Enjoy in moderation all life gives:
Where it rejoices in each thing that lives
Let reason be thy guide and make thee see.
Then shall the distant past be present still,
The future, ere it comes, thy vision fill—
Each single moment touch eternity.
Then at the last shalt thou achieve thy quest,
And in one final, firm conviction rest:
What bears for thee true fruit alone is true.
Prove all things, watch the movement of the world
As down the various ways its tribes are whirled;
Take thou thy stand among the chosen few.
Thus hath it been of old; in solitude
The artist shaped what thing to him seemed good,
The wise man hearkened to his own soul’s voice.
Thus also shalt thou find thy greatest bliss;
To lead where the elect shall follow—this
And this alone is worth a hero’s choice.
Hermann and Dorothea is universally known and prized in Germany as no other work of the classical period of German literature except Goethe’s Faust and Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, and, although distinctively German in subject and spirit, it early became and is still a precious possession of all the modern world. It marks the culmination of the renaissance in the literary art of Germany and perhaps of Europe.
Schiller hailed it as the pinnacle of Goethe’s and of all modern art. A. W. Schlegel in 1797 judged it to be a finished work of art in the grand style, and at the same time intelligible, sympathetic, patriotic, popular, a book full of golden teachings of wisdom and virtue. Two generations later one of the leading historians of German literature declared that there is no other poem that comes so near to the father of all poetry (Homer) as this, none in which Greek form and German content are so intimately blended, and that this is perhaps the only poem which without explanation and without embarrassment all the modern centuries could offer to an ancient Greek to enjoy. In the view of the end of the nineteenth century, expressed by a distinguished philosopher-critic, this work is a unique amalgam of the artistic spirit, objectivity, and contemplative clearness of Homer with the soul-life of the present, the heart-beat of the German people, the characteristic traits which mark the German nature.
As Longfellow’s Evangeline, treating in the same verse-form of the dactylic hexameter and in a way partly epic and partly idyllic a story of love and domestic interests in a contrasting setting of war and exile, was modeled on Hermann and Dorothea, so the latter poem was suggested by J. H. Voss’ idyl Luise, published first in parts in 1783 and 1784 and as a whole revised in 1795. Of his delight in Luise Goethe wrote to Schiller in February, 1798: “This proved to be much to my advantage, for this joy finally became productive in me, it drew me into this form (the epic), begot my Hermann, and who knows what may yet come of it.” But Luise is not really epic; it is without action, without unity, without any large historical outlook,—a series of minutely pictured, pleasing idyllic scenes.