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My Own Life by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I.--Birth and Childhood

On August 28, 1749, at midday, I came into the world at Frankfort-on-Maine. Our house was situated in a street called the Stag-Ditch. Formerly the street had been a ditch, in which stags were kept. On the second floor of the dwelling was a room called the garden-room, because there they had endeavoured to supply the want of a garden by means of a few plants placed before a window. As I grew older, it was there that I made my somewhat sentimental retreat, for from thence might be viewed a beautiful and fertile plain.

When I became acquainted with my native city, I loved more than anything else to promenade on the great bridge over the Maine. Its length, its firmness, and fine aspect rendered it a notable structure. And one liked to lose oneself in the old trading town, particularly on market days, among the crowd collected about the church of St. Bartholomew. The Römerberg was a most delightful place for walking.

My father had prospered in his own career tolerably according to his wishes; I was to follow the same course, only more easily and much further. He had passed his youth in the Coburg Gymnasium, which stood as one of the first among German educational institutions. He had there laid a good foundation, and had subsequently taken his degree at Giessen. He prized my natural endowments the more because he was himself wanting in them, for he had acquired everything simply by means of diligence and pertinacity.

During my childhood the Frankforters passed a series of prosperous years, but scarcely, on August 28, 1756, had I completed my seventh year, when that world-renowned war broke out, which was also to exert great influence upon the next seven years of my life. Frederick II. of Prussia had fallen upon Saxony with 60,000 men. The world immediately split into two parties, and our family was an image of the great whole. My grandfather took the Austrian side, with some of his daughters and sons-in-law; my father leaned towards Prussia, with the other and smaller half of the family; and I also was a Prussian in my views, for the personal character of the great king worked on our hearts.

As the eldest grandson and godchild, I dined every Sunday with my grandparents, and the event was always the most delightful experience of the week. But now I relished no morsel that I tasted, because I was compelled to listen to the most horrible slanders of my hero. That parties existed had never entered into my conceptions. I trace here the germ of that disregard and even disdain of the public which clung to me for a whole period of my life, and only in later days was brought within bounds by insight and cultivation. We continued to tease each other till the occupation of Frankfort by the French, some years afterwards, brought real inconvenience to our homes.

The New Year's Day of 1759 approached, as desirable and pleasant to us children as any preceding one, but full of import and foreboding to older persons. To the passage of French troops the people had certainly become accustomed; but they marched through the city in greater masses on this day, and on January 2 the troops remained and bivouacked in the streets till lodgings were provided for them by regular billeting.

Siding as my father did with the Prussians, he was now to find himself besieged in his own chambers by the French. This was, according to his way of thinking, the greatest misfortune that could happen to him. Yet, could he have taken the matter more easily, he might have saved himself and us many sad hours, for he spoke French well, and it was the Count Thorane, the king's lieutenant, who was quartered on us. That officer behaved himself in a most exemplary manner, and if it had been possible to cheer my father, this altered state of things would have caused little inconvenience.

During this French occupation I made great progress with the French language. But the chief profit was that which I derived from the theatre, for which my grandfather had given me a free ticket. I saw many French comedies acted, and became friendly with some of the young people connected with the stage. From the first day of the military occupation there was no lack of diversion; plays and balls, parades and marches constantly attracted our attention.

II.--A Romantic Episode

After the French occupation we children could not fail to feel as if the house were deserted. But new lodgers came in, Chancery-Director Moritz and his family being received in this capacity. They were quiet and gentle, and peace and stillness reigned. About this time a long-debated project for giving us lessons in music was carried into effect. It was settled that we should learn the harpsichord. And as we also received lessons from a drawing-master, the way to two arts was thus early enough opened to me.

English was also added to my studies; and as on my own account I soon felt that I ought to know Hebrew, my father allowed the rector of our gymnasium to give me private lessons. I studied the Old Testament no longer in Luther's translation, but in the literal version of Schmid. I also paid great attention to sermons at church, and wrote out many that I heard, doing this in a style that greatly gratified my father.

