Precipitation

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Precipitation  (1835) 
by Ludwig Tieck, translated by G. F. Crossthwaite
Ludwig Tieck's novella Precipitation (Übereilung) was first published in 1835.



Precipitation


During the late melancholy weather, I renewed my visit to an acquaintance, an old professor of philosophy, or rather of history, for he still continued to give lectures upon the latter subject, whilst he had long ago left off teaching the former branch of science. This old gentleman, who imagined that he comprehended the occurrences of the world and of our time, in a manner particularly his own, and on this account often shook his head when younger people were in a merry mood, is frequently governed by very peculiar whims. He ridicules the desire which rages in the present day for wonderful events, because people whose minds are weak and hollow, endeavour to lighten the pressure of their tedious moments, and wish to clear up the darkness which envelopes them, by seeking for wonders and rare occurrences, and willingly accept that which is impossible and contrary to reason merely to get out of the way of burdensome truth. But his opinion of this is, that people only want eyes in order to perceive, that remarkable, and even wonderful occurrences are continually happening, but being invested in a phantastical dress, only in extremely rare cases, are, on this account, not observed by the wonderseekers.

Does not our life itself, yes, and all creation too, if one would only reflect for a moment, repose upon conditions and foundations which one would be almost obliged to call fabulous, and to which we can find no answer for the why, whither, or wherefore?

In this universal silence of the wilderness, the excited spiritual ear frequently imagines that it is listening to some inexplicable sound, like the echo of a different state of being, and this re-echoing is translated by the creative power of phantasy into words, out of which images, sentiments, and thoughts unfold themselves, which afterwards create the Art of Poetry, Religion, and Ideality, or Mysticism for mortals. In this manner, people voluntarily remain during the whole explanation without a text.

But let us leave these whims of our Balzer (a repulsive name, and a disagreeable abbreviation Balthasar.)

This Balzer also maintains, that many of the prophetic dreams of events which have happened of warning forebodings which have afterwards been fulfilled exist in real life to a far more considerable degree than people will usually allow. Exactly so, he says, when we think suddenly of a person, whom we had not thought of before for years, and at the very moment the postman rings the bell, in order to deliver us a letter from this long-forgotten acquaintance, that there is nothing very remarkable in it.

He likewise affirms, that every body must have observed, that frequently after having heard a story or an occurrence related, which has not been thought of for several years, he enters another company, still absorbed in deep meditation at the idea how it has been possible that people should not have paid attention to such a remarkable fact during so long a period, and there hears the same story repeated, without anything having happened to give rise to it, and so again in a third and fourth circle, that he could almost swear the recollection of the occurrence must be immediately connected with the air. And this must really be the case; if not in the air, then in some fine, imperceptible fluid. Can we not extend this idea to sensations, inclinations, whims, and persuasions of different periods?

It really appears, that even the wise man during some period of his life, cannot avoid some act of foolishness, which is afterwards adopted by the crowd. My friend, the Professor, has therefore a custom to note down in a book every thing remarkable that he has witnessed himself, or has learnt from others. This book has already attained a considerable size, and contains nothing but rare occurrences, which are too little observed by the company or by learned men.

Sometimes he trusts this collection to me, or even reads a few chapters to me himself when he is in a cheerful humour.

In one of our late conversations, he said:

Is it possible that the moon, whose humid rays have so injurious an effect upon many plants, should act equally injuriously upon the brain of man? And, continued the old Professor in his zeal, let no one believe himself so secure, that this goblin does not some time or another invisibly bewitch him, let it be in the shape of stupidity or of excessive wit, or of confusion, or of superstition, or of an inconceivable ignorance. No dictator in the state or in science is for ever exempted from this ridiculous tribute. For example, our Goethe. I will not presume either to criticise or ridicule him here, in which of his works he may have been weak or artless, in which book he may have yielded too much to the momentary whim, for upon this subject we shall hereafter learn much, and frequently have to dispute; but I will merely cite a little piece of his ignorance, which, however, in the end is really not so very trifling. We know how often he has praised Byron, and he must have studied him and read him with enthusiasm. In the fifth number of Art and Antiquity, he translates the monologue in the second act of Manfred, and immediately in the second verse he says:

                     Wir leben
In Lebens-Ueberdruß, in Scheu des Todes.
In all den Tagen der verwünschten Posse,
Lebendige Last auf widerstrebendem Herzen, &c.


