“Under freedom’s boundless sway he [Goethe]hovers, an all-pervading thought, over the Universe” (Zhukovsky, 295).
In my last blog, The Study of World Literature, I posed the question “Should different nations inform themselves about world literature?” Goethe believed this to be true and was possibly the first writer to consider world literature. Goethe’s efforts in the cause of world poetry and literature are the common ground on which the influences he experienced and those he exerted mingle. World poetry acted as a stimulus on him, and he contributed more than anyone else to its effectiveness as a means of communication between nations—even Russia!
In the early nineteenth century, knowledge of the German language was constantly spreading through Russia through translations of Germany’s best modern writers: Goethe, Schiller and Klopstock. In addition, the works in German philosophy and science were being introduced by means of periodicals. These works were regarded with religious awe. According to Fritz Strich in Goethe and World Literature, Russia’s intelligentsia wanted not only to merely read and understand these German works, but to possess completely their desire and intention (285).
Goethe’s Werther was translated into Russian in 1788 and caused a great excitement even with the difference between the mind of eastern and that of western Europe. It was identified with the paganism of Classical antiquity. Goethe’s influence on Russian literature was quite different than his influence on the literatures of the West. In Russian, his influence tended to make thought more humane and European, and thereby started a Renaissance movement which had been lacking in Russian thought.
A circle soon formed in Russia, the “Friends of Wisdom” which aimed at making German thought known in Russia and instilling fresh life and youth into it (292). Two members of “Friends” who had translated Helena and Werther, came to visit Goethe in Weimer in 1825. Goethe formed a great friendship with these linguists, Shevirev and Rozhalin, and stated, “we are brought closer to those distant eastern talents which are separated from us by a language less widely known”(295). Goethe’s poem Helena brought the birth of “Classical-Romantic” literature to Russian youth.
In addition, the poet Zhukovsky came to visit Goethe in Weimar and made a deep impression on him. When Zhukovsky left Weimer, he presented Goethe with a poem “To the Great and Good Man” in which he wrote:
“You are a youth upon God’s earth and your spirit is still creative as was His. Your genius will not soon lay aside the garment familiar to us on earth. In the far North your Muse has made the earth beautiful for me! And my genius Goethe gave life to my life” (296).
Strich states that Goethe’s reputation and influence in Russia can be measured by two poems on his death from two important Russian writers: Baratynsky, the greatest of Russian elegiac poets and Tyutchev, one of Russia’s greatest lyric poets. Baratynsky promises the dead poet everlasting fame because in his lifetime he had already attained to unity with the All and can now “soar towards the endless light”(298).
Of course, not everyone in Russian literary circles agreed with this enthusiasm of Goethe’s work. In his novel The Possessed Dostoevsky counts the spirit that Goethe’s work encompassed, the pride in being a man—self-deification–and the poetry of despair, among the demonic forces which penetrated Russia from the West and destroyed the Russian character. Dostoevsky’s prophetic words would be realized by the end of the 19th century in Freidrich Nietzche’s works where the idea of the despotic, self-deifying, superman dominated. Dostoevsky opposed something which did not exist in his time but would come to be, nevertheless.
Dostoevsky’s aim was to dominate the mind of Europe in the 19th century and lead it towards Christ, the God made man; not to the man made by God and, therefore, saw the universal disillusionment found in Goethe’s Werther to be a great danger to the Russian spirit. He would try to provide a cure for this obsession of suicide in two works: Journal of an Author and Confession of a Suicide . For Dostoevsky, the works of Goethe, Werther and Faust, were simply proofs of the wrong way the West had taken. Dostoevsky would use Goethe’s depravity of characters to create a Faustian context for his novella The Possessed including that of character description, which also relates to literary time (Pis’ma, 286).
Dostoevsky summarizes Goethe’s Faust:
“Alas, man could answer to the contrary speaking of himself: ‘I am a part of that whole which eternally wishes, desires, yearns for the good, but as the result of his activity produces nothing but evil’”(Pis’ma,287).
Finally, Goethe’s quest to unite European and Russian literature can best be displayed in letters he wrote to Carlyle and Zelter, in Kunst und Altertum (1828): “Helena in Edinburgh, Paris and Moscow” in which he wrote:
“The Scot tries to pervade the work, the Frenchman to understand it, the Russian to assimilate it… German readers might perhaps combine all three”(294).
F. M. Dostoevskii, Pisʹma, ed. by A. S. Dolinin, 4 vols (Moscow and Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe izdatelʹstvo, 1928-59).
Strich, F. (1949). Goethe and World Literature. London: Kennikat Press.
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com).