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Among My Books by James Russell Lowell

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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

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 _Laocooen_.
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 Glueck_
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 _Siecle_ 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 _Laocooen_ 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 Wolfenbuettel, with a salary of six hundred
thalers a year. This was the more welcome, as he soon after was betrothed
with Eva Koenig, 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
Koenig 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 Wolfenbuettel. 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 Wolfenbuettel 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 Wolfenbuettel, 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
Goetze, 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.

* * * * *

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 Zuerich 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
Siecle_. 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 "Goetz" 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

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 "Laocooen" 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

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 Saemmtliche Schriften, herausgegeben von Karl
Lachmann. 1853-57. 12 Baende.

[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

[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 _Theatre_, 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, Gespraeche mit Goethe, III. 229.


"We have had the great professor and founder of the philosophy of Vanity
in England. As I had good opportunities of knowing his proceedings almost
from day to day, he left no doubt in my mind that he entertained no
principle either to influence his heart or to guide his understanding but
vanity; with this vice he was possessed to a degree little short of
madness. Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every
individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character
of the new philosophy. Setting up for an unsocial independence, this
their hero of vanity refuses the just price of common labor, as well as
the tribute which opulence owes to genius, and which, when paid, honors
the giver and the receiver, and then pleads his beggary as an excuse for
his crimes. He melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by the
remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away, as a
sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours, and
sends his children to the hospital of foundlings. The bear loves, licks,
and forms her young, but bears are not philosophers."

This was Burke's opinion of the only contemporary who can be said to
rival him in fervid and sustained eloquence, to surpass him in grace and
persuasiveness of style. Perhaps we should have been more thankful to him
if he had left us instead a record of those "proceedings almost from day
to day" which he had such "good opportunities of knowing," but it
probably never entered his head that posterity might care as much about
the doings of the citizen of Geneva as about the sayings of even a
British Right Honorable. Vanity eludes recognition by its victims in more
shapes, and more pleasing, than any other passion, and perhaps had Mr.
Burke been able imaginatively to translate Swiss Jean Jacques into Irish
Edmund, he would have found no juster equivalent for the obnoxious
trisyllable than "righteous self-esteem." For Burke was himself also, in
the subtler sense of the word, a sentimentalist, that is, a man who took
what would now be called an aesthetic view of morals and politics. No man
who ever wrote English, except perhaps Mr. Ruskin, more habitually
mistook his own personal likes and dislikes, tastes and distastes, for
general principles, and this, it may be suspected, is the secret of all
merely eloquent writing. He hints at madness as an explanation of
Rousseau, and it is curious enough that Mr. Buckle was fain to explain
_him_ in the same way. It is not, we confess, a solution that we find
very satisfactory in this latter case. Burke's fury against the French
Revolution was nothing more than was natural to a desperate man in
self-defence. It was his own life, or, at least, all that made life dear
to him, that was in danger. He had all that abstract political wisdom
which may be naturally secreted by a magnanimous nature and a sensitive
temperament, absolutely none of that rough-and-tumble kind which is so
needful for the conduct of affairs. Fastidiousness is only another form
of egotism; and all men who know not where to look for truth save in the
narrow well of self will find their own image at the bottom, and mistake
it for what they are seeking. Burke's hatred of Rousseau was genuine and
instinctive. It was so genuine and so instinctive as no hatred can be but
that of self, of our own weaknesses as we see them in another man. But
there was also something deeper in it than this. There was mixed with it
the natural dread in the political diviner of the political logician,--in
the empirical, of the theoretic statesman. Burke, confounding the idea of
society with the form of it then existing, would have preserved that as
the only specific against anarchy. Rousseau, assuming that society as it
then existed was but another name for anarchy, would have reconstituted
it on an ideal basis. The one has left behind him some of the profoundest
aphorisms of political wisdom; the other, some of the clearest principles
of political science. The one, clinging to Divine right, found in the
fact that things were, a reason that they ought to be; the other, aiming
to solve the problem of the Divine order, would deduce from that
abstraction alone the claim of anything to be at all. There seems a mere
oppugnancy of nature between the two, and yet both were, in different
ways, the dupes of their own imaginations.

Now let us hear the opinion of a philosopher who _was_ a bear, whether
bears be philosophers or not. Boswell had a genuine relish for what was
superior in any way, from genius to claret, and of course he did not let
Rousseau escape him. "One evening at the Mitre, Johnson said
sarcastically to me, 'It seems, sir, you have kept very good company
abroad,--Rousseau and Wilkes!' I answered with a smile, 'My dear sir, you
don't call Rousseau bad company; do you really think _him_ a bad man?'
Johnson: 'Sir, if you are talking jestingly of this, I don't talk with
you. If you mean to be serious, I think him one of the worst of men, a
rascal who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been. Three or
four nations have expelled him, and it is a shame that he is protected in
this country. Rousseau, sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a
sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from
the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in
the plantations.'" _We_ were the plantations then, and Rousseau was
destined to work there in another and much more wonderful fashion than
the gruff old Ursa Major imagined. However, there is always a refreshing
heartiness in his growl, a masculine bass with no snarl in it. The
Doctor's logic is of that fine old crusted Port sort, the native
manufacture of the British conservative mind. Three or four nations
_have_, therefore England ought. A few years later, had the Doctor been
living, if three or four nations had treated their kings as France did
hers, would he have thought the _ergo_ a very stringent one for England?

Mr. Burke, who could speak with studied respect of the Prince of Wales,
and of his vices with that charity which thinketh no evil and can afford
to think no evil of so important a living member of the British
Constitution, surely could have had no unmixed moral repugnance for
Rousseau's "disgustful amours." It was because they were _his_ that they
were so loathsome. Mr. Burke was a snob, though an inspired one. Dr.
Johnson, the friend of that wretchedest of lewd fellows, Richard Savage,
and of that gay man about town, Topham Beauclerk,--himself sprung from an
amour that would have been disgustful had it not been royal,--must also
have felt something more in respect of Rousseau than the mere repugnance
of virtue for vice. We must sometimes allow to personal temperament its
right of peremptory challenge. Johnson had not that fine sensitiveness to
the political atmosphere which made Burke presageful of coming tempest,
but both of them felt that there was something dangerous in this man.
Their dislike has in it somewhat of the energy of fear. Neither of them
had the same feeling toward Voltaire, the man of supreme talent, but both
felt that what Rousseau was possessed by was genius, with its terrible
force either to attract or repel.

