Literature At The End Of The Eighteenth Century
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Born in 1749 and dying in 1832, Johann Wolfgang Goethe belongs to two Centuries and in his active and varied intellectual career expressed the spirit of both. Ht is not only supreme in German literature, but in the European literature of his time. In modern times only Dante and Shakespeare hold similar places. Goethe was born and spent his boyhood in Frankfort, then still the capital of the Empire, though not the residence of the Emperor. His father, descended from a family which had steadily risen in wealth and importance for some generations, was the Emperor's representative in the town council. He was formal and pedantic and exercised his talents in the strict education of his son and daughter. Their mother was a lovely, bright-witted woman, who cultivated their affections. While French garrisons occupied the city during the Seven Years' War, young Goethe learned their language and found pleasure in their theater. He went to the University of Leipsic, and in 1770 to Strasburg to obtain his degree in law. Here two important influences came upon him. First, he met with Herder, poet and theologian, who taught him that poetry is the expression of national life, and introduced him to the beauties of English literature. Secondly, he, then handsome as Apollo, met with the fair Friederike Brion, whose presence gives charm to his "Autobiography." On his love affair with her was founded the story of Gretchen in "Faust."
After taking his degree in law, the young man went home and began to write lyrical poems, but he soon attempted a drama after the boisterous style then prevalent. "Götz von Berlichingen," though written without a plan, displayed his genius in vivid representation of a powerful character of the Sixteenth Century. Still another manifestation of his literary ability was seen in his "Sorrows of Werther," a story told in letters in the sentimental style of Rousseau. It was really founded on his own hopeless love for Charlotte Buff. It exhibits the force of unrestrained youthful passion and expresses with deep pathos that weariness of life that overtakes imperfect natures. Werther, a well-educated young man, falls in love with a friend's wife, but shrinks from temptation and at last in fond despair, commits suicide. But Goethe was too strong intellectually and morally to yield thus. In his many lyrics the emotions of his soul found vent. In 1775, at the invitation of the Duke of Saxe Weimar, Goethe removed to his capital where Wieland already was, and whither Herder and Schiller came later. The little Saxon town of Weimar became the intellectual and literary center of Germany. "Here," says a biographer, "everybody worshiped him, especially the women." For ten years Goethe was busy in official duties and published little except some dramas. Then he visited Italy to complete his study of art and arouse his slumbering genius. He traveled incognito, that his studies might not be disturbed, and spent two years in the land.
On his return he produced his beautiful drama of "Iphigenia," a masterly imitation of ancient Greek tragedy, yet with Christian sentiment interfused. In "Tasso" are exhibited the woes of a poetic nature which cannot fairly discriminate between the real and the ideal world. In "Egmont" there is some splendid historical portraiture, but the hero is not the real Egmont of the great struggle of the Netherlands for liberty. He is a young high-minded patriot resisting the relentless bigotry and despotism of Alva. His love-romance with Clärchen is especially admirable. To this period also belongs the first chapter of "Faust" (1790) whose romantic exuberance combines wild outbursts of passion with touching innocence, coarse exhibitions of folly with the highest aspirations of the soul. The old folk-story of "Reineke Fuchs" was retold in flowing hexameters.
In 1794 began the intimacy of Goethe with Schiller, which was fruitful in effects upon both. As the younger poet had won fame by his ballads, Goethe entered into friendly competition with him and generously acknowledged that his rival's were superior. To this period be-longs the pastoral epic, "Hermann and Dorothea," written in hexameters. According to the story the son of the landlord of the Golden Lion is attracted by a girl in a group of German emigrants who have been driven from their homes by French pillagers and encamp in the fields. After suitable explanations and introductions Hermann leads her to his home as a bride. This pure domestic poem has been called a "hymn to the family." In 1796 "Wilhelm's Meister's Apprenticeship" was given to the world. In this prose romance are related a young man's adventures with a band of strolling players, who include a variety of characters the worldly Philina, the romantic Mariana, and the mysterious fascinating waif, Mignon. The story contains much of Goethe's mature thought on human life.
