Studies of a Biographer/The Importation of German

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Studies of a Biographer by Leslie Stephen
The Importation of German


When did Englishmen begin to learn German? That is a question upon which I have made some occasional notes, and I am glad to find it discussed in a book recently published by Mr. G. Herzfeld upon William Taylor of Norwich.[1] Mr. Herzfeld has made a thorough study of his author, and gives the result in a very interesting little book. He does not here go into the wider subject of the influence of the German upon (what we are pleased to call) the English mind; but he incidentally illustrates the process by describing one of the channels through which Englishmen were first informed of the existence of such men as Lessing, Kant, Goethe, and Schiller. Hereafter, it may be hoped, he will deal with other lines of influence. Meanwhile, I will venture, with Mr. Herzfeld's help and such other notices as I have gathered, to make what contribution I can to this passage in literary history.[2]

It is a familiar fact that no Englishman read German literature in the eighteenth century. One sufficient reason was that there was no German literature to read. When philosophers such as Leibnitz and Wolff expounded their doctrines in French and Latin, when the great Frederick sat at the feet of Voltaire, and regarded his own literature as barbarous, foreigners could not be expected to qualify themselves for puzzling out the intricacies of an old-fashioned German sentence. The first-fruits of the independent German movement had no overpowering charm. I never read Klopstock's Messiah myself, but I am told by those who have, that if the perusal of that work were the sole reward of a victorious wrestle with German, the game might scarcely be worth the candle. Here and there we find men induced to go through the struggle. Early in the century the admirable William Law, of The Serious Call, studied German that he might translate the mystical works of Jacob Böhme, to whom he was attracted, as in later years Coleridge was attracted by the mysticism of Schelling.[3] A very different man, the jovial, turbulent Carteret—had as Swift told him—carried away from Oxford more Greek, Latin, and philosophy than became a person of his rank. Moreover, as we learn elsewhere, he could talk French, Italian, and Spanish; and to this it is added that he went so far as to study German, 'to ingratiate himself with his Sovereign.' His contemporary Chesterfield possibly took the hint. I am not aware that he knew German himself; but he certainly impressed the importance of the study upon his son, and was pleased to hear that the young man—if his manners might still be improvable—could talk German perfectly. The average English nobleman probably knew French then as well as he does now. Voltaire declares that Bolingbroke—one of whose early essays was published in French—spoke French with unsurpassed energy and precision. The young nobleman on his grand tour was easily admitted with his tutor to French society, and it is enough to mention the names of Horace Walpole, Hume, and Adam Smith, to suggest the importance of the relations which sometimes sprang up. But even in German Courts the travellers needed no German; and the home-staying British author remained in absolute and contented ignorance. Macaulay remarks that the members of Johnson's Club were ignorant of the very existence of Wieland or Lessing. Johnson knew no German, although he twice took up 'Low Dutch' in order to satisfy himself that his power of learning had not decayed. From a talk at the club (3rd April, 1778) recorded by Boswell, we find that Johnson had discovered that 'stroem' is allied to 'stream,' and that Burke had recognised 'rosebuds' as the equivalent of 'roesknopies.' Neither of them makes a reference to 'High Dutch,' and the philological knowledge implied is of the shallowest. Boswell, who had studied at Utrecht and gone to Berlin, apparently did not take, or he would surely have recorded, any part in the talk. We may infer that he was equally ignorant, though it is strange to think of Boswell in a country where he could not report a common conversation. Gibbon is, of course, the typical instance of this ignorance. He was not a man to shrink from study; he had travelled in German Switzerland, he began a history of Switzerland, and in later years he wrote upon the antiquities of the House of Brunswick. Yet it never seems to have occurred to him that it was even possible to learn German, and his only resource was to obtain from his friends translations of the necessary documents.[4] Robertson, who with Gibbon and Hume made up the triumvirate of leading historians, could also write upon Charles v. without, I believe, any knowledge of German. It would, I imagine, be difficult to find a single direct reference to a German book in the whole English literature of the eighteenth century. As the century draws to an end, indications of an interest in the language crop up occasionally. Watt, of the steam-engine, learned German in his youth, to be able to read some scientific treatise, and revived the knowledge for the amusement of his old age. When Horne Tooke, retiring for a time from political agitation, made his shrewd and eccentric dash into philology, he saw the importance of some knowledge of the Teutonic languages. The references, however, in The Diversions of Purley seem to imply that, though he had learned something of Anglo-Saxon and Gothic, he knew little of modern German. The most remarkable case, perhaps, of an early study of German is that of Herbert Marsh, the Bishop of Peterborough. He had gone in 1785 to study at Leipzig after finishing his Cambridge course; and brought back a knowledge of the language which must have been almost unrivalled. In 1801 he published a tract written, it is said, 'in pure vernacular German,' It brought him the patronage of Pitt, whose policy it defended, and gave him, it seems, his first step towards a bishopric.[5] Other results of his German studies might rather have checked his preferment. He gave lectures at Cambridge before the end of the century, influenced by the teaching of Michaelis. They dealt with 'the origin and composition of the first three Gospels,' and, according to Mark Pattison, show the only trace at that period of 'honest critical inquiry.' The seeds, however, remained barren when transplanted to British soil, and Pattison complains in 1861 that English divines were still unable to appreciate the method. Marsh was suspected of heterodoxy, but amply vindicated himself and made himself known in later years in certain smart controversies, where he horrified the Evangelical and the Bible Society by arguing that the use of such edged tools as Biblical criticism should be reserved to orthodox experts.

