Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who was lifted to nobility as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1782, was born on August 28, 1749 in the town of Frankfurt. The Goethes lived in a large, comfortable house in the Hirschgasse, now called Goethe Haus.
Besides practical, scientific, and autobiographical writings, he left behind more than 15,000 letters, diaries relating to the 52 years of his life and also countless conversational writings of people he’d met.
Even though Goethe’s work is fragmentary in general, it reveals the essence of his literary genius. Goethe himself said: ‘Alle meine Werke sind Bruchstücke einer großen Konfession.’
He remains to date one of the most original and powerful German lyric poets and his ‘Faust’ is no doubt a work of inexhaustible ambiguity and wonderful poetry.
The atmosphere that was evident in his parents’ home was that of the educated and their lifestyle in those days, and through his writings we get an exact idea of the Zeitgeist of Goethe’s days. He held the town of his birth in high esteem for it was the environment and intellectual background of his youthful development. Young Goethe loved to lose himself in the crowd around the Dome or in the Roman hill (Römerberg), which he always remembered as a fine place to go for a walk.
The closest relationship of his youth was his sister Cornelia, who sadly enough died at the age of 27. Asked about the influence of his parents on him, Goethe summed it this way:
From father I have the stature, To lead an earnest life. From mother the good nature, And the joy of storytelling.
Goethe was taught by house-teachers. After learning the old languages, he started learning French, English, and Hebrew. At the age of 10 he read Aesop, Homer, Vergil, Ovid and also the German folks-books. Besides education in humanities and science, he was also taught religion, which was determined by the dominating explanatory issue of Lutherdom in Frankfurt.
The big earthquake in Lissabon in 1755 was important for the development of Goethe’s mind, as it went into history as one of the greatest natural catastrophes of the century. Besides these natural calamities there were also religious and historical movements which left a deep impression in Goethe’s mind, for example the Seven-Years War between Prussia and Austria wherein he saw the consequences of the general political situation in his own life. Another important event during the occupation of Frankfurt by Napoleon’s troops was his fascination for a troupe of French actors, whose shows he was allowed to visit regularly. That was the awakening in Goethe of his interest in theatre, and which had been sparked earlier in his life through a puppet-stage (Puppenbühne) and which can be seen in some scenes from ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Shows.’
At the age of 16 Goethe was prepared for his academic studies. His father wanted him to study law in Leipzig. This was a city known for its trade, commerce, rich people in a wealthy epoch, and was filled with the spirit of Rokoko. Although Leipzig made a lasting impression on Goethe, he found the lectures on law rather boring. Nevertheless, the town of Leipzig brought to Goethe his passion for Anna Katherina, the daughter of a man who owned an inn, where he used to eat lunch since 1766.
In his first completed play ‘The Whims of a Lover’ (Laune des Verliebten) which is based on the times of the Rokoko (Schäferstücke), he drew his own glowing passion. It was his inner desire to put into poetry the themes that were burning within him. In March 1770 Goethe arrived in Strassburg to complete his university studies in law.
Like in Leipzig, Goethe found friends in Strassburg. One of the most important events was his meeting with Herder, who due to his eye-disease was obliged to stay in Strassburg for a couple of months. Here’s what Goethe said about Herder: “Since his conversations were important at all times, he used to ask, reply or express himself in another way, and in this manner, I had to express myself in new ways and new views, almost every hour.” It was Herder who brought Goethe to the immeasurability of Shakespeare, told him about Ossian and Pindar, and opened his vision for Volkspoetry. Influenced by Herder’s appreciation of Shakespeare’s genius, he wrote at speed a pseudo-Shakespearean tragedy called: “Geschichte Gottfried’s von Berlichingen.” This was so ill-received by Herder that he put it aside.
Shortly after his return from Strassburg, he turned 22 and started working as a lawyer at the Frankfurter Schöffengericht. Goethe couldn’t care less about the traditions of the citizens in Leipzig and his relatives, his parents’ home. As a lawyer in the courtrooms, he had to suffer a bit due to his strange way of putting proceedings to paper, and gradually he began to write farces and parodies about well-known authors of his times and railed upon his own friends, took interest in Alchemy experiments, and sought out open-minded literary circles of Frankfurt and in his neighbourhood.