At this time my first romantic experience occurred. I fell under the enchantment of Gretchen, a beautiful girl who waited on me and some comrades at a restaurant. The form of that girl followed me from that moment on every path. At church, during the long Protestant service, I gazed my fill at her. I wrote her love-letters, which she did not resent. The first propensities to love in an uncorrupted youth take altogether a spiritual direction. Nature seems to desire that one sex may by the senses perceive goodness and beauty in the other. And thus to me, by the sight of this girl, a new world of the beautiful and excellent had arisen. But my friendship for this maiden being discovered by my father, a family disturbance ensued which plunged me into illness. I had been ordered to have nothing to do with anyone but the family.

My sorrow was deepened as I slowly recovered by the addition of a certain secret chagrin, for I plainly perceived that I was watched. It was not long before my family gave me a special overseer. Fortunately, it was a man whom I loved and valued. He had held the place of tutor in the family of one of our friends, and his former pupil had gone to the university. This friend, in skillful conversations, began to make me acquainted with the secrets of philosophy. He had studied at Jena under Daries, and had acutely seized the relations of that doctrine, which he now sought to impart to me.

After a time I took to wandering about the mountain range, and thus visited Homburg, Kronenburg, Wiesbaden, Schwalbach, and reached the Rhine. But the time was approaching when I was to go to the university. My mind was quite as much excited about my life as about my learning. I grew more and more conscious of an aversion from my native city. I never again went into Gretchen's quarter of it, and even my old walls and towers had become disagreeable.

III.--University Life

I had always had my eye upon Göttingen, but my father obstinately insisted on Leipzig. I arrived in that handsome city just at the time of the fair, from which I derived particular pleasure, being specially attracted by the inhabitants of eastern countries in their strange dresses. I commenced to study under Böhme, professor of history and public law, and Gellert, professor of literature. The reverence with which Gellert was regarded by all young people was extraordinary.

Much has been written about the condition of German literature at that time. I need only state how it stood towards me. The literary epoch in which I was born was developed out of the preceding one by opposition. Foreign influences had previously predominated, but in this epoch the German sense of freedom and joy began to stir itself. Göttsched, Lessing, Haller, and, above all, Wieland, had produced works of genius. The venerable Bengel had procured a decided reception for his labours on the Revelation of St. John, from the fact that he was known as an intelligent, upright, God-fearing, blameless man. Deep minds are compelled to live in the past as well as the future.

Plunging into literature on my own account, I at this period wrote the oldest of my extant dramatic labours, "The Lover's Caprice," following it with "The Accomplices." I had seen already many families ruined by bankruptcies, divorces, vice, murders, burglaries, and poisonings, and, young as I was, I had often, in such cases, lent a hand for help and preservation. Accordingly, these pieces were written from an elevated point of view, without my having been aware of it. But they could find no favour on the German stage.

My health had become somewhat impaired, though I did not think I should soon become apprehensive about my life. I had brought with me from home a certain touch of hypochondria, and a chronic pain in my breast, induced by a fall from horseback, perceptibly increased, and made me dejected. By an unfortunate diet I destroyed my powers of digestion, so that I experienced great uneasiness, yet without being able to embrace a resolution for a more rational mode of life. Besides the epoch of the cold-water bath, the hard bed slightly covered, and other follies unconditionally recommended, had begun, in consequence of some misunderstood suggestions of Rousseau, under the idea of bringing us nearer to nature and delivering us from the corruption of morals.

One night I awoke with a violent hemorrhage, and for several days I wavered between life and death. Recovery was slow, but nature helped me, and I appeared to have become another man, for I had gained a greater cheerfulness of mind than I had known for a long time, and I was rejoiced to feel my inner self at liberty. But what particularly set me up at this time was to see how many eminent men had undeservedly given me their affection, among them being Dr. Hermann Groening, Horn, and, above all, Langer, afterwards librarian at Wolfenbüttel, whose conversation so far blinded me to the miserable state I was in that I actually forgot it.

