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Read The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries Volume Viii Part 49

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It is a source of great comfort for the social politician that, in Germany, the contrast of forest and field yet remains so generally established that we still have a whole group of regular forest lands. A nation which still holds fast to the forest as a common public possession along with the field that is divided off into private property, has not only a present but also a future. Thus in Russia’s impenetrable forests, whose inner thickets are, in the words of the poet Mickiewicz, such a deep mystery that they are as little known to the eye of-the huntsman as the depths of the sea are known to the eve of the fisherman–in these forests is hidden the future of the great Slav Empire; while in the English and French provinces, where there is no longer a genuine forest, we are confronted by an already partially extinct national life. The United States of America whose society is permeated with materialism, and whose strange national life is made up of a mixture of youthful energy and of torpor, would rapidly hurry on to their destruction if they did not have in the background the primeval forest which is raising up a fresher, more vigorous, race to take the place of the rapidly degenerating inhabitants of the coast-lands. The wilderness is an immense dormant capital in ready cash, possessing which as a basis the North Americans may, for a long time to come, risk the most daring social and political stock-jobbing. But woe to them should they consume the capital itself!

The German forest and the privileges and compulsory service connected with it are a last surviving fragment of the Middle Ages. Nowhere are the ruins of the feudal elements more plainly visible than in the forest regulations; the forest alone a.s.sures the rural population–in true medieval style–a subsidy for its existence, untouched by the fury of compet.i.tion and small-farming.

Therefore do the demagogues so often try to change the war “about” the forest into a war “against” the forest; they know that the forest must first be hewn down before the Middle Ages can be wiped out of Germany, and, on that account, the forest always fares worse than anything else in every popular uprising. For though in our rapidly moving century there is an average interval of fifteen years allowed between one revolution and another, yet a good forest tree requires a much longer time to reach full growth. At least the incalculable loss suffered by our forest property in the year 1848, through lavish waste, plundering, and wanton ruination, has certainly, up to the present time, not been made good by natural means.

In Anhalt-Dessau it was decided, in an ordinance of the year 1852, that all oak-trees standing on private ground should, in accordance with ancient custom, remain the property of the sovereign. In this conception the contrast between forest and field is an absolutely ideal one; even the separate forest tree is in itself still a forest and has forest-rights, just as in localities where all the forests have been cut down the peasants still frequently designate a single remaining tree by the t.i.tle of their “parish forest.”

The political economists argue that the amount of wood which can be supplied by our present forests is by no means too great for the satisfaction of the demand–that, if anything, it is too small. Those, however, whose enmity to the forest is based on political principles detail to us the yearly increasing subst.i.tutes for wood, and point triumphantly to the not far distant time when forests will no longer be needed, when all forest land can be turned into cultivated land, so that every glebe of earth in civilized Europe shall produce sufficient nourishment for a man. This idea of seeing every little patch of earth dug up by human hands strikes the imagination of every natural man as something appallingly uncanny; it is especially repugnant to the German spirit. When that comes to pa.s.s it will be high time for the day of judgment to dawn. Emmanuel Geibel, in his poem _Mythus_, has symbolized this natural aversion to the extreme measures of a civilization which would absorb every form of wild nature. He creates a legend about the demon of steam, who is chained and forced to do menial service. The latter will break his bonds again and with his primitive t.i.tanic strength, which has been slumbering in the heart of the world, he will destroy the very earth itself when once the whole ball has been covered with the magic network of the railroads. Before that time all the forests will have been turned into cultivated land.

The advocates of the forest resort to a feeble method of defense when they demand the preservation of the present moderate forest area solely on economic grounds. The social-political reasons certainly weigh quite as heavy. Hew down the forest and you will at the same time destroy the historic _bourgeois_ society.–In the destruction of the contrast between field and forest you are taking a vital element away from German nationality. Man does not live by bread alone; even if we no longer required any wood we should still demand the forest. The German people need the forest as a man needs wine, although for our mere necessities it might be quite sufficient if the apothecary alone stored away ten gallons in his cellar. If we do not require any longer the dry wood to warm our outer man, then all the more necessary will it be for the race to have the green wood, standing in all its life and vigor, to warm the inner man.

