A GENIUS AT ‘SCHOOL’
“Minds like Goethe’s are the common property of all nations.”
EVERY intimate and penetrating book has something of the nature of an autobiography. If it do not tell us what happened to the writer in the actual circumstances, it reveals what, in his idea, would have come to pass under such and such conditions. If this be true, how is it possible for one man to produce, not fifty men and women, as Browning claims to have done, but hundreds of actual persons behaving as they must because of the character that is in them? To realise this possibility is indeed as amazing and confounding as a fixed regard upon the Milky Way. Does it mean that all things are possible to all men? Anyway, Goethe confessedly images himself more or less in all his written work; and one failure especially, that of moral instability, is writ large for our instruction in “Wilhelm Meister.”
It may not be unprofitable to compare this hero with another of whom we possess the journal intime, our old friend and favourite Arthur Pendennis. How far “Pendennis” is consciously an autobiography we need not inquire, for Thackeray takes no pains to tell
us. Goethe, on the contrary, is at the greatest pains to trace the influences that result in himself, not only in his Dichtung and Wahrheit, an Autobiography, but in “Werther,” “Wilhelm Meister,” “Faust”; he is at pains to tell us, in fact, over and over again, that all he wrote was a record of himself. He tells us of the astrological influences under which he was born, and of the incidents of his birth, and he analyzes his own nature with immense care, traces this to his father and the other to his mother, further traits to great-grandfather and great-grandmother. As Goethe says, he got his tall, strongly built frame and a certain earnestness in living from his father, a ‘man of laws’ who had also a taste for art: he married a wife not half his own age, who felt that she and her son were better mated in years and tastes than were she and her husband: “I and my Wolfgang were both young.”
Catherine Goethe was a person of distinction, a correspondent of various learned ladies who, like herself, belonged to the Kultur Kampf. She appears to have been a delightful woman, full of gaiety, feeling, and imagination. “Joyousness,” she writes, “is the mother of all virtues; when we are content and cheerful we wish to see all people gratified and gay, and do all we can to make them so” And again: “I have it by God’s grace that no living soul ever went from me dissatisfied. I love humankind, old and young feel it.” She tells us that she tried to reform no one, saw the good side of her neighbours, and left the bad to Him who made men, and “by this means I am content and happy.” All this sounds well; but in practice it meant that Madame was an eclectic who chose only what she would out of her life; for example, she must not on any account be perturbed—
a sentiment shared by her great son. She would say, we are told, on hiring a servant: “You shall tell me nothing terrifying, disquieting, or disagreeable, whether it happens in my own house, the neighbourhood, or the town. Once for all, I will know nothing of it. If it concerns me, I shall hear it soon enough. If it does not concern me, I have nothing to do with it. Even if fire were to break out in the street where I am living, I will not hear of it sooner than I can help.” It was not that she could not feel, but that she would not. During her son’s acute illness in 1805, she would not allow herself to be told of what was going on. When it was over, she said: “I have known it all along. . . . Now we may again talk about him without my feeling a stab in the heart at every mention of his name”; ‘stab in the heart’—in the phrase we find her excuse. She would not ‘dree her weird,’ would not endure the share of poignant feeling that fell to her.
To her influence and example, as well as to the nature inherited from her, we owe the limitation which must always distress the disciples of Goethe. Finding him so great, it is to them ‘a stab in the heart’ that he has not the added greatness of one who cared for his country and his kind. If only he had let himself care, when his country was going through one acute crisis after another! If only he had helped when men looked to him as the one wise man! But his mother saw about that. Anyway, she has left a lesson to mothers of the future. The idea of personal culture is so fascinating, and appears under so bewildering a disguise of pseudo-virtue, that high-minded women are apt to be deceived. They believe that to cultivate their minds and conserve their feelings is
the best they can do not only for themselves but the world, on the principle that, if every man sweep before his own door, the street will be clean; and they bring up their children with the same desire for and effort after personal culture, and the same aloofness from the lives of other men. It is well we should clear our thoughts on this subject, and recognize, once and for all, that personal culture is hardly a legitimate aim. We are allowed to seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge, culture of body and mind for the sake of serviceableness; and, recognising this, we give our lives an impersonal aspect. We look at pictures and read books for the sake of the pictures and the books, and not at all for our sakes. Our children carry forward this larger view of life. They feel, think, and labour without sparing as occasion calls upon them; they live, that is, the common life, and are not stranded in an inlet of individual culture.
We hear of the little Goethe’s horror of ugliness as early as his third year,—“The dark child must be taken away. I can’t endure it”; and here we get the key to much that came after. He was never taught to endure as a child, because his mother understood and shared his sensibility; and therefore endurance, the manly and cheerful acceptance of the inevitable, was never made a part of his life. Who will not endure must needs evade, and we find, let us say, Wilhelm Meister evading obligations as they occurred with a hardihood worthy of a better cause. We are shy of criticising a poet—above all, one of the world’s few great poets. I once heard a distinguished man, who had had the honour of knowing Goethe, lecture upon him. His praises were fervent; and why not? But he could not bring himself to blame the poet for any failure, and
said at the end to a friend, ‘Have I not whitewashed him well?’ Now, Goethe was too great for this process. He has offered himself as a beacon to mankind, indicating not only harbourage but rocks ahead; and we do not dishonor a great genius by considering why, in certain aspects, he was less than other men; how he might have become greater all round.
