Liebe und Gewalt in Heinrich von Kleists Penthesilea (German Edition)
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In dealing them, it was not humanity at large that the Romanticists had in view, but a few favoured, aristocratic, artistic natures. In religious matters, these men, whose moral and poetical theories were at first so revolutionary, bowed their necks to the yoke the moment they saw it. And in politics it was they who directed the proceedings of the Congress of Vienna and prepared its manifestoes, abolishing liberty of thought in the interval between a religious festival in St.
Stephen's and an oyster supper with Fanny Elsler. I shall touch but seldom and briefly upon Danish literature, only now and again piercing in the canvas of the panorama I am unrolling a hole through which the situation in Denmark may be seen. Not that I forget or lose sight of Danish literature. On the contrary, it is ever present with me.
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Whilst trying to present to my readers the inner history of a foreign literature, I am all the time making indirect contributions to the history of our own. I am painting the background which is required to throw its characteristics into relief. I am working at the foundation upon which, according to my conviction, the history of modern Danish literature rests.
My method may be indirect, but it is the more thorough for that. I should like, however, in a few words, to indicate the general conclusion to which a comparison between Danish and foreign literature at this period has led me. The relative positions of Germany and Denmark may be defined as follows: German literature is at this period comparatively original in its aims and its productions; Danish literature either continues the working out of a peculiarly Scandinavian vein, or builds upon German foundations. The Danish authors have, as a rule, read and assimilated the German; the German authors have neither read nor been in any way influenced by the Danes.
Steffens, through whom we receive the impetus from Germany, is the devoted disciple of Schelling. Witness the following passage from one of his letters to that philosopher: "I am your pupil, absolutely and entirely your pupil. All that I produce was originally yours.
This is no passing feeling; it is my firm conviction that such is the case, and I do not think the less of myself for it. Therefore, when once I have produced a really great work which I should gladly call mine, I shall, as soon as it has been recognised, publicly, enthusiastically, proclaim you to be my teacher, and hand over to you my laurel wreath. In German literature there is more life, in the corresponding Danish literature more art.
It is Germany which produces, which unearths, the material. That literature of which Romanticism is the first development, lives and moves and revels in intense emotions, struggles with problems, creates forms which it dashes to pieces again. Danish literature takes German material and ideas, instinct with life, and often succeeds in moulding them more artistically, giving them clearer expression than their German producers do.
Note, for example, the case of Tieck and Heiberg. The Danes apply and remodel, or they embody kindred ideas in more favourable and more plastic material, such, or instance, as that provided by the Scandinavian mythology and legends. The result, as I have elsewhere shown, is that Romanticism acquired more lucidity and clearer contours on Danish soil.
It became less a thing of the night; it ventured, veiled, into the light of the sun. It felt that it had come to a sedate, sober-minded people, a people who were not yet quite sure that moonlight was not unnatural and sentimental.
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It felt that it had come to another, a more serene and idyllic clime; it shook off all its weirdness; its thick, shapeless mists condensed into slender river nymphs; it forgot the Harz and the Blocksberg, and took up its abode one beautiful Midsummer Eve in the Deer Park near Copenhagen. Schlegel, but less substance—that is to say, less direct connection with real life. German literature has too often formed the connecting link.
We Danes have too often refused to occupy ourselves, in literature, with the great problems of life, have simply dismissed them when we could not succeed in giving them correct literary form. Looked at from the psychological point of view, the position may be described as follows. The Danish Romantic authors have, generally speaking, been the superiors of the Germans as regards art, their inferiors as regards intellect.
As a rule, every production of the German author, however small, though it be formless, weak, nay, actually a failure, yet expresses a whole philosophy of life, and that no fanciful philosophy, but one evolved and matured by personal experience, and stamped with the whole astonishingly many-sided culture which distinguishes the educated German.
A poem by Novalis, a tale by Tieck or Hoffmann, or a play by Kleist, contains a poetico-philosophical theory of life; and it is the theory not only of a poet, but of a man. Heiberg is almost the only writer in whose works there is any sign of a philosophy based upon science, and acquiring ever more profundity from the experiences of life.
