Source: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Works, illustrated by the best German artists, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie, 1885). Vol. 1. The Life of Goethe BY HJALMAR H. BOYESEN, PH.D.
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IT is told of the philosopher Hegel that he once complained because so few understood his writings. “Of all living men,” he said, “there is but one who has understood me; and,” he added, after a moment’s reflection, “he misunderstood me.” The common judgment of a man who spoke thus would be that he was himself at fault, that his utterance was needlessly obscure if it failed to appeal to ordinary human intelligence. In Hegel’s case such a judgment would not have been far wrong. German philosophers, as a rule, cultivate involved obscurity of diction, and perhaps even pride themselves on their unintelligibility. But for all that it is not to be denied that there is a region of thought which lies beyond the range of the ordinary intellect, and which is none the less exalted and beautiful, because of its inaccessibility to the multitude. The fact that you or I do not see anything in works of this or that poet does not, of necessity, prove that there is nothing in them. That which you or I do not understand is not on that account unintelligible. If the second part of “Faust” fails to convey any meaning to the ordinary omniscient critic of the daily papers, it is generally supposed that the second part of “Faust” stands thereby condemned. That Goethe has opened a new realm of thought to which even a college degree is not necessarily a passport, that he has in “Faust” expounded a deep philosophy of life, for the comprehension of which a more than ordinary largeness of vision and grasp of intellect are required, is scarcely dreamed of by the herd of shallow, nimble-witted critics who pat him kindly on the shoulder and compare him blandly with Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth.
Of English writers, only Carlyle seems to have had an adequate conception of Goethe’s greatness, although he, too, was certainly at variance with the fundamental principles which underlay his hero’s life and poetic activity. That he unconsciously distorted the meaning of “Faust” is very obvious to any student of Goethe who reads his essay on “Helena.” And yet he said to Bayard Taylor, when the latter asked him what he thought of Goethe: “That man, sir, was my salvation!”—an answer which struck Taylor as being in no wise paradoxical. If Carlyle had been an exact thinker, to whom a rational solution of the riddle of existence had been an urgent need, it would have been easier to comprehend in what sense he owed his “salvation” to Goethe. It was the direct purpose of Goethe to be the intellectual deliverer of his age, as he distinctly avowed to Eckermann when he said that the name which he would prefer to all others was “Befreier.” The tendency of his life and his writings, after his return from Italy, is all in the same direction. They all teach, even where no didactic purpose is apparent, that liberty is attainable, not by defiance of moral and physical law, but by obedience to it; that happiness is to be found only in a cheerful acquiescence in the rationality of existence. In this lesson there is deliverance to him who properly estimates and apprehends it. Thus barrenly stated it sounds commonplace enough to us of the nineteenth century; but it is largely due to Goethe’s influence that it has become so generally accepted. Before “Faust” was written there were few who would have been able to defend such a proposition, even though they might profess to accept it.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born in Frankfort-on-the-Main, August 28th, 1749. His family, a few generations back, had been plain artisans, and had by dint of talent and energy risen to prosperity and social importance. Goethe’s father had inherited a respectable fortune, enjoyed a good education, and had travelled considerably in his own country and in Italy. He was a stern and methodical man, rigidly upright, impatient of all irregularities and somewhat pedantic in his habits and opinions. His bearing was dignified, his disposition despotic. At the age of thirty-eight he married Katharine Elizabeth, daughter of the Magistrate Textor, and bought the title of imperial counsellor. There were no duties connected with this office, but it conferred a social rank which in those days was highly prized. The young wife whom the counsellor installed in his spacious house in the Hirschgraben was a contrast to him in almost everything. She was genial and full of wholesome mirth. Her culture was probably moderate enough, but she possessed a nature which readily compensated for all deficiencies of education. An exuberant fancy, inexhaustible good-humor, and an everready mother-wit made her the most delightful of companions; and no one valued more highly her many charming gifts than her son Johann Wolfgang. As he grew out of infancy she became his playmate and friend, and the confidant of all his boyish sorrows. She listened with delight to his improvisations, and secretly took his part in his occasional rebellion against the paternal authority.
Goethe was a precocious child, richly endowed physically and mentally. He absorbed knowledge spontaneously and without effort. His fancy, too, was active, and he took delight in relating the most marvelous tales, which he himself invented, to a company of admiring friends. The two fairy tales, “The New Paris” and “The New Melusine,” which he reprinted in a somewhat improved shape in his autobiography, belong to this period.
A charming anecdote is related of his fondness for Klopstock’s biblical epic, “The Messiah,” before he had yet emerged from the nursery. Frau Aja, his mother, had surreptitiously borrowed this book, and went about with it in her pocket, because her husband highly disapproved of Klopstock’s wild and rebellious rhapsodies. Goethe and his younger sister Cornelia, sharing their mother’s predilections, therefore committed the precious verses to memory, and amused themselves with personating the enraged Satan and his subordinate fiends. Standing on chairs in the nursery they would hurl the most delightfully polysyllabic maledictions at each other. One Saturday evening, while their father was receiving a professional visit from his barber, the two children (who were always hushed and subdued in his presence) were seated behind the stove whispering sonorous curses in each other’s ears. Cornelia, however, carried away by the impetus of her inspiration, forgot her father’s presence, and spoke with increasing violence:
The barber, frightened out of his wits by such extraordinary language, poured the soap-lather over the counsellor’s bosom. The culprits were summoned for trial, and Klopstock was placed upon the index expurgatorius.
In 1765 Goethe was sent to the University of Leipsic, where he was matriculated as a student of law. It was his father’s wish that he should fit himself for the legal profession, and in time inherit the paternal dignity as a counsellor and honored citizen of the free city of Frankfort. Agreeably to this plan Goethe attended lectures on logic and Roman law, but soon grew so heartily tired of these barren disciplines that he absented himself from lectures altogether. A brief and innocent love affair with Käthchen Schönkopf, the daughter of the lady with whom he took his dinners, may have tended to distract his attention. Loving your landladies’ daughters is as a rule antagonistic both to law and logic. A serious illness further interfered with his studies, and in 1768, after three years’ sojourn at the university, Goethe was called home to Frankfort, where he spent two years, regaining his health.
Goethe’s earliest sojourn in Leipsic brought him into contact with the French rococo culture, which then predominated in all the higher circles of Germany. The periwig period, with its elaborately artificial manners and “elegant” sentiments, had set its monuments in German literature as in that of France. Gottschedd, who was a servile imitator of the authors of the age of Louis XIV. and Louis XV., was a professor in Leipsic while Goethe was there, though his influence as the dictator of taste was greatly on the wane. Nevertheless the tone of Leipsic society remained French, and it was natural that an impressible young poet like Goethe should assume the tone of his surroundings. We therefore see that his first literary efforts, a volume of poems published as texts for musical compositions, bear the rococo stamp and are as frivolous and full of artificial conceits as if they had been addressed to one of the beauties of Versailles. A youthful drama, “The Accomplices” (“Die Mitschuldigen”), is in the same strain, only more ingenious and more radically alien to German morality.
In April, 1770, Goethe was sufficiently restored to health to resume his studies. He did not, however, return to Leipsic, but went to the University of Strassburg, where the faculty of law was then in a flourishing condition. The city of Strassburg was then, as it has ever since remained, essentially German, though there was an infusion of Gallic life from the French officials who governed the conquered province. It was here, where Gallic and Teutonic life ran in friendly parallelism, that Goethe first discovered the distinctive features of each. It was here he met Herder, whose oracular utterances on the subjects of poetry, religion and society powerfully affected him. Herder was a disciple of Rousseau, and had declared war, not against civilization in general, but against that phase of it which was represented by France. He detested the entire periwig spirit, and denounced in vigorous rhetoric the hollow frivolity which it had imparted to the literature of the day. He clamored for a return to nature, and selected from the literature of all nations certain books in which he detected the strong and uncorrupted voice of nature. Among these were the Bible, Homer, Shakespere, Ossian and the ballad literature of all nations. It is curious, indeed, to find Ossian in such a company, but it must be remembered that MacPherson’s fraud had not then been exposed.