The confidence of new friends develops itself by degrees. The religious sentiments, the affairs of the heart which relate to the imperishable, are the things which both establish the foundation and adorn the summit of friendship. The Christian religion was wavering between its own historically positive base and a pure deism, which, grounded on morality, was in its turn to lay the foundation of ethics. Langer was of the class who, though learned, yet give the Bible a peculiar preeminence over other writings. He belongs to those who cannot conceive an immediate connection with the great God of the universe; a mediation, therefore, was necessary for him, an analogy to which he thought he could find everywhere, in earthly and heavenly things. Grounded as I was in the Bible, all that I wanted was merely the faith to explain as divine that which I had hitherto esteemed in human fashion. To a sufferer, delicate and weak, the Gospel was therefore welcome.

I left Leipzig in September, 1768, for my native city and my home, where my delicate appearance elicited loving sympathy. Again sickness ensued, and my life was once more in peril, chiefly through a disturbed, I might even say, for certain moments, destroyed digestion. But a skillful physician helped me to convalescence. In the spring I felt so much stronger that I longed to wander forth again from the chambers and spots where I had suffered so much. I journeyed to beautiful Alsace and took up lodgings on the summer-side of the fish-market in Strasburg, where I designed to continue my studies in law. Most of my fellow-boarders were medical students, and at table I heard nothing but medical conversations.

I was thus easily borne along the stream, and at the beginning of the second half-year I attended lectures on chemistry and anatomy. Yet this dissipation and dismemberment of my studies were not enough, for a remarkable political event secured for us a succession of holidays. Marie Antoinette was to pass through Strasburg on her way to Paris, and the solemnities were abundantly prepared. In the grand saloon erected on an island in the Rhine I saw a specimen of the tapestries worked after Raffaele's cartoons, and this sight was for me a very decided influence, for I became acquainted with the true and the perfect on a large scale.

IV.--Fascinating Friendship

The most important event at this period, and one that was to have the weightiest consequences for me, was my meeting with Herder. He accompanied on his travels the Prince of Holstein-Eutin, who was in a melancholy state of mind, and had come with him to Strasburg. Herder was singular, both in his personal appearance and also in his demeanour. He had somewhat of softness in his manner, which was very suitable and becoming, without being exactly easy. I was of a very confiding disposition, and with Herder especially I had no secrets; but from one of his habits--a spirit of contradiction--I had much to endure.

Herder could be charmingly prepossessing and brilliant, but he could just as easily turn an ill-humoured side forward. He resolved to stay in Strasburg because of a complaint in one of his eyes of the most irritating nature, which required a tedious and uncertain operation, the tear-bag being closed below. Therefore he separated from the prince and removed into lodgings of his own for the purpose of the operation. He confided to me that he intended to compete for a prize offered at Berlin for the best treatise on the origin of language. His work, written in a very neat hand, was nearly completed. During the troublesome and painful cure he lost none of his vivacity, but he became less and less amiable. He could not write a note to ask for anything without scoffing rudely and bitterly, generally in sardonic verse.

Herder contributed much to my culture, yet he destroyed my enjoyment of much that I had loved before, and especially blamed me in the strongest manner for the pleasure I took in Ovid's "Metamorphoses." I most carefully concealed from him my interest in certain subjects which had rooted themselves within me, and were little by little moulding themselves into poetic form. These were "Goetz von Berlichingen" and "Faust." Of my poetical labours, I believe I laid before him "The Accomplices," but I do not recollect that on this account I received from him either correction or encouragement.

At this epoch of my life took place a singular episode. During a delightful tour in beautiful Alsace, round about the Vosges, I and two fellow-students halted for a time at the house of a Protestant clergyman, pastor in Sesenheim. I had visited the family previously. Herder here joined us, and during our readings in the evenings introduced to us an excellent work, "The Vicar of Wakefield." With the German translation, he undertook to make us acquainted by reading it aloud.

The pastor had two daughters and a son. The family struck me as corresponding in the most extraordinary manner to that delineated by Goldsmith. The elder daughter might be taken for Olivia in the story, and Frederica, the younger, for Sophia, while, as I looked at the boy, I could scarcely help exclaiming, "Moses, are you here, too?" A Protestant country clergyman is, perhaps, the most beautiful subject for a modern idyl; he appears, like Melchizedek, as priest and king in one person.

Between me and the charming Frederica a mutual affection sprang up. Her beautiful nature attracted me irresistibly, and I was happy beyond all bounds at her side. For her I composed many songs to well-known melodies. They would have made a pretty book; a few of them still remain, and may easily be found among the others. But we were destined soon to part. Such a youthful affection, cherished at random, may be compared to a bombshell thrown at night, which rises with a soft, brilliant light, mingles for a moment with the stars, then, in descending, describes a similar path in the reverse direction, and at last brings destruction where it terminates its course.

V.--Among the Jurists

In 1772 I went to Wetzlar, the seat of the Reichskammergericht, or Imperial Chamber. This was a kind of court of chancery for the whole empire; and I went there in order to gain increased experience in jurisprudence. Here I found myself in a large company of talented and vivacious young men, assistants to the commissioners of the various states, and by them was accorded a genial welcome.

To one of the legations at Wetzlar was attached a young man of good position and abilities, named Jerusalem, whose sad suicide soon afterwards resulted through an unhappy passion for the wife of a friend. On this history the plan of "The Sorrows of Werther" was founded. The effect of this little book was great, nay, immense, and chiefly because it exactly hit the temper of the times. For as it requires but a little match to blow up an immense mine, so the explosion which followed my publication was mighty from the circumstances that the youthful world had already undermined itself; and the shock was great because all extravagant demands, unsatisfied passions, and imaginary wrongs, were suddenly brought to an eruption.

At this period I usually combined the art of design with poetical composition. Whenever I dictated, or listened to reading, I drew the portraits of my friends in profile on grey paper in white and black chalk. But feeling the insufficiency of this copying, I betook myself once more to language and rhythm, which were much more at my command. How briskly, how joyously, I went to work with them will appear from the many poems which, enthusiastically proclaiming the art of nature and the nature of art, infused, at the moment of production, new spirit into me as well as in my friends.

At this epoch, and in the midst of these occupations, I was sitting one evening with a struggling light in my chamber, when there entered a well-formed, slender man, who announced himself by the name of Von Knebel. Much to my satisfaction, I learned that he came from Weimar, where he was the companion of Prince Constantin. Of matters there I had already heard much that was favourable; for several strangers who had come from Weimar assured us that the widowed Duchess Amalia had gathered round her the best men to assist in the education of the princes, her sons; that the arts were not only protected by this princess, but were practised by her with great diligence and zeal.

At Weimar was also one of the best theatres of Germany, which was made famous by its actors, as well as by the authors who wrote for it. When I expressed a wish to become better acquainted with these persons and things, my visitor replied, in the most friendly manner possible, that nothing was easier, since the hereditary prince, with his brother, the Prince Constantin, had just arrived in Frankfort, and desired to see and know me.

I at once expressed the greatest willingness to wait upon them; and my new friend told me that I must not delay, as their stay would not be long. I proceeded with Von Knebel to the young princes, who received me in a very easy and friendly manner.

As the stay of the young princes in Frankfort was necessarily short, they made me promise to follow them to Mayence. I gave this promise gladly enough, and visited them. The few days of my stay passed very pleasantly, for when my new patrons, with whom I enjoyed delightful conversations on literature, were abroad on visits and banquets, I remained with their attendants, drew portraits, or went skating. I returned home full of the kindness I had met with.

Book: Shattered Sighs