Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

by Johann Goethe
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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.


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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.

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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.


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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 often against—repressive society. Under the tutelage of Johann Gottfried Herder, who was the chief theoretician of Sturm und Drang, Goethe created models that exerted powerful influence on works written for the German stage throughout the nineteenth century.

Despite the attractiveness and intellectual power of their content, characterization, language, and ideas, Goethe’s dramas were not immediately successful as theater. They were difficult to stage, and deviations from norms of dramaturgy left weaknesses that stimulated negative response from critics. Nevertheless, guided by Schiller during the decade of their collaboration in Weimar, Goethe eventually rendered his most important works sufficiently playable to win for them a place in the standard repertory of the German stage.

By 1808, Goethe was still most recognized by theatergoers for Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand. The publication of the first part of The Tragedy of Faust together with the production of works revivified by Schiller reestablished Goethe’s image with the public. In later years, he enjoyed the status of an internationally renowned figure and received visits from influential people from all over the world. It was not until many years after his death, however, that he surpassed Schiller in popular estimation to assume his position as the man most representative of German literature.

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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.


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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

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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 Iphigenie auf Tauris (first version pr. 1779, second version pb. 1787; Iphigenia in Tauris, 1793), Goethe illustrated profoundly the ideals of perfected form and style, beauty of language, and humanistic education that characterized German literature of the classical period. His famous masterpiece Faust (published in three distinct versions, 1790, 1808, 1833; The Tragedy of Faust), with its carefully programmed depiction of the spiritual polarities that torment the individual, rapidly became the ultimate paradigm for the portrayal of modern man’s fragmented nature.

Goethe’s major narratives, including Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779), 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 powerful illuminations of fundamental human problems. The monumental saga of Wilhelm Meister established the pattern for the German Bildungsroman of the nineteenth century, and it also had a substantial impact on Romantic novel theory.

A large portion of Goethe’s oeuvre is nonfiction. He completed more than fourteen volumes of scientific and technical writings, the most important of which are Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären (1790; Essays on the Metamorphosis of Plants, 1863) and Zur Farbenlehre (1810; Theory of Colors, 1840). His historical accounts, specifically Campagne in Frankreich, 1792 (1822; Campaign in France in the Year 1792, 1849) and Die Belagerung von Mainz, 1793 (1822; The Siege of Mainz in the Year 1793, 1849), are vividly readable reports of firsthand experience. Writings that reveal a great deal about Goethe himself and his perception of his artistic calling are his 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 the many published volumes of his correspondence.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s overwhelming success as a lyricist was primarily the result of an extraordinary ability to interpret and transform direct, intimate experience and perception into vibrant imagery and symbols with universal import. In the process of overcoming the artificiality of Rococo literary tendencies, he created for the first time in modern German literature lyrics that were at once deeply personal, dynamically vital, and universally valid in what they communicated to the reader. Beginning with the poems written to Friederike Brion, and continuing through the infinitely passionate affirmations of life composed in his old age, Goethe consistently employed his art in a manner that brushed away the superficial trappings and facades of existence to lay bare the essential spirit of man.

In his own time, Goethe became a world figure, although his immediate acclaim derived more from his early prose and dramatic works than from his lyrical writings. Even after the turn of the nineteenth century, he was still recognized most commonly as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, the novel that had made him instantly famous throughout Europe. Nevertheless, the simple power, clear, appealing language, and compelling melodiousness of his verse moved it inexorably into the canon of the German literary heritage. Much of his poetry was set to music by the great composers of his own and subsequent generations, and the continuing popularity of such creations as “Mailied” (“Maysong”) and “Heidenröslein” (“Little Rose of the Heath”) is attributable at least in part to the musical interpretations of Franz Schubert and others.