Goethe drank in eagerly these new and refreshing doctrines. He began to read the writers Herder recommended, and in his enthusiasm for Shakespere soon went beyond his teacher. He condemned his own frivolous imitations of French models, and wrestled with gigantic plans for future productions which should infuse new vigor into the enervated literature of the Fatherland. It was during this period of Titanic enthusiasm that he conceived the idea of “Faust,” for the complete embodiment of which he labored, though with many interruptions, for sixty years, until a few months before his death. A lively interest in natural science also began to develop itself in him, while his disinclination for the law showed no signs of abating. At lectures he was not a frequent guest; but for all that his intellectual life was thoroughly aroused and he was by no means idle. With his great absorptive capacity he assimilated a large amount of the most varied knowledge, but insisted upon exercising his choice as to the kind of learning which his nature and faculties craved. The result was that when the time came for taking the doctor’s degree, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, unquestionably the most brilliant intellect Germany has produced, failed to pass his examinations. He was, however, not ignominiously “flunked,” but was permitted to depart with the more modest title of “Licentiate of the Law.” This was not what the old gentleman in Frankfort had looked forward to, and it is presumable that the reception he gave his son, when he returned in 1771 to the city of his fathers, was not over cordial. He was probably not wise enough to see that he himself was to blame for having compelled the boy to devote himself to a study for which he had neither taste nor inclination.
An incident of Goethe’s life in Strassburg, which greatly influenced his literary activity, was his meeting with Frederika Brion, the daughter of the parson at Sesenheim. The parsonage was about six hours’ journey from the city, and Goethe was in the habit of visiting there with his friend Weigand, who was a relative of the family. The parson was a plain, God-fearing man, who went about in dressing-gown and slippers and with a long pipe in his mouth. His daughters Salome and Frederika were what the daughters of country clergymen are apt to be,—nice, domestic girls, who would make charming wives for almost anybody who would have the good sense to propose to them. Frederika was pretty, and moreover she had an unfortified heart. She possessed a few artless accomplishments—such as playing and singing—but when she was to show these off before company, everything went wrong. Her portrait, as drawn by Goethe in his autobiography, is one of the loveliest things in literature. Her simple talk and strictly practical interests, far removed from all sentimentality, seemed to be in perfect accord with her little “tip-tilted nose” and her half-rustic Alsatian costume. It is obvious that she appealed to Goethe’s artistic nature; that he gloried in the romantic phases of his simple life at the parsonage. He had already then the keenest appreciation of what one might call the literary aspect of his experiences. He knew at once, and probably anticipated in spirit, how they would look in a book. But he was at the same time an inflammable youth, whose heart was readily touched through the medium of his fancy. By degrees, as he established himself in the favor of every member of the Brion family, his relation to Frederika became that of a lover. The father and the mother accepted him in this capacity, and Frederika herself was overflowing with deep and quiet happiness. By an unlucky chance, however, the two Brion sisters were invited to spend some time with friends in Strassburg. Goethe was charmed at the prospect. But, strange to say, torn out of the idyllic frame in which he had been wont to see her, Frederika seemed no longer so miraculous. She needed the rural parsonage and the yellow wheat-fields for a setting; amid the upholstered furniture and gilded conventionalities of the city she seemed only a simple-hearted country girl, perhaps, a little deficient in manners. From that time the charm was broken. Frederika returned to her home; Goethe, too, soon left Strassburg. Frederika waited for him month after month, but he did not come. He lacked courage to tell her of the changed state of his feelings, and left her to pine away between hope and cruel disappointment. A serious illness was the result, which came near costing her her life. Eight years later Goethe, then a world-renowned man, revisited Sesenheim and found her yet unmarried. She was as frank and friendly as ever, but her youthful gayety was gone; she was pale, hushed and subdued. She made no allusion to the relation which had once existed between them, but she conducted him silently to the arbor in the garden where they had spent so many rapturous hours together. There they sat down and talked of indifferent things; but many strange thoughts arose in the minds of both.
Frederika died of consumption in 1813.
After his return to Frankfort, in 1771, Goethe made an earnest effort to please his father by laying the foundation of a legal practice. The counsellor himself aided him in every possible way, looked up his authorities, and acted as a private referee in all doubtful questions. For all that, it was literature and not law which filled Goethe’s mind and fashioned his visions of the future. In the intervals of business he paid visits to the city of Darmstadt, where he made the acquaintance of Herder’s fiancée, Caroline Flachsland, and of Merck, who became his model for Mephistopheles. It was an interesting society which he here encountered, a society animated by an exalted veneration of poetic and intellectual achievements and devoted to a kind of emotional extravagance—an artificial heightening of every fine feeling and sentiment. Caroline Flachsland and her circle, recognizing Goethe’s extraordinary endowment, and feeling, perhaps, doubly inclined in his favor by his beautiful exterior, accepted him, as it were, on trust, and honored him for what he was going to do rather than for anything which he had actually accomplished. His love affair with Frederika, which was here sentimentally discussed, also added to the interest with which he was regarded. A man who is known to have broken many hearts is naturally invested with a tantalizing charm to women who have yet hearts to be broken. At all events the great expectations which were entertained of him in the Darmstadt circle, stimulated him to justify the reputation which had been thrust upon him. In 1772 he published the drama, “Götz von Berlichingen,” which at one stroke established his position as the foremost among German poets. It must be remembered, however, that Germany had at that time no really great creative poet. Lessing was, indeed, alive, and had written dramas which, in point of theatrical effectiveness and brilliancy, were superior to “Götz.” But Lessing disclaimed the title of poet, and his prominence as a critic and polemic defender of rationalism overshadowed, in the minds of his contemporaries, his earlier activity in the service of the muses. Moreover, it is not to be denied that “Götz,” with all its crudity of construction, is a warmer and more full-blooded production than any of the plays which Lessing had written for the purpose of demonstrating the soundness of his canons of dramatic criticism.
As a stage play “Götz” is unquestionably very bad. It violates, whether purposely or not, every law of dramatic construction. It is a touching and poetical story, told in successive acts and scenes, full of deep psychological insight and vigorous characterization. But it takes a nimble fancy to keep up with the perpetual changes of scene; and even the tendency and morale of the piece are open to criticism. Goethe enlists the reader’s sympathies in behalf of the law-breaker, whose sturdy manhood and stubborn independence bring him into conflict with the state. Götz, in spite of his personal merits, represents the wild and disorderly individualism of the Middle Ages, at war with the forces of order and social progress, represented by the Emperor and the free cities. Therefore it is scarcely proper to apostrophize him as the martyr of a noble cause.