"By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes."

Burke and Johnson were both of them sincere men, both of them men of
character as well as of intellectual force; and we cite their opinions of
Rousseau with the respect which is due to an honest conviction which has
apparent grounds for its adoption, whether we agree with it or no. But it
strikes us as a little singular that one whose life was so full of moral
inconsistency, whose character is so contemptible in many ways, in some
we might almost say so revolting, should yet have exercised so deep and
lasting an influence, and on minds so various, should still be an object
of minute and earnest discussion,--that he should have had such vigor in
his intellectual loins as to have been the father of Chateaubriand,
Byron, Lamartine, George Sand, and many more in literature, in politics
of Jefferson and Thomas Paine,--that the spots he had haunted should draw
pilgrims so unlike as Gibbon and Napoleon, nay, should draw them still,
after the lapse of near a century. Surely there must have been a basis of
sincerity in this man seldom matched, if it can prevail against so many
reasons for repugnance, aversion, and even disgust. He could not have
been the mere sentimentalist and rhetorician for which the
rough-and-ready understanding would at first glance be inclined to
condemn him. In a certain sense he was both of these, but he was
something more. It will bring us a little nearer the point we are aiming
at if we quote one other and more recent English opinion of him.

Mr. Thomas Moore, returning pleasantly in a travelling-carriage from a
trip to Italy, in which he had never forgotten the poetical shop at home,
but had carefully noted down all the pretty images that occurred to him
for future use,--Mr. Thomas Moore, on his way back from a visit to his
noble friend Byron, at Venice, who had there been leading a life so gross
as to be talked about, even amid the crash of Napoleon's fall, and who
was just writing "Don Juan" for the improvement of the world,--Mr. Thomas
Moore, fresh from the reading of Byron's Memoirs, which were so
scandalous that, by some hocus-pocus, three thousand guineas afterward
found their way into his own pocket for consenting to suppress them,--Mr.
Thomas Moore, the _ci-devant_ friend of the Prince Regent, and the author
of Little's Poems, among other objects of pilgrimage visits _Les
Charmettes_, where Rousseau had lived with Madame de Warens. So good an
opportunity for occasional verses was not to be lost, so good a text for
a little virtuous moralizing not to be thrown away; and accordingly Mr.
Moore pours out several pages of octosyllabic disgust at the sensuality
of the dead man of genius. There was no horror for Byron. Toward him all
was suavity and decorous _bienseance_. That lively sense of benefits to
be received made the Irish Anacreon wink with both his little eyes. In
the judgment of a liberal like Mr. Moore, were not the errors of a lord
excusable? But with poor Rousseau the case was very different. The son of
a watchmaker, an outcast from boyhood up, always on the perilous edge of
poverty,--what right had he to indulge himself in any immoralities? So it
is always with the sentimentalists. It is never the thing in itself that
is bad or good, but the thing in its relation to some conventional and
mostly selfish standard. Moore could be a moralist, in this case, without
any trouble, and with the advantage of winning Lord Lansdowne's approval;
he could write some graceful verses which everybody would buy, and for
the rest it is not hard to be a stoic in eight-syllable measure and a
travelling-carriage. The next dinner at Bowood will taste none the worse.
Accordingly he speaks of

"The mire, the strife
And vanities of this man's life,
Who more than all that e'er have glowed
With fancy's flame (and it was his
In fullest warmth and radiance) showed
What an impostor Genius is;
How, with that strong mimetic art
Which forms its life and soul, it takes
All shapes of thought, all hues of heart,
Nor feels itself one throb it wakes;
How, like a gem, its light may shine,
O'er the dark path by mortals trod,
Itself as mean a worm the while
As crawls at midnight o'er the sod;
* * * * *
How, with the pencil hardly dry
From coloring up such scenes of love
And beauty as make young hearts sigh,
And dream and think through heaven they rove," &c., &c.

Very spirited, is it not? One has only to overlook a little
threadbareness in the similes, and it is very good oratorical verse. But
would we believe in it, we must never read Mr. Moore's own journal, and
find out how thin a piece of veneering his own life was,--how he lived in
sham till his very nature had become subdued to it, till he could
persuade himself that a sham could be written into a reality, and
actually made experiment thereof in his Diary.

One verse in this diatribe deserves a special comment,--

"What an impostor Genius is!"

