(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The first volume of this scholarly and insightful biography covered the first forty years of Goethe’s life in 807 pages; the second covers only the next thirteen in 949. In the first volume the reader learned about Goethe’s immensely popular sentimental novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779), his even-earlier stage success Götz von Berlichingen mit der eiseren Hand (1773; Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, 1799), and, perhaps most important, his astonishingly direct and lovely lyrical poetry. In the second Nicholas Boyle not only introduces the later books of Goethe’s great four-volume Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1825) and explains how Goethe finalized the structure of his lifelong project, the philosophical drama Faust (1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823), but also discusses shorter narrative poems that provide important clues to his main themes.

The true reason, however, why the author needed so many pages to cover a relatively brief span of Goethe’s long life has everything to do with the political and cultural drama of the age itself. The small German duchy where Goethe served his employer and patron, Carl August, duke of Weimar, was somewhat removed from the cataclysmic effect of the French Revolution in its early years, but as the 1790’s wore on and France turned its wars of defense into wars of aggression, it became increasingly obvious that no place in Europe could escape the political challenges to aristocratic rule that accompanied the French armies wherever they went. Many of the intellectuals in Weimar and the neighboring city of Jena sympathized with the libertarian principles of the French Revolution, but they were repelled by the atrocities of the Reign of Terror of 1792-1793 and wanted to challenge the political brutalities of the French Revolution with a counterrevolution of their own—a revolution grounded in ideas, art, and ethics, a philosophical revolution that would capture the mind of Europe rather than invade its territories. Goethe played an important mediating role between his duke and the restless academics in Weimar and Jena. As the duke’s observer, he had witnessed the people’s army of France at the Battle of Valmy, and he knew that the fervor that drove that army was beyond containment. Europe was changing, and Goethe felt a growing responsibility to create possibilities in art and society that would preserve the best of the past in the spirit of the new.

Boyle pairs “revolution” with “renunciation” in his subtitle, and by the latter he means Goethe’s struggle with the pain of giving up his highest hopes of self-realization for a greater good—from the happiness of his immediate family to the welfare of the state. The ethical demands of principle, of norms that transcend the personal will or need for pleasure and triumph, acted as powerful reins on Goethe’s ego. Entsagen, or renunciation, provided a necessary brake on a sensibility deeply affected by the feast of life, the whole range of physical, erotic, and mental experiences that make the empirical or phenomenal world such an enthralling joy. The irony was that Goethe’s “pleasure thermometer” (a term coined by John Keats, the English Romantic poet) rose with his objective delight in the world as his senses and mind encountered it. All around him, however, the thinking world was deeply immersed in the subjective.

The many pages that Boyle devotes to the intricacies of the French Revolution are more than justified by the way he demonstrates its influence on Friedrich Schiller, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and all the others in Goethe’s circle—including Goethe himself. The importance of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical system, the growth of philosophical idealism and its basic tenet that the world as humans know it is the creation of reason and imagination created a radical subjectivity that was Germany’s intellectual answer to the political violence of the French Revolution. Boyle devotes many illuminating pages to explicating Kant’s ideas. Goethe both thrilled to and resisted their call. Indeed, one could argue that “Revolution and Philosophy” would have made a more fitting subtitle for this volume.

From 1794 to 1798 Goethe struggled over Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which was in fact a reworking of an earlier manuscript entitled “Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission.” As the work progressed, he realized that his original theme had been profoundly altered as a result of his wrestling with Kantian ideas. What was originally the story of a young man whose “destiny” was the theater turned into an intricate philosophical allegory of a man forced to recognize that “his inmost need was to make himself.” Goethe was living out a parable of the “objective” mind redefining itself “subjectively.” He was encouraged to believe that by moving in this direction he was participating in the higher liberation of humankind, the true revolution that his friend Schiller had argued would play itself out on the stage of art rather than on the battlefield.

Schiller was the first to collapse what Kant had called the “phenomenal,” or empirically knowable, and the “noumenal,” or unknowable, in the “beauty” of the art object. This was not simply an aestheticizing of the truth because Schiller argued that the “grace” of great art captured the essence of the unknowable in harmonious...

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