Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe : Germany’s Greatest Writer – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers

Rousseau : Socialism and Education
Sir Walter Scott : The Modern Novel
Lord Byron : Poetic Genius
Thomas Carlyle : Criticism and Biography
Lord Macaulay : Artistic Historical Writing
Shakspeare or The Poet
John Milton : Poet and Patriot
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe : Germany’s Greatest Writer
Alfred Lord Tennyson : The Spirit Of Modern Poetry

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers
John Lord

Topics Covered
Fills highest place among the poets and prose-writers of Germany.
Influences that made the man.
Self-discipline and educational training.
Counsellor to Duke Karl August at Weimar, where he afterwards resides.
Visits Italy; makes Schiller’s acquaintance; Goethe’s personal appearance.
His unflagging industry; defence of the poet’s personal character.
The “Märchen,” its interpretation and the light it throws on Goethe’s political career.
Lyrist, dramatist, novelist, and mystic seer.
His drama “Götz von Berlichingen,” and “Sorrows of Werther”.
Popularity of his ballads; his elegies, and “Hermann und Dorothea”.
“Iphigenie auf Tauris;” his stage plays “Faust” (First Part) and “Egmont”.
The prose works “Wilhelm Meister” and the “Elective Affinities”.
His skill in the delineation of female character.
“Faust;” contrasts in spirit and style between the two Parts.
Import of the work, key to or analysis of the plot.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe[5] : Germany’s Greatest Writer



Genius of the supreme order presupposes a nature of equal scope as the prime condition of its being. The Gardens of Adonis require little earth, but the oak will not flourish in a tub; and the wine of Tokay is the product of no green-house, nor gotten of sour grapes. Given a genuine great poet, you will find a greater man behind, in whom, among others, these virtues predominate,–courage, generosity, truth.

Pre-eminent among the poets of the modern world stands Goethe, chief of his own generation, challenging comparison with the greatest of all time. His literary activity embraces a span of nigh seventy years in a life of more than fourscore, beginning, significantly enough, with a poem on “Christ’s Descent into Hell” (his earliest extant composition), and ending with Faust’s–that is, Man’s–ascent into heaven. The rank of a writer–his spiritual import to human kind–may be inferred from the number and worth of the writings of which he has furnished the topic and occasion. “When kings build,” says Schiller, speaking of Kant’s commentators, “the draymen have plenty to do.” Dante and Shakspeare have created whole libraries through the interest inspired by their writings. The Goethe-literature, so-called,–though scarce fifty years have elapsed since the poet’s death,–already numbers its hundreds of volumes.

I note in this man, first of all, as a literary phenomenon, the unexampled fact of supreme excellence in several quite distinct provinces of literary action. Had we only his minor poems, he would rank as the first of lyrists. Had he written only “Faust,” he would be the first of philosophic poets. Had he written only “Hermann and Dorothea,” the sweetest idyllist; if only the “Märchen,” the subtlest of allegorists. Had he written never a verse, but only prose, he would hold the highest place among the prose-writers of Germany. And lastly, had he written only on scientific subjects, in that line also–in the field of science–he would be, as he is, an acknowledged leader.

Noticeable in him also is the combination of extraordinary genius with extraordinary fortune. A magnificent person, a sound physique, inherited wealth, high social position, official dignity, with eighty-three years of earthly existence, compose the framework of this illustrious life.

Behind the author, behind the poet, behind the world-renowned genius, a not unreasonable curiosity seeks the original man, the human individual, as he walked among men, his manner of being, his characteristics, as shown in the converse of life. In what soil grew the flowers and ripened the fruits which have been the delight and the aliment of nations? In proportion, of course, to the eminence attained by a writer,–in proportion to the worth of his works, to their hold on the world,–is the interest felt in his personality and behavior, in the incidents of his life. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the person is not always proportioned to the lustre of the name. Of the two great poets to whom the world’s unrepealable verdict has assigned the foremost place in their several kinds, we know in one case absolutely nothing, and next to nothing in the other. To the question, Who sung the wrath of Achilles and the wanderings of the much-versed Odysseus? tradition answers with a name to which no faintest shadow of a person corresponds. To the question, Who composed “Hamlet” and “Othello”? history answers with a person so indistinct that recent speculation has dared to question the agency of Shakspeare in those creations. What would not the old scholiasts have given for satisfactory proofs of the existence of a Homer identical with the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey? What would not the Shakspeare clubs give for one more authentic anecdote of the world’s great dramatist?

Of Goethe we know more–I mean of his externals–than of any other writer of equal note. This is due in part to his wide relations, official and other, with his contemporaries; to his large correspondence with people of note, of which the documents have been preserved by the parties addressed; to the interest felt in him by curious observers living in the day of his greatness. It is due in part also to the fact that, unlike the greatest of his predecessors, he flourished in an all-communicating, all-recording age; and partly it is due to autobiographical notices, embracing important portions of his history.

Two seemingly opposite factors–limiting and qualifying the one the other–determined the course and topics of his life. One was the aim which he proposed to himself as the governing principle and purpose of his being,–to perfect himself, to make the most of the nature which God had given him; the other was a constitutional tendency to come out of himself, to lose himself in objects, especially in natural objects, so that in the study of nature–to which he devoted a large part of his life–he seems not so much a scientific observer as a chosen confidant, to whom the discerning Mother revealed her secrets.

In no greatest genius are all its talents self-derived. Countless influences mould our intellect and mould our heart. One of these, and often one of the most potent, is heredity. Consciously or unconsciously, for good or for evil, physically and mentally, the father and mother are in the child, as indeed all his ancestors are in every man.

Of Goethe’s father we know only what the son himself has told us in his memoirs. A man of austere presence, from whom Goethe, as he tells us, inherited his bodily stature and his serious treatment of life,–

“Vom Vater hab ich die Statur,
Des Lebens ernstes führen.”

By profession a lawyer, but without practice, living in grim seclusion amid his books and collections; a man of solid acquirements and large culture, who had travelled in Italy and first awakened in Wolfgang the longing for that land; a man of ample means, inhabiting a stately mansion. For the rest, a stiff, narrow-minded, fussy pedant, with small toleration for any methods or aims but his own; who, while he appreciated the superior gifts of his son, was obstinately bent on guiding them in strict professional grooves, and teased him with the friction of opposing wills.

