Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who lived to the age of eighty-two and produced more than 130 volumes of poetry, plays, letters, and science, is acknowledged to be one of the giants of world literature.His writing ranged from fairy tales, to psychological novels, to political and historical novels, and to something completely unique and different such as Faust.
Goethe was born shortly after the death of the Pope, on August 28, 1749 in Frankfurt am Main to a middle class family.His mother had many connections because she was a daughter of the mayor.Young Goethe was brought up having a feeling of aristocracy.He had only two siblings out of the total eight who survived.One was his sister Cornelia and the other was the first born.He began writing at an early age and wrote abundantly.As C.P. Magill points out, “his writings are of daunting bulk and diversity.He is the national poet of a most industrious people and the quantity of information about him is correspondingly enormous.”His poetry is of numerous styles, ranging from the Renaissance to his own times.
At the age of sixteen he was sent to study law at a university, but would have more gladly read classics at another university.After ten years he was invited by Duke Karl August to come to Weimar (this city would be his actual home until his death there on March 22, 1832).He was already a good lawyer and had written the novel Werther.His work in Weimar caused him to observe the natural world around him and led him towards science.He would yet write fourteen volumes on the subject.At that time Weimar was an important city in Germany. C.P. Magill describes the time in the following passage:
“Up to the early years of this century, Weimar remained a symbol of the best elements in the German cultural tradition, and a center of activity in the arts.It was, for example, in its art schools, which Walter Gropius took over in 1919 and renamed the Bauhaus, that the modern movement in architecture began.Unhappy political associations now cling around the name of Weimar, providing for pessimists the futility of the exalted humanism engendered there in the eighteenth century and reminding the more sanguine that ideals are so called because they are unattainable.”
Footnote: Magill, C.P., German Literature (Great Britain, Oxford University Press, 1974) 50.
It was probably in Weimar that Goethe developed his liking for politics.In any case he learned to think of it as his home. As he traveled even more, he grew severely ill and was forced to return home from Leipzig.During the time of this illness he experimented with religious mysticism, alchemy, astrology, and occult philosophy, all of which is evident in Faust.Upon his recovery, Goethe decided to continue his studies at Strassburg which would have a great impact on his life.
“When he returned to Weimar at last, he fell into a deep relationship with Charlotte von Stein.He wrote many volume…..s of letters–1800 of them to Frau von Stein alone.”
Footnote: Magill, 46.
At this time Goethe wrote a large part of his works such as Die Geschwister, Der Triumph der Eempfindsamkeit, and books of poetry.His affair with Frau von Stein was not enough, however, to inspire such great works such Egmont, Faust, Tasso, and Iphigenie.It was his visit to Italy that helped him create such masterpieces.Most of his journey to Italy was spent at Rome and it was a turning point of his life.This journey had no affect on him, however, what Magill says about this is the following:
“It would be misleading to say that the experience changed him, for he saw in Italy only what he wanted to see and took from it only what he needed.But he acquired, through the impact of the Italian landscape with its wealth of clear-cut forms…”
Footnote: Magill, 49.
After this journey he wrote Italienische Reise in which he expressed his enjoyment of the Italian landscape.
As the years went on, and the French Revolution occurred, Goethe began an active political life.He thought much about German politics, saying that the root of the trouble is the fragmentation of German culture.Surprisingly, as Goethe’s life came to its last decade he continued to write poetry very vigorously, just as in youth.By this time he was entirely famous and a world figure.People streamed to Weimar from both hemispheres allowing Goethe to learn the current events.He summarized his feelings in Wilheim Meistres Wanderjahrde.He kept track of the technological and social progress, such as the building of the Panama and Suez canals. Just as Dante wrote his Divine Comedy, summarizing all of his life’s experiences and feelings, just so did Goethe come up with Faust, writing in completely different styles and ways.It has elements of both the five-act Greek Tragedy and of medieval mystery and allegory.In the play, Faust and Mephistopheles travel through many strange places including the witches’ mountain and Greece, encountering even stranger mythological creatures.It seems like in Faust he has summarized the knowledge of his times.At first the play was considered to be too long to have a structure.That was because in those times you could not perform such an enormous play all at once.It became feasible only after both parts were abridged.The entire play’s structure seems simple enough with the happy ending being foretold in the Prologue and the entire play being a cultural experience.And yet it deals with the intricacies of the human soul.
Mephistopheles is sometimes portrayed as an evil spirit, but at times as an wise scholar.Faust himself is tricked by Mephistopheles, but at last goes to Heaven.In him the reader sees Goethe himself, as he studied the occult, and then began his
Goethe himself is very much like Faust, writing the tremendous play at the end of his life.As C.P. Magill states, “he is a lucky man, the kind who gets away with murder.”