Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born into an upper-middle-class family in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on August 28, 1749. Given a largely private education that included a rigorous study of ancient and modern languages, he came into contact with the theater at a very early age. At the age of sixteen, he studied law at Leipzig but was interrupted by a debilitating illness that nearly took his life. Two years later, he went on to the University of Strasbourg, where he completed his studies. While there, he met Johann Gottfried Herder, who introduced him to the works of Homer, Shakespeare, Ossian, and to folk literature. Herder also converted Goethe to the tenets of a new artistic credo which would become known as Romanticism. All these elements loom large in Goethe’s work.
On his return to Frankfurt, Goethe engaged in law and writing. In 1773, he achieved immediate renown among his compatriots with the play Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, 1799). A year later, his reputation took on international stature with The Sorrows of Young Werther, his most noted work with the exception of Faust. In 1775, Goethe attracted the attention of the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar, who invited him to the capital city, Weimar. Except for a two-year interval when Goethe visited Italy, he would remain at Weimar all of his life. It was at Weimar that Goethe fell in love with the married...
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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.
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...
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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt am Main. His father, Johann Kaspar Goethe, was a well-to-do nonpracticing lawyer holding the title of imperial councilor. His learning and multifaceted interests were passed on to the young Goethe. The father was strict, often overbearing, and Goethe was never close to him. Goethe’s mother, Katharina Elisabeth (née Textor), the daughter of the mayor, received more of his affection. In Frankfurt, Goethe first made contact with the theater through puppet plays and French troupes. He recorded these impressions vividly in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth from My Own Life. From 1765 to 1768, he attended the university in Leipzig, famous for its Enlightenment and Rococo writers, and studied law. There he also studied painting and had the first of his many famous love affairs (this one with Kätchen Schönkopf), which always resulted in beautiful poetry. His not atypical student life was interrupted by a lung hemorrhage, which compelled him to return to Frankfurt. Home again, and sickly, he came under the influence of the Pietist and mystic Susanna von Klettenberg, whose teachings can be found in “Bekenntnisse einer schönen Selle” (“Confessions of a Fair Saint”), which constitutes the sixth book of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
Goethe returned to the university in 1770, this time to Strasbourg, where he received his degree in 1771. While in this French-German border city, he met Johann Gottfried Herder, the theologian and critic who, at that time, was singing the praises of Shakespeare, Ossian, primitive poetry, and the need for a German literature...
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