Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who embraced many fields of human endeavor, ranks as the greatest of all German poets. Of all modern men of genius, Goethe is the most universal.

The many-sided activities of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stand as a tribute to the greatness of his mind and his personality. Napoleon I's oft-quoted remark about Goethe, made after their meeting at Erfurt—"Voilàun homme!" (There's a man!)—reflects later humanity's judgment of Goethe's genius. Not only, however, does Goethe rank with Homer, Dante Alighieri, and William Shakespeare as a supreme creator, but also in his life itself— incredibly long, rich, and filled with a calm optimism— Goethe perhaps created his greatest work, surpassing even his Faust, Germany's most national drama.

Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main on Aug. 28, 1749. He was the eldest son of Johann Kaspar Goethe and Katharina Elisabeth Textor Goethe. Goethe's father, of Thuringian stock, had studied law at the University of Leipzig. He did not practice his profession, but in 1742 he acquired the title of kaiserlicher Rat (imperial councilor). In 1748 he married the daughter of Frankfurt's burgomaster. Of the children born to Goethe's parents only Johann and his sister Cornelia survived to maturity. She married Goethe's friend J. G. Schlosser in 1773. Goethe's lively and impulsive disposition and his remarkable imaginative powers probably came to him from his mother, and he likely inherited his reserved manner and his stability of character from his stern and often pedantic father.

Early Life

Goethe has left a memorable picture of his childhood, spent in a large patrician house on the Grosse Hirschgraben in Frankfurt, in his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit. He and Cornelia were educated at home by private tutors. Books, pictures, and a marionette theater kindled the young Goethe's quick intellect and imagination.

During the Seven Years War the French occupied Frankfurt. A French theatrical troupe established itself, and Goethe, through his grandfather's influence, was allowed free access to its performances. He much improved his knowledge of French by attending the performances and by his contact with the actors. Meantime, his literary proclivities had begun to manifest themselves in religious poems, a novel, and a prose epic.

In October 1765 Goethe—then 16 years old—left Frankfurt for the University of Leipzig. He remained in Leipzig until 1768, pursuing his legal studies with zeal. During this period he also took lessons in drawing from A. F. Oeser, the director of the Leipzig Academy of Painting. Art always remained an abiding interest throughout Goethe's life.

During his Leipzig years Goethe began writing light Anacreontic verses. Much of his poetry of these years was inspired by his passionate love for Anna Katharina Schönkopf, the daughter of a wine merchant in whose tavern he dined. She was the "Annette" for whom the collection of lyrics discovered in 1895 was named.

The rupture of a blood vessel in one of his lungs put an end to Goethe's Leipzig years. From 1768 to the spring of 1770 Goethe lay ill, first in Leipzig and later at home.

It was a period of serious introspection. The Anacreontic playfulness of verse and the rococo manner of his Leipzig period were soon swept away as Goethe grew in stature as a human being and as a poet.

Study in Strasbourg

Goethe's father was determined his son should continue his legal studies. Upon his recovery, therefore, Goethe was sent to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace and a city that lay outside the German Empire. There his true Promethean self and his poetic genius were fully awakened. One of the most important events of Goethe's Strasbourg period was his meeting with Johann Gottfried von Herder. Herder taught Goethe the significance of Gothic architecture, as exemplified by the Strasbourg Minster, and he kindled Goethe's love of Homer, Pindar, Ossian, Shakespeare, and the Volkslied. Without neglecting his legal studies, Goethe also studied medicine.

Perhaps the most important occurrence of this period was Goethe's love for Friederike Brion, the daughter of the pastor of the nearby village of Sesenheim. Later Goethe immortalized Friederike as Gretchen in Faust. She also inspired the Friederike Songs and many beautiful lyrics. Kleine Blumen, kleine Blätter and Wie herrlich leuchtet mir die Natur! heralded a new era in German lyric poetry.

During this Strasbourg period Goethe also reshaped his Alsatian Heidenröslein. His lyrical response to the Gothic architecture of Strasbourg Minster appeared in his essay Von deutscher Baukunst (1772). Goethe also probably planned his first important drama, Götz von Berlichingen, while in Strasbourg. In August 1771 Goethe obtained a licentiate in law, though not a doctor's degree. He returned to Frankfurt in September and remained there until early 1772.

"Sturm und Drang" Period

From spring to September 1772 Goethe spent 4 months in Wetzlar in order to gain experience in the legal profession at the supreme courts of the empire. However, Goethe found a more genial society in a local inn among the "Knights of the Round Table," calling himself "Götz von Berlichingen."

