From Puppet Show to Majestic Drama

March 22, 2020

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). Faust. Part I.
Vol. 19, pp. 23-36 of The Harvard Classics

The Faust legend, which can be traced to puppet shows of earlier days, portrays a philosopher who, through Satan's aid and in return for the price of his soul, works magic at will. From this rude framework Goethe has reared a drama of sublime grandeur.
(Goethe died March 22, 1832.)


A high vaulted narrow Gothic chamber. FAUST, restless, seated at his desk.

HAVE, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before.
Magister, doctor styled, indeed,
Already these ten years I lead,
Up, down, across, and to and fro,
My pupils by the nose,—and learn,
That we in truth can nothing know!
That in my heart like fire doth burn.
’Tis true I’ve more cunning than all your dull tribe,
Magister and doctor, priest, parson, and scribe;
Scruple or doubt comes not to enthrall me,
Neither can devil nor hell now appal me—
Hence also my heart must all pleasure forego!
I may not pretend, aught rightly to know,
I may not pretend, through teaching, to find
A means to improve or convert mankind.
Then I have neither goods nor treasure,
No worldly honour, rank, or pleasure;
No dog in such fashion would longer live!
Therefore myself to magic I give,
In hope, through spirit-voice and might,
Secrets now veiled to bring to light,
That I no more, with aching brow,
Need speak of what I nothing know;
That I the force may recognise
That binds creation’s inmost energies;
Her vital powers, her embryo seeds survey,
And fling the trade in empty words away.
O full-orb’d moon, did but thy rays
Their last upon mine anguish gaze!
Beside this desk, at dead of night,
Oft have I watched to hail thy light:
Then, pensive friend! o’er book and scroll,
With soothing power, thy radiance stole!
In thy dear light, ah, might I climb,
Freely, some mountain height sublime,
Round mountain caves with spirits ride,
In thy mild haze o’er meadows glide,
And, purged from knowledge-fumes, renew
My spirit, in thy healing dew!
Woe’s me! still prison’d in the gloom
Of this abhorr’d and musty room!
Where heaven’s dear light itself doth pass,
But dimly through the painted glass!
Hemmed in by volumes thick with dust,
Worm-eaten, hid ’neath rust and mould,
And to the high vault’s topmost bound,
A smoke-stained paper compassed round;
With boxes round thee piled, and glass,
And many a useless instrument,
With old ancestral lumber blent—
This is thy world! a world! alas!
And dost thou ask why heaves thy heart,
With tighten’d pressure in thy breast?
Why the dull ache will not depart,
By which thy life-pulse is oppress’d?
Instead of nature’s living sphere,
Created for mankind of old,
Brute skeletons surround thee here,
And dead men’s bones in smoke and mould.

Up! Forth into the distant land!
Is not this book of mystery
By Nostradamus’ proper hand,
An all-sufficient guide? Thou’lt see
The courses of the stars unroll’d;
When nature doth her thoughts unfold
To thee, thy soul shall rise, and seek
Communion high with her to hold,
As spirit doth with spirit speak!
Vain by dull poring to divine
The meaning of each hallow’d sign.
Spirits! I feel you hov’ring near;
Make answer, if my voice ye hear!  

(He opens the book and perceives the sign of the Macrocosmos.)

Ah! at this spectacle through every sense,
What sudden ecstasy of joy is flowing!
I feel new rapture, hallow’d and intense,
Through every nerve and vein with ardour glowing.
Was it a god who character’d this scroll,
The tumult in my spirit healing,
O’er my sad heart with rapture stealing,
And by a mystic impulse, to my soul,
The powers of nature all around revealing.
Am I a God? What light intense!
In these pure symbols do I see,
Nature exert her vital energy.
Now of the wise man’s words I learn the sense;

        “Unlock’d the spirit-world doth lie,
        Thy sense is shut, thy heart is dead!
        Up scholar, lave, with courage high,
        Thine earthly breast in the morning-red!”  (He contemplates the sign.)

How all things live and work, and ever blending,
Weave one vast whole from Being’s ample range!
How powers celestial, rising and descending,
Their golden buckets ceaseless interchange!
Their flight on rapture-breathing pinions winging,
From heaven to earth their genial influence bringing,
Through the wild sphere their chimes melodious ringing!

