On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e

Google
Wikipedia
Wiktionary
Wiki Commons
Wikisource
YouTube
Shop


Featured:
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Enlarge
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition, and in Particularly in the works of E.T.W.Hoffmann is an essay by Sir Walter Scott on the supernatural in fiction with particular attention to the work of E. T. A. Hoffmann. It features long excerpts and synopses of the plots of "The Entail" and "The Sandman". It was first published in the Foreign Quarterly Review, I, 1 (July) 1827, pp. 60-98.

In a famous criticism by Sir Walter Scott concludes that Hoffmann needs medical attention more than he needs literary criticism.

Goethe's Translation of Scott's Criticism of Hoffmann

In his diary for 24 December 1827 Goethe referred to the arrival of 'ein grosses bücherpaket"

Full text

Art. II. — On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition ; and particularly on the JVorks of Ernest Theodore William Hoffman.

1. Hoffmamis Leben und Nachlass. 2 vols. Berlin, 1823.

2. Hoffmann's Serapions-brdder. 6 vols. 1819-26.

3. Hoffmann's Nachtstticke. 2 vols. 1816.

No source of romantic fiction, and no mode of exciting the feelings of interest which the authors in that description of litera- ture desire to produce, seems more directly accessible than the love of the supernatural. It is common to all classes of man- kind, and perhaps is to none so familiar as to those who assume a certain degree of scepticism on the subject; since the reader may have often observed in conversation, that the person who professes himself most incredulous on the subject of marvellous stories, often ends his remarks by indulging the company with some well-attested anecdote, which it is difficult or impossible to account for on the narrator's own principles of absolute scepticism. The belief itself, though easily capable of being pushed into superstition and absurdity, has its origin not only in the facts upon which our holy religion is founded, but upon the principles of our nature, which teach us that while we are probationers in this sublunary state, we are neighbours to, and encompassed by the shadowy world, of which our mental faculties are too obscure to comprehend the laws, our corporeal organs too coarse and gross to perceive the inhabitants.

All professors of the Christian Religion believe that there was a time when the Divine Power showed itself more visibly on earth than in these our latter days ; controlling and suspending, for its own purposes, the ordinary laws of the universe ; and the Roman Catholic Church, at least, holds it as an article of faith, that mira- cles descend to the present time.. Without entering into that controversy, it is enough that a firm belief in the great truths of our religion has induced wise and good men, even in Pro-


Works of Hoffmann. 6l

testant countries, to subscribe to Dr. Johnson's doubts respecting supernatural appearances.

" That the dead are seen no more, said Imlac, I will not undertake to maintain against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages, and of all nations. There is no people, mde or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth ; those that never heard of one another could not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credi- ble. That it is doubted by single cavillers, can very little weaken the general evidence 5 and some who deny it with their tongues, confess it by their fears.

Upon such principles as these there lingers in the breasts even of philosophers, a reluctance to decide dogmatically upon a point where they do not and cannot possess any, save negative, evi- dence. Yet this inclination to believe in the marvellous gradu- ally becomes weaker. Men cannot but remark that (since the scriptural miracles have ceased,) the belief in prodigies and supernatural events has gradually declined in proportion to the advancement of human knowledge ; and that since the age has become eidightencd, the occurrence of tolerably well attested anecdotes of the supernatural character are so few, as to render it more probable that the witnesses have laboured under some strange and temporary delusion, rather than that the laws of nature have been altered or suspended. At this period of human know- ledge, the marvellous is so much identified with fabulous, as to be considered generally as belonging to the same class.

It is not so in early history, which is full of supernatural inci- dents; and although we now use the word romance as synonymous with fictitious composition, yet as it originally only meant a poem, or prose work contained in the Romaunce language, there is little doubt that tlie doughty chivalry who listened to the songs of the minstrel, *' held each strange tale devoutly true," and that the feats of knighthood which he recounted, mingled with tales of magic and supernatural interference, were esteemed as veracious as the le- gends of the monks, to which they bore a strong resemblance. This period of society, however, must have long past before the Romancer besan to select and arran ore with care, the nature of the materials out of which he constructed his story. Jt was not when society, however ditfering in degree and station, was levelled and confounded by one dark cloud of ignorance, involving the noble as well as the mean, that it need be scrupulously considered to what class of persons the author addressed himself, or with what species of decoration he ornamented his story. Homo was


62 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.

then a common name for all men," and all were equally pleased with the same style of composition. This, however, was gra- dually altered. As the knowledge to which we have before alluded made more general progress, it became impossible to detain the attention of the better instructed class by the simple and gross fables to which the present generation would only listen in child- hood, though they had been held in honour by their fathers during youth, manhood, and old age.

It was also discovered that the supernatural in fictitious com- position requires to be managed with considerable delicacy, as criticism besjins to be more on the alert. The interest which it

• ^ . • • • •

excites is indeed a powerful spring; but it is one which is pecu- liarly subject to be exhausted by coarse handling and repeated pressure. It is also of a character which it is extremely difficult to sustain, and of which a very small proportion may be said to be better than the whole. The marvellous, more than any other at- tribute of fictitious narrative, loses its effect by being brought much into view. The imagination of the reader is to be excited if possible, without being gratified. If once, like Macbeth, we

    • sup full with horrors," our taste for the banquet is ended, and

the thrill of terror with which we hear or read of a night-shriek, becomes lost in that sated indifference with which the tyrant came at length to listen to the most deep catastrophes that could affect his house. The incidents of a supernatural character are usually those of a dark and undefinable nature, such as arise in the mind of the Lady in the Mask of Comus, — incidents to which our fears attach more consequence, as we cannot exactly tell what it is we behold, or what is to be apprehended from it : —

  • ^ A thousand fantasies

Begin to throng into my memory. Of calling shapes and beck'ning shadows dire. And aery tongues that syllable men's names On sands, and shores, and desart wildernesses."

Burke observes upon obscurity, that it is necessary to make any thing terrible, and notices " how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings." He represents also, that no person ** seems better to have understood the secret of heightening, or of setting terrible things in their strongest light, by the force of a judicious obscu- rity, than Milton. His description of Death, in the second book, is admirably studied ; it is astonishing with what a gloomy pomp, with what a significant and expressive uncertainty of strokes and colouring, he has finished the portrait of the king of terrors.


Works of Hoffmann. 63

' The otlier sliape^ — If shape it might be called, which shape had none Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb : Or substance might be called that shadow seemed, — ■ For each seemed either ; black he stood as night j Fierce as ten furies j terrible as hell ; And shook a deadly dart. What seemed his head The likeness of a kingly crown had on.' In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible and sublime to the last degree."

The only quotation worthy to be mentioned along with the pas- sage we have just taken down, is the well-known apparition intro- duced with circumstances of terrific obscurity in the book of Job :

" Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ears received a little thereof. In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me, and trembling which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face : the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof : an image was before mine eyes ; there was silence, and I heard a voice."

From these sublime and decisive authorities, it is evident that the exhibition of supernatural appearances in fictitious narrative ought to be rare, brief, indistinct, and such as may become a being to us so incomprehensible, and so diflerent from ourselves, of whom we cannot justly conjecture whence he comes, or for what purpose, and of whose attributes we can have no regular or distinct perception. Hence it usually happens, that the first touch of the supernatural is always the most effective, and is ra- ther weakened and defaced, than strengthened, by the subsequent recurrence of similar incidents. Even in Hamlet, the second entrance of the ghost is not nearly so impressive as the first; and in many romances to which we could refer, the supernatural being forfeits all claim both to our terror and veneration, by con- descending to appear too often ; to mingle too much in the events of the story, and above all, to become loquacious, or, as it is familiarly called, chatty. We have, indeed, great doubts whether an author acts wisely in permitting his goblin to speak at all, if at the same time he renders him subject to human sight. Shakspeare, indeed, has contrived to put such language in the mouth of the buried majesty of Denmark as befits a supernatural being, and is by the style distinctly different from that of the living persons in the drama. In another passage he has had the boldness to intimate, by two expressions of similar force, in what manner and with what tone supernatural beings would find ut- terance :

" And the sheeted dead Did squeak and giljhcr in the Roman streets."


64 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.

But the attempt in which the genius of Shakspeare has succeeded would probably have been ridiculous in any meaner hand ; and hence it is, that, in many of our modern tales of terror, our feel- ings of fear have, long before the conclusion, given way under the influence of that familiarity which begets contempt.

A sense that the effect of the supernatural in its more obvious application is easily exhausted, has occasioned the efforts of mo- dern authors to cut new walks and avenues through the enclianted wood, and to revive, if possible, by some means or other, the fading impression of its horrors.

The most obvious and inartificial mode of attaining this end is, by adding to, and exaggerating the supernatural incidents of the tale. But far from increasing its effect, the principles which we have laid down, incline us to consider the impression as usually weakened by exaggerated and laborious description. Elegance is in such cases thrown away, and the accumulation of superlatives, with which the narrative is encumbered, renders it tedious, or per- haps ludicrous, instead of becoming impressive or grand.

There is indeed one style of composition, of which the super- natural forms an appropriate part, which applies itself rather to the fancv than to the imagination, and aims more at amusino tlian at affecting or interesting the reader. To this species of com- position belong the eastern tales, which contribute so much to the amusement of our youth, and which are recollected, if not re- perused, with so much pleasure in our more advanced life. There are but fevv' readers of any imagination who have not at one time or other in their life sympathized with the poet Collins, " who," says Dr. Johnson, " was eminently delighted with those flights of imagination, which pass the bounds of nature, and to which the mind is reconciled only by a passive acquiescence in popular tra- ditions. He loved fairies, genii, giants, and monsters; he de- lighted to rove through the meadows of enchantment, to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, to repose by the waterfalls of Elysian gardens." It is chiefly the young and the indolent who love to be soothed by works of this character, which require little attention in the perusal. In our riper age we remember them as we do the joys of our infancy, rather because we loved them once, than that they still continue to afford us amusement. The extravagance of fiction loses its charms for our riper judgment; and notwithstanding that these wild fictions contain much that is beautiful and full of fancy, yet still, unconnected as they are with each other, and conveying no result to the understanding, we pass them by as the championess Britomart rode along the rich strand.

Which as she overwent. She saw bestrewed all witli rich array Of pearls and precious stones of great assay.


War JjS of Hoffman)/. ' 65

And all the gravel mixt with golden ore : Whereat she wondered much, but would not stay For gold, or pearls, or precious stones, one hour ; But them despised all, for all was in her power.

With this class of supernatural composition may be ranked, though inferior in interest, what the French call Contes des Fees ; meaning, by that title, to distinguish them from the ordinary po- pular tales of fairy folks which are current in most countries. The Conte des Fees is itself a very different composition, and the fairies engaged are of a separate class from those whose amuse- ment is to dance round the mushroom in the moonlight, and mis- lead the belated peasant. The French Fee more nearly resem- bles the Peri of Eastern, or the Fata of Italian poetry. She is a superior being, having the nature of an elementary spirit, and pos- sessing magical powers enabling her, to a considerable extent, to work either good or evil. But whatever merit this species of writing may have attained in some dexterous hands, it has, under the management of others, become one of the most absurd, flat, and insipid possible. Out of the whole Cabinet des Fees, when we get beyond our old acquaintances of the nursery, w^e can hardly select five volumes, from nearly fifty, with any probability of receiving pleasure from them.

