Ludwig Tieck.

The Pictures; The Betrothing: Novels online

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A tale ought never to stand in need of a preface or commentary. The
best are those which are the most strictly national and in the highest
sense of the word popular, which touch immediately the sympathies of
the living generation, and display the common elements of our nature,
the purely human, under the social relations most familiar to the
author and the reader. For then essence and form are most intimately,
because naturally and unconsciously blended; neither is exclusively
studied, or sacrificed to the other. But even when it is the poet's
endeavour, as it is often the highest exercise of his high vocation, to
recall the image of the past with its individual peculiarities, to
refresh the fading colours of an important, but half-forgotten period,
to catch and raise the faint tones of an expiring tradition; when even
his historical groundwork is fixed in a remote age and a foreign scene,
still the tale ought to contain every thing necessary for it to be
fully felt and understood within itself. It should not only be
completely independent of any formal introduction or addition, but
should even be able to dispense with the aid of those digressions and
reflexions and elaborate descriptions, which are in fact only prefaces
out of their place, or notes taken up into the text, and which
sometimes disfigure even the best of our modern novels, and dispel the
illusion created by the poet's genius, by taking us behind his magic
lantern and shewing us the machinery of his art. This will apply in
most cases to translations of such works. It may however sometimes
happen, that a tale perfectly intelligible and luminous in the circle
of readers for which it was designed may to a different public seem
obscure, or give occasion for misapprehension. Such is most frequently
the case with those which belong most exclusively to the age and
country of the writer, when he does not merely aim at exhibiting human
nature clothed in the existing forms of society, but takes for his
immediate theme the spirit and tendency of the times in which he lives,
the principles and opinions, the tastes and the pursuits of his
generation. In works of this nature many things will be taken for
granted, many slightly alluded to, with which a foreigner is
imperfectly, if at all, acquainted; the whole representation may wear a
partial aspect, which, though in the society where it originated it may
be sure of finding sufficient correctives, may elsewhere perplex and

The two little works here presented to the public fall within this
exception to the general remark, and the Translator felt that he should
not be doing them full justice, if he were not to preface them with a
few words of introduction. Their beauty it is true can hardly fail to
strike even those who are least conversant with the state of things out
of which they arose, and of which they exhibit several interesting
sides, but still without some additional explanations every part might
not be sufficiently clear to the English reader, and the whole might
appear to him in a false light, and perhaps lose its highest interest
and meaning.

Little more than half a century has passed, since Germany began to
rouse herself from the state of lethargy which followed the convulsive
struggles produced by the Reformation. She awoke, and found herself
shorn of her strength, greatness and glory. The empire, reduced to the
shadow of an august name, was hastening toward its dissolution. All
sentiments of an enlarged patriotism were absorbed in particular and
provincial interests and prejudices. The very idea of national union
seemed to be lost with the great national recollections. There was no
feeling of pride in the past, no consciousness of a glorious
inheritance to inspire hope and confidence in the future. The
degenerate descendant walked among the mighty monuments of the power,
the genius, the art and spirit of his ancestors, with stupid unconcern
or contemptuous wonder. A German school of art, a German literature
were things neither believed in nor desired; that they had ever existed
was forgotten; the memorials of them were left to sleep among the
neglected lumber of history. The attention and patronage of the great
were engrossed by productions of foreign growth; above all the
language, the literature and manners of France exercised a despotic
sway over the higher and educated classes. The peculiar virtues of the
German character, the native strength of the German intellect, were
slighted, concealed, and as far as possible suppressed, while the
artificial graces of an exotic refinement were affectedly displayed,
and became the only pass into good society. The well-bred mimics
strutted in their borrowed plumes with all the vanity, though not quite
all the ease of their originals, and prided themselves on their
successful imitation, without perceiving how awkwardly the foreign
frippery sat on them, and how their ungainly movements betrayed them at
every step, and exposed them even to the polite ridicule of their
masters. The principles and opinions which had long been prevalent in
France, and now began to be loudly expressed and industriously
disseminated every where, were very extensively diffused over Germany
together with the literature by which they had been carried to their
highest maturity and perfection. They were maintained speculatively and
practically by some earnest and zealous advocates, and found a very
strong predisposition in their favour among the persons and classes who
were most interested in opposing them, and who, having adopted and
cherished and even ostentatiously displayed them as modish
distinctions, afterwards, when the inconvenient consequences stared
them in the face, began, with a dissimulation too gross and palpable to
attain its object, publicly to discountenance and check them. In the
meanwhile they exerted a powerful and pernicious influence on the great
concerns of human life, morals, politics and religion. The reign of
light, liberality and common sense was every where proclaimed; objects
formerly deemed great, awful and holy, were brought down by ingenious
accommodations to the level of ordinary capacities, and men were
surprized to find how they had been abused by imposing names, when they
saw what had once appeared to them too vast and mighty for the
imagination to compass reduced to dimensions which they could so easily
grasp. Hopes were entertained, that an enlightened system of education
might destroy the germ of such mischief for the future, and that it
might be possible, if not in all cases to eradicate inveterate
prejudices, yet to prevent the seeds of them from lodging in the
breasts of the young, by suppressing the first feelings of wonder,
faith and love; and that the rising generation, trained in the
principles of a calculating morality, a cosmopolitan independence and a
reflecting religion, might be effectually secured from the influence of
all the bugbears and charms that had ever awed or fascinated the world.

