Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, at Frankfort-on-the-Main, one of the free cities of Germany. He died in Weimar, in Saxony, at the age of eighty-two, on March 22, 1832.
In any classification of the men of his time it is impossible to rank him, especially, among men of letters generally, or as a poet, or as a naturalist. He is especially what our time is fond of calling "an all-round man." But he differs from most men who are thus praised, because he is the acknowledged leader of the thought of the first half of the century. He does equally well all that he does. If in the year 1850 anyone had asked who was the first poet of the preceding half century, Goethe would have been named by almost all who answered. If you had asked who was the first man of letters, he would have been named by all. It was certain that his philosophy of human life affected the thought of the students and scholarly people of Europe and America more than that of any other author of his time. Indeed, to this hour, many an humble listener or reader receives suggestions, from the pulpit or the newspaper, of which he does not know the origin, but which are in truth born from some suggestion of Goethe.
It is natural to attempt to account for so remarkable a man, in a measure at least, by tracing back his genealogy. Goethe himself gave some attention to the study of his ancestry, and his biographers have worked at it faithfully. But their work gives no confirmation to the doctrines of heredity which are so well supported in other lives. His father, Johann Caspar Goethe, was a respectable member of the city government of Frankfort, with the title of imperial councillor. He had a craving for knowledge, a delight in communicating it, a love of order, and a certain stoicism, which appear in his son. But there is no ray of genius apparent in him. His father was a respectable tailor in the city of Frankfort, named Frederick. Frederick's father was a farrier or blacksmith in Thuringia, named Hans Christian Goethe. In neither of these ancestors is found any germ of the poet's genius.
On the other hand, the successful life of Wolfgang von Goethe is one more instance, in a large number afforded in the history of the last two centuries, which show that a good education under prosperous circumstances, with the appliances which tend to health of body, mind, and soul, is a very fortunate help to native genius, when native genius finds itself in such surroundings. In the imperial councillor's house his son had every comfort. He was surrounded by pictures books, medals, and other works of art. His reasonable wishes could all be gratified. And he knew none of the hardships which, if they are sometimes the stimulus of genius, more often make its penance.
To his mother he seems to have owed more of the qualities which have made him distinguished. He says himself that his love of story-telling came from her, and his happy disposition. She taught him how he could find the good which is in everyone, and her own habit was to leave people's vices to the God who made them. Much more than this, Goethe had at home the blessing, which cannot be overestimated, of the presence of a sister who shared in his tastes, who joined in his studies, and whom he loved with a passionate affection. He could pour out his enthusiasms to her; she poured out hers to him. So that both of them were blessed through their childhood in that greatest of blessings, a happy home.
He was a precocious boy, and his father and mother both observed his remarkable abilities. There was no lack of good teachers in Frankfort, and he was well trained in the classics in early life. He also studied Hebrew at the same time, having the advantage of the instruction of learned Jews who lived in Frankfort. There never was any question but that he should go to the university. His father's wish was that he should enter upon the career of what he would have called jurisprudence. With this view some of the younger Goethe's earlier studies were conducted. But, before he was old enough to take any very decided steps in the profession of law, his determination to follow a wider literary career became so evident that the plan of jurisprudence was eventually entirely abandoned.
When he was sixteen years old he went to Leipsic, and entered at the university there, in the month of October, 1765. The university was classed in the "Four Nations," as they were called—the Misnian, the Saxon, the Bavarian, and the Polish. Goethe was from Frankfort, and was classed as a Bavarian. His father left him wide freedom in the choice of subjects and teachers, and though he attended some lectures which bore on subjects of jurisprudence, he was more interested in the wider range of natural science and of general literature. It would seem that he learned more from the people around him in whose society he was intimately thrown than from his professors. He tried his hand in fine art, occupied himself in drawing, and even in engraving. Although the three years spent in Leipsic show but little which is remarkable in any scientific course of study, it is quite clear that he laid foundations here which were of use to him in all his future life. But at the end of three years his health was seriously affected. He was depressed in hypochondria, and was physically ill. He was "destitute of faith, yet terrified at scepticism," and he returned to his home in 1768, discouraged and physically broken down.
But a year and a half of the regularity of home life, quite different from his Bohemian courses at the university—a life inspired by his mother's and his sister's love—and a physical life sustained by a home diet which was so much better than a student's fare, wholly restored him, and in April, 1770, he went to the University of Strasburg, not far from Frankfort, now with the real purpose of studying jurisprudence. He was nearly twenty-one years old, in stature rather above the middle size, and because his presence was imposing he was generally spoken of as tall; but he was not really a tall man, but gave this impression by his erect carriage and because his bust was large. Long before he was celebrated, he was called an Apollo.
At Leipsic he had led the life of a boy. At Strasburg he knew men and entered on the interests of a man. Herder was there, whose reputation as a man of letters and a scholar, in after times, was to be in that great second class which would have been the first class but that there Goethe reigned alone. Herder was at Strasburg to undergo an operation for the benefit of his eyes. Goethe made his acquaintance, which ripened into friendship, and Herder's influence on the young Apollo was of the very best. Goethe remained in Strasburg from April, 1770, till August, 1771. He made the acquaintance of Frederike Brion, whose father was pastor of the little village of Sesenheim. Frederike was a fair, sweet girl of sixteen, and Goethe was for the time deeply interested in her; but she was to him little more than a child, and when he left Strasbourg she was soon forgotten. But she never forgot, and years after died unwedded. Goethe was now writing, with the versatility and the enthusiasm which marked all his literary work. Something or somebody acquainted him with the history of Goetz von Berlichingen, a name then little known, to which this young student has given its distinction.
We do not understand Goethe nor the enthusiasm with which Germany welcomed his earliest printed work, if we do not see how it was connected with the hatred of conventionalism and of mere authority, which in the German language was called Sturm und Drang. In after life Goethe had none too much of enthusiasm for radical reformers. But as a young man, he breathed the atmosphere of his time. In the same way, in the year 1773, Schiller, a boy only fourteen years old, was writing verses which in 1778 he wrought into "The Robbers," appealing to all the enthusiasm for liberty in young Germany.
Goethe and Frederike.
In the years which we are following, the young men of America were solving the political questions and preparing for the military struggles of the American Revolution. France was in the glow of hope which made even Louis XVI. himself suppose that a golden age was come again for Frenchmen. In England the protest against form and authority showed itself in signs as easily read as the letters of Junius and the Wilkes riots in London. The autocracy attempted by poor George III., in an attempt which cost him America, was only the most absurd imitation of the despotism of Louis XIV. In Germany, the revolt against the traditions of the past showed itself in the new outburst of national literature. Young men were sick of the sway of France and the French language, to which Frederick even had been so subservient. In all senses Frederick was now a very old lion—and there were those who said he had lost his teeth. To be German, to write and read German, to recall German memories, and to throw off conventional restraints of whatever kind—such was the drift and determination of the movement which received the excellent title of the "Sturm und Drang."
Soon after Goethe left Strasburg he printed his play of "Goetz von Berlichingen." The hero is a true character of history. He was born about the year 1480 and died in 1562. His life had been published in 1731, and Goethe made the drama on the lines of the true history. The play defies all the "unities" of the French drama, like the plays of Shakespeare, whom all the young Germans were reading with enthusiasm; and the action passes from place to place, and from year to year, just as the author chooses. The whole tendency of the drama is revolutionary, and as Goetz dies, his last words are: "Freedom! Freedom!" His wife cries, "Only above, above with thee! The world is a prison-house." His sister says, "Gallant and gentle! Woe to this age that has lost thee!" And the last words of the play are: "And woe to the future that cannot know thee."
With such an appeal to all the fresh young life of Germany, the young author comes before the world. His play is received with enthusiasm and, at the first step, his genius is recognized by his countrymen.