After having practiced law in a leisurely fashion in Frankfort, Goethe removed, at his father’s recommendation, to Wetzlar, where he was admitted as a practitioner at the Imperial Chamber of Justice. This removal took place in May, 1774. Among the first acquaintances which he made in this city were a young jurist named Kestner and his fiancée, Charlotte Buff. Kestner and Goethe became good friends, in spite of differences of temperament and character, and their friendship soon came to include Lotte. Kestner, who was a plain, practical man and the soul of honor, could see no danger in the daily association of his betrothed with a handsome and brilliant young poet, who confided to her his hopes and ambitions, romped with her small brothers and sisters, and captivated the entire family by the reckless grace and charm of his manners. Kestner did not suspect that there were depths in Lotte’s nature which he had never sounded, regions of sentiment and fancy which he could never hope to explore. For Lotte, though she had a strong sense of duty, had by no means as well-regulated and business-like a heart as her practical lover. Thus the strange thing came to pass: Lotte fell in love with Goethe, and Goethe with Lotte. They made no confession of their secret even to each other, but they revelled in each other’s company, undisturbed by Kestner’s presence. At last, however, a crisis occurred. Goethe began to see that he was treading on dangerous ground. One evening as he was lounging at Lotte’s feet, playing with the flounces on her dress, and the talk had taken a serious turn, he remarked, referring to a brief journey which he was about to undertake, that he hoped they would meet “jenseits” (beyond), meaning beyond the mountains which he was going to cross. Lotte misunderstood the allusion, and, quite forgetting Kestner’s presence, answered, fervently, that she could well be reconciled to losing him in this world, if she could only be sure of being united to him in the hereafter. It was a sudden flash which revealed to Goethe the fact that Lotte loved him. He was Kestner’s friend, was trusted by him, and could not act dishonorably. So he took his leave, packed his trunks that very night, and wrote three despairing letters to Kestner and Lotte—in which he avowed his love for the latter, and gave this as the reason of his departure. He made it appear, probably in order to shield Lotte, that his love was hopeless and that her happiness was dearer to him than his own. That this is the true version of the Wetzlar affair is made plain, beyond dispute, by the documents published by Herman Grimm, in his “Lectures on Goethe.”
This episode with Charlotte Buff and Kestner furnished Goethe with the material for his celebrated romance, “The Sorrows of Werther,” which he published in September, 1774. As was usual with him, and indeed with every great poet, he did not copy the actual relation, but he borrowed from it what was typical and immortal and left out what was accidental and insignificant. Thus Lotte in “Werther” is not Charlotte Buff, though she sat for her model and furnished the main features of the beautiful type. In a still less degree is the pitiful Albert the author’s friend Kestner, though he is sufficiently like the latter to justify him in being offended. The character of Werther himself is more of a free creation, though his external fate was borrowed from that of a young secretary named Jerusalem, who shot himself for love of a married woman. In all other respects Werther is Goethe himself in his “Storm and Stress” period, while all the vital juices of his being were in ferment, while his youthful heart beat loudly in sympathy with the world’s woe; while the tumultuous currents of emotion swayed him hither and thither and would not be made to run in the safe conventional channels. And yet, even in those days there was a still small voice of reason in Goethe’s soul which restrained him from excesses—an undercurrent of sanity and sobriety which kept him always sound in his innermost core. If Werther had been like his prototype in this respect he would not have killed himself—in other words, he would not have been Werther.
The amazing popularity which “The Sorrows of Werther” attained, not only in Germany but throughout the civilized world, cannot be due to the story as such, which is as simple as any episode of daily life. It is only explainable on the supposition, that the book for the first time voiced a sentiment which was well-nigh universal in Europe, during the eighteenth century. The Germans call it Weltschmerz—i.e., world-woe. It takes in “Werther” the form of a tender melancholy, a sense of poetic sadness, which, after the unhappy love affair, deepens into a gentle despair and leads to self-destruction. Psychologically this is a very interesting phenomenon. The pent-up energy of the nation, which was denied its natural sphere of action in public and political life, takes a morbid turn and wastes itself in unwholesome introspection, coddling of artificial sentiment, and a vague discontent with the world in general.
During the year 1774 Goethe also published the tragedy “Clavigo,” which was a great disappointment to his friends. Its plot is borrowed from the Memoirs of Beaumarchais, and deals with the problem of faithlessness. In poetic intensity and fervor it is inferior to “Götz” and “Werther,” while, in point of dramatic construction, it marks a distinct advance. It is his own faithlessness to Frederika which Goethe obviously has in mind and which he is endeavoring psychologically to justify. But even from this point of view the tragedy can scarcely be called a success; for the reader closes the book with the conviction that Clavigo was, if not a villain, at all events a weak poltroon, though as such a perfectly comprehensible one.
After his departure from Wetzlar Goethe once more took up his residence in his native city, and, before long, was again involved in a tender relation. This time, it was a rich and beautiful lady of society who attracted him,—quite a contrast to the rural Frederika and the amiable and domestic Lotte. Anna Elizabeth Schönemann, generally known as Lilli, was about sixteen years old, when Goethe fell a victim to her charms. She was a spoiled child, wilful and coquettish, but high-bred and with a charm of manner, when she chose to be agreeable, which fully explains the poet’s devotion to her. Moreover, there was nothing meek and abjectly admiring about her. She teased her adorer, tormented him by her whims, and took delight in exercising her power over him. This was quite a new experience to a young man who had been accustomed to easy conquests and uncritical adoration. He was now drawn into general society, and, after his engagement with Lilli had been made public, was compelled to dance attendance upon her, early and late, at balls and dinner-parties. As an experience this might be valuable enough, but Goethe soon tired of it, and protested in prose and verse against his servitude. Lilli, however, though she was sincerely attached to him, could not be made to give up the youthful gayety which seemed so attractive to her. Quarrels ensued, alienations and reconciliations, and finally a complete rupture. In many poems from this period Goethe chronicles the various stages of his love for Lilli and laments her loss. There is no doubt she had the making of a noble woman in her; her later life, and particularly her utterances concerning her relation to Goethe, show that she was neither frivolous nor shallow-hearted. But she was young and beautiful, and had a sense of power which it was but natural she should exercise. The meek and submissive maiden is in undue favor with men, and Goethe’s biographers, being all men, have done their best to revile the memory of Lilli.
Among the friends who were warmly attached to Goethe at this time, Fritz Jacobi and Lavater demand a passing notice. Both presented a queer mixture of character, which accounts for their subsequent alienation from the poet. It is worthy of remark that scarcely any of the associates of Goethe’s youth maintained their intimate relations with him through life. He valued a friend only as long as he was in sympathy with him, and as he outgrew his youthful self, the friends who had been identified with this self lapsed into the distance. He did not value fidelity in the ordinary sense of the term, when it involved a perpetual strain upon the heart—when it had become a matter of duty rather than of affection. As regards Lavater, he was, with all his ostentatious spirituality, a good deal of a charlatan, even so much so as to justify Goethe’s epigram in the “Xenien:”
He reminds one of Carlyle’s friend Irving, who also started as an honest zealot and lapsed into emotional excesses, which leave one no choice but to question either his sanity or his honesty. The so-called science of physiognomy, which Lavater claimed to have discovered, at one time interested Goethe greatly; but later, when he became familiar with scientific methods of research, he could no longer accept Lavater as a guide.
Fritz Jacobi was an honest sentimentalist, who ardently revered Goethe for his great powers of mind and intellect. They travelled together, and revelled in the emotions of love and sympathy which welled forth from the souls of both. Everything that they saw filled them with ecstatic wonder, and furnished themes for extravagant discourses and poetic dreams. Jacobi, even though the years sobered him, never completely outgrew this state, and when he published his sentimental romance “Woldemar,” which Goethe could not admire, their friendship began to cool. They drifted slowly apart, though there was no rupture to signalize their estrangement.
