Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

Lessing's Laokoon; online

. (page 1 of 29)
Online LibraryGotthold Ephraim LessingLessing's Laokoon; → online text (page 1 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

This is a digital copy of a book that was preserved for generations on library shelves before it was carefully scanned by Google as part of a project
to make the world's books discoverable online.

It has survived long enough for the copyright to expire and the book to enter the public domain. A public domain book is one that was never subject
to copyright or whose legal copyright term has expired. Whether a book is in the public domain may vary country to country. Public domain books
are our gateways to the past, representing a wealth of history, culture and knowledge that's often difficult to discover.

Marks, notations and other marginalia present in the original volume will appear in this file - a reminder of this book's long journey from the
publisher to a library and finally to you.

Usage guidelines

Google is proud to partner with libraries to digitize public domain materials and make them widely accessible. Public domain books belong to the
public and we are merely their custodians. Nevertheless, this work is expensive, so in order to keep providing this resource, we have taken steps to
prevent abuse by commercial parties, including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Google Book Search for use by individuals, and we request that you use these files for
personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort to Google's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the
use of public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Maintain attribution The Google "watermark" you see on each file is essential for informing people about this project and helping them find
additional materials through Google Book Search. Please do not remove it.

+ Keep it legal Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just
because we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States, that the work is also in the public domain for users in other
countries. Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of
any specific book is allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Google Book Search means it can be used in any manner
anywhere in the world. Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About Google Book Search

Google's mission is to organize the world's information and to make it universally accessible and useful. Google Book Search helps readers
discover the world's books while helping authors and publishers reach new audiences. You can search through the full text of this book on the web

at http : //books . google . com/|

y Google

vY •'.•'■•* ; ■' V

'' -:J;^'


Digitized by LjOOQIC

Digitized by LjOOQIC '

Digitized by VjOOQIC

Digitized byLjOO^lC ■

'\ \

Digitized by VjOOQIC

Digitized by LjOOQIC


\ 1-4

{) N. * ' < ) \

O'". 'G'^^

C.A>" '

. rt^ ^'x n n.

'Digitized by VjOOQIC

Digitized by VjOOQIC

Clarjenbon ^nss Merits



rr A



A. HAMANN, Phil. Doc, M.A.



I All rights m«rv^rf] Digitized by Google





Digitized by VjOOQIC


The growing interest taken in Lessing by the students of
German literature in England, which has called forth two
biographies of the great ctitic in the course of one year,
encourages me to come before the public with an annotated
edition of the Laokoon.

Few books stand more in need of explanatory notes, and

few, I yenture to add, deserve a commentary as much as this

standard work on the limits of art and poetry. For although

many of the conclusions at which the author arrives may

now appear obsolete, the Laokoon abounds with interesting

and highly suggestive observations, and forms at the same

:j(w time an excellent example of that close and convincing

^' reasoning, and of that fascinating style in which Lessing far

surpasses all his countrymen; — preferences which fully ex-

^ plain the partiality the greatest authors of Germany and

^ of England have had for this little book.

^ The importance of the work is attested by the literature

Q which has sprung from it ; a list of the books and essays

written on the Laokoon would fill three pages of close print.

The works which I have chiefly consulted are Danzel's

Biography of Lessing, continued by Guhrauer, — the fountain

head from which all the other biographers have drawn ;

Professor Bliimner's excellent annotated edition of the

Laokoon ; the almost faultiess translation by E. C. Beasley ;


1 .^ P' !% '87 '9'^'^^^ by Google



the notes attached to Sir R. Phillimore's translation; and
Overbeck's History of Ancient Art

English readers will, I hope, thank me for having dis-
carded in this edition the barbarous letters to which Ger-
many still clings with misguided patriotism, as if they
were essentially German instead of being the idle invention
of monkish caprice once common to the whole west of
Europe. I was encouraged in taking this step by the
example of Professor Bliimner, whose text I have chosen
for this edition of the Laokoon.