The opposite, in most respects, of this stately and pedantic worthy was the Frau Räthin, his youthful wife, young enough to have been his daughter,–a jocund, exuberant nature, a woman to be loved; one who blessed society with her presence, and possessed uncommon gifts of discourse. She was but eighteen when Wolfgang was born,–a companion to him and his sister Cornelia; one in whom they were sure to find sympathy and ready indulgence. Goethe was indebted to her, as he tells us, for his joyous spirit and his narrative talent,–

“Von Mütterchen die Frohnatur
Und Lust zu fabuliren.”

Outside of the poet’s household, the most important figure in the circle of his childish acquaintance was his mother’s father, from whom he had his name, Johann Wolfgang Textor, the Schultheiss, or chief magistrate, of the city. From him Goethe seems to have inherited the superstition of which some curious examples are recorded in his life. He shared with Napoleon and other remarkable men, says Von Müller, the conceit that little mischances are prophetic of greater evils. On a journey to Baden-Baden with a friend, his carriage was upset and his companion slightly injured. He thought it a bad omen, and instead of proceeding to Baden-Baden chose another watering-place for his summer resort. If in his almanac there happened to be a blot on any date, he feared to undertake anything important on the day so marked. He had noted certain fatal days; one of these was the 22d of March. On that day he had lost a valued friend; on that day the theatre to which he had devoted so much time and labor was burned; and on that day, curiously enough, he died. He believed in oracles; and as Rousseau threw stones at a tree to learn whether or no he was to be saved (the hitting or not hitting the tree was to be the sign), so Goethe tossed a valuable pocket-knife into the river Lahn to ascertain whether he would succeed as a painter. If behind the bushes which bordered the stream, he saw the knife plunge, it should signify success; if not, he would take it as an omen of failure. Rousseau was careful, he tells us, to choose a stout tree, and to stand very near. Goethe, more honest with himself, adopted no such precaution; the plunge of the knife was not seen, and the painter’s career was abandoned.

Wordsworth’s saying, “the child is the father of the man,”–a saying which owes its vitality more to its form than its substance,–is not always verified, or its truth is not always apparent in the lives of distinguished men. I find not much in Goethe the child prophetic of Goethe the man. But the singer and the seeker, the two main tendencies of his being, are already apparent in early life. Of moral traits, the most conspicuous in the child is a power of self-control,–a moral heroism, which secured to him in after life a natural leadership unattainable by mere intellectual supremacy. An instance of this self-control is recorded among the anecdotes of his boyhood. At one of the lessons which he shared with other boys, the teacher failed to appear. The young people awaited his coming for a while, but toward the close of the hour most of them departed, leaving behind three who were especially hostile to Goethe. “These,” he says, “thought to torment, to mortify, and to drive me away. They left me a moment, and returned with rods taken from a broom which they had cut to pieces. I perceived their intention, and, supposing the expiration of the hour to be near, I immediately determined to make no resistance until the clock should strike. Unmercifully, thereupon, they began to scourge in the cruellest manner my legs and calves. I did not stir, but soon felt that I had miscalculated the time, and that such pain greatly lengthens the minutes.” When the hour expired, his superior activity enabled him to master all three, and to pin them to the ground.

In later years the same zeal of self-discipline which prompted the child to exercise himself in bearing pain, impelled the man to resist and overcome constitutional weaknesses by force of will. A student of architecture, he conquered a tendency to giddiness by standing on pinnacles and walking on narrow rafters over perilous abysses. In like manner he overcame the ghostly terrors instilled in the nursery, by midnight visits to churchyards and uncanny places.

To real peril, to fear of death, he seems to have had that native insensibility so notable always in men of genius, in whom the conviction of a higher destiny begets the feeling of a charmed life,–such as Plutarch records of the first Caesar in peril of shipwreck on the river Anio. In the French campaign (1793), in which Goethe accompanied the Duke of Weimar against the armies of the Republic, a sudden impulse of scientific curiosity prompted him, in spite of warnings and remonstrances, to experiment on what is called the “cannon-fever.” For this purpose he rode to a place in which he was exposed to a cross-fire of the two armies, and coolly watched the sensations experienced in that place of peril.

Command of himself, acquired by long and systematic discipline, gave him that command over others which he exercised in several memorable instances. Coming from a ball one night,–a young man fresh from the University,–he saw that a fire had broken out in the Judengasse, and that people were standing about helpless and confused without a leader; he immediately jumped from his carriage, and, full dressed as he was, in silk stockings and pumps, organized on the spot a fire-brigade, which averted a dangerous conflagration. On another occasion, voyaging in the Mediterranean, he quelled a mutiny on board an Italian ship, when captain and mates were powerless, and the vessel drifting on the rocks, by commanding sailors and passengers to fall on their knees and pray to the Virgin,–adopting the idiom of their religion as well as their speech, of which he was a master.

As a student, first at Leipsic, then at Strasburg, including the years from 1766 to 1771, he seems not to have been a very diligent attendant on the lectures in either university, and to have profited little by professional instruction. In compliance with the wishes of his father, who intended him for a jurist, he gave some time to the study of the law; but on the whole the principal gain of those years was derived from intercourse with distinguished intellectual men and women, whose acquaintance he cultivated, and the large opportunities of social life.

In Strasburg occurred the famous love-passage with Friederike Brion, which terminated so unhappily at the time, and so fortunately in the end, for both.

Goethe has been blamed for not marrying Friederike. His real blame consists in the heedlessness with which, in the beginning of their acquaintance, he surrendered himself to the charm of her presence, thereby engaging her affection without a thought of the consequences to either. Besides the disillusion, which showed him, when he came fairly to face the question, that he did not love her sufficiently to justify marriage, there were circumstances–material, economical–which made it practically impossible. Her suffering in the separation, great as it was,–so great indeed as to cause a dangerous attack of bodily disease,–could not outweigh the pangs which he endured in his penitent contemplation of the consequences of his folly.

