Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111201548-Goethe.jpg Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Goethe, whose lyric, dramatic, and narrative talents produced literary works of lasting influence on the Western tradition, is considered to be one of the greatest German writers. An amateur scientist and able administrator, Goethe was a truly gifted man of his time.

Early Life

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born into a financially well-established family in the cosmopolitan city of Frankfurt am Main. His father, Johann, was a serious man, who retired from his law practice early and devoted himself to the education of his children. His mother, Katharine Elisabeth, was of a more lighthearted nature and stimulated the imaginative and artistic faculties of her children. From 1765 to 1768, Goethe studied law (at his father’s request) at the University of Leipzig. In August, 1768, he became gravely ill with a lung ailment and returned to Frankfurt to recuperate. He remained there with his family until March, 1770, and then moved to Strassburg to complete his studies.

Life’s Work

From April, 1770, to August, 1771, Goethe studied law in Strassburg; the period was a pivotal one for his development. He was of a literary nature and had never been interested in pursuing a law career. In Strassburg, he met Johann Gottfried Herder, an intense and brilliant man of letters, who encouraged Goethe’s writing efforts. In Sesenheim, a small village outside the city, Goethe wooed a young woman, Frederike Brion, who inspired some of his best early poetry. His poems brought a vitality and freshness of image and theme to the discourse of the lyric. During the first half of the eighteenth century, German letters had reached a stasis in that the various genres had become rather mannered and stylized, often under the influence of prior Latin and French models. Goethe’s older contemporaries, such as the poet Friedrich Klopstock and the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, had begun to create a new vision of the literary arts, and Goethe brought this impetus to fruition. He is considered a major representative of the dynamic Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) period of German literature.

Filled with youthful bravado and creative energy, the young Goethe was a genial spirit—discussion of the creative genius was current at the time—and his early poems and plays are populated with titanic individuals involved in great deeds. His play Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (1773; Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, 1799) is fueled by the dramatic energy of the Shakespearean stage and portrays the monumental life of a renegade knight in the late Middle Ages as he struggles to maintain his independence against the imperial intrigues of the Bamberg court. After receiving his law degree, Goethe began a practice in the city of Wetzlar and became involved with another woman, Charlotte Buff, who was engaged at the time. In great emotional distress, he left the city in 1772. His epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779) is partly autobiographical and relates the tragic fate of a young man who is caught in a love triangle and whose intense emotions drive him to suicide. The book was a European best-seller and the favorite reading matter of Napoleon I.

In 1775, Goethe was appointed adviser to Karl August, the young Duke of Weimar, and moved to that city. He became involved with various administrative projects (such as road construction and mining) in the small duchy. In Weimar he also made the acquaintance of an older woman, Charlotte von Stein, who sought to cultivate the rather impetuous young writer. At the Weimar court, Goethe matured under her maternal guidance, and his literary production exchanged its Sturm und Drang intensity for the more measured tone and form of the neoclassical movement of the late eighteenth century. His play Iphigenie auf Tauris (1779; Iphigenia in Taurus, 1793) was written in iambic meter and presents an adaptation of the play by Euripides that deals with a part of the legendary Trojan War. Iphigenia was the daughter of King Agamemnon, who sacrificed her to the gods so that the Greek fleet might find favorable winds for their journey to besiege Troy. Goethe’s version stresses in the title figure a vision of the ethically exemplary individual whose behavior exerts a morally didactic influence of moderation and mutual respect upon those around her.

From 1786 to 1788, Goethe traveled extensively in Italy and then returned to the Weimar court. In July, 1788, he met a young woman, Christiane Vulpius, with whom he lived in a common-law marriage for many years and with whom he had several children. Goethe continued to serve in various official capacities (including theater director) in Weimar, while working on his literary projects. After Goethe returned from his trip to Italy, he composed the Römische Elegien (1793; Roman Elegies, 1876), love poems that were modeled after the classical elegy form. His Bildungsroman, or novel of education, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s...

(The entire section is 2121 words.)