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in the department of nature-derived poetry; the learned, or scholastic vein, in this cast of literature, was no longer in vogue; "the simple hut impressive Claudius," observes Gervinus, "arose as a specimen, and Voss himself began to esteem Ossian rather than Homer."
The same general beauties, that distinguish the poetry of this author, manifest themselves also in his dramatic compositions; nevertheless, we are bound to regard these as the least striking of all his productions: a dearth of incident, joined to a poverty of expedient in the conduct of the action, and a hardness of diction, are very observable through the whole of them, and constitute, indeed, the peculiar defect in Klopstock's dramatic literature.*
LESSING. By the'side of the foregoing bards we must place that famous critic, who had in his day an extraordinary influence, and who may be hailed as the co-reformer of the style and character of the German muse, the originator of a certain class of mellifluous prose, and likewise of sterling vernacular poetry,—we mean
JOHANN GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM LESSING.* (1729-1781) Who was the son of a clergyman, and was born at Camenz, the 22nd of January, 1729. He studied theology at Leipzic, in 1746, but the theatre in that town awakening in him a leaning towards dramatic lore, he forthwith addressed himself to this department of letters. Lessing, when in Berlin, lived in intimate friendship with Nicolai and Mendelsohn. The date 1767 finds him established as dramatic critic in
* Klopstock und seine Freunde, herausgb. von Klaraer Schmidt. 1810. f Sachs, L. W. Einiges zur Erinnerung an Lessing. 1839. Hamburg, until he was summoned, in 1769, to fill the honourable offices of court counsellor and librarian at Wolffenbttttel, where he died on the 15th of February 1781. Lessixg was the man who set himself to abolish all those mannerisms, at once artificial and without sou], which had risen up in the writings of former poets. He was the first of the modern versemen who combined the poetical Ideal with the poetry of real life: he cleared his ground as he went on, and weeded out antiquated moulds of thought with a skilful hand. In this labour, which we can easily imagine was a very difficult one, his genius proved his best assistance: on one side, he effected this by his critiques, which were perfect models in their way; on the other side, he secured it by his own writings, which were types of poetical and prose art. Lessing also united in his own person the three leading qualifications of poet, philosopher, and critic. All the varieties of his writings are highly finished, while in every one of them we can discover an onward progress. He threw down the gauntlet to his antagonists; and triumphed over inveterate habits, creating, at the same time, something new and better. In Lessing's argumentative works, an investigating power and philosophical spirit is evident; while in his essays upon poetry, an artistic structure and aesthetical knowledge is striking.
Under the head of Lessing's dramatic compositions we must first mention his earlier productions, such as his " Der junge Gelehrte," "Die Juden," "Der Freigeist," &c. which are, however, of no great value, and, compared with his later compositions, appear to be only early juvenile attempts. His "Miss Sarah Sampson" is a lachrymose and heavy drama; but the leading dramatic pieces by his pen are,—" Minna von Barnhelm,"" Emilia Galotti," and "Nathan der Weise."
The comedy of "Minna von Barnhelm," completed about 1761, is the most celebrated of that era. It is a most spirited and impressive production, no less characteristic 38 LES8IXG.
than national, and at its first appearance on the German stage, was reckoned, upon the whole, a perfect phenomenon. By its dolorose scenes, which excel the comic ones, it ought, perhaps, rather to be classed with tie tragic drama than with comedy. The character in it of Major Tcllenheim, is generally taken to be an ethical portrait of the poet Kleist.
Lessing's tragedy, again, of " Emilia Galotti," finished in the year 1771, charmed the public voice into a tone of general admiration. The human passions are exposed in this play with an extraordinary measure of sagacity; there is not a single scene that could be pointed out as uninteresting or sluggish; no over-expanded dialogue ever protracts the rapid progress of the dramatic action; but the characters are thrown into masterly relief, and graced with the highest degree of artistic finish. Borne remarks of it: "How faithfully are the interlocutors sketched, — with what force of nature, with what freshness of acumen! what a boldness, yet what a propriety, is extant in all the descriptions, and how much delicacy of shadowing can we discover! and oh! what a charming vein of language is it altogether!"
