Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

goethe(28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832),

German poet, novelist, playwright, courtier, and natural philosopher, one of the greatest figures in Western literature. Throughout his life Goethe was interested in a variety of studies and pursuits. He made important discoveries in connection with plant and animal life, and evolved a non-Newtonian theory of the character of light, which was viewed with suspicion by scientists. In literature he gained fame early with The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), but his most famous work was the poetic drama in two parts, Faust.

Noble be man,
Helpful and good!
For that alone
Sets him apart
From every other creature
On earth.
(from The Divine, 1783)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main, the first child of a lawyer Johann Caspar Goethe, and Katherine Elisabeth Textor, the daughter of the mayor of Frankfurt. Goethe had a comfortable childhood and he was greatly influenced by his mother, who encouraged his literary aspirations. After troubles at school, he received at home an exceptionally wide education. At the age of 16, Goethe began to study law at Leipzig University (1765-68), and he also studied drawing with Adam Oeser

. An unhappy love affair inspired Goethe’s first play, The Lover’s Caprice (1767). After a period of illness, resumed his studies in Strasbourg (1770-71). Some biographers have speculated that Goethe had contracted syphilis – at least his relationships with women were years apart. Goethe practised law in Frankfurt (1771-72) and Wetzlar (1772). He contributed to Frankfurter Gelehrte Anzeigen (1772-73), and in 1774 he published his first novel, self-revelatory Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers. It depicted Werther’s hopeless affair with Lotte Buff, the fiancée of a colleague. In the end the melancholic Werther romantically commits suicide, becoming the prototype of the Romantic hero.

Goethe’s youth was emotionally hectic to the point that he sometimes feared for his reason. He was recognized as a leading figure in the Sturm und Drang, which celebrated the energetic Promethean quality of the individual as opposed to the rational idealistic ideal of the Enlightenment. Goethe’s poem ‘Prometheus’, with its insistence that man must believe not in gods but in himself, might be seen as a motto for the whole movement. After a relaxing trip to Switzerland, Goethe made a decisive break with his past. In 1775 he was welcomed by Duke Karl August into the small court of Weimar, where he worked in several governmental offices. Occasionally he read aloud his texts to a selected group of persons – among them the Duke and the two Duchesses. To his disappointment a dog-trainer was also allowed to amuse in the court theatre.

“What you don’t feel, you will not grasp by art,
Unless it wells out of your soul
And with sheer pleasure takes control,
Compelling every listener’s heart.
But sit – and sit, and patch and knead,
Cook a ragout, reheat your hashes,
Blow at the sparks and try to breed
A fire out of piles of ashes!
Children and apes may think it great,
If that should titillate your gum,
But from heart to heart you will never create.
If from your heart it does not come.”
(from Faust I)

During this period Goethe did not have much time to publish fiction. He was a council member and member of the war commission, director of roads and services, and managed the financial affairs of the court. His great love in this period was Charlotte von Stein, an older married woman, but the relationship was platonic. However, Goethe’s scientific researches were more successful. He discovered the human intermaxilarry bone (1784), and formulated a vertebral theory of the skull. In 1786-88 he made a journey to Italy.

“In Rome I have found myself for the first time,” Goethe wrote. He drew statues and ruins, collected antique and botanical samples, and was shocked by the primitive power of an ancient Greek temple – Renaissance art did not interest him. The journey ended Goethe’s celibacy and inspired his play Iphigenie auf Tauris, and Römishe Elegien, sensuous poems relating partly to Christiane Vulpius, who became Goethe’s mistress in 1789. The ancient monuments he saw in Italy significantly influenced his growing commitment to a classical view of art. His emotional dependence on Charlotte ended, and in spite of public pressure, he continued to live happily unmarried with Christiane. Goethe was released from day-to-day governmental duties to concentrate on writing, although he was still general supervisor for arts and sciences, and director of the court theatres (1791-1817).