In spite of all his efforts, Goethe could not obtain any lasting satisfaction from his occupation with the law, and he grew lax in his attention to professional duties. The counsellor was grievously disappointed, and the relation between father and son grew so strained that all the diplomacy of the mother was required to keep them from open disagreement. It was therefore a godsend to Goethe when, in 1775, the two princes of Saxe-Weimar arrived in Frankfort, and extended to him an invitation to visit their court. The eldest of the brothers, Karl August, took a great fancy to the author of “Werther,” and made every effort to keep him as a friend and companion. To this end he conferred upon Goethe the title of Privy Counsellor, with an annual salary of twelve hundred thalers and a vote in the ducal cabinet. Goethe had thus at last got firm ground under his feet, and could now, without fear of the future, give himself up to his favorite pursuits. His arrival in Weimar made a great sensation. His fame, his extraordinary beauty and his winning manners gave him at once a prestige, which he maintained undiminished to the end of his days. The duke, who was a blunt and honest fellow, fond of pleasure and yet zealous for the welfare of his subjects, found in Goethe a firm support for his noblest endeavors. As a boon-companion in pleasure he found the poet no less attractive; though it is now conceded that the tales which were circulated concerning the excesses of the two friends, at court festivals and rural excursions, were greatly exaggerated. It is true, a pause occurs in Goethe’s literary activity after his arrival in Weimar; but this was due not to preoccupation with pleasure but to the zeal with which he devoted himself to his official duties. It was important to Goethe as a poet to gain a deeper insight into practical reality, and he seized the present opportunity to familiarize himself with many phases of life which hitherto had lain beyond his horizon. Strange as it may seem to those who identify with the name of poet everything that is fantastic and irregular, he made a model official—punctual and exact in all his dealings, painstaking, upright and inflexible.
During his early youth, Goethe had been identified with the school in German literature known as the “Storm and Stress” (“Sturm und Drang”). The members of this school had clamored for a return to Nature—meaning by Nature absence of civilization. Civilization was held responsible for all the ills to which flesh is heir, and the remedy was held to be the abolishment of all the artificial refinements of life which interfered with the free expression of Nature. Goethe never went to the same length in these doctrines as some of his associates (Klinger, Lenz, Leisewitz), but he was for all that, like them, a disciple of Rousseau, and had, both in “Götz” and “Werther,” made war upon civilized society. It is therefore notable that, after his arrival in Weimar and his closer contact with the actualities of life, a profound change came over him, which amounted to a revolution in his convictions. The wild ferment of his youth had found its natural expression in the fervid, tumultuous diction of the “Storm and Stress,” but his maturer manhood demanded a clearer, soberer and more precise utterance. The change that took place in his style during the first ten years of his sojourn in Weimar was therefore a natural one, and ought to have caused no surprise to those who knew him.
A very exhaustive record of Goethe’s inner and outer life during this period is contained in his correspondence with Frau von Stein, the wife of Baron von Stein, a nobleman in the duke’s service. She was seven years older than the poet and the mother of seven children. Beautiful she was not, but she was a woman of exceptional culture and finely attuned mind, capable of comprehending subtle shades of thought and feeling. Her face, as the portraits show, was full of delicacy and refinement. Her marriage was unhappy, and, without any protest on the part of her husband, she sought in daily intercourse with Goethe a consolation for the miseries of her life. Whether the relation was anything more than a bond of sympathy and intellectual friendship it is difficult to determine. His letters, appointing interviews and overflowing with affectionate assurances, are those of a lover. Unfortunately Frau von Stein’s own letters have not been preserved; she took the precaution to demand them back and burn them, when their friendship came to an end.
In September, 1786, Goethe started from Karlsbad for Italy, and arrived in October in Rome. For many years it had been his dearest desire to see the Eternal City, and to study with his own eyes the masterpieces of ancient art. In his trunk he carried several unfinished manuscripts, and in his head a number of literary plans which he here hoped to mature, in the presence of the marble gods and heroes of the ancient world. He associated chiefly with the artists Tischbein, Meyer, Philip Hackert and Angelica Kaufmann, and revelled in art talk and criticism. He took up again the study of Homer, and began to meditate upon an Homeric drama, to be called “Nausicaa.” Italy, with its bright sky, its gently sloping mountains, clad with silvery olive trees, and its shores washed by the blue Mediterranean waves, became a revelation to him, and he apprehended keenly her deepest poetic meaning. A cheerful paganism henceforth animates his writings, a delight in sensuous beauty and a certain impatience with the Christian ideal of self-abnegation. The Hellenic ideal of harmonious culture—an even development of all the powers of body and soul—appealed powerfully to him. He flung away his Gothic inheritance, undervaluing, in his devotion to the Greeks, what was noble and beautiful in the sturdy self-denying manhood of the North. His drama “Iphigenia,” which he had first written in prose, he now rewrote in classical pentameters and sent it home to his friends in Weimar, who were completely mystified, and did not quite dare to say that they could make neither head nor tail of it. For all that, this drama is a very remarkable production, uniting, as it were, the Greek and the Germanic ideal, and being in spirit as close to the latter as it is in form to the former. Goethe dealt with this old classic tale as no Greek could ever have done it. He makes the gentle womanhood of Iphigenia soften the manners of the fierce Taurians, and by her noble character act as a civilizing influence in the midst of the barbarous race. The Greeks had not arrived at such an estimate of woman; nor would Euripides, who dealt with the same legend, have understood Goethe’s version of it any better than did Herder and his friends in Weimar.
In June, 1788, Goethe again turned his face northward, after an absence of nearly two years. One of the first effects of his Italian experience was that he took a mistress, named Christiane Vulpius, whom many years later he married. Christiane was a bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked girl, with an abundance of curly hair, in no wise intellectual, and belonging to a family in which drunkenness was hereditary. She was of redundant physical development, had always a bright smile, and was sufficiently intelligent to take a mild interest in her lover’s literary and scientific pursuits. But that his liaison with her was, for all that, a deplorable mistake can scarcely be questioned. In the first place she developed, as she grew older, her hereditary vice, and was frequently unpresentable on account of intoxication. The son whom she bore to Goethe inherited the same failing, and died suddenly in Rome, as has been surmised, from the effects of a carouse. The young man, who was handsome in person and well endowed, had been married some years before and was the father of two sons, both of whom died unmarried. Walter von Goethe, who lived until April, 1885, was a chamberlain at the Court of Weimar, and at one time cherished poetical aspirations. With his death the race of Goethe became extinct in the direct line. It is, indeed, true that the sins of the fathers avenge themselves upon the children.
Christiane’s removal to Goethe’s house, where he henceforth claimed for her the place and respect due to a wife, caused a grievous commotion in Weimar. Frau von Stein was the first to take offence, and a rupture of their former relation was the result. Herder also remonstrated, and soon ceased to count himself among Goethe’s friends.
In 1789 Goethe completed a drama which, like the “Iphigenia,” had existed in an earlier prose version. It was entitled “Tasso,” and dealt with the history of the Italian poet of that name. Its purpose seems to be to protest against the over-estimation of a poet’s calling, then in vogue, and to assert the rights of practical reason as against those of the imagination. Tasso is represented as an impulsive and warm-hearted man who is violently swayed by his emotions, while the cool-headed man of the world, Antonio, represents the opposite type. In the contest which arises between them Tasso is worsted; and it is Goethe’s purpose to convince the reader that he deserves his fate. In this, however, he is not entirely successful. Antonio, the adroit and sagacious diplomat, is an unattractive character as compared with the noble and generous Tasso, who errs from inability to restrain his passionate adoration of the Princess Leonora. The world is apt to sympathize more with generous folly than with far-seeing sagacity and nicely-adjusted calculation. And yet, when we have advanced another century, I am inclined to think that we shall agree that Goethe’s judgment was right.
As an acting play “Tasso” is even less effective than “Götz” and “Iphigenia,” being rather a poetic and admirably conceived story, told in dramatic form, than a drama in the ordinary acceptation of the term.
