The object of the translators of the following tales was to present the English public with a collection, which should combine effectiveness with variety, and at the same time should contain specimens of the most celebrated writers of prose fiction whom Germany has produced. The names of the authors will, they think, be a sufficient guarantee that they have not failed in this last respect, and if the reader finds himself amused or interested by the series, they will have succeeded entirely.
It will be remembered that the collection is a collection of tales only, and that it was absolutely necessary, according to the plan of the book, that these tales should be numerous. Any thing like a lengthened novel was therefore excluded, as it would have exceeded the prescribed limits, or rendered impossible that variety which the translators considered an essential of their work. That short tales, from their very nature, cannot often promote any very high purpose, and that amusement for a leisure hour is their principal purpose, the translators are perfectly aware, admitting that their collection, generally speaking, does not convey that amount of instruction in life and thought, which might be obtained from more elaborate works, such as, for example, the Wilhelm Meister of Göthe. At the same time they trust that Kleist’s Michael Koldhaas, Zschokke’s Alamontade, Schiller’s Criminal from Lost Honour and even Hauff’s fanciful Cold Heart, will be acceptable to those who look for something beyond mere amusement, and that some readers will be found to appreciate the psychological truth and profundity of Hoffmann’s tales beneath their fantastic exterior.
In their versions of the tales the translators have endeavoured, to the utmost of their power, to be correct, preferring even hardness of language to liberties with the original text. The initials in the table of contents will show who was the translator of each particular tale; but it must not be supposed that they worked so separately that the printer and the binder have alone connected the results of their labours. Every tale when finished by the translator was carefully revised by his colleague. In those instances alone have the translators deviated from the original, where they found passages and phrases that they conceived would not accord with English notions of propriety. That in such instances they have softened or omitted, needs no apology.
It has been suggested to the translators that a notice of the authors and the works themselves might, with advantage, be prefixed to the collection. With this suggestion they have complied, trusting that the limited space allowed will be a sufficient excuse for the very sketchy nature of the biographies, if indeed the following notices are worthy of that name.
Göthe and Schiller have attained that universal celebrity, that it would be mere impertinence to say any thing about their lives in a sketch like this. Those eminent promoters of German literature in this country, Mr. T. Carlyle and Sir E. B. Lytton, have done all they could to make the English public familiar with the life of Schiller, and a tolerably full notice of his literary progress will be found in No. LX. of the Foreign Quarterly Review. Those who can read German are recommended to the elaborate life of Schiller by Dr. Hoffmeister, which is a perfect treasury of information and criticism. The materials for a biography of Göthe lie scattered through a vast quantity or correspondence, reminiscences, conversations, and characteristics; but a biography, such as the greatness of the subject requires, is still a desideratum in German literature.
The New Paris, by Göthe, which appears in this collection, is from that delightful autobiography, to which the poet has given the name of Dichtung und Wahrheit. The circumstances under which it is told are sufficiently explained by the short introduction prefixed to it. Schiller’s Criminal from Lost Honour was written during what is called the “second period” of his life, when after the completion of Don Carlos he had quitted dramatic writing for a time, and devoted himself to the study of philosophy and history. The facts of the story he had learned from his friend Abel at an early period. Hoffmeister’s remarks on this story may be found interesting.