It often happens that when any particular style becomes some- what antiquated and obsolete, some caricature, or satirical imita- tion of it, gives rise to a new species of composition. Thus the English Opera arose from the parody upon the Italian stage, designed by Gay, in the Beggar's Opera. In like manner, when the public had been inundated, ad nauseam, with Arabian tales, Persian tales, Turkish tales, Mogul tales, and legends of every nation east of the Bosphorus, and were equally annoyed by the increasing publication of all sorts of fairy tales, — Count Anthony Hamilton, like a second Cervantes, came forth with his satirical tales, destined to overturn the empire of Dives, of Genii, of Peris, et hoc genus omne.

Something too licentious for a more refined age, the Tales of Count Hamilton subsist as a beautiful illustration, showing that literary subjects, as well as the fields of the husbandman, may, when they seem most worn out and effete, be renewed and again brought into successful cultivation by a new course of manage- ment. The wit of Count Hamilton, like manure applied to an exhausted field, rendered the eastern tale more piquant, if not more edifying, than it was before. Much was written in imita- tion of Count Hamilton's style ; and it was followed by Voltaire in particular, who in this way rendered the supernatural romance one of the most apt vehicles for circulating his satire. This,

VOL. I. NO. I. F


66 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition,

therefore, may be termed the comic side of the supernatural, in which the author plainly declares his purpose to turn into jest the miracles which he relates, and aspires to awaken ludicrous sensations without affecting the fancy — far less exciting the pas- sions of the reader. By this species of delineation the reader will perceive that the supernatural style of writing is entirely tra- vestied and held up to laughter, instead of being made the subject of respectful attention, or heard with at least that sort of imper- fect excitement with which we listened to a marvellous tale of fairy-land. This species of satire — for it is often converted to satirical purposes — has never been more happily executed than by the French authors, although Wieland, and several other German writers, treading in the steps of Hamilton, have added the grace of poetry to the wit and to the wonders with which they have adorned this species of composition. Oberon, in particular, has been identified with our literature by the excel- lent translation of Mr. Sotheby, and is nearly as well known in England as in Germany. It would, however, carry us far too wide from our present purpose, were we to consider the comi- lieroic poetry which belongs to this class, and which includes the V. ell-known works of Pulci, Berni — perhaps, in a certain degree, of Ariosto himself, who, in some passages at least, lifts his knightly vizor so far as to give a momentary glimpse of the smile which mantles upon his countenance.

One general glance at the geography of this most pleasing " Londe of Faery," leads us into another province, rough as it may seem and uncultivated, but which, perhaps, on that very ac- count, has some scenes abounding in interest. There are a spe- cies of antiquarians who, while others laboured to re-unite and ornament highly the ancient traditions of their country, have made it their business, antiquos accedere fontes, to visit the an- cient springs and sources of those popular legends which, che- rished by the grey and superstitious Elde, had been long for- gotten in the higher circles, but are again brought forward and claim, like the old ballads of a country, a degree of interest even from their rugged simplicity. The Deutsche Sagen of the bro- thers Grimm, is an admirable work of this kind; assembling, without any affectation either of ornamental diction or improved incident, the various traditions existing in different parts of Ger- many respecting popular superstitions and the events ascribed to supernatural agency. There are other works of the same kind, in the same language, collected with great care and apparent fidelity. Sometimes trite, sometimes tiresome, sometimes child- ish, the legends which these authors h^ve collected with such in- ^defatigable zeal form neverdieless a step in the history of the


Works of Hoffmann. 67

human race; and, when compared with similar collections in other countries, seem to infer traces of a common descent which has placed one general stock of superstition within reach of the various tribes of mankind. What are we to think when we find the Jutt and the Fin telling their children the same traditions which are to be found in the nurseries of the Spaniard and Ita- lian ; or when we recognize in our own instance the traditions of Ireland or Scotlapd as corresponding with those of Russia ? Are we to suppose that their similarity arises from the limited nature of human invention, and that the same species of fiction occurs to the imaginations of different authors in remote countries as the same species of plants are found in different regions without the possibility of their having been propagated by transportation from the one to others ? Or ought we, rather, to refer them to a common source, when mankind formed but the same great family, and suppose that as philologists trace through various dialects the broken fragments of one general language, so anti- quaries may recognize in distant countries parts of what was once a common stock of tradition ? We will not pause on this inquiry, nor observe more than generally that, in collecting

these traditions, the industrious editors have been throwino;

. . . . • ~

light, not only on the history of their own country in particular, but on that of mankind in general. There is generally some truth mingled with the abundant falsehood, and still more abundant exaggeration of the oral legend; and it may be frequently and unexpectedly found to confirm or confute the meagre state- ment of some ancient chronicle. Often, too, the legend of the common people, by assigning peculiar features, localities, and specialities to the incidents which it holds in memory, gives life and spirit to the frigid and dry narrative which tells the fact alone, without the particulars which render it memorable or interesting. It is, however, in another point of view, that we wish to con- sider those popular traditions in their collected state : namely, as a peculiar mode of exhibiting the marvellous and supernatural in composition. And here we must acknowledge, that he who peruses a large collection of stories of fiends, ghosts, and prodi- gies, in hopes of exciting in his mind that degree of shuddering interest approaching to fear, which is the most valuable triumph of the supernatural, is likely to be disappointed. A whole col- lection of ghost stories inclines us as little to fear as a jest book moves us to laughter. Many narratives, turning upon the same interest, are apt to exhaust it : as in a large collection of pictures an ordinary eye is so dazzled with the variety of brilliant or glow- ing colours as to become less able to distinguish the merit of those pieces which are possessed of any.

f2


68 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.

But notwithstanding this great disadvantage, which is insepa- rable from the species of pubHcation we are considering, a reader of imagination, who has the power to emancipate himself from the chains of reality, and to produce in his own mind the accom- paniments with which the simple or rude popular legend ought to be attended, will often find that it possesses points of interest, of nature, and of effect, which, though irreconcilable to sober truth, carry with them something that the mind is not averse to believe, something in short of plausibility, which, let poet or ro- mancer do their very best, they find it impossible to attain to. An example may, in a case of this sort, be more amusing to the reader than mere disquisition, and we select one from a letter received many years since from an amiable and accomplished nobleman some time deceased, not more distinguished for his love of science, than his attachment to literature in all its branches : —

'^ It was in the night of, I think, the 14th of February, 1799, that there came on a dreadful storm of wind and drifting snow from the south-east, which was felt very severely in most parts of Scotland. On

the preceding day a Captain M , attended by three other men, had

gone out a deer-shooting in that extensive tract of mountains which lies to the west of Dalnacardoch. As they did not return in the evening, nothing was heard of them. The next day, people were sent out in quest of them, as soon as the storm abated. After a long search, the bodies were found, in a lifeless state, lying among the ruins of a bothy,

(a temporary hut,) in which it would seem Captain M and his party

had taken refuge. The bothy had been destroyed by the tempest, and in a veiy astonishing manner. It had been built partly of stone, and partly of strong wooden uprights driven into the ground ; it was not merely blown down, but quite torn to pieces. Large stones, which had formed part of the walls, were found lying at the distance of one or two hundred yards from the site of the building, and the wooden uprights appeared to have been rent asunder by a force that had twisted them off" as in break- ing a tough stick. From the circumstances in which the bodies were found, it appeared that the men were retiring to rest at the time the cala- mity came upon them. One of the bodies, indeed, was found at a distance of many yards from the bothy ; another of the men was found upon the place where the bothy had stood, with one stocking off", as if he had been

undressing ; Captain M was lying without his clothes, upon the

wretched bed which the bothy had afforded, his face to the ground, and his knees drawn up. To all appearance the destruction had been quite sudden : yet the situation of the building was such as promised secu- rity against the utmost violence of the wind. It stood in a narrow re- cess, at the foot of a mountain, whose precipitous and lofty declivities sheltered it on every side, except in the front, and here, too, a hill rose before it, though with a more gradual slope. This extraordinary wreck of a building so situated, led the common people to ascribe it to a super-


Works of Hoffma)m. 69

natural power. It was recollected by some who had been out shooting

with Captain M about a month before, that while they were resting

at this bothy, a shepherd lad had come to the door and inquired for Cap- tain M , and that the captain went out with the shepherd, and they

walked away together, leaving the rest of the party in the bothy. After

a time, Captain M returned alone 3 he said nothing of what had

passed between him and the lad, but looked very grave and thoughtful, and from that time there was observed to be a mysterious anxiety hang- ing about him. It was remembered, that one evening after dusk, when

Captain M was in the botliy, some of his party that were standing

before the door saw a fire blazing on the top of the hill which rises in front of it. They were much surprised to see a fire in such a solitary place, and at such a time, and set out to inquire into the cause of it, but when they reached the top of the hill, there was no fire to be seen ! It was remembered, too, that on the day before the fatal night. Captain M had shown a singular obstinacy in going forth upon his expedi- tion. No representations of the inclemency of the weather, and of the dangers he would be exposed to, could restrain him. He said he must go, and was resolved to go. Captaiji M.'s character was likewise re- membered ; that he was popularly reported to be a man of Jio principles, rapacious, and cruel 3 that he had got money by procuring recruits from the highlands, — an unpopular mode of acquiring wealth ; and that, amongst other base measures for this purpose, he had gone so far as to leave a purse upon the road, and to threaten the man who had picked it up with an indictment for robbery, if he did not enlist.* Our informer added nothing more ; he neither told us his own opinion nor that of the country ; but left it to our own notions of the manner in which good and evil is rewarded in this life, to suggest the Author of the miserable event. He seemed impressed with superstitious awe on the subject, and said, * There was na' the like seen in a' Scotland.' The man is far ad- vanced in years, and is a schoolmaster in the neighbourhood of Ran- noch. He was employed by us as a guide upon Schchallion 3 and he told us the story one day as we walked before our horses, while we slowly wound up the road on the northern declivity of Rannoch. From this elevated ground we commanded an extensive prospect over the dreary mountains to the north, and amongst them our guide pointed out that at the foot of which was the scene of his dreadful tale. The account is, to the best of my recollection, just what I received from my guide. In some trifling particulars, from defect of memory, I may have misrepresented or added a little, in order to connect the leading circum- stances 3 and I fear, also, that something may have been forgotten.

Will you ask Mr. P — — whether Captain M , on leaving the bothy

after his conversation with the shepherd lad, did not say that he must return there in a month after ? I have a faint idea that it was so 3 and,

if true, it would be a pity to lose it. Mr. P may, perhaps, be able

to correct or enlarge my account for you in other instances.

The reader will, we believe, be of our opinion, that the feeling

  • It is needless to say that this was a mere popular report, which might greatly

?i)isrcj)rcsent (he character of the unfortunate sufferer.