In the last half of the century, however, many who were neither critics nor men of science were beginning to be interested in German. The translator had long been one of the proverbial denizens of a bookseller's garret. Johnson and Goldsmith had both toiled in that lamentable prison-house. Voltaire, Rousseau, and their compatriots had been speedily done into English, and the existence of a new field for exploitation began to be recognised. The German literature at its start was profoundly influenced by English models. That 'heavenly book,' Clarissa Harlowe, for instance, was welcomed by Mrs. Klopstock's charming homage as warmly as by any of the incense of Richardson's domestic circle. How deeply many famous Germans drank from English sources is matter of familiar history. The compliment was now to be returned. Mr. Herzfeld has collected many illustrations. Gessner's Death of Abel was translated in 1761, and twenty editions appeared by 1799. Klopstock's Messiah was first translated in 1763, and one of Wieland's dialogues in 1771. Other translations from Wieland came out before 1796, when Sotheby's well-known translation of Oberon was published. Haller's philosophical romance, Usong, was translated in 1772. Lessing was first made known by his Fables in 1773. Nathan followed in 1781, and Minna von Barnhelm was adapted for the stage in 1786. The Sorrows of Werther reached English readers in 1779, and its popularity was shown by numerous translations and adaptations. During the last decade of the century there was a flush of enthusiasm for German literature, of which I shall presently speak. Englishmen seem to have suddenly become aware of the great literary movement in Germany; and possibly the war with France had some tendency to turn the British mind towards our Continental allies.

In the year 1792 Schiller's Robbers was translated by Fraser Tytler (Lord Woodhouselee), and the fact marks an important movement at Edinburgh, then almost the chief literary centre in Britain. Tytler encouraged Scott's early studies of German, and had apparently been himself started in that direction by Henry Mackenzie, the 'Scottish Sterne' (a sadly significant title!), author of The Man of Feeling, and the great link between the two generations of Hume and Adam Smith on one side, and Scott and Jeffrey on the other. In 1788 Mackenzie read a paper before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, giving an account of the German theatre. The German theatre was at the time known to him only through French translations; but his paper had at least one important effect: it had a serious influence upon the career of Scott. Scott was then only sixteen; but his curiosity was aroused, and about 1792, as he has told us, he, with some friends, formed a little society for the study of German. The lads engaged a Dr. Willich (of whom I should be glad to know more) as a tutor. Scott reports that poor Willich had a noisy and irreverent class; they laughed instead of weeping at Gessner's Death of Abel; and Scott at least showed a lordly indifference to grammar, and worried his way into some understanding of the language by main force. Willich, I suspect, considered that his most promising pupil was Mr. John MacFarlane, who took to the study of philosophy while the rest went off to literature. MacFarlane lived till 1848, but does not appear to have made much of the philosophy. His life, at least in a biographical dictionary, gives no traces of any such result. Willich had himself attended Kant's lectures, and soon afterwards published a book or two intended to indoctrinate Britons. What became of him I do not know, but one hopes that he had not to support himself by teaching Kant.[6]

