Poetry and Truth from My Own Life

by Johann Goethe

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1414

While there is more truth than poetry in the romantic reminiscence of the aging Goethe, AUS MEINEM LEBEN; DICTUNG, UND WAHRHEIT, known to English readers as POETRY AND TRUTH FROM MY OWN LIFE, was called by Thomas Mann one of the best and most interesting autobiographies in the world. He termed it a first-person novel revealing how genius grows, how good fortune and worth combine in happy circumstance, how personality develops.

Divided into three parts and twenty books, the autobiography was written between 1809 and 1831. If any theme binds the recollections together, it is most clearly represented by the many aspects of a poet’s relations with the world around him. Goethe’s method was to place a man against the backdrop of his time, showing how the world expands or holds back his growth, how he forms his conception of man from this world, and how; if he is a poet or a writer—an artist—he reflects his experience for others to view. Goethe finished the work in his last days, communicating his affections, his distinct impressions of his loved ones, and he used what he called a “magic mirror” to recall them and to aid in his interpretation of life and art.

Goethe refers to himself as the boy in the first section of the autobiography. He spent most of his childhood in his paternal grandmother’s house, located in Frankfort-au-Main. Goethe tells us that in his youth he was influenced by his relatives. His grandmother gave the children a puppet theater one Christmas and thus initiated his life-long interest in drama. From his maternal grandfather he received his first interest in politics when he was allowed to visit state buildings with the old magistrate. His father, a lawyer of an analytical but cold disposition, had planned his son’s education as preparation for a career in law, but it was to include also instruction in art, music, literature, languages, as well as logic and jurisprudence. From his lively and loving mother he was endowed with an interest in life and people, poetry and truth.

The French took over Frankfort when Frederick II threatened the German Confederation. This political misfortune, in the eyes of Goethe’s father, became a fortunate happening for the young man, for an urbane soldier was billeted in the Goethe home. The two frequented the French theater, further developing Goethe’s dramatic interests, and his intellectual horizon was enlarged by French literature in those formative years. To offset this influence, the boy and his sister Cornelia were instructed in English. Family reading and recitation as well as entertaining artists during the French occupation provided excitement which had a lasting influence. Contrary to their father’s wishes, but under the encouraging eye of their mother, the children recited portions of Klopstock’s verses.

Goethe participated in an innocent intrigue with Gretchen, a visiting beauty, and her cousins, who encouraged the lovesick adolescent to write occasional verses for hire on deaths, weddings, and other subjects. This parlor game, easy for the young genius, turned out to be involved with forgery and persuasion and not at all connected with art. During this time young Goethe innocently held hands, and once he was kissed on the forehead by the older Gretchen. His humiliation came when she announced that she felt only a sisterly affection for him. From this disgrace, he turned to the sympathetic companionship of his sister. In those years they became embarrassingly attached to each other.

As Michaelmas time approached after the sad affair with Gretchen, Goethe’s thoughts turned toward the university he was to attend. He wanted to go to Gottingen, but his stern lawyer father had decided that his precocious son must go to law school at Leipsic. Goethe did not openly object, but he decided to spend a large part of his time studying human nature.

It was during this time that Goethe met many of the prominent writers and scholars of the day. He discusses, criticizes, and often gives personal insights into their characters. Goethe felt that the fear of breaking with tradition prohibited learning and expansion. He tired of the failure of his professors to stir his thoughts or learning processes. Other than his time spent with companions and learned men outside the academic life, Goethe was bored, and in 1768 he left school to recover from an illness.

His recuperation became pleasant, he states, not by the virtue of languishing health, but by mystical awakenings, prompted in part by philosophical discussions with an old family friend, Frau von Klettenberg, who helped him pass the time. Also, he took an interest in science and learned to play cards. He read many of the letters he had written home during his time at the university and was pleased for the most part with them.

One of the most influential events of the young Goethe’s life occurred when he continued his studies for a law degree at Strasbourg and became, under Johann Herder, a critic, poet, and the leader of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement which marked a season of literary revolution in Germany. At this time young Goethe became fully aware of Shakespeare. He discusses the playwright for a number of pages, talking about the different translations and at one time stating the possibility that Germans recognized the greatness of Shakespeare more than his own countrymen did. Oliver Goldsmith’s THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD became reality when Goethe met such a family and fell in love with the daughter, Frederica Brion, in the Alsatian vicarage of Sesenheim. Goethe wrote some of his most beautiful lyrics inspired by his first meeting with her. “Wanders Sturmlied” remains one of the best loved of his poems.

Goethe took his degree at Strasbourg on August 6, 1771, and on the following day Professor Schopflin died. Goethe tells us that this man had an important influence on his life. He takes the opportunity to give us a short biography of Schopflin’s life and then digresses into a discussion of his various professors at Strasbourg and his reactions to them. When Goethe left Strasbourg he also left Frederica.

After Goethe’s graduation he began to travel and he met many people who were to influence or strengthen his ideas. It was at this time that Johann Schlosser announced his intentions of marrying Goethe’s sister. Goethe also spent some time with Herr von la Roche and his wife, talking about literature with their friends. Johann Merck and his family, whom Goethe met in the home of Herr von la Roche, became his traveling companions.

In these sections Goethe discusses his activities as a lawyer, the reforms that came about during this time, and the humane feelings that became prevalent in lawyers and judges. Also, he discusses his further involvement in drama and art. He tells of the publication of his works THE ACCOMPLICES and THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER. It was on the day of his sister’s wedding that he decided to send off the manuscript of THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER after holding it for a long time.

Goethe fell in love with Lili Schonemann after meeting her at a party. Her background was similar to the cultural life of the young lawyer, whose business often took him to her home and, with a group of young bohemians, to Offenbach for dinners, the opera, and theater. Their intimacy was immediate but prolonged when he went to court at Wertzler. Cornelia, rusticated in her marriage, urged her brother to break off the affair. Lili also responded to pressures, and the young poet, now a celebrity as the author of THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER, decided to associate himself with the court of the young Duke and Duchess of Weimar. At this point POETRY AND TRUTH FROM MY OWN LIFE ends.

The Intentional Fallacy, that canon of the New Critics, suggests that one should not strain for an author’s purpose or, in a corollary, allow the author’s own view to obscure the work of art. In Goethe’s work intent and viewpoint are clearly and truthfully marked, so close are the parallels to his great literary works, that there is a foreshadowing as well as an underscoring. The autobiography reveals a personality, but as Thomas Mann pointed out in his Introduction to THE PERMANENT GOETHE, the personality remains an enigma, a mystery of self, and not even Goethe has revealed it fully in his own life story.

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