But in English it is:

In all the days of this detested yoke,


Goethe has mistaken in this place the word Joke, [Spaß] for Yoke [Joch], and he was certainly not hasty, like so many other clever translators; the commencement, We are the fools of time, misled him. I must also add, that he has entirely failed in the expression of the whole monologue, as any body may easily convince himself by comparing this verse with the original.

Our famous serious Schiller has endeavoured to translate the Italian story of Turandot, and immediately in the first scene he makes Kalaf relate:

                    Am Fusz
des Kaukasus raubt eine wilde Horde
Von Malandrinen uns die Schätze.


[At the foot of the Caucasus a wild horde of Malandrines plunder us of our treasures.]

In Gozzi it is:

Sotto 'l monte Caucaseo i malandrini
Ci spoliaron di tutto.


One might ask, who does not then know, that Malandrini mean robbers? But Schiller (who treats Fr. Schlegel as an ignorant man) considers them to be a nation. And he and Goethe, both of them great men, of whom the greater long resided in Italy attend many rehearsals witness the performance of the piece, and afterwards allow the story to be printed, yet this gross mistake remains unobserved!

Werthes, who as early as the year 1770, gave the public a well-meant, but highly hasty translation of Carlo Gozzi, has the same mistake, and it is easy to perceive on comparing them, that Schiller has copied from Werthes, and probably consulted the Italian original but very little.

One of the most serious, I may say one of the most striking blunders of ignorance imaginable, is found in the second volume of the correspondence between Zelter and Goethe (p. 295):

In reading your little book over and over again, I always stick fast at the following passage: Nur Byzanz blieb noch ein fester Sitz für die Kirche und die mit ihr verbundene Kunst.

[Byzantium alone still remained a stronghold for the Church, and for the arts connected therewith.]

Now no person could possibly imagine what there is in this passage that appears so obscure or incomprehensible to the professor of music, to the master builder, who also presumes to be an architect. As no person could even guess the question contained in this part of the letter, I have quoted it, in its own simple, harmless, natural words. It runs thus:

What was Byzantium? Where was it? Can you answer me this question in a few words? &c., &c.

This celebrated and clever man never scruples to deliver his opinion with the utmost decision upon the most important affairs of literature, art, and science, and yet can ask such a question as this. And they have allowed such a passage to remain after correction of the letters, after superintending the editing of the work!

I will not decide, whether it be an excusable or inexcusable fault for any person, who has only made some little progress at school to say nothing of college education not to have learnt what Byzantium is. But, for an old man, who pretends to be superlatively well-informed, who converses upon every subject, who must have heard the expression a thousand times in company, and must have read it as often in books, and who besides is universally known by the appellation of The Great Antiquarian for him, in the autumn of his life, at last to inquire what Byzantium is the question, to say the least of it, remains a highly ridiculous occurrence.

Therefore, as our beloved poet himself says, in his own agreeable manner, and so much to the point:

Eines schickt sich nicht für alle,
Sehe jeder, wie er's treibe,
Sehe jeder, wo er bleibe,
Und war steht, daß er nicht falle.

[One thing suits not with ev'ry man,
For some must do what others plan;
Let each one labour in his calling;
Let him who stands beware of falling.]


__________



These words may therefore serve as a motto to introduce the following little anecdotes, which I have also borrowed from the book of the old Professor, who has noted them down among the real circumstances witnessed by himself. But I will relate them in my own words, and not in those of the Professor, as he never trusts me long with this volume of the recollections of his own observations.

Some years ago, there lived in a large town, a young professor of philosophy, and as he, like most philosophers, was infallible, and had found out the only real truth and the irrefutable eternal wisdom, he did not want for scholars, who were all ready to swear to whatever their master uttered.

The hall in which he lectured was almost too small for the number of pupils eager for knowledge, and those of his scholars whom he vouchsafed to honor by admitting them among the number of his intimate acquaintance, were envied by all the others. People in business, who could scarcely remember their school boy days, reckoned it as a very great favour, when the wise, but still very young Plato, would permit them to sit along with the scholars, in order that they likewise might quench their thirst at this satiating fountain.

