Faust: A Tragedy

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Faust: A Tragedy


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

About this book

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust is a tragic play, although more appropriately it should be defined a tragicomedy, despite the very title of the work. It was published in two parts: Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil (translated as: Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy) and Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil (Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy).

Contents (9)

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Scene III.
Scene VIII.
Scene II.








An Goethe.

Versuch ich’s mich so kühnlich hoch zu heben,

Zu den Gefilden reiner Lebensstrahlen?

Und wag’ ich’s frech, mit schwacher Hand zu malen

Was Dir nur ziemt, das buntbewegte Leben?

Wie soll der Kinderzunge lallend Streben

Aussprechen, was des Mannes Kraft gesungen?

Wie soll des Menschen Stimme wiedergeben,

Was aus der tiefen Götterbrust entsprungen?

O! wenn der Liebe ungestümer Drang

Mich trieb, dass ich das Heiligste entweihe,

Und zu berauschter, frecher Sünde zwang;

So schaue Du, aus der Verklärten Reihe,

Aus Himmelsharfen liebevollem Klang,

Und, wenn du mich nicht loben kannst, verzeihe!










Scene I, Scene II, Scene III.


Scene I, Scene II, Scene III, Scene IV, Scene V, Scene VI, Scene VII.


Scene I, Scene II, Scene III, Scene IV, Scene V, Scene VI, Scene VII, Scene VIII.


Scene I, Scene II, Scene III, Scene IV, Scene V, Scene VI, Scene VII, Scene VIII, Scene IX.


Scene I, Scene II, Scene III, Scene IV, Scene V.



The appearance of this Second Edition of my translation of “Faust,” after an interval of more than forty years from the publication of the original edition, may seem to require a word of explanation. Very soon after the issue of the first edition I became convinced that with the usual tendency of ambitious young men, I had allowed my enthusiasm to overrule my discretion, and ventured upon a task that demanded a much riper experience of life, and a much more finished dexterity of execution than was to be expected from a person of my age and capacity. I accordingly passed a verdict of condemnation upon it, and—notwithstanding the more lenient sentence passed on the work by not a few friendly voices—continued to regard it as a juvenile performance, which had done the best service of which it was capable, by teaching me my ignorance. This verdict was confirmed in my mind by the appearance of the admirable version of the same poem by my accomplished friend, Sir Theodore Martin, with whose laurels, thus nobly earned, I was inclined to think it a sort of impertinence to interfere. But, as time went on, and, while I was employing my whole energies on laborious works in quite another sphere, I still continued to hear people, whose judgment I could not altogether despise, praising and quoting my “Faust;” in which partial estimate they were no doubt confirmed by the approval of the late George Lewes, in his classical Life of Goethe, and of the Germans generally, who, from the close intercourse I have always maintained with that people, are inclined to look on my doings in the field of their literature with a specially favourable eye. Under these circumstances, it was only natural for me to imagine that the condemnation I had passed on my first juvenile attempt in verse had perhaps been too severe; and that, after all, I owed it to myself, and to Goethe, and to the noble people with whom I had been from my youth so intimately connected, to give my translation a thorough revisal, and to republish it in a form which might be as worthy of the ambition that such an attempt implied as my literary capability admitted. I accordingly, some four or five years ago, employed the leisure of the summer months in correcting, and in not a few places carefully rewriting, the whole work in the shape in which it now appears.

The principal fault which led me to condemn so severely my early work was a certain deficiency in the easy natural grace, which every one who knows the great German poet must recognise as one of the most attractive characteristics of his composition. This deficiency arose in my case partly from want of experience in the dexterous use of poetical expression, partly from the habit of clinging too closely to the words of the original, which is the natural vice of a young and conscientious translator. Long practice in such matters has now convinced me that a literal version of a great poem never can be a graceful version; and poetry without grace is like painting without colour, or preaching without faith; it lacks the very feature which makes it what it pretends to be, and gives it a right to exist. Those who wish to be minutely curious about the ipsissima verba of a great poem should read a prose translation; the mere want of the rhythmical movement never can deprive the work of its ideal character and elevating influence; and in the case of Faust this has been amply proved by the excellent translation of Mr. Hayward, which, I believe, has now reached a twelfth edition. But the problem of the poetical translator is to give, not the words, but the character of the original; to transfer its spirit, its tone, its salient features, and its rhythmical attitude, into another tongue, so far as the capabilities of that other tongue render such a transference possible. This is the principle on which I have worked. It would have been easy for me to have made many passages more literal; but, in doing so, I should have sacrificed the freedom of handling, without which I am convinced that graceful ease and naturalness in rhythmical composition is impossible.

