By James Russell Lowell.

When Burns’s humor gave its last pathetic flicker in his “John, don’t let the awkward squad fire over me,” was he thinking of actual brother-volunteers, or of possible biographers? Did his words betray only the rhythmic sensitiveness of poetic nerves, or were they a foreboding of that helpless future, when the poet lies at the mercy of the plodder,--of that bi-voluminous shape in which dulness overtakes and revenges itself on genius at last? Certainly Burns has suffered as much as most large-natured creatures from well-meaning efforts to account for him, to explain him away, to bring him into harmony with those well-regulated minds which, during a good part of the last century, found out a way, through rhyme, to snatch a prosiness beyond the reach of prose. Nay, he has been wronged also by that other want of true appreciation, which deals in panegyric, and would put asunder those two things which God has joined,--the poet and the man,--as if it were not the same rash improvidence that was the happiness of the verse and the misfortune of the gauger. But his death-bed was at least not haunted by the unappeasable apprehension of a German for his biographer; and that the fame of Lessing should have four times survived this cunningest assault of oblivion is proof enough that its base is broad and deep-set.

There seems to be, in the average German mind, an inability or a disinclination to see a thing as it really is, unless it be a matter of science. It finds its keenest pleasure in divining a profound significance in the most trifling things, and the number of mare’s-nests that have been stared into by the German Gelehrter through his spectacles passes calculation. They are the one object of contemplation that makes that singular being perfectly happy, and they seem to be as common as those of the stork. In the dark forest of aesthetics, particularly, he finds them at every turn,--“fanno tutto il loco varo.” If the greater part of our English criticism is apt only to skim the surface, the German, by way of being profound, too often burrows in delighted darkness quite beneath its subject, till the reader feels the ground hollow beneath him, and is fearful of caving into unknown depths of stagnant metaphysic air at every step. The Commentary on Shakespeare of Gervinus, a really superior man, reminds one of the Roman Campagna, penetrated underground in all directions by strange winding caverns, the work of human borers in search of we know not what. Above are the divine poet’s larks and daisies, his incommunicable skies, his broad prospects of life and nature; and meanwhile our Teutonic teredo worms his way below, and offers to be our guide into an obscurity of his own contriving. The reaction of language upon style, and even upon thought, by its limitations on the one hand, and its suggestions on the other, is so apparent to any one who has made even a slight study of comparative literature, that we have sometimes thought the German tongue at least an accessory before the fact, if nothing more, in the offences of German literature. The language has such a fatal genius for going stern-foremost, for yawing, and for not minding the helm without some ten minutes’ notice in advance, that he must be a great sailor indeed who can safely make it the vehicle for anything but imperishable commodities.  Vischer’s Aesthetik, the best treatise on the subject, ancient or modern, is such a book as none but a German could write, and it is written as none but a German could have written it. The abstracts of its sections are sometimes nearly as long as the sections themselves, and it is as hard to make out which head belongs to which tail, as in a knot of snakes thawing themselves into sluggish individuality under a spring sun.  The average German professor spends his life in making lanterns fit to guide us through the obscurest passages of all the ologies and ysics, and there are none in the world of such honest workmanship. They are durable, they have intensifying glasses, reflectors of the most scientific make, capital sockets in which to set a light, and a handsome lump of potentially illuminating tallow is thrown in. But, in order to see by them, the explorer must make his own candle, supply his own cohesive wick of common-sense, and light it himself. And yet the admirable thoroughness of the German intellect! We should be ungrateful indeed if we did not acknowledge that it has supplied the raw material in almost every branch of science for the defter wits of other nations to work on; yet we have a suspicion that there are certain lighter departments of literature in which it may be misapplied, and turn into something very like clumsiness. Delightful as Jean Paul’s humor is, how much more so would it be if he only knew when to stop! Ethereally deep as is his sentiment, should we not feel it more if he sometimes gave us a little less of it,--if he would only not always deal out his wine by beer-measure? So thorough is the German mind, that might it not seem now and then to work quite through its subject, and expatiate in cheerful unconsciousness on the other side thereof?

With all its merits of a higher and deeper kind, it yet seems to us that German literature has not quite satisfactorily answered that so long-standing question of the French Abbé about esprit. Hard as it is for a German to be clear, still harder to be light, he is more than ever awkward in his attempts to produce that quality of style, so peculiarly French, which is neither wit nor liveliness taken singly, but a mixture of the two that must be drunk while the effervescence lasts, and will not bear exportation into any other language. German criticism, excellent in other respects, and immeasurably superior to that of any other nation in its constructive faculty, in its instinct for getting at whatever principle of life lies at the heart of a work of genius, is seldom lucid, almost never entertaining. It may turn its light, if we have patience, into every obscurest cranny of its subject, one after another, but it never flashes light out of the subject itself, as Sainte-Beuve, for example, so often does, and with such unexpected charm. We should be inclined to put Julian Schmidt at the head of living critics in all the more essential elements of his outfit; but with him is not one conscious at too frequent intervals of the professorial grind,--of that German tendency to bear on too heavily, where a French critic would touch and go with such exquisite measure? The Great Nation, as  it cheerfully calls itself, is in nothing greater than its talent for saying little things agreeably, which is perhaps the very top of mere culture, and in literature is the next best thing to the power of saying great things as easily as if they were little German learning, like the elephants of Pyrrhus, is always in danger of turning upon what it was intended to adorn and reinforce, and trampling it ponderously to death. And yet what do we not owe it? Mastering all languages, all records of intellectual man, it has been able, or has enabled others, to strip away the husks of nationality and conventionalism from the literatures of many races, and to disengage that kernel of human truth which is the germinating principle of them all. Nay, it has taught us to recognize also a certain value in those very husks, whether as shelter for the unripe or food for the fallen seed.

That the general want of style in German authors is not wholly the fault of the language is shown by Heine (a man of mixed blood), who can be daintily light in German; that it is not altogether a matter of race, is clear from the graceful airiness of Erasmus and Reuchlin in Latin, and of Grimm in French. The sense of heaviness which creeps over the reader from so many German books is mainly due, we suspect to the language, which seems wellnigh incapable of that aerial perspective so delightful in first-rate French, and even English, writing. But there must also be in the national character an insensibility to proportion, a want of that instinctive discretion which we call tact. Nothing short of this will account for the perpetual groping of German imaginative literature after some foreign mould in which to cast its thought or feeling, now trying a Louis Quatorze pattern, then something supposed to be Shakespearian, and at last going back to ancient Greece, or even Persia. Goethe himself, limpidly perfect as are many of his shorter poems, often fails in giving artistic coherence to his longer works. Leaving deeper qualities wholly out of the question, Wilhelm Meister seems a mere aggregation of episodes if compared with such a masterpiece as Paul and Virginia, or even with a happy improvisation like the Vicar of Wakefield. The second part of Faust, too, is rather a reflection of Goethe’s own changed view of life and man’s relation to it, than an harmonious completion of the original conception. Full of placid wisdom and exquisite poetry it certainly is; but if we look at it as a poem, it seems more as if the author had striven to get in all he could, than to leave out all he might. We cannot help asking what business have paper money and political economy and geognosy here? We confess that Thales and the Homunculus weary us not a little, unless, indeed, a poem be nothing, after all, but a prolonged conundrum. Many of Schiller’s lyrical poems—though the best of them find no match in modern verse for rapid energy, the very axles of language kindling with swiftness—seem disproportionately long in parts, and the thought too often has the life wellnigh squeezed out of it in the sevenfold coils of diction, dappled though it be with splendid imagery.

In German sentiment, which runs over so easily into sentimentalism, a foreigner cannot help being struck with a certain incongruousness. What can be odder, for example, than the mixture of sensibility and sausages in some of Goethe’s earlier notes to Frau von Stein, unless, to be sure, the publishing them? It would appear that Germans were less sensible to the ludicrous—and we are far from saying that this may not have its compensatory advantages—than either the English or the French. And what is the source of this sensibility, if it be not an instinctive perception of the incongruous and disproportionate? Among all races, the English has ever shown itself most keenly alive to the fear of making itself ridiculous; and among all, none has produced so many humorists, only one of them, indeed, so profound as Cervantes, yet all masters in their several ways. What English-speaking man, except Boswell, could have arrived at Weimar, as Goethe did, in that absurd Werthermontirung? And where, out of Germany, could he have found a reigning Grand Duke to put his whole court into the same sentimental livery of blue and yellow, leather breeches, boots, and all, excepting only Herder, and that not on account of his clerical profession, but of his age? To be sure, it might be asked also where else in Europe was a prince to be met with capable of manly friendship with a man whose only decoration was his genius? But the comicality of the other fact no less remains. Certainly the German character is in no way so little remarkable as for its humor. If we were to trust the evidence of Herr Hub’s dreary Deutsche komische und humoristische Dichtung, we should believe that no German had even so much as a suspicion of what humor meant, unless the book itself, as we are half inclined to suspect, be a joke in three volumes, the want of fun being the real point thereof. If German patriotism can be induced to find a grave delight in it, we congratulate Herr Hub’s publishers, and for ourselves advise any sober-minded man who may hereafter “be merry,” not to “sing psalms,” but to read Hub as the more serious amusement of the two. There are epigrams there that make life more solemn, and, if taken in sufficient doses, would make it more precarious. Even Jean Paul, the greatest of German humorous authors, and never surpassed in comic conception or in the pathetic quality of humor, is not to be named with his master, Sterne, as a creative humorist. What are Siebenkäs, Fixlein, Schmelzle, and Fibel, (a single lay-figure to be draped at will with whimsical sentiment and reflection, and put in various attitudes,) compared with the living reality of Walter Shandy and his brother Toby, characters which we do not see merely as puppets in the author’s mind, but poetically projected from it in an independent being of their own?  Heine himself, the most graceful, sometimes the most touching, of modern poets, and clearly the most easy of German humorists, seems to me wanting in a refined perception of that inward propriety which is only another name for poetic proportion, and shocks us sometimes with an Unfläthigkeit, as at the end of his Deutschland, which, if it make Germans laugh, as we should be sorry to believe, makes other people hold their noses. Such things have not been possible in English since Swift, and the persifleur Heine cannot offer the same excuse of savage cynicism that might be pleaded for the Irishman.

