“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).
How interesting! I didn’t know anything at all about this, so thank you!
Hi Lisa, I found this so fascinating! How is German Literature viewed in Australia?
I really couldn’t say, Robyn. I suspect that (as in most translation-averse Anglophone countries), it’s not well-known. I’d never read any German lit until about ten years ago, but that might have been that whereas Russian, French and English C19th classics are well-known here, Germany isn’t really represented in the development of the novel but was more about poetry?
Thank you for that insight Lisa. I’m interested to know also how you feel about National Literature and/vs World Literature. Stritch also talks about how Goethe was one of the first to consider the influence of World liters on German writers.
Yes, I am now diving into Dostoevsky, Russianquest…
Your reflections on the intellectual collusion between West and East were quite insightful. Clearly ideas shape culture powerfully. One should never underestimate the influence of poets and writers. Goethe’s influence sparked the great minds of Russia to respond. We can learn much in our day as ideas struggle to shape our perceptions of reality.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I think there’s room for both National Literature and World Literature. Although my blog specialises in Australian literature, I read widely from around the world with my horizons expanding under the influence of the various bloggers I read. But thinking back to my own schooling, (as distinct from the books I read at home) and from what I know of current reading lists for senior students, I would say that whereas in my day we were introduced to the English classics (Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Bertrand Russell et al) today the quest for ‘relatability’ steers students towards YA, some of which is American. I don’t see any sign of what I consider world literature, as in English-language books from Africa or Asia, or translated works from Europe, Africa or Asia.
Which when you think about it, is really odd, and a poor preparation for life in the multicultural world which has emerged since the days I was at school.
Thank you for your point of view. I am currently teaching a Survey course of World Lit where university students are introduced to or review Lit but not always compare authors, works or analyze in the context of other National cultures. This recent look from Goethe’s POV has incited me to rethink my curriculum and assignments for future courses! My next journey will take me Dostoevsky’s works and other Russian writers as well as, as you mentioned, suggestions from other international bloggers.
It must be very difficult to choose!
Fascinating! My native language is Russian and though I knew that French literature has always been popular in Russia (and still very much is) and I didn’t know this German connection with Goethe. Actually, I have only recently read Dostoevsky’s novella White Nights, and in my September Wrap-Up post said how that novella very much reminds me of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, especially in its themes and characters, but actually in style too.
I’m learning Russian, slowly. I love translating the Cyrillic alphabet, the decoding. I also appreciate this history of Goethe and Russia, he was a Diplomat before there were Diplomats!! I will look for September Wrap up. Thank you for your response.
Wow, this is so interesting – whilst I knew Dostoevsky was concerned about western ideologies and their effect on Russia, I hadn’t quite realised how much of an influence Goethe had. Thanks so much!
I appreciate your response and glad you stopped by. I’m just learning about Dostoevsky, the writer, and found this article fascinating!