Friday, July 3, 2009

Max Beerbohm on Goethe

Goethe has more than once been described as "the perfect man." He was assuredly a personage on the great scale, in the grand manner, gloriously balanced, rounded. And it is a fact that he was not made of marble. He started with all the disadvantages of flesh and blood, and retained them to the last. Yet from no angle, as he went his long way, could it be plausibly hinted that he wasn't sublime. Endearing though failure always is, we grudge no man a moderately successful career, and glory itself we will wink at if it befall some thoroughly good fellow. But a man whose career was glorious without intermission, decade after decade, does sorely try our patience. He, we know, cannot have been a thoroughly good fellow. Of Goethe we are shy for such reasons as that he was never injudicious, never lazy, always in his best form -- and always in love with some lady or another just so much as was good for the development of his soul and his art, but never more than that by a tittle.

The above assessment of Goethe is by the English "parodist" and caricaturist Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), seen here in a caricature by Walter Sickert in 1891 for Vanity Fair. (What a lifetime: from the Victorian era to the era of the Bomb.)  It is from an essay by Beerbohm called "Quia Imperfectum" from 1918, in which he shows a pretty good knowledge of Goethe. The essay is rather tongue in cheek, mostly about Goethe's relationship with Tischbein and the famous painting of Goethe in the Campagna. For the entire essay, see here.

Beerbohm reminded me that Goethe had not seen the finished painting. It was given to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt in 1878 by the Baroness Salomon de Rothschild, also known (according to the Städel site, as "Adèle Hannah Caroline von Rothschild" (1843-1922), who was living in Paris when she made the bequest. How the painting got from Italy to Paris is not indicated.

1 comment:

Zentrist said...

Beerbohm is a familiar name but an unfamiliar person--to me. Thank you for this introduction and for these very interesting notes on Geothe. I've got out my two volume translation of Faust; also a story by Goethe called "The Attorney." Reading "Sorrows" a couple of years ago was like going home, with "home" being the very deepest, and also the most problematical...yearnings of the mind and body. Oh, youth! "Werther" influenced so much and so many, perhaps also Feuerbach, who apparently tried to turn Hegelian "abstraction" on its head, bringing back the "sensuousness" of the body and its implacable yearnings.