I have abstained from giving a biographical sketch of the
author, as Dr. C. A. Buchheim has done full justice to the
subject in his edition of Lessing's *J^§ina von Bamhelm
which has appeared in the Clarendon Press series of German
Classics, and to which I refer the student.


Taylor Institution,

Oxford, May 1878.

Digitized by VjOOQIC



There are certain sayings which, by uniting much that is
true with much that is false, impose even upon thinking men,
and, being clothed in a happy form that reconrniendsr itself to
memory, are handed down from generation to generation as
axioms requiring no proof. Such sayings may become the
foundation of a vast fabric of false reasoning, strong enough to
last through centuries, and may produce great confusion in
the minds of men : until at last some one comes who discovers
the original fallacy and boldly destroys the whole building reared
upon it

Such a saying was that of Simonides that Poetry was a
speaking Picture and Painting a dumb Poem. It doubtless
contained much that was true, and the author of this clever
antithesis knew very well that it would receive modification in
practice from the right feeling of the artist ; for, as Lessing
says, it was the privilege of the Greeks in nothing to do too
much or too little. But as it recommended itself by its anti-
thetical form and apparent depth of meaning, it soon came to
be considered and to be repeated as a verdict from which there
was no appeal. Thus the boundary lines which separate the
arts were obliterated, and frequent inroads were made by one

a 2

Digitized by LjOOQIC


art into the domain of the other, inroads in which the aggressor
lost exactly in proportion to his apparent gains over the other.

This confusion was sure to increase in modem times among
nations that lacked the happy instinct of the ancients in never
deviating from the right path that led to the beautiful During
the early part of the Middle Ages architecture, painting, and
sculpture represented the whole intellectual life of the people ;
no wonder then that these arts endeavoured to express feel-
ings and ideas that lay beyond their scope, and thus admitted
didactic and allegorical elements on a large scale. And at
a later time, as painting was still regarded as the higher art,
poetry deigned to borrow of it, and the poets endeavoured
as it were in rivalry to paint in t^ieir poems.

The criticism of the eighteenth century sanctioned this
practice instead of demonstrating the true relation of the arts.
In Italy, e.g. Luigi Dolce (in his Dialogo della Pittura, intitolato
L'Aretino, Firenze, 1735) applies all the characteristics of
Painting to Poetry. It is an axiom with him that the good poet
must be a good painter. He refers to the description of the
beauty of Alcina in the Orlando Furioso, in order to show the
extraordinary power of painting possessed by Ariosto, a power
which displays itself in the three essential points of the art :
contour, proportion, and colouring. Dolce introduces this
supposed dependence of Poetry on Painting even into the
history of art, and asserts that Virgil had the statue of Laokoon
before him when he composed the famous episode on the death
of the priest of Apollo.

If we turn to England ^t. find that this dependence of poetry
on art is the leading idea in Joseph Spence's Polymetis (London,
1747), a book of great learning devoted to the one object of
explaining the. poets of Greece and Rome through the relics
of ancient art. Even so keen a critic as Addison had fallen
into the same mistake in his * Dialogues on the Usefulness
of Ancient Medals, especially in Relation to the Latin and
Greek Poets,' 1702 ; and the same confusion prevailed in the
' '"^mmentaries on the poetry of Horace,' by Hurd^ who
ipted to explain many passages in the Latin poet by

Digitized by LjOOQIC


adducing works of art on similar subjects ; and in Daniel
Webb's * Dialogues on Painting/ where poetry is represented as
a union of music and painting. To Webb Shakespeare is but
a second Titian, and colouring is to be the chief aim of poetry.

