Sun. evening, Jan. 29.

The most celebrated German improvisatore, Dr. Wolff of Hamburg, has been here several days, and has already given public proof of his rare talent. On Friday evening he gave a brilliant display to a numerous audience, and in the presence of the court of Weimar. On the same evening he received from Goethe an invitation to come to him the next day at noon.

I talked with him yesterday evening, after he had improvised before Goethe. He was much delighted, and declared that this hour would make an epoch in his life; for Goethe, by a few words, had opened to him to a wholly new path, and when he had found fault with him, had hit the right nail on the head.

This evening, when I was at Goethe's, the conversation turned immediately on Wolff. “Dr. Wolff is very happy,” said I, “that your excellency has given him good counsel,”

“I was perfectly frank with him,” said Goethe, “and if my words have made an impression on him and incited him, that is a very good sign. He is a decided talent without doubt, but he has the general sickness of the present day—subjectivity—and of that I would fain heal him. I gave him a task to try him:—‘Describe to me,’ said I, ‘your return to Hamburg.’ He was ready at once, and began immediately to speak in melodious verses. I could not but admire him, yet I could not praise him. It was not a return to Hamburg that he described, but merely the emotions on the return of a son to his parents, relations, and friends; and his poem would have served just as well for a return to Merseburg or Jena, as for a return to Hamburg. Yet what a remarkable, peculiar city is Hamburg! and what a rich field was offered him for the most minute description, if he had known or ventured to take hold of the subject properly!”

I remarked that this subjective tendency was the fault of the public, which decidedly applauds all sentimentality.

“Perhaps so,” said Goethe; “but the public is still more pleased if you give it something better. I am certain that if, with Wolff's talent at improvisation, one could faithfully describe the life of great cities, such as Rome, Naples, Vienna, Hamburg, or London, and that in such a lively manner, that one's hearers would believe they saw with their own eyes, everybody would be enchanted. If he breaks through to the objective, he is saved, the stuff is in him; for he is not without imagination. Only he must make up his mind at once, and strive to grasp it.”

“I fear,” said I, “that this will be harder than we imagine, since it demands entire regeneration of his mode of thought. Even if he succeeds, he will, at all events, come to a momentary standstill with his production, and long practice will be required to make the objective become a second nature.”

“The step I grant is very great,” said Goethe; “but he must take courage, and make his resolution at once. It is in such matters, like the dread of water in bathing—we must jump in at once, and the element is ours.

“If a person learns to sing,” continued Goethe, “all the notes which are within his natural compass are easy to him, while those which lie beyond the compass are at first extremely difficult. But to be a vocalist, he must conquer them, for he must have them all at command. Just so with the poet;—he deserves not the name while he only speaks out his few subjective feelings; but as soon as he can appropriate to himself, and express the world, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be always new, while a subjective nature has soon talked out his little internal material, and is at last ruined by mannerism. People always talk of the study of the ancients; but what does that mean, except that it says, turn your attention to the real world, and try to express it, for that is what the ancients did when they were alive.”

Goethe arose and walked to and fro, while I remained seated at the table, as he likes to see me. He stood a moment at the stove, and then, like one who has reflected, came to me, and with his finger on his lips, said,

“I will now tell you something which you will often find confirmed in your experience. All eras in a state of decline and dissolution are subjective; on the other hand, all progressive eras have an objective tendency. Our present time is retrograde, for it is subjective: we see this not merely in poetry, but also in painting, and much besides. Every healthy effort, on the contrary, is directed from the inward to the outward world, as you will see in all great eras, which have been really in a state of progression, and all of an objective nature.”

These remarks led to a most interesting conversation, in which especial mention was made of the great period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The conversation now turned upon the theatre, and the weak, sentimental, gloomy character of modern productions.

Molière is my strength and consolation at present,” said I; “I have translated his ‘Avare,’ and am now busy with his ‘Médicin malgré lui.’ Molière is indeed a great, a genuine (reiner) man.”

“Yes,” said Goethe, “a genuine man; that is the proper term. There is nothing distorted about him. He ruled the manners of his day, while, on the contrary, Our Iffland and Kotzebue allowed themselves to be ruled by theirs, and were limited and confined in them. Molière chastised men by drawing them just as they were.”

“I would give something,” said I, “to see his plays acted in all their purity! Yet such things are much too strong and natural for the public, so far as I am acquainted with it. Is not this over-refinement to be attributed to the so-called ideal literature of certain authors?”