In two respects there is nothing to be objected to in it. It is of eight
syllables, and "is" rhymes unexceptionably with "his." But is there the
least filament of truth in it? We venture to assert, not the least. It
was not Rousseau's genius that was an impostor. It was the one thing in
him that was always true. We grant that, in allowing that a man has
genius. Talent is that which is in a man's power; genius is that in whose
power a man is. That is the very difference between them. We might turn
the tables on Moore, the man of talent, and say truly enough, What an
impostor talent is! Moore talks of the mimetic power with a total
misapprehension of what it really is. The mimetic power had nothing
whatever to do with the affair. Rousseau had none of it; Shakespeare had
it in excess; but what difference would it make in our judgment of Hamlet
or Othello if a manuscript of Shakespeare's memoirs should turn up, and
we should find out that he had been a pitiful fellow? None in the world;
for he is not a professed moralist, and his life does not give the
warrant to his words. But if Demosthenes, after all his Philippies,
throws away his shield and runs, we feel the contemptibleness of the
contradiction. With genius itself we never find any fault. It would be an
over-nicety that would do that. We do not get invited to nectar and
ambrosia so often that we think of grumbling and saying we have better at
home. No; the same genius that mastered him who wrote the poem masters us
in reading it, and we care for nothing outside the poem itself. How the
author lived, what he wore, how he looked,--all that is mere gossip,
about which we need not trouble ourselves. Whatever he was or did,
somehow or other God let him be worthy to write _this_, and that is
enough for us. We forgive everything to the genius; we are inexorable to
the man. Shakespeare, Goethe, Burns,--what have their biographies to do
with us? Genius is not a question of character. It may be sordid, like
the lamp of Aladdin, in its externals; what care we, while the touch of
it builds palaces for us, makes us rich as only men in dream-land are
rich, and lords to the utmost bound of imagination? So, when people talk
of the ungrateful way in which the world treats its geniuses, they speak
unwisely. There is no work of genius which has not been the delight of
mankind, no word of genius to which the human heart and soul have not,
sooner or later, responded. But the man whom the genius takes possession
of for its pen, for its trowel, for its pencil, for its chisel, _him_ the
world treats according to his deserts. Does Burns drink? It sets him to
gauging casks of gin. For, remember, it is not to the practical world
that the genius appeals; it _is_ the practical world which judges of the
man's fitness for its uses, and has a right so to judge. No amount of
patronage could have made distilled liquors less toothsome to Robbie
Burns, as no amount of them could make a Burns of the Ettrick Shepherd.

There is an old story in the _Gesta Romanorum_ of a priest who was found
fault with by one of his parishioners because his life was in painful
discordance with his teaching. So one day he takes his critic out to a
stream, and, giving him to drink of it, asks him if he does not find it
sweet and pure water. The parishioner, having answered that it was, is
taken to the source, and finds that what had so refreshed him flowed from
between the jaws of a dead dog. "Let this teach thee," said the priest,
"that the very best doctrine may take its rise in a very impure and
disgustful spring, and that excellent morals may be taught by a man who
has no morals at all." It is easy enough to see the fallacy here. Had the
man known beforehand from what a carrion fountain-head the stream issued,
he could not have drunk of it without loathing. Had the priest merely
bidden him to _look_ at the stream and see how beautiful it was, instead
of tasting it, it would have been quite another matter. And this is
precisely the difference between what appeals to our aesthetic and to our
moral sense, between what is judged of by the taste and the conscience.

It is when the sentimentalist turns preacher of morals that we
investigate his character, and are justified in so doing. He may express
as many and as delicate shades of feeling as he likes,--for this the
sensibility of his organization perfectly fits him, no other person could
do it so well,--but the moment he undertakes to establish his feeling as
a rule of conduct, we ask at once how far are his own life and deed in
accordance with what he preaches? For every man feels instinctively that
all the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely
action; and that while tenderness of feeling and susceptibility to
generous emotions are accidents of temperament, goodness is an
achievement of the will and a quality of the life. Fine words, says our
homely old proverb, butter no parsnips; and if the question be how to
render those vegetables palatable, an ounce of butter would be worth more
than all the orations of Cicero. The only conclusive evidence of a man's
sincerity is that he give _himself_ for a principle. Words, money, all
things else, are comparatively easy to give away; but when a man makes a
gift of his daily life and practice, it is plain that the truth, whatever
it may be, has taken possession of him. From that sincerity his words
gain the force and pertinency of deeds, and his money is no longer the
pale drudge 'twixt man and man, but, by a beautiful magic, what erewhile
bore the image and superscription of Caesar seems now to bear the image
and superscription of God. It is thus that there is a genius for
goodness, for magnanimity, for self-sacrifice, as well as for creative
art; and it is thus that by a more refined sort of Platonism the Infinite
Beauty dwells in and shapes to its own likeness the soul which gives it
body and individuality. But when Moore charges genius with being an
impostor, the confusion of his ideas is pitiable. There is nothing so
true, so sincere, so downright and forthright, as genius. It is always
truer than the man himself is, greater than he. If Shakespeare the man
had been as marvellous a creature as the genius that wrote his plays,
that genius so comprehensive in its intelligence, so wise even in its
play, that its clowns are moralists and philosophers, so penetrative that
a single one of its phrases reveals to us the secret of our own
character, would his contemporaries have left us so wholly without record
of him as they have done, distinguishing him in no wise from his

Rousseau, no doubt, was weak, nay, more than that, was sometimes
despicable, but yet is not fairly to be reckoned among the herd of
sentimentalists. It is shocking that a man whose preaching made it
fashionable for women of rank to nurse their own children should have
sent his own, as soon as born, to the foundling hospital, still more
shocking that, in a note to his _Discours sur l'Inegalite_, he should
speak of this crime as one of the consequences of our social system. But
for all that there was a faith and an ardor of conviction in him that
distinguish him from most of the writers of his time. Nor were his
practice and his preaching always inconsistent. He contrived to pay
regularly, whatever his own circumstances were, a pension of one hundred
_livres_ a year to a maternal aunt who had been kind to him in childhood.
Nor was his asceticism a sham. He might have turned his gift into laced
coats and _chateaux_ as easily as Voltaire, had he not held it too sacred
to be bartered away in any such losing exchange.

