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Goethe’s Surprising Verses in Praise of Napoleon as the Harbinger of an Era of European Peace and Prosperity

by Julian Scutts

Napoleon has perhaps too readily been dismissed as a power-crazed dictator, a butcher, the ultimate narcissist in riding boots, For all that he was able to inspire admiration bordering on adulation not only in the hearts and minds of his French compatriots but also in the high esteem he enjoyed among great thinkers and poets  such as Goethe and Heinrich Heine. Goethe and Napoleon had met briefly in Erfurt in 1806 when Napoleon summoned Goethe to an audience at which both expressed mutual admiration for being either Europe’s leading man of action or Europe’s leading man of letters. Goethe was impressed by Napoleon’s sound knowledge of the book which had brought Goethe worldwide renown – Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of young Werther).

At the apex of his power, in 1810, when Napoleon seemed to be on the threshold of converting power based on military successes into a consolidation of his hold on continental Europe based on diplomatic alliances Goethe composed a  dedication in verse to  the King of Rome, the son of Napoleon and Marie Louise, the eldest daughter of Francis the emperor of Austria. The work in question bears the title of: “ Im Namen der Bürgerschaft von Karlsbad   Ihro der Kaiserin von Frankreich Majestät”(See below in the original and in English translation).it casts Napoleon as one who had put an end to the chaos and violence of the French Revolution and restored law and order to France and hence to continental Europe. He abolished the effects of “pettiness” (das Kleinliche), meaning the jumble of restrictive and parochial regulations that had proliferated under the old feudal order, and by sweeping away all such subterfuge,  had uncovered in stark clarity the  unadorned and elemental simplicity of land and sea. Military victories had secured the unity of the continent of Europe  against the encroachments of “the proud wave” of British naval power, an allusion to the imposition of Napoleon’s continental system. Napoleon’s new-born son, François Charles Joseph Bonaparte,   heralded in Goethe’s mind the rebirth of a peaceful and glorious  new-age empire worthy of being celebrated as in ancient Rome by  closing  the door of  the temple of Janus. We might detect here the tone of Vergil’s  Eclogue  4, which prophesied the birth of  child that would usher in a golden age of peace and plenty. Strange things happen when attention to poetic tradition glosses over  a perception of a far from pacific contemporary reality.
 Those who indulge in counterfactual speculation might argue that but for Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia he might have achieved a  lasting European settlement   uniting at least France, Austria and the German states. As things turned out The King of Rome, Napoleon’s  intended heir,  reigned  in France for a few weeks in 1815 and then held the title of Napoleon II, allowing his cousin the right to name himself Napoleon III in due course. François Charles Joseph Bonaparte received the title of Duke of Reichstadt at the Viennese court but remained something of an embarrassment in royal circles in view of his being the son of Austria’s erstwhile enemy and conqueror. He died of pneumonia in 1834.  Sic transit gloria mundi.
“ Im Namen der Bürgerschaft von Karlsbad   Ihro der Kaiserin von Frankreich Majestät
In the Name of the Councillorship  of Karlsbad, to Your Majesty the Empress of France

Sieht man den sch?nsten Stern die Nacht erhellen,

So wird das Auge wie das Herz erquickt;

Doch wenn in seltnen langersehnten Fällen

Ein herrliches Gestirn zum andern rückt,

Die nahverwandten Strahlen sich gesellen,

Dann weilt ein jeder schauend, hoch entzückt;

So unser Blick, wie er hinauf sich wendet,

Wird vom Verein der Majestät geblendet.
If one sees the fairest star brightening the night, then the eye like the heart is enlivened; but when in long yearned-for cases a splendid constellation draws close to another then every observer lingers in great delight; then our glance, as it turns upward, is bedazzled by the union of majesty.
Wir denken noch, wie sie hinweggezogen,

Der Eltern Lust, die holde Friedensbraut;

Schon beugten sich des Rheines edle Wogen.

