Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Johann Wolfgang Goethe, from 1782 von Goethe († March 22, 1832 in Weimar, Grand Duchy of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach), was a German poet and naturalist. He is considered one of the most important creators of German-language poetry.

Goethe came from a distinguished bourgeois family; his maternal grandfather was the highest judicial official in the city of Frankfurt as city sheriff, and his father was a doctor of law and imperial councilor. He and his sister Cornelia received a lavish education from tutors. Following his father”s wishes, Goethe studied law in Leipzig and Strasbourg and then worked as a lawyer in Wetzlar and Frankfurt. At the same time he followed his inclination for poetry. He achieved his first recognition in the literary world in 1773 with the drama Götz von Berlichingen, which brought him national success, and in 1774 with the epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, to which he owed even European success. Both works belong to the literary movement of Sturm und Drang (1765 to 1785).

At the age of 26, he was invited to the court of Weimar, where he eventually settled for the rest of his life. He held political and administrative offices there as a friend and minister of Duke Carl August and directed the court theater for a quarter of a century. After the first decade of Weimar, the official activity with the neglect of his creative abilities triggered a personal crisis, which Goethe escaped by fleeing to Italy. He felt the trip to Italy from September 1786 to May 1788 like a “rebirth. He owed to it the completion of important works such as Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787), Egmont (1788), and Torquato Tasso (1790).

After his return, his official duties were largely limited to representative tasks. The wealth of cultural heritage he experienced in Italy stimulated his poetic production, and his erotic experiences with a young Roman woman led him to enter into a lasting, “unchaste” love affair with Christiane Vulpius immediately after his return, which he did not officially legalize until eighteen years later with a marriage.

Goethe”s literary works include poetry, drama, epic poetry, autobiographical writings, writings on art and literary theory, and scientific writings. In addition, his extensive correspondence is of literary importance. Goethe was the forerunner and most important representative of the Sturm und Drang movement. His novel The Sorrows of Young Werther made him famous in Europe. Even Napoleon asked him for an audience on the occasion of the Erfurt Congress of Princes. In league with Schiller and together with Herder and Wieland, he embodied the Weimar Classicism. The Wilhelm Meister novels became exemplary precursors of German-language artistic and Bildungsromane. His drama Faust (1808) gained a reputation as the most important creation in German-language literature. In his old age, he was also regarded abroad as a representative of intellectual Germany.

In the German Empire, he was glorified as a German national poet and herald of the “German essence” and as such was appropriated for German nationalism. This led to a veneration not only of the work but also of the poet”s personality, whose way of life was seen as exemplary. To this day, Goethe”s poems, dramas and novels are among the masterpieces of world literature.

Origin and youth

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, in the Goethe family home (today”s Goethe House) on Frankfurt”s Grosser Hirschgraben and baptized a Protestant the next day. His Christian name was Wolfgang. His grandfather Friedrich Georg Göthe (1657-1730), who came from Thuringia, had settled in Frankfurt in 1687 as a master tailor and changed the spelling of the family name. Later, he was offered the opportunity to marry into a flourishing inn and hostelry business. As an innkeeper and wine merchant, he had come into a handsome fortune, which he left in the form of real estate, mortgage loans, and several sacks full of money to his two sons from his first marriage and to the youngest son, Johann Caspar Goethe (1710-1782), Johann Wolfgang Goethe”s father. Goethe”s father had earned a doctorate in jurisprudence from Leipzig University, but did not practice law. With the honorary title of “Imperial Councillor,” he rose to the Frankfurt upper class. As a pensioner, he lived off the proceeds of his inherited fortune, which would later enable his son to live and study without financial constraints. He was versatile interested and educated, but also strict and pedantic, which repeatedly led to conflicts in the family.

Goethe”s mother, Catharina Elisabeth Goethe, née Textor (her father Johann Wolfgang Textor was the city”s highest-ranking judicial official as Stadtschultheiß. The fun-loving and outgoing woman had married the then 38-year-old councilor Goethe at the age of 17. After Johann Wolfgang, five more children were born, of whom only the slightly younger sister Cornelia survived infancy. The brother had a close relationship of trust with her, which, according to the biographer Nicholas Boyle and the psychoanalyst Kurt R. Eissler, included incestuous feelings. The mother called her son her “Hätschelhans.