TCI On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.

of superstitious awe annexed to the catastrophe contained in this interesting narrative, could not have been improved by any circum- stances of additional horror which a poet could have invented ; that the incidents and the gloomy simplicity of the narrative are much more striking than they could have been rendered by the most glowing description ; and that the old highland schoolmas- ter, the outline of whose tale is so judiciously preserved by the narrator, was a better medium for communicating such a tale than would have been the form of Ossian, could he have arisen from the dead on purpose.

It may however be truly said of the muse of romantic fiction,

" Mille habet ornatus."

The Professor Musaeus, and others of what we may call his school, conceiving, perhaps, that the simplicity of the unadorned popular legend was like to obstruct its popularity, and feeling, as we formerly observed, that though individual stories are some- times exquisitely impressive, yet collections of this kind were apt to be rather bald and heavy, employed their talents in ornament- ing them with incident, in ascribing to the principal agents a pe- culiar character, and rendering the marvellous more interesting by the individuality of those in whose history it occurs. Two volumes were transcribed from the Volksmarchen of Musaeus by the late Dr. Bfeddoes, and published under the title of '* Popular Tales of the Germans," which may aiford the English reader a good idea of the stile of that interesting work. It may, indeed, be likened to the Tales of Count Anthony Hamilton already men- tioned, but there is great room for distinction. " Le Belier," and " Fleur d'Epine," are mere parodies arising out of the fancy, but indebted for their interest to his wit. Musaeus, on the other hand, takes the narration of the common legend, dresses it up after his own fashion, and describes, according to his own plea- sure, the personages of his drama. Hamilton is a cook who compounds his whole banquet out of materials used for the first time; Musaeus brings forward ancient traditions, like yester- day's cold meat from the larder, and, by dint of skill and season- ing, gives it a new relish for the meal of to-day. Of course the merit of the rifaciamento will fall to be divided in this case be- twixt the effect attained by the ground-work of the story, and that which is added by the art of the narrator. In the tale, for example, of the " Child of Wonder," what may be termed the raw mate- rial is short, simple, and scarce rising beyond the wonders of a nursery tale, but it is so much enlivened by the vivid sketch of the selfish old father who barters his four daughters against golden eggs and sacks of pearls, as to give an interest and zest to


Works of Hoffman )i, 7i

the whole story. " The Spectre Barber" is another of these po- pular tales, which, in itself singular and fantastic, becomes lively and interesting from the character of a good-humoured, well- meaning, thick-sculled burgher of Bremen, whose wit becomes sharpened by adversity, till he learns gradually to improve circum- stances as they occur, and at length recovers his lost prosperity by dint of courage, joined with some degree of acquired sagacity.

A still different management of the wonderful and superna- tural has, in our days, revived the romance of the earlier age with its history and its antiquities. The Baron de la Motte Fouque has distinguished himself in Germany by a species of writing which requires at once the industry of the scholar, and the talents of the man of genius. The efforts of this accomplished author aim at a higher mood of composition than the more popular ro- mancer. He endeavours to recal the history, the mythology, the manners of former ages, and to offer to the present time a graphic description of those which have passed away. The travels of Thioldolf, for example, initiate the reader into that immense storehouse of Gothic superstition which is to be found in the Edda and the Sagas of northern nations ; and to render the bold, honest, courageous character of his gallant young Scandi- navian the more striking, the author has contrasted it forcibly with the chivalry of the south, over which he asserts its superiority. In some of his works the baron has, perhaps, been somewhat profuse of his historical and antiquarian lore; he wanders where the reader has not skill to follow him ; and we lose interest in the piece because we do not comprehend the scenes through which we are conducted. This is the case with some of the vo- lumes where the interest turns on the ancient German history, to understand which, a much deeper acquaintance with the antiqui- ties of that dark period is required than is like to be found in most readers. It would, we think, be a good rule in this stile of com- position, were the author to confine his historical materials to such as are either generally understood as soon as mentioned, or at least can be explained with brief trouble in such a degree as to make a reader comprehend the story. Of such happy and well- chosen subjects, the Baron de la Motte Fouque has also shown great command on other occasions. His story of " Sintram and his Followers" is in this respect admirable ; and the tale of his Naiad, Nixie, or Water-Nymph, is exquisitely beautiful. The distress of the tale — and, though relating to a fantastic being, it is real distress — arises thus. An elementary spirit renounces her right of freedom from human passion to become the spouse of a: gallant young knight, who requites her with infidelity and ingrati- tude. The story is the contrast at once, and the pendant to tht'


72 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.

  • ' Diable Amoureux" of Cazotte, but is entirely free from a tone of

polissonnerie which shocks good taste in its very lively prototype.

The range of the romance, as it has been written by this pro- fusely inventive author, extends through the half-illumined ages of ancient history into the Cimmerian frontiers of vague tradition ; and, when traced with a pencil of so much truth and spirit as that of Fouque, affords scenes of high interest, and forms, it cannot be doubted, the most legitimate species of romantic fiction, ap- proaching in some measure to the epic in poetry, and capable in a high degree of exhibiting similar beauties.

We have thus slightly traced the various modes in which the wonderful and supernatural may be introduced into fictitious nar- rative ; yet the attachment of the Germans to the mysterious has invented another species of composition, which, perhaps, could hardly have made its way in any other country or language. This may be called the Fantastic mode of writing, — in which the most wild and unbounded license is given to an irregular fancy, and all species of combination, however ludicrous, or however shocking, are attempted and executed without scruple. In the other modes of treating the supernatural, even that mystic region is subjected to some laws, however slight; and fancy, in wandering through it, is regulated by some probabilities in the wildest flight. Not so in the fantastic style of composition, which has no restraint save that which it may ultimately find in the exhausted imagination of the author. This style bears the same proportion to the more regular romance, whether ludicrous or serious, which Farce, or rather Pantomime, maintains to Tragedy and Comedy. Sudden transformations are introduced of the most extraordinary kind, and •wrought by the most inadequate means ; no attempt is made to soften their absurdity, or to reconcile their inconsistencies ; the reader must be contented to look upon the gambols of the author as he would behold the flying leaps and incongruous transmuta- tions of Harlequin, without seeking to discover either meaning or end further than the surprize of the moment.

Our English severity of taste will not easily adopt this wild and fantastic tone into our own literature ; nay, perhaps will scarce tolerate it in translations. The only composition which approaches to it is the powerful romance of Frankenstein, and there, although the formation of a thinking and sentient being by scientific skill is. an incident of the fantastic character, still the interest of the work does not turn upon the marvellous creation of Franken- stein's monster, but upon the feelings and sentiments which that creature is supposed to express as most natural — if we may use the phrase — to his unnatural condition and origin. In other words, the njiracle is not wrought for the mere wonder^ but is de-


Works of Hoffmann, 73

signed to give rise to a train of acting and reasoning in itself just and probable, although the postulatum on which it is grounded is in the highest degree extravagant. So far Frankenstein, there- fore, resembles the " Travels of Gulliver," which suppose the existence of the most extravagant fictions, in order to extract from them philosophical reasoning and moral truth. In such cases the admission of the marvellous expressly resembles a sort of entry- money paid at the door of a lecture-room, — it is a concession which must be made to the author, and for which the reader is to receive value in moral instruction. But the fatttastic of which we are now treating encumbers itself with no such conditions, and claims no further object than to surprise the public by the wonder itself. The reader is led astray by a freakish goblin, who has nei- ther end nor purpose in the gambols which he exhibits, and the oddity of which must constitute their own reward. The only in- stance we know of this species of writing in the English lan- guage, is the ludicrous sketch in Mr. Geoffrey Crayon's tale of

  • ' The Bold Dragoon," in which the furniture dances to the music

of a ghostly fiddler. The other ghost-stories of this well-known and admired author come within the legitimate bounds which Glanville, and other grave and established authors, ascribe to the shadowy realms of spirits ; but we suppose Mr. Crayon to have exchanged his pencil m the following scene, in order to prove that the pandours, as well as the regular forces of the ghostly Avorld, were alike under his command : —

'^ By the light of the fire he saw a pale, weazon-faced fellow, in a long flannel gown, and a tall white night-cap with a tassel to it, who sat by the fire with a bellows under his arm by the way of bagpipe, from which he forced the asthmatical music that had bothered my grand- father. As he played too, he kept twitching about with a thousand queer contortions, nodding his head, and bobbing about his tasselled night-cap.

    • From the opposite side of the room, a long-backed, bandy-legged

chair, covered with leather, and studded all over in a coxcombical fashion with little brass nails, got suddenly into motion, thrust out first a claw- foot, then a crooked arm, and at length making a leg, slided gracefully up to an easy chair of tarnished brocade, with a hole in its bottom, and led it gallantly out in a ghostly minuet about the floor.

    • The musician now played fiercer and fiercer, and bobbed his head

and his night-cap about like mad. By degrees, the dancing mania seemed to seize upon all the other pieces of furniture. The antique long-bodied chairs paired off In couples and led down a countiy-dance ; a three- legged stool danced a hornpipe, though horribly puzzled by its supernu- merary leg ; while the amorous tongs seized the shovel round the waist, and whirled it about the room in a German waltz. In short, all the moveables got in motion, pirouetting, hands across, right and left, like


74 On the Supernatural in Fktitious Composition.

so many devils : all except a great clothes-press, which kept curtseying and curtseying in a corner like a dowager, in exquisite time to the mu- sic 5 being rather too corpulent to dance, or, perhaps, at a loss for a partner." *

This slight sketch, from the hand of a master, is all that we possess in England corresponding to the Fantastic style of com- position which we are now treating of. *' Peter Schlemil," " The Devil's Elixir," and other German works of the same character, have made it known to us through the medium of translation. The author who led the way in this department of literature was Ernest Theodore William Hoffmann ; the peculi- arity of whose genius, temper, and habits, iitted him to distinguish himself where imagination was to be strained to the pitch of oddity and bizarrerie. He appears to have been a man of rare talent, — a poet, an artist, and a musician, but unhappily of a hy- pochondriac and whimsical disposition, which carried him to ex- tremes in all his undertakings ; so his music became capricious, — his drawings caricatures, — and his tales, as he himself termed them, fantastic extravagances. Bred originally to the law, he at different times enjoyed, under the Prussian and other govern- ments, the small appointments of a subordinate magistrate ; at other times he was left entirely to his own exertions, and sup- ported himself as a musical composer for the stage, as an author, or as a draughtsman. The shifts, the uncertainty, the precarious nature of this kind of existence, had its effect, doubtless, upon a mind which nature had rendered peculiarly susceptible of elation and depression ; and a temper, in itself variable, was rendered more so by frequent change of place and of occupation, as well as by the uncertainty of his affairs. He cherished his fantastic genius also with wine in considerable quantity, and indulged liber- ally in the use of tobacco. Even his outward appearance be- spoke the state of his nervous system : a very little man with a quantity of dark-brown hair, and eyes looking through his elf- locks, that

E'en like grey goss-hawk's stared wild,"

indicated that touch of mental derangement, of which he seems to have been himself conscious, when entering the following fear- ful memorandum in his diary : —

" Why, in sleeping and in waking, do I, in my thoughts, dwell upon the subject of insanity } The out-pouring of the wild ideas that arise in my mind may perhaps operate like the breathing of a vein."

