Saturday, 18 June 2016


"Young Germany." by George Brandes; William Heinemann. London; sixth and concluding volume of "Main Currents of Nineteenth Century Literature;" price, 12/.
 The great Danish critic has now ended his long task. He confesses that by the "century," he means only half of it, and this final volume deals with the daring German young men who heralded the year of 1848. Here is the Scheme of the whole series:—
 A great rhythmical ebb and flow. The gradual dying out and disappearing of the ideas and feelings of the eighteenth century unfit authority, the heredity principle and ancient custom once more reigned supreme, then the reappearance of the ideas of liberty in ever higher-mounting waves. . . . The central point was unmistakable. From the literary point of view it was Byron's death, from the political that Greek war of liberation in which he fell. The school of English literature to which he belongs became as it were the hinge on which my work turned.
 That fourth volume on "Naturalism in England" was of course quite the most interesting of the series to any British reader. It is gratifying to see that the author regards it as perhaps the most important. Now for the final volume, "Young Germany." It is premised that Metternich—a typical reactionary, "a pupil of Talleyrand, a less adroit but far more mischievous man than his master"— hoped to see re-established throughout Europe everything that had been overturned or even shaken by the French Revolution or by Napoleon. One gets a glimpse of Goethe as an octogenarian, with all adverse prejudices overcome, and inspiring a reverence that at times bordered on the ridiculous. One sees Hegel as a professor at Berlin University, his great mind coming to its full power only in middle age. There are Borne and Immermann and Menzel, and others of fame less wide; but ever and always the theme returns to Heinrich Heine, weak, brilliant, inconsistent, dangerous, "probably the wittiest man that ever lived, or at least the wittiest man of modern times." He is closely compared with Aristophanes in "the depth of his shamelessness and the height of his lyric flight." Of course "we have to be on our guard against certain noisome insects." and one of his attacks on a rival is styled "deadly from its very stench." It does not seem to occur to Brandes how immense and unfair an advantage in the matter of mere wit has the man who has no scruples at all whether as to decency, sanitation, or religion in his writings, many a most brilliant epigram or repartee must have been lost to the world just because it was conceived in the mind of a gentleman—God bless him! To argue with Heine was like lighting a chimney sweep: win or lose, one was sure to be covered with dirt.
 The revolution of July, 1830, in Paris, "acted upon public feeling in Germany like an electric shock." Literature was thence forth one long preparation for 1848. At last "Bohemia and Hungary, Franconia, and North Germany, were lifting up their voices in one grand chorus, the voices of thinkers and of poets blending in union." Frederick William II. opened the Prussian Parliament in 1847 with this astonishing speech:— "No power on earth will make me consent to the exchange of the natural relation between a king and his people for a conventional, constitutional relation: never with my will shall a written paper interfere between Almighty God and this country, rule us with its paragraphs, and supersede ancient, sacred loyalty." Next year the storm broke— a "mad and holy year," says Brandes. In France a temporary republic was established; Germans and Austrians alike sympathized with it, and dreaded that they might be ordered to take up arms against it. In March Metternich fled in disguise from Vienna, after directing its policy for 40 years, and Kossuth rode in. A week later Berlin turned on Frederick William, and forced him to promise whatever it demanded. Six months later both movements were wiped out in blood. "The general European revolution of 1848 was nothing in any single country but an unsuccessful attempt. It is a year of no decisive political yet of great spiritual significance. After it men feel and think and write quite otherwise than they did before it. In literature it is the red line of separation that divides our century and marks the beginning of a new era. It is the year of jubilee, the year of mourning, the boundary year."
 The reading of Brandes is as wide, his style as allusive, as ever. It would be a pretty question for in examination in general literature. Comment fully on this sentence:— "Immermann is one of the company of authors, including Daniel Defoe, l'Abbe Prevost, the Danish poet Wessel, Chamisso, and Bernardin de St Pierrie, who prove that a single volume is enough to carry a writer's name down to posterity, even if everything else that he has written be quickly forgotten." The translation of this volume is done by Mary Morison. That she is faithful to her original may be presumed; the excellent quality of her own style may be judged from citations already made. So ends a great work, boldly conceived and faithfully carried through. The one blemish upon it is the absence of an index. That absence, notable in each successive volume, has been exercised in the hope that something comprehensive would come with the end of all. It is an omission that should be repaired in subsequent editions, to give full value to a book which is safe to endure as a classic.
The Register 6 Jan 1906

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