Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
3:51 h Verse Lvl 11.52
Faust is a tragic play in two parts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, usually known in English as Faust, Part One and Faust, Part Two. Nearly all of Part One and the majority of Part Two are written in rhymed verse. Faust is considered by many to be Goethe's magnum opus and the greatest work of German literature. Faust, Part One takes place in multiple settings, the first of which is Heaven. Mephistopheles (Satan) makes a bet with God: he says that he can lure God's favourite human being (Faust), who is striving to learn everything that can be known, away from righteous pursuits. The next scene takes place in Faust's study where Faust, despairing at the vanity of scientific, humanistic, and religious learning, turns to magic for the showering of infinite knowledge. He suspects, however, that his attempts are failing. Frustrated, he ponders suicide, but rejects it as he hears the echo of nearby Easter celebrations begin. He goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner and is followed home by a stray poodle.


Part 1

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated into English, in the Original Metres, by Bayard Taylor

With Illustrations by
Harry Clarke




It is twenty years since I first determined to attempt the translation of Faust, in the original metres. At that time, although more than a score of English translations of the First Part, and three or four of the Second Part, were in existence, the experiment had not yet been made. The prose version of Hayward seemed to have been accepted as the standard, in default of anything more satisfactory: the English critics, generally sustaining the translator in his views concerning the secondary importance of form in Poetry, practically discouraged any further attempt; and no one, familiar with rhythmical expression through the needs of his own nature, had devoted the necessary love and patience to an adequate reproduction of the great work of Goethe’s life.

Mr. Brooks was the first to undertake the task, and the publication of his translation of the First Part (in 1856) induced me, for a time, to give up my own design. No previous English version exhibited such abnegation of the translator’s own tastes and habits of thought, such reverent desire to present the original in its purest form. The care and conscience with which the work had been performed were so apparent, that I now state with reluctance what then seemed to me to be its only deficiencies, — a lack of the lyrical fire and fluency of the original in some passages, and an occasional lowering of the tone through the use of words which are literal, but not equivalent. The plan of translation adopted by Mr. Brooks was so entirely my own, that when further residence in Germany and a more careful study of both parts of Faust had satisfied me that the field was still open, — that the means furnished by the poetical affinity of the two languages had not yet been exhausted, — nothing remained for me but to follow him in all essential particulars. His example confirmed me in the belief that there were few difficulties in the way of a nearly literal yet thoroughly rhythmical version of Faust,which might not be overcome by loving labor. A comparison of seventeen English translations, in the arbitrary metres adopted by the translators, sufficiently showed the danger of allowing license in this respect: the white light of Goethe’s thought was thereby passed through the tinted glass of other minds, and assumed the coloring of each. Moreover, the plea of selecting different metres in the hope of producing a similar effect is unreasonable, where the identical metres are possible.

The value of form, in a poetical work, is the first question to be considered. No poet ever understood this question more thoroughly than Goethe himself, or expressed a more positive opinion in regard to it. The alternative modes of translation which he presents (reported by Riemer, quoted by Mrs. Austin, in her “Characteristics of Goethe,” and accepted by Mr. Hayward), are quite independent of his views concerning the value of form, which we find given elsewhere, in the clearest and most emphatic manner. Poetry is not simply a fashion of expression: it is the form of expression absolutely required by a certain class of ideas. Poetry, indeed, may be distinguished from Prose by the single circumstance, that it is the utterance of whatever in man cannot be perfectly uttered in any other than a rhythmical form: it is useless to say that the naked meaning is independent of the form: on the contrary, the form contributes essentially to the fullness of the meaning. In Poetry which endures through its own inherent vitality, there is no forced union of these two elements. They are as intimately blended, and with the same mysterious beauty, as the sexes in the ancient Hermaphroditus. To attempt to represent Poetry in Prose, is very much like attempting to translate music into speech.