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Of real development there are often only faint traces. When a change does take place, it rarely signifies that the author has gradually evolved for himself a new philosophy of life; no—after treading the narrow path of poetry for a time, he strikes into one of the two great highroads, either the road of middle-class respectability or the road of orthodox piety. The dressing-gown or the cassock—one or other of these garments almost inevitably supersedes the Spanish cloak of poetic youth. It may, then, generally speaking, be asserted that, in those cases where it is possible to compare the German Romanticists with the Danish, the former have the more original philosophy of life, and are greater as personalities, whatever they may be as poets.
Let us look at the subject from a third point of view. To the Danish authors, as a body, may be attributed the merit of avoiding the fantastic, tasteless extravagances of which the Germans are frequently guilty. The Danes stop in time; they avoid paradox or do not carry it to its logical conclusion; they have the steadiness due to naturally well-balanced minds and naturally phlegmatic dispositions; they are hardly ever indecent, audacious, blasphemous, revolutionary, wildly fantastic, utterly sentimental, utterly unreal, or utterly sensual; they seldom run amuck, they never tilt at the clouds, and they never fall into a well.
This is what makes them so popular with their own countrymen. What a contrast is presented by the overstrained, extravagant personalities peopling the Romantic hospital of Germany! A phthisical Moravian Brother with the consumptive's sensuality and the consumptive's mystic yearnings—Novalis. A satirical hypochondriac, subject to hallucinations and with morbid leanings to Catholicism—Tieck. A genius, impotent to produce, but with the propensity of genius to revolt and the imperative craving of impotence to subject itself to outward authority—Friedrich Schlegel.
A dissipated fantast with the half-insane imagination of the drunkard—Hoffmann.
A foolish mystic like Werner, and a genius like the suicide Kleist. Think of Hoffmann, and his pupil, Hans Andersen, and observe how sane, but also how sober and subdued, Andersen appears compared with his first master. It is, then, certain that there is more of the quality of harmony among the Danes. And it is easy to understand that those who regard harmony, even when meagre, as the highest quality of art, will inevitably rank the Danish literature of the first decades of this century above the German.
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It has, however, to a great extent attained to this harmony by means of caution, by lack of artistic courage. The Danish poets never fell, because they never mounted to a height from which there was any danger of falling. They left it to others to ascend Mont Blanc. They escaped breaking their necks, but they never gathered the Alpine flowers which only bloom on the giddy heights or on the brink of precipices.
The quality in literature which, it seems to me, we Danes have never sufficiently prized, is boldness, that quality in the author which incites him, regardless of consequences, to give expression to his artistic ideal. The daring development of what is typical in his literary tendency, often constitutes the beauty of his work; or, to put it more plainly, when a literary tendency like Romanticism develops in the direction of pure fancy, that author seems to me the most interesting, who rises to the most daring heights of fantastic extravagance—as, for instance, Hoffmann.
The more madly fantastic he is, the finer he is, just as the poplar is finer the taller it is, and the beech finer the more stately and wide-spreading it is. The fineness lies in the daring and vigour with which that which is typical is expressed. He who discovers a new country may, in the course of his explorations, be stranded on a reef. It is an easy matter to avoid the reef and leave the country undiscovered.
They lose in thrilling, overpowering life and energy what they gain in lucidity and readableness. They appeal to a greater number and a more varied class of readers, but they do not enthral them. The more vigorous originality alarms the many, but fascinates the few. In Danish Romanticism there is none of Friedrich Schlegel's audacious immorality, but neither is there anything like that spirit of opposition which in him amounts to genius; his ardour melts, and his daring moulds into new and strange shapes, much that we accept as unalterable.
Nor do the Danes become Catholic mystics. Protestant orthodoxy in its most petrified form flourishes with us: so do supernaturalism and pietism; and in Grundtvigianism we slide down the inclined plane which leads to Catholicism; but in this matter, as in every other, we never take the final step; we shrink back from the last consequences.
The result is that the Danish reaction is far more insidious and covert than the German. Veiling itself as vice does, it clings to the altars of the Church, which have always been a sanctuary for criminals of every species. It is never possible to lay hold of it, to convince it then and there that its principles logically lead to intolerance, inquisition, and despotism.