But it was a Frenchman^ Count Caylus^ who endeavoured to
give to this theory a practical application to contemporary art.
If poetry and painting coincided, or if painting had even a
wider range than poetry, it was naturally the highest criterion
of the excellence of a poem, whether the situation described in
it would form a good picture. Where, then, should the artist
in search of a subject for his brush or his chisel turn, if not to
some famous poem ? And whilst he would seek in vain for such
a subject in Milton, he would find hundreds in Homer. Let
artists, therefore, study Homer. This is the argument of
Caylus' book: * Tableaux tir^ de Tlliade et de I'Odyss^e
d'Homere et de* PEndide de Virgile,' Paris, 1757, — a book which
had the great merit of directing the attention of artists, who had
hitherto derived their inspiration chiefly from Ovid, to Homer.
But in this confusion of the arts poetry naturally lost exactly as
much as painting gained

Far more just and enlightened hacf been the predecessor of
Caylus in the field of art criticism in France, the AbbS Dubos^
in his * Reflexions critiques sur la po^ie et la peinture,' Paris,
1719 ; indeed, it cannot be denied that Lessing was under a
deep obligation to this Frenchman. Dubos warns the painter
against indulging in the allegory which had been carried to ex-
cess by Rubens and his school, maintaining that a picture must
not give us a riddle to solVe. He shows the superiority of poetry
over painting in the representation of the sublime, inasmuch as
painting can only represent an action of a moment's duration ;
— an argument to which Lessing gives a much wider application.
But in spite of these just observations Dubos cannot divest
himself of the traditional belief in the equality and homogeneous
nature of poetry and painting ; as we -may perceive from the
motto of his book : * Ut Pictura Poesis.'

Among the German critics Christian Ludwig Hagedorn erred
on the same side. His book * Betrachtungen iiber die ^ '

Digitized by LjOOQIC


1762, contains some excellent observations on the mutual
relation of art and poetry ; he anticipates Lessing in warning us
against the representation of ugliness in painting, and in holding
up the Greeks as the best masters in painting and poetry.

But the idea that underlies' his reasoning is the assumption
of the identical character of the two arts, in which he goes so
far that he even compares the various kinds of poetry with
those of painting.

The writers mentioned hitherto had devoted themselves
almost exclusively to uphold the interests and the cause of
painting. But the contemporaneous poets and writers on poetry
arrived at the same conclusions. A passion for painting in
poetry became the characteristic tendency of the age. This
was due chiefly to the influence of English literature^ and,
though wrong in itself, it represented a progress in German
poetry. Nothing, indeed, could be more dreary and insipid
than the poetry of the German authors of the seventeenth
century; dry, colourless common-sense or inflated and un-
natural pathos were the leading features of that rhyming prose ;
deep and true feeling and real poetical inspiration appear only
in the hymns of the Luth^an church. It was the acquaintance
with contemporary English literature, with Pope and with
Thomson^ whose Seasons translated by Brockes enjoyed an
extraordinary popularity in Germany, that opened up to the
German poets of the eighteenth century a rich mine of poetical
ideas, and revealed to them the poetical beauty of the world of
the senses.

Haller, Kleist, Klopstock, who were poets in the full sense
of the word, owe some of their best inspirations to the
enthusiastic study of English literature. And it was there
that they also imbibed that love of painting in verse which
characterised the poetry of Thomson and his contemporaries.

But it was among the German-speaking Swiss that description
in poetry was raised to the dignity of a theory. The repre-
sentatives of the Swiss school of German poetry, Bodmer and
Breitinger, who, in their literary feud against Gottsched of
Mpsic, had done good work in denying the infallibility of

Digitized by LjOOQIC


French models, and in asserting the superior right of the
imagination in poetical composition, had laid down as a funda-
mental law that poetry ought to be a kind of painting in words,
so that whatever was true of painting must be true of poetry
also. The first work of these Swiss critics on the principles of
poetry reveals the tendency of this doctrine in the title itself ;
it is: *The Discourses of the Painters' (1721-23). Holler's
descriptive poem on the Alfis^ Kleisfs Fruhling, and the
numerous descriptive passages in Klofistock^s Messias, confirmed
the triumph of this theory.

