The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

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1205084The American Cyclopædia — Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

GOETHE, Johann Wolfgang von, a German author, born in Frankfort-on-the-Main, Aug. 28, 1749, died in Weimar, March 22, 1832. His father, Johann Kaspar Goethe, the son of a tailor of Frankfort, had raised himself to the dignity of an imperial councillor, and in 1748 had married Katharina Elisabeth, daughter of Johann Wolfgang Textor, the chief magistrate of the city. Their first offspring, the subject of this article, inherited the best qualities of both parents. The father, a cold, stern, formal, and pedantic man, was a person of vigorous mind and of rigid will; and the mother was a simple-hearted, genial, vivacious, and affectionate woman, who loved poetry and the romantic lore of the nursery. In one of his poems Goethe afterward said: “From my father I derive my frame and the steady guidance of my life, and from my dear little mother my happy disposition and love of story-telling.” But he derived a great deal more from both; for the father, rigid disciplinarian as he was, early indoctrinated him in the knowledge of the classics and modern languages, and in the love of fine art; while the mother gave him, besides her vivacity and animal spirits, that large and instinctive wisdom which comes of broad human sympathies. Goethe was a precocious child, handsome, lively, and sensitive. His early education was wholly domestic, in the company of his only sister Cornelia, to whom he was passionately attached. Before he was ten years of age he wrote several languages, meditated poems, invented stories, and had a considerable familiarity with works of art. Frankfort was a mediæval city, full of old associations and the remains of antique customs, but just beginning to stir with the quick movements of a more modern trade and industry. None of its influences, old or new, were lost upon the child, whose position in middle life, while it brought him in contact with the most cultivated men of society, did not exempt him from occasional mixture with the lower orders, or from the ruder experiences of life. His first love for Gretchen, a girl in the humblest ranks, began amid a circle of forgers and delinquents. In October, 1765, at the age of 16, he was sent to Leipsic to begin his collegiate studies. His autobiography passes over this part of his life with a few words, but other evidences show that it was a time not of hard and varied study merely, but of much wild and frolicsome adventure. While he mastered with an easy grace the manifold sciences and arts of a German university, jurisprudence, medicine, logic, rhetoric, philosophy, morals, drawing, &c., he was no less at home in those wayward and capricious sports, in the love-makings and the merry-makings, which are natural to this period of life. No criminal indulgences are charged upon him, but he lived freely and buoyantly, preferring often the society of jovial companions, free thinkers and actors, to that of the more accepted respectabilities of a staid literary metropolis. He had already fallen into the habit of turning his inward feelings into verse, and two dramas, Die Laune des Verliebten and Die Mitschuldigen, grew out of his more erratic impulses. After a brief interval passed in sickness at home, during which he read the books of the alchemists, he was transferred in 1770 to the university of Strasburg, where he renewed his studies of jurisprudence and the natural sciences, enlarged the number of his acquaintances, including Herder and Jung-Stilling, and fell in love with the daughter of a dancing master. Herder's friendship was of the greatest use to him, as it introduced him reading of Shakespeare, Goldsmith, and other English classics, and awakened within him a profounder sense of the grand poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures. He had fallen in with the family of a clergyman at Sesenheim, where there were two daughters, with one of whom, Frederika, he became enamored, and they were finally betrothed; but in leaving the university in 1771, he tore himself away from the bond and the attachment. Impetuous and headlong as he was, there was already a tendency in him to value external objects, human and others, as they assisted in that deep and varied culture which he began to make the principal aim of his existence. In 1772 he went to Wetzlar to practise law, and in the following year published a play destined to attract public attention toward him, and to give the world its earliest glimpses of his extraordinary genius. This was Götz von Berlichingen, a dramatic version of the story of Götz of the Iron Hand, an old predatory burgrave of the 16th century, who made war upon his fellow barons, sometimes to increase his own store, and sometimes defence of the poor. His lawless career represented the sturdy struggle of feudalism against an advancing civilization, and Goethe seized the incidents to present them in a clear, powerful, picturesque, and dramatic whole. This work was the outbreak of a genius as rude and stalwart almost as Götz himself, asserting ts freedom against the fetters of an artificial literary spirit; one of the earliest throes in that period of intellectual convulsion in Germany which has taken the name of the Sturm-und Drangperiode, or storm and pressure period. It excited the greatest enthusiasm in the literary world, and romantic dramas for a time became the fashion. In the interval Goethe had passed the time in wandering through the Rhine country. At Wetzlar he again fell in love, but as