Most of the available information about Goethe's earliest years comes from his autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth, 1811-1813; translated as Memoirs of Goethe: Written by Himself , 1824). Written when the poet was in his sixties, long after he was established as the great man of German letters, the work must be recognized as Goethe's deliberately chosen image of himself for posterity. Goethe was born into the Frankfurt patriciate in 1749. His mother, Katharina Elisabeth Textor Goethe, was the daughter of the mayor; his father, Johann Caspar Goethe, was a leisured private citizen who devoted his energies to writing memoirs of his Italian journey (in Italian), patronizing local artists, and, above all, educating his two surviving children, the future poet and his sister, Cornelia. At an early age Goethe studied several languages, as well as art and music. By his early teens he was casting his school exercises in the form of an epistolary novel written in German, French, Italian, English, Latin (with occasional postscripts in Greek), and Yiddish; in his free time he wrote plays in French and poems for all occasions. Goethe attributed great importance for his early development to the social and political situation in Frankfurt, where the busy trade, the annual fairs, the ceremonials associated with the crowning of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the occupation by the French during the Seven Years' War of 1756 to 1763 brought a wealth of cosmopolitan experiences to his very doorstep.
At sixteen he was sent by his father to the University of Leipzig to study law, despite his own desire to study ancient literature in Göttingen. Since the beginning of the century Leipzig had been the major center for those Germans who looked to France for their cultural models. Johann Christoph Gottsched, ardent neoclassicist and doyen of German letters for much of the first half of the century, had taught at the university since 1730 and still determined the theater repertoire in Goethe's day. Goethe met Gottsched and studied with Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, the leading poet of the day. Neither had any significant influence on the young poet, despite his admiration for Gellert as a moralist. By the end of his second semester Goethe had lost interest in legal studies and felt he had exhausted the limited literary resources to be found at the university. He devoted his energy to learning the manners of polite society, to studying art privately with Adam F. Oeser, and to cultivating his talent on his own, especially in conversations with his cynical friend Ernst Wolfgang Behrisch, later tutor to the princes of Dessau. However much he admired the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was promulgating a new classical ideal, Goethe's main interest in both art and literature was for the real and natural; when he visited the famous art collections in Dresden, he reacted with greatest enthusiasm to the Dutch school, dutifully admired the works of the Italian school, and failed to visit the classical antiquities. In literature he admired the works of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Christoph Martin Wieland.
Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit describes the development of this concern for the real and natural as the most important advance Goethe made in Leipzig. His earliest surviving works date from this period: two collections of unpretentious social poems with mythological imagery in the style of the Greek poet Anacreon-the "Buch Annette" (Book for Annette), a manuscript discovered in 1895, and the Neue Lieder in Melodien gesetzt von Bernhard Theodor Breitkopf (New Songs, 1770), both inspired by Anna Katharina Schönkopf, daughter of the landlord in the inn where Goethe dined--and two short plays in alexandrines. The first play, Die Laune des Verliebten (The Way-ward Lover, 1806), is a pastoral comedy in which a jealous lover is cured when he learns that he, too, can be unfaithful; its naturalness resides in its simplicity. The second, Die Mitschuldigen: Ein Schauspiel (Fellow Culprits, 1787), was written soon after Goethe returned to Frankfurt but is still in the style of the Leipzig works. At the end of this brief farce each of the four characters discovers that all of the others have committed some crime equivalent to his own, so that they can all forgive one another. The setting in a German inn and the topical political allusions lend a superficial realism to the play; its true naturalness, however, lies in the bittersweet ending, in which all the characters are forgiven, but it is hard to imagine what future happiness could possibly be in store for them. In this respect the ending is like that of a middle comedy of Shakespeare, to whom Goethe was turning as the embodiment of nature in literature.
In the fall of 1768 Goethe returned to Frankfurt, suffering from a serious illness. His primary comforter during his year-long convalescence was Susanna Catharina von Klettenberg, a pietist mystic who was to serve as the model for the "schöne Seele" (beautiful soul) in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: Ein Roman (1795-1796; translated as Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, 1824). Together they read the literature of alchemical Neoplatonism, a popular activity at the time in radical Protestant circles, and performed alchemical experiments. From there Goethe's reading extended into medicine. At the same time he was also reading the works of Shakespeare, Lessing, and Rousseau, and continued to do so after he was sent to Strasbourg in March 1770 to finish his law degree.
Goethe's seventeen months in Strasbourg are usually identified as one of the major turning points in his career, although the changes that took place were clearly prepared by his activities and reading of the preceding year. Strasbourg was more German culturally than Leipzig; Goethe made it represent for himself and for German literary history the birthplace of a new, thoroughly German literature. The first step in this process was his "discovery" of the Strasbourg Cathedral and enthusiastic identification of the Gothic style as German. The second and more important step was his encounter with Johann Gottfried Herder, who arrived in Strasbourg in September. The rather difficult Herder imparted to Goethe his enthusiasm for popular poetry, primitivism, recent speculation on the origins of poetry, the works of Johann Georg Hamann, the poems of Ossian (James Macpherson), and above all the novels of Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Oliver Goldsmith. Everything Goethe learned from Herder was of decisive importance for him, and not just for his Sturm and Drang period, of which Strasbourg marks the beginning; in the last decade of his life Goethe would still be fond of asserting that Sterne and Goldsmith were among the handful of writers from whom he had learned the most. The liberating impact of these new influences was visible almost immediately in the grace, power, and freedom of the folk-songlike poems he wrote for his Alsatian beloved, Friederike Brion; some of them remain among his most popular lyrics: "Mailied" (May Song) and "Willkommen und Abschied" (Welcome and Farewell), both included in volume 8 of Goethe's Schriften (Goethe's Writings, 1787-1790). Forty years later, when Goethe described Friederike's family in Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, he proclaimed that his treatment of the episode, even as he was experiencing it, was stylized in terms of Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), all the way down to the names of the minor figures.