I have hinted that Herr Stahr’s Life of Lessing is not precisely the kind of biography that would have been most pleasing to the man who could not conceive that an author should be satisfied with anything more than truth in praise, or anything less in criticism. My respect for what Lessing was, and for what he did, is profound. In the history of literature it would be hard to find a man so stalwart, so kindly, so sincere,[148] so capable of great ideas, whether in their influence on the intellect or the life, so unswervingly true to the truth, so free from the common weaknesses of his class. Since Luther, Germany has given birth to no such intellectual athlete,--to no son so German to the core. Greater poets she has had, but no greater writer; no nature more finely tempered. Nay, may we not say that great character is as rare a thing as great genius, if it be not even a nobler form of it? For surely it is easier to embody fine thinking, or delicate sentiment, or lofty aspiration, in a book than in a life. The written leaf, if it be, as some few are, a safe-keeper and conductor of celestial fire, is secure. Poverty cannot pinch, passion swerve, or trial shake it. But the man Lessing, harassed and striving life-long, always poor and always hopeful, with no patron but his own right-hand, the very shuttlecock of fortune, who saw ruin’s ploughshare drive through the hearth on which his first home-fire was hardly kindled, and who, through all, was faithful to himself, to his friend, to his duty, and to his ideal, is something more inspiring for us than the most glorious utterance of merely intellectual power. The figure of Goethe is grand, it is rightfully pre-eminent, it has something of the calm, and something of the coldness, of the immortals; but the Valhalla of German letters can show one form, in its simple manhood, statelier even than his.

Manliness and simplicity, if they are not necessary coefficients in producing character of the purest tone, were certainly leading elements in the Lessing who is still so noteworthy and lovable to us when eighty-six years have passed since his bodily presence vanished from among men. He loved clearness, he hated exaggeration in all its forms. He was the first German who had any conception of style, and who could be full without spilling over on all sides. Herr Stahr, we think, is not just the biographer he would have chosen for himself. His book is rather a panegyric than a biography. There is sometimes an almost comic disproportion between the matter and the manner, especially in the epic details of Lessing’s onslaughts on the nameless herd of German authors.  It is as if Sophocles should have given a strophe to every bullock slain by Ajax in his mad foray upon the Grecian commissary stores. He is too fond of striking an attitude, and his tone rises unpleasantly near a scream, as he calls the personal attention of heaven and earth to something which Lessing himself would have thought a very matter-of-course affair. He who lays it down as an axiom, that “genius loves simplicity,” would hardly have been pleased to hear the “Letters on Literature” called the “burning thunderbolts of his annihilating criticism,” or the Anti-Götze pamphlets, “the hurtling arrows that sped from the bow of the immortal hero.” Nor would he with whom accuracy was a matter of conscience have heard patiently that the Letters “appeared in a period distinguished for its lofty tone of mind, and in their own towering boldness they are a true picture of the intrepid character of the age.”[149] If the age was what Herr Stahr represents it to have been, where is the great merit of Lessing? He would have smiled, we suspect, a little contemptuously, at Herr Stahr’s repeatedly quoting a certificate from the “historian of the proud Britons,” that he was “the first critic in Europe.” Whether we admit or not Lord Macaulay’s competence in the matter, we are sure that Lessing would not have thanked his biographer for this soup-ticket to a ladleful of fame. If ever a man stood firmly on his own feet, and asked help of none, that man was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

Herr Stahr’s desire to make a hero of his subject, and his love for sonorous sentences like those we have quoted above, are apt to stand somewhat in the way of our chance at taking a fair measure of the man, and seeing in what his heroism really lay. He furnishes little material for a comparative estimate of Lessing, or for judging of the foreign influences which helped from time to time in making him what he was.  Nothing is harder than to worry out a date from Herr Stahr’s haystacks of praise and quotation. Yet dates are of special value in tracing the progress of an intellect like Lessing’s, which, little actuated by an inward creative energy, was commonly stirred to motion by the impulse of other minds, and struck out its brightest flashes by collision with them.  He himself tells us that a critic should “first seek out some one with whom he can contend,” and quotes in justification from one of Aristotle’s commentators, Solet Aristoteles quaerere pugnam in suis libris. This Lessing was always wont to do. He could only feel his own strength, and make others feel it,--could only call it into full play in an intellectual wrestling-bout. He was always anointed and ready for the ring, but with this distinction, that he was no mere prize-fighter, or bully for the side that would pay him best, nor even a contender for mere sentiment, but a self-forgetful champion for the truth as he saw it. Nor is this true of him only as a critic. His more purely imaginative works—his Minna, his Emilia, his Nathan—were all written, not to satisfy the craving of a poetic instinct, nor to rid head and heart of troublous guests by building them a lodging outside himself, as Goethe used to do, but to prove some thesis of criticism or morals by which Truth could be served. His zeal for her was perfectly unselfish. “Does one write, then, for the sake of being always in the right? I think I have been as serviceable to Truth,” he says, “when I miss her, and my failure is the occasion of another’s discovering her, as if I had discovered her myself.”[150] One would almost be inclined to think, from Herr Stahr’s account of the matter, that Lessing had been an autochthonous birth of the German soil, without intellectual ancestry or helpful kindred. That this is the sufficient natural history of no original mind we need hardly say, since originality consists quite as much in the power of using to purpose what it finds ready to its hand, as in that of producing what is absolutely new. Perhaps we might say that it was nothing more than the faculty of combining the separate, and therefore ineffectual, conceptions of others, and making them into living thought by the breath of its own organizing spirit. A great man without a past, if he be not an impossibility, will certainly have no future. He would be like those conjectural Miltons and Cromwells of Gray’s imaginary Hamlet. The only privilege of the original man is, that, like other sovereign princes, he has the right to call in the current coin and reissue it stamped with his own image, as was the practice of Lessing.

Herr Stahr’s over-intensity of phrase is less offensive than amusing when applied to Lessing’s early efforts in criticism. Speaking of poor old Gottsched, he says: “Lessing assailed him sometimes with cutting criticism, and again with exquisite humor. In the notice of Gottsched’s poems, he says, among other things, ‘The exterior of the volume is so handsome that it will do great credit to the bookstores, and it is to be hoped that it will continue to do so for a long time. But to give a satisfactory idea of the interior surpasses our powers.’ And in conclusion he adds, ‘These poems cost two thalers and four groschen. The two thalers pay for the ridiculous, and the four groschen pretty much for the useful.’” Again, he tells us that Lessing concludes his notice of Klopstock’s Ode to God “with these inimitably roguish words: ‘What presumption to beg thus earnestly for a woman!’ Does not a whole book of criticism lie in these nine words?” For a young man of twenty-two, Lessing’s criticisms show a great deal of independence and maturity of thought; but humor he never had, and his wit was always of the bluntest,--crushing rather than cutting. The mace, and not the scymitar, was his weapon. Let Herr Stahr put all Lessing’s “inimitably roguish words” together, and compare them with these few intranslatable lines from Voltaire’s letter to Rousseau, thanking him for his Discours sur l’Inégalite: “On n’a jamais employé tant d’esprit à vouloir nous rendre bêtes; il prend enviede marcher à quatre pattes quand on lit votre ouvrage.” Lessing from the first was something far better than a wit.  Force was always much more characteristic of him than cleverness.

Sometimes Herr Stahr’s hero-worship leads him into positive misstatement.  For example, speaking of Lessing’s Preface to the “Contributions to the History and Reform of the Theatre,” he tells us that “his eye was directed chiefly to the English theatre and Shakespeare.” Lessing at that time (1749) was only twenty, and knew little more than the names of any foreign dramatists except the French. In this very Preface his English list skips from Shakespeare to Dryden, and in the Spanish he omits Calderon, Tirso de Molina, and Alarcon. Accordingly, we suspect that the date is wrongly assigned to Lessing’s translation of Toda la Vida es Sueño. His mind was hardly yet ready to feel the strange charm of this most imaginative of Calderon’s dramas.

Even where Herr Stahr undertakes to give us light on the sources of Lessing, it is something of the dimmest. He attributes “Miss Sara Sampson” to the influence of the “Merchant of London,” as Mr. Evans translates it literally from the German, meaning our old friend, “George Barnwell.” But we are strongly inclined to suspect from internal evidence that Moore’s more recent “Gamester” gave the prevailing impulse. And if Herr Stahr must needs tell us anything of the Tragedy of Middle-Class Life, he ought to have known that on the English stage it preceded Lillo by more than a century,--witness the “Yorkshire Tragedy,”—and that something very like it was even much older in France. We are inclined to complain, also, that he does not bring out more clearly how much Lessing owed to Diderot both as dramatist and critic, nor give us so much as a hint of what already existing English criticism did for him in the way of suggestion and guidance. But though we feel it to be our duty to say so much of Herr Stahr’s positive faults and negative short-comings, yet we leave him in very good humor. While he is altogether too full upon certain points of merely transitory importance,--such as the quarrel with Klotz,--yet we are bound to thank him both for the abundance of his extracts from Lessing, and for the judgment he has shown in the choice of them. Any one not familiar with his writings will be able to get a very good notion of the quality of his mind, and the amount of his literary performance, from these volumes; and that, after all, is the chief matter. As to the absolute merit of his works other than critical, Herr Stahr’s judgment is too much at the mercy of his partiality to be of great value.

Of Mr. Evans’s translation we can speak for the most part with high commendation. There are great difficulties in translating German prose; and whatever other good things Herr Stahr may have learned from Lessing, terseness and clearness are not among them. We have seldom seen a translation which read more easily, or was generally more faithful. That Mr. Evans should nod now and then we do not wonder, nor that he should sometimes choose the wrong word. We have only compared him with the original where we saw reason for suspecting a slip; but, though we have not found much to complain of, we have found enough to satisfy us that his book will gain by a careful revision. We select a few oversights, mainly from the first volume, as examples. On page 34, comparing Lessing with Goethe on arriving at the University, Mr. Evans, we think, obscures, if he does not wholly lose the meaning, when he translates Leben by “social relations,” and is altogether wrong in rendering Patrizier by “aristocrat.” At the top of the next page, too, “suspicious” is not the word for bedenklich. Had he been writing English, he would surely have said “questionable.” On page 47, “overtrodden shoes” is hardly so good as the idiomatic “down at the heel.” On page 104, “A very humorous representation” is oddly made to “confirm the documentary evidence.” The reverse is meant. On page 115, the sentence beginning “the tendency in both” needs revising. On page 138, Mr. Evans speaks of the “Poetical Village-younker of Destouches.” This, we think, is hardly the English of Le Poète Campagnard, and almost recalls Lieberkühn’s theory of translation, toward which Lessing was so unrelenting,--“When I do not understand a passage, why, I translate it word for word.” On page 149, “Miss Sara Sampson” is called “the first social tragedy of the German Drama.” All tragedies surely are social, except the “Prometheus.” Bürgerliche Tragödie means a tragedy in which the protagonist is taken from common life, and perhaps cannot be translated clearly into English except by “tragedy of middle-class life.” So on page 170 we find Emilia Galotti called a “Virginia bourgeoise,” and on page 172 a hospital becomes a lazaretto. On page 190 we have a sentence ending in this strange fashion: “in an episode of the English original, which Wieland omitted entirely, one of its characters nevertheless appeared in the German tragedy.” On page 205 we have the Seven Years’ War called “a bloody process.” This is mere carelessness, for Mr. Evans, in the second volume, translates it rightly “lawsuit.” What English reader would know what “You are intriguing me” means, on page 228? On page 264, Vol. II., we find a passage inaccurately rendered, which we consider of more consequence, because it is a quotation from Lessing. “O, out upon the man who claims, Almighty God, to be a preacher of Thy word, and yet so impudently asserts that, in order to attain Thy purposes, there was only one way in which it pleased Thee to make Thyself known to him!” This is very far from nur den einzigen Weg gehabt den Du Dir gefallen lassen ihm kund zu machen! The ihm is scornfully emphatic. We hope Professor Evans will go over his version for a second edition much more carefully than we have had any occasion to do. He has done an excellent service to our literature, for which we heartily thank him, in choosing a book of this kind to translate, and translating it so well. We would not look such a gift horse too narrowly in the mouth.