Before it was published, he had returned to Frankfort, having in a way satisfied his father's wishes by his legal studies, and his career for his future calling is to begin in a residence at Weslar. This was the seat of the Court of Appeal of the old German Empire. How far justice was really promoted, may be seen from the single statement that, while the docket of cases was twenty thousand behindhand in 1772, only sixty decisions were made in a year. In what was called praxis or practice, the young Goethe was placed in a "circumlocution office" like Weslar. There is something ludicrous in the position, so absurd is it. To take Schiller's capital figure, it is indeed Pegasus in harness.
It happened that in this formal residence, he became intimately acquainted with Charlotte Buff and a young man named Kestner, to whom she was betrothed. They were fond of him, he of them, and he shared in the hospitalities of their new home after they were married. In the simple life of Kestner and Charlotte Buff and in the suicide of a young man named Jerusalem, whom they all knew, he found the details for the picture of life described in his celebrated novel called the "Sorrows of Young Werther," the novel most remarkable perhaps of modern times, if its influence on literature and society be regarded.
In the characters of the book, Werther, Lotte, and Albert show traits which were at once recognized as belonging to Goethe, Charlotte Buff, and Kestner. But it must not be understood that the intricate "elective affinities" of the novel really describe the personal relations of the three. To young readers it may be said that the transfer of the scientific term "elective affinity," from the new chemistry of that time, to the language of the affections, was first made in this book. It was afterward dwelt upon in the novel called "Elective affinities." The phrase has long since been used, now in ridicule and now seriously, quite as much in discussions of the working of the human heart as to express the relations of acids and alkalies.
It would be very hard to persuade the young people of to-day to read "The Sorrows of Werther." It would be hard to make them understand that for a generation of men, from 1774, when it was published, until this century was well advanced, people of sense and real feeling regarded it as a central and important book, which they valued because it had awakened them and given them strength. The English critics, when at last they found there was such a book, were content to laugh at its exaggerated sentiment. In truth, as Carlyle has well said, "'Werther' expressed the dim-rooted pain under which thoughtful men were languishing." Europe responded to "Werther," because, even in its sentimental languishing, it expressed this pain. America was finding another method of expressing her dissatisfaction in 1774. And it may be doubted whether from that day to the end of the century, a copy of the "Sorrows of Werther" was heard of in the United States, unless indeed the Baroness Riedesel soothed with it the more physical sorrows of the bivouacs of Saratoga, or the barracks of her captivity.
"Goetz von Berlichingen" and "Werther" made the young Goethe one of the foremost men in German literature. That theory of his boyhood, that he was to be a lawyer or jurisconsult, could be maintained no longer even by his father. The distinguished men of letters of Germany made his acquaintance, and it may be said that their company lifted him, very fortunately, from the petty society of persons inferior to him, among whom he was a dictator. As early as 1774 Goethe had conceived the idea of "Faust," and when Klopstock visited him at Frankfort, in that year, Goethe read to him some fragments of that poem.
The popularity of "Werther" was such that it was read by people of all ranks. Among the rest, the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl August, then only nineteen years old, conceived a great admiration for Goethe, and in 1774, on a visit to Frankfort, with his bride, he invited the young author to his little court at Weimar. Johann Goethe, the father, had the pride of a magistrate of a free city, and had no fancy for a part so poor as that which Voltaire had played, within his memory, at the court of King Frederick. But the office was tempting to the young author, and he accepted the invitation. This ended in his receiving from the duke a home at Weimar and recognized position. To those who study the inducements and encouragements of authorship, it is interesting to know that through all the success, before the public and with the booksellers, of "Goetz von Berlichingen" and "Werther," neither book had paid back to Goethe the money he had spent for their publication. Fame, and fame only, had been, thus far, his reward.
He went to Weimar as the friend of its young sovereign, who was just entering on a career which may fairly be called illustrious. Weimar was and is "more like a village bordering a park than a capital with a court, having all courtly environments." The representation it gave of the formalities, the "fuss and feathers" of a court, was on the most minute scale. But with a certain pride, well understood, a German historian has said, that after Berlin there is no one of the countless courts of Germany of which the nation is so proud. Such pride is born from the distinction which this grand duke, Karl August, gave to it, by calling into what was called his service, such men as Klopstock, Wieland, Goethe, and Schiller. This grand duke was himself a remarkable man for one "in his unfortunate position." He now owes all the place he has in history to the fortunate decision by which he offered to Goethe a home in the little city of Weimar, when he was himself a boy.
