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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Goethe: and Bettina Brentano
By Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869)
 
From ‘Portraits of Men’

IT may be remembered that we have already seen Jean Jacques Rousseau in correspondence with one of his admirers, whose partiality towards him ultimately developed into a warmer sentiment. After reading ‘La Nouvelle Heloïse,’ Madame de la Tour-Franqueville became extremely enthusiastic, believing herself to be a Julie d’Etange; and thereupon indited somewhat ardent love-letters to the great author, who in his misanthropical way treated her far from well. It is curious to note, in a similar case, how differently Goethe, the great poet of Germany, behaved to one of his admirers who declared her love with such wild bursts of enthusiasm. But not more in this case than in the other must we expect to find a true, natural, and mutual affection, the love of two beings who exchange and mingle their most cherished feelings. The adoration in question is not real love: it is merely a kind of worship, which requires the god and the priestess. Only, Rousseau was an invalid,—a fretful god, suffering from hypochondria, who had fewer good than bad days; Goethe, on the other hand, was a superior god, calm and equable, in good health and benevolent,—in fact, the Olympian Jupiter, who looks on smiling.  1
  In the spring of 1807 there lived at Frankfort a charming young girl nineteen years of age, 1 though of such small stature that she only appeared to be twelve or thirteen. Bettina Brentano, the child of an Italian father, who had settled and married at Frankfort, came of a family noted for its originality, each member having some singular or fantastic characteristic. It was said in the town that “madness only began in the Brentano family where it ended in other people.” Little Bettina considered this saying as a compliment. “What others call eccentricity is quite comprehensible to me,” she would remark, “and is part of some esoteric quality that I cannot define.” She had in her much of the devil and the imp; in fact, all that is the reverse of the bourgeois and conventional mind, against which she waged eternal war. A true Italian as regards her highly colored, picturesque, and vivid imagination, she was quite German in her dreamy enthusiasm, which at times verged on hallucination. She would sometimes exclaim, “There is a demon in me, opposed to all practical reality.” Poetry was her natural world. She felt art and nature as they are only felt in Italy; but her essentially Italian conceptions, after having assumed all the colors of the rainbow, usually ended in mere vagaries. In short, in spite of the rare qualities with which little Bettina was endowed, she lacked what might be called sound common-sense,—a quality hardly in keeping with all her other gifts. It seemed as if Bettina’s family, in leaving Italy for Germany, had instead of passing through France come by the way of Tyrol, with some band of gay Bohemians. The faults to which I have just alluded grow sometimes graver the older one becomes; but at nineteen they merely lend an additional charm and piquancy. It is almost necessary to apologize in speaking so freely in relation to Bettina; for Signorina Brentano—having become Frau d’Arnim, and subsequently widow of Achim d’Arnim, one of the most distinguished poets of Germany—is now living in Berlin, surrounded by some of the most remarkable men of the day. She receives a homage and consideration not merely due to the noble qualities of her mind, but to the excellency of her character. This woman, who was once such a frolicsome imp, is now known as one of the most unselfish and true-hearted of her sex.  2
  However, it was she herself who in 1835, two years after Goethe’s death, published the correspondence that enables us to glean an accurate knowledge of her character; allowing us—in fact, compelling us—to speak so unconstrainedly in relation to her. This book—translated into French by a woman of merit, who has concealed her identity under the nom de plume of “St. Sebastien Albin”—is a most curious work, enabling us to realize the difference that distinguishes the German genius from our own. The preface, as written by the authoress, is thus worded: “This book is intended for good, not bad people.” This is similar to saying, “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” It was quite suddenly that Bettina fell in love with the great poet Goethe; but her romantic feeling was of a purely ideal nature, for as yet she had never seen him. While musing alone one summer morn in the redolent and silent garden, Goethe’s image presented itself to her mind. She only knew him through his renown and his works,—in fact, through the very evil she heard spoken in relation to his cold and indifferent character. But the idea instantly captivated her imagination; she had discovered an object for her worship. Goethe was then fifty-eight years of age. In his youth he had conceived a slight affection for Bettina’s mother. For many years he had lived at Weimar, at the small court of Charles Augustus; in favor or rather intimate friendship with the prince. There he calmly pursued his vast studies, forever creating with prolific ease; he was then at the height of contentment, genius, and glory.  3
