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(27 Jan. 1797—Nov. 31, 1851)

The square shape around the seriffed letter T is formed out of interlacing ribbons with terminal foliation of acanthus leaves and pomegranate buds. The decoration is created in thin black lines, leaving the letters, vines, and leaves white. It appears to be a wood engraving.

THE historic novel might be set aside as
wholly inartistic and impossible were it not
for a few examples of distinct beauty and
power in this singular form. Defoe’s
Memoirs of a Cavalier, though not one of
his finest works, is yet excellent in parts.
Balzac has greatly triumphed in this style.
Scott does not approach the intensity of
Balzac, though his historic novels made
an epoch and are, of course, remarkable. With Dumas the local
colour is barely more than a convention. The essence of the Three
Musketeers is not their costume but the play of incident and charac-
ter. Some of our modern English hands have essayed the adventures
of the historic romance with quite respectable success, but scarcely
with complete victory. As far as we know, neither in Italy nor
Spain has any man gone near these in excellence; but, and this is
passing strange, considering the signal badness of German novels (that
most miserable Ekkehart, for example), a Pomeranian pastor of this
century has written two of the very first rank. Naturally, with German
taste as it is—and as, in spite of French and Norwegian influence, it is
likely to be for some time—Meinhold has been little honoured in his own
country, though Göthe gave him sound advice when he asked for it; and
Frederick William IV. of Prussia not only understood the wonderful
power of his work, but with princely courtesy printed one of his two
great stories for him unasked. The Bavarian king has earned the
poet’s praise and the musician’s love by his real sympathy with the
highest art, but cases such as this and that of Rückert should plead
favourably for the Hohenzollern.

    Wilhelm Meinhold’s was a curious personality: fiercely individual as
Beddoes, with an instinct that brought him not only to assimilate details,
but to enter easily into the very life and feeling of the past, as it has
been given to few men to do. One, too, that saw through the vulgar
popular ideas of his day, and took refuge from cant and noisy insincerity
and cowardly lack of patriotism in historic studies and intellectual
interests, not without turning occasionally to smite the yelping curs
he despised. Small wonder that a man of his sympathies, who of
course scorned the futilities of Lutheran apologetic, should have felt
drawn toward the old Church of the West, with its more antique,


more dignified, more mysterious associations. He wanted an atmo-
sphere more highly charged with the supernatural than the hard, dry,
cast-iron traditions of his own sect could supply.

    The portrait (prefixed to the edition of 1846 of his collected works)
shows a type not uncommon in Ireland: round head domed up from
a fine brow; keen level eyes behind the student’s glasses; straight
well-shaped nose, not of the largest; good firm mouth, and well-turned
chin. Shrewd, obstinate, not to be convinced save by himself, persistent,
observant, and keen in feeling and word and deed—so one would judge
the nature from the face.

    That Meinhold should have deigned to use his two notable stories as
controversial weapons against his uncritical and bemused adversaries is
curious enough, but it is not necessary to suppose that Sidonia and
Maria were composed for the sole purpose of puzzling the Sadducees. In
the case of the Cloister Witch, he had the story in hand as far back as
1831, and two of his early poems come from the drama he had first
written; while the censor, with instinctive dread of true talent, of course
withheld his favour from the Pastor’s Daughter, a play founded on the
story that was to grow into the Amber Witch.

It was not till after a fair amount of poetical and controversial work
that our author, in 1843, issued his Amber Witch in book-form, and had
the wonderful luck to find a gifted woman to clothe it in appropriate
English form. There is lying at my hand a little pocket Tasso, with
the pretty autograph, ‘Lucie Duff Gordon, Wurtzburg, 1844,’ a relic of
the girl whose pen naturalised at once a work that is probably more
widely known here, and far better appreciated, thanks to her, than in
Germany. Meinhold gracefully appreciated his translator’s skilful work,
and Sidonia was dedicated, on its first appearance in 1848, to

            der jungen geist-reichen Uebersetzerin
                        der Bernstein-Hexe.

    It was not Sarah Austin’s daughter, but Mrs. R. W. Wilde, the
Speranza of the Nation, who turned the Cloister Witch into English, and
she, too, had well earned a dedication if the novelist had lived to com-
plete his last work—’Der getreue Ritter oder Sigismund Hager von
und zu Altensteig und die Reformation, in Briefen an die Gräfin Julia von
Oldofredi-Hager in Lemberg’—which was issued at Regensburg in 1852
with a preface by Aurel, his son, and has not yet, to our knowledge,
found a translator.


