Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

(yō`hän vôlf`gäng fən gö`tə), 1749–1832, German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist, b. Frankfurt. One of the great masters of world literature, his genius embraced most fields of human endeavor; his art and thought are epitomized in his great dramatic poem Faust.

Early Life and Works

Goethe describes his happy and sheltered childhood in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–33). In 1765 he went to Leipzig to study law. There he spent his time in the usual student dissipations, which perhaps contributed to a hemorrhage that required a long convalescence at Frankfurt. His earliest lyric poems, set to music, were published in 1769. In 1770–71 he completed his law studies at Strasbourg, where the acquaintance of Herder filled him with enthusiasm for Shakespeare, for Germany's medieval past, and for the German folk song.

Goethe's lyric poems for Friederike Brion, daughter of the pastor of nearby Sesenheim, were written at this time as new texts for folk-song melodies. Among the lasting influences of Goethe's youth were J. J. Rousseau and Spinoza, who appealed to Goethe's mystic and poetic feeling for nature in its ever-changing aspects. It was in this period that Goethe began his lifelong study of animals and plants and his research in biological morphology.

Goethe first attracted public notice with the drama Götz von Berlichingen (1773; see Berlichingen, Götz vonBerlichingen, Götz von
, 1480–1562, German knight and adventurer. The head of a band of free soldiers, he lost (1504) his right hand in the battle of Landshut and wore an iron one in its place. His forays against various cities earned him popular fame.
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), a pure product of Sturm und DrangSturm und Drang
or Storm and Stress,
movement in German literature that flourished from c.1770 to c.1784. It takes its name from a play by F. M. von Klinger, Wirrwarr; oder, Sturm und Drang (1776).
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. Still more important was the epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, tr. The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1957) which Goethe, on the verge of suicide, wrote after his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff. Werther gave him immediate fame and was widely translated. While the writing had helped Goethe regain stability, the novel's effect on the public was the opposite; it encouraged morbid sensibility.

The Weimar Years

In 1775, Goethe was invited to visit Charles Augustus, duke of Saxe-Weimar, at whose court he was to spend the rest of his life. For ten years Goethe was chief minister of state at Weimar. He later retained only the directorship of the state theater and the scientific institutions.

Italian and French Influences

A trip to Italy (1786–88) fired his enthusiasm for the classical ideal, as Goethe tells us in his travel account Die italienische Reise (1816) and in Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert [WinckelmannWinckelmann, Johann Joachim
, 1717–68, German classical archaeologist and historian of ancient art, in which field he was a noted authority. A convert to Roman Catholicism in 1754, he went to Italy the following year.
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 and his century] (1805). Also written under the classical impact were the historical drama Egmont (1788), well known for Beethoven's incidental music; Römische Elegien (1788); the psychological drama Torquato Tasso (1789); the domestic epic Hermann und Dorothea (1797); and the final, poetic version (1787) of the drama Iphigenie auf Tauris.

In 1792 Goethe accompanied Duke Charles Augustus as official historian in the allied campaign against revolutionary France. He appreciated the principles of the French Revolution but resented the methods employed. A reformer in his own small state, Goethe wished to see social change accomplished from above. Later he refused to share in the patriotic fervor that swept Germany during the Napoleonic Wars.

Novels and Poetry

His novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809, tr. Elective Affinities, 1963) is one of his most significant novels, but perhaps his best-known work in that genre is the Wilhelm Meister series. The novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [the apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister] (1796), became the prototype of the German Bildungsroman, or novel of character development. In 1829 the last installment of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre [Wilhelm Meister's journeyman years], a series of episodes, was published.

His most enduring work, indeed, one of the peaks of world literature, is the dramatic poem Faust. The first part was published in 1808, the second shortly after Goethe's death. Goethe recast the traditional FaustFaust
, Faustus
, or Johann Faust
, fl. 16th cent., learned German doctor who traveled widely, performed magical feats, and died under mysterious circumstances.
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 legend and made it one of the greatest poetic and philosophic creations the world possesses. His main departure from the original is no doubt the salvation of Faust, the erring seeker, in the mystic last scene of the second part.

