The Congress of Women: Göethe and Schiller

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Göethe and Schiller

Miss Mary Virginia Keene was born in the city of Erie, Pa. Her parents were Galen Bryant and Annie B. Keene. Miss Keene's ancestors were English people who came to this country and settled in New Hampshire. She is a lineal descendant of Captain Miles Standish. One of her great-grandfathers helped throw the tea overboard in Boston harbor. She was educated in the Grammar Schools of Buffalo and in a French Academy for girls. She has traveled in the United States and Canada. Miss Keene is constantly engaged in literary pursuits and is a pleasing lecturer. She belongs to the Episcopal Church. Her postoffice address is 339 Niarara Street., Buffalo, N. Y.

In the physical world, he who seeks for nuggets must dig deep in dark recesses where the treasure lies hidden. He must possess untiring strength, and much patience, to enable him to wrest from the grasp of the rocky Titans the mass of shining metal half hidden by its baser alloy. Then the dross must be separated from the metal and the latter purified and refined before it can be used in the service of utility or beauty. Once upon a time there were two intellectual miners who sought to wrest from the mines of knowledge its richest nuggets of thought, its brightest gems of fancy. These men were known as Göethe and Schiller. The elder one, Göethe, was aided in his quest by Winckelmann, the Antiquary, who, like a torchbearer, preceded him, illuminating his way, penetrating to dark places where he himself had wrought. There he taught the young poet how to choose and where. But Göethe used also his own divining rod of Genius, whereby he discovered new treasures. These he cast into the glowing alembic of his mind, there to be transmuted into finer shapes. "Like unto plate of rare device, or jewels of rare and exquisite form," for a creative faculty was his law. In his love of form he was Greek. This love of the artistic was partly intuitive, partly the result of culture. He had been greatly impressed by his study of Lessing's "Laöcoön" but Winckelmann's "Philosophy of Art" was the real key which enabled him to unlock the door of achievement. Thence he passed on into a sort of intellectual vatican, where he beheld the artistic creations of the artists who had preceded him. Let us suppose that he enters the "Hall of the Muses." Here lie beholds Chaucer's pictorial views of the Canterbury Pilgrims, gleaming like stained glass windows in the temple of primitive literature. Near by hang the brilliant tapestries of Spencer, woven in the loom of Poesy, depicting scenes in the life of the Fäery Queen and her court. He gazes with reverent awe at Milton's statuesque verse, so like sculpture, and Shakespeare's wondrous word-painting, portraying every phase of human passion and emotion. Here it was Göethe's privilege to enrich this collection by placing in German niches many a white statue of thought, many a polished gem of expression.

In childhood Göethe was taught by a good and gifted mother, who aroused his intellect and stimulated his ambition and imagination by inventing stories containing scientific truths disguised as fairy tales. From this clever mother he inherited his gift of story-telling.

He was young, rich well-born, handsome, gifted. Is it any wonder that he was flattered, courted, fíªted? He delighted to bask in the sunshine of adulation, or like a butterfly flutter above every flower of pleasure which grew in the garden of his experience. Providentially there came to Weimar at this period the noble, gifted Herder, who became Göethe's friend, and gave to the young poet a better knowledge of his wonderful possibilities.

Herder's influence upon Göethe was manifold, but mainly in the direction of poetry. He taught him that the Bible best illustrates the truth that "poetry is the product of a national spirit and not the privilege of a cultivated few." From Hebrew poetry they turned to the study of Homer and Ossian. The latter poet, then making the tour of Europe, so aroused the enthusiasm of Göethe that he made a translation of "Selma," and introduced into his own sentimental novel "The Sorrows of Werther."

There is a great diversity of opinion concerning Göethe's philosophical romance, "Wilhelm Meister." The author says: "I cannot give the key to its solution." Its leading idea is renunciation; the power to sacrifice the temporary for the permanent.

While studying law at Strasburg, Göethe became interested also in theology, but he was more particularly interested in alchemy and the study of mysticism. It was then that he conceived the idea of writing his dramatic poem of "Faust," which he did not complete, however, until sixty years after. It embodies the varied experiences and the ripe scholarship of a lifetime. This drama reveals the triumph of Repentance over sin for not only is the soul of Marguerite redeemed, but that of her lover also.