If further proof were needed that Goethe was not a dramatist, “Egmont” furnishes the most conclusive evidence. Here were again a series of delightful characterizations, subtle, and yet vigorous; and picturesquely effective scenes, strung together most entertainingly, but only with remote reference to the requirements of the stage. There is no perceptible acceleration of the action, as it progresses, no sharp accentuation of motives and effects, and no inexorable necessity, either internal or external, which hurries the hero on to his destruction. No poet, however great, can emancipate himself from these laws, if he wishes to produce a successful tragedy. As a mere literary production, “Egmont” is fully worthy of the author of “Götz” and “Werther,” and deserves the immortality which it has earned. The types of Clärchen and Egmont have a perennial beauty, of which no critic can deprive them. The great elemental passion, which is the mainspring of their speech and action, appeals to all hearts alike, and invests them with a charm which can never grow old.
The critic who first expressed substantially the above opinion of “Egmont” was a young man named Frederick Schiller, who was just then glorying in his first fame as the author of “The Robbers” and other sensational dramas. He had had a great desire to make the acquaintance of Goethe, whom he profoundly revered; though he was probably aware of the dislike which Goethe entertained of the violent and declamatory school which he represented. At a meeting which took place in September, 1788, Schiller was quite grieved at the coolness with which the elder poet received him; and at a subsequent interview he likewise failed to make any advance in the latter’s favor. It was not until six years later that a literary enterprise (“Die Horen”), which Schiller had started, brought them into closer contact; and Goethe learned to value the genius of the man whom he had politely repelled. From this time forth they saw much of each other, and remained in correspondence whenever chance separated them. A beautiful friendship, founded upon mutual respect and community of interests, sprung up between them, and deepened with every year, until death separated them. Literature has no more perfect relation to show between two great men than this between Goethe and Schiller. No jealousy, no passing disagreement, clouded the beautiful serenity of their intercourse. They met, as it were, only upon the altitudes of the soul, where no small and petty passions have the power to reach. Their correspondence, which has been published, is a noble monument to the worth of both. The earnestness with which they discuss the principles of their art, the profound conscientiousness and high-bred courtesy with which they criticize each other’s works, and their generous rivalry in the loftiest excellence have no parallel in the entire history of literature.
It was chiefly due to the influence of Schiller that Goethe determined to resume work upon the fragment of “Faust,” which he had kept for many years in his portfolio, and finally published incomplete in the edition of 1790. Schiller saw at once the magnificent possibilities of this theme, and the colossal dimensions of the thought which underlay the daring conception. Goethe, being preoccupied with the classical fancies which the Italian journey had revived, was at first unwilling to listen to his friend’s advice, and spoke disparagingly of the fragment as something too closely allied with his Gothic “Storm and Stress” period, which he had now outgrown. So long, however, did Schiller persevere, that Goethe’s interest was reawakened, the plan widened and matured, and for the rest of his life Goethe reserved his best and noblest thought for this work, fully conscious that upon it his claim to immortality would rest. Still, it was not until 1808 that the First Part finally appeared in its present form. In the meanwhile several works of minor consequence occupied Goethe’s mind besides the romance “Wilhelm Meister,” the fundamental thought of which is kindred to that of “Faust.” The satirical poem “Reynard the Fox,” founded upon an older popular model, was published in 1794 and made some passing stir, and a rather prolix and uninteresting romance, entitled “The Conversations of German Emigrants,” also engaged his attention. In 1795 the first two volumes of “Wilhelm Meister” were published, and were received with enthusiasm by some and with censure by many. The public at large, being unable to comprehend the philosophical purpose of the work, were puzzled. As a story the book was sufficiently entertaining, but it hinted everywhere at meanings which it did not fully reveal. It was obvious that it was this hidden significance which the author had at heart amid this bewildering panorama of shifting scenes and persons. The plot is altogether too complex to be unravelled here, but the philosophy of the book may be briefly stated.
“Wilhelm Meister” aims at nothing less than to portray the disintegration of feudal society, then visibly commencing—the transition from a feudal to an industrial civilization. The nobleman’s prerogatives cannot endure unless they are founded upon qualities of mind and character which make him indispensable to the state. In other words, it is a man’s utility which in the end must establish his place in society. All other distinctions are artificial and evanescent. That society had not yet reached this state Goethe was well aware, but he merely wished to indicate the direction which the development of the future must inevitably take. The quest for the ideal which drives Wilhelm from the routine of the paternal counting-house into a life of wild adventure, is merely the individual manifestation of the restless discontent which animates society at large, and is slowly revolutionizing it, in accordance with the changed conditions of modern life. The world’s ideal, like that of Wilhelm Meister, is perpetually changing, and each achievement in social reform is but a stepping-stone to still nobler achievements. Wilhelm when young seeks his ideal in a free and unrestrained life among actors and strolling vagabonds; then the freedom from care and the commanding position of a nobleman seem to offer the highest felicity, and at last, after having had this illusion dispelled, he finds happiness in self-forgetful devotion to duty. Not in freedom from labor but in devotion to labor; not in unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, but in a well-defined sphere of daily utility, can man alone find happiness. This is the lesson of “Wilhelm Meister,” and a most noble lesson it is. The Second Part of the book, which was not completed until 1821, only emphasizes this same moral, though the moral is concealed under a mass of more or less obscure symbols, which often seem needlessly perplexing.
The first fruit of Goethe’s union with Schiller was a series of satirical epigrams, called “Die Xenien,” (1797). These were intended in part to punish the enemies and detractors of the literary firm of Goethe and Schiller, but, though they do not spare persons who are exponents of false and dangerous tendencies, they seem chiefly intended to attack pretence, charlatanism and unsound canons of criticism. They do not only tear down, they also build up. They praise what is noble and chastise what is ignoble. Witty in the French sense are but few of them; but all of them have a weighty meaning.
Immediately in the wake of the “Xenien” followed the rural idyl “Hermann and Dorothea” (1797), which suddenly revived Goethe’s popularity with the mass of readers, who since his Italian journey had gradually drifted away from him. It was as if Goethe had meant to show them that he could be as simple and popular as anybody, if he chose. Here was a story of German rural life in which no one had seen any poetry before, except Voss, who in his “Luise” had delivered a turgid homily in hexameters on the rural virtues. Goethe well knew this poem, but he was not afraid of incurring the charge of having imitated Voss, because he knew that a literary subject belongs, not to him who deals with it first, but to him who deals with it best. There is a delightful Homeric flavor in his hexameters; they roll and march along with splendid resonance. In the characterization of the Landlord of the Golden Lion and his wife and neighbors, the same easy mastery is visible which gave the vivid form and color to the features of Egmont, Götz and Werther.
Far less successful, both in point of popularity and literary excellence, was the tragedy, “The Natural Daughter,” which owed its origin to Goethe’s excessive admiration of Sophocles and Æschylus. The types are here quite colorless—not because Goethe could not individualize them, but from conscientious motives—because the Greek poets deal merely with general types and avoid a too vivid individualization. Far more worthy specimens of Græco-Germanic art are the beautiful classical elegies “Alexis and Dora,” “Euphrosyne” and “Amyntor.” Also a host of fine, spirited ballads, vigorous in tone and exquisite in color, date from this period. Goethe had long ago discovered the charm of the German folk-song, and had estimated the poetic force of this simple national strain.