This teacher being so much in fashion, drew around him a crowd of useless adorers, and yet the serious man who understood how to value his acuteness of mind, could not refuse him his esteem. It was therefore perfectly according to the natural order of things, that a witty, curious French lady, who was by no means averse to investigations, should seek the acquaintance of this celebrated professor, and should desire to hear him explain his system, as well as her little knowledge of German, and his indifferent bad French, would allow. She was witty, lively in conversation, never fatigued or visionary, and a successor of De Staël, who first directed the attention of her self-satisfied countrymen to our Germany, as to some land in which much might be discovered, like in the far distant India, or in some fabulous region of which the perfectly accomplished Franks had never even dreamt. It was, therefore, extremely troublesome to the young widow, Madame Deschamps, when she was listening with unbounded faith, and was swallowing in, both with eyes and ears, the metaphysics of the instructive professor, that her mouth was compelled to laugh at the bad French of the Evangelist, whilst her mind was lost in admiration. But it was still worse, when suddenly (as it sometimes happens to artificial cascades in beautiful parks, that the forced water ceases to flow, and a melancholy and disagreeable silence ensues) the excited teacher was obliged to hold his tongue, because he could neither find winged nor crawling words in the foreign language. In this emergency, a beautiful girl, a younger sister of the traveller, then stepped forward as interpretress. and translated the ideas of the lecturer, who delivered them in the German tongue to this kind intervening angel.

This method of philosophical conversation was afterwards adopted, in preference to the earlier one. The hours devoted to philosophy became more and more frequent, and also more confidential. Both these charming young women hung upon the lips of their persuasive teacher, who uttered so many new things, such as they never had heard before. They thought that they understood him, and he, who saw their admiration, did not doubt of it. It was not unnatural, therefore, that after the constrained lecture hours, they should refresh themselves with lighter conversations; and here again the young professor showed the ladies all kinds of arts of his German gallantry.

The lecturer met his female scholars in different parties, at the houses of their mutual friends, but he preferred visiting them at their own residence. It was natural, and could not be taken amiss, if after a few weeks, the professor fancied that both these lovely women preferred his intercourse to that of other people. He was unmarried, agreeable in person, added to which, he was a celebrated author, and when he tinned over every thing in his mind, he thought at last that he might anticipate, with some degree of probability, that this womanly predisposition in his favour would gradually blossom into love itself.

His mind wavered some time as to which beauty he should give the preference, which scholar he should approach with the design of awakening and experiencing the sentiments of love. At length, after some hesitatiou, he decided in his own mind for the younger sister, who was rather the handsomer of the two (and was besides half a German) whose property, of which he had heard a great deal, was situated in Alsace, and which to him, as a prudent worldly man, as he considered himself to be, was by no means a disagreeable appendage. Besides all these considerations, he had become more confidential with her, in consequence of the attempts at translation of his lectures, and he was far from being displeased when, as it sometimes happened, he found this youngcr sister at home alone.

Thus stood the affairs. The philosopher was daily more and more adored by his admirers, who really had come to the town partly on his account. They wrote letters and billets to him, containing the most touching expressions of devotion, appearing to the happy man almost to border upon adoration, which however he blamed in secret. He purchased some rose-coloured gilt-edged note paper, in order to be able to answer his fair correspondents in a suitable manner; and was only extremely perplexed that the pure French characters were rounded off so clearly and distinctly, like copperplate, but which, notwithstanding, were sometimes read with great difficulty, on account of their extreme similarity. He had again given a lecture, and was enjoying the expectation of seeing his lovely friends, the following evening, at a party in the house of the ambassador.

Early in the morning, he received a long letter from the learned lady traveller, the elder sister. Some of his most confidential friends were assembled at his house at breakfast. The letter was opened, and the young professor read it with enraptured countenance. He communicated the contents to his friends. It contained the so often-repeated praises, couched in a continual, and if possible, an increasing admiration. All were delighted that their great master should be thus acknowledged by foreigners.

