Early Life and Works
Goethe describes his happy and sheltered childhood in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811 – 33). In 1765 he went to Leipzig to study law. There he spent his time in the usual student dissipations, which perhaps contributed to a hemorrhage that required a long convalescence at Frankfurt. His earliest lyric poems, set to music, were published in 1769. In 1770 – 71 he completed his law studies at Strasbourg, where the acquaintance of Herder filled him with enthusiasm for Shakespeare, for Germany’s medieval past, and for the German folk song. Goethe’s lyric poems for Friederike Brion, daughter of the pastor of nearby Sesenheim, were written at this time as new texts for folk-song melodies. Among the lasting influences of Goethe’s youth were J. J. Rousseau and Spinoza, who appealed to Goethe’s mystic and poetic feeling for nature in its ever-changing aspects. It was in this period that Goethe began his lifelong study of animals and plants and his research in biological morphology. 3Goethe first attracted public notice with the drama Götz von Berlichingen (1773) (see Berlichingen, Götz von), a pure product of Sturm und Drang. Still more important was the epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, tr. The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1957) which Goethe, on the verge of suicide, wrote after his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff. Werther gave him immediate fame and was widely translated. While the writing had helped Goethe regain stability, the novel’s effect on the public was the opposite; it encouraged morbid sensibility.
The Weimar Years
In 1775, Goethe was invited to visit Charles Augustus, duke of Saxe-Weimar, at whose court he was to spend the rest of his life. For ten years Goethe was chief minister of state at Weimar. He later retained only the directorship of the state theater and the scientific institutions.
Italian and French Influences
A trip to Italy (1786 – 88) fired his enthusiasm for the classical ideal, as Goethe tells us in his travel account Die italienische Reise (1816) and in Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert [Winckelmann and his century] (1805). Also written under the classical impact were the historical drama Egmont (1788), well known for Beethoven’s incidental music; Römische Elegien (1788); the psychological drama Torquato Tasso (1789); the domestic epic Hermann und Dorothea (1797); and the final, poetic version (1787) of the drama Iphigenie auf Tauris. In 1792 Goethe accompanied Duke Charles Augustus as official historian in the allied campaign against revolutionary France. He appreciated the principles of the French Revolution but resented the methods employed. A reformer in his own small state, Goethe wished to see social change accomplished from above. Later he refused to share in the patriotic fervor that swept Germany during the Napoleonic Wars.
Novels and Poetry
His novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809, tr. Elective Affinities, 1963) is one of his most significant novels, but perhaps his best-known work in that genre is the Wilhelm Meister series. The novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [the apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister] (1796), became the prototype of the German Bildungsroman, or novel of character development. In 1829 the last installment of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre [Wilhelm Meister's journeyman years], a series of episodes, was published. 8His most enduring work, indeed, one of the peaks of world literature, is the dramatic poem Faust. The first part was published in 1808, the second shortly after Goethe’s death. Goethe recast the traditional Faust legend and made it one of the greatest poetic and philosophic creations the world possesses. His main departure from the original is no doubt the salvation of Faust, the erring seeker, in the mystic last scene of the second part. Many women passed through Goethe’s life, with Charlotte von Stein probably the most intellectual of them. He married (1806) Christiane Vulpius (1765 – 1816), who had borne him a son. Goethe’s unsuccessful marriage offer (1822) to young Ulrike von Levetzow inspired his poems Trilogie der Leidenschaft [trilogy of passion]. Westöstlicher Diwan (1819), a collection of Goethe’s finest lyric poetry, was inspired by his young friend Marianne von Willemer, who figures as Suleika in the cycle. The Diwan strikes a new note in German poetry, introducing Eastern elements derived from Goethe’s reading of the Persian poet Hafiz.
Increasingly aloof from national, political, or even literary partisanship, Goethe became more and more the Olympian divinity, to whose shrine at Weimar all Europe flocked. The variety and extent of his accomplishments and activities were monumental. Goethe knew French, English, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and translated works by Diderot, Voltaire, Cellini, Byron, and others. His approach to science was one of sensuous experience and poetic intuition. Well known is his stubborn attack on Newton’s theory of light in Zur Farbenlehre (1810). A corresponding treatise on acoustics remained unfinished. An accomplished amateur musician, Goethe conducted instrumental and vocal ensembles and directed opera performances in Weimar. His search for an operatic composer with whom he could collaborate failed; although many of his operetta librettos were composed, none achieved lasting fame. Goethe’s exquisite lyrical poems, often inspired by existing songs, challenged contemporary composers to give their best in music, and such songs as ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ [only the lonely heart], ‘Kennst du das Land’ [know'st thou the land], and Erlkönig were among the song texts most often set to music. 12 Goethe’s aim was to make his life a concrete example of the full range of human potential, and he succeeded as few others did. The friendship of Friedrich von Schiller and his death (1805) made a deep impression on Goethe. He is buried, alongside Schiller, in the ducal crypt at Weimar. The opinions of Goethe are recorded not only in his own writings but also in conversations recorded by his secretary J. P. Eckermann and in extensive correspondence with the composer Zelter and with Schiller, Byron, Carlyle, Manzoni, and others. It would be difficult to overestimate Goethe’s influence on the subsequent history of German literature.
The bulk of Goethe’s work is immense; the most recent complete edition is the so-called Weimar edition (133 vol. in 140, 1887 – 1919). Most of his works have been translated into English, notably by T. Carlyle. Biographies include those by G. H. Lewes (1855), J. Sime (1888), F. Gundolf (1916, in German), J. G. Robertson (1927), and N. Boyle (Vol. I, 1991; Vol. II, 2000); see also L. Lewisohn, ed., Goethe: The Story of a Man (1949). Among well-known studies are essays by Carlyle, Emerson, C. Thomas, G. Santayana, A. Gide, A. Schweitzer, and T. Mann. See studies by K. Viëtor, Goethe, the Thinker (tr. 1950); R. Peacock, Goethe’s Major Plays (1959, repr. 1966); R. Gray, Goethe: A Critical Introduction (1967); E. C. Mason, Goethe’s Faust (1967); E. A. Blackall, Goethe and the Novel (1976); M. A. Carlson, Goethe and the Weimar Theater, (1978); and K. M. Wheeler (1984).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright 2002 Columbia University Press