Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

should hold out in his right hand all truth, and in his left simply the intense desire for it, although with the condition that I should eternally err in the pursuit, and should say unto me, Choose! I would fall humbly on his left, and say, Father, give! Pure truth is, indeed, for thee alone.” The religious sentiments of Lessing were similar to those which have since prevailed in the learned classes of German society ; yet, like Leibnitz before him, allowing both an esoteric and an exoteric faith, he was very far from wishing to alter the forms of the established worship, or in any way needlessly to disturb the faith of the common people. The labors of Lessing were very various ; his learning prodigious ; his aims universal ; his influence extensive, and, in certain respects, salutary. Like Leibnitz, again, he ranged observingly over the whole theatre of the period in which he lived, proving all things and holding fast to that which was good, narrowed by no exclusive system of philosophy, and devoted to no one method of investigation. He at last brought the ancient times to a complete termination, and fully introduced the new ages.

Lessing was no poet. He himself expressly said, that the living fountains of poetry were not in him. But the author of the “Laocoon” was perhaps the greatest critic of modern times. The object of this celebrated work is, to show, that the isolation of the several fine arts from each other is essential to their perfection, and that their common aim is the production of beauty. The peculiar province of poetry is proved to be entirely distinct both from that of morality and of philosophy, being limited, stricily speaking, to the exhibition of ideal actions. These views, in which Lessing differed widely from Klopstock, who made moral beauty, and also from Wieland, who considered nature and truth, as the great aim of poetry, but in which he agreed with Aristotle, and was closely followed in their æsthetical theories by Goethe, Schiller, and Humboldt, were enforced with great argumentative power, extraordinary purity and correctness of taste, and with rich and pertinent illustrations from the art and literature of Greece. By his plays, written in prose, and which, marking out the boundaries between prose and poetry, first established the true relations between them, Lessing regenerated the German stage ; and by his “ Dramaturgie ” delivering German poetry from the yoke of French dogmatism, he pointed out to his countrymen the true paths to the Parnassian mount, which they afterwards so generally and successfully followed.

We cannot pass by Winckelmann, that noble Grecian, who, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was the teacher of art for all civilized Europe, without saying a word or two respecting his character and works. Reluctant, like Lessing, to study the profession of divinity, for which he had been set apart, this great expounder of antique art sighed out the first thirty years of his life in giving lessons to little boys and girls. His spirit remained unbroken, however, and the study of classic art and literature afterwards restored him to second youth. At length, for the sake of spending the remainder of his days amidst the ruins and the arts of Rome, he changed his religion, and adopted the name of Catholic, - saying to a friend,' “ Nullum ingenium magnum sine mixturâ dementiæ.In fact, however, though the recollection of early religious impressions was always precious to Winckelmann, as to Goethe, though he also composed Lutheran hymns that were pressed, throughout Prussia, to the hearts of the pious, and though, when under adversity, he could pour, both into his own bosom and the broken hearts of his friends, the oil of religious consolation, yet he laid no claim to piety in the popular sense of the word. As he was a Catholic at Rome, so would he, in Greece, have been a priest of Cybele, or a worshipper of Osiris in Egypt. His religion, which he called philosophy, was that which, in his opinion, remained at last as the common truth of all forms of religious belief. To act and strive in the present hour he considered to be his calling ; and thought, if

possible, less even than Lessing, of immortality. In Winckelmann, the good and the bad were mixed up together, as in nature ; and to be better than nature, he, like Goethe, had no desire, but rather a disinclination. In the solitude and adversity of his early life, he acquired an elasticity of mind, which enabled him to make sacrifices and practise selfdenial, but which also fitted him for yielding easily to the pressure of circumstances and the wickedness of mankind. He was too proud, it must be confessed, of his name and reputation ; and the intensity with which he loved his country was regulated by the amount of incense it offered to his vanity. His simplicity and naïveté of character were

[ocr errors]

extraordinary. He laid open his whole nature to inspection ; and followed out, like a child, all his impulses, though with a certain degree of moderation, - saying, with the wise men of antiquity, that he wished not to be too happy. In Italy, he learned to harmonize the conflicting elements of his character, — husbanding his enthusiasm, guiding his straightforwardness with prudence, and mitigating the violence of his passions by quiet and humility. The great work by which Winckelmann is known to fame is his “ History of Art.” By this, he opened the realms of beauty to his countrymen, and led them into the temple of Grecian art, as Herder did into that of Hebrew wisdom and poetry.

The first appearance of Herder in literature was bold and even arrogant.