the object of his love, Charlotte Buff, was betrothed to one Kestner, to whom she was soon after married, the affection was not returned. A young student named Jerusalem, with whom Goethe was intimate, having committed suicide because of a similar unhappy passion for the wife of one of his friends, Goethe wove the incidents of the two cases into a novel, which he called Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774), known in English as “The Sorrows of Werther.” The sensation produced by it was prodigious. The most distinguished literary men praised it as a profoundly philosophic romance, while the common people were carried away by its eloquence and pathos. Its chief success, however, arose from the fact that it expressed a certain sad longing and discontent which was then a characteristic of the age. The same year he wrote Clavigo, a drama founded on Beaumarchais's memoir on Clavijo, projected a drama on Mohammed, another on Prometheus, only a few lines of either of which wore written, and already revolved in his mind the drama of Faust. Two love engagements, one with Anna Sibylla Münch, and the other with Anna Elisabeth Schönemann, immortalized in his works under the name of Lili, diversified the experiences of this period. The fame acquired by Werther brought Goethe under the notice of Charles Augustus, grand duke of Saxe-Weimar, who in 1775 invited the poet to spend a few weeks at his court. Goethe went there, and the result of the friendship thus contracted was that Goethe thereafter made Weimar his permanent residence. He was created a Geheimer Legationsrath, or privy councillor of legation, at a salary of 1,200 thalers per annum; but his principal public occupation seems to have been to superintend the artistic pleasures of the court. Weimar was a small city, without trade or manufactures, but made up for its want of commercial activity by its varied literary culture. It was filled with notabilities, among whom are to be noticed particularly Wieland, Herder, Musäus, Knebel, Seckendorf, Corona Schröter, the dowager duchess Amalia, Frau von Stein, and afterward Schiller. In this circle Goethe at once took his place as the presiding deity. “He rose like a star in the heavens,” says Knebel; “everybody worshipped him, and especially the women.” His first years there were spent in wild and tumultuous enjoyments, in which “affairs of the heart” did not always end with the heart. But Goethe's nature was too profound, his intellectual activity too great, to be long beguiled by the frivolities of masking, hunting, drinking, dancing, and dicing, and he resumed his more serious pursuits. The first fruit of his return (1779) was Iphigenie auf Tauris, a prose drama, which he afterward turned into a beautiful drama in verse. After a visit to Switzerland the same year, described in his Briefe aus der Schweiz, he composed a little opera, called Jery und Bätely, full of Swiss inspirations. He also began to devote himself strenuously to the study of natural science, in which he became a proficient. The novel of Wilhelm Meister was at the same time in progress, and many of his best small poems were produced at this period (l780-'83). In 1786 he made a journey to Italy, where he passed nearly two years in the most laborious study of its antiquities and arts, and in the composition of Torquato Tasso, a drama suggested by the life of that poet at the court of Ferrara. He was so absorbed in the past of Italy that he paid little attention to its present condition or people. The narrative of his travels, Die italiänische Reise, contains the most charming descriptions of the scenes through which he passed. On his return to Weimar in 1788, he published Egmont, a romantic drama, full of passion and interest, representing a sombre and tragic episode in the revolution of the Netherlands, but in which he has not confined himself at all to the incidents of actual history; the character of Clärchen is by many regarded as one of his most successful female creations. A relation with Frau von Stein, which Goethe had long maintained, was now broken off, but he soon formed another with Christiane Vulpius. She was uneducated, and lived in some domestic capacity in his house; but Goethe afterward married her, to legitimate his son (born Dec. 25, 1788, died Oct. 27, 1830). In 1792 he accompanied the army of the king of Prussia and the duke of Brunswick in their campaign into France, of which he wrote an account. Soon after appeared his metrical version of Reinecke Fuchs. The results of his scientific studies appeared in his Beiträge zur Optik and his Farbenlehre, in the latter of which he had the hardihood to question the correctness of the Newtonian theory of colors. He wrote also on the metamorphosis of plants, and on topics of comparative anatomy. In all these he displayed a remarkable penetration and sagacity, and his remarks on the morphology of plants are now reckoned among the earlier enunciations of the theory of evolution. His acquaintance with Schiller, who divided with him the suffrages of the poetic German world, began at Jena in 1794; and though their intercourse was cold at first, it ripened into one of the most enduring and beautiful friendships recorded in literary annals. Schiller's influence upon him was both stimulating and ennobling, and from this time forth we find him engaged in producing his grandest works. The first part of Wilhelm Meister (the Lehrjahre) appeared in 1795. Hermann und Dorothea, a pastoral poem in hexameters, the most perfect of his minor productions, was written in 1797; the Achilleis was executed the same year; and he engaged in friendly rivalry with