There are some peculiarities in the rhythm of Faust to which it may be as well specially to call the attention of the English reader. While the fundamental metre is the octosyllabic Iambic, there is a liberal use of the decasyllabic line, whenever the dignity of the subject seems to require it, and not seldom, too, I fancy, from a fine instinct which Goethe had to avert what Byron calls “the fatal facility” of the octosyllabic stanza. This facility the German poet counteracts also in another way, by the variety of the places to which he attaches his rhyme; the couplet being constantly varied with the quatrain, and that either in the way of the alternate lines rhyming, or the first with the fourth, and the second with the third. But a still more characteristic feature in the rhythm of Faust is the frequent use of the Alexandrian line of twelve syllables, and that, not as Pope and Dryden use it, for giving greater volume and swell to a closing line, but simply to indulge an easy motion, such as we may imagine a German to delight in, when smoking his pipe and sipping his beer on a mild summer evening, beneath the village lime tree. I request the English reader particularly to note this peculiarity, and generally to tune his ear to the varied flow of Goethe’s easy rhythm; otherwise he will be apt to blame the translator, who certainly is not bound to sacrifice one of the most characteristic features of his author to propitiate the favour of the most ignorant, the most uncultivated, and the most lazy section of his readers. In the strictly lyrical parts of the poem it will be found that, if not with curious minuteness, certainly in general tone and effect, I have carefully followed the movement of the original. To have done otherwise, indeed, would have been difficult for me, to whom the movement of the original, in all its changes, has long been as familiar as the responses of the Church Service to a devout Episcopalian. Only let the reader not expect from me any attempt to give back on every occasion the trochaic rhymes or double endings, as we call them, of the original. Such an attempt will only be made by the writer who is more anxious to gain applause by performing a difficult feat, than to ensure grace by conforming to the plain genius of the language in which he writes.

J. S. B.

Altnacraig, Oban,

1st October 1880.

The story of Dr. Faustus and the Devil is one of such deep human significance, and, from the Reformation downwards, of such large European reputation, that in giving some account of its origin, character, treatment, legendary and poetical, I shall seem to be only gratifying a very natural curiosity on the part of the intelligent reader.

We, who live in the nineteenth century, in a period of the world’s intellectual development, which may be called the age of spiritual doubt and scepticism, in contradistinction to the age of faith and reverence in things traditional, which was first shaken to its centre by the violent shock of the Reformation, can have little sympathy with the opinions as to spiritual beings, demoniacal agency, magic, and theosophy, that were so universally prevalent in the sixteenth century. We believe in the existence of angels and spirits, because the Scriptures make mention of such spiritual beings; but this belief occupies a place as little prominent in our theology, as its influence is almost null in regard to actual life. In the sixteenth century, however, Demonology and Angelography were sciences of no common importance; and were, too, a fruitful root whence the occult lore of the sages, and the witch, ghost, and magic craft of the many took their rise, and spread themselves out into a tree, whose branches covered the whole earth with their shadow. From the earliest Christian fathers, to the last lingering theosophists of the seventeenth century, we can trace a regular and unshaken system of belief in the existence of infinite demons and angels in immediate connection with this lower world, with whom it was not only possible, but of very frequent occurrence, for men to have familiar intercourse. Psellus,[i1] the “prince of philosophers,” does not disdain to enter into a detailed account of the nature and influence of demons, and seems to give full faith to the very rankest old wives’ fables of dæmones incubi et succubi, afterwards so well known in the trials for witchcraft which disgraced the history of criminal law not more than two centuries ago. Giordano Bruno, the poet, the philosopher, and free-thinker of his day, to whom the traditionary doctrines of the Church were as chaff before the wind, was by no means free from the belief in magic, the fixed idea of the age in which he lived. “O! quanta virtus,” says he, in all the ebullition of his vivid fancy, “O quanta virtus est intersectionibus circulorum et quam sensibus hominum occulta!!! cum caput draconis in sagittario exstiterit, diacedio lapide posito in aqua, naturaliter (!) spiritus ad dandum responsa veniunt.”[i2] The comprehensive mind of Cornelius Agrippa, the companion of kings and of princes, soon sprung beyond the Cabbalistical and Platonical traditions of his youth; but not less is his famous book “De Philosophia Occulta” a good specimen of the intellectual character of the age in which he lived. The noted work “De Vanitate Scientiarum” is a child of Agrippa, not of the sixteenth century. The names of Cardan, Campanella, Reuchlin, Tritheim, Pomponatius, Dardi, Mirandula, and many others, might be added as characteristic children of the same spirit-stirring era; all more or less uniting a strange belief in the most baseless superstitions, with deep profundity of thought, and comprehensive grasp of erudition.

To understand fully the state of belief in which the intellect of the sixteenth century stood in regard to magic, astrology, theosophy, etc., it will be necessary to cast an eye back to the early history of Christianity and philosophy.

There can, in the first place, be no doubt that the genius of the Christian religion is completely adverse to that exaggerated and superstitious belief in the power of the Devil and Evil Spirits, which was so prevalent in the first ages of the Church, and increased to such a fearful extent in the Middle Ages. The Jewish religion, too, was founded on the great and fundamental doctrine that there is but one God, as opposed to the Hindoo and Persian notion of conflicting divinities, so universally spread over the East; and all the wild waste of doctrines concerning demons (διδασκαλίαι δαιμονίων, 1 Tim. iv. 1), with which the fertility of Rabbinical invention overran the fair garden of Mosaic theology, has been very properly relegated by German divines to its true source, the Babylonish captivity. Such, however, is the proneness of human reason to all sorts of superstition, that, though the New Testament Scriptures expressly declare[i3] that Jesus Christ came to annihilate the power, and destroy the works of the Devil, the monotheism of primitive Christianity was, in a few centuries, magnified into a monstrous system of demonological theology, little better than Oriental Dualism. The declension to this superstition was so much the more easy, as there were not wanting certain passages of Scripture (Eph. ii. 2, and vi. 12; 2 Thess. ii. 9), which ignorant and bigoted priests could easily turn to their own purposes, in magnifying this fancied power of the great enemy of man. A man like Del Rio would find devils within the walls of the New Jerusalem; so wonderfully sharp is his Jesuitical nose to scent out even the slightest motion of infernal agency.

