A Celebration of Women Writers

"A Study in Göethe's Faust." by Mrs. Mary H. Peabody (née Saltmarsh) (1842-)
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 205-210.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 205] 



It is a notable fact that within very late years much attention has been given to the study of Göethe's poem of "Faust." It has not been idle reading but serious inquiry, an acknowledgment that in this drama there lies something which is of general value, which appeals to experience and can bear exposition. People who have scarcely known the poem, who have a fragmentary idea of a part of the story of Faust, through its renditions upon the stage in opera or in play, now catching a hint of its power as education and philosophy, turn to this masterpiece of literature, eager to know more of its meaning. Literature is often popular because of its pleasing form, its melodious movement, its appeal to single lines of sympathy, the presentation of single elements of life in tragic or happy aspects. These lighter forms, lovely in their places, are like graceful melodies which are easily repeated from mouth to mouth; but the poem of Faust is like a symphony, whose interwoven parts are so many that even to know the leading theme and idea of the work one must listen carefully and more than once. For this reason, to read the entire poem of Faust and know it all is to study it; and the interest now aroused in the drama as one of the world's greatest literary works, by intelligent people, has a significance as a sign of progress. The drama of Faust is a drama of life.

But so it is with the work that men do. They see the word within, which must be said, yet they know not for whom they labor. Emerson said: "Without a thought of fame must true work be done." The test of fame is time, and from that crucible now comes to us the poem of Faust, and we are reading it, and reading it now, for reasons which lie in the character of the work itself.

The poem of Faust stands in literature with striking individuality as the only great writing which within itself endeavors to present life as a whole, in a universal aspect. It uses the entire scale, the whole sphere of life. It presents within its limits all passions of human nature, bad and good; it shows men and women equally, in all relationships, lowest and highest; it is in its fullness the picturing of all lives–it is the poem of humanity. Because of this recognition of life as a whole each reader reads as for himself, yet he comprehends that his own part comes from the very largeness of the writing–from the fact that there is no effort to teach separate and particular lessons, but only through the outer form of the poem to carry onward the strong lines of its broadly human intention. The elements of the poem of Faust are nature on the one hand and the soul of man on the other, and the meeting of the two upon the planes of daily action in ordinary human life. In this drama the outer form [Page 206]  is varied, frequently abrupt in transition, and therefore broken as to harmony of its literary movement. It is as though one twining a wreath had set together rose, weed and thorn, blossoms and fruits, that nothing should be left out, giving externally appearances ill-sorted or beautiful as the case may be, but within, as the student discovers, there flows a current of life strong, clear, unbroken–one movement of power which resolves itself into a single principle, moving with a single purpose from center to center, from heart to heart of all forms of life. This interior idea, upon which rests the writing of Faust, is the idea of the relationships of things one to another, of the relation of thought to action, the relation of man to nature, to God, and, supremely for its emphasis and culminating force, to the relationship of man to man here and now in human life.

Under the dramatic guise of figures, who move on both sides of the mystic horizon of earth, as human beings and spirits, high and low, evil and good, with Faust, Mephistopheles, Margaret, Helen, Homenculus and Euphorion as leading characters, this majestic drama inclosed at its heart a single thread of light, clear burning to illuminate the whole. If we call it by its simplest name, that line of noblest teaching is human duty–the Brotherhood of Man. And this is the reason why, in these closing years of our age, this poem of Faust is for the first time being studied by us. In these years, when the conflict of conditions is stirring the whole world to collision, argument, rebellion and agreement; when polity and economics, the having and the not having of life, are forcing us to higher planes of thought; when justice from man to man is the demand of the hour, this wonderful drama, which has lain biding its time, now opens its pages, and with its devils and its men, in the light of two worlds at once, presents to us our own question of the relationship of man to man, the question of that clear-eyed daughter of the gods–whose name is Duty; relationship truly balanced–justice among men.

That Göethe foresaw our needs and wrote for us, we know, of course, was not the case. In youth something pressed upon him to be done. To satisfy himself, he reached outward after all of life above, below, and here. He drew the circle of his desire, "the near and far," set Faust therein to mark its center, and part by part, as he lived his own life, he set his figures in their places and bade them play their parts as revelation of the thoughts that arose within him. Perhaps not until he was old did he know, himself, what task it was that had been set for him; what it was that he had done. Faust represents Humanity, and as years went on, Göethe, rounding out his work, reached backward, introducing the scenes which now stand as the opening parts. Catching sight of his own thoughts in the ripeness of his maturity, he inserted "The Dedication," "The Prelude on the Stage," and "The Prologue in Heaven." These three are the keys by which we may interpret all that follows–and this brings us to our especial subject of to-day, the briefest study of "The Prelude on the Stage."