The lady stated, that she already enjoyed in anticipation the happiness of seeing again, that evening, in the house of the ambassador, the man who daily became dearer to her sentiments and to her heart; that his presence alone would shed incense and true nobility over the large and brilliant assembly.

She already begins to think perfectly like a German, said the young count Von Nettling, in this place; she could never have brought such opinions with her from France.

Thus it is, added a young poet, the French will only form themselves into a true, peculiar nation by means of us Germans, after they have become more intimate with us and our literature. These continual fresh arrivals of travellers reminds one of Joshua and Kaleb, who were sent forward to find out the promised happy land for the inhabitants of the desert.

And, said a third, does not this widow immediately carry back with her an immense bunch of grapes, in order to transport her countrymen with joy and pleasure?

The enthusiastic young man had scarcely concluded the last word, ere the professor let fall the letter upon the floor, and turned as pale as a sheet.

What is the matter with you? exclaimed all.

The professor sat down in his arm-chair, and endeavoured to collect himself; at length he said, deeply affected:

All of you, my friends, have been witnesses with what reasonable zeal, with what sincere disinterested friendship, I have devoted myself to this haughty, proud woman, who pretends to be a genius, how much of my valuable time I have sacrificed to her, in order to enlighten her darkwitted intellects, and to influence her with a desire for acquiring substantial knowledge, and thus render her capable of enjoying a more spiritual existence. She also appeared to acknowledge this; and yet it is impossible that a French woman can deny herself so far as to lay aside the excessive pride, the self-love, the insolent presumption of her nation. For look here yourselves, with your own eyes, at this scandalous sheet of paper. Read this gross impertinence yourselves. It would be impossible, even for the most vulgar German to write thus, unless it were intentionally to insult a declared enemy, whom he wished to humble to extremity. Read it, gentleman; here it begins with thanks, admiration, the most beautiful French phrases and quite sentimental upon the subject of my bonhomie; and here about my system, not without some view; and now, only for me, only for a German, would it be possible, d'unir cette profondeur à une stupidité sans exemple. What do you say to that, gentlemen? Is not such a piece of shameless insolence without a parallel?

All were silent through astonishment. Every one took up the letter, every one examined it, read the obnoxious sentence over and over again, and when they were all perfectly convinced, that this abominable libel upon their much adored master existed, there arose a tumultuous uproar, during which, every person endeavoured to vent his anger, by uttering the most contradictory imprecations, mingled with the most pathetic exclamations.

At length, when silence was momentarily restored, the professor exclaimed:

Gentlemen, I really believe that this insult is intended as praise, that is to say, as far as these supercilious people can and will praise us. They think thus of us. They still consider us bears, and untamed wild beasts, and it is a refined haut goût, in which they delight to exhibit their sublime superiority, that they condescend to learn the more spiritual refinements from us, an uncultivated, uncivilised people; yes, it is a kind of wonder to them, that stupid barbarity can produce reflection, and that a curious law of nature has so decreed, that nothing but profound, solid knowledge can thrive upon this soil of stupidity, consequently, only here in our country. But, for such praise as this, I would rather be without it, and I will not permit myself, nor my noble nation, to be thus wantonly insulted.

It has been said, that it is a most excellent plan to answer every letter immediately after its reception, that by so doing, it contributes to keep up a more free and healthy correspondence. This plan may be very sound doctrine as regards a friendly correspondence, but where passion reigns, occasioned by a letter, it would perhaps be more advisable to allow one's anger to cool down a little, in order to find a proper standard for dictating the answer. However, these infuriated German savants were not of this opinion.

After some proposing this, others that, they at length all agreed with the professor's views, that it was necessary to answer this insolent letter forthwith in the most cutting manner, and indeed so, that every polite expression, or phrase of gallantry, or former friendly consideration might and should be excluded. The professor therefore immediately sat down, and wrote in his own bad French, as hastily as he possibly could, the most decisive letter of dismissal to his former fair friend and admirer.

