Other Literary Forms

0111201548-Goethe.jpg Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s genius extended beyond the short story to embrace all the major genres: the novel, drama, and lyric poetry, as well as nonfiction. Much of his work is autobiographical yet goes well beyond the personal in its focus on the individual’s place in society and the struggle of the artist to express his humanity in the face of opposing forces, both external and internal. His novels Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1825), Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities, 1849), and Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre: Oder, Die Entsagenden (1821, 1829; Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, 1827) are the prototypcial Bildungsroman; his diverse lyrics and ballads are among the best in Western literature; and his nonfiction works—even extending to scientific treatises—chronicle some of the most important socio-literary thought of his day, especially his correspondence with Friedrich Schiller. Perhaps his crowning achievement, the Faust plays summarize the artistic and philosophical preoccupations not only of Goethe’s Romantic age but also, in many senses, of the twentieth century as well.


Before World War II, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was read by virtually the entire German populace. Even in the English world, where he has been neglected, largely because of the difficulty in translating the nuances of so sensitive an artisan, it has been commonplace to assign him a position in the literary pantheon of Homer, Dante, and William Shakespeare. Moreover, Goethe has had paramount influence on German literature, influencing writers such as Friedrich Hölderlin, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka. In the English world, his influence is seen on Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Samuel Butler, and James Joyce; in the French world, on Romain Rolland and André Gide. Nothing escaped his observation; everything he wrote bears the stamp of monumental genius, whether one speaks of his short stories, novels, poems, or plays. Among modern readers, Goethe has been undergoing reappraisal, if not decline, particularly among younger Germans. This opposition, perhaps more social and political than aesthetic, is especially true for Marxists, who have historically resisted writing of nonpolitical orientation. In a day when human survival is at stake, Goethe can seem distant to the contemporary generation. Often his idiom is not so much difficult as it is ethereal; his message, in its optimism, more Victorian than modern. He consorted with aristocrats, despised the French Revolution, admired Napoleon. At times, he is viewed as moralistic, if not arrogant. On the other hand, he has often suffered from excess admiration. Ultimately his value may rest with the profundity of his psychological insights, his sense of the human quest with its pain, his mastery of lyric form. His work needs to be judged for itself, independent of biases. Certainly he has much to offer, given the Renaissance scope of his interests and achievements. His collected works comprise 143 volumes; his writings on science, fourteen volumes alone. If Faust were his only work, it would be sufficient to assure him a high place in literary annals with its affirmation of the human spirit and its confidence that humanity can transcend its errors.

Other Literary Forms

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made substantial contributions to German letters in almost every genre. He is generally recognized as one of the world’s greatest lyric poets. Especially important in a vast array of powerful and diverse poems styled in many meters and forms are his Römische Elegien (1793; Roman Elegies, 1876), the exuberant love lyrics of Westöstlicher Divan (1819; West-Eastern Divan, 1877), and the magnificent ballads that he created during his association with Friedrich Schiller. With Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779), Goethe achieved international fame as a novelist. His most important later narratives, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1825) and Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre: Oder, Die Entsagenden (1821, 1829; Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, 1827), became models for the development of the Bildungsroman. In addition to fiction, Goethe wrote nonfiction throughout his life, and many of his nonfiction works became landmarks of German thought and intellectual expression. The early essay Von deutscher Baukunst (1773; On German Architecture, 1921) is a key theoretical document of the Sturm und Drang movement. His autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811-1814; The Autobiography of Goethe, 1824), has special significance in the history of letters for what it reveals of the creative literary process. Among his writings, several volumes of scientific and technical treatises, including Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären (1790; Essays on the Metamorphosis of Plants, 1863), Beyträge zur Optik (1791, 1792; contributions to optics), and Zur Farbenlehre (1810; Theory of Colors, 1840), were of particular import to Goethe himself. In later life he often regarded them as more meaningful than his literary uvre. The extensive correspondence with Schiller is only one of many revealing volumes of letters collected and published both during his lifetime and after his death.


From the beginning, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s success as a playwright depended not on his skill in creating drama per se, but rather on the manner in which his works communicated to the audience a sense of history and human experience that emphasized the special individuality of characters and the times in which they lived. The key to his artistic greatness was an unprecedented mastery of language. It gave his writings an intensity, a dynamic power of expression, and a new insight into life that set a pattern for psychological and social plays from Goethe’s time forward. Lines and scenes notable for their renewal of the language of antiquity with lightness, grace, naturalness, and eloquently blended rhythms earned for his mature works recognition as pinnacles of musically poetic dramatic literature. Goethe’s ability to cast in language timeless universal symbols for the diversity of human experience, achieved especially in his famous masterpiece The Tragedy of Faust, elevated him to the stature of a giant of world letters.