Let us now endeavor to sum up the result of Lessing’s life and labor with what success we may.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born (January 22, 1729) at Camenz, in Upper Lusatia, the second child and eldest son of John Gottfried Lessing, a Lutheran clergyman. Those who believe in the persistent qualities of race, or the cumulative property of culture, will find something to their purpose in his Saxon blood and his clerical and juristic ancestry. It is worth mentioning, that his grandfather, in the thesis for his doctor’s degree, defended the right to entire freedom of religious belief. The name first comes to the surface in Parson Clement Lessigk, nearly three centuries ago, and survives to the present day in a painter of some distinction. It has almost passed into a proverb, that the mothers of remarkable children have been something beyond the common. If there be any truth in the theory, the case of Lessing was an exception, as might have been inferred, perhaps, from the peculiarly masculine type of his character and intellect. His mother was in no wise superior, but his father seems to have been a man somewhat above the pedantic average of the provincial clergymen of his day, and to have been a scholar in the ampler meaning of the word. Besides the classics, he had possessed himself of French and English, and was somewhat versed in the Oriental languages. The temper of his theology may be guessed from his having been, as his son tells us with some pride, one of “the earliest translators of Tillotson.” We can only conjecture him from the letters which Lessing wrote to him, from which we should fancy him as on the whole a decided and even choleric old gentleman, in whom the wig, though not a predominant, was yet a notable feature, and who was, like many other fathers, permanently astonished at the fruit of his loins. He would have preferred one of the so-called learned professions for his son,--theology above all,--and would seem to have never quite reconciled himself to his son’s distinction, as being in none of the three careers which alone were legitimate. Lessing’s bearing towards him, always independent, is really beautiful in its union of respectful tenderness with unswerving self-assertion. When he wished to evade the maternal eye, Gotthold used in his letters to set up a screen of Latin between himself and her; and we conjecture the worthy Pastor Primarius playing over again in his study at Camenz, with some scruples of conscience, the old trick of Chaucer’s fox:--

“Mulier est hominis confusio;

Madam, the sentence of this Latin is.

Woman is mannës joy and mannës bliss.”


He appears to have snatched a fearful and but ill-concealed joy from the sight of the first collected edition of his son’s works, unlike Tillotson as they certainly were. Ah, had they only been Opera! Yet were they not volumes, after all, and able to stand on their own edges beside the immortals, if nothing more?

After grinding with private-tutor Mylius the requisite time, Lessing entered the school of Camenz, and in his thirteenth year was sent to the higher institution at Meissen. We learn little of his career there, except that Theophrastus, Plautus, and Terence were already his favorite authors, that he once characteristically distinguished himself by a courageous truthfulness, and that he wrote a Latin poem on the valor of the Saxon soldiers, which his father very sensibly advised him to shorten. In 1750, four years after leaving the school, he writes to his father: “I believed even when I was at Meissen that one must learn much there which he cannot make the least use of in real life (der Welt), and I now [after trying Leipzig and Wittenberg] see it all the more clearly,”—a melancholy observation which many other young men have made under similar circumstances. Sent to Leipzig in his seventeenth year, he finds himself an awkward, ungainly lad, and sets diligently to perfecting himself in the somewhat unscholastic accomplishments of riding, dancing, and fencing. He also sedulously frequents the theatre, and wrote a play, “The Young Scholar,” which attained the honor of representation.  Meanwhile his most intimate companion was a younger brother of his old tutor Mylius, a young man of more than questionable morals, and who had even written a satire on the elders of Camenz, for which—over-confidently trusting himself in the outraged city—he had been fined and imprisoned; so little could the German Muse, celebrated by Klopstock for her swiftness of foot, protect her son. With this scandalous person and with play-actors, more than probably of both sexes, did the young Lessing share a Christmas cake sent him by his mother. Such news was not long in reaching Camenz, and we can easily fancy how tragic it seemed in the little parsonage there, to what cabinet councils it gave rise in the paternal study, to what ominous shaking of the clerical wig in that domestic Olympus. A pious fraud is practised on the boy, who hurries home thinly clad through the winter weather, his ill-eaten Christmas cake wringing him with remorseful indigestion, to receive the last blessing, if such a prodigal might hope for it, of a broken-hearted mother. He finds the good dame in excellent health, and softened toward him by a cold he has taken on his pious journey. He remains at home several months, now writing Anacreontics of such warmth that his sister (as volunteer representative of the common hangman) burns them in the family stove; now composing sermons to convince his mother that “he could be a preacher any day,”—a theory of that sacred office unhappily not yet extinct. At Easter, 1747, he gets back to Leipzig again, with some scant supply of money in his pocket, but is obliged to make his escape thence between two days somewhere toward the middle of the next year, leaving behind him some histrionic debts (chiefly, we fear, of a certain Mademoiselle Lorenz) for which he had confidingly made himself security.  Stranded, by want of floating or other capital, at Wittenberg, he enters himself, with help from home, as a student there, but soon migrates again to Berlin, which had been his goal when making his hegira from Leipzig.  In Berlin he remained three years, applying himself to his chosen calling of author at all work, by doing whatever honest job offered itself,--verse, criticism, or translation,--and profitably studious in a very wide range of languages and their literature. Above all, he learned the great secret, which his stalwart English contemporary, Johnson, also acquired, of being able to “dine heartily” for threepence.

Meanwhile he continues in a kind of colonial dependence on the parsonage at Camenz, the bonds gradually slackening, sometimes shaken a little rudely, and always giving alarming hints of approaching and inevitable autonomy. From the few home letters of Lessing which remain, (covering the period before 1753, there are only eight in all,) we are able to surmise that a pretty constant maternal cluck and shrill paternal warning were kept up from the home coop. We find Lessing defending the morality of the stage and his own private morals against charges and suspicions of his parents, and even making the awful confession that he does not consider the Christian religion itself as a thing “to be taken on trust,” nor a Christian by mere tradition so valuable a member of society as “one who has prudently doubted, and by the way of examination has arrived at conviction, or at least striven to arrive.” Boyish scepticism of the superficial sort is a common phenomenon enough, but the Lessing variety of it seems to us sufficiently rare in a youth of twenty. What strikes us mainly in the letters of these years is not merely the maturity they show, though that is remarkable, but the tone. We see already in them the cheerful and never overweening self-confidence which always so pleasantly distinguished Lessing, and that strength of tackle, so seldom found in literary men, which brings the mind well home to its anchor, enabling it to find holding ground and secure riding in any sea. “What care I to live in plenty,” he asks gayly, “if I only live?” Indeed, Lessing learned early, and never forgot, that whoever would be life’s master, and not its drudge, must make it a means, and never allow it to become an end. He could say more truly than Goethe, Mein Acker ist die Zeit, since he not only sowed in it the seed of thought for other men and other times, but cropped it for his daily bread. Above all, we find Lessing even thus early endowed with the power of keeping his eyes wide open to what he was after, to what would help or hinder him,--a much more singular gift than is commonly supposed. Among other jobs of this first Berlin period, he had undertaken to arrange the library of a certain Herr Rüdiger, getting therefor his meals and “other receipts,” whatever they may have been. His father seems to have heard with anxiety that this arrangement had ceased, and Lessing writes to him: “I never wished to have anything to do with this old man longer than until I had made myself thoroughly acquainted with his great library. This is now accomplished, and we have accordingly parted.” This was in his twenty-first year, and we have no doubt, from the range of scholarship which Lessing had at command so young, that it was perfectly true. All through his life he was thoroughly German in this respect also, that he never quite smelted his knowledge clear from some slag of learning.

In the early part of the first Berlin residence, Pastor Primarius Lessing, hearing that his son meditated a movement on Vienna, was much exercised with fears of the temptation to Popery he would be exposed to in that capital. We suspect that the attraction thitherward had its source in a perhaps equally catholic, but less theological magnet,--the Mademoiselle Lorenz above mentioned. Let us remember the perfectly innocent passion of Mozart for an actress, and be comforted. There is not the slightest evidence that Lessing’s life at this time, or any other, though careless, was in any way debauched. No scandal was ever coupled with his name, nor is any biographic chemistry needed to bleach spots out of his reputation. What cannot be said of Wieland, of Goethe, of Schiller, of Jean Paul, may be safely affirmed of this busy and single-minded man. The parental fear of Popery brought him a seasonable supply of money from home, which enabled him to clothe himself decently enough to push his literary fortunes, and put on a bold front with publishers. Poor enough he often was, but never in so shabby a pass that he was forced to write behind a screen, like Johnson.

It was during this first stay in Berlin that Lessing was brought into personal relations with Voltaire. Through an acquaintance with the great man’s secretary, Richier, he was employed as translator in the scandalous Hirschel lawsuit, so dramatically set forth by Carlyle in his Life of Frederick, though Lessing’s share in it seems to have been unknown to him. The service could hardly have been other than distasteful to him; but it must have been with some thrill of the anche io! kind that the poor youth, just fleshing his maiden pen in criticism, stood face to face with the famous author, with whose name all Europe rang from side to side. This was in February, 1751. Young as he was, we fancy those cool eyes of his making some strange discoveries as to the real nature of that lean nightmare of Jesuits and dunces. Afterwards the same secretary lent him the manuscript of the Siècle de Louis XIV., and Lessing thoughtlessly taking it into the country with him, it was not forthcoming when called for by the author. Voltaire naturally enough danced with rage, screamed all manner of unpleasant things about robbery and the like, cashiered the secretary, and was, we see no reason to doubt, really afraid of a pirated edition. This time his cry of wolf must have had a quaver of sincerity in it. Herr Stahr, who can never keep separate the Lessing as he then was and the Lessing as he afterwards became, takes fire at what he chooses to consider an unworthy suspicion of the Frenchman, and treats himself to some rather cheap indignation on the subject. For ourselves, we think Voltaire altogether in the right, and we respect Lessing’s honesty too much to suppose, with his biographer, that it was this which led him, years afterwards, to do such severe justice to Merope, and other tragedies of the same author. The affair happened in December, 1751, and a year later Lessing calls Voltaire a “great man,” and says of his Amalie, that “it has not only beautiful passages, it is beautiful throughout, and the tears of a reader of feeling will justify our judgment.” Surely there is no resentment here. Our only wonder would be at its being written after the Hirschel business. At any rate, we cannot allow Herr Stahr to shake our faith in the sincerity of Lessing’s motives in criticism,--he could not in the soundness of the criticism itself,--by tracing it up to a spring at once so petty and so personal.

