Supplementary Appendix 440.2

Madame de Staël on Zacharias Werner, Attila (Berlin 1808) [*]

Another very fine and very original production of Werner’s is his “Attila.” The author takes up the history of this scourge of God at the moment of his appearance before the gates of Rome. The first act opens with the lamentations of women and children who have just escaped from the ashes of Aquileia; and this exposition into action not only excites interest from the first, but gives a terrible idea of the power of Attila. It is a necessary art for the stage, to make known the principal characters, rather by the effect they produce on those about them, than by a portrait, how striking soever. A single man, multiplied by those who obey him, fills Asia and Europe with consternation. What a gigantic image of despotic will does this spectacle afford us.

Next to the character of Attila is that of a princess of Burgundy, Hildegonde, who is about to be united to him, and by whom he imagines himself beloved. This princess harbors a deep feeling of vengeance against him for the deaths of her father and lover. She is resolved to marry, only that she may assassinate him; and, by a singular refinement of hatred, she nurses him when wounded, that he may not die the honorable death of a soldier. This woman is painted like the goddess of war; her fair hair and her scarlet vest seem to unite in her person the images of weakness and fury.

It is a mysterious character, which at first takes strong hold on the imagination; but, when this mystery goes on continually encreasing, when the poet gives us to suppose that an infernal power has obtained possession of her, and that not only, at the end of the piece, she immolates Attila on the wedding night, but stabs his son, of the age of fourteen years, by his side, this creature loses all the features of womanhood, and the aversion she inspires gains the ascendency over the terror she is otherwise calculated to excite.

Nevertheless,” this whole part of Hildegonde is an original invention; and, in an epic poem, which might admit of allegorical personages, this Fury in the disguise of gentleness, attached to the steps of a tyrant, like perfidious Flattery, might doubtless produce a grand effect.

At last this terrible Attila appears, in the midst of the flames that have consumed the city of Aquileia; he seats himself on the ruins of the palace he has just destroyed, and seems charged with the task of accomplishing alone, in a single day, the work of ages. He has a sort of superstition, as it were, that centres in his own person, is himself the object of his own worship, believes in himself, regards himself as the instrument of the decrees of heaven, and this conviction mingles a certain system of equity with his crimes. He reproaches his enemies with their faults, as if he had not committed more than all of them; he is a ferocious, and yet a generous barbarian, he is despotic, and yet shows himself faithful to his word; to conclude, in the midst of all the riches of the world he lives a soldier, and asks nothing of earth but the enjoyment of subduing her.

Attila performs the functions of a judge in the public square, and there pronounces sentence on the crimes that are brought before his tribunal, with a natural instinct that penetrates deeper into the principles of action than abstract laws, which decide alike upon cases materially different. He condemns his friend who is guilty of perjury, embraces him in tears, but orders that he shall be instantly torn to pieces by horses; he is guided by the notion of an inflexible necessity, and his own will appears to him to constitute that necessity.

[Attila’s friend, guilty of perjury, is led away]


The emotions of his soul have a sort of rapidity and decision which excludes all shades of distinction; it seems as if that soul bore itself altogether, with the irresistible impulse of physical strength, in the direction it follows. At last they bring before his tribunal a man who has slain his brother: having himself been guilty of the same crime, he is strongly agitated, and refuses to be the judge of the culprit. Attila, with all his transgressions, believed himself charged with the accomplishment of the divine justice on earth, and, when called upon to condemn another for an outrage similar to that by which his own life has been soiled, something in the nature of remorse takes possession of him to the very bottom of his soul.

The second act is a truly admirable representation of the court of Valentinian at Rome. The author brings on the stage, with equal sagacity and justice, the frivolity of the young Emperor, who is not turned aside by the impending ruin of his empire from his accustomed range of dissipations; the insolence of the Empress-mother, who knows not how to sacrifice the least portion of her animosities to the safety of the state, and who abandons herself to the most abject baseness, the moment any personal danger threatens her. The courtiers, indefatigable in intrigue, still seek each other’s ruin on the eve of the ruin of all; and ancient Rome is punished by a barbarian for the tyranny she exercised over the rest of the world: this picture is worthy of a poetical historian like Tacitus.

