“I consider that, for the last hundred years, by far the notablest of all Literary Men is Goethe”(Carlyle).
The expansive and brilliant works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, over his eighty-three years, embrace almost every department of literature and many of the sciences. This world-renowned and versatile author was the greatest name in literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth century not only in Germany, but over the whole civilized world.
My Interest in Goethe
The poetry, essays and short stories of Goethe have been the focus of many of my recent blog posts [see post] over the past few months. Why am I so enamored with the works of Goethe? There are several reasons:
1) The simplicity of his language and style (especially in my quest to learn the German language);
2) we share common themes of language, translation, nature and art;
3) his verse is subjective and therefore it is easy to relate to; and, most importantly,
4), he never stopped learning or writing. Goethe composed a poem to his grandparents on the final day of his eighty-three years (1832).
Through reading and studying these works, I’ve observed the many interests Goethe acquired over his lifetime:
- Goethe’s Essays on Art and Literature:
- Art : Ancient, European, History and Theory, Rembrandt and da Vinci [see post]
- Architecture: German and Gothic, including the Strasbourg Cathedral [see post]
- Philosophy: Aristotle, Plato
- Poetry : Epic and Dramatic, Didactic, Greek, Möser, German Romance , and
- Literature : Shakespeare, Byron, Dante, Gil Blas, Faust, and Literary Theory
(This book is a MUST read in your Goethe Quest!)
- Goethes Werke (In German language): Poetry, essays, short stories
- Goethe on Nature and Science: Chemistry, Botany, Chromatology, Morphology, Geology, Physics
- Longfellow’s Poets and Poetry of Europe; German Language : languages, literature, linguistics and translations
- The Suffering of Young Werther: Literature
- Poetry and Truth : European History (I have just started this book)
Background of the Academic and Literary Pursuits of Goethe
In Poets and Poetry of Europe, Longfellow gives us a glimpse into the background of Goethe’s early years and influences which led to these great works. Here are some highlights:
1. Goethe’s childhood home was filled with pictures and engravings, which early developed young Goethe’s powers of observing and discriminating works of art. 2. The Count de Thorane, who spent much time in conversations with the artists of Frankfort, resided in his home for a short time as a guest of his father and influenced Goethe to develop a love for art, poetry, and learning the French language. 3. During a serious illness, he was nursed by Von Klettenberg who influenced him to study chemistry and anatomy, the effect which is seen in Faust. 4. He would later study law at the University of Strasburg and became acquainted with Herder, whose views in poetry and taste in art had a marked influence upon his life. 5. Here, too, he wrote a treatise on Gothic architecture. In 1776, he was invited to Weimar by the young duke, Karl August, a circumstance that fixed his career and destiny; the ” Sorrows of Werther ” appeared in the following year (Poets, 281).
Some other notables throughout his life: 6. He was appointed Prime Minister of Weimar. He accompanied the duke of Weimar during the campaign of 1792. 7.He received many orders; among the rest, that of Alexander-Newski, from the Emperor of Russia, and the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, from the Emperor Napoleon.
“Consider, too, the genuineness of whatsoever he did ; his hearty, idiomatic way; simplicity with loftiness, and nobleness, and aerial grace; — pure works of art, completed with an antique Grecian polish”( Carlyle’s View of Goethe, Poets and Poetry, 287).
In the German Language essay in Poets and Poetry in Europe, Longfellow includes many interviews and articles from German authors who knew Goethe personally or were scholars of his works from Gleim, Hauff, Bettine, Borne, Menzel, Jean-Paul, Heine, Madame Catalani and Niebuhr. These discerning and entertaining articles span over forty pages of Poets and give more of an insight into the intellect, personality, and political ambitions of Goethe from those who knew him best (262-297).
The Unique Poetry of Goethe
Those with a background in poetry will appreciate this synopsis of Goethe’s work by Theodore Ziolkowski in his article Goethe in English (The Hudson Review, 1988):
“Goethe experimented with every form of poetry available—from the alexandrines and Anacreontic verses which were fashionable in his youth, to the explosive free-rhythm hymns and folksongs, to the exotic meters and strophes that he favored later in his life: the hexameters, elegiac distichs, and iambic trimeter of classical antiquity; the sonnets, ottava rima, and terza rima of the Italian Renaissances; and forms inspired by the Persian and Chinese poetry in his old age…He opened German literature of the late eighteenth century to a simple, supple power of expression that had not been heard since Martin Luther”(500).
I feel that I have only hit the tip of the iceberg in learning about the works of Goethe. As one of my passions is French and German History, I am now reading Goethe’s The Campaign in France, 1792. This is Goethe’s account of the ill-fated campaign of the German Allies under the Duke of Brunswick against the French. This remains today one of the principal sources for historians of the Revolutionary Wars (Ziolkowski, 509).
I will close with a poem by Goethe from Longfellow’s Poets and poetry of Europe: German Language:
SONG OF THE SPIRITS.
The soul of man is
Like the water:
From heaven it cometh,
To heaven it mounteth,
And thence at once
‘T must back to earth,
For ever changing.
Swift from the lofty
Rock down darteth
The flashing rill ;
Then softly sprinkleth
With dewy kisses
The smooth, cold stone ;
And, fast collected,
Veiled in a mist, rolls,
Adown the channel.
If jutting cliffs
His course obstruct, down
Foams he angrily,
Leap after leap,
To the bottom.
In smooth green bed he
Glideth along through the meadow,
And on the glassy lake
Bask the bright stars all
Wind is the water’s
Amorous wooer ;
Wind from its depths up-
Heaves the wild waves.
Soul of a mortal,
How like thou to water!
Fate of a mortal,
How like to the wind !
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Longfellow, Henry W. The Poets and Poetry of Europe: Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845.
Thank you for the wonderful overview of this great writer/poet’s life and work. You make his work and life ambition come alive again in our day.
Love and Lead, it is always good to hear from you and receive your encouraging feedback. I appreciate your open mind and interest into my posts on the arts and literature, especially European. Have you read any of Goethe’s poems? I think you would enjoy his poems on God and nature (see my previous posts).
Excellent article. Thank you for bringing back to life the work of this great writer and poet.