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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

A Cosmopolitan

By Jens Baggesen (1764–1826)

From ‘The Labyrinth’

FORSTER, a little nervous, alert, and piquant man, with gravity written on his forehead, perspicacity in his eye, and love around his lips, conquered me completely. I spoke to him of everything except his journeys; but the traveler showed himself full of unmistakable humanity. He seemed to me the cosmopolitan spirit personified. It was as if the world were present when I was alone with him.

We talked about his friend Jacobi, about the late King of Prussia, about the literature of Germany, and about the present Pole-high standard of taste. I was much pleased to find in him the art critic I sought. He said that we must admire everything which is good and beautiful, whether it originates West, East, South, or North. The taste of the bee is the true one. Difference in language and climate, difference of nationality, must not affect my interest in fair and noble things. The unknown repels the animal, but should not repel the human creature. Suppose you say that Voltaire is animal in comparison with Shakespeare or Klopstock, or that they are animal in comparison with him: it is a blunder to demand pears of an apple-tree, as it is ridiculous to throw away the apple because it is not a pear. The entire world of nature teaches us this æsthetic tolerance, and yet we have as little acquired it as we have freedom of conscience. We plant white and red roses in the same bed, but who puts the ‘Messiah’ and the ‘Henriade’ on the same shelf? He only who reads neither the one nor the other. True religion worships God; true taste worships the beautiful without regard of person or nation. German? French? Italian? or English? All the same! But nothing mediocre.

I was flushed with pleasure; I gave him my hand. “That may be said of other things than poetry!” I said.—“Of all art!” he answered.—“Of all that is human!” we both concluded.

Deplorable indolence which clothes our mind in the first heavy cloak ready to hand, so that all the sunbeams of the world cannot persuade us to throw it off, much less to assume another! The man who is exclusively a nationalist is a snail forever chained to his house. Psyche had wings given her for a never-ending, eternal flight. We may not imprison her, be the cage ever so large.

He considered that Lessing had wronged the great representative of the French language; and the remark of Claudius, “Voltaire says he weeps, and Shakespeare does weep,” appeared to him like the saying, “Much that is new and beautiful has M. Arouet said; but it is a pity that the beautiful is not new and the new not beautiful,”—more witty than true. The English think that Shakespeare, as the Germans think that Lessing, really weeps; the French think the same of Voltaire. But the first weeps for the whole world, it is said, the last only for his own people. What the French call “Le Nord” is, to be sure, rather a large territory, but not the entire world! France calls “whimpering” in one case and “blubbering” in another what we call weeping. The general mistake is that we do not understand the nature of the people and the language, in which and for whom the weeping is done.

We must be English when we read Shakespeare, German when we read Klopstock, French when we read Voltaire. The man whose soul cannot shed its national costume and don that of other nations ought not to read, much less to judge, their masterpieces. He will be looking at the moon by day and at the sun by night, and see the first without lustre and the last not at all.