The friends by whom he was surrounded assisted him here and there with a phrase, which the auxiliary imagined to be cutting or witty, and in this manner they produced a most choice collection of the flowers of German anger, which was written upon a common sheet of letter paper, as the professor was now thoroughly ashamed of his gilt-edged, rose-coloured note paper. In this declaration of war, he prohibited them from approaching his person again, and as the enemy might probably be inclined to interpret this ill-mannered expression in a different way, he said: as the Franks had from the earliest period attempted to introduce their customs and politeness to the Germans, the lady could not find it unnatural, if he took her own billet as a pattern, and that he should endeavour to copy it, as far as his humble abilities would allow him to do so. He must therefore openly acknowledge, that this instance of her coarse vulgarity and impudence by far exceeded his own unparalleled stupidity, which she had so much admired in him.

He begged further to add: that his own German bonhomie, which she had likewise excessively praised, was by no means so great that he could smile at her gross presumption, or could consider it as any thing which might be pardoned in a lady, but that his anger was also of true German nature and constitution; that his self-respect and the esteem, which every learned man owed to himself, advised, whilst his position in the world, his fame, and his value commanded him, to reject and to break off, from henceforth and for ever, the acquaintance with such a thoroughly incorrigible French woman, and that in the strongest and most unequivocating expressions.

He concluded by telling her, that, notwithstanding, he would be present at the evening assembly at the ambassador's, and that if, after this declaration, she should still have the courage to approach him as an old acquaintance, it would compel him, be he even twice as stupid as she considers him to be, to show her with what contempt of his inmost soul he could treat a person thus endeavouring to force herself upon him, and at once cast her off from him. In as far as esteem and this declaration, or stupidity and deep penetration of thought can possibly be united, he begged to subscribe himself in a similar manner,

          Her most, &c.

.

All admired and praised this comprehensive letter, as if it had been the master-piece of the cleverest, and at the same time most resolute diplomatist.

The servant was ordered to carry the letter immediately to the residence of the ladies.

In the evening the professor, accompanied by some of his worthy pages, and armed in all the pride of his dignity, went to the house of the ambassador. There were assembled the fashionable world, ladies and gentlemen, and also many celebrated men. The host and his lady welcomed the learned professor in a most friendly manner.

After some little time, the French ladies, who had been engaged in a spirited conversation with some of their own countrymen in a distant corner of the room, now approached nearer.

Heavens, my honoured friend! exclaimed she in her language, what an extraordinary epistle you have sent me to day! I was in the country, and found it on my return home, but have so little recovered from my astonishment and surprise on perusing it, that I have brought the letter with me. I must beg of you, dearest Sir, to apologise in a suitable manner, if you wish me to forgive you this incomprehensible attack of your hypochondriacal humour.

There is no question about apology, exclaimed the German in violent excitement. The apology ought to come from you, but however artfully you might attempt to introduce it, you would not succeed in talking me out of my resolution.

She replied with some vivacity, as she was naturally lively, and the tone of the professor, who scarcely gave himself any trouble to restrain his passion, approached so nearly to screaming, that the eyes of all those by whom they were surrounded, were fixed with astonishment upon this group.

My friends, said the minister, come with me into this room, in order that your remarkable behaviour may not cause any excitement. Honour me by accepting me as a mediator, advocate, or arbitrator, and I hope to be able once more to reconcile such worthy friends to each other.

The disputing parties followed the friendly man; his daughters and two other savants went with him; some ladies, excited by curiosity, and who would not be denied, followed the French ladies; and the professor was likewise accompanied by his general staff, anger depicted in all their countenances.

Your excellency, said the professor, after the door had been closed, will learn a most singular and unheard-of occurrence, which, notwithstanding that we have succeeded in destroying the tyranny and supremacy of the French, still proves that these Franks wish to trample us under foot.

Since the affair is at length brought to an audience, said the French lady smiling, I must beg the Count to read this letter, which I have to day received from the professor. She plared the letter in his hands with a friendly smile, in which the professor only saw deception and arrogance.

I must beg your excellency to read it aloud, said the professor; I carry about me the other letter, which occasioned this one, and submissively entreat that this document may likewise be read aloud, in order to justify my feelings, which have been expressed somewhat strongly.

All listened with the greatest attention when the ambassador began to read the letter in a somewhat hesitating tone. His cmbarassment increased, partly on account of the barbarous French, but still more, as he was obliged to utter aloud phrases and rude sentences, which are literally banished from polite society.

