Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Goethe, the Apostles, and Tennyson's Supposed Confessions

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Goethe, the Apostles, and Tennyson's Supposed Confessions

Article excerpt

Ian H. C. Kennedy was the first to point out that the original title of Tennyson's Supposed Confessions of a Second-rate Sensitive Mind, which added the information that the mind was "not in union with itself," included a quotation from Carlyle's translation of the first volume of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, the Wanderjahre. Kennedy went on to trace a network of correspondences between Goethe's novel and the poems of Tennyson's Cambridge period.(1) As Kennedy shows, Tennyson was following a fashion. Carlyle's translations of the Wanderjahre in 1824, and of the Lehrjahre three years later, were not immediately successful, but slowly they had their effect. By 1830 Wilhelm Meister had replaced The Sorrows of Werther as the work by which Goethe was best known to his British readers. The interest in Goethe was especially strong at Cambridge, and amongst Tennyson's Cambridge set. Julius Hare and Connop Thirlwall, the translators of Niebuhr, inspired the Trinity men they tutored with an enthusiasm for all things German and their influence was particularly strong on the Apostles, with whom both were closely associated. Julius Hare, in particular, was a notorious advocate for the merits of Wilhelm Meister.(2) The interest of the Apostles would have been quickened when the brothers Charles and Arthur Buller joined their group, for they had been tutored by Carlyle during the period when he was at work on his translation.(3) Of still more weight was the fact that by 1829 both of the men regarded by the Apostles as the spiritual fathers of their society were at work on novels directly influenced by Wilhelm Meister. John Sterling did not publish Arthur Coningsby until 1833, and F. D. Maurice published Eustace Conway a year later, but both novels had existed in draft form for some years previously.(4) Kennedy was right to draw attention to the fact of Goethe's influence on the poems of Tennyson's Cambridge period, but more needs to be done to assess the quality of that influence. It is best to start with the novels by Sterling and by Maurice.

Sterling and Maurice found in Wilhelm Meister a new kind of novel, a novel that was, as all its readers noted, in large part autobiographical, but a novel the protagonist of which could be robustly but not unfairly described by Carlyle as "a milksop, whom, with all his gifts, it takes an effort to avoid despising." It is the distinctive blend of autobiographical intimacy and a blank narrative indifference "wrinkled" from time to time, in Carlyle's memorable phrase, "by a slight sardonic grin"(5) that was seized on by Sterling and Maurice as the germ that made their own novels possible. They recognized the possibility of a novel that might function as a distanced, sardonic autobiography, and yet represent the experience of the central character as representative rather than merely personal. When he sent a copy of his novel to Richard Chenevix Trench, Maurice explained it as an expression of his desire "to have more deep and affectionate sympathy with every state of feeling through which I or any dear friends have passed."(6) In the novel itself the depth of the sympathy is more apparent than its affectionateness, but the nature of Maurice's project is clear: his plan was to write a novel that embodied as completely as possible not just his own experience, but the experience of his group. Wilhelm Meister offered him, as no other novel available to him could, a formal model for such an enterprise. But it was a model that neither Maurice nor Sterling was prepared to endorse without qualification.

Maurice's and Sterling's novels decisively part company with their model in two ways. First, the greater part of his "apprenticeship" is spent by Wilhelm in exorcising his infatuation with the stage. Wilhelm spends his time in the company of travelling players, staying with them in second-rate inns, and experiencing the complex pleasures available in the chaotically disordered bedrooms of the company's actresses. …

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