The real importance of Goethe’s lyric legacy is perhaps best measured in terms of what it taught other writers. Goethe established new patterns and perspectives, opened new avenues of expression, set uncommon standards of artistic and aesthetic achievement, assimilated impulses from other traditions, and mastered diverse meters, techniques, and styles as had no other German poet before him. His influence was made productive by figures as different as Heinrich Heine and Eduard Mörike, Friedrich Hölderlin and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke. As a mediator and motivator of the literary and intellectual currents of his time, as a creator of timeless poetic archetypes, as an interpreter of humanity within its living context, Goethe has earned an undisputed place among the greatest poets of world literature.


Three aspects of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s childhood contributed substantially to his development as a literary artist. A sheltered existence, in which he spent long hours completely alone, fostered the growth of an active imagination. A complicated attachment to his sister Cornelia colored his perceptions of male-female relationships in ways that had a profound impact on the kinds of experience from which his works were generated. Finally, contrasts between his parents in temperament and cultural attitudes gave him an early awareness of the stark polarities of life upon which the central tensions of his major literary creations are based.

While studying law in Leipzig between 1765 and 1768, Goethe began to write poems and simple plays in the prevailing Anacreontic style. Although some of these productions relate to his infatuation with Kätchen Schönkopf, an innkeeper’s daughter, they are more the product of his desire to become a part of the contemporary intellectual establishment than a direct outpouring of his own inner concerns. Among the important figures who influenced his education and thinking during this period were Christoph Martin Wieland, Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, and Adam Friedrich Oeser.

The experiences that resulted in Goethe’s breakthrough to a distinctly individual and characteristic literary approach began when he entered the University of Strasbourg in 1770. Encounters with two very different people during the winter of 1770-1771 sharply changed his life. Johann Gottfried Herder introduced him to the concepts and ideals of the Sturm und Drang movement, providing him with new models in Homer and Shakespeare and moving him in the direction of less artificial modes of expression. Of equal consequence for the immediate evolution of his lyrics was an idyllic love affair with Friederike Brion that ended in a parting, the emotional implications of which marked his writings long afterward.

Upon his return to Frankfurt in 1771, Goethe was admitted to the bar. During the next five years, he fell in love with at least three different women. A painful involvement with Charlotte Buff, the fiancé of his friend Johann Christian Kestner, was followed by a brief attraction to Maximiliane Laroche. In April, 1775, he became engaged to Lili Schönemann, the daughter of a wealthy Frankfurt banker. Of the three relationships, only the interlude with Maximiliane Laroche failed to have a significant impact on his art. The Sorrows of Young Werther derived much of its substance from Goethe’s experiences with Charlotte Buff, while the powerful internal conflicts generated by his feelings for Lili gave rise to a small group of very interesting poems.

When the engagement to Lili became intolerable because of its demands and restrictions, Goethe went to Weimar, where he settled permanently in 1776. For the next ten years, he served as adviser to Carl August, duke of Weimar, whom he had met in Frankfurt in 1774. A broad variety of political and administrative responsibilities, ranging from supervision of road construction to irrigation, from military administration to direction of the court theater, left Goethe little time for serious literary endeavor. The resulting lack of personal fulfillment coupled with the prolonged frustrations of an unhappy platonic love affair with Charlotte von Stein caused him to flee to Italy in search of artistic and spiritual rejuvenation. While there, he perfected some of his most significant dramatic works.

The combination of exposure to Roman antiquity, classical Italian literature, and a uniquely satisfying love alliance with the simple, uneducated Christiane Vulpius formed the basis for renewed poetic productivity when Goethe returned to Weimar. In Roman Elegies, he glorified his intimate involvement with Christiane in imagery of the Eternal City. A second, more disappointing trip to Italy in 1790 provided the stimulus for the less well-known Venetian Epigrams.

In 1794, Goethe accepted Friedrich Schiller’s invitation to collaborate in the publication of a new journal. There followed the most fruitful creative friendship in the history of German letters. Among the famous lyrical compositions that emerged from their relationship were the terse, pointed forms of the so-called Epigram War that they waged against their critics in 1796, and the masterful ballads that were written in friendly competition in 1797. Goethe regarded Schiller’s death, in 1805, as one of the major personal tragedies of his own life.