After a gay, not to say wild, introduction to the little social circle of this funny little court, Goethe settled down quite seriously to the work which belonged to a member of the administration. He had accepted the post of Counsellor of the Home Department, with a seat in the council. This carried with it a yearly salary of about nine hundred of our dollars. And in the modest habits of that little court this seems to have been regarded as a competency. With this income it is certain that Goethe kept house, fulfilled the demands which etiquette made on his position, and remitted a sixth part of his money to a poor, broken-winded, and apparently worthless author, whose very name is unknown, who maintained with him a begging correspondence.
Goethe proved himself a thorough man of business in the discharge of his official duties. His interest in science made him study the administration of the mines of the duchy with care and in detail, and when, afterward, he gave up other official cares, he retained the administration of the Department of the Mines. To persons studying his style it is worthy of remark, that the best habits of a man of affairs may be noted all through his work, whether scientific, speculative, poetical, or indeed, in whatever form it takes. There is never anything which a critic of our time would call "gush," or "padding," or "slip-slop." He advances on his purpose, whatever that purpose is, with the directness of an engineer pressing the attack of a fortress, or of an architect making the specifications for a building.
Meanwhile, for the relaxation or diversion of life, there was a passion, more or less real, which bound him to the Baroness von Stein, the wife of the Master of the Horse; there was the direction of the theatre and music of the court, and occasional journeys, generally incognito, with the Duke Karl August. A favorite entertainment was in private theatricals, which were indeed the rage in the little circle. The duchess acted, and everybody, even of the highest rank, was glad to be enrolled in the troupe, which was directed by Goethe. Eager for the applauses of other audiences than the favored circle at Weimar, the company went about, almost like a troupe of gypsies, from one to another of the country homes of the neighborhood. In all our modern ridicule of the Duchy of Pompernickel, and the like, it is hard to find anything more absurd than these accounts of the best way which the leaders of the state found for the occupation of their time, and for the edification of their people. The private theatricals of this court, however, will be long remembered, because the rollicking experiences of these parties, which were a sort of picnics in a courtly style, give the framework, or machinery for the story of "Wilhelm Meister."
This famous and remarkable book was begun soon after Goethe went to Weimar. But it was not published until 1795, after Goethe had spent more than a year in Italy, a period which marked a crisis in his life. In ten months' hard study of painting in Rome, he satisfied himself, at last, that he should never be a painter. It seems strange now to say, that until then, he had diligently nursed the hope that as a painter he should achieve great success. In Italy he looked at the petty court of Weimar from a point distant enough to see it in its true relations and perspective. He measured his own powers as a man does who is removed from the petty detail of small official duty. And he returned to Weimar in 1788, determining wisely to give the rest of his life to science and literature. The "determination" proved to be a determination. And from this time, his life as a master of the thought of his time may be said to begin.
He had received from the grand duke a title of nobility, and from that time he is "von Goethe," instead of "Goethe" simple, without that prefix of dignity. On his return from Italy he gave up all his official work, except the direction of the mines and of the theatre. It is interesting to remember that Goethe thus directed the work of the mines in which Luther's father had been a workman. His interest in natural science made him hold this position; and his charge of the theatre was almost a matter of course in such a court as that of Weimar. He was, however, relieved from the presidency of the council and from the direction of the War Department. The duke retained for him a place in the council "whenever his other affairs allowed him to attend." It must be remembered that all such appointments were made wholly at the wish of the duke, who was the absolute monarch of this little state, until he gave to his people a liberal constitution in 1816.