Many women passed through Goethe's life, with Charlotte von Stein probably the most intellectual of them. He married (1806) Christiane Vulpius (1765–1816), who had borne him a son. Goethe's unsuccessful marriage offer (1822) to young Ulrike von Levetzow inspired his poems Trilogie der Leidenschaft [trilogy of passion]. Westöstlicher Diwan (1819), a collection of Goethe's finest lyric poetry, was inspired by his young friend Marianne von Willemer, who figures as Suleika in the cycle. The Diwan strikes a new note in German poetry, introducing Eastern elements derived from Goethe's reading of the Persian poet HafizHafiz
[Arab.,=one who has memorized the Qur'an], 1319–1389?, Persian lyric poet, b. Shiraz. His original name was Shams al-Din Muhammad. He acquired the surname from having memorized the Qur'an at an early age.
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Other Accomplishments

Increasingly aloof from national, political, or even literary partisanship, Goethe became more and more the Olympian divinity, to whose shrine at Weimar all Europe flocked. The variety and extent of his accomplishments and activities were monumental. Goethe knew French, English, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and translated works by Diderot, Voltaire, Cellini, Byron, and others. His approach to science was one of sensuous experience and poetic intuition. Well known is his stubborn attack on Newton's theory of light in Zur Farbenlehre (1810). A corresponding treatise on acoustics remained unfinished.

An accomplished amateur musician, Goethe conducted instrumental and vocal ensembles and directed opera performances in Weimar. His search for an operatic composer with whom he could collaborate failed; although many of his operetta librettos were composed, none achieved lasting fame. Goethe's exquisite lyrical poems, often inspired by existing songs, challenged contemporary composers to give their best in music, and such songs as "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" [only the lonely heart], "Kennst du das Land" [know'st thou the land], and Erlkönig were among the song texts most often set to music.

Goethe's aim was to make his life a concrete example of the full range of human potential, and he succeeded as few others did. The friendship of Friedrich von SchillerSchiller, Friedrich von,
1759–1805, German dramatist, poet, and historian, one of the greatest of German literary figures, b. Marbach, Württemberg. The poets of German romanticism were strongly influenced by Schiller, and he ranks as one of the founders of modern
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 and his death (1805) made a deep impression on Goethe. He is buried, alongside Schiller, in the ducal crypt at Weimar. The opinions of Goethe are recorded not only in his own writings but also in conversations recorded by his secretary J. P. Eckermann and in extensive correspondence with the composer Zelter and with Schiller, Byron, Carlyle, Manzoni, and others. It would be difficult to overestimate Goethe's influence on the subsequent history of German literature.


The bulk of Goethe's work is immense; the most recent complete edition is the so-called Weimar edition (133 vol. in 140, 1887–1919). Most of his works have been translated into English, notably by T. Carlyle; see also M. Bell, ed., The Essential Goethe (2016). Biographies include those by G. H. Lewes (1855), J. Sime (1888), F. Gundolf (1916, in German), J. G. Robertson (1927), and N. Boyle (2 vol., 1991–2000); see also L. Lewisohn, ed., Goethe: The Story of a Man (1949). Among well-known studies are essays by Carlyle, Emerson, C. Thomas, G. Santayana, A. Gide, A. Schweitzer, and T. Mann. See also studies by K. Viëtor, Goethe, the Thinker (tr. 1950); R. Peacock, Goethe's Major Plays (1959, repr. 1966); R. Gray, Goethe: A Critical Introduction (1967); E. C. Mason, Goethe's Faust (1967); E. A. Blackall, Goethe and the Novel (1976); M. A. Carlson, Goethe and the Weimar Theater, (1978); and K. M. Wheeler, German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism (1984).

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749–1832)

(pop culture)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s most renown man of letters, was born in Frankfurt am Main the son of Katherine Elisabeth Textor and Johann Kaspar Goethe. He entered the University of Leipzig in 1765 to study law. While there, however, he found he was more interested in art and drama and wrote his first plays shortly before a hemorrhage forced his return home in 1768. Goethe finished his law studies at Strasborg in 1771 and established a practice in Frankfurt. These years became a period of intense change in Goethe’s world and the beginning of the amazing literary productivity that characterized his life.