But what is worthy of especial remark is this,--that in nearly all that
he wrote his leading object was the good of his kind, and that through
all the vicissitudes of a life which illness, sensibility of temperament,
and the approaches of insanity rendered wretched,--the associate of
infidels, the foundling child, as it were, of an age without belief,
least of all in itself,--he professed and evidently felt deeply a faith
in the goodness both of man and of God. There is no such thing as
scoffing in his writings. On the other hand, there is no stereotyped
morality. He does not ignore the existence of scepticism; he recognizes
its existence in his own nature, meets it frankly face to face, and makes
it confess that there are things in the teaching of Christ that are
deeper than its doubt. The influence of his early education at Geneva is
apparent here. An intellect so acute as his, trained in the school of
Calvin in a republic where theological discussion was as much the
amusement of the people as the opera was at Paris, could not fail to be a
good logician. He had the fortitude to follow his logic wherever it led
him. If the very impressibility of character which quickened his
perception of the beauties of nature, and made him alive to the charm of
music and musical expression, prevented him from being in the highest
sense an original writer, and if his ideas were mostly suggested to him
by books, yet the clearness, consecutiveness, and eloquence with which he
stated and enforced them made them his own. There was at least that
original fire in him which could fuse them and run them in a novel mould.
His power lay in this very ability of manipulating the thoughts of
others. Fond of paradox he doubtless was, but he had a way of putting
things that arrested attention and excited thought. It was, perhaps, this
very sensibility of the surrounding atmosphere of feeling and
speculation, which made Rousseau more directly influential on
contemporary thought (or perhaps we should say sentiment) than any writer
of his time. And this is rarely consistent with enduring greatness in
literature. It forces us to remember, against our will, the oratorical
character of his works. They were all pleas, and he a great advocate,
with Europe in the jury-box. Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm, eloquence
produces conviction for the moment, but it is only by truth to nature and
the everlasting intuitions of mankind that those abiding influences are
won that enlarge from generation to generation. Rousseau was in many
respects--as great pleaders always are--a man of the day, who must needs
become a mere name to posterity, yet he could not but have had in him
some not inconsiderable share of that principle by which man eternizes
himself. For it is only to such that the night cometh not in which no man
shall work, and he is still operative both in politics and literature by
the principles he formulated or the emotions to which he gave a voice so
piercing and so sympathetic.

In judging Rousseau, it would be unfair not to take note of the malarious
atmosphere in which he grew up. The constitution of his mind was thus
early infected with a feverish taint that made him shiveringly sensitive
to a temperature which hardier natures found bracing. To him this rough
world was but too literally a rack. Good-humored Mother Nature commonly
imbeds the nerves of her children in a padding of self-conceit that
serves as a buffer against the ordinary shocks to which even a life of
routine is liable, and it would seem at first sight as if Rousseau had
been better cared for than usual in this regard. But as his self-conceit
was enormous, so was the reaction from it proportionate, and the fretting
suspiciousness of temper, sure mark of an unsound mind, which rendered
him incapable of intimate friendship, while passionately longing for it,
became inevitably, when turned inward, a tormenting self-distrust. To
dwell in unrealities is the doom of the sentimentalist; but it should not
be forgotten that the same fitful intensity of emotion which makes them
real as the means of elation, gives them substance also for torture. Too
irritably jealous to endure the rude society of men, he steeped his
senses in the enervating incense that women are only too ready to burn.
If their friendship be a safeguard to the other sex, their homage is
fatal to all but the strongest, and Rousseau was weak both by inheritance
and early training. His father was one of those feeble creatures for whom
a fine phrase could always satisfactorily fill the void that
non-performance leaves behind it. If he neglected duty, he made up for it
by that cultivation of the finer sentiments of our common nature which
waters flowers of speech with the brineless tears of a flabby remorse,
without one fibre of resolve in it, and which impoverishes the character
in proportion as it enriches the vocabulary. He was a very Apicius in
that digestible kind of woe which makes no man leaner, and had a favorite
receipt for cooking you up a sorrow _a la douleur inassouvie_ that had
just enough delicious sharpness in it to bring tears into the eyes by
tickling the palate. "When he said to me, 'Jean Jacques, let us speak of
thy mother,' I said to him, 'Well, father, we are going to weep, then,'
and this word alone drew tears from him. 'Ah !' said he, groaning, 'give
her back to me, console me for her, fill the void she has left in my
soul!'" Alas! in such cases, the void she leaves is only that she found.
The grief that seeks any other than its own society will erelong want an
object. This admirable parent allowed his son to become an outcast at
sixteen, without any attempt to reclaim him, in order to enjoy unmolested
a petty inheritance to which the boy was entitled in right of his mother.
"This conduct," Rousseau tells us, "of a father whose tenderness and
virtue were so well known to me, caused me to make reflections on myself
which have not a little contributed to make my heart sound. I drew from
it this great maxim of morals, the only one perhaps serviceable in
practice, to avoid situations which put our duties in opposition to our
interest, and which show us our own advantage in the wrong of another,
sure that in such situations, _however sincere may be one's love of
virtue_, it sooner or later grows weak without our perceiving it, _and
that we become unjust and wicked in action without having ceased to be
just and good in soul_."

This maxim may do for that "fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised
and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks its adversary," which
Milton could not praise,--that is, for a manhood whose distinction it is
not to be manly,--but it is chiefly worth notice as being the
characteristic doctrine of sentimentalism. This disjoining of deed from
will, of practice from theory, is to put asunder what God has joined by
an indissoluble sacrament. The soul must be tainted before the action
become corrupt; and there is no self-delusion more fatal than that which
makes the conscience dreamy with the anodyne of lofty sentiments, while
the life is grovelling and sensual,--witness Coleridge. In his case we
feel something like disgust. But where, as in his son Hartley, there is
hereditary infirmity, where the man sees the principle that might rescue
him slip from the clutch of a nerveless will, like a rope through the
fingers of a drowning man, and the confession of faith is the moan of
despair, there is room for no harsher feeling than pity. Rousseau showed
through life a singular proneness for being convinced by his own
eloquence; he was always his own first convert; and this reconciles his
power as a writer with his weakness as a man. He and all like him mistake
emotion for conviction, velleity for resolve, the brief eddy of sentiment
for the midcurrent of ever-gathering faith in duty that draws to itself
all the affluents of conscience and will, and gives continuity of purpose
to life. They are like men who love the stimulus of being under
conviction, as it is called, who, forever getting religion, never get
capital enough to retire upon and spend for their own need and the common

