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Das Märchen
(The Tale)

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Das Märchen
(The Tale)

Das Märchen (The Tale): Introduction




No. XXXIII. OCTOBER, 1832. vol. VI.

T H E   T A L E.


that Goethe, many years ago, wrote a piece named Das Mährchen (The Tale); which the admiring critics of Germany contrived to criticise by a stroke of the pen; declaring that it was indeed The Tale, and worthy to be called the Tale of Tales (das Mährchen aller Mährchen), — may appear certain to most English readers, for they have repeatedly seen as much in print. To some English readers it may appear certain, furthermore, that they personally know this Tale of Tales; and can even pronounce it to deserve no such epithet, and the admiring critics of Germany to be little other than blockheads.

English readers! the first certainty is altogether indubitable; the second certainty is not worth a rush.

That same Mährchen aller Mährchen you may see with your own eyes, at this hour, in the Fifteenth Volume of Goethe's Werke; and seeing is believing. On the other hand, that English “Tale of Tales,” put forth some years ago as the Translation thereof, by an individual connected with the Periodical Press of London (his Periodical vehicle, if we remember, broke down soon after, and was rebuilt, and still runs, under the name of Court Journal), — was a Translation, miserable enough, of a quite different tiling; a thing, not a Mährchen (Fabulous Tale) at all, but an Erzählung or common fictitious Narrative; having no man-nor of relation to the real piece (beyond standing in the same Volume); not so much as Milton's Tetrachordon of Divorce has to his Allegro and Pensoroso! In this way do individuals connected with the Periodical Press of London play their part, and commodiously befool thee, O Public of English readers, and can serve thee with a mass of roasted grass, and name it stewed venison; and will continue to do so, till thou — open thy eyes, and from a blind monster become a seeing one.

This mistake we did not publicly note at the time of its occurrence; for two good reasons: first, that while mistakes are increasing, like Population, at the rate of Twelve Hundred a-day, the benefit of seizing one, and throttling it, would be perfectly inconsiderable; second, that we were not then in existence. The highly composite, astonishing Entity, which here as “O. Y.” addresses mankind for a season, still slumbered (his elements scattered over Infinitude, and working under other shapes) in the womb of Nothing! Meditate on us a little, O Reader: if thou will consider who and what we are; what Powers, of Cash, Esurience, Intelligence, Stupidity, and Mystery created us, and what work we do and will do, there shall be no end to thy amazement.

This mistake, however, we do now note; induced thereto by occasion. By the fact, namely, that a genuine English Translation of that Mährchen has been handed in to us for judgment; and now (such judgment having proved merciful) comes out from us in the way of publication. Of the Translation we cannot say much; by the colour of the paper, it may be some seven years old, and have lain perhaps in smoky repositories: it is not a good Translation; yet also not wholly bad; faithful to the original (as we can vouch, after strict trial); conveys the real meaning, though with an effort: here and there our pen has striven to help it, but could not do much. The poor Translator, who signs himself “D. T.” and affects to carry matters with a high hand, though, as we have ground to surmise, he is probably in straits for the necessaries of life, — has, at a more recent date, appended numerous Notes; wherein he will convince himself that more meaning lies in his Mährchen “than in all the Literature of our century:” some of these we have retained, now and then with an explanatory or exculpatory word of our own; the most we have cut away, as superfluous and even absurd. Superfluous and even absurd, we say: D. T. can take this of us as he likes; we know him, and what is in him, and what is not in him; believe that he will prove reasonable; can do either way. At all events, let one of the notables! Performances produced for the last thousand years, be now, through his organs (since no other, in this elapsed half-century, have offered themselves), set before an undiscerning public.

We too will premise our conviction that this Mährchen presents a phantasmagoric Adumbration, pregnant with deepest significance; though nowise that D. T. has so accurately evolved the same. Listen notwithstanding to a remark or two, extracted from his immeasurable Proem:

Dull men of this country,” says he, “who pretend to admire Goethe, smiled on me when I first asked the meaning of this Tale. ‘Meaning!’ answered they: ‘it is a wild arabesque, without meaning or purpose at all, except to dash together, copiously enough, confused hues of Imagination, and see what will come of them.’ Such is still the persuasion of several heads; which nevertheless would perhaps grudge to be considered wigblocks.” — Not impossible: the first Sin in our Universe was Lucifer's, that of Self-conceit. But hear again; what is more to the point:

