Here’s an extract from The Rainbow (1915) by D. H. Lawrence describing Will Brangwen’s infatuation with German religious art:
These were the finest carvings, statues, he had ever seen. The book lay in his hands like a doorway. The world around was only an enclosure, a room. But he was going away. He lingered over the lovely statues of women. A marvellous, finely-wrought universe crystallized out around him as he looked again, at the crowns, the twining hair, the woman-faces. He liked all the better the unintelligible text of the German. He preferred things he could not understand with the mind. He loved the undiscovered and the undiscoverable. He pored over the pictures intensely. And these were wooden statues, “Holz” — he believed that meant wood. Wooden statues so shapen to his soul!
Now an extract from a novel published almost seventy years earlier. The heroine-narrator is listening on a conversation between two young ladies – poor but refined – reading a book in a foreign language:
And in a low voice she read something, of which not one word was intelligible to me; for it was in an unknown tongue—neither French nor Latin. Whether it were Greek or German I could not tell.
“That is strong,” she said, when she had finished: “I relish it.” …
“‘Da trat hervor Einer, anzusehen wie die Sternen Nacht.’ Good! good!” she exclaimed, while her dark and deep eye sparkled. “There you have a dim and mighty archangel fitly set before you! The line is worth a hundred pages of fustian. ‘Ich wäge die Gedanken in der Schale meines Zornes und die Werke mit dem Gewichte meines Grimms.’ I like it!”
This is Jane Eyre observing the Rivers sisters, of course; the quotes are from Schiller’s The Robbers (Die Räuber). The girls admit that they cannot quite understand the German without a dictionary. Even so, they seem to get the meaning of the German sentences all right. (The last word in the first one should be Sternennacht, not Sternen + Nacht.) As Franz Moor recounts his vision: “Then stepped forth one like the starry night to behold,” if I understand correctly. “I weigh the thoughts on the scales of my wrath and the works with the weight of my rage.” A mighty angel indeed.