“This misguided man, Wolf,” says Hoffmeister, “appears as a mournful sacrifice to the law, which, from this example, should learn mercy. The severity of law has, from a merely conventional offence, elicited a grievous crime, and him, who sinned from thoughtlessness, and was delivered to the care of justice, she has cast off as though he were absolutely worthless. The progress in crime, which is gradually forced upon the man by civil institutions, and his return to virtue, when vice has completed her lesson, are developed and painted to our eyes with extraordinary art. Every action is deduced from thoughts and motives; and these, again, are deduced from states of mind, which necessarily result from the reciprocal action which the soul of the man, and the circumstances by which he was surrounded, had upon each other. Everywhere do we find natural connexion; not a link in the chain is wanting. This psychological novel, like a tragedy, awakens in the reader not only pity, but terror. He feels that in the situation of the unhappy man, he would not have been better himself. The writer fulfils his purpose of plucking us down from our proud security. Man is just as good or bad, we say to ourselves, as his external situation; out external situation is the fate of all of us; and we see in the history of a single individual a sketch of the common lot of man. Moreover, this history of the ‘criminal’ is so remarkable in point of style, that one always reads it with fresh interest. The language is extremely simple, clear, and natural, and there is not a trace of the wearisome, constantly occurring breaks, and the affected antitheses that marked Schiller’s early style. Every thing shows that the author moved in a clear, free element. In some portions he has been eminently successful; as, for instance, in describing the poacher’s state of mind, when he is about to point his gun, at his evil genius, Robert. If, after all our praise, we have one particular to blame, it is this circumstance, that the weakly and delicate ‘host of the Sun,’ who had not as yet distinguished himself in the trade of thieving, should have been unanimously chosen by the robbers for their leader, on his first entrance into their cave. Although he was well known to them as a good poacher, they might yet have reasonable doubts whether he was qualified to be their captain.”
Before quitting Göthe and Schiller, it is as well to state that Göthe was born at Frankfort on the Maine, on the 28th of August, 1749, and died at Weimar on the 22nd of March, 1832; and that Schiller was born at Marbach, on the Neckar, on the 10th of November, 1759, and died at Weimar on the 9th of May, 1805.
Johann August Musäus, one of the most popular tale writers of Germany, was born at Jena, in 1735. His father was a justice there, and was soon afterwards removed to Eisenach, by an official appointment. Young Musäus was educated by a relation named Weissenborn, who held the situation of “General Superintendent” at Eisenach, and with whom he lived from the age of nine to that of nineteen. He studied theology for four years at Jena, and it is thought he might have succeeded as a pastor had not the peasants of Eisenach refused to accept him, because he had been convicted of the grievous crime of — dancing. In consequence of this check to his theological career, he turned his thoughts to literature, and made his first essay by a parody on Richardson’s celebrated novel, called Grandison the Second, which first appeared in 1760. In 1763 he was made Pagenhofmeister (governor of the pages) at the court of Weimar, and some years afterwards professor at the Gymnasium of that place. A considerable period elapsed before he again appeared as an author, when he satirised Lavater in a novel called the Physiognomical Travels. This had an immense success, encouraged by which, he proceeded to collect materials for his Popular Tales of the Germans. This collection he made in a singular manner. Sometimes he would gather round him a crowd of old women with their spinning-wheels and listen to their gossip, sometimes he would hear the stories of children from the street. On one occasion, his wife, returning from a visit, was surprised, as she opened the room-door, by a cloud of tobacco smoke, through which she at last discovered her husband sitting with an old soldier, who was telling him all sorts of tales. On the stories collected by him thus strangely, and afterwards narrated with great humour, though with occasional vulgarity, the fame of Musäus chiefly depends. They were written under the assumed name of Runkel, and were designed, according to the author’s own statement, to put an end to the taste for sentimentality. He began a new series of tales called Ostrich Feathers, of which he only completed one volume. On the 28th of October, 1787, he died of a polypus in the heart, and a handsome monument was erected to him by an unknown hand. His Popular Tales were, at the request of his widow, re-edited after his death by the celebrated Wieland, and this is the edition now current. The story of Libussa, which is taken from the Popular Tales is founded on the Latin history of Bohemia, by Dubravius, and the work of Æneas Sylvius, De Boliemorum gestis et origine. The fables which are uttered by the personages will be found in Dubravius.
The name of Jean Paul Friedrich Richter is almost as well known here as that of Göthe and Schiller; but the eccentricity of his style, and the quantity of local allusions with which he abounds, will probably for ever prevent his works from being extensively read out of Germany. Jean Paul was born at Wimsiedel, in the Baireuth territory, in the early part of 1763, and died at Baireuth on the 14th of November, 1825. He first wrote under the signature of “Jean Paul” only, this he extended to “J. P. F. Halsus,” and it was to his Quintus Fixlein (1796), that he first affixed his real and entire name. In 1780 he went to Leipzig, but this he soon abandoned and resided for some time at Schwarzbach. He visited various cities where he was greatly respected, and received the title of “Legationsrath” from the Duke of Sachsen-Hildburghausen, with a pension, which was afterwards paid by the King of Bavaria. His favourite residence was, however, his native Baireuth. A complete edition of his works, which are very numerous, was published at Berlin in 21 vols., small octavo, in the year 1840, and another in 4 vols., royal octavo, has been published by Baudry of Paris. The short tale of the Moon will give the reader a slight notion — only a slight one — of Jean Paul’s peculiarities. It is prefixed in the original to Quintus Fixlein. An interesting paper on Jean Paul will be found in Mr. Carlyle’s admirable Miscellanies.
The fame of Ludwig Tieck as a writer of romances, and an enthusiastic admirer of all that belongs to the romantic period of literature, is almost as great in England as in Germany. In the history of the “romantic” school, Tieck takes a most prominent position, being one of the chief colleagues and most zealous partisans of the brothers Schlegel. He was born at Berlin on the 31st of May, 1773, and even at school displayed his talents for composition by the commencement of his Abdallah. He studied at Halle, Göttingen, and Erlangen, and read history and poetry, both ancient and modern, with great assiduity. In 1796, his novel, William Lovell, was published at Berlin. A journey from Berlin to Jena made him acquainted with the Schlegels and Hardenberg (Novalis), and at Weimar he became intimate with Herder. His satirical dramas of Blue Beard and Puss in Boots, displayed an Aristophanic vein, and his works relating to art, began to attract general attention. These were The Outpourings from the Heart of an Art-loving Cloister-brother (Berlin, 1797), the Fantasies of Art (Hamburg, 1799), and Franz Sternbald’s Travels (Berlin, 1798), in all of which his friend Wackenrode more or less took a part. Tieck cultivated his taste for the fine arts by a residence in Dresden, Munich, and Rome, and at Jena kept up his acquaintance with Schelling and the Schlegels. In the years 1799-1801, he published his translation of Don Quixote, and about the same period several works of imagination. In 1801-2 he resided at Dresden, and edited, with A. W. Schlegel, the Musenalmanach. For the diffusion of a taste for the middle-age literature of Germany, Tieck made an important contribution by his publication of a selection of the Minnelieder from the Swabian period, that is to say, the period of the German emperors during the dynasty of the Hohenstauffen family, with an elaborate preface, in which he called the attention of the Germans to their old poetry. In 1804 appeared his romantic drama of The Emperor Octavian, and in 1805 he published, in connexion with T. Schlegel, the works of his deceased friend Hardenberg (Novalis), which may be classed among the most extraordinary phenomena of modern literature. The preface to this edition is entirely by Tieck. A long pause now ensued in the midst of his literary productiveness, during which he visited Rome. In 1814 and 1816 appeared his Old English Theatre, consisting of translations from our early drama, and in the same year he published the work to which, more than to any other, he owes his celebrity in this country, his Phantasus. The entire work has never been translated, but the tales which are introduced into it, such as the Blond Eckbert and the Trusty Eckart, are generally known. Another contribution to the study of the old German literature he made by his edition of Ulrich von Lichtenstein’s Frauendienst (service of ladies), a kind of romance, by a celebrated Minnesänger, and a collection of plays under the title of Old German Theatre. In 1818 he visited London, where he was received with great respect, and employed his time in making collections for the study of Shakspeare, in Schlegel’s translation of whom he has taken an important part. Since 1821 he has chiefly been engaged with a series of novels, which are widely different from his former manner, and he is now (we believe) resident at Berlin. The tales from the Phantasus being already so generally known, one of a totally different kind has been given in this volume. The powerful tale of the Klausenburg is from Tieck’s collected novels.
