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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 Edward Payson Evans (1831–1917)

By Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781)

LESSING was born January 22d, 1729, at Camenz in the Saxon province of Upper Lusatia, and died at Brunswick, February 15th, 1781. His father was a clergyman and his mother the daughter of a clergyman; and his earliest known ancestor, Clarence Lessigk, a curate in the Saxon Erzgebirge, was one of the signers of the formula concordiæ published in 1580, and designed to allay certain doctrinal dissensions which had arisen soon after the death of the reformer. From this ecclesiastical progenitor his line of descent ran unbroken through six generations of theologians, jurists, burgomasters, and other men of culture; and in illustration of the “survival of the fittest,” the family name and characteristics were in our own day the heritage of one of the most eminent historical painters of Germany. Lessing belonged therefore to what Oliver Wendell Holmes used to call the “Academic Races,” in whom scholarly tastes and aptitudes are inbred and transmitted from father to son, and who take to learning almost as instinctively as a cat takes to mousing. It is the scions of such a stock that constitute the largest contingent of those who pursue university studies, and fill the ranks of the learned professions; producing a horde of pedants like Lessing’s younger brother Theophilus, and at rare intervals a man of genius like himself.

In June 1741, when he was scarcely thirteen, he was sent to the then celebrated grammar school at Meissen (Fürstenschule zu St. Afra), where he completed the prescribed six-years’ course of study in five years. In answer to the father’s inquiry concerning his son’s proficiency, the rector replied: “He is a horse that needs double fodder. The lessons, which are hard for others, are nothing for him. We cannot use him much longer.” On September 20th, 1746, he was matriculated as a student of theology in the University of Leipsic. Two years later he went to Wittenberg, thence to Berlin, and again to Wittenberg, where he took the degree of master of arts on April 29th, 1752.

During these half a dozen years of quite varied and rather vagrant academical life, he devoted himself with energy and enthusiasm to literary pursuits, and developed a marked talent for dramatic composition. He wrote a comedy entitled ‘The Young Scholar.’ The juvenile pedant, as he afterwards states, “was the only kind of ninny which at that time it was impossible for me not to be intimately acquainted with”; his play was therefore a study from life, rendered more realistic and vivid by a dawning consciousness of the danger to which he was himself exposed. The piece was given with great applause by the troupe of the celebrated Madame Neuber at Leipsic, whose citizens were only too familiar with the original of Damis. The best of his earlier plays is unquestionably ‘Miss Sara Sampson,’ a tragedy in five acts, first represented at Frankfort-on-the-Oder, July 10th, 1755, when, as we are told, the spectators “sat four hours like statues, and wept and wept.” Nowadays its high-flown sentimentalism would excite laughter rather than tears; and although it was a theatrical success, and even had the distinction of being translated into French, it has long since fallen into oblivion. Its present importance is purely historical, as the first specimen of the tragedy of middle-class life on the German stage. Of Lessing’s later and riper contributions to dramatic literature, three may be said to have an intrinsic and permanent value, ‘Minna von Barnhelm,’ ‘Emilia Galotti,’ and ‘Nathan the Wise’: a comedy, a tragedy, and what might be called a didactic drama, although each of these productions is pervaded by an earnest and quite obvious moral purpose.

The salient feature of ‘Minna von Barnhelm,’ published in 1767, is its national character,—so far as the term “national” can be applied to anything German at that time. Chiefly for this reason it appeared as “a shining meteor” to the eyes of Goethe, who was then a student in Leipsic, and who, in his talks with Eckermann in the last years of his life, recalled with reminiscent enthusiasm the immense influence it exerted upon the young people of his day. The hero, Major Tellheim, an officer in the service of Frederick the Great, has during the Seven Years’ War advanced the money for the payment of a heavy contribution levied on a poor Saxon province. This noble and generous act so deeply impresses Minna von Barnhelm, a wealthy young lady of the neighborhood, that she seeks his acquaintance and becomes his betrothed. On the conclusion of peace, the draft given by the Saxon authorities to Tellheim is construed by the Prussian government into evidence of his having been bribed by the enemy; and he is therefore cashiered. His fine sense of honor makes him unwilling to involve the young lady in his disgrace, and he accordingly releases her from her engagement. As all her protests against such a proceeding prove unavailing, she resolves to accomplish her purpose by artifice, and pretends that she has been disinherited by her uncle on account of her betrothal. The cunning device succeeds. Believing her to be poor and deserted, Tellheim is eager to wed her and take her under his protection; especially as meanwhile he has received a letter from the King, recognizing the true state of the case as regards the draft, ordering it to be paid, and offering to restore him to his former rank in the army. It is now Minna’s turn to scruple at such an unequal marriage, and to urge against it all the arguments which he had used, but of which he would not admit the force in their present application. Finally the uncle, who has always held Tellheim in high esteem, appears upon the scene; the mystery is cleared up, and the lovers are made happy. The subordinate characters—Just, Werner, Franziska, and the sordid innkeeper—are admirably drawn; and the introduction of le Chevalier Riccaut de la Marlinière is a happy hit at the petty German rulers, whose courts swarmed with titled adventurers of this sort, and even at Frederic the Great, who admitted them to his army. Underlying the love story is a deeper political meaning; and the nuptial union of Tellheim and Minna is made to symbolize the natural ties of race which should bind together the different members of the German family, then alienated and antagonized by dynastic jealousies and interests.

