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shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him to be a native of the rocks.”
In January 1778 Lessing's wife died from the effects of a difficult childbirth. The child, a boy, hardly survived its birth. The few words wrung out of Lessing by this double sorrow are to me as deeply moving as anything in tragedy. “I wished for once to be as happy (es so gut haben) as other men. But it has gone ill with me!” “And I was so loath to lose him, this son !” “My wife is dead ; and I have had this experience also. I rejoice that I have not many more such experiences left to make, and am quite cheerful." “ If you had known her! But they say that to praise one's wite is self-praise. Well, then, I say no more of her! But if you had known her !" Quite cheerful! On the roth of August he writes to Elise Reimarus -he is writing to a woman now, an old friend of his and his wife, and will be less restrained :—"I am left here all alone. I have not a single friend to whom I can wholly confide myself. ... How often must I curse my ever wishing to be for once as happy as other men ! How often have I wished myself back again in my old, isolated condition—to be nothing, to wish nothing, to do nothing, but what the present moment brings with it !... Yet I am too proud to think myselt unhappy. I just grind my teeth, and let the boat go as pleases wind and waves. Enough that I will not overset it myself.” It is plain from this letter that suicide had been in his mind, and, with his antique way of thinking on many subjects, he would hardly have looked on it as a crime. But he was too brave a man to throw up the sponge to fate, and had work to do yet. Within a few days of his wife's death he wrote to Eschenburg : “I am right heartily ashamed if my letter betrayed the least despair. Despair is not nearly so much my failing as levity, which often expresses itself with a little bitterness and misanthropy.” A stoic, not from insensibility or cowardice, as so many are, but from stoutness of heart, he blushes at a moment's abdication of self-command. And he will not roil the clear memory of his love with any tinge of the sentimentality so much the fashion, and to be had so cheap, in that generation.
There is a moderation of sincerity peculiar to Lessing in the epithet of the following sentence : "How dearly must I pay for the single year I have lived with a sensible wife !” Werther had then been published four years. Lessing's grief has that pathos which he praised in sculpture-he may writhe, but he must not scream. Nor is this a new thing with him. On the death of a younger brother, he wrote to his father, fourteen years before : “Why should those who grieve communicate their grief to each other purposely to increase it? ... Many mourn in death what they loved not living. I will love in life what Nature bids me love, and after death strive to bewail it as little as I can.”
We think Herr Stahr is on his stilts again when he speaks of Lessing's position at Wolfenbüttell. He calls it an “assuming the chains of feudal service, being buried in a corner, a martyrdom that consumed the best powers of his mind and crushed him in body and spirit forever.” To crush forever is rather a strong phrase, Herr Stahr, to apply to the spirit, if one must ever give heed to the sense as well as the sound of what one is writing. But eloquence has no bowels for its victims. We have no doubt the Duke of Brunswick meant well by Lessing, and the salary he paid him was as large as he would have got from the frugal Frederick. But one whose trade it was to be a Duke could hardly have had much sympathy with his librarian after he had once found out what he really was. For even if he was not, as Herr Stahr affirms, a republican, and we doubt very much if he was, yet he was not a man who could play with ideas in the light French fashion. At the ardent touch of his sincerity, they took fire, and grew dangerous to what is called the social fabric. The logic of wit, with its momentary flash, is a very different thing from that consequent logic of thought, pushing forward its deliberate sap day and night with a fixed object, which belonged to Lessing. The men who attack abuses are not so much to be dreaded by the reigning house of Superstition as those who, as Dante says, syllogise hateful truths. As for the chains of feudal service," they might serve a
Fenian Head-Centre on a pinch, but are wholly out of place here. The slavery that Lessing had really taken on him was that of a great library, an Alcina that could always too easily witch him away from the more serious duty of his genius. That a mind like his could be buried in a corner is mere twaddle, and of a kind that has done great wrong to the dignity of letters. Wherever Lessing sat, was the head of the table. That he suffered at Wolfenbüttel is true ; but was it nothing to be in love and in debt at the same time, and to feel that his fruition of the one must be postponed for uncertain years by his own folly in incurring the other? If the sparrow-life must end, surely a wee bush is better than nae beild.
