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An analysis of the play by Friedrich Schiller

The following article is reprinted from The Life of Friedrich Schiller: Comprehending an Examination of His Works. Ed. Charles Follen. New York: George Dearborn & Co., 1837.

The publication of The Robbers forms an era not only in Schiller's history, but in the literature of the World; and there seems no doubt that, but for so mean a cause as the perverted discipline of the Stuttgart school, we would never have seen this tragedy. Schiller commenced it in his nineteenth year; and the circumstances under which it was composed are to be traced in all its parts. It is the production of a strong untutored spirit, consumed by an activity for which there is no outlet, indignant at the barriers which restrain it, and grappling darkly with the phantoms to which its own energy thus painfully imprisoned gives being. A rude simplicity, combined with a gloomy and overpowering force, are its chief characteristics; they remind us of the defective cultivation, as well as of the fervid and harassed feelings of its author. Above all, the latter quality is visible; the tragic interest of The Robbers is deep throughout, so deep that frequently it borders upon horror. A grim inexpiable Fate is made the ruling principle: it envelopes and overshadows the whole; and under its louring influence, the fiercest efforts of human will appear but like flashes that illuminate the wild scene with a brief and terrible splendor, and are lost forever in the darkness. The unsearchable abysses of man's destiny are laid open before us, black and profound, and appalling, as they seem to the young mind when it first attempts to explore them: the obstacles that thwart our faculties and wishes, the deceitfulness of hope, the nothingness of existence, are sketched in the sable colors, so natural to the enthusiast, when he first ventures upon life, and compares the world that is without him to the anticipations that were within.

Karl von Moor is a character such as young poets always delight to contemplate or delineate; to Schiller, the analogy of their situations must have peculiarly recommended him. Moor is animated into action by feelings similar to those under which his author was then suffering and longing to act. Gifted with every noble quality of manhood in overflowing abundance, Moor's first expectations of life, and of the part he was to play in it, had been glorious as a poet's dream. But the minor dexterities of management were not among his endowments; in his eagerness to reach the goal, he had forgotten that the course is a labyrinthic maze, beset with difficulties, of which some may be surmounted, some can only be evaded, many can be neither. Hurried on by the headlong impetuosity of his temper, he entangles himself in these perplexities; and thinks to penetrate them, not by skill and patience, but by open force. He is baffled, deceived, and still more deeply involved; but injury and disappointment exasperate rather than instruct him. He had expected heroes, and he finds mean men; friends, and he finds smiling traitors to tempt him aside, to profit by his aberrations, and lead him onward to destruction: he had dreamed of magnanimity and every generous principle, he finds that prudence is the only virtue sure of its reward. Too fiery by nature, the intensity of his sufferings has now maddened him still farther: he is himself incapable of calm reflection, and there is no counsellor at hand to assist him; none, whose sympathy might assuage his miseries, whose wisdom might teach him to remedy or to endure them. He is stung by fury into action, and his activity is at once blind and treacherous. Since the world is not the abode of unmixed integrity, he looks upon it as a den of thieves; since its institutions may obstruct the advancement of worth, and screen delinquency from punishment, he regards the social union as a pestilent nuisance, the mischiefs of which it is fitting that he in his degree should do his best to repair, by means however violent. Revenge is the main spring of his conduct; but he ennobles it in his own eyes, by giving it the color of a disinterested concern for the maintenance of justice,--the abasement of vice from its high places, and the exaltation of suffering virtue. Single against the universe, to appeal to the primary law of the stronger, to "grasp the scales of Providence in a mortal's hand," is frantic and wicked; but Moor has a force of soul which makes it likewise awful. The interest lies in the conflict of this gigantic soul against the fearful odds which at length overwhelm it, and hurry it down to the darkest depths of ruin.