  Goethe’s mother lived at Frankfort. She and Bettina became great friends; and the young girl began to love, study, and understand the son in the person of this remarkable mother, so worthy of him to whom she had given birth. Goethe’s aged parent,—“Goethe’s Lady Counselor,” as she was called,—with her noble (I was about to say august) character, and her mind so replete with great sayings and memorable conversations, liked nothing better than to converse about her son. In speaking of him “her eyes would dilate like those of a child,” and beam with contentment. Bettina became the old lady’s favorite; and on entering her room would take a stool at her feet, rush at random into conversation, disturb the order of everything around her, and being certain of forgiveness, would allow herself every freedom. The worthy Frau Goethe, being gifted with great discernment and common-sense, perceived from the very first that Bettina’s love for her son would lead to no serious consequences, and that this flame would injure no one. She would laugh at the child’s fancy, and in so doing would profit by it. Not a day passed without this happy mother thinking of her son; “and these thoughts,” she would say, “are gold to me.” If not to Bettina, to whom could she express them, before whom could she count her gold—this treasure not intended for the ears of the profane? So, when the frolicsome young creature was absent, running along the banks of the Rhine, and playing the truant in every old tower and rock, she would be greatly missed by her dear “Lady Counselor.” The old lady would write to her in the following manner:—  4
  “Hasten homeward. I do not feel so well this year as last. At times I long, with a certain foreboding, for your presence, and for hours together I sit thinking of Wolfgang” (Goethe’s Christian name); “of the days when he was a child playing at my feet, or relating fairy tales to his little brother James. It is absolutely necessary that I should have some one with whom I can converse in relation to all this, and nobody listens to me as well as yourself. I truly wish you were here.”  5
  On returning to the mother of the man she adored, Bettina would hold long conversations with the venerable lady about Goethe’s childhood, his early promise, the circumstances attendant on his birth; about the pear-tree his grandfather planted to celebrate its anniversary, and which afterwards flourished so well; about the green arm-chair where his mother would sit, relating to him tales that made him marvel. Then they would speak about the first signs of his awakening genius. Never was the childhood of a god studied and watched in its minutest details with more pious curiosity. One day, while he was crossing the road with several other children, his mother and a friend, who were at the window, remarked that he walked with “great majesty,” and afterwards told him his upright bearing distinguished him from the other boys of his age. “That is how I wish to begin,” he replied: “later on I shall distinguish myself in many different ways.” “And this has been realized,” his mother would add on relating the incident.  6
  Bettina knew everything about Goethe’s early life better than he did himself, and later on he had recourse to her knowledge when wishing to write his memoirs. She was right in saying, “As to me, what is my life but a profound mirror of your own?”  7
  In his boyhood Goethe was considered one of the finest fellows of his age. He was fond of skating, and one fine afternoon he persuaded his mother to come and watch him sporting on the ice. Goethe’s mother, liking sumptuous apparel, arrayed herself in “a pelisse, trimmed with crimson velvet, that had a long train and gold clasps,” and she drove off in a carriage with friends.  8
  “On arriving at the river Mein, we found my son energetically skating. He flew like an arrow through the throng of skaters; his cheeks were rosy from the fresh air, and his auburn locks were denuded of their powder. On perceiving my crimson pelisse, he immediately came up to the carriage, and looked at me with a gracious smile. ‘Well, what do you require?’ I said to him. ‘Mother, you are not cold in the carriage, so give me your velvet mantle.’—‘But you do not wish to array yourself in my cloak, do you?’—‘Yes, certainly.’—There was I, taking off my warm pelisse, which he donned; and throwing the train over his arm, he sprang on the ice like a very son of the gods. Ah, Bettina! if you had only seen him! Nothing could have been finer. I clapped my hands with joy. All my life I shall see him as he was then, proceeding from one archway and entering through the other, the wind the while raising the train of the pelisse, that had fallen from his arm.”  9
  And she added that Bettina’s mother was on the bank, and it was her whom her son wished to please that day.  10