The Gnostic and Manichæan heresies which infested the Church during the first five or six centuries could not be without their influence in exalting the power of the principle of evil; but writers of a far more philosophical character and more sober tone than those Oriental heresiarchs cannot be exempted from the charge of having contributed fairly to the same result. Of those fathers of the Church who did not, like Arnobius and Lactantius, exclaim against all philosophy, as opposed to the simplicity of the gospel, the greater number belonged to the Alexandrian school of Neo-Platonists, who, with all their sublime idealism, are known to have cherished, with a peculiar fondness, some of the most childish and superstitious notions to which philosophic mysticism has given birth. No lover of piety and virtue springing from a high and soul-ennobling philosophy, but must love and reverence the memory of such names as Proclus, Plotinus, and Jamblichus. It cannot, however, be denied that the overstrained ideas of these pure spirits went a great way to promote the growth of the prevalent superstitions with regard to theurgy and magic. The life of Plotinus seems, from the account given by Porphyry, to have been considered by himself and his admirers as an uninterrupted intercourse with spiritual intelligences, yea, with the one original Spirit himself; and in the Enneads of this prince of philosophic mystics, we have already fully developed all that system of mutual sympathies and antipathies, of concords and discords, between the all-animated parts of that mighty animal the World, which so readily allowed themselves to be worked into a system of practical theurgy and magic. Jamblichus, again, was not only a mystical philosopher, who sought to arrive at union (ἕνωσις) with the Divine Being by intellectual contemplation, but a magician and theurgist, as his work on the Egyptian mysteries, and the many legends told of him by his biographers, sufficiently prove.

I have been thus particular in holding forth the decidedly magical and theurgic character of the Alexandrian School of Platonists, in the second and third centuries, as it is easy to perceive that the revival of the Platonic, or rather Neo-Platonic philosophy, on occasion of the restoration of learning in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, had a principal share in the formation of the theosophic and magical views of the sixteenth century, which it is my intention here to characterise. The world had become heartily sick of the eternal boom-booming of the Aristotelian bitterns.[i4] The hungry spirit of man, aroused from its lethargic slumber, demanded some more vital nourishment than the skeleton distinctions of a thought-dissecting logic, and the vain pomposity of a learned terminology, could afford; and when such men as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccacio had taught the world to prefer the fulness of poetical life to the nakedness of scholastic speculation, no wonder that Plato, Plotinus, and Proclus, when brought into the West by the learned fugitives of Constantinople, should have received a hearty welcome, and exercised a deep-spread influence over the philosophy of the succeeding centuries. Gemistus Pletho, Bessarion, and Marsilius Ficinus, are well known as the three principal restorers of the Platonic philosophy in the fifteenth century: but it deserves especially to be remarked, that these men were far from being pure worshippers of their great master, but mixed it up with the theurgic dreamings of Jamblichus and Porphyry, nay, even went as far back as Pythagoras and Hermes Trismegistus, and held the simple Platonic doctrines as of comparatively little consequence, unless taken in connection with the mighty system which, out of such strange materials, had been built up by the Neo-Platonists.[i5]

In connection with the revival of the Platonic philosophy in Italy, we cannot omit to mention the name of Reuchlin, whose zeal for cabbalistical studies is said to have been first excited by the famous Johannes Picus Mirandula.[i6] Reuchlin was a German, and is the more interesting to us as the contemporary, or rather the master and instructor of Agrippa, Melancthon, and many celebrated men of the sixteenth century, whose names stand immediately connected with the story of Doctor Faust. To complete the wild dreamings of the Italian Platonists, nothing was now wanting but a revival of the Rabbinical and Talmudistic lore; and Reuchlin, whom Europe still reveres as the father of Hebrew learning in modern Theology, was precisely the man for this purpose. It was natural that the language of the sacred Book should have been considered as containing something mystical and transcendental even in its very letters; and we need not wonder that the enthusiasm of the first Hebrew scholars in Germany should have discovered the key of all the sciences in that cabbalistic lore, which we are now accustomed to use in common discourse, as a synonym for the most childish and unintelligible jargon.

Taking, thus, the prevailing theology of the Church, in connection with the impulse which the human mind had received from the revival of the Platonic philosophy, and the strong reaction, which the risings of independent thought in the breasts of men like Telesius, Campanella, and Bruno, had raised against the long-established despotism of the Aristotelian philosophy,—and all this worked up to a point by the revival of Cabbalism, through Reuchlin and other cultivators of Oriental literature,—we shall have no difficulty in perceiving at once the leading features of the age in which Faust flourished, and the causes which led to their development. We see the human intellect, in being roused into new life from the icy night of scholasticism, surrounded by the glowing but unsubstantial morning-clouds of a philosophy of feeling and imagination. Sufficiently occupied with gazing, child-like, on the hovering shapes that teemed so richly from its new-awakened being, it had no time, no wish, to enter upon the severe task of conscious manhood, that of criticising its own powers, and defining, with cautious precision, what the mind of man can know, and what it cannot know,—and was thus destined, for a short season, to flounder through the misty regions of theosophy and magic, till it should learn, from experience, to find at once its starting-point and its goal, in the exhaustless fulness of actual Nature.