During a part of 1752,[151] Lessing was at Wittenberg again as student of medicine, the parental notion of a strictly professional career of some kind not having yet been abandoned. We must give his father the credit of having done his best, in a well-meaning paternal fashion, to make his son over again in his own image, and to thwart the design of nature by coaxing or driving him into the pinfold of a prosperous obscurity. But Gotthold, with all his gifts, had no talent whatever for contented routine. His was a mind always in solution, which the divine order of things, as it is called, could not precipitate into any of the traditional forms of crystallization, and in which the time to come was already fermenting. The principle of growth was in the young literary hack, and he must obey it or die. His was to the last a natura naturans, never a naturata. Lessing seems to have done what he could to be a dutiful failure. But there was something in him stronger and more sacred than even filial piety; and the good old pastor is remembered now only as the father of a son who would have shared the benign oblivion of his own theological works, if he could only have had his wise way with him. Even after never so many biographies and review articles, genius continues to be a marvellous and inspiring thing. At the same time, considering the then condition of what was pleasantly called literature in Germany, there was not a little to be said on the paternal side of the question, though it may not seem now a very heavy mulct to give up one son out of ten to immortality,--at least the Fates seldom decimate in this way. Lessing had now, if we accept the common standard in such matters, “completed his education,” and the result may be summed up in his own words to Michaelis, 16th October, 1754: “I have studied at the Fürstenschule at Meissen, and after that at Leipzig and Wittenberg. But I should be greatly embarrassed if I were asked to tell what.” As early as his twentieth year he had arrived at some singular notions as to the uses of learning. On the 20th of January, 1749, he writes to his mother:

“I found out that books, indeed, would make me learned, but never make me a man.” Like most men of great knowledge, as distinguished from mere scholars, he seems to have been always a rather indiscriminate reader, and to have been fond, as Johnson was, of “browsing” in libraries.  Johnson neither in amplitude of literature nor exactness of scholarship could be deemed a match for Lessing; but they were alike in the power of readily applying whatever they had learned, whether for purposes of illustration or argument. They resemble each other, also, in a kind of absolute common-sense, and in the force with which they could plant a direct blow with the whole weight both of their training and their temperament behind it. As a critic, Johnson ends where Lessing begins.  The one is happy in the lower region of the understanding: the other can breathe freely in the ampler air of reason alone. Johnson acquired learning, and stopped short from indolence at a certain point. Lessing assimilated it, and accordingly his education ceased only with his life.  Both had something of the intellectual sluggishness that is apt to go with great strength; and both had to be baited by the antagonism of circumstances or opinions, not only into the exhibition, but into the possession of their entire force. Both may be more properly called original men than, in the highest sense, original writers.

From 1752 to 1760, with an interval of something over two years spent in Leipzig to be near a good theatre, Lessing was settled in Berlin, and gave himself wholly and earnestly to the life of a man of letters. A thoroughly healthy, cheerful nature he most surely had, with something at first of the careless light-heartedness of youth. Healthy he was not always to be, not always cheerful, often very far from light-hearted, but manly from first to last he eminently was. Downcast he could never be, for his strongest instinct, invaluable to him also as a critic, was to see things as they really are. And this not in the sense of a cynic, but of one who measures himself as well as his circumstances,--who loves truth as the most beautiful of all things and the only permanent possession, as being of one substance with the soul. In a man like Lessing, whose character is even more interesting than his works, the tone and turn of thought are what we like to get glimpses of. And for this his letters are more helpful than those of most authors, as might be expected of one who said of himself, that, in his more serious work, “he must profit by his first heat to accomplish anything.” He began, we say, light-heartedly. He did not believe that “one should thank God only for good things.” “He who is only in good health, and is willing to work, has nothing to fear in the world.” “What another man would call want, I call comfort.” “Must not one often act thoughtlessly, if one would provoke Fortune to do something for him?” In his first inexperience, the life of “the sparrow on the house-top” (which we find oddly translated “roof”) was the one he would choose for himself. Later in life, when he wished to marry, he was of another mind, and perhaps discovered that there was something in the old father’s notion of a fixed position. “The life of the sparrow on the house-top is only right good if one need not expect any end to it. If it cannot always last, every day it lasts too long,”—he writes to Ebert in 1770. Yet even then he takes the manly view. “Everything in the world has its time, everything may be overlived and overlooked, if one only have health.” Nor let any one suppose that Lessing, full of courage as he was, found professional authorship a garden of Alcinoüs. From creative literature he continually sought refuge, and even repose, in the driest drudgery of mere scholarship. On the 26th of April, 1768, he writes to his brother with something of his old gayety: “Thank God, the time will soon come when I cannot call a penny in the world my own but I must first earn it. I am unhappy if it must be by writing.” And again in May, 1771: “Among all the wretched, I think him the most wretched who must work with his head, even if he is not conscious of having one. But what is the good of complaining?” Lessing’s life, if it is a noble example, so far as it concerned himself alone, is also a warning when another is to be asked to share it. He too would have profited had he earlier learned and more constantly borne in mind the profound wisdom of that old saying, Si sit prudentia. Let the young poet, however he may believe of his art that “all other pleasures are not worth its pains,” consider well what it is to call down fire from heaven to keep the pot boiling, before he commit himself to a life of authorship as something fine and easy. That fire will not condescend to such office, though it come without asking on ceremonial days to the free service of the altar.

Lessing, however, never would, even if he could, have so desecrated his better powers. For a bare livelihood, he always went sturdily to the market of hack-work, where his learning would fetch him a price. But it was only in extremest need that he would claim that benefit of clergy. “I am worried,” he writes to his brother Karl, 8th April, 1773, “and work because working is the only means to cease being so. But you and Vess are very much mistaken if you think that it could ever be indifferent to me, under such circumstances, on what I work. Nothing less true, whether as respects the work itself or the principal object wherefor I work. I have been in my life before now in very wretched circumstances, yet never in such that I would have written for bread in the true meaning of the word.  I have begun my ‘Contributions’ because this work helps me ... to live from one day to another.” It is plain that he does not call this kind of thing in any high sense writing. Of that he had far other notions; for though he honestly disclaimed the title, yet his dream was always to be a poet. But he was willing to work, as he claimed to be, because he had one ideal higher than that of being a poet, namely, to be thoroughly a man. To Nicolai he writes in 1758: “All ways of earning his bread are alike becoming to an honest man, whether to split wood or to sit at the helm of state. It does not concern his conscience how useful he is, but how useful he would be.” Goethe’s poetic sense was the Minotaur to which he sacrificed everything. To make a study, he would soil the maiden petals of a woman’s soul; to get the delicious sensation of a reflex sorrow, he would wring a heart. All that saves his egoism from being hateful is, that, with its immense reaches, it cheats the sense into a feeling of something like sublimity. A patch of sand is unpleasing; a desert has all the awe of ocean. Lessing also felt the duty of self-culture; but it was not so much for the sake of feeding fat this or that faculty as of strengthening character,--the only soil in which real mental power can root itself and find sustenance. His advice to his brother Karl, who was beginning to write for the stage, is two parts moral to one literary. “Study ethics diligently, learn to express yourself well and correctly, and cultivate your own character. Without that I cannot conceive a good dramatic author.” Marvellous counsel this will seem to those who think that wisdom is only to be found in the fool’s paradise of Bohemia!

We said that Lessing’s dream was to be a poet. In comparison with success as a dramatist, he looked on all other achievement as inferior in kind.  In. 1767 he writes to Gleim (speaking of his call to Hamburg): “Such circumstances were needed to rekindle in me an almost extinguished love for the theatre. I was just beginning to lose myself in other studies which would have made me unfit for any work of genius. My Laocoon is now a secondary labor.” And yet he never fell into the mistake of overvaluing what he valued so highly. His unflinching common-sense would have saved him from that, as it afterwards enabled him to see that something was wanting in him which must enter into the making of true poetry, whose distinction from prose is an inward one of nature, and not an outward one of form. While yet under thirty, he assures Mendelssohn that he was quite right in neglecting poetry for philosophy, because “only a part of our youth should be given up to the arts of the beautiful. We must practise ourselves in weightier things before we die.  An old man, who lifelong has done nothing but rhyme, and an old man who lifelong has done nothing but pass his breath through a stick with holes in it,--I doubt much whether such an old man has arrived at what he was meant for.”

This period of Lessing’s life was a productive one, though none of its printed results can be counted of permanent value, except his share in the “Letters on German Literature.” And even these must be reckoned as belonging to the years of his apprenticeship and training for the master-workman he afterwards became. The small fry of authors and translators were hardly fitted to call out his full strength, but his vivisection of them taught him the value of certain structural principles. “To one dissection of the fore quarter of an ass,” says Haydon in his diary, “I owe my information.” Yet even in his earliest criticisms we are struck with the same penetration and steadiness of judgment, the same firm grasp of the essential and permanent, that were afterwards to make his opinions law in the courts of taste. For example, he says of Thomson, that, “as a dramatic poet, he had the fault of never knowing when to leave off; he lets every character talk so long as anything can be said; accordingly, during these prolonged conversations, the action stands still, and the story becomes tedious.” Of “Roderick Random,” he says that “its author is neither a Richardson nor a Fielding; he is one of those writers of whom there are plenty among the Germans and French.” We cite these merely because their firmness of tone seems to us uncommon in a youth of twenty-four. In the “Letters,” the range is much wider, and the application of principles more consequent. He had already secured for himself a position among the literary men of that day, and was beginning to be feared for the inexorable justice of his criticisms.  His “Fables” and his “Miss Sara Sampson” had been translated into French, and had attracted the attention of Grimm, who says of them (December, 1754): “These Fables commonly contain in a few lines a new and profound moral meaning. M. Lessing has much wit, genius, and invention; the dissertations which follow the Fables prove moreover that he is an excellent critic.” In Berlin, Lessing made friendships, especially with Mendelssohn, Von Kleist, Nicolai, Gleim, and Ramler. For Mendelssohn and Von Kleist he seems to have felt a real love; for the others at most a liking, as the best material that could be had. It certainly was not of the juiciest. He seems to have worked hard and played hard, equally at home in his study and Baumann’s wine-cellar. He was busy, poor, and happy.

