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Goethe In Society 1774

( Originally Published 1913 )



THE publication of Gotz von Berlichingen in the spring of 1773, we have seen, had made Goethe known to the literary world of Germany, and a figure of prime interest to its leading representatives. Hitherto, nevertheless, with the exception of Herder, he had come into personal contact with no men of outstanding note who might hold intercourse with him on anything like equal terms. In the summer of 1774, however, when Clavigo and Werther were on the eve of publication, he was brought into contact with three men, all of whom had already achieved reputation in their respective spheres ; and all of whom had visions as distinct from each other as they were distinct from Goethe's own. As it happens, we have records of their intercourse from the hands of three of the four, and, taken together, they present a picture of the youthful Goethe which leaves little to be desired in its fidelity, in its definiteness, in its vividness of colour. During the greater part of two months (from the last week in June till the middle of August) he comes before us in all the splendour of his youthful genius, with all his wild humours, his audacities, his overflowing vitality.

The first of these three notabilities who came in Goethe's way was one of whom he himself said, " that the world had never seen his like, and will not see his like again." He was Johann Kaspar Lavater, born in Zurich in 1741, and thus eight years older than Goethe. Lavater had early drawn the attention of the world to himself. In his sixteenth year he had published a volume of poems (Schweizerlieder) which attained a wide circulation, and a later work (Aussichten in die Ewigkeit) found such acceptance from its vein of mystical piety that he was hailed as a religious teacher who had given a new savour to the Christian life. At the time when he crossed Goethe's path he was engaged on the work on Physiognomy with which his name is chiefly associated, and it was partly with the object of collecting the materials for that work that he was now visiting Germany. But the personality of Lavater was more remarkable than his writings. By his combination of the saint and the man of the world he made a unique impression on all who met him, on Goethe notably among others. That his religious feelings were sincere his lifelong preoccupation with the character of Christ as the great exemplar of humanity may be taken as sufficient proof. To impress the world with the conception he had formed of the person of Christ was the mission of his life, and it was in the carrying out of this mission that his remarkable characteristics came into play. With a face and expression which suggested the Apostle John, he exhibited in society a tact and address which, at this period at least, did not compromise his religious professions. Next to his interest in the Founder of Christianity was his interest in human character, and his divination of the working of men's minds was such that, according to Goethe, it produced an uneasy feeling to be in his presence. Be it added that Lavater was in full sympathy with the leaders of the Sturm and D rang as emancipators from dead formalism, and the champions of natural feeling as opposed to cold intelligence. Such was the remarkable person with whom Goethe was thrown into contact during a. few notable weeks, and who has recorded his impressions f him with the insight of a discerner of spirits. As time was to show, they were divided in their essential modes of thought and feeling by as wide a gulf as can separate man from man, and in later years Lavater's compromises with the world in the prosecution of his mission drew from Goethe more stinging comments than he has used in the case of almost any other person.' In the passages of his Autobiography, where he records his first intercourse with Lavater, though his tone is distinctly critical, of bitterness there is no trace, and there is the frankest testimony to Lavater's personal fascination and the stimulating interest of his mind and character.

Relations between the two had begun a year before their actual meeting. Lavater had read its general line of thought led him to open a correspondence with its author. The reading of Gotz, a copy of which. Goethe sent to him, convinced him that a portent had appeared in the literary world. " I rejoice with trembling," he wrote to Herder " among all writers I know no greater genius." Before they met, indeed, Lavater was already dominated by a force that brought home to him a sense of his own weakness to which he gave artless expression. In some lines he addressed to Goethe he takes the tone of a humble disciple, and prays that out of his fulness he would communicate ardour to his feelings and light to his intelligence. Yet in Lavater's eyes Goethe was a brand to be plucked from the burning, and, born proselytiser as he was, he even made the attempt to convert Goethe to his own views of ultimate salvation. In response to his appeal Goethe wrote a letter which should have convinced Lavater that he was dealing with a son of Adam with the ineradicable instincts of the natural man. " Thank you, dear brother," he wrote, " for your ardour regarding your brother's eternal happiness. Believe me, the time will come when we shall understand each other. You hold converse with me as with an unbeliever—one who insists on understanding, on having proofs, who has not been schooled by experience. And the contrary of all this is my real feeling. Am I not more resigned in the matter of understanding and proving than yourself ? Perhaps I am foolish in not giving you the pleasure of expressing myself in your language, and in not showing to you by laying bare my deepest experiences that I am a man and therefore cannot feel otherwise than other men, and that all the apparent contradiction between us is only strife of words which arises from the fact that I realise things under other combinations than you, and that in expressing their relativity I must call them by other names ; and this has from the beginning been the source of all controversies, and will be to the end. And you will be for ever plaguing me with evidences q And to what end? Do I require evidence that I exist? evidence that I feel? I treasure, cherish, and revere only such evidences as prove to me that thousands, or even one, have felt that which strengthens and consoles me. And, therefore, the word of man is for me the word of God, whether by parsons or prostitutes it has been brought together, enrolled in the canon, or flung as fragments to the winds. And with my inner most soul I fall as a brother on the neck of Moses ! Prophet ! Evangelist ! Apostle ! Spinoza or Machiavelli ! But to each I am permitted to say;

