Reconfiguring Romanticism (33): Coleridge’s Faustus

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:34 AM

[A once anonymous 1821 translation of Goethe’s Faust has recently been attributed to Coleridge, though the attribution remains open to question. Even so, once the possibility arises, the temptation to hear echoes of Coleridge in the following excerpt becomes very strong, and the accompanying prose narrative is itself a matter of some interest. The major proponent of a Coleridge version seems to have been Goethe selbst (Coleridge, on the other hand, denied it), and the major new source is the Oxford University Press edition (2008), Faustus From the German of Goethe Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick.]

SCENE—Faustus’s Study,
Enter FAUSTUS with the DOG.


Faustus soliloquizes, in a tone of feeling and sentiment, on the stillness of the night, calming every passion to repose. He is interrupted at intervals by the growling of the Dog, whom he in vain attempts to pacify. He feels a sudden desire to translate a passage from the New Testament, but cannot determine on an expression in his native language sufficiently comprehensive to express the creating power.

‘In the beginning was the Word,’ ‘tis written;
Here do I stumble: who can help me on?
I cannot estimate ‘the Word’ so highly;
I must translate it otherwise, if rightly
I feel myself enlightened by its spirit.
‘In the beginning was the Mind,’ ‘tis written:
Repeat this line, and weigh its meaning well,
Nor let thy pen decide too hastily:
Is it the mind creates and fashions all?
‘In the beginning was the Power, it should be;
Yet, even while I write the passage down,
It warns me that I have not caught its meaning:
Help me, then, Spirit! With deliberation,
And perfect confidence, I will inscribe,
At last, ‘In the beginning was the Deed.’

At this juncture the yelling and howling of the Dog increase, and Faustus again commands him to be quiet, and threatens to expel him. Suddenly he becomes enlarged to an enormous size, and assumes the form of a hippopotamus, whilst without, spirits are heard bemoaning the loss of their comrade. Faustus tries to subdue him with a spell of the four elements; but, finding that charm inefficient, concludes that he is under the dominion of a higher power, and has recourse to this stronger incantation:--

Art thou one who fell,
Deserter from hell?
Whose virtues incline
The legions of hell to obey it.

At this potent bidding the Dog reluctantly issues forth from behind the stove, whither he had retreated, and swells till he appears as large as an elephant, and nearly fills the room. He at length bursts in a cloud of smoke, which gradually dissipates, and discovers Mephistopheles ‘drest like a traveling student.’
_____________________________________________

The famous Walpurgis-Night, or night of the first of May, is now arrived, and the scene, changing to the Hartz mountains, discovers Faustus, under the guidance of Mephistopheles, pursuing a toilsome journey, climbing up rocks, and threading the labyrinths of this region of magic to the heights consecrated to the celebration of the Witches’ Revel. The last breeze of spring blows coldly; the moon shines dimly above their heads, scarcely distinguishing the projecting boughs and jutting cliffs. Mephistopheles calls an ignis-fatuus to light them. It proceeds before them in its usual tortuous course, till it is commanded by the Evil-One to go straight forward. The travelers join in a wild strain, descriptive of the surrounding objects of wonder—the moving trees—the bending cliffs—the falling torrents and rivulets—the unearthly sounds—and the echo like the voice of other times. Birds of all kinds are still in concert, as if it were day; reptiles in motions; knotty trunks stretched out in all directions, twining like serpents, as if to intercept their path; and swarms of glow-worms sparkling all around. Mephistopheles directs Faustus’s attention to the veins of ore glowing in a deep cleft of the mountain; he scents the approach of the concourse of guests hurrying forward through the air to this great magic festival, and desires his charge to hold fast to the rock, or he will be swept to the precipices below. He thus paints the aspect of the scene before them:--

O’er the night a cloud condenses,
Through the woods a rush commences,
Up the owls affrighted start;
Listen! How the pillars part,
The ever-verdant roofs from under,
Boughs rustle, snap, and break asunder!
The trunks incline in fearful forms,
Roots creak and stretch, as torn by storms;--
In startling, and entangled fall,
Upon each other rush they all,
And through rent clefts and shattered trees,
Now sighs and howls the rushing breeze.
Hear’st thou voices in the air,
Now far distant, and now near?
Yes, the mountain’s ridge along
Sweeps a raging, magic song!

The witches then appear in full band, mounted on broom-sticks, pitch-forks, goats, and sows, sailing in troughs, and decorated with all the paraphernalia of their order. They sing a rude measure, the voices of those above, and of those who are making their way up the mountain, mingling in the chorus. Mephistopheles again warns Faustus to be on his guard, lest they should be separated. He recommends him to hold fast to his skirts. The voice of Faustus in reply, sounds from a considerable distance. Mephistopheles perceives the danger to be imminent, and exerts his authority in commanding the throng to make way. He enjoins Faustus to attach himself to him, and leaps out of the rushing population. They approach a detached spot, where many fires are blazing. Mephistopheles displays the all-potent sign, the cloven foot; a serpent recognizes it, and crawls towards him. The two visitants advance from party to party, listen to the converse of each, and gaze on their revels. Mephistopheles suddenly assumes the form of an old man. He points out to Faustus, Lilith, Adam’s first wife, distinguished by her beautiful hair. Faustus addresses himself to a fair magician, and Mephistopheles to an old witch. They lead them forth to dance.

[Other examples of translating Goethe, one of them shared with Coleridge, were posted November 27, 2008, January 23, 2009, & May 19, 2009 on Poems and Poetics.]

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