|Female preacher at a Quaker meeting|
It has been pointed out that Carlyle’s criticism is decidedly lacking in formal evaluation of Goethe’s works. Instead, Goethe’s “oracular significance” was based to the greatest extent on what Carlyle perceived as his “sincerity” (or maybe “authenticity” as per Lionel Trilling?): Goethe was not simply some painter of words or imitator of poetic formulas. He lived what he wrote, which was suggested to Carlyle by Goethe’s own oracular pronouncement in Dichtung und Wahrheit: "Everything that I have published previously consists of fragments of a great confession."
While Carlyle is the best-known mediator of Goethe’s influence in Britain, the first chapter of Literature and the Cult of Personality concerns the first translators of German literature, writers loosely identified with the Godwin circle. They were among the earliest and most fervent supporters of the French Revolution, which very quickly made them marginal, not only with respect to the dominant politics (which were anti-Jacobin). The stance of being ideological outsiders may have been second nature to them, as many were Dissenters (e.g., Quakers, Methodists) or female, thus, with little access to what Greg calls the Oxbridge or public school education based on Latin and Greek.
A member of this circle, Thomas Holcroft, was so sympathetic to the French Revolution that he was effectively banished from publishing under his own name, even after his acquittal for treason in 1794. The appeal to him of Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea is not surprising, and he produced the first translation to appear in Britain. As Greg writes, the text allowed Holcroft to center himself “in a foreign otherness,” while the conflict within Hermann’s family mirrored that of the Godwin circle “in the wake of war hysteria and government reaction.” Goethe himself praised Holcroft for his translation in a letter of May 29, 1801, in which he distinguished two approaches to translation.
Because of my own work on the reception of Milton in Germany in the early 18th century, I was interested to learn of the many contacts of Germans in Britain already by then. Several German scientists and Enlightenment figures became members of the Royal Society on its founding in 1663, and throughout the following century German musicians and painters worked in England. The youngest Bach son, Johann Christian, organized concerts of Mozart’s music in London and arranged his appearance at court in 1764. John Wesley transmitted many German hymns into the Methodist musical inventory.
Thus, Goethe was not the first or only German writer whose works appeared in translation. Fuseli, who arrived in England from Zurich in 1760, produced the first translation of Winckelmann in English, and Henry Hudson’s translation of Lavater’s Physiological Fragments appeared in a lavish edition of three volumes (1789, 1792, 1798). The plays of Kotzebue were wildly popular on the London stage (in contrast to those of Lessing or Goethe). Indeed, as Greg writes, the dominant literary public felt “nearly universal antipathy toward Goethe,” precisely for the lack of moralism in his works. In the words of the Anti-Jacobin Review, “he has attained that divine morality which looks down on all forms of human conduct, with equal eye, and sees in the lewdness of Faustus, or the purity of Iphigenie, but that exact adaptation of effect and cause of conduct and motive, which he characterizes the constitution of things.”
There is much of interest here. I liked William Taylor's characterization of Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) as a "biographical novel," revealing (quoting here Schopenhauer) the inner significance of everyday life, in contrast to the outer significance. Further chapters discuss the reception of Kant, Henry Crabb Robinson, the Romantic idealization of the artist, the influence of Goethe in New England, and Goethe’s role in the literary formation of George Eliot.