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Memoirs of Göthe: Written by Himself. New York. 1824.
8vo. pp. 360. We wish it suited the taste of bookmakers and the convenience of publishers to be a little more explicit in their title-pages. It is impossible to find out, from that which we have just quoted, some things, which the purchaser has a right to know, without the risk of buying or the labour of reading the work. In the present case, there is the less reason for the conciseness of which we complain, because nothing is suppressed, which could be injurious to the circulation of the work. It is a translation, as we are partly informed in the Preface, from a German work written by Göthe, with a title which may be rendered “ Poetry and Truth, or Passages from My Life.” The present translation, we presume, was made and published in England, although no notice to that effect appears on the titlepage of the American edition.
This is, therefore, a translation of a work written some ten or eleven years since in Germany, and two or three times reviewed in the English and American journals at the time of its publication. Our readers will no doubt call to mind one or two rather clever and very bitter articles upon it, in the Edinburgh Review; in which the venerable patriarch of German letters is handled with an unkindness and even a rancour, which seem out of place and unaccountable in a British journal, even on the principles upon which the modern British journals are conducted. The old poet, one of the first geniuses and first writers of this or of any other day, is scoffed at with
a relish, and baited with an open-mouthed zeal, which leave the reader to suppose, that there is some secret about it, which he does not understand. This secret is, that the articles were written by a German, naturalized in England. None but a countryman hates with such genuine gout ; and expresses his hate with such heartfelt and venomous eloquence. The particular circumstances, which inspired the worthy critic, we never learned. It was very likely some little slight, which he had received or fancied he had received in Germany from the poet; an unfavourable judgment, perhaps, dropped by the patriarch of the German Parnassus, relative to some lucubration of the critic; in short, some one or other of those causes of offence, which an individual like Göthe can never avoid, toward the minor wits :
If foes, they write, if friends, they read him dead; and if he will not submit to the latter, he must to the former.
But the outrageous ridicule and abuse lavished by the Edinburgh reviewer on the work before us, and on Göthe, its author, would of itself have been an imperfect gratitication of the critic's ill temper. Another step was wanting to give him full content. It happened, at the very time that the articles alluded to were appearing in English, that a literary journal was published at Jena, within a few miles of Göthe's residence at Weimar, conducted by a non-descript in the literary kingdom, of the name of Oken, at that time a professor in the university at Jena. His eye was also evil because Göthe's was good; and he immediately began to issue in numbers a very spirited translation of the first of the articles in the Edinburgh Review ; by which means it was not only republished to the world, beneath the eye of Göthe himself, but secured an extensive circulation in Germany, where not twenty copies of the original would ever have arrived. The effect was, that Göthe's work, on its original plan, was arrested. Three small volumes only had appeared at the time the first of these articles was translated by Oken; in which three volumes, the Life of Göthe was brought down only to his twenty sixth or seventh year, and to the composition of his first works.
. A fourth volume has since appeared, devoted to his observations on a journey in Italy; but the tone is evidently changed. Instead of the unreserved freedom with which, in the three other volumes, Göthe indulged in the ease of garrulous, but not doting old age; this fourth volume is cold, stately, critical, and consequently dull.
We do not know, upon the whole, that this is to be regretted, however much we may disapprove the way in which it was brought about. There was a good deal to censure in the three first volumes, considered as a matter for the eye of the world. The taste of the community for which the work was written,—the German,—is indeed very different from that of
Much, not only tolerable but acceptable there, would be wholly out of place, offensive, and ridiculous here. It is a certain fact, that these three first volumes,-of which the single volume now before us purports to be a translation,are considered by the Germans as a classical work, both as to style and matter. But they are not a work, which can do Göthe full honor in the great republic of letters, and in after times.
A part of the evil resides in the very nature of this species of composition, self-biography. A man by genius and industry acquires a great name. By his actions or his writings, he attracts the notice of his contemporaries in his own and in other countries. They take an interest in him, as the performer of great actions, political or military; or as the conceiver of sublime thoughts, uttered in the most powerful language. It is for these performances and in these performances, that he is known; and for and in these alone, that he has any right to be known, or that it can often be his interest to be known. It is true, he is not only a general, a statesman, a poet, but he is also a man—a son, a husband, a father, a neighbour. It is possible that in all these personal and private capacities, he may be as amiable and respectable, as he is eminent as a public character; and much no doubt will be added by this circumstance, where it exists, to the value and interest of his life in the hands of a judicious biographer. But in his own hands in the account of his character, written by himselfhow rarely does it happen, that the private life of distinguished men furnishes materials, that can conveniently and wisely be spread out before the public. It is not for their private life, that the public admires them; that is to say, however gratifying it may be to read the private biographies of men like D'Aguesseau, Sir Matthew Hale, Washington, and others, whose private and public characters are in beautiful harmony; yet it is as public characters, that they are known to the world, and as public characters alone that it is generally desirable to know them. At any rate, whatever else is told; whatever anecdotes, family adventures, and personal traits the intelligent biogra