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Goethe - At Home In Frankfort

( Originally Published 1913 )


ON August 28th, 1768, Goethe left Leipzig after a residence of nearly three years. He had gone to Leipzig in the spirit of a prisoner released from his gaol ; he left it in the spirit of one returning to durance. In his Autobiography he has described the depressing conditions under which he re-entered his father's house. In body and mind he had found that in " accursed Leipzig one burns out as quickly as a bad torch." In body he was a broken man. One night in the beginning of August he had been seized with a violent hemorrhage, and for some weeks his life hung by a thread. In his Autobiography he assigns various reasons for his illness. As the result of an accident on his journey from Frankfort to Leipzig he had strained the ligaments of his chest, and the mischief was aggravated by a subsequent fall from his horse ; he had suffered from the fumes of the acids he had inhaled in the process of etching ; he had ruined his digestion by drinking coffee and heavy beer ; and, in accordance with the precepts of Rousseau, he had adopted a regime which proved too severe for his enfeebled constitution. So he wrote in his old age, but his contemporary letters leave us in little doubt regarding the cause of his breakdown. He had, in fact, during the latter part of his sojourn in Leipzig lived the life of the average German student of his day. He had fought a duel, and had been wounded in the arm ; he had drunk more than was good for him, and we have seen that he had followed other courses not conducive to his bodily health.

His mental condition was equally unsatisfactory. There was not a friend, he tells us, whom at one time or another he had not annoyed by his caprice, or offended by his " morbid spirit of contradiction " and sullen avoidance of intercourse. All through his life Goethe seems to have tried his friends by his variable humours, but it was seldom that he completely alienated them, and he gratefully records how in his present stricken condition they rallied to his side, and put him to shame by their assiduous attentions. One of these friends, Langer by name, who had succeeded Behrisch as tutor to the young Count, he specially mentions as helping to give a new turn to his thoughts. Langer was religiously disposed, and found in Goethe, now in a mood to receive them, a sympathetic listener to his theological views. Under Langer's influence he resumed his youthful study of the Bible—not in the Old Testament, however, but in the New, which he read, he tells us, with " emotion and enthusiasm." It was the beginning of a new phase in his life which was to last for about a year and a half, a phase in which religion, if we are to accept, the testimony of his Autobiography, held the uppermost place in his thoughts.

It was with the feelings of " a shipwrecked seaman," he tells us, that he found himself again under his father's roof, though he characteristically adds that " he had nothing specially to reproach himself with." The atmosphere he found at home was not such as to put him in better spirits. Father, mother and daughter had been living in mutual misunderstanding during the whole period of the son's absence in Leipzig. Cornelia had been made the sole victim of her father's pedagogic discipline which had been partially alleviated when it was shared with her brother, and she had come to regard her over-anxious parent with a hardness which Goethe describes as having something dreadful (furchterliches) in it. The arrival of Goethe could not improve the existing relations in the household. As in the time before his going to Leipzig, Cornelia drew to him as the only member of the family who sympathetically understood her, and she remained as obdurate as ever in her sullen attitude towards her father. Between Goethe himself and his father their former estrangement continued, and we are given to understand that during the year and a half he now spent under the paternal roof there was no cordial understanding regarding the son's pursuits and his future career. Dissatisfied with his son, as from his point of view he had every reason to be, Herr Goethe nevertheless cherished a secret pride in his genius. With a paternal pride, which is even touching in the circumstances, he carefully framed the drawings executed by his son, and collected and stitched together his letters from Leipzig.

As in the case of his Leipzig period, Goethe's reminiscent account of his present sojourn in Frankfort gives a somewhat different impression of his main interests from that conveyed by his contemporary letters. If we accept the testimony of his Autobiography, his attention was mainly turned to religion and to chemical and cabbalistical studies ; from his correspondence, on the other hand, it would appear that his thoughts at least occasionally ran on subjects that had little to do with his spiritual welfare. At the same time, the apparent discrepancy need not imply self-contradiction. The correspondents to whom his letters were addressed were not persons specially interested in religion or chemistry or the cabbala, and, of all men, Goethe was least likely to be obsessed by any set of ideas to the exclusion of all others. There can be little doubt, indeed, that during his year and a half in Frankfort religion was a more predominant interest in his life than at any other period ; and the fact is sufficiently explained by the circumstances in which he then found himself. From the condition both of his mind and body he was disposed to self-searching. Regret for the past was foreign to his nature ; in his mature judgment, indeed, such a feeling was resolutely to be checked in the interest of healthy self-development. Yet in the retrospect of his Leipzig days it seems to have crossed his mind that he might have spent them more wisely. " 0 that I could recall the last two years and a half," he wrote to Kathchen Schönkopf, and he warns a male correspondent in Leipzig to " beware of dissoluteness."2 And the state of his health during the greater part of this time in Frankfort was such as to strengthen this mood. Immediately after his return from Leipzig he was threatened with pulmonary disease, and the state of his digestion became such as to alarm himself and his friends. On December 7th he was attacked by a violent internal pain, and for some days there were the gravest fears for his life. After two months' confinement to his room there was a partial recovery, but it was not till the spring of 1770 that his health was completeiy restored.