But notwithstanding this false and unnatural tendency of the public
mind, the prospect, though here and there clouded and threatening, was
not absolutely cheerless and unpromising. The heart of Germany was
still sound and entire, and the foreign cultivation, in spite of the
activity with which it was conducted, could not find a congenial soil.
Even when the moral and intellectual imbecility and dependence were at
their height, the great mass of the people remained uncorrupted and
unperverted. The soul of poetry and the life of religion had retreated
from the crown and topmost branches toward the root of society, and
there, while the sere and many-coloured leaves trembled on the boughs,
preserved the hope of a coming spring. Among the middling and lower
classes, particularly in situations exempt from the contagion of
courtly example, the faith, the traditions and the manners of former
times flourished in happy obscurity, and in proportion as they were
despised and rejected by the great and the refined were held dear by
the common man, and kept his heart warm, his imagination fresh, and his
life pure. Even about the middle of the last century the workings of a
regenerating spirit began to appear. Some great writers then took the
lead in German literature, who, though themselves not wholly free from
the influence of the age, yet in various ways contributed to counteract
its prevailing tendencies, and to rouse and direct the dormant strength
of their countrymen. Some penetrated into the deepest mysteries of
Grecian art, and inspired a new, enthusiastic feeling for the beauties
of classical antiquity. Some opened the treasures of many interesting
but neglected fields of ancient and modern literature. Others exposed
with irresistible subtilty and force of criticism, the spurious rules
and blind imitations and hollow pomp of the French drama, so long an
object of unsuspecting faith, and directed the public attention to the
true classical and romantic models. The language itself, which in the
preceding period had lost much of its grace, raciness and vigour, and
had become at once weak and unwieldy, was carefully cultivated, and
gradually formed into a worthy organ of high conceptions and deep
speculations. The next generation grew up under happier auspices.
Shakespeare began to be known, felt and enjoyed in Germany, and the
young and rising spirits of the age turned from the effete and lifeless
literature of France, to contemplate the eternal freshness of nature
and her favorite child. The new school of poetry which they formed, and
which recognized no other guide than genius, truth and feeling, was
perhaps partial in its tendency and indefinite as to its objects; it
produced among much that was great and beautiful some morbid
extravagances and wild exaggerations; but viewed as a state of
transition it was both salutary and promising; it counteracted other
much more dangerous and mischievous innovations of the age; it
preserved many noble minds from the contagion of cold and heartless
theories, and contained within itself the fruitful elements of a still
more fortunate period.

The great political events which marked the close of the century gave a
new impulse to the mind of Germany. The principles and opinions which
then manifested themselves with tremendous consistency in France had
exerted a more or less noxious and disturbing force in the former
country, but the violent crisis to which they led was there at least in
the highest degree beneficial. It did not operate, as in some other
countries, merely as a lesson of political experience, to regulate the
external conduct of those who were interested in the maintenance of
established institutions without altering their principles, and thus to
produce a show of union and stability while the discordant elements
continued to ferment in secret. In Germany the principles and doctrines
which had become triumphant in France were subjected to the most free
and vigorous discussion. The German spirit of philosophical speculation
had never sunk into the dogmatical materialism of the French school.
The monstrous caricatures exhibited by the understanding, when relying
on its unassisted powers it undertook to build the future on the
destruction of the past, drew the attention of the deepest thinkers to
the fundamental errours of the moral and political theory then for the
first time brought into action. To avert its immediate practical
consequences was left to the vigilance of the great and the steady
attachments of the people. The more important intellectual struggle
against the theory itself was carried on, in every direction and with
every species of literary armour, by the most powerful minds which at
this critical epoch were rising to maturity.