The two specific experiences of later years which provided the direction for Goethe’s last great productive period were exposure to the works of the fourteenth century Persian poet Hafiz and a journey to the places of his own childhood. While in Frankfurt in 1814, Goethe fell in love with Marianne von Willemer, the wife of a friend. The Hafiz-like dialogue of their intense spiritual communion is the focus of West-Eastern Divan, in which Goethe reached the culmination of his career as a lyricist. After it was published, only the final work on his immortal masterpiece Faust remained as a substantial task to be completed before his death.


In his famous letter to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of August 23, 1794, Schiller identified the addressee as a writer who sought to derive the essence of an individual manifestation from the totality of natural phenomena. More particularly, he saw Goethe’s goal as the literary definition of man in terms of the organization of the living cosmos to which he belongs. Only to the extent that Goethe viewed himself as representative of humanity in general does Schiller’s assessment offer a valid approach to the understanding of his friend’s lyric poetry. The focus of Goethe’s verse is less humankind in the abstract than it is Goethe himself as a distinct, feeling, suffering, loving, sorrowing, longing being. From the very beginning, his works assumed the character of subjective poetic interpretations of his specific place in society, the implications of direct encounters with nature and culture, and the significance of concrete interpersonal relationships. He later described his creative writings as elements of a grand confession, pinpointing the fact that a major key to them lay in the penetration of his own existence.

Goethe’s development as a lyric poet is clearly a continuum in which internal and external events and circumstances contribute to sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious modifications in approach, technique, and style. It is nevertheless possible to recognize a number of well-defined stages in his career that correspond to important changes in his outward situation and his connections with specific individuals. The predominant tendency of his growth was in the direction of a poetry that reaches outward to encompass an ever-broader spectrum of universal experience.

The Anacreontic creations of Goethe’s student years in Leipzig are, for the most part, time-bound, occasional verse in which realistic emotion, feeling, and perception are subordinated to the artificial conventions and devices of the time. Typical motifs and themes of the collection New Poems are wine, Rococo eroticism, the game of love with its hidden dangers, stylized pastoral representations of nature, and a peculiarly playful association of love and death. Individual poems often move on the border between sensuality and morality, mirroring the prevailing social patterns. Especially characteristic is the employment of language that magnifies the separation of the world of the poem from experienced reality. In their affirmation of the elegant facades, the deliberate aloofness, the uncommitted playfulness of Rococo culture, these lyrics document Goethe’s early artistic attitudes, even though they reveal little of his unique poetic gift.

Strasbourg Period

Under the influence of Herder in Strasbourg, Goethe began to move away from the decadent artificiality of his Leipzig songs. A new appreciation for the value of originality, immediacy of feeling, unmediated involvement in nature, and directness of approach is apparent in creations that are notable for their vivid imagery, plastic presentation of substance, force of expression, and power of language and rhythm.

Two types of utterance dominate the verse of this period. Highly personal outpourings of the soul, in which the representation of love is more passionate, serious, and captivating than in the Leipzig productions, are couched in formal stanzas that arose from Goethe’s fondness for Friederike Brion. Free-verse poems that focus on Sturm und Drang ideals of individuality, genius, and creativity reflect the lyrical influence of Pindar and the dramatic legacy of Shakespeare in their form and tone. In what they reveal of Goethe’s worldview, the love poetry and the philosophical reflections are deeply intertwined. Without love, Goethe’s perception of life is empty; without the depth of awareness of individual responsibility in creation, love loses its strength and vitality. Love forms the basis for the experience of nature, while the external surroundings with their beauties, tensions, conflicts, and potential for joy give full meaning to love.