The next five years were spent partly in Frankfort and partly in Wetzlar, partly in the forced exercise of his profession, but chiefly in literary labors and the use of the pencil, which for a time disputed with the pen the devotion of the poet-artist. They may be regarded as perhaps the most fruitful, certainly the most growing, years of his life. They gave birth to “Götz von Berlichingen” and the “Sorrows of Werther,” to the first inception of “Faust,” and to many of his sweetest lyrics. It was during this period that he made the acquaintance of Charlotte Buff, the heroine of the “Sorrows of Werther,” from whom he finally tore himself away, leaving Wetzlar when he discovered that their growing interest in each other was endangering her relation with Kestner, her betrothed. In those years, also, he formed a matrimonial engagement with Elizabeth Schönemann (Lili), the rupture of which, I must think, was a real misfortune for the poet. It came about by no fault of his. Her family had from the first opposed themselves to the match on the ground of social disparity. For even in mercantile Frankfort rank was strongly marked; and the Goethes, though respectable people, were beneath the Schönemanns in the social scale. Goethe’s genius went for nothing with Madame Schönemann; she wanted for her daughter an aristocratic husband, not a literary one,–one who had wealth in possession, and not merely, as Goethe had, in prospect. How far Lili was influenced by her mother’s and brother’s representations it is impossible to say; however, she showed herself capricious, was sometimes cold, or seemed so to him, while favoring the advances of others. Goethe was convinced that she did not entertain for him that devoted love without which he felt that their union could not be a happy one. They separated; but on her death-bed she confessed to a friend that all she was, intellectually and morally, she owed to him.

In 1775 our poet was invited by the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl August,–whose acquaintance he had made at Frankfort and at Mentz, his junior by two or three years,–to establish himself in civil service at the Grand-Ducal Court. The father, who had other views for his son, and was not much inclined to trust in princes, objected; many wondered, some blamed. Goethe himself appears to have wavered with painful indecision, and at last to have followed a mysterious impulse rather than a clear conviction or deliberate choice. His Heidelberg friend and hostess sought still to detain him, when the last express from Weimar drove up to the door. To her he replied in the words of his own Egmont:–

“Say no more! Goaded by invisible spirits, the sun-steeds of time run away with the light chariot of our destiny; there is nothing for it but to keep our courage, hold tight the reins, and guide the wheels now right, now left, avoiding a stone here, a fall there. Whither away? Who knows? Scarcely one remembers whence he came.”

It does not appear that he ever repented this most decisive step of his life-journey, nor does there appear to have been any reason why he should. A position, an office of some kind, he needs must have. Even now, the life of a writer by profession, with no function but that of literary composition, is seldom a prosperous one; in Goethe’s day, when literature was far less remunerative than it is in ours, it was seldom practicable. Unless he had chosen to be maintained by his father, some employment besides that of book-making was an imperative necessity. The alternative of that which was offered–the one his father would have chosen–was that of a plodding jurist in a country where forensic pleading was unknown, and where the lawyer’s profession offered no scope for any of the higher talents with which Goethe was endowed. On the whole, it was a happy chance that called him to the little capital of the little Grand-Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. If the State was one of petty dimensions (a kind of pocket-kingdom, like so many of the principalities of Germany), it nevertheless included some of the fairest localities, and one at least of the most memorable in Europe,–the Wartburg, where Luther translated the Bible, where Saint Elizabeth dispensed the blessings of her life, where the Minnesingers are said to have held their poetic tournament,–

“Heinrich von Ofterdingen,
Wolfram von Eschenbach.”

It included also the University of Jena, which at that time numbered some of the foremost men of Germany among its professors. It was a miniature State and a miniature town; one wonders that Goethe, who would have shone the foremost star in Berlin or Vienna, could content himself with so narrow a field. But Vienna and Berlin did not call him until it was too late,–until patronage was needless; and Weimar did. A miniature State,–but so much the greater his power and freedom and the opportunity of beneficent action.

No prince was ever more concerned to promote in every way the welfare of his subjects than Karl August; and in all his works undertaken for this purpose, Goethe was his foremost counsellor and aid. The most important were either suggested by him or executed under his direction. Had he never written a poem, or given to the world a single literary composition, he would still have led, as a Weimar official, a useful and beneficent life. But the knowledge of the world and of business, the social and other experience gained in this way, was precisely the training which he needed,–and which every poet needs,–for the broadening and deepening and perfection of his art. Friedrich von Müller, in his valuable treatise of “Goethe as a Man of Affairs,” tells us how he traversed every portion of the country to learn what advantage might be taken of topographical peculiarities, what provision made for local necessities. “Everywhere–on hilltops crowned with primeval forests, in the depths of gorges and shafts–Nature met her favorite with friendly advances, and revealed to him many a desired secret.” Whatever was privately gained in this way was applied to public uses. He endeavored to infuse new life into the mining business, and to make himself familiar with all its technical requirements. For that end he revived his chemical experiments. New roads were built, hydraulic operations were conducted on more scientific principles, fertile meadows were won from the river Saale by systematic drainage, and in many a struggle with Nature an intelligently persistent will obtained the victory.

Nor was it with material obstacles only that the poet-minister had to contend. In the exercise of the powers intrusted to him he often encountered the fierce opposition of party interest and stubborn prejudice, and was sometimes driven to heroic and despotic measures in order to accomplish a desired result,–as when he foiled the machinations of the Jena professors in his determination to save the University library, and when, in spite of the opposition of the leading burghers, he demolished the city wall.

In 1786 Goethe was enabled to realize his cherished dream of a journey to Italy. There he spent a year and a half in the diligent study and admiring enjoyment of the treasures of art which made that country then, even more than now, the mark and desire of the civilized world. He came back an altered man. Intellectually and morally he had made in that brief space, under new influences, a prodigious stride. His sudden advance while they had remained stationary separated him from his contemporaries. The old associations of the Weimar world, which still revolved its little round, the much-enlightened traveller had outgrown. People thought him cold and reserved. It was only that the gay, impulsive youth had ripened into an earnest, sedate man. He found Germany jubilant over Schiller’s “Robbers” and other writings representative of the “storm-and-stress” school, which his maturity had left far behind, his own contributions to which he had come to hate. Schiller, who first made his acquaintance at this time, writes to Körner:–

“I doubt that we shall ever become intimate. Much that to me is still of great interest he has already outlived. He is so far beyond me, not so much in years as in experience and culture, that we can never come together in one course.”

How greatly Schiller erred in the supposition that they never could become intimate, how close the intimacy which grew up between them, what harmony of sentiment, how friendly and mutually helpful their co-operation, is sufficiently notorious.