In 1805 Schiller died, and Goethe was once more alone; for among his neighbors and townsmen he found no more congenial companions. Scientific pursuits began more and more to occupy him, and the opinion became prevalent that he had now ceased to be a poet, and that his absurd ambition to be a scientist had disqualified him for further literary production. Goethe was not in the least disturbed by these rumors, but pursued his investigations in botany, geology and optics with undiminished zeal. All the while he worked quietly on “Faust” and his “Doctrine of Color,” and made experiments with the sun spectrum—in which he believed he had discovered phenomena which were at variance with the Newtonian theory of color. That he was here on a wrong track we may now freely admit, but Professor Tyndale asserts that his very mistakes afford evidences of his genius. The fact is, he was in advance of his age in the value he attached to scientific education; and having had no opportunities for such education in his youth, he made up for what he had missed by an increased zeal during his mature years. He saw Nature in her grand unity, and his penetrating vision saw the great causal chain which unites her most varied phenomena. In this, and in this alone, consisted his greatness as a scientist. He was the Faust who by a daring synthesis brought order into the chaos of dispersed facts, which a hundred pedantic and pains-taking Wagners had accumulated. The Wagners therefore did not love him, and their hostile opinions made enough noise in their day to have even reached as a faint echo down to the present. Nevertheless the scientists of to-day have recognized the value of Goethe’s theory of the typical plant, and of the leaf as the typical organ of plant life, which he has fully developed in his book on “The Metamorphoses of Plants.” A kindred thought, applied to the animal kingdom, led to the discovery of the intermaxillary bone, which finally established the identity of the human skeleton with that of other mammals; and in geology to his championing the so-called Neptunic theory of the development of the earth against Humboldt’s Vulcanism, which attributed to volcanic agencies the principal influence in fashioning the globe’s surface. In all these controversies he emphasized the essential identity of Nature in all her phenomena; the unity and organic coherence of all her varied life; and he did not, in the end, hesitate to draw the logical conclusion from these premises, and declare himself a believer in the theory of evolution, half a century before Darwin had advanced the same doctrine.
All these heterogeneous studies became tributary to Goethe’s greatest work, “Faust” (1790 and 1808), in which the highest results of his colossal knowledge are deposited. It is his philosophy of life which he has here expounded, under a wealth of symbols and images which dazzle the eye, and to the superficial reader often obscure the profounder meaning. To the majority of English and American critics “Faust” is but a touching and beautiful love-story, and the opinion is unblushingly expressed by hoary wiseacres that the Second Part is a mistake of Goethe’s old age, and in no wise worthy of the First. If nothing is worth saying except that which appeals to the ordinary intellect, trained in the common schools, then this criticism is not to be cavilled with; but Goethe had during the latter part of his life entered a realm of thought, where he was hidden from the multitude; where but a few congenial minds could follow him. To these I would endeavor to demonstrate what “Faust” means if the space permitted.* All I can do here is briefly to indicate the fundamental thought.
Goethe borrowed from Spinoza the daring proposition that God is responsible for evil. He undertook to demonstrate that evil was not an afterthought on the part of God, which stole into his system of the universe by an unforeseen chance, but an essential part of that system from the beginning. In other words, as it is expressed in the “Prologue in Heaven,” God gave Mephistopheles as a companion to Faust. Selfishness, which is merely another form of the instinct of self-preservation, is the lever of the world’s history, and if a man were born who was entirely free from it he would be unable to maintain his place in the world as it is now constituted. He would be trampled down, and would perish. The unrestrained egoism of barbaric times has gradually been limited, as civilization has advanced, by laws, which in each age expresses the average moral sense, and are intended to secure the preservation of society. But egoism, though variously disguised and turned into useful channels, is yet the leading motive in men’s actions—Mephistopheles, though a most civilized gentleman, still is at Faust’s elbow, and stimulates him to daring enterprise of which, without this unlovely companion, he would never have dreamed.
Faust, then, is meant to symbolize mankind, and Mephistopheles the devil, the principle of selfishness or of evil, in whatever way disguised. In the symbolic fable, Mephistopheles makes a wager with the Lord, that if the Lord will give him the right to accompany Faust, Faust will in the end be the devil’s. This wager is accepted, and Mephistopheles proceeds to introduce Faust to all phases of sensual pleasure, in the hope of corrupting him. Faust, however, though he sins, is in no wise corrupted. The love affair and the subsequent tragedy with Margaret are merely episodes in Faust’s development, from the author’s point of view, cruel as it may seem. Faust, in his typical capacity, rises above the error which came near crippling him, to higher phases of being. His ideal changes; he goes in search of culture and intellectual achievement. Mephistopheles’s attempts to lead him astray are turned directly to useful purposes. The devil, who in the sensual stage of his development had had a certain predominance over him, becomes now more and more subservient to him. Faust’s intellectual powers are especially employed in statesmanship and political activity for the welfare of the state. Then comes the pursuit of the beautiful, regarded as an educational agency, symbolized in the quest of Helen of Troy and the pilgrimage to Greece. Particularly in the classical Walpurgis Night are the spiritual value and the ennobling influence of Greek art emphasized. The last and concluding phase of man’s development, which is logically derived from the preceding ones, is altruism—a noble devotion to humanity, and self-forgetful labor for the common weal. In this activity Faust finds happiness, and exclaims to the flying moment, “Stay, thou art so fair.”
It is scarcely necessary to add that Faust remained a sealed book to the majority of Goethe’s contemporaries. Some few saw the scope and purpose of the work and valued it accordingly; others pretended to understand more than they did; and a whole literature of commentaries was supplied by the learned ingenuity and zeal of the Fatherland. Goethe sat at home and smiled at his critics, but never undertook either to confirm or to refute their theories.
In 1809 he again published a book which was a puzzle both to his admirers and his enemies. This was a novel entitled “Elective Affinities.” He had at that time made the acquaintance of a young girl named Minna Herzlieb, an adopted daughter of the bookseller Frommann in Jena. He became greatly interested in her, addressed sonnets to her, and quite turned her head. To be loved by Goethe, even though he was no longer young, was a distinction which no girl could contemplate with indifference. Moreover he was, apart from his celebrity, a man of majestic presence and a kind of serene Olympian beauty. Minna Herzlieb’s parents fearing that she might lose her heart, as she already had her head, made haste to send her beyond the reach of Goethe’s influence. Out of this relation, or rather out of its possibilities, grew “Elective Affinities.” Goethe was married to Christiane, whose unfortunate propensity for drink had then already developed. Minna was young and fair, and attracted him strongly. Here were the elements for a tragedy. In the book the situation is essentially the same, though Charlotte, Edward’s wife, is afflicted by no vice. It might be described as a four-cornered attachment, in which everybody loves the one he cannot have. These attachments are described by analogy, with chemical laws, as entirely irresponsible natural forces which assert themselves in the individual without any guilty agency of his own. The conclusion is, however, not that marriage, which interferes with the consummation of these elective affinities, is wrong, and ought to be abolished. If there is any moral at all (which is not perfectly obvious), it is that every man and woman should be aware of encouraging such relations, as they are sure to lead to unhappiness and disaster.
Christiane, Goethe’s wife, died in 1816, and he mourned her sincerely. Habit had bred a certain attachment, of which, with all her failings, she was not entirely undeserving. In her early youth, before she had yet assumed the name of wife, she had inspired the immortal Roman “Elegies,” in which her lover, with pagan unrestraint, had sung the delight of the senses. She had been his associate, too, in his botanical studies, and had assisted him in his search for the typical plant. But a wife in the noblest sense—a friend and a companion of her husband’s higher life—she had not been and could not have been.
