Schiller and the Process of His Intellectual development

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Schiller and the Process of His Intellectual development

Postby admin » Thu Aug 02, 2018 5:52 am

Schiller and the Process of His Intellectual development
by Wilhelm von Humboldt
From the Introduction to the Correspondence of Schiller and W. von Humboldt (1830)
Translated by Frances H. King

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Schiller's poetic genius showed itself in his very first productions. In spite of all their defects in form, in spite of many things which to the mature artist seemed absolutely crude, The Robbers and Fiesko gave evidence of remarkable inherent power. His genius later betrayed itself in the longing for poetry, as for the native atmosphere of his spirit, which longing constantly breaks out in his varied philosophical and historical labors and is often hinted at in his letters to me. It finally revealed itself in virile power and refined purity in those dramas which will long remain the pride and the renown of the German stage.

This poetic genius, however, is most closely wedded, in all its height and depth, to thought; it manifests itself, in fact, in an intellectuality which by analysis would separate everything into its parts, and then by combination would unite all in one complete whole. In this lies Schiller's peculiar individuality. He demanded of poetry more profundity of thought and forced it to submit to a more rigid intellectual unity than it had ever had before. This he did in a two-fold manner—by binding it into a more strictly artistic form, and by treating every poem in such a way that its subject-matter readily broadened its individuality until it expressed a complete idea.

It is upon these peculiarities that the excellence which characterizes Schiller as a writer rests. It is because of them that, in order to bring out the greatest and best of which he was capable, he needed a certain amount of time before his completely developed individuality, to which his poetic genius was indissolubly united, could reach that point of clearness and definiteness of expression which he demanded of himself. * * *

On the other hand, it would probably be agreeable to the reader of this correspondence if I should attempt briefly to show how my opinion of Schiller's individuality was formed by intercourse with him, by reminiscences of his conversation, by the comparison of his productions in their successive sequence, and by a study of the development of his intellect.

What must necessarily have impressed every student of Schiller as most characteristic was the fact that thinking was the very substance of his life, in a higher and more significant sense than perhaps has ever been the case with any other person. His intellect was alive with spontaneous and almost tireless activity, which ceased only when the attacks of his physical infirmity became overpowering. Such activity seemed to him a recreation rather than an effort, and was manifested most conspicuously in conversation, for which Schiller appeared to have a natural aptitude.

He never sought for deep subjects of conversation, but seemed rather to leave the introduction of a subject to chance; but from each topic he led the discourse up to a general point of view, and after a short dialogue one found oneself in the very midst of a mentally stimulating discussion. He always treated the central idea as an end to be attained in common; he always seemed to need the help of the person with whom he was conversing, for, although the latter always felt that the idea was supplied by Schiller alone, Schiller never allowed him to remain inactive.

This was the chief difference between Schiller's and Herder's mode of conversing. Never, perhaps, has there been a man who talked with greater charm than Herder, if one happened to catch him in an agreeable mood—not a difficult matter when any kind of note was struck with which he was in harmony.

All the extraordinary qualities of this justly admired man seemed to gain double power in conversation, for which they were so peculiarly adapted. The thought blossomed forth in expression with a grace and dignity which appeared to proceed from the subject alone, although really belonging only to the individual. Thus speech flowed on uninterruptedly with a limpidness which still left something remaining for one's own imagination, and yet with a chiaroscuro which did not prevent one from definitely grasping the thought. As soon as one subject was exhausted a new one was taken up. Nothing was gained by making objections which would only have served as a hindrance. One had listened, one could even talk oneself, but one felt the lack of an interchange of thought.

Schiller's speech was not really beautiful, but his mind constantly strove, with acumen and precision, to make new intellectual conquests; he held this effort under control, however, and soared above his subject in perfect liberty. Hence, with a light and delicate touch he utilized any side-issue which presented itself, and this was the reason why his conversation was peculiarly rich in words that are so evidently the inspiration of the moment; yet, in spite of such seeming freedom in the treatment of the subject, the final end was not lost sight of. Schiller always held with firmness the thread which was bound to lead thither, and, if the conversation was not interrupted by any mishap, he was not prone to bring it to a close until he had reached the goal.

And as Schiller in his conversation always aimed to add new ground to the domain of thought, so, in general, it may be said that his intellectual activity was always characterized by an intense spontaneity. His letters demonstrate these traits very perceptibly, and he knew absolutely no other method of working.

He gave himself up to mere reading late in the evening only, and during his frequently sleepless nights. His days were occupied with various labors or with specific preparatory studies in connection with them, his intellect being thus kept at high tension by work and research.