The most important new feature of the Strasbourg poetry is the visible emphasis on existential polarities in the description of the poet’s relationship to people and things. Love and suffering, defiance and submission, danger and ecstasy are juxtaposed in the portrayal of a world of change, growth, and struggle. In endless variation, Goethe offers the intimate revelation of loneliness, longing, and lack of final fulfillment that are the fundamental ingredients of life viewed as a pattern of restless wanderings. The very acts of searching, striving, creating, and loving are communicated with an energy and a spiritual intensity that carries the reader along in a rush of emotional participation in universal experience.

The Lili Poems

Among Goethe’s most interesting early works are the sometimes tender, often intensely painful lyric documents of his courtship of Lili Schönemann. Few in number, these writings illustrate the poet’s cathartic use of his talent in a process of self-analysis and clarification of his position with respect to external events. At the same time, they underscore a growing tendency to come to grips with and master life through his art. Consisting of occasional pieces that are connected by recurring themes related to the tension between the attractions of love and the devastating torments of an accompanying loss of freedom, the Lili poems combine visions of joy with ironically biting yet dismal portraits of despair. A gem of the period is the famous “Auf dem See” (“On the Lake”), a vivid projection of both physical and spiritual flight from oppressive love, written in Switzerland, where Goethe had taken temporary refuge from the demands of life with Lili.

Weimar Period

During Goethe’s first years in Weimar, the frustrations of an unsatisfying association with Charlotte von Stein, the all-consuming responsibilities of the court, and his own inability to overcome completely the break with Lili contributed to his lyrics a new preoccupation with themes of melancholy resignation and self-denial. The heavy moods that characterize his works of this period inform short meditative poems as well as longer philosophical reflections, mournful love songs, and a few haunting ballads. Especially profound are two eight-line stanzas, each titled “Wanderers Nachtlied” (“Wanderer’s Night Song”), in which the poet longs for and admonishes himself to courage, comfort, hope, belief, and patience. “Warum gabst du uns die tiefen Blicke?” (“Why Did You Give Us the Deep Glances?”), the most powerful of his poems to Charlotte von Stein, presents love as a mystical mystery. The two dramatic ballads, “Erlkönig” (“Elf King”) and “Der Fischer” (“The Fisherman”), emphasize man’s psychological subjection to the demonic power of his own impressions of nature.

Italian Journey

The experience of Italy completely changed Goethe’s poetry. Among the most important developments which the journey inspired were the abandonment of suggestion and tone in favor of pure image, the transition from lyrical song to epic description, and the replacement of extended elaboration of worldview with terse epigrams and short didactic verse. During Goethe’s classical period, his ballads achieved perfected form, while his depictions of nature attained their final goal in brightness and joyful plasticity. Where earlier poems feature colors that flow softly together, or points of color that invoke mood and an impression of the whole, the works created after 1790 are dominated by structure and the placement of objects in space. Ideas are presented in classical meters, especially hexameter, and as a result confessional poetry loses much of its melody.

Elegies, Epigrams, and Ballads

Three groups of poems are particularly representative of the new directions in Goethe’s lyrics: Roman Elegies, the epigrams, and the classical ballads. In their rich mural presentation of the poet’s life in Rome, the Roman Elegies document the author’s increasing tendency to circumscribe his own existence in verse, while their form, style, and combination of classical dignity with inner lightheartedness reflect the direct influence of Ovid, Catullus, and Propertius. The poems of Venetian Epigrams were similarly motivated by direct exposure to elements of classical Italian culture. They are especially notable for their rich imagery and their realism in depicting the emotional intensity of the poet’s longing for Germany. In structure and style, they were models for the more famous epigrams written by Goethe and Schiller in 1796. Unlike the elegies and epigrams, Goethe’s powerful ballads of 1797 arose out of materials that he had carried within him for a long time. The lyrical and melodic aspects that are absent from the other forms remain strong in rhythmic creations that emphasize passion and excitement while developing themes related to the classical ideal of pure humanity. Goethe viewed the ballad as an archetypal lyric form. His “Die Braut von Korinth” (“The Bride of Corinth”) and “Der Gott und die Bajadere” (“The God and the Bayadere”) are among the greatest German ballads ever written.