The difficulties of interpretation arc exceedingly enhanced by one circumstance, not unusual in other such writings of Goethe's; namely, that this is no Allegory; which, as in the Pilgrim's Progress, you have only once for all to find the key of, and so go on unlocking: it is a Phantasmagory, rather; wherein things the most heterogeneous are, with homogeneity of figure, emblemed forth; which would require not one key to unlock it, but, at different stages of the business, a dozen successive keys. Here you have Epochs of Time shadowed forth, there Qualities of the Human Soul; now it is Institutions, Historical Events, now Doctrines, Philosophic Truths: thus arc all manner of ‘entities and quiddities and ghosts of defunct bodies' set flying; you have the whole Four Elements chaotico-creatively jumbled together, and spirits enough embodying themselves, and roguishly peering through, in the confused wild-working mass!” * * *

So much, however, I will stake my whole money capital and literary character upon: that here is a wonderful emblem of universal history set forth; more especially a wonderful Emblem of this our wonderful and woeful ‘Age of Transition;’ what men have been and done, what they are to be and do, is, in this Tale of Tales, poetico-prophetically typified, in such a style of grandeur and celestial brilliancy and life as the Western Imagination has not elsewhere reached; as only the Oriental Imagination, and in the primeval ages, was wont to attempt.” — Here surely is good wine, with a big hush! Study the Tale of Tales, O reader: even in the bald version of D. T., there will be meaning found. He continues in this triumphant style:

Can any mortal head (not a wigblock) doubt that the Giant of this Poem means Superstition? That the Ferryman has something to do with the priesthood; his Hut with the Church?

Again, might it not be presumed that the river were time; and that it flowed (as Time does) between two worlds? Call the world, or country on this side, where the fair Lily dwells, the world of supernaturalism; the country on that side, naturalism, the working week-day world where we all dwell and toil: whosoever or whatsoever introduces itself, and appears in the firm-earth of human business, or as we well say, comes into Existence, must proceed from Lily's supernatural country; whatsoever of a material sort deceases and disappears might be expected to go thither. Let the reader consider this, and note what comes of it.

To get a free solid communication established over this same wondrous River of Time, so that the Natural and Supernatural may stand in friendliest neighbourhood and union, forms the grand action of this Phantasmagoric poem: is not such also, let me ask thee, the grand action and summary of Universal History; the one problem of Human Culture; the tiling which Mankind (once the three daily meals of victual were moderately secured) has ever striven after, and must ever strive after? — Alas! we observe very soon, matters stand on a most distressful footing, in this of Natural and Supernatural: there are three conveyances across, and all bad, all incidental, temporary, uncertain: the wont of the three, one would think, and (lie worst conceivable, were the Giant's Shadow, at sunrise and sunset; the best that Snake-bridge at noon, yet still only a bad-best. Consider again our trustless, rotten, revolutionary ‘age of transition,’ and see whether this too does not fit it!

If you ask next, Who these other strange characters are, the Snake, the Will-o'-wisps, the Man with the Lamp? I will answer, in general and afar off, that Light must signify human Insight, Cultivation, in one sort or other. As for the Snake, I know not well what name to call it by; nay perhaps, in our scanty vocabularies, there is no name for it, though that does not hinder its being a thing, genuine enough. Meditation; Intellectual Research; Understanding; in the roost general acceptation, Thought: all these come near designating it; none actually designates it. Were I bound, under legal penalties, to give the creature a name, I should say, thought rather than another.

But what if our Snake, and so much else that works here beside it, were neither a quality nor a reality, nor a state nor an action, in any kind; none of these things purely and alone, but something intermediate and partaking of them all I In which case, to name it, in vulgar speech, were a still more frantic attempt; it is unnameable in speech; and remains only the allegorical Figure known in this Tale by the name of Snake, and more or less resembling and shadowing forth somewhat that speech has named, or might name. It is this heterogeneity of nature, Ditching your solidest Predicables heels over head, throwing you half a dozen Categories into the melting-pot at once, — that so unspeakably bewilders a Commentator, and for moments is nigh reducing him to delirium saltans.

The Will-o'-wisps, that laugh and jig, and compliment the ladies, and eat gold and shake it from them, I for my own share take the liberty of viewing as some shadow of elegant culture, or modern Fine Literature; which by and by became so sceptical destructive; and did, as French Philosophy, eat Gold (or Wisdom) enough, and shake it out again. In which sense, their coming (into Existence) by the old Ferryman's (by the Priesthood's) assistance, and almost oversetting his boat, and thou laughing at him, and trying to skip off from him, yet being obliged to slop till they had satisfied him: all this, to the discerning eye, has its significance.

