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Classicism: Excerpts from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Conversations with Johann Peter Eckermann (1824-1828)
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Wednesday, January 31, 1827

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"I am more and more convinced," he continued, "that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere, and at all times, in hundreds and hundreds of men. One makes it a little better than another, and swims on the surface a little longer than another – that is all. Herr von Matthisson must not think he is the man, nor must I think that I am the man; but each must say to himself that the gift of poetry is by no means so very rare, and that nobody need think very much of himself because he has written a good poem.

"But really, we Germans are very likely to fall too easily into this pedantic conceit, when we do not look beyond the narrow circle which surrounds us. I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise every one to do the same. National literature is now rather an unmeaning term; the epoch of World literature is at hand, and every one must strive to hasten its approach. But, while we thus value what is foreign, we must not bind ourselves to anything in particular, and regard it as a model. We must not give this value to the Chinese, or the Serbian, or Calderon, or the Nibelungen; but if we really want a pattern, we must always return to the ancient Greeks, in whose works the beauty of mankind is constantly represented. All the rest we must look at only historically, appropriating to ourselves what is good, so far as it goes."

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Monday, October 20, 1828

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"Your excellency," said I, "made an excellent remark a little while ago, when you said that the Greeks turned to nature with their own greatness, and I think that we cannot be too deeply penetrated with this maxim."

"Yes, my good friend," said Goethe, "all depends upon this; one must be something in order to do something. Dante seems to us great; but he had the culture of centuries behind him. The house of Rothschild is rich; but it has taken more than one generation to accumulate such treasures. All these things lie deeper than is thought.

"Our worthy artists who imitate the old German school know nothing of all this; they proceed to the imitation of nature with their own personal weakness and artistic incapacity, and fancy they are doing something. They stand below nature. But whoever will produce anything great must so improve his culture that, like the Greeks, he will be able to elevate the mere trivial actualities of nature to the level of his own mind, and really carry out that which, in natural phenomena, either from internal weakness or external obstacles, remains a mere intention."

[ . . . ]

Source: Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret. Translated by John Oxenford. London: George Bell & Sons, 1874, pp. 67, 79, 120-21, 194, 212-13, 341-42.

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