The original conception of such a rowk as this betrays the inexperience no less than the vigor of youth: its execution gives a similar testimony. The characters of the piece, though traced in glowing colors, are outlines more than pictures: the few features we discover in them are drawn with elaborate minuteness; but the rest are wanting. Everything indicates the condition of a keen and powerful intellect, which had studied men in books only; had, by self-examination and the perusal of history, detected and strongly seized some of the leading peculiarities of human nature; but was yet ignorant of all the minute and more complex principles which regulate men's conduct in actual life, and which only a knowledge of living men can unfold. If the hero of the play forms something like an exception to this remark, he is the sole exception, and for reasons alluded to above: his character resembles the author's own. Even with Karl, the success is incomplete: with the other personages it is far more so. Franz von Moor is an amplified copy of Iago and Richard; but the copy is distorted as well as amplified. There is no air of reality in Franz: he is a villain of theory, who studies to accomplish his object by the most diabolical expedients, and soothes his conscience by arguing with the priest in favor of atheism and materialism; not the genuine villain of Shakespeare and Nature, who employs his reasoning powers in creating new schemes and devising new means, and conquers remorse by avoiding it--by fixing his hopes and fears on the more pressing emergencies of worldly business. So reflective a miscreant as Franz could not exist: his calculations would lead him to honesty, if merely because it was the best policy.

Amelia, the only female in The Robbers, is a beautiful creation; but as imaginary as her persecutor Franz. Still and exalted in her warm enthusiasm, devoted in her love to Moor, she moves before us as the inhabitants of a higher and simpler world than ours. "He sails on troubled seas," she exclaims, with a confusion of metaphors, which it is easy to pardon, "he sails on troubled seas, Amelia's love sails with him; he wanders in pathless deserts, Amelia's love makes the burning sand grow green beneath him, and the stunted shrubs to blossom; the south scorches his bare head, his feet are pinched by the northern snow, stormy hail beats round his temples--Amelia's love rocks him to sleep in the storm. Seas, and hills, and horizons, are between us; but souls escape from their clay prisons, and meet in the paradise of love!" She is a fair vision, the beau idéal of a poet's first mistress; but has few mortal lineaments.

Similar defects are visible in almost all the other characters. Moor, the father, is a weak and fond old man, who could have arrived at grey hairs in such a state of ignorance nowhere but in a work of fiction. The inferior banditti are painted with greater vigor, yet still in rugged and ill-shapen forms; their individuality is kept up by an extravagant exaggeration of their several peculiarities. Schiller himself pronounced a severe but not unfounded censure, when he said of this work, in a maturer age, that his chief fault was in "presuming to delineate men, two years before he had met one."

His skill in the art of composition surpassed his knowledge of the world; but that too was far from perfection. Schiller's style in The Robbers is partly of a kind with the incidents and feelings which it represents; strong and astonishing, and sometimes wildly grand; but likewise inartificial, coarse, and grotesque. His sentences, in their rude emphasis, come down like the club of Hercules; the stroke is often of a crushing force, but its sweep is irregular and awkward. When Moor is involved in the deepest intricacies of the old question, necessity and free will, and has convinced himself that he is but an engine in the hands of some dark and irresistible power, he cries out: "Why has my Perillus made of me a brazen bull to roast men in my glowing belly?" The stage-direction says, "shaken with horror:" no wonder that he shook!

Friedrich Schiller has admitted these faults, and explained their origin, in strong and sincere language. "A singular miscalculation of nature," he says, "had combined in my poetical tendencies with the place of my birth. Any disposition to poetry did violence to the laws of the institution where I was educated, and contradicted the plan of its founder. For eight years my enthusiasm struggled with military discipline; but the passion for poetry is vehement and fiery as a first love. What discipline was meant to extinguish, it blew into a flame. To escape from arrangements that tortured me, my heart sought refuge in the world of ideas, when as yet I was unacquainted with the world of realities, from which iron bars excluded me. I was unacquainted with men; for the four hundred that lived with me were but repetitions of the same creature, true casts of one single mould, and of that very mould which plastic nature solemnly disclaimed.... Thus circumstanced, a stranger to human characters and human fortunes, to hit the medium line between angels and devils was an enterprise in which I necessarily failed. In attempting it, my pencil necessarily brought out a monster, for which by good fortune the world had no original, and which I would not wish to be immortal, except to perpetuate an example of the offspring which Genius in its unnatural union with Thraldom may give to the world. I allude to The Robbers."