When he had finished, the professor said:

I perceive that your excellency is astonished that I could write thus, but, since you have now undertaken this disagreeable afiair, I beg that you will also read aloud the letter from this lady.

You are really quite incomprehensible, Mr. Professor! said the lady; one could almost imagine that you were enchanted and bewitched; for this conduct cannot be explained in a natural manner.

The minister now read the other letter, and with a cheerful countenance and firm voice, as it contained nothing but friendship, politeness, and the most refined flattery. When he was nearly at the conclusion, the savant placed his hand upon the paper, and exclaimed, his countenance glowing ith rage:

Now, I beg of you distinctly to proounce aloud this unparalleled stupidité.

Are you then——, said the minister (and could not at first regain his voice for laughing.) Why, here it stands quite plain: cette profondeur à une sagacité sans exemple.

The German professor took the letter with trembling hands, he looked and read, and read and looked again; his companions examined it likewise, as though it had been written in strange characters in some half worn out manuscript, and the French lady laughing aloud, clapped her little white hands, and exclaimed, in the cheerful tone of a self-willed child:

How could you read stupidité instead of sagacité? You, a learned man, and all your friends?"

The professor replied stammering:

The characters are so similar, the letters run into one another so freely and boldly, and yet so indistinctly, that—— I beg pardon——

He was silent, and withdrew with his friends, quite ashamed. When he had left the room, the company broke out into an irrepressible and unceasing laughter. At length the Count said:

I must beg of you, my ladies and gentlemen, if it be only possible, not to take further notice of this singular affair; it will be as well if we can all forget the circumstance, in order not to wound the feelings of this otherwise really estimable man.

He can bear it, said a young lady, the week will pass over and then it will be forgotten, whether we suppress or relate the anecdote.

The female traveller added:

If I were to correct his manner of reading in a new edition of my notes, should I be very much in the wrong?

She did not see him again, and shortly afterwards returned with her sister to her own country.

I wonder if she might also have reckoned this circumstance as one of those, through which she learnt to know our Germany.

__________



Many travelling Danes often visited our old friend Balzer, or Balthasar. He had formerly been so fortunate to become acquainted with such men as Oehlenschläger, Ingemann, Rosenwing, Molbeck and other highly-talented men, and these frequently sent him their friends and acquaintances who were travelling through Germany.

The whimsical professor even pretended that he preferred the company of Danes to that of other foreigners, because they were all so well educated, and were so spiritual and clever, and that he was particularly delighted with their cheerfulness of mind, with that rash enthusiasm with which they entered upon every subject, and then with that persuasive vivacity with which they spoke and disputed.

That, said he, is the most entertaining antithesis to those all-sufficient wiseacres, who never express a decided opinion, and scarcely will ever listen to other people, because they are at all times convinced that they alone know every thing better, and will not believe that any one else can understand it. Such worthless arrogant people are greatly on the increase in our beloved country, and circumscribe all communication. They will not only refuse to acknowledge themselves to possess any weak point, but they will not even show it, they will never retract any assertion, and thus in company we find a kind of political or philosophical breviary offered in prayer, whence, after a certain number of Aves, an authenticated Credo follows, and so on.

Only, said Mr. Balthasar, this fire of enthusiasm carries the Danes sometimes so far (I mean some) that they likewise will take no notice of other people's observations, and refuse to listen and to comprehend the speaker, but they chiefly overstep all bounds in their otherwise noble patriotism, in such a manner, that the German, who, according to rule, is too little of a patriot, cannot find or overtake them again for a long time.

Such a young Dane, who was also reckoned a poet, and who chiefly aimed at imitating Oehlenschläger, came the next evening to Balthasar, and related to him the scene which he had witnessed the night before at the house of the ambassador. Balthasar was astounded at the circumstance, which rendered the Germans ridiculous, although it supplied him with materials for his chronicle.

Inconceivable! continually exclaimed the young Dane, whose name was Oswald, that any one could so far forget himself; that a person could be so precipitate! Is it not almost as bad, as if some malicious sorcerer had bound his eyes and had bewitched all his senses?

They continued to converse for some time upon the subject, but the young Dane was the most violent, and at length appeared to agree with the French, that such occurrences could only happen to a German savant.