“No,” said Goethe, “it has its source in society itself. What business have our young girls at the theatre? They do not belong to it—they belong to the convent, and the theatre is only for men and women, who know something of human affairs. When Molière wrote, girls were in the convent, and he was not forced to think about them. But now we cannot get rid of these young girls, and pieces which are weak, and therefore proper, will continue to be produced. Be wise and stay away, as I do. I was really interested in the theatre only so long as I could have a practical influence upon it. It was my delight to bring the establishment to a high degree of perfection; and when there was a performance, my interest was not so much in the pieces as in observing whether the actors played as they ought. The faults I wished to point out I sent in writing to the Regisseur, and was sure they would be avoided on the next representation. Now I can no longer have any practical influence in the theatre, I feel no calling to enter it; I should be forced to endure defects without being able to amend them; and that would not suit me. And with the reading of plays, it is no better. The young German poets are eternally sending me tragedies; but what am I to do with them? I have never read German plays except with the view of seeing whether I could act them; in every other respect they were indifferent to me. What am I to do now, in my present situation, with the pieces of these young people? I can gain nothing for myself by reading how things ought not to be done; and I cannot assist the young poets in a matter which is already finished. If, instead of their printed plays, they would send me the plan of a play, I could at least say, ‘Do it,’ or ‘Leave it alone,’ or ‘Do it this way,’ or ‘Do it that;’ and in this there might be some use.

“The whole mischief proceeds from this, that poetical culture is so widely diffused in Germany that nobody now ever makes a bad verse. The young poets who send me their works are not inferior to their predecessors, and, since they see these praised so highly, they cannot understand why they are not praised also. And yet we cannot encourage them, when talents of the sort exist by hundreds; and we ought not to favour superfluities while so much that is useful remains to be done. Were there a single one who towered above all the rest, it would be well, for the world can only be served by the extraordinary.”

Thurs., Feb. 16.

I went, at seven this evening, to Goethe, whom I found alone in his room. I sat down by him at the table, and told him that yesterday I had seen, at the inn, the Duke of Wellington, who was passing through on his way to St. Petersburg. “Indeed!” said Goethe, with animation; “what was he like?—tell me all about him. Does he look like his portrait?”

“Yes,” said I; “but better, with more of marked character. If you ever look at his face, all the portraits are nought. One need only see him once never to forget him, such an impression does he make. His eyes are brown, and of the serenest brilliancy; one feels the effect of his glance; his mouth speaks, even when it is closed; he looks a man who has had many thoughts, and has lived through the greatest deeds, who now can handle the world serenely and calmly, and whom nothing more can disturb. He seemed to me as hard and as tempered as a Damascus blade. By his appearance, he is far advanced in the fifties; is upright, slim, and not very tall or stout. I saw him getting into his carriage to depart. There was something uncommonly cordial in his salutation as he passed through the crowd, and, with a very slight bow, touched his hat with his finger.” Goethe listened to my description with visible interest. “You have seen one hero more,” said he, “and that is saying something.”

We then talked of Napoleon, and I lamented that I had never seen him.

“Truly,” said Goethe, “that also was worth the trouble. What a compendium of the world!” “Did he look like something?” asked I. “He was something,” replied Goethe; “and he looked what he was—that was all.”

I had brought with me for Goethe a very remarkable poem, of which I had spoken to him some evenings before—a poem of his own, written so long since that he had quite forgotten it. It was printed in the beginning of the year 1776, in “Die Sichtbaren” (the Visible), a periodical published at the time in Frankfort, and had been brought to Weimar by an old servant of Goethe's, through whom it had fallen into my hands. Undoubtedly it is the earliest known poem of Goethe's. The subject was the “Descent of Christ into Hell;” and it was remarkable to observe the readiness of the young author with his religious images. The purpose of the poem might have suited Klopstock; but the execution was quite of a different character; it was stronger, freer, and more easy, and had greater energy and better arrangement. The extraordinary ardour reminded one of a period of youth, full of impetuosity and power. Through a want of subject matter, it constantly reverted to the same point, and was of undue length.