It will be convenient to American readers to remember that the size of the duchy is about the same as that of the State of Rhode Island—about fourteen hundred square miles. In Goethe's time, the population was less than a million. The city of Weimar had about ten thousand inhabitants. To Weimar Goethe returned, resolved to give his life, from that time forward, to science and literature. Before the Italian journey he had done so in large measure. But after his return, relieved from almost all duties of administration, he brings forward finished works, with untiring enthusiasm, on many different lines, many of which are among the masterpieces of the time. Schiller had come to Weimar in 1794. Goethe and he had met before. There were differences between these men so great that in some lines they had no sympathy. All the more is it to the credit of both, that each appreciated the other and that they lived and worked together as friends. When Schiller proposed the literary journal called The Hours, Goethe co-operated in the plan most cordially. And so long as Schiller lived, their friendship was to each a great blessing. Their statues, representing them hand in hand, commemorate this friendship to this day.
The closing books of "Wilhelm Meister" were written in Italy, and after Goethe's return, and the book was published in 1795. Goethe had long since outlived the extravagance of sentimentalism which overflowed in "Werther." He had himself ridiculed it in a little farce, much laughed at at the time. And if "Wilhelm Meister" were taken merely as a story, it would be found quite free from such extravagances. The story, however, is simply the framework for criticism on art, on literature, and especially for what may be called studies on education. The criticism on "Hamlet" has been called the best of the thousands upon thousands of which "Hamlet" has been the subject. No book of Goethe's has had, or has held, the interest of the great world of "general readers," as "Wilhelm Meister," "Faust" not excepted.
"Hermann and Dorothea" appeared in 1797, and was one of the most serious of the efforts by which Goethe and Schiller both gave themselves to create a German drama worthy of the German people. In 1790 a new theatre had been built at Weimar, and Goethe became in fact the manager. He was not satisfied with writing plays to be performed there; he actually supervised the performances, and gave to the detail of such management much of his time for many years. So long as Schiller lived the two were closely connected in all such enterprises, and Goethe's practical connection with the theatre led him, perhaps, to attempt the dramatic form of composition more often than he would otherwise have done.
In 1799 Walter Scott, then only twenty-five years of age, published in Edinburgh his translation of "Goetz von Berlichingen."
It must be remembered that all this time Goethe is pursuing his studies of Physical Science. His little book called "Morphologie," published in 1788, immediately after his return from Italy, is a simple, unaffected, practical, statement of the law of growth of plants, which, though suggested before, had quite escaped the attention of the botanists of repute. When it was published, it seems to have been pushed aside as the fanciful dream of a poet. In truth, it is a book which might be given to-day to a learner, as one of the most elegant and simple illustrations of what is now meant by evolution in nature. From the humble resources of a common garden Goethe finds material to show how whorls of leaves appear as blossoms; how calyx passes into corolla; how leaves of the corolla become stamens and pistils. After a generation the botanists were willing enough to accept the statement, and Goethe lived long enough to see it accepted as the foundation of the Botanical Science of his time.
The critics are apt to call "Faust" his greatest work. The first part was published in 1805, the second in 1831. Quite too much finesse has been wasted on endeavors to discover his purpose in the poem. It will live, not from any discovery of his purpose, but because of the intensity with which it presents the different characters. It will command and control men all the more, because they do not find in it the skeleton of what is called an artistic or scientific literary plan. It is impossible, in the limited range of this article, even to name the several works, many of them of great importance, of the last half of his life. With his assiduous industry, so assiduous that he was never satisfied, perhaps, unless he was at work, he edited an art journal, Kunst und Alterthum, from 1816 to 1828. In a thousand methods of publication he sent out poems, dramas, novels, and pamphlets. He had the satisfaction of knowing that Europe and America regarded him as the first author of his time.
Goethe married, in 1806, Christiana Vulpius, who had been employed as a servant in his family. She died in the year 1816. He seems to have really lamented her death.
His old age was serene. The jubilee of his arrival in Weimar was celebrated with great enthusiasm, on November 7, 1825. All through the last years of his life he was receiving tokens of admiration from all parts of the world. They gratified his vanity, and satisfied his pride.
He died on March 22, 1832. His last words have been well remembered; "More light!"