In September 1771 Goethe returned to Frankfurt, ostensibly to begin a law career but in fact to begin the most visible literary career in German history. The four years between his return and his departure for Weimar contain the first flowering of his genius and constitute for many critics the high point of his career. During this time Goethe began to practice law both in Frankfurt and in Wetzlar, seat of the supreme court of the Holy Roman Empire; he also wrote book reviews, engaged in constant visiting with literary friends, functioned as the center of the Sturm und Drang movement, and traveled on the Rhine and in Switzerland. The autobiography describes three emotional entanglements in this period. In Wetzlar in 1772 he met Charlotte (Lotte) Buff and fell in love with her before discovering that she was engaged to his friend Johann George Christian Kestner. In 1774 he became involved in an uncomfortably close friendship with Maximiliane Euphrosine von La Roche Brentano, daughter of the novelist Sophie von La Roche and future mother of the poet Clemens Brentano, while she was adjusting with difficulty to her marriage to Peter Anton Brentano, a wealthy Frankfurt merchant. The following year he became engaged to Anna Elisabeth (Lili) Schönemann, the daughter of a wealthy banker; although it inspired a spate of wonderful poems, the engagement was broken off in September 1775. Goethe had begun his career both as a great personality and as a great writer.
The Sturm und Drang movement aimed at establishing new political, cultural, and literary forms for Germany. Following the intellectual lead of Rousseau, Herder, and Hamann, it looked to the ancients, to England, and to the German past for models to replace the French neoclassical tradition. Hence, Goethe studied Shakespeare, Homer, Pindar, and Hans Sachs (a sixteenth-century German writer of farces) and rejected the classicism of his former hero, Wieland. In 1773 Goethe published an essay on the Strasbourg Cathedral, Von deutscher Baukunst. D.M. Ervini a Steinbach (On German Architecture), in which he praised the Gothic style; it also appeared the same year in the manifesto of the Sturm und Drang movement, Von deutscher Art und Kunst (On German Culture and Art), edited by Herder. Besides Herder Goethe's collaborators included Johann Heinrich Merck, Johann Georg Schlosser (who married Cornelia Goethe in 1773), Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, and Heinrich Leopold Wagner. There was a dimension of religious and moral concern in the movement, which resulted in Goethe's two pleas for religious tolerance, Brief des Pastors zu *** an den neuen Pastor zu *** : Aus dem Französischen (Letter from the Pastor of *** to the New Pastor of ***, 1773) and Zwo wichtige bisher unerörterte Biblische Fragen zum erstenmal gründlich beantwortet, von einem Landgeistlichen in Schwaben (Two Biblical Questions Not Previously Expounded, 1773). He studied the works of Emmanuel Swedenborg and Benedict de Spinoza and established connections with the theologian Johann Caspar Lavater, the educator Johann Bernhard Basedow, and the philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, and with such members of the older generation of poets as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Heinrich Christian Boie, and Matthias Claudius.
His first contribution in the 1771-1775 period was to unleash the Shakespeare mania for which the Sturm und Drang movement is famous. His speech "Zum Schäkespears Tag" (For Shakespeare's Day, 1854) was presented two months after his return from Strasbourg; a dithyrambic celebration of Shakespeare as a poet of nature, it has remained one of the great milestones of German Shakespeare criticism. Even more influential was the Shakespearean history play Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand: Ein Schauspiel (Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand; translated as Goetz von Berlichingen , 1799), first drafted in November 1771 and published in a revised version two years later. The play is based on a sixteenth-century chronicle in which the old baron Götz tries to maintain his independence in the face of the encroaching empire. In the resulting conflict between tradition and law Götz's side degenerates, against his will, into open rebellion. The evil of the court is embodied in the beautiful Adelheid, who seduces Götz's old friend Weislingen into breaking his engagement to Götz's sister Marie. After Weislingen marries Adelheid, she poisons him. Götz dies in prison, welcoming the freedom of a higher world. The play is written in prose (the form of Wieland's translation of Shakespeare), with explosive diction and many short scenes. The emphasis on the prosaic aspects of Shakespearean diction and structure shows that the play is not only a statement in favor of Shakespeare but also a rejection of the orderly elegance of French neoclassical form for German drama.
Goethe's other dramas of the early 1770s are of three types: short satires, mostly from 1773, on literary and cultural themes in prose or in Knittelverse, the doggerel couplets made popular by Hans Sachs; incomplete poetic dramas on great figures such as Caesar, Mahomet, Prometheus, Egmont, and Faust, the extant fragments of which are among Goethe's finest poems of the period; and a group of completed plays of more conventional form--the tragedy Clavigo: Ein Trauerspiel (1774; translated as Clavidgo: A Tragedy in 5 Acts, 1798), the drama Stella: Ein Schauspiel für Liebende in fünf Akten (1776; translated, 1798), and the operettas Erwin und Elmire: Ein Schauspiel mit Gesang (1775) and Claudine von Villa Bella: Ein Schauspiel mit Gesang (1776). Clavigo: Ein Trauerspiel and Stella: Ein Schauspiel für Liebende in fünf Akten both deal with men like Weislingen who cannot be decisively faithful to a woman. In the first version of Stella: Ein Schauspiel für Liebende in fünf Akten the shaky hero is finally shared peacefully by the two women he has married; in 1787 Goethe gave the play a more conventional tragic ending. These four plays mark the beginning of a long series of operettas and operatic plays in Goethe's oeuvre.
Goethe's poems of this period set new standards for the genre in Germany. There are ballads, such as "Der König in Thule" (The King of Thule, 1782; later included in Faust); love poems, many of which were later set to music by Beethoven and Schubert; and occasional poems, such as the masterpiece "Auf dem See" (On the Lake), written in response to a boat trip on the Lake of Zurich in the summer of 1775. There are also, finally, the great Pindaric hymns--among them "Wanderers Sturmlied" (Wanderer's Storm Hymn, included in volume 2 of Goethe's Werke [Goethe's Works, 1815-1819], 1815), "Prometheus," and "Ganymed" (both included in volume 8 of Goethe's Schriften, 1789).
