Poetry and Truth from My Own Life Critical Essays

Johann Goethe


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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....

(The entire section is 1414 words.)