Macpherson’s signal achievement was to detect, ahead of anyone else, that the public was ripe not just for tales of clashing broadswords and keening women, but also—and more interestingly—for a new poetic speech that would sound convincingly like the way bards and heroes would have spoken in an archaic, if not mythical, British past. Brushed aside is John Dryden’s ideal of making an ancient author “speak such English as he would himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present age,” that is, of rendering the classics in discreetly modern speech. On the contrary, Macpherson’s English carries echoes, sometimes lofty, more often merely quaint, of a barbaric foreign original conveyed to us by a strenuous labor of translation.
In Britain the Ossian poems were tainted by controversy over their authenticity. Were there indeed Highlanders who could recall and recite these ancient lays, or had Macpherson made them up? Macpherson did not help his case by seeming reluctant to produce his Gaelic originals.
In Europe the question of authenticity had no purchase. Translated into German in 1767, Ossian had a huge impact, inspiring an outpouring of bardic imitations. The young Goethe was so smitten that he taught himself Gaelic in order to translate directly into German the specimens of Scots Gaelic he found in The Works of Ossian. The early Schiller is full of Ossianic echoes; Hölderlin committed pages of Ossian to memory.
The most obvious way of translating Werther’s German Ossian into English is by reproducing the English original. This procedure, however, nullifies the numerous changes Goethe made to his source. Goethe normalizes locutions that sound dialectal or ornamentally archaic or simply eccentric; he clarifies the logical relations between sentences by inserting conjunctions; he elides phrases that do no work; he brings down to earth lofty locutions (thus “ascends the deep” becomes simply “rows”); he improves on bland phrasing (“those that have passed away” becomes “grave-dwellers”); he regularizes Macpherson’s irregular (pseudo-Gaelic) word order; he interprets enigmatic Gaelic idioms rather than just reproducing them; and he does some mild bowdlerizing (“white-bosomed Colma” becomes “pale Colma”).
Samuel Johnson disliked Ossian. Macpherson spun out Ossianic prose like a priest in a vatic trance, he remarked. Goethe’s prose is generally tighter and more purposeful than its original. Had he been able to read German, Macpherson would probably have disapproved: the incantatory tone, the tone that Johnson derided, is missing.
In spite of Goethe’s deviations from his source, however, most translators—including Stanley Corngold—elect to translate Goethe by reproducing Macpherson’s English. Here are some lines from Ossian, first in Corngold’s version, identical to Macpherson’s save in punctuation, then in a close translation of Goethe’s German, then in a version by Catherine Hutter, the one translator known to me who retranslates Goethe:
I sit in my grief! I wait for morning in my tears! Rear the tomb, ye friends of the dead! Close it not till Colma come. My life flies away like a dream! why should I stay behind? Here shall I rest with my friends, by the stream of the sounding rock. When night comes on the hill; when the loud winds arise; my ghost shall stand in the blast, and mourn the death of my friends. The hunter shall hear from his booth. He shall fear, but love my voice!
I sit in my misery, I wait for morning in my tears. Dig the grave, ye friends of the dead; but do not close it until I come. My life vanishes like a dream; how can I stay behind! Here will I reside with my friends by the stream of the echoing rock—When night falls on the hill, and the wind comes over the heath, my ghost shall stand in the wind and mourn the death of my friends. The hunter hears me from his covert, fears my voice and loves it….
I sit in my misery, bathed in my tears, and wait doggedly for the morn. Dig the grave of the dead, my friends, but do not cover it until I am come. Like a dream, my life leaves me—how can I remain behind? Here, beside the stream in the echoing rocks, I shall dwell with my friends. When night falls on the hill, and the wind sweeps o’er the heath, let my spirit stand in the wind and mourn the death of my friend. The hunter in his covert hears me, fears my voice and loves it….
Hutter’s version is unnecessarily free. Goethe follows his original closely (though he misses the echo of Macbeth in “stand in the blast”), but cuts out the dialect (“booth”), reduces the archaism, and tones down the declamation. The second passage, though a reflection of the first, is clearly the product of a different poetic sensibility. To reproduce Macpherson as a translation of Goethe thus seems to me a plain error of judgment.
In an otherwise informative introduction Corngold refers dismissively to Ossian but does not explain why he reproduces Macpherson’s text. He does his case no favors by transcribing that text carelessly. Macpherson writes of a warrior arriving on a skiff; Corngold puts him on a cliff. Macpherson writes of a song of mourning, Corngold of a song of morning.
