JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE.
GERMANY’S GREATEST WRITER.
BY FREDERIC HENRY HEDGE.
I. THE MAN.
Genius of the supreme order presupposes a nature of equal scope as the prime condition of its being. The Gardens of Adonis require little earth, but the oak will not flourish in a tub; and the wine of Tokay is the product of no green-house, nor gotten of sour grapes. Given a genuine great poet, you will find a greater man behind, in whom, among others, these virtues predominate,—courage, generosity, truth.
[Footnote 5: From “Hours with the German Classics,” by FREDERIC HENRY HEDGE (copyright by him in 1886). With permission of Messrs. LITTLE, BROWN, & CO., Publishers, Boston, Mass.]
Pre-eminent among the poets of the modern world stands Goethe, chief of his own generation, challenging comparison with the greatest of all time. His literary activity embraces a span of nigh seventy years in a life of more than fourscore, beginning, significantly enough, with a poem on “Christ’s Descent into Hell” (his earliest extant composition), and ending with Faust’s—that is, Man’s—ascent into heaven. The rank of a writer—his spiritual import to human kind—may be inferred from the number and worth of the writings of which he has furnished the topic and occasion. “When kings build,” says Schiller, speaking of Kant’s commentators, “the draymen have plenty to do.” Dante and Shakspeare have created whole libraries through the interest inspired by their writings. The Goethe-literature, so-called,—though scarce fifty years have elapsed since the poet’s death,—already numbers its hundreds of volumes.
I note in this man, first of all, as a literary phenomenon, the unexampled fact of supreme excellence in several quite distinct provinces of literary action. Had we only his minor poems, he would rank as the first of lyrists. Had he written only “Faust,” he would be the first of philosophic poets. Had he written only “Hermann and Dorothea,” the sweetest idyllist; if only the “Maerchen,” the subtlest of allegorists. Had he written never a verse, but only prose, he would hold the highest place among the prose-writers of Germany. And lastly, had he written only on scientific subjects, in that line also—in the field of science—he would be, as he is, an acknowledged leader.
Noticeable in him also is the combination of extraordinary genius with extraordinary fortune. A magnificent person, a sound physique, inherited wealth, high social position, official dignity, with eighty-three years of earthly existence, compose the framework of this illustrious life.