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p. 583. The age of idealism (1781–1832)free

  • Nicholas Boyle


‘The age of idealism (1781–1832)’ describes how Immanuel Kant endeavoured to reconcile the empiricist Enlightenment of the bourgeoisie with the rationalist Enlightenment of officialdom in a new fusion to which he gave the name of Idealism. This subtle compromise between two different Enlightenments provided an ideological basis on which the German official class could claim to represent and harmonize the interests both of the economically productive middle class and of the absolute monarch, or state, which they served. The period of officialdom's cultural hegemony — the age of philosophical idealism — was the period in which German literature bore its most distinctive fruits, its classical age.

(i) A republic of letters (1781–1806)

1781 was a remarkable year. It saw the publication not only of The Robbers but of another work destined to have an even deeper and wider effect on German culture, Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft) by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). ‘No man of learning’, Goethe later wrote, ‘has with impunity rejected, opposed, or disdained the great philosophical movement begun by Kant’. Kant had been through his own version of the crisis that in literature culminated in Storm and Stress, but unlike the poets he had spent the 1770s publishing nothing, just thinking and writing. He was free to do so because in 1770, after 15 years as a private teacher of Wolffianism, he had at last been appointed to a salaried professorial chair in the university of Königsberg. But at about the same time he was confronted with the challenge of the radically sceptical empiricism of David Hume, which seemed to put into question his life’s work so far. In the ten years of thought that followed Kant endeavoured to reconcile the empiricist Enlightenment of the bourgeoisie with the rationalist Enlightenment of the officials in a new fusion to which he gave the name of Idealism. Kant believed he had shown that something like the Leibniz-Wolffian rational order of things is implied or presupposed by what we can know of the world through our senses: we cannot know that order directly, because it p. 59is the precondition of our knowing anything at all, but it furnishes the ideal, or pattern, to which we have to approximate what we do know. Knowledge has to have both an empirical content and a rational form. Kant achieves this result by a re-examination of the relation in our experience between the subjective and the objective (terms that acquired their modern sense in German academic philosophy in his lifetime), which he compares to the Copernican revolution in astronomy. Just as Copernicus argued that we saw movement in the sky not because the stars move but because the earth moves, so, Kant implies, he has shown, without changing the appearance of the natural or moral world, that some of its basic features are to be attributed to the observer, not to the observed, to the subject, not to the object. We cannot know things as they are in themselves, we can know them only as they appear to us, mediated through our perceptual and mental apparatus, and acquiring on the way an aspiration to a necessary and rational structure. In his theory of knowledge Kant carefully balances the claims of the sensuous and the particular against the claims of the rational and universal. In his moral theory, similarly, he balances the – apparently radically individualist – assertion that only the free actions of a self-determining agent, unaffected by external influences, can count as moral against the equally emphatic assertion that freedom is not freedom to do what you like but freedom to impose on yourself a universal law. This subtle compromise between two different Enlightenments provided an ideological basis on which the German official class could claim to represent and harmonize the interests both of the economically productive middle class and of the absolute monarch, or state, which they served. By the mid-1790s, Kantians had completely displaced Wolffians in the chairs of philosophy in German universities. The period of officialdom’s cultural hegemony – the age of philosophical idealism – was the period in which German literature bore its most distinctive fruits, its classical age.

The year 1781 was also marked by another milestone: the death of Lessing. His life after he settled in Wolfenbüttel foreshadowed p. 60what was to come. His publication of an exhaustive critique of the New Testament left in manuscript by the previous librarian led to a virulent controversy with the Lutheran hierarchy, which expanded from theological issues to include the freedom of the press and was abruptly terminated by the fiat of the Duke of Brunswick, his sovereign and employer. Lessing’s response was to shift the conflict on to less exposed terrain. He returned to the drama to create an altogether new kind of play in Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise, 1779), which he called a ‘dramatic poem’ because it was written in blank verse and was to be published as a book, since he did not expect it to be produced in a theatre. Set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, Nathan is a comedy which purports to show the achievement of mutual tolerance between representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In fact they recognize rather that they all share a fourth, rational, religion, which refrains from judging the truth of any of the acknowledged faiths and constitutes a kind of secret freemasonry of those ‘for whom it is enough to be called human’. Nathan the Wise is the prototype of the German ‘classical’ drama of the next hundred years: a play in verse, written to be read as much as to be performed, on a philosophical or moral theme that reinterprets or secularizes a theological issue, and with an elite rather than a popular appeal – Nathan is, among other things, about elitism and represents, in its principal characters, the audience for the genre that it founds.