In our woodland villages–and whoever has wandered through the German mountains knows that there are still many genuine woodland villages in the German Fatherland–the remains of primitive civilization are still preserved to our national life, not only in their shadiness but also in their fresh and natural splendor. Not only the woodland, but likewise the sand dunes, the moors, the heath, the tracts of rock and glacier, all wildernesses and desert wastes, are a necessary supplement to the cultivated field lands. Let us rejoice that there is still so much wilderness left in Germany. In order for a nation to develop its power it must embrace at the same time the most varied phases of evolution. A nation over-refined by culture and satiated with prosperity is a dead nation, for whom nothing remains but, like Sardanapalus, to burn itself up together with all its magnificence. The _blase_ city man, the fat farmer of the rich corn-land, may be the men of the present; but the poverty-stricken peasant of the moors, the rough, hardy peasant of the forests, the lonely, self-reliant Alpine shepherd, full of legends and songs–these are the men of the future. Civil society is founded on the doctrine of the natural inequality of mankind. Indeed, in this inequality of talents and of callings is rooted the highest glory of society, for it is the source of its inexhaustible vital energy. As the sea preserves the vigor of the people of the coast-lands by keeping them in a hardy natural state, so does the forest produce a similar effect on the people of the interior. Therefore since Germany has such a large expanse of interior country, it needs just that much more forest-land than does England. The genuine woodland villagers, the foresters, wood-cutters, and forest laborers are the strong, rude seamen among us landlubbers. Uproot the forests, level the mountains, and shut out the sea, if you want to equalize society in a closet-civilization where all will have the same polish and all be of the same color. We have seen that entire flourishing lands which have been robbed of the protecting forests have fallen prey to the devastating floods of the mountain streams and the scorching breath of the storms. A large part of Italy, the paradise of Europe, is a land which has, ceased to live, because its soil no longer bears any forests under the protection of which it might become rejuvenated. And not only is the land exhausted, but the people are, likewise. A nation must die off when it can no longer have recourse to the back-woodsmen in order to gather from them the fresh strength of a natural, hardy, national life. A nation without considerable forest-property is worthy of the same consideration as a nation without requisite sea-coast. We must preserve our forests not only so that our stoves shall not be cold in winter, but also that the pulse of the nation’s life shall continue to throb on warmly and cheerfully–in short, so that Germany shall remain German.

The inhabitants of the German woodland villages have almost always a far fresher, more individual, mental stamp than the inhabitants of the villages of the plain. In the latter we find more sleek prosperity side by side with greater degeneracy of morals, than in the former. The inhabitant of the woodland villages is often very poor, but the discontented proletarian dwells far more frequently in the villages of the plain. The latter is more important in an economic sense, the former in a social-political one. The forest peasant is rougher, more quarrelsome, but also merrier than the peasant of the field; the former often turns out a genial rascal, when the dull peasant of the field in like case would have turned into a heartless miser. The preservation or the extinction of ancient popular customs and costumes does not depend so much on the contrast between mountainous-country and flat-country as on that between the woodland and the field, if one includes in the former the heaths, moors, and other wild regions. The forest is the home of national art; the forest peasant still continues through many generations to sing his peculiar song along with the birds of the woods, when the neighboring villager of the plain has long ago entirely forgotten the folk-song. A village without woods is like a city without historical buildings, without monuments, without art-collections, without theatres and music–in short, without emotional or artistic stimulation. The forest is the gymnasium of youth and often the banqueting hall of the aged. Does not that weigh at least as heavy as the economic question of the timber? In the contrast between the forest and the field is manifest the most simple and natural preparatory stage of the multiformity and variety of German social life, that richness of peculiar national characteristics in which lies concealed the tenacious rejuvenating power of our nation.

The century of the pig-tail possessed no eye for the forest and, in consequence, no understanding of the natural life of the people.

Everywhere in the German provinces they removed the princely pleasure-seats from the woody mountains to the woodless flat country.

But then, to be sure, the art of the pig-tail age was almost entirely un-German. For the artists of the pig-tail the forest was too irregular in design, too humpbacked in form, and too dark in color. It was shoved into the background as a flat accessory of the landscape, while, on the contrary, the landscape painters of the preceding great period of art drew the inspiration for their forest pictures from the very depths of the forest solitudes. No painter of Romance origin has ever painted the forest as Ruysdael and Everdingen did; they in their best pictures place themselves right in the midst of the deepest thickets. Poussin and Claude Lorraine have made magnificent studies of the forest, but Ruysdael knows the forest by heart from his childhood, as he knows the Lord’s Prayer.

