Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749 - 1832)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832)
German poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, essayist, critic, biographer, memoirist, and librettist.
Goethe is considered Germany's greatest writer and a genius of the highest order. He distinguished himself as a scientist, artist, musician, philosopher, theater director, and court administrator. Excelling in various genres and literary styles, Goethe was a shaping force in the major German literary movements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther), epitomizes the Sturm und Drang, or storm and stress, movement, and his dramas Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787; Iphigenia in Tauris) and Torquato Tasso (1790), as well as the poetry collection Römische Elegien (1795; Goethe's Roman Elegies), exemplify the neoclassical approach to literature. His drama Faust is considered one of the greatest works of nineteenth-century Romanticism. Faust is ranked beside the masterpieces of Dante and Shakespeare, thus embodying Goethe's humanistic ideal of a world literature transcending the boundaries of nations and historical periods.
The son of an Imperial Councilor, Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main into an established bourgeois family. By the age of eight, he had composed an epistolary novel in which the characters correspond in five languages. Against his wishes, Goethe was sent to study law at the University of Leipzig, but he devoted most of his time to art, music, science, and literature. His university studies were interrupted by illness, and Goethe spent his convalescence learning about alchemy, astrology, and occult philosophy, subjects that would inform the symbolism of Faust. His earliest literary works, including the rococo-styled love poetry of Buch Annette (1767), are considered accomplished but not outstanding. A decisive influence on Goethe's early literary work was Johann Gottfried von Herder, whom the poet met in Strasbourg, where he continued his legal studies. Herder taught Goethe to appreciate the elemental emotional power of poetry, directing his attention to Shakespeare, Homer, Ossian, and German folk songs. Goetz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (1773; Goetz of Berlichingen with the Iron Hand) exemplifies Goethe's work of this period. Somewhat Shakespearean in its emphasis on action and high emotion, the drama was popular in its time, but modern critics generally consider it superficial.
While critics have debated whether certain of Goethe's works might be classified as Gothic, most agree that elements of the genre can be found in his work. Chief among Goethe's works noted for containing Gothic elements is his two-part retelling of the classic legend of Faust, the scholar who gives Mephistopheles, or the devil, a chance to claim his soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge and eternal life. Goethe began working on the drama during his student days in Strasbourg. In 1790 he published an incomplete version, known as Faust: Ein Fragment. In 1808, the complete version of the first part appeared. Goethe continued to work on the play, and Faust II was published posthumously in 1832. For its poetic power, formal variety and complexity, as well as its philosophical universality, the first part of Faust was immediately recognized as a masterpiece of mythic proportions. Faust II, however, was not fully analyzed or appreciated until the twentieth century. Goethe addressed the Gothic in his nonfiction writing as well. In his essay "Von deutscher Baukunst" (1773) and in book nine of his autobiography, Aus meinen Leben (1811–22; Memoirs of Goethe), he discusses at length his initial distaste for Gothic architecture, recalling that the wholeness and harmony he found in the cathedral at Strasbourg changed his views.
Following his death, Goethe's literary reputation diminished outside of the German-speaking world. Twentieth-century British and American critics have generally acknowledged Goethe's greatness. Generally more favorable to Goethe than their American and European colleagues, German critics have viewed their national poet as one of the central figures of world literature. Criticism of the Gothic in Goethe's work centers on Faust. Noting that the play "lacks almost totally the sadistic terror that was the visible hallmark of the gothic," critics Jane K. Brown and Marshall Brown identify several Gothic tendencies in the work, including the title character's pact with Mephistopheles, the appearance of supernatural figures (and human characters' reaction to them), and depictions of transcendental consciousness. The legend of Faust, and Goethe's telling in particular, has been credited with influencing such classic works of Gothic fiction as Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk. In the twenty-first century Faust continues to be regarded as Germany's great contribution to world letters and one of the most important works of Western civilization.
Buch Annette (poetry) 1767
Die Laune des Verliebten (play) 1767
Neue Lieder (poetry) 1769
Rede Zum Schäkespears Tag (criticism) 1771
Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand [Goetz of Berlichingen with the Iron Hand] (play) 1773
Von deutscher Baukunst (criticism) 1773
Clavigo (play) 1774
Die Leiden des jungen Werthers [The Sorrows of Werter; also published as Werter and Charlotte, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and The Sufferings of Young Werther] (novel) 1774
Stella (play) 1776
Die Geschwister [The Sister] (play) 1787
Iphigenie auf Tauris [Iphigenia in Tauris] (play) 1787
Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit (play) 1787
Egmont (play) 1788
Faust: Ein Fragment (play) 1790
Torquato Tasso [Torquato Tasso: A Dramatic Poem from the German with Other German Poetry] (play) 1790
Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären [Goethe's Botany: The Metamorphosis of Plants; also published as Tobler's Ode to Nature] (essay) 1790
Beiträge zur Optik (essay) 1791–92
Der Gross-Kophta (play) 1792
Der Bürgergeneral (play) 1793
Reineke Fuchs [History of Renard the Fox; also published as Reynard the Fox] (poetry) 1794
Römische Elegien [Goethe's Roman Elegies] (poetry) 1795
Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [Wilhelm...