Circumstances arose also in the course of Hoffmann's unsettled and wandering life, which seemed to his own apprehension to

  • Tales of a Traveller, vol. i.


Works of Hoffmann. 7.5

mark him as one who " was not in the roll of common men." These circumstances had not so much of the extraordinary as his fancy attributed to them. For example ; he was present at deep play in a watering-place, in company with a friend, who was de- sirous to venture for some of the gold which lay upon the table. Betwixt hope of gain and fear of loss, distrusting at the same time his own luck, he at length thrust into Hoffmann's hand six gold pieces, and requested him to stake for him. Fortune was propitious to the young visionary, though he was totally inexperi- enced in the game, and he gained for his friend about thirty Fre- dericks d'or. The next evening Hoffmann resolved to try for- tune on his own account. This purpose, he remarks, was not a previous determination, but one which was suddenly suggested by a request of his friend to undertake the charge of staking a second time on his behalf. He advanced to the table on his own account, and deposited on one of the cards the only two Frede- ricks d'or of which he was possessed. If Hoffmann's luck had been remarkable on the former occasion, it now seemed as if some supernatural power stood in alliance with him. Every at- tempt which he made succeeded — every card turned up pro- pitiously. —

" My senses," he says, " became unmanageable, and as more and more gold streamed in upon me, it seemed as 1 were in a dream, out of which 1 only awaked to pocket the money. The play was given up, as is usual, at two in the morning. In the moment when I was about to leave the room, an old officer laid his hand upon my shoulder, and re- garding me with a fixed and severe look, said : ' Young man, if you understand this business so well, the bank, which maintains free table, is ruined ; but if you do so understand the game, reckon upon it securely that the devil will be as sure of you as of all the rest of them.' Without waiting an answer, he turned away. The morning was dawning when I came home, and emptied from every pocket heaps of gold on the table. Imagine the feelings of a lad in a state of absolute dependance, and re- stricted to a small sum of pocket-money, who finds himself, as if by a thunder-clap, placed in possession of a sum enough to be esteemed abso- lute wealth, at least for the moment ! But while I gazed on the treasure, my state of mind was entirely changed by a sudden and singular agony so severe, as to force the cold sweat-drops fi-om my brow. The words of the old officer now, for the first time, rushed upon my mind in their fullest and most terrible acceptation. It seemed to me as if the gold, which glittered upon the table, was the earnest of a bargain by which the Prince of Darkness had obtained possession of my soul, which never more could escape eternal destruction. It seemed as if some poisonous reptile was sucking my heart's blood, and I felt myself fall into an abyss of despair."

Then the ruddy dawn began to gleam through the window^


76 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition

wood and plain were illuminated by its beams, and the visionary begun to experience the blessed feeling of returning strength, to combat with temptations, and to protect himself against the in- fernal propensity, which must have been attended with total destruction. Under the influence of such feelings Hoffmann formed a vow never again to touch a card, which he kept till the end of his life. " The lesson of the officer," says Hoffmann,

    • was good, and its effect excellent." But the peculiar dispo-

sition of Hoffmann made it work upon his mind more like an empiric's remedy than that of a regular physician. He renounced play less from the conviction of the wretched moral consequences of such a habit, than because he was actually afraid of the Evil Spirit in person.

In another part of his life Hoffmann had occasion to show, that his singularly wild and inflated fancy was not accessible to that degree of timidity connected with insanity, and to which poets, as being of " imagination all compact," are sometimes supposed to be peculiarly accessible. The author was in Dres- den during the eventful period when the city was nearly taken by the allies, but preserved by the sudden return of Buonaparte and his guards from the frontiers of Silesia. He then saw the work of war closely carried on, venturing within fifty paces of the French sharp-shooters while skirmishing with those of the allies in front of Dresden. He had experience of a bombardment: one of the shells exploding before the house in which Hoffmann and Keller, the comedian, with bumpers in their hands to keep up their spirits, watched the progress of the attack from an upper window. The explosion killed three persons; Keller let his glass fall, — Hoffmann had more philosophy ; he tossed off his bumper and moralized : '* What is life !" said he, " and how frail the human frame that cannot withstand a splinter of heated iron !" He saw the field of battle when they were cramming with naked corpses the immense fosses which form the soldier's grave ; the field covered with the dead and the wounded, — with horses and men; powder-waggons which had exploded, broken weapons, schakos, sabres, cartridge-boxes, and all the relics of a despe- rate light. He saw, too. Napoleon in the midst of his tri- umph, and heard him ejaculate to an adjutant, with the look and the deep voice of the lion, the single word ** Voyons." It is much to be regretted that Hoffmann preserved but few memo- randa of the eventful weeks which he spent at Dresden during this period, and of which his turn for remark and powerful description would have enabled him to give so accurate a pic- ture. In general, it may be remarked of descriptions concerning warlike aft'airs, that they resemble plans rather than paintings ;


Works of Hoffmann. 77

and that, however calculated to instruct the tactician, they are little qualified to interest the general reader. A soldier, particu- larly, if interrogated upon the actions which he has seen, is much more disposed to tell them in the dry and abstracted style of a gazette, than to adorn them with the remarkable and picturesque circumstances which attract the general ear. This arises from the natural feeling, that, in speaking of what they have witnessed in any other than a dry and affected professional tone, they may be suspected of a desire to exaggerate their own dangers, — a sus- picion which, of all others, a brave man is most afraid of incur- ring, and which, besides, the present spirit of the military profes* sion holds as amounting to bad taste. It is, therefore, peculiarly unfortunate, that when a person unconnected with the trade of war, yet well qualified to describe its terrible peculiarities, chances to witness events so remarkable as those to which Dresden was exposed in the memorable 1813, he should not have made a re- gister of what could not have failed to be deeply interesting. The battle of Leipsig, which ensued shortly after, as given to the pub- lic by an eye-witness — M. Shoberl, if we recollect the name aright — is an example of what we might have expected from a person of Hoffmann's talents, giving an account of his personal experience respecting the dreadful events which he witnessed. We could willingly have spared some of his grotesque works of diablerie, if we had been furnished, in their place, with the genuine description of the attack upon, and the retreat from Dresden, by the allied army, in the month of August, 1813. It was the last decisive advantage which was obtained by Napoleon, and being rapidly succeeded by the defeat of Vandamme, and the loss of his whole co?'ps d!arnite, was the point from which his visible declen- sion might be correctly dated. Hoffmann was also a high-spirited patriot, — a true, honest, thorough-bred German, who had set his heart upon the liberation of his country, and would have narrated with genuine feeling the advantages which she obtained over her oppressor. It was not, however, his fortune to attempt any work, however slight, of an historical character, and the retreat of the French army soon left him to his usual habits of literary industry and convivial enjoyment.

It may, however, be supposed, that an imagination which was always upon the stretch received a new impulse from the scenes of difficulty and danger through which our author had so lately passed. Another calamity of a domestic nature must also have tended to the increase of Hoffmann's morbid sensibility. During a journey in a public carriage, it chanced to be overturned, and the author's wife sustained a formidable injury on the head, by which she was a sufferer for a length of time.


78 0?i the Supernatural in Fictitious Compositioji.

All these circumstances, joined to the natural nervousness of his own temper, tended to throw Hoffmann into a state of mind very favourable, perhaps, to the attainment of success in his own peculiar mode of composition, but far from being such as could consist with that right and well-balanced state of human existence, in which philosophers have been disposed to rest the attainment of the highest possible degree of human happiness. Nerves which are accessible to that morbid degree of acuteness, by which the mind is incited, not only without the consent of our reason, but even contrary to its dictates, fall under the condition deprecated in the beautiful Ode to Indifference :

" Nor peace, nor joy, the heart can know. Which, like the needle, true, Turns at the touch of joy or woe. But, turning, trembles too."

The pain which in one case is inflicted by an undue degree of bodily sensitiveness, is in the other the consequence of our own ex- cited imagination ; nor is it easy to determine in which the penalty of too much acuteness or vividness of perception is most severely exacted. The nerves of Hoffmann in particular were strung to the most painful pitch which can be supposed. A severe nervous fever, about the year 1807, had greatly increased the fatal sensi- bility under which he laboured, which acting primarily on the body speedily affected the mind. He had himself noted a sort of gra- duated scale concerning the state of his imagination, which, like that of a thermometer, indicated the exaltation of his feelings up to a state not far distant, probably, from that of actual mental de- rangement. It is not, perhaps, easy to find expressions corre- sponding in English to the peculiar words under which Hoffmann classified his perceptions : but we may observe that he records, as the humour of one day, a deep disposition towards the romantic and religious ; of a second, the perception of the exalted or ex- cited humourous; of a third, that of the satirical humourous ; of a fourth, that of the excited or extravagant musical sense ; of a fifth, a romantic mood turned towards the unpleasing and the horrible ; on a sixth, bitter satirical propensities excited to the most roman- tic, capricious, and exotic degree ; of a seventh, a state of quietism of mind open to receive the most beautiful, chaste, pleasing, and imaginative impressions of a poetical character ; of an eighth, a mood equally excited, but accessible only to ideas the most un- pleasing, the most horrible, the most unrestrained at once and most tormenting. At other times, the feelings which are regis- tered by this unfortunate man of genius, are of a tendency exactly the opposite to those which he marks as characteristic of his state of nervous excitement. They indicate a depression of spirits, u


Works of Hoffmaiw. 7g

mental callousness to those sensations to which the mind is at other times most alive, accompanied with that melancholy and helpless feeling which always attends the condition of one who recollects former enjoyments in which he is no longer capable of taking pleasure. This species of moral palsy is, we believe, a disease which more or less affects every one, from the poor me- chanic who finds that his hmid, as he expresses it, is out, that he cannot discharge his usual task w ith his usual alacrity, to the poet whose muse deserts him when perhaps he most desires her assist- ance. In such cases wise men have recourse to exercise or change of study; the ignorant and infatuated seek grosser means of diverting the paroxysm. But that which is to the person whose mind is in a healthy state, but a transitory though disagreeable feeling, becomes an actual disease in such minds as that of Hoff- mann, which are doomed to experience in too vivid perceptions in alternate excess, but far most often and longest in that which is painful, — the influence of an over-excited fancy. It is minds so conformed to which Burton applies his abstract of Melancholy, giving alternately the joys and the pains which arise from the in- fluence of the imagination. The verses are so much to the pre- sent purpose, that we cannot better describe this changeful and hypochondriac system of mind than by inserting them :

  • ' When to myself I act and smile.

With pleasing thoughts the time beguile, By a brook-side or wood so green. Unheard, unsought for, and unseen, A thousand pleasures do me bless, And crown my soul with happiness j All my joys besides are folly. None so sweet as Melancholy.

" When I lye, sit, or walk alone, I sigh, I grieve, making great moan. In a dark grove, or irksome den. With discontents and furies j then A thousand miseries at once Mine heavy heart and soul ensconce ; All my griefs to this are jolly. None so sour as Melancholy.