The Frenchified lyric poets of the school of Hagedorn and Gleim sing forest-songs, as though they longed after the forest from hearsay. Then, with the resurrected folk-song and the resuscitated Shakespeare, who has poetically explored deeper into the glory of the forest than all others, the English art of gardening, an imitation of the free nature of the forest, reaches Germany. At the same time, in German poetry, Goethe again strikes the true forest-note which he has learned from the folk-song; and from the moment that the forest no longer appears too disorderly for the poets, the coa.r.s.e, vigorous national life no longer seems to them too dirty and rugged for artistic treatment. The most recent and splendid revival of landscape painting is intimately connected with the renewed absorption of the artist in the study of the forest. We also find that, at the time when Goethe was writing his best songs, Mozart and Haydn were, with equal enthusiasm, composing music for the folk-song, as if they had “learned it listening to the birds” that is to say, to the birds in the woods, not, like one of the new branch schools of romantic miniature poets, to the birds singing their sickly songs in gilded cages in a parlor.

The forest alone permits us civilized men to enjoy the dream of a personal freedom undisturbed by the surveillance of the police. There at least one can ramble about as one will, without being bound to keep to the common patented high road. Yes, there a staid mature man can even run, jump, climb to his heart’s content, without being considered a fool by that old stickler, Dame Propriety. These fragments of ancient Germanic sylvan liberty have happily been preserved almost everywhere in Germany. They no longer exist in neighboring lands which have greater political freedom but where annoying fences very soon put an end to an unfettered desire to roam at will. What good does the citizen of the large North American cities get out of his lack of police surveillance in the streets, if he cannot even run around at will in the woods of the nearest suburb because the odious fences force him, more despotically than a whole regiment of police, to keep to the road indicated by the sign-post? What good do the Englishmen get out of their free laws, since they have nothing but parks inclosed by chains, since they have scarcely any free forest left? The constraint of customs and manners in England and North America is insupportable to a German. As the English no longer even know how to appreciate the free forest, it is no wonder that they require a man to bring along a black dress-suit and a white cravat, in addition to the ticket-money, in order to obtain entrance to the theatre or a concert. Germany has a future of greater social liberty before her than England, for she has preserved the free forest. They might perhaps be able to root up the forests in Germany, but to close them to the public would cause a revolution.


From this German sylvan liberty which peeps forth so strangely from amidst our other modern conditions, flows a deeper influence upon the manners and character of every cla.s.s of the people than is dreamed of by many a stay-at-home. On the other hand, in a thousand different characteristics in the life of our great cities we perceive how far the real forest has withdrawn from these cities, how alienated from the forest their inhabitants have grown to be. One sees, of late, much more green in our large German cities; walks on the ramparts and parks and public gardens have been laid out; open squares, too, have been decorated with gra.s.s plots, bushes and flowers. In no former age has the art of gardening done so much to enhance the picturesque charm of our cities as at the present day. I do not by any means wish to underestimate the high value of such public grounds, but they are something entirely different from the free forest; they cannot possibly form any equivalent for it, and the forest unhappily withdraws farther and farther away from the city. Art and nature have both an equally just claim upon us; but art can never make up to us for the loss of nature, not even though it were an art which takes nature itself as the material upon which to work, like the art of gardening.

The free forest and the free ocean have, with profound significance, been called by poetry the _sacred_ forest and the _sacred_ ocean, and nowhere does this sacredness of virgin nature produce a more intense effect than when the forest rises directly out of the sea. The real, sacred forest is where the roar of the breaking waves mingles with the rustling of the tree-tops in one loud hymn; but it is also where, in the hushed mid-day silence of the German mountain forests, the wanderer, miles away from every human habitation, hears nothing but the beating of his own heart in the church-like stillness of the wilderness.

Yet even in the free, sacred forest we find same splendid examples of the humor of the police. On the Island of Rugen, when one enters what is celebrated throughout northern Germany as a sort of primeval beech-forest of the Granitz,[12] from the trunk of a huge tree a sign-board meets the wanderer’s gaze, bearing an inscription stating that in this forest one may go about only if accompanied by a forest-keeper of His Highness, the Prince of Putbus, at five silver groschen the hour. To enjoy the awe of a primeval forest in the company of a member of the forest-police, at five silver groschen the hour–that only a born Berliner is capable of!

It is owing to a strange confusion of ideas that many people consider the uprooting of the forests in the Germany of the nineteenth century to be still a reclaiming of the soil, an act of inner colonization, by means of which the uprooted piece of ground is for the first time given over to cultivation. For us the forest is no longer the wilderness out of which we must force our way into cleared land, but it is a veritable magnificent safeguard of our most characteristic national life.

Therefore it was that I called it the wild cultivation of the soil in contrast to the tame cultivation of the field. In our day, to root out the soil of the forest no longer means making it arable; it simply means exchanging one form of cultivation for another. He who estimates the value of the culture of the soil merely according to the percentage of clear profit accruing from it, will wish to clear forest-land in order to make it arable. We, however, do not estimate the various forms of cultivation of the soil only by the standard of their money value, but also by that of their ideal worth. The fact that our soil is cultivated in so many various ways is one of the chief causes of our wealth of individual social organizations, and therefore of the vitality of our society itself.