Lessing’s development from freelance to ducal employee is reflected in Schiller’s career after the success of The Robbers. Faced with a complete prohibition on any further writing from the autocratic Duke of Württemberg, who had already forced him away from theology into service as a regimental surgeon, Schiller fled his homeland for Mannheim where he became resident playwright at the theatre which had first produced him. He wrote two more plays on the problems of revolt and political succession, one of which, Intrigue and Love (Kabale und Liebe, 1784), made effective theatre out of the contemporary German material p. 61in which Lenz had specialized. In a telling sub-plot, a tragic farewell to obsolete Anglophilia, the hero discovers in the English mistress of his prince not the corrupt handmaid of tyranny he had imagined (the prince has sold his subjects as mercenaries to fight in the American war) but a spirit of the liberty which he is fated not to enjoy. Even though his contract in Mannheim was not renewed Schiller resolved to continue the attempt to earn his living from literature, editing journals and writing historical works while he struggled to give shape to his next play, Don Carlos (1787), a grand and over-complex historical drama in verse. Only the generosity of friends in Leipzig and Dresden rescued him from penury. He put out feelers to Weimar, where his fiancée had been brought up, and in 1789, partly thanks to Goethe, he was given an unsalaried professorship of history at the nearby university of Jena and a small pension from Duke Karl August which enabled him to marry. A much more generous grant from the Crown Prince of Denmark allowed him to devote himself to the study of Kant at a point when overwork had undermined his health, and for a while he transformed himself into a philosopher. Schiller was disappointed that Kant did not have a theory of beauty which gave a proper dignity and importance to the literature to which he was, in every sense, devoting his life. (Kant had a good reason for not having such a theory: he thought nothing could, by definition, be more important than morality, doing what was right, and what he said about beauty was deliberately designed to prevent the slide from aesthetic into moral and theological language that had been encouraged by talk of poets as ‘creators’ and genius as ‘god-like’). Picking up a metaphor that was common in the circle around Goethe Schiller started to treat literature as a kind of ‘art’, and in a number of studies – notably On the Aesthetic Education of Humanity in a Series of Letters (Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen, 1795) – he developed a systematic account of beauty as the sensuous manifestation of moral freedom, and so of artists as the moral liberators and educators of the human race. Armed with this flattering theory he approached Goethe, who had hitherto kept him at a distance, with p. 62the proposal that they should jointly edit a new literary journal, The Horae (Die Horen, 1795–7).

Goethe had originally seen in the author of The Robbers, with its vision of Germany as a place of hopeless and unproductive conflict, the representative of everything he was trying to escape when he came to Weimar in 1775. But their different developments led them on convergent paths. Goethe had begun life in Weimar by cutting himself off completely from the commercial book-trade (in which he had earned a lot of money for the pirate publishers, but none for himself ). For ten years, he published almost nothing, giving himself instead to the small world of administration and court life (he was made a Privy Councillor, and ennobled) and to a semi-tutorial relationship with his friend and patron, the young duke. He continued to write but completed little beyond the first version of a play, Iphigenia in Tauris (1779 and 1786–7), in prose, but in the courtly French form approved by Gottsched, on the healing power of a resolute faith in the goodness of things. That faith was severely tried as the duchy came to seem constricted and unreformable and as his poetry all but dried up, but in 1786 in desperation he broke out: he fulfilled a lifelong ambition to follow Winckelmann and travel to Rome, and he returned to publishing by signing a contract to bring out a collected edition of his writings. Over the next few years he completely changed the basis of his presence in Weimar, withdrawing from his originally total commitment to a princely court and rebalancing his relationship with the middle-class reading public. His visit to Rome turned into a two-year sabbatical, spent enjoying the art and landscape of Italy and the life of the German artists’ colony, from which he returned with reluctance; he persuaded the Duke to relieve him of his administrative duties and treat him first and foremost ‘as a poet’; he completed his edition, finishing Egmont and Torquato Tasso, the first tragedy with a poet as its hero, and putting Iphigenia into fluent blank verse; and to the horror of titled Weimar he p. 63set up house with a middle-class woman, Christiane Vulpius (1765–1816), who bore him several children of whom only a son survived infancy. Karl August, however, expected something in exchange for the salary on which Goethe, despite his private means, had come to rely, and from 1791 put his poet in charge of his theatre. Goethe did his duty, but with mixed feelings. Drama had been his medium in the time of Storm and Stress, which he had now put behind him, and theatre as court entertainment had little appeal when he had so recently committed himself at last to addressing a wider public through print. The ducal institution that now attracted him was the university of Jena, which, with the recent appointment of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) and of Schiller himself, had become the principal centre of Kantianism after Königsberg. Schiller’s proposal of collaboration came at just the right time.