In this scene three men are present–the manager of a theater, the stage jester and a poet. The manager wants a new play for his theater. He wants something not ordinary, but, on the contrary, exceptionally good. He tells the poet that he wants to amuse and attract the crowd. They are of all sorts and kinds, these people. They have read not a little, they are interested in life, expectant as to the theater. The play must appeal to them all, for it is but just that they who support him, and whom he hopes to see crowding to his doors, should have something to reward them for their coming. In such a case what can be done? So the manager goes on talking of his needs and his scheme. He is shrewd and business-like as to the people and the play, and he is evidently intelligent as to his chosen author, for when he has gone over the ground of his requirement, acknowledging that the task is by no means a light one, he turns to his companion and says, that the poet alone among men is he who can accomplish the great task of pleasing men of such varied character. The manager has spoken with a certain degree of caution, leading to the greatness of the work, before he really offers it. But even so, he has not won the interest or the heart of the poet. Turning from the subject in an outburst of repulsion, "Speak not to me," he cries, [Page 207]  of these throngs of people; these crowds of yours. What men may or may not wish, is to him nothing, he says. This surging mass of humanity, even to see, in him, "puts out the fire of song." He cries for sweet silences and the visionary forms of the inner world. Shall the fair thought, he asks, and the high expression that comes to the poet as a precious gift–shall this be put to low usage, for the amusement of the vulgar crowd? Closing, he says he does not care to work for popularity and the passing moment. He would leave his labors for posterity.

The manager is silent and the jester comes forward. "Posterity!" exclaims he "If everybody should work for the future, what would become of present pleasure." This is but a passing word, but to the student of the drama it touches one of the principles of the play–the present moment, its value here and now–an idea and principle which is carried through the poem. The jester has much to say, and, becoming serious, in a few lines of fullest meaning he moves inward to the heart of things, and, facing the poet with utterance of deep-felt truth, by what he says in this first speech of his, sets before the reader the great motive of the whole Faust poem. He remarks first that in any case the people, it is to be noticed, will have their "fun." Then, reverting to the words spoken by the poet, in answer to his expressed aversion to "the crowd," he says that to his mind the presence of any fine young fellow has in itself a human value and should be of worth to everyone. Brief as this word is, and quietly spoken, it strikes the theme of personality. Upon the reader's imagination rises like a statue the jester's fine young fellow–one of the crowd, it is true; still a son of man, a fellow mortal strong to labor, with eyes to see and heart to love. The poet in his self-protection may shrink therefrom, yet none the less the man is there, and as his jester shows he stands a claimant upon respect, if not upon regard. Having thus set his young man upon the stage as a figure for suggestion, typical of the crowd, the jester goes on, and with the privilege of speech allowed to professional fools, with gentle audacity he takes it upon himself to instruct the poet. Without calling him narrow-minded or small-hearted the jester states a principle, saying that in society whenever a man gives out his own nature and power to others in a happy, cheerful way, allowing free utterance of his own best in genial fashion, he does not become irritated by the varying conditions and moods of the crowd, but rather he grows to be himself the greater, because, by contact with human nature, he widens the circle of his own knowledge and sympathies, and, the jester says, such a one, meaning if he is great enough, can even from the people draw inspiration. "So, then," he says, returning to the question of the desired play, he bids the poet "take heart and give them sterling coin, not counterfeit of high feeling." The manager is encouraged by this direct address from his jester, and hastening to speak as if, upon this higher ground, the matter were even now quite settled, he tells the poet to be sure to have plenty of incidents in the play, so that each who listens shall find something for himself and all shall be amazed and delighted. He says there is no need to compose a drama altogether smooth in its unity–only to bring his facts and scenes, and have, among them all, enough to please the varied audience. But this assumption of success is of no use. The poet, still untaught and untouched, replied that they cannot understand him. That to make a trade of his art is impossible. He is an artist and loyal to himself. Such stringing together of scenes to amuse people: such pretence of literary art is not for his gifted hand, although he says, smilingly, he perceives that it is a principle with them.

The manager does not allow himself to be ruffled by this sarcasm, he shows himself quietly determined to get this play written; and going back to the crowd for argument, he, in his turn, thrusts at the poet. He described the people as they come, already wearied with knowledge or gayety, yet eager for something to lift them out of themselves. Men and women–there they are: and now does not the poet recognize their faces? As he writes, dramatist that he is, does he not in reality work for these same people? Does he not desire full houses also, and if he should look his audience over, follow its feet as it dispersed, would he not find it much the same in one case as the other–"half coarse, half cold?" [Page 208] 

Then, directing his attack still personally, dropping the crowd, the manager says that as to glory it depends not upon the audience, but upon the poet. The more he gives the more he wins of fame. The writing of this play is opportunity; and now what has the poet to say?

