Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 785

The early life of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was shaped by cultivated middle-class and patrician surroundings. An emotionally complex relationship with his sister Cornelia had significant impact on many of his creative works, while the contrasts in temperament and worldview of his parents fostered a rapidly developing awareness of German cultural polarities: northern intellectual and moral intensity and southern artistic sensuousness and sensitivity.

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From the autumn of 1765 until serious illness forced him to return home in 1768, Goethe studied law in Leipzig. Stimulated by encounters with popular rococo culture, a love affair with the daughter of an innkeeper, and university exposure to the ideas of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, Johann Christoph Gottsched, Adam Friedrich Oeser, and Christoph Martin Wieland, he began creating poetry and light pastoral plays that were intended only to be socially entertaining. The poems of Neue Lieder (1770; New Poems, 1853) are his most important literary accomplishment of this period.

After a slow convalescence in Frankfurt, during which he studied the writings of Susanne von Klettenburg and the natural philosophers Paracelsus von Hohenheim and Emanuel Swedenborg, Goethe entered the university at Strasbourg. Under the influence of Herder, whom he met during the winter of 1770-1771, and other Sturm und Drang figures, the young poet turned away from the cosmopolitan tendencies of Leipzig and declared allegiance to a German gothic ideal. Homer, William Shakespeare, and the Ossian poems of James Macpherson provided the literary models for changes in creative approach that mark Goethe’s subsequent writings. On the level of personal experience, his love for the pastor’s daughter Friederike Brion informed his best lyrics of the time.

On completion of his studies, Goethe practiced law in Frankfurt. While at the Imperial Chancelry in Wetzlar during the summer of 1772, he fell in love with the fiancée of a friend—a situation that provided the basis for The Sorrows of Young Werther. In Frankfurt cultural circles, he became acquainted with Karl August, duke of Weimar; their ensuing friendship shaped the rest of Goethe’s life.

The unbearable restrictions of an engagement to a wealthy banker’s daughter, Lili Schönemann, caused Goethe to flee to Weimar, where he established his permanent home in 1776. During the next decade two major influences molded his personal and creative existence. Charlotte von Stein, the wife of a court official, taught him social graces, organized his daily routine, and provided him with intellectual stimulation during the course of a lengthy, frustratingly platonic love affair. The continual burden of a variety of official duties in the service of Karl August broadened Goethe’s public experience but severely limited his artistic productivity. Neither a patent of nobility, which he received in 1782, nor his scientific studies provided him with the personal fulfillment that his nature demanded.

A hasty departure to Italy in 1786 was in part an escape from the pressures of life in Weimar, in part a search for renewal and rejuvenation as a writer. The two years that Goethe spent in Italy gave him the peace, freedom, and inspiration necessary to complete three of his most important plays, Iphigenia in Tauris, Egmont, and Torquato Tasso, and to make substantial progress in the writing of The Tragedy of Faust. His experiences also yielded substance for significant works of poetry, especially Roman Elegies and Epigramme: Venedig 1790 (1796; Venetian Epigrams, 1853). The former collection, however, was also informed by his love for Christiane Vulpius. After his return to Weimar from Italy, she lived with him for many years and bore him several children before he finally married her during the French invasion of 1806.

Goethe’s affirmative response to Schiller’s invitation to assist him in editing a new journal led to the most productive artistic friendship in the history of German letters. It is impossible to measure the full impact of reciprocal influence of ideas on the development of their poetry, dramas, and prose writings during the decade of their association. In the case of Goethe, neither The Tragedy of Faust nor the Wilhelm Meister novels would have attained their ultimate form and stature without Schiller’s influence.

After Schiller’s death, experience of many kinds contributed substance and essence to Goethe’s mature works. The German Romantics stimulated him to a wider view of literature as a world phenomenon. His insatiable curiosity about life abroad led him to new friendships. Late love affairs with Marianne von Willemer and Ulrike von Levetzow moved him to write the most profoundly beautiful love lyrics of his career. In the completion of the second part of The Tragedy of Faust during his final years, he culminated his existence in the creation of a grand symbol for a life that saw him become, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, “the universal man.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

While Goethe is almost without exception listed in the company of Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Homer as a profound figure of world literature, he is known mostly outside of Germany for his short novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and the first part of Faust. Within his own country, Goethe is not only known as a lyrical poet, playwright, and novelist, but as a celebrated “universal man” as well: his accomplishments include everything from a theater director to a court administrator, and much in between. Like Faust, his most famous protagonist, Goethe seems to have lived intensely and fully, embracing all that life has to offer.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, to an affluent middle-class family. As a child he showed an affinity for writing, and he composed an epistolary novel (a novel told through a series of letters) by the time he was eight years old. Goethe was educated at home until he was sixteen when, with his father’s encouragement, he went to Leipzig to study law; in Leipzig, however, he took more of an interest in the arts than he did law, his father’s profession. During an illness, Goethe left Leipzig, returned home, and developed an interest in alchemy, astrology, and the occult. After his convalescence, he finished his law degree in Strasbourg, but also nurtured his fascination with poetry.

By age twenty-one, Goethe was practicing law in Frankfurt and continuing his studies of literature and philosophy. He wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, making him famous across Europe and establishing his reputation as a writer, a thinker, and Sturm und Drang Romantic. During this time, Goethe began his first drafts of Faust.

In 1775, Goethe accepted a position in the court of the young Duke Karl August of Weimar where, over the next twenty-five years, Goethe held many administrative positions, traveled, and lived in semi-retirement. He worked as director of the Weimer State Theater and pursued anatomy, geology, botany, and other scientific interests. Goethe became friends with the poet Friedrich Schiller, in whom he found a kindred spirit, and published the first part of Faust in 1808, three years after Schiller’s death.

During the next two decades, Goethe remained artistically vital and became something of a sage to the rest of Europe’s would-be literati. He met most of the influential people of his day, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Beethoven, and wrote his autobiography and the second part of Faust, published just months before his death in 1832.

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