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.