For reply the poet bursts into passionate speech. He bids the manager go elsewhere for obedience to a low demand. What! he cries; shall he use his gift of nature, the highest gift to man, the very utmost of human expression–shall he degrade this gift for the enriching of the manager's purse? In his earnest words we hear the voice of Göethe himself–the voice of the artist speaking for his noble birthright, for the privilege of a high holding of his poet power.

He is not speaking arrogantly, but with the loyalty of true reverence for a power which he felt was given. Accepting the poetic gift as from above, Göethe stands like the East Indian, who in earliest centuries looked upward and rejoiced in the downward flight of song; and while the drift of this entire scene, taken as a whole, is to reconcile all degrees of life in human action, it is evident that, both by the appeal of the manager to him as the only man who could do that great work, as well as by the poet's first feeling against it, Göethe meant to give utterance to his recognition of the beauty of the great gift of poetry. The poet continues: From whence comes his empire over human hearts? How does he conquer the elements of life? Is it not because of the secret accordant power of his own heart, which passes with its great beating pulse to the utmost confines of life, to know, to feel it all and to express it? When even nature's threads grow strained or slackened, when all creation is out of harmony, when her myriad voices jangle together, when depression and confusion reign–who then has power to touch again the order of existence, to recall wandering forces of life and bid them move once more with rhythmical vibration under the central fire of life above?

"Who is it," he cries, "wakens the heart of man at will?
Who scatters every fairest April blossom
Along the strewing path of love?
Who braids the plain green leaves to crowns, requiting
Desert, with Fame in Action's every field?"

Who is it brings the very gods to earth in unity with man but he, himself–the poet.

The passion of his words have filled the air. The jester, wise man that he is, comprehending that it is at once justice to the poet and to the people, and success for the manager to work with nature, and not against the laws of things, now accepts the poet as he shows himself, and, uniting himself harmoniously to this ardent soul, without yielding in the least to the principle for which he, with his young man, has been pleading, now begins a diplomatic reply. Still leading to the manager's desire, and urging the writing of the play, he says: since these things are so, as the fine forces of life do act together to result in expression; since they are far-reaching and come by inspiration–if poetry comes, like love, unsought, then let this poet power be acknowledged; let it express itself, and let that expression be their play.

"Let us, then," he says, "such a drama give." Let the poet be true to himself; let him reach out after that life universal, which it is so given him to feel, and let what he can grasp and bring be the play of which they are in need.

The audience will find itself reflected in such a writing; each will select from the whole the part to which it can respond, and though "Few may comprehend, where'er you touch there's interest without end," the people will be moved to "weeping or to laughter," and without knowing why will still "enjoy the show they see."

The jester ends contentedly; for having met and accepted the poet's own estimation of himself, he feels that the case is won, the play will be written, and here, argument and persuasion being at an end, he yields to himself, falls into a bit of philosophy, and gives to the reader another of the vital threads upon which the Faust [Page 209]  drama is to be woven. It is Göethe himself speaking again, when the jester says in a meditative way that there are two great classes in an audience which are typical of the world at large–those who grow, and those who do not. There are those who, grown to a certain point, have stopped there, marked out certain lines as sure and fast, sat down within them, and with steadfast rejection of new ideas have never been pleased with progress. While on the other hand are those who are alive to each breath of thought, who drink in all truth as they can find it, seeking eagerly for means of growth, and those, he concludes, as are known to the poet will be ever grateful.

The poet has been met upon his own ground; still the task before him gives no hint of inspiration. His heart fails, and like many another, weary in the service of art, he for the moment forgets to look upward and onward, and with a purely human impulse turns to the remembered days of youth when, as he says, he had nothing, yet had all things.

"When like a fount the crowding measures,
Uninterrupted gushed and sprang."
Illusion was his, and as for truth, vigor of love and hate,
If he must write, give him his youth again.

The jester listens. We can almost see his gentle, quizzical smile as he, quietly surveying the whole of life, replies to this natural, yet inferior attitude of the poet. Touching him gently, pointing this and this way, with intention to lead his artist to a nobler, greater state of mind, he says that youth was very well in its place and season; it was well for love and dancing, and for combat and the winning of prizes, but he says (and again we know how the words indicate Göethe's own feeling), to play upon the harp of life itself, to play, with strength of love and skill of hand,

"With grace and bold expression,"
comes only from experience. He shakes his head. "They say age makes us childish, but 'tis not true."

This is the jester's closing word. A powerful man he has shown himself to be, far-sighted, large of heart, adaptable in temperament and a master of philosophy touching the doctrine of growth and the brotherhood of man.