But the Swiss critics could not hide from themselves the
weakness and sterility of their doctrine. Hence they contended
that the wonderful and the moral ought to be admitted as essen-
tial elements into poetry, and that these were found united in
Aesop's Fables, which were indeed marvellous in their incidents
and moral in' their tendency. The fable, then, was according to
this strange reasoning the ideal of poetry, and for several years
it held so high a rank in the estimation of the public that some
of the most gifted poets of the time wrote fables in great
nmnbers, — ^until at last Lessing denounced this doctrine in his
splendid Treatise on the Fable (1759), in which he renewed the
verdict of Aristotle, who refused the name of poetry to this kind
of composition. This was the first occasion on which Lessing
took up an independent position as a critic, opposed alike to the
two great schools of the day, — the Leipsic school of Gottsched
with their watchword common sense and the French model,
and the Zurich school of Bodmer and Breitinger with their love
of description and of painting.

Whilst poetry was thus drifting more and more into a helpless
dependence on painting, and poets and critics vied with each
other in ignoring the gigantic powers and just claims of their
Muse, Art put forth her greatest champion who seemed strong
enough to chain Poetry for ever to the triumphal car of his

In the middle of last century the affectation and artificiality
in the arts which we describe by the word * rococo' reigned
supreme ; nature was considered nidf* ?»>d v^ilgar ; her voice was

Digitized by LjOOQIC


as little heard in the arts as at court and in society. Cold man-
nerism, effeminacy, coquettish vanity appear in the style of the
buildings, the statues, the pictures, the gardens, the furniture of
the period, as in the costumes of both sexes and in the forms of
social intercourse. Out of this degeneracy Joachim Winckelmann
led the arts back to their fountain head, to the refreshing spring
of beauty which eternally flows down to us from Greek art. He
is the father of the history and philosophy of art. No one
before him had attempted to sift the countless data of ancient
art and so arrange them in order upon a sound principle. He
regulated epochs, discriminated styles and masters, and brought
light and order where, before him, there had been darkness and

The son of a poor cobbler of Stendal, the decayed capital
of the *Alt Mark,^ — one of the dreariest parts of the North
German plain, — this extraordinary man forced his way with
indomitable energy through all difficulties, until he became the
friend and favourite of princes, cardinals, and popes, and the
legislator in the wide domain of Art and Antiquities. From
his earliest age there biuned in him a powerful love of ancient
art and a passionate longing to see those masterpieces of Greek
sculpture the beauty and true character of which he strove to
realise in the copies and engravings he studied at Dresden.
And even there, in the true home of the * Rococo,' he felt deeply
disgusted with the prevailing taste of the period ; with the
contortions, the triviality, and the affectation of the Bernini
school There he wrote his treatise on ' The Imitation of the
Ancients in Painting and Statuary' (1756), in which he pro-
claimed the new and fruitful idea, that there is only one perfect
art, the art of ancient Greece, and that modem art must become
penetrated with its spirit in order to arrive at perfection.
There alone is nature, but it is an idealised nature, more
beautiful than nature itself Noble simplicity and quiet grandeur
are the characteristics of this art ; beauty is its aim and purpose,
an ideal beauty of which natural beauty is only an element.
This beauty reveals itself in the human form, which alone
^dmits of this idealisation and is the only worthy subject of art*

Digitized by LjOOQIC


All that is not beautiful in the ancient sense (i. e. whatever does
not bear the expression of noble simplicity and quiet grandeur),
ought to be excluded from this art The Greek artist maintained
this character even in the representation of extreme bodily
pain ; * as the depths of the sea always remain calm, however
much the surface may be raging, so the expression in the
figures of the Greeks, under every form of passion, shows a
great and self-collected souL This spirit is portrayed in the
countenance of Laokoon.'

Whilst Winckelmann thus taught a true appreciation of
ancient art and revealed its eternal and unapproachable per-
fection, he exposed contemporary art in all its degradation. In
his enthusiastic descriptions of ancient statues Greek sculpture
• rose again before the wondering eyes of his contemporaries in
all its grandeur ; a new love of ancient art spread, and the result
was the second renaissance of ancient art in the works of
Flaxman and Thorwaldsen.