His project was very ambitious. Supported by the Stuttgart businessman Johann Friedrich Cotta (1764–1832), in whom he had at last found a publisher who believed in paying his authors well, Schiller intended to gather in all Germany’s big names from its courts and universities and provide them with an outlet whose circulation would rival that of Wieland’s German Mercury. The elite culture of the officials, the aesthetic education of which he was just writing the theory, would meet the volume market of the commercial and professional classes: the German-speaking world would have a unified literature, at once sophisticated and popular. Launched amid intense curiosity in 1795, The Horae, the first venture to link the names of Goethe and Schiller, was dead in the water after two years. It failed, essentially, because it closed its pages to the one thing everyone wanted to read about: politics, and especially the French Revolution. The restriction was unavoidable: had political discussion been allowed, it would have revealed the deep divergence of interests between the two wings of the middle class which the journal was trying to unite. With its failure the gap opened up anyway, and recognition p. 64of it became a permanent feature of official literature: Xenia (Xenien, 1796), the collection of satirical epigrams with which Goethe and Schiller took their revenge on the commercial book market, inaugurated a tradition of critique of the bourgeois public (Publikumsbeschimpfung) which has lasted to the present day.

Goethe was probably not surprised by the fate of The Horae. At the same time, his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1795–6) also met with a cool reception. He sensed that the future of German literature lay with the new generation inspired by the new philosophy, who, whether they admitted it or not, could not rely on a mass public to share their concerns. For a decade young intellectuals, especially those hoping for a career as servants of the state, saw the Kantian philosophical revolution as Germany’s moral alternative to the French political revolution and looked to Kantianism to reinterpret or replace the religious faith that Enlightenment had shaken. Wilhelm Meister was written for them, though it had something more disturbingly revolutionary to teach them than they were perhaps willing to learn. Through a story of emancipation from the Storm and Stress illusion of the transformative power of literature and the theatre, it tells the deeper story of a young man’s education out of the delusive belief that his life is in the hands of some external power, such as providence or fate, and into the recognition that meaning is something he has to make for himself. Goethe recognized that, however conciliatory it appeared on the surface, philosophical idealism was based on a self-assertion profoundly disruptive of our relation with our historical and natural origins, and that in that sense it was indeed part of the same revolution that was taking a political form in France. As the military consequences of the Revolution gradually engulfed Germany Goethe made repeated attempts, none of them wholly successful, to represent it directly in literature. Success came indirectly when, at Schiller’s urging, he resumed work on Faust, of which he had published a fragmentary version in 1790. He revised and greatly extended p. 65his ‘Urfaust’ draft, altering his original conception so much that he decided to divide the material into two parts, of which the first was ready for the printer by 1806. If the Urfaust was a transposition of an old story into a contemporary mode, Faust. Part One is an ironical reversion to the old story itself: Goethe multiplies the points of contact with the original legend, in particular preparing the way for Faust to conjure up Helen of Troy in Part Two and so reducing the affair between Faust and Gretchen to an episode. But Part One still ends with the tragic scenes that conclude the Urfaust and the target of its irony is the notion that anything as inseparable from Christian ideas as the 16th-century tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil can have any relevance to the modern world. Faust emphatically dissociates himself from the Christian past when, in a new scene showing his agreement with Mephistopheles, he commits himself to living life to the full and for its own sake and wagers that he will never find anything in the world more valuable than his own capacity for experiencing it. Part One is thus, in its own way, as much an updating of the myth as the Urfaust: its Faust represents an idealist and revolutionary era as much as his predecessor represented an era of Storm and Stress; and his catastrophic involvement with Gretchen amounts to as penetrating an interrogation of the moral foundations of modernity.