The history of the actual introduction of German philosophy lies beyond me; but a few external facts may illustrate the difficulty of that performance before we look at the purely literary movement. In those days philosophy in Great Britain was pretty well confined to the Scottish professors. The rising genius of the period was Thomas Brown, six years younger than Scott, but a singularly precocious youth. At the early age of four, so his biographer declares 'on most satisfactory evidence,' he was found comparing the Gospel narratives to test their consistency. At twelve or thirteen he was publishing a poem in a magazine; at sixteen arguing a psychological question with the great Dugald Stewart; and by twenty publishing a confutation of Darwin (Erasmus, not Charles). Such a youth was made to be an Edinburgh Reviewer. Brown was an exceedingly able man, and might have made a greater mark but for an unfortunate impression that he could eclipse Pope's poetry as well as Kant's philosophy. The second number of the Review contains his judgment of Kant. I dare say that it may be as good as some more ponderous lucubrations on the same theme. Anyhow, it shows that happy audacity which makes a modern critic's mouth water. Nobody is now allowed to touch upon Kant without swallowing a preliminary library. In those happier days the critic did not even profess to have read the original. An amiable and excellent Frenchman, Charles Villers, had been driven to Göttingen by the French Revolution. There he had fallen in love with the country and its philosophy, and had published a 'luminous analysis' of Kant in 1801 for the benefit of Frenchmen. This account was quite enough for Brown, who was thus enabled to put Kant in his proper place with the infallible judgment of a reviewer of those pleasant days. A contemporary account of Kant's doctrines is given in the edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica of the same period. The Editor had found it necessary to call in a German refugee to throw light upon that mysterious topic. The refugee did his best; but the Editor would not be responsible for inoculating the British mind. Kant's opinions, as he sarcastically observes in his own person, are not very likely to reach posterity: our own countrymen will not prefer the dark lantern of Kant to the luminous torch of Bacon; and as Kant's works have a manifest tendency to atheism, it is not to be regretted that they are already much neglected in Germany, and will probably soon fall into utter oblivion. There are moments in which the superabundant zeal of later commentators tempts one to wish that they had.[7] What that refugee thought of his Editor must be unknown; but another quaint illustration of the sufferings of early Kantians is significant. There lived in London at this time a jeweller named Thomas Wirgman.[8] De Morgan, in his Budget of Paradoxes, describes him as 'cracky and vagarious' and an 'itinerant paradoxer.' 'I'll make it clear to you,' he said one day to De Morgan. 'Suppose a number of goldfishes in a glass bowl. Well, I come with my cigar and go puff, puff, puff over the bowl until there is a little cloud of smoke. Now tell me, what will the goldfishes say to that?' 'I should imagine,' replied De Morgan, 'that they would not know what to make of it.' 'By Jove!' said Wirgman, 'you are a Kantian!' I guess that Wirgman's report of the conversation would have been different. Wirgman seems to have been a man of real acuteness, and wrote certain expositions of Kant which, as good judges have said, show real comprehension. They are partly to be found in a work called the Encyclopaedia Londonensis, which I take to have died in competition with superior rivals. From a separately printed copy of Wirgman's contributions, I take an account of the poor man's attempts to make converts.

Wirgman had been taken in 1795 by his friend H. J. Richter[9] to hear some lectures upon Kant by Professor Nitsch, who in the following year published a 'general view' of the philosophy. Wirgman became an enthusiast; he learned German, studied all Kant's works, and found that, among other merits, their clearness made them especially suitable for the rising generation. He taught their philosophy to his own boys when they were fourteen, and wrote his essay for the Encyclopædia in 1812. Feeling, however, that he was, as he said to De Morgan, only an ' old brute of a jeweller,' he sought for a worthier interpreter. Who, he asked himself, was the first metaphysician in the country? Obviously that 'elegant and accomplished scholar,' Dugald Stewart. Stewart was the light of Edinburgh; of him even the Edinburgh Reviewers spoke respectfully, and to him the Whig nobles sent their sons to be brought up on sound principles. Stewart, moreover, had just announced his intention of completing his Analysis of the Intellectual Faculties. To Stewart, therefore, Wirgman sent a copy of his own work. It was intended to show the great man that the task which he was attempting had been definitively achieved in Germany thirty years before. Stewart—as Wirgman assumed—being a philosopher, and therefore devoted to truth exclusively, would naturally be delighted at finding himself eclipsed, and would at once become an effective propagator of Kantism. If, however, he felt any doubts, he could note them on the blank pages of Wirgman's treatise, and have them satisfactorily solved. Alas! Stewart replied, 'with the greatest politeness,' that he had not time to read Wirgman. Wirgman, rebuffed for the moment, returned to the charge; when poor Stewart explained, still with the utmost politeness, that, 'at the age of three-score,' he could not be bothered with new systems of philosophy. Wirgman derived a slight consolation from interviewing Madame de Staël when she came to England in 1814. She had written upon Kant in her book on Germany (1813), but confessed that she must leave metaphysical minutiæ to 'plodding reasoners.' She agreed, however, to bestow 'a few instants'—probably they had to be more than a few—upon Wirgman, and was curious to know from him what progress Kant was making in this 'commercial country.' The answer must have been discouraging. In 1816, however, Stewart published another essay, and now said that he had tried Kant in the Latin version—he knew no German—and had 'always been forced to abandon the undertaking in despair, partly from the scholastic barbarism of the style, and partly from utter inability to unriddle the author's meaning.' Wirgman would not yet give him up, though deeply grieved. Another appeal to Stewart brought more 'politeness,' and a promise of a subscription to a projected translation by Wirgman. The old gentleman, however, was incorrigible. In 1821 his offences culminated. He gave in his Dissertation what professed to be an account of Kant; but it was worse than nothing. He had read Willich, and Nitsch, and Madame de Staël, and toiled at certain Latin treatises; he had even quoted Wirgman politely in 'Note ZZ,' but he could still see nothing in Kant except old errors clad in a new jargon. Poor Wirgman laments in vain, appeals to the love of truth, and deplores the hopeless blindness of the prejudiced old professor; but his lamentations excited no attention. The highest compliment that he ever received, according to De Morgan, was from James Mill, who told him that 'he did not understand Kant.' It was, says De Morgan, 'a feather in Wirgman's cap,' that such a man as James Mill should think this worth saying. Alas! the grammar leaves it rather doubtful whether the saying was that Mill himself or that Wirgman did not understand Kant. Probably Wirgman was meant, as Mill thought himself capable of seeing through most things—Kant's philosophy included. With Stewart, finally, we may couple his friend and admirer, the great Dr. Parr. Parr had sent him a note upon the etymology of the word 'sublime.' It is abbreviated in Stewart's works, because it would have filled 250 pages. Parr, however, though a monster of erudition, knew no German, and gave up Kant from the irksomeness of reading through an interpreter.[10] Obviously, nothing short of the proverbial surgical operation could have got Kant into the heads of these worthy persons.[11]

