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Goethe - Influence Of Merck And The Darmstadt Circle 1772

( Originally Published 1913 )



SPECIALLY associated with Gotz von Berlichingen, but associated also with Goethe's general develop at this time, was another of those mentors whose counsel and stimulus were necessary to him at all periods of his life. This was Johann Heinrich Merck, the son of an apothecary in Darmstadt and now Paymaster of the Forces there. Of Merck Goethe says that " he had the greatest influence on my life," and he makes him the subject of one of his elaborate character sketches in his Autobiography. To men of original nature, however discordant with his own, Goethe was always attracted. We have seen him in more or less close relations with Behrisch, Jung Stilling, and Herder, from all of whom he was divided by dissonances which made a perfect mutual understanding impossible. So it was in the case of Merck, as Goethe's references to him in his Autobiography and elsewhere clearly imply. In Merck there was apparently a mixture of conflicting elements which made him a mystery to his friends, and his suicide at the age of fifty points to something morbid in his nature. Of his real goodness of heart and of his genuine admiration for what he considered worthy of it, his own reported sayings and the testimony of others leave us in no doubt. Recording his impression of Goethe after a few interviews, he wrote : " I begin to have a real affection for Goethe. He is a man after my own heart, as I have found few." On the other hand, there were traits in him which Goethe did not scruple to call Mephistophelian---an opinion shared even by Goethe's mother, whose nature it was to see the best side of men and things. His variable humour and caustic tongue made him at once a terror and an attraction in whatever society he moved, and it is evident from the tone of Goethe's reminiscences of him that his intercourse with Merck was a mixed pleasure. But, as we have seen, it was an abiding principle of Goethe to be repelled by no one who had something to give him, and Merck possessed qualities and accomplishments which were of the first importance to him in the phase through which he was now passing. Merck was keenly interested in literature, especially in English literature, and had all Goethe's enthusiasm for Shakespeare. Though his own original productions were of mediocre quality, he had an insight into the character and genius of others which Goethe fully recognised and to which he acknowledges his special obligation. His general attitude in criticism was " negative and destructive," but this attitude was entirely wholesome for Goethe at a period when instinct and passion tended to overbear his judgment. With admirable penetration he saw how Goethe during these Frankfort years occasionally wasted his powers in attempts which were unworthy of his gifts and alien to his real nature. It was in reference to these futile tendencies that Merck gave him counsel in words which subsequent critics have recognised as the most adequate definition of the essential characteristic of Goethe's genius as a poet. " Your endeavour, your unswerving aim," he wrote, " is to give poetic form to the real. Others seek to realise the so-called poetic, the imaginative ; and the result is nothing but stupid nonsense." Like subsequent critics, also, Merck saw the superiority of the first draft of Gotz to the second, but when the latter was completed, he played a friend's part. " It is rubbish and of no account," was his characteristic remark ; however, let the thing be printed "; and published it was, Merck bearing the cost of printing and Goethe supplying the paper.

It was towards the close of 1771 that Goethe had made Merck's acquaintance on the occasion of a visit Merck had paid to Frankfort ; and in March of the following year, in company with the younger Schlosser, they renewed their intercourse in Darmstadt, where Merck was settled. The visit lasted a few days, and was of some importance, as it introduced Goethe to a society of which he was to see much during the remainder of his stay in Frankfort, and which, according to his own testimony, " invigorated and widened his powers." It was a society in which we are surprised to find the Mephistophelian Merck the leading and most admired member. It consisted of a group of men and women associated with the Court at Darmstadt, whose bond of union was the cult of sensibility as the rising generation of Germany had learned it from Rousseau, Richardson, and Sterne. They went by the name of the Gemeinsehaft der Heiligen, and the fervours of the community were at least those of genuine votaries. So far as Goethe is concerned, it was in three of the priestesses, one of them Caroline Flachsland, the betrothed of Herder, that he found the attraction of the society. For the youth who two years later was to give classic expression to the cult of sensibility in his Werther, his intercourse with these ladies of Darmstadt was an appropriate schooling. For their sensibilities were boundless, and they did not shrink from giving them expression. Caroline relates to her future husband how one night in the woods she fell on her knees at sight of the moon and arranged some glow-worms in her hair so that their loves might not be disturbed. On one occasion when Merck and Goethe met two of the coterie, one of them embraced Merck with kisses and the other fell upon his breast. Goethe was not a youth to be indifferent to such favours, and the attentions of Caroline were such as to disquiet Herder and to occasion an estrangement between the two friends which lasted for nearly two years.

From the effusive Caroline herself we learn the impression Goethe made on the precious circle. " A few days ago " (in the beginning of March, 1772), she writes to Herder, " I made the acquaintance of your friend Goethe and Herr Schlosser. . . . Goethe is such a good-hearted, lively creature, without any parade of learning, and has made such a to-do with Merck's children that my heart has quite gone out to him. . . . The second afternoon we spent in a pleasant stroll and over a bowl of punch in our house. We were not sentimental, but very merry, and Goethe and I danced a minuette to the piano. Thereafter he recited an excellent ballad of yours [the Scottish ballad Edward, translated by Herder]." On the occasion of a later visit (April) of Goethe to Darmstadt, she again writes to Herder : " Our Goethe has come on foot from Frankfort' on a visit to Merck. We have been together every day, and once, when we had gone together into the wood, we were soaked to the skin. We took refuge under a scenes from his Gottfried von Berlicitingen.