The various theories of translation from the Greek and Latin poets have been admirably stated by Dryden in his Preface to the “Translations from Ovid’s Epistles,” and I do not wish to continue the endless discussion, — especially as our literature needs examples, not opinions. A recent expression, however, carries with it so much authority, that I feel bound to present some considerations which the accomplished scholar seems to have overlooked. Mr. Lewes justly says: “The effect of poetry is a compound of music and suggestion; this music and this suggestion are intermingled in words, which to alter is to alter the effect. For words in poetry are not, as in prose, simple representatives of objects and ideas: they are parts of an organic whole, — they are tones in the harmony.” He thereupon illustrates the effect of translation by changing certain well-known English stanzas into others, equivalent in meaning, but lacking their felicity of words, their grace and melody. I cannot accept this illustration as valid, because Mr. Lewes purposely omits the very quality which an honest translator should exhaust his skill in endeavoring to reproduce. He turns away from the one best word or phrase in the English lines he quotes, whereas the translator seeks precisely that one best word or phrase (having all the resources of his language at command), to represent what is said in another language. More than this, his task is not simply mechanical: he must feel, and be guided by, a secondary inspiration. Surrendering himself to the full possession of the spirit which shall speak through him, he receives, also, a portion of the same creative power. Mr. Lewes reaches this conclusion: “If, therefore, we reflect what a poem Faust is, and that it contains almost every variety of style and metre, it will be tolerably evident that no one unacquainted with the original can form an adequate idea of it from translation,” which is certainly correct of any translation wherein something of the rhythmical variety and beauty of the original is not retained. That very much of the rhythmical character may be retained in English, was long ago shown by Mr. Carlyle, in the passages which he translated, both literally and rhythmically, from the Helena (Part Second). In fact, we have so many instances of the possibility of reciprocally transferring the finest qualities of English and German poetry, that there is no sufficient excuse for an unmetrical translation of Faust. I refer especially to such subtile and melodious lyrics as “The Castle by the Sea,” of Uhland, and the “Silent Land” of Salis, translated by Mr. Longfellow; Goethe’s “Minstrel” and “Coptic Song,” by Dr. Hedge; Heine’s “Two Grenadiers,” by Dr. Furness and many of Heine’s songs by Mr. Leland; and also to the German translations of English lyrics, by Freiligrath and Strodtmann.

I have a more serious objection, however, to urge against Mr. Hayward’s prose translation. Where all the restraints of verse are flung aside, we should expect, at least, as accurate a reproduction of the sense, spirit, and tone of the original, as the genius of our language will permit. So far from having given us such a reproduction, Mr. Hayward not only occasionally mistakes the exact meaning of the German text, but, wherever two phrases may be used to express the meaning with equal fidelity, he very frequently selects that which has the less grace, strength, or beauty.

For there are few things which may not be said, in English, in a twofold manner, — one poetic, and the other prosaic. In German, equally, a word which in ordinary use has a bare prosaic character may receive a fairer and finer quality from its place in verse. The prose translator should certainly be able to feel the manifestation of this law in both languages, and should so choose his words as to meet their reciprocal requirements. A man, however, who is not keenly sensible to the power and beauty and value of rhythm, is likely to overlook these delicate yet most necessary distinctions. The author’s thought is stripped of a last grace in passing through his mind, and frequently presents very much the same resemblance to the original as an unhewn shaft to the fluted column. Mr. Hayward unconsciously illustrates his lack of a refined appreciation of verse, “in giving,” as he says, “a sort of rhythmical arrangement to the lyrical parts,” his object being “to convey some notion of the variety of versification which forms one great charm of the poem.” A literal translation is always possible in the unrhymed passages; but even here Mr. Hayward’s ear did not dictate to him the necessity of preserving the original rhythm.

While, therefore, I heartily recognize his lofty appreciation of Faust, — while I honor him for the patient and conscientious labor he has bestowed upon his translation, — I cannot but feel that he has himself illustrated the unsoundness of his argument. Nevertheless, the circumstance that his prose translation of Faust has received so much acceptance proves those qualities of the original work which cannot be destroyed by a test so violent. From the cold bare outline thus produced, the reader unacquainted with the German language would scarcely guess what glow of color, what richness of changeful life, what fluent grace and energy of movement have been lost in the process. We must, of course, gratefully receive such an outline, where a nearer approach to the form of the original is impossible, but, until the latter has been demonstrated, we are wrong to remain content with the cheaper substitute.

