Havelock Ellis called George Henry Lewes’s biography of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, originally published in 1863, “one of the most admirable biographies in the English Language.” It is certainly the best biography of Goethe in English that we have had to this point, but Nicholas Boyle’s superbly researched and brilliantly written study may finally give his Victorian predecessor strong competition for the honor of being the best Goethe biography in English. Lewes, George Eliot’s lover and a fine journalist and critic, had met Goethe and had the advantage of living in the century that felt Goethe’s presence and authority with the same awe and respect that the twentieth century felt for an Einstein or a Joyce. Nevertheless, Lewes did not permit his reverence to interfere with his journalistic objectivity. As a result, Lewes’s biography is not only laudatory but also reliable.
Professor Boyle of Magdalen College, the University of Oxford, is also very much impressed with the genius of his subject, but instead of allowing the reputation of Goethe’s genius to direct inquiry, Boyle simply follows the rich details to their inevitable flowering in strongly meditated reflections on Goethe’s milieu, his times, and his works. For Boyle, Goethe is a poet of philosophical power; for Lewes, and indeed for most of Goethe’s biographers, he is the sage who happens to be a poet. The centrality of Goethe’s accomplishments as a poet, his intense lyricism, provides Boyle with the key to Goethe’s historical importance. Petrarch, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Thomas Gray, and certainly Jean-Jacques Rousseau had stressed the legitimacy of the self as a subject suitable to lyrical expression, but it was Goethe, according to Boyle, who put in the shade all notions about the “devotional,” “must-cal,” or “transcendent” nature of the lyric poem and established as its reason for being the working out of identity in “poetic making.” When Goethe published the eighth volume of his Literary Works in 1789 (he was forty years old) it contained a representative selection of his shorter poems. With no other connecting theme than his own personal history of poetic moments, this collection, together with the powerful dramatic poem Faust (which was not published until 1808), made Goethe “the poet... for the whole Romantic generation in Germany, England and even France.”
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published their famous collection, Lyrical Ballads, in 1798, almost a decade after Goethe’s eighth volume. The English poets are credited with initiating British Romanticism with this one collection. Certainly the influence of Goethe’s fiercely independent subjectivity can be seen in many of their poems, but their hope that an essentially heterogeneous collection would answer to the transcendent theme of “how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure” is precisely what has kept Lyrical Ballads an essentially English phenomenon in the history of Romantic and modern poetry. Goethe’s lyrics, Boyle argues, although marvelously in tune with the German language and splendid linguistic achievements, are primarily breakthroughs in the depiction of how a highly sensitive and independent poet, responsible only to himself, can, “with complete personal integrity,” fashion a poetry that is “pre- eminently the expression of his freedom.”
Goethe’s power to express his freedom in life and art provides the central theme of Boyle’s biography. The book alternates between a meticulous review of important moments in Goethe’s life and thoughtful and often highly insightful discussions of the major poetic works. Since Goethe was his own subject throughout his works—poems, novels, dramas—Boyle’s moving from biography to practical criticism in an alternating pattern is not as destabilizing as it might seem.
Goethe was something of a child prodigy; in early adolescence he wrote a prose epic based on the biblical story of Joseph. At the age of twenty, after a less than satisfactory experience in law school, he went to Strasbourg, where he encountered the Gothic glories of the cathedral and the polymathic genius of the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder introduced him to Homer and William Shakespeare, or rather succeeded in getting Goethe to personalize these literary giants so that they became organic to his own sensibility. The result was his first masterpiece, Glitz von Berlichingen (1774), a historical drama redolent of Shakespeare, Homeric heroism, and Gothic exuberance, or, as John Ruskin, the Victorian sage, was to call it, “imperfection.” Five years later, back in Frankfurt, restless and...
(The entire section is 1962 words.)