    So much for the circumstances and the man. As to his two famous
romances, it would be difficult to over-praise them; within their limits
they are almost perfect; and of what work of art can more be said ? The
life of Maria Schweidler, the Amber Witch, is supposed to be told by her
father—a kindly, cowardly, honest old creature, who writes the story of
the providential escape of his beautiful, brave, and clever daughter from
the fiendish malice of her enemies at the time of the Thirty Years’ War.
The plot is the simple scheme of an English melodrama (as Mr. Jacobs
has noticed), where villainy uses occasions to drive an innocent heroine
into dire stresses, till the lover, long delayed, manages to rescue her
at the eleventh hour. It was, however, necessary that the plot should
be simple and easy to grasp, when there is so much action in the
detail. Appropriate setting, delicate touches of character, most skil-
fully enhance the nobility of the helpless innocent child, and draw the
warmest sympathy from us for her unmerited suffering from the ignor-
ance, envy, and lust of her persecutors, who urge her charity, her
learning, and her courage against her as proofs of the horrid guilt of
which they accuse her. The pretty episodes of the glorious Swedish
king, and of the ring of Duke Philippus, the grim matter-of-fact narra-
tive of the famine, are in Defoe’s vein; but the serious, beautiful charm
of the girl is somewhat beyond his range, though the method by which
it is indicated is one of which the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll
Flanders was a past master. It would be interesting to learn what
knowledge of his famous predecessor Meinhold possessed; he must at
least have read of ‘poor Robin.’ But the Pomeranian has qualities the
Briton never possessed; Defoe’s ghosts and spirits are vulgar, and he
cannot deal with the supernatural so as to arouse horror or terror; he
does not meddle save with sordid crime, which remains sordid under his
hand. Meinhold has the true Elizabethan power of shocking the reader’s
soul with the repulsion and the sympathy he can arouse by his present-
ment of depths of sin and abysses of dread. And this without Tour-
neur’s extravagance, without the mere sham and unreal taste for blood
and bogeys that long haunted the childish Teutonic mind, and inspired
the absurdities of the German romantic drama. This man is no Walpole
with vapid, ill-begotten rococo invention; no Monk Lewis with crude,
Surrey-side imaginings. He is of the true stock of Kyd and Webster
and Shakespeare. He can mix you broad humour with horror, and
banal incident with the most pitiful tragedy, so that the relief enables
the catastrophe to tell the more surely and vividly.


    Sidonia is far more ambitious, certainly in some respects finer than
the Amber Witch, illustrating its author’s rare qualities in fuller mea-
sure. Astonishing for breadth and power is the conception of Sidonia
herself—the true adventuress nature—with her hatred for the pretences
about her, proud of her own birth, and full of disdain for those below
her, with eager greed and envy for all that was out of her reach, but
had come to others without an effort, and armed in that selfish, revenge-
ful cruelty and callousness for others’ sufferings that belong to the
habitual criminal, who urges pretended right to punish a society so
constituted as to show symptoms of not existing mainly for his ease
and comfort. There is something of Becky in her petty malignity, her
indomitable courage, her elaborate and long-prepared schemes, her
quick change of plan when it becomes obvious she is on the wrong
track, her contempt for plain-dealing and honesty, which she accounts
crass animal stupidity. Yet Meinhold rises far higher than Thackeray
ever could; the little Mayfair tragedy shrinks beside the monstrous
crime of Saatzig; even Regan or Goneril might have recoiled from
ordering the merciless torment that Sidonia never scrupled to inflict.
It is a feat to have imagined and put into being a creature so devilish
and yet so human as the Cloister Witch. For such is Meinhold’s
marvellous skill that he forces us to pity her, and rejoice that Diliana’s
pleading won a painless death for the wretched old sinner who had
suffered so terribly, both in soul and body, before the inevitable end
came. Dr. Theodorus Plonnies is a less pronounced figure than Pastor
Schweidler, and this rightly, for the story he has to relate is twice as
lonog as the Caserow cleric’s, and the adventures of his incomparable
heroine fill his canvas; but his dogged fidelity to the bestial hog-like
brood of dukes that reign over Pomerania, and his infantile credulity,
are distinctly marked. One recalls scene after scene of wonderful
graphic force, ingeniously various in tone, but always lit with that spark
of humour which alone could make so much horror endurable—the swift
and unforeseen end of the mighty young standard-bearer on the ice;
the aimless beery revolt of the town rascalry; the squalid encounters
on the boat by which the outraged father and the brutal paramour
are brought to their deaths: the devout ending of young Appelmann;
the boisterous horseplay of the castle, with death ever close at the
heels of drunken idle mirth; the futile squabbles of the peasants
and the hangman over the gipsy witch; the bear-hunt; the ridiculous
fray with the treacherous malignant Jews, followed by the impres-