Mere studying undertaken with no immediate end in view save that of acquiring knowledge, and which has such a fascination for those who are familiar with it that they must be constantly on their guard lest it cause them to neglect other more definite duties—such studying, I say, he knew nothing about from experience, nor did he esteem it at its proper value. Knowledge seemed to him too material, and the forces of the intellect too noble, for him to see in this material anything more than mere stuff to be worked up. It was only because he placed more value upon the higher activity of the intellect, which creates independently out of its own depths, that he had so little sympathy with its efforts of a lower order. It is indeed remarkable from what a small stock of material and how, in spite of wanting the means by which such material is procured by others, Schiller obtained his comprehensive theory of life (Weltanschauung), which, when once grasped, fairly startles us by the intuitive truthfulness of genius; for one can give no other name to that which originates without outside aid.

Even in Germany he had traveled only in certain districts, while Switzerland, of which his William Tell contains such vivid descriptions, he had never seen. Any one who has ever stood by the Falls of the Rhine will involuntarily recall, at the sight, the beautiful strophe in The Diver in which this confusing tumult of waters, that so captivates the eye, is depicted; and yet no personal view of these rapids had served as the basis for Schiller's description.

But whatever Schiller did acquire from his own experience he grasped with a clearness which also brought distinctly before him what he learned from the description of others. Besides, he never neglected to prepare himself for every subject by exhaustive reading. Anything that might prove to be of use, even if discovered accidentally, fixed itself firmly in his memory; and his tirelessly-working imagination, which, with constant liveliness, elaborated now this now that part of the material collected from every source, filled out the deficiencies of such second-hand information.

In a manner quite similar he made the spirit of Greek poetry his own, although his knowledge of it was gained exclusively from translations. In this connection he spared himself no pains. He preferred translations which disclaimed any particular merit in themselves, and his highest consideration was for the literal classical paraphrases.

* * * The Cranes of Ibycus and the Festival of Victory wear the colors of antiquity with all the purity and fidelity which could be expected from a modern poet, and they wear them in the most beautiful and most spirited manner. The poet, in these works, has quite absorbed the spirit of the ancient world; he moves about in it with freedom, and thus creates a new form of poetry which, in all its parts, breathes only such a spirit. The two poems, however, are in striking contrast with each other. The Cranes of Ibycus permitted a thoroughly epic development; what made the subject of intrinsic value to the poet was the idea which sprung from it of the power of artistic representation upon the human soul. This power of poetry, of an invisible force created purely by the intellect and vanishing away when brought into contact with reality, belonged essentially to the sphere of ideas which occupied Schiller so intensely.

As many as eight years before the time when this subject assumed the ballad form within his mind it had floated before his vision, as is evident in the lines which are taken from his poem The Artists—

"Awed by the Furies' chorus dread
Murder draws down upon its head
The doom of death from their wild song."


This idea, moreover, permitted an exposition in complete harmony with the spirit of antiquity; the latter had all the requisites for bringing it into bold relief in all its purity and strength. Consequently, every particular in the whole narrative is borrowed immediately from the ancient world, especially the appearance and the song of Eumenides. The chorus as employed by Æschylus is so artistically interwoven with the modern poetic form, both in the matter of rhyme and the length of the metre, that no portion of its quiet grandeur is lost.

The Festival of Victory is of a lyric, of a contemplative nature. In this work the poet was able—indeed was compelled—to lend from his own store an element which did not lie within the sphere of ideas and the sentiments of antiquity; but everything else follows the spirit of the Homeric poem with as great purity as it does in the Cranes of Ibycus. The poem as a whole is clearly stamped with a higher, more distinct, spirituality than is usual with the ancient singers; and it is in this particular that it manifests its most conspicuous beauties.

The earlier poems of Schiller are also rich in particular traits borrowed from the poems of the ancients, and into them he has often introduced a higher significance than is found in the original. Let me refer in this connection to his description of death from The Artists—"The gentle bow of necessity"—which so beautifully recalls the gentle darts of Homer, where, however, the transfer of the adjective from darts to bow gives to the thought a more tender and a deeper significance.

Confidence in the intellectual power of man heightened to poetic form is expressed in the distichs entitled Columbus, which are among the most peculiar poetic productions that Schiller has given us. Belief in the invisible force inherent in man, in the opinion, which is sublime and deeply true, that there must be an inward mystic harmony between it and the force which orders and governs the entire universe (for all truth can only be a reflection of the eternal primal Truth), was a characteristic feature of Schiller's way of thinking. It harmonized also with the persistence with which he followed up every intellectual task until it was satisfactorily completed. We see the same thought expressed in the same kind of metaphor in the bold but beautiful expression which occurs in the letters from Raphael to Julius in the magazine, The Thalia—

"When Columbus made the risky wager with an untraveled sea." * * *

Art and poetry were directly joined to what was most noble in man; they were represented to be the medium by means of which he first awakens to the consciousness of that nature, reaching out beyond the finite, which dwells within him. Both of them were thus placed upon the height from which they really originate. To safeguard them upon this height, to save them from being desecrated by every paltry and belittling view, to rescue them from every sentiment which did not spring from their purity, was really Schiller's aim, and appeared to him as his true life-mission determined for him by the original tendency of his nature.

His first and most urgent demands are, therefore, addressed to the poet himself, from whom he requires not merely genius and talent isolated, as it were, in their activity, but a mood which takes possession of the entire soul and is in harmony with the sublimity of his vocation; it must be not a mere momentary exaltation, but an integral part of character. "Before he undertakes to influence the best among his contemporaries he should make it his first and most important business to elevate his own self to the purest and noblest ideal of humanity." * * * To no one does Schiller apply this demand more rigorously than to himself.

Of him it can truthfully be said that matters which bordered upon the common or even upon the ordinary, never had the slightest hold upon him; that he transferred completely the high and noble views which filled his thoughts to his mode of feeling and his life; and that in his compositions he was ever, with uniform force, inspired with a striving for the ideal. This was true even of his minor productions.

To assign to poetry, among human endeavors, the lofty and serious place of which I have spoken above, to defend it from the petty point of view of those who, mistaking its dignity, and the pedantic attitude of those who, mistaking its peculiar character, regard it only as a trifling adornment and embellishment of life or else ask an immediate moral effect and teaching from it—this, as one cannot repeat too often, is deeply rooted in the German habit of thought and feeling. Schiller in his poetry gave utterance—in his own individual manner, however—to whatever his German nature had implanted in him, to the harmony which rang out to him from the depths of the language, the mysterious effect of which he so cleverly perceived and knew how to use so masterfully. * * *

The deeper and truer trend of the German resides in his highly developed sensibility which keeps him closer to the truths of nature, in his inclination to live in the world of ideas and of emotions dependent upon them, and, in fact, in everything which is connected therewith. * * *

A favorite idea which often engaged Schiller's attention was the need of educating the crude natural man—as he understood him—through art, before he could be left to attain culture through reason. Schiller has enlarged upon this theme on many occasions, both in prose and verse. His imagination dwelt by preference upon the beginnings of civilization in general, upon the transition from the nomadic life to the agricultural, upon the covenant established in naïve faith with pious Mother Earth, as he so beautifully expresses it.

Whatever mythology offered here as kindred material, he grasped with eagerness and firmness. Faithfully following the traces of fable, he made of Demeter, the chief personage in the group of agricultural deities, a figure as wonderful as it was appealing, by uniting in her breast human feelings with divine. It was long a cherished plan with Schiller to treat in epic form the earliest Attic civilization resulting from foreign immigration. The Eleusinian Festival, however, replaced this plan, which was never executed. * * *

The merely emotional, the fervid, the simply descriptive, in fact every variety of poetry derived directly from contemplation and feeling, are found in Schiller in countless single passages and in whole poems. * * * But the most remarkable evidence of the consummate genius of the poet is seen in The Song of the Bell, which, in changing metre, in descriptions full of vivacity where a few touches represent a whole picture, runs through the varied experiences in the life of man and of society; for it expresses the feelings which arise in each of them, and ever adapts the whole, symbolically, to the tones of the bell, the casting and completing of which the poem accompanies throughout in all its various stages. I know of no poem, in any language, which shows so wide a poetic world in so small a compass, that so runs through the scale of all that is deepest in human feelings, and, in the guise of a lyric, depicts life in its important events and epochs as if in an epic poem confined within natural limits. But the poetic clearness is enhanced by the fact that a subject which is portrayed as actually existing, corresponds with the shadowy visions of the imagination; and the two series thus formed run parallel with each other to the same end. * * *

Schiller was snatched from the world in the full maturity of his intellectual power, though he would undoubtedly have been able to perform an endless amount of additional work. His scope was so unlimited that he would never have been able to find a goal, and the constantly increasing activity of his mind would never have allowed him time for stopping. For long years ahead he would have been able to enjoy the happiness, the rapture, yes, the bliss of his occupation as a poet, as he so inimitably describes it in one of the letters in this collection, written about a plan for an idyl. His life ended indeed before the customary limit had been reached, yet, while it lasted, he worked exclusively and uninterruptedly in the realm of ideas and fancy.

Of no one else, perhaps, can it be said so truthfully that "he had thrown away the fear of that which was earthly and had escaped out of the narrow gloomy life into the realm of the ideal." And it may be observed, in closing, that he had lived surrounded only by the most exalted ideas and the most brilliant visions which it is possible for a mortal to appropriate and to create. One who thus departs from earth cannot be regarded as otherwise than happy.
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