Goethe's most famous work of the 1771-1775 period is Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (translated as The Sorrows of Werther , 1779), published in 1774. In this paradigmatic novel of eighteenth-century sensibility, Werther traces in a series of letters the course of his love for Lotte, who is already engaged to a solid young official when Werther meets her. Misled by the warmth of Lotte's friendship but most of all by his own intense imagination--which projects upon Lotte all the ideals garnered from his reading of Homer, Goldsmith, and Ossian--Werther gradually loses touch with the world around him, ceases to narrate coherently (an editor takes over the narration), and finally shoots himself. The novel is based on Goethe's relationship with Charlotte Buff and her fiancé, Kestner; the suicide for love of an acquaintance, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, provided the model for Werther's death. As important as the personal experiences for the novel are the literary experiences: the epistolary novel of sensibility from Samuel Richardson through Rousseau reaches its zenith in this novel. Through the passion of Werther the basic patterns of eighteenth-century subjectivity are called into question. The same conflicts and torments that Werther suffers in his relationship with Charlotte he also suffers in his relationships with nature and God. Through Werther's destructive preoccupation with himself Goethe offers a sympathetic yet penetrating commentary on the effusive introspectiveness of eighteenth-century consciousness, with its burgeoning psychology and crumbling metaphysics. By dramatically shortening the form, composing with a tight but elaborate symmetrical structure, incorporating foreign material such as translations from Ossian, inserting subordinate narratives, and especially by allowing Werther no respondents and then interrupting the flow of letters with a third-person narrator, Goethe simultaneously brought the epistolary tradition to its peak and to an end. The novel established Goethe as a European celebrity virtually overnight. To his distress it was widely misunderstood to glorify, rather than criticize, the fashionable melancholy of the age; he revised it extensively for the 1787 edition, the version in which it is now read. For his entire lifetime and beyond, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers was the work by which Goethe was known to the non-German world; only Faust has come to command the same kind of attention.
In the fall of 1775 Goethe left Frankfurt to visit Weimar at the invitation of the young duke Karl August. He quickly became the duke's close personal friend, the general court wit, and the organizer of court theatricals. IN 1776 he was awarded the rights of citizenship and assigned administrative responsibilities in the tiny duchy. Weimar was already a center for the arts, since the duke's mother, Anna Amalia, had brought Wieland to be her son's tutor; Goethe soon persuaded Herder to accept a position there as well. Much of Goethe's time was spent traveling, either for official reasons or in company with the duke. He also made two journeys of literary interest: to the Harz mountains in the winter of 1777 and to Switzerland in the fall of 1779. Shortly after his arrival in Weimar he had entered into an intense friendship with Charlotte von Stein, the wife of a court official; this relationship dominated his emotional life for the next twelve years, transforming him from the ebullient Sturmer und Dranger of the 1770s into the reserved, polished courtier of his last four decades. Humanity, virtue, and self-control were the code words of this relationship, as they were to be for much of Goethe's subsequent writing. By the early 1780s Goethe was in charge of mines, roads, war, and finance; in 1782 the duke procured for him a patent of nobility (allowing him to add "von" to his name). Just as important for his future development as the new location, occupation, and personal relationships was the broadening of Goethe's intellectual interests in Weimar: for the first time he became consistently interested in science. As when he studied alchemy, his interest extended beyond reading to collecting and experimenting; but unlike his alchemical studies and some phrenological work he had undertaken for Lavater, his work in geology, anatomy, and botany led not only to literary results but to discoveries and scientific publications. In 1784 he demonstrated the existence of the human intermaxillary (premaxillary) bone and thereby the continuity of anatomical structures across species (unbeknownst to him the discovery had already been made in Paris in 1780), and in 1787 he conceived an influential theory of metamorphosis in plants.
The productivity of the early 1770s abated in Weimar--not surprisingly, given Goethe's many other responsibilities--but it by no means collapsed. Here he wrote many of his best-loved ballads, songs, reflective nature lyrics, and love poems. While the sublimity, irony, folk-song qualities, pathos, and broad humor of his earlier poetry often persist, there is also a new reflectiveness that moderates the emotion of the earlier poems. Goethe continued to write operetta librettos and occasional satires for court entertainments; to his repertory of "minor" drama he added court masques, which he continued to write until late in his life; he also wrote a free adaptation of Aristophanes' The Birds (1787). He worked intermittently on Egmont: Ein Trauerspiel (1787; translated, 1848), which he had begun shortly before leaving Frankfurt; on successive versions, mainly in prose, of Iphigenie auf Tauris: Ein Schauspiel, published in its final blank verse version in 1787 (translated as Iphigenia: A Tragedy, 1793); and on Torquato Tasso: Ein Schauspiel (1790; translated, 1861). He also wrote Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung (Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Mission, 1911), a lively fragment about the state of the German theater.
The pressure of all these competing interests finally became too great, and Goethe fled to Italy, leaving Carlsbad in secret early in the morning of 3 September 1786. He recorded his impressions at the time in a diary for Frau von Stein; later he drew heavily on this diary for his Aus meinem Leben, zweyter Abtheilung erster Theil, zweyter Theil: Italienische Reise (1817; translated as Travels in Italy, 1846). In his reflections on Italy and his experiences there the interests and developments of the previous twelve years coalesce and become clearly articulated. Goethe had always expected to complete his education with a journey to Italy, as his father had, and twice before he had almost set out on that journey. The trip came to signify for him a rebirth, not only into a new life but into what he was always going to become: at several levels it was a journey of self-recovery. But it was in no sense a journey into himself, for his main concern was to look at objects as much as possible for themselves--at the rocks and the plants; the customs, theatricals, and festivals of the people (but never their feelings or political concerns); architecture, sculpture, and, to a lesser extent, painting. His Italy was the Italy of the high Renaissance, which included and subsumed ancient Roman Italy. Apart from brief stays in Venice and Naples and a tour of Sicily, Goethe spent all of his time in Rome, visiting galleries and monuments to study painting and sculpture. For most of his stay he socialized only with the German art colony, especially with Wilhelm Tischbein and Angelika Kauffmann. He revised and completed Egmont: Ein Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen , Iphigenie auf Tauris: Ein Schauspiel, and part of Torquato Tasso: Ein Schauspiel for the edition of his works that was under way (1787-1790); he also added two scenes to the version of Faust that he had composed before he left Frankfurt for Weimar, and selected from his Faust materials scenes that he published in preliminary form as Faust: Ein Fragment (1790).