Goethe's passionate love for Charlotte Buff—who was the daughter of the Wetzlar Amtmann (bailiff) and was engaged to Johann Christian Kestner, the secretary of legation and a member of the Round Table—created a crisis. Out of its agony—Goethe's obsession with Charlotte led him almost to suicide—the poet created the world-famous novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774). A Rhine journey in the autumn of 1772 and intense preoccupation with his literary projects on his return to Frankfurt brought partial recovery to Goethe.

Goethe remained in Frankfurt until the autumn of 1775, and these were years of fantastic productivity. Götz von Berlichingen was finished in 1773. This play established the Shakespearean type of drama on the German stage and inaugurated the Sturm und Drang movement. Another play—Clavigo—soon followed. A tragedy, Clavigo marked considerable advancement in Goethe's art.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers appeared in 1774. This novel, written in the epistolary style, brought Goethe international fame and spread "Werther fever" throughout Europe and even into Asia. A sentimental story of love and suicide, Werther utilized the private and social experiences of its author's months in Wetzlar, molding them into one of the most powerful introspective novels of all time. Its psychological impact upon Goethe's contemporaries and its influence on German literature can scarcely be exaggerated.

Many unfinished fragments—some of them magnificent—also date from these years. Goethe worked on the dramas Caesar and Mahomet and the epic Der ewige Jude. A fragment of Prometheus, a tragedy, ranks among the poet's masterpieces. Perhaps the greatest work from these years was Goethe's first dramatization of the Faust legend.

During these years Goethe's poetic genius found its own unique self. The masterpieces of this great Sturm und Drang period include Wanderers Sturmlied (1771); Mahomets Gesang (1772-1773); An Schwager Kronos (1774); Prometheus (1774), a symbol of the self-confident genius; and Ganymed (1774), the embodiment of man's abandonment to the mysteries of the universe.

In 1775 Goethe fell in love with Lili Schönemann, the daughter of a Frankfurt banker. Goethe became formally betrothed to her, and Lili inspired many beautiful lyrics. However, the worldly society Lili thrived in was not congenial to the poet. A visit to Switzerland in the summer of 1775 helped Goetherealize that this marriage might be unwise, and the engagement lapsed that autumn. Neue Liebe, Neues Leben and An Belinden (both 1775) are poetic expressions of Goethe's happiest hours with Lili, while Auf dem See, written on June 15, 1775, reflects his mood after he broke the spell that his love for Lili had cast upon him. Goethe also conceived another drama during these Frankfurt years and actually wrote a great part of it. However, he did not publish Egmont until 1788. Graf Egmont, its protagonist, is endowed with a demonic power over the sympathies of both men and women, and he represents the lighter side of Goethe's vision—a foil to Faust—and his more optimistic outlook.

Career in Weimar

On Oct. 12, 1775, the young prince of Weimar, Duke Karl August, arrived in Frankfurt and extended an invitation to Goethe to accompany him to Weimar. On November 7 Goethe arrived in the capital of the little Saxon duchy that was to remain his home for the rest of his life. The young duke soon enlisted Goethe's services in the government of his duchy, and before long Goethe had been entrusted with responsible state duties.

As minister of state, Goethe interested himself in agriculture, horticulture, and mining, all fields of economic importance to the duchy's welfare. Eventually his many state offices in Weimar and his social and political commitments became a burden and a hindrance to his creative writing. Perhaps Goethe's most irksome responsibility was the office of president of the Treasury after 1782.

Goethe made his first long stay at Weimar from November 1775 until the summer of 1786. In 1782 Emperor Joseph II conferred a knighthood on him. During these 12 years Goethe's attachment for Charlotte von Stein, the wife of a Weimar official and the mother of seven children, dominated his emotional life. A woman of refined taste and culture, Frau von Stein was 7 years Goethe's senior and was perhaps the most intellectual of the poet's many loves.

The literary output of the first Weimar period included a number of lyrics (Wanderers Nachtlied, An den Mond, and Gesang der Geister über den Wassern), ballads (Der Erlkönig), a short drama (Die Geschwister), a dramatic satire (Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit), and several Singspiele (Lila; Die Fischerin; Scherz; List und Rache; and Jery und Bätely). Goethe also planned a religious epic (Die Geheimnisse) and a tragedy (Elpenor). In 1777 Goethe began to write a theatrical novel, Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung. In 1779 the prose version of his drama Iphigenie auf Tauris was performed.