Dear friend, it is with you as it is with me ; the particular you feel yourself grand and mighty, but the whole goes as little into your head as into mine.' "

On June 23rd Lavater arrived. in Frankfort, where during four days he was entertained as a guest in the Goethe household, The news of his coming had created a lively interest in all sections of the community, and during his stay he was besieged by admiring crowds, especially of women, who insisted even on seeing the bedchamber where the prophet slept . "The pious souls," was Merck's sardonic comment, " wished to see where they had laid the Lord " ; but even Merck came under the prophet's spell. The meeting of Lavater and Goethe was characteristic of the time. "Bist's?" was Lavater's first exclamation. "Ich bin's," was the reply ; and they fell upon each other's necks. On Lavater's indicating " by some singular exclamations' " that Goethe was not exactly what he expected, Goethe replied in the tone of banter which he maintained throughout their personal intercourse, that he was as God and nature had made him, and they must be content with their work. "All spirit (Geist) and truth,"1 is Lavater's comment on Goethe's conversation at the close of their first day's meeting.

The following days were taken up with excursions and social gatherings in which Lavater was the central figure, entrancing his hearers by his social graces and his apostolic unction. In the Fraulein von Klettenberg he found a kindred soul, and Goethe listened, as he tells us, with profit as they discoursed on the high themes in which they had a common interest. If he derived profit, it was not of a nature that Lavater and the Fraulein would have desired. With the religious opinions of neither was he in sympathy, and when they rejected his own, he says, he would badger them with paradoxes and exaggerations, and, if they became impatient, would leave them with a jest. What is noteworthy in Lavater's record, indeed, is Goethe's communicativeness and spontaneity in all that concerned himself. So soon as we enter society," is one of his remarks recorded by Lavater, " we take the key out of our hearts and put it in our pockets. Those who allow it to remain there are blockheads. "

During his stay in Frankfort Lavater was so constantly surrounded by his admirers that Goethe saw comparatively little of him. On June 28th Lavater left for Ems, and it is a testimony to their mutual attraction that Goethe accompanied him.

The day's journey seems to have left an abiding impression on Goethe's memory, as he makes special reference to it in his record of Lavater's visit ; and, as it happens, Lavater noted in his Diary the principal topics of their conversation. Travelling in a private carriage during the long summer day, they had an opportunity for abundant talk such as did not occur again. One theme on which Goethe spoke with enthusiasm, it is interesting to note, was Spinoza and his writings, but, as his talk is reported by Lavater, there was no hint in it of the profound change which the study of Spinoza had effected in him. It was to the man and not the thinker that he paid his reverential tribute—to the purity, simplicity, and high wisdom of his life. But Goethe's own literary preoccupations appear to have been the chief subject of their talk. He spoke of a play on Julius Cesar on which he was engaged, and which remained one of his many abortive ambitions ; he read passages from Der Ewige Jude, " a singular thing in doggerel verse," Lavater calls it ; recited a romance translated from the Scots dialect ; and narrated for Lavater's benefit the whole story of the Iliad, reading passages of the poem from a Latin translation. The memorable day was not to be repeated. At Ems, as at Frankfort, Lavater was taken possession of by a throng of worshippers, and the state of his own affairs at home afforded Goethe an excuse for leaving him.