They passed on to other subjects, but disputed and conversed mostly upon poetry. Young Oswald, who imitated Oehlenschläger, had read and criticised much, and had likewise entered deeply into mystical subjects, asserted that many superstitions, and a voluntary respect for acknowledged authority, imposed the heaviest shackles upon genius. As such a general assertion might be both true and untrue, they requested him to explain himself more fully, by citing some examples to prove what he had asserted in his speech.

We Danes, said he hereupon, are of opinion that many of our geniuses, who have sprung up in modern times, might be compared with the most celebrated men of foreign countries; that there are in many of their works single passages, scenes, passions and situations so new and original, that they can be found nowhere else, so that people must acknowledge, that in these things we have gone far beyond all other foreign poets, the single Shakspeare perhaps excepted.

But it appears to me, replied the professor, that this more modern literature, whatever praise it may deserve, could scarcely have developed itself without German examples, and thus perhaps if might attribute to ourselves a great part of that which is most excellent among your writers, as belonging to our stock, to our manners and customs.

Mere sophistry! said the Dane, for then you Germans could not be original either, because without the model of Shakspeare you would never have found out the excitement which made you faithless to the path, in which you had hitherto vainly endeavoured to follow or limp after the French.

Goethe and Schiller, it was asserted on the German side, besides some other poets of whom it may be permitted to speak, are at all events not so nearly allied to the Briton as the modern Danish productions are to our poetical works. To be awakened and excited by great models is very different from close imitation.

Then, exclaimed the young Dane, according to my idea and view of the case, it is impossible that any truly original genius could exist in modern times, but Shakspeare alone, who was neither an imitator himself, nor could he be excited by other models. And it is therefore to him alone, that I unconditionally bow down my head, as to the highest, the best, from whom we Danes have learnt, but whom we have never copied. But, if we agree to this homage, we are also justified to require the same from the Germans.

Even allow this to be granted, replied the German, can a modern school, and that one of the most modern, attempt to persuade us that we have already done too much good in this respect? But, you Danes, since you are such very devoted patriots, ought you to be so enthusiastic about this arrogant Briton? for——

As the German professor looked in a very peculiar manner when he uttered this sentence, his friends were all struck by it; the lively Dane interrupted him with greater zeal, exclaiming:

Well! what is the matter? What are you trying to conceal?

The German said:

You all know how this English author introduces the history of his countrymen into his works, that he describes their character, that he also frequently introduces the Italians; he brings forward the French people, the Romans, the ancient Greeks, whilst only in one single work, in his universally celebrated Hamlet, has he any thing to do with the Danes. But, good heavens! how does he represent this nation to us? Full of indecision, faithless, irresolute, as much inclined to good as to evil; they all speak in a very reasonable manner, even wisely but act foolishly; the principal character, however amiable and generous it may be drawn, torments himself with contradictions, and would fall to the ground, if unsupported. All appear excited, and are carried away by magnificent precepts and heroic resolutions, but turn back and break down as they approach, or even after they have arrived at a favourable opportunity to execute their magnanimous resolves. Such contradictions are not found in any other of Shakspeare's works, and the question or the suspicion may well be entertained whether the poet intended to characterise your nation by it.

The other auditors could not tell whether the old friend intended this seriously, or as a joke; but the young Dane burst out into an immoderate fit of laughter, and at length exclaimed:

Well, that would be something to boast of! No, I have by far too great an opinion of my favourite to be able to suspect him of such an act of insipidity. To accuse a whole nation, and as it were to change it into a single person, in order to ridicule it upon his theatre. No, my dear friend, he was too much of a poet and philosopher, too great a cosmopolite and philanthropist, even to entertain for a single moment the idea of such an act of foolishness, much less for him to be able to commit it. But even were I to take it in this sense, (which I certainly will not admit) then as a Dane, I should likewise appropriate to myself all the wit of the prince, his deep penetration, his amiable character, his presence of mind, and that peculiar humour which is not to be found in any other work of Shakspeare. And thus we shall at least have gained as much as we have lost by this pretended accusation.