A wondrous show! but ah! a show alone!
Where shall I grasp thee, infinite nature, where?
Ye breasts, ye fountains of all life, whereon
Hang heaven and earth, from which the withered heart
For solace yearns, ye still impart
Your sweet and fostering tides—where are ye—where?
Ye gush, and must I languish in despair?  (He turns over the leaves of the book impatiently, and perceives the sigh of the Earth-spirit.)

How all unlike the influence of this sign!
Earth-spirit, thou to me art nigher,
E’en now my strength is rising higher,
E’en now I glow as with new wine;
Courage I feel, abroad the world to dare,
The woe of earth, the bliss of earth to bear,
With storms to wrestle, brave the lightning’s glare,
And mid the crashing shipwreck not despair.

Clouds gather over me—
The moon conceals her light—
The lamp is quench’d—
Vapours are rising—Quiv’ring round my head
Flash the red beams—Down from the vaulted roof
A shuddering horror floats,
And seizes me!
I feel it, spirit, prayer-compell’d, ’tis thou
Art hovering near!
Unveil thyself!
Ha! How my heart is riven now!
Each sense, with eager palpitation,
Is strain’d to catch some new sensation!
I feel my heart surrender’d unto thee!
Thou must! Thou must! Though life should be the fee!  (He seizes the book, and pronounces mysteriously the sign of the spirit. A ruddy flame flashes up; the spirit appears in the flame.)


Who calls me?

FAUST  (turning aside)

              Dreadful shape!


                With might,
Thou hast compelled me to appear,
Long hast been sucking at my sphere,
And now—


        Woe’s me! I cannot bear thy sight!


To see me thou dost breathe thine invocation,
My voice to hear, to gaze upon my brow;
Me doth thy strong entreaty bow—
Lo! I am here!—What cowering agitation
Grasps thee, the demigod! Where’s now the soul’s deep cry?
Where is the breast, which in its depths a world conceiv’d
And bore and cherished? which, with ecstacy,
To rank itself with us, the spirits, heaved?
Where art thou, Faust? whose voice I heard resound,
Who towards me press’d with energy profound?
Art thou he? Thou,—who by my breath art blighted,
Who, in his spirit’s depths affrighted,
Trembles, a crush’d and writhing worm!


Shall I yield, thing of flame, to thee?
Faust, and thine equal, I am he!


In the currents of life, in action’s storm,
        I float and I wave
        With billowy motion!
        Birth and the grave
        A limitless ocean,
        A constant weaving
        With change still rife,
        A restless heaving,
        A glowing life—
Thus time’s whirring loom unceasing I ply,
And weave the life-garment of deity.


Thou, restless spirit, dost from end to end
O’ersweep the world; how near I feel to thee!


Thou’rt like the spirit, thou dost comprehend,
Not me!  (Vanishes.)


Not thee?
Whom then?
I, Gods own image!
And not rank with thee!  (A knock.)
Oh death! I know it—’tis my famulus—
My fairest fortune now escapes!
That all these visionary shapes
A soulless groveller should banish thus! (WAGNER in his dressing gown and night-cap, a lamp in his hand. FAUST turns round reluctantly.)


Pardon! I heard you here declaim;
A Grecian tragedy you doubtless read?
Improvement in this art is now my aim,
For now-a-days it much avails. Indeed
An actor, oft I’ve heard it said, as teacher,
May give instruction to a preacher.


Ay, if your priest should be an actor too,
As not improbably may come to pass.


When in his study pent the whole year through,
Man views the world, as through an optic glass,
On a chance holiday, and scarcely then,
How by persuasion can he govern men?


If feeling prompt not, if it doth not flow
Fresh from the spirit’s depths, with strong control
Swaying to rapture every listener’s soul,
Idle your toil; the chase you may forego!
Brood o’er your task! Together glue,
Cook from another’s feast your own ragout,
Still prosecute your paltry game,
And fan your ash-heaps into flame!
Thus children’s wonder you’ll excite,
And apes’, if such your appetite;
But that which issues from the heart alone,
Will bend the hearts of others to your own.