But he was restless. We suspect that the necessity of forever picking up crumbs, and their occasional scarcity, made the life of the sparrow on the house-top less agreeable than he had expected. The imagined freedom was not quite so free after all, for necessity is as short a tether as dependence, or official duty, or what not, and the regular occupation of grub-hunting is as tame and wearisome as another. Moreover, Lessing had probably by this time sucked his friends dry of any intellectual stimulus they could yield him; and when friendship reaches that pass, it is apt to be anything but inspiring. Except Mendelssohn and Von Kleist, they were not men capable of rating him at his true value; and Lessing was one of those who always burn up the fuel of life at a fearful rate. Admirably dry as the supplies of Ramler and the rest no doubt were, they had not substance enough to keep his mind at the high temperature it needed, and he would soon be driven to the cutting of green stuff from his own wood-lot, more rich in smoke than fire. Besides this, he could hardly have been at ease among intimates most of whom could not even conceive of that intellectual honesty, that total disregard of all personal interests where truth was concerned, which was an innate quality of Lessing’s mind.  Their theory of criticism was, Truth, or even worse if possible, for all who do not belong to our set; for us, that delicious falsehood which is no doubt a slow poison, but then so very slow. Their nerves were unbraced by that fierce democracy of thought, trampling on all prescription, all tradition, in which Lessing loved to shoulder his way and advance his insupportable foot. “What is called a heretic,” he says in his Preface to Berengarius, “has a very good side. It is a man who at least wishes to see with his own eyes.” And again, “I know not if it be a duty to offer up fortune and life to the truth; ... but I know it is a duty, if one undertake to teach the truth, to teach the whole of it, or none at all.” Such men as Gleim and Ramler were mere dilettanti, and could have no notion how sacred his convictions are to a militant thinker like Lessing. His creed as to the rights of friendship in criticism might be put in the words of Selden, the firm tread of whose mind was like his own: “Opinion and affection extremely differ. Opinion is something wherein I go about to give reason why all the world should think as I think. Affection is a thing wherein I look after the pleasing of myself.” How little his friends were capable of appreciating this view of the matter is plain from a letter of Ramler to Gleim, cited by Herr Stahr. Lessing had shown up the weaknesses of a certain work by the Abbé Batteux (long ago gathered to his literary fathers as conclusively as poor old Ramler himself), without regard to the important fact that the Abbé’s book had been translated by a friend. Horrible to think of at best, thrice horrible when the friend’s name was Ramler! The impression thereby made on the friendly heart may be conceived. A ray of light penetrated the rather opaque substance of Herr Ramler’s mind, and revealed to him the dangerous character of Lessing. “I know well,” he says, “that Herr Lessing means to speak his own opinion, and”—what is the dreadful inference?--“and, by suppressing others, to gain air, and make room for himself. This disposition is not to be overcome.”[152] Fortunately not, for Lessing’s opinion always meant something, and was worth having. Gleim no doubt sympathized deeply with the sufferer by this treason, for he too had been shocked at some disrespect for La Fontaine, as a disciple of whom he had announced himself.

Berlin was hardly the place for Lessing, if he could not take a step in

any direction without risk of treading on somebody’s gouty foot. This was

not the last time that he was to have experience of the fact that the

critic’s pen, the more it has of truth’s celestial temper, the more it is

apt to reverse the miracle of the archangel’s spear, and to bring out

whatever is toadlike in the nature of him it touches. We can well

understand the sadness with which he said,

“Der Blick des Forscher’s fand Nicht selten mehr als er zu finden wünschte.”

Here, better than anywhere, we may cite something which he wrote of himself to a friend of Klotz. Lessing, it will be remembered, had literally “suppressed” Klotz. “What do you apprehend, then, from me? The more faults and errors you point out to me, so much the more I shall learn of you; the more I learn of you, the more thankful shall I be....I wish you knew me more thoroughly. If the opinion you have of my learning and genius (Geist) should perhaps suffer thereby, yet I am sure the idea I would like you to form of my character would gain. I am not the insufferable, unmannerly, proud, slanderous man Herr Klotz proclaims me.  It cost me a great deal of trouble and compulsion to be a little bitter against him.”[153] Ramler and the rest had contrived a nice little society for mutual admiration, much like that described by Goldsmith, if, indeed, he did not convey it from the French, as was not uncommon with him. “’What, have you never heard of the admirable Brandellius or the ingenious Mogusius, one the eye and the other the heart of our University, known all over the world?’ ‘Never,’ cried the traveller; ‘but pray inform me what Brandellius is particularly remarkable for.’ ‘You must be little acquainted with the republic of letters,’ said the other, ‘to ask such a question. Brandellius has written a most sublime panegyric on Mogusius.’ ‘And, prithee, what has Mogusius done to deserve so great a favor?’ ‘He has written an excellent poem in praise of Brandellius.’”

Lessing was not the man who could narrow himself to the proportions of a clique; lifelong he was the terror of the Brandellii and Mogusii, and, at the signal given by him,

“They, but now who seemed
In bigness to surpass Earth’s giant sons,
Now less than smallest dwarfs in narrow room
Throng numberless.”

Besides whatever other reasons Leasing may have had for leaving Berlin, we fancy that his having exhausted whatever means it had of helping his spiritual growth was the chief. Nine years later, he gave as a reason for not wishing to stay long in Brunswick, “Not that I do not like Brunswick, but because nothing comes of being long in a place which one likes.”[154] Whatever the reason, Leasing, in 1760, left Berlin for Breslau, where the post of secretary had been offered him under Frederick’s tough old General Tauentzien. “I will spin myself in for a while like an ugly worm, that I may be able to come to light again as a brilliant winged creature,” says his diary. Shortly after his leaving Berlin, he was chosen a member of the Academy of Sciences there. Herr Stahr, who has no little fondness for the foot-light style of phrase, says, “It may easily be imagined that he himself regarded his appointment as an insult rather than as an honor.” Lessing himself merely says that it was a matter of indifference to him, which is much more in keeping with his character and with the value of the intended honor.

The Seven Years’ War began four years before Lessing took up his abode in Breslau, and it may be asked how he, as a Saxon, was affected by it. We might answer, hardly at all. His position was that of armed neutrality.

Long ago at Leipzig he had been accused of Prussian leanings; now in Berlin he was thought too Saxon. Though he disclaimed any such sentiment as patriotism, and called himself a cosmopolite, it is plain enough that his position was simply that of a German. Love of country, except in a very narrow parochial way, was as impossible in Germany then as in America during the Colonial period. Lessing himself, in the latter years of his life, was librarian of one of those petty princelets who sold their subjects to be shot at in America,--creatures strong enough to oppress, too weak to protect their people. Whoever would have found a Germany to love must have pieced it together as painfully as Isis did the scattered bits of Osiris. Yet he says that “the true patriot is by no means extinguished” in him. It was the noisy ones that he could not abide; and, writing to Gleim about his “Grenadier” verses, he advises him to soften the tone of them a little, he himself being a “declared enemy of imprecations,” which he would leave altogether to the clergy. We think Herr Stahr makes too much of these anti-patriot flings of Lessing, which, with a single exception, occur in his letters to Gleim, and with reference to a kind of verse that could not but be distasteful to him, as needing no more brains than a drum, nor other inspiration than serves a trumpet. Lessing undoubtedly had better uses for his breath than to spend it in shouting for either side in this “bloody lawsuit,” as he called it, in which he was not concerned. He showed himself German enough, and in the right way, in his persistent warfare against the tyranny of French taste.

He remained in Breslau the better part of five years, studying life in new phases, gathering a library, which, as commonly happens, he afterwards sold at great loss, and writing his Minna and his Laocoön.  He accompanied Tauentzien to the siege of Schweidnitz, where Frederick was present in person. He seems to have lived a rather free-and-easy life during his term of office, kept shockingly late hours, and learned, among other things, to gamble,--a fact for which Herr Stahr thinks it needful to account in a high philosophical fashion. We prefer to think that there are some motives to which remarkable men are liable in common with the rest of mankind, and that they may occasionally do a thing merely because it is pleasant, without forethought of medicinal benefit to the mind.  Lessing’s friends (whose names were not, as the reader might be tempted to suppose, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) expected him to make something handsome out of his office; but the pitiful result of those five years of opportunity was nothing more than an immortal book. Unthrifty Lessing, to have been so nice about your fingers, (and so near the mint, too,) when your general was wise enough to make his fortune! As if ink-stains were the only ones that would wash out, and no others had ever been covered with white kid from the sight of all reasonable men! In July, 1764, he had a violent fever, which he turned to account in his usual cheerful way: “The serious epoch of my life is drawing nigh. I am beginning to become a man, and flatter myself that in this burning fever I have raved away the last remains of my youthful follies. Fortunate illness!” He had never intended to bind himself to an official career. To his father he writes: “I have more than once declared that my present engagement could not continue long, that I have not given up my old plan of living, and that I am more than ever resolved to withdraw from any service that is not wholly to my mind. I have passed the middle of my life, and can think of nothing that could compel me to make myself a slave for the poor remainder of it. I write you this, dearest father, and must write you this, in order that you may not be astonished if, before long, you should see me once more very far removed from all hopes of, or claims to, a settled prosperity, as it is called.” Before the middle of the next year he was back in Berlin again.

There he remained for nearly two years, trying the house-top way of life again, but with indifferent success, as we have reason to think. Indeed, when the metaphor resolves itself into the plain fact of living just on the other side of the roof,--in the garret, namely,--and that from hand to mouth, as was Lessing’s case, we need not be surprised to find him gradually beginning to see something more agreeable in a fixirtes Glück than he had once been willing to allow. At any rate, he was willing, and even heartily desirous, that his friends should succeed in getting for him the place of royal librarian. But Frederick, for some unexplained reason, would not appoint him. Herr Stahr thinks it had something to do with the old Siècle manuscript business. But this seems improbable, for Voltaire’s wrath was not directed against Lessing; and even if it had been, the great king could hardly have carried the name of an obscure German author in his memory through all those anxious and war-like years.

Whatever the cause, Lessing early in 1767 accepts the position of Theatrical Manager at Hamburg, as usual not too much vexed with disappointment, but quoting gayly

“Quod non dant proceres, dabit histrio.”

Like Burns, he was always “contented wi’ little and canty wi’ mair.” In connection with his place as Manager he was to write a series of dramatic essays and criticisms. It is to this we owe the Dramaturgie,--next to the Laocoön the most valuable of his works. But Lessing—though it is plain that he made his hand as light as he could, and wrapped his lash in velvet—soon found that actors had no more taste for truth than authors.

He was obliged to drop his remarks on the special merits or demerits of players, and to confine himself to those of the pieces represented. By this his work gained in value; and the latter part of it, written without reference to a particular stage, and devoted to the discussion of those general principles of dramatic art on which he had meditated long and deeply, is far weightier than the rest. There are few men who can put forth all their muscle in a losing race, and it is characteristic of Lessing that what he wrote under the dispiritment of failure should be the most lively and vigorous. Circumstances might be against him, but he was incapable of believing that a cause could be lost which had once enlisted his conviction.