But the exertions of individuals, however highly gifted and even
closely united, are never sufficient to effect any important and
durable change in the temper of a nation. They are themselves borne
along with the current of the age, and may see and announce, but cannot
control its course. Even the most striking lessons of foreign
experience are lost upon a people; it gains wisdom and strength only by
its own sufferings and actions. The moral and political regeneration of
Germany was to spring out of the lowest depth of national calamity and
humiliation. Under the hardest pressure of a foreign tyranny, which had
grown mighty by their errours and distractions, and which applied its
whole power, directed by a systematic and relentless policy, to destroy
all the remains of their strength, all the links of their union, all
the memorials of their greatness, the name of their country became once
more dear to the Germans. They began to look back with affectionate
reverence to its remote antiquity, to the early promise of its infancy,
to the feats of its sportive and vigorous youth; its history,
constitution and language were investigated with an ardent and
indefatigable interest; the monuments and relics of its happier days
were anxiously drawn out of the dust of oblivion; every fragment
connecting the present with the past, which had escaped the general
wreck, was attentively examined and carefully guarded. The masterpieces
of native art once more received the tribute of admiration, which had
been so long withheld from them and lavished upon foreign
worthlessness; those which had been before known and unnoticed were
more deeply studied and placed in new points of view; buried treasures
were brought to light, and men began to perceive with surprize and joy
the inexhaustible riches of the mine, the surface of which they had so
long trodden without the hope of gaining from it more than a few
sickly, exotic flowers. The national character and genius were
contemplated in a spirit at once philosophical and patriotic; their
peculiarities were observed and fostered; the popular feeling, which
through all the variations of fashionable opinion had preserved its
homely vigour and simple purity, was no longer disdained or suppressed;
all its signs and forms, its dialects and expressions, as it broke
forth from time to time in poetry and tradition, were watchfully
treasured. The Germans became proud of their country and their

But with this feeling of exultation were mingled others of shame and
repentance and despondency. Deeds of their own, a redeeming struggle, a
trial of patience, fidelity and courage were wanting, to efface the
inglorious recollection of the immediate past, and to inspire
confidence and hope for the future. The ordeal was vouchsafed them, and
the exercise of heroic self-devotion, of all the passive and all the
active virtues, had reconciled Germany with herself, even before the
arduous conflict had been crowned with its glorious success. When the
intolerable yoke was at length broken, and the invaders were driven
within their natural limits, the conquerors felt themselves worthy of
their forefathers, and believed that all errours might be retrieved and
all losses repaired. An unbounded prospect opened before the eye of
patriotism; and the energy which had already accomplished so much, the
goodwill which had submitted to such trying tests, seemed capable of
realizing the most lofty projects. The awakened consciousness of the
nation found worthy organs, who announced in strains of prophetic
eloquence its wants, its wishes and its destination.

But the enthusiasm, which, while its immediate object was before it,
burnt with so pure, steady and beautiful a flame, displayed itself,
after the first great work of deliverance was effected, in a variety of
forms, and in some which were ludicrous, disgusting and possibly
dangerous. It began soon to excite the jealousy of the governments,
which had cherished it, and owed to it their independence and even
their existence. Perhaps this jealousy, not always reasonable in its
grounds or judicious in its measures, may have contributed to occasion
the extravagances in which it afterwards found new motives for
precaution and restriction, by checking the active spirit which might
have been usefully guided into proper channels, and thus forcing it to
licentious and mischievous aberrations. The circumstances too which
usually accompany all revolutions of public feeling, attended likewise
on this. The spirit of the times always finds in different individuals
various degrees of capacity for receiving and containing it. Those who
are possessed by it instead of possessing it, are apt to attach great
importance to outward badges and distinctions, to attribute to them a
productive power, and to substitute them for that which can alone give
them value as signs and indications of its existence. These externals,
which satisfy the indolent and amuse the weak and superficial, become
the ready instrument and mask of imposture. The strong and glowing
language, which in such seasons of general excitement gushes in a
living stream out of the inmost depth of really inspired bosoms, is
echoed by the imbecile without meaning, and by the designing with
selfish views. Thus things in themselves innocent and even commendable
become first contemptible and then suspected; the most genuine
expressions of the purest and warmest feeling are profaned and abused,
till they sink into unmeaning or equivocal commonplace. All this
happened in Germany. In the first effervescence of patriotic rapture
several violent and premature innovations were introduced or attempted
in things of no moment, except so far as they are the natural and
unforced expression of the inward character which produces them and by
them is brought to light. Efforts were made to return to the dress,
language and manners of a former age, by those who did not reflect
that, until the spirit of the past had penetrated the whole mass of
society, it was neither practicable nor desirable that any great change
should be wrought on its surface; that it was in vain to think of
improving the physiognomy without altering the disposition. The
consequence was, that this imitation instead of becoming a popular
habit remained a fashion confined to a few, and exhibited a strange and
ludicrous contrast with that which it was meant to supplant. The
fifteenth and eighteenth centuries brought side by side only put each
other out of countenance.