One cause of Lessing's occasional restlessness and discontent Herr Stahr has failed to notice. It is evident from many passages in his letters that he had his share of the hypochondria which goes with an imaginative temperament. But in him it only serves to bring out in stronger relief his deep-rooted manliness. He spent no breath in that melodious whining which, beginning with Rosseau, has hardly yet gone out of fashion. Work of some kind was his medicine for the blues—if not always of the kind he would have chosen, then the best that was to be had ; for the useful, too, had for him a sweetness of its own. Sometimes he found a congenial labour in rescuing, as he called it, the memory of some dead scholar or thinker from the wrongs of ignorance or prejudice or falsehood ; sometimes in fishing a manuscript out of the ooze of oblivion, and giving it, after a critical cleansing, to the world. Now and then he warmed himself and kept his muscle in trim with buffeting soundly the champions of that shallow artificiality and unctuous wordiness, one of which passed for orthodox in literature, and the other in theology. True religion and creative genius were both so beautiful to him that he could never abide the mediocre counterfeit of either, and he who put so much of his own life into all he wrote could not but hold all scripture sacred in which a divine soul had recorded itself. It would be doing Lessing great wrong to confound his controversial
writing with the paltry quarrels of authors. His own personal relations enter into them surprisingly little, for his quarrel was never with men, but with falsehood, cant, and misleading tradition, in whomsoever incarnated. Save for this, they were no longer readable, and might be relegated to that herbarium of Billingsgate gathered by be elder Disraeli.
So far from being “crushed in spirit” at Wolfenbüttel, the years he spent there were among the most productive of his life. “Emilia Galotti," begun in 1758, was finished there and published in 1771. The controversy with Götze, by far the most important he was engaged in, and the one in which he put forth his maturest powers, was carried on thence. His “Nathan the Wise” (1779), by which almost alone he is known as a poet outside of Germany, was conceived and composed there. The last few years of his life were darkened by ill-health and the depression which it brings. His “Nathan” had not the success he hoped. It is sad to see the strong, self-sufficing man casting about for a little sympathy, even for a little praise. “It is really needful to me that you should have some small good opinion of it [' Nathan'], in order to make me once more contented with myself,” he writes to Elise Reimarus in May 1779. That he was weary of polemics, and dissatisfied with himself for letting them distract him from better things, appears from his last pathetic letter to the old friend he loved and valued most-Mendelsshon. “And in truth, dear friend, I sorely need a letter like yours from time to time, if I am not to become wholly out of humour. I think you do not know me as a man that has a very hot hunger for praise. But the coldness with which the world is wont to convir.ce certain people that they do not suit it, if not deadly, yet stiffens one with chill. I am not astonished that all I have written lately does not please you. . .. At best; a passage here and there may have cheated you by recalling our better days. I, too, was then a sound, slim sapling, and am now such a rotten, gnarled trunk !” This was written on the 19th of December 1780; and on the 15th of February 1781 Lessing died, not quite fifty-two years old,
Goethe was then in his thirty-second year, and Schiller ten years younger.
Of Lessing's relation to metaphysics the reader will find ample discussion in Herr Stahr's volumes. We are not particularly concerned with them, because his interest in such questions was purely speculative, and because he was more concerned to exercise the powers of his mind than to analyse them. His chief business, his master impulse always, was to be a man of letters in the narrower sense of the term. Even into theology he only made occasional raids across the border, as it were, and that not so much with a purpose of reform as in defence of principles which applied equally to the whole domain of thought. He had even less sympathy with heterodoxy than with orthodoxy, and, so far from joining a party or wishing to form one, would have left belief a matter of choice to the individual conscience. “From the bottom of my heart I hate all those people who wish to found sects. For it is not error, but sectarian error, yes, even sectarian truth, that makes men unhappy, or would do so if truth would found a sect.”* Again he says, that in his theological controversies he is "much less concerned about theology than about sound common-sense, and only therefore prefer the old orthodox (at bottom tolerant) theology to the new (at bottom intolerant), because the former openly conflicts with sound common-sense, while the latter would fain corrupt it. I reconcile myself with my open enemies in order the better to be on my guard against my secret ones.”+ At another time he tells his brother that he has a wholly false notion of his (Lessing's) relation to orthodoxy. “Do you suppose I grudge the world that anybody should seek to enlighten it?—that I do not heartily wish that every one should think rationally about religion? I should loathe myself if even in my scribblings I had any other end than to help forward those great views. But let me choose my
To his brother Karl, 20th April 1774. + To the same, 20th March 1777.