Monday, July 6, 2009

Stephen Spender on Goethe

In Goethe, certain kinds of intellectual ideas are more concretely experienced than in any other poetry I can think of. Goethe's knowledge is amazingly wide and penetrating, and at the same time it is infused with his personality. In the second part of Faust, particularly in the Helena scene, a fusion of knowledge, intellectual will, and egotistic personality of an unparalleled kind takes place in the poetry. One lives within the world of antiquity which is immensely learned, competely realized, and supremely Goethean. To read these pages is like opening up some Egyptian tomb and finding oneself surrounded by objects made of solid stone and gold, all of them pervaded with the concreteness of the age to which they belong.

I encountered this passage in an essay by the English poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995), which struck me as so correct, expressing perhaps as only another poet could the effect of Goethe's poetry.

It has been observed already that the English have impressive insight into Goethe, one of the first being Carlyle, who was actually a Scot. So, amend that. Can we say Anglo-Saxon? Probably not, and it has recently come out that Spender himself (pictured here in the portrait by Wyndham Lewis) had Jewish antecedents. This rather modern complexity is the subject of Spender's essay, which he relates to Goethe in another passage: "Goethe was evidently close to the problem of Joyce, the problem of the disintegration of a very complex modern consciousness within a world whose values do not provide a structure upon which such complexity can realize itself objectively."

Spender addresses the "fruitful misunderstandings" that occur when a poet who speaks one language reads a poet in another language. Misunderstandings are inevitable, but the misreading, in Coleridge's case, for instance, serves as a fruitful comparison of the differences between German and English poetry. After a discussion of Goethe's poetry (including the effect of Shakespeare on Goethe), Spender comes to the conclusion that the "root cause" of the fruitful misunderstanding between "the Goethean poetic mind" and the English one "is an uninhibited guiltless attitude which for Goethe was the source of his creativity." I have not thought to put it in so many words, but one reads this and agrees.

Spender's essay is a special instance of the workings of "world literature" (a term Spender indeed uses several times), specifically the effect that the works of foreign writers have on our own self-understanding. As Goethe wrote to Eckermann (July 15, 1827): "Es is aber sehr artig, daß wir jetzt, bei dem engen Verkehr zwischen Franzosen, Engländern und Deutschen, in den Fall kommen, uns einander zu korrigieren. Das ist der große Nutzen, der bei einer Weltliteratur herauskommt und der sich immer mehr zeigen wird. Carlyle hat das Leben von Schiller geschrieben und ihn überall so beurteilt, wie ihn nicht leicht ein Deutscher beurteilen wird. Dagegen sind wir bei Shakespeare and Byron im klaren und wissen deren Verdienste vielleicht besser zu schätzen als die Engländer selbst" (As a result of closer contact between French, English, and Germans it's very charming that we have occasion to correct one another. That is the great advantage of world literature, which will continue to be the case. Carlyle wrote a biography of Schiller and judged him generally in a way that a German would not do easily. On the other hand we are clear when it comes to Shakespeare and Byron and understand better than the English to appreciate their achievement).

Picture credit: The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery


eZekiel said...

I think ever since World War I unleashed so much anti-German bias in Britain, they have underrated him there. Nicholas Boyle believes this, and also that the British literary mind thinks in categories, whereas with Goethe "it is in the nature of his genius to displace categories even as he seems to be applying them." Boyle opinion is that "Goethe's greatness is inseparable from the factors which have made him difficult of access for an English audience."

Zentrist said...

In my student years (the seventies part) a very learned Catholic theologian once sat me down in the cafeteria and pronounced, after hearing me wax lyrical about Heidegger or Hegel, "Don't you realize the Germans are stupid?" I suppose then, my ancestors, the Dunstaedters, were indeed cognitively impaired. I really don't know. "A strong back but a week mind." That is how one uncle put it. I rather like to think of the author of THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING, and his sensibility. By the way, the last name of the aformentioned "theologian" has a stem which has a connotation: swamp.

Zentrist said...

It's so interesting to think that T. S. Eliot, the cultural conservative par excellence, was such a from-the-beginning supporter of Joyce's "Ulysses," a book that headlines, so to speak, the subject of masturbation. So was the young Thomas Merton. But the apparent inconsistency is not really so. The "consciousness" of the West since the time of Saint Paul, through Shakespeare and Goethe...culminates in Joyce's art among others (like Eliot's). Or, I've just discovered a Canadian priest-poet, a certain Father Pier. Then, there is Billy Collins, whom I heard on the radio (Prairie Home Companion). As for Keillor himself, he says and clearly he was influenced by Faulkner and Flannery O'Conner. Joyce's effect on Faulkner seems pretty evident in places.

Zentrist said...

I don't know if Garrison Keillor has read much Goethe but I think so. Anyway, clearly, the personality behind the poetry, so to speak, smacks of Goethe, what I'm reading in these pages, anyway. Of course, one should always find out for oneself. Is Mr. Keillor America's Goethe? If so, What does that say about contemporary American "culture"? I happen to admire Garrison Keillor, the man and his work. What does that say about my "taste"? Talk about the complexity, the lack of a solid cultural ground. Yes, we need to build up this concept of World Lit, something I taught at community college. I strongly encourage Dr. Powers in this. How can one and the same person admire both Keillor and his work and Nietzsche and his? It is beyond me. But that's sort of where at least one person is. The common ground is the Consciousness--and here's another name--that Deepak Chopra talks about...and that the Holy Father is breathing in, as we speak, in the Alps.

Goethe Girl said...

Goethe and Garrison Keillor: that is an interesting connection. Keillor is a wonderful storyteller, indeed, I think Goethe would have liked him for the simplicity of Keillor's tales and the "volkhaftes" element. As I mentioned in another post, Goethe was very fond of traditional forms: legends, pastorals, etc.