A similar superstition displayed itself in the cultivation of the arts,
particularly that of painting. The great works of the native masters,
in which Germany is so rich, were deservedly admired, but they were not
always studied in the same spirit in which the great Italian artists of
the fifteenth century profited by the works of their predecessors. The
new German school, though it has to boast many productions of genius,
too often betrays by manner, affectation and caricature, its dependent
and arbitrary origin. Those who least understand their models cling to
the surface with indiscriminate imitation, and copy and even exaggerate
defects. Their extravagances seem to justify the aversion of those who
are equally partial in an opposite direction, and widen the breach
between the classical and romantic schools. The conflict of opinions
thus produced, intimately connected as it is with the other phenomena
of the day, forms an important feature in the intellectual face of
Germany, and the description of it has been woven by the author, with
inimitable art and an irony that never relaxes its impartiality, into
the texture of the first Novel.

One of the consequences of the vicissitudes and revolutions which
Germany had undergone was the revival of religious feeling. In the last
century, partly from internal causes, partly from the influence of
foreign manners and opinions, it had every where begun to languish, and
had been almost entirely banished from the higher and educated classes.
But the disasters and reverses of so many eventful years had subdued
the irreligious levity, so little congenial to the German character;
the very excess of calamity which seemed to have extinguished hope, had
awakened a faith which gained strength even from despair. The war too
which rescued Europe from the last and most imminent danger of an
universal monarchy, was in Germany essentially a religious war. It was
neither the desire of revenge nor of glory, nor even of liberty itself
as the ultimate end, which nourished the enthusiasm there excited; the
feeling which animated all the leading spirits, and which operated
instinctively on the least reflecting, was the conviction that they
were engaged in the highest and holiest of causes; that the moral, as
well as the political regeneration of Europe depended on the issue of
that struggle. The deliverance itself was so greatly beyond hope, so
rapid and complete, and attended by so many wonderful and striking
circumstances, that it was hailed rather with gratitude as an
interposition of Heaven, than with triumph as a victory achieved by
human strength. The newly kindled religious fervour broke forth in
various directions, and produced some remarkable and interesting
changes. Individuals who could not find satisfaction for their
religious cravings in the communion to which they belonged sought it in
another. Religious societies separated from each other by slight
distinctions made approaches to a closer union; those divided by an
insurmountable barrier cherished and maintained more warmly than ever
their distinguishing peculiarities. A new life seemed to be infused
into the old observances of Catholic devotion, and the spirit of
Protestant piety strove to display itself in new forms. Religion became
a great public and private concern; every question relating to it
excited a lively interest; every method of diffusing it was deeply
studied and sedulously practised.

This good however came not unalloyed. Those in whom the religious
feeling was least genuine, those who had merely caught it by contagion
from others, were, as usual, the most anxious to make it prominent and
conspicuous. They thought they could not exhibit too striking a
contrast to the sceptical indifference and irreligious frivolity of the
former age in their language and deportment. Piety, which is of a
retiring nature, seldom conscious of her own actions, and never wishing
them to be observed, was forced against her will into all companies
upon all occasions, was made to occupy the foremost place, to study
attitudes and gestures, to think aloud and deliver herself in set
terms. A new kind of spiritual dialect came into fashion, and
threatened to infect the whole tone of conversation and literature. It
was not precisely the cant which with us is the property and badge of
certain religious sects, and which to unaccustomed ears is either
ludicrous or disgusting; it was a more refined compound of mysticism
and sentiment, rather cloying from excess of sweet, but not without a
charm for the young and inexperienced, and very easy to be caught by
habit or learnt from design. In the endeavour to exclude from society
all symptoms and tokens of the freethinking age, the moral taste grew
alarmingly squeamish, and began to reject the most wholesome food as
savouring of profaneness. As the freedom of Shakespeare scandalizes our
sectaries, so among the circles, in which religion was most the mode in
Germany, the unconstrained and unaffected purity of G√ґthe began to pass
for licentiousness.

We are indeed ourselves very far gone in this distemper, and value
ourselves on our superior delicacy, because we cannot see without a
blush what in times less refined was not supposed to need a veil, as
none suspected it could ever raise an impure thought.

Another mischief not less formidable sprang from the same cause. It is
the tendency of all enthusiasm to concentrate all the powers and

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