But the truth is that Goethe's temporary preoccupation with religion is only another illustration of his " chameleon " temperament. In gay Leipzig he had promptly taken on the ways of a man about town ; now in Frankfort he found himself in a very different society, and he as promptly entered into the spirit of it. The circle of which he now became a member was a company of religious persons, mostly women, friends or acquaintances of his mother. Its most prominent member was that Fraulein von Klettenberg, already mentioned, a woman of high rank, culture, and refinement. To moral beauty of character in man or woman, Goethe, at all periods of his life, was peculiarly sensitive,1 and in the Fraulein he saw a woman who combined at once the most winning graces of her sex and the virtues of a saint. For women of all ages and all types Goethe had always a singular attraction, and, though the Fraulein must have discerned that he could never be a son or brother in the spirit, she was profoundly interested in the wayward youth in whom she saw a brand that deserved to be plucked from the burning.

With a kind of half consent Goethe entered into the spirit of the pious circle ; he even attended communion in spite of his unhappy memories of that sacrament, and was present at a Synod of the Herrnhut Community to which Fraulein von Klettenberg belonged. Bound up with the Fraulein's religion was a curious interest in the occult powers of nature from the point of view of their relation to the human body. It is with evident irony that Goethe relates how in his own case the efficacy of these occult powers was tried. Among the members of the religious community was a mysterious physician who was credited with possessing certain medicines of peculiar virtue. He was believed to have in store one drug—a powerful salt —which he reserved only for the most dangerous cases, and regarding which, though they had never seen the result of its operation, the community spoke with bated breath. At the vehement request of his mother the mysterious medicine was administered to Goethe at the crisis of his malady, at the hour of midnight, and with all due solemnity. From that moment his illness took a favourable turn, and he steadily progressed towards recovery. " I need not say," is his comment, " how greatly this result strengthened and heightened our faith in our physician and our efforts to share such a treasure." Partly, therefore, out of his own insatiable curiosity and partly out of sympathy with his new friends, Goethe now betook himself to occult studies, and, in imitation of the Fraulein von Klettenberg, had a room fitted up with the necessary chemical apparatus. It was the first practical commencement of those scientific studies which were subsequently to occupy such a large part of his life. Along with his chemical experiments went the study of such visionaries in science as Paracelsus, Van Helmont, and others, but also of the great Boerhave, whose Institutes of Medicine and Aphorisms, containing all that was then known of medical theory, he " gladly stamped on his mind and memory."

To what extent are we to infer that Goethe really shared the religious views of the circle of pious persons with whom he was now living in daily contact ? His own account we can only regard as half jesting, half serious. He would never have spiritual peace, Fraulein von Klettenberg told him till he had a " reconciled God." Goethe's rejoinder was that it should be put the other way. Considering his recent sufferings and his own good intentions, it was God who was in arrears to him and who had something to be forgiven. The Fraulein charitably condoned the blasphemy, but she and her fellow-believers were assuredly in the right when they denied the blasphemer the name of Christian. Yet, as has been said, Goethe in his own way was seriously in search of a faith that would satisfy both his intellect and his heart, and he even attempted to construct one. A book that fell into his bands, Gottfried Arnold's impartial the attempt. From this book, he tells us, he received a favourable impression of heretics, and the impression was comforting to one who, like himself, was looked on as a heretic by all his friends. Moreover, he had often heard it said that in the long run every man must have his own religion ; why, therefore, should he not essay to think out a creed that would at least satisfy himself ? In brief outline he has described the system which he evolved from his miscellaneous historical and scientific studies. It is, as he himself says, a strange composite of Neo-Platonism, and of hermetical, mystical, and cabbalistical speculations, all leading by a necessary logic to the dogmas of Redemption and the Incarnation—a conclusion which at least points to the fact that for Goethe at this time Christianity was a religion specifically predestined for man's salvation. " We all become mystics in old age," is a remark of his own at that period of life ; and the conclusion of the Second Part of Faust, as well as other indications, proves that the remark was at least true of himself. But, as has often been pointed out, not only in old age, but at every period of his life, there was a mystic strain in him which was only kept in check by what was the strongest instinct of his nature—the instinct that demanded the direct vision of the concrete fact as the only condition on which he could build " the pyramid of his life."

