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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Biography | Poet

Photo of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang Goethe, later von Goethe, (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832) was a German polymath: he was a poet, novelist, dramatist, humanist, scientist, theorist, painter, and for ten years chief minister of state for the duchy of Weimar.

Goethe was one of the key figures of German literature and the movement of Weimar Classicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; this movement coincides with Enlightenment, Sentimentality ("Empfindsamkeit"), Sturm und Drang, and Romanticism. The author of Faust and Theory of Colours, he inspired Darwin with his independent discovery of the human intermaxillary jaw bones and focus on evolutionary ideas. Goethe's influence spread across Europe, and for the next century his works were a primary source of inspiration in music, drama, poetry, and philosophy.


The most important of Goethe's works produced before he went to Weimar was his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which was the first work to bring him fame, and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which gained him enormous popularity as a writer in the Sturm und Drang movement. During the years at Weimar before he met Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister, wrote the dramas Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), Egmont, Torquato Tasso, and Reineke Fuchs.

To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong the continuation of Wilhelm Meister, the idyll of Hermann and Dorothea, and the Roman Elegies. In the last period, between Schiller's death, in 1805, and his own, appeared Faust, Elective Affinities, his pseudo-autobiographical Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth), his Italian Journey, much scientific work, and a series of treatises on German art. His writings were immediately influential in literary and artistic circles.

In addition to his literary work, Goethe also contributed significant work to the sciences. In biology, his theory of plant metamorphosis stipulated that all plant formation stems from a modification of the leaf; during his Italian journey (1786-1788), in July of 1787, he writes as the first indication of this idea:

Furthermore I must confess to you that I have nearly discovered the secret of plant generation and structure, and that it is the simplest thing imaginable.... Namely it had become apparent to me that in the plant organ which we ordinarily call the leaf a true Proteaus is concealed, who can hide and reveal himself in all sorts of configurations. From top to bottom a plant is all leaf, united so inseparably with the future bud that one cannot be imagined without the other.

— Suhrkamp ed., vol 6; trans. Robert R Heitner, Italian Journey

He is credited with the discovery of the intermaxillary bone in humans, during 1784; however, Broussonet (1779) and Vicq d'Azyr (1780) had identified the same structure several years earlier.[2]

Although it was never well received by scientists due to its apparent conflict with Newton's theory of light, against which Goethe fulminated, Goethe considered his Theory of Colours to be his most important work. Although much of his position within this field is often blurred by misconceptions among both his detractors and eulogizers,[3] based upon his experiments with prismatic colors Goethe characterized color as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light, and standing between their polar qualities:


Johann Wolfgang Goethe
...they maintained that shade is a part of light. It sounds absurd when I express it; but so it is: for they said that colours, which are shadow and the result of shade, are light itself, or, which amounts to the same thing, are the beams of light, broken now in one way, now in another.[4]
Johann Wolfgang Goethe

He also regarded light's physical nature, physiological effects (including the afterimages induced in the eye), and psychological effects as interrelated phenomena. In the twentieth century, Goethe's Theory of Colours influenced the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's Remarks on Colour, Werner Heisenberg and Max Planck have indicated the accuracy and suggestiveness of many of Goethe's scientific statements, and it has had a tremendous impact in other fields.[3]


Key works

The following list of key works may give a sense of the scope of the impact his work had on his and our time.

The short epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, recounts an unhappy love affair that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he "shot his hero to save himself". The novel remains in print in dozens of languages and is frequently referred to in the context of a young hero, who becomes disillusioned with society and by his irreconcilable love for a young woman. The fact that it ended with the protagonist's suicide and funeral—a funeral which "no clergyman attended"—made the book deeply controversial upon its (anonymous) publication, for it seemed to condone suicide. One would have expected a clergyman to attend the funeral service and condemn an act considered to be sinful by Christian doctrine. Epistolary novels were common during this time, letter-writing being people's primary mode of communication. What set Goethe's book apart from other such novels was its expression of unbridled longing for a joy beyond possibility, its sense of defiant rebellion against authority, and, above all, its total subjectivity—qualities that pointed the way toward the Romantic movement.

The next work, his epic closet drama Faust, was to be completed in stages, and only published in its entirety after his death. The first part was published in 1808 and created a sensation. The first operatic version, by Spohr, appeared in 1814, and was subsequently the inspiration for operas by Gounod, Boito, and Busoni, as well as symphonies by Liszt and Mahler. Faust became the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. Later, a facet of its plot, i.e., of selling one's soul to the devil for power over the physical world, took on increasing literary importance and became a view of the victory of technology and of industrialism, along with its dubious human expenses. On occasion, the play is still staged in Germany and other parts around the world.

Goethe's poetic work served as a model for an entire movement in German poetry termed Innerlichkeit ("introversion") and represented by, for example, Heine. Goethe's words inspired a number of compositions by, among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, and Wolf. Perhaps the single most influential piece is "Mignon's Song" which opens with one of the most famous lines in German poetry, an allusion to Italy: "Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?" ("Do you know the land where the lemons bloom?").

He is also widely quoted. Epigrams such as "Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him", "Divide and rule, a sound motto; unite and lead, a better one", and "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must", are still in usage or are paraphrased. Lines from Faust, such as "Das also war des Pudels Kern", "Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluss", or "Grau ist alle Theorie" have entered everyday German usage. Although a doubtful success of Goethe in this field, the famous line from the drama Götz von Berlichingen ("Er kann mich im Arsche lecken": "He can lick my arse") has become a vulgar idiom in many languages, and shows Goethe's deep cultural impact extending across social, national, and linguistic borders. It may be taken as another measure of Goethe's fame that other well-known quotations, such as Hippocrates' "Art is long, life is short", which is also found in his Wilhelm Meister, is usually forgotten to be originally associated with Hippocrates.



Many of Goethe's works depict homoerotic and generally erotic occurrences, such as in Wilhelm Meister, Faust, Götz von Berlichingen, the Roman Elegies, and the Venetian Epigrams, though these have often been explained away or ignored. This is partly due to how some in the past and to this day view sexuality and its nuances. For example, in 1999, Karl Hugo Pruys' book The Tiger's Tender Touch: The Erotic Life of Goethe caused national controversy in Germany when it formalized the possibility of Goethe's homosexuality, tentatively deduced from Goethe's writings, for mainstream debate. In actuality, however, the perennial sexual portraitures and allusions in his work may in fact stem from one of the many effects of his profoundly eye-opening sojourn in Italy, where men, who shunned the prevalence of women's venereal diseases and unconscionable conditions, embraced homosexuality as a solution that was not widely imitated outside of Italy. Whatever the case, Goethe clearly saw sexuality, in general, as a topic that merited poetical and artistic depiction which went against the thought of his time, when the very private nature of sexuality was rigorously enforced, and makes him appear much more modern and—in the terms of Weimar Classicism—Greek than he is typically thought to be.[5]

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