Poetry of Later Years

The erotic poetry of Goethe’s old age had its beginnings in a group of sonnets that he wrote to Minchen Herzlieb in 1807. During the seven years that followed their creation, he wrote verse only occasionally. At last, however, the combination of stimuli from the deeply meaningful love affair with Marianne von Willemer and exposure to the works of Hafiz moved him to compose his greatest poetic accomplishment, West-Eastern Divan. In the framework of a fantasy journey of rejuvenation, Goethe entered a friendly competition with Hafizfez while simultaneously declaring his own newly regained inner freedom. The central themes of the collection include longing for renewal of life, recognition of the need for spiritual transformation, coming to grips with Hafiz as a poet, love, wine, worldly experience, paradise, looking upward to God, and looking downward to the human condition. In some of the poems, Goethe returned to a kind of Anacreontic love poetry. In the heart of the cycle, he made of Hatem and Suleika timeless archetypal models for man and woman bound in the love relationship.

After West-Eastern Divan, Goethe wrote only a few poems of consequence. Among them, “Uworte, Orphisch” (“Primeval Words, Orphic”), in which he attempted to develop the core problems of human existence in five eight-line stanzas, and “Trilogie der Leidenschaft” (“Trilogy of Passion”), a tragic document of the state of being unfulfilled that was inspired by his final love experience, attained the power and stature of earlier lyrics. In these two creations, Goethe pin-pointed once more the essence of his own spiritual struggle between the light and the night of human existence.

“Welcome and Farewell”

While living in Strasbourg and courting Friederike Brion, Goethe created for the first time sensitive love poetry and descriptions of nature that exude the vitality of immediate experience. Perhaps the most characteristic of these works is the famous “Willkommen und Abschied” (“Welcome and Farewell”). The substance of the poem is a night ride through the countryside to Sesenheim and a joyful reunion with Friederike, followed by a painful scene of parting when morning comes. Significant elements include a new and plastic rendering of nature, fresh and captivating imagery, and melodic language that is alive with rhythm and motion. A special power of observation is demonstrated in the poet’s representation of that which cannot or can hardly be seen, yet the scenery is not portrayed merely for its own sake; rather, it is symbolic, for the uncanny aspects of the ride through the darkness are overcome by a courageous heart that is driven by love. Landscape and love thus become the two poles of the poem generating an inner tension that culminates in a peculiar equation of the beloved with the world as a whole. The portrayal of Friederike is especially notable for its psychological depth, while the expression of Goethe’s own feelings of passion and eventual guilt lends the entire picture qualities of a universal experience of the heart.

“Prometheus” and “Ganymed”

Deeply personal yet broadly valid content is also typical of the so-called genius poems of Goethe’s Sturm und Drang period. The intensity of emotional extremes is particularly vivid in the sharply contrasting hymns “Prometheus” and “Ganymed,” which reflect the poles of Goethe’s own spirit even more strongly than do his dramas. In depicting the two mythological titans, the poet concentrated on the creation of dynamic archetypes. “Prometheus” is a hard, even harsh portrait of modern man. The speaker of the lines is loveless and alone. Emphasis is placed on “I”; the focus is inward and limiting. In his defiant rejection of Father Zeus and the attendant process of self-deification, Prometheus champions the value of individuality and independence. Important themes of his declaration of emancipation from gods who are less powerful than man include faith in self, belief in the power of action, knowledge of the difficulty and questionability of life, and the divinity of man’s creative nature. The tone of “Ganymed” is completely different. In the soft language of a prayer, the title figure proclaims his total submission to the will of the Father and his desire to return to the divine presence. A new side of Goethe’s religiosity is revealed in the transformation of his sensitivity to nature into a longing for God’s love. The central concern is no longer “I” but “you”; the direction is outward toward the removal of all boundaries in a coming together of deity and man. In the manner in which they play off the real world against the ideal realm, “Prometheus” and “Ganymed” are especially representative of the existential polarity lyrics that Goethe wrote during the pre-Weimar years.