Under Frau von Stein's influence Goethe matured as an artist as well as a personality. His course toward artistic and human harmony and renunciation was mirrored in several poems written during this period: Harzreise im Winter (1777); Ein Gleiches (1780), Ilmenau (1783), and Zueignung (1784).

Italian Journey

In September 1786 Goethe set out from Karlsbad on his memorable and intensely longed-for journey to Italy. He traveled by way of Munich, the Brenner Pass, and Lago di Garda to Verona and Venice. He arrived in Rome on Oct. 29, 1786, and soon established friendships in the circle of German artists. In the spring of 1787 Goethe traveled to Naples and Sicily, returning to Rome in June 1787. He departed for Weimar on April 2, 1788.

It would be almost impossible to overstate the importance of Goethe's Italian journey. Goethe regarded it as the high point of his life, feeling it had helped him attain a deep understanding of his poetic genius and his mission as a poet. No longer in sympathy with Sturm und Drang even before his departure from Weimar, Goethe was initiated into neoclassicism by his vision of the antique in Italy. Goethe returned to Weimar not only with a new artistic vision but also with a freer attitude toward life. He recorded this journey in his Italienische Reise at the time of his trip, but he did not publish this volume until 1816-1817.

Return to Weimar

Goethe returned from Italy unsettled and restless. Shortly afterward, his ties with Frau von Stein having been weakened by his extended stay in Italy and by lighter pleasures he had known there, Goethe took the daughter of a town official into his house as his mistress. Christiane Vulpius, although she could offer no intellectual companionship, provided the comforts of a home. Gradually, she became indispensable as a helpmate, although she was ignored by Goethe's friends and unwelcome at court. Their son August was born in 1789, and Goethe married her in 1806, when the French invasion of Weimar endangered her position.

Goethe had finished Egmont in Italy. Additional literary fruits of his trip were the Römische Elegien, which reflected Italy's pagan influences, written in 1788-1789; the iambic version of Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787); and a Renaissance drama, Torquato Tasso (1790). Goethe also planned an epic Nausikaa and a drama Iphigenie auf Delphos. Faust was brought an additional step forward, part of it being published in 1790 as Faust, Ein Fragment.

Meanwhile, two new interests engrossed Goethe and renewed his Weimar ties. In 1791 he was appointed director of the ducal theater, a position he held for 22 years; and he became increasingly absorbed in scientific pursuits. From his scientific studies in anatomy, botany, optics, meteorology, and mineralogy, he gradually reached a vision of the unity of the outward and inward worlds. Not only nature and art but also science were, in his view, governed by one organic force that rules all metamorphoses of appearances.

It is absolutely misleading, however, to suggest as some critics have that after his Italian journeys Goethe became a scientist and ceased to be a poet. In 1793 Goethe composed Reineke Fuchs, a profane "World Bible" in hexameters. He also took up his abandoned novel of the theater. His projected study of a young man's theatrical apprenticeship was transformed into an apprenticeship to life. Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, varying between realism and poetic romanticism, became the archetypal Bildungsroman. Its influence on German literature was profound and enduring after its publication in 1795-1796.

Goethe's unique literary friendship with Friedrich von Schiller began in 1794. To it Goethe owed in great degree his renewed dedication to poetry. Goethe contributed to Schiller's new periodical Die Horen, composed Xenien with him in 1795-1796, received Schiller's encouragement to finish Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, and undertook at his urging the studies that resulted in the epic Hermann und Dorothea and the fragment Achilleis. Schiller's urging also induced Goethe to return once more to Faust and to conclude the first part of it. Xenien, a collection of distichs, contains several masterpieces, and Hermann und Dorothea (1797) ranks as one of the poet's most perfect creations.

From Goethe's friendly rivalry with Schiller issued a number of ballad masterpieces: Der Zauberlehrling, Der Gott und die Bajadere, Die Braut von Korinth, Alexis und Dora, Der neue Pausias, and the cycle of four Müller-Lieder.

Goethe's classicism brought him into eventual conflict with the developing romantic movement. To present his theories, he published, in conjunction with Heinrich Meyer, from 1798 to 1800 an art review entitled Die Propyläen. Goethe also defended his ideals of classical beauty in 1805 in Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert. But the triumphant publication of the first part of Faust in 1808 defeated Goethe's own classical ideals. It was received as a landmark of romantic art.