The siblings received an elaborate education. From 1756 to 1758, Johann Wolfgang attended a public school. After that, he and his sister were taught together by their father and a total of eight private tutors. Goethe learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew as classical languages of education as well as the living languages French, Italian, English and the “Judendeutsch” which “was a living presence in Frankfurt”s Judengasse”. These living languages were taught by native-speaking teachers. The schedule also included science subjects, religion and drawing. In addition, he learned to play the piano and cello, horseback riding, fencing and dancing.

The boy came into contact with literature at an early age. This began with his mother”s bedtime stories and with Bible reading in the pious, Lutheran-Protestant family. At Christmas 1753, his grandmother gave him a puppet theater. He learned the play intended for this stage by heart and performed it again and again with enthusiasm together with friends. The little Goethe also showed the first signs of his literary imagination with his (according to his own statement) “tailorish beginnings” of inventing whimsical fairy tales and telling them to his astonished friends in the first person for exciting entertainment. There was a lot of reading in the Goethe household; his father owned a library of around 2000 volumes. Thus Goethe became acquainted with, among other things, the popular book of Dr. Faust as a child. In the course of the Seven Years” War, the French city commander Count Thoranc was quartered in his parents” house from 1759 to 1761. Goethe owed his first encounter with French dramatic literature to him and the troupe of actors that traveled with him. Inspired by the many languages he had learned, he began a multilingual novel at the age of twelve, in which all languages came to the fore in a colorful jumble.

According to his biographers Nicholas Boyle and Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe was a highly gifted child, but not a child prodigy like Mozart. He learned languages quickly and possessed a “quite unchildlike fluency in writing verse. He was “lively, with an exuberant temperament and headstrong, but without depth.

Study and early poetry

On his father”s instructions, Goethe began studying law at the tradition-steeped University of Leipzig in the fall of 1765. In contrast to the rather old Franconian Frankfurt, which did not have its own university at the time, Leipzig was an elegant, cosmopolitan city nicknamed Little Paris. Goethe was treated like someone who came from the provinces, and at first had to adapt in dress and manners in order to be accepted by his new fellow citizens. Supplied by his father with a monthly draft of 100 gulden, he had twice as much money as a student needed even at the most expensive universities at the time.

Goethe lived in Leipzig in a courtyard building of the house Große Feuerkugel on Neumarkt. Since students vacated their lodgings for traders during the fair, Goethe moved to a farm in Reudnitz, a village east of Leipzig, at fair time.

Although his father had entrusted him to the care of the professor of history and constitutional law, Johann Gottlob Böhme, and the latter forbade Goethe to change his desired field of study, he soon began to neglect his compulsory studies. He gave preference to attending the poetics lectures of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, to whom the students could submit their attempts at writing. Since Gellert was reluctant to accept verses, he immediately passed Goethe”s poetic attempts (including a wedding poem to his uncle Textor) to his deputy, who thought little of them. The painter Adam Friedrich Oeser, with whom Goethe continued his Frankfurt drawing lessons, introduced him to his student Johann Joachim Winckelmann”s ideal of art, which was oriented toward antiquity. Oeser – as the founding director of the Leipzig Academy of Art, which was established in 1764 – encouraged Goethe”s understanding of art and artistic judgment. In a letter of thanks from Frankfurt, Goethe wrote him that he had learned more from him than in all his years at the university. On Oeser”s recommendation, he visited Dresden and the Gemäldegalerie in March 1768. Goethe formed a friendship with Oeser”s daughter Friederike Elisabeth (1748-1829) in 1765, which continued in correspondence for a while after his Leipzig years. Oeser also remained in close contact with Goethe himself through letters until the latter”s departure for Strasbourg. Their connection lasted until Oeser”s death.

Goethe learned the techniques of woodcutting and etching from the engraver Johann Michael Stock at the Silver Bear during his student days in Leipzig.