The theatrical enterprise did not prosper long; but Lessing had meanwhile involved himself as partner in a publishing business which harassed him while it lasted, and when it failed, as was inevitable, left him hampered with debt. Help came in his appointment (1770) to take charge of the Duke of Brunswick’s library at Wolfenbüttel, with a salary of six hundred thalers a year. This was the more welcome, as he soon after was betrothed with Eva König, widow of a rich manufacturer.[155] Her husband’s affairs, however, had been left in confusion, and this, with Lessing’s own embarrassments, prevented their being married till October, 1776. Eva König was every way worthy of him. Clever, womanly, discreet, with just enough coyness of the will to be charming when it is joined with sweetness and good sense, she was the true helpmate of such a man,--the serious companion of his mind and the playfellow of his affections. There is something infinitely refreshing to me in the love-letters of these two persons. Without wanting sentiment, there is such a bracing air about them as breathes from the higher levels and strong-holds of the soul.  They show that self-possession which can alone reserve to love the power of new self-surrender,--of never cloying, because never wholly possessed.  Here is no invasion and conquest of the weaker nature by the stronger, but an equal league of souls, each in its own realm still sovereign. Turn from such letters as these to those of St. Preux and Julie, and you are stifled with the heavy perfume of a demirep’s boudoir,--to those of Herder to his Caroline, and you sniff no doubtful odor of professional unction from the sermon-case. Manly old Dr. Johnson, who could be tender and true to a plain woman, knew very well what he meant when he wrote that single poetic sentence of his,--“The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him to be a native of the rocks.”

In January, 1778, Lessing’s wife died from the effects of a difficult childbirth. The child, a boy, hardly survived its birth. The few words wrung out of Lessing by this double sorrow are to me as deeply moving as anything in tragedy. “I wished for once to be as happy (es so gut haben) as other men. But it has gone ill with me!” “And I was so loath to lose him, this son!” “My wife is dead; and I have had this experience also. I rejoice that I have not many more such experiences left to make, and am quite cheerful.” “If you had known her! But they say that to praise one’s wife is self-praise. Well, then, I say no more of her! But if you had known her!” Quite cheerful! On the 10th of August he writes to Elise Reimarus,--he is writing to a woman now, an old friend of his and his wife, and will be less restrained: “I am left here all alone. I have not a single friend to whom I can wholly confide myself.... How often must I curse my ever wishing to be for once as happy as other men!  How often have I wished myself back again in my old, isolated condition,--to be nothing, to wish nothing, to do nothing, but what the present moment brings with it!... Yet I am too proud to think myself unhappy. I just grind my teeth, and let the boat go as pleases wind and waves. Enough that I will not overset it myself.” It is plain from this letter that suicide had been in his mind, and, with his antique way of thinking on many subjects, he would hardly have looked on it as a crime.  But he was too brave a man to throw up the sponge to fate, and had work to do yet. Within a few days of his wife’s death he wrote to Eschenburg:

“I am right heartily ashamed if my letter betrayed the least despair.  Despair is not nearly so much my failing as levity, which often expresses itself with a little bitterness and misanthropy.” A stoic, not from insensibility or cowardice, as so many are, but from stoutness of heart, he blushes at a moment’s abdication of self-command. And he will not roil the clear memory of his love with any tinge of the sentimentality so much the fashion, and to be had so cheap, in that generation. There is a moderation of sincerity peculiar to Lessing in the epithet of the following sentence: “How dearly must I pay for the single year I have lived with a sensible wife!” Werther had then been published four years. Lessing’s grief has that pathos which he praised in sculpture,--he may writhe, but he must not scream. Nor is this a new thing with him. On the death of a younger brother, he wrote to his father, fourteen years before: “Why should those who grieve communicate their grief to each other purposely to increase it?... Many mourn in death what they loved not living. I will love in life what nature bids me love, and after death strive to bewail it as little as I can.”

We think Herr Stahr is on his stilts again when he speaks of Lessing’s position at Wolfenbüttel. He calls it an “assuming the chains of feudal service, being buried in a corner, a martyrdom that consumed the best powers of his mind and crushed him in body and spirit forever.” To crush forever is rather a strong phrase, Herr Stahr, to apply to the spirit, if one must ever give heed to the sense as well as the sound of what one is writing. But eloquence has no bowels for its victims. We have no doubt the Duke of Brunswick meant well by Lessing, and the salary he paid him was as large as he would have got from the frugal Frederick. But one whose trade it was to be a Duke could hardly have had much sympathy with his librarian after he had once found out what he really was. For even if he was not, as Herr Stahr affirms, a republican, and we doubt very much if he was, yet he was not a man who could play with ideas in the light French fashion. At the ardent touch of his sincerity, they took fire, and grew dangerous to what is called the social fabric. The logic of wit, with its momentary flash, is a very different thing from that consequent logic of thought, pushing forward its deliberate sap day and night with a fixed object, which belonged to Lessing. The men who attack abuses are not so much to be dreaded by the reigning house of Superstition as those who, as Dante says, syllogize hateful truths. As for “the chains of feudal service,” they might serve a Fenian Head-Centre on a pinch, but are wholly out of place here. The slavery that Lessing had really taken on him was that of a great library, an Alcina that could always too easily witch him away from the more serious duty of his genius. That a mind like his could be buried in a corner is mere twaddle, and of a kind that has done great wrong to the dignity of letters. Where-ever Lessing sat, was the head of the table. That he suffered at Wolfenbüttel is true; but was it nothing to be in love and in debt at the same time, and to feel that his fruition of the one must be postponed for uncertain years by his own folly in incurring the other? If the sparrow-life must end, surely a wee bush is better than nae beild. One cause of Lessing’s occasional restlessness and discontent Herr Stahr has failed to notice.  It is evident from many passages in his letters that he had his share of the hypochondria which goes with an imaginative temperament. But in him it only serves to bring out in stronger relief his deep-rooted manliness.  He spent no breath in that melodious whining which, beginning with Rousseau, has hardly yet gone out of fashion. Work of some kind was his medicine for the blues,--if not always of the kind he would have chosen, then the best that was to be had; for the useful, too, had for him a sweetness of its own. Sometimes he found a congenial labor in rescuing, as he called it, the memory of some dead scholar or thinker from the wrongs of ignorance or prejudice or falsehood; sometimes in fishing a manuscript out of the ooze of oblivion, and giving it, after a critical cleansing, to the world. Now and then he warmed himself and kept his muscle in trim with buffeting soundly the champions of that shallow artificiality and unctuous wordiness, one of which passed for orthodox in literature, and the other in theology. True religion and creative genius were both so beautiful to him that he could never abide the mediocre counterfeit of either, and he who put so much of his own life into all he wrote could not but hold all scripture sacred in which a divine soul had recorded itself. It would be doing Lessing great wrong to confound his controversial writing with the paltry quarrels of authors. His own personal relations enter into them surprisingly little, for his quarrel was never with men, but with falsehood, cant, and misleading tradition, in whomsoever incarnated. Save for this, they were no longer readable, and might be relegated to that herbarium of Billingsgate gathered by the elder Disraeli.

So far from being “crushed in spirit” at Wolfenbüttel, the years he spent there were among the most productive of his life. “Emilia Galotti,” begun in 1758, was finished there and published in 1771. The controversy with Götze, by far the most important he was engaged in, and the one in which he put forth his maturest powers, was carried on thence. His “Nathan the Wise” (1779), by which almost alone he is known as a poet outside of Germany, was conceived and composed there. The last few years of his life were darkened by ill-health and the depression which it brings. His Nathan had not the success he hoped. It is sad to see the strong, self-sufficing man casting about for a little sympathy, even for a little praise. “It is really needful to me that you should have some small good opinion of it [Nathan], in order to make me once more contented with myself,” he writes to Elise Reimarus in May, 1779. That he was weary of polemics, and dissatisfied with himself for letting them distract him from better things, appears from his last pathetic letter to the old friend he loved and valued most,--Mendelssohn. “And in truth, dear friend, I sorely need a letter like yours from time to time, if I am not to become wholly out of humor. I think you do not know me as a man that has a very hot hunger for praise. But the coldness with which the world is wont to convince certain people that they do not suit it, if not deadly, yet stiffens one with chill. I am not astonished that all I have written lately does not please you.... At best, a passage here and there may have cheated you by recalling our better days. I, too, was then a sound, slim sapling, and am now such a rotten, gnarled trunk!” This was written on the 19th of December, 1780; and on the 15th of February, 1781, Lessing died, not quite fifty-two years old. Goethe was then in his thirty-second year, and Schiller ten years younger.


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Of Lessing’s relation to metaphysics the reader will find ample discussion in Herr Stahr’s volumes. We are not particularly concerned with them, because his interest in such questions was purely speculative, and because he was more concerned to exercise the powers of his mind than to analyze them. His chief business, his master impulse always, was to be a man of letters in the narrower sense of the term. Even into theology he only made occasional raids across the border, as it were, and that not so much with a purpose of reform as in defence of principles which applied equally to the whole domain of thought. He had even less sympathy with heterodoxy than with orthodoxy, and, so far from joining a party or wishing to form one, would have left belief a matter of choice to the individual conscience. “From the bottom of my heart I hate all those people who wish to found sects. For it is not error, but sectarian error, yes, even sectarian truth, that makes men unhappy, or would do so if truth would found a sect.”[156] Again he says, that in his theological controversies he is “much less concerned about theology than about sound common-sense, and only therefore prefer the old orthodox (at bottom tolerant) theology to the new (at bottom intolerant), because the former openly conflicts with sound common-sense, while the latter would fain corrupt it. I reconcile myself with my open enemies in order the better to be on my guard against my secret ones.”[157] At another time he tells his brother that he has a wholly false notion of his (Lessing’s) relation to orthodoxy. “Do you suppose I grudge the world that anybody should seek to enlighten it?--that I do not heartily wish that every one should think rationally about religion? I should loathe myself if even in my scribblings I had any other end than to help forward those great views. But let me choose my own way, which I think best for this purpose.  And what is simpler than this way? I would not have the impure water, which has long been unfit to use, preserved; but I would not have it thrown away before we know whence to get purer.... Orthodoxy, thank God, we were pretty well done with; a partition-wall had been built between it and Philosophy, behind which each could go her own way without troubling the other. But what are they doing now? They are tearing down this wall, and, under the pretext of making us rational Christians, are making us very irrational philosophers.... We are agreed that our old religious system is false; but I cannot say with you that it is a patchwork of bunglers and half-philosophers. I know nothing in the world in which human acuteness has been more displayed or exercised than in that.”[158] Lessing was always for freedom, never for looseness, of thought, still less for laxity of principle. But it must be a real freedom, and not that vain struggle to become a majority, which, if it succeed, escapes from heresy only to make heretics of the other side. Abire ad plures would with him have meant, not bodily but spiritual death. He did not love the fanaticism of innovation a whit better than that of conservatism. To his sane understanding, both were equally hateful, as different masks of the same selfish bully. Coleridge said that toleration was impossible till indifference made it worthless. Lessing did not wish for toleration, because that implies authority, nor could his earnest temper have conceived of indifference. But he thought it as absurd to regulate opinion as the color of the hair. Here, too, he would have agreed with Selden, that “it is a vain thing to talk of an heretic, for a man for his heart cannot think any otherwise than he does think.” Herr Stahr’s chapters on this point, bating a little exaltation of tone, are very satisfactory; though, in his desire to make a leader of Lessing, he almost represents him as being what he shunned,--the founder of a sect.  The fact is, that Lessing only formulated in his own way a general movement of thought, and what mainly interests us is that in him we see a layman, alike indifferent to clerisy and heresy, giving energetic and pointed utterance to those opinions of his class which the clergy are content to ignore so long as they remain esoteric. At present the world has advanced to where Lessing stood, while the Church has done its best to stand stock-still; and it would be a curious were it not a melancholy spectacle, to see the indifference with which the laity look on while theologians thrash their wheatless straw, utterly unconscious that there is no longer any common term possible that could bring their creeds again to any point of bearing on the practical life of men. Fielding never made a profounder stroke of satire than in Squire Western’s indignant “Art not in the pulpit now! When art got up there, I never mind what dost say.”