In such an age, and under the influence of opinions, religious and philosophical, so different from those now prevalent, flourished the mysterious hero of modern magic, whom the pen of Goethe has made, likewise, one of the principal heroes of modern poetry. That a good deal of obscurity should have gathered around such a character,—that the love of the marvellous should have united with the ignorance of the age, in magnifying juggling tricks into miracles of magic, and clouding with a poetical mistiness that which was clear and definite,—is not to be wondered at. But that such a character actually existed, the tradition perpetuated from age to age on its native soil, and found, with little variation, scattered over almost every country, and clothed in almost every language of Europe, is of itself sufficient evidence. Popular legends seldom spring, like the antediluvian and prelapsarian traditions of the Talmudists, or the genealogies of old Celtic families, from mere airy nothingness; and, however contradictory and inconsistent their integrant parts may appear, they have all formed themselves around a nucleus of substantial reality. Nevertheless, as there is nothing so absurd which has not been asserted by some one of the philosophers, so there have not been wanting men of learning and investigation, who have seriously set themselves to the task of proving away the personality of the renowned Doctor Faust.[i7] But to detect a few chronological inaccuracies in the common popular legend, and to hold out to merited contempt the silliness, and even the impossibility of many things contained in it, may afford an opportunity for the display of a pedantic erudition, but can give no ground for the sweeping conclusion that the person, of whom these stories are told, did actually never exist. The monks were clever fellows; but, with all their ability, they would have found it difficult to invent such a story as Faust—so generally believed—out of mere nothing. The sceptics themselves are sensible of this; and, accordingly, Dürr, the chief of them, while he denies the personality of Faust the magician, endeavours to give a probable reason for the prevalence of the story, by throwing the whole burden upon the back of Faust the printer, father-in-law of Peter Schoeffer, and fellow-workers both of Guttenburg,—the famous trio, among whom the honour of the invention of printing is divided. The envy of the monks, acting on the ignorance of the age, here comes most opportunely into play, to explain how the inventor of such a novel art of multiplying books should have been generally accounted a magician. There can, indeed, be little doubt that he was so accounted by many ignorant people; and as this idea is sufficiently poetical, Klingemann has taken advantage of it in his tragedy of Doctor Faust.[i8] The main objection, however, on the face of this theory, is, that all the legends of Faust agree in placing the hero of magic fully half a century later than Faust the printer, who flourished about 1440. It is true, indeed, that some of the Volksbücher (vide Dürr, ut supra) ascribe to the Emperor Maximilian, what is generally told of Charles V., viz. that Doctor Faust conjured up before him the apparitions of Alexander the Great and his queen; but the other tricks, which were played before Cardinal Campegio and Pope Adrian, agree better with the age of Charles V. than with that of Maximilian. It is quite possible, however, that Faust may have exhibited his magical skill before both these emperors, whose reigns occupied the space from 1492 to 1558, Maximilian dying in 1519; for even the date of Maximilian will never bring us back to the era when Faust the printer was in his glory.

The personality of Faust, however, is not left to rest upon the mere traditionary evidence of the vulgar legend. The diligence of German antiquaries, even before Goethe’s Faust gave importance to the theme, had collected many trustworthy historical testimonies in confirmation of the common belief. Dürr’s Letter on this subject is dated 1676; and, not seven years afterwards, appeared Neumann’s historical disquisition De Fausto praestigiatore. This essay I have not seen at full length; but from the epitome given of it by Hauber (Bibliotheca Magica, vol. ii. p. 706), I fear that there may be but too much cause for the remark of Heumann,[i9] that “it smacks too much of the young graduate.” It was certainly a very pious motive that induced Neumann, a student of Wittenberg, to attempt removing from his alma mater the shame of having given birth, or even education, to such a notorious character as Doctor Faust; but truth often forces us to admit what fondest prejudice would fain deny. The next critical essay on Faust, is that of Heumann, just quoted, in Hauber’s Library of Magic, and it contains the most important of these historical testimonies to the truth of the Faustish legend, which have since been so comprehensively exhibited in one work by Doctor Stieglitz.[i10]

As all the traditions agree in representing Faust as having studied at Wittenberg, and there, too, exhibited a number of magical tricks to his good friends the students, it was natural to suspect that Luther or Melancthon should, somewhere or other, make mention of such a notorious character. And, accordingly, Stieglitz follows Horst (Zauber-Bibliotheck, vi. 87) in asserting that Melancthon actually does make mention of Doctor Faust in one of his epistles; but as neither of these writers cites the passage, or mentions in what particular part of Melancthon’s work it is to be found, I barely mention this circumstance on their authority. There is, however, very great probability that the testimony of Joannes Manlius, in his Collectanea, the principal one relied on both by Heumann and Stieglitz, is, in reality, to be considered as a testimony of Melancthon. Manlius himself[i11] says of his Collectanea, “Labor hic noster collectus ex ore D. Phillippi Melanchthonis aliisque clarissimis viris,” and might, on this account, as Heumann remarks, have fitly been named Melancthoniana, or Melancthon’s Table-Talk. But be this as it may, Manlius’ testimony is most decided, and runs as follows:—“I was acquainted with a certain person, called Faust of Kundling, a small town in Wurtemberg. He was a Cracovian Scholasticus, and read lectures on magic in the university there. He was a great rambler (vagabatur passim), and possessed many secrets. At Venice, wishing to amuse the populace, he boasted that he would fly up to heaven. The devil accordingly wafted him up a certain height, but dashed him down again in such a plight, that he lay half-dead on the ground. A few years ago, the same John Faust, on the last day of his life, was found sitting in the common inn of a certain village in the Duchy of Wittenberg. He was, indeed, a most vile blackguard (turpissimus nebulo), of a most filthy life, so much so, indeed, that he once and again almost lost his life on account of his excesses. The landlord of the inn asked him why he sat there so sad, contrary to his wont? “Be not terrified if you shall hear anything on this night,” was his short answer. And at midnight the house was shaken. Next morning, near mid-day, as Faust did not make his appearance, the landlord entered into his chamber, and found him lying beside his bed, with his face on the ground, having been so slain by the devil. When he was yet alive, he was accompanied by a dog, which was the devil. ... This Faust the magician, a most vile beast, and a common sewer of many devils (cloaca multorum diabolorum), was also a great boaster, and pretended that all the victories of the Imperial armies in Italy were gained by the help of his magic.”[i12] With this account agrees exactly that given by Wier,[i13] the disciple and confidant of the celebrated Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim. Del Rio,[i14] who wrote at the end of the sixteenth century, introduces him along with the same Agrippa, playing tricks on the poor landlords, with whom they sojourned in their vagabond excursions, by paying them with money which turned into crumbs and chaff, whenever the magicians were out of sight; but his connection with such a philosopher as Agrippa is much to be doubted, as Wier has not even hinted at it in the passage where he treats expressly of the Doctor.

