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Goethe
by [?]

John Wolfgang von Goethe, a man of commanding influence in the literature of modern Germany throughout the latter half of his long life, and possessing two separate claims upon our notice; one in right of his own unquestionable talents; and another much stronger, though less direct, arising out of his position, and the extravagant partisanship put forward on his behalf for the last forty years. The literary body in all countries, and for reasons which rest upon a sounder basis than that of private jealousies, have always been disposed to a republican simplicity in all that regards the assumption of rank and personal pretensions. Valeat quantum valere potest, is the form of license to every man’s ambition, coupled with its caution. Let his influence and authority be commensurate with his attested value; and, because no man in the present infinity of human speculation, and the present multiformity of human power, can hope for more than a very limited superiority, there is an end at once to all absolute dictatorship. The dictatorship in any case could be only relative, and in relation to a single department of art or knowledge; and this for a reason stronger even than that already noticed, viz., the vast extent of the field on which the intellect is now summoned to employ itself. That objection, as it applies only to the degree of the difficulty, might be met by a corresponding degree of mental energy; such a thing may be supposed, at least. But another difficulty there is, of a profounder character, which cannot be so easily parried. Those who have reflected at all upon the fine arts, know that power of one kind is often inconsistent, positively incompatible, with power of another kind. For example, the dramatic mind is incompatible with the epic. And though we should consent to suppose that some intellect might arise endowed upon a scale of such angelic comprehensiveness, as to vibrate equally and indifferently towards either pole, still it is next to impossible, in the exercise and culture of the two powers, but some bias must arise which would give that advantage to the one over the other which the right arm has over the left. But the supposition, the very case put, is baseless, and countenanced by no precedent. Yet, under this previous difficulty, and with regard to a literature convulsed, if any ever was, by an almost total anarchy, it is a fact notorious to all who take an interest in Germany and its concerns, that Goethe did in one way or other, through the length and breadth of that vast country, establish a supremacy of influence wholly unexampled; a supremacy indeed perilous in a less honorable man, to those whom he might chance to hate, and with regard to himself thus far unfortunate, that it conferred upon every work proceeding from his pen a sort of papal indulgence, an immunity from criticism, or even from the appeals of good sense, such as it is not wholesome that any man should enjoy. Yet we repeat that German literature was and is in a condition of total anarchy. With this solitary exception, no name, even in the most narrow section of knowledge or of power, has ever been able in that country to challenge unconditional reverence; whereas, with us and in France, name the science, name the art, and we will name the dominant professor; a difference which partly arises out of the fact that England and France are governed in their opinions by two or three capital cities, whilst Germany looks for its leadership to as many cities as there are residenzen and universities. For instance, the little territory with which Goethe was connected presented no less than two such public lights; Weimar, the residenz or privileged abode of the Grand Duke, and Jena, the university founded by that house. Partly, however, this difference may be due to the greater restlessness, and to the greater energy as respects mere speculation, of the German mind. But no matter whence arising, or how interpreted, the fact is what we have described; absolute confusion, the “anarch old” of Milton, is the one deity whose sceptre is there paramount; and yet there it was, in that very realm of chaos, that Goethe built his throne. That he must have looked with trepidation and perplexity upon his wild empire and its “dark foundations,” may be supposed. The tenure was uncertain to him as regarded its duration; to us it is equally uncertain, and in fact mysterious, as regards its origin. Meantime the mere fact, contrasted with the general tendencies of the German literary world, is sufficient to justify a notice, somewhat circumstantial, of the man in whose favor, whether naturally by force of genius, or by accident concurring with intrigue, so unexampled a result was effected.