The sentimentalist is the spiritual hypochondriac, with whom fancies
become facts, while facts are a discomfort because they will not be
evaporated into fancy. In his eyes, Theory is too fine a dame to confess
even a country-cousinship with coarse handed Practice, whose homely ways
would disconcert her artificial world. The very susceptibility that makes
him quick to feel, makes him also incapable of deep and durable feeling.
He loves to think he suffers, and keeps a pet sorrow, a blue-devil
familiar, that goes with him everywhere, like Paracelsus's black dog. He
takes good care, however, that it shall not be the true sulphurous
article that sometimes takes a fancy to fly away with his conjurer. Rene
says: "In my madness I had gone so far as even to wish I might experience
a misfortune, so that my suffering might at least have a real object."
But no; selfishness is only active egotism, and there is nothing and
nobody, with a single exception, which this sort of creature will not
sacrifice, rather than give any other than an imaginary pang to his idol.
Vicarious pain he is not unwilling to endure, nay, will even commit
suicide by proxy, like the German poet who let his wife kill herself to
give him a sensation. Had young Jerusalem been anything like Goethe's
portrait of him in Werther, he would have taken very good care not to
blow out the brains which he would have thought only too precious. Real
sorrows are uncomfortable things, but purely aesthetic ones are by no
means unpleasant, and I have always fancied the handsome young Wolfgang
writing those distracted letters to Auguste Stolberg with a looking-glass
in front of him to give back an image of his desolation, and finding it
rather pleasant than otherwise to shed the tear of sympathy with self
that would seem so bitter to his fair correspondent. The tears that have
real salt in them will keep; they are the difficult, manly tears that are
shed in secret; but the pathos soon evaporates from that fresh-water with
which a man can bedew a dead donkey in public, while his wife is having a
good cry over his neglect of her at home. We do not think the worse of
Goethe for hypothetically desolating himself in the fashion aforesaid,
for with many constitutions it is as purely natural a crisis as
dentition, which the stronger worry through, and turn out very sensible,
agreeable fellows. But where there is an arrest of development, and the
heartbreak of the patient is audibly prolonged through life, we have a
spectacle which the toughest heart would wish to get as far away from as

We would not be supposed to overlook the distinction, too often lost
sight of, between sentimentalism and sentiment, the latter being a very
excellent thing in its way, as genuine things are apt to be. Sentiment is
intellectualized emotion, emotion precipitated, as it were, in pretty
crystals by the fancy. This is the delightful staple of the poets of
social life like Horace and Beranger, or Thackeray, when he too rarely
played with verse. It puts into words for us that decorous average of
feeling to the expression of which society can consent without danger of
being indiscreetly moved. It is excellent for people who are willing to
save their souls alive to any extent that shall not be discomposing. It
is even satisfying till some deeper experience has given us a hunger
which what we so glibly call "the world" cannot sate, just as a water-ice
is nourishment enough to a man who has had his dinner. It is the
sufficing lyrical interpreter of those lighter hours that should make
part of every healthy man's day, and is noxious only when it palls men's
appetite for the truly profound poetry which is very passion of very soul
sobered by afterthought and embodied in eternal types by imagination.
True sentiment is emotion ripened by a slow ferment of the mind and
qualified to an agreeable temperance by that taste which is the
conscience of polite society. But the sentimentalist always insists on
taking his emotion neat, and, as his sense gradually deadens to the
stimulus, increases his dose till he ends in a kind of moral deliquium.
At first the debaucher, he becomes at last the victim of his sensations.

Among the ancients we find no trace of sentimentalism. Their masculine
mood both of body and mind left no room for it, and hence the bracing
quality of their literature compared with that of recent times, its tonic
property, that seems almost too astringent to palates relaxed by a
daintier diet. The first great example of the degenerate modern tendency
was Petrarch, who may be said to have given it impulse and direction. A
more perfect specimen of the type has not since appeared. An intellectual
voluptuary, a moral _dilettante_, the first instance of that character,
since too common, the gentleman in search of a sensation, seeking a
solitude at Vaucluse because it made him more likely to be in demand at
Avignon, praising philosophic poverty with a sharp eye to the next rich
benefice in the gift of his patron, commending a good life but careful
first of a good living, happy only in seclusion but making a dangerous
journey to enjoy the theatrical show of a coronation in the Capitol,
cherishing a fruitless passion which broke his heart three or four times
a year and yet could not make an end of him till he had reached the ripe
age of seventy and survived his mistress a quarter of a century,--surely
a more exquisite perfection of inconsistency would be hard to find.

When Petrarch returned from his journey into the North of Europe in 1332,
he balanced the books of his unrequited passion, and, finding that he had
now been in love seven years, thought the time had at last come to call
deliberately on Death. Had Death taken him at his word, he would have
protested that he was only in fun. For we find him always taking good
care of an excellent constitution, avoiding the plague with commendable
assiduity, and in the very year when he declares it absolutely essential
to his peace of mind to die for good and all, taking refuge in the
fortress of Capranica, from a wholesome dread of having his throat cut by
robbers. There is such a difference between dying in a sonnet with a
cambric handkerchief at one's eyes, and the prosaic reality of demise
certified in the parish register! Practically it is inconvenient to be
dead. Among other things, it puts an end to the manufacture of sonnets.
But there seems to have been an excellent understanding between Petrarch
and Death, for he was brought to that grisly monarch's door so often,
that, otherwise, nothing short of a miracle or the nine lives of that
animal whom love also makes lyrical could have saved him. "I consent," he
cries, "to live and die in Africa among its serpents, upon Caucasus, or
Atlas, if, while I live, to breathe a pure air, and after my death a
little corner of earth where to bestow my body, may be allowed me. This
is all I ask, but this I cannot obtain. Doomed always to wander, and to
be a stranger everywhere, O Fortune, Fortune, fix me at last to some one
spot! I do not covet thy favors. Let me enjoy a tranquil poverty, let me
pass in this retreat the few days that remain to me!" The pathetic stop
of Petrarch's poetical organ was one he could pull out at pleasure,--and
indeed we soon learn to distrust literary tears, as the cheap subterfuge
for want of real feeling with natures of this quality. Solitude with him
was but the pseudonyme of notoriety. Poverty was the archdeaconry of
Parma, with other ecclesiastical pickings. During his retreat at
Vaucluse, in the very height of that divine sonneteering love of Laura,
of that sensitive purity which called Avignon Babylon, and rebuked the
sinfulness of Clement, he was himself begetting that kind of children
which we spell with a _b_. We believe that, if Messer Francesco had been
present when the woman was taken in adultery, he would have flung the
first stone without the slightest feeling of inconsistency, nay, with a
sublime sense of virtue. The truth is, that it made very little
difference to him what sort of proper sentiment he expressed, provided he
could do it elegantly and with unction.