For nearly ten years after the arrival of Fichte, the university of Jena was the intellectual centre of Germany, the vortex, as Ezra Pound would have said, in which many of the philosophical, theological, sociological, and aesthetic ideas dominant in the modern world were formed. With Goethe, Herder, and Wieland nearby, Fichte and Schiller were a magnet for younger talent. The brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt (1767–1835 and 1769–1859), key figures in 19th-century philology and natural science respectively, were both attracted. Schiller’s Württemberg connections brought across three former students from the Lutheran seminary in Tübingen who between them changed the face of Western thought: the poet Friedrich Hölderlin p. 66(1770–1843), and the two philosophers he inspired, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775–1854) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), both of whom held chairs in Jena. The translator, literary critic, and gifted versifier August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845) took up residence in order to collaborate on The Horae and begin his verse translation of Shakespeare (completed 1823) and his brother Friedrich (1772–1829), a brilliant literary theorist and aphorist, but less sure-footed as a philosopher and novelist, soon followed. Friedrich Schlegel first gave currency to the term ‘romantic’ as a description of post-classical literature generally, and particularly of literature that lent itself to being understood in terms of the new idealist philosophy, as an expression or exploration of subjectivity. If any one person can be said to have founded ‘Romanticism’, it is he. With his brother he started a journal, Athenaeum (1798–1800), in which he published his own essays and ‘fragments’ – aphorisms and brief speculations on literary and philosophical topics – and some of the fragments and poems of his close friend Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as ‘Novalis’ (1772–1801). Novalis had studied in Jena and still took time away from his post as a Saxon mining official to visit it, and he provided Schlegel with a tangible example of what ‘romantic’ literature might be. His Hymns to Night (Hymnen an die Nacht) explicitly reversed the imagery of Enlightenment to proclaim a revival of the power of religion. But it was an idealist’s religion, which explored the universe – and Novalis had a polymath curiosity about the world – as a dimension of the self: ‘The way of mystery leads inwards. Within us, or nowhere, lies eternity with all its worlds’. To this total interfusion of world and self Novalis, like Schlegel, gave the name of ‘poetry’. Novalis rescued religion from secularization, but at the price of making it indistinguishable from aesthetics. Schelling had no time for Novalis’ medievalism (provocatively expounded in Christendom or Europe [Die Christenheit oder Europa], 1799) but, like Hölderlin and Hegel, he was impressed by Schiller’s theory of aesthetic education and gave ‘Art’, as the subject matter of aesthetics was now called, pride of place at the summit of his p. 67System of Transcendental Idealism (1800). In lectures he argued that the support of ‘Art’ was a proper concern of the state, so advancing ‘artists’ – including poets – to the rank of functionaries like the clergy of the state church. Literature, thus understood, was a high calling, deserving the attention of metaphysicians, but it lost its direct link to the public, and to the market-place. It could not take seriously the realistic stories of bourgeois life that were currently so successful with English book-buyers. And because it was to be written by officials, or by those aspiring to office, it could not be written by women.

But if literature was not to be ‘Art’, what else could it be in a Germany where only those close to the central state power could have any sense of what really determined collective life and social identity? Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, known as ‘Jean Paul’ (1763–1825), in what, for want of a better word, must be called his novels, made a serious attempt to transfigure the trivial alternative, and had a considerable commercial success, particularly with women readers. But in order to be realistic about the Germany that lay outside the orbit of the higher officials he had to concentrate on lives that were crushed, distorted, or excluded from power, and these he could make significant only by diluting his realism with sentiment, fantasy, religiosity, and Sternean self-irony, unfortunately without Sterne’s concision. In Titan (1800–3), he satirized the aesthetic pretensions of Weimar society, on the margins of which he settled between 1796 and 1801. Goethe, though, was actually rather sceptical of grand claims for the power of poetry. He could see that the tide had turned and that the aim of The Horae, to establish a republic of letters that could unite the Germany of the courts with the Germany of the publishers, was no longer feasible. After the treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, the Holy Roman Empire, which provided the political framework for the project, was clearly in terminal decline. And as the Empire disaggregated, under pressure from Napoleon, so the universities of the smaller states, which had relied on the Empire as their catchment area, lost their role.

p. 68Alone, Saxe-Weimar was not big enough to contain the energies concentrated in Jena: external threats led to the sacking of Fichte, on a charge of atheism, in 1799 and thereafter the luminaries trickled away.

