Maxims and Reflections

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Bailey Saunders (1892)

Literature and Art


When Madame Roland was on the scaffold, she asked for pen and paper, to note the peculiar thoughts that hovered about her on the last journey. It is a pity they were refused, for in a tranquil mind thoughts rise up at the close of life hitherto unthinkable; like blessed inward voices, alighting in glory on the summits of the past.


Literature is a fragment of fragments: the least of what happened and was spoken, has been written; and of the things that have been written, very few have been preserved.


And yet, with all the fragmentary nature of literature, we find thousand fold repetition; which shows how limited is man's mind and destiny.


Excellent work is unfathomable, approach it as you will.


It is not language in itself which is correct or forcible or elegant, but the mind that is embodied in it; and so it is not for a man to determine whether he will give his calculations or speeches or poems the desired qualities: the question is whether Nature has given him the intellectual and moral qualities which fit him for the work,—the intellectual power of observation and insight, the moral power of repelling the evil spirits that might hinder him from paying respect to truth.


The appeal to posterity springs from the pure, strong feeling of the existence of something imperishable; something that, even though it be not at once recognised, will in the end be gratified by finding the minority turn into a majority.


When a new literature succeeds, it obscures the effect of an earlier one, and its own effect predominates; so that it is well, from time to time, to look back. What is original in us is best preserved and quickened if we do not lose sight of those who have gone before us.


The most original authors of modern times are so, not because they produce what is new, but only because they are able to say things the like of which seem never to have been said before.


Thus the best sign of originality lies in taking up a subject and then developing it so fully as to make every one confess that he would hardly have found so much in it.


There are many thoughts that come only from general culture, like buds from green branches. When roses bloom, you see them blooming everywhere.


Lucidity is a due distribution of light and shade.' Hamann.


A man who has no acquaintance with foreign languages knows nothing of his own.


We must remember that there are many men who, without being productive, are anxious to say something important, and the results are most curious.


Deep and earnest thinkers are in a difficult position with regard to the public.


Some books seem to have been written, not to teach us anything, but to let us know that the author has known something.


An author can show no greater respect for his public than by never bringing it what it expects, but what he himself thinks right and proper in that stage of his own and others' culture in which for the time he finds himself.


The so-called Nature-poets are men of active talent, with a fresh stimulus and reaction from an over-cultured, stagnant, mannered epoch of art. They cannot avoid commonplace.


Productions are now possible which, without being bad, have no value. They have no value, because they contain nothing; and they are not bad, because a general form of good-workmanship is present to the author's mind.


All lyrical work must, as a whole, be perfectly intelligible, but in some particulars a little unintelligible.


A romance is a subjective epic in which the author begs leave to treat the world after his own ideas. The only question is, whether he has any ideas; the rest will follow of itself.


Subjective or so-called sentimental poetry has now been admitted to an equality with objective and descriptive. This was inevitable; because otherwise the whole of modern poetry would have to be discarded. It is now obvious that when men of truly poetical genius appear, they will describe more of the particular feelings of the inner life than of the general facts of the great life of the world. This has already taken place to such a degree that we have a poetry without figures of speech, which can by no means be refused all praise.


Superstition is the poetry of life, and so it does not hurt the poet to be superstitious.


That glorious hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, is really an appeal to genius. That is why it speaks so powerfully to men of intellect and power.


Translators are like busy match-makers: they sing the praises of some half-veiled beauty, and extol her charms, and arouse an irresistible longing for the original.


A Spinoza in poetry becomes a Machiavelli in philosophy.


Against the three unities there is nothing to be said, if the subject is very simple; but there are times when thrice three unities, skilfully interwoven, produce a very pleasant effect.


The sentimentality of the English is humorous and tender; of the French, popular and pathetic; of the Germans, naïve and realistic.


Mysticism is the scholastic of the heart, the dialectic of the feelings.


If a man sets out to reproach an author with obscurity, he should first of all examine his own mind, to see if he is himself all clearness within. Twilight makes even plain writing illegible.


It is with books as with new acquaintances. At first we are highly delighted, if we find a general agreement,—if we are pleasantly moved on any of the chief sides of our existence. With a closer acquaintance differences come to light; and then reasonable conduct mainly consists in not shrinking back at once, as may happen in youth, but in keeping firm hold of the things in which we agree, and being quite clear about the things in which we differ, without on that account desiring any union.