The only other contemporary writer from whom I shall quote at length, is Begardi[i15] whose book, Zeyger der Gesundheit, was published in 1539, and contains the following interesting testimony to the age and character of Faust, which I give here from the German, as it stands in Dr. Stieglitz’s essay.

“There is yet a celebrated character whom I would rather not have named; but since I must mention him, I will tell what I know of him in a few words. Some years ago this man passed through almost all lands, princedoms, and kingdoms, making his name known to everybody, and making great show of his skill, not in medicine only, but in chiromancy, necromancy, physiognomy, visions in crystals, and such like. And in these things he not only acquired great notoriety, but also obtained the name of a famous and experienced master. He did not conceal his name, but called himself Faust, and used to subscribe himself philosophus philosophorum. But of those who were cheated by him, and complained of the same to me, there is a great multitude. His promise was great like that of Thessalus in Galen’s days, as also his fame like that of Theophrastus;[i16] but his deeds, as I have heard, were almost always found to be very petty and deceitful, though he was, to speak plainly, not slow at giving, and especially taking, money, as many a worthy person had cause to know. But now the matter is not to be remedied; past is past, and gone is gone. I must even leave the matter as it is; and see thou to it, that thou treat it as a good Christian ought to do.”

Thus far Begardi in his honest naïve language. Heumann cites further a long passage from Tritheim’s Epistolæ Familiares,[i17] describing a character altogether similar to that above described by Manlius and Begardi; with this remarkable difference, that he is not called Doctor John Faust, as he is by Manlius, and in all the vulgar traditions, but “Magister Georgius Faustus Sabellicus, Faustus Junior.” I think Stieglitz has been too precipitate in concluding that difference in the name must necessarily imply a difference in the person. The vagabond wonder-workers of those days were wont to have a number of names, as the example of Paracelsus alone is sufficient to show. With regard to the denomination of “Faustus junior,” this cannot certainly refer to our John Faust, with whom this George (if he was a different person) must have been contemporary. It probably relates to Faust the printer, who has also been accused of magic, or to some other Faust of the fifteenth century, whose fame has been now swallowed up in that of Doctor John Faust of Wittenberg.

Camerarius and Gesner[i18] also make mention of Doctor Faust; but let the passages already quoted suffice to prove the historical reality of our magical hero.

Joining together these historical testimonies and the popular traditions, it is not difficult to come to a pretty accurate conclusion as to the real character of Doctor Faust. He appears to have been a man of extensive learning, especially in medical and astrological, perhaps too in philological and theological, science. But, driven by a restless spirit, and a vain desire of popular applause, he seems to have early abandoned the calm and steady path that leads to professional eminence, and sought after that noisy but less substantial fame, which his scientific skill was fitted to procure for him in the eyes of the gazing multitude. Many of the greatest philosophers, indeed, as Solomon, Roger Bacon, and Cornelius Agrippa, have been accounted magicians for no other reason than their uncommon wisdom, far surpassing that of the age in which they lived; but there is too much reason to suspect that Faust’s fame as a magician rests upon much more questionable grounds, and the whole account of his life and exploits leaves upon our mind the impression that he was a very clever vagabond quack, rather than a retired and contemplative philosopher. There is much in all that is told of him that recalls to our mind the biography of Paracelsus, a man certainly of great genius, but of much greater impudence, who gained his living by acting upon the folly of mankind.[i19] By all accounts, indeed, Faust was a man of much more distinguished academic learning than Paracelsus, of whom historians even question whether he ever studied at any university; but as a vagabond, a boaster, and a wonder-promiser, the one is perhaps only not superior to the other. With a little knowledge of medicine, a little classical lore, some dexterity in performing sleight-of-hand wonders, and a panoply of assurance, a clever man like Faust or Paracelsus may easily obtain a livelihood, and, what is more, an imperishable name. For such characters a strolling life is at once a pleasure and a necessity. Paracelsus soon lost his chair at Basle,—for a man is never a hero to his valet-de-chambre,—and, if we may believe the common legend, Faust scarcely left a corner of the earth unvisited, and filled Asia and Europe with his renown.