But such was the first aspect which Goethe presented to strangers at this period of his life; he rather repelled than attracted, until nearer acquaintance learned rightly to interpret the man, and intellectual or moral affinity bridged the chasm which seemed to divide him from his kind. In part, too, the distance and reserve of which people complained was a necessary measure of self-defence against the disturbing importunities of social life. “From Rome,” says Friedrich von Müller, “from the midst of the richest and grandest life, dates the stern maxim of ‘Renunciation’ which governed his subsequent being and doing, and which furnished his only guarantee of mental equipoise and peace.”

His literary works hitherto had been spasmodic and lawless effusions, the escapes of a gushing, turbulent youth. In Rome he had learned the sacred significance of art. The consciousness of his true vocation had been awakened in him; and to that, on the eve of his fortieth year, he thenceforth solemnly devoted the remainder of his life. He obtained release from the more onerous of his official engagements, retaining only such functions as accorded with his proper calling as a man of letters and of science. He renounced his daily intercourse with Frau von Stein, though still retaining and manifesting his unabated friendship for the woman to whom in former years he had devoted so large a portion of his time, and employed himself in giving forth those immortal words which have settled forever his place among the stars of first magnitude in the intellectual world.

Noticeable and often noted was the charm and (when arrived to maturity) the grand effect of his personal presence. Physical beauty is not the stated accompaniment, nor even the presumable adjunct, of intellectual greatness. In Goethe, as perhaps in no other, the two were combined. A wondrous presence!–on this point the voices are one and the witnesses many. “Goethe was with us,” so writes Heinse to one of his friends; “a beautiful youth of twenty-five, full of genius and force from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot; a heart full of feeling, a spirit full of fire, who with eagle wings ruit immensus ore profundo.” Jacobi writes: “The more I think of it, the more impossible it seems to me to communicate to any one who has not seen Goethe any conception of this extraordinary creature of God.” Lavater says: “Unspeakably sweet, an indescribable appearance, the most terrible and lovable of men.” Hufeland, the chief medical celebrity of Germany, describes his appearance in early manhood: “Never shall I forget the impression which he made as ‘Orestes’ in Greek costume. You thought you beheld an Apollo. Never was seen in any man such union of physical and spiritual perfection and beauty as at that time in Goethe.” More remarkable still is the testimony of Wieland, who had reason to be offended, having been before their acquaintance the subject of Goethe’s sharp satire. But immediately at their first meeting, sitting at table “by the side,” he says, “of this glorious youth, I was radically cured of all my vexation…. Since this morning,” he wrote to Jacobi, “my soul is as full of Goethe as a dewdrop is of the morning sun.” And to Zimmermann: “He is in every respect the greatest, best, most splendid human being that ever God created.” Goethe was then twenty-six. Henry Crabbe Robinson, who saw him at the age of fifty-two, reports him one of the most “oppressively handsome” men he had ever seen, and speaks particularly as all who have described him speak, of his wonderfully brilliant eyes. Those eyes, we are told, had lost nothing of their lustre, nor his head its natural covering, at the age of eighty.

Among the heroic qualities notable in Goethe, I reckon his faithful and unflagging industry. Here was a man who took pains with himself,–liess sich’s sauer werden,–and made the most of himself. He speaks of wasting, while a student in Leipsic, “the beautiful time;” and certainly neither at Leipsic nor afterward at Strasburg did he toil as his Wagner in “Faust” would have done. But he was always learning. In the lecture-room or out of it, with pen and books or gay companions, he was taking in, to give forth again in dramatic or philosophic form the world of his experience.

A frolicsome youth may leave something to regret in the way of time misspent; but Goethe the man was no dawdler, no easy-going Epicurean. On the whole, he made the most of himself, and stands before the world a notable instance of a complete life. He would do the work which was given him to do. He would not die till the second part of “Faust” was brought to its predetermined close. By sheer force of will he lived till that work was done. Smitten at fourscore by the death of his son, and by deaths all around, he kept to his task. “The idea of duty alone sustains me; the spirit is willing, the flesh must.” When “Faust” was finished, the strain relaxed. “My remaining days,” he said, “I may consider a free gift; it matters little what I do now, or whether I do anything.” And six months later he died.

A complete life! A life of strenuous toil! At home and abroad,–in Italy and Sicily, at Ilmenau and Carlsbad, as in his study at Weimar,–with eye or pen or speech, he was always at work. A man of rigid habits; no lolling or lounging. “He showed me,” says Eckermann, “an elegant easy-chair which he had bought to-day at auction. ‘But,’ said he, ‘I shall never or rarely use it; all indolent habits are against my nature. You see in my chamber no sofa; I sit always in my old wooden chair, and never, till a few weeks ago, have permitted even a leaning place for my head to be added. If surrounded by tasteful furniture, my thoughts are arrested; I am placed in an agreeable but passive state. Unless we are accustomed to them from early youth, splendid chambers and elegant furniture had better be left to people without thoughts.'” This in his eighty-second year!

A widely diffused prejudice regarding the personal character of Goethe refuses to credit him with any moral worth accordant with his bodily and mental gifts. It figures him a libertine,–heartless, loveless, bad. I do not envy the mental condition of those who can rest in the belief that a really great poet can be a bad man. Be assured that the fruits of genius have never grown, and will never grow, in such a soil. Of all great poets Byron might seem at first glance to constitute an exception to this–I venture to call it–law of Nature. Yet hear what Walter Scott, a sufficient judge, said of Byron:–

“The errors of Lord Byron arose neither from depravity of heart–for nature had not committed the anomaly of uniting to such extraordinary talents an imperfect moral sense–nor from feelings dead to the admiration of virtue. No man had ever a kinder heart for sympathy, or a more open hand for the relief of distress; and no mind was ever more formed for enthusiastic admiration of noble actions.”

The case of Goethe requires no appeal to general principles. It only requires that the charges against him be fairly investigated; that he be tried by documentary evidence, and by the testimony of competent witnesses. The mistake is made of confusing breaches of conventional decorum with essential depravity.