In another dramatic poem, "Iphigenia of Taurus" the powers of evil are disarmed by the truth, fidelity and purity of Iphegenia of Taurus. One must make an exhaustive study of Göethe's writings to form any adequate idea of the manysidedness of his genius.

His mind was like a prism, owing to its great powers of refraction. Eckermann, who knew the poet well, says that "Göethe was most valuable in balancing the judgment and in suggesting thought. He cared more for the perfecting of the few than the improvement of the many. He believed more in man, than men; in thought, than action; in effort, than success, in Nature, than Providence." Göethe has been called "The Prince of German Poets," a title which he well deserves if we consider only his wonderful ability to assimilate all knowledge in the service of poetry. He is an excellent dramatist and a fine lyric poet, and the best writer of the German language, which he greatly improved by his own felicitous style and method of expression. As a critic of art and literature he is fearlessly independent, although it may not be true that he taught Pantheism by his deification of Nature. In him the intellectual dominated the spiritual. He has said, however: "I doubt not the immortality of the soul, for Nature cannot dispense with our continual activity, and she is pledged to give me a better form of being when the present no longer sustains my spirit." He solved the enigma of life after his own fashion, independent of creed or dogma.

Perhaps, when the world has grown older, a remoter historical standpoint may afford the coming critic a better post of observation and a riper judgment of the great man, who Bayard Taylor said was "Universal in the range of his intellectual capacities and in his culture." A marked contrast exists between Göethe and Schiller.

The younger poet belongs not to Germany alone, the literature of the world claims him. The influence of his genius is too great to be restricted to one country. Unlike Göethe he was not a favorite of fortune. His boyhood and youth were full of trials. Wishing to become a minister, he began the study of Latin with the village pastor. The lad's aptitude attracted the attention of Duke Carl Eugene, and he determined upon a military career for Schiller. The slavery of a life in a military academy was soon exchanged for service in the garrison as an army surgeon. The duties of his position were so irksome to him that the burden became insupportable, and he fled from his country, and for a time became a homeless wanderer. In spite of poverty, ill-health and debts, which pursued him like cruel arrows sped from the bow of adverse fate, he managed somehow to complete his education. We find him in his thirtieth year at the University of Jena, occupying a professor's chair, which, however, lacked the comfortable cushion of salary. He did literary "hackwork" to earn money for his daily needs. He was finally granted a pension of two hundred dollars. The restrictions of his youth awakened in him a love for liberty; thus he became "the poet of freedom." The idea of freedom is the underlying principle in all of his writings.

His fine play of "William Tell" possesses more than a literary significance in German history, written at the time when Napoleon's idea, the annihilation of Germany, seemed to be realized. When the patriot Stein found on German soil only an insecure footing; when the poet Kleist took his own life rather than witness the misery of his country; when Germans were found to fight Germans like gladiators, bedimming with their heart's blood the soil of alien countries-then in this time of oppression the story of Tell rang like a trumpet call throughout the land. It reanimated despondent hearts and kindled patriotic impulses and self-sacrificing ideas. This drama is a vindication of national and free government. It sustains a fine moral purpose in awakening a love of country in the heart of him who reads it.

When Schiller began to write his noble poems, our country was at war with England. By the time peace was declared, his judgment had matured. He then wrote "Don Carlos." In this drama one of the characters lays down the law to the tyrant Philip of Spain, for Schiller well understood that old laws sometimes becomes abuses and reforms must be introduced to infuse new life into free political society. Such reforms must, however, be gradual, not a sudden upheaval of old ideas, lest the remedy should be worse than the disease.

While Schiller was sojourning at Rudolstadt, he became acquainted with Göethe; thus were brought together two men of exalted genius, but dissimilar in character.

The older poet took an interest in humanity, and was broad and generous in his views. Schiller concentrated power as vast on fewer subjects.

Carlyle says: "Göethe was catholic, Schiller sectarian. One was endowed with a comprehensive spirit, skilled by personal experience in human passion, therefore tolerant, fighting neither for men nor principles. The freedom he allowed himself he accorded to others.

