1749 - 1832   (G2, G3a, G3b, G3c, G4, W4)

xxxxxThe German Wolfgang von Goethe was an intellectual giant. As the founder of German literature, he produced a vast number of poems, ballads, novels and dramas. His two early works, the drama Goetz of Berlichingen of 1773, and his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, marked the beginning of the Sturm und Drang romantic movement which gave vent to freedom of expression - like emotion, instinct and imagination. However, after his visit to Italy in 1778 he adopted the classical restraints imposed on literature, to be seen in his dramas Iphigenia in Tauris, Egmont and Torquato Tasso. From 1794 he struck up a close friendship with the dramatist Friedrich von Schiller. To this period belong his Roman Elegies and the start of his Wilhelm Meister novels. As we shall see, the first part of his famous masterpiece Faust was produced in 1808 (G3c). Apart from literature, Goethe wrote on science, producing treatises on a variety of subjects, including osteology, biology and optics.

xxxxxThe German poet, novelist, dramatist and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is rightly regarded as the founder of German literature, and the leader of the romantic movement known as Sturm und Drang. A man of great literary talent and wide interests, he came to prominence in 1774 with his The Sorrows of the Young Werther, and followed this success with a series of classical dramas which included Iphigenia in Tauris, Egmont and Torquato Tasso. He began his Wilhelm Meister novels in 1795, and produced a vast quantity of lyrical poems and ballads throughout his long career. As we shall see later, the first part of his most famous masterpiece, the poetic tragedy Faust, was produced in 1808.


xxxxxAn intellectual giant, Goethe’s output was phenomenal, and filled some 143 volumes. But his genius was not confined to literature. Apart from his poetry, dramas and novels, and his work as a critic and translator, he showed an abiding interest in art, and his scientific studies alone - be it in botany, geology, anatomy or optics - filled 14 volumes. He left behind, too, a vast amount of correspondence, and this touched on a wide range of human knowledge.

xxxxxHe was born at Frankfurt-am-Main into a comfortable middle-class family and, after a private education, went to Leipzig University at the age of 16 to study law. Toxthis period belongs his earliest poems, influenced by the writings of his contemporaries Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. These early plays included a one-act comedy in verse, The Lover's Caprice, and a tragedy in verse, The Fellow-Culprits. In 1768, however, he was taken ill and had to return home. While recovering he took an interest in a variety of subjects, including art, the occult, alchemy, astrology and religious mysticism. In 1770 he resumed his law studies, this time at the University of Strasbourg, and he also continued his interest in art, music, anatomy and chemistry. It was here that he met the German philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried von Herder and, through him, gained a knowledge of Shakespeare and some of the old German epics. He then worked as a lawyer for four years, but, it was during this time that he published two of his best known works, Goetz of Berlichingen (illustrated) and The Sorrows of Young Werther.

xxxxxGoetz of Berlichingen, written in 1771, was a play about a medieval knight of that name who championed the causes of justice and freedom. Written in the mould of a Shakespearean drama wherein emotion played a dominant role, it rebelled against the rigid, formal dictates of French classicism which governed and stifled so much of German drama and literature at that time. At a stroke, in fact, it freed German drama from classical restraints by putting characters moved by passion above the concerns of plot and construction. It was this play, reinforced by the pamphlet entitled Of German Style and Art, produced by Goethe, Herder, Schiller and others in 1773, which marked the start of the Sturm und Drang movement. Meaning “storm and stress”, this literary movement was a vital step towards German romanticism. It called for a return to nature and the expression of the senses - like impulse, emotion, instinct and imagination - as against the limitations imposed by cold, calculating restrictions based on reason. And it advocated, too, the use of old, home-spun German folk songs, ballads and romances as the major source of inspiration. Thexname came from Wirrwarr oder Sturm und Drang (Confusion or Storm and Stress) of 1776, one of the early dramas written by the German writer Friedrich Klinger (1752-1831) (illustrated above). His other works included the play The Twins, and the novel Faust’s Life, Deeds and Journey to Hell.

xxxxxGoetz of Berlichingen was followed in 1774 by the highly successful The Sorrows of Young Werther, the first novel of the Sturm und Drang movement. It was autobiographical in part, being centred around Goethe’s unrequited love for Charlotte Buff, the fiancée of one of his friends. As one would expect, it was a highly romantic and tragic tale which put feelings way above any regard for laid-down literary standards. Written in the sentimental style of the French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau, it provided the model for the future novel of passion in German literature.

xxxxxIt was doubtless on the strength of this successful work that in 1775 Charles Augustus, heir to the duchy of Saxe-Weimar, invited him to his court at Weimar, an important cultural centre where he remained for the rest of his life. Over the next ten years he became involved in a variety of public duties - first as a privy councilor, and then as president of the chamber of finance - but, to his great satisfaction, he was also able to indulge his interest in a variety of scientific subjects, including geology, botany and osteology - the study of bones. His research at this time led him to reject Newton’s theory of light and to discover the intermaxillary bone in the human jaw - a finding that the English scientist Charles Darwin later considered to be a discernable link between humans and apes.

xxxxxIn 1786, having tired somewhat of life at Weimar and being anxious, as he put it, to renew himself both as a man and an artist, he went on a visit to Italy. This stay, mostly centred on Rome, proved a turning point in his career. In contact with the art and literature of the ancient world, he came to appreciate and adopt the very qualities of harmony, balance and perfection of form which he had earlier brushed aside. The emotional content which was the essence of the Sturm und Drang movement now gave way to the strict rules of classical literature and drama. He even went so far as to revise dramas he had started earlier, this time observing in every detail the dictates that he had once happily ignored. The painting Goethe in the Campagna (in Italy) is by his friend the German portrait artist Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829).

xxxxxAs a result of this dramatic change in direction, when he returned to Weimar in 1788 he decided to give up his administrative duties and to devote the rest of his life to literature and science. Over the next two years, revamping works he had started earlier, he produced three of his best-known dramas, Iphigenie auf Tauris, Egmont and Torquato Tasso. Constructed on the lessons learnt in Rome, these initiated the German classical period. Then from 1791 onwards he threw himself wholeheartedly into his role as director of the court theatre. But Goethe faced a deal of criticism at this time. His volte-face in his literary principles cost him a number of old friends, and he lost favour at court by living openly with a young girl named Christiane Vulpius (whom he later married in 1806). It was perhaps because of this sense of isolation that he returned to his scientific studies. In 1790 he wrote Essay on the Metamorphosis of Plants, and the following year his Contribution to Optics, published in two parts.

xxxxxHis return to literature coincided with the beginning of his close and long friendship with his fellow dramatist Friedrich von Schiller (illustrated) in 1794. In that year he began to contribute to his Die Horen, a magazine designed to raise standards of taste in literature and art, and they later collaborated in the production of a number of fine ballads. Schiller gave Goethe the encouragement he needed. To this period belongs his Roman Elegies, his epic in verse, Hermann and Dorothea, and, above all his Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship of 1796. This novel further enhanced Goethe’s European reputation. Couched in some of his finest lyrics, it was a rambling romance about the life of a young German artist who, lacking determination and strength of purpose in his early years, eventually develops a strong character and a powerful sense of duty. This prototype of the bildungsroman, a novel which traces the personal development of its hero, became a model for future fiction in German literature. It proved extremely popular across Europe and led to the publication of sequels in the 1820s.

xxxxxBut perhaps Schiller’s greatest contribution to world literature was in persuading Goethe to resume work on his famous tragedy Faust, the ideas for which had been forming in his mind over four decades or more. As we shall see, the first part of this masterpiece of modern literature was completed in 1808 (G3c).

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1792 Goethe accompanied his Duke on his disastrous campaign into France and, in the September, was present at the Battle of Valmy, the unexpected victory of the new French revolutionary army over a combined Austro-Prussian force. That battle, he later remarked, was the “beginning of a new epoch”. ……

xxxxx…… During his visit to Italy he went to Naples and made a number of visits to the home of the British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, meeting his mistress the beautiful Emma Hart - later the famous Lady Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress. While in the city he climbed Vesuvius three times, dragged up by clinging to a leather belt pulled by a guide. ……

xxxxx…… The age of Sturm und Drang - the literary movement which broke way from the dictates of classical drama - also saw the birth of the waltz, a romantic, lively dance (for those days!) which was not structured by the formal rules of the dancing masters. Goethe was clearly captivated by this new dance step, seeing it as a means of liberating body and soul. One passage in his The Sorrows of Young Werther reads: “Never have I moved so lightly. I was no longer a human being. To hold the most adorable creature in one’s arms and fly around with her like the wind, so that everything around us fades away.”


Goethe: by the German portrat painter Franz Gerhard von Kugelgen (1772-1820), 1810 – German Historical Museum, Berlin. Klinger: etching by the German engraver Karl August Senff (1770-1838), 1807. Campagna: by the German portrait painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829), 1787 – Städel Art Museum, Frankfurt, Germany. Schiller: detail, by the German artist Ludovike Simanowiz (1759-1827), 1794 – General German Biography, Historical Commission at the Royal Academy of Sciences, Munich, first published in 1875. Herder: by the German painter Gerhard von Kugelgen (1772-1820), 1809 – Tartu University Library, Tartu, Estonia.



Sturm und Drang and

Johann Gottfried Herder

xxxxxThe German poet, philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) was the leading member of the Sturm und Drang movement, and by bringing folk songs and the works of Shakespeare to the notice of Goethe, was instrumental in launching him on his outstanding literary career. He collaborated with Goethe, Schiller and others in the production of Of German Style and Art, published in 1773 - a work extolling the virtues of Romanticism and containing his idea of Volksgeist, the theory that each nation had its own, unique contribution to make in its language and literature. His masterpiece was Outlines on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, a work that traced man’s cultural development and anticipated the thought of the German philosopher Hegel. His life-long interest in folk songs and poetry influenced the work of the Grimm brothers. Notable among his later writings were Plastik, an outline of his metaphysics, and Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, completed in 1793.

xxxxxAs we have seen, the German poet, philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), the leading member of the Sturm und Drang movement, played an important part in awakening the young Goethe to his own and, as it proved, abundant literary talent. They met in 1770 and it is no coincidence that over the next four years Goethe produced the two works which launched the German romantic movement, Goetz of Berlichingen and The Sorrows of Young Werther. Today, Herder is remembered above all for his fine collection of German folk songs, published in 1779, his writings on art, literature and language, and his philosophical treatise Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, a learned work, completed in 1791.

xxxxxHe was born in Mohrungen, eastern Prussia (now Morag in Poland) and attended Konigsberg University. There he studied theology, philosophy and literature and was taught at times by the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In 1764 he began teaching at the cathedral school at Riga in Latvia, but he resigned five years later and travelled about Europe, beginning with a sea voyage from Riga to Nantes. During his travels he visited Strasbourg and it was here in 1770 that he met the young Goethe and inspired him with his observations on Homer, Shakespeare and German folksongs.

xxxxxHe became court preacher at Buckeburg in 1771, and it was then, as

theoretician of the Sturm und Drang movement, that he collaborated with Goethe,

Schiller and others in the production of a group of essays entitled Of German Style and

Art, published in 1773. These works, rejecting rationalism and its traditional, restrictive dictates,

extolled the virtues of the romantic spirit, as to be found in the study of epic tales, folk songs, Gothic architecture, and the poetry of Shakespeare. And in his contribution, Herder also developed further his idea of Volksgeist, put forward earlier in his Fragments on Recent German Literature of 1767. This thesis laid emphasis on the importance of developing and retaining the national characteristics to be found in a particular country’s language and literature. He called for an end to foreign influences, arguing that each nation had its own, unique contribution to make, and that this had to be encouraged and nurtured. This romantic nationalism - based on the idea of cultural unity - was to harden into the idea of political unity come the Napoleonic Wars and the French occupation of the German states in the opening years of the 19th century.

xxxxxIn 1776, due to the good offices of Goethe, he was appointed superintendent of the Luthern clergy in the city of Weimar, then Germany’s leading cultural centre. It was here that he published his collection of folksongs (Voices of the People and their Songs, 1779) and his masterpiece in four volumes, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, a work that traced man’s cultural development and anticipated the thought of the German philosopher Georg Hegel. In his Outlines he attempted to show that nature and human history conform to the same, unified system of laws, but that man, "the first liberated member of creation", often abused his freedom and acted against these laws of nature. Given time, however, he held out the hope that man would learn to conform, and harmony would thus be achieved. Among his other works were his Essay on the Origin of Language, of 1772; Plastik, an outline of his metaphysics, produced in 1776; a work on Hebrew poetry, published in 1783, and his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, completed in 1793.

xxxxxIn his life-long interest in folk songs and poetry - the means of identity, as he saw it, of a community and, indeed, a people - Herder strongly influenced the fairy-tale works of the Grimm brothers Jacob and Wilhelm. Sadly, towards the end of his life, a clash of personality, differing views over the French Revolution, and other matters led to an estrangement between Herder and Goethe, and brought to an end a friendship which, each in its own way, had been beneficial to them both.