The adventures of Don Sylvio de Rosalva
From the translator's introduction:
Wieland belongs to that inferior order of genius that brings no creative energy, no epoch-making ideas to bear upon human hfe and thought, but receives the impress of the age, reflects its movements and revolutions, and reacts upon them with the force and insight of an acute and subtle mind, richly stored with the learning of the past. Such a mind finds its appropriate task in criticism and interpretation. Wieland's life coincided with the epoch of fermenting opinions and revolutionary cataclysms that preceded the birth of the nineteenth century, and his life and works may be regarded as, in a measure, an epitome of the intellectual history of his time.
The life of Christoph Martin Wieland divides itself into three periods, more or less clearly marked out by the stages of his mental conflict between the rigid pietism in which he was nurtured and his instinctive tendency towards freedom of thought and enjoyment of nature.
The impulses of youth were almost wholly eliminated by his father's training and the discipline of a peculiarly monastic school: under their influence, he tried sincerely but unsuccessfully to make himself a saint. His earliest writings were mainly the offspring of Christian or theosophical enthusiasm; Plato was not austere enough for his Puritanism, without a strong infusion of Stoic severity; and he went out of his way to make an onslaught on the brotherhood of Anacreontic poets, Gleim, Gotz, and Uz.
The second period, among the first fruits of which was the present work, was distinguished by a violent revolt against these repressive influences. In it, he wrote much that is frivolous and licentious, if not positively immoral. But as his genius ripened, and he saw more profoundly into the realities of human life, he entered upon another phase, a phase of greater sanity and equilibrium, in which the rebellious hedonism of the middle period was chastened and subdued, the unruly republic of the senses brought under the authority of mind, and the supremacy of the spiritual element in man's nature freely acknowledged.
Such works of varied excellence as the Agathon in its final form, his Geron the Noble, the pregnant satire of The Abderites, the matchless Oberon, and his latest romance of Hellenic life, Aristippus, were the products of that period. Born in 1733 at Biberach, a free corporation town of Swabia, he was the son of a Lutheran minister, a learned man, who undertook the entire charge of his education, and with parental zeal pushed him on so fast that at seven he was able to read Nepos with enjoyment, and at thirteen made pocket companions of Virgil and Horace.
This unwise stimulation of the mental faculties had the usual effect of giving him a distaste for the healthy recreations of boyhood; he grew shy, and fond of solitary musing, unfit for competition with his equals, and inclined by his father's religious discipline to morbid habits of self-analysis, and, it may be added, of self-deception. His frequent tears of contrition, his out- bursts of religiosity, were not insincere; they were the transient emotions of an impressionable soul, and by no means implied any deep and lasting conviction. His father's perseverance was rewarded by making him a prodigy of learning; his turn for writing and imitation was not less precocious.
From the age of eleven, he was passionately fond of poetry and used to rise at daybreak to compose little operas and cantatas, not being allowed to write verses during the day. Among the juvenile which he is supposed to have burned later on was an epic on the destruction of Jerusalem, written at this period. At fourteen, his father sent him to the high school of Klosterberg, near Magdeburg, a college equally renowned for the excellence of its classical teach- ing and for its semi-monastic system of instruction, evangelical monasticism that made it a stronghold of the pietism then dominant among German Protestants. The austere hfe, the spiritual exercises, and the habits of meditation, penitence, and devotion had a powerful effect on Wieland. He applied himself with an ardour to the sentimental side of religion, though he had no inclination for dogmatic theology.
Yet, at the same time, his constant reading in Greek and Latin poets and philosophers was deepening the inner tendencies of his mind, and preparing silently for the epoch of emancipation. Already he had become acquainted with the pangs of doubt as a consequence of dipping into Bayle's Dictionary and Voltaire; but he expiated his curiosity with tears of repentance, and when he left school his piety and orthodoxy seemed to be as great credit to the religious instruction of home and college, as his classical attainments were to his intellectual training.
The elder Wieland had destined his son for the ministry but now had, reluctantly, to agree, on account of his weak lungs, that he should follow the law. In 1750 the young man returned to Biberach for a short stay before taking up his studies at Tiibingen university, a visit that was fraught with importance as the era of his first love affair.
The lady was the accomplished Sophia von Gutermann, known under her later name of De la Roche as the author of some novels. She was two or three years his senior, and already engaged, but seems to have regarded the brilliant young enthusiast with feelings of real affection, while his love for her was nonetheless passionate for being of a reverential and idolatrous kind. She was the muse who inspired his first serious poem. His father had been preaching one Sunday on the text, " God is Love," and as he walked in the fields with Sophia, Wieland began to pour out in rhapsodical language the feelings and visions with which such a theme filled his imagination. He spoke of the destiny of men and spirits, of the dignity of the human soul, and of eternity.
"Never in my life," he said afterwards to Bodmer, " had I been so eloquent." The lady suggested that he should commit his thoughts to write, and Wieland, as soon as he took pen in hand, began the composition of his " Nature of Things," a metaphysical poem that was to some extent an imitation of Lucretius, and analogous in method, though different in style, to Pope's Essay on Man. At Tiibingen, he devoted little attention to law but continued by his wide, if not profound, reading in many kinds of literature to amass the great store of learning that gives so rich and varied a colouring to all his works. In 1752 appeared his first volume of poems, containing the " Nature of Things," the " Anti-Ovid," and his " Moral Epistles," the last-named being the earliest example of that Socratic irony which was to be an important ingredient of his more mature productions.
The book was dedicated to Sophia. An epic in the style of Ossian, on Hermann, or Arminius, the ancient hero of the Fatherland, which he began at Tubingen, was the occasion of another salient incident in his career.
First translated into English, London, 1773, under the title: Reason triumphant over fancy; exemplified in the singular adventures of Don Sylvio de Rosalva
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