The three plays Goethe revised are usually considered the core of his "classical" works, the first efflorescence of the objective style he developed in Italy. Egmont: Ein Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen is still concerned with the tragedy of the genius too great for the world around him and with the problem of his consciousness, but from the opposite point of view from that of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. If the latter portrays tragic preoccupation with the self, Egmont: Ein Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen articulates the tragedy of what Goethe called "das Dämonische" (the demonic), that pure unconsciousness that is in direct contact with the wellsprings of being. Comparing himself to a sleepwalker, Egmont, prince of Garve, refuses to be self-conscious, refuses to be interpretable, or to interpret the behavior of others. Immensely popular with the people of the Netherlands, who are suffering under the rule of Philip II of Spain, Egmont ignores warnings that neither his rank, his record of service, nor his standing with the people can save him when the regime decides he is too dangerous. Rejecting all intrigue, he walks blindly into a trap set by the wily Duke of Alba; but, like Götz von Berlichingen, he finds freedom just before his death in a vision of his mistress, Klärchen, as Freedom personified. The classicism of this play may best be identified in its symbolic, operatic, yet still intensely psychological language and themes. The play, which is in rhythmic prose, ranges in tone from Shakespearean mob scenes to what Friedrich Schiller called a "salto mortale in eine Opernwelt" (somersault into opera) at the end; actually, in their choral effects and the way that they symbolize the situation of the hero, the mob scenes are already operatic. Goethe was no longer imitating Shakespeare but had absorbed him into a new dramatic form of his own making.
Iphigenie auf Tauris: Ein Schauspiel combines the same intense psychological concerns with a symbolic form derived less from Shakespeare than from Euripides. Goethe is generally understood to have internalized and psychologized Euripides' drama, in which Orestes comes to barbarian Tauris in search of a statue of Apollo's sister and finds his own sister there. By making the Furies invisible and by reinterpreting the oracle so that Orestes and Iphigenie do not have to steal the statue of Diana, Goethe has indeed collapsed the mythological level of the action into the human level; but at the same time by replacing Euripides' deus ex machina with humans telling the truth, interpreting, and granting grace, he has raised the human level to the mythological: by their acts Iphigenie, Orestes, and the king of Tauris have civilized the world. The end of this play anticipates Faust in its celebration of the creative power of the human mind and will. In Italy Goethe recast the play into blank verse. The meter had been established in German drama by Lessing in Nathan der Weise (1779; translated as Nathan the Wise, 1781); Goethe showed it capable of a sublimity and complexity of diction previously achieved only in the classical meters of Klopstock and of his own Pindaric hymns.
The power and flexibility of Goethe's new dramatic language emerges fully in Torquato Tasso: Ein Schauspiel , which he finished revising after he returned from Italy in the spring of 1788. The play shows Renaissance poet Tasso when he has just completed his great epic, La Gerusalemme liberata. He is unable to come to terms either with the real political world embodied in the statesman Antonio Montecatino, or to find a satisfactory relationship with his inspiring ideal, the princess Leonore d'Este, sister of his patron, Duke Alfonso. Caught in complex intrigues, both real and imagined, Tasso attempts to fight a duel with Antonio and is placed under arrest by the duke; later, he impulsively embraces the princess. Seemingly abandoned by the duke and the princess, he turns to Antonio for support as he sinks into madness. The blank verse and the Renaissance setting frame a much more objective version of the problem of Egmont: Ein Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen . Egmont's freedom and lack of self-consciousness appear here as the idealism of the poet, who is above the vagaries and political demands of the real world. Tasso's opposite, the consummate courtier Antonio, is not seen as evil, as Alba was in Egmont: Ein Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen , but rather as the other half of Tasso's incomplete personality. (Faust was later to speak of the two souls in his breast, the one that sought the heavens and the other that clung to the world.) The two women in the play, both named Leonore, are likewise complementary personalities; bound together by their love for Tasso and for one another they seek to draw Tasso in opposite directions. By placing his hero between embodiments of his own drives toward the ideal and the real, Goethe transformed his earlier realistic psychology into a symbolic representation of psychological analysis. As a result, he was able to dispense with the Shakespearean mob scenes he used so effectively in Egmont: Ein Trauerspiel in fünf Aufzügen ; in Torquato Tasso: Ein Schauspiel the psychological aspects appear visibly on the stage instead of being mirrored in minor characters. Thus it is that despite their seeming lack of stage action Iphigenie auf Tauris: Ein Schauspiel and Torquato Tasso: Ein Schauspiel are among the most compelling plays in the German language.
Goethe returned from Italy as, he declared, an artist. Karl August relieved him of all official obligations except the directorship of the court theater, which was officially established in 1791, and of libraries and natural-historical and artistic collections in the duchy, including those at the University of Jena. Goethe returned to emotional dislocations and resentments occasioned both by the changes he had undergone and by his decision to go to Italy alone and in secret. Most severe among these was the rupture with Frau von Stein, who could not forgive his having left her side--let alone his open installation of a mistress, Christiane Vulpius, in his house shortly after his return. Only in the mid 1790s was any relationship with Frau von Stein reestablished, and then on a rather distant basis. Christiane bore Goethe several children, only one of whom--Julius August Walther, born in 1789--survived, and remained his companion until her death. Their marriage in 1806 did little to moderate the Weimar court's disapproval of Goethe's scandalous liaison with his uneducated "dicke Hälfte" (fatter half), as she was cruelly called, but their persistence in this situation is a measure both of their devotion to one another and of Goethe's distance from his immediate circle.
