restricted access Forms of Misprision: The Early- and Mid-Victorian Reception of Goethe's Bildungsidee
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THOMAS JEFFERS Forms of Misprision: The Early- and Mid-Victorian Reception of Goethe's Bildungsidee Goethe's Wilhelm Meister had been introduced to English readers by Carlyle, whose 1824 translation was reissued in America in 1865, and reviewed by the young Henry James: 'It might almost be called a treatise on moral economy, - a work intended to show how the experience of life may least be wasted, and best be turned to account. This fact gives it a seriousness which is almost sublime' (947-8).' The story of the English appropriation of Goethe's work has been sketched before, early by Jean-Marie Carre and Susanne Howe, and more recently by ~osemary Ashton, David De Laura, and Patrick Crury. My purpose in sketching it again is to focus on what Harold Bloom would call the strong misreadings of Goethe perpetrated by Carlyle, J.S. Mill, Pater, and Matthew Arnold, acts of not ill-willed misprision which derived from these Victorians' uneasy sense of their own belatedness, vis-a-vis both Goethe - 'Physician of the iron age: as Arnold called him - and Goethe's cherished Greeks. A Bloomian approach can help us reconstitute the Scene of Instruction wherein these Victorian readers apprehended Goethe, particularly his Bildungsidee, for the first time, and thereby got one of their beginnings as writers - literary sons vigorously misprizing their literary father. The Oedipal struggle begins in affection: Goethe speaks to them sympathetically ; he gives them concepts, a language, to think with. The struggle soon grows bitter, however, as the sons, possessed of a strong will to be themselves instead of miniature Goethes, assert their differences. They could say either that Goethe is inapplicable to the needs of their new time - needs only they can address - or that he might be claimed as a qualified ally, one particular aspect of his thought played up, another aspect, regardless of proportionality, played down. This latter strategy turns out to be the more fruitful. As Bloom writes: 'reject your parents vehemently enough, and you will become a belated version of them, but compound with their reality, and you may partly free yourself' (38). Do not join the horde bent on killing your precursor; rather, wrestle with him, throw him and be thrown by him, till you master your own version of his holds and can fight him to a respectful stand-off. Bloom's are hardly indispensable terms by which to uncover any Oedipal goings-on in literary history, especially in his later books, where UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 57, NUMBER 4, SUMMER 1988 502 THOMAS JEFFERS a neologistic, Yeatsian 'vision' is gat by Freud out of the kabbala, and the reader keeps losing his special detective's decoding ring. Still, the simpler, early Bloomisms I have adopted are now current enough to be useful in describing what happens when writers look back over their shoulders. Nor, obviously, was Goethe the indispensable, or even the most important, precursorfor the Victorians Ihave in mind. The first- and second-generation Romantics, and the giants Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton behind them, were, as Bloom and many others have shown, of far greater moment. But Goethe did matter to them, and their ways of (mis)appropriating him reveal not just their various assertions of independence , but a great deal about the tenor of early- and mid-Victorian thought. . Carlyle translated Lehrjahre as 'apprenticeship' rather than the more expressive but vulgar 'trampship,' a Scots term for the journeying wild-oats time of youth before the stay-at-home productive time of adulthood (Letters 3: 102). This hesitation over the title was in fact part of a deeper uneasiness about the book's value. For one thing, it did not correspond to what he and Jane Welsh, along with most of their contemporaries in the 1820S, thought a novel should be: of sentimental love interestit had none, and of pathos little. More damning in Welsh and Carlyle's eyes, however, was the presentation of sexual activity - the several gettings into bed and the unmarried pregnancies that sometimes follow - which we now would call nothing more than frank, but which they, as much as Wordsworth and De Quincey, considered profligate and bestial: all these 'players and...


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