Goethe turned to the court: perhaps in the theatre, which so far he had treated as a sideline, he could achieve on the small scale the cultural integration which had been too much for The Horae. In 1798 a completely rebuilt theatre was reopened with Schiller’s first new play for over a decade, Wallenstein, a verse tragedy in three parts, and over the next seven years Goethe deliberately tried to create a house style that could accommodate both crowd-pulling sentimental or musical entertainments and advanced intellectual experiment. The middle ground was triumphantly occupied by Schiller who had also achieved a successful compromise in his personal arrangements, maintaining his freedom by relying principally on his earnings from Cotta, but with insurance provided by his ducal stipend and by the crucial promise of a pension if his frail health should give way. Between 1800 and his death in 1805 he wrote four more major plays for Weimar, combining elements from both the Shakespearean and the French traditions, spectacular, stageable, popular, and profound. In Wallenstein, Maria Stuart (1800), and The Maid of Orleans (Die Jungfrau von Orleans, 1801), he tested out Kant’s moral psychology in circumstances of increasing complexity, striving for the impossible goal that his aesthetic theory had put before him: to give visible and tangible manifestation to human freedom and the human power of self-redemption, which he believed persist even when most implacably opposed by political reality. In Maria Stuart, for example, Queen Elizabeth is physically free but morally has chosen to become the slave of external forces, while Mary Queen of Scots, though physically imprisoned, acquires a moral autonomy that frees her from the burden of past guilt. Schiller is able to represent Mary’s transcendental liberation, however, only by recourse to an older symbolic language – he stages a scene of sacramental confession and communion – whichp. 69p. 70presupposes a different source of redemption and can be seen as effectual only if it is not seen as a mere theatrical metaphor. Schiller’s last completed play, Wilhelm Tell (1804), with its themes of collective, rather than individual, liberation, and of the justifiability of murder in a political cause, suggests that when death overtook him he was already trying to move beyond the moral confines of Kantian idealism. But in his struggle with Kant’s immensely powerful analysis of subjectivity Schiller produced studies of human identity at odds with its political context which psychologically and formally are still as compellingly problematic as when he wrote them.

7. A Glimpse of Greece at its Zenith (1825), by Karl Friedrich Schinkel The vision of a society at harmony with itself and Nature, and celebrating human and divine beauty through art, was the inspiration of the German Hellenistic, or ‘classical’, movement

What Schiller made dramatic, Hölderlin made fully tragic. His odes, elegies, and Pindaric ‘hymns’, his novel Hyperion (1797–9), his unfinished drama, The Death of Empedocles (Der Tod des Empedokles, 1798–9), and his translations of Sophocles together make up one of the lonely summits of modern European literature. Hölderlin belonged to a generation of young people whose formative experience was the first flush of excitement at the outbreak of the French Revolution: a vision of the possibility of human transformation which remained with them even when the Revolution itself faded away into Realpolitik and imperialist wars and the hope of transplanting it into Germany was repeatedly disappointed. At the same time he and his fellow students of theology experienced the first impact of the Kantian moral philosophy. After its aesthetic reinterpretation by Schiller, they combined it with Winckelmann’s Hellenism to create an image of ancient Greek religion as the liberated and humanist alternative to the joyless and authoritarian Lutheranism imparted in the seminaries. But Hölderlin had too deep an understanding of Christianity to be able to detach himself from it completely. And in 18th-century Germany there were no jobs for priests of Apollo. Schelling and Hegel broke into university philosophy but Hölderlin’s attempts at an academic career were ineffectual, he could earn little from publication, and for as long as his sanity lasted, he had to earn his living as a private tutor. He finally p. 71succumbed to schizophrenia in 1806 but by then he had had the ‘one summer and one autumn for ripe song’ that he asked the fates to grant him. The poetry of his few years of maturity is marked by a uniquely powerful sense of an imminent – though never actual – divine epiphany:

Nah ist

Und schwer zu fassen der Gott.

Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst

Das Rettende auch.

[Near is,/And hard to grasp, the God./Where though there is danger grows/The means of rescue also.]

The modernity of this sense of the divine lies partly in its historicity: in Hölderlin’s conviction that God has been incarnated in human time, in the culture of Periclean Athens and in the life of Jesus Christ, and could or should have become flesh again in his own revolutionary age, possibly in a German aesthetic republic. But the modernity also lies in the overwhelming integrity of the poetry which is the vehicle of the conviction. Hölderlin summoned an objective divine presence out of the depth of his faith and remained its prophet even when it turned into divine absence. He lived by his vocation, even when it seemed to condemn him to failure and madness. The sense of exposure to an inscrutable and impersonal fate grows in his later verse but it is matched by an extraordinary fortitude that continues to trust in the power of the word, or even of single words, to catch the sunlight of meaning. His finest poems – such as Bread and Wine (Brod und Wein), Patmos, Midway through Life (Hälfte des Lebens) – are the supreme achievement of the Idealist age in German literature. But the achievement was dearly purchased.

(ii) The birth of nationalism (1806–32)

The course and character of German nationalism was largely determined by Napoleon. By replacing the Holy Roman Empire with a collection of nominally sovereign, client states he deprived Germans of the federal identity they had possessed for centuries. By his decision, which he came to regret, not to suppress the kingdom of Prussia after his defeat of its armies at Jena and Auerstädt in 1806, he virtually guaranteed that Prussia would be the focus of any attempt to define a new unity, at least by Protestants. The symbol of Prussia’s determination to reform itself after defeat was already a symbol of its new awareness of its political and cultural centrality: the University of Berlin, founded in 1810 at the instigation of Wilhelm von Humboldt, with Fichte as its rector, clearly aspired to succeed Jena as a university for all Germany (and both Hegel and Schelling eventually taught there), but its location in the capital city (unique in Germany at the time) proclaimed that the life of the mind was henceforth fully integrated into the life of the centralized sovereign state.

In literature the transition from the cosmopolitan idealism of the Jena period to recognition of the determining role of the nation-state can be traced in the career of a lonely genius. Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811), sprung from an illustrious Prussian military family, was in philosophical and literary matters self-taught. Desperate to escape his hereditary destiny to be a soldier he tried to earn his living as a writer and journalist. He discovered Kant for himself but, unaware of post-Kantian developments, was more affected by Kant’s critical questions than by his constructive answers, and in his plays and stories mounted a searing assault on the moral psychology on which Schiller’s mature work was based. In both his tragedy Penthesilea (1808), for example, which shows a Greece totally lacking in the nobility and calm that Winckelmann prized, and in his enigmatic story The Marchioness of O … (Die Marquise von O., 1808), the p. 73heroine attempts in Schillerian fashion to defy the world and rely on the certainty of her own self-knowledge, only to discover that the self is fallible. Kleist’s later work, such as the story Trial by Combat (Der Zweikampf, 1811) and the drama Prinz Friedrich von Homburg (1809–10), begins to suggest a way out of the dilemma: after suffering a breakdown like one of Kleist’s earlier figures, the Prince of Homburg recovers his identity by acknowledging that it depends on his membership of a human community, in his case the embryonic state of Prussia. The new insight came too late to save Kleist, however. Unable to make a living from his writing, and reduced to begging for any sort of an official position, he committed suicide in a pact with a woman with incurable cancer.