Yet with all these excrescences and defects the unbounded popularity of The Robbers is not difficult to account for. To every reader, the excitement of emotion must be a chief consideration; to the mass of readers it is the sole one: and the grand secret of moving others is that the poet be moved himself. We have seen how well Schiller's temper and circumstances qualified him to fulfil this condition: treatment, not of his choosing, had raised his own mind into something like a Pythian frenzy; and his genius, untrained as it was, sufficed to communicate abundance to the feeling of others. Perhaps more than abundance: to judge from our individual impression, the perusal of The Robbers produces an effect powerful even to pain; we are absolutely wounded by the catastrophe; our minds are darkened and distressed, as if we had witnessed the execution of a criminal. It is in vain that we rebel against the inconsistences and crudities of the work: its faults are redeemed by the living energy that pervades it. We may exclaim against the blind madness of the hero; but there is a towering grandeur about him, a whirlwind force of passion and of will, which catches our hearts, and puts the scruples of criticism to silence. The most delirious of enterprizes is that of Moor, but the vastness of his mind renders even that interesting. We see him leagued with desperadoes directing their savage strength to actions more and more audacious; he is in arms against the conventions of men and the everlasting laws of Fate: yet we follow him with anxiety through the forests and desert places, where he wanders, encompassed with peril, inspired with lofty daring, and torn by unceasing remorse; and we wait with awe for the doom which he has merited and cannot avoid. Nor amid all his frightful aberrations do we ever cease to love him: he is an "archangel though in ruins"; and the strong agony with which he feels the present, the certainty of that stern future which awaits him, which his own eye never loses sight of, makes us lenient to his crimes. When he pours forth his wild recollections, or still wilder forebodings, there is a terrible vehemence in his expressions, which overpowers us, in spite both of his and their extravagance. The scene on the hills beside the Danube, where he looks at the setting sun, and thinks of old hopes, and times, "when he could not sleep if his evening prayer had been forgotten," is one, with all its improprieties, that ever clings to the memory. "See," he passionately continues, "all things are gone forth to bask in the peaceful beam of spring: why must I inhale alone the torments of hell out of the joys of heaven? That all should be so happy, all so married together by the spirit of peace! The whole world one family, its Father above; that Father not _mine!_ I alone the castaway, I alone struck out from the company of the just; not for me the sweet name of child, never for me the languishing look of one whom I love; never, never, the embracing of a bosom friend! Encircled with murderers; serpents hissing around me; riveted to vice with iron bonds; leaning on the bending reed of vice over the gulph of perdition; amid the flowers of the glad world, a howling Abaddon! O that I might return into my mother's womb--that I might be born a beggar! I would never more--O Heaven, that I could be as one of these day laborers! Oh! I would toil till the blood ran down from my temples, to buy myself the pleasure of one noon-tide sleep, the blessing of a single tear. There was a time too, when I could weep--O ye days of peace, thou castle of my father, ye green lovely valleys! -- O all ye Elysian scenes of my childhood! will ye never come again, never with your balmy sighing cool my burning bosom? Mourn with me Nature! They will never come again, never cool my burning bosom with their balmy sighing. They are gone! gone! and may not return!"

No less striking is the soliloquy where Moor, with the instrument of self-destruction in his hands, the "dread key that is to shut behind him the prison of life, and to unbolt before him the dwelling of eternal night," --meditates on the gloomy enigmas of his future destiny. Soliloquies on this subject are numerous--from the time of Hamlet, of Cato, and downwards. Perhaps the worst of them has more ingenuity, perhaps the best of them has less awfulness than the present. St. Dominick himself might shudder at such a question, with such an answer, as this: "What if thou shouldst send me companionless to sum burnt and blasted circle of the universe; which thou has banished from thy sight; where the lone darkness and the motionless desert were my prospects--forever? I would people the silent wilderness with my fantasies; I should have Eternity for leisure to examine the perplexed image of the universal woe."

Strength, wild impassioned strength, is the distinguishing quality of Moor. All his history shows it; and his death is of a piece with the fierce splendor of his life. Having finished the bloody work of crime, and magnanimity, and horror, he thinks that, for himself, suicide would be too easy an exit. He has noticed a poor man toiling by the way-side, for eleven children; a great reward has been promised for the head of the Robber; the gold will nourish that poor drudge and his boys, and Moor goes forth to give it them. We part with him in pity and sorrow; looking less at his misdeeds than at their frightful expiation.

