Hyperian History Of The World (19th Century, Part 3)
Beethoven and subsequent composers of the 19th century belong to what came to be known as the ‘Romantic’ era of music. This mirrors the ‘Romantic’ literary movement which had begun slightly earlier at the end of the 18th century and had flourished in England with great poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats.
Whilst these poets became famous and were celebrated at the time, there was another English poet who remained virtually unknown during his lifetime, yet was one of the most distinctive and visionary poets of all time. This was William Blake. Blake didn’t just write poetry but was also a painter and printmaker who tended to decorate his poetry with elaborate and highly original visual art. Blake was truly an oddity whose poetry and painting bore almost no relation to anything else which was being created at the time. Nonetheless, after his death and to the present day he has become one of the most influential artists of all time.
Considered to be mad in his time, Blake claimed to have had many religious visions which informed his work giving it a deeply mystical, spiritual quality, with several of his works being called ‘prophetic’. Blake was deeply critical of the establishment of his time, these criticisms often being stated quite clearly in his poetry. He despised all forms of organised religion and made his political feelings clear with his overt support for both the American and French revolutions and his friendship with Thomas Paine.
Although he opposed conventional religion, Blake was nonetheless deeply religious, and devised his own rich, complex mythology to express his religious ideas. The majority of his poetry consists of expressions of this complex mythology featuring a wide array of archetypal characters leading to some of the most original poetry ever written. Blake’s work reacts to every aspect of his society. He resists not only the religion and politics of the time, but also the newly developing scientific materialist worldview which Blake considered to be cutting people off from the religious and spiritual truths of the universe.
Blake can be considered a quintessential Hyperian artist, one who completely rejected all of the conventions of his time and developed a highly original, personal style to project the wonderfully creative contents of his mind. Blake wrote, “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create.”
Whilst Blake remained unknown in his lifetime, with the other English Romantic poets becoming far more famous, the real literary giant of the era was the german writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the greatest writers of all time and perhaps the most influential figure in all of German culture.
Goethe excelled as a writer in almost every genre, writing four novels, hundreds of poems from short lyric poems to longer epic poems, several plays in prose and verse, works of literary criticism, scientific treatises on a range of subjects as well as his own memoirs and an autobiography. His first novel, ‘The Sorrows Of Young Werther’, became a sensation when it was published in 1774 and Goethe remained a celebrity for the remainder of his life. Several of his poems were even set to music by musical titans such as Beethoven and Schubert.
Goethe’s greatest work, completed just before his death in 1832, was his monumental drama, Faust, one of the most influential pieces of literature in history. Written as a play, the work is really a piece of poetry intended to be read rather than performed. However, it has been staged, albeit with a running time of about twenty one hours! In Faust, Goethe presents his version of the classic german legend of Faust, the scholar who sells his soul in exchange for knowledge. Whilst the traditional legend has Faust condemned for his desires, Goethe goes about the story in a different way.
Faust is split into two parts, the first of which was published earlier in 1808. This first part begins with the demon Mephistopheles making a bet with God that he can lure Faust away from righteous pursuits. Faust is striving to gain all possible knowledge and, although he has read everything, still he yearns for more. He turns then to magic, which causes Mephistopheles to appear, firstly in the form a stray dog who follows Faust home. Once the demon appears in human form, the pact is made. Mephistopheles agrees to give Faust everything he wants, whenever he wants it, so long as Faust promises to serve the Devil in hell after he dies. Faust agrees, stating that he is seeking for one moment so perfect that he would wish it to last an eternity, a moment which he hopes Mephistopheles will be able to provide.
The pact is signed with blood and the two begin their adventures, going out to see the world. Mephistopheles causes Faust to take on the appearance of a young, handsome man and Faust meets a girl, Gretchen, beautiful and pure, whom Faust is able to seduce with help from Mephistopheles. This, however, leads to tragedy. In order to meet with Faust, Gretchen drugs her own mother, who then dies from poisoning. Later, Gretchen discovers she is pregnant and her brother challenges Faust to a duel, leading to his death at the hands of Faust and Mephistopheles. Consumed by sorrow, when her child is born, Gretchen becomes mad and drowns the illegitimate child and is convicted of murder. Faust tries to free her from prison but she refuses to escape. Faust and Mephistopheles flee but voices from heaven announce that Gretchen will be saved.
