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The Descendants of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

Goethe’s Descendants.—Goethe’s only son, August, born on the 25th of December 1789 at Weimar, married in 1817 Ottilie von Pogwisch (1796-1872), who had come as a child to Weimar with her mother (née Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck). The marriage was a very unhappy one, the husband having no qualities that could appeal to a woman who, whatever the censorious might say of her moral character, was distinguished to the last by a lively intellect and a singular charm. August von Goethe, whose sole distinction was his birth and his position as grand-ducal chamberlain, died in Italy, on the 27th of October 1830, leaving three children; Walther Wolfgang, born on April 9, 1818, died on April 15, 1885; Wolfgang Maximilian, born on September 18, 1820, died on January 20, 1883; Alma, born on October 22, 1827, died on September 29, 1844.

Of Walther von Goethe little need be said. In youth he had musical ambitions, studied under Mendelssohn and Weinlig at Leipzig, under Loewe at Stettin, and afterwards at Vienna. He published a few songs of no great merit, and had at his death no more than the reputation among his friends of a kindly and accomplished man.

Wolfgang or, as he was familiarly called, Wolf von Goethe, was by far the more gifted of the two brothers, and his gloomy destiny by so much the more tragic. A sensitive and highly imaginative boy, he was the favourite of his grandfather, who made him his constant companion. This fact, instead of being to the boy’s advantage, was to prove his bane. The exalted atmosphere of the great man’s ideas was too rarefied for the child’s intellectual health, and a brain well fitted to do excellent work in the world was ruined by the effort to live up to an impossible ideal. To maintain himself on the same height as his grandfather, and to make the name of Goethe illustrious in his descendants also, became Wolfgang’s ambition; and his incapacity to realize this, very soon borne in upon him, paralyzed 189his efforts and plunged him at last into bitter revolt against his fate and gloomy isolation from a world that seemed to have no use for him but as a curiosity. From the first, too, he was hampered by wretched health; at the age of sixteen he was subjected to one of those terrible attacks of neuralgia which were to torment him to the last; physically and mentally alike he stood in tragic contrast with his grandfather, in whose gigantic personality the vigour of his race seems to have been exhausted.

From 1839 to 1845 Wolfgang studied law at Bonn, Jena, Heidelberg and Berlin, taking his degree of doctor juris at Heidelberg in 1845. During this period he had made his first literary efforts. His Studenten-Briefe (Jena, 1842), a medley of letters and lyrics, are wholly conventional. This was followed by Der Mensch und die elementarische Natur (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1845), in three parts (Beiträge): (1) an historical and philosophical dissertation on the relations of mankind and the “soul of nature,” largely influenced by Schelling, (2) a dissertation on the juridical side of the question, De fragmento Vegoiae, being the thesis presented for his degree, (3) a lyrical drama, Erlinde. In this last, as in his other poetic attempts, Wolfgang showed a considerable measure of inherited or acquired ability, in his wealth of language and his easy mastery of the difficulties of rhythm and rhyme. But this was all. The work was characteristic of his self-centred isolation: ultra-romantic at a time when Romanticism was already an outworn fashion, remote alike from the spirit of the age and from that of Goethe. The cold reception it met with shattered at a blow the dream of Wolfgang’s life; henceforth he realized that to the world he was interesting mainly as “Goethe’s grandson,” that anything he might achieve would be measured by that terrible standard, and he hated the legacy of his name.

The next five years he spent in Italy and at Vienna, tormented by facial neuralgia. Returning to Weimar in 1850, he was made a chamberlain by the grand-duke, and in 1852, his health being now somewhat restored, he entered the Prussian diplomatic service and went as attaché to Rome. The fruit of his long years of illness was a slender volume of lyrics, Gedichte (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1851), good in form, but seldom inspired, and showing occasionally the influence of a morbid sensuality. In 1854 he was appointed secretary of legation; but the aggressive ultramontanism of the Curia became increasingly intolerable to his overwrought nature, and in 1856 he was transferred, at his own request, as secretary of legation to Dresden. This post he resigned in 1859, in which year he was raised to the rank of Freiherr (baron). In 1866 he received the title of councillor of legation; but he never again occupied any diplomatic post.

The rest of his life he devoted to historical research, ultimately selecting as his special subject the Italian libraries up to the year 1500. The outcome of all his labours was, however, only the first part of Studies and Researches in the Times and Life of Cardinal Bessarion, embracing the period of the council of Florence (privately printed at Jena, 1871), a catalogue of the MSS. in the monastery of Sancta Justina at Padua (Jena, 1873), and a mass of undigested material, which he ultimately bequeathed to the university of Jena.

In 1870 Ottilie von Goethe, who had resided mainly at Vienna, returned to Weimar and took up her residence with her two sons in the Goethehaus. So long as she lived, her small salon in the attic storey of the great house was a centre of attraction for many of the most illustrious personages in Europe. But after her death in 1872 the two brothers lived in almost complete isolation. The few old friends, including the grand-duke Charles Alexander, who continued regularly to visit the house, were entertained with kindly hospitality by Baron Walther; Wolfgang refused to be drawn from his isolation even by the advent of royalty. “Tell the empress,” he cried on one occasion, “that I am not a wild beast to be stared at!” In 1879, his increasing illness necessitating the constant presence of an attendant, he went to live at Leipzig, where he died.

Goethe’s grandsons have been so repeatedly accused of having displayed a dog-in-the-manger temper in closing the Goethehaus to the public and the Goethe archives to research, that the charge has almost universally come to be regarded as proven. It is true that the house was closed and access to the archives only very sparingly allowed until Baron Walther’s death in 1885. But the reason for this was not, as Herr Max Hecker rather absurdly suggests, Wolfgang’s jealousy of his grandfather’s oppressive fame, but one far more simple and natural. From one cause or another, principally Ottilie von Goethe’s extravagance, the family was in very straitened circumstances; and the brothers, being thoroughly unbusinesslike, believed themselves to be poorer than they really were.1 They closed the Goethehaus and the archives, because to have opened them would have needed an army of attendants.2 If they deserve any blame it is for the pride, natural to their rank and their generation, which prevented them from charging an entrance fee, an expedient which would not only have made it possible for them to give access to the house and collections, but would have enabled them to save the fabric from falling into the lamentable state of disrepair in which it was found after their death. In any case, the accusation is ungenerous. With an almost exaggerated Pietät Goethe’s descendants preserved his house untouched, at great inconvenience to themselves, and left it, with all its treasures intact, to the nation. Had they been the selfish misers they are sometimes painted, they could have realized a fortune by selling its contents.

Wolf Goethe (Weimar, 1889) is a sympathetic appreciation by Otto Mejer, formerly president of the Lutheran consistory in Hanover. See also Jenny v. Gerstenbergk, Ottilie von Goethe und ihre Söhne Walther und Wolf (Stuttgart, 1901), and the article on Maximilian Wolfgang von Goethe by Max F. Hecker in Allgem. deutsche Biographie, Bd. 49, Nachträge (Leipzig, 1904).

(W. A. P.)


1After Walther’s death upwards of £10,000 in bonds, &c., were discovered put away and forgotten in escritoires and odd corners.

2This was the reason given by Baron Walther himself to the writer’s mother, an old friend of Frau von Goethe, who lived with her family in the Goethehaus for some years after 1871.