The forest represents the aristocratic element in the cultivation of the soil. Its value consists more in what it represents than in what it produces and in the profit which it yields. The rich man alone can afford to manage and cultivate a forest; indeed, often the richest is not rich enough to do so, and therefore it is just that the State, as the sum total of the country’s wealth, should be the first and largest forest proprietor. To cultivate the forest solely in the interest of the contemporary generation is a wretched sort of copse-wood business; large trees are raised for future generations. Therefore the forest is, primarily, a subject of national economy and, secondarily, one of domestic economy. In the forest the interests of the entire nation must be considered; it must be, as far as possible, equally distributed over the whole land, for its treasures interfere with the facilities of traffic. These are thoughts which might make any genuine forest proprietor proud of his own particular forest.

For the opponents of the conservation of large landed estates the forest will always be the worst stumbling-block, for it will never be possible to establish an even apparently successful forestry on a small scale.

Where agriculture is concerned, the advantage of small farming is open to discussion; but he who would not see the pitifulness of forestry on a small scale must hold his hands before both eyes. In proportion as forestry is carried on in a small way, that is to say, in so far as it shall be exclusively operated so as to obtain the largest possible income out of the smallest possible capital and with the shortest possible delay, the forest loses its historic stamp, its cultural influence on the social and esthetic education of the nation, and on the characteristic distinctions of society.

Germany is not separated into field and woodland in such a manner that one part is dedicated almost exclusively to forestry and the other part to agriculture. Rather does the contrast between field and forest exist everywhere; it interferes with the natural division into mountainous and flat country, and thus divides and subdivides the soil of the entire German empire in a fashion of which no other country of Europe can boast. In addition, agriculture and forestry are present in every legitimate form possible. On German soil the whole scale is run through, and we have the most variegated examples all the way from spade-husbandry up to the largest private estates; in the forms of our forest economy we are much more divided than in the forms of our political economy. This unexampled multiplicity of ways of cultivating the soil is not only typical of the wonderfully rich organization of our social conditions, but it also furnishes the most natural basis for the peculiar suppleness, many-sidedness, and receptivity of German mental-culture and civilization.

Through the recently ever-increasing artificial conversion of the proud beech and oak into short-lived pine-forests, which is due to necessity or to a short-sighted financial policy, Germany has lost at least as much of the peculiar character lent to it by its forests as through the complete uprooting of tremendous tracts of woodland. In the old forest ordinances especial weight is, with good reason, laid upon the protection of the oak-trees. Even the German Reichstag, as early as the sixteenth century, was occupied with the “art of economizing the woods.”

There are a few kinds of forestry which, to a certain extent, permit the parceling off of the forest–as, for example, there are localities where forestry and agriculture are carried on, turn and turn about, on the same land; or others where the practice prevails of stripping the bark off the oak-trees, a process which yields a quick monetary return–these few kinds of forestry, however, which are favorable to the parceling off of the woodland into small estates, quite destroy the conception of the forest as we understand it. An oak-forest like the above, which, as soon as the trees begin to grow really strong and st.u.r.dy, stretches forth toward the wanderer only slim, bark-stripped trunks with withered remnants of leaves, interspersed with rank miserable meadow-trees, with hazel-nut thickets and dog-rose bushes, a piece of woodland in which husbandry and forestry are completely jumbled, is actually no longer a real forest. The most valuable kind of timber furnished by the ma.s.sive trunks of the oaks and beeches and for which there is absolutely no subst.i.tute elsewhere–this most specific treasure of the forest can be obtained only when the forest is managed by a rich corporation which can afford to wait a hundred years for the interest on its capital.

The olden times gauged correctly this aristocratic character of the forest when they chose it as a privileged exercise-ground where princes might take their amus.e.m.e.nt, and when they enn.o.bled the chase; although, seen by the light of a philosophic student’s lamp, there is nothing very n.o.ble about it when a court, shining with the smoothest polish that civilization can give, withdraws from time to time into the barbarity of the primeval forest, and in faithful imitation of the rude life of the hunter spells out again, as it were, the first beginnings of civilization. For no t.i.tle did the German princes of the Empire struggle more bitterly than for that of “Master of the Imperial Hunt.” On Frankish-German soil royalty put its centralizing power to the test first and most decisively in the establishment of royal forest preserves. The king’s woods from that time on stood under a higher and more efficient protection than the Common Law could have afforded. A more strikingly aristocratic prerogative than that of the forest preserves is inconceivable, and yet it is owing to this privilege that Germany still looks so green, that our mountains are not bare of trees like those of Italy, that country and people have not died off and dried up, that, in fine, such vast magnificent tracts of forest could, as a whole complete in itself, later pa.s.s over into the hands of the state.