It seems to me that in all discussions upon this subject the capacities of the English language have received but scanty justice. The intellectual tendencies of our race have always been somewhat conservative, and its standards of literary taste or belief, once set up, are not varied without a struggle. The English ear is suspicious of new metres and unaccustomed forms of expression: there are critical detectives on the track of every author, and a violation of the accepted canons is followed by a summons to judgment. Thus the tendency is to contract rather than to expand the acknowledged excellences of the language.

The difficulties in the way of a nearly literal translation of Faust in the original metres have been exaggerated, because certain affinities between the two languages have not been properly considered. With all the splendor of versification in the work, it contains but few metres of which the English tongue is not equally capable. Hood has familiarized us with dactylic (triple) rhymes, and they are remarkably abundant and skillful in Mr. Lowell’s “Fable for the Critics”: even the unrhymed iambic hexameter of the Helena occurs now and then in Milton’s Samson Agonistes. It is true that the metrical foot into which the German language most naturally falls is the trochaic, while in English it is the iambic: it is true that German is rich, involved, and tolerant of new combinations, while English is simple, direct, and rather shy of compounds; but precisely these differences are so modified in the German of Faust that there is a mutual approach of the two languages. In Faust, the iambic measure predominates; the style is compact; the many licenses which the author allows himself are all directed towards a shorter mode of construction. On the other hand, English metre compels the use of inversions, admits many verbal liberties prohibited to prose, and so inclines towards various flexible features of its sister-tongue that many lines of Faust may be repeated in English without the slightest change of meaning, measure, or rhyme. There are words, it is true, with so delicate a bloom upon them that it can in no wise be preserved; but even such words will always lose less when they carry with them their rhythmical atmosphere. The flow of Goethe’s verse is sometimes so similar to that of the corresponding English metre, that not only its harmonies and caesural pauses, but even its punctuation, may be easily retained.

I am satisfied that the difference between a translation of Faust in prose or metre is chiefly one of labor, — and of that labor which is successful in proportion as it is joyously performed. My own task has been cheered by the discovery, that the more closely I reproduced the language of the original, the more of its rhythmical character was transferred at the same time. If, now and then, there was an inevitable alternative of meaning or music, I gave the preference to the former. By the term “original metres” I do not mean a rigid, unyielding adherence to every foot, line, and rhyme of the German original, although this has very nearly been accomplished. Since the greater part of the work is written in an irregular measure, the lines varying from three to six feet, and the rhymes arranged according to the author’s will, I do not consider that an occasional change in the number of feet, or order of rhyme, is any violation of the metrical plan. The single slight liberty I have taken with the lyrical passages is in Margaret’s song, — “The King of Thule,” — in which, by omitting the alternate feminine rhymes, yet retaining the metre, I was enabled to make the translation strictly literal. If, in two or three instances, I have left a line unrhymed, I have balanced the omission by giving rhymes to other lines which stand unrhymed in the original text. For the same reason, I make no apology for the imperfect rhymes, which are frequently a translation as well as a necessity. With all its supreme qualities, Faust is far from being a technically perfect work.

The feminine and dactylic rhymes, which have been for the most part omitted by all metrical translators except Mr. Brooks, are indispensable. The characteristic tone of many passages would be nearly lost, without them. They give spirit and grace to the dialogue, point to the aphoristic portions (especially in the Second Part), and an ever-changing music to the lyrical passages. The English language, though not so rich as the German in such rhymes, is less deficient than is generally supposed. The difficulty to be overcome is one of construction rather than of the vocabulary. The present participle can only be used to a limited extent, on account of its weak termination, and the want of an accusative form to the noun also restricts the arrangement of words in English verse. I cannot hope to have been always successful; but I have at least labored long and patiently, bearing constantly in mind not only the meaning of the original and the mechanical structure of the lines, but also that subtile and haunting music which seems to govern rhythm instead of being governed by it.

WholeReader. Empty coverWholeReader. Book is closedWholeReader. FilterWholeReader. Compilation cover