That Goethe was faulty in many ways may be freely conceded. But surely there is a wide difference between not being faultless and being definitely bad. To call a man bad is to say that the evil in him preponderates over the good. In the case of Goethe the balance was greatly the other way. It has been said that he abused the confidence reposed in him by women; that he encouraged affection which he did not reciprocate for artistic purposes. The charge is utterly groundless; and in the case of Bettine has been refuted by irrefragable proof. To say that he was wanting in love, heartless, cold, is ridiculously false. Yet the charge is constantly reiterated in the face of facts,–reiterated with undoubting assurance and a certain complacency which seems to say, “Thank God! we are not as this man was.” There is a satisfaction which some people feel in spotting their man,–Burns drank; Coleridge took opium; Byron was a rake; Goethe was cold: by these marks we know them. The poet found it necessary, as I have said, in later years, under social pressure, for the sake of the work which was given him to do, to fortify himself with a mail of reserve. And this, indeed, contrasted strangely with his former abandon, and with the customary gush of German sentimentality. It was common then for Germans who had known each other by report, and were mutually attracted, when first they met, to fall on each other’s necks and kiss and weep. Goethe, as a young man, had indulged such fervors; but in old age he had lost this effusiveness, or saw fit to restrain himself outwardly, while his kindly nature still glowed with its pristine fires. He wrote to Frau von Stein, “I may truly say that my innermost condition does not correspond to my outward behavior.” Hence the charge of coldness. Say that Mount Aetna is cold: do we not see the snow on its sides?

But he was unpatriotic; he occupied himself with poetry, and did not cry out while his country was in the death-throes–so it seemed–of the struggle with France! But what should he have done? What could he have done? What would his single arm or declamation have availed? No man more than Goethe longed for the rehabilitation of Germany. In his own way he wrought for that end; he could work effectually in no other. That enigmatical composition,–the “Märchen,”–according to the latest interpretation, indicates how, in Goethe’s view, that end was to be accomplished. To one who considers the relation of ideas to events, it will not seem extravagant when I say that to Goethe, more than to any one individual, Germany is indebted for her emancipation, independence, and present political regeneration.[6]

In the summer of 1795 Goethe composed for Schiller’s new magazine, “Die Horen,” a prose poem known in German literature as Das Märchen,–” The Tale;” as if it were the only one, or the one which more than another deserves that appellation….

Goethe gave this essay to the public as a riddle which would probably be unintelligible at the time, but which might perhaps find an interpreter after many days, when the hints contained in it should be verified. Since its first appearance commentators have exercised their ingenuity upon it, perceiving it to be allegorical, but until recently without success…. I follow Dr. Herman’s Baumgart’s lead in the exposition which I now offer.

“The Tale” is a prophetic vision of the destinies of Germany,–an allegorical foreshowing at the close of the eighteenth century of what Germany was yet to become, and has in great part already become. A position is predicted for her like that which she occupied from the time of Charles the Great to the time of Charles V.,–a period during which the Holy Roman Empire of Germany was the leading secular power in Western Europe. That time had gone by. Since the middle of the sixteenth century Germany had declined, and at the date of this writing (1795) had nearly reached her darkest day. Disintegrated, torn by conflicting interests, pecked by petty rival princes, despairing of her own future, it seemed impossible that she should ever again become a power among the nations. Goethe felt this; he felt it as profoundly as any German of his day … and he characteristically went into himself and studied the situation. The result was this wonderful composition,–“Das Märchen.” He perceived that Germany must die to be born again. She did die, and is born again. He had the sagacity to foresee the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire,–an event which took place eleven years later, in 1806. The Empire is figured by the composite statue of the fourth King in the subterranean Temple, which crumbles to pieces when that Temple, representing Germany’s past, emerges and stands above ground by the River. The resurrection of the Temple and its stand by the River is the dénouement of the Tale. And that signifies, allegorically, the rehabilitation of Germany.

It is true, his writings contain no declamations against tyrants, and no tirades in favor of liberty. He believed that oppression existed only through ignorance and blindness, and these he was all his life long seeking to remove. He believed that true liberty is attainable only through mental illumination, and that he was all his life long seeking to promote.

He was no agitator, no revolutionist; he had no faith in violent measures. Human welfare, he judged, is not to be advanced in that way; is less dependent on forms of polity than on the life within. But if the test of patriotism is the service rendered to one’s country, who more patriotic than he? Lucky for us and the world that he persisted to serve her in his own way, and not as the agitators claimed that he should. It was clear to him then, and must be clear to us now, that he could not have been what they demanded, and at the same time have given to his country and the world what he did.

As a courtier and favorite of Fortune, it was inevitable that Goethe should have enemies. They have done what they could to blacken his name; and to this day the shadow they have cast upon it in part remains. But of this be sure, that no selfish, loveless egoist could have had and retained such friends. The man whom the saintly Fraulein von Klettenberg chose for her friend, whom clear-sighted, stern-judging Herder declared that he loved as he did his own soul; the man whose thoughtful kindness is celebrated by Herder’s incomparable wife, whom Karl August and the Duchess Luise cherished as a brother; the man whom children everywhere welcomed as their ready playfellow and sure ally, of whom pious Jung Stilling lamented that admirers of Goethe’s genius knew so little of the goodness of his heart,–can this have been a bad man, heartless, cold?


I have said that to Goethe, above all writers, belongs the distinction of having excelled, not experimented merely,–that, others have also done,–but excelled in many distinct kinds. To the lyrist he added the dramatist, to the dramatist the novelist, to the novelist the mystic seer, and to all these the naturalist and scientific discoverer. The history of literature exhibits no other instance in which a great poet has supplemented his proper orbit with so wide an epicyle.

In poetry, as in science, the ground of his activity was a passionate love of Nature, which dates from his boyhood. At the age of fifteen, recovering from a sickness caused by disappointment in a boyish affair of the heart, he betook himself with his sketch-book to the woods. “In the farthest depth of the forest,” he says, “I sought out a solemn spot, where ancient oaks and beeches formed a shady retreat. A slight declivity of the soil made the merit of the ancient boles more conspicuous. This space was inclosed by a thicket of bushes, between which peeped moss-covered rocks, mighty and venerable, affording a rapid fall to an affluent brook.”

The sketches made of these objects at that early age could have had no artistic value, although the methodical father was careful to mount and preserve them. But what the pencil, had it been the pencil of the greatest master, could never glean from scenes like these, what art could never grasp, what words can never formulate, the heart of the boy then imbibed, assimilated, resolved in his innermost being. There awoke in him then those mysterious feelings, those unutterable yearnings, that pensive joy in the contemplation of Nature, which leavened all his subsequent life, and the influence of which is so perceptible in his poetry, especially in his lyrics….

