In the English-speaking world, we are used to thinking of our greatest writer as an enigma, or a blank. Though there’s enough historical evidence to tell us when Shakespeare was born and when he died, and more than enough to prove that he wrote the plays ascribed to him, the record is thin. Indeed, the persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates is a symptom of how little we actually understand about his life. His religious beliefs, his love affairs, his relationships with other writers, his daily routine—these are permanent mysteries, and biographies of Shakespeare are always mostly speculation.
To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.
Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn’t lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name. As it is, in the words of Nicholas Boyle, his leading English-language biographer, “More must be known, or at any rate there must be more to know, about Goethe than about almost any other human being.”
Germans began debating the significance of the Goethe phenomenon while he was still in his twenties, and they have never stopped. His lifetime, spanning some of the most monumental disruptions in modern history, is referred to as a single whole, the Goethezeit, or Age of Goethe. Worshipped as the greatest genius in German history and as an exemplary poet and human being, he has also been criticized for his political conservatism and quietism, which in the twentieth century came to seem sinister legacies. Indeed, Goethe was hostile to both the French Revolution and the German nationalist movement that sprang up in reaction to it. More radical and Romantic spirits especially disdained the way this titan seemed content to be a servant to princes—and Grand Duke Karl August of Weimar, despite his title, was a fairly minor prince—in an age of revolution
One famous anecdote concerns Goethe and Beethoven, who were together at a spa resort when they unexpectedly met a party of German royalty on the street. Goethe deferentially stood aside and removed his hat, while Beethoven kept his hat firmly on his head and plowed through the royal group, forcing them to make way—which they did, while offering the composer friendly greetings. Here was a contrast of temperaments, but also of generations. Goethe belonged to the courtly past, when artists were the clients of princes, while Beethoven represented the Romantic future, when princes would clamor to associate with artists. Historians dispute whether the incident actually took place, but if it didn’t the story is arguably even more revealing; the event became famous because it symbolized the way people thought about Goethe and his values.
Goethe’s fame notwithstanding, he is strangely neglected in the English-speaking world. English readers are notoriously indifferent to the poets of other cultures, and Goethe’s poems, unfortunately, seldom come across vividly in translation. This is partly because Goethe so often cloaks his sophistication in deceptively simple language. “Heidenröslein,” one of his earliest great poems, is written in the style of a folk song and almost entirely in words of one or two syllables: “Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn” (“A boy saw a little rose standing”). “The Essential Goethe” (Princeton), a rich new anthology, a thousand pages long, edited by Matthew Bell, which valiantly seeks to display every facet of Goethe’s genius, gives the poem in a translation by John Frederick Nims:
Urchin blurts: “I’ll pick you, though,
Rosebud in the heather!”
Rosebud: “Then I’ll stick you so
That there’s no forgetting, no!
I’ll not stand it, ever!”
Nims reproduces the rhythm of the original precisely. But to do so he adds words that aren’t in the original (“though”) and resorts to distractingly winsome diction (“urchin,” “I’ll not”). The result is clumsy and charmless. The very simplicity of Goethe’s language makes his poetry practically untranslatable.
English speakers are more hospitable to fiction in translation, and yet when was the last time you heard someone mention “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” or “Elective Affinities,” Goethe’s long fictions? These books have a good claim to have founded two of the major genres of the modern novel—respectively, the Bildungsroman and the novel of adultery. Goethe’s first novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is better known, mainly because it represented such an enormous milestone in literary history; the first German international best-seller, it is said to have started a craze for suicide among young people emulating its hero. But in English it remains a book more famous than read.
This wasn’t always the case. Victorian intellectuals revered Goethe as the venerable Sage of Weimar. Thomas Carlyle implored the reading public to “close thy Byron, open thy Goethe”—which was as much as to say, “Grow up!” Matthew Arnold saw Goethe as a kind of healer and liberator, calling him the “physician of the Iron Age,” who “read each wound, each weakness” of the “suffering human race.” For these writers, Goethe seemed to possess something the modern world lacked: wisdom, the ability to understand life and how it should be lived. It was this very quality that led to his fall from favor in the post-Victorian age. For the modernists, being spiritually sick was a condition of intellectual respectability, and T. S. Eliot wrote that “there is something artificial and even priggish about Goethe’s healthiness.” Reading Goethe today, even through the veil of translation, is most valuable as an encounter with a way of thinking and feeling that has grown foreign to us.
The key to Goethe is that the spiritual “healthiness” so disliked by Eliot was not that of a man with a perfect constitution but that of a recovered invalid. He knew the “weakness” that Arnold described all too well. Goethe’s early life was a privileged one—he was the only surviving son of a prosperous bourgeois family in Frankfurt—and as a young man he teetered on the brink of waywardness. Though he studied law, at his father’s insistence, and even practiced briefly, the occupation was never more than a cover for what really interested him, which was writing poetry and falling in love. It was one of these early infatuations that plunged Goethe into the despair that would become the subject of his first success, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
This short novel tells the story of an unhappy love affair. Through letters written by Werther to a friend, we learn about his hopeless love for Charlotte, an affectionate and virtuous young woman who is already engaged to a worthy man, Albert. After Charlotte and Albert get married, Werther feels that he has nothing to live for, and decides to commit suicide—a decision that he communicates in a gothic rhapsody of emotion: “You see, Charlotte, I do not shudder to take the cold and fatal cup, from which I shall drink the frenzy of death. Your hand gave it to me, and I do not tremble. All, all the wishes and the hopes of my life are fulfilled. Cold and stiff I knock at the brazen gates of death.”
The book captured the sensibility of a generation, running, as Thomas Mann wrote, “like a fever and frenzy over the inhabited earth, acting like a spark in a powder magazine, setting free a dangerous amount of pent-up force.” At least some of Goethe’s readers took him to be endorsing and glamorizing Werther’s suicide. One young woman, a Weimar courtier named Christel von Lassberg, drowned herself in the River Ilm with a copy of the novel in her pocket. Goethe must have felt much as one might imagine J. D. Salinger felt about Mark David Chapman’s copy of “The Catcher in the Rye”—guilty, but also horrified at being so misread.
Yet, far from ennobling its hero, “Werther” is actually a warning against what Goethe sees as a consuming spiritual disease. What kills Werther is not disappointed love but toxic self-centeredness, subjectivity run wild. Whether he is enjoying the sublimity of a landscape or the company of Charlotte, Werther is always really only involved with himself, his own ideas and emotions. “The rich and ardent feeling which filled my heart with a love of Nature, overwhelmed me with a torrent of delight, and brought all paradise before me, has now become an insupportable torment—a demon which perpetually pursues me,” he writes. The fatal complication of his illness is pride. Werther is not just miserable but proud of his misery, which he takes as proof that he is exceptionally sensitive—finer than the world that disappoints him. Having identified himself with the universe, he finds that when he is unhappy the universe becomes a prison.
So far, Werther strongly resembles Hamlet, who calls Denmark and the whole world a prison, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” But Hamlet’s paralysis of will gives way, in Act V, to a commitment to the deed. “The readiness is all,” he declares, before finally taking revenge on Claudius. Werther, on the other hand, is never ready for action, because he has no momentous deed waiting to be performed. In this, he is a more modern figure than Hamlet, who, after all, was summoned by a ghost. Werther, like us, gets no help from the other world in directing his steps in this one.
Goethe knew his hero’s despair as well as any reader could. In fact, the book became scandalous for its resemblance to real people and events. Werther’s strained triangular relationship with Charlotte, whom he loves, and Albert, whom he respects as a friend, was taken directly from Goethe’s own entanglement with a woman named Charlotte Buff and her fiancé, Johann Kestner. Goethe spliced this story with that of a young man he barely knew, named Karl Jerusalem, who committed suicide—with a pistol borrowed from Kestner, just as Werther borrows Albert’s pistol for the same purpose. So closely did the events of the novel mirror those of real life that its publication, and then its enormous success, ruined Goethe’s relationship with Kestner, who wrote to complain about the way the author “prostituted the real persons whose features you borrow.”
The crucial difference between Goethe and his creation was that the poet found a way out of his labyrinth. In 1775, the year after “Werther” made him famous, he accepted an invitation from Grand Duke Karl August to move to Weimar, then a small independent duchy with a population of just a hundred thousand. Under Goethe’s direction and patronage, the tiny court became world famous for attracting some of the preëminent German minds of the age—notably, the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller, Goethe’s friend and collaborator, and his early mentor Johann Gottfried Herder, the pioneering philosopher of language. But Goethe was not in Weimar simply as an ornament; to the dismay of the local aristocracy, he was quickly raised to the highest level of government, becoming the Duke’s most trusted adviser. During his first ten years in Weimar, Goethe finished none of the major literary projects he had in hand—he was too busy with paperwork.
This might seem, as it did to many at the time, a waste of Goethe’s genius—like harnessing Pegasus to a cart. But Goethe, with the unerring instinct that seemed to guide him throughout his long life, had chosen the existence he needed—an existence as unlike Werther’s as possible. Instead of remaining focussed on his own passions and desires, he subdued his mind to the discipline of the objective, of work and responsibility. He turned toward objectivity in other ways as well, particularly in his study of science. Throughout his life, Goethe published scientific theories and “discoveries,” most of which were wrong and roundly ignored by the scientists of his day. But, while he failed to overthrow the Newtonian understanding of optics, Goethe found in science a necessary distraction from self.