His grandmother’s large room upstairs was the favourite playing place for himself and his little sister Cornelia, always tenderly cherished by her brother; and one Christmas Eve this grandmother invented an amusement which gave direction to the boy’s whole after-life. This was the famous puppet-show. We get full details of the incident in Wilhelm Meister. “How often,” Wilhelm’s mother is made to say, “have I been upbraided with that miserable puppet-show which I was unlucky enough to provide for you at Christmas, twelve years ago! It was the first thing that put these plays into your head.” “Oh, do not blame the poor puppets; do not repent of your love and motherly care! It was the only happy hour I had enjoyed in the new, empty house. I never can forget that hour; I see it still before me; I recollect how surprised I was, when, after we had got our customary presents, you made us seat ourselves before the door that leads to the other room. The door opened; but not as formerly, to let us pass and repass: the entrance was occupied by an unexpected show. Within it rose a porch, concealed by a mysterious curtain. All of us were standing at a distance; our eagerness to see what glittering or jingling article lay behind the half-transparent veil was mounting higher and higher, when you bade us each sit down upon his stool and wait with patience. At length we were all
seated and silent; a whistle gave the signal: the curtain rolled aloft, and showed us the interior of the Temple, painted in deep red colours. The high priest Samuel appeared with Jonathan, and their strange alternating voices seemed to me the most striking thing on earth. Shortly after entered Saul, overwhelmed with confusion at the impertinence of that heavy-limbed warrior who had defied him and all his people. But how glad was I when the little, dapper son of Jesse, with his crook and shepherd’s pouch and sling, came hopping forth and said: ‘Dread king and sovereign lord! let no one’s heart sink down because of this; if your Majesty will grant me leave, I will go out to battle with this blustering giant’! Here ended the first act, leaving the spectators more curious than ever to see what further would happen, each praying that the music might soon be done. At last the curtain rose again. David devoted the flesh of the monster to the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field; the Philistine scorned and bullied him, stamped mightily with both his feet, and at length fell like a mass of clay, affording a splendid termination to the piece. And then the virgins sang: ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands!’ The giant’s head was borne before his little victor, who received the king’s beautiful daughter to wife.”
Here we get the first indication of a career, the moment of vocation which came to the poet-child, as to many another, casually and without warning. Henceforth he lived in the dramatising of situations that came in his way, in the conception of situations worthy of being dramatised, and we are able to understand how, until the end of his life, the direction of
the princely theatre at Weimar was his congenial and delightful occupation. We get many details in Wilmelm Meister showing how the child became possessed more and more completely by this one idea; how, prying about as children will, be found, laid by in the store-room, the puppets which had given him such joy; how he begged his mother to give them to him; how he contrived various costumes for them, and caused them to play many parts; how by and by he wrote plays for the puppets to act, speaking their several parts himself with such just expression and delicate enunciation that his sterner father, who looked askance at this new delight, felt that it was after all an instrument of education.
Many parents, who do not imagine their children to be embryo poets, are a little perplexed by the delight they take in any manner of acting, from Punch and Judy up, and they wonder how far it is well to encourage a taste which may come to interfere with serious pursuits. Children are born poets and they dramatise all the life they see about them, after their own hearts, into an endless play. There is no reason why this natural gift should not be pressed into the service of education. Indeed, it might be safe to go further: the child who does not dramatise his lessons, who does not play at Richard and Saladin, who does not voyage with Captain Cook and excavate with Mr Flinders Petrie, is not learning. The knowledge he gets by heart is not assimilated and does not become part of himself.
Therefore it is well that children should, at any rate, have the outlet of narrration, that they should tell the things they know in full detail; and, when the humour takes them, ‘play’ the persons, act the scenes
that interest them in their reading. On the other hand, there is the danger that their representation of facts may become more to them than the facts themselves, that the show of things may occupy their whole minds. For this reason it may be well mot to indulge children with anything in the form of a stage or stage properties, not with so much as a puppet-show. They will find all they want in the chair which serves as a throne, the sofa which behaves as a ship, the ruler which plays the part of rapier, gun, or scepter, as occasion demands. In fact, preoccupation with tawdry and trivial things will be avoided if children are let alone: imagination will furnish them with ample properties, delightful scenes, upon the merest suggestion of reality. Bottom the weaver and his crew furnish the prototype for children’s plays,—
“This lantern doth the hornéd moon present,”
and there is a hint of Shakespeare’s earnest in this broad jest, for do we not get the same idea amplified in the prologue to Henry V.?
 Carlyle’s Translation.