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Madame de Staël (Anne Louise Germaine Necker) (1766-1817)

On Romanticism, from Germany


The word romantic has been lately introduced in Germany to designate that kind of poetry which is derived from the songs of the Troubadours; that which owes its birth to the union of chivalry and Christianity. If we do not admit that the empire of literature has been divided between paganism and Christianity, the North and the South, antiquity and the middle ages, chivalry and the institutions of Greece and Rome, we shall never succeed in forming a philosophical judgment of ancient and of modern taste. We sometimes consider the word classic as synonymous with perfection. I use it at present in a different acceptation, considering classic poetry as that of the ancients, and romantic, as that which is generally connected with the traditions of chivalry. This division is equally suitable to the two eras of the world,-that which preceded, and that which followed the establishment of Christianity.

In various German works, ancient poetry has also been com pared to sculpture, and romantic to painting; in short, the progress of the human mind has been characterized in every manner, passing from material religions to those which are spiritual, from nature to the Deity.

The French nation, certainly the most cultivated of all that are derived from Latin origin, inclines towards classic poetry imitated from the Greeks and Romans. The English, the most illustrious of the Germanic nations, is more attached to that which owes its birth to chivalry and romance; and it prides itself on the admirable compositions of this sort which it possesses. I will not, in this place, examine which of these two kinds of poetry deserves the preference; it is sufficient to show, that the diversities of taste on this subject do not merely spring from accidental causes, but are derived also from the primitive sources of imagination and thought.

There is a kind of simplicity both in the epic poems and tragedies of the ancients; because at that time men were completely the children of nature, and believed themselves controlled by fate, as absolutely as nature herself is controlled by necessity. Man, reflecting but little, always bore the action of his soul with out; even conscience was represented by external objects, and the torch of the Furies shook the horrors of remorse over the head of the guilty. In ancient times, men attended to events alone, but among the moderns, character is of greater importance; and that uneasy reflection, which, like the vulture of Prometheus, often internally devours us, would have been folly amid circumstances and relations so clear and decided, as they existed in the civil and social state of the ancients.

When the art of sculpture began in Greece, single statues alone were formed; groups were composed at a later period. It might be said with equal truth, that there were no groups in any art: objects were represented in succession, as in bas-reliefs, without combination, without complication of any kind. Man personified nature; nymphs inhabited the waters, hamadryads the forests; but nature, in turn, possessed herself of man; and, it might be said, he resembled the torrent, the thunderbolt, the volcano, so wholly did he act from involuntary impulse, and so insufficient was reflection in any respect, to alter the motives or the consequences of his actions. The ancients, thus to speak, possessed a corporeal soul, and its emotions were all strong, decided, and consistent; it is not the same with the human heart as developed by Christianity: the moderns have derived from Christian repentance a constant habit of self-reflection.

But in order to manifest this kind of internal existence, a great variety of outward facts and circumstances must display, under every form, the innumerable shades and gradations of that which is passing in the soul. If in our days the fine arts were confined to the simplicity of the ancients, we should never attain that primitive strength which distinguishes them, and we should lose those intimate and multiplied emotions of which our souls are susceptible. Simplicity in the arts would, among the moderns, easily degenerate into coldness and abstraction, while that of the ancients was full of life and animation. Honor and love, valor and pity, were the sentiments which distinguished the Christianity of chivalrous ages; and those dispositions of the soul could only be dis played by dangers, exploits, love, misfortunes-that romantic interest, in short, by which pictures are incessantly varied. The sources from which art derives its effect are then very different in classic poetry and in that of romance; in one it is fate which reigns, in the other it is Providence. Fate counts the sentiments of men as nothing; but Providence judges of actions according to those sentiments. Poetry must necessarily create a world of a very different nature, when its object is to paint the work of destiny, which is both blind and deaf, maintaining an endless contest with mankind; and when it attempts to describe that intelligent order, over which the Supreme Being continually presides,-that Being whom our hearts supplicate, and who mercifully answers their petitions!

The poetry of the pagan world was necessarily as simple and well defined as the objects of nature; while that of Christianity requires the various colors of the rainbow to preserve it from being lost in the clouds. The poetry of the ancients is more pure as an art; that of the moderns more readily calls forth our tears.

But our present object is not so much to decide between classic and romantic poetry, properly so called, as between the imitation of the one and the inspiration of the other. The literature of the ancients is, among the moderns, a transplanted literature; that of chivalry and romance is indigenous, and flourishes under the influence of our religion and our institutions. Writers, who are imitators of the ancients, have subjected themselves to the rules of strict taste alone; for, not being able to consult either their own nature or their own recollections, it is necessary for them to con form to those laws by which the chefs-d'oeuvre of the ancients may be adapted to our taste; though the circumstances both political and religious, which gave birth to these chefs-d' oeuvre are all entirely changed. But the poetry written in imitation of the ancients, however perfect in its kind, is seldom popular, because, in our days, it has no connection whatever with our national feelings.

The French being the most classical of all modern poetry, is of all others least calculated to become familiar among the lower orders of the people. The stanzas of Tasso are sung by the gondoliers of Venice; the Spaniards and Portuguese, of all ranks, know by heart the verses of Calderon and Camoens. Shakespeare is as much admired by the populace in England as by those of a higher class. The poems of Goethe and Burger are set to music, and repeated from the banks of the Rhine to the shores of the Baltic. Our French poets are admired wherever there are cultivated minds, either in our own nation, or in the rest of Europe; but they are quite unknown to the common people, and even to the class of citizens in our towns, because the arts, in France, are not, as elsewhere, natives of the very country in which their beauties are displayed.

Some French critics have asserted that German literature is still in its infancy. This opinion is entirely false; men who are best skilled in the knowledge of languages and the works of the ancients, are certainly not ignorant of the defects and advantages attached to the species of literature which they either adopt or reject; but their character, their habits, and their modes of reasoning, have led them to prefer that which is founded on the recollection of chivalry, on the wonders of the middle ages, to that which has for its basis the mythology of the Greeks. Romantic literature is alone capable of further improvement, because, being rooted in our own soil, that alone can continue to grow and ac quire fresh life: it expresses our religion; it recalls our history; its origin is ancient, although not of classical antiquity.

Classic poetry, before it comes home to us, must pass through our recollections of paganism: that of the Germans is the Christian era of the fine arts; it employs our personal impressions to excite strong and vivid emotions; the genius by which it is in spired addresses itself immediately to our hearts, and seems to call forth the spirit of our own lives, of all phantoms at once the most powerful and the most terrible.


Source: Germany, with notes and appendices by O. W. Wight, (New York, 1859) Vol. I, pp. 198-204. Reprinted in John Halstead, Romanticism: Select Documents (Macmillan: New York, 1969)

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© Paul Halsall, March 2023



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