I placed before Goethe the yellow, worn-out paper, and as soon as he saw it he remembered his poem. “It is possible,” said he, “that Fräulein von Klettenberg induced me to write it: the heading shows that it was written by desire, and I know not any other friend who could have desired such a subject. I was then in want of materials, and was rejoiced when I got anything that I could sing. Lately, a poem of that period fell into my hands, which I wrote in the English language, and in which I complained of the dearth of poetic subjects. We Germans are really ill off in that respect; our earliest history lies too much in obscurity, and the later is without general native interest, through the want of one ruling dynasty. Klopstock tried Arminius, but the subject lies too far off; nobody feels any connection with it; no one knows what to make of it, and accordingly it has never been popular, or produced any result. I made a happy hit with my ‘Goetz von Berlichingen;’ that was, at any rate, bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh, and something could be done with it.

“For ‘Werther’ and ‘Faust’ I was, on the contrary, obliged to draw upon my own bosom, for that which was handed down to me did not go far. I made devils and witches but once; I was glad when I had consumed my northern inheritance, and turned to the tables of the Greeks. Had I earlier known how many excellent things have been in existence for hundreds of years, I should not have written a line, but should have done something else.”

Easter-day, Mar. 26.

To-day, at dinner, Goethe was in one of his pleasantest moods. He had received something he highly valued, Lord Byron's manuscript of the dedication to his “Sardanapalus.” He showed it to us after dinner, at the same time teazing his daughter to give him back Byron's letter from Genoa. “You see, my dear child,” said he, “I have now everything collected which relates to my connection with Byron; even this valuable paper comes to me to-day, in a remarkable manner, and now nothing is wanting but that letter.”

However, the amiable admirer of Byron would not restore the letter. “You gave it to me once, dear father,” said she, “and I shall not give it back; and if you wish, as is fit, that like should be with like, you had better give me the precious paper of to-day, and I will keep them all together.” This was still more repugnant to Goethe, and the playful contest lasted for some time, when it merged into general lively conversation.

After we had risen from table, and the ladies had gone upstairs, I remained with Goethe alone. He brought from his work-room a red portfolio, which he took to the window, and showed me its contents. “Look,” said he, “here I have everything together which relates to my connection with Lord Byron. Here is his letter from Leghorn; this is a copy of his dedication; this is my poem; and here is what I wrote for ‘Medwin's Conversations;’ now, I only want the letter from Genoa, and she will not give it me.”

Goethe then told me of a friendly request, which had this day been made to him from England, with reference to Lord Byron, and which had excited him in a very pleasant manner. His mind was just now quite full of Byron, and he said a thousand interesting things about him, his works, and his talents.

“The English,” said he, among other things, “may think of Byron as they please; but this is certain, that they can show no poet who is to be compared to him. He is different from all the others, and, for the most part, greater.”

Mon., May 15.

I talked with Goethe to-day about St. Schütze, of whom he spoke very kindly. “When I was ill a few weeks since,” said he, “I read his ‘Heitere Stunden’ (Cheerful Hours) with great pleasure. If Schütze had lived in England, he would have made an epoch; for, with his gift of observing and depicting, nothing was wanting but the sight of life on a large scale.”

Thurs., June 1.

Goethe spoke of the “Globe.”[1] “The contributors,” said he, “are men of the world, cheerful, clear in their views, bold to the last degree. In their censure they are polished and galant; whereas our German literati always think they must hate those who do not think like themselves. I consider the ‘Globe’ one of our most interesting periodicals, and could not do without it.”

  • [1] The celebrated French paper.—Trans.

Wed., July 26.

This evening I had the pleasure of hearing Goethe say a great deal about the theatre.

I told him that one of my friends intended to arrange Lord Byron's “Two Foscari” for the stage. Goethe doubted his success.

“It is indeed a temptation,” he said. “When a piece makes a deep impression on us in reading, we think it will do the same on the stage, and that we could obtain such a result with little trouble. But this is by no means the case. A piece that is not originally, by the intent and skill of the poet, written for the boards, will not succeed; but whatever is done to it, will always remain something unmanageable. What trouble have I taken with my ‘Goetz von Berlichingen!’ yet it will not go right as an acting play, but is too long; and I have been forced to divide it into two parts, of which the last is indeed theatrically effective, while the first is to be looked upon as a mere introduction. If the first part were given only once as an introduction, and then the second repeatedly, it might succeed. It is the same with ‘Wallenstein:’ ‘The Piccolomini’ does not bear repetition, but ‘Wallenstein's Death’ is always seen with delight.”

I asked how a piece must be constructed so as to be fit for the theatre.

