In Advice for Young Poets (1832), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is responding to the many young German writers who send him their poems with “requests to not only judge them but also give them my thoughts regarding creative writing as a profession” (208). He received so many requests, however, that he decided to address this subject in his Essays on Literature for future reference!
According to Goethe, by this point in the early Nineteenth Century, “the German language has reached such a high level of development that anyone can express himself according to his ability” (208). He states that anyone who has reached a certain level of education through listening and reading and has attained some clarity about himself, may feel the urge to express his insights and feelings with a “certain eloquence”.
Goethe gives warning to this confidence as he observes that after the youthful enthusiasm begins to diminish, it is replaced with “discontentment, sadness over lost joy, by pining for what is lost, and yearning for the unknown and unobtainable, railing against any and all obstacles, and the struggle against ill-will, envy and hostility”. Does this sound like a certain poet we all know?
In translating Geothe’s Lebensregel, I saw a different side of him. The Rule of Life is filled with hope, forgiveness, grace and faith in God. Published in 1815, Goethe was in his youthful enthusiasm, an “active and vigorous phase of life” when he wrote The Rule at a time in his life when” the muses are glad to accompany life but are totally unable to guide it” (209). These muses seek out the poets who gladly practice a certain resignation and whose souls are easily restored, “who sees in every season and knows that this is a time for skating on the frozen pond, for strolling in the rose garden and is a host to happiness”. Enjoy!
Willst du dir ein hübsch Leben zimmern,
Mußt dich ums Vergangne nicht bekümmern;
Das Wenigste muss dich verdrießen;
Mußt stets die Gegenwart genießen,
Besonders keinen Menschen hassen
Und die Zukunft Gott überlassen. (437, Volume 1)
The Rule of Life
If thou wouldst live unruffled by care,
Let not the past torment thee e’er;
As little as possible be thou annoy’d,
And let the present be ever enjoy’d;
Ne’er let thy breast with hate be supplied,
And to God the future confide. (223)
Translation by Edgar A Bowring 1853
*Thank you, Nemorino, for alerting me to the similarities in the Fraktur V and B. I originally tried to translate “Bergangne”(the closest I found was “bergan”-see bergauf- “uphill”). When I translated it “Vergangen” , the definition for “the past” was more accurate!
Bowring, Edgar A. (1919). Poems of Goethe. Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co.
Gearey, John. (1986). Goethe Essays on Art and Literature. Translated by Ellen von and Ernest H. Nardroff. New York: Suhrkamp Publishers.
Kurz, Heinrich. Goethes Werk. Volume 1. Leipzig: Verlag des Bibliographischen Instituts.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)