As an author, Lessing began his career at a period when we cannot say that German literature was at its lowest ebb, only because there had not yet been any flood-tide. That may be said to have begun with him. When we say German literature, we mean so much of it as has any interest outside of Germany. That part of the literary histories which treats of the dead waste and middle of the eighteenth century reads like a collection of obituaries, and were better reduced to the conciseness of epitaph, though the authors of them seem to find a melancholy pleasure, much like that of undertakers, in the task by which they live. Gottsched reigned supreme on the legitimate throne of dulness. In Switzerland, Bodmer essayed a more republican form of the same authority. At that time a traveller reports eight hundred authors in Zürich alone! Young aspirant for lettered fame, in imagination clear away the lichens from their forgotten headstones, and read humbly the “As I am, so thou must be,” on all! Everybody remembers how Goethe, in the seventh book of his autobiography, tells the story of his visit to Gottsched. He enters by mistake an inner room at the moment when a frightened servant brings the discrowned potentate a periwig large enough to reach to the elbows. That awful emblem of pretentious sham seems to be the best type of the literature then predominant. We always fancy it set upon a pole, like Gessler’s hat, with nothing in it that was not wooden, for all men to bow down before. The periwig style had its natural place in the age of Louis XIV., and there were certainly brains under it. But it had run out in France, as the tie-wig style of Pope had in England. In Germany it was the mere imitation of an imitation. Will it be believed that Gottsched recommends his Art of Poetry to beginners, in preference to Breitinger’s, because it “will enable them to produce every species of poem in a correct style, while out of that no one can learn to make an ode or a cantata”?  “Whoever,” he says, “buys Breitinger’s book in order to learn how to make poems, will too late regret his money.”[159] Gottsched, perhaps, did some service even by his advocacy of French models, by calling attention to the fact that there was such a thing as style, and that it was of some consequence. But not one of the authors of that time can be said to survive, nor to be known even by name except to Germans, unless it be Klopstock, Herder, Wieland, and Gellert. And the latter’s immortality, such as it is, reminds us somewhat of that Lady Gosling’s, whose obituary stated that she was “mentioned by Mrs. Barbauld in her Life of Richardson ‘under the name of Miss M., afterwards Lady G.’” Klopstock himself is rather remembered for what he was than what he is,--an immortality of unreadableness; and we much doubt if many Germans put the “Oberon” in their trunks when they start on a journey. Herder alone survives, if not as a contributor to literature, strictly so called, yet as a thinker and as part of the intellectual impulse of the day. But at the time, though there were two parties, yet within the lines of each there was a loyal reciprocity of what is called on such occasions appreciation. Wig ducked to wig, each blockhead had a brother, and there was a universal apotheosis of the mediocrity of our set. If the greatest happiness of the greatest number be the true theory, this was all that could be desired. Even Lessing at one time looked up to Hagedorn as the German Horace. If Hagedorn were pleased, what mattered it to Horace?  Worse almost than this was the universal pedantry. The solemn bray of one pedagogue was taken up and prolonged in a thousand echoes. There was not only no originality, but no desire for it,--perhaps even a dread of it, as something that would break the entente cordiale of placid mutual assurance. No great writer had given that tone of good-breeding to the language which would gain it entrance to the society of European literature. No man of genius had made it a necessity of polite culture.  It was still as rudely provincial as the Scotch of Allan Ramsay.  Frederick the Great was to be forgiven if, with his practical turn, he gave himself wholly to French, which had replaced Latin as a cosmopolitan tongue. It had lightness, ease, fluency, elegance,--in short, all the good qualities that German lacked. The study of French models was perhaps the best thing for German literature before it got out of long-clothes.  It was bad only when it became a tradition and a tyranny. Lessing did more than any other man to overthrow this foreign usurpation when it had done its work.

The same battle had to be fought on English soil also, and indeed is hardly over yet. For the renewed outbreak of the old quarrel between Classical and Romantic grew out of nothing more than an attempt of the modern spirit to free itself from laws of taste laid down by the Grand Siècle. But we must not forget the debt which all modern prose literature owes to France. It is true that Machiavelli was the first to write with classic pith and point in a living language; but he is, for all that, properly an ancient. Montaigne is really the first modern writer,--the first who assimilated his Greek and Latin, and showed that an author might be original and charming, even classical, if he did not try too hard. He is also the first modern critic, and his judgments of the writers of antiquity are those of an equal. He made the ancients his servants, to help him think in Gascon French; and, in spite of his endless quotations, began the crusade against pedantry. It was not, however, till a century later, that the reform became complete in France, and then crossed the Channel. Milton is still a pedant in his prose, and not seldom even in his great poem. Dryden was the first Englishman who wrote perfectly easy prose, and he owed his style and turn of thought to his French reading. His learning sits easily on him, and has a modern cut. So far, the French influence was one of unmixed good, for it rescued us from pedantry. It must have done something for Germany in the same direction. For its effect on poetry we cannot say as much; and its traditions had themselves become pedantry in another shape when Lessing made an end of it. He himself certainly learned to write prose of Diderot; and whatever Herr Stahr may think of it, his share in the “Letters on German Literature” got its chief inspiration from France.

It is in the Dramaturgie that Lessing first properly enters as an influence into European literature. He may be said to have begun the revolt from pseudo-classicism in poetry, and to have been thus unconsciously the founder of romanticism. Wieland’s translation of Shakespeare had, it is true, appeared in 1762; but Lessing was the first critic whose profound knowledge of the Greek drama and apprehension of its principles gave weight to his judgment, who recognized in what the true greatness of the poet consisted, and found him to be really nearer the Greeks than any other modern. This was because Lessing looked always more to the life than the form,--because he knew the classics, and did not merely cant about them. But if the authority of Lessing, by making people feel easy in their admiration for Shakespeare, perhaps increased the influence of his works, and if his discussions of Aristotle have given a new starting-point to modern criticism, it may be doubted whether the immediate effect on literature of his own critical essays was so great as Herr Stahr supposes. Surely “Götz” and “The Robbers” are nothing like what he would have called Shakespearian, and the whole Sturm und Drang tendency would have roused in him nothing but antipathy. Fixed principles in criticism are useful in helping us to form a judgment of works already produced, but it is questionable whether they are not rather a hindrance than a help to living production. Ben Jonson was a fine critic, intimate with the classics as few men have either the leisure or the strength of mind to be in this age of many books, and built regular plays long before they were heard of in France. But he continually trips and falls flat over his metewand of classical propriety, his personages are abstractions, and fortunately neither his precepts nor his practice influenced any one of his greater coevals.[160] In breadth of understanding, and the gravity of purpose that comes of it, he was far above Fletcher or Webster, but how far below either in the subtler, the incalculable, qualities of a dramatic poet! Yet Ben, with his principles off, could soar and sing with the best of them; and there are strains in his lyrics which Herrick, the most Catullian of poets since Catullus, could imitate, but never match. A constant reference to the statutes which taste has codified would only bewilder the creative instinct. Criticism can at best teach writers without genius what is to be avoided or imitated. It cannot communicate life; and its effect, when reduced to rules, has commonly been to produce that correctness which is so praiseworthy and so intolerable. It cannot give taste, it can only demonstrate who has had it. Lessing’s essays in this kind were of service to German literature by their manliness of style, whose example was worth a hundred treatises, and by the stimulus there is in all original thinking. Could he have written such a poem as he was capable of conceiving, his influence would have been far greater. It is the living soul, and not the metaphysical abstraction of it, that is genetic in literature. If to do were as easy as to know what were good to be done!  It was out of his own failures to reach the ideal he saw so clearly, that Lessing drew the wisdom which made him so admirable a critic. Even here, too, genius can profit by no experience but its own.

