Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Essay - Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749 - 1832)

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.

Principal Works

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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Primary Sources

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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General Commentary

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 with apprehension that he approaches, braced to confront an unsettling amalgam of ill-matched components, in a word, a "monster": "so graute mir's im Gehen vorm Anblick eines mißgeformten krausborstigen Ungeheuers."1 To his surprise, Goethe discovers not a monster, but a structure suffused with a wholeness and harmony commensurate with the natural world. The building's formal integrity, moreover, seems an outgrowth of its creator's soul, in which the whole is one with its parts: "Er [der Genius] ist der erste, aus dessen Seele die Teile, in ein ewiges Ganze zusammengewachsen, hervortreten" (HA XII, 9). The facade, then, functions as a medium through which a wholeness, proper to the creator, is installed in the spectator: "Ein ganzer, großer Eindruck füllte meine Seele, den, weil er aus tausend harmonierenden Einzelheiten bestand, ich wohl schmecken und genießen, keineswegs aber erkennen und erklären konnte" (HA XII, 11).

This opposition of intuitive and cognitive faculties favors an immediacy of perception, which here smacks of oral pleasure and a concomitant unity of self and world. The physical connotation of the verb "schmecken" undoes the distance from necessity that conditions "good taste". To be sure, the canons of taste are present as Goethe, recalling his wary approach, enumerates the frightful attributes that supposedly awaited him: "Unter die Rubrik Gotisch … häufte ich alle synonymische Mißverständnisse, die mir von Unbestimmtem, Ungeordnetem, Unnatürlichem, Zusammengestoppeltem, Aufgeflicktem, Überladenem jemals durch den Kopf gezogen waren" (HA XII, 10). Goethe identifies the confused synonymy by which the eighteenth-century champions of Classical restraint invoked the monstrous as something common to a range of distinct styles and representational practices. When Batty Langley observed in 1742 that "every ancient building, which is not in the Grecian mode, is called a Gothic building", he echoed a Palladian Classicism, later embraced by Goethe himself, that had long defined itself in pointed opposition to the grotesque.2 With its inorganic aggregates of human, animal and plant forms, the grotesque lent expression to forces of instability—of "disruptive or insurgent vitality"—embodied catastrophically by Dr. Frankenstein's "gothic" monster, who is stitched together out of disparate and aesthetically incompatible parts, both human and animal.3

Finding in the great Gothic structure a dynamic, organic integrity, Goethe absolves the cathedral of the "grotesque" promiscuity that an ascendant bourgeois order was prone to project onto the styles of the old régime. Indeed, the excessive and imbalanced ornamentation that Goethe anticipated is suggestive of the Baroque and Rococo. The latter was at hand when Quatremère de Quincy, writing in 1798, warned of an enduring taste for the bizarre, which he ascribed to a "satiety that comes from abundance". Bizarrerie he condemned as an "incurably immoral use of form"—one that "makes the simple beauties of nature seem insipid". De Quincy laments the wide-ranging influence that this predilection for the bizarre exercised over architecture: "[S]traight lines were replaced by convolutions; severe outlines by undulations; regular plans by over-elaborate, mixtilinear designs; the symmetrical by the picturesque; and order by the confusion of chaos."4

Straight, severe, regular, symmetrical, ordered—these normative values convey the moralism behind a new, ideal architecture governed by the language of geometry and the law of function. The doctrine that would subordinate the edifice to the principle of uniform visibility stood opposite an old régime whose revelry in the play of appearances was now understood as spiritual dissipation—as Zerstreuung. The anodyne of distraction, namely concentration (Sammlung), is aligned with Anschauung, which in its full anthropological import denotes a simultaneous, undivided seeing. Something of this kind is evoked by de Quincy when he extols an architecture that refuses to divide itself into a variety of dissociated effects: "To produce an effect of grandeur, the object in which it is to inhere must be simple enough to strike us at a glance, that is to say, in its entirety, and at the same time to strike us in relation to its parts."5 Commenting on these lines, Jean Starobinski cites "a nouveau régime of sensibility" that "set aside multiplicity of sensation in favor of the unity of one great spiritual intuition"6.

One great spiritual intuition: so closely does this echo Goethe's evocation of the informing principle of the Gothic that it seems possible to situate his essay within a discourse whose other is that same "multiplicity of sensation". Subverting the logic that made the Gothic synonymous with the dispersive energies of the grotesque, Goethe enlists this architecture as an amalgam by which to conflate otherwise dissimilar Baroque and Neo-Classical traditions. The Baroque and Rococo make more or less explicit appearances in the Baukunst-essay, Baroque in the form of Bernini's much-maligned colonnade in front of St. Peter's, Rococo in the guise of those whom Goethe decries as "geschminkte Puppenmaler". One thinks of the brightly painted figurines from Meissen and elsewhere, so popular at the time, which perfectly epitomize the minute elaborations of a waning aristocratic society built on delicacy, intimation, politesse, not to mention the studied effeminacy of the honnéte homme: "Sie [unsre geschminkten Puppenmaler] haben durch theatralische Stellungen, erlogne Teints, und bunte Kleider die Augen der Weiber gefangen" (HA XII, 14). Rejecting the precepts of trompe-l'oeil, Goethe removes himself from a specularity that would implicate him in so blatantly narcissistic a self-presentation. His own image fragmented, he proceeds from a lack that stands opposite the aforementioned "satiety that comes from abundance". He describes himself early on as a "patched up vessel" poised between death and prosperity but drifting toward the former: "eh' ich mein geflicktes Schiffchen wieder auf den Ozean wage, wahrscheinlicher dem Tod als dem Gewinst entgegen …" (HA XII, 7), etc. He goes on to recount his attempt to improvise a monument to Erwin, whose grave-marker he has failed to locate. The missing crypt marks an emphatic absence, which is offset by the vision of the cathedral, itself the product of an ostensibly undivided genius. In this context, David Wellbery notes the "semantics of verticality" that pervades Goethe's essay and specifies the symbolic position as phallic.7 The observation is doubly applicable to the cathedral in question, given that only one of its twin towers was finished, leaving the lone spire forever shadowed by a symmetrical lack.

Goethe's vision of the massive church as a natural, harmonious and eternal whole does not neutralize his anxiety but confirms it—in the way that, in a certain psychoanalytic regimen, the tension between belief and disavowal is sustained through hallucinations that represent both. The cathedral acquires a strangely hallucinatory quality, as when Goethe comments on how the huge building seems suspended aloft: "wie das festgegründete, ungeheure Gebäude sich leicht in die Luft hebt" (HA XII, 12). In Dichtung und Wahrheit, Goethe remembers how the church, at first sight, struck him as something monstrous—ein Ungeheures—which would have terrified him were it not so finely conceived and carefully wrought (HA IX, 357-58). In the same account, he describes his repeated climbs to the top of the tower. In one instance, he forces himself out onto the narrow platform, from which the vertiginous spectacle, which he likens to the view from a hot-air balloon, is not framed or foregrounded by any part of the church: "Es ist völlig, als wenn man sich auf einer Montgolfiere in die Luft erhoben sähe. Dergleichen Angst und Qual wiederholte ich so oft, bis der Eindruck mir ganz gleichgültig ward …" (HA IX, 374). He adds that this strategy of exposing himself to...

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Title Commentary


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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 202 words.)