" Methinks I hear, methinks I see, Sweet musick, wonderous melody, Towns, palaces, and cities fine ; Here now, then, then, the world is mine, Rare beauties, gallant ladies shine, Whate'er is lovely or divine ;

All other joys to this are tolly, None so sweet as Melancholv.


80 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.

Methinks I hear, methinks I see Ghosts, goblins, fiends ; ray phantasie Presents a thousand ugly shapes. Headless bears, black men and apes. Doleful outcries and fearful sights My sad and dismal soul affrights ;

All my griefs to this are jolly.

None so damn'd as Melancholy."

In the transcendental state of excitation described in these verses, the painful and gloomy mood of the mind is, generally speaking, of much more common occurrence than that which is genial, pleasing, or delightful. Every one who chooses attentively to consider the workings of his own bosom, may easily ascertain the truth of this assertion, which indeed appears a necessary accom- paniment of the imperfect state of humanity, which usually pre- sents to us, in regard to anticipation of the future, so much more that is unpleasing than is desirable ; in other words, where fear has a far less limited reign than the opposite feeling of hope. It was Hoffmann's misfortune to be peculiarly sensible of the former passion, and almost instantly to combine with any pleasing sensa- tion, as it arose, the idea of mischievous or dangerous conse- quences. His biographer has given a singular example of this unhappy disposition, not only to apprehend the worst when there was real ground for expecting evil, but also to mingle such ap- prehension capriciously and unseasonably, with incidents which were in themselves harmless and agreeable. ** The devil," he was wont to say, " will put his hoof into every thing, how good soever in the outset." A trifling but whimsical instance will best ascer- tain the nature of this unhappy propensity to expect the worst. Hoffmann, a close observer of nature, chanced one day to see a little girl apply to a market-woman's stall to purchase some fruit which had caught her eye and excited her desire. The wary trader wished first to know what she was able to expend on the purchase ; and when the poor girl, a beautiful creature, produced with exultation and pride a very small piece of money, the market- woman gave her to understand that there was nothing upon her stall which fell within the compass of her customer's purse. The poor little maiden, mortified and affronted, as well as disap- pointed, was retiring with tears in her eyes, when Hoffmann called her back, and arranging matters with the dealer filled the child's lap with the most beautiful fruit. Yet he had hardly time to enjoy the idea that he had altered the whole expression of the juvenile countenance from mortification to extreme delight and happiness, than he became tortured with the idea that he might be the cause of the child's death, since the fruit he had bestowed


Works of H off mcum. 81

upon it might occasion a surfeit or some other fatal disease. This presentiment haunted him until he reached the house of a friend, and it was akin to many which persecuted him during life, never leaving him to enjoy the satisfaction of a kind or benevolent action, and poisoning with the vague prospect of imaginary evil whatever was in its immediate tendency productive of present pleasure or promising future happiness.

We cannot here avoid contrastino- the character of Hoffmann with that of the highly imaginative poet Wordsworth, many of whose smaller poems turn upon a sensibility affected by such small incidents as that abovementioned, with this remarkable dif- ference — that the virtuous, and manly, and well regulated dispo- sition of the author leads him to derive pleasing, tender and con- solins: reflections from those circumstances which induced Hoff- mann to anticipate consequences of a different character. Such petty incidents are passed noteless over by men of ordinary minds. Observers of poetical imagination, like Wordsworth and Hoff- mann, are the chemists who can distil them into cordials or poisons.

We do not mean to say that the imagination of Hoffmann was either wicked or corrupt, but only that it was ill-regulated and had an undue tendencv to the horrible and the distressins;. Thus he was followed, especially in his hours of solitude and study, by the apprehension of mysterious danger to which he conceived himself exposed; and the whole tribe of dcmi-gorgons, appa- ritions, and fanciful spectres and goblins of all kinds with which he has filled his pages, although in fact the children of his own imagination, were no less discomposing to him than if they had had a real existence and actual influence upon him. The visions which his fancy excited are stated often to be so lively, that he was unable to endure them ; and in the night, which was often his time of study, he was accustomed frequently to call his wife up from bed, that she might sit by him while he was writing, and protect him by her presence from the phantoms conjured up by his own excited imagination.

Thus was the inventor, or at least first distinguished artist who exhibited the fantastic or supernatural grotesque in his compositions, so nearly on the verge of actual insanity, as to be afraid of the beings his own fancy created. It is no wonder that to a mind so vividly accessible to the influence of the imagination, so little under the dominion of sober reason, such a numerous train of ideas should ocour in which fancy had a large share and reason none at all. In fact, the grotesque in his compositions partly resembles the arabesque in painting, in which is introduced the most strange and complicated monsters, resembling centaurs,

VOL. I, NO. I. G


82 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition,

griffins, sphinxes, chimeras, rocs, and all other creatures of romantic imagination, dazzling the beholder as it were by the unbounded fertility of the author's imagination, and sating it by the rich contrast of all the varieties of shape and colouring, while there is in reality nothing to satisfy the understanding or inform the judgment. Hoffmann spent his life, which could not be a happy one, in weaving webs of this wild and imaginative cha- racter, for which after all he obtained much less credit with the public, than his talents must have gained if exercised under the restraint of a better taste or a more solid judgment. There is much reason to think that his life was shortened not only by his mental malady, of which it is the appropriate quality to impede digestion and destroy the healthful exercise of the powers of the stomach, but also by the indulgences to which he had recourse in order to secure himself against the melancholy, which operated so deeply upon the constitution of his mind. This was the more to be regretted, as, notwithstanding the dreams of an over- heated imagination, by which his taste appears to have been so strangely misled, Hoffmann seems to have been a man of excel- lent disposition, a close observer of nature, and one who, if this sickly and disturbed train of thought had not led him to confound the supernatural with the absurd, would have distinguished him- self as a painter of human nature, of which in its realities he was an observer and an admirer.

Hoffmann was particularly skilful in depicting characters arising in his own country of Germany. Nor is there any of her numerous authors who have better and more faithfully designed the upright honesty and firm integrity which is to be met with in all classes which come from the ancient Teutonic stock. There is one character in particular in the tale called " Der Majorat" — the Entail, — which is perhaps peculiar to Germany, and which makes a magnificent contrast to the same class of persons as described in romances, and as existing perhaps in real life in other coun- tries. The justiciary B bears about the same office in

the family of the baron Roderick von R , a nobleman pos- sessed of vast estates in Courland, which the generally-known Baillie Macwheeble occupied on the land of the baron of Brad- wardine. The justiciary, for example, was the representative of the Seigneur in his feudal courts of justice; he superintended his revenues, regulated and controlled his household, and from his long acquaintance with the affairs of the family, was entitled to interfere both with advice and assistance in any case of pecu- liar necessity, in such a character, the Scottish author has per- mitted himself to introduce a strain of the roguery supposed to be incidental to the inferior classes of the law, — mav be no unnatural


Works of Hoffmann. 83

ingredient. The Baillie is mean, sordid, a trickster,and a coward, redeemed only from our dislike and contempt by the ludicrous quahties of his character, by a considerable degree of shrewd- ness, and by the species of almost instinctive attachment to his master and his family which seem to overbalance in qua- lity the natural selfishness of his disposition. The justiciary of

R is the very reverse of this character. He is indeed an

original : having the peculiarities of age and some of its satirical peevishness ; but in his moral qualities he is well described by La Motte Fouque, as a hero of ancient days in the night-gown and slippers of an old lawyer of the present age. The innate worth, independence, and resolute courage of the justiciary seem to be rather enhanced than diminished by his education and pro- fession, which naturally infers an accurate knowledge of mankind, and which, if practised without honour and honesty, is the basest and most dangerous fraud which an individual can put upon the public. Perhaps a few lines of Crabbe may describe the general tendency of the justiciary's mind, although marked, as we shall show, by loftier traits of character than those which the English poet has assigned to the worthy attorney of his borough :

"He, roughly honest, has been long a guide lu borough business on the conquering side ; And seen so much of both sides and so long, He thinks the bias of man's mind goes wrong : Thus, though he's friendly, he is still severe. Surly, though kind, suspiciously sincere : So much he's seen of baseness in the mind, That while a friend to man, he scorns mankind j He knows the human heart and sees with dread By slight temptation how the strong are led ; He knows how interest can asunder rend The bond of parent, master, guardian, friend. To form a new and a degrading tie 'Twixt needy vice and tempting villainy.

The justiciary of Hoffmann, however, is of a higher character than the person distinguished by Crabbe. Having known two generations of the baronial house to which he is attached, he has become possessed of their family secrets, some of which are of a mysterious and terrible nature. This confidential situation, but much more the nobleness and energy of his own character, gives the old man a species of authority even over his patron himself, although the baron is a person of stately manners, and occa- sionally manifests a fierce and haughty temper. It would detain us too long to communicate a sketch of the story, though it is, in our opinion, the most interesting contained in the reveries of the

g2


84 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition,

author. Something, however, we must say to render intelligible the brief extracts which it is our purpose to make, chiefly to illus- trate the character of the justiciary.

The principal part of the estate of the baron consisted in the

Castle of R; sitten, a majorat, or entailed property, which gives name to the story, and which, as being such, the baron was under the necessity of making his place of residence for a certain number of weeks in every year, although it had nothing inviting in its aspect or inhabitants. It was a huge old pile overhanging the Baltic Sea, silent, dismal, almost uninhabited, and surrounded, instead of gardens and pleasure-grounds, by forests of black pines and firs which came up to its very walls. The principal amuse- ment of the baron and his guests was to hunt the wolves and bears which tenanted these woods during the day, and to conclude the evening with a boisterous sort of festivity, in which the efforts made at passionate mirth and hilarity showed that, on the baron's side at least, they did not actually exist. Part of the castle was in ruins ; a tower built for the purpose of astrology by one of its old possessors, the founder of the majorat in question, had fallen down, and by its fall made a deep chasm, which extended from the highest turret down to the dungeon of the castle. The fall of the tower had proved fatal to the unfortunate astrologer ; the abyss which it occasioned was no less so to his eldest son. There was a mystery about the fate of the last, and all the facts known or conjectured respecting the cause of his fatal end were the following.

The baron had been persuaded by some expressions of an old steward, that treasures belonging to the deceased astrologer lay buried in the gulf which the tower had created by its fall. The entrance to this horrible abyss lay from the knightly hall of the castle, and the door, which still remained there, had once given access to the stair of the tower, but since its fail only opened on a yawning gulf full of stones. At the bottom of this gulf the second baron, of whom we speak, was found crushed to death, holding a wax-light fast in his hand. It was imagined he had risen to seek a book from a library which also opened from the hall, and, mistaking the one door for the other, had met his fate by falling into the yawning gulf. Of this, however, there could be no certainty.