At 24 Goethe was already a well-known author of Germany. No other time in Goethe’s life was filled with prolific poetic works than in this period in Frankfurt. The time before and after his work ‘Werther’ was not only a time of multiple literary production, but also a period in which he spent a lot of time on seeking answers for questions on religion.
The last Frankfurter year (1775) brought Goethe another year of passionate love in the form of Lili Schönemann, a 16-year-old daughter of a Frankfurter trader. He experienced one of the most exciting and happiest times in his life. Alas, Goethe drifted between his love for Lili and the feeling that he’d settled for a happiness at home wouldn’t be enough for him. An episode from outside helped him to bear and make the separation from Lili possible.
On November 7, 1775 Goethe came to Weimar, which was in those days a town with a population of 6000. In July 1776 Goethe joined the state service formally as its Secret Legislations Council. Goethe’s new position in the Geheim Konsil brought him soon enough in contact with almost all the pre-commissions of the state-administration.
In 1779 he was appointed the War Commissioner and was responsible for the 500 soldiers of the state. Three years later he had the Chamber under him and became the highest financial administrator. Through his participation in the reading-evenings, readouts and other functions at the court and its high and snobbish society, the events became rather extravagant. And through Goethe’s presence and mediation Weimar gained importance.
However, it was the serene, tempered lady-in-waiting (Hofdame) Charlotte von Stein, a cold beauty, who was unhappily married, who gained more influence on Goethe. From the first moment they met, she reminded Goethe of his sister Cornelia, and he felt drawn to her. In the years to come Goethe couldn’t do without her clear, mature way of doing things. He called her ‘the serene,’ an angel, even a Madonna. A friendship of kindred souls began which was a puzzle to Goethe himself. It was in these Weimar years that Goethe wrote poems such as: ‘Harzreise im Winter’, ‘An den Mond’, ‘Gesang der Geister über den Wassern’, ‘Wanderer’, ‘Nachtlied’ and so forth. Moreover, many of his songs and poems were set to music by composers ranging from Mozart and Frederik Schubert to Othmar Schoeck (1886–1957). Under the influence of Charlotte von Stein began a decisive change within Goethe. It was during this period in the months of February and March 1779, when he had to go to different places of the Dukedom to recruit soldiers, to keep an eye on them, to inspect the conditions of the roads, that he wrote the first edition of ‘Iphigenie and Taurus.’ This drama became the mirror of his search for purity. The period after ‘Iphigenie’ was penned in 1779 was a phase in the inner development of Goethe’s life, till he travelled to Italy. Goethe became not only confident as an administrator but also improved the purity and quality of his verses.
The more prosaic he became in his daily duties, the more he endeavored to bring a sense of order and system in all what he did. In addition to the completion of ‘Iphigenie,’ he also started ‘Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,’ wrote the concept for ‘Tasso’ and some parts of his ‘Faust.’ These were the fruits of lyrical productions. And just before his Italian journey, he did extensive studies in the natural sciences. His activities at the University of Jena brought him in intensive contact with comparative anatomy. In those days there was a conception regarding the original form and relationship between all living beings, and he proved the existence of the ‘Zwischenkieferknochen’ in humans, which was thought to be known only in the animal world. Goethe showed the biological development of living beings almost 100 years ahead of Charles Darwin.
Goethe’s interest in natural science showed him how his career in the state service brought him away from things he most cherished to do. So, he decided on the tenth year of his period in Weimar that he had to break up his service. After arranging his farewell from the state service and personal matters, he asked the Duke for a prolonged leave. He left abruptly, like in 1772 in Wetzlar and 1775 in Frankfurt, as though he was fleeing from something. Even in the presence of Duke and Charlotte von Stein he didn’t utter a word about his concrete plans. He embarked upon the biggest journey to Italy after a short spa sojourn in Böhmen (Bohemia).
After a week-long ride in a coach he reached Bella Italia. The first stop was in Rome, where Goethe stayed for four months. It had always been the middle point of his life to study the works of art history in Rome. He went to the theatre and attended court cases, watched processions, took part in church festivals, and towards February 1788 even visited the Carnival in Rome. He expanded his knowledge of art history systematically. Goethe found it difficult to say adieu to Rome. The return to Germany was disappointing for Goethe and he felt isolated. Goethe’s record of his journey to Italy (Italienische Reise) appeared in 1816–17. Instead of the Weimar politicians and administrators, Goethe sought to fraternize with professors of the Weimar University. He met Schiller often.
