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

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By John Weiss (1818–1879)

JOHN WEISS belonged to a class of writers, not uncommon among the Transcendentalists of New England, whose works are distinguished by epigrammatic brilliancy. He wrote of great things in what might almost be called a clever way; sometimes hiding the bold, simple outlines of an idea under an elaborate and striking tracery of words. Yet the genuineness of his endowments is beyond question. He possessed the singularly strong and daring intellect of that generation of New-Englanders which brought forth Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker. He possessed the remarkable faculty of combining an almost mystical faith with extreme devotion to science. His outlook seemed to be as broad as heaven itself, yet his mind recorded only flash-light pictures of the universe. He saw vividly; he wrote of what he saw, in an intense epigrammatic manner.

He was born in Boston in 1818, was graduated from Harvard in 1837. Later he studied at Heidelberg, becoming subsequently a minister of the Unitarian church. From 1859 to 1870 he was pastor of the Unitarian church at Watertown, Massachusetts. At one time he gave a series of brilliant lectures in New York on the Greek Myths; he wrote for the Radical, for the Massachusetts Quarterly, for the Atlantic Monthly. In 1842 appeared his first work, in which he had performed the task of editor and translator. This was ‘Henry of Afterdingen,’ by F. von Hardenberg. In 1845 he published a translation of the philosophical and æsthetic letters of Schiller; a year later appeared an edition of the memoir of Fichte by William Smith; and in 1864 one of his most noted works, ‘Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker.’ Later he published a volume of essays bearing the title ‘American Religion,’ and a volume entitled, ‘Wit, Humor, and Shakespeare.’ Besides these works, he was the author of a number of religious and political pamphlets. He died in 1879.

His creed forms a background to much that he has written. The foremost of the radicals, he cared nothing for dogma, centering his faith solely about the idea of God and the idea of immortality. For these he contended with glittering weapons. But he was not a logician primarily: his thought was essentially poetical.

“When all my veins flow unobstructed, and lift to the level of my eyes the daily gladness that finds a gate at every pore; when the roaming gifts come home from nature to turn the brain into a hive of cells full of yellow sunshine, the spoil of all the chalices of the earth beneath and the heaven above,—then I am the subject of a Revival of Religion.”

The style of Weiss is sometimes overladen with conceits and epigrams, is not always a sane and quiet style; but it expresses admirably his peculiar type of mind,—a type which has perished perhaps with the unusual circumstances producing it.