This double accident, and the natural melancholy attached to the place, occasioned the present Baron Roderick residing so little there ; but the title under which he held the estate laid him under the necessity of making it his residence for a few weeks every year. About the same time when he took up his abode there, the justiciary was accustomed to go thither for the purpose


Works of Hoffmann. 85

of holding baronial courts, and transacting his other official busi- ness. When the tale opens he sets out upon his journey to R— ;;:: — sitten, accompanied by a nephew, the narrator of the tale, a young man, entirely new to the world, trained somewhat in the school of VVerter, — romantic, enthusiastic, with some disposition to vanity, — a musician, a poet, and a coxcomb; upon the whole, however, a very well-disposed lad, with great respect for his grand-uncle, the justiciary, by whom he is regarded with kind- ness, but also as a subject of raillery. The old man carries him along with him partly to assist in his professional task, partly that he might get somewhat case-hardened by feeling the cold wind of the north whistle about his ears, and undergoing the fatigue and dangers of a wolf-hunt.

They reach the old castle in the midst of a snow-storm, which added to the dismal character of the place, and which lay piled thick up the very gate by which they should enter. All knocking of the postilion was in vain; and here we shall let Hotfmann tell his own story.

The okl man then raised his powerful voice: 'Francis! Francis! where are you then ? be moving ; we freeze here at the door : the snow is peeling our faces raw j be stirrings — the devil!' A watch-dog at length began to bark, and a wandering light was seen in the lower story of the building, — keys rattled, and at length the heavy folding-doors opened with difficulty. ' A fair welcome t'ye in this foul weather !' said old Francis, holding the lantern so high as to throw the whole light upon his shrivelled countenance, the features of which were twisted into a smile of welcome -, the carriage drove into the court, we left it, and I was then for the first time aware that the ancient domestic was dressed in an old fashioned liigger-livcry, adorned with various loops and braids of lace. Only one pair of grey locks now remained upon liis broad Avhite forehead ; the lower part of his face retained the colouring proper to the hardy huntsman ; and, in spite of the crumpled muscles which writhed the countenance into something resembling a fantastic mask, there was an air of stupid yet honest kindness and good-humour, which glanced from his eyes, played around his mouth, and reconciled you to his phy- siognomy.

"'Well, old Frank!' said my great uncle, as entering the anti- chamber he shook the snow from his pelisse, ' well, old man, is all ready in my apartments ? Have the carpets been brushed, — the beds properly arranged, — and good fires kept in my room yesterday and to- day ?' ' No !' answered Frank with great composure, * no, worthy sir! not a bit of all that has been done.' ' Good God !' said my uncle, ' did not I write in good time, — and do I not come at the exact day ? Was ever such a piece of stupidity? And now I must sleep in rooms as cold as ice !' ' Indeed, worthy Mr. Justiciary,' said Francis with great solemnity, while he removed carefully with the snufi'ers a glowing waster Irom the candle, flung it on the floor, and trod cautiously upon it, ' you


86 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.

must know that the airing would have been to no purpose, for the wind and snow have driven in, in such quantities through the broken window- frames : so ' MVhat !' said my uncle, interrupting him, throwing

open his pelisse, and placing both arms on his sides, ' what ! the win- dows are broken, and you, who have charge of the castle, have not had them repaired?' ' That would have been done, worthy sir,' answered Francis, with the same indifference, ' but people could not get rightly at them on account of the heaps of rubbish and stone that are lying in the apartment.' ' And how, in a thousand devils' names,' said my great uncle, ' came rubbish and stones into my chamber ?' ^ God bless you, my young master,' said the old man, episodically to me, who happened at the moment to sneeze, then proceeded gravely to answer the jus- ticiaiy, that the stones and rubbish were those of a partition-wall which had fallen in the last great tempest. '^ What, the devil! have you had an earthquake ?' said my uncle, angrily, ' No, worthy sir,' replied the old man, ' but three days ago the heavy paved roof of the justice-hall

fell in with a tremendous crash.' ' May the devil / said my uncle,

breaking out in a passion, and about to let fly a heavy oath j but sud- denly checking himself, he lifted submissively his right hand towards Heaven, while he moved with his left his fur cap from his forehead, was silent for an instant, then turned to me and spoke cheerfully : ' In good truth, kinsman, we had better hold our tongues and ask no further questions, else we shall only learn greater mishaps, or perhaps the whole castle may come dov^n upon our heads. But Frank,' said he, ' how could you be so stupid as not to get another apartment arranged and aired for me and this youth ? AVhy did you not put some large room in the upper-story of the castle in order for the court-day?' ' That is already done,' said the old man, pointing kindly to the stairs, and be- ginning to ascend with the light. ' Now, only think of the old houlet, that could not say this at once/ said my uncle, while we followed the domestic. We passed through many long, high, vaulted corridors, — the flickering light carried by Francis throwing irregular gleams on the thick darkness •, pillars, capitals, and arches of various shapes appeared to tot- ter as we passed them ; our own shadows followed us with giant steps, and the singular pictures on the wall, across which these shadows passed, seemed to waver and to tremble, and their voices to whisper amongst the heavy echoes of our footsteps, saying — ' Wake us not, wake us not, the enchanted inhabitants of this ancient fabric !* At length, after we had passed along the range of cold and dark apartments, Francis opened a saloon in which a large blazing fire received us with a merry crackling, resembling a hospitable welcome, I felt myself cheered on the instant I entered the apartment} but my great uncle remained standing in the middle of the hall, looked round him, and spoke with a very serious and almost solemn tone ; * This, then, must be our hall of justice !' Francis raising the light so that it fell upon an oblong whitish patch of the large dark wall, which patch had exactly the size and form of a walled-up or condemned door, said in a low and sorrowful tone, ' Justice has been executed here before now.' ' How came you to say that, old man ?' said my uncle, hastily throwing the pelisse from his shoulders. ' The word


Works of Hoffmann. 87

escaped me,' said Francis, as he lighted the candles on the table, and opened the door of a neighbouring apartment where two beds were com- fortably prepared for the reception of the guests. In a short time a good supper smoked before us in the hall, to which succeeded a bowl of punch, mixed according to the right northern fashion, and it may there- fore be presumed none of the weakest. Tired with his journey, my uncle betook himself to bed; but the novelty and strangeness of the situation, and even the excitement of the liquor I had drank, prevented me from thinking of sleep. The old domestic removed the supper-table, made up the fire in the chimney, and took leave of me after his manner with many a courteous bow.

    • And now I was left alone in the wide high hall of chivah-y; the

hail-storm had ceased to patter, and the wind to howl; the sky was be- come clear without-doors, and the full moon streamed through the broad transome windows, illumining, as if by magic, all those dark corners of the singular apartment into which the imperfect light of the wax candles and the chimney-fire could not penetrate. As frequently happens in old castles, the walls and roof of the apartment were ornamented, — the former with heavy pannclling, the latter with fantastic carving gilded and painted of different colours. The subjects chiefly presented the desperate hunting matches with bears and wolves, and the heads of the animals, being in many cases carved, projected strangely from the painted bodies, and even, betwixt the fluttering and uncertain light of the moon and of the fire, gave a grisly degree of reality. Amidst these pieces were hung portraits, as large as life, of knights striding forth in hunting-dresses, probably the chase-loving ancestors of the present baron. Every thing, whether of painting or of carving, showed the dark and decayed colours of times long passed, and rendered niore con- spicuous the blank and light-coloured part of the wall before noticed. It was in the middle space betwixt two doors which led off through the hall into side-apartments, and I could now see that it must itself have been a door, built up at a later period, but not made to correspond with the rest of the apartment, either by being painted over or covered with carved work. Who knows not that an unwonted and somewhat extra- ordinary situation possesses a mysterious power over the human spirit.? Even the dullest fancy will awake in a secluded valley surrounded with rocks, or within the walls of a gloomy church, and will be taught to expect in such a situation things different from those encountered in the ordinary course of human life. Conceive too that I was only a lad of twenty years of age, and that I had drunk several glasses of strong liquor, and it may easily be believed that the knight's hall in which I sat made a singular impression on my spirit. The stillness of the night is also to be remembered, — broken, as it was, only by the heavy waving of the billows of the sea, and the solemn piping of the wind, resembling the tones of a mighty organ touched by some passing spirit; the clouds wandering across the moon, drifted along the arched windows, and seemed giant shapes gazing through the rattling casements; in short, in the slight shuddering which crept over me 1 felt as if an unknown world was about to expand itself visibly before me. This feeling, however


si On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.

silly, only resembled the slight and not unpleasing shudder with which we read or bear a well-told ghost story. It occurred to me in conse- quence that I could find no more favourable opportunity for reading the work to which, like most young men of a romantic bias, I Was pecu- liarly partial, and which I happened to have in my pocket. It was * the Ghost Seer' of Schiller : I read — and read, and in doing so excited my fancy more and more, until I came to that part of the tale which seizes on the imagination with so much fervour, viz. the wedding feast in the house of the Count von B . Just at the veiy moment when I ar- rived at the passage where the bloody spectre of Gironimo entered the wedding apartment, the door of the knights' hall, which led into an anti- chamber, burst open with a violent shock j — I started up with astonish- ment and the book dropped from my hand ; but, as in the same moment all was again still, I became ashamed of my childish terror : — it might be by the impulse of the rushing night-wind, or by some other natural cause that the door was flung open. ' It is nothing,' I said aloud,

  • my overheated fancy turns the most natural accidents into the super-

natural.' Having thus re-assured myself, I picked up the book and again sat down in the elbow-chair ; but then I heard something move in the apartment with measured steps, sighing at the same time, and sobbing in a manner which seemed to express at once the extremity of inconsolable sorrow, and the most agonizing pain which the human bosom could feel. I tried to believe that this could only be the moans of some animal enclosed somewhere near our part of the house, I re- flected upon the mysterious power of the night, which makes distant sounds appear as if they were close beside us, and I expostulated with myself for suffering the sounds to affect me with terror. But as I thus debated the point, a sound like that of scratching mixed with louder and deeper sighs, such as could only be extracted by the most acute mental agony, or during the parting pang of life, was indisputably heard upon the very spot where the door appeared to have been built up : ' Yet it can only be some poor animal in confinement, — I shall call out aloud, or I shall stamp with my foot upon the ground, and then either every thing will be silent or the animal will make itself be known 5' so I purposed, but the blood stopped in my veins, — a cold sweat stood upon my fore- head, — I remained fixed in ray chair, not daring to rise, far less to call out. The hateful sounds at last ceased, — the steps were again distin- guished, — it seemed as if life and the power of motion returned to me, — I started up and walked two paces forward, but in that moment an ice- cold night-breeze whistled through the hall, and at the same time the moon threw a bright light upon the picture of a very grave, well-nigh terrible looking man, and it seemed to me as if I plainly heard a warning voice amid the deep roar of the sea and the shriller whistle of the night- wind speaking the warning — *■ No farther ! No farther ! Lest thou en- counter the terrors of the spiritual world !' The door now shut with the same violent clash wnth which it had burst open -, I heard the sound of steps retiring along the anti-room and descending the staircase : the principal door of the castle was opened and shut with violence 3 then it seemed as if a horse was led out of the stable, and, after a short time, as


Works of Hoffmann. 89.

if it was again conducted back to its stall. After this, all was still, at the same time I became aware tbat my uncle in the neighbouring apartment was struggling in his sleep and groaned like a man afflicted with a heavy dream. I hastened to awakS him, and when I had succeeded, I received his thanks for the service. * Thou hast done well, kinsman, to awake me,' he said ; * I have had a detestable dream, the cause of which is this apartment and the hall, which set me a thinking upon past times and upon many extraordinary events which have here happened. But now we shall sleep sound till morning.'"