Roman Elegies

Roman Elegies, the major lyrical product of Goethe’s first Italian journey, comprises twenty confessional hexameter poems knit tightly together in a cycle that documents the poet’s love for a fictitious young widow (Christiane Vulpius in Roman disguise). Two primary thematic configurations dominate creations that are among Goethe’s most beautiful, most sensuously erotic works. The story of the tender love affair with Faustine, integrated into the Italian framework, is played off against the problems associated with renewal and adaptation of antiquity by the modern poet. Within this context, love becomes the key that makes entry into the Roman world possible.

Lively, direct reflection of the writer’s enthusiasm for Rome sets the tone for the cycle. At the center of the introductory elegy, which forms an overture to the love adventure, there is a longing for the beloved who gives the city its true character. This yearning is followed in the next segment by a cynical glance backward at the boredom of Weimar society, which is in turn contrasted with the first report of the developing amorous relationship. An attempt to idealize the new situation, focusing specifically on the rapidity with which Faustine gives herself, leads to the elaboration of the described experiences in the light of ancient mythological gods. Through the creation of a new goddess, “Opportunity,” as a symbol for the woman he loves, Goethe effectively connects the motifs of the sequence with classical themes. The fifth elegy provides the first high point in the poetic chain with its projection of the spirit of the author’s existence in Rome as a blend of antiquity, art, and the erotic which mutually illuminate, intensify, and legitimize each other to yield a true “life of the gods.” Other important sections of the cycle touch on questions of jealousy, gossip about the lovers, a Homeric idyll of the hearth, and a variety of encounters with Rome and its traditions, history, and secrets. Elegy thirteen is especially interesting for the tension that it establishes between the demands of lyric art and those of love for Faustine. A dialogue between Amor and the poet develops the idea that the former provides plenty of material for poetry but does not allow enough time for creative activity. Colorful pictures of the joys of love culminate in imagery of the couple’s morning awakening together in bed. There is grand irony in the fact that the lament about not having enough time to write becomes a magnificent poem in itself.

Throughout the collection, love is the focus of polar conflicts on several levels. The intense need for unity with Faustine in the physical alliance is juxtaposed to the act of self-denial that provides the quiet enjoyment of pure observation and contemplation in the creative process. Within the social frame, the fulfilled love that is sought and attained cannot be brought into harmony with reality. Fear of discovery necessitates disguise of the beloved, deception of relatives, secret meetings, and isolation from the surrounding world. In the final elegy, however, Goethe is forced to conclude that the beautiful secret of his love cannot remain hidden for long because he himself is incapable of remaining quiet about it. The result is a many-faceted revelation of love as a timeless human situation.


Careful examination of Goethe’s most representative ballads reveals a clear progression from verse stories in which man is at the mercy of a potentially destructive, magically powerful natural world to lyric accounts that proclaim the supremacy of the human spirit over the restrictions of mortal experience. Influenced by the popular pattern established in Gottfried August Bürger’s “Lenore,” Goethe’s early ballads such as “Elf King” and “The Fisherman” describe the fatal resolution of inner conflicts in terms of individual surrender to seductive impressions of external reality. Later, philosophically more complex works (“The Bride of Corinth” and “The God and the Bayadere”) portray death as a process of transcendence that purifies the individual while preparing the soul for joyful fulfillment on a higher plane of existence.

“Elf King” is somewhat similar to “Welcome and Farewell” in its representation of a night landscape’s malevolent lure as it impresses its terror on the minds of those who encounter it. The substance of the narrative is the homeward night ride of a father and son; the darkness gives uncanny form and life to things that would appear harmless by day. The boy, who is ill with fever, believes that he hears the elf king enticing him, describes what he sees and feels to his father, and dies of fright when the older man’s reassurances fail to convince him of the falseness of his delirious vision. Rhythmic language that conveys the beat of the horse’s hooves through the countryside, immediacy created by dialogues involving the child, the phantom elf king, and the father, and moods evoked by contrasts between light and shadow, intimate fear and pale comfortings, all contribute to the psychological intensity of a presentation in which the poet attempted to find accurate formulation for the fantastic, indefinite problem of human destiny.