Kantism, it seems, had not made much progress in this ' commercial country.' It had, however, excited a certain alarm. In 1814 Mrs. Hannah More was terrified by a report that a Kantian Club had recently existed in London.[12] Kantism, as she surmised, meant some sort of poisonous doctrine, probably more or less connected with the teaching of Paine and Cobbett, whom she had encountered in The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain and other edifying works for the use of the poor. A defence of Kant, by Wirgman's friend Richter, appeared in The Morning Chronicle of 1814. Richter declared that 'morals and religious faith' had, through Kant, at length found a ‘sanctuary in the human mind,’ whence no scepticism could ever displace them. Let us hope that Mrs. Hannah More was comforted. Possibly the report to which she refers was in some way connected with Coleridge, who was making his last pathetically feeble attempt to support himself by lectures and journalism in London. The men who were to be his disciples were already studying German criticism and philosophy; and it is rather curious that Wirgman makes no mention of him. The Friend (1810), little as it had circulated, had made his claims as a philosopher known in most influential circles. But Coleridge's influence in this direction belongs mainly to the rising generation. He had gone to Germany in 1798, chiefly with a view to qualifying himself as a philosopher; and the fact illustrates the vague simmering of an interest in German speculation, which showed that the labours of Willich and Nitsch were not altogether thrown away. The beacon on Highgate Hill was only lighted in the later years of Wirgman's propaganda. Coleridge must', of course, be regarded as the main channel through which German philosophy began to influence Englishmen. Other names would have to, be mentioned in a history of the subject. Mackintosh took Kant and Fichte with him to India in 1806, and De Quincey had studied German before his introduction to Coleridge. But it was Coleridge, whose singular power of stimulating other men, even by fragmentary and irrelevant disquisitions, first spread the notion that a profound esoteric knowledge lay hid somewhere in the mysterious depths of German philosophy. He helped himself, as we know, a little too freely from that source. The magical poetry which he produced during his brief period of 'flowering' was, happily, his own beyond all dispute. Yet in one way Coleridge, too, illustrates the influence of German poetical literature in the early period.