As the jester ceases speaking the manager begins, bringing the business and the scene to a close. They have talked quite long enough, he says. 'Tis deeds that I prefer to see. They can be more useful if they will drop compliments, talks about inspiration and all that, and without further delay let the poet go to work. The manager is not making himself disagreeable, however. Having gained his point, he now desires to aid the poet in every way that he can. So, although he says to him briefly:

"If poetry be your vocation,
Let poetry your will obey,"
he still recognizes the mood of the poet, who stands despondently silent, weighted with the sense of what he has to do; and as if to reassure him, even while he urged him forward, the manager, too, drifts into philosophy, and touches a point in life which well appeals to us, according with experience and with that upward progressive spirit, which is one of the leadings of today. He says:
"Tomorrow will not do.
Waste not a day."
Then most kindly, with true sympathy, he bids his author be resolute and courageous, and above all trustful to the power within. He bids him look abroad for incentive and thought, and so looking, to seize upon every impression, catching and holding and using what first may come. "You'll then work on because you must." Evidently the manager had himself battled with discouragement, and had learned the value of [Page 210]  impressions used and trusted as the first way out of the cloud. And we do work on "because we must." Pushed from behind, beckoned to from the beyond, so has the world written its poems and solved the problems of its days.

The manager continues, not waiting for reply. The poet has no lack of material. As to the German stage, it is open as a fair arena for thought of all degrees. It welcomes what may come, however unlike what went before; so without restriction the poet may take the universe: "And all you find be sure to show it."

"The stars in any number.
Beasts, birds, trees, rocks and all such lumber;
Fire, water, darkness, day and night."
And he finished his counsel and direction with those notable words, that thus within the little sphere of their stage shall appear that greater one, "The Circle of Creation;" and all things brought thus into their guiding hands, in the action of the play, shall move as they shall direct, "From Heaven across the world to Hell."

The phase opens a line of thought which can only be expressed by the interpretation of the entire drama. To speak of it briefly is to show only its significance as the suggestion of what is to be looked for in the play. A careless reading seems to imply that the action of the play beginning nobly, on the heights of Heaven, is to end in destruction. Such a course would be true enough to much of life as we see it, and as the first part of Faust ends with the death of Margaret and the grief of Faust, and as many have never looked into the second part, it has been a popular impression that the name of Faust is synonymous with evil and damnation. But there is a second part to this drama to which the first is but introduction: and here, following to its close, the reader is led along an upward pathway, which is opened step by step by the struggle and the upward movement of Faust, as upon the earth, among men, he works out his salvation.

The opening scenes are an introduction to the drama. Their completion lies in it close. Putting the two together we have Göethe's "Circle of Creation," and comprehend what he meant when he said to his friend Eckermann that this much considered and questioned line was "not an idea, only the course of the action."

In this scene the manager was talking to two highly intelligent people, and this closing phrase is the gesture by which he shows them his idea. He lifts his hand and sweeps a part of his circle from heaven to earth, and that, for his companions, is enough.

A circle is a mathematical figure; it belongs to nature, not to invention. It can not be altered; if perfect, from whatever point it begins to that point it must return in its completion.

If the elements of this play begin above, and if the play itself, as the poet insists, is to be a unity, showing the Circle of Creation in its imagined perfection. although such art may surpass most human living, it is evident that the progress of life must carry the elements of existence downward to earth and upward again toward heaven. This is the progress of the Faust drama. The theme of the relationships of man to nature, to the invisible world and the visible, to man and to woman in society, government, ideal culture and art, in all aspiration for the beyond and all right usage of the earthly and human: this theme is pursued as Faust passes from scene to scene to the close.

As we turn the page the curtain, falling on this "Prelude on the Stage," rises directly upon "The Prologue in Heaven."

"Who e'er aspires unweariedly," says Ariel in the opening of the second part, "is worthy of redeeming."

With late years we have had the rendering of this theme in the exquisite music of Robert Schumann. Lending it to Göethe's words the two in harmony show this Circle of Creation in the power of its re-ascension; but even without that, in the drama alone, the closing pages are linked to those of the introduction, and by them we comprehend what was in Göethe's mind when in the empty theater he set his manager, his poet and his wise man, the jester, to call into being and announce to us this drama of life.

[Page 205] 

Mrs. Mary H. Peabody was born at Hartford, Conn. Her father was Dr. S. Saltmarsh who married a Miss Sanford of Philadelphia. The daughter was educated principally at home, and finally at the school of Mr. Emerson in Boston. She married Mr. D. W. Peabody, who was a lawyer in Nashville, Tenn. Her special work has been in the interest of the kindergarten and the studies of history and literature. Mrs. Peabody has been engaged in instructing parlor classes, clubs and kindergarten training classes. She is regarded as "Having clear views in her department of work, and has a method of utterance that gives her writings both strength and grace." In religious faith she is of the New Church and is a member of the Society at Cincinnati. Her postoffice address is No. 128 East Sixteenth Street, New York City.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom