Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a man of prodigious and diverse gifts. The greatest lyric poet in the German language, the author of several novels, of innumerable essays, translations and critical works, of an extended dramatic poem of 57 years' writing, and of many plays that are still performed, Goethe also found time to make major advances in botany, geology, anatomy, optics and colour theory.

Goethe originally studied for law, but was invited to Weimar, where he became the duke's chief adviser. He then spent 2 years in Italy, returning to direct the Weimar ducal theatre and devote himself to science and literature. The early novel Sorrows of Werther brought him a European reputation, and his associations with the leading figures of the day were extraordinarily productive, notably those with Herder, Eckermann, Schelling, Schiller, Fichte, and Hegel.

Whence came Goethe's astonishing productivity? He was educated privately by his father, learning several languages and mixing with the varied personalities of Frankfurt's fairs, French occupation and the crowning of the Holy Roman Emperor. Goethe's duties at Weimar were onerous causing him to eventually flee to Italy but he was sustained by an unfailing confidence in his gifts and opinions. Some of his most beautiful ballads, songs and love poems date from this hectic period. All intellectual matters fascinated Goethe, and he saw no dichotomy between artistic and scientific interests. Though increasingly divorced from court life, Goethe's was always an independent spirit that recognised kindred aspirations in those around him, making Weimar an influence on artists and thinkers in Germany and beyond.

Goethe's work pushed European literature in new directions. His early novels belong to the Sturm und Drang movement, but his Sorrows of Werther in fact criticised the fashionable melancholy of the time. The classical plays (Egmont, Iphegenia in Tauris, and Torquato Tasso) had assimilated Shakespeare to explore psychological concerns of a different order. Faust builds from Marlovian pact with the devil to include broodings on the mystery of life, a symbolism and complexity of his own: knowledge is sought for transcendental understanding rather than power. The importance of Elective Affinities, which dealt with adultery, divorce and suicide, was recognised long after Goethe's death. Faust can hardly be performed, but that is not true of the many plays written throughout Goethe's life, or of those written by Schiller under Goethe's influence. Goethe was a dominating presence in European thought, and one that has continued in the abundant music, operas and films inspired by his creations.

Goethe resources Even on the Internet, the majority of Goethe resources are in German, but the more popular works are translated in the Penguin Classics series. German poetry is well anthologised in O. Duranni's German Poetry of the Romantic Era (1986) and R. Browning's German Poetry 1750 to 1900 (1984), and discussed in A. Closs's The Genius of the German Lyric (1962).

Suggestion: Goethe: Selected Poems Princeton University Press. 1994. $13.57

A solid and reliable collection of Goethe's poetry, one of an impressive twelve-volume series overseen by Goethe scholars at Princeton, Cornell and Yale. Individual translations are by Christopher Middleton, Michael Hamburger, David Luke, John Frederick Nims and Vernon Watkins, all well known.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.