This, however, takes us back to Scott. Scott's imagination had been stimulated by all manner of congenial reading; in his boyhood he had read The Faerie Queen, and Ossian, and Ariosto; he knew Percy's Reliques by heart, and had been from infancy saturated with Border legends and ballad poetry; and had dabbled in 'Anglo-Saxon and the Norse sagas' before Mackenzie's paper introduced him to German. The revelation of the existence of a great literary movement among a people allied to us both by blood and taste, who reverenced Shakespeare and revolted against Racine and Boileau, was naturally most stimulating, and gave a sanction to his spontaneous home-bred tastes. His first actual plunge into poetry was made in 1796, when Miss Aitken repeated in Dugald Stewart's house a translation, by William Taylor, of Bürger's ballad Lenore. Scott, though not present, heard how the society had been 'electrified.' He did not rest until he had got a copy of Bürger's poem. He sat down after supper, and finished his translation at daybreak. The enthusiasm was shared by others, including the Laureate Pye, and when Scott published his ballad (with The Wild Huntsman added) he found rivals in the field; and this, his first book, was a failure. He took, however, to translating German undauntedly; attacked Götz von Berlichingen and Schiller's Robbers, and wrote The House of Aspen, adapted from a German play about the Vehm-Gericht. Ballads, however, were more to his taste than dramatic poetry, and at this point he came into contact with another author, whose fame has long faded. Matthew Gregory Lewis is chiefly known at present by vague memoirs of The Monk and by Byron's jingle: ' I would give many a sugar-cane, Mat. Lewis were alive again! ' Lewis should, however, be one of the leading names in the history of the German influence in England. He was three years younger than Scott; but was already famous. Lewis was the son of a man in the then enviable position of a proprietor of large sugar plantations; who could, therefore, live in England, buy boroughs, and take part in the game of politics. The son had distinguished himself as a boy actor at Westminster, and in 1791 went to see his mother, a beauty and a musician, who had separated from his father and settled at Paris. In 1792 the lad, then only seventeen, went off to Weimar, attracted by the fame of the great author of Werther. He learned German, and his literary ambition was roused. Mrs. Radcliffe had just begun to work the vein first opened by Horace Walpole, of 'romances with supernatural machinery' and mysterious feudal castles. Whether Lewis was influenced by her or only by his new German models I will not presume to say. Anyhow, he wrote The Monk, which was published in his twentieth year (1795), and became a famous author at a bound. He had the grace to remove certain indecencies of which a respectable public loudly complained, and, though much abused, was accepted as a literary luminary in the eyes of Scott when, a little later, he came to see his aristocratic friends in Scotland. Lewis, indeed, was a quaint contrast to the sturdy borderer. He was diminutive in size, with eyes projecting 'like an insect's,' full of transparent vanity, intolerable loquacity, and, it would seem, not a little of a snob. His father had given him a seat in Parliament; he furnished a cottage in the best taste of the day; he was admitted to fashionable circles, was welcomed by the Duchess of York at Oatlands, and was familiar in later years with Byron and the questionable dandies of the Regency. With all his foibles, Lewis had some excellent qualities. Though he was not an Abolitionist, he felt it to be a duty to look into the position of his slaves for himself; went twice to his estates in the West Indies, and on the second visit caught the yellow fever, of which he died. He had made a will, witnessed by Byron and Shelley, intending to secure the welfare of his slaves; and the posthumous 'journal' of his voyage is a really interesting book, pronounced to be 'delightful' by Coleridge. Lewis, too, had a great facility for versification, a genuine ear for metre, and some of his ballads (Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene, for example) have still a kind of lingering vitality. Lewis was a friend, perhaps a rejected lover, of the lady known for certain questionable memoirs who afterwards became Lady Charlotte Bury. He visited her in Scotland in 1798 and there met Scott, who, though he laughed good-humouredly at the little fop, was ready to receive him as a mentor. Lewis could tell Scott of the great Germans whom he had seen in the flesh. He was collecting ballads for his projected Tales of Wonder, and found a promising recruit in the translator of Lenore. He criticised Scott's careless grammar and rhymes with a good deal of acuteness, and actually got a publisher to give £25 for the Götz of Berlichingen. Possibly, too, it was he who induced Kean to think for a time of producing The House of Aspen, which, however, as Scott says, was finally given up on account of the growing ridicule of the German drama.

Scott, we are told, was himself restrained from German extravaganzas by the good taste of his beloved William Erskine, and Lewis's chief influence seems to have been in encouraging the taste for ballads which resulted in the Border Minstrelsy and The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Lewis's own collection, the Tales of Wonder, was a clumsy miscellany, which fell flat when it at first appeared. Meanwhile, he was one of the leaders in introducing the passion for German plays which marked the end of the century. The British public, it must be confessed, did not show a very discriminative taste. Lewis's Castle Spectre, founded on an early romance of his own, had a run of sixty nights in 1798, and is said to have made more money than any play for twenty years. It was eclipsed next year by Sheridan's Pizarro, adapted from Kotzebue, which when published passed through twenty-nine editions. The Stranger, also from Kotzebue, was performed in 1798, and two other translations appeared at the same time. 'Who has e'er been at Drury must needs know The Stranger,' according to the authors of Rejected Addresses, where an exposition of the plot may be found. The Stranger was long popular, and, as Mr. Herzfeld remarks, was seen by the youthful Pendennis, who may well have been present in person at Drury Lane on 3rd November 1828.[13] In 1798 again Mrs. Inchbald turned Kotzebue's Natural Son into A Lover's Vows, a play which, as it may be remembered, greatly shocked Miss Fanny Price when a performance was suggested by her cousins at Mansfield Park. Poor old Cumberland, ' Sir Fretful Plagiary,' had to lay hands upon Kotzebue (in his Joanna of Montfaucon in 1800), and explains that, although he had always regarded the German drama as a profanation of the English stage, he had 'strong reasons'—of a pecuniary nature, apparently—for bowing to the evil principle. Three out of six volumes of plays from the German plays collected in 1806 are occupied by Kotzebue's works, others of which had been turned to account by Holcroft, a contemporary playwright. The same collection, which shows the contemporary taste, includes a couple of Lessing's plays (Minna von Bernhelm and Emilia Galloti, which had been acted

1 in 1794), Schiller's Robbers, and Goethe's Stella.[14] Holcroft had been prevented by the wisdom of the authorities from producing The Robbers, though in 1799 J. G. Holman was allowed to give a properly corrected version as The Redcross Knights. Stella it seems, though translated in 1798, was never performed. Its fame, however, is known to all English readers through the inimitable Rovers of the Anti-Jacobin. The fact suggests a curious oversight of later years. Carlyle afterwards rebuked William Taylor for asserting that the play ends by an agreement of the two ladies to live with one husband. This, says Carlyle, is only true of the French version. In point of fact, it was also true of Goethe's first redaction. If Carlyle had forgotten this, he might surely have remembered The Lovers, where it is explicitly quoted as the precedent for the catastrophe.