In the early 1770s, Goethe began work on Faust, the work for which he is most remembered. In fact, he worked on it for much of his life. In 1775, he moved to Weimar at the invitation of Duke Karl August. Although he intended to only stay a few months, he resided there for the rest of his life. In 1784 Goethe began his association with Friedreich Schiller at the University of Jena. The two embarked on a program to give German literature a new degree of seriousness and purpose, a program that met with a remarkable level of success. Goethe’s 1796 novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre has been described as the most influential work of fiction in German literature. He completed Part 1 of Faust in 1806 and saw its publication two years later.

Although not a romantic, Goethe was the idol of the emerging German romantic movement and his influence was felt by romantics throughout Europe. One work that garnered their appreciation was his 1797 poem, “The Bride of Corinth.” It was one of the earliest modern ventures into poetry based on the vampire theme.

Often mistakenly cited as being based on a story in Philostratus’s The Life of Apollonius of Tynana, the poem was in fact based on another story from ancient Greece recounted by Phlegon. In it a young woman, Philinnon, returned from the dead to be with her love, Machates.

In his lifetime, Goethe emerged as the most respected man of letters in nineteenth-century Europe. Thus his involvement in the controversy surrounding the publication of the first vampire novella in 1816 was of importance. In that year, “The Vampyre”, appeared in a London magazine under the name of Lord Byron. Even before Byron could issue a denial of his connection to the story that was actually written by John Polidori, Goethe declared it Byron’s greatest work. Goethe, therefore, inadvertently lent his prestige to the erroneous ascription of Polidori’s tale to Byron, especially in non-English speaking lands. As late as 1830, it was included in the French edition of Byron’s collected works.

In the 1820s, Goethe began work on the second part of Faust, which was completed in 1831. He died the following year.


Frayling, Christopher. Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. 429 pp.
Williams, John R. The Life of Goethe: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001. 352 pp.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von


Born Aug. 28, 1749, in Frankfurt am Main; died Mar. 22, 1832, in Weimar. German poet, thinker, and naturalist. Outstanding representative of the Enlightenment in Germany, one of the founders of modern German literature, and a versatile scientist whose work in the natural sciences reflected “ingenious guesses anticipating the most recent theory of development” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 287).

The son of an imperial councillor who was a well-educated burgher, Goethe studied at Leipzig from 1765 to 1768 and at Strasbourg from 1770 to 1771. He attended lectures in jurisprudence and many other scholarly disciplines, including medicine. In Strasbourg, Goethe met J. G. von Herder and became part of the Sturm und Drang movement. In 1775 he went to Weimar at the invitation of Duke Karl August. Scorning the opinion of the court, Goethe entered into a common-law marriage with Christiane Vulpius, a young woman who worked at an artificial flower workshop. His attitude toward the Great French Revolution was restrained, but at the battle of Valmy in September 1792 he brilliantly described the importance in world history of the victory won by the French revolutionary forces: “On this day and at this place a new era of world history has begun.” Goethe’s friendship with F. Schiller, which began in 1794, had great importance. Goethe was also the director of a theater that he organized in Weimar in 1791.

Goethe’s early poetical works (1767-69) went back to the traditions of Anacreontic lyrics. His first collection of poems was published in 1769. In 1770 a new phase of his creative life began. The lyric verse of his Sturm und Drang period constitutes one of the most brilliant pages in the history of German poetry. The heroes of Goethe’s lyrics represent the embodiment of nature or organic unity with nature (“The Wanderer,” 1772, and “Song of Mahomet,” 1774). The poet turned to mythological figures, reinterpreting them in a spirit of rebellion (The Song of the Wanderer in the Storm, 1771—72, and the monologue of Prometheus from an unfinished drama, 1773). The historical drama Götz von Berlichingen (1773) reflected events on the eve of the Peasant War and resounded with a stern reminder of the arbitrary rule of princes and the tragedy of the fragmented country. In the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Goethe used the sentimental novel in epistolary form to convey the dramatic personal experiences of the protagonist and simultaneously to describe contemporary German life. In the drama Egmont (1788), which Goethe began even before he moved to Weimar and which was linked with the ideas of the Sturm und Drang, the action focuses on the conflict between the foreign oppressors and the people, whose resistance has been suppressed but not broken. The drama’s conclusion gives a resounding call to the struggle for freedom.

The decade from 1776 to 1785 was a transitional period in Goethe’s development. His reaction against individualistic rebelliousness turned his thoughts toward an understanding of the necessity for the self-limitation of the individual (The Limits of Humanity, 1778-81, and “Ilmenau,” 1783). True to the heroic traditions of humanism, however, Goethe affirmed that human beings are capable of creative daring—for example, The Godlike, 1782, in which the contradictory nature of his world view was revealed. The poet cannot completely escape the oppressive influence of outmoded social relations, and therefore he “is at times monumental and grand, and at times petty; at times he is the recalcitrant, mocking genius who scorns the world, and at times the cautious, narrow-minded Philistine who is content with all” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 233). In the late 1780’s the concept of a so-called Weimar classicism as a special variant of the European and German Enlightenment took shape. In the idea of harmony, which Goethe took from J. Winckelmann and which was developed by Goethe and Schiller, the affirmation of the ideal harmonious personality is combined with a program of gradual reforms. The idea of struggle is replaced by the idea of education, which in the final analysis represented a reconciliation with the existing order (the drama Torquato Tasso, written during 1780-89 and published in 1790).

Goethe’s pagan and materialistic perception of the culture of antiquity is most clearly expressed in the Roman Elegies (1790), which glorified the pleasures of the flesh. Later, in the ballad “The Bride of Corinth” (1797), the poet contrasted .this life-affirming paganism with the asceticism of the Christian religion. The tragedy Iphigenia in Tauride (written between 1779 and 1786 and published in 1787) was based on the ancient Greek myth. Its theme was the victory of humanity over barbarism. The Great French Revolution was directly reflected in the Venetian Epigrams (written in 1790, published in 1796), in the drama The Citizen General (published in 1793), and in the short story The Conversations of German Emigrants (1794-95). Goethe rejected revolutionary violence, but at the same time he recognized the necessity for a social transformation. During these years he wrote the satirical narrative poem Reynard the Fox (1793), an exposé of feudal arbitrariness. In the narrative poem Hermann und Dorothea (1797), which was written in hexameters in a genre similar to the idyll, Goethe contrasted the quiet, patriarchal way of life in a remote German village with the “unprecedented turmoil” of events unfolding on the other side of the Rhine River.

Goethe’s major work of the 1790’s was the novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (written between 1793 and 1796 and published during 1795-96). The protagonist’s enthusiasm for the stage proves to be a youthful error. At the end of the novel he sees that his work lies in practical economic activity. In fact, this signified a reconciliation with the backward reality of Germany at the time. Brilliant, realistic scenes of everyday life and colorful imagery are interwoven in the novel with a deliberately enigmatic conclusion and the portrayal of mysterious figures.

Goethe’s autobiography, From My Life: Poetry and Truth (parts 1-4, published 1811-33), covers the early period of his life before he moved to Weimar and takes a critical view of the rebelliousness of the Sturm und Drang. The Journey to Italy (vols. 1-3, published 1816-29) is a remarkable artistic document of the period. In the novel of family life, Elective Affinities (published in 1809), Goethe raised the question of freedom of expression of feelings, but within the framework of the themes of renunciation and loyalty to the family structure. The novel Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (parts 1-3, 1821-29), which was linked in many ways with the tradition of the German romantic novel, is noteworthy for its idea of collective labor, which is embodied in the naïve utopia of an artisans’ commune. The interest in the Orient that was typical of romanticism was reflected in The Western-Eastern Divan (written during 1814-19, published in 1819), which was inspired by Persian poetry.

In the publicistic writings of his last years, Goethe rejected the passion for all things Teutonic and the mystical sides of German romanticism. However, he welcomed the collection of folk songs by L. J. von Arnim and C. Brentano, The Boy’s Magic Horn (1806-08), and expressed high regard for Byron’s romanticism. Polemicizing against the nationalistic tendencies that developed in Germany during and after the Napoleonic wars, Goethe proposed the idea of “world literature,” thereby divorcing himself from Hegel’s skepticism about the future of art.