The speaker in delivery will find
Success alone; I still am far behind.


A worthy object still pursue!
Be not a hollow tinkling fool!
Sound understanding, judgment true,
Find utterance without art or rule;
And when in earnest you are moved to speak,
Then is it needful cunning words to seek?
Your fine harangues, so polish’d in their kind,
Wherein the shreds of human thought ye twist,
Are unrefreshing as the empty wind,
Whistling through wither’d leaves and autumn mist!


Oh God! How long is art,
Our life how short! With earnest zeal
Still as I ply the critic’s task, I feel
A strange oppression both of head and heart.
The very means how hardly are they won,
By which we to the fountains rise!
And haply, ere one half the course is run,
Check’d in his progress, the poor devil dies.


Parchment, is that the sacred fount whence roll
Waters, he thirsteth not who once hath quaffed?
Oh, if it gush not from thine inmost soul,
Thou has not won the life-restoring draught.


Your pardon! ’tis delightful to transport
Oneself into the spirit of the past,
To see in times before us how a wise man thought,
And what a glorious height we have achieved at last.


Ay truly! even to the loftiest star!
To us, my friend, the ages that are pass’d
A book with seven seals, close-fasten’d, are;
And what the spirit of the times men call,
Is merely their own spirit after all,
Wherein, distorted oft, the times are glass’d.
Then truly, ’tis a sight to grieve the soul!
At the first glance we fly it in dismay;
A very lumber-room, a rubbish-hole;
At best a sort of mock-heroic play,
With saws pragmatical, and maxims sage,
To suit the puppets and their mimic stage.


But then the world and man, his heart and brain!
Touching these things all men would something know.


Ay! what ’mong men as knowledge doth obtain!
Who on the child its true name dares bestow?
The few who somewhat of these things have known,
Who their full hearts unguardedly reveal’d,
Nor thoughts, nor feelings, from the mob conceal’d,
Have died on crosses, or in flames been thrown.—
Excuse me, friend, far now the night is spent,
For this time we must say adieu.


Still to watch on I had been well content,
Thus to converse so learnedly with you.
But as to-morrow will be Easter-day,
Some further questions grant, I pray;
With diligence to study still I fondly cling;
Already I know much, but would know everything.  (Exit.)

FAUST  (alone)

How him alone all hope abandons never,
To empty trash who clings, with zeal untired,
With greed for treasure gropes, and, joy-inspir’d,
Exults if earth-worms second his endeavour.

And dare a voice of merely human birth,
E’en here, where shapes immortal throng’d intrude?
Yet ah! thou poorest of the sons of earth,
For once, I e’en to thee feel gratitude.
Despair the power of sense did well-nigh blast,
And thou didst save me ere I sank dismay’d,
So giant-like the vision seem’d, so vast,
I felt myself shrink dwarf’d as I survey’d!

I, God’s own image, from this toil of clay
Already freed, with eager joy who hail’d
The mirror of eternal truth unveil’d,
Mid light effulgent and celestial day:—
I, more than cherub, whose unfetter’d soul
With penetrative glance aspir’d to flow
Through nature’s veins, and, still creating, know
The life of gods,—how am I punish’d now!
One thunder-word hath hurl’d me from the goal!

    Spirit! I dare not lift me to thy sphere.
    What though my power compell’d thee to appear,
    My art was powerless to detain thee here.
    In that great moment, rapture-fraught,
    I felt myself so small, so great;
    Fiercely didst thrust me from the realm of thought
    Back on humanity’s uncertain fate!
    Who’ll teach me now? What ought I to forego?
    Ought I that impulse to obey?
    Alas! our every deed, as well as every woe,
    Impedes the tenor of life’s onward way!

E’en to the noblest by the soul conceiv’d,
Some feelings cling of baser quality;
And when the goods of this world are achiev’d,
Each nobler aim is termed a cheat, a lie.
Our aspirations, our soul’s genuine life,
Grow torpid in the din of earthly strife.
Though youthful phantasy, while hope inspires,
Stretch o’er the infinite her wing sublime,
A narrow compass limits her desires,
When wreck’d our fortunes in the gulf of time.
In the deep heart of man care builds her nest,
O’er secret woes she broodeth there,
Sleepless she rocks herself and scareth joy and rest;
Still is she wont some new disguise to wear,
She may as house and court, as wife and child appear,
As dagger, poison, fire and flood;
Imagined evils chill thy blood,

    And what thou ne’er shall lose, o’er that dost shed the tear.
    I am not like the gods! Feel it I must;
    I’m like the earth-worm, writhing in the dust,
    Which, as on dust it feeds, its native fare,
    Crushed ’neath the passer’s tread, lies buried there.