In psychological reflection the greatest difficulty is this: that inner and outer must always be viewed in parallel lines, or, rather, interwoven. It is a continual systole and diastole, an inspiration and an expiration of the living soul. If this cannot be put into words, it should be carefully marked and noted.


My relations with Schiller rested on the decided tendency of both of us towards a single aim, and our common activity rested on the diversity of the means by which we endeavoured to attain that aim.


Once when a slight difference was mentioned between us, of which I was reminded by a passage in a letter of his, I made the following reflections: There is a great difference between a poet seeking the particular for the universal, and seeing the universal in the particular. The one gives rise to Allegory, where the particular serves only as instance or example of the general; but the other is the true nature of Poetry, namely, the expression of the particular without any thought of, or reference to, the general. If a man grasps the particular vividly, he also grasps the general, without being aware of it at the time; or he may make the discovery long afterwards.


There may be eclectic philosophers, but not an eclectic philosophy.


But every one is an eclectic who, out of the things that surround and take place about him, appropriates what is suited to his nature; and this is what is meant by culture and progress, in matters of theory or practice.


Various maxims of the ancients, which we are wont to repeat again and again, had a meaning quite different from that which is apt to attach to them in later times.


The saying that no one who is unacquainted with or a stranger to geometry should enter the philosopher's school, does not mean that a man must become a mathematician to attain the wisdom of the world.


Geometry is here taken in its primary elements, such as are contained in Euclid and laid before every beginner; and then it is the most perfect propaedeutic and introduction to philosophy.


When a boy begins to understand that an invisible point must always come before a visible one, and that the shortest way between two points is a straight line, before he can draw it on his paper with a pencil, he experiences a certain pride and pleasure. And he is not wrong; for he has the source of all thought opened to him; idea and reality, potentia et actu, are become clear; the philosopher has no new discovery to bring him; as a mathematician, he has found the basis of all thought for himself.


And if we turn to that significant utterance, Know thyself, we must not explain it in an ascetic sense. It is in nowise the self-knowledge of our modern hypochondrists, humorists, and self-tormentors. It simply means: pay some attention to yourself; take note of yourself; so that you may know how you come to stand towards those like you and towards the world. This involves no psychological torture; every capable man knows and feels what it means. It is a piece of good advice which every one will find of the greatest advantage in practice.


Let us remember how great the ancients were; and especially how the Socratic school holds up to us the source and standard of all life and action, and bids us not indulge in empty speculation, but live and do.


So long as our scholastic education takes us back to antiquity and furthers the study of the Greek and Latin languages, we may congratulate ourselves that these studies, so necessary for the higher culture, will never disappear.


If we set our gaze on antiquity and earnestly study it, in the desire to form ourselves thereon, we get the feeling as if it were only then that we really became men.


The pedagogue, in trying to write and speak Latin, has a higher and grander idea of himself than would be permissible in ordinary life.


In the presence of antiquity, the mind that is susceptible to poetry and art feels itself placed in the most pleasing ideal state of nature; and even to this day the Homeric hymns have the power of freeing us, at any rate, for moments, from the frightful burden which the tradition of several thousand years has rolled upon us.


There is no such thing as patriotic art and patriotic science. Both art and science belong, like all things great and good, to the whole world, and can be furthered only by a free and general interchange of ideas among contemporaries, with continual reference to the heritage of the past as it is known to us.


Poetical talent is given to peasant as well as to knight; all that is required is that each shall grasp his position and treat it worthily.


An historic sense means a sense so cultured that, in valuing the deserts and merits of its own time, it takes account also of the past.


The best that history gives us is the enthusiasm it arouses.


The historian's duty is twofold: first towards himself, then towards his readers. As regards himself, he must carefully examine into the things that could have happened; and, for the reader's sake, he must determine what actually did happen. His action towards himself is a matter between himself and his colleagues; but the public must not see into the secret that there is little in history which can be said to be positively determined.


The historian's duty is to separate the true from the false, the certain from the uncertain, and the doubtful from that which cannot be accepted.


It is seldom that any one of great age becomes historical to himself, and finds his contemporaries become historical to him, so that he neither cares nor is able to argue with any one.