In the midst of characters so true, appears pope Leo, a sublime personage furnished by history, and the Princess Honoria, whose inheritance is claimed by Attila for the purpose of restoring it to her. Honoria secretly imbibes a passionate love for the proud conqueror whom she has never beheld, but whose glory has enflamed her imagination.

[Pope Leo pronounces Rome’s doom because of Honoria’s transgression.]


We see that the author’s intention has been to make Hildegonde and Honoria the good and evil genius of Attila; and from the moment we perceive the allegory which we fancy to be wrapped up in these personages, the dramatic interest which they are otherwise calculated to inspire grows cold.

[Hildegunde, Attila, and Attila’s son]


[Hildegunde slays Heraclius]


This interest, nevertheless, is admirably revived in many scenes of the play, particularly when Attila, after having defeated the armies of the Emperor Valentinian, marches to Rome, and meets on his road Pope Leo, borne in a litter, and preceded by all the pomp of the priesthood.

Leo calls upon him, in the name of God, to abstain from entering the eternal city. Attila immediately experiences a religious terror, till that moment a stranger to his soul. He fancies that he beholds St. Peter in heaven, standing with a drawn sword to prohibit his advance. This scene is the subject of an admirable picture of Raphael’s. On one side, a calm dignity reigns in the figure of the defenceless old man, surrounded by other men, who all, like himself, repose with confidence in the protection of God; and on the other, consternation is painted on the formidable countenance of the king of the Huns; his very horse rears with affright at the blaze of celestial radiance, and the soldiers of the invincible cast down their eyes before the white hairs of the holy man, who passes without fear through the midst of them.

The words of the poet finely express the sublime design of the painter; the discourse of Leo is an inspired hymn; and the manner in which the conversion of the warrior of the North is indicated seems to me also truly admirable. Attila, his eyes turned towards heaven, and contemplating the apparition which he thinks he beholds, calls Edecon, one of the chiefs of his army, and says to him:

“Edecon, dost thou not perceive there on high a terrible giant? Dost thou not behold him even above the place where the old man is made conspicuous by the refulgence of heaven?”


“I see only the ravens descending in troops over the dead bodies on which they are going to feed.”


“No; it is not a phantom: perhaps it is the image of him who is alone able to absolve or condemn. Did not the old man predict it? Behold the giant whose head is in heaven, and whose feet touch the earth; he menaces with his flames the spot upon which we are standing; he is there, before us, motionless; he points his flaming sword against me, like my judge.”


“These flames are the light of heaven, which at this moment gilds the domes of the Roman temples.”


“Yes, it is a temple of gold, studded with pearls, that he bears upon his whitened head; in one hand he holds his flaming sword, in the other two brazen keys, encircled with flowers and rays of light; two keys that the giant has doubtless received from the hands of Odin, to open or shut the gates of Valhalla.”

From this moment, the Christian religion operates on the soul of Attila, in spite of the belief of his ancestors, and he commands his army to retreat to a distance from Rome.

The tragedy should have ended here, and it already contains a sufficient number of beauties to furnish out many regular pieces; but a fifth act is added, in which Leo, who, for a pope, is much too deeply initiated in the mystic theory of love, conducts the Princess Honoria to Attila’s camp on the very night in which Hildegonde marries and assassinates him.

[Pope Leo unites Attila and Honoria]


The Pope, who has a foreknowledge of this event, predicts without preventing it, because it is necessary that the fate of Attila should be accomplished. Honoria and Pope Leo offer up prayers for him on the stage. The piece ends with a Hallelujah, and, rising to heaven like a poetical incense, evaporates instead of being concluded.


[*] Zacharias Werner, Attila, König der Hunnen: eine romantische Tragödie in fünf Akten (Berlin 1808); Baroness Staël Holstein, Germany, anonymously translated, 3 vols. (London 1813), 2:399–403. The illustrations are those from Werner’s first edition, though Staël does not specifically address them. Back.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott