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

xxxxxAs we have seen (1774 G3a), the German writer Wolfgang von Goethe produced some outstanding poems, novels and drama within both the romantic and classical movements. Particularly notable were his The Sorrows of Young Werther, and dramas such as Egmont and Torquato Tasso. His later period, from 1805 onwards, saw the publication of his Wilhelm Meister Travels, a wealth of outstanding lyrics - some oriental in content -, and his autobiography. But his major work of this period was Faust, completed in two parts in 1808 and 1831. Based on the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil, this is a highly complex study of man’s individuality, of his right to determine his own destiny by free inquiry. Goethe possessed an infinite understanding of human needs and aspirations. He wrote of man’s struggle for personal identity, and the fulfilment of his talent. But the width of his literary skills was matched by his interest in a wide variety of other subjects, including optics, geology, anatomy and biology, a branch of science in which he studied the metamorphosis of plants and animals, and the concept of evolution. His friends included Herder, Schiller, Tischbein, Kaufmann and the Austrian statesman Metternich.

xxxxxAs we have seen (1774 G3a), the German intellectual giant Wolfgang von Goethe produced a vast number of poems, ballads, novels and dramas. His two early works, Goetz of Berlichningen of 1773 and The Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, marked the beginning of the romantic movement known as Sturm und Drang. However, after a visit to Italy in 1778, he adopted the classical restraints imposed on literature, producing dramas like Iphigenia in Tauris, Egmont and Torquato Tasso. He often worked in collaboration with the German writer Johann Gottfried Herder, and in 1794 began a close friendship with the dramatist Friedrich von Schiller. To this period belong his Roman Elegies and the start of his Wilhelm Meister novels. But Goethe was a man whose interests went well beyond literature. He wrote a great deal on scientific subjects, including osteology, biology and optics.

xxxxxThis later period, 1805 until his death at Weimar in 1832, was as productive, if not more so, than his output in the 18th century. Apart from his masterpiece Faust, his writing in this period produced a number of notable works, including the novels Elective Affinities and Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, his own Journey to Italy, published in 1816, and his collection of pseudo-oriental lyrics West-East Divan, produced three years later. His Autobiography, begun in 1811, spanned the rest of his life. Products of his scientific research were his Theory of Colours in 1810, a work in which he rejected Newton’s theory of light, and his Metamorphosis of Animals tens years later.

xxxxxFaust, of course, is the work by which Goethe will be for ever remembered. The first part, completed in 1808 was romantic in theme and treatment, and the second part, finished in 1831, was classical in form and spirit - a reflection, in fact, of Goethe’s own transition from the rebellious Sturm und Drang movement of his early, heady days, to the calm restraint of his later years. By necessity, this masterpiece of German literature, being a record of Goethe’s thinking during a lifetime of learning and experience, was long in the making, written intermittently over a period of more than fifty years. It was not, by any means, therefore, a simple re-make about the man who sells his soul to the devil - though this obviously plays a part - but a highly complex study of man’s individuality, of his right to determine his own destiny by free inquiry, be it concerned with this life or the one to come. Faust like Goethe himself, gave way to temptation, but his constant search for learning and accomplishment is also to be seen as a genuine quest for perfection.

xxxxxIn attempting to assemble in one work this outpouring of his heart and mind, Goethe called Faust a tragedy, but it is full of comic as well as dramatic episodes, features pathos and satire, and has a wealth of poetry in a wide range of verse form. Faust himself, seen as the hero much of the time, is spared a tragic ending - he is redeemed and taken up to heaven by angels - and Mephistopheles, the villain of the piece, is often more liked than loathed. Yet from this mythical Faust emerges a brilliant, if somewhat jumbled, kaleidoscopic appraisal of man’s cultural heritage, ranging across a spectrum which includes theology, philosophy, mythology, music and literature.

xxxxxMany writers in the 19th and 20th centuries wrote on the theme of Faust, but none achieved Goethe’s standard or success. In the music world the French composer Hector Berlioz produced a dramatic cantata The Damnation of Faust in 1846, both Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann composed work around the same subject, and the opera Faust, by the Frenchman Charles Gounod, was given its first performance in Paris in 1859. This proved highly successful, but was only based on the first part of Goethe’s work. In his own time, numerous songs and poems were put to music by composers such as Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart and Franz Schubert. It is estimated that by 1912 there were over 2,600 musical compositions based on works by Goethe!

xxxxxGoethe was a literary colossus, and he gained a worldwide reputation for the quality and width of his writings. A man who possessed an infinite understanding of human needs and aspirations, he wrote of man’s struggle for personal identity, and the fulfillment of his talent - very much in the likeness of his own transition from fiery youth to an oracle of wisdom. His characters were real individuals, not created solely for his own dramatic ends. Above all, his writing showed a remarkable diversity. Its style ranged from the exuberance of Sturm und Drang, to the balanced harmony of pure classicism, whilst its form included drama, epic and ballad poetry, novels, songs, autobiographical works and short stories (“entertainments” as he called them). It is by dint of his achievement across all these forms that he has come to be regarded as the founder of modern German literature. For sheer quality, his lyric poetry stands out above all for its originality and beauty. Many women played a part in Goethe’s life, and much of this verse was inspired by a love fulfilled or a love denied. And in addition, his enchanting work West-East Divan opened a new frontier in German poetry, introducing Eastern elements inspired by his reading of the Persian poet Hafiz.

xxxxxGoethe was also an accomplished literary critic, translator and theatre director, but his interest and achievement stretched far beyond the realm of letters. He regarded the entire range of human knowledge as his rightful domain. From his youth he showed an immense interest in art and architecture - he had himself a distinct talent for drawing -, and his scientific research spanned a number of disciplines, including optics, geology, anatomy and biology - a branch in which he contributed to the “metamorphosis” of plants and animals, and the concept of evolution. (The book illustrated here – Conversations with Goethe – was written by his long-serving secretary and friend Johann Eckermann (1792-1854). Produced in three volumes from 1836 to 1848, this work served to emphasise the width of Goethe’s interests and the depth of his knowledge.)

xxxxxGoethe’s life must be seen against a background of rebellion and conflict stretching from the Seven Years’ War to the French revolution of 1830. As we have seen, in 1792 he was a witness to the French Revolutionary Wars, and in 1806 he was himself caught up in Napoleon’s invasion of the German states. He wanted freedom from French rule, but he wished for a return to the traditional form of government, that maintained by petty princes. He regarded this as an orderly and efficient system of political rule. For him greatness was to be found not in collective action, but in the perfection of each individual’s ability, attained by a gradual learning process. In that respect national boundaries were of no consequence to him.

xxxxxApart from his inspirational fellowship with Herder and Schiller, he numbered among his friends and acquaintances a vast number of people. The young Felix Mendelssohn, for example, whom he met at Weimar in 1821, dedicated one of his piano quartets to him four years later; the Scottish social historian Thomas Carlyle translated his Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in 1824; and among his artist friends he particularly valued the friendship of Johann Tischbein and Angela Kauffmann, the “poetess of the brush” whom he met in Rome and called “the inestimable lady”. He knew the philosophers Friedrich Schelling and Georg Hegel, admired the English poet Lord Byron, and along with the Austrian statesman Klemens Metternich, prided himself in being a “good European”. And, of course, he owed much to his patron, Charles Augustus, duke of Saxony-Weimar.

xxxxxGoethe died in March 1832 at the age of 82. The story goes that he died writing because, just before his death, he traced out with his finger a large letter “W” on the blanket covering his knees -presumably the initial of his name Wolfgang. He was buried alongside Schiller in a mausoleum in the ducal cemetery at Weimar, the last, it might be said, of a famous line of universal men.

xxxxxIncidentally, the original Faust was a figure of legend, an astrologer and alchemist of the Middle Ages who sold his soul to the devil in order to gain power and go in search of forbidden knowledge. He appeared as the main character in a collection of anonymous tales entitled Faustbuch in 1587. This story inspired the dramatist Christopher Marlow to write The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus in 1604, but he turned it into a serious battle between good and evil in which Faust receives his just deserts - eternal damnation. In 1784, however, the German writer Gotthold Lessing, in a play which he never finished, took a very different view. A man of the Enlightenment, he saw virtue in Faust’s relentless search for knowledge, and had his hero reconciled with God. It was this theme that Goethe adopted. ……

xxxxx…… In 1806, following the Battle of Jena, two French soldiers, keen on plunder, broke into Goethe’s house and threatened him. His long-term mistress Christiane Vulpius (illustrated) - known unkindly as his “fat better half” - came to his defence and persuaded them to leave. A few days later he married Christiane secretly, his 18-year-old son August being one of the witnesses, but the date on the rings they exchanged bore the date of the Battle of Jena, a reference to her courage, and to the end of an era. ……

xxxxx…… In October 1808 Goethe met Napoleon at Effurt. “Here’s a man!” Napoleon is reported to have said by way of greeting. Apparently they talked about The Sorrows of Werther, a novel which, we are told, Napoleon had read no less than seven times. Four years later Goethe met Beethoven, but this meeting, as we have seen, was far from a success. Neither was impressed with the other!


Goethe: by the German painter Joseph Carl Stieler (1781-1858) – Neu Pinakothek, Monaco. Mephistopheles: by the French painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), 1826/27 – Wallace Collection, London. Faust: engraving from the first Faustbuch (Faust Book), written by an unknown German author and published in 1587, artist unknown. Christiane: sketch by Goethe himself, c1788. Chamisso: by the German artist Robert Reinick (1805-1852), 1831. Schlemihl: etching by the English caricaturist George Cruikshank (1792-1878), 1827.


Adelbert von Chamisso


xxxxxAnother Faust-like tale at this time was Peter Schlemihl’s Remarkable Story by the French lyricist Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838). This is about a man who sold his shadow to the devil. This brings unexpected difficulties and, wearing a huge pair of boots, he has to wander around the world looking for his lost peace of mind. The story is written in German because Chamisso lived in Berlin from the age of nine.

xxxxxAnother Faust-like story at this time was the prose fantasy written by the French-born German romantic poet Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838). Entitled Peter Schlemihl’s Remarkable Story, and published in 1814, it told the tale of a man who sold his shadow to the devil in exchange for wealth and prestige (illustrated below). But being without a shadow soon landed him in some unexpected trouble. However, he refused to give away his soul for the return of the shadow, and, with the aid of a huge pair of boots, he is reduced to wandering around the world looking for his lost peace of mind. This supernatural theme caught the imagination of the public and it became a classic of German romantic fiction.

xxxxxAs we have seen earlier, Chamisso was also a talented biologist and collected a large number of plant specimens during a scientific expedition around the world from 1815 to 1818 - mentioned when we were studying the German scientist Humboldt in 1804. He was also an accomplished zoologist, wrote books on botany, and produced poems, some of which were put to music by the German composer Robert Schumann.