Would any one feel the difference between his faint abstractions and the
Platonism of a powerful nature fitted alike for the withdrawal of ideal
contemplation and for breasting the storms of life,--would any one know
how wide a depth divides a noble friendship based on sympathy of pursuit
and aspiration, on that mutual help which souls capable of
self-sustainment are the readiest to give or to take, and a simulated
passion, true neither to the spiritual nor the sensual part of man,--let
him compare the sonnets of Petrarch with those which Michel Angelo
addressed to Vittoria Colonna. In them the airiest pinnacles of sentiment
and speculation are buttressed with solid mason-work of thought, and of
an actual, not fancied experience, and the depth of feeling is measured
by the sobriety and reserve of expression, while in Petrarch's all
ingenuousness is frittered away into ingenuity. Both are cold, but the
coldness of the one is self-restraint, while the other chills with
pretence of warmth. In Michel Angelo's, you feel the great architect; in
Petrarch's the artist who can best realize his conception in the limits
of a cherry-stone. And yet this man influenced literature longer and more
widely than almost any other in modern times. So great is the charm of
elegance, so unreal is the larger part of what is written!

Certainly I do not mean to say that a work of art should be looked at by
the light of the artist's biography, or measured by our standard of his
character. Nor do I reckon what was genuine in Petrarch--his love of
letters, his refinement, his skill in the superficial graces of language,
that rhetorical art by which the music of words supplants their meaning,
and the verse moulds the thought instead of being plastic to it--after
any such fashion. I have no ambition for that character of _valet de
chambre_ which is said to disenchant the most heroic figures into mere
every-day personages, for it implies a mean soul no less than a servile
condition. But we have a right to demand a certain amount of reality,
however small, in the emotion of a man who makes it his business to
endeavor at exciting our own. We have a privilege of nature to shiver
before a painted flame, how cunningly soever the colors be laid on. Yet
our love of minute biographical detail, our desire to make ourselves
spies upon the men of the past, seems so much of an instinct in us, that
we must look for the spring of it in human nature, and that somewhat
deeper than mere curiosity or love of gossip. It should seem to arise
from what must be considered on the whole a creditable feeling, namely,
that we value character more than any amount of talent,--the skill to
_be_ something, above that of doing anything but the best of its kind.
The highest creative genius, and that only, is privileged from arrest by
this personality, for there the thing produced is altogether disengaged
from the producer. But in natures incapable of this escape from
themselves, the author is inevitably mixed with his work, and we have a
feeling that the amount of his sterling character is the security for the
notes he issues. Especially we feel so when truth to self, which is
always self-forgetful, and not truth to nature, makes an essential part
of the value of what is offered us; as where a man undertakes to narrate
personal experience or to enforce a dogma. This is particularly true as
respects sentimentalists, because of their intrusive self-consciousness;
for there is no more universal characteristic of human nature than the
instinct of men to apologize to themselves for themselves, and to justify
personal failings by generalizing them into universal laws. A man would
be the keenest devil's advocate against himself, were it not that he has
always taken a retaining fee for the defence; for we think that the
indirect and mostly unconscious pleas in abatement which we read between
the lines in the works of many authors are oftener written to set
themselves right in their own eyes than in those of the world. And in the
real life of the sentimentalist it is the same. He is under the wretched
necessity of keeping up, at least in public, the character he has
assumed, till he at last reaches that last shift of bankrupt
self-respect, to play the hypocrite with himself. Lamartine, after
passing round the hat in Europe and America, takes to his bed from
wounded pride when the French Senate votes him a subsidy, and sheds tears
of humiliation. Ideally, he resents it; in practical coin, he will accept
the shame without a wry face.

George Sand, speaking of Rousseau's "Confessions," says that an
autobiographer always makes himself the hero of his own novel, and cannot
help idealizing, even if he would. But the weak point of all
sentimentalists is that they always have been, and always continue under
every conceivable circumstance to be, their own ideals, whether they are
writing their own lives or no. Rousseau opens his book with the
statement: "I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to
believe myself unlike any that exists. If I am not worth more, at least I
am different." O exquisite cunning of self-flattery! It is this very
imagined difference that makes us worth more in our own foolish sight.
For while all men are apt to think, or to persuade themselves that they
think, all other men their accomplices in vice or weakness, they are not
difficult of belief that they are singular in any quality or talent on
which they hug themselves. More than this; people who are truly original
are the last to find it out, for the moment we become conscious of a
virtue it has left us or is getting ready to go. Originality does not
consist in a fidgety assertion of selfhood, but in the faculty of getting
rid of it altogether, that the truer genius of the man, which commerces
with universal nature and with other souls through a common sympathy with
that, may take all his powers wholly to itself,--and the truly original
man could no more be jealous of his peculiar gift, than the grass could
take credit to itself for being green. What is the reason that all
children are geniuses, (though they contrive so soon to outgrow that
dangerous quality,) except that they never cross-examine themselves on
the subject? The moment that process begins, their speech loses its gift
of unexpectedness, and they become as tediously impertinent as the rest
of us.

If there never was any one like him, if he constituted a genus in
himself, to what end write confessions in which no other human being
could ever be in a condition to take the least possible interest? All men
are interested in Montaigne in proportion as all men find more of
themselves in him, and all men see but one image in the glass which the
greatest of poets holds up to nature, an image which at once startles and
charms them with its familiarity. Fabulists always endow their animals
with the passions and desires of men. But if an ox could dictate his
confessions, what glimmer of understanding should we find in those bovine
confidences, unless on some theory of pre existence, some blank misgiving
of a creature moving about in worlds not realized? The truth is, that we
recognize the common humanity of Rousseau in the very weakness that
betrayed him into this conceit of himself; we find he is just like the
rest of us in this very assumption of essential difference, for among all
animals man is the only one who tries to pass for more than he is, and so
involves himself in the condemnation of seeming less.

But it would be sheer waste of time to hunt Rousseau through all his
doublings of inconsistency, and run him to earth in every new paradox.
His first two books attacked, one of them literature, and the other
society. But this did not prevent him from being diligent with his pen,
nor from availing himself of his credit with persons who enjoyed all the
advantages of that inequality whose evils he had so pointedly exposed.
Indeed, it is curious how little practical communism there has been, how
few professors it has had who would not have gained by a general
dividend. It is perhaps no frantic effort of generosity in a philosopher
with ten crowns in his pocket when he offers to make common stock with a
neighbor who has ten thousand of yearly income, nor is it an uncommon
thing to see such theories knocked clean out of a man's head by the
descent of a thumping legacy. But, consistent or not, Rousseau remains
permanently interesting as the highest and most perfect type of the
sentimentalist of genius. His was perhaps the acutest mind that was ever
mated with an organization so diseased, the brain most far-reaching in
speculation that ever kept itself steady and worked out its problems amid
such disordered tumult of the nerves.[166] His letter to the Archbishop
of Paris, admirable for its lucid power and soberness of tone, and his
_Rousseau juge de Jean Jacques_, which no man can read and believe him to
have been sane, show him to us in his strength and weakness, and give us
a more charitable, let us hope therefore a truer, notion of him than his
own apology for himself. That he was a man of genius appears unmistakably
in his impressibility by the deeper meaning of the epoch in which he
lived. Before an eruption, clouds steeped through and through with
electric life gather over the crater, as if in sympathy and expectation.
As the mountain heaves and cracks, these vapory masses are seamed with
fire, as if they felt and answered the dumb agony that is struggling for
utterance below. Just such flashes of eager sympathetic fire break
continually from the cloudy volumes of Rousseau, the result at once and
the warning of that convulsion of which Paris was to be the crater and
all Europe to feel the spasm. There are symptoms enough elsewhere of that
want of faith in the existing order which made the Revolution
inevitable,--even so shallow an observer as Horace Walpole could forebode
it so early as 1765,--but Rousseau more than all others is the
unconscious expression of the groping after something radically new, the
instinct for a change that should be organic and pervade every fibre of
the social and political body. Freedom of thought owes far more to the
jester Voltaire, who also had his solid kernel of earnest, than to the
sombre Genevese, whose earnestness is of the deadly kind. Yet, for good
or evil, the latter was the father of modern democracy, and with out him
our Declaration of Independence would have wanted some of those sentences
in which the immemorial longings of the poor and the dreams of solitary
enthusiasts were at last affirmed as axioms in the manifesto of a nation,
so that all the world might hear.

Though Rousseau, like many other fanatics, had a remarkable vein of
common sense in him, (witness his remarks on duelling, on
landscape-gardening, on French poetry, and much of his thought on
education,) we cannot trace many practical results to his teaching, least
of all in politics. For the great difficulty with his system, if system
it may be called, is, that, while it professes to follow nature, it not
only assumes as a starting-point that the individual man may be made over
again, but proceeds to the conclusion that man himself, that human
nature, must be made over again, and governments remodelled on a purely
theoretic basis. But when something like an experiment in this direction
was made in 1789, not only did it fail as regarded man in general, but
even as regards the particular variety of man that inhabited France. The
Revolution accomplished many changes, and beneficent ones, yet it left
France peopled, not by a new race without traditions, but by Frenchmen.
Still, there could not but be a wonderful force in the words of a man
who, above all others, had the secret of making abstractions glow with
his own fervor; and his ideas--dispersed now in the atmosphere of thought
--have influenced, perhaps still continue to influence, speculative
minds, which prefer swift and sure generalization to hesitating and
doubtful experience.

Rousseau has, in one respect, been utterly misrepresented and
misunderstood. Even Chateaubriand most unfilially classes him and
Voltaire together. It appears to me that the inmost core of his being was
religious. Had he remained in the Catholic Church he might have been a
saint. Had he come earlier, he might have founded an order. His was
precisely the nature on which religious enthusiasm takes the strongest
hold,--a temperament which finds a sensuous delight in spiritual things,
and satisfies its craving for excitement with celestial debauch. He had
not the iron temper of a great reformer and organizer like Knox, who,
true Scotchman that he was, found a way to weld this world and the other
together in a cast-iron creed; but he had as much as any man ever had
that gift of a great preacher to make the oratorical fervor which
persuades himself while it lasts into the abiding conviction of his
hearers. That very persuasion of his that the soul could remain pure
while the life was corrupt, is not unexampled among men who have left
holier names than he. His "Confessions," also, would assign him to that
class with whom the religious sentiment is strong, and the moral nature
weak. They are apt to believe that they may, as special pleaders say,
confess and avoid. Hawthorne has admirably illustrated this in the
penance of Mr. Dimmesdale. With all the soil that is upon Rousseau, I
cannot help looking on him as one capable beyond any in his generation of
being divinely possessed; and if it happened otherwise, when we remember
the much that hindered and the little that helped in a life and time like
his, we shall be much readier to pity than to condemn. It was his very
fitness for being something better that makes him able to shock us so
with what in too many respects he unhappily was. Less gifted, he had been
less hardly judged. More than any other of the sentimentalists, except
possibly Sterne, he had in him a staple of sincerity. Compared with
Chateaubriand, he is honesty, compared with Lamartine, he is manliness
itself. His nearest congener in our own tongue is Cowper.