• But while he did so much for plastic art, he committed a
double mistake. On the one hand he applied the laws of
sculptiu-e to all imitative art ; in fact he entirely ignored the
difference which exists in art between the plastic and the
pictorial point of view ; and on the other hand, he believed
together with almost all contemporary critics, that the range of
plastic or pictorial imitation was as wide as that of poetry. He
said : * It does not seem contradictory that painting should have
as wide boundaries as poetry and that, consequently, it should
be possible for the painter to follow the poet everywhere.' We
see that he shows himself here a disciple of the Swiss school
of BodAer and Breitinger. And his treatise on Allegory,
written at Rome 1766, opens with the no less famous than
equivocal words of Simonides mentioned above.

Lessing whilst sharing with Winckelmann the first of these
two errors exposes the second in his Laokoon, 1766. The very
title of this treatise * On the Limits of Painting and Poetry,'
seems to have been prompted by the allusion of Winckelmann
to the boundaries of the two arts.

The passionate enthusiasm of Winckelmann and his followers

Digitized by LjOOQIC


for plastic art was to find its counterpoise in Lessing's Laokoon*
The similarity of the two arts, Painting and Poetry, had been
frequently discussed, as we have seen, to the detriment of the
latter. Lessing reversed the medal and inquired into their
inherent dissimilarity ; and this inquiry re-established poetry in
her proper rights. Winckelmann had proclaimed that sculpture
was the ideal art, and the great public had been fairly carried
away by his rhapsodies, and accepted this new gospel. Lessing
enters the lists as the champion of poetry. He proved that
each of the arts rested on laws peculiar to itself, laws which
often compelled the one to proceed in a manner different from
the others. And in tracing the border line between plastic art
and poetry, he showed how much wider was the domain of the
latter. It was in fact the principal object of the Laokoon to
establish the supremacy of Poetry over all the other arts.



Despairing of taking Troy by force the Greeks have recourse
to a stratagem. They raise the siege and pretend to set sail
for Greece, but wait in ambush screened by the island of
Tenedos. They have left a huge wooden horse behind, in the
interior of which they have concealed their bravest heroes.
The Trojans, on their side, released from long confinement,
pour rejoicing into the plain ; suddenly they perceive the horse
and assemble around it in doubt and uncertainty. At this
moment Laokoon, the priest of Apollo, hastens to the spot in
order to warn them against the monster. In his eagerness he
thrusts his spear into the side of the horse and a hollow sound
is heard like the clank of clashing arms, and the stratagem of
the Greeks is on the point of being discovered. Meanwhile
Sinon, a crafty Greek, who pretends to have been maltreated

Digitized by LjOOQIC


by his countrjmien, is brought before the king, whom he
persuades through a tissue of lies, that the horse is an offering
made to Pallas Athena and that its possession would bring
luck to the Trojans. These begin to lend a ready ear to his
tale, when on a sudden a strange portent occurs which, ap-
parently sent by the gods, confirms their belief in Sinon's

Two monstrous serpents are seen to roll in huge windings
over the waves of the sea, they win the shore, and dart upon the
two sons of Laokoon who is just preparing to perform a sacrifice
to Apollo. He hurries to the assistance of his children, but
they have expired before he can save them, and, in a moment,
he is himself enveloped in the coils of the serpents and dies
under their bites, uttering horrible shrieks in his agony. This
portent appears to the Trojans a divine punishment of Laokoon's
sacrilegious attack on the horse consecrated to the goddess.
They pull down part of the wall of the town to drag it into their
city, and I lion falls that very night.

In this narrative, as we read it in Virgil's Aeneid, — where the
godhead makes itself the accomplice of the deception practised
by the Greeks, and destroys a patriot at the moment when he
might have saved his country, we miss that moral element
without which the representation of the scene in art suggests
only painful feelings. We know, however, that Sophocles wrote
a drama on the same subject It is lost, alas ! but the mere
fact that it was written, induces us to assume that there must
have been another tradition of the same story in which the
moral element was not wanting. And this assumption is
confirmed by some remarks we find in several Roman authors.
This other tradition completely ignores the connection between
Laokoon's attack on the horse and his death ; on the other
hand, it represents his death as the punishment of a sacrilegious

Online LibraryGotthold Ephraim LessingLessing's Laokoon; → online text (page 1 of 29)