Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt-on-Main in
1749 and studied law at Leipzig (where he was more
interested in the occult – alchemy fascinated him – and then
Strasbourg, where Herder’s influence was crucial*, and led
him to Shakespeare.
From a young age Goethe was prolific as a poet, his
first collection appearing when he was twenty. Some of his
best known, most impassioned lyrics are from his youth.
Plays too attracted him early on – he was given a puppet
theatre for Christmas when he was four – and it was the
play Götz von Berlichingen which brought his first national
success (Sir Walter Scott translated it). More overwhelming
was the impact of his novella the following year: The Sorrows
of Young Werther (1774, revised 1787), with its controversial
suicide, was to influence a generation. Invited to the Court of
Weimar in 1775, Goethe made it the centre of his subsequent
operations and wrote many major works there, including
Egmont (for which Beethoven wrote his overture) and the
autobiographical novel Wilhelm Meister.
But he was a restless man, whose travels and relationships
fed especially into his poetry – there is enough to fill 1500
pages, much of it from later years when he composed the
immense West-Eastern Divan. His travels to Italy (described
in The Italian Journey) fostered a classical period, prompting
the plays Iphigenia in Tauris and Torquato Tasso and some
extensive verse sequences. During the year 1797/8 he wrote
the epic Hermann and Dorothea and his celebrated ballads,
at much the same time as Wordsworth and Coleridge were
publishing theirs. Like Coleridge, Goethe loved conversation
and among his many friendships Schiller’s was most
important, particularly helping him understand drama. The
complexities of his relationships with women are harder to
untangle although Werther and the novel Elective Affinities
give us some idea. Suffice to say that his engagement to Lili
Schönemann was broken off before he moved to Weimar,
he had an enduring bond with the playwright Charlotte
von Stein and a long partnership, children and eventual
marriage with Christiane Vulpius. Goethe worked on his
dramatic poem, Faust, for much of his creative life and the
first of its two parts is considered his masterpiece.
Although best known as a man of letters, translator,
editor, playwright and poet, he was active in public affairs
as an administrator and a soldier – the archetypal polymath.
Indeed, Goethe’s scientific researches into optics, colour
(‘Farbenlehre’) and the ‘metamorphosis of plants’ are only
now being fully appreciated.
He died on 22nd March, 1832.
• Johann Gottfried Herder was a German philosopher, theologian,
poet, and literary critic. He is associated with the Enlightenment,
Sturm und Drang, and Weimar Classicism.
Letter to Goethe
by John Greening (translator of Nightwalker's Song)
If it were not so close to Buchenwald, yes,
I’d visit Weimar, ring your bell, wait to be
announced. An Englishman. You said no nation
had plagued you more with idle curiosity,
that we were prigs and hypocrites, and you never crossed
the water, but in truth I think you were fond of us.
Would you have talked non-stop? Or merely grunted?
You’d often refuse to play the celebrity, especially
for those who threw themselves at your feet and recited Schiller.
One chap from England had nothing to say and you both
sat in silence, except as he left, you pointed: That’s
a bust of Byron. Yes, came the reply, he’s dead.
I realise this will be centuries late, your golden horn
far in the distance, my penny post come and gone,
and words will-o-the wisps on a flat screen now.
How you’d enjoy what CGI could do with Faust –
a mast on every mountain, our twenty-four-hour
non-stop digital Walpurgisnacht.
The only translation of that is into something weird
out in the Fens, though their marsh-lights have long been drained.
You strode across the stage on stilts with your black dog,
the man with an age named after him. If Weimar
were not so close to a death camp, sure, I’d visit,
show you some of my poems, though not my translations.
Didn’t another English visitor ask you why
the father in The Erl King was so concerned about
his ‘ächzende Kind’ when he was blessed with seventeen others?
You laughed at that, though you didn’t like the Schubert much.
And you wouldn’t like this modern music I have written
to accompany your meanings. Hand-to-hand fights
with a foreign language are best avoided, you advised.
Go to the limits of what can be translated, and respect
what can’t. Which is, of course, the age itself.
We blunder here in darkness and the curtain won’t go up
for years. Nor do we have a title. A leading lady.
A cast. It is night. There’s Faust in his study.