Ossian is exactly the kind of poetry that we would expect a young man like Werther to go into raptures over; but it would be excessively subtle to say that the rendering of Ossian in Werther is designed to reflect the mind of Werther, as opposed to the mind of his author. Goethe claimed that he wrote the first draft of Werther in four weeks, in a somnambulistic trance. There is no reason to doubt him. But he achieved that feat only by absorbing into the text a body of preexisting material: diaries, letters, and his own Ossian translations. As a matter of aesthetic judgment, reproducing a monstrous slab of Ossian in so short a short novel is a misstep. The holdup in the action while Werther delivers his aria is a steep price to pay for what the aria actually achieves: raising the emotional temperature, reducing Werther and Lotte to tears.
Goethe outgrew his taste for Ossian. If the public took Werther’s enthusiasm for Ossian as an endorsement of Ossian, he remarked, the public should think again: Werther admired Homer while he was sane, Ossian when he was going mad.
Germany in the mid-eighteenth century was a loose federation of states of various sizes nominally ruled by an emperor. Politically it was disunited and riven with strife. Culturally it was directionless. The literature of the courts was imported from France.
About 1770 a movement of young intellectuals coalesced under the name Sturm und Drang, rebelling against stifling social conventions as well as against French literary models. For his generation, said Goethe, “the French way of life [was] too restricted and genteel, their poetry cold, their criticism destructive, their philosophy abstruse yet unsatisfying.” English literature, with its “earnest melancholy,” was more to their taste. They revered Shakespeare (Hamlet in particular) and Ossian. For their literary credo they relied upon Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition, in which the great soul, the genius, uses his semidivine creative powers to transform experience into art.
Sturm und Drang foreshadowed full-blown Romanticism in its emphasis on originality as against imitation, the modern as against the classical, inspiration as against learning, intuition as against rules, as well as in its enthusiasm for philosophical pantheism, the cult of genius, and a return to the Middle Ages. Goethe was never more than a fringe member of the group; Werther is a more representative camp follower.
Sturm und Drang did not last long: its social base was too narrow. But despite the twists and turns of his later career Goethe adhered to the core aspiration of the movement: to build a new national literature that would overturn ossified norms of conduct and thought. Even as he anatomized Sturm und Drang in the person of Werther, he offered, in Werther, a seminal contribution to that new national literature.
The strongest philosophical influence on the young Goethe was Johann Herder, to whose anthology of folk poetry he contributed his Ossian versions. To Herder the spirit of a language is the spirit of the people. Thus any renewal of national literature had to go back to native sources. Here again the British showed the way with Macpherson’s Ossian and, in 1765, Bishop Thomas Percy’s collection of folk ballads Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.
In the Germany of Goethe’s youth there was still some reserve about the novel as a serious literary form. But Goethe grasped early on the potentialities of the novel of multiple perspectives perfected by Richardson and Rousseau; while from Sterne he absorbed the technique of illuminating the interior by bringing up fragments of involuntary memory. The first pages of Werther bear all the signs of Sterne’s mercurial narrative style.
Rousseau, in particular the Rousseau of La Nouvelle Héloïse, was the shining exception to the strictures of Sturm und Drang on French literature of the day. Read simplistically as a plea for the rights of individual sensibility over convention, and generally for the privileging of feeling over reason, Rousseau’s novel was popular among the German public, to whom it offered Thränenfreude, the pleasure of tears. To Goethe it demonstrated how a narrative can evolve on the basis of a character’s gradual self-disclosure.
In his introduction Stanley Corngold spells out some of the procedures he follows. He does each page “cold,” then checks it against extant translations (he lists the seven he has principally used). He follows Goethe’s German closely, even at the risk of sometimes sounding foreign. He takes pains not to use words that were not part of the English language by 1787.
The reason for the 1787 cutoff date is obvious: to avoid anachronism. But anachronism is not only a matter of word choice. Just as the prose style of typical eighteenth-century narrative—the style of Goldsmith, say, whom Goethe admired—seems old-fashioned today in its striving for elegant balance in sentence structure, so a passage like the following, from Corngold’s Werther, would to Goldsmith have seemed inelegant, lacking in finish. If Goldsmith had been gifted with visionary foresight, he might even have said the passage was typical of late-twentieth-century narrative prose, and therefore anachronistic in a novel of the 1770s.
At six in the morning the servant comes in with a light. He finds his master on the ground, the pistol and blood. He cries out, he touches him; no response except a death rattle.
Corngold here sticks close to Goethe, and Goethe, always a supple stylist, chooses to stick close to the source on which he based his harrowing account of Werther’s death: a long letter from none other than Johann Kestner describing the suicide of a mutual friend, a letter whose style is “natural” if only because the letter is dashed off unrevised.