At the same time, he developed a conception of nature that provided an alternative to the mathematical and spiritless mechanism that the Enlightenment seemed to offer. “The Essential Goethe” includes a generous sample of his scientific writing, which reveals how much of Goethe’s science was devoted to the idea of holism—the sense, more an intuition than a theory, that the universe is a living organism that develops and grows. “We experience the fullest sense of well-being when we are unaware of our parts and conscious only of the whole itself,” he writes in one essay. “Life in its wholeness is expressed as a force not attributable to any individual part of an organism.” This vitalism fit in well with the world view that Goethe had learned from Spinoza, who held that nature is God and God nature. “All finite beings exist within the infinite,” Goethe wrote. In this way, science performed something like the office of religion, turning Goethe into a kind of modern, rational pagan.
Ten years of office work, of literary projects left incomplete, finally took their toll. In 1786, in a spirit of adventure characteristic more of a young poet than of a middle-aged civil servant, Goethe abruptly threw aside his work and left Weimar without telling friends and colleagues where he was going. Travelling under an assumed identity, he made his way to Italy, where he spent the next two years studying art and enjoying the country that he described, in one of his most famous poems, as “the land where lemon blossoms blow, / And through dark leaves the golden oranges glow.”
Goethe’s time in Italy marked a watershed in his life. He was thirty-seven. As a worshipper of the classical world and of Renaissance painting, Goethe found Italy—especially Rome, where he spent most of his time—to be a revelation and a rebirth. He wrote, “If I had not carried out the resolution I am now carrying out, I would simply have perished, so ripe had the desire become in my heart to see these sights with my own eyes.” Yet the book that resulted from this trip, the “Italian Journey,” has little to say about what was going on in Goethe’s heart. Instead, he focusses on the sights themselves—geological features of the country, garbage-disposal methods in the cities, a court trial, a theatrical performance. Much of Goethe’s Italian sojourn was spent trying, without success, to transform himself into a painter, and the book he wrote is a record more of things seen than of things felt.
Still, there is no missing the fact that this was a time of reawakening for the poet—spiritually and also sensually. As a young man, Goethe fell in love regularly; biographers define the periods of his life by the women who presided over them and the literary works they inspired. But these early romances tended to be platonic and idealized, much like Werther’s adoration of Charlotte. Partly, this was because Goethe took care to steer clear of anything that would commit him to marriage, which he assiduously avoided for as long as he could. An early relationship with Friederike Brion, a pastor’s daughter whom he wooed while he was a law student in Strasbourg, ended with the poet abruptly bailing on what Friederike, at least, had imagined to be an engagement. “Heidenröslein,” with its parable of seduction and abandonment—a boy plucks a rose, which pricks him with the thorn of regret—grew out of Goethe’s guilt over what he knew to be his own bad conduct. Later, at the court of Weimar, the poet engaged in a very intense, decade-long but apparently nonsexual relationship with a married woman, Charlotte von Stein.
Things were different in Rome, where Goethe had a liaison, frankly sexual this time, with a Roman widow whose name is not known. This newly liberated erotic spirit trailed him back to Weimar, where, soon after his return, he met and moved in with Christiane Vulpius, a woman so much his inferior in education and social status that marriage seemed out of the question. He did eventually marry her, but not until almost twenty years later, in 1806, by which time she had already borne him a son. Many in Weimar were shocked by their open cohabitation and by Goethe’s choice of life partner—none more so than Charlotte von Stein, who turned with cold fury on her former spiritual mate. But the joy and liberation of these sexual experiences introduced a new strain into Goethe’s poetry, as in the famous fifth “Roman Elegy,” in which he describes counting the beat of hexameters on his lover’s naked back. This, too, was a kind of education, the poem insists: “Also, am I not learning when at the shape of her bosom, / Graceful lines, I can glance, guide a light hand down her hips?
Liberated from his more onerous court duties, Goethe was free to take up projects that he had first begun to think about years, even decades, earlier: the gestation period for the verse drama “Faust” spanned more than thirty years, for the novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” almost twenty. Such lengthy gestation gives both books a loosely woven, episodic quality. But Goethe’s persistence also testifies to the continuity of his interests and themes during his entire life. The meaning of education, the difficulty of embracing life and of living in the world, the danger and the redemptive possibilities of love: these questions, which animated “Werther” in the seventeen-seventies, are treated with greater maturity and complexity in these middle-period masterpieces.
The concept of Bildung—a word that means learning and education but also implies a cultivation of the self and of maturity—was central to Goethe’s thought, and he, in turn, made it central to German culture. For Thomas Mann, whose admiration of Goethe took the form of spiritual imitation, Goethe was above all an educator, but one who had first to learn, through experience, the wisdom he taught. Mann wrote that a “vocation towards educating others does not spring from inner harmony, but rather from inner uncertainties, disharmony, difficulty—from the difficulty of knowing one’s own self.”
This is the process Goethe dramatizes in “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” whose title can be taken in two senses. Literally speaking, Wilhelm, a bourgeois young man with artistic inclinations, apprentices himself to a touring theatre company, where he learns how to act and direct. Goethe writes with affection about the wide-open world of the actor, which is full of escapades and love affairs, bed tricks and impersonations. Indeed, so many scandalous things happen in the novel—from adultery and illegitimacy to arson, incest, and suicide—that it often feels more like a gothic parody than like an earnest Bildungsroman.
Yet the more of the theatre world that Wilhelm sees, the less he likes it, and the more he realizes that he is unsuited to this way of life. What he really needs is education in a deeper sense—an apprenticeship to life and society, which will help him figure out who he really is and how he should live. In particular, Goethe—that son of the Frankfurt bourgeoisie, who was given an ennobling “von” by the prince he served—wants to show how a middle-class man like Wilhelm can find dignity and worth in a society whose ideals are still shaped by aristocrats. In this context, the idea of acting takes on a deeper meaning. “The nobleman tells us everything through the person he presents, but the burgher does not, and should not,” Goethe writes. “A nobleman can and must be someone who represents by his appearance, whereas the burgher simply is, and when he tries to put on an appearance, the effect is ludicrous or in bad taste.”
In short, Goethe the artist and the courtier is arguing against the artistic life and the life of the court, at least where Wilhelm is concerned. Like Werther, Wilhelm can be considered a failed genius—someone who is enough of an artist to be sensitive and ambitious but not enough of one to actually become creatively productive. This makes him a significant modern type, whose descendants will populate a great deal of modern literature. (Emma Bovary is one example.) But, where Werther can see no way out of his predicament except suicide, Wilhelm is allowed to end the novel as a father and a husband, prepared to enter into the responsibilities of adulthood.
Still, good is never as glamorous as evil, and Wilhelm Meister comes across as a little dull and worthy compared with the hero of Goethe’s most celebrated and canonical work, “Faust.” While Wilhelm learns to accept his role in life, Faust is defined by his refusal to be satisfied with anything life has to offer. As in the traditional folktale, and as in the Christopher Marlowe play, Goethe’s Faust sells his soul to the Devil, Mephistopheles. But in Goethe’s version what he asks in exchange is not magic powers or supernatural knowledge. It is, rather, experience—a life lived at fever pitch, “a frenzied round of agonizing joy, / Of loving hate, of stimulating discontent.” The condition of his deal is that the Devil may take his soul whenever he grows too contented with life: “If I should bid the passing moment stay, or try / To hold its fleeting beauty, then you may / Cast me in chains and carry me away.”
This is the central issue of Goethe’s life and work: on what terms is life worth living? For Faust, as for Werther before him, ordinary existence is flavorless and intolerable; like an alcoholic, he demands ever-stronger draughts of emotional intoxication. Above all, he demands the intoxication of love, and he finds it with Gretchen, an innocent and virtuous young girl, whom he seduces and abandons. Not until the end of the play, when Faust returns to find Gretchen in prison for infanticide, and on the edge of madness, does he realize how selfish his quest for experience has been. A heavenly voice announces that Gretchen will be saved—Goethe, no moralist when it comes to sex, can forgive her for being carried away by passion. But there is no salvation for Faust, whose crime is the one transgression that Goethe can never forgive—solipsism, the refusal to acknowledge the full reality of other people.
“Faust” and “Wilhelm Meister” can be considered wisdom books, in that they teach serious moral lessons. But they are the opposite of solemn; Goethe delights in his burlesque Mephistopheles, always mocking and jesting, as he does in the wild coincidences and improbabilities of Wilhelm’s career. This combination of earnestness and jovial detachment is what characterizes the mature Goethe, and what makes him unique; no other writer gives us the same sense that he has both seen life and seen through it.
In the last decades of his life, Goethe brought this Olympian perspective to a series of late masterpieces, from the examination of adulterous passion in “Elective Affinities” to the surreal fantasia on history and myth that is “Faust, Part Two.” (Neither of these works is included in “The Essential Goethe,” nor is “Werther”—indeed, it’s a measure of Goethe’s abundance that you could put together a second volume of another thousand pages and fill it with works that are just as essential.) Old age did not put an end to Goethe’s career as a lover: in 1821, when he was seventy-two, the widowed Goethe fell in love with a seventeen-year-old girl he met at a spa resort, and even proposed marriage. (She sensibly declined.) For Goethe, love and learning and writing formed a continuous cycle, which didn’t cease until he was on his deathbed—and perhaps not even then. At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were “More light!” Probably his vision was dimming and he just wanted someone to open a window. But it is also Goethe’s last perfect metaphor: one final plea for illumination, from a writer who had spent all his life seeking it. ♦