After this first part of the drama was published, it had an immediate effect on German culture. Beethoven once supposedly said that an opera based on Faust would be the greatest work of art of all time. Sadly, Beethoven did not compose this work. Beethoven, however, only knew the first part of Faust, as the concluding, second part wasn’t published until after Beethoven’s death. If the first part of Faust had captured the german imagination, the second part went far further, containing far more elaborate adventures, deeper levels of mysticism and the powerful sense of a deep secret contained within.
The second part of Faust continues the adventures of Faust and Mephistopheles, seeing them first enter the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, where Mephistopheles solves the Emperor’s financial troubles by introducing paper money. Elaborate festivities result from this, culminating in Faust summoning the spirit of Helen of Troy, his ideal of beauty, from Hades. Once the vision of Helen appears, Faust falls in love with her, yet Mephistopheles whisks Faust away back to his old study. There, they discover that Faust’s attendant, Wagner, has created an artificial, miniature human being, called Homunculus. Homunculus goes with Faust and Mephistopheles on their next adventure, as he seeks to become fully human, although he is contained within a glass flask. This quest culminates with the glass smashing, causing the death of Homunculus.
Following this, Mephistopheles goes to the real Helen of Troy, whom he transports to Faust’s fortress, where she meets and falls in love with Faust. Together, they have a son, called Euphorion, a perfect, beautiful youth who eventually becomes overly bold and falls to his death in an attempt to fly. Overcome with sorrow, Helen disappears back to Hades.
Next, Faust begins a new, grand project to become a master of the land and the sea. He wishes to control the sea in order to bring forth a new land. Faust then dwells in this new land, becoming old and blind. Eventually, Faust wishes only to better the lives of those living in his land. In this moment, Faust realises that this is the moment of pure bliss which he would wish to last an eternity. With this final blissful realisation, Faust dies and Mephistopheles believes that he has won the wager and can now claim Faust’s soul. However, angels suddenly appear and take away Faust’s soul, carrying it upwards to heaven. The final scene shows the progression of Faust’s soul towards heaven, with numerous spiritual figures appearing, extolling spiritual matters concerning the soul of Faust, culminating in the final Chorus Mysticus which concludes the drama: “Everything transitory Is only an allegory; What cannot be achieved, Here it will come to pass; What cannot be described, Here it is accomplished; The eternal feminine Draws us aloft.”
Goethe’s Faust is one of the most imaginative works of literature ever written, overflowing with archetypal imagery, profound ideas and deep mystery, with a strong sense of hidden meanings and powerful secrets. The work is also a magnificent gnostic allegory. Whereas older, more christian versions of the legend of Faust end with Faust being condemned for his desire for the knowledge of god, Goethe ends his legend with Faust’s soul ascending to heaven, in a moment of apotheosis. Goethe celebrates the ambition of Faust to acquire knowledge leading to his becoming godlike himself. Yet, importantly, Faust only achieves this after making his deal with the devil, showing how we must embrace both the darkness and the light if we are to transcend them both. This idea echoes that of William Blake in his ‘The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell’, in which Blake states that progression in life is impossible without the unification of contraries, such as good and evil.
Both Blake and Goethe, therefore, present us with highly imaginative versions of the gnostic message, Blake with a completely original mythology, and Goethe with one which draws on old legends and pagan myths full of archetypal figures and imagery. Like Blake, we must all reject the old conventions of this world and create a vision of the future which we can actualise in the here and now. Like Goethe’s Faust, we must all strive for ultimate knowledge, even if that means embracing the darker aspects of life, and we must traverse this benighted world and all of its dark places, if we are to bathe it in the light of our own inner star.