Schiller in bringing forth a series of ballads, of which Goethe's part, Die Braut von Corinth, Der Zauberlehrling, Der Gott und die Bajadere, and Die Schatzgräber, are among the masterpieces of German literature. Even these, however, were only the preludes of what he was destined to do; for the Faust was still revolving itself in his thoughts, and the Wilhelm Meister went steadily forward. At last, in 1805, the great work of his life saw the light. The legend of Faust had been familiar to him as a child, he had thought of it and labored upon it during the whole of his youth, and now in the ripeness of his manhood it had 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 fibre of the heart untouched.” This work raised Goethe to the highest pinnacle of fame, and he was universally acknowledged to be the first poet of his age. If Goethe had died in 1806, he would have achieved a greater renown than any other modern man of letters; but he was destined to live 26 years longer, years of contentment, labor, productiveness, and honor. The stormy and errant impulses of his youth had been subdued; he had mastered himself and his circumstances; the great problem of life, which had filled him with strife and impatience, lay clear before him; his circumstances were easy; and his position at the head of German literature, which he had himself brought out of chaos or formalism into orderly vigor, gained him the homage of Europe. Schiller and other friends were dead; others again, friends of earlier days, were separated from him in sympathy by the large strides which his intellect had made in various paths of thought; and a sombre hue fell upon, without clouding, the serenity of his later years. Moreover, the external events of the world were full of trouble and agitation. It was the era of Napoleon's conquests. Germany palpitated with the rest of Europe in throbs of war; and the grand duke of Weimar was drawn into the very vortex of commotion. On Oct. H 1806, the battle of Jena was fought, and Goethe heard in his calm home the reports of the cannonades. Soon that home was invaded; the French troops entered his house, ransacked his cellars, penetrated even to his bedchamber, and though they treated him with respect, filled his soul with indignation and wrath. Goethe had all his life been averse to the disturbing influence of politics. His impassiveness under the tempestuous influences of the time had brought upon him the reproach of want of patriotism and of indifference to the welfare of humanity. But when the French approached Weimar, and Napoleon exhibited his spite against Charles Augustus for his active sympathy with his countrymen and allies, the long-pent feeling of the poet burst forth. “Misfortune!” he exclaimed to Falk; “what is misfortune? This is misfortune, that a prince should be compelled to endure such things from foreigners. And if it came to the same pass with him as with his ancestor, Duke John, if his ruin were certain and irretrievable, let not this dismay us; we will take our staff in our hand and accompany our master in adversity as old Lucas Cranach did; we will never forsuke him. The women and the children, when they meet us in the villages, will cast down their eyes and weep, and say to one another, ‘That is old Goethe and the former duke of Weimar, whom the French emperor drove from his throne because he was so true to his friends in misfortune; because he visited his uncle on his deathbed; because he would not let his old comrades and brothers in arms starve.’ ” “At this,” adds Falk, “the tears rolled in streams down his cheeks. After a pause, having recovered himself a little, he continued: ‘I will sing for bread! I will turn strolling ballad-singer, and put our misfortunes into verse! I will wander into every village and every school wherever the name of Goethe is known; I will chant the dishonor of Germany, and the children shall learn the song of our shame till they are men; and thus they shall sing my master on to his throne again, and yours off his!’ ” But as the noise of the French cannon withdrew from Weimar, he began to pipe once more in his old peaceful strain. All through the revolutionary tumult, in fact, he took refuge in his studies and scientific experiments. On occasion of an interview with Napoleon he scarcely remembered the enthusiasm with which he had spoken to Falk. Napoleon is reported to have said, Vous êtes un homme, and fell to criticising his works, especially Werther, which he had read, he said, seven times. Goethe was flattered by the appreciative words of the emperor, was invited to Paris, and afterward was decorated with the cross of the legion of honor. In 1809 Goethe printed the most exceptionable of his novels, the Wahlverwandschaften (“Elective Affinities”), in which the charms and graces of his style are employed in the description of the impulses which spring from the collision of passion and duty in the relations of marriage. By the title of the book, and in the whole spirit of it, he would represent that sexual affinities follow the same inevitable law as chemical affinities, and that humanity struggles impotently against the dictates of nature. Like all his productions, this was suggested by circumstances in his own experience. The work shocked the moral world, in spite of the beauty with which it was written, and to this day tasks the ingenuity of those of his admirers who seek to defend it from attack. His next volumes were of a less doubtful kind: the ballads Der Todtenkranz, Der getreue Eckart, and Die wandelnde Glocke, the Dichtung und Wahrheit, an autobiography, and the Westöstlicher Divan, a collection of oriental