In ‘Emilia Galotti’ the scene is laid in Italy, and the catastrophe recalls the days of the old Roman Republic; but the play is wholly German in spirit, and holds the mirror up to the frivolous and tyrannical princelings of Lessing’s own time and nation. The heroine, the daughter of a colonel and the betrothed of Count Appiani, has excited the admiration and passion of the reigning sovereign, an effeminate and sentimental young man, whose few generous impulses have been checked and stunted by the consciousness of irresponsible power and the servile flattery of courtiers, and who has grown up into a pleasure-seeking and unscrupulous egotist. On learning that Emilia is about to marry Appiani, he gives his chamberlain, the sycophantic and utterly unprincipled Marinelli, carte blanche to use every means to prevent it; the result of which is the assassination of the groom on his wedding-day and the abduction of the bride, who, under the pretext of protecting her from the bandits, is carried off to the prince’s castle. Her father hastens thither, and learns the real cause of Appiani’s taking-off in an accidental interview with the prince’s discarded mistress, Countess Orsina, who gives him a dagger and bids him do his duty. The father, disarmed by a gracious word of his Serene Highness, lets the favorable opportunity pass, and finally thrusts the dagger into the heart of his daughter, who, fearing lest she might yield to the seductions of the court and to the suit of her princely lover, entreats him to do the deed. This dénouement is the weak point in the play. Times have changed since the age of Virginius; and the heroic act of a father to whom the law gave the power of life and death over his children does not fit into the plot of a modern tragedy. The sentimental metaphor of “a rose broken from its stem before the storm strips it of its leaves,” first used by the daughter and repeated by the father, hardly suits the case. The characters Appiani and Odoardo Galotti, in contrast to Marinelli, the type of contemporary “court vermin,” are admirably portrayed; the dialogue is simple and compact, and the dramatic movement remarkably direct and rapid. The piece was first represented at Brunswick, March 13th, 1772, and has kept its place on the German stage ever since.

Still more remote from Lessing’s age and country is the action of ‘Nathan the Wise’; the scene of which is laid in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, in the latter half of the twelfth century, but which nevertheless bore the closest relation to his own intellectual life and to that of his time. The germ of the drama is the tale of Saladin and the Jew Melchizedek in Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron,’ which Lessing used as a parable to illustrate and enforce his views of religious toleration. Indeed, the whole play is little more than a dialogue in iambics on this subject, which came to his hand as a new and effective weapon in the warfare which he had been waging against theological bigotry, in his controversy with the Hamburg pastor Götze. It was published in 1779, and represented in Berlin four years later.

Lessing’s last word in this polemical discussion was his essay of a hundred paragraphs entitled ‘The Education of the Human Race,’ and containing a complete philosophy of religion in a nutshell. These acute and suggestive theses will still be read with interest, although the recent comparative study of religions has rendered some of them untenable.

An additional evidence of the vigor and versatility of his genius is seen in the acute and comprehensive spirit with which he handled æsthetical topics. His ‘Laocoön’ (published in May 1766), although a fragment, still remains an unrivaled masterpiece of art criticism; and the line of demarcation which he drew between the speaking and the imaging arts has never been disturbed. He fixed the limits of poetry and painting as different modes of representation, and set aside once for all the famous dictum of Simonides, Ut pictura poesis, which had received the indorsement of Winckelmann and which he himself had formerly accepted. The fruitfulness of this “splendid thought,” as Goethe calls it, is perceptible in the subsequent development of the principles of criticism as applied to literature and the fine arts in Germany.

Even more fugitive and fragmentary than ‘Laocoön’ is Lessing’s ‘Dramaturgy,’ written during his brief connection with the Hamburg theatre as critic in 1767, and concluded in the following year after the financial failure of that ill-starred enterprise. But here too the good seed, which seemed then to have been sown among thorns or on stony places, has sprung up and borne fruit a hundredfold. This is the result which Lessing wished to attain. Number 95 of this series of papers ends as follows: “Just here I remind my readers that these pages are by no means intended to contain a dramatic system. I am therefore not bound to solve all the difficulties which I raise. I am quite willing that my thoughts should seem to want connection, and even to contradict each other, if they are only thoughts in which the readers may find material for thinking themselves. I aim at nothing more than to scatter fermenta cognitionis.” In the performance of this useful function he has seldom been surpassed.

Lessing possessed a clearness of insight and a vigor of mind bordering on genius; he was a master of creative criticism, an original thinker, and what is more, a man of sterling character and strictest intellectual integrity: but he was not “of imagination all compact,” not a great poet, and never claimed to be. The manly stride of his prose easily turns to mincing steps in his verse. His epigrams and odes and lyrics are rhythmically correct, but purely mechanical and often exceedingly stiff; and his plays, although dramatically well constructed, lack the qualities which he as a critic appreciated in Shakespeare, but which the keenest critical faculty can never supply. But with all these deficiencies on the poetic side of his nature, of which no one was more fully conscious than himself, he still remains one of the noblest figures and most permanent influences for good in German literature.