As to the Man with the Lamp, in him and his gold-giving, jewel-forming, and otherwise so miraculous Light, which ‘casts no shadow,’ and ‘cannot illuminate what is wholly otherwise in darkness’ — I see what you might name the celestial reason of Man (Reason as contrasted with Understanding, and super-ordinated to it), the purest essence of his seeing Faculty; which manifests itself as the Spirit of Poetry, of Prophecy, or whatever else of highest in the intellectual sort man's mind can do. We behold this respectable, venerable Lamp-bearer everywhere present in time of need; directing, accomplishing, working, wonder-working, finally victorious; — as, in strict reality, it is ever (if we will study it) thee Poetic Vision that lies at the bottom of all other Knowledge or Action; and is the source and creative fountain of whatsoever mortals ken or can, and mystically and miraculously guides them forward whither they are to go. Be the Man with the Lamp, then, named reason; mankind's noblest inspired Insight and Light; whereof all the other lights are but effluences, and more or less discoloured emanations.

His Wife, poor old woman, we shall call practical endeavour; which as married to Reason, to spiritual Vision and Belief, first makes up man's being here below. Unhappily the ancient couple, we find, are but in a decayed condition: the better emblems are they of Reason and Endeavour in this our ‘transitionary age!’ The Man presents himself in the garb of a peasant, the Woman has grown old, garrulous, querulous; both live nevertheless in their ‘ancient Cottage,’ bettor or worse, the roof-tree of which still holds together over them. And then those mischievous Will-o'-wisps, who pay the old lady such court, and eat all the old gold (all dial was wise and beautiful and desirable) off her walls; and shew the old stones, quite ugly and bare, as they had not been for ages! Besides they have killed poor Mops, the plaything, and joy and fondling of the house; — as has not that same Elegant Culture, or French Philosophy done, wheresoever it has arrived? Mark, notwithstanding, how the Man with the Lamp puts it all right again, reconciles everything, and makes the finest business out of what seemed the worst.

With regard to the Four Kings, and the Temple which lies fashioned under ground, please to consider all this as the Future lying prepared and certain under the Present: you observe, not only inspired Reason (or the Man with the Limp) but scientific Thought (or the Snake) can discern it lying there: nevertheless much work must be done, innumerable difficulties fronted and conquered, In-fore it can rise out of the depths (of the Future), and realise itself as the actual worshipping-place of man, and ‘the most frequented Temple in the whole Earth.’

As for the fair Lily and her ambulatory necessitous Prince, these are objects that I shall admit myself incapable of naming; yet nowise admit myself incapable of attaching meaning to. Consider them as the two disjointed Halves of this singular Dualistic Doing of ours; a Being, I must say, the most utterly Dualistic; fashioned, from the very heart of it, out of Positive and Negative (what we happily call Light and Darkness, Necessity and Freewill, Good and Evil, and the like); everywhere out of two mortally opposed things, which yet must be united in vital love, if there is to be any Life; — a Being, I repeat, Dualistic beyond expressing; which will split in two, strike it in any direction, on any of its six sides; and does of itself split in two (into Contradiction), every hour of the day, — were not Life perpetually there, perpetually knitting it together again! But as to that cutting up, and parcelling, and labelling of the indivisible Human Soul into what are called ‘Faculties,’ it is a thing I have from of old eschewed, and even hated. A thing which you must sometimes do (or you cannot speak); yet which is never done without Error hovering near you; for most part without her pouncing on you, and quite blindfolding you.