Whether the wit of Canning and his friends gave a death-blow to the 'German Drama'—the drama, that is, of which Kotzebue was the main representative—must be uncertain. The fashion was bound to vanish, one might think, as soon as anybody set the example of laughing. It did not, indeed, expire at once. Lewis produced a few more 'romances' from the German in the next few years, and wound up with the melodrama Timour the Tartar, produced in 1811 at Covent Garden, to rival Colman's popular Bluebeard, and permit the introduction of horses upon the stage. Coleridge's wrath was roused a little later by Maturin's Bertram, which had been preferred to his own Zapolya. In the Biographia Literaria, really a plaintive expostulation due to his sufferings from want of due recognition, he was weak enough to fall foul of his rival, and denounces Bertram as an incarnation of the obnoxious spirit. The 'German' drama, he explains, is not really German at all. It was a bastard product of English sentimentalism. The Germans had been reading Young's Night Thoughts and Hervey's Meditations, and Clarissa Harlowe. They adapted the sickly sentimentalism, fostered by these writers, to the machinery of ruined castles and trap-doors, and skeletons and dungeons, first turned to account in the Castle of Otranto. The unhallowed brew which resulted should properly be called the Jacobinical drama, and its absurdities are illustrated by a sharp attack upon Maturin's drama. To most people, Coleridge seemed to be repudiating a heresy in which he was really a partaker. His Osorio (which Sheridan refused in 1797, and which succeeded as Remorse in 1813), if not of the Kotzebue variety, showed, at least, the influence of The Robbers and The Ghostseers. The famous translation of Wallenstein, the first product of his visit to Germany, would, indeed, have done something, had it not remained in the Longmans' warehouse, to call attention to the higher German drama. But, if one may judge from the translations, little was really done to introduce Schiller's or Goethe's best work to English readers till Carlyle took up the duty more than twenty years afterwards.

Meanwhile, however, one worthy person, Mr. Herzfeld's hero, William Taylor, was diligently hammering some knowledge of German into English brains. Taylor was born at Norwich in 1765. Norwich was still at his birth one of the leading manufacturing towns; and, like some of its rivals, it had a small literary circle which, if not superior to what might now be found there, was more independent of London influences. Philosophical societies were springing up in many prominent towns, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, and Bristol, and such names as Roscoe, Erasmus Darwin, Dalton, Priestley, Wedgwood, Watt, Beddoes, and Davy show that they included some real leaders in science and literature. Norwich, we are told, was called in a contemporary magazine the 'English Athens,' probably to distinguish it from a city similarly named in Scotland. A once famous Unitarian divine, John Taylor, of Norwich, left descendants of literary taste, of whom Sarah, married to John Austin, became afterwards known as a translator of German. There, too, lived the Aldersons, one of whom became Mrs. Opie, and the Martineau family, whose most honoured descendant is still among us, and the Quaker Gurneys, including the future Mrs. Fry. The great Dr. Parr was schoolmaster there for a time, and so was William Enfield, who translated (from the Latin) Brucker's great History of Philosophy. Norwich had, moreover, the unique distinction of a home-bred School of Art, of which 'Old Crome' was the most distinguished member. Mackintosh looked in occasionally upon circuit, with Basil Montagu. Another visitor was Crabb Robinson. He went to Germany partly at Taylor's suggestion, visited Weimar, crammed Mme. de Stael, it is said, in German philosophy, and, as his diary shows, was afterwards a zealous adherent of the Coleridge circles, and eager to promote the spread of the true faith. Altogether, Norwich could hold up its head in the world of letters, and had some outlook towards Germany. Miss Martineau informs us that the society there was priggish, which is not surprising; and Taylor's first biographer gives a quaint reason. The Norwich manufacturer, he says, received more flattery than he could give out. His clerks bowed to the earth before him, whereas he had only to pay compliments when signing formal letters of business to correspondents. He was thus tempted to give himself the airs of a merchant prince in some mediæval city. William Taylor, in his boyhood, was sent by his father, one of these proud manufacturers, to learn languages abroad, and, after acquiring French and Italian, went, in 1781, to Germany. In 1782 he was provided with an introduction to Goethe, though it is doubtful whether he actually saw the great man. After his return, Taylor settled down at Norwich for life. His father retired from business with a fortune, afterwards lost, and Taylor took a leading position as a literary light in his native city. There he remained, with few interruptions, till his death in 1836. He never married, and was a most devoted son to his parents. He laboured conscientiously at literary pursuits until his health broke down when he was about fifty. His first biographer intimates that he did not refrain as much as was desirable from drinks for which his head was no longer sufficiently strong. One little glimpse of him, apparently about 1820, is given in Lavengro (see chap. xxiii.). Taylor is presented to us smoking steadily, calmly expounding heterodox doctrines about Shakespeare and the Bible, confessing, poor man, that his life had been a failure, and recommending his young friend to study German. He seems to have given real encouragement to Borrow's philological tastes. Taylor's first success was the translation of Lenore. Soon afterwards he translated Lessing's Nathan and Goethe's Iphigenia; but his main work was contained in contributions to the old Monthly Review—still edited when he began by the Griffiths who had been Goldsmith's taskmaster—and to other reviews, The Critical, The Annual, and so forth, which have long since retired to the dustiest shelves of old libraries. According to Hazlitt, as Mr. Herzfeld reminds us, Taylor set the example of the fuller reviews,[15] which in The Edinburgh supplanted the old meagre analysis of books. The claim would, I think, require modification. More than thirty years before his predecessor, Goldsmith had contributed genuine reviews to the same periodical—to give no other instances. At any rate, Taylor never took part in The Edinburgh or its rivals. He wrote, we are told, 1750 articles upon a vast variety of topics, many of them upon his speciality of German literature. Out of these he constructed what he called his Historic Survey of German Poetry in 1830; and thereby exposed himself to Carlyle's criticism in The Edinburgh. The review, as Mr. Herzfeld argues, was in many ways unjust. Unfortunately, it is probably the only thing by which Taylor is faintly remembered. His Life, however, has some interest, chiefly from the long correspondence with Southey, who had made his acquaintance on a visit to Norwich in 1798, and, in spite of growing divergence of opinion, kept up the friendship till the last.