On a closer examination of the matter, it will be found that the historian does not easily grasp history as something historical. In whatever age he may live, the historian always writes as though he himself had been present at the time of which he treats, instead of simply narrating the facts and movements of that time. Even the mere chronicler only points more or less to his own limitations, or the peculiarities of his town or monastery or age.


We really learn only from those books which we cannot criticise. The author of a book which we could criticise would have to learn from us.


That is the reason why the Bible will never lose its power; because, as long as the world lasts, no one can stand up and say: I grasp it as a whole and understand all the parts of it. But we say humbly: as a whole it is worthy of respect, and in all its parts it is applicable.


There is and will be much discussion as to the use and harm of circulating the Bible. One thing is clear to me: mischief will result, as heretofore, by using it phantastically as a system of dogma; benefit, as heretofore, by a loving acceptance of its teachings.


I am convinced that the Bible will always be more beautiful the more it is understood; the more, that is, we see and observe that every word which we take in a general sense and apply specially to ourselves, had, under certain circumstances of time and place, a peculiar, special, and directly individual reference.


The incurable evil of religious controversy is that while one party wants to connect the highest interest of humanity with fables and phrases, the other tries to rest it on things that satisfy no one.


If one has not read the newspapers for some months and then reads them all together, one sees, as one never saw before, how much time is wasted with this kind of literature.


The classical is health; and the romantic, disease.


Ovid remained classical even in exile: it is not in himself that he sees misfortune, but in his banishment from the metropolis of the world.


The romantic is already fallen into its own abysm. It is hard to imagine anything more degraded than the worst of the new productions.


Bodies which rot while they are still alive, and are edified by the detailed contemplation of their own decay; dead men who remain in the world for the ruin of others, and feed their death on the living,—to this have come our makers of literature.

When the same thing happened in antiquity, it was only as a strange token of some rare disease; but with the moderns the disease has become endemic and epidemic.


Literature decays only as men become more and more corrupt.


What a day it is when we must envy the men in their graves!


The things that are true, good, excellent, are simple and always alike, whatever their appearance may be. But the error that we blame is extremely manifold and varying; it is in conflict not only with the good and the true, but also with itself; it is self-contradictory. Thus it is that the words of blame in our literature must necessarily outnumber the words of praise.


The Greeks, whose poetry and rhetoric was of a simple and positive character, express approval more often than disapproval. With the Latin writers it is the contrary; and the more poetry and the arts of speech decay, the more will blame swell and praise shrink.


'What are tragedies but the versified passions of people who make Heaven knows what out of the external world?'


There are certain empirical enthusiasts who are quite right in showing their enthusiasm over new productions that are good; but they are as ecstatic as if there were no other good work in the world at all.


In Sakontala the poet appears in his highest function. As the representative of the most natural condition of things, the finest mode of life, the purest moral endeavour, the worthiest majesty, and the most solemn worship, he ventures on common and ridiculous contrasts.


Shakespeare's Henry IV. If everything were lost that has ever been preserved to us of this kind of writing, the arts of poetry and rhetoric could be completely restored out of this one play.


Shakespeare's finest dramas are wanting here and there in facility: they are something more than they should be, and for that very reason indicate the great poet.


Shakespeare is dangerous reading for budding talents: he compels them to reproduce him, and they fancy they are producing themselves.


Yorick Sterne was the finest spirit that ever worked. To read him is to attain a fine feeling of freedom; his humour is inimitable, and it is not every kind of humour that frees the soul.


The peculiar value of so-called popular ballads is that their motives are drawn direct from nature. This, however, is an advantage of which the poet of culture could also avail himself, if he knew how to do it.


But in popular ballads there is always this advantage, that in the art of saying things shortly uneducated men are always better skilled than those who are in the strict sense of the word educated.


Gemüth = Heart. The translator must proceed until he reaches the untranslatable; and then only will he have an idea of the foreign nation and the foreign tongue.


When we say of a landscape that it has a romantic character, it is the secret feeling of the sublime taking the form of the past, or, what is the same thing, of solitude, absence, or seclusion.


The Beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature, which, without its presence, would never have been revealed.


It is said: Artist, study nature! But it is no trifle to develop the noble out of the commonplace, or beauty out of uniformity.


When Nature begins to reveal her open secret to a man, he feels an irresistible longing for her worthiest interpreter, Art.


For all other Arts we must make some allowance; but to Greek Art alone we are always debtors.