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SOURCE: Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. "Dedication." In Faust: Part One, translated by David Luke, p. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
The following poem serves as Goethe's dedication to his Faust I, first published in 1808.
Uncertain shapes, visitors from the past
At whom I darkly gazed so long ago,
My heart's mad fleeting visions—now at last
Shall I embrace you, must I let you go?
Again you haunt me: come then, hold me fast!
Out of the mist and murk you rise, who so
Besiege me, and with magic breath restore,
Stirring my soul, lost youth to me once more.
You bring back memories of happier days
And many a well-loved ghost again I greet;
As when some old half-faded legend plays
About our ears, lamenting strains repeat
My journey through life's labyrinthine maze,
Old griefs revive, old friends, old loves I meet,
Those dear companions, by their fate's unkind
Decree cut short, who left me here behind.
They cannot hear my present music, those
Few souls who listened to my early song;
They are far from me now who were so close,
And their first answering echo has so long
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SOURCE: Calhoon, Kenneth S. "The Gothic Imaginary: Goethe in Strasbourg." Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 75, no. 1 (March 2001): 5-14.
In the following essay, Calhoon studies how Goethe's recorded early encounters with Gothic architecture informed his representations of fear and horror in his later works.
In the spring of 1771 Goethe, on the mend after a long illness, and aching to escape the sphere of his father's influence, rode the mail to Strasbourg, where he would convalesce further and read the law. Immediately upon alighting—so he reports in Dichtung und Wahrheit—he rushed to view at close range what had been visible for miles, namely the great thirteenth-century cathedral at the heart of town. His encounter with this medieval colossus is described dithyrambically in the essay Von Deutscher Baukunst, which Herder included in his Von Deutscher Art und Kunst (1772). A hymn to master-builder Erwin von Steinbach, the essay mounts a diatribe against a prevaling Neo-Classicism whose tenets had left Goethe disinclined to appreciate anything Gothic. He admits to sharing the common prejudice that made the term "Gothic" interchangeable with every conceivable aesthetic flaw—the absence of proportion and definition, ornamental excess, a jumbled mess of naturally incompatible forms. It is thus...
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SYNDY M. CONGER (ESSAY DATE 1977)
SOURCE: Conger, Syndy M. "An Analysis of The Monk and Its German Sources." In Matthew G. Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin and the Germans: An Interpretive Study of the Influence of German Literature on Two Gothic Novels, pp. 12-42. Salzburg: Institut fur Englische Sprache unde Literatur, Universitat Salzburg, 1977.
In the following excerpt, Conger studies the influence of Goethe's Faust on Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk.
The Monk and Goethe's Faust
Various critics have noticed the Faust-like characteristics of Lewis's Ambrosio, but no one has gone beyond jotting down basic similarities between the two, nor has anyone even tried to establish whether The Monk stands more indebted to Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus or Johann Goethe's Faust.1 To students interested in determining the extent of German influence on English gothic fiction, this issue is crucial, even more so because the marriage of gothic fiction and the Faust legend, first performed by Lewis in The Monk, was one of the important events in the history of gothicism, producing some of the world's best-known gothic novels: Melmoth the Wanderer, Frankenstein, and Moby Dick.2…
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Hildebrand, Janet. "An Ecology of Elemental Spirits and Mortals in Goethe's Ballads." History of European Ideas 12, no. 4 (1990): 503-21.
Explores supernatural and folkloric elements in Goethe's ballads.
Wicksteed, Philip H. "'Magic'—A Contribution to the Study of Goethe's Faust." Hibbert Journal 10, no. 4 (1911): 754-64.
Contends that the magic practiced by Mephistopheles and Faust impedes Faust's search for intellectual and spiritual contentment.
Wood, Robin. "'Der Erlkönig': The Ambiguities of Horror." In American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by Robin Wood and Richard Lippe, pp. 29-32. Toronto, Ontario: Festival of Festivals, 1979.
Analysis of the Goethe's handling of horror in his poem "Der Erlkönig" ("The Erl-King").
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Goethe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 94; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists,...
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