But all this has not been merely to exercise our ingenuity. By drawing this parallel, which is naturally only to be taken approximately, we have intended to make clear the comforting probability that, in spite of all the exaggerating, narrowing down, and forcing to which it has been obliged to submit, our modern and most recent German literature is essentially a healthy literature. That, in spite of all deviation caused by influential theorists—of the Storm and Stress, of the Romantic School, of the period of Goethe’s old age, of the epigonean or naturalistic criticism, or by the dazzling phenomena of foreign countries,—nevertheless in the essentials it obeys its own inner laws. That in spite of all which in the present stage of our literature may create a painful or confusing impression, we have no cause to doubt that a new and powerful upward development will take place, and no cause either to underrate the literature of our own day! It is richer in great, and what is perhaps more important, in serious talents than any other contemporary literature. No other can show such wealth of material, no other such abundance of interesting and, in part, entirely new productions. We do not say this in order to disparage others who in some ways were, only a short time ago, so far superior to us—as were the French in surety of form, the Scandinavians in greatness of talents, the Russians in originality, the English in cultivation of the general public; but we are inspired to utter it by the hopeful joy which every one must feel who, in the contemplation of our modern lyric poetry, our novels, dramas, epic and didactic poetry, does not allow himself to be blinded by prejudice or offended vanity. A great literature such as we possessed about 1800 we of a certainty do not have to-day. A more hopeful chaos or one more rich in fertile seeds we have not possessed since the days of Romanticism. It is surely worth while to study this literature, and in all its twists and turns to admire the heliotropism of the German ideal and the importance which our German literature has won as a mediator, an experimenter, and a model for that world-literature, the outline of which the prophetic eye of the greatest German poet was the first to discern, and his hand, equally expert in scientific and poetic creation, the first to describe.
BY CALVIN THOMAS, LL.D.
Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Columbia University
Goethe, the illustrious poet-sage whom Matthew Arnold called the “clearest, largest, and most helpful thinker of modern times,” was born August 28, 1749, at Frankfurt on the Main. He was christened Johann Wolfgang. In his early years his familiar name was Wolfgang, or simply Wolf, never Johann. His family was of the middle class, the aristocratic von which sometimes appears in his name, in accordance with German custom, having come to him with a patent of nobility which he received in the year 1782.