Goethe is choke-full of songs. One about a hut built out of the ruins of a temple is excellent.' The poor fellow told my sister and myself a day ago that he had already been once in love, but that, the girl had played with him for a whole year and then deserted him. He believed, however, that she really loved him, but another had appeared on the scene, and he was made a goose of."

Under the inspiration of these caressing attentions Goethe's muse could not be silent, and in the course of the spring and autumn he threw off a succession of pieces which are the classical expression of the sentimentalism of the period. To the three ladies-in-chief, under the pseudonyms of Urania, Lila, and Psyche (Caroline Flachsland), he successively addressed odes in which he gave them back their own emotions with interest. Their inspiration is sufficiently suggested by these lines which conclude the lines entitled Elysium, an Uranien:—

Seligkeit I Seligkeit Eines Kusses

In all the three poems we have another illustration of Goethe's susceptibility to immediate influences. Under the inspiration of Friederike's simplicity he had written lyrics which were as pure in form as direct in feeling. Now we have him indulging in a vein of artificial sentiment, which, it might have been supposed, he had for ever left behind as the result of his schooling in Strassburg.

In two pieces belonging to the same period, however, is revealed in fullest measure the true self of the poet, with all the emotional and intellectual preoccupations which he had brought with him from Strassburg. Of the one, Wanderers Sturm-lied, he has given in his Autobiography an account which is fully borne out by the character of the poem itself. It was composed, be tells us, in a terrific storm on one of his restless journeys between Frankfort and Darmstadt, and at a time when the memory of Friederike was still haunting him. Of Friederike, however, there is no direct suggestion in the poem ; from first to last it is a paean of the Sturm und Drang, composed in a form directly imitated from Pindar, whom he had been ardently studying since his return to Frankfort. The theme is the glorification of genius—genius in its upwelling and original force as manifest in Pindar, not as in poets like Anacreon and Theocritus. He who is in possession of this genius is armed against all the powers of nature and fate, and his end can only be crowned with victory. Goethe himself calls the poem a Halbunsinn, and one of his most sympathetic critics—Viktor Reba—admits that to follow its drift requires some labour and some creative phantasy on the part of the reader.' But it is not its poetical merit that gives the poem its chief interest ; it is to be taken, as it was meant, as a profession of the poet's literary faith at the period when it was written, and as such it is a historic document of the Sturm und Drang—at once an illustration and an exposition of its motives and ideals. " All this," is Goethe's mature comment on this and other productions of the same period, " was deeply and genuinely felt, but often expressed in a one-sided and unbalanced way."

Of far higher poetic value is the second poem, Der Wanderer, in which Matthew Arnold found " the power of Greek radiance " vhieh Goethe could give to his handling of nature. The scene of the poem is in southern Italy, near Cumae. The Wanderer, wearied by his travel under the noonday sun, comes upon a woman by the wayside whom he asks where he may quench his thirst. She conducts him through the neighbouring thicket, when an architrave, half-buried in the moss, and bearing an effaced inscription, catches his eye. They reach the woman's hut, which he finds to have been constructed from the stones of a ruined temple. Asleep in the hut is the woman's infant son, whom she leaves in the arms of the Wanderer, while she goes to fetch water from the spring. She presses on him a piece of bread, the only food she has to offer, and invites him to remain till the return of her husband to the evening meal. He refuses her hospitality, and resumes his journey to Cumae, his destination. Such is the outline of the poem, which is in the form of a dialogue, in the irregular measure common to the odes above mentioned. But in the Wanderer there is nothing dithyrambic ; rather its characteristic is a reflective repose, which is in strange contrast to the tumultuous outpouring of the Wanderers Sturmlied, and which might induce us to assign its production to a later day in Goethe's life, to the period of his sojourn in Italy, when years had somewhat chastened him, and when he was under the spell of the artistic remains of classical antiquity. Of the finest inspiration is the contrast between the remarks of the peasant woman wholly engrossed in the immediate needs of the day, and the speculations of the Wanderer as he comes upon the ruins that time has wrought upon the choicest works of man's hand. Here we are far from all vapid and artificial sentiment ; we have philosophical meditation proceeding from the profoundest source of the pathos of human life, the transitoriness of man and his works. Completely in accord with the philosophy of his ripest years, however, the poet finds no ground for melancholy regrets in the spectacle of nature triumphing over man's handiwork. Even in her work of corrosion she provides for the welfare of her children ; in a home reared out of a ruined temple happy human lives are spent. And it is in the spirit of the broadest humanity—a spirit that marks him off from the sentimentalists of the Darmstadt circle—that he regards the " ruins of time."

In reading this poem we feel the force of the words of the younger Schlosser in which he records his impression of Goethe at the moment when both first made the acquaintance of the Darmstadt society. "I shall be accompanied (to Darmstadt)," he wrote, " by a young friend of the highest promise who, through his strenuous endeavours to purify his soul, without unnerving it, is to me worthy of special honour."' The purification had indeed begun, but Goethe had to pass through many fires before the purification was complete. One such fire was immediately awaiting him.

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