Goethe's experience derived from his intercourse with Fraulein von Klettenberg and her friends undoubtedly enriched his own nature and enlarged his conceptions of the content of human life, of its possible motives and ideals. It was not a circle into which his own affinities would have led him, but being in it, he, as was his invariable habit, drew from it to the full all that it could give for his own building-up. And in enriching his own nature and widening his outlook, the experience enlarged the scope of his creative productiveness. But for his intercourse with these pious enthusiasts the Confessions of a Beautiful Soul would not have found a place in Wilhelm Meister, and from the general picture of human life and its activities which it is the object of that book to present, there would have been lacking one conception of life and its responsibilities, not the least interesting in the history of the human spirit. Most specific and important of all his gains from his association with the Frankfort community, however, was that from it directly emerged what is universally regarded as his greatest creative effort—the First Part of Faust. The conception of that work was closely associated with the chemical experiments and cabbalistic studies suggested by his intercourse with Fraulein von Klettenberg and her circle, and not only suggested but carried out on the foundation that had thus been laid.'

As has been said, Goethe's contemporary letters. addressed from Frankfort to his friends bring different side of his life before us from that presented in the Autobiography. From these letters we gather that he was by no means wholly engrossed in religious or mystical studies. "During this winter," he wrote to his friend Oeser, about two months after his arrival in Frankfort, " the company of the muses and correspondence with friends will bring pleasure into a sickly, solitary life, which for a youth of twenty years would otherwise be something of a martyrdom."2 In spite of the affectionate solicitude of Fraulein von Klettenberg and other friends, he found Frankfort a depressing place after gay Leipzig. " I could go mad when I think of Leipzig," wrote his sprightly friend Horn, who had also tasted the pleasures of that place ; and Goethe shared his opinion. Both also agreed that the girls of Frankfort were vastly inferior creatures to those of Leipzig. " I came here," Goethe wrote in a poetical epistle to the daughter of Oeser, " and found the girls a little—one does not quite like to speak it out—as they always were ; enough, none has as yet touched my heart." It would appear, nevertheless, that he did find certain Frankfort girls to his taste. " I get along tolerably here," he wrote to another correspondent. " I am contented and quiet ; I have half-a-dozen angels of girls whom I often see, though I have lost my heart to none of them. They are pleasant creatures, and make my life uncommonly agreeable. He who has seen no Leipzig might be very well off here."2 His life in Frankfort was, in short, what he himself called it, an exile (Verbannung).

Among his correspondents was Kathchen Schönkopf with whom, as we have seen, he had come to what he thought a satisfactory arrangement before leaving Leipzig. In this correspondence it is the Leipzig student, not the associate of the Fraulein von Klettenberg, who is before us. There is the same waywardness, there are the same irresponsible sallies which made him such a difficult lover. If we are to take him seriously, he still suffered from the pangs of rejected love and regretted that his former relations to Katchen had not continued. " A lover to whom his love will not listen," he writes, " is by many degrees not so unfortunate as one who has been cast off ; the former still retains hope and has at least no fear of being hated ; the other, yes, the other, who has once experienced what it is to be cast out of a heart which once was his, gladly avoids thinking, not to say speaking, of it." When this passage was written (June, 1769) he had received the news that Kathchen was betrothed to another. In a final letter addressed to her (January 23rd, 1770) occur these characteristic words : " You are still the same loveable girl, and you will also be a loveable wife. Arid , I shall remain Goethe. You know what that means. When I mention my name, I mention all ; and you know that, as long as I have known you, I have lived only as part of you." So closed a relation of which it is difficult to say how much there was in it of genuine passion, how much of artificial sentiment. Serious intention in it there was none ; from the first Goethe perfectly realised the fact that he could never make Kathchen his wife.3

