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THERE was, perhaps, some temerity in attempting a Life of Goethe at a time when no German author had undertaken the task ; but the reception which my work has met with, even after the appearance of the biographies by Viehoff and Schäfer, is a justification of the temerity. The sale of thirteen thousand copies in England and Germany, and the sympathy generously expressed, not unmingled, it is true, with adverse and even angry criticism, are assurances that my labours were not wholly misdirected, however far they may have fallen short of their aim. For the expressions of sympathy, public and private, I cannot but be grateful ; and I have done my best to profit by criticism even when it was most hostile.
I wish to make special mention of the assistance tendered me by the late Mr. Franz Demmler. Although a stranger to me, this accomplished student of Goethe kindly volunteered, amid many and pressing avocations, to re-read my book with the express purpose of annotating it; and he sent me several sheets of notes and objections, all displaying the vigour of his mind and the variety of his reading. Some of these I was glad to use ; and even those which I could not agree with or adopt, were always carefully considered. On certain points our opinions were diametrically opposed ; but it was always an advantage to me to read criticisms so frank and acute.
The present edition is altered in form and in substance. It has been rewritten in parts, with a view not only of introducing all the new material which several important publications have furnished, but also of correcting and reconstructing it so as to make it more worthy of public favour. As there is little probability of any subsequent publication bringing to light fresh material of importance, I hope that this reconstruction of my book will be final.
With respect to the use I have made of the materials at hand, especially of Goethe's Autobiography, I can but repeat what was said in the Preface to the First Edition : the Dichtung und Wahrheit not only wants the egotistic garrulity and detail which give such confessions their value, but presents great difficulties to a biographer. The main reason of this is the abiding inaccuracy of tone, which, far more misleading than the many inaccuracies of fact, gives to the whole youthful period, as narrated by him, an aspect so directly contrary to what is given by contemporary evidence, especially his own letters, that an attempt to reconcile the contradiction is futile. If any one doubts this, and persists in his doubts after reading the first volume of this work, let him take up Goethe's Letters to the Countess von Stolberg, or the recently published letters to Kestner and Charlotte, and compare their tone with the tone of the Autobiography, wherein the old man depicts the youth as the old man saw him, not as the youth felt and lived. The picture of youthful follies and youthful passions comes softened through the distant avenues of years. The tur
bulence of a youth of genius is not indeed quite forgotten, but it is hinted with stately reserve. Jupiter serenely throned upon Olympus forgets that he was once a rebel with the Titans.
When we come to know the real facts, we see that the Autobiography does not so much misstate as understate ; we, who can “read between the lines,” perceive that it errs more from want of sharpness of relief and precision of detail than from positive misrepresentation. Controlled by contemporary evidence, it furnishes one great source for the story of the early years ; and I greatly regret there is not more contemporary evidence to furnish more details.
For the later period, besides the mass of printed testimony in shape of Letters, Memoirs, Reminiscences, etc., I have endeavoured to get at the truth by consulting those who lived under the same roof with him, those who lived in friendly intercourse with him, and those who have made his life and works a special study. I have sought to acquire and to reproduce a definite image of the living man, and not simply of the man as he appeared in all the reticences of print. For this purpose I have controlled and completed the testimonies of print by means of papers which have never seen the light, and papers which in all probability never will see the light—by means of personal corroboration, and the many slight details which are gathered from far and wide when one is alive to every scrap of authentic information and can see its significance ; and thus comparing testimony with testimony, completing what was learned yesterday by something learned today, not unfrequently helped to one passage by details furnished from half a dozen quarters, I have formed the conclusions which appear in this work. In this difficult, and sometimes delicate task, I hope it will be apparent that I have been
guided by the desire to get at the truth, having no cause to serve, no partisanship to mislead me, no personal connexion to trammel my judgment. It will be seen that I neither deny, nor attempt to slur over, points which may tell against my hero. The man is too great and too good to forfeit our love, because on some points he may incur blame. Considerable
space has been allotted to analyses and criticisms of Goethe's works ; just as in the life of a great Captain, much space is necessarily occupied by his campaigns. By these analyses I have tried to be of service to the student of German literature, as well as to those who do not read German ; and throughout it will be seen that pains have not been spared to make the reader feel at home in this foreign land.
The scientific writings have been treated with what proportionately may seem great length ; and this, partly because science filled a large portion of Goethe's life; partly, because, even in Germany, there was nothing like a full exposition of his aims and achievements in this direction.
The Priory, North Bank, Regent's Park.