In the new Century Goethe continued to make valuable additions to his output. In 18o5 the greatest work of his life appeared. The legend of Faust which had occupied his mind from his childhood, had now taken its final shape. "It appeals to all minds with the irresistible fascination of an eternal problem, and with the charm of endless variety. It has every element wit, pathos, wisdom, buffoonery, mystery, melody, reverence, doubt, magic, and irony; not a chord of the lyre is unstrung, not a fiber of the heart untouched." In most of the succeeding twenty-six years of his life Goethe enjoyed contentment and honor. He now married Christiane Vulpius, a beautiful woman, who had lived with him since 1788, and borne him a son. Though not fitted for intellectual companionship, she was a faithful manager of his home. When he was disturbed by the French troops, he took refuge in study and scientific experiments. The new treasures of Oriental lore which were made accessible about this time deeply impressed the veteran poet's mind. In 1813 he published his "West-Easterly Divan," a collection of fine lyrics after the fashion of the Persian Hafiz. In one of them, "Timur," Napoleon's invasion of Russia is noticed. In 1818 he published the second part of "Wilhelm Meister."
Goethe's entertaining autobiography is called "Poetry and Truth; Pages from My Life." The most impression-able part of his life is told elaborately, and as the title seems to imply, with a certain amount of idealization. He had played many parts in his time; as a child, studious and observant, as a youth somewhat frivolous; on his arrival at Weimar, a man disposed to take his ease; later, a dignified official; finally, the serene sovereign of the intellectual world, graciously receiving homage from aspiring intellects of every part of the civilized world. He died at Weimar, March 22, 1832. To the last he retained his sentimentality especially with regard to women. All his works, he said, constituted a great confession, but "Faust," more than any other, is the confession of his life. In the Second Part, published in 1831, was given his final solution of the deepest problems of human-existence. Yet it is still disputed whether his answer to the grand question is correct. The whole work remains the mightiest achievement of German genius.
There was a grand selfishness in Goethe through most of his career. It was fostered by the admiration, and even worship, which he everywhere received. He came to regard it as his own duty to cultivate himself, and he soon urged it as a duty upon others. Hence even during that grand struggle for the liberation of the Fatherland in 1813, he kept quiet, except in an occasional outburst in a letter or in conversation with a friend. When others complained of his indifference, he declared that he was true in heart, but that he was convinced the struggle would then be ineffectual. He went further, and said, "As a man and citizen, the poet will love his fatherland, but the fatherland of his poetic strength and his poetic activity is the good, the noble, the beautiful, which is confined to no special province or land, which he seizes wherever he finds it."
Goethe was unexcelled as a lyrical poet, and retained his power in this respect to the end. In his lyrics as Heine finely says, "the word embraces you, while the thought kisses you." But his fame rests upon "Faust," the greatest drama of the world, yet with a simple well-known plot. Faust, the most learned scholar, finding at last that human knowledge is vain, is in despair, when Mephistopheles in the disguise of a black dog, follows him to his study. He reveals himself as the spirit of negation, and by echoing Faust's notions, persuades him to sign a compact in his own blood that when his desires had been fully gratified his life should end. The spirit then transports him to a students' revel, which only disgusts him; then to the horrors of the Witches' Kitchen. Faust drinks a magic potion which renews his youth. He beholds Helena, the most beautiful of women, and is told that this drink shall cause him to see Helena on earth. When he returns to earth, he meets Margaret (or Gretchen, in familiar German), a pretty maiden who is afraid of him as so much above her. By the aid of Martha he conveys a casket of jewels to her room. These awaken a desire for finery which leads to her ruin. Her mother is removed by a poisonous sleep-potion. Her soldier brother Valentin, discovering her shame, fights a duel with Faust and is slain. To the cathedral the betrayed woman goes as a penitent, but an evil spirit mocks and taunts her till she faints. Faust seeks relief from his sense of guilt and Mephistopheles takes him to the witches' festival on Walpurgis night (May I) on the Brocken. When Gretchen is imprisoned, having been convicted of slaying her child, Faust returns. Her mind wanders, and she dies assured of pardon by angel voices. Thus the First Part ends. The story of the Second Part is so intricate that it is impossible to relate it briefly. Faust continues to work out his problems and is bidden to follow Gretchen's spirit in a new life. He tries in various ways to benefit his fellow-men. At the last Mephistopheles is baffled, and angels, among whom is the spirit of Gretchen, escort his soul to Heaven. It may be added that in the prologue to Part First there is some indication that Goethe intended from the start, to end with Faust's redemption, in spite of his sins.