As at Leipzig, his other distractions did not divert him from his interests in art and literature. When the state of his health permitted, he assiduously practised drawing and etching. " Now as formerly," he wrote to Oeser, " art is almost my chief occupation." But he also found time for wide excursions into the fields of general literature. Before leaving Leipzig he had exchanged with Langer " whole baskets-full " of German poets and critics for Greek authors, and these (though his knowledge of Greek remained to the end Goethe. saw Kathchen as a married woman in Leipzig in 1776, when he wrote to the lady who then held his affections (Frau von Stein): " elementary) he must have read in a fashion. Latin authors he read were Cicero, Quintilian, Seneca, and Pliny. Among the moderns Shakespeare and Moliere already held the place in his estimation which they always retained. Shakespeare he as yet knew only from the selections in Dodd's Beauties and Wieland's translation, but he already felt his greatness, and, as we have seen, names him with Wieland and Oeser as one of his masters.

Voltaire," he wrote to Oeser, " has been able to do no harm to Shakespeare ; no lesser spirit will prevail over a greater one."1 The German writers who now stood highest in his esteem were Lessing rind Wieland, Lessing's esthetic teaching he accepted with some reserves, but this did not abate the admiration which he retained for him at every period of his life. " Lessing ! Lessing !" he wrote in the same letter to Oeser ; " if he were not Lessing, I might say something. Write against him I may not ; he is a conqueror . . ..

He is a mental phenomenon, and, truly, such apparitions are rare in Germany." s That Goethe, at this period, should have had such an unbounded admiration for Wieland is an interesting commentary on his pietistic leanings ; for Wieland was now in his full pagan phase, so distasteful to moral Germany, as Goethe himself indicates. I have already been annoyed on Wieland's account," he writes—" I think with justice Wieland has often the misfortune to be misunderstood ; frequently, perhaps, the fault is his own, but as frequently it is not." At a later day Goethe clearly saw and marked in Wieland that lack of " high seriousness " on which he himself came to lay such stress as all-important in literature and life, but in the meantime he freely acknowledged what Wieland had been to him. " After him (Oeser) and Shakespeare," he wrote in the letter just quoted, " Wieland is still the only one whom I can hold as my true master ; others had shown me where I had gone astray ; they showed me how to do better."

'What is noteworthy in the serious passages of Goethe's Frankfort letters is the advance in maturity and self-knowledge which they reveal when compared with those written from Leipzig. Penetrative remarks on men and things, such as give its value to his later correspondence, now begin to fall from his pen by the way. He consciously takes the measure of his own powers, and forms clear judgments on the literary and artistic tastes of the time. The poems which he had written in Leipzig now seemed to him " trifling, cold, dry, and superficial," and, as in Leipzig he had made a holocaust of his boyish poems, so he made a second holocaust of those produced in Leipzig. In a long letter addressed (February 13th, 1769) to Goethe has this entry in his Tagebuch (April and, /7Ro): " Wieland sieht gang unglaublich Ales, was -nan machen will, tnacht, and was hangs and langt in einer Schrift."

Friederike Oeser he thus expounds the artistic ideals at which he had then arrived : " A great scholar is seldom a great philosopher, and he who has laboriously thumbed the pages of many books regards with contempt the simple, easy book of nature ; and yet nothing is true except what is simple—certainly a sorry recommendation for true wisdom. Let him who goes the way of simplicity go it in quiet. Modesty and circumspection are the essential characteristics of him who would tread this path, and every step will bring its reward. I have to thank your dear father for these conceptions ; he it was who prepared my mind to receive them ; time will give its blessing to my diligence which may complete the work he began.'" In point of fact, partly owing to the depressing conditions in which he found himself, and partly, it may be, out of his own deliberate purpose, Goethe produced no work of importance during the year and a half he spent in Frankfort. It was a period of incubation, and the stimulus to production was to come to him in. another environment.

In the spring of 1770 Goethe recovered his normal health and spirits, and, in accordance with his father's wish, he proceeded to Strassburg to complete his legal studies. He left home with as intense a feeling of relief as he had left it on the previous occasion. Between him and his father there had been growing estrangement, and the estrangement had ended in an open quarrel when he ventured to criticise the architecture of the paternal house, which had been constructed under his father's own directions. Thwarted though the father had been in his hopes of his son, however, he was not turned from his purpose of affording him every opportunity of laying a broad foundation of general culture. It was his express wish that Wolfgang, after completing his studies in Strassburg, should travel in France and spend some time in Paris.

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