Away from the parental home, the 16- and 17-year-old enjoyed greater freedom in Leipzig: He attended theater performances, spent evenings with friends, or excursions were made into the surrounding area. Goethe”s “first serious love affair” took place during his time in Leipzig. The romance with Käthchen Schönkopf, the daughter of a craftsman and innkeeper, was dissolved by mutual agreement after two years. The emotional upheavals of these years influenced Goethe”s writing style; while he had previously written poems in the regular style of the Rococo, their tone now became freer and more tempestuous. A collection of 19 anacreontic poems, copied and illustrated by his friend Ernst Wolfgang Behrisch, resulted in the book Annette. Another small collection of poems was printed in 1769 under the title Neue Lieder, the first of Goethe”s works. In its youthful beginnings, Goethe”s poetry is, according to Nicholas Boyle, “uncompromisingly erotic” and deals “quite directly with the most powerful source of individual will and feeling.”

In July 1768, Goethe suffered a severe hemorrhage as a result of a tuberculous disease. Half able to travel again, he returned to his parents” home in Frankfurt in August – to the disappointment of his father without an academic degree.

The life-threatening illness required a long convalescence and made him receptive to the ideas of Pietism, which a friend of his mother, the Herrnhuter Susanne von Klettenberg, introduced him to. It was during this time in his adult life that he temporarily found the closest contact with Christianity. He also became involved with mystical and alchemical writings, reading that he would later draw upon in Faust. Independently of this, he wrote his first comedy, Die Mitschuldigen, during this period.

In April 1770, Goethe continued his studies at the University of Strasbourg. With 43,000 inhabitants, Strasbourg was larger than Frankfurt and had been awarded to the French kingdom in the Peace of Westphalia. Most of the teaching at the university was still in German.

This time Goethe devoted himself more single-mindedly to legal studies, but also found time to make a whole series of personal acquaintances. The most important of these was with the theologian, art and literary theorist Johann Gottfried Herder. Goethe calls it the “most significant event” of the Strasbourg period. During their almost daily visits, the elder opened his eyes to the original linguistic power of authors such as Homer, Shakespeare and Ossian, as well as folk poetry, and thus gave decisive impetus to Goethe”s poetic development. Later, through Goethe”s intercession, he was to be called into Weimar service. His circle of friends and acquaintances, who usually met at the common lunch table, also included the later ophthalmologist and pietistically influenced writer Jung-Stilling and the theologian and writer Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. Although surrounded by religiously oriented friends, he finally turned away from Pietism in Strasbourg.

Through a student friend he was introduced to the family of the pastor Brion in Sessenheim (Goethe writes Sesenheim). He met and fell in love with the pastor”s daughter Friederike Brion. When he left Strasbourg University, the commitment-shy young Goethe ended the relationship, which, of course, only became apparent to Friederike when Goethe wrote her a letter from Frankfurt. As Nicholas Boyle interprets this episode, Friederike must have felt severely compromised, since Goethe”s behavior toward her allowed him to be considered her fiancé. Shaken and guilty, Goethe received the news of her health breakdown, which he took from her later letter of reply. The poems addressed to Friederike, which later became known as Sesenheimer Lieder (including Willkommen und Abschied, Mailied, Heidenröslein), are mislabeled “Erlebnislyrik” according to Karl Otto Conrady. The external form of the poetry offers nothing new, and the linguistic expression goes beyond the usual poetic language at best in nuances. Nevertheless, the I in them bears individual traits and does not lean on “given patterns of pastoral types”; rather, “speaking I, beloved, love, and nature appear in a linguistic intensity hitherto unknown.

In the summer of 1771, Goethe submitted his legal dissertation (which had not been preserved) on the subject of the relationship between state and church. The Strasbourg theologians found it scandalous; one of them called Goethe a “mad despiser of religion”. The dean of the faculty recommended that Goethe withdraw the dissertation. However, the university offered him the opportunity to earn a licentiate. For this lower degree he only had to set up and defend a few theses. The basis of the disputation on August 6, 1771, which he passed “cum applausu,” were 56 theses in Latin under the title Positiones Juris. In the penultimate thesis, he addressed the controversial question of whether a child murderer should be subjected to the death penalty. He later took up the issue in artistic form in the Tragedy of the Gretch.

