Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832), German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist. Goethe’s poetry expresses a modern view of humanity’s relationship to nature, history, and society; his plays and novels reflect a profound understanding of human individuality. Goethe’s importance can be judged by the influence of his critical writings, his vast correspondence, and his poetry, dramas, and novels upon the writers of his own time and upon the literary movements which he inaugurated and of which he was the chief figure. According to the 19th-century English critic Matthew Arnold, Goethe must be considered not only “the manifest center of German literature” but one of the most versatile figures in all world literature.
Goethe was born August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt am Main, the son of a government official. From 1765 to 1768 he studied law at Leipzig; there he first developed an interest in literature and painting and became acquainted with the dramatic works of his contemporaries Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Their influence and his own attachment to the daughter of a wine merchant at whose tavern he dined are reflected in his earliest poetry and in his first dramatic works. These early plays included a one-act comedy in verse, Die Laune des Verliebten (The Lover’s Caprice, 1767), and a tragedy in verse, Die Mitschuldigen (The Fellow-Culprits, 1768). Goethe’s health broke down in Leipzig and he returned to Frankfurt, where, during his convalescence, he studied occult philosophy, astrology, and alchemy. Through the influence of a friend of his mother, Susanne Katharina von Klettenberg, who was a member of the Lutheran reform movement known as Pietism, Goethe gained some insight into religious mysticism. From 1770 to 1771 he was in Strasbourg to continue his study of law; in addition, he took up the study of music, art, anatomy, and chemistry.
II EARLY FRIENDSHIPS
In Strasbourg Goethe formed two friendships important for his literary life. One was with Friederike Brion, the daughter of a pastor of the town of Sesenheim; she later was the model for feminine characters in several of Goethe’s works, including that of Gretchen in his poetic drama Faust. The other friendship, which proved to be the most intellectually stimulating experience of his youth, was with the philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried von Herder. Through Herder, a literary critic with an exciting mind, Goethe became skeptical of the influence of the principles of French classicism that largely prevailed in Germany at the time, including those of the three dramatic unities which the French classical school had adopted from ancient Greek drama. Herder also taught Goethe to appreciate the plays of Shakespeare, in which the classic unities are largely discarded for the sake of direct emotional expression; and to realize the value of German folk poetry and German Gothic architecture as sources of inspiration for German literature.
As a result of Herder’s influence, Goethe, after he had received his law degree and returned to practice law in Frankfurt, wrote the tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773; trans. 1799). The play, modeled on those of Shakespeare, is an adaptation of the story of a German robber knight of the 16th century; to his exploits Goethe gave the significance of a national German revolt against the authority exerted by the emperor and the church in the early part of the 16th century. Götz von Berlichingen was of great consequence in German literary history. Together with the pamphlet Von deutscher Art und Kunst (Of German Style and Art, 1773), to which Goethe, Herder, and others contributed, the play inaugurated the important German literary movement known as Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress), the forerunner of the German romantic movement. The following year, as the result of an unhappy love affair with Charlotte Buff, the fiancée of one of his friends, Goethe wrote the romantic and tragic tale The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774; trans. 1779). This work was the earliest important novel of modern German literature. It became the model for numerous tales of passionate subjectivity subsequently written in Germany, France, and elsewhere. Among Goethe’s other works written during the years 1772 to 1775 were the plays Clavigo (1774) and Stella (1775) and a number of short critical essays on literary and theological subjects.
III GOETHE IN WEIMAR
The year 1775 was important for Goethe and for the literary history of Germany. In that year Charles Augustus, heir apparent to the duchy of Saxe-Weimar, invited Goethe to live and work in Weimar, the capital of the duchy, at that time one of the intellectual and literary centers of Germany. From 1775 to the year of his death Goethe resided in Weimar, and from there his influence as a writer spread throughout Germany. The first ten years of his connection with the court of Weimar were for him a period of intellectual development rather than of literary production. Through association at Weimar with Herder and the writer Christoph Martin Wieland, and through his friendship with Charlotte von Stein, the wife of a Weimar official and a woman of great charm and talent, Goethe’s intellectual life was broadened. Experience in public office, which included service in important posts in the Weimar government as well as a term of office as privy councillor, gave Goethe an extensive knowledge of practical affairs. In addition he continued his work in science, studying mineralogy, geology, and osteology (the study of bones). He wrote little during the first ten years of his stay at Weimar, except for some notable poems, including the lyric “Wanderers Nachtlied” (Wanderer’s Night Song) and the ballad “Der Erlkönig” (The King of the Elves). He began the composition of some of his best-known works, including the prose drama Iphigenia in Tauris (1787; trans. 1793) and the character dramas Egmont and Faust, all of which he altered as a result of the next important event of his life, his visit to Italy from 1786 to 1788.