This aristocratic love of the forest, however, went hand in hand with the forest-tyranny of the Middle Ages. The forest-trees and the game were treated with more consideration than the corn-fields and the peasants. When a cruel master wished to punish a peasant sorely he chased the game into his fields, and the hunt which was to slay the game trampled down what the latter had not devoured. The war about the forest violently forced upon the peasant the question as to whether or not the ancient privileges of the aristocracy could be justified before G.o.d and man. We possess a poem by G.A. Burger which contrasts the naked rights of labor with the historic rights of rank in so sharp a fashion that, if it should be published today, it would undoubtedly be confiscated as communist literature. This ancient specimen of modern social-democratic poetry, characteristically, for those times, takes its theme from the “War about the Forest;” it bears the t.i.tle: _The Peasant to His Most Serene Tyrants_. Because the princely huntsman has driven the peasant through the latter’s own down-trodden corn-field, followed by the halloo of the hunt, the peasant in the poem suddenly hits upon the dangerous question, “Who are you, Prince?”

The horrible punishments with which poachers and trespa.s.sers against the forest were threatened in the Middle Ages can be explained only when we see in them an outlet to the bitterness of two parties at war about the forest. In this war martial law was declared. The poacher felt that he was acting within his rights, like the pirate; neither of them wished to be considered a common thief. Above, I compared the forest with the sea; the former barbarous punishment of pirates likewise runs parallel with the cruel chastis.e.m.e.nt of trespa.s.sers against the forest. The latter still frequently thinks he is only getting back again by cunning and force a proprietorship that was s.n.a.t.c.hed from him by force. There are in Germany whole villages, whole districts, where, even at the present day, poaching and trespa.s.sing against the forest are sharply distinguished from common crimes which disgrace the perpetrator. To catch a hare in their traps is, for these peasants, no more dishonorable than it is for a student to cudgel the night-watchman. Therein lurks the ancient hidden thought of the “War about the Free Forest.” In the forest the turbulent country-folk in times of excitement can attack the state or the individual large landholder in his most sensitive spot. We saw how, in the year 1848, extensive tracts of forest were laid waste–not plundered–in accordance with a well concocted plan. The trees were hewn down and the trunks were intentionally left to lie and rot, or the forest was burnt down in order, with each day’s quota of burned forest, to extort the concession of a new “popular demand.” The old legend of the “War about the Forest” had become, once more, really live history.

And this eternal trouble-maker, the forest, which, however, as we have noticed, always gets the worst of it in every disturbance, is at the same time a powerful safeguard for historic customs. Under its protection not only an ancient nationality but also the oldest remains of historic monuments have been preserved to us. Many of the most remarkable old names have been retained for us in the appellations of the forest districts. When German philology has finished investigating the names of villages and cities, it will turn to the names of the forest districts–which, for the most part, have changed far less than those of the districts of the plain–as to a new and rich source of knowledge. It is almost without exception under the shelter of the forest-thickets that have been conserved until the present day the town-walls of the nations which, in prehistoric times, occupied our provinces, as well as the graves and sacrificial places of our forefathers, which are our oldest monuments. And while, in the name of a purely manufacturing civilization, it has been proposed to destroy our German forests, they alone have guarded for us in their shade the earliest speaking witnesses of national industry. In the mountain-forests of the middle Rhine one often finds large dross-heaps on sequestered hill tops, far from brooks and water courses. These are the places where stood the primeval “forest smithies,” whose forges were perhaps worked with the hand or the foot, and of which our heroic legends sing; these are the scenes of the first rude beginnings of our iron industry which, since then, has developed so mightily. Thus the oldest information that we possess on the subject of our German manufacturing industry starts, like our entire civilization, in the forest.

For centuries it was fitting that progress should advocate exclusively the rights of the field; now, however, it is fitting that progress should advocate the rights of the wilderness _together with_ the rights of the cultivated land. And no matter how much the political economist may oppose and rebel against this fact, the folk-lorist economist must persevere, in spite of him, and fight also for the rights of the wilderness.




In topographical books of the pigtail age one may read that cities like Berlin, Leipzig, Augsburg, Darmstadt, Mannheim are situated in “an exceedingly pretty and agreeable region,” whereas the most picturesque parts of the Black Forest, the Harz Mountains, and the Thuringian Forest are described as being “exceedingly melancholy,” desolate and monotonous, or, at least, “not especially pleasing.” That was by no means merely the private opinion of the individual topographer but the opinion of the age; for each century has not only its own peculiar theory of life–it has also its own peculiar theory o natural scenery.

