ON ‘GERMAN’ DRAMA (1816)

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (1772–1834)


Coleridge’s critique of current dramatic fashion was prompted by the popularity of Maturin’s play Bertram, which opened in May 1816 (see preceding selection). Coleridge was perhaps resentful that his own play Zapolya was rejected by Drury Lane that July. His criticism of Bertram appeared anonymously, as ‘Letters to the Editor’ in the Courier on 29 August, 7, 9, 10 and 11 September 1816 (and was later included in his collection Biographia Literaria, from which the following extract comes). He argues that so-called ‘German’ drama is in fact a native English product, influenced by such works as Edward Young’s The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742–5); James Hervey’s Meditations among the Tombs (1748); Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748); as well as by the German dramatist Kotzebue (1761–1819).

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But before I enter on the examination of Bertram, or the Castle of St. Aldebrand, I shall interpose a few words, on the phrase German Drama, which I hold to be altogether a misnomer. At the time of Lessing, the German stage, such as it was, appears to have been a flat and servile copy of the French. It was Lessing who first introduced the name and the works of Shakespeare to the admiration of the Germans; and I should not perhaps go too far, if I add, that it was Lessing who first proved to all thinking men, even to Shakespeare’s own countrymen, the true nature of his apparent irregularities. These, he demonstrated, were deviations only from the Accidents of the Greek Tragedy; and from such accidents as hung a heavy weight on the wings of the Greek Poets, and narrowed their flight within the limits of what we may call the Heroic Opera. He proved, that in all the essentials of art, no less than in the truth of nature, the Plays of Shakespeare were incomparably more coincident with the principles of Aristotle, than the productions of Corneille and Racine, notwithstanding the boasted regularity of the latter. Under these convictions, were Lessing’s own dramatic works composed. Their deficiency is in depth and in imagination: their excellence is in the construction of the plot; the good sense of the sentiments; the sobriety of the morals; and the high polish of the diction and dialogue. In short, his dramas are the very antipodes of all those which it has been the fashion of late years at once to abuse and to enjoy, under the name of the German Drama. Of this latter, Schiller’s Robbers was the earliest specimen; the first fruits of his youth (I had almost said of his boyhood) and as such, the pledge, and promise of no ordinary genius. Only as such, did the maturer judgement of the author tolerate the Play. During his whole life he expressed himself concerning this production with more than needful asperity, as a monster not less offensive to good taste, than to sound morals; and in his latter years his indignation at the unwonted popularity of the Robbers seduced him into the contrary extremes, viz. a studied feebleness of interest (as far as the interest was to be derived from incidents and the excitement of curiosity); a diction elaborately metrical; the affectation of rhymes; and the pedantry of the chorus.

But to understand the true character of the Robbers, and of the countless imitations which were its spawn, I must inform you, or at least call to your recollection, that about that time, and for some years before it, three of the most popular books in the German language were, the translations of Young’s Night Thoughts, Harvey’s Meditations, and Richardson’s Clarissa Harlow. Now we have only to combine the bloated style and peculiar rhythm of Harvey, which is poetic only on account of its utter unfitness for prose, and might as appropriately be called prosaic, from its utter unfitness for poetry; we have only, I repeat, to combine these Harveyisms with the strained thoughts, the figurative metaphysics and solemn epigrams of Young on the one hand; and with the loaded sensibility, the minute detail, the morbid consciousness of every thought and feeling in the whole flux and reflux of the mind, in short the self-involution and dreamlike continuity of Richardson on the other hand; and then to add the horrific incidents, and mysterious villains, (geniuses of supernatural intellect, if you will take the author’s words for it, but on a level with the meanest ruffians of the condemned cells, if we are to judge by their actions and contrivances) – to add the ruined castles, the dungeons, the trap-doors, the skeletons, the flesh-and-blood ghosts, and the perpetual moonshine of a modern author, (themselves the literary brood of the Castle of Otranto, the translations of which, with the imitations and improvements aforesaid, were about that time beginning to make as much noise in Germany as their originals were making in England), – and as the compound of these ingredients duly mixed, you will recognize the so called German Drama. The Olla Podrida [Spanish stew] thus cooked up, was denounced, by the best critics in Germany, as the mere cramps of weakness, and orgasms [immoderate excitements] of a sickly imagination on the part of the author, and the lowest provocation of torpid feeling on that of the readers. The old blunder however, concerning the irregularity and wildness of Shakespeare, in which the German did but echo the French, who again were but the echoes of our own critics, was still in vogue, and Shakespeare was quoted as authority for the most anti-Shakspearean Drama. We have indeed two poets who wrote as one, near the age of Shakespeare, to whom (as the worst characteristic of their writings), the Coryphæus [leader of the chorus in Greek drama] of the present Drama may challenge the honour of being a poor relation, or impoverished descendant. For if we would charitably consent to forget the comic humour, the wit, the felicities of style, in other words, all the poetry, and nine-tenths of all the genius of Beaumont and Fletcher, that which would remain becomes a Kotzebue.

The so-called German Drama, therefore, is English in its origin, English in its materials, and English by re-adoption; and till we can prove that Kotzebue, or any of the whole breed of Kotzebues, whether dramatists or romantic writers, or writers of romantic dramas, were ever admitted to any other shelf in the libraries of well-educated Germans than were occupied by their originals, and apes’ apes in their mother country, we should submit to carry our own brat on our own shoulders; or rather consider it as a lack-grace returned from transportation with such improvements only in growth and manners as young transported convicts usually come home with.


[SOURCE: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (London: Rest Fenner, 1817), vol. 2, pp. 256–60.]


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