And verily he has had his reward. Since the time of his death, not only Germany, but England, France, and Holland, have swarmed with “prodigious and lamentable histories” of the “great magician John Faust, with his testament and his terrible death.” Magical books under his name have become as famous as those of Solomon;[i20] artists and poets have vied with one another in rendering his name immortal in the annals of Art; tragedies and comedies, puppet-plays and operas, ballads and novels, essays, and dissertations and commentaries, prologues and epilogues, and all the varied paraphernalia of genius and erudition, have been heaped on one another, to adorn the trophy of Doctor John Faustus, the great German quack. The wondrous exploits of Faust are endless, and it would be an endless task to recount the tithe of them. Were I to enter upon an exposition of how Doctor Faust first cited Mephistopheles on a crossroad in the midst of a dark fearful wood near Wittenberg,—how the Devil visited him frequently in his own study in all shapes and sizes,—how the Doctor was, after some hesitation, prevailed on to sell his soul to Lucifer, and to that effect signed a formal bond with blood drawn from his own arm,—how he neglected all the warnings of his good genius, and even the terrible writing that appeared on his wounded arm, Homo Fuge!—how the wily Devil dissuaded him from the quiet of a domestic life, when he wished to marry, that he might drag him into all kinds of licentiousness,—how he forced Mephistopheles to answer all his importunate interrogatories, as to the state of Hell, and the condition of the damned, which the Devil painted in colours as terrible as if he had been an Evangelist of the north-west Highland type,—how Faust was transported into Hell upon the back of Beelzebub, and left floundering through the chaos of the abyss,—how he travelled from star to star, and surveyed all the infinity of worlds, with as much expedition as the imagination of a modern poet,—how he turned astrologer, and vied with the fame of Nostradamus,—how he wandered over the whole world, and saw Rome, which is a city where there is a river called Tiber, and Naples, which is the birthplace of Virgil, who was also a great magician, and caused a passage to be made through the rock of Posilippo, in one night, a whole mile long,—how he played the devil in the Sultan’s seraglio, and passed himself off for Mahomet with the ladies of the palace,—how he sat invisible at the Pope’s banquet, and whipped away all the tit-bits from the plates of Pope Adrian and his assessors of the scarlet stockings, so that his Holiness was obliged to believe that some tormented soul from Purgatory was haunting the Vatican, and ordered prayers to be made accordingly,—how he further showed his enmity to the Church by making secret broaches in the wine-casks of the Bishop of Saltzburg’s cellar, and being on one occasion surprised by the butler, perched the poor wretch upon a tree, where he sprawled like a limed bird for the whole length of a frosty night,—how he called up the apparition of Alexander the Great and his Queen before the Emperor Charles V., who assured himself of the reality of this vision by touching the wart which history reports to have been upon the hero’s neck,—how in like manner he frightened the students of Erfurt by raising the ghost of Polypheme, and bewitched his good friends the students, and himself to boot, by the apparition of the beautiful Helena,—how he bamboozled a boor by promising him a penny for as much hay as he could eat from his waggon, and then swallowing the whole cart-load down, as easily as it had been a spoonful of Sauerkraut,—how he sold a fine horse for a small price to a jockey, who, delighted with the bargain, set off galloping upon this wightest of steeds, till he came to a running stream, in the middle of which, and just where the water was deepest, the animal all at once changed into a bottle of straw, and left the poor rider floundering up to the neck in the flood,—how he caused horns to grow out of a certain freeborn gentleman’s temples, when he was sleeping with his head out of the window, in such a manner that, when he awoke, like an ox in a stile, he could neither move backwards nor forwards,—and how, finally, he at last met with the death which his shameful life merited, and was torn in pieces by the Devil with such violence, that the whole house was shaken as by an earthquake.—To narrate all, or one tithe of these wonderful events, would require more pages than the circulating libraries would tolerate, and far exceed the limits of these introductory remarks. I, however, the less regret that I am unable to enter at length upon this theme, as the task has been already performed, partly by Kit Marlow, and partly by Mr. Roscoe,[i21] in a collection of German tales, which I may presume to be accessible to most of my readers.