There is no surer way of evading the world than by Art; and no surer way of uniting with it than by Art.


Even in the moments of highest happiness and deepest misery we need the Artist.


False tendencies of the senses are a kind of desire after realism, always better than that false tendency which expresses itself as idealistic longing.


The dignity of Art appears perhaps most conspicuously in Music; for in Music there is no material to be deducted. It is wholly form and intrinsic value, and it raises and ennobles all that it expresses.


It is only by Art, and especially by Poetry, that the imagination is regulated. Nothing is more frightful than imagination without taste.


If we were to despise Art on the ground that it is an imitation of Nature, it might be answered that Nature also imitates much else; further, that Art does not exactly imitate that which can be seen by the eyes, but goes back to that element of reason of which Nature consists and according to which Nature acts.


Further, the Arts also produce much out of themselves, and, on the other hand, add much where Nature fails in perfection, in that they possess beauty in themselves. So it was that Pheidias could sculpture a god although he had nothing that could be seen by the eye to imitate, but grasped the appearance which Zeus himself would have if he were to come before our eyes.


Art rests upon a kind of religious sense: it is deeply and ineradicably in earnest. Thus it is that Art so willingly goes hand in hand with Religion.


A noble philosopher spoke of architecture as frozen music; and it was inevitable that many people should shake their heads over his remark. We believe that no better repetition of this fine thought can be given than by calling architecture a speechless music.


Art is essentially noble; therefore the artist has nothing to fear from a low or common subject. Nay, by taking it up, he ennobles it; and so it is that we see the greatest artists boldly exercising their sovereign rights.


In every artist there is a germ of daring, without which no talent is conceivable.


All the artists who are already known to me from so many sides, I propose to consider exclusively from the ethical side; to explain from the subject-matter and method of their work the part played therein by time and place, nation and master, and their own indestructible personality; to mould them to what they became and to preserve them in what they were.


Art is a medium of what no tongue can utter; and thus it seems a piece of folly to try to convey its meaning afresh by means of words. But, by trying to do so, the understanding gains; and this, again, benefits the faculty in practice.


An artist who produces valuable work is not always able to give an account of his own or others' performances.


We know of no world except in relation to mankind; and we wish for no Art that does not bear the mark of this relation.


Higher aims are in themselves more valuable, even if unfulfilled, than lower ones quite attained.


Blunt naïvety, stubborn vigour, scrupulous observance of rule, and any other epithets which may apply to older German Art, are a part of every earlier and simpler artistic method. The older Venetians, Florentines, and others had it all too.


Because Albrecht Dürer, with his incomparable talent, could never rise to the idea of the symmetry of beauty, or even to the thought of a fitting conformity to the object in view, are we never to spurn the ground!


Albrecht Dürer had the advantage of a very profound realistic perception, an affectionate human sympathy with all present conditions. He was kept back by a gloomy phantasy, devoid both of form and foundation.


It would be interesting to show how Martin Schön stands near him, and how the merits of German Art were restricted to these two; and useful also to show that it was not evening every day.


In every Italian school the butterfly breaks loose from the chrysalis.


After Klopstock released us from rhyme, and Voss gave us models of prose, are we to make doggerel again like Hans Sachs?


Let us be many-sided! Turnips are good, but they are best mixed with chestnuts. And these two noble products of the earth grow far apart.


In every kind of Art there is a degree of excellence which may be reached, so to speak, by the mere use of one's own natural talents. But at the same time it is impossible to go beyond that point, unless Art comes to one's aid.


In the presence of Nature even moderate talent is always possessed of insight; hence drawings from Nature that are at all carefully done always give pleasure.


To make many sketches issue at last in a complete work is something that not even the best artists always achieve.


In the sphere of true Art there is no preparatory school, but there is a way of preparation; and the best preparation is the interest of the most insignificant pupil in the work of the master. Colour-grinders have often made excellent painters.


If an artist grasps Nature aright and contrives to give its form a nobler, freer grace, no one will understand the source of his inspiration, and every one will swear that he has taken it from the antique.


In studying the human form, let the painter reject what is exaggerated, false, and mechanical; but let him learn to grasp of what infinite grace the human body is capable.


Kant taught us the critique of the reason. We must have a critique of the senses if Art in general, and especially German Art, is ever to regain its tone and move forward on the path of life and happiness.

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