In the whole school there is a sickly taint. The strongest mark which
Rousseau has left upon literature is a sensibility to the picturesque in
Nature, not with Nature as a strengthener and consoler, a wholesome tonic
for a mind ill at ease with itself, but with Nature as a kind of feminine
echo to the mood, flattering it with sympathy rather than correcting it
with rebuke or lifting it away from its unmanly depression, as in the
wholesomer fellow-feeling of Wordsworth. They seek in her an accessary,
and not a reproof. It is less a sympathy with Nature than a sympathy with
ourselves as we compel her to reflect us. It is solitude, Nature for her
estrangement from man, not for her companionship with him,--it is
desolation and ruin, Nature as she has triumphed over man,--with which
this order of mind seeks communion and in which it finds solace. It is
with the hostile and destructive power of matter, and not with the spirit
of life and renewal that dwells in it, that they ally themselves. And in
human character it is the same. St. Preux, Rene, Werther, Manfred,
Quasimodo, they are all anomalies, distortions, ruins,--so much easier is
it to caricature life from our own sickly conception of it, than to paint
it in its noble simplicity; so much cheaper is unreality than truth.

Every man is conscious that he leads two lives,--the one trivial and
ordinary, the other sacred and recluse; one which he carries to society
and the dinner-table, the other in which his youth and aspiration survive
for him, and which is a confidence between himself and God. Both may be
equally sincere, and there need be no contradiction between them, any
more than in a healthy man between soul and body. If the higher life be
real and earnest, its result, whether in literature or affairs, will be
real and earnest too. But no man can produce great things who is not
thoroughly sincere in dealing with himself, who would not exchange the
finest show for the poorest reality, who does not so love his work that
he is not only glad to give himself for it, but finds rather a gain than
a sacrifice in the surrender. The sentimentalist does not think of what
he does so much as of what the world will think of what he does. He
translates should into would, looks upon the spheres of duty and beauty
as alien to each other, and can never learn how life rounds itself to a
noble completeness between these two opposite but mutually sustaining
poles of what we long for and what we must.

Did Rousseau, then, lead a life of this quality? Perhaps, when we
consider the contrast which every man who looks backward must feel
between the life he planned and the life which circumstance within him
and without him has made for him, we should rather ask, Was this the life
he meant to lead? Perhaps, when we take into account his faculty of
self-deception,--it may be no greater than our own,--we should ask, Was
this the life he believed he led? Have we any right to judge this man
after our blunt English fashion, and condemn him, as we are wont to do,
on the finding of a jury of average householders? Is French reality
precisely our reality? Could we tolerate tragedy in rhymed alexandrines,
instead of blank verse? The whole life of Rousseau is pitched on this
heroic key, and for the most trivial occasion he must be ready with the
sublime sentiments that are supposed to suit him rather than it. It is
one of the most curious features of the sentimental ailment, that, while
it shuns the contact of men, it courts publicity. In proportion as
solitude and communion with self lead the sentimentalist to exaggerate
the importance of his own personality, he comes to think that the least
event connected with it is of consequence to his fellow-men. If he change
his shirt, he would have mankind aware of it. Victor Hugo, the greatest
living representative of the class, considers it necessary to let the
world know by letter from time to time his opinions on every conceivable
subject about which it is not asked nor is of the least value unless we
concede to him an immediate inspiration. We men of colder blood, in whom
self-consciousness takes the form of pride, and who have deified
_mauvaise honte_ as if our defect were our virtue, find it especially
hard to understand that artistic impulse of more southern races to _pose_
themselves properly on every occasion, and not even to die without some
tribute of deference to the taste of the world they are leaving. Was not
even mighty Caesar's last thought of his drapery? Let us not condemn
Rousseau for what seems to us the indecent exposure of himself in his

Those who allow an oratorical and purely conventional side disconnected
with our private understanding of the facts, and with life, in which
everything has a wholly parliamentary sense where truth is made
subservient to the momentary exigencies of eloquence, should be
charitable to Rousseau. While we encourage a distinction which
establishes two kinds of truth, one for the world, and another for the
conscience, while we take pleasure in a kind of speech that has no
relation to the real thought of speaker or hearer, but to the rostrum
only, we must not be hasty to condemn a sentimentalism which we do our
best to foster. We listen in public with the gravity or augurs to what we
smile at when we meet a brother adept. France is the native land of
eulogy, of truth padded out to the size and shape demanded by
_comme-il-faut_. The French Academy has, perhaps, done more harm by the
vogue it has given to this style, than it has done good by its literary
purism; for the best purity of a language depends on the limpidity of its
source in veracity of thought. Rousseau was in many respects a typical
Frenchman, and it is not to be wondered at if he too often fell in with
the fashion of saying what was expected of him, and what he thought due
to the situation, rather than what would have been true to his inmost
consciousness. Perhaps we should allow something also to the influence of
a Calvinistic training, which certainly helps men who have the least
natural tendency towards it to set faith above works, and to persuade
themselves of the efficacy of an inward grace to offset an outward and
visible defection from it.

As the sentimentalist always takes a fanciful, sometimes an unreal, life
for an ideal one, it would be too much to say that Rousseau was a man of
earnest convictions. But he was a man of fitfully intense ones, as suited
so mobile a temperament, and his writings, more than those of any other
of his tribe, carry with them that persuasion that was in him while he
wrote. In them at least he is as consistent as a man who admits new ideas
can ever be. The children of his brain he never abandoned, but clung to
them with paternal fidelity. Intellectually he was true and fearless;
constitutionally, timid, contradictory, and weak; but never, if we
understand him rightly, false. He was a little too credulous of sonorous
sentiment, but he was never, like Chateaubriand or Lamartine, the lackey
of fine phrases. If, as some fanciful physiologists have assumed, there
be a masculine and feminine lobe of the brain, it would seem that in men
of sentimental turn the masculine half fell in love with and made an idol
of the other, obeying and admiring all the pretty whims of this _folle du
logis_. In Rousseau the mistress had some noble elements of character,
and less taint of the _demi-monde_ than is visible in more recent cases
of the same illicit relation.


[165] _Histoire des Idees Morales et Politiques en France au XVIIIme
Siecle._ Par M. Jules Barni, Professeur a l'Academie de Geneve, Tome
II. Paris, 1867.

[166] Perhaps we should except Newton.

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