The next production by this writer that we have to consider, is the grand drama of " Nathan der Weise."* This curious plot of Bocaccio's (the story of the three rings), is adapted with wonderful ingenuity, but not, however, in defiance of probability,—if, indeed, we have respect to the circumstances of those times. "Nathan der Weise " is an imperishable poem, with the finest, and, so to speak, sweetest moral attached to it; it is altogether unique, and ranks as the model of a new order of dramatic poetry, invented by Lessing. The sketches of character, as well as its famous vein of dialogue, are above all praise. The drama
* Mr. William Taylor has given, in his " Survey of German Poetry," a copious translation of " Nathan der Weise," and a full account of Lessing's life and works.
under review was not without its weight also upon the general body of the German literature, becoming, in point of metrical form, the father of an immense mass of iambic tragedies, which have appeared subsequently, and to which it served as a prototype.
Lessing's correct taste and profound skill in the elegant sciences, are manifested by his " Laokoon," remarkable for the beauty of its style. This is a noble monument of Lessing's philosophy and erudition, possessing an equal value to the mere poetical Ksthetician, to the antiquary, the philosopher, and to the connoisseur of Art. The composition of this extraordinary disquisition arose out of an expression of Winckelmann, that the priest" Laokoon," in that celebrated group, cried aloud with pain, like the " Philoctetes" of Sophocles. Lessing held, however, that Laokoon ought to be taken for a idealisation of suppressed human agony, and that the sculptor works by rules altogether different from those regulating the classical poet. Our author then proceeds to institute a comparison between fine statuary and fine poetry, in the treatment of one and the same subject. "Laokoon" is a work of first-rate value and merit.* With the publication of this paper, coupled with Herder's fragments, in the same school, there began to be diffused over Germany an entirely new theory of the Beautiful in Poetry and in Art."
But, after all, Lessing's true greatness is to be found in the fact of his having created an entirely new path of criticism. And this, his "Kritik," became the basis upon which was to be established the palladium of our national literature. It can scarcely be expected that Lessing should, at the first outset, promulgate an aesthetical system, perfect . and complete in all its minute features. Indeed, his own assertion, in the Introduction to his Laokoon,—" Die Aufsatze sind zufalliger Weise entstanden, und mehr nach der
+ Herder's Kritische Wiilder, Vol. i.; examine Lessing's "Laokoon."
Folge meiner Lektiire, als dutch die methodische Entwickelung allgemeiner Grundsatze angewachsen. Es sind also mehr unordentliche Collectanea zu einem Buche, als ein Buch," shows us all he pretends to effect. Lessing was, no doubt, the greatest and most sagacious intellectual ruler of his day; he had, in fact, studied with great zeal and perseverance whatever was to be known, and had acquitted himself so stalwarthily in consequence, that the whole circle of German critics,—who, at the outset of his career, were in an exceedingly depressed condition,—forthwith recognized in him that greater light, which was to eclipse whatever abilities they might themselves possess.
It is hardly necessary to add, that, under .these circumstances, our author came in for quite his full share of partyattack; howbeit,. his acutely-polemical, and yet elegant pen, speedily put all his antagonists to silence.
Lessing's " Dramaturgic" is an abounding golden mine of sterling criticism on the drama of his own day, including excellent and valuable comparisons of dramatic compositions in general, which tended to refine the public taste, to favour the formation of a competent judgment, and, by an erudite examination, and by far-reaching insights into the classical and national drama, to ameliorate the style of the Comedist. In this work it is, therefore, that Lessing's ire against the French drama is completely unmasked; while it was to this production, perhaps, that Germany, at that period, owed her enfranchisement from the thrall of a servile imitation of the literary style of that kingdom.
Lessing's "Fabeln" are mostly in prose, yet in the choicest and cleverest prose imaginable; being all of them artistical, and replete with acumen and significance. As a very spirited inkling, or fragment of Lessing's thoughts in philosophy, we may also instance his "Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts."*
* Schiitz, C. G. Ueber Lessing's Genie und Schriften.