“It must be symbolical,” replied Goethe; “that is to say, each incident must be significant in itself, and lead to another still more important. The ‘Tartuffe’ of Molière is, in this respect, a great example. Only think what an introduction is the first scene! From the very beginning everything is highly significant, and leads us to expect something still more important which is to come. The beginning of Lessing's ‘Minna von Barnhelm’ is also admirable; but that of the ‘Tartuffe’ comes only once into the world: it is the greatest and best thing that exists of the kind.”

We then came to the pieces of Calderon.

“In Calderon,” said Goethe, “you find the same perfect adaptation to the theatre. His pieces are throughout fit for the boards; there is not a touch in them which is not directed towards the required effect. Calderon is a genius who had also the finest understanding.”

“It is singular,” said I, “that the dramas of Shakspeare are not theatrical pieces, properly so called, since he wrote them all for his theatre.”

“Shakspeare,” replied Goethe, “wrote those pieces direct from his own nature. Then, too, his age, and the existing arrangements of the stage, made no demands upon him; people were forced to put up with whatever he gave them. But if Shakspeare had written for the court of Madrid, or for the theatre of Louis XIV., he would probably have adapted himself to a severer theatrical form. This, however, is by no means to be regretted, for what Shakspeare has lost as a theatrical poet he has gained as a poet in general. Shakspeare is a great psychologist, and we learn from his pieces the secrets of human nature.”[1]

We then talked of the difficulties in managing a theatre.

“The knotty point,” said Goethe, “is so to deal with contingencies that we are not tempted to deviate from our higher maxims. Among the higher maxims is this: to keep a good repertoire of excellent tragedies, operas, and comedies, to which we can adhere, and which may be regarded as permanent. Among contingencies, I reckon a new piece about which the public is anxious, a ‘starring’ character (Gastrolle), and so forth. We must not be led astray by things of this kind, but always return to our repertoire. Our time is so rich in really good pieces, that nothing is easier to a connoisseur than to form a good repertoire; but nothing is more difficult to maintain one.

“When Schiller and I superintended the theatre, we had the great advantage of playing through the summer at Lauchstädt. There we had a select audience, who would have nothing but what was excellent; so we always returned to Weimar thoroughly practised in the best plays, and could repeat all our summer performances in the winter. Besides, the Weimar public had confidence in our management, and, even in the case of things they could not appreciate, they were convinced that we acted in accordance with some higher view.

“When the nineties began,” continued Goethe, “the proper period of my interest in the theatre was already past, and I wrote nothing for the stage, but wished to devote myself to epic poetry. Schiller revived my extinct interest, and, for the sake of his works, I again took part in the theatre. At the time of my ‘Clavigo,’ I could easily have written a dozen theatrical pieces. I had no want of subjects, an production was easy to me. I might have written a piece every week, and I am sorry I did not.”

  • [1] Wie den Menschen zu Muthe ist. The above is only an approximation.—Trans.

Wed., Nov. 8.

To-day, Goethe spoke again of Lord Byron with admiration. “I have,” said he, “read once more his ‘Deformed Transformed,’ and must say that to me his talent appears greater than ever. His devil was suggested by my Mephistophiles; but it is no imitation—it is thoroughly new and original, close, genuine, and spirited. There are no weak passages—not a place where you could put the head of a pin, where you do not find invention and thought. Were it not for his hypochondriacal negative turn, he would be as great as Shakspeare and the ancients.” I expressed surprise.

“Yes,” said Goethe, “you may believe me. I have studied him anew, and am confirmed in this opinion.”

In a conversation some time ago, Goethe had remarked that Byron had too much empeiria.[1] I did not well understand what he meant; but I forbore to ask, and thought of the matter in silence. However, I got nothing by reflection, and found that I must wait till my improved culture, or some happy circumstance, should unlock the secret for me. Such an one occurred when an excellent representation of “Macbeth” at the theatre produced a strong effect upon me, and on the day afterwards I took up Byron's works to read his “Beppo.” Now, I felt I could not relish this poem after “Macbeth;” and the more I read, the more I became enlightened as to Goethe's meaning.

In “Macbeth,” a spirit had impressed me, whose grandeur, power, and sublimity could have proceeded from none but Shakspeare. There was the innate quality of a high and deep nature, which raises the individual who possesses it above all mankind, and thus makes him a great poet. Whatever has been given to this piece by knowledge of the world or experience was subordinate to the poetic spirit, and served only to make this speak out and predominate. The great poet ruled us and lifted us up to his own point of view.