By a curious coincidence, shortly after Goethe's return, there arrived another prophet in Frankfort —also, like Lavater, out on a mission of his own. This was Johann Bernhard Basedow, whose character and career had made him one of the remarkable figures of his time in Germany. Born in Hamburg in 1723, the son of a peruke-maker there, in conduct and opinions he had been at odds with society from the beginning. In middle age he had come under the influence of Rousseau, and thenceforth he made it his mission by word and deed to realise Rousseau's ideals in education. He had expounded his theories in voluminous publications which had attracted wide attention, and the object of his present travels was to collect funds to establish a school at Dessau in which his educational views should be carried into effect." Goethe, as he himself tells us, had as little sympathy with the gospel of Basedow as with that of Lavater, but, always attracted to originals, Basedow's personality amused and interested him. What gave point to his curiosity was the piquancy of the contrast between the two prophets. Lavater was all grace, purity, and refinement ; " in his presence one shrank like a maiden from hurting his feelings." In appearance, voice, manner, on the other hand, Basedow was the incarnation of a hectoring bully, as regardless of others' feelings as he was impermeable in his own. His personal habits, also, were a further trial, as he drank more than was good for him and lived in an atmosphere of vile tobacco smoke. Such was the singular mortal whose society Goethe deliberately sought and cultivated during the next few weeks as opportunity offered.

After spending some days in Frankfort, Basedow, on July 12th, set out to join Lavater at Ems, whether at Goethe's suggestion or of his own accord we are not told. Goethe had seen enough of Basedow to make him wish to see more of him, and, moreover, it would be a piquant experience to see the two incongruous apostles together. " Such a splendid opportunity, if not of enlightenment, at least of mental discipline," he says, " I could not, in short, let slip." Accordingly, leaving some pressing business in the hands of his father and friends, he followed Basedow to Ems on July 15th. Ems, then as now, was a gay watering-place crowded with guests of all conditions, and therefore an excellent field for the two proselytisers. Goethe did not spend his days in the company of the two lights ; while they were plying their mission, he threw himself into the distractions of the town, as usual making himself a conspicuous figure by his overflowing spirits and his practical jokes. Only at night, when he did not happen to have a dancing partner, did he snatch a moment to pay a visit to Basedow, whom he found in a close, unventilated room, enveloped in tobacco smoke, and dictating endlessly to his secretary from his couch ; for it was one of Basedow's peculiarities that he never went to bed. On one occasion Goethe had an excellent opportunity of observing the contrasted characters of the two prophets. The three had gone to Nassau to visit the Frau von Stein, mother of the statesman, and a numerous company had been brought together to meet them. All three had the opportunity of displaying their special gifts ; Lavater his skill in physiognomy, Goethe the gift he had inherited from his mother of story-telling to children ; but in the end Basedow asserted himself in his most characteristic style. With a power of reasoning and a passionate eloquence, to which both Goethe and Lavater bear witness, he proclaimed the conditions of the regeneration of society—the improved education of youth and the necessity for the rich to open their purses for its accomplishment. Then, his wanton spirit as usual getting the better of him, he turned the torrent of his eloquence in another direction. A thorough-going rationalist, his pet aversion was the dogma of the Trinity, and on that dogma he now directed his batteries, with the effect of horrifying his audience, most of whom had come to be edified by the pious exhortations of Lavater. Lavater mildly expostulated ; Goethe endeavoured by jesting interruptions to change the subject, and the ladies to break up the company. All their efforts were in vain, and the apostle of Rousseau had the satisfaction of completely unbosoming himself and at the same time forfeiting some contributions to his educational scheme. As they drove back to Ems, Goethe took a humorous revenge. The heat of a July day and his recent vocal exertions had made the prophet thirsty, and as they passed a tavern he ordered the driver to pull up. Goethe imperiously countermanded the order, to the wrath of Basedow, which Goethe turned aside, however, with one of his ever-ready quips.

The strangely-assorted trio were not yet tired of each other's company, for, when on July 18th Lavater left Ems, both Goethe and Basedow accompanied him. Their way lay down the Lahn and the Rhine, and on the voyage Basedow and Goethe conducted themselves like German students on holiday—the former discoursing on grammar and smoking everlastingly, the latter improvising doggerel verses and the beautiful lines beginning : Hoch auf dem alten Turme steht. On landing at Coblenz the behaviour of the pair was so outrageous that all three were apparently taken by the crowd for lunatics. At Coblenz they dined, and the dinner has its place in literature, for both in his Autobiography and in some sarcastic lines (Dine zu Coblenz) Goethe has commemorated it. He sat between Lavater and Basedow, and during the meal the former expounded the Revelation of St. John to a country.

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