Numberless country-seats were built a hundred years ago in barren tedious plains, and the builders thought that by so doing they had chosen the most beautiful situation imaginable; whereas the old baronial castles, in the most charming mountainous regions, were allowed to decay and go to ruin because they were not situated “delectably enough.” The Bavarian Electors at that time not only laid out splendid summer residences and state gardens in the dreary woody and marshy plains of Nymphenburg and Schleissheim, but Max Emanuel even went so far as to have another artificial desert expressly constructed in the middle of one of these gardens–whose walls are already surrounded by the natural desert. Karl Theodor of the Palatinate built his Schwetzinger garden two hours away from the magnificent dales of Heidelberg, in the midst of the most monotonous kind of plain. Only let a region be fairly level and treeless, and immediately men were bold enough to imagine that it would be possible to conjure up there, the most delightful of landscapes.

Even fifty years ago the upper Rhine valley–which is by no means without charm but is nevertheless monotonous in its flatness–was considered a real paradise of natural scenic beauty, while the middle course of the river from Ruedesheim to Coblenz, with its rich splendor of gorges, rocks, castles and forests, was appreciated rather by way of contrast. In the upper Rheingau at that time they strung out one villa after another; these are now for the most part deserted, while on the formerly neglected tracts of country confined between the mountains a new summer castle is being stuck again on the summit of every rock, or at least the ruins already, hanging there are being made habitable once more. Our fathers, who thought the upper Rheingau the most beautiful corner of Germany, decorated their rooms with engravings so much in vogue at that time, similar to Claude Lorraine’s broad, open landscapes of far reaching perspective filled with peace and charm. From this cla.s.sical ideal of landscape we have come back again to the romantic, and the cupolas of the high mountains have supplanted the leafy temples of Claude’s sacred groves with their background of the infinite sea sparkling in the sunshine.

In the seventeenth century the watering-places situated in the narrow, steep mountain valleys–many of which have now fallen into decay–were considered, for the greater part, the most frequented and most beautiful; in the eighteenth century the preference was given to those lying more toward the plain; while in our day the watering-places in the steepest mountains, as in the Black Forest, the Bohemian Mountains, and the Alps, are being sought out on account of their situation. The court physician of Hesse-Ca.s.sel, Weleker, in his description of Schlangenbad, which appeared in 1721, describes the place as situated in a dreary, desolate, forbidding region, in which nothing grows but “leaves and gra.s.s,” but he adds that by ingeniously planting straight rows and circles of trees carefully pruned with the shears they had at least imparted to the spot some sort of artistic _raison d’etre_. Today, on the contrary, Schlangenbad is considered one of the mast beautifully situated baths in Germany; the “dreariness” and “desolation” we now call romantic and picturesque, and the fact that in this spot nothing grows but “gra.s.s and leaves”–that is to say, that the fragrant meadow-land starts right before the door, and that the green boughs of the forest peep in everywhere at the windows–this perhaps attracts as many guests at present as the efficacy of the mineral spring.

The artists of the Middle Ages thought that they could give no more beautiful background to their historical paintings and half-length portraits than by introducing mountains and rocks of as fantastic and jagged a form as possible, although the latter often contrast strangely enough beside a mild, calmly serene Madonna face, or even beside the likeness of a prosaically respectable commonplace citizen of some free Imperial town. At that time, therefore, savagely broken-up, barren mountain scenery was considered the ideal type of natural scenic beauty, while, a few centuries later, such forms were found much too unpolished and irregular to be considered beautiful at all. Even old historical painters of the Netherlands, who had perhaps never in their lives seen such deeply fissured of rock, liked to make use of them in their backgrounds. The rugged mountain-tops in many of the pictures of Memling and Van Eyck certainly never grew in the vicinity of Bruges. This type of natural beauty was therefore established by custom even in countries where it was not indigenous. In a picture by a Low-German artist which depicts the legend of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, the city of Cologne is to be seen in the background surrounded by jagged cl.u.s.ters of rocks.

A portrayal, true to nature, of the flat country did not satisfy the sense of beauty of the artist, who surely knew well enough that Cologne does not lie at the foot of the Alps. On the contrary, if an historical painter of the pigtail age had been obliged to paint the real Alps in the background of an historical painting, he would have rounded them off, leveled them, and smoothed them down as much as possible.