For, in spite of Herr Stahr’s protest, we must acknowledge the truth of Lessing’s own characteristic confession, that he was no poet. A man of genius he unquestionably was, if genius may be claimed no less for force than fineness of mind,--for the intensity of conviction that inspires the understanding as much as for that apprehension of beauty which gives energy of will to imagination,--but a poetic genius he was not. His mind kindled by friction in the process of thinking, not in the flash of conception, and its delight is in demonstration, not in bodying forth.  His prose can leap and run, his verse is always thinking of its feet. Yet in his “Minna” and his “Emilia”[161] he shows one faculty of the dramatist, that of construction, in a higher degree than any other German.[162] Here his critical deductions served him to some purpose. The action moves rapidly, there is no speechifying, and the parts are coherent. Both plays act better than anything of Goethe or Schiller. But it is the story that interests us, and not the characters. These are not, it is true, the incorporation of certain ideas, or, still worse, of certain dogmas, but they certainly seem something like machines by which the motive of the play is carried on; and there is nothing of that interplay of plot and character which makes Shakespeare more real in the closet than other dramatists with all the helps of the theatre. It is a striking illustration at once of the futility of mere critical insight and of Lessing’s want of imagination, that in the Emilia he should have thought a Roman motive consistent with modern habits of thought, and that in Nathan he should have been guilty of anachronisms which violate not only the accidental truth of fact, but the essential truth of character.  Even if we allowed him imagination, it must be only on the lower plane of prose; for of verse as anything more than so many metrical feet he had not the faintest notion. Of that exquisite sympathy with the movement of the mind, with every swifter or slower pulse of passion, which proves it another species from prose, the very [Greek: aphroditae kai lura] of speech, and not merely a higher one, he wanted the fineness of sense to conceive. If we compare the prose of Dante or Milton, though both were eloquent, with their verse, we see at once which was the most congenial to them. Lessing has passages of freer and more harmonious utterance in some of his most careless prose essays, than can be found in his Nathan from the first line to the last. In the numeris lege solutis he is often snatched beyond himself, and becomes truly dithyrambic; in his pentameters the march of the thought is comparatively hampered and irresolute. His best things are not poetically delicate, but have the tougher fibre of proverbs. Is it not enough, then, to be a great prose-writer? They are as rare as great poets, and if Lessing have the gift to stir and to dilate that something deeper than the mind which genius only can reach, what matter if it be not done to music? Of his minor poems we need say little. Verse was always more or less mechanical with him, and his epigrams are almost all stiff, as if they were bad translations from the Latin. Many of them are shockingly coarse, and in liveliness are on a level with those of our Elizabethan period. Herr Stahr, of course, cannot bear to give them up, even though Gervinus be willing. The prettiest of his shorter poems (Die Namen)has been appropriated by Coleridge, who has given it a grace which it wants in the original. His Nathan, by a poor translation of which he is chiefly known to English readers, is an Essay on Toleration in the form of a dialogue.  As a play, it has not the interest of Minna or Emilia, though the Germans, who have a praiseworthy national stoicism where one of their great writers is concerned, find in seeing it represented a grave satisfaction, like that of subscribing to a monument. There is a sober lustre of reflection in it that makes it very good reading; but it wants the molten interfusion of thought and phrase which only imagination can achieve.

As Lessing’s mind was continually advancing,--always open to new impressions, and capable, as very few are, of apprehending the many-sidedness of truth,--as he had the rare quality of being honest with himself,--his works seem fragmentary, and give at first an impression of incompleteness. But one learns at length to recognize and value this very incompleteness as characteristic of the man who was growing lifelong, and to whom the selfish thought that any share of truth could be exclusively his was an impossibility. At the end of the ninety-fifth number of the Dramaturgie he says: “I remind my readers here, that these pages are by no means intended to contain a dramatic system. I am accordingly not bound to solve all the difficulties which I raise. I am quite willing that my thoughts should seem to want connection,--nay, even to contradict each other,--if only there are thoughts in which they [my readers] find material for thinking themselves. I wish to do nothing more than scatter the fermenta cognitionis.” That is Lessing’s great praise, and gives its chief value to his works,--a value, indeed, imperishable, and of the noblest kind. No writer can leave a more precious legacy to posterity than this; and beside this shining merit, all mere literary splendors look pale and cold. There is that life in Lessing’s thought which engenders life, and not only thinks for us, but makes us think. Not sceptical, but forever testing and inquiring, it is out of the cloud of his own doubt that the flash comes at last with sudden and vivid illumination. Flashes they indeed are, his finest intuitions, and of very different quality from the equable north-light of the artist. He felt it, and said it of himself, “Ever so many flashes of lightning do not make daylight.” We speak now of those more rememberable passages where his highest individuality reveals itself in what may truly be called a passion of thought. In the “Laocoön” there is daylight of the serenest temper, and never was there a better example of the discourse of reason, though even that is also a fragment.

But it is as a nobly original man, even more than as an original thinker, that Lessing is precious to us, and that he is so considerable in German literature. In a higher sense, but in the same kind, he is to Germans what Dr. Johnson is to us,--admirable for what he was. Like Johnson’s, too, but still from a loftier plane, a great deal of his thought has a direct bearing on the immediate life and interests of men. His genius was not a St. Elmo’s fire, as it so often is with mere poets,--as it was in Shelley, for example, playing in ineffectual flame about the points of his thought,--but was interfused with his whole nature and made a part of his very being. To the Germans, with their weak nerve of sentimentalism, his brave common-sense is a far wholesomer tonic than the cynicism of Heine, which is, after all, only sentimentalism soured. His jealousy for maintaining the just boundaries whether of art or speculation may warn them to check with timely dikes the tendency of their thought to diffuse inundation. Their fondness in aesthetic discussion for a nomenclature subtile enough to split a hair at which even a Thomist would have despaired, is rebuked by the clear simplicity of his style.[163] But he is no exclusive property of Germany. As a complete man, constant, generous, full of honest courage, as a hardy follower of Thought wherever she might lead him, above all, as a confessor of that Truth which is forever revealing itself to the seeker, and is the more loved because never wholly revealable, he is an ennobling possession of mankind. Let his own striking words characterize him:--

“Not the truth of which any one is, or supposes himself to be, possessed, but the upright endeavor he has made to arrive at truth, makes the worth of the man. For not by the possession, but by the investigation, of truth are his powers expanded, wherein alone his ever-growing perfection consists. Possession makes us easy, indolent, proud.

“If God held all truth shut in his right hand, and in his left nothing but the ever-restless instinct for truth, though with the condition of for ever and ever erring, and should say to me, Choose! I should bow humbly to his left hand, and say, Father, give! pure truth is for Thee alone!”

It is not without reason that fame is awarded only after death. The dust-cloud of notoriety which follows and envelopes the men who drive with the wind bewilders contemporary judgment. Lessing, while he lived, had little reward for his labor but the satisfaction inherent in all work faithfully done; the highest, no doubt, of which human nature is capable, and yet perhaps not so sweet as that sympathy of which the world’s praise is but an index. But if to perpetuate herself beyond the grave in healthy and ennobling influences be the noblest aspiration of the mind, and its fruition the only reward she would have deemed worthy of herself, then is Lessing to be counted thrice fortunate. Every year since he was laid prematurely in the earth has seen his power for good increase, and made him more precious to the hearts and intellects of men. “Lessing,” said Goethe, “would have declined the lofty title of a Genius; but his enduring influence testifies against himself. On the other hand, we have in literature other and indeed important names of men who, while they lived, were esteemed great geniuses, but whose influence ended with their lives, and who, accordingly, were less than they and others thought. For, as I have said, there is no genius without a productive power that continues forever operative.”[164]



[147] G. E. Lessing. Sein Leben und seine Werke. Von Adolf Stahr. Vermehrte und verbesserte Volks-Ausgabe. Dritte Auflage Berlin. 1864.

The Same. Translated by E. P. Evans, Ph. D., Professor, &c. in the University of Michigan. Boston: W. V. Spencer. 1866. 2 vols.

G. E. Lessing’s Sämmtliche Schriften, herausgegeben von Karl Lachmann. 1853-57. 12 Bände.


[148] “If I write at all, it is not possible for me to write otherwise than just as I think and feel.”—Lessing to his father, 21st December, 1767. 

[149] “I am sure that Kleist would rather have taken another wound with him into his grave than have such stuff jabbered over him (sich solch Zeug nachschwatzen lassen).” Lessing to Gleim, 6th September 1759.

[150] Letter to Klotz, 9th June, 1766.

[151] Herr Stahr heads the fifth chapter of his Second Book, “Lessing at Wittenberg. December, 1751, to November, 1752.” But we never feel quite sure of his dates. The Richier affair puts Lessing in Berlin in December, 1751, and he took his Master’s degree at Wittenberg, 29th April, 1752. We are told that he finally left Wittenberg “toward the end” of that year. He himself, writing from Berlin in 1754, says that he has been absent from that city nur ein halbes Jahr since 1748.  There is only one letter for 1762, dated at Wittenberg, 9th June.

[152] “Ramler,” writes Georg Forster, “ist die Ziererei, die Eigenliebe die Eitelkeit in eigener Person.”

[153] Lessing to Von Murr, 25th November, 1768. The whole letter is well worth reading.

[154] A favorite phrase of his, which Egbert has preserved for us with its Saxon accent, was, Es kommt doch nischt dabey heraus, implying that one might do something better for a constancy than shearing twine.

[155] I find surprisingly little about Lessing in such of the contemporary correspondence of German literary men as I have read. A letter of Boie to Merck (10 April, 1775) gives us a glimpse of him.  “Do you know that Lessing will probably marry Reiske’s widow and come to Dresden in place of Hagedorn? The restless spirit! How he will get along with the artists, half of them, too, Italians, is to be seen.... Liffert and he have met and parted good friends. He has worn ever since on his finger the ring with the skeleton and butterfly which Liffert gave him. He is reported to be much dissatisfied with the theatrical filibustering of Goethe and Lenz, especially with the remarks on the drama in which so little respect is shown for his Aristotle, and the Leipzig folks are said to be greatly rejoiced at getting such an ally.”

[156] To his brother Karl, 20th April, 1774.

[157] To the same, 20th March, 1777.

[158] To the same, 2d February, 1774.

[159] Gervinus, IV. 62.

[160] It should be considered, by those sagacious persons who think that the most marvellous intellect of which we have any record could not master so much Latin and Greek as would serve a sophomore, that Shakespeare must through conversation have possessed himself of whatever principles of art Ben Jonson and the other university men had been able to deduce from their study of the classics. That they should not have discussed these matters over their sack at the Mermaid is incredible; that Shakespeare, who left not a drop in any orange he squeezed, could not also have got all the juice out of this one, is even more so.

[161] In “Minna” and “Emilia” Lessing followed the lead of Diderot.  In the Preface to the second edition of Diderot’s Théâtre, he says: “I am very conscious that my taste, without Diderot’s example and teaching, would have taken quite another direction. Perhaps one more my own, yet hardly one with which my understanding would in the long run have been so well content.” Diderot’s choice of prose was dictated and justified by the accentual poverty of his mother-tongue, Lessing certainly revised his judgment on this point (for it was not equally applicable to German), and wrote his maturer “Nathan” in what he took for blank verse. There was much kindred between the minds of the two men. Diderot always seems to us a kind of deboshed Lessing.  Lessing was also indebted to Burke, Hume, the two Wartons, and Hurd, among other English writers. Not that he borrowed anything of them but the quickening of his own thought. It should be remembered that Rousseau was seventeen, Diderot and Sterne sixteen, and Winckelmann twelve years older than Lessing. Wieland was four years younger.

[162] Goethe’s appreciation of Lessing grew with his years. He writes to Lavater, 18th March, 1781: “Lessing’s death has greatly depressed me. I had much pleasure in him and much hope of him.” This is a little patronizing in tone. But in the last year of his life, talking with Eckermann, he naturally antedates his admiration, as reminiscence is wont to do: “You can conceive what an effect this piece (Minna)had upon us young people. It was, in fact, a shining meteor. It made us aware that something higher existed than anything whereof that feeble literary epoch had a notion. The first two acts are truly a masterpiece of exposition, from which one learned much and can always learn.”

[163] Nothing can be droller than the occasional translation by Vischer of a sentence of Lessing into his own jargon.

[164] Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe, III. 229.


This is taken from Among My Books.





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