Last Years

The last period of Goethe's life began with Schiller's death in 1805. In 1806 he published his magnificent tribute to Schiller Epilog zu Schillers Glocke. In 1807 Bettina von Arnim became the latest (but not the last) of Goethe's loves, for the poet soon developed a more intense interest in Minna Herzlieb, the foster daughter of a Jena publisher.

The publication of the first part of Faust in 1808 was followed by the issuance the next year of a novel, Die Wahlverwandtschaften, an intimate psychological study of four minds. The most classical and allegorical of Goethe's works, Pandora, was published in 1808. The scientific treatise Zur Farbenlehre appeared in 1810.

In 1811 Goethe published the first volume of his autobiography, Aus meinem Leben, Dichtung und Wahrheit. Volumes 2 and 3 followed in 1812 and 1814. The fourth, ending with Goethe's departure from Frankfurt in 1775 for Weimar, appeared in 1833, after his death. Additional materials for a continuation of Dichtung und Wahrheit into the Weimar years were collected in Tag und Jahreshefte (1830).

Increasingly aloof from national, political, and literary partisanship in his last period, Goethe became more and more an Olympian divinity to whose shrine at Weimar all Europe made pilgrimage. In 1819 Goethe published another masterpiece, this one a collection of lyrics inspired by his young friend Marianne von Willemer, who figures as Sulieka in the cycle. Suggested by his reading of the Persian poet Hafiz, the poems that constitute Westöstlicher Diwan struck another new note in German poetry with their introduction of Eastern elements.

Meanwhile, death was thinning the ranks of Goethe's acquaintances: Wieland, the last of Goethe's great literary contemporaries, died in 1813; Christiane in 1816; Charlotte von Stein in 1827; Duke Karl August in 1828; and Goethe's son August died of scarlet fever in Rome in 1830.

In 1822 still another passion for a beautiful young girl, Ulrike von Levetzow, inspired Goethe's Trilogie der Leidenschaft: An Werther, Marienbader Elegie, and Aussöhnung. The trilogy is a passionate and unique work of art written in 1823-1824, when Goethe was approaching the age of 75. Between 1821 and 1829 Goethe published the long-promised continuation of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre—Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, a loose series of episodes in novel form. His Novelle appeared in 1828.

However, the crowning achievement of Goethe's literary career was the completion of the second part of Faust. This work had accompanied Goethe since his early 20s and constitutes a full "confession" of his life. The second part, not published until after Goethe's death, exhibited the poet's ripe wisdom and his philosophy of life. In his Faust Goethe recast the old legend and made it into one of Western literature's greatest and noblest poetic creations. The salvation of Faust was Goethe's main departure from the original legend, and he handled it nobly in the impressively mystical closing scene of the second part.

Goethe died in Weimar on March 22, 1832. He was buried in the ducal crypt at Weimar beside Schiller.

Further Reading on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe reveals himself in Goethe's Autobiography: Poetry and Truth from My Life (trans. 1932) and Italian Journey, 1786-1788 (trans. 1962). An excellent introduction to Goethe the man is David Luke and Robert Pick, eds., Goethe: Conversations and Encounters (1966), a collection of writings by his contemporaries. Biographies of Goethe include John G. Robertson, The Life and Work of Goethe, 1749-1832 (1932), and Richard Friedenthal, Goethe: His Life and Times (1963; trans. 1965). Among the best introductions to Goethe's work are Barker Fairley, A Study of Goethe (1947); Henry Hatfield, Goethe: A Critical Introduction (1963); and Ronald Gray, Goethe: A Critical Introduction (1967). Georg Lukács, Goethe and His Age (1948; trans. 1968) analyzes him from a Marxist viewpoint. His writings and thought are examined in Barker Fairley, Goethe as Revealed in His Poetry (1932; rev. ed. 1963); Ronald Peacock, Goethe's Major Plays (1959); Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby, Goethe: Poet and Thinker (1962); and Hans Reiss, Goethe's Novels (1963; trans. 1969).

Contemporary scholars discuss Goethe in Victor Lange, ed., Goethe: A Collection of Critical Essays (1968). Specialized studies include Humphry Trevelyan, Goethe and the Greeks (1941); Adolf I. Frantz, Half a Hundred Thralls to Faust: A Study Based on the British and the American Translators of Goethe's Faust, 1823-1949 (1949); and Stuart Pratt Atkins, The Testament of Werther in Poetry and Drama (1949) and Goethe's Faust: A Literary Analysis (1958).