Advocate and poet in Frankfurt and Wetzlar (1771-1775)

Back in Frankfurt, Goethe opened a small law office, which was mainly for his father as a “mere transit station” to higher offices (such as Schultheiss like his grandfather). He practiced law for four years, soon losing interest and with little enthusiasm for his work, until he left for Weimar. Poetry was more important to Goethe than the legal profession. At the end of 1771 he put down on paper – within six weeks – the story of Gottfrieden von Berlichingen with the iron hand. After a revision, the drama was self-published in 1773 as Götz von Berlichingen. The work, which broke with all traditional dramatic rules, was enthusiastically received and is considered a founding document of the Sturm und Drang movement. The eponymous Sturm und Drang drama was written by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, who was one of Goethe”s friends in his youth.

In January 1772, Goethe witnessed the “somber ceremony” of the public execution by the sword of the infanticide Susanna Margaretha Brandt in Frankfurt. According to Rüdiger Safranski, it formed the personal background for the “Gretchen tragedy” in Faust, which Goethe had begun working on in the early 1770s. In 1773, his sister Cornelia married the lawyer Johann Georg Schlosser, Goethe”s friend ten years his senior, who had participated as a lawyer in the trial of the child murderess. Later, in 1783, in the parallel case of the child murderer Johanna Höhn, at the request of Duke Carl August of Weimar, who wanted to commute her death sentence to life imprisonment, Goethe pleaded with his decisive vote in the Secret Consilium for the retention of the death penalty, after which Höhn was beheaded with the sword on November 28, 1783.

During these years, he paid frequent visits to the Darmstadt circle of Empfindsamen around Johann Heinrich Merck, taking 25-kilometer hikes from Frankfurt to Darmstadt. Goethe attached great importance to Merck”s judgment; in his autobiography he attested that he had had “the greatest influence” on his life. Accepting his invitation, Goethe wrote reviews for the journal Frankfurter gelehrte Anzeigen, which was run by Merck and Schlosser.

Between the two writings of Götz, Goethe had enrolled as a trainee at the Imperial Chamber Court in Wetzlar in May 1772, again at his father”s urging. His colleague there, Johann Christian Kestner, later described Goethe at the time:

Again, Goethe paid little attention to legal studies. Instead, he occupied himself with ancient authors. At a country dance, he met Kestner”s fiancée, Charlotte Buff, with whom he fell in love. Goethe became a regular and welcome guest at the Buff family home. After Charlotte explained to him that he could hope for nothing but her friendship and Goethe realized the hopelessness of his situation, he fled Wetzlar.

A year and a half later, he processed this experience and others of his own and others” experiences in the epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), which he wrote down in just four weeks at the beginning of 1774. The highly emotional work, which is attributed to both the “Sturm und Drang” and the simultaneous literary movement of “Empfindsamkeit,” made its author famous throughout Europe within a short time. Goethe himself later explained the immense success of the book and the “Werther fever” it triggered by saying that it had precisely met the needs of the time. The poet himself rescued himself from a crisis situation in his own life with the creative work on Werther: “I felt, as after a general confession, glad and free again, and entitled to a new life.” Nevertheless, he maintained a cordial relationship with Kestner and Lotte through correspondence thereafter.

On his return from Wetzlar, his father received him with reproaches because his stay there had not been conducive to his son”s professional advancement. The following years in Frankfurt until his departure for Weimar were among the most productive in Goethe”s life. In addition to Werther, he wrote the great hymns (including Wandrers Sturmlied, Ganymede, Prometheus, and Mahomet”s Song), several short dramas (including Das Jahrmarktsfest zu Plundersweilern and Götter, Helden und Wieland), and the dramas Clavigo and Stella. A play for lovers. Goethe also took up the Faust material for the first time during this period.

At Easter 1775, Goethe became engaged to the Frankfurt banker”s daughter Lili Schönemann. Towards the end of his life, he told Eckermann that she was the first person he “deeply and truly loved. For the first time, Lili offered him, as Nicholas Boyle writes, “the very real possibility of marriage,” but the young poet shied away from such a commitment. Marriage was incompatible with his plans for life. Further obstacles were the different milieus and denominations of his parents. To gain distance, he accepted an invitation from the brothers Christian and Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg-Stolberg to travel through Switzerland for several months. In Zurich he was a guest of Lavater, on whose Physiognomische Fragmenten Goethe collaborated, and made the acquaintance of Barbara Schultheß from Lavater”s circle of friends. This resulted in a lifelong friendship; Goethe called her his “most faithful reader.” She received at intervals the finished books of the nascent Wilhelm Meister novel, which she copied with the help of her daughter. It is thanks to one of her copies that the original version of the novel, Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung, discovered in 1909 and printed in 1910, has been handed down to posterity.