With morning the business of the justiciary's office began. But, abridging the young lawyer's prolonged account of what took place, the mystic terror of the preceding evening retained so much effect on his imagination, that he was disposed to find out traces of the supernatural in every thing which met his eyes; even two respectable old ladies, aunts of Baron Roderick von

R , and the sole old-fashioned inhabitants of the old-fasliioiled

castle, had in their French caps and furbelows a ghostly and phan- tom-like appearance in his prejudiced eyes. The justiciary be- comes disturbed by the strange behaviour of his assistant; he en- ters into expostulation upon the subject so soon as they were in private :

" ' What is the matter with you?* he said 5 ' thou speakcst not ; thou eatest not ; thou driiikcst not; — art thou sick ; or dost thou lack any thing ? in short, w^hat a fiend ails thee ?' I embraced the opportunity to communicate all the horrible scenes of the preceding night ; not even concealing from my grand uncle that I had drunk a good deal of punch, and had been reading ' the Ghost Seer' of Schiller. * This, I must allow,' I added, * because it is possible, that my toiling and overheated fancy nn'ght have created circumstances which had no other existence.' I now expected that my kinsman would read me a sharp lecture on my folly, or treat me with some bitter jibes : but he did neitlicr 3 he be- came veiy grave, looked long on the ground, then suddenly fixed a bold and glowiuglook upon me, "^ kinsman,' said he, 'I am unac(piainted with your book 3 but you have neither it nor the liquor to thank for the ghostly exhibition you have described. Know, that I had a dream to the self-same purpose. I thought I sat in the hall as thou didst ; but whereas thou only heardst sounds, I beheld, with the eyes of my spirit, the appearances which these voices announced. Yes! I beheld the in- human monster as he entered, — saw him glide to the condemned door, — saw him scratch on the wall in comfortless despair until the blood burst from under his wounded nails ; then I beheld him lead a horse from the stable and again conduct it back ; — didst thou not hear the cock crow in the distant village ? it was then that thou didst awake me, and I soon got the better of the terrors by which this departed sinner is permitted to disturb the peace of human life,' The old man stopped, and I dared not ask further questions, well knowing he would explain the whole to me when it was proper to do so. After a space, during


90 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Compositions.

which he appeared wrapt in thought, my uncle proceeded : ^ kinsman, now that thou knowest the nature of this disturbance, hast thou the courage once more to encounter it, having me in thy company ?' It was natural that I should answer in the affirmative, the rather as I found myself mentally strengthened to the task : ' Then will we,* proceeded the old man, ' watch together this ensuing night. There is an inward voice which tells me this wicked spirit must give vvay, not so much to the force of my understanding, as to my courage, which is built upon a firm confidence in God. I feel, too, that it is no rash or criminal un- dertaking, but a bold and pious duty that I am about to discharge. When I risk body and life to banish the evil spirit who would drive the sons from the ancient inheritance of their fathers, it is in no spirit of presumption or vain curiosity : since, in the firm integrity of mind, and the pious confidence which lives within me, the most ordinary man is and remains a victorious hero. But should it be God's will that the wicked spirit shall have power over me, then shalt thou, kinsman, make it known that I died in honourable Christian combat with the hellish spectre which haunts this place. For thee, thou must keep thyself at a distance, and no ill will befall thee.'

" The evening was spent in various kinds of employment j the supper was set as before in the knights' hall ; the full moon shone clear through the glimmering clouds ; the billows of the sea roared ; and the night- wind shook the rattling casements. However inwardly excited, we compelled ourselves to maintain an indifferent conversation. The old m^n had laid his repeating watch on the table ; it struck twelve, — then the door flew open with a heavy crash, and, as on the former night, slow and light footsteps traversed the hall, and the sighs and groans were heard as before. My uncle was pale as death ; but his eyes streamed with unwonted fire, and as he stood upright, his left arm dropped by his side and his right uplifted toward heaven, he had the air of a hero in the act of devotion. The sighs and groans became louder and more distinguishable, and the hateful sounds of scratching upon the wall were again heard more odiously than on the former night. The old man then strode forward right towards the condemned door, with a step so bold and firm that the hall echoed back his tread. He stopped close before the spot where the ghostly sounds were heard yet more and more wildly, and spoke with a strong and solemn tone such as I never heard him before use : ' Daniel ! Daniel !' he said, ' what makest thou here at this hour ?' A dismal screech was the reply, and a sullen heavy sound was heard, as when a weighty burden is cast down upon the floor. * Seek grace and mercy before the throne of the Highest !' continued my uncle, with a voice even more authoritative than before, ^ there is thy only place of appeal ! Hence with thee out of the living world in which thou hast no longer a portion !' It seemed as if a low wailing was heard to glide through the sky and to die away in the roaring of the storm which began now to awaken. Then the old man stepped to the door of the hall and closed it with such vehemence that the whole place echoed. In his speech, in his gestures, there seemed something almost superhuman which filled me with a species of holy fear. As he placed


Works of Hoffmann. 9I

himself in the arm chair, the fixed sternness of his rigid brow began to relax ; his look appeared more clear j he folded his hands, and prayed internally. Some minutes passed away ere he said, with that mild tone which penetrates so deeply into the heart, the simple words, ' now, kinsman V Overcome by horror, anxiety, holy reverence and love, I threw myself on my knees, and moistened with warm tears the hand which he stretched out to me j the old man folded me in his arms, and, after he had pressed me to his bosom with heartfelt aflfection, said, with a feeble and exhausted voice, ' now, kinsman, shall we sleep soft and undisturbed !' "

The spirit returned no more. It was the ghost — as may have been anticipated — of a false domestic, by whose hand the former baron had been precipitated into the gulf which yawned behind the new wall so often mentioned in the narrative.

The other adventures in the castle of R sitten are of a

different cast, but strongly mark the power of delineating human character which Hoffman possessed. Baron Roderick and his lady arrive at the castle with a train of guests. The lady is young, beautiful, nervous, and full of sensibility, — fond of soft music, pathetic poetry, and walks by moonlight; the rude com- pany of huntsmen by which the baron is surrounded, their bois- terous sports in the morning, and their no less boisterous mirth in the evening, is wholly foreign to the disposition of the Baro- ness Seraphina, who is led to seek relief in the society of the nephew of the justiciary, who can make sonnets, repair harpsi- chords, sustain a part in an Italian duet, or in a sentimental con- versation. In short, the two young persons, without positively designing any thing wrong, are in a fair way of rendering them- selves guilty and miserable, were they not saved from the snare which their passion was preparing by the calm observation, strong sense, and satirical hints of our friend the justiciary.

It may therefore be said of this personage, that he possesses that true and honourable character which we may conceive enti- tling a mortal as well to overcome the malevolent attacks of evil beings from the other world as to stop and control the course of moral evil in that we inhabit, and the sentiment is of the highest order by which Hoffman ascribes to unsullied masculine honour and integrity that same indemnity from the power of evil which the poet claims for female purity:

" Some say no evil thing that walks by night In fog, or fire, by lake or moorish fen. Blue meagre hag, or stubborn unlaid ghost That breaks his magic chain at curfew time. No goblin, nor swart faery of the mine. Hath hurtful power o'er true virginity."


92 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Compositions.

What we admire, therefore, in the extracts which we have given is not the mere wonderful or terrible part of the story, though the circumstances are well narrated : it is the advantao;eous lioht in which it places the human character as capable of being armed with a strong sense of duty, and of opposing itself, without pre- sumption but with confidence, to a power of which it cannot estimate the force, of which it hath every reason to doubt the pur- pose, and at the idea of confronting which our nature recoils.

Before we leave the story of " the Entail," we must notice the conclusion, which is beautifully told, and will recal to most readers who are passed the prime of life, feelings which they themselves must occasionally have experienced. Many, many

vears after the baronial race of R had become extinofuished,

accident brought the young nephew, now a man in advanced age, to the shores of the Baltic. It was night, and his eye was at- tracted by a strong light which spread itself along the horizon.

" 'What fire is thaf before us, postilion?' said I; * It is no fire,'

answered he, ' it is the beacon light of R sitten.' * Of R

sitten !' He had scarce uttered the words, when the picture of the re- markable days which I had passed in that place arose in clear light in my memory. I saw the baron, — 1 saw Seraphina, — I saw the strange- looking old aunts, — I saw myself, with a fair boyish countenance, out of which the mother's milk seemed not yet to have been pressed, my frock of delicate azure blue, my hair curled and powdered with the ut- most accuracy, the very image of the lover sighing like a furnace, who tunes his sonnets to his mistress's eye-brows. Amidst a feeling of deep melancholy, fluttered like sparkles of light the recollection of the jus- ticiary's rough jests, v.diich appeared to me now much more pleasant than when 1 was the subject of them. Next morning I visited the village, and made some inquiries after the baronial steward : ' With your favour, Sir,' said the postilion, taking the pipe out of his mouth, and touching his night-cap, ' there is here no baronial steward ; the place belongs to his majesty, and the royal superintendent is still in bed.' On farther

questions, I learned that the Baron Roderick von R having died

without descendants, the entailed estate, according to the terms of the grant, had been vested in the crown. I walked up to the castle which lay now in a heap of ruins. An old peasant, who came out of the pine M'ood, informed me that a great part of the stones had been used to build the beacon-tower 3 he told me too of the spectre which in former times had haunted the spot, and asserted that when the moon was at the full, the voice of lamentation was still heard among the ruins."

If the reader has, in a declining period of his life, revisited the scenes of youthful interest, and received from the mouth of strangers an account of the changes which have taken place, he will not be indifferent to the simplicity of this conclusion.

The passage which we have quoted, while it shows the wild- uess of Hoft'mann's fancy, evinces also that he possessed power


Works of Hoffmann, 9.3

which ought to have mitigated and allayed it. Unfortunately, his taste and temperament directed him too strongly to the gro- tesque and fantastic, — canied him too far " extra moenia flam- mantia mundi/' too much beyond the circle not only of probabi- lity but even of possibility, to admit of his composing much in the better style which he might easily have attained. The popu- lar romance, no doubt, has many walks, nor are we at all inclined to halloo the dogs of criticism against those whose object is merely to amuse a passing hour. It may be repeated with truth, that in this path of light literature, *' tout genre est permis hors les genres ennuyeux," and of course, an error in taste ought not to be followed up and hunted down as if it were a false maxim in mo/rality, a delusive hypothesis in science, or a heresy in religion itself. Genius too, is, we are aware, capricious, and must be allowed to take its own llights, however eccentric, were it but for the sake of experiment. Sometimes, also, it may be eminently pleasing to look at the wildness of an Arabesque painting exe- cuted by a man of rich fancy. But we do not desire to see genius expand or rather exhaust itself upon themes which cannot be reconciled to taste; and the utmost length in which we can induloe a turn to the fantastic is, where it tends to excite airree- able and pleasing ideas.

