Johann Wolfgang (1749 -1832) was a German poet, statesman, novelist, playwright, critic, artist, theatre director, scientist, and whatnot. He demonstrated practically everything; almost every skill possible. He was born in Frankfurt and died in Weimar, Germany where he spent most of his life. He was a prominent figure of Weimer Classicism and Romanticism.
He moved from one idea to another, from one profession to another, and travelled across Italy and all this was probably for the search for stability and true love. He fell for a few but felt unfulfilled. His work reflected his journey and experiences. He was not only a literary man but a scientist who was more curious about what he observed rather what he studied.
He played a significant role in various aspects of science. He had broad horizons; he did a lot of work and had a profound effect on German literature from the 18th Century till today.
Table of Contents
Goethe was born on 28 August 1749 in a middle-class family who lived in a large house. He was the eldest son of Johann Casper Goethe and Catherina Elizabeth Textor. His father was 38 years old and his mother was only 17 when they married. They had seven children; unfortunately, most of them died at an early age and only two survived, one was Goethe and the other was his younger sister Cornelia Frederica Christiana.
His father was a lawyer who leisurely enjoyed his inherited fortune with aim of touring Italy and investing in his children’s education. He wanted to live his dreams through his children. He was desirous of providing them with everything that he couldn’t get. He wanted his children to walk in his footsteps.
Consequently, he and other tutors gave them home tuition till they were 16. Goethe learned dancing, riding, fencing, and lessons in all the subjects, languages in particular. He was interested in dancing but his inclination swayed towards literature.
From 1765 to 1768, Goethe studied law at Leipzig University. He met Anna Katherina Schonkopf and fell in love with her. He wrote many romantic verses for her. He anonymously released his first collection of poems, Annette, in1770. Thereafter, he fell seriously ill and had to leave his study.
After recovery, he joined the University of Strasbourg to finish his studies. In 1771, he started his legal practice after acquiring an academic degree. He could not get much success in his practice owing to his lack of experience and the idea of combining compassion with legal theory. His legal career was put to an end in a few months only.
He continued his literary work even as a lawyer. He reworked the biography of the noble highwayman in a beautiful drama, Götz von Berlichingen. His work was highly acclaimed by his contemporaries. Goethe was very much influenced by the work of Shakespeare and described his acquaintance with his work as his personal awakening in literature.
Start of Despairing Love
The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers)
In 1774, Goethe wrote the book which was worldwide acclaimed and is one of his most famous writings, entitled The Sorrows of Young Werther. However, it did not give him much fortune because of the lack of copyright laws.
In this novel, he portrays himself as Young Werther who is passionately in love with Charlotte despite knowing that she is Albert’s fiancée. The plot of the novel came from his experience with Charlotte Buff in Wetzlar. He moulded an intimate friendship into a desperate and passionate love story. It is a tragic story of unrequited love and the extreme consequences that followed. Despite the pain, Werther went through after seeing Charlotte with Albert, he continued his amiable relationship with them.
He left the place as the pain became unbearable. Later, he returned to know that they already got married. Charlotte restrained Werther from visiting her frequently. To end this misery, Werther decided that one of them will have to die. So, he ended up taking his own life by shooting himself. None of them attended his funeral.
This novel is a series of letters by Werther to his friend and the last letter is his suicidal note which he ended with the following line: “I shall say nothing of…Charlotte’s grief. … Charlotte’s life was despaired of.”
Napoleon immensely admired Goethe’s work and boasted about reading this book seven times. In 1775, on the strength of the fame he attained, Goethe was invited by Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimer-Eisenach to be the chief advisor in his court. In 1779, he took up the duties of War Commission, Finance Commission, Mines, and Highway Commissions.
He was made the principal representative of the territory and the sole bearer of great power and responsibilities. He served his duties for many years and remained a confidant to Duke. During the course of his duties, he was ennobled in 1782 and stayed in Weimer for almost 10 years. These years in Weimer gave him unparalleled experiences, which he could not have achieved otherwise.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Italy tour
Following the footsteps of his father, Goethe went on a trip to Italy and Sicily for 2 years from 1786 to 1788. This trip was more of a pilgrimage for him. He was very much influenced by Greek and Roman culture and architecture. “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything,” he wrote on his trip to Sicily. This journey was intended to therapize his internal self to fulfilment.
He felt contented to live the ancient way of life. On the course of his journey, he crossed paths with Angelica Kauffmann, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Lady Hamilton, and Alessandro Cagliostro. He was particularly friendly with the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann.
Italian Journey published in 1816, is a report based on Goethe’s diaries which documents his first year of the visit to Italy and his experiences. Later, it inspired numerous Germans to visit Italy. Though the buildings and the artistic setup inspired Goethe but they couldn’t satisfy his search for himself. “Speak to me you stones” he said.
