MOZART, seeing Wieland at Mannheim in 1777, described his face as “frightfully ugly, covered with pockmarks, and he had a long nose; … aside from that he is … a most gifted fellow. … People stare at him as if he had dropped from heaven.”1 The stormy petrels of Sturm und Drang disliked him because he laughed at their rebel ecstasies, but Weimar liked him because he sweetened his satires with grace and a general absolution for mankind, and because he bore with good humor the repeated irruption of new stars in the literary sky where he could have claimed priority. Goethe’s autobiography commemorated him gratefully.2 Schiller at first encounter thought him vain and melancholy; but “the footing on which he at once placed himself toward me shows confidence, love, and esteem.”3 “We will shortly open our hearts to each other,” said the older to the younger poet; “we will assist each other in turn”;4 and he proved faithful to this promise. “Wieland and I draw daily closer together. … He never omits an occasion for saying a kind word.”5
Wieland competed successfully with the newcomers by issuing in 1780 a poetic romance, Oberon, about a knight who is rescued from a hundred fairies, and from the quagmire charms of an overheated queen, by the magic wand of the prince of fairies. When Goethe had to sit for a portrait, and wished to remain quiet for an hour, he asked Wieland to read parts of the epic to him. “Never,” Wieland reported, “have I seen anyone so happy over the work of another as Goethe was.”6 John Quincy Adams translated the poem while he was United States minister to Prussia in 1797-1801, and James Planché took from it the libretto for Weber’s opera (1826).
The March, 1798, number of Wieland’s Neue teutsche Merkur contained an article—presumably by Wieland—which remarkably presaged coming events. It noted the chaos into which France had fallen since 1789; it recommended the appointment of a dictator, as in the crises of republican Rome; and it nominated young Bonaparte, then having trouble in Egypt, as clearly fitted for the task. When Napoleon had in effect conquered Germany he met Wieland in Weimar and in Erfurt (1808), talked with him about Greek and Roman history and literature, and honored him, among German authors, as second only to Goethe.7
On January 25, 1813, Goethe wrote in his diary, “Wieland buried today,” and sent the news to a friend at Karlsbad: “Our good Wieland has left us. . . . On September 3 we still quite festively celebrated his eightieth birthday. There was a beautiful balance of tranquillity and activity in his life. With a remarkable deliberateness, without any impassioned striving or crying, he contributed an infinite amount to the intellectual culture of the nation.”8