"Schiller was earnest, enthusiastic, full of Quixotic impulses, feeling intensely because his nature was intense." To me he seems to have been at odds with himself and the world, because his ideal nature unfitted him to cope successfully with some of the stubborn facts of real life. Another point of difference was their environment. Göethe was then thirty-nine years of age, settled in life. Schiller was twenty-nine, without a fixed destiny. Göethe had traveled in Italy, had studied art, was a brilliant talker, possessed of a vast fund of knowledge and a keen sense of humor, which made his conversation like a display of intellectual pyrotechnics whose brilliancy dazzled and dazed poor Schiller, increasing his natural timidity and constraint.

Schiller thought that Göethe was an egotist, and that no intimacy could be possible. The latter entertained a like unfavorable opinion. Subsequent intercourse caused each to recognize the good in the other. Göethe's zeal and love for literature made him an invaluable friend to Schiller.

Rousseau says that the best basis on which to build a friendship is: "Same sentiments, different opinions."

May we not claim that the best coin for general circulation are kind words and good actions issued from the mint of a loving heart? The purchasing power of such currency can not be overestimated. Its mighty power was felt by these two great geniuses.

Göethe's nature was too noble to harbor envy or jealousy, as he beheld his young rival climbing to the intellectual heights which he had gained. Neither did he pose as a patron, but treated Schiller as his friend and equal, until at last they became co-workers, each one assisting and benefiting the other. Schiller was an earnest seeker after truth, a hater of shams and deceit. His aim was to make mankind, happier and better.

He seems to have been an apostle of í¦sthetic idealism. Only by comparison with Kant and other philosophers does he appear to be a realist. He lived in an atmosphere of contemplation, and possessed the magic power of presenting old truths in new forms. The winged Pegassus of his imagination soared aloft, bearing him to the highest regions of ideal and spiritual conceptions. His intellect was as clear as a cloudless sky, his fancies as brilliant as the rainbow after a summer shower.

In some instances his poetry is half philosophical, bearing the impress of his scientific studies. History and philosophy soothed his restless spirit and furnished inspiration for his historic records of noble deeds. Göethe taught him how to master and arrange his subjects, and Schiller aided him by helpful suggestions. Göethe once said: "People dispute as to which is the greater poet, Schiller or I; but they ought rather to rejoice that two such fellows as we are in existence."

The elder poet doubtless possessed a greater fund of knowledge, a better education and more varied accomplishments. Schiller knew much by intuition and reflection. In personal appearance there was as great a dissimilarity between these two men as we find existed between their mental attributes. Lewes tells us that "Göethe's beautiful head, the calm, victorious grandeur of the Greek ideal; Schiller possessed the earnest beauty of a Christian looking toward the future." Schiller's blue eyes were eager and spiritual. His brow tense and intense; irregular features lined by thought and suffering and weakened by illness. Göethe's face wore the majesty of repose, Schiller's the look of conflict. The Greek ideal represents realism, the Christian ideal represents idealism. Göethe said once, "Schiller is animated by the idea of freedom, I with the idea of nature." We observe that this distinction characterizes all their writings, Göethe always striving to let nature have free development and produce the highest forms of humanity; Schiller's seeking, aspiring mind striving for something greater than nature, wishing to make men demigods.

The points of resemblance between the poets, which made them congenial, were these: Both believed that "art was a mighty influence, related to religion, by whose aid the great world-scheme was wrought into reality." They believed that culture would raise humanity to its full powers. As artists they knew no culture equal to art. With Göethe the moral ideal was evolved from the artistic, with Schiller moral ideals were instinctive, a part of his own pure nature.

Schiller has beautifully defined the idea that the "truth shall make one free" and that "beauty is its own excuse for being" in the following lines, which I quote from his "Hymn to Art:"

"I am not held in bonds, unfettered, free,
I rove throughout all space, rove near and far;
Thought is my boundless realm, and here I flee,
Upon the wings of words, from star to star.
What heaven and earth accumulate in store,
What nature spins in her mysterious deep
I daringly unravel and explore,
For endless is the poet's soaring leap;
But what more lovely can be sought or found
Than in fair frame, a soul with beauty crowned."
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