Indeed, he lived thereafter in a world of ideas and intellectual activities rather than in a world of events. Even the Italian journey, which he treasured for the rest of his life, was important to him as a remembered experience: he was not at all pleased when the duke dispatched him to Venice in 1790, though he used the time to learn more about Venetian painting. In Weimar he devoted his energy to studies of all sorts. In addition to his earlier interests in geology, botany, and comparative anatomy he became passionately interested in optics, and in 1790 he began publishing increasingly anti-Newtonian essays about the theory of color and scientific method in general. Much of his time was devoted to studying Kant, Plato, and Homer. His other major area of interest was art. This more academic development of his interests was reflected in his new friendships with the educator and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt and the art historian Hans Meyer; the latter, whom he had met in Italy, lived in his house from 1791 until 1802. The French Revolution was the one political event that necessarily impinged on Goethe's life, not only because it was a topic of constant interest in all circles but also because the duke, who had entered the Prussian army, insisted that Goethe accompany him on campaigns to France in 1792 and to the Rhine in 1793. Goethe reported on these events in "Campagne in Frankreich 1792" (translated as The Campaign in France in the Year 1792 , 1849) and "Belagerung von Mainz" (Siege of Mainz), published together in 1822. He continued his optical and artistic studies while trudging around after the army; his refusal to be submerged in military activity enabled him to present a clear picture of the daily reality of the campaigns.
Goethe's literary output in the early 1790s was relatively sparse. Two short plays, Der Groß-Cophta: Ein Lustspiel in fünf Aufzügen (The Great Cophta, 1792) and Der Bürgergeneral: Ein Lustspiel in einem Aufzuge. Zweyte Fortsetzung der beyden Billets (The Citizen General, 1793), and a dramatic fragment, Die Aufgeregten (The Excited Ones, published in 1817), deal with the French Revolution in poetic terms. The verse epic Reineke Fuchs (1794; translated as Reynard the Fox , 1855), does so more effectively. This translation and adaptation into hexameter of a Low German version of the old story of the fox at the court of the lion is the first result of Goethe's study of Homer. But the most important poetry of these years is the cycle of love poems "Römische Elegien" (1795; translated as Roman Elegies Translated in the Original Metres , 1876), written in the first year of his relationship with Christiane. The poems describe the gradual acceptance of a German visitor into the Roman world of history, love, art, and poetry. As the poet takes possession of his Roman beloved, so too does he enter into the cultural heritage represented by Rome to the eighteenth century and everything represented by the south to the Gothic north. Written in the elegiac couplets of Propertius, Catullus, and Ovid, and in their frank manner, the poems transmute their Roman predecessors with the same facility and success as Goethe's classical plays appropriate their predecessors. They created something of a scandal when they were published but are now recognized as the greatest love poems of the generation.
The year 1794 marks the beginning of Goethe's friendship with Schiller. Schiller had come to Jena in 1789 as professor of history on an appointment arranged by Goethe, but the older poet had had two reasons for keeping his distance from the newcomer: not only had Schiller made his reputation as a powerful Sturm und Drang poet a decade after Goethe had renounced the movement, but he had recently given up poetry for immersion in Kant. Only in 1794 did a conversation after a lecture in Jena bring the two together into what rapidly became a mutually supportive and productive relationship. Much of Goethe's energy in the following years was devoted to Schiller's journal Die Horen, published from 1795 to 1797, and then to his own successor journal, Die Propyläen: Eine periodische Schrift , published from 1798 to 1800. The program of these journals and of the poets' other work together was nothing less than the establishment of a classical German literature in the sense that the literature of fifth-century Athens had been classical: a literature that both represented and shaped a nation. While neither poet ever really spoke for or influenced the nation in the way to which they aspired, their mutual encouragement and criticism resulted in the greatest masterpieces of both men's careers.
Their excitement and productivity derived, however, not only from their friendship but also from the simultaneous emergence, largely under Goethe's supervision, of the University of Jena as the major center in Germany for the study of philosophy and science. Johann Gottlieb Fichte Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel spent substantial parts of the 1790s in Jena, Fichte and Schelling in appointments arranged in part by Goethe. Drawn to Jena by their presence and by Goethe's presence in nearby Weimar were, at various times, the major Romantic poets--August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, Clemens Brentano, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), Friedrich Hölderlin, and Heinrich von Kleist. Drawn there also for frequent visits were Wilhelm von Humboldt and his brother, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Goethe himself frequently visited Jena to attend lectures and discussions on philosophy, science, and literature. His scientific and literary studies continued unabated, with extensive reading in Greek literature, and, under the influence of A. W. Schlegel, renewed study of Shakespeare and the discovery of Calderón. He also devoted much time to running the court theater--producing, directing, and training the company both in the great modern repertory created by Mozart, Lessing, Schiller, and himself and also in the classics from the Greeks through Shakespeare and Racine. Even more than in Frankfurt in the 1770s Goethe was at the center of German intellectual life. His poetic achievement in all areas in this period is staggering. Against a rich background of "minor" works--scientific papers; important theoretical essays on art and literature; translations of works by Madame de Staël, Denis Diderot, Benvenuto Cellini, and Voltaire; a fragmentary sequel to Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute); and a spectacular torso of a drama about the French Revolution, Taschenbuch für das Jahr 1804: Die natürliche Tochter. Trauerspiel (The Natural Daughter, 1804)--Goethe produced masterpieces which set the standards for most of the nineteenth century in lyric poetry, prose narrative, and drama.