Is it not dust, wherewith this lofty wall,
With hundred shelves, confines me round;
Rubbish, in thousand shapes, may I not call
What in this moth-world doth my being bound?
Here, what doth fail me, shall I find?
Read in a thousand tomes that, everywhere,
Self-torture is the lot of human-kind,
With but one mortal happy, here and there?
Thou hollow skull, that grin, what should it say,
But that thy brain, like mine, of old perplexed,
Still yearning for the truth, hath sought the light of day.
And in the twilight wandered, sorely vexed?
Ye instruments, forsooth, ye mock at me,—
With wheel, and cog, and ring, and cylinder;
To nature’s portals ye should be the key;
Cunning your wards, and yet the bolts ye fail to stir.
Inscrutable in broadest light,
To be unveil’d by force she doth refuse,
What she reveals not to thy mental sight,
Thou wilt not wrest me from her with levers and with screws.
Old useless furnitures, yet stand ye here,
Because my sire ye served, now dead and gone.
Old scroll, the smoke of years dost wear,
So long as o’er this desk the sorry lamp hath shone.
Better my little means hath squandered quite away,
Than burden’d by that little here to sweat and groan!
Wouldst thou possess thy heritage, essay,
By use to render it thine own!
What we employ not, but impedes our way,
That which the hour creates, that can it use alone!
But wherefore to yon spot is riveted my gaze?
Is yonder flasket there a magnet to my sight?
Whence this mild radiance that around me plays,
As when, ’mid forest gloom, reigneth the moon’s soft light?

Hail precious phial! Thee, with reverent awe,
Down from thine old receptacle I draw!
Science in thee I hail and human art.
Essence of deadliest powers, refin’d and sure,
Of soothing anodynes abstraction pure,
Now in thy master’s need thy grace impart!
I gaze on thee, my pain is lull’d to rest;
I grasp thee, calm’d the tumult in my breast;
The flood-tide of my spirit ebbs away;
Onward I’m summon’d o’er a boundless main,
Calm at my feet expands the glassy plain,
To shores unknown allures a brighter day.

Lo, where a car of fire, on airy pinion,
Comes floating towards me! I’m prepar’d to fly
By a new track through ether’s wide dominion,
To distant spheres of pure activity.
This life intense, this godlike ecstasy—
Worm that thou art such rapture canst thou earn?
Only resolve with courage stern and high,
Thy visage from the radiant sun to turn!
Dare with determin’d will to burst the portals
Past which in terror others fain would steal!
Now is the time, through deeds, to show that mortals
The calm sublimity of gods can feel;
To shudder not at yonder dark abyss,
Where phantasy creates her own self-torturing brood,
Right onward to the yawning gulf to press,
Around whose narrow jaws rolleth hell’s fiery flood;
With glad resolve to take the fatal leap,
Though danger threaten thee, to sink in endless sleep!
Pure crystal goblet! forth I draw thee now,
From out thine antiquated case, where thou
Forgotten hast reposed for many a year!
Oft at my father’s revels thou didst shine,
To glad the earnest guests was thine,
As each to other passed the generous cheer.
The gorgeous brede of figures, quaintly wrought,
Which he who quaff’d must first in rhyme expound,
Then drain the goblet at one draught profound,
Hath nights of boyhood to fond memory brought.
I to my neighbour shall not reach thee now,
Nor on thy rich device shall I my cunning show.
Here is a juice, makes drunk without delay;
Its dark brown flood thy crystal round doth fill;
Let this last draught, the product of my skill,
My own free choice, be quaff’d with resolute will,
A solemn festive greeting, to the coming day!  

(He places the goblet to his mouth.)  
(The ringing of bells, and choral voices.)

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