Let not us, therefore, in looking at Lily and her Prince be tempted to that practice: why should we try to name them at all? Enough if we do feel that man's whole Being is riven asunder every way (in this ‘transitionary age’), and yawning in hostile, irreconcileable contradiction with itself: what good were it to know farther in what direction the rift (as our Poet here pleased to represent it) had taken effect? Fancy, however, that these two halves of Man's Soul and Being are separated, in pain and enchanted obstruction, from one another. The better fairer Half sits in the Supernatural country, deadening and killing; alas, not permitted to come across into the Natural visible country, and there make all blessed and alive! The rugged stronger Half, in such separation, is quite lamed and paralytic; wretched, forlorn, in a state of death-life, must he wander to and fro over the River of Time; all that is dear and essential to him, imprisoned there; which if he look at he grows still weaker, which if he touch he dies. Poor Prince! And let the judicious reader, who has read the Era he Jives in, or even spelt the alphabet thereof, say whether, with the paralytic-lamed Activity of man (hampered and hamstrung ‘in a transitionary age’ of Scepticism, Methodism; atheistic Sarcasm, hysteric Orgasm; brazen-faced Delusion, Puffery, Hypocrisy, Stupidity, and the whole Bill and nothing but the Bill), it is not even so? Must not poor man's Activity (like this poor Prince) wander from Natural to Supernatural, and hack again, disconsolate enough; unable to do anything, except merely wring its hands, and, whimpering and blubbering, lamentably inquire: What shall I do?

But Courage! Courage! The Temple is built (though underground); the Bridge shall arch itself, the divided Two shall clasp each other as flames do, rushing into one; and all that ends well shall be well! Mark only how, in this inimitable Poem, worthy an Olympic crown, or prize of the Literary Society, it is represented as proceeding!”

So far D. T.; a commentator who at least does nut want confidence in himself; whom we shall only caution not to be too confident; to remember always that, as he once says, ‘Phantasmagory is not Allegory;’ that much exists, under our very noses, winch has no ‘name,’ and can get none; that the ‘River of Time’ and so forth may be one thing, or more than one, or none; that, in short, there is risk of the too valiant D. T.'s bamboozling himself in this matter; being led from puddle to pool; and so left standing at last, like a foolish mystified nose-of-wax, wondering where the devil he is.

To the simpler sort of readers we shall also extend an advice; or be it rather, proffer a petition. It is to fancy themselves, for the time being, delivered altogether from D. T.'s company; and to read this Mährchen, as if it were there only for its own sake, and those tag-rag Notes of his were so much blank paper. Let the simpler sort of readers say now how they like it I If unhappily, on looking back, some spasm of “the malady of thought” begin afflicting them, let such Notes be then inquired of, but not till then, and then also with distrust. Pin thy faith to no man's sleeve; hast thou not two eyes of thy own?

The Commentator himself cannot, it is to be hoped, imagine that he has exhausted the matter. To decipher and represent the genesis of this extraordinary Production, and what was the Author's state of mind in producing it; to see, with dim, common eyes, what the great Goethe, with inspired poetic eyes, then saw; and paint to one's-self the thick-coming shapes and many-coloured splendours of his “Prospero's Grotto,” at that hour: this were what we could call complete criticism and commentary; what D. T. is far from having done, and ought to fall on his face, add confess that he can never do.

We shall conclude with remarking two things. First, that D. T. does not appear to have set eye on any of those German Commentaries on this Tale of Tales; or even to have heard, credently, that such exist: an omission, in a professed Translator, which he himself may answer for. Secondly, that with all his boundless preluding, he has forgotten to insert the Author's own prelude; the passage, namely, by which this Mährchen is specially ushered in, and the keynote of it struck by the Composer himself, and the tone of the whole prescribed! This latter altogether glaring omission we now charitably supply; and then let D. T., and his illustrious Original, and the Headers of this Magazine take it among them. Turn to the latter part of the Deutschen Ausgewanderten (page 208, Volume XV. of the last Edition of Goethe's Werke); it is written there, as we render it:

“‘The Imagination,’ said Karl, ‘is a fine faculty; yet I like not when she works on what has actually happened: the airy forms she creates are welcome as things of their own kind; but uniting with Truth she produces oftenest nothing but monsters; and seems to me, in such cases, to fly into direct variance with Reason and Common Sense. She ought, you might say, to hang upon no object, to force no object on us; she must, if she is to produce Works of Art, play like a sort of music upon us; move us within ourselves, and this in such a way that we forget there is anything without us producing the movement.’

“‘Proceed no farther,’ said the old man, ‘with your conditionings! To enjoy a product of Imagination this also is a condition, that we enjoy it unconditionally; for Imagination herself cannot condition and bargain; she must wait what shall be given her. She forms no plans, proscribes for herself no path; but is borne and guided by her own pinions; and hovering hither and thither, marks out the strangest courses; which in their direction are ever altering. Let me but, on my evening walk, call up again to life within me, some wondrous figures I was wont to play with in earlier years. This night I promise you a Tale, which shall remind you of Nothing and of All.’“

And now for it! O. Y.

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