He wanted someone to talk to who could add meaning to the great lifeless stones and to his journey. He wanted someone to embody the soul of the city and make it appear livelier.
Return to Weimar and Marriage
Days after returning to Weimar, in 1792, Goethe assisted Duke Karl August in the battle of Valmy and the Seige of Mainz. He befriended the philosopher Friedrich Schiller. Later, they both became part of Weimer Classicism. It was a German cultural movement that lasted for almost 33 years from 1772 to 1805.
It was named so because most of the authors of Weimar Classicism belonged to Weimar. The authors who led to this movement were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Gottfried Herder, Christoph Martin Wieland, Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm von Humboldt and August Schlegel.
Finally, he decided to get married on 19 October 1806 to his mistress Christiana Vulpius with whom he already had many children. Till now he fell in love with many women and was more inclined toward his search for sensual maturity and fulfilment which went throughout his life.
“Marienbad Elegy” considered one of the finest works of Goethe was inspired by his love for 17-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow when he was 73. Through this elegy, he transformed his pain of unreciprocated love into lyric poetry.
Johann Goethe: Other Literary and Scientific Work
Hermann and Dorothea
It is an epic poem published in 1782-1784. The poem is about a young boy Hermann who belongs to a rich family and on his way of distributing clothes and food to refugees he finds Dorothea, a young maid. She was assisting a woman during her childbirth in a refugee camp. Hermann was attracted to her beauty, compassion, and courage. He returned home to talk to his father about his love for Dorothea. His father was against his love for the poor maid; however, his mother supported him. Later, after much discussion, his father agreed to reconsider his decision.
It is the most remarkable work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe based on the story of Doctor Faust, popularised by Christopher Marlowe. Goethe worked on Faust throughout his life. Faust is written in two parts; he completed the manuscript of the second part and gave it for publication just one year before his death.
Faust the protagonist is the unsatisfied intellectual who makes a pact with a devil, Mephistopheles. He exchanged his soul for unlimited knowledge and pleasures of the world.
With the power of the devil, he could have all the knowledge of the world but he was weary of words and wanted some action. He could have all the sensual pleasure and could go into debauchery but he seeks beauty and love. He could have all the political power and rule the country but instead, he established the most enlightened society in the world.
Faust is a moral lesson for everyone. He could have used the powers of the devil for fulfilling wrong purposes instead he wielded the power for a noble cause. The idea was to get involved and evolve for a higher purpose.
Metamorphosis of Plants
Goethe was a versatile person. He did remarkable work in literature and played a significant role in science as well. The Metamorphosis of Plants by Goethe was published in 1970. He explored all the spheres of science, geology, meteorology, chemistry, physics, and especially botany. He discovered the homologous nature of plants and their transformation, though he was not credited with the discovery.
He also published The Theory of colours in 1810. It was a significant contribution to the field of Optics. Goethe essentially investigated science and nature. He was fully invested in what he sees.
He gained enormous fame in the period of Sturm und Drang. He wrote many romantic and passionate verses but as he progressed further he came to see real love as a disappointment. Thus during the course of his life, he fell for many but felt despaired and moved away from Romanticism.
On 22 March 1832, Goethe died of a heart attack after completing 82 years of an outstanding life. He outlived most of his contemporaries. He was selected as one of the six representative men by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had wide-ranging experiences and lived a very influential life.
Where did Goethe travel for two years and what was the purpose of travelling?
After serving for almost 10 years as a legal adviser to Duke Karl August, Goethe got weary of his life in Germany and decided to travel to Italy. He admired the rich architecture and culture of Rome. However, the real purpose was apparently the search for a companion and sensual pleasures. He praised the monuments, and the art but at the same time called them lifeless. He saw travel as a therapy and a means of discovering a part of him.
What was Goethe’s personal awakening in literature?
The acquaintance with the work of Shakespeare was Goethe’s personal awakening in literature. Johann Gottfried Herder enlightened Goethe and expanded his interest in Shakespeare.
What field did Goethe contribute to, other than literature?
Goethe’s interests were wide; he did remarkable work in science. He showed his interest in geology, chemistry, botany, and physics. His Metamorphosis of Plants and the Theory of Colours are legendary contributions in the field of botany and optics respectively.
Name some of the renowned works of Goethe.
Some of the famous works of Goethe are-
- The Sorrows of Young Werther
- Hermann and Dorothea
- Marienbad Elegy
- Roman Elegies
- The Accomplices
- The Recreations of the German Emigrants
- Metamorphosis of Plants
- Theory of Colours
Who are the six representative men?
Representative man is a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It included lectures on the role played by great men in society. He included six men whom he deemed virtuous. They were-
- William Shakespeare
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Emanuel Swedenborg
- Michel de Montaigne