Let us ask now what materials this story possesses, which have so recommended it to the genius of modern Europe for a high dramatic treatment; and for an answer to this question happily we have not far to seek. The moral significance of the legend lies on the surface of the popular chap-book; and the dramatic writer who should have omitted it altogether, would have proved himself unworthy of the noble function which he exercises. ’Tis the world-old story of the pride of knowledge, and the impatience of limitation with which that knowledge is often accompanied. “Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum.” “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” The desire to be as God, looking into the soul of things, and commanding the mystical machinery of the universe, is the rank outblossoming of an unchastened intellectual ambition, leading naturally to discontent with the common human limits of the knowable, and to a morbid intermeddling with supernatural powers and forces, in order to lift the lofty speculator out of the vulgar sphere of confined humanity. This kicking against the bars of finite knowledge is of course rebellion against the constitution of things, disownment of the divine authority which imposed these limitations, and alliance with the Evil Spirit, whom popular belief acknowledges as the incarnation of that spirit of impatience, pride, and presumption, out of which this rebellion springs. Here we have the real motive which gives moral dignity and human interest to the legend of Faust. The compact of the Wittenberg doctor with Mephistopheles is only a striking instance of what is constantly taking place in the thinking world before us, especially in these days of curious microscopic prying into the seeds of things, and pretentious parading of all sorts of dogmatic and negative philosophies, ambitiously engaged in the insane attempt to explain the existence of a reasonable world, independent of a reasonable cause. “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” It is the greed of knowledge, where knowledge is not possible, and the lack of love and reverence, the indispensable conditions of moral sanity, that in ages of dreamy speculation lead to the practice of magic and necromancy, and in days of nice scientific measurement, to a hollow and heartless atheism, clothing itself in the philosopher’s mantle and accepted as wisdom by the unthinking. This aspect of the Faust legend, accordingly, did not escape the notice of Marlow, who has set it forth prominently, if not profoundly, in the opening scene of his drama; a scene which bears, indeed, a striking likeness to the opening scene in Goethe’s poem, in the fashion that a rough-hewn Highland hut is the same sort of thing as a neat English cottage, only in a more rude and unscientific style. A secondary element contained in the Faust legend arises out of the reaction which, in certain natures, is apt to plunge disappointed intellectual ambition into a course of sensual indulgence. The key to the invisible world being denied us, let us make what we can of the visible. If we cannot be as gods in our knowledge, at least let us be men in our enjoyments, as largely and as deeply as to our sensuous nature is allowed; and, to attain this, let us overlook all bounds of vulgar morality and petty propriety; for to acknowledge these would be only to substitute one kind of cribbing limitation for another; and limitation of any kind is what the proud heart of the intellectually ambitious will not accept. But, to scorn all limit and regulation in the exercise of our social instincts is to practice systematic selfishness; in other words, to call in the aid of the author of Evil, to enable us to gratify our sensual passions in the grandest style; which of course leads in the end to the ruin of all parties concerned, and of some who are only accidentally connected with the direct offender. This is the tragedy of Faust, as handled by the great German poet, and handled in a style which bids fair to keep it prominently in the general European eye, as long as Dante’s divine comedy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But there is another element in the popular legend which both Marlow and Goethe have used, and which stands to the moral kernel of the story, pretty much as the witch atmosphere in which Macbeth moves to Macbeth’s personal career. Faust is a magician, as well as a thinker; and his alliance with the Powers of Evil implied not merely that all sources of sensual gratification should be placed at his disposal; but specially that a power over Nature should be granted him, in virtue of which, by asserting his superiority over the vulgar conditions of space and time, by which humanity is bound, his vanity might be flattered, and his person raised to a platform of public estimation with which neither Pope, nor Kaiser, nor any earthly dignity might contend. Faust, therefore, must appear as an exhibitor of magical tricks; and, as this is the vulgar and shallow element of the legend, it naturally plays the principal part both in the common chap-book, and in the dramatic adaptation of Marlow, whose handling of the legend altogether is commonplace, and, except in some of the lighter parts of sharp repartee, certainly not worthy of his reputation as one of the heralds of Shakespeare in the early history of the great English drama. Goethe, on the other hand, has wisely given these juggling tricks a very subordinate place in his treatment of the legend; the scene in Auerbach’s cellar being, I think, the only thing of the kind directly taken from the chap-book; and brought in also with great wisdom, in order to make it plain that Faust, with all his strongly sensual tendencies, was essentially an intellectual creature, who could not be seduced even by the Devil into any sympathetic fellowship with the pot-companions of a public beer-cellar. He felt, however, strongly, at the same time, that, as in the case of Macbeth, with which he was well acquainted, some wild and grotesque atmosphere was necessary for the magic doctor to figure in when he was not occupied directly with his love adventure; so he followed our great dramatist in making the witches’ cauldron as necessary to his hero’s passion as it was to Macbeth’s ambition; and along with this thoroughly mediæval and altogether appropriate adjunct of the witches’ kitchen, he contrived to bring in afterwards the wild and weird traditions of a supernatural character which attach to the famous Brocken mountain, the central and topmost elevation of the great ridge of the Harz in Northern Germany; thus rooting his poem locally in the fatherland as firmly as Walter Scott did for us in Scotland when he made the soft beauties of Tweedside, and the picturesque grandeur of the Perthshire Highlands, inseparably associated with the creations of his poetic fancy. And this brings me to a fourth element in the legend with which Marlow did not require to concern himself particularly, but which, from a great poet of Goethe’s character and with Goethe’s position, could not receive a perfunctory treatment. If the native home of the whole legend is in all its parts essentially German, most especially German is its connection with Wittenberg, and through it with the German University system. Not only the general speculative tendency so characteristic of our trans-Rhenane brethren, but the special academic and scholastic hue of their learning, is vividly portrayed in this national drama. Not more native to the Cumberland meres is Wordsworth, and to the banks of Doon is Robert Burns, than Goethe’s Faust is to Göttingen, Leipzig, and Bonn. A university in Germany is socially a more powerful thing, though architecturally and aristocratically by no means so magnificent a thing as Oxford in England. The German professors are the great representatives and leaders of the national mind in all departments of thought; this is the case only to a certain limited extent in our country. The academical element, therefore, must assert a prominent place in a truly German national poem. And so it is here. The learned Doctor who sells his soul to the Devil was a professor; a man of books certainly, and a trainer of youth; and some of the most suggestive scenes in the poem are those in which the contrast between mere academical learning with the wisdom of deeper thought and the living experience of life is hit off with a few rapid but telling strokes.