In addition to the flow of occasional and personal poems, Goethe and Schiller wrote a large collection of satiric epigrams titled "Xenien" (Xenias, 1796) and a series of famous ballads. Goethe also continued his study and practice of classical meters with a series of elegies and "Achilleis" (1808; translated as "Achilleid," 1890), a fragment in hexameter on the death of Achilles. But his most important work in this genre is Taschenbuch für 1798: Hermann und Dorothea (1798; translated as Hermann and Dorothea , 1801) a hexameter idyll in nine cantos. About an innkeeper's son in a small German town who courts a refugee fleeing the French, the poem constitutes Goethe's most important poetic response to the revolution. At the same time its delicately ironic double vision, in which its characters appear both as limited, very German bourgeois and yet also as Homeric figures, makes the poem the paradigmatic achievement of Goethe's classicism.
Goethe's prose narratives of the 1790s are no less remarkable. For Schiller's Die Horen he wrote "Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten" (1795; translated as "The Recreations of the German Emigrants," 1854), a collection of novellas in a frame narrative about refugees--this time aristocrats instead of bourgeois--from the French Revolution; the cycle focuses on the development of individual virtues such as cooperativeness and self-control as the basis for social order. But it is more important for formal reasons than for its content: it established the novella as a significant genre in German literature, and the fairy tale with which it concludes was the inspiration and model for similar works into the twentieth century. Nevertheless, in the context of the 1790s "Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten" ranks as one of Goethe's minor works, for the great narrative of the decade was Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre:Ein Roman (1795-1796; translated as Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship , 1824), the revision of the novel Goethe had drafted before he went to Italy. He had begun the revision in 1791, but the most significant part was completed in 1795 in the first flush of his friendship with Schiller. As the new title suggests, the novel no longer deals just with the theater but explores the modes of being that are open to a thoughtful member of the middle class at the close of the eighteenth century. In this respect the novel is like Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, but Wilhelm's problem is not the destructive unity of a world projected by his own solipsism; it is, rather, how to make sense out of a world and circumstances which seem to lack any coherence whatsoever. The paradigmatic example of the European Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre:Ein Roman follows its hero through a series of love affairs from late adolescence to early manhood as he flees his wealthy middle-class home to become an actor, outgrows the narrow circumstances of the German theater, and joins a secret society composed mainly of landed aristocrats committed to developing new forms of stability in a changing world. As in Torquato Tasso: Ein Schauspiel, the various figures he encounters embody different possible modes of being for Wilhelm himself--ranging from the loose actress Philine to the poetic child Mignon to the pious "schöne Seele" (beautiful soul) to the ideal woman Natalie, to whom he becomes engaged. First the theater, a traditional metaphor for life, then the mysterious secret society of the tower provide the focus for Wilhelm's journey through art and poetry toward active participation in the world. The novel encompasses a vast range of individuals, character types, settings, episodes, and kinds of narrative, as well as inserted songs. The Romantics immediately hailed the novel as an immeasurably great achievement and then, in a series of imitations, struggled with the challenges it posed. The novel sums up and combines, as no single English novel before Charles Dickens's late works did, the achievements of Fielding, Sterne, and Goldsmith; although it was fashionable for English novelists in the nineteenth century to deplore Goethe's novel for its loose morals, it established the tradition of the Bildungsroman on which they all depended.
Faust is Goethe's best-known work of the 1790s. The core of the tragedy of Margarete had been written in prose before Goethe left Frankfurt; a manuscript of this version, known as the Urfaust (original Faust), was discovered and published in 1887. Parts of this version plus the two scenes composed in Italy had been published in 1790 as Faust: Ein Fragment . From 1797 to 1801, with Schiller's encouragement, Goethe rewrote the existing scenes, expanding some of them, and added the prologues, the pact scenes, and the Walpurgis Night segment to complete Part I of the drama, which was published in 1808. He introduces several important changes in the old legend of the scholar who makes a pact with the devil Mephistopheles: his Faust seeks not power through knowledge but access to transcendent knowledge denied to the human mind; the pact is transformed into a bet under the terms of which Faust will be allowed to live as long as Mephistopheles fails to satisfy his striving for transcendence. Most significantly, Goethe makes the second half of Part I into a love tragedy: Faust seduces Margarete, an innocent young girl who embodies for him the transcendent ideal that he seeks; she is condemned to death for killing their infant, but at the last moment, as Faust and Mephistopheles abandon her in prison, a voice from above declares that she is saved. Faust, in typical Romantic fashion, conflates Neoplatonism, which opposes a transcendent mind to an immanent world, with Kantianism, which opposes an internal subject to an external object; thus, sometimes Faust has two souls, one of which longs for transcendence, the other for the world (the Neoplatonist version of the Romantic dialectic), and at other times he feels imprisoned within himself and unable to apprehend the world outside his mind (the Kantian version of the Romantic dialectic). Both sets of oppositions are resolved in play or art. Faust's pact with the devil commits him, a striver after transcendent absolutes rather like Werther, to submerge himself restlessly in the reality of the world, like Wilhelm Meister. His opposing souls come into brief moments of harmony with one another but in moments that, by the terms of his pact with Mephistopheles, must not last. The tragedy of Part I, and the tragedy of Margarete, is that the eternities of the spirit must be subject to the destruction of time if they are to be perceived in the world. The intellectual complexity is matched by the stylistic complexity: Goethe transformed the unreflected, rather primitive Shakespeareanism of the early Sturm und Drang version into the highly sophisticated, "classical," thoroughly catholic text of Part I, which appropriates and transmutes vast numbers of texts from the entire Western tradition (excepting only the Greeks, whom Goethe reserved for Part II). Similarly, the Faust theme, which Lessing and after him the Sturm und Drang movement had identified as the quintessential German theme, becomes in Goethe's treatment a bond to link Germany to the European tradition. At the same time the unreflected neoclassical definition of tragedy in the early version is transformed into a renovation of non-Aristotelian forms, ranging from mystery play and Corpus Christi play to eighteenth-century operetta. In Faust Goethe established yet again a new genre, a world theater of such complexity that it has had few successors--certainly none of equal stature.
