes from Goethe's hand, and was now quite near him both in body and soul.

                                    — Johann Peter Eckermann (1792-1854)
                                         Conversations with Goethe, Saturday, October 11, 1828

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