In “The God and the Bayadere,” a confrontation with death is handled much differently. The legend of the prostitute who spends a night providing the pleasures of love to the god Siva in human form, only to awaken and find him dead on the bed, is a forceful lyrical statement about the redeeming properties of love. Denied her widow’s rights because of her way of life, the bayadere makes good her claim by springing into the flames that arise from the funeral pyre. In response to this act of purification, Siva accepts the woman as his bride. Strong Christian overtones exist in the first stanza’s emphasis on the god’s humaneness and in the obvious parallels to the relationship between Christ and Mary Magdalene. The poem’s thrust is that the divine spark is present even in a degraded individual and that even the lowest human being can be transformed and exalted through the cleansing influence of pure love.

West-Eastern Divan

A major key to the literary productions of Goethe’s old age is found in the notion of personal fulfillment through direct sensual and spiritual enjoyment of life. The implications of that approach to experience are most thoroughly and splendidly elaborated in West-Eastern Divan, a carefully constructed collection of verse that attempts to blend and join the artistic legacies of East and West in a book about love in all its manifestations. Both the pinnacle of Goethe’s lyric œuvre and one of the most difficult of his creative works, West-Eastern Divan is a conscious declaration of the validity of man’s unending search for joy in the world.

As revealed in the opening poem, the focal metaphor of the volume is the Hegira, which Goethe uses as an image for his flight from oppressive circumstances into the ideal realm of foreign art. Two central relationships dominate the twelve sections of his dream journey to the Orient. On one level, the individual poems are portions of a playful fantasy dialogue between Goethe and his Eastern counterpart Hafiz. The object of their interchange is a friendly competition in which the Western poet seeks to match the achievements of a revered predecessor. Conversations between two lovers, Hatem and Suleika, develop the second complex of themes, derived from elements of the love experience shared by Goethe and Marianne von Willemer.

“Buch des Sängers” (“Book of the Singer”), the most important of the first six cycles, sets the tone for the entire work. In the famous poem “Selige Sehnsucht” (“Blessed Longing”), Goethe explored the mystery of how one gains strength through the transformation that occurs as a result of sacrifice. Borrowing from a ghazel by Hafiz the motif of the soul that is consumed in the fire of love like a moth in a candle flame, he created a profound comment on the necessity of metamorphosis to eternal progress. The uniting of two people in love to generate the greatest possible joy is made to stand for the longing of the soul to be freed from the bonds of individuality through union with the infinite. The antithesis of “Blessed Longing” is presented in “Wiederfinden” (“Reunion”), a creation of extremely vivid imagery from “Buch Suleika” (“Book of Suleika”), the eighth and most beautiful section of West-Eastern Divan. Based on Goethe’s separation from Marianne and their coming together again, the poem develops the idea that parting and rediscovery are the essence of universal existence. In a uniquely powerful projection of creation as division of light from darkness and their recombination in color, Goethe produced new and exciting symbols for love’s power, rendered in lines that form a high point in German lyric poetry.


Atkins, Stuart. Essays on Goethe. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Essays on the apprentice novelist and other topics, by the preeminent Goethe scholar.

Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age, Volume I: The Poetry of Desire (1749-1790). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1991. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A monumental scholarly biography. See the index of Goethe’s works.

Boyle, Nicholas. Revolution and Renunciation (1790-1803). Volume 2 in Goethe: The Poet and the Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) This second volume covers only the next thirteen years of Goethe’s life. Boyle’s extensive discussion of the Wilhelm Meister novels and Goethe’s drama Faust is set amid a period of radical political and social change, fallout from the French Revolution.