With the exception of Kleist, Prussian writers of the early 19th century had difficulty in establishing any organic continuity with the idealist literary culture of the small courts that had borne so much fruit in the last years of the Holy Roman Empire. It is unfortunate that the term ‘Romanticism’ is used to refer both to the work of Friedrich Schlegel, Schelling and Novalis in linking the new philosophy of subjectivity with ideas about ‘Art’, religion, and the state, and to the Prussian literature of escape that reflected the condition of the monarchy’s oppressed bourgeoisie, and was in effect the emerging intellectual end of the commercial literature of entertainment. (Between 1770 and 1840 adult literacy rose from 15% to 50% of the German population, and by 1800 secular literature accounted for four times as many new titles as popular theology, so reversing a historic relationship which had held good until the middle of the 18th century.) Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853), a Berliner who discovered the charms of the old Empire, residing in Jena in its great days and editing the literary remains of Novalis, followed Jean Paul as one of the first fully professional German men of letters who was not a mere hack. But he was a literary jackdaw, appropriating whatever was fashionable and could be made to sell without always appreciating its worth – his The Wanderings p. 74of Franz Sternbald (Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen, 1798), for example, imitated Wilhelm Meister while stripping out the analysis of identity that made Goethe’s novel both significant and inaccessible. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776–1822) was a more considerable talent, a gifted musician, a highly placed legal official, and a true disciple of Jean Paul. He both exaggerated his master’s contrast between reality and fantasy and made it a more explicit expression of the contrast between the corralled bourgeoisie and the free-floating intellectuals to whom Germany owed its new conception of culture (Life and Opinions of Murr the Tom-Cat [Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr], 1820–2). The nightmarish element in the fantasy, which he shares with Tieck, hints none the less at the bourgeoisie’s deeply buried aggression against the bureaucratic, purportedly rational, political order (The Sandman [Der Sandmann], 1815). Cut off by his Catholicism from the aesthetic idealism of Weimar and Jena, which was by origin entirely Protestant, and exiled from his Silesian homeland to the civil service in Berlin, Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857) turned a similar sense of alienation into melodious and nostalgic poems, still widely popular, on Goethean landscapes – hills, forests, warm summer moonlight – in which, however, the charm of an impersonal distance is substituted for Goethe’s ever-present and ever-reactive self.

It was Fichte who found a way to link the Jena philosophy of subjectivity with the political imperative to define German life in terms of the new concept of the nation-state and who thus made it possible for a unified Germany to seem a compelling intellectual necessity. In 1807–8, in a Berlin still garrisoned by the French, he delivered a series of Addresses to the German Nation (Reden an die deutsche Nation) in which he claimed that idealist philosophy necessarily gave a unique place in European history to Germany, since Germany had given birth to idealist philosophy, and called on Germans to identify themselves with this historical mission by identifying themselves with the state that was its p. 75embodiment. The apex of the conceptual pyramid, which in Jena had been occupied by Art, was in Berlin to be occupied by the historical life of the nation. A new wave of enthusiasm for the German past swept across intellectual Germany, but unlike the historical turn of the Storm and Stress years it was motivated, not by the search for cultural resources that pre-dated absolutism, but by the search for a nationhood that could be opposed to that of the occupying French. It was both more escapist and more professionally purposeful than the movement of the previous generation and was principally directed not towards the 16th century, when the federal Empire was still relatively strong and the bourgeoisie was still in the ascendant, but towards an earlier Middle Ages, and chivalrous and pious myths that disguised military and state power rather than responding to economic realities. The Prussian Ludwig Achim von Arnim (1781–1831) joined forces with Clemens Brentano (1778–1842) from Frankfurt, who was the son of an early flame of Goethe’s and whose sister Arnim eventually married, to collect (mainly southwest) German folk songs as Goethe and Herder had done. But the nostalgic tone of their highly successful anthology, The Boy’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn, 1806–8), betrayed that it was the voice of a Germany that was a past or future, not a present reality. Serious medieval philology was already beginning, however; the Lay of the Nibelungs was translated in 1807 by a future professor of German literature at the University of Berlin; and the scholars Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785–1863, 1786–1859) collected Hessian ‘fairy’ tales and launched the first historical dictionary of the German language (which took well over a hundred years to complete). The universities were, as Fichte envisaged, a focus of the more political forms of nationalism, and students – and student-poets not otherwise of literary significance – were prominent among the volunteers who, as a historical mirror-image of the French popular armies in the early Revolutionary days, and in black, red, and gold uniform, helped to sweep away the invaders in the ‘Wars of Liberation’ of 1812–14.