The first literary venture by which Goethe became widely known was “Götz von Berlichingen,” a dramatic picture of the sixteenth century, in which the principal figure is a predatory noble of that name. A dramatic picture, but not in any true sense a play, it owed its popularity at the time partly to the truth of its portraitures, partly to its choice of a native subject and the truly German feeling which pervades it. It was a new departure in German literature, and perplexed the critics as much as it delighted the general public. It anticipated by a quarter of a century what is technically called the Romantic School.

“Götz von Berlichingen” was soon followed by the “Sorrows of Werther,”–one of those books which, on their first appearance have taken the world by storm, and of which Mrs. Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is the latest example. It is a curious circumstance that a great poet should have won his first laurels by prose composition. Sir Walter Scott eclipsed the splendor of his poems by the popularity of the Waverley novels. Goethe eclipsed the world-wide popularity of his “Werther” by the splendor of his poems.

Of one who was great in so many kinds, it may seem difficult to decide in what department he most excelled. Without undertaking to measure and compare what is incommensurable, I hold that Goethe’s genius is essentially lyrical. Whatever else may be claimed for him, he is, first of all, and chiefly, a singer. Deepest in his nature, the most innate of all his faculties, was the faculty of song, of rhythmical utterance. The first to manifest itself in childhood, it was still active at the age of fourscore. The lyrical portions of the second part of “Faust,” some of which were written a short time before his death, are as spirited, the versification as easy, the rhythm as perfect, as the songs of his youth.

As a lyrist he is unsurpassed, I venture to say unequalled, if we take into view the whole wide range of his performance in this kind,–from the ballads, the best-known of his smaller poems, and those light fugitive pieces, those bursts of song which came to him without effort, and with such a rush that in order to arrest and preserve them he seized, as he tells us, the first scrap of paper that came to hand and wrote upon it diagonally, if it happened so to lie on his table, lest, through the delay of selecting and placing, the inspiration should be checked and the poem evaporate,–from these to such stately compositions as the “Zueignung,” or dedication of his poems, the “Weltseele” and the “Orphic Sayings,”–in short, from poetry that writes itself, that springs spontaneously in the mind, to poetry that is written with elaborate art. There is this distinction, and it is one of the most marked in lyric verse. Compare in English poetry, by way of illustration, the snatches of song in Shakspeare’s plays with Shakspeare’s sonnets; compare Burns with Gray; compare Jean Ingelow with Browning.

Goethe’s ballads have an undying popularity; they have been translated, and most of them are familiar to English readers….

In the Elegies written after his return from Italy, the author figures as a classic poet inspired by the Latin Muse. The choicest of these elegies–the “Alexis and Dora”–is not so much an imitation of the ancients as it is the manifestation of a side of the poet’s nature which he had in common with the ancients. He wrote as a Greek or Roman might write, because he felt his subject as a Greek or Roman might feel it.

“Hermann und Dorothea,” which Schiller pronounced the acme not only of Goethean but of all modern art, was written professedly as an attempt in the Homeric[7] style, motived by Wolf’s “Prolegomena” and Voss’s “Luise.” It is Homeric only in its circumstantiality, in the repetition of the same epithets applied to the same persons, and in the Greek realism of Goethe’s nature. The theme is very un-Homeric; it is thoroughly modern and German,–      “Germans themselves I present, to the humbler dwelling I lead you,
Where with Nature as guide man is natural still.” [8]

This exquisite poem has been translated into English hexameters with great fidelity by Miss Ellen Frothingham.

“Iphigenie auf Tauris” handles a Greek theme, exhibits Greek characters, and was hailed on its first appearance as a genuine echo of the Greek drama. Mr. Lewes denies it that character; and certainly it is not Greek, but Christian, in sentiment. It differs from the extant drama of Euripides, who treats the same subject, in the Christian feeling which determines its dénouement….

A large portion of Goethe’s productions have taken the dramatic form; yet he cannot be said, theatrically speaking, to have been, like Schiller, a successful dramatist. His plays, with the exception of “Egmont” and the First Part of “Faust,” have not commanded the stage; they form no part, I believe, of the stock of any German theatre. The characterizations are striking, but the positions are not dramatic. Single scenes in some of them are exceptions,–like that in “Egmont,” where Clara endeavors to rouse her fellow-citizens to the rescue of the Count, while Brackenburg seeks to restrain her, and several of the scenes in the First Part of “Faust.” But, on the whole, the interest of Goethe’s dramas is psychological rather than scenic. Especially is this the case with “Tasso,” one of the author’s noblest works, where the characters are not so much actors as metaphysical portraitures. Schiller, in his plays, had always the stage in view. Goethe, on the contrary, wrote for readers, or cultivated, reflective hearers, not spectators…..

When I say, then, that Goethe, compared with Schiller, failed of dramatic success, I mean that his talent did not lie in the line of plays adapted to the stage as it is; or if the talent was not wanting, his taste did not incline to such performance. He was no playwright.

But there is another and higher sense of the word dramatic, where Goethe is supreme,–the sense in which Dante’s great poem is called Commedia, a play. There is a drama whose scope is beyond the compass of any earthly stage,–a drama not for theatre-goers, to be seen on the boards, but for intellectual contemplation of men and angels. Such a drama is “Faust,” of which I shall speak hereafter.

Of Goethe’s prose works,–I mean works of prose fiction,–the most considerable are two philosophical novels, “Wilhelm Meister” and the “Elective Affinities.”

In the first of these the various and complex motives which have shaped the composition may be comprehended in the one word education,–the education of life for the business of life. The main thread of the narrative traces through a labyrinth of loosely connected scenes and events the growth of the hero’s character,–a progressive training by various influences, passional, intellectual, social, moral, and religious. These are represented by the personnel of the story. In accordance with this design, the hero himself, if so he may be called, has no pronounced traits, is more negative than positive, but is brought into contact with many very positive characters. His life is the stage on which these characters perform. A ground is thus provided for the numerous portraits of which the author’s large experience furnished the originals, and for lessons of practical wisdom derived from his close observation of men and things and his lifelong reflection thereon.

“Wilhelm Meister,” if not the most artistic, is the most instructive, and in that view, next to “Faust,” the most important, of Goethe’s works. In it he has embodied his philosophy of life,–a philosophy far enough removed from the epicurean views which ignorance has ascribed to him,–a philosophy which is best described by the term ascetic. Its keynote is Renunciation. “With renunciation begins the true life,” was the author’s favorite maxim; and the second part of “Wilhelm Meister”–the Wanderjahre–bears the collateral title Die Entsagenden; that is, the “Renouncing” or the “Self-denying.” The characters that figure in this second part–most of whom have had their training in the first–form a society whose principle of union is self-renunciation and a life of beneficent activity….

The most fascinating character in “Wilhelm Meister”–the wonder and delight of the reader–is Mignon, the child-woman,–a pure creation of Goethe’s genius, without a prototype in literature. Readers of Scott will remember Fenella, the elfish maiden in “Peveril of the Peak.” Scott says in his Preface to that novel: “The character of Fenella, which from its peculiarity made a favorable impression on the public, was far from being original. The fine sketch of Mignon in Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre–a celebrated work from the pen of Goethe–gave the idea of such a being. But the copy will be found to be greatly different from my great prototype; nor can I be accused of borrowing anything save the general idea.”

As I remember Fenella, the resemblance to Mignon is merely superficial. A certain weirdness is all they have in common. The intensity of the inner life, the unspeakable longing, the cry of the unsatisfied heart, the devout aspiration, the presentiment of the heavenly life which characterize Mignon are peculiar to her; they constitute her individuality. Wilhelm has found her a kidnapped child attached to a strolling circus company, and has rescued her from the cruel hands of the manager. Thenceforth she clings to him with a passionate devotion, in which gratitude for her deliverance, filial affection, and the love of a maiden for her hero are strangely blended. Afflicted with a disease of the heart, she is subject to terrible convulsions, which increase the tenderness of her protector for the doomed child. After one of these attacks, in which she had been suffering frightful pain, we read:–

“He held her fast. She wept; and no tongue can express the force of those tears. Her long hair had become unfastened and hung loose over her shoulders. Her whole being seemed to be melting away…. At last she raised herself up. A mild cheerfulness gleamed from her face. ‘My father!’ she cried, ‘you will not leave me! You will be my father! I will be your child.’ Softly, before the door, a harp began to sound. The old Harper was bringing his heartiest songs as an evening sacrifice to his friend.”

Then bursts on the reader that world-famed song, in which the soul of Mignon, with its unconquerable yearnings, is forever embalmed,–“Kennst du das Land”:–

“Know’st thou the land that bears the citron’s bloom?
The golden orange glows ‘mid verdant gloom,
A gentle wind from heaven’s deep azure blows,
The myrtle low, and high the laurel grows,–
Know’st thou the land?[9]
Oh, there! oh, there!
Would I with thee, my best beloved, repair.” …

The “Elective Affinities” has been strangely misinterpreted as having an immoral tendency, as encouraging conjugal infidelity, and approving “free love.” That any one who has read the work with attention to the end could so misjudge it seems incredible. Precisely the reverse of this, its aim is to enforce the sanctity of the nuptial bond by showing the tragic consequences resulting from its violation, though only in thought and feeling….

Here, a word concerning one merit of Goethe which seems to me not to have been sufficiently appreciated by even his admirers,–his loving skill in the delineation of female character; the commanding place he assigns to woman in his writings; his full recognition of the importance of feminine influence in human destiny. The prophetic utterance, which forms the conclusion of “Faust,”–“The ever womanly draws us on,”–is the summing up of Goethe’s own experience of life. Few men had ever such wide opportunities of acquaintance with women. If, on the one hand, his loves had revealed to him the passional side of feminine nature, he had enjoyed, on the other, the friendship of some of the purest and noblest of womankind. Conspicuous among these are Fräulein von Klettenberg and the Duchess Luise, whom no one, says Lewes, ever speaks of but in terms of veneration. No poet but Shakspeare, and scarcely Shakspeare, has set before the world so rich a gallery of female portraits. They range from the lowest to the highest,–from the wanton to the saint; they are drawn in firm lines, and limned in imperishable colors, … each bearing the stamp of her own individuality, and each confessing a master’s hand. These may be considered as representing different phases of the poet’s experience,–different stadia in his view of life. “The ever womanly draws us on.” So Goethe, of all men most susceptible of feminine influence, was led by it from weakness to strength, from dissipation to concentration, from doubt to clearness, from tumult to repose, from the earthly to the heavenly.


Goethe appears to have derived his knowledge of the Faust legend partly from the work of Widmann, published in 1599,[10] partly from another more modern in its form, which appeared in 1728, and partly from the puppet plays exhibited in Frankfort and other cities of Germany, of which that legend was then a favorite theme. He was not the only writer of that day who made use of it. Some thirty of his contemporaries had produced their “Fausts” during the interval which elapsed between the inception and publication of his great work. Oblivion overtook them all, with the exception of Lessing’s, of which a few fragments are left; the manuscript of the complete work was unaccountably lost on its way to the publisher, between Dresden and Leipsic.

The composition of “Faust,” as we learn from Goethe’s biography, proceeded spasmodically, with many and long interruptions between the inception and conclusion. Projected in 1769 at the age of twenty, it was not completed till the year 1831, at the age of eighty-two….

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Painting by Angelica Kauffman

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Painting by Angelica Kauffman

But the effect of the long arrest, which after Goethe’s removal to Weimar delayed the completion of the “Faust,” is most apparent in the wide gulf which separates, as to character and style, the Second Part from the First. So great, indeed, is the distance between the two that, without external historical proofs of identity, it would seem from internal evidence altogether improbable, in spite of the slender thread of the fable which connects them, that both poems were the work of one and the same author. And really the author was not the same. The change which had come over Goethe on his return from Italy had gone down to the very springs of his intellectual life. The fervor and the rush, the sparkle and foam of his early productions, had been replaced by the stately calm and the luminous breadth of view that is born of experience. The torrent of the mountains had become the river of the plain; romantic impetuosity had changed to classic repose. He could still, by occasional efforts of the will, cast himself back into the old moods, resume the old thread, and so complete the first “Faust.” But we may confidently assert that he could not, after the age of forty, have originated the poem, any more than before his Italian tour he could have written the second “Faust,” purporting to be a continuation of the first. The difference in spirit and style is enormous.