The sensitive, excitable youth, whose nerves were too weak for the practice of medicine, for which he had been designed, and whose retiring and conscientious disposition better fitted him for the profession of theology, which he afterwards followed, came forward at first, anonymously, indeed, but in a style of composition that was fearless, assuming, and ambitious. Though a teacher in his youth, like Winckelmann, he never had, like him, to struggle with poverty ; he started, also, with this other advantage over his immediate predecessors, that he entered into the harvest of their labors. Favored by fortune, though never aided by friendship, for which his shrinking and distrustful disposition made him quite unfit, his gentle, pliable nature acquired elasticity and hardihood. In his early publications, which consisted chiefly of critical essays upon literature and art, he boldly attacked, though he by no means overthrew, the artistic theories of Lessing and the philosophical system of Kant. He advocated his own opinions with strong and genial enthusiasm, and displayed, withal, a liberality of religious sentiment, that did not fail to raise some suspicions of his orthodoxy in the minds of more scrupulous theologi

He adopted, in the main, the theological views of Lessing, carrying them, at least, as far as was consistent with his sacred calling, and defending them, together with the philosophy of Spinoza, against the objections of Jacobi.

Of all Herder's predecessors and contemporaries, Lessing exerted the greatest influence upon his writings, though Klopstock produced a deeper impression upon his character. Compared with the former, Herder has more feeling, Lessing VOL. LVIII. No. 122.

13

ans.

more insight. The writings of Lessing abound in convincing demonstrations ; those of Herder, in splendid declamations ; the one having more science and more truth, the other more rhetoric and more error. The former always exhausted his subject, and brought his works to completion ; while the latter never published any thing but fragments. But in susceptibility to the beautiful and noble in the literature of foreign countries and distant times, Herder excelled both Lessing and all his other contemporaries. Such was the facility with which he seized upon the characteristics, and such the fidelity with which he reproduced the spirit and form, the tone and coloring, of the literature of all nations, that the haughtiness of the Spaniard, the naïveté of the Lithuanian, the mild sentimentality of the German, the dashing boldness of English historical romance, the fresh life of the ancient Greek, and the dreamy musings of the Asiatic Indian, the glow of the South, and the gloom of the North, all seem to be comprehended within the broad bosom of this one genius. As Winckelmann's 66 History of Art” unlocked the treasures of Greece, so did Herder's “Spirit of Hebrew Poetry" open the way to the ancient world of the East, whence, as also from all European lands, from the vales of the_tropics, and the bills of the North, from Greenland and Peru, he brought home flowers of every form, hue, and scent, to interweave in the garland of his country's literature.

Herder was like an inspired child, — all sense and feeling, in love with simplicity and nature, and deeply impressed by the mysterious and remote in time or place. His whole life, he once said, was but the interpretation of the oracles of his childhood. Children, women, and men of simple minds were, in his estimation, the most eloquent of orators. He wished he had been born in the Middle Ages ; he gave an ear to prophesyings, and longed to see a ghost. The earliest poetry he always thought the best ; and language in its rudest state, the most poetic. He regarded Greek poetry as not to be compared with the Hebrew ; admired Ossian and the songs of the North American Indians ; and looked upon his treatise on the earliest records of the human race as a new Scripture. He made collections of popular songs, and set a higher value on them than upon the productions of artistic poets, not one of whom could he endure, save Klopstock. His imagination roamed enraptured through the parond stage

adise of the past, and beheld in the distant future a return of the age of gold. The views and principles advanced by Herder in the sec

of his progress were very dissimilar to those entertained by him in the first. As was the case with Goethe, the revolutionary spirit, with which he was possessed in youth, died out in him long before it did in the nation. Hence, in his “ Calligone." and his polemical writings against Kant, we find him both contradicting his former self, and opposing the spirit of the times. In early life, he thought that poetry declined with the progress of civilization ; but now he be

; lieves in its advance. No longer the idolizer of popular song, he considers that the highest poetry, in which there is a harmonious union of nature and art. Не

expects

the coming of a future bard, who shall sing in measures the last results of philosophy, and even reduce to verse the scientific systems of Copernicus and Buffon.

As Goethe, at a later period, discovered something excellent and weighty in the decency of Voltaire, so Herder, the former admirer of the simplicity of nature, now appears as the defender of the French poets, and praises the precision and definiteness of their language as the necessary fruit of refined culture. He, who once complained of the mingling of the beautiful and the good in the works of Klopstock, now adopts for his motto, — the beautiful, the good, and the true, one and inseparable. No longer do we hear him declaim about the unconsciousness of genius, he does not believe in it ; no longer does he proclaim the inspiration of feeling, — he laughs at the Quakers in science, who wait for the anointing of the Spirit ; no longer does he extol the genius of Shakspeare, – he is almost in favor of shutting up the theatres ; no longer is he the advocate even of the freedom of religious opinion, - he proposes to forbid theological polemics by a royal ordinance, and to expurgate error by fire from every circulating library in the land. Herder went back to the seventeenth century, — the age, which, like himself, studied antiquity and translated foreign literature, which mixed up the styles of poetry and prose, which divided its interest between poetry and theology, — the age of enthusiasm for popular songs and music, and the age, also, of historical learning, culminating in Leibnitz, who, in this respect, was Herder's highest ideal.

« ZurückWeiter »