The tragedy Faust (part 1, 1808; part 2, 1825-31) summarizes the development of all European 18th-century Enlightenment thought and anticipates the problematics of the 19th century. In developing his theme Goethe relied on the popular book on Faust (1587) and on puppet theater presentations of the legend. The Faust figure embodies belief in the unlimited potential of human beings. Faust’s daring and inquiring mind is contrasted to the fruitless efforts of the dry pedant Wagner, who is estranged from life and the people. Goethe conveys his idea in the concise formula often repeated by Lenin—“All theory is gray, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.” In the course of his philosophical search, Faust transcends the contemplative spirit of German social thought and postulates action as the foundation of being. The profound insights of dialectics find their reflection in Goethe’s work (the monologue of the Earth Spirit and Faust’s own contradictory aspirations). Goethe does away with the metaphysical juxtaposition of good and evil. Negation and skepticism, which are personified in the figure of Mephistopheles, become driving forces that help Faust in his search for truth. The road to creation passes through destruction: in N. G. Chernyshevskii’s words, this was the conclusion arrived at by Goethe in generalizing on the historical experience of his age. The Gretchen story becomes an important link in the process of Faust’s seekings. The tragedy of the situation arises from the unresolvable contradiction between the ideal of the natural human being, which Faust imagines Margarete to be, and the reality of a young woman of limited outlook from a petit bourgeois background. At the same time, Margarete is the victim of social prejudices and the dogmatism of church morality. Striving to affirm the humanist ideal, Faust turns to antiquity. His marriage to Helen emerges as a symbol of the unity of two epochs. However, this unity is only an illusion—Helen disappears, and their son dies. The result of Faust’s search is the conviction that the ideal must be attained in the real world. Here Goethe comes to realize that the new bourgeois society, which was founded on the ruins of feudal Europe, is far from the ideal. Confronted by the complex knot of problems of the 19th century, Goethe preserved the optimism of the Enlightenment, but projected it onto future generations, for whom free labor in a free world will be possible. People should work and struggle in the name of this bright future. “Those only are of life and freedom worthy/Who go forth every day to battle for them.” That is the final conclusion of Goethe’s optimistic tragedy.

In the words of Heine, the death of Goethe marked the end of German literature’s “artistic period,” a term that meant that the interests of art had prevailed at that time over those of society and politics.

Soviet literary scholarship has worked fruitfully to assimilate Goethe’s heritage. In prerevolutionary Russia, Goethe was studied and translated beginning in the 18th century. Among those who translated his works were V. A. Zhukov-skii, the poets of Pushkin’s circle, F. I. Tiutchev, K. S. Aksakov, N. P. Ogarev, M. Iu. Lermontov, and A. A. Fet. There are 23 Russian translations of the first part of Faust. The first Russian translation of Faust was done in 1838 by E. I. Guber. The translations of Faust by N. A. Kholodov-skii and B. L. Pasternak are generally considered the best. Among those who have translated Goethe’s poetry are N. N. Vil’mont and V. V. Levik.

E. Delacroix’s illustrations of Faust are widely known. Beethoven composed music on the Egmont theme in 1810, and Gounod wrote the opera Faust in 1859. Other works on the Faust theme include A. Boito’s opera Mefistofele (1868) and Hector Berlioz’ oratorio The Damnation of Faust (1846).


Goethe did work in the natural sciences on comparative plant and animal morphology, physics (optics and acoustics), mineralogy, geology, and meteorology. His morphological research had the greatest historical significance. In his Essay on the Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) he observed signs of structural similarity between different plant organs. In the field of comparative animal anatomy Goethe discovered the premaxillary bone in human beings in 1784 and published his findings in 1820 with other anatomical studies in a memoir entitled Problems of Morphology. In this work he presented, among other things, his theory that the skull originated out of vertebrae that had grown together. The very term “morphology” originated with Goethe. His objections to Newton’s discovery of the complex nature of white light were mistaken, but his work on the theory of colors still has historical significance, chiefly in the areas of physiology and the psychology of vision. Goethe’s views on the structural unity of plant and animal organisms make it possible to regard him as a predecessor of Darwin.



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