Die beiden Ufer lächelten vertraut;

So freut die Erde sich am Himmelsbogen,

Von farbigen Juwelen aufgebaut,

Der, wenn er schon vor unsern Augen schwindet,

Den Frieden sichert, den er angekündet.
We still call to mind mind how she drew by, the joy of the parents, the lovely bride of peace; the noble waves of the Rhine bowed. On either side its banks smiled with assurance; the  earth
rejoices at the rainbow, studied with colourful jewels, which when vanishing from our eyes assures the peace it has proclaimed.
Im neuen Reich empfängt sie das Behagen

Von Millionen, die aus düstrer Nacht

Aufschauen wieder zu gesunden Tagen,

Zum festen Leben abermals erwacht.

Ein jeder fuhlt sein Herz gesichert schlagen

Und staunet nun, denn alles ist vollbracht,

Die holde Braut in lebensreichem Scheine –

Was tausende verwirrten, l?st der Eine.
In the new realm she receives  the warm feelings of millions who once more look forward to days of health after experiencing a dismal night, awakened yet again to  sturdy life. Everybody feels his heart beat in security and is amazed, for all is accomplished, the lovely bride in the brightness of abundant life. That which thousands had brought into confusion One puts right.
Worüber trüb Jahrhunderte gesonnen,

Er übersieht’s in hellstem Geisteslicht,

Das Kleinliche ist alles weggeronnen,

Nur Meer und Erde haben hier Gewicht;

In jenem erst das Ufer abgewonnen,

Dass sich daran die stolze Woge bricht,

So tritt durch weisen Schluss, durch Machgefechte

Das feste Land in alle seine Rechte.
Whatever centuries had pondered over in the gloom he comprehends at a glance in the brightest mental flash. The petty has completely  run off. Here only sea and land have any importance; the sea  surrenders to the shore so that the proud wave breaks upon it. Thus by wise counsel and battles for power terra firma asserts all its rights.
Und wenn dem Helden alles zwar gelungen,

Den das Geschick zum Günstling auserwählt,

Und ihm vor allen alles aufgedrungen,

Was die Geschichte jemals aufgezählt;

Ja reichlicher als Dichter je gesungen! –

Ihm hat bis jetzt das H?chste noch gefehlt;

Nun steht das Reich gesichert wie geründet,

Nun fuhlt er froh im Sohne sich gegründet.
And when the hero has succeeded in everything, even the one whom destiny has chosen to be its favourite, and has laden upon him in preference to  all others all that history has ever amassed in riches, indeed more profusely than ever  a poet praised in song, even this person has  lacked the highest good until this day. Now the empire stands on a sure footing and well rounded, now he feels happily affirmed in his son.
Und dass auch diesem eign Hoheit g’nuge,

Ist Roma selbst zur Wächterin bestellt.

Die G?ttin, hehr an ihres K?nigs Wiege,

Denkt abermal das Schicksal einer Welt.

Was sind hier die Trophäen aller Siege,

Wo sich der Vater in dem Sohn gefällt?

Zusammen warden sie des Glucks genießen,

Mit milder Hand den Janustempel schließen.
To assure this son  sufficiency in his own high estate, Rome itself is commissioned as a guardian. The goddesss, serene  beside the king’s cradle, muses once more upon  the fate of a world.  What here are  the trophies of all victories against the pleasure bestowed on the father   in his son? Together they will enjoy felicity and close the temple of Janus with gentle hands.
Sie, die zum Vorzug einst als Braut gelanget,

Vermittlerin nach G?tterart zu sein,

Als Mutter, die, den Sohn im Arme, prangert,

Bef?rdre neuen, dauernden Verein;

Sie kläre, wenn die Welt im Dustern banget,

Den Himmel auf zu ew’gem Sonnenschein!

Uns sei durch dies letzte Glück beschieden –

Der alles wollen kann, will auch den Frieden.
May she who achieved the bridal privilege  of  being  a mediator in a godly manner as a mother  shining  in splendor with her son in her arms,  may even she promote a new and lasting union.  And should the world be gripped by fear amid the surrounding gloom , may she illumine the sky with eternal sunshine, and may this final bliss  be granted to us – whosoever  desires everything worth having also wants peace.