IV SOJOURN IN ITALY
Several reasons induced Goethe to go to Italy. He had grown weary of the life of the Weimar court, his relationship with Charlotte von Stein was beginning to pall, and, above all, he had outgrown the Sturm und Drang viewpoint and felt the need of fresh perspectives upon which to base his future writings. He found a new vitality in Italy. After visiting several cities in northern Italy, he settled in Rome, where, except for a short trip to Naples and Sicily, he remained until 1788. He studied the art, architecture, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome and those Renaissance works that had been most strongly influenced by the ancients; he achieved an understanding of the classic spirit, which stressed balance and perfection of form rather than emotional content. Thenceforth, his work had a calmness and dignity previously lacking. The writings dating from his Italian stay and the period shortly following it included an iambic version of Iphigenia in Tauris, the dramas Egmont (1788) and Torquato Tasso (1790); and further work on Faust, part of which appeared as Fragment (1790). These works brought into German literature the discipline of ideas and form that initiated the so-called classical period.
V RETURN TO WEIMAR
Goethe returned to Weimar in 1788 to face difficulties. He found opposition to his new literary principles, and enmity from Frau von Stein because of his loss of interest in her. He antagonized court circles by taking to live with him a young girl, Christiane Vulpius, who in 1789 bore him a son. He might have abandoned Weimar but for two interests: the directorship of the ducal theater, in which he served from 1791 to 1813; and renewed absorption in scientific studies, for which he had the facilities at Weimar. Previously, in 1784, he had made the discovery, by methods which foreshadowed the science of comparative morphology, that the human jawbone contained traces of a structure similar to the intermaxillary bone in other mammals. In 1790 he wrote Versuch, die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären (Essay on the Metamorphosis of Plants), which further developed his ideas on comparative morphology and to some extent foreshadowed Darwin’s ideas on organic evolution. Goethe was also the author of a treatise on optics, Beiträge zur Optik (Contribution to Optics, 2 parts, 1791 and 1792).
Goethe’s absorption in scientific work eclipsed for the time being his interest in literature. This interest was revived through his friendship with Friedrich von Schiller, one of the greatest of German dramatists and, after Goethe, the foremost figure of the German classical period. The association, which lasted from 1794 to Schiller’s death in 1805, was of the utmost importance to Goethe; Schiller’s criticism and suggestions stimulated him to new creative endeavor. The chief products were Goethe’s contributions to Schiller’s periodical Die Horen, which included Roman Elegies (1795; trans. 1876); the novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-1796, trans. 1824), which became a model for subsequent German fiction; and the epic idyll in verse Hermann and Dorothea (1798; trans. 1801). Schiller also encouraged Goethe to resume work on Faust, the first part of which was published in 1808.
VI LATER YEARS
The period from 1805 to his death in Weimar, March 22, 1832, was for Goethe one of considerable productivity. In 1806 he married Christiane Vulpius. The upheavals of the French Revolution and the succeeding campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars did not seriously interrupt his literary and scientific work. In politics Goethe was conservative. He did not oppose the War of Liberation (1813-15) waged by the German states against Napoleon, but remained aloof from the patriotic efforts to unite the various parts of Germany into one nation; he advocated instead the maintenance of small principalities ruled by benevolent despots. Among his writings between 1805 and 1832 the most renowned are the novels Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities, 1809) and Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (1821, revised 1829; trans. 1827); an account of his Italian trip, Goethe’s Travels in Italy (1816; trans. 1892); The Autobiography of Goethe (4 volumes, 1811-33; trans. 1846); a collection of superb lyrics Westeasterly Divan (1819; trans. 1877); and the second part of his dramatic poem Faust (published posthumously, 1832).
Faust was the crowning achievement of Goethe’s long life. The work is one of the masterpieces of German and of world literature. It is not merely a new rendition of the well-known legend of the medieval scholar-magician Johann Faust, but an allegory of human life in all its ramifications. In style and in point of view, it reflects the impressive range of Goethe’s development from the rebellious days of the Sturm und Drang period to the calm classicism and realistic wisdom of his mature years. Its emphasis on the right and power of the individual to inquire freely into affairs both human and divine, and to work out his own destiny, accounts for its universal reputation as the first great work of literature in the spirit of modern individualism.
Web site to visit: http://www.csus.edu
Author of the text: indicated on the source document of the above text
If you are the author of the text above and you not agree to share your knowledge for teaching, research, scholarship (for fair use as indicated in the United States copyrigh low) please send us an e-mail and we will remove your text quickly. Fair use is a limitation and exception to the exclusive right granted by copyright law to the author of a creative work. In United States copyright law, fair use is a doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. Examples of fair use include commentary, search engines, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship. It provides for the legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work under a four-factor balancing test. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use)
The information of medicine and health contained in the site are of a general nature and purpose which is purely informative and for this reason may not replace in any case, the council of a doctor or a qualified entity legally to the profession.
The texts are the property of their respective authors and we thank them for giving us the opportunity to share for free to students, teachers and users of the Web their texts will used only for illustrative educational and scientific purposes only.
All the information in our site are given for nonprofit educational purposes