The death of Schiller in 1805 and the defeat of the Prussians at Jena in 1806 mark another major turning point in Goethe's life. The concentration of leading German intellectuals at the University of Jena gradually dispersed, so that Goethe's loose ties to the younger Romantic generation were maintained at an increasing distance. Furthermore, his sympathy with Napoleon, his insistence on the independence of art from politics, and his unorthodox social and religious attitudes alienated him from an ever-increasing portion of his public; by the time of his death he was clearly Germany's greatest, but not its most popular, writer. For most of the nineteenth century, in fact, Heinrich Heine's label for Goethe, "der große Heide" (the great pagan) stuck, with pagan generally understood in its most pejorative sense. Nevertheless, for the next thirteen years Goethe continued his activities in art, history, science, and literature at what for anyone else would be considered a prodigious rate. He maintained his interest in classical art, wrote a biography (1811) of Philipp Hackert, an artist he had known in Italy, and took great interest in the emerging talents of Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge. Through his friendship with Sulpiz Boisserée, his early interest in Gothic art was reawakened; from 1816 until his death he edited a journal, Ueber Kunst und Alterthum (On Art and Antiquity), devoted to these interests. He collected manuscripts and coins, and began reading more widely in history.
He also became more conscious of his own historic role, perhaps partly as a result of being summoned to meet Napoleon in 1808. Around this time his friend Friedrich von Müller began keeping records of his conversations with Goethe, and Goethe started writing his autobiography. The first installment, Dichtung und Wahrheit, appeared in 1811. Apart from the information this work offers about Goethe and his interpretation of himself, it is important for the view of his times that it contains. Goethe's great contribution to the development of autobiography was his recognition that the individual can only be understood in his historical context and that all autobiographical writing is historiography.
Goethe worked steadily in the five years following Schiller's death to complete his vast Zur Farbenlehre (1810; translated as Goethe's Theory of Colours , 1840), which he sometimes called his single most important work. It consists of three parts: an exposition of Goethe's own theory of color, a polemic against the Newtonian theory that white light is a mixture of colors, and a collection of materials on the history of color theory from antiquity to Goethe's own time. While Goethe's theory has never been accepted by physicists, his insights on the perception of color have been influential, as has his recognition that scientific ideas are conditioned by their historical contexts.
As in art, Goethe's tastes in literature remained open to Romantic influence; to his continuing interest in Shakespeare and Calderón he added the medieval German epic the Nibelungenlied. He also followed the work of the new generation of poets, inside and outside of Germany, with great interest. In the theater he produced a series of plays by Calderón, stimulating thereby a lasting revival of his works; in addition, he produced plays by younger Romantic dramatists, such as Heinrich von Kleist and Zacharias Werner. He continued writing court masques, but only one major dramatic work, the operatic fragment Pandora: Ein Taschenbuch für das Jahr 1810 (1810). He wrote poems steadily, experimenting with new forms in his first group of sonnets and trying out Persian attitudes and forms in the West-östlicher Divan (1819; translated as "West-Eastern Divan," 1874), a book of poems composed in response to the German translation of Hafiz. Like the "Römische Elegien," these poems, many of them masterpieces, are arranged into a sketchy plot that articulates the poet's encounter with Hafiz and the culture he represents. The collection embodies better than any of his work except Faust the aging poet's passionate concern for "Weltliteratur" (world literature), by which term Goethe summarized his belief in a literary tradition that transcended national boundaries. The West-östlicher Divan also contains "Noten und Abhandlungen" (Notes and Treatises), brief essays on the history of Persian life and letters. As in his autobiographical and scientific writings, historical context had become indispensable to Goethe.
Before Schiller's death Goethe had begun planning a sequel to Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: Ein Roman that was, however, to be a cycle of novellas rather than a novel. Several of these novellas were written in the succeeding decade, but one of them so absorbed Goethe's interest that it developed into a novel in its own right: Die Wahlverwandtschaften: Ein Roman (1809; translated as "Elective Affinities," 1854). The title refers metaphorically to the capacity of certain elements to displace others during chemical reactions. A young girl, Ottilie, and an unnamed captain arrive at the estate of Eduard and Charlotte, and a double displacement ensues: Eduard and Ottilie are attracted to each other, as are Charlotte and the captain. When Charlotte gives birth to her and Eduard's child, it bears, paradoxically, the features of Ottilie and the captain, with whom the spouses have committed adultery only in spirit. The situation is resolved only when Ottilie forbids Eduard to divorce Charlotte and then starves herself to death. The novel retraces the concerns of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, but in a more abstract and symbolic fashion, as a third-person narrative with only inserted, impersonal diary passages and a full-scale inserted novella. Eduard is a middle-aged Werther who has survived the loss of his beloved Charlotte to marry her on the rebound from her first marriage. Confronting his selfishness and subjectivity is an inscrutable moral law embodied in a powerful natural environment and in the equally inscrutable Ottilie. The novel subtly leaves open to question the extent to which this law is not inherent in nature, but projected by the characters themselves. With its paradoxical double adultery, its frank treatment of divorce, its suicide, and its apparent apotheosis, the novel scandalized most of its readers; despite its undeniable and significant influence in the nineteenth century, especially in England and America, it only became a respectable object of study in the twentieth. It is now considered one of Goethe's major works.
Goethe's wife died in 1816; the following year their son August married Ottilie von Pogwisch, who then ran the household she and August shared with Goethe. Also in 1817 Goethe resigned as director of the court theater after some forty years of supervising Weimar's theatrical life. In the wake of the Wartburg celebration of 1817, an expression of German liberal and national sentiment, Goethe became even more alienated from the political aspirations of his younger countrymen. He spent his last years almost as a living monument to himself, sitting for portraits and busts and receiving the visits of young intellectuals from near and far. This impression is heightened by his extensive autobiographical activities in his last decade. He completed Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit and Aus meinem Leben, zweyter Abtheilung erster Theil, zweyter Theil: Italienische Reise and wrote"Campagne in Frankreich 1792" and "Belagerung von Mainz," as well as shorter reports of his activities year by year. He also organized his papers; published what he could; supervised the early stages of a complete edition of his works, the Werke: Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand (Works: Complete Edition with Final Touches, 1827-1842); and arranged for the publication of other papers after his death. Finally, he spent much time in conversations that he knew were being recorded for posterity; the most famous of these are the ones with Johann Peter Eckermann, beginning in 1823.
But these last years were not devoted only to fixing the image of the great personality. Goethe read widely and voluminously: classical authors, Shakespeare, Calderón, his beloved English novelists, and contemporary writers such as Lord Byron, Alessandro Manzoni, Sir Walter Scott, and Victor Hugo. Between 1817 and 1824 he published essays on morphology and general scientific topics in two series, continued his work in optics, read extensively in medicine, and began reading and writing about meteorology. He continued to write literary essays, reviews, and major poems. The most important among the latter are "Urworte Orphisch" (Orphic Utterances), "Trilogie der Leidenschaft" (Trilogy of Passion), "Chinesisch-Deutsche Jahres und Tageszeiten" (Sino-German Seasons and Times of Day), and the poems written in Dornburg after the death of Carl August in 1828. A masterly novella, called simply "Novelle" (Novella, 1828; translated as "Goethe's Novel," 1832), was written in 1826-1827. But Goethe also completed two major large-scale works, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre oder Die Entsagenden (1821; translated as Wilhelm Meister's Travels; or, The Renunciants, 1827) and Faust, Part II (1832; translated, 1838).
Like Goethe's other novels, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre oder Die Entsagenden represents a significant advance in the nature and structure of the European novel, though it took a long time for its true importance to be recognized. Goethe had begun planning sequels to both Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten before Schiller's death. The result was Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre oder Die Entsagenden , which appeared in a first version in 1821 and in a substantially revised and expanded version in 1829. The frame is a loose narrative of Wilhelm's journeymanship, his travels to increase his mastery of life in company with his son Felix. On his way he is offered innumerable novellas, reports, and collections of aphorisms to read, all of which are included and many of whose characters, along with old friends from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, wander in and out of the frame narrative. The end of Wilhelm's journey, his reunion with his beloved Natalie, is delayed to some indefinite time beyond the end of the novel. With this loose structure Goethe questions the possibility of individual development in the fragmented society that Europe had become during his lifetime and thus calls into question the ideals of his earlier novel and of his cultural program of the 1790s. It no longer seems possible for individual development and education to lead to social cohesion and order. Sympathetic parodies of eighteenth-century writers in the novel mourn the loss of subjectivity imposed by the new historical conditions: the problem is exactly the reverse of that in Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. Its complex ironies of tone and structure made the novel inaccessible to early audiences. Only in the twentieth century, as the accuracy of Goethe's reading of the nineteenth century became clear, was it taken seriously; and only since World War II have its literary merits begun to be appreciated.
The second part of Faust , completed in 1831 and published posthumously at Goethe's desire, has had a similar--though, perhaps because of its undeniable stylistic virtuosity, not quite so extreme--pattern of reception. Begun in the later stages of composition of Part I but completed only between 1825 and 1831, it is an elaborate unfolding and historicizing of the first part. It shows Faust first at the imperial court, then at the "Klassische Walpurgisnacht" (classical witches' sabbath), where he ransacks Greek mythology to find Helena, who bears him a son. Later he returns to the wars of the emperor, then spends his old age supervising land-reclamation projects. Satisfied that he is working for the benefit of humanity, despite the murder of an elderly couple (killed in a fire started by Mephistopheles' henchmen), at the end of his life Faust renounces magic and dies, still striving to improve his lands. Divine Grace, however, saves his soul, which is shown ascending in pursuit of an ever-receding ideal embodied once more in Margarete, "das Ewig-Weibliche" (the eternal feminine). Most of the play, from the middle of Act I to the beginning of Act IV, grounds both itself and all of modern European literature in the classical tradition, going back to what was understood at the time as the oldest levels of classical mythology. This undertaking is possible only on the basis of Goethe's extensive learning, his ability to absorb and recreate literary styles, and his understanding of the nature of allegory, a mode of writing that had been virtually lost in the eighteenth century. But not only does the play sum up Goethe's and Europe's relation to the classical tradition; it also reflects, like Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre oder Die Entsagenden , on the state of European culture and politics in Goethe's last years, and on the human condition in general. Despite the richness of the text, it never loses sight of the central issues of Part I. Over and over it makes the points that pure truth cannot be permanently manifested in time--the tragedy of the historicist; that truth can be known only temporally and imperfectly in the world--the tragedy of the Platonist; and that truth can only be known through the mental projections of the seeker himself--the tragedy of the Kantian. Nowhere are the central concerns of European Romanticism more cogently summed up in all their ramifications than in Goethe's last masterpiece. On 22 March 1832, less than two months after making his final revisions of Faust, Goethe died, probably of a heart attack.
Like all Romantics, Goethe was a profoundly dialectical thinker. For a variety of reasons, including the power of his personality, his preference for concrete detail over broad abstraction, the complexity of his views, and the uncongeniality of some of his attitudes in the prevailing political and social climate, his dialectic was disassembled and his works fragmented into the separate statements of a sage. Thus, opposing readings of Goethe have developed--as serene Olympian or tortured nihilist, as the embodiment of nineteenth-century culture or as utterly out of touch with the world around him, as concerned or indifferent--and there has been a long tradition of ambivalence toward him in Germany. The nineteenth century had strong reservations about the unconventionality of his moral stance and about his rejection of a strong nationalist position, while later generations have had more difficulty with his lack of direct political engagement. But both the vehemence of these reactions and the continuing vitality of his work testify to a power of thought that he was aware of from the earliest years of his career. An acquaintance speaks of his drive in the early 1770s "die Gedanken selbst, wie sie wären, zu denken und zu sagen" (to think and say the thought itself as it really is). This effort to articulate "the thought itself as it really is" is the challenge his writing still presents.
From: Brown, Jane K. "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe." German Writers in the Age of Goethe: Sturm und Drang to Classicism, edited by James N. Hardin and Christoph E. Schweitzer, Gale, 1990. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 94.