songs and poems. His studies of science and contemporary literature were meantime never remitted. In 1816 he published an art journal, Kunst und Alterthum, to which he contributed largely; and in 1818 the second part of Wilhelm Meister, the Wanderjahre. In 1825 the jubilee or 50th year of his residence in Weimar was celebrated in a grand public festival. In 1831 the second part of Faust appeared, a continuation of the first part, obscure and mystical, but full of passages of rare splendor, profound thought, grotesque humor, and bewitching melody. He supposed himself, and many critics supposed, that under the motley garb of the poem there is a deep significance, although few have succeeded in detecting it, while Goethe's own explanations are arid and unsatisfactory to the last degree. As a dramatic poem it cannot be denied that it was a failure, even if we admit that as an enigma, covering some recondite philosophy, it deserves the closest study. The songs at least, and the lyrical parts, are excellent. The old man had lost vigor, but his feelings were still exuberant, and the singer remained. “If Goethe,” said an admirer of his, “everywhere great, is anywhere greatest, it is in his songs and ballads. They are the spontaneous outgushings of his mind in all its moods; a melodious diary of his daily and almost hourly fluctuations of feeling; the breathings of his inward life; the sparkling perennial jets of his momentary affections and thoughts. There is the perpetual freshness and bloom about them of new spring flowers. Even when they seem most trivial, they ring through us like snatches of music. So perfect is the correspondence of form and substance that their charm as a whole defies analysis. It is felt, but cannot be detected. Then, again, how diversified they are! Some as simple as the whimperings of a child; others wild, grotesque, weird, and unearthly; and others again lofty, proud, defiant, like the words of a Titan heaping his scorn upon the gods.” One year after the completion of Faust Goethe was taken ill of a cold, which turned into a fatal fever. Tip to the hour of his death, however, ho prosecuted his intellectual pursuits. His last writing was an essay on the dispute between Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier, on the question of unity of composition in the animal kingdom; and his last words were, “More light.” He was then in the 83d year of his age. A seal, with an inscription from one of his own poems, Ohne Hast, ohne Rast, sent to him on his birthday in 1831, by 15 Englishmen, had given him great delight, for among the Englishmen who participated in the homage were Wordsworth, Scott, Southey, Wilson, Lockhart, and Carlyle. Goethe was the master spirit, the spokesman, as Carlyle says, of his age, the artist par excellence of the 19th century. The letters of Goethe are among the best illustrations of his character. They are, in the chronological order of the periods covered by their dates, those to friends in Leipsic (published in 1849), to Merck (1835-'47), to Jacobi (1846), to Lavater (1833), to Herder (1858), to Knebel (1851), to Klopstock (1833), to the countess Augusta of Stolberg (1839), to Frau von Stein (1848-'51); his correspondence with Schiller (6 vols., 1828-'9; 2d ed., 1856; translated into English by G. H. Calvert, Boston, 1845), with Zelter (6 vols., 1833-'4), with A. W. von Schlegel (1846), with the baron von Stein (1846), with Nikolaus Meyer (1856), with Döbereiner (1856), with Reinhard (1850), with Grüner (1853), with C. F. L. Schultz (1836), and with the councillor Schultz (1853); Goethe's Briefe und Aufsätze aus den Jahren l766-'86 (Weimar, 1856); “Goethe's Correspondence with the Brothers Humboldt, 1795 to 1832,” edited by Prof. Bratanek (3 vols., Cracow, 1873); and his Naturwissenschaftliche Correspondenz (2 vols., Leipsic, 1874). His “Correspondence with a Child” (Elisabeth or Bettina von Arnim) is not genuine. (See Lewes's “ Life of Goethe.”) The most important notices by his contemporaries are those of Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe (Leipsic, 1836; translated into English by Margaret Fuller, Boston, 1839), and Falk, Goethe aus persönlichem Umgang dargestellt (Leipsic, 1832). The best biographies are by Viehoff (4 vols., Stuttgart, 1854; 3d ed., 1873), Schäfer (2 vols., Bremen, 1851; 2d ed., 1858), and G. H. Lewes (2 vols., London, 1855; translated into German, Berlin, 1857-'8; new ed., abridged, 1873). Among recent works relating to Goethe are: “Goethe and Mendelssohn,” by Karl Mendelssohn (English translation, London, 1872); Gœthe: ses œuvres expliqués par sa vie, by A. Mézières (Paris, 1872); and Les maîtresses de Gœthe, by Henri Blase de Bury (Paris, 1873). Bayard Taylor and Karl Goedike have lives of Goethe in preparation. The oldest complete edition of his works is that of Stuttgart and Tübingen (40 vols., 1827-'31, to which his posthumous works were added, 15 vols., 1833-'4). Subsequent editions are numerous; the best are the latest, published by Cotta (30 vols. 12mo, and 12 vols. 8vo, Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1856-'60). Many of his works have been translated into different languages. Among the best into English are “Götz von Berlichingen,” by Walter Scott (1799); “Wilhelm Meister,” by Thomas Carlyle (1824); “Truth and Poetry,” by Parke Godwin (1847); and “Hermann and Dorothea,” by Miss Ellen Frothingham (1870). Of “Faust” there have been many translations; the best are those of Charles T. Brooks (Boston, 1857), and Bayard Taylor (Boston, 1870-'72). A monument to Goethe, to be executed by Schäfer, and erected in the Thiergarten, Berlin, was commenced in 1873.