Mr. Herzfeld generously seeks to vindicate his hero from Carlyle's criticisms. In one respect he clearly makes out his case. Carlyle finds thirteen errors in six pages and computes the number in the whole upon that basis. Now these errors, that about Stella, for example, are partly Carlyle's own; and if his attention was ever called to the facts, which I should take to be very doubtful, he should, of course, have omitted, or greatly altered, the passage before republishing the essay. So much must be said in bare justice to Taylor; but I cannot think that any one who tries to read the book will doubt that Carlyle's judgment was substantially indisputable. He speaks, indeed, of Taylor's general abilities more respectfully than might have been expected; he admits the value of some of his criticisms and the excellence of his poetical translation; and the criticism, severe enough, is summed up in the phrase, not familiar in English till Mathew Arnold gave it currency, that Taylor was what Germans called a Philister—'every fibre of him is Philistine.' That appears to me to be true, though it might have been rather taken for granted than insisted upon. Taylor might have replied as the cats'-meat man, according to Sam Weller, replied to the statement that he was no gentleman—that is a 'self-evident proposition.' I only notice it as illustrating the change of sentiment. Carlyle, we know, looked up to Goethe as the great prophet of the time. It is a puzzle, not here to be considered, how Carlyle came to be so profoundly impressed by a man so diametrically opposed to him in many ways; and it may be inquired whether Carlyle's Goethe was not something quite different from the Goethe of other people, and, indeed, of historical fact. Anyhow, to Carlyle, and to his English contemporaries, German poetry, as well as German philosophy and historical criticism, had come as a revelation. It meant that a new light had dawned upon the world: that an escape was opened from that wicked old eighteenth century, with its scepticism and its materialism, and that a real survey must correspond to some appreciation of the great spiritual revolution of the age. Now, Taylor, as Carlyle puts it, had simply 'no theorem of Germany and its intellectual progress, not even a false one.' That is precisely the case. When, for example, Taylor compares Goethe, Schiller, and Kotzebue, and shows, in the proper formula of critical balancing, how one is remarkable for 'invention,' and the second for 'pathos,' and the third for 'truth to nature,' he has obviously no glimmering of the relative proportions of intellectual eminences. You cannot properly 'compare' Scott and Coleridge and 'Monk' Lewis. Perhaps it is equally absurd to compare Taylor himself with critics of a more philosophical kind.