Heinrich von Kleist, from whom two tales have been taken, is another poet of the romantic school, and was born at Frankfort on the Oder, in 1777. He led an unsettled kind of life, residing successively at Paris, Dresden, and Berlin, and after the battle of Jena, retired from the latter city to Königsberg, where he devoted himself to literary pursuits. Returning to Berlin during the French occupation of Prussia, he was taken prisoner, and though he was shortly afterwards released, this imprisonment seems to have had a fatal effect upon a temperament naturally morbid. In 1811, at Potsdam, he voluntarily terminated his own existence, and that of an invalid lady of his acquaintance. His works, which are somewhat numerous, consist of dramas and tales, and are all distinguished by a sort of rugged power. Of his plays, the most celebrated is the romantic drama, Käthchen von Heilbronn, and of his tales, the narrative of Michael Kohlhaas, contained in this collection. A complete edition of his works was published at Berlin, in 1821, by the indefatigable, Ludwig Tieck. The critical remarks which he has made on Kohlhaas, may be extracted with profit.
“Michael Kohlhaas,” says Tieck, “is unquestionably the most remarkable of all Kleist’s narratives, and if we see with what firmness he sketches the various forms, how faithfully the events and feelings are deduced from each other, with what steadiness the narrator advances, step by step, we are tempted to believe that this style is more suitable to the author, and that his talents might have shone forth more brilliantly here than in the drama. Here, as in his plays, we see, as in the form of a law-suit, the misfortune and the guilt of a remarkable man unfolded before his eyes. Few writers understand how to shake our hearts to the very depth, like Kleist, and this is precisely because he goes to work with so steady a purpose, and consciously avoids all soft sentimentality. The insulted and injured Kohlhaas becomes unhappy; — nay, becomes a criminal through his misery and his keen sense of justice, until he is called back from his career by the revered Luther, and by his means obtains a hearing for his suit, so that he can stand boldly forward. It is only by chance without any fault on his own part, that he finds at Dresden, that his position has grown more unfavourable. It is unnecessary to call attention to the masterly hand which has portrayed all the characters from the prince and Luther, down to the humblest menial, in such living colours, that we seem to behold the realities themselves. Whether it was by intention or unconsciously, the writer has made important deviations from history. This might be excused on account of his leading motive, and the admirable freshness of his colouring; but he is more culpable for his incorrectness in the necessary circumstances of an event, which did not happen so very long ago, — circumstances which can scarcely escape the recollection of the reader. Kleist forgets that Wittenberg, not Dresden, was the residence of the Elector of Saxony. Moreover, he describes Dresden just according to its present aspect. The old town, (Altstadt) scarcely existed at the time, and what shall we say of the elector himself, who appears as a romantic, amorous, eccentric, fantastical personage, when certainly it must have been either Frederick the Wise, or the Steadfast, who belonged to the period of the narrative? By over haste — for it certainly was not from design — this excellent story loses its proper costume and accompanying circumstances, whereas it would have been far more effective had the author allowed himself time to place himself in the period with greater truth. Another consequence of this deficiency in true locality is, that the author, after long alluring us by his truth and nature, leads us through a fanciful visionary world, which will not accord with the previous one, which he has taught us to know so accurately. That wondrous gipsy, who afterwards turns out to be the deceased wife of Kohlhaas, that mysterious inscription, those ghost-like forms, that sick, half-mad, and, afterwards, disguised elector; those weak, for the most part, characterless forms, which, nevertheless, come forward with a pretension, as if they would be considered superior to the real world previously described, as if they would sell as dearly as possible that mysterious nature, which comes to us little as possible, — that horrible foreboding which the author suddenly feels in the presence of the creatures of his own fancy — all this, we say, reminds us so forcibly of many a weak product of our times, and of the ordinary demands of the reading public, that we are forced, mournfully, to admit that even distinguished authors, like Kleist — who in other respects does not participate in these diseases of his day — must pay their tribute to the time that has produced them.”