In October 1775, the engagement was broken off by Lili”s mother with the declaration that marriage was not suitable because of the difference in religions. In this situation, Goethe, who suffered greatly from the separation, accepted an invitation from the 18-year-old Duke Carl August to travel to Weimar.

Minister in Weimar (from 1775)

Goethe reached Weimar in November 1775. The capital of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach had only about 6,000 inhabitants (the Duchy about 100,000), but through the efforts of the Duchess Mother Anna Amalia it nevertheless developed into a cultural center. At the time Goethe was invited to Weimar without purpose, he was already a famous author throughout Europe. He quickly won the confidence of Duke Carl August, who was eight years younger and had been brought up in the enlightened spirit, and who admired his great-uncle Frederick II for his friendship with Voltaire. Like the latter, he wanted to have “a great mind at his side.” The duke did everything he could to keep Goethe in Weimar; he gave him generous gifts, including the garden house in the park on the Ilm River. When the duke suggested that he help run the state, Goethe accepted after some hesitation. He was determined by the need for practical and effective activity. He wrote to a friend from Frankfurt: “I will . Even if it is only for a few years, it is always better than an idle life at home where I can do nothing with the greatest pleasure. Here I have a few dukedoms before me.”

Goethe became a Privy Councillor of the Legation and a member of the Privy Consilium, the duke”s three-member advisory body, on June 11, 1776, with an annual salary of 1200 thalers. Goethe nominally belonged to the Privy Consilium until its dissolution in 1815. On May 14, 1780, he wrote to Kestner about his literary work during his state service, saying that he was putting his writing on hold, but that “following the example of the great king, who spent a few hours a day on the flute, I sometimes allow myself an exercise in the talent that is mine.”

He finally turned away abruptly from former friends from the Sturm und Drang period, such as Lenz and Klinger, who visited him in Weimar in 1776, stayed there for a long time and were financially supported by Goethe. He even had Lenz expelled from the duchy after an insult that remains unexplained to this day.

Goethe”s official activities extended from 1777 to the renewal of Ilmenau”s mining industry and from 1779 to the chairmanship of two permanent commissions, the road construction commission and the war commission, with responsibility for the recruitment of recruits for the Weimar army. His main concern was to reorganize the heavily indebted state budget by restricting public spending while promoting the economy. This was at least partially successful; for example, the halving of the “armed forces” led to savings. Difficulties and the unsuccessfulness of his efforts in the civil service combined with work overload led to resignation. Goethe noted in his diary in 1779: “No one knows what I do and with how many enemies I fight to bring forth the little I have.” By traveling with the duke, Goethe familiarized himself with the country and its people. His activities took him, among other places, to Apolda, whose hardship he describes, as well as to other areas of the duchy. Mostly as part of official duties, Goethe made several trips beyond the state”s borders during his first decade in Weimar, including a trip to Dessau and Berlin in the spring of 1778, to Switzerland from September 1779 to January 1780, and several times to the Harz Mountains (1777, 1783, and 1784). On September 5, 1779, he was promoted to Privy Councilor.

Court counselor Johann Joachim Christoph Bode, who had come to Weimar, aroused Goethe”s interest in the Weimar “Amalia” Masonic Lodge. During his second trip to Switzerland, Goethe made his first efforts to be admitted; on June 23, 1780, he joined the lodge. He quickly passed the usual degrees and was promoted to journeyman in 1781, and in 1782, at the same time as Carl August, was elevated to master. Goethe traveled to Gotha on October 7, 1781, to meet personally with Friedrich Melchior Grimm, the Franco-German author, diplomat, and friend of Denis Diderot and other encyclopedists. Grimm had already visited Goethe at Wartburg Castle on October 8, 1777.