Is it a mere accident that, in the whole long period of landscape painting from Ruysdael almost up to recent times, high mountains have so very seldom formed the subject of important landscape compositions? The eye for natural scenery at that period had turned away from the conceptions of the Middle Ages, and satiated itself with the milder forms of the hills and the plain. Even when an artist like Everdingen presents to us the rocky chasms and waterfalls of Norway he moderates the fantastic forms, and, as far as possible, tries to lend to the northern Alpine world the character of the hills of middle Germany.

Joseph Koch, although he was a native of the high Tyrolese Mountains, could not get along half so well with the portrayal of the Alpine world as with that of the cla.s.sicly proportioned regions of Italy which lay within closer range of the eye for natural scenery of the age; and Ludwig Hess would hardly have come upon his characteristic conception of the Swiss mountains by studying Claude Lorraine and Poussin, if he had not been obliged to climb up to the mountain pastures in order to purchase the cattle to be killed in his father’s shambles. On these occasions he reckoned up on one page of his account-book the oxen bought, and on the other side sketched them, together with the meadows, mountains, and glaciers. It was also at this same time when the Romantic School began to pave the way for itself with the historical painters in Munich, that Johann Jakob Dorner abandoned the “heroic” style of landscape, as it was then called, and went over to the “romantic.” That is to say, Dorner and his companions, who up to that time had imitated the forms of Claude Lorraine[14] as the best possible model, now went off into the high mountains of Bavaria and were the first to reveal once more this wild magnificent nature to the eye for natural scenery of their time, thus preparing the way gradually for a new canon of natural scenic beauty which approached that of the Middle Ages, just as everywhere the modern Romantic School went back to the Middle Ages for inspiration. The Genevese Calame in his Alpine wildernesses typifies so completely the eye for natural scenery of the present day that it is impossible to imagine that these pictures belong to a former age. In the startling contrasts of powerful, often rough, forms and extreme tones, a species of natural beauty is created that has equally little in common with the plastic dignity of a mountain prospect by Poussin or with the quiet peacefulness of a forest thicket by Ruysdael. In what a very different manner from that of Calame was this same Swiss scenery treated by the numerous artists who painted Alpine views at the beginning of this century! They tried almost everywhere to depress the high mountains into hilly country, and they furnish a lanscape commentary to Gessner’s Idyls rather than to the gigantic scenery of the Alps as we conceive it at present. Nature, however, has remained the same, and also the outer eye of man; it is the inner eye which has changed.

The older masters, as well as those of today, liked to place themselves below the landscape which they wished to construct, where all the outlines stand out most clearly defined. It had almost grown to be a rule that the foreground should be placed sharply in profile and often so deep in shadow that it contrasted like a silhouette with the more distant grounds. On the other hand, it is a favorite whim of the genuine pigtail age to draw bird’s-eye landscapes and views of cities, in which every elevation of the earth seems flattened out as much as possible, every distinct division of the separate grounds as much as possible obliterated.

When Goethe was on his return trip from Messina to Naples he wrote at the sight of Scylla and Charybdis: “These two natural curiosities, standing so far apart in reality and placed so close together by the poet, have furnished men with an opportunity to abuse the fables of the bards, not remembering that the human imaginative faculty when it would represent objects as important always imagines them to be higher than they are broad, and thus lends more character, seriousness, and dignity to the picture. I have heard complaints, a thousand times, that an object known only from description no longer satisfies us when we come face to face with it. The cause of this is always the same. Imagination and reality bear the same relation to each other as poetry and prose: The former conceives objects to be huge and precipitous, the latter always thinks that they flatten themselves out. The landscape painters of the sixteenth century, compared with those of our own day, furnish the most striking example of this.”

A number of the most pertinent aphorisms might be developed from this short remark. For us this one will suffice: On account of their whole fantastic-romantic ideal of art the medieval painters were forced to make their landscapes steep and rugged and to crowd them within narrow confines. The backgrounds of their landscapes–in the sense of the above remark of Goethe–are composed like poetry rather than like a painting.

It is not the portrayal of the earthly, but an imaginary sacred landscape, which stood everywhere so alpine-like before their spirit.

This, however, straightway became identified with the actual picture of nature, and determined the eye for natural scenery of the age.