sive conjuration of the Angel of the Sun; the bits of half-comic,
squalid convent-life; the haughty ceremonies of the feudal court ; the
cruel martyrdom of the innocent ‘dairy-mother,’ and the vulgar
quarrels of the girls in the ducal harem. But wherever the uncon-
querable Sidonia comes on his scene the author rises to tragic heights,
and his work grows in power and gains in colour. Admirably rendered
is the mischievous fooling and insolent mockery of the wanton
artful beauty who brings lust and hate and impiety in her train, wither-
ing all that is good wherever her influence spreads, so that, till accident
foils her, she pulls the wires of the wooden-headed court-puppets, defies
Her silly Grace and the honest chamberlain, and is blessed by the very
victims she has bespelled. That midnight incident should surely find
an illustrator where the brave-hearted maiden, cross in hand, has
chased the werewolf out of the church into the churchyard, and lo! at
the touch of the holy symbol, the foul beast has suddenly disap-
peared, and there stands Sidonia trembling, with black and bloody lips,
in the clear thin moonlight beside an open grave. The climax of her
career is reached with the coffin-dance, when the ‘devil’s harlot’ sang
the 109th Psalm, and took her revenge while the hymn was pealing
through the church above, and the plank beneath her feet quivering
with the death-agony of the girl-mother who had stood her friend in
the midst of her disgrace when even her own kinsfolk had cast her off.

    Nor is it possible to forget Sidonia, crouching in her wretched
cell in the witches’ tower, with the black scorched half-roasted head
and cross-bones of her miserable accomplice flung on the floor beside
her; Sidonia writhing and shrieking in impotent rage and agony on
the rack at Oderburg; Sidonia, perhaps even more pitiful to remember,
as she curses and blasphemes in her despair over her lost beauty
and ruined life, when the court painter, Mathias Eller, brings the por-
trait of her youth to be completed by the likeness, at sixty years’
interval, of her hideous senility. Sidonia, it is always Sidonia! She
haunts the mind and shakes the imagination, long after one has laid
down the book that has created her. She is complete; her awful life
from childhood to age one unbroken tissue of impressive wickedness,
with only the gleams of courage and wit and recklessness, and instinctive
loathing for pretentious folly, to lighten its dark web. Once only is she
repentant; for a brief moment she pities the child she has orphaned.
But her end is a relief, when, not without the kind of dignity with which
Dekker or Webster can bestow upon the foulest criminal, Meinhold’s


fearful heroine makes her last exit. ‘ At length the terrible sorceress
herself appears in sight, accompanied by the school, chanting the death-
psalm. She wore a white robe seamed with black [the death-shift that
her worst sin had brought her]. She walked barefoot, and round her
head a black fillet flowered with gold, beneath which her long white
hair fluttered in the wind/ So she passes to her doom.

    After which, most fit and congruous is the epilogue, wherein, with true
Shakesperean craft, Meinhold soothes his readers’ tense nerves with soft
melancholy, and shows us the faithful servant by his master’s coffin in
the vaults of the castle-church of Stettin on the anniversary of his
burial, with the paper bearing the record of that burial in his hand.
‘But my poor old Pomeranian heart could bear no more; I placed the
paper again in the coffin, and, while the tears poured from my eyes as
I ascended the steps, these beautiful old verses came into my head,
and I could not help reciting them aloud:—

‘So must human pride and state
In the grave lie desolate.
He who wore the kingly crown
With the base worm lieth down,
Ermined robe and purple pall
Leaveth he at Death’s weird call.

Fleeting, cheating, human life,
Souls are perilled in thy strife;
Yet the pomps in which we trust,
All must perish!—dust to dust.
God alone will ever be;
Who serves Him reigns eternally.’

    Has such weird tragedy been written in Europe since the Elizabethan
stage was silenced by the Puritan, as this of Sidonia? When we
compare it with Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris the Frenchman’s
raw colouring is almost ludicrous, and his coarse conventional scene-
painting ceases to impress. Scott’s diablerie and magic is child’s play,
mere gossamer, beside Meinhold’s firm, strong, natural work. Marryat
has produced some coarse half-wrought effects; Barham and Stevenson
have done well within restrained limits; Poe is too fantastic, for all his
talent ; Emily Bronte had the requisite power, but hardly attained to
the exquisite art. Not Michelet with the splendid glow of his romantic
effects, not Flaubert for all his rich and elaborate prose, not Huysmans
with his artful chameleon embroidery of phrase and shrill neurotic


narrative, have been able to attain to Meinhold’s marvellous creations.
Only Balzac’s Succube ceste ange froissée par des meschans hommes’
—a tale (like Maria Schweidler’s) of pitiful charity brutally betrayed
to torture and death,—this tiny masterpiece of a great master, is fit to
stand beside them. It would seem that upon this German pastor of
the nineteenth century there had descended the skirt of Marlowe’s
mantle. He who drew the pride of Tamerlane, the ambition of Faust,
the greed of Barabbas, was the true ancestor of the creator of Sidonia,
and we must go back to the time of Ford to find a right parallel
among English men of letters to him that portrayed the meekly borne
sufferings and soft courage of the Amber Witch.

                                                                                                F. YORK POWELL.

MLA citation:

Powell, F. York. “Wilhelm Meinhold.” The Pageant, 1896, pp. 119-129. Pageant Digital Edition, edited by Frederick King and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2021. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021.