In the last decades of his life, Goethe was largely absorbed in scientific researches and in arranging and editing the labors of his early life. Of particular importance is his autobiography, “Fact and Fiction” (“Aus Meinem Leben, Dichtung und Wahrheit”), which relates with extraordinary vividness that portion of his life which preceded his removal to Weimar. The book is an historical document of the highest importance. It gives the intellectual and moral complexion of the eighteenth century in Germany, as no other work has ever done. Also his letters from Italy to Herder and Frau von Stein he carefully edited and collected under the title “Italian Journey.” Then, as if by a miracle, came a poetic Indian summer, a fresh flow of lyrical verse, full of youthful spontaneity and fervor. This collection, which was published in 1819 under the title “The West-Eastern Divan,” was a free imitation of Oriental models, translated into German by Hammer Purgstall (1813). The first half of the book is chiefly didactic, while the latter half contains love lyrics, which in freshness of fancy and sweetness of melody rival the productions of Goethe’s best years. A few of these poems were written by Marianne Willemer, the wife of a merchant in Frankfort, and with her consent included in the collection. She cherished an ardent admiration for the old poet, and he highly valued her friendship. She is supposed to be “the beloved one” whom he celebrates in the book of “Zuleika.” The book of “Timur” is a free poetic moralization, concerning the rise and fall of Napoleon, disguised in Oriental forms. What is particularly remarkable in these melodious meditations is the novelty of their metres. Goethe discards, for the time, the classical measures in which his genius had moved with such sovereign ease, and adopts the strangely involved verse of an entirely alien civilization. It is the metrical forms which Platen, Heine, Rückert and Bodenstedt have made so familiar to German readers, and which German poets even to-day are assiduously cultivating. Although Goethe did not go into any such minute study of Oriental prosody as for instance Rückert, yet he was in this field, as in many other departments of literary labor, the path-breaking pioneer.
Another work which, though seemingly unassuming, gained, in the course of time, much importance for the intellectual life of Germany was the “Italian Journey,” which was given to the public in 1817. Altogether this collection of letters, containing only the simplest and most direct descriptions of what the writer saw, differs widely from every other description of Italy which has ever been published. It has no fine writing, and makes no pretentious display of knowledge. But for all that it is a model of good style. The words are absolutely transparent, and serve no purpose but to convey an accurate idea of the objects described. The marvelously many-sided knowledge of the author, and, above all, his wholesome and universal curiosity, are highly impressive. A fact, whether it belong to the realm of art or of nature, or of political history, commands his immediate interest. He has at all times and in all places a strong, healthful appetite for facts. On the Lido, near Venice, he sits and contemplates with a fascinated gaze the phenomena of marine life; with exactly the same devotion he listens to the responsive song of the fishermen across the lagoons, or studies the architecture of Palladio and the paintings of Rafael and Titian. The Adriatic, with its blue isles reflected in the sun-bathed waves, furnishes him with a setting for the Homeric epics, and Homeric life becomes clear to him, by analogy, from the study of the physical conditions of the old Magna Græcia. In every direction his comment is pregnant with new meaning. He throws out with heedless prodigality seed-corns of thought, and they fall into good soil and bear fruit a hundred and a thousand fold in the distant future.
Of Goethe’s other autobiographical works “Fiction and Fact” is the most important. The title is significant, because it implies that the author does not mean to tie himself down to the narration of the mere barren details of his life, but reserves for himself the right of artistic arrangement and poetical interpretation. It has, indeed, been proved that he has now and again reversed the sequence of events, where a more poetic effect could be attained at the expense of the true chronology. It was his purpose to emphasize the organic coherence of his life; its continuous and unbroken development, according to certain laws which presided over his destiny. His father and mother (upon whom he bestows the minutest description) being what they were, and the environment of his early life (which he likewise depicts with the most pains-taking exactness) being what it was, it was natural and necessary that he should become what he was. This seems to be the sum and moral of the whole. Law and organic evolution were the watchwords of his life. All that was accidental and appeared miraculous interested him only as an incentive to find in it the hidden law. So in every science which he approached his touch seemed creative—it brought order out of chaos. The slow and beautiful processes of the earth’s cooling and preparation for the habitation of living creatures, the gradual growth and decay of the mountains, and the uses of all these agencies in the grand cosmic economy—these were things which in the latter half of his career most profoundly absorbed him. He loved to gather about him scientific specialists, and to hear from them the latest results of their investigations. As his isolation in Weimar grew more complete, he came to depend almost entirely upon such company as he could find in travelling artists and scientists. As an instance of his interest in scientific questions, an anecdote related by his friend Soret is highly characteristic. In the first days of August, 1830, Weimar was agitated by the intelligence which had just arrived from Paris of the breaking out of the July Revolution. Soret hurried to Goethe to discuss the political situation with him. The moment Goethe saw him he exclaimed, “Well, what do you think of this great event? The volcano has at last come to eruption; everything is in flames, and there is no longer any question of debate behind closed doors.”
“It is a terrible story,” answered Soret, “but what was to be expected under such conditions and with such a ministry, except that it would have to end with the expulsion of the royal family.”
Goethe stared in the utmost astonishment. “We seem to misunderstand each other, my dear,” he said after a moment’s pause; “I am not talking of those people. What interests me is quite a different affair. I am referring to the quarrel which has just broken out in the Academy between Cuvier and Geoffroy St. Hillaire, which is of the utmost significance to science. The matter is of the highest importance,” he continued after another pause, “and you can have no idea of the feelings which the session of July 19th has aroused in me. We have now in St. Hillaire a mighty ally for a long time to come. . . . The best of all, however, is that the synthetic treatment of nature, introduced by him in France, can now no more be overthrown.”
It is to me a most sublime trait, this lofty scientific absorption. Wars and revolutions and expulsions of kings are of small consequence compared to the great eternal laws which hold the planets in their spheres, and guide the progressive march of God’s vast creation. Cuvier held that a series of violent catastrophes had taken place in the earth’s history, sharply separating each geologic age from the subsequent and the preceding one. St. Hillaire, on the other hand, defended Goethe’s proposition that the development of the earth and its life had been an uninterrupted sequence of progressive stages. How deeply Goethe felt upon this subject is further evident from his remark to Chancellor von Müller: “About aesthetic matters everyone may think and feel as he likes, but in natural science the false and the absurd are absolutely unendurable.” “This friend,” he remarked on the same occasion, referring to Alexander von Humboldt, who, as he thought, had given undue weight to volcanic agencies, “has, in fact, never had any higher method; only much common sense, zeal and persistence.”
Goethe’s attitude toward politics, and particularly toward the efforts of his countrymen to throw off the Napoleonic yoke, has been the subject of much heated controversy. The fact is, he was a German only in name; because the German nationality was in his day not yet resuscitated. In the free city of Frankfort, where Goethe spent his childhood and early youth, there existed no such feeling as national pride and patriotism. A kind of local town-feeling was quite pronounced, and Goethe had his share of it. But the miserable separatistic policy of the petty German princes had begun to bear fruit long ago, and had extinguished all sense of responsibility to the empire at large and all devotion for the common nationality. Where there is no national life there can be no patriotism. It is responsibility which engenders devotion. When, finally, Napoleon’s tyranny awakened this sentiment in the hearts of the scattered and dismembered nation, Goethe was too old to be affected by it. “Shake your fetters,” he exclaimed to his struggling countrymen, “you cannot break them. The man is too strong for you.”
That such language was resented by a bleeding people, fighting for its existence, is not to be wondered at. At the same time the apparent indifference of Goethe was not as serious a reflection upon his character as his friends then assumed. He was essentially a child of the eighteenth century, and had imbibed its individualism. All he demanded of the state was the right to pursue his own avocations in peace; and anything that broke in upon his literary and scientific meditation (even though it were a war of liberation) he was apt to resent as an intrusion. In 1813, when, after the battle of Jena, the French plundered Weimar and the grenadiers even stormed into his bed-room, he had a taste of the tribulations of war, and a deep horror of its terrific waste of life and barbarizing influence took possession of him. He stood no longer then, as he did in the campaign in France in 1792, watching the bursting shells with a purely scientific interest, taking down his observations in his note-book. The fiery rain was no longer a mere experiment in optics.
Goethe has somewhere remarked, that all his writings are one continued confession—his life entered into his work; every experience became transfused into the very life-blood of his thought, and gained in time its poetic expression. Only war remained so repugnant to him that he nowhere felt called upon to interpret the emotion which it aroused.