While reading “Beppo,” on the contrary, I felt the predominance of a nefarious empirical world, with which the mind which introduced it to us had, in a certain measure, associated itself. I no more found the great and pure thoughts of a highly-gifted poet, but, by frequent intercourse with the world, the poet's mode of thought seemed to have acquired the same stamp. He seemed to be on the same level with all intellectual men of the world of the higher class, being only distinguished from them by his great talent for representation, so that he might be regarded as their mouthpiece.

So I felt, in reading “Beppo,” that Lord Byron had too much empeiria, not because he brought too much real life before us, but because the higher poetic nature seemed to be silent, or even expelled by an empiric mode of thought.

  • [1] The import of this Greek word for “experience,” and its cognate word “empiric,” has nothing in common with the notion of “quackery.” The general meaning is, that Byron is too worldly.—Trans.

Wed., Nov. 29.

I had now also read Lord Byron's “Deformed Transformed,” and talked with Goethe about it after dinner.

“Am I not right?” said he; “the first scenes are great—politically great. The remainder, when the subject wanders to the siege of Rome, I will not call poetical, but it must be averred that it is very pointed[1] (geistreich).”

“To the highest degree,” said I; “but there is no art in being pointed when one respects nothing.”

Goethe laughed. “You are not quite wrong,” said he. “We must, indeed, confess that the poet says more than ought to be said. He tells us the truth, but it is disagreeable, and we should like him better if he held his peace. There are things in the world which the poet should rather conceal than disclose; but this openness lies in Byron's character, and you would annihilate him if you made him other than he is.”

“Yes,” said I, “he is in the highest degree pointed. How excellent, for instance, is this passage—

The devil speaks truth much oftener than he's deemed;
He hath an ignorant audience?”

“That is as good and as free as one of my Mephistophiles' sayings.”

“Since we are talking of Mephistophiles,” continued Goethe, “I will show you something which Coudray has brought me from Paris. What do you think of it?”

He laid before me a lithograph, representing the scene where Faust and Mephistophiles, on their way to free Margaret from prison, are rushing by the gallows at night on two horses. Faust rides a black horse, which gallops with all its might, and seems, as well as his rider, afraid of the spectres under the gallows. They ride so fast that Faust can scarcely keep his seat; the current of air has blown off his cap, which, fastened by straps about his neck, flies far behind him. He has turned his fearful inquiring face to Mephistophiles, and is listening to his words. Mephistophiles, on the contrary, sits quiet and undisturbed, like a being of a higher order. He rides no living horse, for he loves not what is living; indeed, he does not need it, for his will moves him with the swiftness he requires. He has a horse merely because he must look as if he were riding, and it has been quite enough for him to find a beast that is a mere bag of bones, from the first field he has come to. It is of a bright colour, and seems to be phosphorescent amid the darkness of night. It is neither bridled nor saddled, but goes without such appendages. The supernatural rider sits easily and negligently, with his face turned towards Faust, in conversation. The opposing element of air does not exist for him; neither he nor his horse feel anything of it. Not a hair of either is stirred.

We expressed much pleasure at this ingenious composition. “I must aver,” said Goethe, “that I myself did not think it out so perfectly. Here is another. What say you to this?”

I saw a representation of the wild drinking scene in Auerbach's cellar, at the all-important moment when the wine sparkles up into flames, and the brutality of the drinkers is shown in the most varied ways. All is passion and movement; Mephistophiles also maintains his usual composure. The wild cursing and screaming, and the drawn knife of the man who stands next him, are to him nothing. He has seated himself on a corner of the table, dangling his legs. His upraised finger is enough to subdue flame and passion.

The more one looked at this excellent design, the greater seemed the intelligence of the artist, who made no figure like another, but in each one expressed some different part of the action.

M. Delacroix,” said Goethe, “is a man of great talent, who found in ‘Faust’ his proper aliment. The French censure his wildness, but it suits him well here. He will, I hope, go through all ‘Faust,’ and I anticipate a special pleasure from the witches' kitchen and the scenes on the Brocken. We can see that he has a good knowledge of life, for which a city like Paris has given him the best opportunity.”

I observed that these designs greatly conduce to the comprehension of a poem.

“Undoubtedly,” said Goethe; “for the more perfect imagination of such an artist constrains us to think the situations as beautiful as he conceived them himself. And if I must confess that M. Delacroix has, in some scenes, surpassed my own notions, how much more will the reader find all in full life, and surpassing his imagination.”