The instant overwhelming acclaim for Goethe’s Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand advanced him to the forefront of the Sturm und Drang (literally, “storm and stress”) movement and made him its standard-bearer. The propagators of the Sturm und Drang movement, in reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, placed high value on the individual and his power to take moral action despite—and...

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Other literary forms

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (GUR-tuh) was a master in every major literary genre. He published his first book of poetry, Neue Lieder (New Poems, 1853), in 1770. Most of his well-known poems appeared individually in journals and were later collected in the fourteen-volume Works (1848-1890). Collections of Goethe’s poetry that were published separately include Epigramme: Venedig 1790 (1796; Venetian Epigrams, 1853), Römische Elegien (1793; Roman Elegies, 1876), Xenien (1796, with Friedrich Schiller; Epigrams, 1853), Balladen (1798, with Schiller; Ballads, 1853), Sonette (1819; Sonnets, 1853), and Westöstlicher Divan (1819; West-Eastern Divan, 1877), the translations of which are to be found in Works. Many well-known poems appeared in his novels; others were published in his posthumous works.

Goethe’s first play, Die Laune des Verliebten (The Wayward Lover, 1879), was written in 1767 and produced in 1779. Many tragedies, comedies, and operettas (or Singspiele) followed, the most famous of which are Clavigo (pr., pb. 1774; English translation, 1798, 1897), Stella (pr., pb. 1776; English translation, 1798), Iphigenie auf Tauris (pr. 1779; Iphigenia in Tauris, 1793), Egmont (pb. 1788; English translation, 1837), Torquato Tasso (pb. 1790; English translation, 1827), Faust: Ein Fragment (pb. 1790; Faust: A Fragment, 1980), Die natürliche Tochter (pr. 1803; The Natural Daughter, 1885), Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823), and Faust: Eine Tragödie, zweiter Teil (pb. 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, Part Two, 1838).

Goethe also wrote a collection of short fiction, Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (1795; Conversations of German Emigrants, 1854), and a paradigm of the short prose form titled simply Novelle (1826; Novel, 1837). Other short stories appeared in his later novels, and he also wrote two verse epics, Reinecke Fuchs (1794; Reynard the Fox, 1855) and Hermann und Dorothea (1797; Herman and Dorothea, 1801); an autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811-1814; The Autobiography of Goethe, 1824; better known as Poetry and Truth from My Own Life); and essays on literature, art, and science. His letters and diaries in dozens of volumes reveal insights into his life, work, and times.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has been called the last Renaissance man. Not only was he a writer whose work in every literary genre was startlingly new and exemplary for later generations of writers, but he also took great interest in painting, music, botany, geology, physiology, optics, and government, and many of his ideas in these fields of endeavor were novel and seminal.

Goethe belongs to a select group of writers—including Homer, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Miguel de Cervantes, and William Shakespeare—who were able to encompass all aspects of the human condition in their creativity. Goethe’s work is universal; it reflects humankind’s sufferings and joys, successes and failures. From his earliest work, Goethe had a concept of what he thought humans should be: active, striving individuals not afraid to make errors but dedicated to discovering their capabilities and to perfecting them to the best of their ability. His tragedy Faust, on which he worked for more than fifty years, can be viewed as a summation of his thought, and it belongs among the masterpieces of world literature.

The long-term influence of Goethe, like that of Shakespeare, can hardly be measured. Goethe has become a part of German and world culture. Every generation has poets, philosophers, artists, and general readers who look to him as a model, and the volumes that make up the Goethe bibliography attest that influence.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Other Literary Forms

The unique significance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s contribution to German letters lies in the fact that his best creations provided models which influenced, stimulated, and gave direction to the subsequent evolution of literary endeavor in virtually every genre. Among more than twenty plays that he wrote throughout his career, several have special meaning for the history of German theater. Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (pb. 1773; Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, 1799) was a key production of the Sturm und Drang movement, mediating especially the influence of William Shakespeare upon later German dramatic form and substance. With...

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Discussion Topics

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is often considered the earliest of the great authors of the Romantic movement. Which Romantic traits are most important in The Sorrows of Young Werther?

What is the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement? What does Goethe contribute to it?

Is the morality of Faust heretical by the religious standards of Goethe’s society?

Consider the union of Faust and Helen of Troy as a unification of classical and Romantic values. How can emotionalism and classic restraint be combined?

Offer arguments that Faust conveys a more hopeful or a more skeptical outlook.

Goethe studied a number of sciences. Do they influence his...

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