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Translations of Great Poets
and Authors

On Epic and Dramatic Poetry
Friedrich Schiller and Wolfgang Goethe

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This essay, written in 1797 by Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Schiller, first appeared in 1827, after Schiller's Art and Antiquity. It appeared again in 1829, as an appendix to Correspondence between Schiller and Goethe in the Years 1794 to 1805, in the third part of the Letters of the year 1797. It was written in the period when Schiller was working on the Wallenstein dramatic trilogy.

On Epic and Dramatic Poetry

Translated by Evelyn Lantz

The epic and dramatic poets are both subject to universal poetic laws, especially the law of unity and the law of development; furthermore, they both treat similar subjects, and both can use all kinds of themes; their great essential difference lies, however, in that the epic poet presents the event as completely past, and the dramatic poet presents it as completely present. Would one derive the detail of the law, according to which both have to behave, from the nature of man, then one must alway have in mind a rhapsodist and a mimic actor, both as poet, the former surrounded by his quietly hearkening circle, the latter by his impatiently onlooking and listening circle, and it would not be difficult to explain what is of most avail to each of these types of poetry, which subjects each especially chooses, which theme will be especially useful to each; I say especially: for as I already observed at the beginning, neither can claim something for itself totally exclusively.

The subjects of the epic and tragedy should be purely human, important, and pathetic: The characters stand best at a certain level of culture, where self-activity is still left to its own resources, where one operates not morally, politically, or mechanically but rather personally. The myths from the heroic time of the Greeks were, in this sense, particularly favorable to the poet.

The epic poem especially presents personally limited activity, tragedy personally limited suffering; the epic poem presents man working outside himself: battles, journeys, every sort of undertaking, which requires certain sensual breadth; tragedy presents the inwardly directed man, and the actions of the true tragedy need, for that reason, only little space.

I know of five kinds of themes:

1) Progressive ones, which advance the plot; drama especially makes use of these.

2) Regressive ones, which remove the plot from its goal; of these the epic poem almost exclusively makes use.

3) Impeding ones, which delay action or prolong the process; these both poetic types make use of to the greatest advantage.

4) Reflexive ones, through which that which has happened before the epoch of the poem, will be drawn upon.

5) Anticipative ones, which anticipate that which will happen after the epoch of the poem; both kinds are needed by the epic as well as the dramatic poet, in order to make his poem complete. The worlds, which should be brought to view are common to both:

1) The physical and indeed firstly the nearest to which the characters represented belong, and which surrounds them. In this, the dramatic poet generally is located in one place, the epic poet moves more freely in a larger locale; secondly, the more remote world, which I consider the whole of nature. The epic poet, who generally employs the imagination, brings this world nearer through images, which the dramatic poet makes use of more sparingly.

2) The moral is completely common to both and will be represented most happily in its physiological and pathological simplicity.

3) The world of chimeras, presentiments, appearances, accidents, and fates. This is allowed to both, if only it is understood, that it would be brought in proximity to the sensual; whereby a special difficulty arises for the modern poets, because we do not easily find a replacement for the wonderful creatures, gods, fortune-tellers, and oracles of old, as much as it were desired.

Concerning the treatment of the whole, the rhapsodist, who presents what is completely past, will appear as a wise man, who, in quiet self-possession, surveys what has taken place; the purpose of his presentation will be to quiet the listeners, whereby they will listen to him protractedly and gladly, he willdistribute their interest evenly, because he is not in a position to quickly balance an overly lively impression .he will refer backward and forward and wander at will; one will follow him everywhere, because he has only to do with the imaginative power, which generates images for itself, and which, to a certain degree, is indifferent to which kind it calls up. The rhapsodist should not appear himself as a higher being in his poem; he should, at the very best, read behind a curtain, so that one might abstract from all personality and only the voice of the muse would be believed to be heard in general.

The mimic actor, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite case; he represents himself as a definite individual, he wants one to participate exclusively with him and his closest surroundings, that one sympathize with the suffering of his soul and his body, share his predicaments, and forget oneself by way of him; certainly, he will also go to work in stages, but he can dare much livelier actions, because with sensuous presence, even more so the stronger impression can be destroyed by a weaker one. The onlooking listener by rights must remain in a constant sensuous exertion, is not allowed to elevate himself to reflection, he must passionately follow, his imagination is completely reduced to silence, one is allowed to make no claim upon it, and even what is narrated, must be as if it were graphically brought before one's eyes.


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