  • [1] “Pointed” is only an approximation,—the word here means “full of esprit.”—Trans.

Mon., Dec. 11.

I found Goethe in a very happy mood. “Alexander von Humboldt has been some hours with me this morning,” said he, coming to meet me with great vivacity; “what a man he is! Long as I have known him, he ever surprises me anew. One may say he has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. Then he has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home, and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes, under which you need only hold a vessel, and from which refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing. He will stay here some days; and I already feel that it will be with me as if I had lived for years.”

Wed., Dec. 13.

At table, the ladies praised a portrait by a young painter. “What is most surprising,” they added, “he has learned everything by himself.” This could be seen particularly in the hands, which were not correctly and artistically drawn. “We see,” said Goethe, “that the young man has talent; however, you should not praise, but rather blame him, for learning everything by himself. A man of talent is not born to be left to himself, but to devote himself to art and good masters, who will make something out of him. I have lately read a letter from Mozart, where, in reply to a Baron who had sent him his composition, he writes somewhat in this fashion—

“‘You dilettanti must be blamed for two faults, since two you generally have; either you have no thoughts of your own, and take those of others, or, if you have thoughts of your own, you do not know what to do with them.’

“Is not this capital? and does not this fine remark, which Mozart makes about music, apply to all other arts?”

Goethe continued: “Leonardo da Vinci says, ‘If your son has not sense enough to bring out what he draws by a bold shadowing, so that we can grasp it with our hands, he has no talent.’

“Further, Leonardo da Vinci says, ‘If your son is a perfect master of perspective and anatomy, send him to a good master.’

“And now,” said Goethe, “our young artists scarcely understand either when they leave their masters. So much have times altered.”

“Our young painters,” continued Goethe, “lack heart and intellect. Their inventions express nothing and effect nothing: they paint swords which do not cut, and arrows which do not hit; and I often think, in spite of myself, that all intellect has vanished from the world.”

“And yet,” I replied, “we should naturally think that the great military events of latter years would have stirred the intellect.”

“They have stirred the will more than the intellect,” said Goethe, “and the poetical intellect more than the artistical, while all naïveté and sensuousness are lost. Without these two great requisites how can a painter produce anything in which we can take any pleasure?”

I said that I had lately, in his “Italian Travels,” read of a picture by Correggio, which represents a “weaning,” and in which the Infant Christ in Mary's lap stands in doubt between his mother's breast and a pear held before him, and does not know which of the two to choose.

“Aye,” said Goethe, “there is a little picture for you! There are mind, naïveté, sensuousness, all together. The sacred subject is endowed with an universally human interest, and stands as a symbol for a period of life we must all pass through. Such a picture is immortal, because it grasps backwards at the earliest times of humanity, and forwards at the latest. On the contrary, if Christ were painted suffering the little children to come unto him, it would be a picture that expressed nothing—at any rate, nothing of importance.

“For above fifty years,” continued Goethe, “I have watched German painting—nay, not merely watched it, but endeavoured to exert some influence on it, and now I can say so much, that as the matter now stands, little is to be expected. Some great talent must come, which will at once appropriate to itself all that is good in the period, and thus surpass every one. The means are at hand, and the way is pointed out. We have now the works of Phidias before our eyes, whereas in our youth nothing of the sort was to be thought of. As I have just said, nothing is wanting but a great talent, and this I hope will come; perhaps it is already in its cradle, and you will live to see its brilliancy.”

Wed., Dec. 20.

I told Goethe after dinner, that I had made a discovery which afforded me much pleasure. I had observed in a burning taper that the lower transparent part of the flame exhibits a phenomenon analogous to that of the blue sky, since in both we see darkness through a lighted but dense medium.

I asked Goethe whether he knew this phenomenon of the taper, and had mentioned it in his “Theory of Colours.”

“Certainly,” said he. He then took down a volume of “the Theory of Colours,” and read me the paragraphs in which I found described all that I had seen. “I am glad,” said he, “that you have been struck with this phenomenon, without learning it from my ‘Theory,’ for you have now comprehended it, and may say that you possess it. Moreover, you have thus gained a point of view from which you can proceed to the other phenomena. I will show you a new one now.”