“Three things are to be looked to in a building: that it stands on the right spot; that it be securely founded; that it be successfully executed.” (from Elective Affinities, 1808)

In the 1790s Goethe contributed to Friedrich von Schiller’;s journal Die Horen, published Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) in 1795-96, and continued his writings on the ideals of arts and literature in his own journal Propyläen. (Note: Goethe was buried near Schiller in the ducal vault at Weimar.) Wilhelm Meister’s story had preoccupied the author for many years. Wilhelm is disillusioned by love, he starts actively to seek out other values, and becomes an actor and playwright. Whereas Werther’s life ended in despair, Meister has a more optimistic spirit. At the end he says: “… I know I have attained a happiness which I have not deserved, and which I would not change with anything in life.” Wim Wenders and Peter Handke made in 1974 a modernized film adaptation of the book, Wrong Movement, in which Meister’s journey has a sad, lonely note. “If only politics and poetry could be united,” he says to his friend Laertes, who answers: “That would be the end of longing and the end of the world.”

During the French Revolution Goethe reported in letters to his family his inconveniences, when he was forced to leave his home and dear garden after the French army attacked Prussia. He also saw killings and looted villages, and wrote in the middle of cannon fire. Although Goethe supported freedom and progress, he wanted to preserve the bourgeois or his artistic-individualistic way of life. The majority of the German intelligentsia greeted with enthusiasm the goals of the revolution, including Kant, Schiller, and Friedrich Schlegel. Goethe remained creative during his last period. He married in 1806 Christiane Vulpius, with whom he had lived nearly 18 years, wrote his autobiography, Poetry and Truth (1811-1833), and completed the novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821-9).

The first part of his masterwork, Faust, appeared in 1808, and the second part in 1832. Goethe had worked for most of his life on this drama. It was based on Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, and depicted a disillusioned scholar, who makes a pact with Satan. The original figure in the Faust legend was Gregorius Faustus (or Gregorius Sabellicus, Faustus Junior, c 1480-1510/1), a seeker of forbidden knowledge. His true identity is not known, but he claimed to be an astrologer, expert in magic, and an alchemist. This legend attracted Christoper Marlowe, who offered in his play a psychological study of the battle between good and evil. Marlowe’s play ends with the protagonist’s damnation. Goethe’s story created a new persona for the Devil – Mephistopheles was a gentleman, who had adopted the manners of a courtier.

Faust’s lust for knowledge is limitless and he makes a contract with Mephistopheles: he will die at the moment he declares himself satisfied. In the first part Faust loses Margaret, an innocent girl, who is condemned to death for murdering her illegitimate child by Faust. In the philosophical second part Faust marries Helen of Troy and creates a happy community. Faust is finally satisfied, but Mephistopheles loses his victory, when angels take Faust to heaven.

From 1791 to 1817 Goethe was the director of the court theatres. He advised Duke Carl August on mining and Jena University, which for a short time attracted the most prominent figures in German philosophy, including Hegel and Fichte. He edited Kunst and Altertum (1816-32) and Zur Naturwissenschaft (1817-24). In 1812 Goethe met the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven in Teplitz. Beethoven had admired Goethe already in his youth, although he considered Goethe’s attitude toward the nobility too servile. Beethoven composed several music pieces based on the author’s texts, among them Egmont. Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) first Lieder masterpiece, ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, took the words from Faust, but Goethe did not much appreciate Schubert’s musical attempts.

At the age of 74 Goethe fell in love with the 19-year old Ulrike von Levetzow. He followed her with high hopes from Marienbad to Karlsbad, and then returned disappointed to Weimar. There he wrote The Marienbad elegy, the most personal poem of his later years. Goethe died in Weimar on March 22, 1832. He and Schiller, who died over a quarter of a century earlier, are buried together, in a mausoleum in the ducal cemetery. The Goethe House and Schiller House stand in the town, and the two statues of these literary giants are outside the National Theatre.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author’s Calendar. Used with permission.

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