  Have you not perceived in this simple tale told by the mother, all the pride of a Latona? “He is a son of the gods!” These were the words of a Roman senator’s wife, of a Roman empress, or Cornelia, rather than the utterance of a Frankfort citizen’s spouse! The feeling that then inspired this mother in regard to her son, ultimately permeated the heart of the German nation. Goethe is “the German fatherland.” In reading Bettina’s letters, we find ourselves, like her, studying Goethe through his mother; and in so doing we discover his simple and more natural grandeur. Before the influence of court etiquette had distorted some of his better qualities, we see in him the true sincerity of his race. We wish his genius had been rather more influenced by this saying of his mother,—“There is nothing grander than when the man is to be felt in the man.”  11
  It is said that Goethe had but little affection for his mother; that he was indifferent towards her,—not visiting her for years, though he was only a distance of about forty miles from where she lived. And on this point he has been accused of coldness and egotism. But here, I think, there has been exaggeration. Before denying any quality to Goethe it is necessary to think twice. At first sight we imagine him to be cold; but this very coldness often conceals some underlying quality. A mother does not continue to love and revere her son when he has been guilty of a really serious wrong towards her. Goethe’s mother did not see anything wrongful in her son’s conduct, and it does not beseem us to be severer than she. This son loved his mother in his own way; and though his conduct could not perhaps be exactly regarded as the model of filial behavior, it cannot be said that he was in any wise ungrateful. “Keep my mother’s heart warm,” he would say in writing to Bettina…. “I should like to be able to reward you for the care you take of my mother. A chilling draught seemed to emanate from her surroundings. Now that I know you are near her I feel comforted—I feel warm.” The idea of a draught makes us smile. Fontenelle could not have expressed himself better. I have sometimes thought Goethe might be defined as a Fontenelle invested with poetry.  12
  At the time of his mother’s death, Bettina wrote to him, alluding to the cold disposition that was supposed to characterize him—a disposition inimical to all grief: “It is said that you turn away from all that is sad and irreparable: do not turn away from the image of your dying mother; remember how loving and wise she was up to the last moment, and how the poetic element predominated in her.” By this last touch, Bettina evinced her knowledge of how to affect the great poet. Goethe responded in words replete with gratitude for the care she had shown his mother in her old age. But from that day their relationship suffered by the loss of the being who had forged the link between them. However, as I have already mentioned, Bettina was in love with Goethe. We might ask what were the signs of this feeling. It was not an ordinary affection; it was not even a passionate love, which, like that of Dido, Juliet, or Virginia, burns and consumes until the desire is satisfied. It was an ideal sentiment; better than a love purely from the imagination, and yet dissimilar to one entirely from the heart. I scarcely know how to explain the feeling, and even Bettina herself could hardly define what she felt. The fact is that, gifted with a vivid imagination, exquisite poetical feeling, and a passionate love of nature, she personified all her tastes and youthful inspirations in Goethe’s image, loving him with rapture as the incarnation of all her dreams. Her love did not sadden her, but on the contrary, rendered her happier. “I know a secret,” she would say: “the greatest happiness is when two beings are united, and the Divine genius is with them.”  13
  It generally sufficed her to be thus united in spirit. Goethe, whose insight into life and human nature was as profound as his knowledge of the ideal, had from the first understood the quality of this love, and did not shun it, though at the same time he avoided too close a contact. The privilege of the gods is, as we all know, the possession of eternal youth: even at fifty-eight years of age, Goethe would not have been able to endure every day with impunity the innocent familiarities and enticements of Bettina. But the girl lived far away. She wrote him letters, full of life, brilliant with sensibility, coloring, sound, and manifold fancies. These epistles interested him, and seemed to rejuvenate his mind. A new being, full of grace, was revealing herself to the observation of his poetical and withal scientific mind. She opened for his inspection “an unlooked-for book, full of delightful images and charming depictions.” It seemed to him as much worth his while reading this book as any other; especially as his own name was to be found on every page, encircled with a halo of glory. He called Bettina’s letters “the gospel of nature.” “Continue,” he would say, “preaching your gospel of nature.” He felt that he was the god-made man of that evangel. She recalled to his mind (and his artistic talent needed it) the impressions and the freshness of the past, all of which he had lost in his somewhat artificial life. “All you tell me brings me back remembrances of youth; it produces the effect of events gone by, which all of a sudden we distinctly remember, though for a long time we may have forgotten them.”  14
  Goethe never lavished his attention on Bettina, although he never once repulsed her. He would reply to her letters in a sufficiently encouraging way for her to continue writing. There was a strange scene the very first time Bettina met Goethe; and from the way she describes the meeting, we perceive that she does not write for the benefit of the cynical scoffer. Towards the end of April, in 1807, she accompanied her sister and her brother-in-law to Berlin, and they promised to return by the way of Weimar. They were obliged to pass through the regiments that were then occupying the land. On this journey Bettina was arrayed in male attire, and sat on the box of the coach in order to see farther; while at every halting-place she assisted in harnessing and unharnessing the horses. In the morning she would shoot off a pistol in the forests, and clamber up the trees like a squirrel, for she was peculiarly agile (Goethe called her the Little Mouse). One day, when in an uncommonly frolicsome mood she had ascended into one of the Gothic sculptures of the Cologne Cathedral, she commenced a letter in the following way to Goethe’s mother:—  15
  “Lady Counselor, how alarmed you would be to see me now, seated in a Gothic rose.”  16
  Somewhere else she says: “I prefer dancing to walking, and I prefer flying to dancing.”  17
  Bettina arrived at Weimar after passing several sleepless nights on the box of the coach. She immediately called on Wieland, who knew her family; and obtained from him a letter, introducing her to Goethe. On arriving at the house of the great poet, she waited a few minutes before seeing him. Suddenly the door opened, and Goethe appeared.  18
  “He surveyed me solemnly and fixedly. I believe I stretched out my hands towards him—I felt my strength failing me! Goethe folded me to his heart, murmuring the while, ‘Poor child! have I frightened you?’ These were the first words he uttered, and they entered my soul. He led me into his room, and made me sit on the sofa before him. We were then both speechless. He at last broke the silence. ‘You will have read in the paper,’ he said, ‘that a few days ago we sustained a great loss through the death of the Duchess Amelia’ (the Dowager Duchess of Saxe-Weimar). ‘Oh!’ I answered, ‘I never read the papers.’—‘Indeed! I imagined that everything in relation to Weimar interested you.’—‘No, nothing interests me excepting yourself; moreover, I am much too impatient to read a newspaper.’—‘You are a charming child.’ Then came a long pause. I was still exiled on that fatal sofa, shy and trembling. You know it is impossible for me to remain sitting like a well-bred person. Alas! mother” (it was Goethe’s mother to whom she was writing), “my conduct was utterly disgraceful. I at last exclaimed, ‘I cannot remain on this couch!’ and I arose suddenly. ‘Well, do as you please,’ he replied. I threw my arms round his neck, and he drew me on his knee, pressing me to his heart.”  19
  In reading this scene, we must remember that it took place in Germany, not in France! She remained long enough on his shoulder to fall asleep; for she had been traveling for several nights, and was exhausted with fatigue. Only on awakening did she begin conversing a little. Goethe plucked a leaf off the vine that clustered round his window, and said, “This leaf and your cheek have the same freshness and the same bloom.” My readers may be inclined to think this scene quite childish; but Goethe soon divulged to her his most serious and intimate thoughts. He became nearly emotional in speaking of Schiller, saying that he had died two springs ago; and on Bettina interrupting him to remark that she did not care for Schiller, he explained to her all the beauties of this poetical nature,—so dissimilar to his own, but one of infinite grandeur; a nature he himself had the generosity to fully appreciate.  20
  The evening of the next day Bettina saw Goethe again at Wieland’s; and on her appearing to be jealous regarding a bunch of violets he held, which she supposed had been given him by a woman, he threw her the flowers, remarking, “Are you not content if I give them to you?” These first scenes at Weimar were childlike and mystic, though from the very first marked by great intensity; it would not have been wise to enact them every day. At their second meeting, which took place at Wartburg after an interval of a few months, Bettina could hardly speak, so deep was her emotion. Goethe placed his hand on her lips and said, “Speak with your eyes—I understand everything;” and when he saw that the eyes of the charming child, “the dark, courageous child,” were full of tears, he closed them, adding wisely, “Let us be calm—it beseems us both to be so!” But in recalling these scenes, are you not tempted to exclaim, “What would Voltaire have said?”  21
 
Note 1. She was in fact twenty-two, having been born April 4, 1785.—ED. [back]
 
 
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