“How could I take up arms,” he said to Soret, “without hatred; and how could I hate without youth? If such an emergency had befallen me when I was twenty years old, I should certainly not have been the last. . . . To write military songs and sit in my room! That, for sooth, was my duty! To have written them in the bivouac, while the outposts of the enemy’s horses are heard neighing in the night, would have been well enough! . . . But I am no warlike nature, and have no warlike sense; war-songs would have been a mask which would have fitted my face badly. I have never affected anything in poetry. I have never uttered anything which I have not experienced and which has not urged me to production. I have composed love-songs when I loved! How could I write songs of hate without hating? And, between ourselves, I did not hate the French; althought I thanked God when we were rid of them. How could I, to whom culture and barbarism alone are of importance, hate a nation which is among the most cultivated of the earth, and to which I owe so much of my own culture. Altogether, national hatred is a peculiar thing, and you will always find it strongest at the lowest stage of culture.”
I have already alluded to the fact that Goethe in his old age found himself isolated from the society of friends and neighbors. Altogether, his relations with his great contemporaries need a word of comment. His friendship with Schiller, as we have seen, remained uninterrupted to the end; and with Wieland, who was a cheerful, easy-going epicurean, he also remained on amicable terms. But Wieland had never been very near to him; and a friendly acquaintance will take care of itself much more easily than a closer intimacy. With Herder, on the other hand, who in natural endowment was a worthier rival to Goethe than the prolific author of “Oberon,” he had many misunderstandings which, finally, after the Vulpius affair, led to a lasting alienation. Herder was, with all his great qualities, testy and irritable, and could not conquer a certain envy of Goethe. He had largely influenced Goethe’s intellectual life and therefore resented his pupil’s tendency to grow above his head. That he protested against Goethe’s liaison is certainly to his honor; and Goethe would have saved himself and his posterity much unhappiness had he heeded Herder’s advice. On the whole, it is obvious that Goethe, as he grew to his full intellectual stature, no longer desired relations of personal intimacy. He valued this friend for his proficiency in this branch of knowledge, and that friend for his proficiency in another; but he took pains, as it were, to confine each man to his own department in which he was likely to be useful and interesting. Even men with blots upon their reputations he invited to his house, if he had respect for their acquirements. But let them beware, if they desired to continue on an amicable footing, not to stray beyond their respective departments. Even in his relation to the duke, Karl August, Goethe maintained in later years a reserve, which so old and tried a friend might have felt justified in resenting. But the duke understood Goethe, and thought his attitude natural. He found him a useful and highly ornamental figure in his small duchy; and did everything in his power to further the objects for which he lived. Perhaps he even liked the stately reserve of the old poet. “As genuine grands seigneurs,” says Grimm, “they walked side by side, and the distance which separated them was exactly to their tastes. . . . From having been friends, Goethe and the duke became allies.”
During the last years of his life it was chiefly the Second Part of “Faust” and his periodical “For Art and Antiquity” which occupied Goethe. Like the aged Faust, he marched serenely toward the Valley of the Shadow of Death, cheerfully awaiting whatever fate there might be in store for him:
His activity was as many-sided and unwearied as in his most vigorous manhood. Not only the scientific, but also the literary currents of thought in all civilized lands he watched with the liveliest interest. So great was the elasticity of his mind, that he was in his old age capable of appreciating what was good in the Romantic school, in spite of his former dislike and his diametrically opposed intellectual tendency. The reactionary spirit of the Romanticists, and their wild enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, remained as repugnant to Goethe as ever; and their morbid mysticism and predilection for Catholicism did not commend them to one to whom the cheerful sensuousness and innate saneness of the Greek civilization had always strongly appealed. But the efforts of the Romantic authors to revive the feeling for native art seemed to him praiseworthy; and Sulpiz Boisserée, who was laboring earnestly for the restoration of the Cologne Cathedral, actually succeeded in convincing him of the national importance of his undertaking. The drawings and paintings of Albrecht Dürer also began to impress him, and his entire attitude toward the Middle Ages underwent a gradual change.
As the years progressed, the effects of Goethe’s activity began to be felt also in foreign lands, and he watched with interest and gratification his growing influence in every domain of human knowledge. Particularly in France, a school of rising authors, which also assumed the title of Romantic, strove through its organ, The Globe, to establish his authority beyond the Rhine. Although undoubtedly with the ulterior object of gaining a mighty ally against their enemies at home—the Academicians—these men, among whom Quinet, Ampère and Prosper Mérimée were the most prominent, paid their enthusiastic homage to the German poet, and, in spite of their defective comprehension of the spirit of his teachings, contributed not a little toward bringing his writings to the notice of the French public. In England also his writings were published, and commented upon with more or less intelligence in newspapers and reviews. Carlyle translated “Wilhelm Meister,” Walter Scott “Götz von Berlichingen” (1799), and Byron borrowed his ideas with his usual nonchalance. In Italy, too, he gained many admirers, and entertained a desultory correspondence with Manzoni. The ready recognition which he thus found on all hands gradually developed in him the idea of a world literature, which, independently of race and country, should appeal to the highest sense of excellence which the most cultured in all countries have in common. He had himself gathered the chief intellectual currents of his age, and made them pulsate through his own being. National differences and conflicting interests, which drew the peoples apart, seemed to him of small consequence compared to the great and abiding interests which all mankind has in common. Truth has no nationality, and a great thought is great in whatever language it is uttered. In the upper regions of the intellect men meet merely as men—as poets, thinkers, scientists—and all accidental distinctions of party, rank and nationality vanish. The ancient Greeks, who were the only people whose culture had been founded upon this universally human basis, would always remain authorities in matters of art. They were not to be imitated, however, but the spirit of their work, if properly comprehended, would stimulate the modern poet and artist to noble and independent creation.
Thus, in brief, was Goethe’s poetic creed. His prophecy of the world-literature is, however; yet far from fulfilment.
During the last years of Goethe’s life death reaped a rich harvest among those who were dearest to him. In June, 1828, died his oldest friend, Duke Karl August. Frau von Stein had died a few years before (1825). But the hardest blow of all was the loss of his only son, August von Goethe, who died in Rome in 1830. His daughter-in-law Ottilia remained his faithful companion and did the honors of his household. She read aloud to him from Plutarch—who was one of his favorite authors. To Eckermann he said as he sealed the package containing the completed MS. of “Faust,” “Henceforth I look upon my life purely as a gift; it is now really of little consequence what I do.”
A few months later (March 22d, 1832), as he was seated in his cosychair, suffering from a slight cold, he expired quietly and without a struggle. His last words were: “Light! more light!”
“The morning after Goethe’s death,” says Eckermann, “a deep desire seized me to look upon his earthly remains. His faithful servant Frederick opened for me the chamber where he was lying. Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and firmness reigned in the features of his sublime, noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbor thoughts. . . . The body lay naked, only wrapped in a winding-sheet. . . . The servant drew aside the sheet, and I marveled at the divine magnificence of those limbs. The breast was extraordinarily powerful, broad and arched; the arms and thighs were full and softly muscular; the feet shapely and of the purest form; nowhere on the whole body was there any trace of fat, or leanness, or decay. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture occasioned by this sight made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I placed my hand on his heart; there was a deep stillness, and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.”
It is difficult to overestimate the value of Goethe’s work to humanity. The bequest which he left to the world in his writings, and in the whole intellectual result of his life, is not as yet appreciated at its full worth; because, intellectually, the world has not yet caught up with him. His influence to-day asserts itself in a hundred minute ways—even where no one suspects it. The century has received the stamp and impress of his mighty personality. The intellectual currents of the age, swelled and amplified by later tributaries, flow to-day in the directions which Goethe indicated.
[* ]I may refer any one who is interested in the subject to my book, “Goethe and Schiller,” in which will be found an exhaustive commentary on “Faust.”
[* ]Faust, Part I.
Last modified April 13, 2016