I have no desire to preoccupy the judgment of the English reader by any detailed criticism of the merits and defects of Faust as a dramatic poem. As a tale of human interest it will always be largely appreciated, even beyond the circle of strictly poetical readers; and readers of a more specially cultivated taste will not allow any small faults that might readily be pointed out, whether in the structure of the poem or in the treatment of the characters, to interfere with their enjoyment of so rare a combination of profound thought, wise observation, and deep pathos, as this famous production exhibits. I will take the liberty, however, of suggesting to the students of the poem a careful comparison with Lord Byron’s Manfred, and our great dramatist’s Hamlet, as particularly fruitful in valuable conclusions. All Byron’s characters, as the offspring of pride and unchastened ambition, are in a certain sense Fausts, but Manfred in a particular degree; and, though the idea that Byron’s tragedy was borrowed from Goethe’s could proceed only from a superficial knowledge of his lordship’s character, and from an ignorance of the circumstances which gave rise to the composition of that poem, it is not the less certain that there is a great resemblance between the character of Manfred and that of Faust. From what this resemblance proceeds Lord Byron has himself most satisfactorily told us:—“It was the Steinbach, and the Jungfrau, and something else, much more than Faust,”[i22] that produced the gigantic Titan-like apparition of Manfred. That something else here mentioned was Lord Byron himself, who, had he lived in the sixteenth century, would probably enough have been a magician (at all events a Giordano Bruno), and might have been immortalised by some modern poet as the great English Doctor Faust. How, then, does Manfred stand as compared with Faust? Exactly in the same way, we must assume, as Byron stands when contrasted with Goethe. Byron is more sublime; Goethe more human. Byron has more wing; Goethe a better use of his wing. Byron is more intense, more impetuous, and more forcible; Goethe more rich, more various, more mellow, and more ripe. But the chief difference is this, that in all his poetry Goethe is wise; Byron never. Accordingly, we may say that with all its grandeur Manfred is essentially a mad poem. It overleaps the bounds of all sane thinking with no apparent purpose, and certainly with little apparent effect but the glorification of monstrous pride. Still there is a moral lesson at the root of the story, if the reader will take the trouble to think it out. The man who could find no pleasure in existence, except in the gratification of an unnatural passion, could end only as Manfred ended, and die communing with his own proud soul and the evoked spirits of earth and air, amid the frost-bound ridges of the Alps. But, in order to attain this solitary Titanic sublimity, the poet has sacrificed all human probability and all human interest. It is a sublime poem, Manfred; but it is the sublime of monstrosity. The sublime of the Prometheus of Æschylus is a very different thing: it is the sublime, in the first place, not of an unnatural man, but of a god; and, in the second place, it is the sublime of a soul inspired by ill-regulated philanthropy, not by unchastened passion. I presume there are few things finer in the English language than that midnight soliloquy in the third act of Manfred, when the Count, looking forth from his lonely tower on the stars and the snow-shining mountains, recalls a night spent amid the ruins of the Colosseum, and the palace of the Cæsars in Rome—a soliloquy which certainly will lose nothing by a detailed comparison with the strikingly similar monologue in the fourth act of Goethe’s great poem; but the misfortune is, when admiration has been spent on particular passages, one can take no general impression away from the work except this, that the poet wrote under the influence of some sad disease of morbid sublimity, and his heroes were made in Titanic proportions, after his own likeness. In every view, therefore, except in regard to the power of one or two individual passages, the study of Manfred can only tend to raise in the mind of the reader a most profound admiration for the more healthy tone, the more ripe wisdom, the more rich material, and the more skilful treatment, of the German writer. With Shakespeare’s great work it is quite otherwise. Hamlet unquestionably has many striking points of similarity with Faust. The same moody melancholy, and tendency to contemplation of suicide; the same lofty discontent with his environment, and misanthropic contempt for the humanity with which he stood in direct relationship; the same communion with the unseen world, though in a different form; the same feebleness and indecision of character in the hero, with occasional blind plunges into strokes that hurry himself and others into ruin. In his morbid state of mind the ghost acts according to the same law on the hero of our great English tragedy that Mephistopheles does on the German doctor; but the ghost in the one case for the Devil, in the other—though both incarnated creations of a diseased mind—indicates in the strongest possible way the diverse character of the disease. Hamlet is an essentially noble character sunk into melancholy by the abnormal character of the immediate social element in which it was his destiny to move; the moody contemplation of the social wrongs which were rife round about him generated the idea of revenge, or taking the moral law into his own hand; and of this rash idea of revenge the ghost is dramatically the voice and the spur. But, though plunging himself and his environment into misery by following out his bloody suggestions, Hamlet never forfeits our respect. He is never selfish; and suffers more from excessive sensibility to the sins of others than from any faults that may be placed fairly at his own door. Otherwise with Faust; he is at bottom a compound of a sentimentalist and a sensualist; and, though the metaphysical perplexities in which at the outset of his career he is found entangled, excite in the reader some emotion of pity, yet the feebleness and irresolution of his conduct afterwards, the ease with which he allows himself to be dragged by his fiendish guide through all kinds of selfish indulgence and moral meanness, cannot fail to inoculate the reader with a strong feeling of contempt. This no doubt was meant by the poet; and very properly so; as a noble character never could have fallen into the sensual trap so cunningly laid for him by the Tempter; still it is a misfortune to the piece, and imperatively demands the large compensation which it receives from the profound tragic interest with which the consummate art of the dramatist has contrived to invest the closing scenes with poor Margaret.

It is well known to the literary public that the author of Faust, as generally read by foreigners, always looked upon this production as only the first part of the great “Divina Comedia,” to use the language of Dante’s time, with which he was to enrich the literature of his century. The incomplete character of the first part, indeed, is distinctly indicated in the introductory scene called the “Prologue to Heaven,” which contains the following lines:—