Goethe, Johann Wolfgang

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Goethe, Johann Wolfgang (1749-1832): German Writer.

From the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 to his death in 1832 and the appearance of Faust, part two, in 1833, Johann Wolfgang Goethe dominated German literature. Though a German cultural icon, he promoted the idea of world literature, adopting and adapting for his own purposes a diversity of genres from the canon of global masterpieces. His interests encompassed, with variable accuracy but consistent originality, a range of scientific passions, including botany, geology, meteorology and physics. Goethe's life became, for nineteenth-century admirers, a pattern for the achievement of wholeness–wholeness understood as a dynamic equilibrium between outer commitments and inner growth. Goethe noted his own capacity for what he called "renewed puberty" and his abhorrence for the Delphic adjuration "Know thyself," an adjuration that, he felt, led to a failure in objectivity, since self-knowledge, like truth and beauty, could only be apprehended in the trial and flux of material, external activity.

Goethe was born to affluence in Frankfurt-am-Main. Educated by his father, he studied law at Leipzig (1768) and Strasbourg (1771). In Strasbourg, he met Herder, Johann Gottfried, whose cultural theories, which asserted the superior naturalness of ostensibly primitive songs (as exemplified by Homer, Ossian and Shakespeare), influenced Goethe's literary taste and production. Goethe's first drama, Goetz von Berlichingen (1773), took Shakespeare as a model. The play, set in the German reformation, features a hero whose rebelliousness appealed to the writers of Sturm und Drang. Practising law at Wetzlar, Goethe found himself the object of European fame with his epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Werther's desperate love for Lotte appealed to sentimental taste, and led to a spate of copy-cat suicides. Goethe's poetry of the same period, such as the free-verse "Prometheus," often expresses a corollary depth of feeling and defiance.

In November 1775, Goethe moved to the principality of Weimar at the invitation of Duke Karl August, becoming Prime Minister in 1776. His official duties included the management of forests, mines and aspects of public welfare; these responsibilities curtailed Goethe's literary production, but conduced to intensifying engagements with botany, geology and osteology. In September 1786, feeling the need for radical refreshment, Goethe abruptly left Weimar–where he had begun works such as Faust but completed nothing of note–and spent two years sojourning in Italy.

This recess from the impositions of Weimar and this visit to the classic soil of the Mediterranean eventually resulted in a number of remarkable works. Roman Elegies adopts the alternating hexameter-and-pentameter couplet of the Latin poets Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid to celebrate the happy and frankly sexual love of the poet for his mistress Faustine, breaking with a long tradition of erotic poetry typified either by loss and longing on the one hand, or by pornography on the other. Clement Italy also fostered Goethe's fascination with botany. Impatient with the mathematical and analytical bias of Linnaeus, Carolus's system, which Goethe depreciated as "dividing and counting," he imagined supplementing Linnaeus's Genera plantarum with a Harmonia plantarum, a synthetic morphology of vegetation. He theorized that, in order to overcome the incommensurability of deductive and inductive reasoning, there must exist in nature an archetype, an Urphaenomen, a representative case, available to human study. He asserted that the leaf is the single, superlatively metamorphic organ of every plant, and convinced himself that, in 1787, he actually found the primal plant or Urpflanze, flourishing in a Palermo garden. In 1790, Goethe expressed his botanical theories succinctly in the scientific elegy "The Metamorphosis of Plants". In Italy, Goethe began to evolve his own paradoxically individualized form of Classicism, marked by balance and the assertion of norms, though not by appeal to an existent social consensus. After he met the dramatist and aesthetic theorist Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von in 1794–a friendship that lasted until Schiller's death in 1805–this Classicism became conscious and associated specifically with Weimar, where the two collaborated on projects such as the periodical The Hours (1794) and a collection of epigrams, Xenia (1795-96).

On returning from Italy, Goethe completed the drama Iphigenie in Tauris, in which the theme of necessary renunciation has prominence, with the new ethic of individualism triumphing over sanguinary convention. The barbarian king Thoas resigns his homicidal habits under the civilizing influence of Iphigenie; despite his reform and his love for her he cannot keep her from leaving him. Two other plays occupied Goethe's attention. Egmont, set in the time of William the Orange, centers on the fate of a politician whom popular adulation blinds to court intrigue. Torquato Tasso focuses on the life of an artist, making him, in a move proleptic of much subsequent romanticism, a tragic hero, an exemplary instance of the individual struggling against the group. Among the works associated with Goethe's Classical phase is Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the founding Bildungsroman or novel of education in Germany (1796). The hero, wholly engrossed by the world of the theatre, comes to outgrow this illusion, choosing the life of a surgeon in an act of conscious self-limitation; the German romantic writer Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) decried the novel as a "Candide against poetry," but Goethe was consistent in affirming his bias against excessive artistic introspection. Something of the same resistance to analysis, transposed into a scientific register, manifested itself in Goethe's polemics against the optical theories of Isaac Newton. In works such as his Theory of Colours (1810), Goethe inveighed against the English physicist for his insistence that what seems to be indivisible white light is capable of being decomposed into a plurality of dark lights–the spectrum.

After the outbreak of the French Revolution, Goethe accompanied Duke Karl August on his military campaigns, witnessing and writing about the siege of Mainz and the battle of Valmy (1792). As for other German writers of the time, such as Hölderlin, Johann Christian Friedrich, the course of the French Revolution forced Goethe to reassess his artistic as well as political commitments. In Goethe's case, the object of desire increasingly appeared as the object of conscious renunciation, recoverable only occasionally and contingently. Such an outlook flavored the drama The Natural Daughter (1803). But with the death of Schiller, Goethe's oeuvre changed again.

The novel Elective Affinities (1809), like the rueful erotic poem "The Diary," expresses Goethe's conviction that there exists a natural morality, distinct from that imposed by society in that it operates according to the constitution of particular individuals and it cannot be generalized. In the novel, Ottilie's intrinsic ethical sense compels her to starve to death; and the impotence of the protagonist of "The Diary" is a symptom of natural fidelity. Goethe's drama Faust, part one (1808), introduces the restless scholar, his beloved Gretchen and the sardonic minor devil Mephistopheles, synthesizing Classical, Christian and Nordic elements, demonstrating Goethe's capacity to absorb and extend the impulses of romanticism; part two (published 1833) assimilates still more heterogeneous elements. Goethe's aliveness to the contemporary international literary scene is testified by his correspondence with George Gordon, Lord Byron, whose Manfred shows the influence of Faust.

Deep into old age, Goethe continued to write poetry and prose. His autobiographical works, which assert a fresh will to historicize the contingencies of his development, included The Italian Journey (1814-16) and Fiction and Truth (begun 1822). The amorous West-Eastern Divan (1819), conceived after the example of the Persian poet Hafis, involved the remarkable collaboration of Marianne von Willemer, who took for this purpose the pseudonym Suleika. Goethe's poetic "Trilogy of Passion" (1823) commemorated his last love, and recapitulated many themes from the past, including a poem dedicated to Werther.

Further Reading:

Nicholas Boyle, Goethe: The Poet and the Age (2 vols.), 1992, 2000.

T.J. Reed, Goethe, 1984.

Eric Miller

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