There is no doubt that Goethe must be classified as the outstanding genius of German literature. The question remains which of his works is the most important one. For some readers it is WILHELM MEISTERS LEHRJAHRE (WILLIAM MEISTER’S APPRENTICESHIP), the prototype of the educational novel or BILDUNGSROMAN. For others it is FAUST, the perennial favorite of German theater audiences. But many Goethe scholars usually place the CONVERSATIONS WITH ECKERMANN close to the top of the list. It seems that the absence of any requirement for literary form permits a greater appreciation of the universal knowledge which Goethe possessed. It is said also that Goethe was the only man of his time who was able to absorb the major part of knowledge which was then known to mankind. The power of a truly informed man, one gifted with unusual creative abilities, is demonstrated in these conversations. Thus the literary world is grateful to the efforts of Eckermann, who recorded these talks which cover the last ten years of Goethe’s long life. Eckermann critics claim that he is attempting to dramatize everything, and that a few entries are fictitious. These objections may be true, since Eckermann worshiped his idol, and some of the entries were made fifteen years after the death of Goethe.
Still, Eckermann’s conversations constitute the most complete record of the kind available. The shortcomings, obvious in any attempt to arrive at the true Goethe, were expressed by Goethe himself a few days before his death: “The best of our conviction cannot be put into words. Language is not adjusted to express everything.” In 1836, Eckermann published the first two volumes of the work. A third volume appeared in 1848, in which he also used a manuscript by Frederic Soret, another close friend of Goethe.
Eckermann born in 1792, grew up in poverty. Until he was fourteen years old, he did not even know that the fine arts existed. An urge to draw resulted in some fine sketches, which opened the door to a series of patrons. He also started to write poetry and sent some verses to Goethe, who responded with encouraging words. In 1823 he completed “Contributions to Poetry,” and looked for a publisher who would be willing to pay him a reasonable price. He sent his work to Goethe with the intention of obtaining Goethe’s recommendation to Herr von Cotta, a well-known publisher. To meet Goethe personally he started out on a strenuous journey by foot to Weimar. Here he became Goethe’s private secretary, a post which gave him the unique chance of witnessing all of Goethe’s social functions and provided many opportunities to talk with Goethe alone. Eckermann’s love of poetry and his quest to gain a deeper insight into “. . . what holds the world together” (Goethe, FAUST) qualified him as a worthy conversational partner. Eckermann himself, scholar enough to realize that it would be impossible to give a true perspective of Goethe, called his work simply “My Goethe.” However, he never acted as a selector or censor in the course of his work. Even when he was of the opinion that Goethe sometimes contradicted himself, he did not attempt to establish an artificial “Goethe viewpoint.” The result is a diary-styled compilation of notes which leave it to the reader to draw conclusions about the real meaning of Goethe’s opinions and statements. The English translation by John Oxenford has the merit of having arranged the entries of the three volumes in chronological order, not the case in the original edition. The very first entry points to the large range of interest of Goethe, and gives us some idea about his appearance:The conversation turned principally upon mineralogy, chemistry, and natural science. The phenomena of the polarization of light appeared to interest him particularly. He showed me various preparations, chiefly after his own designs, and expressed a wish to make some experiments with me. . . . His figure is still to be called handsome; his forehead and eyes are extremely majestic. He is tall and well built, and so vigorous in appearance that one can scarcely comprehend how he has been able for some years to declare himself too old to enter into society, and to go to court.
It is not unusual to find Goethe discussing a Beethoven sonata, student songs, poetry, opera, or the translation of a Greek drama in one single conversation. Very early the reader also encounters Goethe as a man who has difficulty in adjusting to sickness. His abhorrence of sickness was to stay with him until the end.
The first entry by Eckermann himself on June 10, 1823, tells of Eckermann’s meeting with Goethe:He received me with great cordiality; and the impression he made on me was such, that I consider this day as one of the happiest in my life. . . . The interior of the house made a very pleasant impression upon me; without being showy, everything was extremely simple and noble.
Goethe gave Eckermann several small assignments, which...
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