As to the question which of the two is the greater production, it is like asking which is the greater, Dante’s “Commedia” or Shakspeare’s “Macbeth”? They are incommensurable. As to which is the more generally interesting, no question can arise. There are thousands who enjoy and admire the First Part to one who even reads the Second. The interest of the former is poetic and thoroughly human; the interest of the other is partly poetic, but mostly philosophic and scientific….

The symbolical character of “Faust” is assumed by all the critics, and in part confessed by the author himself. Besides the general symbolism pervading and motiving the whole,–a symbolism of human destiny,–and here and there a shadowing forth of the poet’s private experience, there are special allusions–local, personal, enigmatic conceits–which have furnished topics of learned discussion and taxed the ingenuity of numerous commentators. We need not trouble ourselves with these subtleties. But little exegesis is needed for a right comprehension of the true and substantial import of the work.

The key to the plot is given in the Prologue in Heaven. The devil, in the character of Mephistopheles, asks permission to tempt Faust; he boasts his ability to get entire possession of his soul and drag him down to hell. The Lord grants the permission, and prophesies the failure of the attempt:–

“Be it allowed! Draw this spirit from its Source if you can lay hold of him; bear him with you on your downward path, and stand ashamed when you are forced to confess that a good man in his dark strivings has a consciousness of the right way.”

Here we have a hint of the author’s design. He does not intend that the devil shall succeed; he does not mean to adopt the conclusion of the legend and send Faust to hell. He had the penetration to see, and he meant to show, that the notion implied in the old popular superstition of selling one’s soul to the devil–the notion that evil can obtain the entire and final possession of the soul–is a fallacy; that the soul is not man’s to dispose of, and cannot be so traded away. We are the soul’s, not the soul ours. Evil is self-limited; the good in man must finally prevail. So long as he strives he is not lost; Heaven will come to the aid of his better nature. This is the doctrine, the philosophy, of “Faust.” In the First Part, stung by disappointment in his search of knowledge, by failure to lay hold of the superhuman, and urged on by his baser propensities personified in Mephistopheles, Faust abandons himself to sensual pleasure,–seduces innocence, burdens his soul with heavy guilt, and seems to be entirely given over to evil. This Part ends with Mephistopheles’ imperious call,–“Her zu mir,”–as if secure of his victim. Before the appearance of the Second Part, the reader was at liberty to accept that conclusion. But in the Second Part Faust gradually wakes from the intoxication of passion, outgrows the dominion of appetite, plans great and useful works, whereby Mephistopheles loses more and more his hold of him; and after his death is baffled in his attempt to appropriate Faust’s immortal part, to which the heavenly Powers assert their right….

The character of Margaret is unique; its duplicate is not to be found in all the picture galleries of fiction. Shakspeare, in the wide range of his feminine personnel, has no portrait like this. A girl of low birth and vulgar circumstance, imbued with the ideas and habits of her class, speaking the language of that class from which she never for a moment deviates into finer phrase, takes on, through the magic handling of the poet, an ideal beauty. Externally common and prosaic in all her ways, she is yet thoroughly poetic, transfigured in our conception by her perfect love. To that love, unreasoning, unsuspecting,–to the excess of that which in itself is no fault, but beautiful and good,–her fall and ruin are due. Her story is the tragedy of her sex in all time. As Schlegel said of the “Prometheus Bound,”–“It is not a single tragedy, but tragedy itself.” …

[The First Part ends with the prison scene, where poor Margaret, escaping by death, ascends to heaven, while Mephistopheles, shouting an imperious “Hither to me!” disappears with Faust.] The reader is allowed to suppose–and most readers did suppose–that the author meant it should be inferred that the devil had secured his victim, and that Faust, according to the legend, had paid the forfeit of his soul to the powers of hell.

But Faust reappears in a new poem,–the Second Part. He is there introduced sleeping, as if burying in torpor the lusts and crimes and sorrows of his past career. Pitying spirits are about him, to heal his woes and promote his return to a better life….

[At the end of his hundred years of earthly life,] Mephistopheles … fails to secure the immortal part of Faust, which the angels appropriate and bear aloft:

“This member of the upper spheres
We rescue from the devil;
For whoso strives and perseveres
May be redeemed from evil.”

The last two lines may be supposed to contain the author’s justification of Mephistopheles’ defeat and Faust’s salvation. Though a man surrender himself to evil, if there is that in him which evil cannot satisfy, an impulse by which he outgrows the gratifications of vice, extends his horizon and lifts his desires, pursues an onward course until he learns to place his aims outside of himself, and to seek satisfaction in works of public utility,–he is beyond the power of Satan: he may be redeemed from evil.

One could wish, indeed, that more decisive marks of moral development had been exhibited in the latter stages of Faust’s career. But here comes in the Christian doctrine of Grace, which Goethe applies to the problem of man’s destiny. Faust is represented as saved by no merit of his own, but by the interest which Heaven has in every soul in which there is the possibility of a heavenly life.

And so the new-born ascending spirit is committed by the Mater gloriosa to the tutelage of Gretchen [Margaret],–una poenitentium,–now purified from all the stains of her earthly life, to whom is given the injunction:–

“Lift thyself up to higher spheres!
When he divines, he’ll follow thee.”

And the Mystic Choir chants the epilogue which embodies the moral of the play:–

“All that is perishing
Types the ideal;
Dream of our cherishing
Thus becomes real.
Here it is done;
The ever womanly
Draweth us on.”

[5] From “Hours with the German Classics,” by FREDERIC HENRY HEDGE (copyright by him in 1886). With permission of Messrs. LITTLE, BROWN, & CO., Publishers, Boston, Mass.
[6] (The following interpretation of the “Märchen” is condensed from a later portion of this essay, and used here as a foot-note for the light it throws upon Goethe’s political career.)
[7] “Doch Homeride zu sein, auch noch als letzter, ist schön.”
[8] From the Elegy entitled “Hermann und Dorothea.”
[9] Literally, “Know’st thou it well?” But the word “well,” in this case, does not answer to the German wohl.
[10] The earlier work of Spiess (1588) was translated into English and furnished Marlowe with the subject-matter of his “Dr. Faustus.”

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