It was about four o'clock: the sky was clouded over, and twilight was beginning. Goethe lighted a candle, and went with it to a table near the window. He then set it on a white sheet of paper, and placed a small stick so that the light of the candle threw a shadow from the stick towards the daylight. “Now,” said Goethe, “what do you say of this shadow?” “The shadow is blue,” replied I. “There you get your blue again,” said Goethe. “But what do you see on the other side of the stick towards the taper?” “Another shadow.” “But of what colour?” “The shadow is a reddish yellow,” I replied; “but whence proceeds this double phenomenon?” “There is a point for you,” said Goethe: “see if you can work it out. A solution is to be found, but it is difficult. Do not look at my ‘Theory of Colours’ until you have given up all hopes of finding it out yourself.” I made this promise with great delight.

“The phenomenon of the lower part of the taper,” said Goethe, “where a transparent flame stands before darkness and produces a blue colour, I will now show you on a larger scale.” He took a spoon and poured into it some spirit, which he set on fire. Thus a transparent flame was again produced, through which the darkness appeared blue. If I held the burning spirit against the darkness, the blue increased in intensity; but if I held it against the light, the blue became fainter or vanished altogether.

I was delighted with this phenomenon. “Yes,” said Goethe, “this is the grandeur of nature, that she is so simple, and that she always repeats her greatest phenomena on a small scale. The law by which the sky is blue may likewise be observed in the lower part of a burning taper, in burning spirits, and also in the bright smoke which rises from a village with dark mountains in the background.”

“But how do the disciples of Newton explain this extremely simple phenomenon?” “That you must not know,” answered Goethe. “Their explanation is too stupid, and a good head-piece is incredibly damaged when it meddles with stupidities. Do not trouble yourself about the Newtonians, but be satisfied with the pure doctrine, and you will find it quite enough for you.”

“An occupation with that which is wrong,” said I “is perhaps in this case as unpleasant and as injurious as taking up a bad tragedy to illustrate it in all its parts, and to expose it in its nudity.”

“The case is precisely the same,” said Goethe, “and we should not meddle with anything of the sort without actual necessity. I receive mathematics as the most sublime and useful science, so long as they are applied in their proper place; but I cannot commend the misuse of them in matters which do not belong to their sphere, and in which, noble science as they are, they seem to be mere nonsense. As if, forsooth! things only exist when they can be mathematically demonstrated. It would be foolish for a man not to believe in his mistress's love because she could not prove it to him mathematically. She can mathematically prove her dowry, but not her love. The mathematicians did not find out the metamorphosis of plants. I have achieved this discovery without mathematics, and the mathematicians were forced to put up with it. To understand the phenomena of colour nothing is required but unbiassed observation and a sound head, but these are scarcer than folks imagine.”

“How do the French and English of the present day stand with respect to the theory of colour?” asked I. “Each of the two nations,” replied Goethe, “has its advantages and disadvantages. With the English, it is a good quality, that they make everything practical, but they are pedants. The French have good brains, but with them everything must be positive, and if it is not so they make it so. However, with respect to the theory of colours, they are in a good way, and one of their best men comes near the truth. He says that colours are inherent in the things themselves; for as there is in nature an acidulating principle, so also is there a colouring principle. This view, I admit, does not explain the phenomena, but it places the object within the sphere of nature, and frees it from the load of mathematics.”

The Berlin papers were brought in, and Goethe sat down to read them. He handed one of them to me, and I found in the theatrical intelligence, that at the opera house and the theatre royal they gave just as bad pieces as they gave here. “How should it be otherwise?” said Goethe. “There is no doubt that with the help of good English, French, and Spanish pieces, a repertoire can be formed sufficiently abundant to furnish a good piece every evening. But what need is felt by the nation always to see good pieces? The time in which Æschylus Sophocles, and Euripides lived was different. Then there was mind enough to desire only what was really greatest and best. But in our miserable times, where is felt a need for the best? where are the organs to appreciate it?

“And then,” continued Goethe, “people will have something new. In Berlin or Paris, the public is always the same. A quantity of new pieces are written and brought out in Paris, and you must endure five or six thoroughly bad ones before you are compensated by a single good one. The only expedient to keep up a German theatre at the present time is that of ‘starring’ (Gastrollen). If I had the direction of a theatre now, the whole winter should be provided with excellent ‘stars.’ Thus, not only would all the good pieces be represented once more, but the interest of the audience would be led more from the pieces to the acting; a power of comparing and judging would be acquired; the public would gain in penetration, and the superior acting of a distinguished star would maintain our own actors in a state of excitement and emulation. As I said before, keep on with your starring, and you will be astonished at the benefit that will accrue both to the theatre and the public. I foresee a time when a clever man, who understands the matter, will take four theatres at once, and provide them with stars by turns. And I am sure he will keep his ground better than if he only had one.”