p. 76Germany’s federal tradition continued, however, to be of cultural importance. While Prussia grew towards a bureaucratic model of the nation-state and Austria turned its attention south and east, the smaller German territories kept alive something of the spirit of the old Empire, its cosmopolitanism, and its belief in a literary and intellectual community larger than the local political unit. Hegel, though often misrepresented as a Prussian nationalist, saw the model of political life in the constitutional monarchies which briefly, between 1815 and the Carlsbad decrees of 1819, looked like Germany’s future, and in his maturity he regarded contemporary Germany as a structure of interrelated sovereign states, not, even potentially, as a single polity. His encyclopaedic interest in world history was typical of the curiosity that could flourish in German courts and universities, uncompromised by any imperialist designs of their own, about the wider world being opened up to Europe by its newly expanding empires. Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Schlegels made themselves expert in the languages of ancient India, while Alexander von Humboldt, after years of exploration in the Americas, began to see the world as a single biological system (Cosmos, 1845–62). A different kind of desire to transcend incipient nationalism was shown by a number of intellectuals who converted to Catholicism and thereby opted out of official idealist culture altogether: Friedrich Schlegel, who converted in 1808, and Zacharias Werner (1768–1823), an able dramatist, whom Goethe briefly considered a possible successor to Schiller in Weimar, but who ended life as a priest in Vienna.

Goethe held his own course through these troubled waters. The death of Schiller and the battle of Jena, which nearly led to the extinction of the duchy of Weimar, were traumatically decisive events for him, and after his experiment with Werner he took a public stand against ‘Romanticism’ and especially Romantic religiosity. His subtle and complex novel, Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandschaften, 1809), based on an episode in the career of the Schlegels, structured around one of the supreme examples of the device of the unreliable narrator, and set in a country housep. 77p. 78and parkland whose symbolic implications only gradually become apparent, shows the tragically destructive effects of Romantic attitudes on the lives and feelings of four contemporary people. Goethe also found it easier than many of his fellow Germans to reconcile himself to the rule of Napoleon, who seemed to him an almost legitimate successor to the Holy Roman Emperor and a continuator of the Enlightenment tradition of firm but rational government. In the later years of the Napoleonic Empire, he felt sufficiently at ease with himself and his public to embark on an extensive autobiography, an avowed and often misleading stylization of a literary career which he now thought was largely in the past, Truth and Fiction from my Life (Aus meinem Leben Dichtung und Wahrheit, 1811–33). But the turmoil of Napoleon’s overthrow, and the reactionary and churchy atmosphere of the Restoration, isolated him once more and provoked a new outburst of poetic activity as he fled in his imagination into the sceptical, non-Christian, wine-bibbing, and erotically relaxed atmosphere of medieval Iran. The Parliament of East and West (West-Östlicher Divan, 1819), the collection of poems which he wrote in an extraordinary conversation across the centuries with the Persian poet Hafiz, found few admirers at the time – though Hegel was among them – but it anticipated an orientalizing strand in poetry which lasted for most of the 19th century. In the last third of his life, Goethe turned definitively to print as the focus of his activity and to three increasingly weighty editions of his collected works. For the last of these, intended to secure the financial future of his family, he obtained the first grant of an effective copyright for all the German-speaking territories: Germany had finally become a nation, if only in literature. But Goethe was not moved by nationalist fervour and was suspicious of the nation-state, especially Prussia. He thought of himself as writing for the like-minded, wherever they might be, and increasingly as writing for the future, reserving the publication of the second part of his life’s work, Faust, until after his death. Faust. Part Two (1832) is Goethe’s last word on the age he had lived through, a poetic and symbolic panorama taking in the misrule and frustrations of the p. 79last years of the ancien régime, the quixotic cultural endeavours of the great age of idealism (symbolized in Faust’s brief marriage to Helen of Troy), the explosion of violence in revolution and war, and the advance of capital and industry, empire, and undisguised state power, in the post-Napoleonic era. Through it all Faust threads his way, his fateful wager now virtually a symbol of the moral ambivalence of modernity, as destructive as it is creative. Goethe’s final judgement on Faust is correspondingly ambiguous, poised between an annihilating, but realistic, dismissal by Mephistopheles and a triumphant, but ironical, expression of hope by the hosts of heaven: a permanent challenge to us who come after to reassess the play, and ourselves.

8. Life mask of Goethe (1807) of Goethe at 58 – the nearest we have to a photograph of him