Brodey, Inger Sigrun. “Masculinity, Sensibility, and the ‘Man of Feeling’: The Gendered Ethics of Goethe’s Werther.” Papers on Language and Literature 35 (Spring, 1999): 115-140. Argues that Goethe’s man of feeling renounces traditional masculine roles and instead exists on the edge of illness, madness, impotence, and silence.

Brough, Neil. New Perspectives on “Faust”: Studies in the Origins and Philosophy of the Faust Theme in the Dramas of Marlowe and Goethe. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. Brough compares and contrasts the portrayal of the Faust story in the works of Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. Bibliography and index.

Kerry, Paul E. Enlightenment Thought in the Writings of Goethe: A Contribution to the History of Ideas. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001. A examination of the philosophy that filled Goethe’s writings. Bibliography and index.

Lange, Victor, ed. Goethe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. The essays collected in this informative volume emphasize Goethe’s extraordinary poetic range as well as the pervasive consequences of scientific and social concerns in his life and work. The wide- ranging critical debate over the author’s classical synthesis of private and collective responsibility is well represented. Includes a chronology of significant dates and a select bibliography.

Lukacs, Georg. Goethe and His Age. New York: Grosset amd Dunlap, 1968. While the essays in this volume originated in the 1930’s, a knowledge of those cultural, ideological, and literary struggles that classical German literature and philosophy generated is useful in forming any modern literary assessment of Goethe’s work. Lukacs, a renowned Marxist critic, views Goethe’s work as a bridge between the great realism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Pratt, Vernon. “Goethe’s Archetype and the Romantic Concept of the Self.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 27 (September, 1996): 351-365. Compares Goethe’s concept of archetype with the romantic concept of self as a core plus the expression of the core; contends that Goethe’s archetype is a kind of agent at the heart of a thing, striving for self-expression.

Reed, T. J. The Classical Centre: Goethe and Weimar, 1775-1832. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1980. This book asserts that Goethe’s work came as a fulfillment of a need felt by a culture that lacked the essentials of a literary tradition. Narrowing his discussion to the author’s years in Weimar, Reed’s analysis emphasizes Goethe as the center of German literature and the primary creator of German classicism.

Remak, Henry H. H. Structural Elements of the German Novella from Goethe to Thomas Mann. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Tests the three constituents of Goethe’s famous definition of the novella against his own novellas. Discusses Goethe’s seminal role in the development of the novella as the supreme literary achievement of Germany in the nineteenth century.

Swales, Martin, and Erika Swales. Reading Goethe: A Critical Introduction to the Literary Work. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2002. A critical analysis of Goethe’s literary output. Bibliography and index.

Wagner, Irmgard. Critical Approaches to Goethe’s Classical Dramas: Iphigenie, Torquato Tasso, and Diet Natürliche Tochter. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Literary criticism of Goethe’s dramas, in particular Iphigenia in Tauris, Torquato Tasso, and The Natural Daughter. Bibliography and index.

Wagner, Irmgard. Goethe. New York: Twayne, 1999. An excellent, updated introduction to the author and his works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Weisinger, Kenneth D. The Classical Facade: A Nonclassical Reading of Goethe’s Classicism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988. The works covered by this interesting volume all come from the middle period of Goethe’s life. In his analysis, Weisinger searches for a kinship between Faust and Goethe’s classic works. The author asserts that all these classic works share a nonclassic common theme: the disunity of the modern world.

Williams, John R. The Life of Goethe: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998. An extensive examination of the major writings, including lyric poems, drama, and novels. Includes a discussion of epigrams, aphorisms, satires, libretti, and masquerades. Discusses Goethe’s personal and literary reactions to historical events in Germany, his relationship with leading public figures of his day, and his influence on contemporary culture. Suggests that Goethe’s creative work follows a distinct biographical profile. Includes large bibliography.

Discussion Topics

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 113

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 literary works in any significant way?

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Critical Essays