Taylor's work, in fact, represents the state of mind possible to intelligent persons at Norwich at the end of the last century, and from that point of view is highly creditable. The manufacturing circles were inclined to be good sound Whigs in politics, and inclined to Unitarianism in religion. Taylor shared Fox's early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and held to the good old cause when Southey became a Tory. In religious matters he seems to have deserted Priestley for Erasmus Darwin, who spoke of Unitarianism as a feather-bed for a dying Christian, and decidedly preferred Voltaire's reformation to Luther's. 'Religion,' however, he admitted, 'if a blemish in the male is surely a grace in the female sex,' and his freethinking, though tolerably obvious, was not of the militant kind. He wished only to be allowed to put forward his theories, which are apt to be such as might have pleased Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch. He identified Sesostris with Joshua, and Thales with Homer, and even Jesus the son of Sirach with the Founder of the Christian religion. He took the Phoenix to be a myth under which the Egyptian priests had couched a theory of comets; and, in short, adopted fancies which might be admired in provincial circles, but would hardly have excited respect in a German University. His English, when he wished to be impressive, was of the fine old Johnsonian variety. Wieland, he says, 'conceals beneath the enthusiasm of a Wesley the scepticism of a Hume. He binds his brow, indeed, with the clusters of Engedi, strews along his path the roses of Sharon, and culls the sweetest lilies of the valley of Tirzah; but he employs them rather as the gift of human than of angelic hands, rather as the luxuries of taste than of faith. With him, Magdalene, Salome, and the younger Maria rather resemble the clad Graces pursuing Apollo in the dance, and scattering perfumes in his way, or the Gopia listening with mingled love and devotion to the hymnings of Krishna, while Cama strains his cany bow and mixes for the nuptial feast his cup of five-fold joy, than'—in short, the Christian saints. It is not surprising that a gentleman who supposes that he must twist language into contortions of this kind in order to be eloquent, should be also very dry when he has got off the high horse. But it is to be admitted that, in spite of the queer pedantry and the grotesque theories which could flourish in the atmosphere of an old-fashioned country town, there was really a good deal of solid sense, and, what is, perhaps, more unexpected, a capacity for turning out very decent verse translation. Even Carlyle admits that his accounts of Klopstock and Wieland are excellent; and, if the book be taken as contemporary annals instead of philosophic history, it might have passed muster very creditably. Taylor had, at any rate, the merit of studying German industriously for many years under great disadvantages; with little access to books or communication with living representatives of the literature. He had inevitably lost touch of the literary movement, earlier phases of which he describes in rather wooden fashion. His articles, though he never got much recognition as a public teacher, probably did something to spread a certain knowledge of the facts. They were not put together as a book till his powers were declining, and then naturally made a very discontinuous and unequal performance, besides representing an obsolete point of view.

By the time of this publication, indeed, it was generally understood that there was such a thing as German literature, and that an enlightened person should admire its great names. Coleridge had been talking about the reason and the understanding and object and subject from Highgate Hill for some thirteen years. Byron, though he knew no German, got Monk Lewis to read Faust to him, and had dedicated Sardanapalus (1821) to Goethe as the 'homage of a literary vassal to his liege lord.' Shelley had translated the prologue of Faust. Hare and Thirlwall were translating Niehbuhr. Pusey and H. J. Rose were arguing about the causes of the terrible phenomenon, German 'Neologism.' Sir W. Hamilton had gone to Germany, and had been impressed by metaphysical speculations utterly unknown to Stewart and Brown. Carlyle had been long translating and discoursing so far to very deaf ears. But these and later developments are beyond me. The history of the early explorers is, I think, curious, if only as illustrating the difficulty of persuading the Englishman to recognise the existence of anything beyond his insular world, and perhaps the later history would show how difficult it is afterwards to induce him to turn his knowledge to any account.

  1. William Taylor von Norwich: eine Studie über den Einfluss der neueren Deutschen Literatur en England. Von Georg. Herzfeld. Halle, 1897.
  2. Mr. Herzfeld has been good enough to send me some notes of which I have taken advantage below.
  3. Law's translation, however, was not the first.
  4. Gibbon, as Mr. Herzfeld writes to me, must have learned something of the importance of German literature from the poet Matthison, whom he met at Lausanne in his later stay there. Their conversation is noticed in the Monthly Review for 1797 (vol. xxiii. p. 522, etc.).
  5. Marsh, as Mr. Herzfeld tells me, contributed two political articles in German to Wieland's Teutscher Merkur in 1798.
  6. Mr. Herzfeld informs me that Willich was physician to the Saxon Ambassador, Count Brühl, who passed more than 30 years in England. The Count's daughter, Dorothy, married Hugh Scott of Harden, and it was probably through her influence that Willich went to Edinburgh. He wrote a life of Kotzebue, published as an Appendix to Miss Plumptre's translation of Lover's Vows; and a translation of Hufeland's Makrobiotik.
  7. The Editor was George Gleig, afterwards Bishop of Brechin. The article is substantially reproduced in Chalmers's Biographical Dictionary.
  8. I should be very glad to hear more of him. His father or grandfather probably kept the well-known toy-shop in St. James's Street, where Johnson bought silver buckles in 1778.
  9. Richter was a water-colour painter of German origin, who in 1819 published a book called Daylight, expounding Kant, and giving a 'discovery in the art of painting.' I have not seen it.—See Dictionary of National Biography.
  10. Parr's Works, i. p. 712.
  11. Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808) the chemist, father of the author of Death's Textbook, had taught himself German, and is mentioned, as Mr. Herzfeld tells me, in the Teutscher Merkur as interested in Kantian philosophy. Beddoes was a friend of Coleridge, Southey, and Davy, in the Bristol days, and probably helped to stimulate Coleridge's curiosity as to German.
  12. Roberts's Hannah More, iii. p. 423.
  13. From some MSS. of Thackeray recently sold, it appears that he had amused himself by translating something of Kotzebue's when at Weimar.
  14. Holcroft also published a series of translations of German, Italian, French, and Spanish plays, chiefly by his daughter Fanny, in The Theatrical Recorder, 1805-6.
  15. When did the old form 'reviewals' go out? It is generally used by Southey and his contemporaries.