From the biblical poetry of the Hebrews the Christian world (and not only the Germanic) had acquired an enthusiasm for the beauties of nature which could never have been kindled by ancient art. With the deeper Christian knowledge of G.o.d comes also deeper poetic perception of His beautiful earth, and not until man felt with intense pain the transitoriness of this beautiful earth did he begin to love it so ardently. It is therefore a transparent anti-realistic lanscape painting, like that of the Psalmist, which those pious painters give us; it strives after elevated forms for the outer senses also, strives upward, and seeks to gain an insight into an entire world, into a cosmos of concentrated, natural life, the archetype of which–in spite of all childish naturalism–it has seen in the paradise of fancy rather than in reality. The tall luminous mountain peaks, attainable only by the eye, not by the foot, of themselves half belong to heaven. The landscapes of the seventeenth century, on the contrary, which are inspired by earthly beauty pure and simple, have a tendency to flatness, just as in reality all landscapes lie spread out in length and breadth before us. Cla.s.sical antiquity had just as uncultivated an eye for the beauty of the Alps as the age of Renaissance and the Rococo which emulated it so ardently.

Humboldt mentions that not a single Roman author ever alludes to the Alps from a descriptive point of view except to complain of their impa.s.sableness and like qualities, and that Julius Caesar employed the leisure hours of an Alpine journey to complete a dry grammatical treatise, _De a.n.a.logia_.

In Bible vignettes of the eighteenth century, Paradise–which is the archetype of the virgin splendor of nature–is depicted as a flat tiresome garden entirely without elevations of any kind, in which the dear G.o.d has already begun to correct his own handiwork, and with the shears of a French gardener has carved out from the clumps of trees, straight avenues, pyramids, and the like. In older wood-carvings, on the other hand, Paradise is represented as a gradually rising wilderness where Adam’s path is blocked by overhanging of rock which contrast strangely with the conception of natural life devoid of all labor and danger. Our fathers often saw in a charming, rich, and fertile region a picture of Paradise, whereas we are far more likely in a primeval wilderness to exclaim with the medieval masters:

“The lofty works, uncomprehended, Are bright as on the earliest day.”

In the landscapes of medieval pictures one scarcely ever sees the woods painted. Can the thin foliage of the trees of the old Italians, which look as though the leaves on them had been counted, be entirely explained by lack of technique? The generation of those days surely had a very different archetype of the intact, uncontaminated splendor of the forest than is possessed by us, for whom there remains scarcely anything but a cultivated forest ravaged by the axe and inclosed within boundaries fixed by rule and measure. The medieval poets felt deeply enough the poetic beauty of the forest, but men saw it with the appreciative eye of the artist only when they had gone away from the forest, when they had become more unfamiliar with it, and the woods themselves had begun to disappear. Thus the peasant in the folk-song knows how to reveal poetically many a tender charm of the beauty of nature; but, on the other hand, he very seldom has an eye for the picturesque beauty of natural scenery. As regards the latter it is with him as with the late Pastor Schmidt of Werneuchen who when describing in hexameters the spectacle of a barley field to the Berliners, called it “a marvelous view.” When the forest was still the rule in Germany and the field the exception, the uprooted parts of the forest, the oases of cleared land, the free open s.p.a.ces, undoubtedly pa.s.sed for the most attractive landscapes; whereas we, who have acquired too much of the open, are more attracted by the oases of the forest shade.

Only he who takes this into consideration can understand for example, how it is possible that the palace of Charlemagne at Ingelheim could have pa.s.sed for a perfect country-seat, situated in what must have been considered in those days an extremely charming and picturesque spot.

Seen through modern eyes these plains of the left bank of the Rhine with their fields, vineyards, sandy wastes and stunted pine-woods are intensely uninteresting, and one fails to comprehend why an emperor should have chosen Ingelheim as a country-seat, when he needed only to cross the river, or to proceed down stream for a few hours in order to build his palace in a region of imperishable natural beauty. If, however, one takes one’s stand on the ruined walls of the imperial abode and looks out over the broad plains of the Rhine valley, which at that time were already cleared land, while the chain of hills along the left bank, which are so monotonous at present, were still covered with woods, then one can estimate to some extent the delight caused by the view spreading before the gaze of the emperor. His castle at the edge of the wood, as it were on the borders of night and old barbarity, looked out upon the open, and under the windows stretched the broad agricultural land of the Rheingau, from whose virgin soil the first vines were just beginning to sprout, adorned with new settlements and roads–surely a royal spectacle for the eye of those days. It was, so to speak, the symbol of the universal historical mission, not only of the emperor but of the entire age–namely, to root up, to clear, to procure light. And thus the same landscape which today is considered, if not exactly commonplace, yet at the most idyllic, may have appeared imposing and imperial to the people of a thousand years ago.

It is because of this varying eye for natural scenery–which is the eye of generations succeeding one another in the course of history–that landscape painting, which conveys to us the most trustworthy information of this variation of vision, does not belong solely to the sphere of the esthetician; the historian of civilization must also study this most subjective of all plastic representations.


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Published inThe German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries