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Goethe : Letters to Zelter

Dernière mise à jour : 9 août 2023

GOETHE (1749-1832)

Goethe's Letters to Zelter

Goethe to Zelter.

Weimar, 6th June, 1825.

(...) I cannot conclude without again referring to that overcharged music ; but everything, dear Friend, nowadays is ultra, everything perpetually transcendent in thought as in action. No one knows himself any longer, no one understands the element in which he moves and works, no one the subject which he is treating. Pure simplicity is out of the question ; of simpletons we have enough.

Young people are excited much too early, and then carried away in the whirl of the time. Wealth and rapidity are what the world admires, and what everyone strives to attain. Railways, quick mails, steamships, and every possible kind of facility in the way of communication are what the educated world has in view, that it may over-educate itself, and thereby continue in a state of mediocrity. And it is, moreover, the result of universality, that a mediocre culture should become common ; this is the aim of Bible Societies, of the Lancasterian method of instruction, and I know not what besides.

Properly speaking, this is the century for men with heads on their shoulders, for practical men of quick perceptions, who, because they possess a certain adroitness, feel their superiority to the multitude, even though they themselves may not be gifted in the highest degree. Let us, as far as possible, keep that mind with which we came hither ; we, and perhaps a few others, shall be the last of an epoch which will not so soon return again.


Goethe to Zelter. Weimar,

18th July, 1829.

Here, in my little den on the ground floor, I have been arranging and hanging up in long rows, a series of pictures of ancient Latium and modern Rome. Besides that, I have collected around me a number of books on the same subject, thus reviving, as far as I can, the recollection of my second stay in Rome ; I commend to your kind consideration the volume, which will contain these written reminiscences.

The Polish poet paid me a visit, accompanied by the Princess Wolkonsky and a large suite ; he did not utter a single word, and had not the good sense to present himself to me alone. One would feel inclined to inveigh against such behaviour, but that one has often been clumsy enough oneself.

Professor Rauch spent a day with us ; he was pleasant, cheerful, active, just as of old. A young man whom he brought with him, and who may have a good deal of talent, showed us a design for a kind of frieze ; the conception and the drawing were creditable, but the subject was Christ's entry into Jerusalem, which makes the rest of us feel vexed, at the trouble an able man takes, to look for motives, where there are none to be found. If people would only keep piety, which is so essential and lovable in life, distinct from Art, where, owing to its very simplicity and dignity, it checks their energy, allowing only the very highest mind freedom to unite with, if not actually to master it !

I am delighted at your return to the Second Part of Faust; that will urge me on to put aside various other things, and, at all events, to complete as soon as possible, the immediate work which touches upon it. The end is as good as quite finished, much that is important in the intervening passages is complete, and if some of the higher powers would only lay hold of me, and confine me in a high fortress, for three months, there would not be much left for me to do. I realize it all so vividly in heart and mind, that I often feel qnite oppressed.

And now, the sweetest thing last ! It gives me heartfelt pleasure, to hear that the Princess Augusta impressed you so favourably with her many good qualities ; she combines the characteristics of a woman and a Princess so perfectly, that one is really lost in admiration, which again gives rise to a feeling of deep respect, mingled with affection. I hope that you may in future have more frequent opportunities of convincing yourself of this.

Thus much from my quiet, and — now that the haymaking is over, — perfectly green valley. The calm is so great, that early this morning, a pretty roe came out of the bushes, and quietly began to eat the grass. I hope you are enjoying an equally pleasant morning in Berlin, with its abundant life, noise, and bustle.

Faithfully and ever diligently yours,



Goethe to Zelter.

Weimar, 29th January, 1830.

As I now know that all Europe, as well as my cloister-garden, levelled by the snow, has to get on as best it may, I submit to it the more readily, that I am not called upon to set foot outside my door. So on this bright night, while Madam Venus is still clear, radiant, and lovely, shining in the Western heavens, above the horns of the young moon, and Orion with his dog and glittering necklace, is rising gloriously from the East, over my horizon of dark pine-trees,— inspired by all this, I will send you a cheerful, friendly word to your busy, lamp-lit city, and, before I do anything else, I will answer your last letter.



Goethe to Zelter.

Weimar, 18th June, 1831.

.... As the world is now, we are forced to say to ourselves, and to repeat it again and again, that good people have existed and will exist, and that we must not grudge them the expression of a kind word in writing, but bequeath it as a written legacy. This is the Communion of Saints, of which we confess ourselves members. With the lips I am but rarely willing to utter an absolutely truthful word ; usually, people hear something different to what I say, — and that too is perhaps as well.