The subordinate personages, though diminished in extent and varied in their forms, are of a similar quality with the hero; a strange mixture of extravagance and true energy. In perusing the work which represents their characters and fates, we are alternately shocked and inspired; there is a perpetual conflict between our understanding and our feelings. Yet the latter on the whold come off victorious. The Robbers is a tragedy that will long find readers to astonish, and, with all its faults, to move. It stands, in our imagination, like some ancient rugged pile of a barbarous age; irregular, fantastic, useless; but grand in its height and massiveness and black frowning strength. It will long remain a singular monument of the early genius and early fortune of Friedrich Schiller.

The publication of such a work as this naturally produced an extraordinary feeling in the literary world. Translations of The Robbers soon appeared in almost all the languages of Europe, and were read in all of them, with a deep interest, compounded of admiration and aversion, according to the relative proportions of sensibility and judgment in the various minds which contemplated the subject. In Germany, the enthusiasm which The Robbers excited was extreme. The young author had burst upon the world like a meteor; and surprise, for a time, suspended the power of cool and rational criticism. In the ferment produced by the universal discussion of this single topic, the poet was magnified above his natural dimensions, great as they were: and though the general sentence was loudly in his favor, yet he found detractors as well as praisers, and both equally beyond the limits of moderation.

One charge brought against him must have dampened the joy of literary glory, and stung Schiller's pure and virtuous mind more deeply than any other. He was accused of having injured the cause of morality by his work; of having set up to the impetuous and fiery temperament of youth a model of imitation which the young were too likely to pursue with eagerness, and which could only lead them from the safe and beaten tracks of duty into error and destruction. It has even been stated, and often been repeated since, that a practical exemplification of this doctrine occurred, about this time, in Germany. A young nobleman, it was said, of the fairest gifts and prospects, had cast away all these advantages; betaken himself to the forests, and, copying Moor, had begun a course of active operations,--which, also copying Moor, but less willingly, he had ended by a shameful death.

It can now be hardly necessary to contradict these theories; or to show that none but a candidate for Bedlam as well as Tyburn could be seduced from the substantial comforts of existence, to seek destruction and disgrace, for the sake of such imaginary grandeur. The German nobleman of the fairest gifts and prospects turns out, on investigation, to have been a German blackguard, whom debauchery and riotous extravagance had reduced to want; who took to the highway, when he could take to nothing else,--not allured by an ebullient enthusiasm, or any heroical and misdirected appetite for sublime actions, but driven by the more palpable stimulus of importunate duns, an empty purse, and five craving senses. Perhaps in his later days, this philosopher may have referred to Schiller's tragedy, as the source from which he drew his theory of life: but if so, we believe he was mistaken. For characters like him, the great attraction was the charms of revelry, and the great restraint, the gallows,--before the period of Karl von Moor, just as they have been since, and will be to the end of time. Among motives like these, the influence of even the most malignant book could scarcely be discernible, and would be little detrimental, if it were.

Nothing, at any rate, could be farther from Schiller's intention than such a consummation. In his preface, he speaks of the moral effect of The Robbers in terms which do honor to his heart, while they show the inexperience of his head. Ridicule, he signifies, has long been tried against the wickedness of the times, whole cargos of hellebore have been expended--in vain; and now, he thinks, recourse must be had to more pungent medicines. We may smile at the simplicity of this idea; and safely conclude that, like other specifics, the present one would fail to produce a perceptible effect: but Schiller's vindication rests on higher grounds than these. His work has on the whole furnished nourishment to the more exalted powers of our nature; the sentiments and images which he has shaped and uttered, tend, in spite of their alloy, to elevate the soul to a nobler pitch: and this is a sufficient defense. As to the danger of misapplying the inspiration he communicates, of forgetting the dictates of prudence in our zeal for the dictates of poetry, we have no great cause to fear it. Hitherto, at least, there has always been enough of dull reality, on every side of us, to abate such fervors in good time, and bring us back to the most sober level of prose, if not to sink us below it. We should thank the poet who performs such a service; and forbear to inquire too rigidly whether there is any "moral" in his piece or not. The writer of a work, which interests and excites the spiritual feelings of men, has as little need to justify himself by showing how it exemplifies some wise saw or modern instance, as the doer of a generous action has to demonstrate its merit, by deducing it from the system of Shaftesbury, or Smith, or Paley, or whichever happens to be the favorite system for the age and place. The instructiveness of the one, and the virtue of the other, exist independently of all systems or saws, and in spite of all.

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