The German said:

You extricate yourself exceedingly well out of this affair; but we have not yet done. This Briton, so much adored by you, has concentrated in a single verse all the wickedness he wished to utter against your whole nation. In this verse he exposes the little confidence he has in you, and he mercilessly breaks his staff over your heads. This single verse stands like a dreadful motto, and admits of no moderation, of no sophistical subterfuge, as would otherwise be possible in so grand and sublime a composition, as this tragedy of Hamlet represents.

And this verse, this dreadful verse?

It is:

Ihr Konnt nicht von Vernunft dem Danen

[You cannot speak of reason to the Dane.]


How! exclaimed the young Dane.

The other friends sat silent and smiling, as they knew the tragedy by heart; but Oswald spake in excited tones, his voice trembling with emotion:

No! it is impossible that any being endowed with human understanding, much less a poet, a great poet, could have uttered such nonsense! What? it is impossible to speak reasonably with a Dane, or merely to speak of reason to him! A miserable writer of pasquinades, in his national hatred against an enemy, during an unhappy war, would not have expressed himself in such terms; and in Shakspeare's time we were at peace with England. No satirist, whose violent excesses are excused, could ever write such a miserable sentence as this. I boldly proclaim, that this witless nonsense, this calumny, is nowhere to be found in Hamlet!

Look here! exclaimed the philosopher, and he pointed out to him the passage in the book.

Oswald turned glowing-red with rage, and cried out:

Am I not reasonable? Have I not been appointed by my government, which considers me a reasonable man, to travel into foreign countries? Would the government select stupid, unreasonable men to send them out on their missions? How shamefully are all the great men of our country all our rulers, from Absalom down to our last minister calumniated! But, I believe, that Schlegel must have translated this passage wrong. I am certain that it is not contained in the original.

The German immediately opened a book, saying:

It is quite impossible to translate more literally and more faithfully than Schlegel has done this simple, yet so important verse, only look here:

You cannot speak of reason to the Dane.

After Oswald had fully convinced himself that it was so, he exclaimed, in great bitterness of tone:

Well, from henceforth, let me swear nothing but hatred and contempt towards this so-called poet, who has cast himself away so deeply below the most vulgar rabble. My next treatise shall be upon this subject, in order to open the eyes of my good-natured countrymen, and that they may understand with what a spirit they have to do, if they still good-naturedly wish to honour him. Yes, I will write a tragedy for the express purpose, or a lyrical poem, in which I will represent the contempt of this man in the clearest light. It will not be difficult for me to turn the time-piece of the world backwards, so that the hand may again point to the spot, upon which Voltaire and other French writers have most justly represented this unnatural, uneducated, ignorant, low-bred genius as some curious monster.

Thus he continued, and there was no possibility of putting a stop to this Juvenalic torrent or Demosthenic hurricane. They were obliged to allow his natural powers and the patriotic excitement to be exhausted, and it was only, when Oswald was quite overcome, and had taken up his hat and stick to go away, with a determination never to visit this friendly circle again, that the German, as he pressed down the fatigued young man into his arm-chair, could find the opportunity of speaking:

Now, look, man, friend, how precipitate you have been, and how you have excited yourself without necessity! Is it then possible that any book could contain such a verse? Would they have translated Hamlet into your language, and represented the tragedy upon your stage, if it had contained such a doctrine? Look at the passage again, look! but not merely with your eyes who says the words? The king of Denmark himself, at a public audience; and to whom does he address them? To a young cavalier, whom he wishes to gain by flattery and kindness. In the second scene of the piece, when Laërtes wishes to return to France, and is taking leave of the king, the latter says obligingly to him: You stated a wish, Laertes. What is it? You cannot speak of reason to the Dane (to me, the king). You can say nothing, can demand nothing, if it be not contrary to all possibility and speak in vain, or have your demand refused.

Well, is it not so? It is not only the German, and their learned men, who are subject to such precipitation, who stare and look at lines with fixed eyes and yet see them not.

The Dane was ashamed, and then said:

Truly, let no one think himself standing so firmly, that he may not likewise fall. The German has led me by a trick into this faux-pas, which is quite in character with the manner in which men are confused in this said tragedy.

Only in jest! replied the German.

The End


This is a translation and has a separate copyright status from the original text. The license for the translation applies to this edition only.
Original:
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.
 
Translation:
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.