However, I have been rewarded for my patience and perseverance, by a drawing of Sachtleben 's, an artist of the seventeenth century, a pupil and a master of the epoch in Art then flourishing. The little sketch is square, and slightly coloured. He had fallen in love with the country about the Rhine ; his best pictures represent scenes of this description, and this is one of them. The remarkable point about this little drawing is, that we see Nature and the artist on an equal footing, as peaceful friends together. It is he who perceives her advantages, and who acknowledges and tries most fairly to come to terms with them. Here there is already thought and reflection, a definite consciousness of what Art ought to and can accomplish,— and yet we see the innocence of never-changing Nature quite untouched. The sight of this picture kept me upright, nay, so great was its influence, that when for the moment, I was out of sorts, and stepped in front of it, I really felt myself unworthy to look at it. The clever, courageous fellow, who, hundreds of years ago, wrote down this sort of thing amid the brightest surroundings, could scarcely tolerate such a pitiful spectator as I was, in the midst of the gloomy Thuringian hillocks. But when I wiped my eyes and got up again, why then indeed, it was cheerful day, as of old.

Now, however, I am moved to lead you into very different regions, for I must tell you briefly, that owing to the whirl of ephemeral publications, I have been dragged into the boundless honors of the latest literature of French novels. In one word, it is a Literature of despair. In order to produce an immediate effect—just that one edition may follow on another, as quickly as possible—the opposite of everything that ought to be offered to man for his good, is so forced upon the reader, that in the end he no longer knows how to save himself.

To outbid the hateful, the repulsive, the horrible, the worthless, and all that abandoned tribe, by the impossible, is their Satanic business. One ought to and must, I suppose, say hndness, for it is based upon deep study of olden times, of past conditions, of strange complications, and incredible facts, so that one ought not to call such a work either empty or bad. Moreover, it is men of marked talent who undertake this kind of thing, intellectually eminent, middle-aged writers, who feel condemned, throughout life, to occupy themselves with these abominations



Goethe to Zelter.

Weimar, 2Sth June, 1831.

(...) Of the latest productions in the way of French novels, and the literature nearest akin to them, I will only say thus much, — it is a literature of despair, from which by degrees everything true, everything aesthetic, is banishing itself.

In Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo allures the reader by the good use he makes of his earnest studies of old localities, customs, and events, but there is no trace whatever of natural life in the persons of the actors. These inanimate male and female lay figures are constructed according to very correct proportions, but except for their wooden and iron skeletons, they are absolutely mere stuffed puppets, which the author treats in the most merciless manner, turning and twisting them into the strangest positions, torturing and lashing them, lacerating them in mind and body — though indeed they have no real body — and mangling and tearing them to pieces, without pity. All this, however, is done with decided historical, rhetorical talent, and it cannot be denied, that the author possesses a vivid imagination, for without it he never could produce such abominations.

Your letters, including the announcement of the musical flower-fete, have arrived safely ; I was specially glad to hear from you. So much for to-day.

Yours as ever,



Goethe to Zelter. Weimar,

4th September, 1831.

For six days, and those too the gayest of the whole summer, I was absent from Weimar, having gone my ways to Ilmenau, where, in former years, I worked much, though a long time had elapsed since I last saw it.

So all these years afterwards, there lay before my view what abides, what has vanished. Success stood out in relief and was cheering, failure was forgotten and ceased to grieve. The people were all living on as before, in their own way, from the charcoal-burner to the porcelain manufacturer. Iron was being smelted, and manganese procured from the mines, though it is not now so much in request as formerly. They were boiling pitch, and collecting soot, in tubs, which were most artistically and elaborately finished. Hard toilers were bringing up coals to the pit's mouth. Gigantic, primaeval trunks of trees had been discovered in the pit, whilst the men were at work ; one of these I forgot to show you — it stands in the Garden-House.

The Forsters have probably told you of the fete in Weimar on my birthday ; it went off very successfully. The pretty little person, whom I was so glad to see at my table, made considerable effect. Ladies declare that her exquisitely tasteful bonnet had much to do with it.

You inquire about Faust; the Second Part is now complete in itself. I have for many years past known perfectly well what I wanted, but only worked out those particular passages wbich interested me at the moment. The consequence was that gaps became evident, and these had to be filled up. I firmly resolved to set all this to rights before my birthday. And so it was done ; the whole work now lies before me, and I have only to correct a few trifles. So I shall put a seal on it, and then, it may add to the specific weight of the volumes that are to follow, whatever may come of it.

Now that these demands are satisfied, new ones immediately press forward from behind, a la queue, as at a baker's shop. I know well what is wanted ; the future must show what can be done. I have planned far too many buildings, and in the end, I have neither means nor strength to finish them. . . . .

Yours always,


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