Goethe found a new love: Christiane Vulpius, a handsome woman of lower rank who became his mistress, and with whom he had five children, but only one survived, his first son August, born in 1789. Goethe put his energy in the Weimar Court Theatre, founded in 1791, and developed it within a few years to one of the most famous German stages. Goethe’s loss of Rome was compensated to some extent by his meetings with Schiller, which did him good. Out of the first meeting with Schiller developed an intensive exchange of thoughts in spoken word and writing that was of mutual benefit for both. It was based on their common classicism and on their conviction of the central function of art in human affairs. Goethe’s epic poem ‘Hermann und Dorothea’ (1779) was well received.
Goethe was instrumental in changing Schiller’s tendency to go to extremes, and his habit of indulging in philosophical speculations.
On the other hand, Schiller brought back Goethe from his scientific studies to literature and poetic production. In 1797 Schiller stimulated Goethe to carry on with ‘Faust’ and it preoccupied him for the next nine years. Part One appeared in 1808, Part Two in 1832. Goethe didn’t stand near Schiller since 1794 and two long journeys to Weimar took him away from his intellectual friend, and in the year 1805 Schiller passed away. Schiller’s death coincided with the end of Goethe’s classical phase. After Schiller’s demise, Goethe saw an epoch of his life disappearing. He tried to struggle against the uncertainty of time by concentrating and delving into his own work. Without the regular intellectual argumentation that the company of Schiller brought to Goethe, he felt politically isolated through his distance towards the anti-Napoleon attitude of the public and started living like a recluse.
In 1806 war broke out between France and Prussia and the decisive battle was fought at Jena and French soldiers who occupied Weimar broke into Goethe’s house. Goethe believed Tristian had saved his life from the French marauders. He married her a few days later. Goethe met Napoleon at Erfurt and Weimar in 1808. The Bastille was stormed when Goethe was 39. In 1809 he wrote the subtle and problematic novel: ‘Die Wahlverwandschaften’ in which the interrelations of two couples are described.
Goethe also carried forth botanical studies. The last two decades in Goethe’s life were devoted not to outer happenings but daily routine work.
A key towards understanding Goethe’s various interests was his conception of human existence as a ceaseless struggle to make use of time at one’s disposal. Despite such intensive devotion to his writings, the ageing Goethe didn’t remain so isolated from his environment as he’d done in his younger years. Since he was seldom out of Weimar, he opened his house for the world. It is interesting to note that among his many visitors were not many poets and writers but more Nature researchers and art historians, discoverers who travelled, educators and politicians. The innermost circle around Goethe was his own family.
In order to avoid the pompous celebration of his 82nd birthday, Goethe left Weimar in August 1831 for the last time.
The most meaningful work of poetry in the German language, Goethe’s tragedy ‘Faust,’ took a long time to develop. Goethe wrote his ‘Faust’ almost a lifelong, and before him were writers who worked on the material. According to his own memories Goethe played with the thought of writing a Faust-drama even during his Strassburger student days. Perhaps the most important aspect of tragedy of Goethe is that these twists and turns took place not only in the outside world but also in the soul of Doctor Faustus.
Despite the colorful scenes and the manifold happenings, Goethe’s ‘Faust’ remains a drama of the soul, with a chain of inner experiences, struggles and doubts. Among his best works was Novelle, started thirty years ago. Goethe worked away at the last volume of ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit’ and at ‘Faust II’ which he finished before his death.
On March 22,1832 at 11:30 in the morning Goethe died at the age of 82, the last universal man and the most documented creative writer.
Johann Peter Eckmann saw the deceased on the following day and said: “Stretched on his back, lay he like someone sleeping. Profound peace and fastness were to be seen in the eyes of his noble face. The mightiest forehead seemed still to be thinking…”
Satis Shroff is based in Freiburg and is a poet, humanist, lecturer and artist. He writes poems, fiction, non-fiction, and also on ecological, ethno-medical, culture-ethnological themes. He describes himself as a mediator between western and eastern cultures and sees his future as a writer and poet. He received the Pablo Neruda Award 2017 for Poetry in Crispiano, Italy.