Wed., Dec. 27.

I had been sedulously reflecting at home, on the phenomenon of the blue and yellow shadows, and although this long remained a riddle to me, a light gleamed upon me after constant meditation, and I was gradually convinced that I understood the phenomenon.

To-day at dinner, I told Goethe that I had solved the riddle. “That is saying a great deal,” said Goethe, “you shall show me after dinner.” “I would rather write my solution down,” returned I, “for I want the right words for a verbal explanation.” “You may write it down afterwards, but to-day you shall solve the problem before my eyes, and demonstrate it with your own mouth, that I may see whether you are in the right way.”

After dinner, when it was still quite light, Goethe said to me, “Can you make the experiment now?” “No,” said I. “Why not?” asked Goethe. “It is too light,” I replied. “We must have a little dusk, in order that the candle may throw a decided shade, but not so much that daylight cannot fall upon this shadow.” “Humph!” said Goethe, “that is not wrong.”

The dusk of the evening at last set in, and I told Goethe that this was the time. He lighted the wax taper, and gave me a sheet of white paper and a stick. “Now, go on with your experiment and demonstration,” said he.

I placed the taper on the table near the window, laid the sheet of paper near it, and when I placed the stick in the middle of the paper, between daylight and candle-light, the phenomenon was there in all its beauty. The shadow towards the candle was a decided yellow, and the one towards the window a perfect blue.

“Now,” said Goethe, “how is the blue shadow produced?” “Before I explain this,” said I, “I will lay down the fundamental law, from which I deduce both phenomena. Light and darkness are not colours, but they are the two extremes between which, and by the modification of which, all colours are produced. Next to the extremes of light and darkness, arise the two colours yellow and blue. The yellow borders on light, inasmuch as it is produced by seeing light through a dimmed transparency; the blue borders on darkness, inasmuch as it is produced by seeing darkness through an illuminated transparency. If we now come to our phenomena,” I continued, “we see that the stick, through the strength of the taper light, casts a decided shadow. This shadow would appear as so much black darkness if I closed the shutters and shut out the light of day; but here the daylight enters freely by the window, and forms an illuminated medium, through which I see the darkness of the shadow; and thus, in conformity with our law, the blue colour is produced.”

Goethe laughed. “Well, that would be the blue, would it?” said he; “but how do you explain the yellow shadow?” “From the law of the dimmed light,” I replied. “The burning taper throws upon the white paper a light which has already a slightly yellowish tinge. The daylight, however, is strong enough to throw a weak shadow, which, as far as it extends, dims the light; and thus, in conformity with our law, the yellow colour is produced. If I lessen the dimness by bringing the shadow as nearly as possible to the candle, a pure clear yellow is produced; but if I increase the dimness by removing the shadow as far as possible from the candle, the yellow is heightened to a reddish yellow, or even to a red.”

Goethe again laughed, and looked very mysterious. “Now,” said he, “am I right? You have observed your phenomenon well, and have described it very prettily,” replied Goethe, “but you have not explained it. Your explanation is ingenious, but it is not the right one.”

“Help me, then,” said I, “and solve the riddle, for I am extremely impatient.” “You shall learn the solution,” replied Goethe, “but not to-day and not in this manner. I will next show you another phenomenon, which will bring the law plainly before your eyes. You are near the mark, and cannot proceed further in this direction. When you have once comprehended the new law, you will be transplanted into quite another region. Come some day and dine with me an hour earlier, when the sky is clear, and I will show you a plainer phenomenon, by which you will at once comprehend the law which lies at the foundation of this one. I am very glad,” he continued, “that you take this interest in colours; it will prove a source of infinite delight.”

When I left Goethe in the evening, I could not get the thought of the phenomenon out of my head, and it occupied my very dreams; but even thus I did not gain a clearer view, and did not advance one step nearer towards the solution of the enigma.


“I am going on, though slowly, with my papers on Natural Science,” said Goethe to me lately; “not because I think that I can materially advance science, but on account of the many pleasant associations I maintain by it. Of all occupations, that with nature is the most innocent. As for any connection or correspondence in æsthetical matters, that is not to be thought of. They now want to know what town on the Rhine is meant in my ‘Hermann and Dorothea,’ as if it were not better to choose according to one's fancy. They want truth—they want actuality; and thus poetry is destroyed.”