We are not called upon to be equally tolerant of such capric- cios as are not only startling by their extravagance, but disgusting by their horrible import. Moments there are, and must have been, in the author's life, of pleasing as well as painful excitation; and the Champagne which sparkled in his glass must have lost its benevolent intiuence if did not sometimes wake his fancy to emotions which were pleasant as well as whimsical. But as re- peatedly the tendency of all overstrained feelings is directed to- wards the painful, and the fits of lunacy, and the crisises of very undue excitement which approaches to it, are much more fre- quently of a disagreeable than of a pleasant character, it is too certain, that we possess in a much greater degree the power of exciting in our minds what is fearful, melancholy, or horrible, than of commanding thoughts of a lively and pleasing character. The grotesque, also, has a natural alliance with the horrible; for that which is out of nature can be with difficulty reconciled to the beautiful. Nothing, for instance, could be more displeasing to the eye than the palace of that crack-brained Italian prince, which was decorated with every species of monstrous sculptures which a depraved imagination could suggest to the artist. The works of Callot, though evincing a wonderful fertility of mind, are in like manner regarded with surprise rather than pleasure. If we compare his fertility with that of Hogarth, they resemble each other in extent ; but in that of the satisfaction afforded by a close exa- mination the English artist has wonderfully the advantage. Every new touch which the observer detects amid the rich superfluities of Hogarth is an article in the history of human manners, if not of the human heart; while, on the contrary, in examining micro- scopically the diablerie of Callot's pieces, we only discover fresh instances of ingenuity thrown away, and of fancy pushed into the regions of absurdity. The works of the one painter resemble a garden carefully cultivated, each nook of which contains some- thinor agreeable or useful : while those of the other are like the garden of the sluggard, where a soil equally fertile produces nothing but wild and fantastic weeds.

Hoffman has in some measure identified himself with the in- genious artist upon whom we have just passed a censure by his title of " Night Pieces after the manner of C allot, ^^ and in order to write such a tale, for example, as that called " the Sandman," he must have been deep in the mysteries of that fanciful artist, with whom he might certainly boast a kindred spirit. We have given an instance of a tale in which the wonderful is, in our opi- nion, happily introduced, because it is connected with and applied to human interest and human feeling, and illustrates with no or- dinary force the elevation to which circumstances may raise the power and dignity of the human mind. The following narrative is of a different class :

" half horror and half whim. Like fiends in glee, ridiculously grim."

Nathaniel, the hero of the story, acquaints us with the circum- stances of his life in a letter addressed to Lothair, the brother of Clara; the one being his friend, the other his betrothed bride. The writer is a young man of a fanciful and hypochondriac tem- perament, poetical and metaphysical in an excessive degree, with precisely that state of nerves which is most accessible to the in- fluence of imagination. He communicates to his friend and his mistress an adventure of his childhood. It was, it seems, the cus- tom of his father, an honest watchmaker, to send his family to bed upon certain days earlier in the evening than usual, and the mother in enforcing this observance used to say, " To-bed, children, the Sandman is coming!" In fact, on such occasions, Nathaniel ob- served that after their hour of retiring, a knock was heard at the door, a heavy step echoed on the staircase, some person entered his father's apartments, and occasionally a disagreeable and suf- focating vapour was perceptible through the house. This then was the Sandman ; but what was his occupation, and what was his pur- pose ? The nursery-maid being applied to, gave a nursery-maid's


i


Works of Hoffinamu 95

explanation, that the Sandman was a bad man, who flung sand in the eyes of Httle children who did not go to bed. This increased the terror of the boy, but at the same time raised his curiosity. He determined to conceal himself in his father's apartment and wait the arrival of the nocturnal visitor ; he did so, and the Sand- man proved to be no other than the lawyer Copelius, whomhe had often seen in his father's company. He was a huge left-handed, splay-footed sort of personage, with a large nose, great ears, ex- aggerated features, and a sort of ogre-like aspect, which had often struck terror into the children before this ungainly limb of the law was identified with the terrible Sandman. Hoffmann has given a pencil sketch of this uncouth figure, in which he has certainly contrived to represent something as revolting to adults as it might be terrible to children. He was received by the father with a sort of humble observance ; a secret stove was opened and lighted, and they instantly commenced chemical operations of a strange and mysterious description, but which immediately accounted for that species of vapour which had been perceptible on other occasions. The gestures of the chemists grew fantastic, their faces, even that of the father, seemed to become wild and terrific as they prose- cuted their labours ; the boy became terrified, screamed and left his hiding-place ; — was detected by the alchemist, for such Co- pelius was, who threatened to pull out his eyes, and was with some difficulty prevented by the father's interference from putting hot ashes in the child's face. Nathaniel's imagination was deeply impressed by the terror he had undergone, and a nervous fever was the consequence, during which the horrible figure of the dis- ciple of Paracelsus was the spectre which tormented his imagi- nation.

After a long interval, and when Nathaniel was recovered, the nightly visits of Copelius to his pupil were renewed, but the latter promised his wife that it should be for the last time. It proved so, but not in the maimer which the old watchmaker meant. An explosion took place in the chemical laboratory which cost Na- thaniel's father his life; his instructor in tiie fatal art, to which he had fallen a victim, was no where to be seen. It followed from these incidents, calculated to make so strong an impression upon a lively imagination, that Nathaniel was haunted through life by the recollections of this horrible personage, and Copelius became in his mind identified with the evil principle.

When introduced to the reader, the young man is studying at the university, where he is suddenly surprised by the appearance of his old enemy, who now personates an Italian or Tyrolese pedlar, dealing in optical glasses and such trinkets, and, although .dressed according to his new profession, continuing under the


06 Oti the Siiper/mtural in Fictitious Composition.

Italianized name of Giuseppe Coppola to be identified with the ancient adversary. Nathaniel is greatly distressed at finding himself unable to persuade either his friend or his mistress of the justice of the horrible apprehensions which he conceives ought to be entertained from the supposed identity of this terrible juris- consult with his double-ganger the dealer in barometers. He is also displeased with Clara, because her clear and sound good sense rejects not only his metaphysical terrors, but also his in- flated and affected strain of poetry. His mind gradually becomes alienated from the frank, sensible, and affectionate companion of his childhood, and he grows in the same proportion attached to the daughter of a professor called Spalanzani, whose house is opposite to the windows of his lodging. He has thus an oppor- tunity of frequently remarking Olympia as she sits in her apart- ment; and although she remains there for hours without reading, working, or even stirring, he yet becomes enamoured of her ex- treme beauty in despite of the insipidity of so inactive a person. But much more rapidly does this fatal passion proceed wdien he is induced to purchase a perspective glass from the pedlar, whose resemblance was so perfect to his old object of detestation. De- ceived by the secret influence of the medium of vision, he be- comes indifferent to what was visible to all others who approach Olympia, — to a certain stiffness of manner which made her walk as if by the impulse of machinery, — to a paucity of ideas which induced her to express herself only in a few short but reiterated phrases, — in short, to all that indicated Olympia to be w^hat she ultimately proved, a mere literal puppet, or automaton, created by the mechanical skill of Spalanzani, and inspired with an ap- pearance of life by the devilish arts we may suppose of the alche- mist, advocate, and weather-glass seller Copelius, alias Coppola. At this extraordinary and melancholy truth the enamoured Na- thaniel arrives by witnessing a dreadful quarrel between the two • imitators of Prometheus, while disputing their respective interests in the subject of their creative power. They uttered the wildest imprecations, and tearing the beautiful automaton limb from limb, belaboured each other with the fragments of their clock- work figure. Nathaniel, not much distant from lunacy before, became frantic on witnessing this horrible spectacle.

But we should be mad ourselves were we to trace these ravings any farther. The tale concludes with the moon-struck scholar at- tempting to murder Clara by precipitating her from a tower. The poor girl being rescued by her brother, the lunatic remains alone on the battlements, gesticulating violently and reciting the gibberish which he had acquired from Copelius and Spalanzani. At this moment, and while the crowd below are devising means


Works of Hoffmann. 97

to secure the maniac, Copelius suddenly appears among them, assures them that Nathaniel will presently come down of his own accord, and realizes his prophecy by fixing on the latter a look of fascination, the effect of which is instantly to compel the unfor- tunate young man to cast himself headlong from the battlements.

This wild and absurd story is in some measure redeemed by some traits in the character of Clara, whose firmness, plain good sense and frank affection are placed in agreeable contrast with the wild imagination, fanciful apprehensions, and extravagant affection of her crazy-pated admirer.

It is impossible to subject tales of this nature to criticism. They are not the visions of a poetical mind, they have scarcely even the seeming authenticity which the hallucinations of lunacy convey to the patient; they are the feverish dreams of a light- headed patient, to which, though they may sometimes excite by their peculiarity, or surprise by their oddity, we never feel dis- posed to yield more than momentary attention. In fact, the in- spirations of Hoffmann so often resemble the ideas produced by the immoderate use of opium, that we cannot help considering his case as one requiring the assistance of medicine rather than of cri- ticism ; and while we acknowledge that with a steadier connnand of his imagination he might have been an audior of the first dis- tinction, yet situated as he was, and indulging the diseased state of his own system, he appears to have been subject to that undue vividness of thought and perception of which the celebrated Nico- lai became at once the victim and the conqueror. Phlebotomy and cathartics, joined to sound philosophy and deliberate obser- vation, might, as in the case of that celebrated philosopher, have brought to a healthy state a mind which we cannot help regarding as diseased, and his imagination soaring with an equal and steady flight might have reached the highest pitch of the poetical pro- fession. ^

The death of this extraordinary person took place in 1822. He became affected with the disabling complaint called tahes dorsa/is, which gradually deprived him of the power of his limbs. Even in this melancholy condition he dictated several composi- tions, which indicate the force of his fancy, particularly one frag- ment entitled " The Recovery," in which are many affecting allusions to the state of his own mental feelings at this period ; and a novel called *' The Adversary," on which he had employed himself even shortly before his last moments. Neither was the strength of his courage in any respect abated; he could endure bodily agony with firmness, though he could not bear the vision- ary terrc'rs of his owai mind. The medical persons made the

VOL. I. NO. 1. H


98 On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition.

severe experiment whether by applying the actual cautery to his back by means of glowing iron, the activity of the nervous system might not be restored. He was so far from being cast down by the torture of this medical martyrdom, that he asked a friend who entered the apartment after he had undergone it, whether he did not smell the roasted meat. The same heroic spirit marked his expressions, that " he would be perfectly contented to lose the use of his limbs, if he could but retain the power of working con- stantly by the help of an amanuensis." Hoffman died at Berlin, upon the 25th June, 1822, leaving the reputation of a remarkable man, whose temperament and health alone prevented his arriving at a great height of reputation, and whose works as they now exist ought to be considered less as models for imitation than as afford- ing a warning how the most fertile fancy may be exhausted by the lavish prodigality of its possessor.





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools