Letter 23


October 9th 1826

MY DEAR PROCTER,–This Göttingen life is little productive of epistolary materials or of any adventure interesting beyond the town walls; and I have not been six miles from the circuit of these during the last year. However, I meditate and must perform a pilgrimage to Dresden, for the sake of its pictures, and then I hope to pick out a few plums to communicate to you.

These matters, I take it for granted, retain their interest for you, because I have a lingering attachment to them, and in sincerity I acknowledge that you possess a truer and more steady feeling for the beautiful in imagination; and the law-studies will probably only compress and concentrate it. You will give me leave to believe that you will not and cannot entirely abandon the studies and labours which have many years pretty exclusively possessed you, and by which you have obtained a distinguished reputation; and if you do not, I shall take it. Me you may safely regard as one banished from a service to which he was not adapted, but who has still a lingering affection for the land of dreams; as yet, at least, not far enough in the journey of science to have lost sight of the old two-topped hill.

I wish, indeed, that the times were more favourable to the cultivators of dramatic literature, which from a thousand causes appears to be more and more degraded from its original dignity and value among the fine arts. And yet I believe that the destined man would break through all difficulties and re-establish what ought to be the most distinguished department of our poetic literature; but perhaps enough has already been done, and we ought to be content with what times past have laid up for us. If literature has fallen into bad hands in England, it is little worse off than in Germany, for living and active are few writers above a secondary rank, and they almost unknown beyond the shadow of the double eagle’s wings.

Jean Paul is lately dead, and a new edition of his voluminous writings is proceeding from the press.

I have read little of his, and that little has pleased me less. In his happier moods he resembles Elia, but in general he is little better than a pedantical punster.

Tieck has made a good little story by threading together the few facts we have of Marlowe’s life, and an English translation is advertised by a Leipzig bookseller, probably by himself. When it appears I shall send it to you by the first opportunity, without waiting for your order.

A quantity of our modern indifferent fellows have been cheaply reprinted by different speculating booksellers. It is a pity they have no good selector, who could spare them the pains of recondemning paper and print to the re-awaking of such trash. It would be as reasonable of dyers to reprint the London waistcoats and breeches of 1810 or ’16; for a pattern or a poem of this sort are equally long-lived, and deserve to be so.

In the neighbourhood is a little lake, See-Burger-See. We went there botanising a few weeks ago, and were entertained by our boatman with a genuine legend. A castle had formerly stood on the edge of the water, and the ruins of it still exist on the rocks and under the waves. It was formerly inhabited by a knight who had a confidential cock and a prying servant. Once a month the master, to keep his ears awake to the language of his crowing oracle, partook of a mysterious dish; and it was decreed that whenever a second pair of ears were able to receive and comprehend Chanticleer’s conversation, the castle should fall. At last, then, the servant removed the cover of the monthly viand and found a snake under it: he tasted some of this broiled worm of the tree of knowledge, and was from that day forth an eavesdropper of the confidential twitters in sparrows’ nests and hen-coops. The prophetic cock soon began to use fowl language, and proclaim the approaching downfall of the towers of –burg. The servant who had translated colloquies between fly and fly, bee and flower, did not fail to comprehend the warning; rushed to his master, who was already on his horse and riding out of the castle gate: the walls tumbled, the tower bowed, the groom rushed after his master and seized the horse’s tail; the knight plunged his spurs into the sides of his steed, leapt to land, and left his treacherous servant among the waves and ruins.

Here are also the Gleichen, two castles belonging to the family of Ernst von Gleichen, famous for having two wives: W. Scott has told the story somewhere. A grave is shown at Erfurt as containing the relics of the three, and at one of his castles a large bed; but it appears that this three-headed matrimony is fictitious and altogether unsupported by historical documents. These castles overlook a prettyish village, which was a favourite haunt of poor Bürger the ballad-writer. He was a private teacher in Göttingen, and probably starved or at all events hastened through the gates of death by poverty and care. Schiller was supposed to be envious of him, and did him a great deal of mischief by ill-natured criticism; but Bürger had more notion of the right translunary thing than his reviewer. About Weber? What grief at the death? His fellow-countrymen and fellow fiddlers were well-pleased with his burial or intended burial honours.

I wish you joy of Sir R. G–‘s being out of the way; you may sit upon a woolsack yet. Was it to fill your sheet that you sent a good deal of advice or remonstrance in your last to me? Perhaps you forget it. I only mention it to observe that it is a little singular that a dramatic writer, a person who has observed and knows something of human character, should take the trouble to attempt corrections of the incorrigible, and pour so much oil upon a fire by way of extinguishing it. Allow me to say that you are mistaken if you think I wilfully affect any humour; even that of affecting nothing. I always make a point of agreeing with everything that a fool pleases to assert in conversation, and only combat assertions or opinions of a person for whom I have respect. Verbum sap. You people in England have a pretty false notion of the German character, and flatter yourselves with your peculiar and invincible insular self-complacency that you know all about it; for national vanity I believe after all you are unequalled. The Frenchmen rests his boast on the military glories of la grande nation; the German smokes a contemptuous pipe over the philosophical works of his neighbours; but the Englishman will monopolise all honourable feeling, all gentle breeding, all domestic virtue, and indeed has ever been the best puritan. Is the revolution in the “Quarterly” true? The last number we had here did smack somewhat of “Blackwood.” Present my best compliments to Mrs. Procter, and don’t let your answer be as dull as this.



Recollect I write from Göttingen.

“Death’s Jest Book” is finished in the rough, and I will endeavour to write it out and send it to you before Easter: at all events I think parts of it will somewhat amuse you: ′οι πολλο′ι will find it quite indigestible. W.A. Schlegel is professor at Bonn, a ten years old Prussian university on the Rhine. His brother Friedrich is in Austria, and writes puffs for the Holy Alliance. No Austrian is allowed to study here–Göttingen is so famous for liberality.

I intend to study Arabic and Anglo-Saxon soon.

I have just bought three salamanders. They are pretty, fat, yellow and black reptiles, that live here in the ruins of an old castle in the neighbourhood; on the Hartz I hear they are larger. It is not a bad retributory metempsychosis for the soul of a bullying knight.

[Gosse, 1894]