Goethe”s activities in Ilmenau and his fight against corruption there prompted the duke to give him the task on June 11, 1782, of familiarizing himself with the direction of chamber business, i.e., state finances, but without giving him the official title of Johann August Alexander von Kalb, the chamber president who had been dismissed on June 6, 1782. He was to attend the meetings of the Chamber College and be informed of all extraordinary business transactions. In the same year, he was appointed supervisor of the University of Jena.

At the request of the duke, he received the diploma of nobility from the emperor on June 3, 1782. The nobilization was intended to facilitate his activities at court and in affairs of state. Later, in 1827, Goethe told Johann Peter Eckermann about his nobilization: “When I was given the diploma of nobility, many thought that I would feel elevated by it. But, between us, it was nothing to me, nothing at all! We Frankfurt patricians always considered ourselves equal to the nobility, and when I held the diploma in my hands, I had nothing more in my thoughts than what I had already possessed.

The Immediat Commissions between 1776 and 1783 were Goethe”s main instrument for implementing reform projects, since the “ossified” system of authorities was incapable of doing so. Goethe”s reform efforts were hampered in the eighties by the aristocracy in the duchy. Goethe”s initiative to revive copper and silver mining in Ilmenau proved to be less than successful, which is why it was finally discontinued altogether in 1812.

At just under 33 years of age, Goethe had reached the pinnacle of success. After the duke, he was the most powerful man in Weimar. Because of his work for the duke, he was criticized as a “servant of the prince” and a “despot poet.

Goethe”s work in the Consilium is judged differently in the literature. Some authors regard him as an Enlightenment reformist politician who, among other things, strove to free the peasants from oppressive drudgery and tax burdens; others point out that in his official capacity he advocated both the forced recruitment of state children for the Prussian army and measures to restrict freedom of speech. In 1783, he voted for the execution of Johanna Catharina Höhn, an unwed mother who had killed her newborn child out of despair – in contrast to the understanding and compassionate attitude he later expressed in the Gretchen tragedy.

In 1784, Goethe was able to persuade the Weimar, Jena and Eisenach estates to assume the state debt of 130,000 thalers by reducing their annual appropriations for the military budget from 63,400 thalers to 30,000 thalers.

In his first Weimar decade, Goethe published nothing except a few poems scattered in journals. His daily work left him little time for serious poetic activity, especially since he was also responsible for organizing court festivals and supplying the court amateur theater with singspiels and plays. Among these occasional productions, which he often considered a chore, was a new version of the fairground festival at Plundersweiler. Of demanding works of this period, only a first prose version of Iphigenie auf Tauris was completed; Egmont, Tasso, and Wilhelm Meister were also begun. Furthermore, some of Goethe”s most famous poems were written; in addition to the love poems for Charlotte von Stein (for example, Warum gabst du uns die tiefen Blicke), these included Erlkönig, Wandrers Nachtlied, Gränzen der Menschheit (1780), and Das Göttliche.

Around 1780, Goethe began to deal systematically with scientific questions. He later attributed this to his official preoccupation with questions of mining and agriculture, lumbering, etc. His main interest was initially geology and mineralogy, botany and osteology. In this field he succeeded in 1784 in the supposed discovery (because hardly known, in reality only a self-discovery) of the intermaxillary bone in man. In the same year, he wrote his essay On Granite and planned a book entitled Roman of the Earth.

Goethe”s most important and formative relationship during this Weimar decade was with the court lady Charlotte von Stein (1742-1827). Seven years her senior, she was married to the country nobleman Baron Josias von Stein, the head equerry at court. She had seven children with him, three of whom were still alive when Goethe met them. The 1770 letters, billetes, “Zettelgen” and the numerous poems that Goethe addressed to her are the documents of an extraordinarily intimate relationship (Frau von Stein”s letters have not survived). It is clear in them that the mistress fostered the poet as an “educator”. She taught him courtly manners, soothed his inner turmoil, and strengthened his self-discipline. The question of whether this was also a sexual relationship or a pure “friendship of the soul” cannot be answered with certainty. The majority of authors assume that Charlotte von Stein refused the physical desire of her lover. In a letter from Rome, he wrote that the “thought of not possessing you made me feel…

The psychoanalyst Kurt Eissler”s thesis that Goethe had his first sexual intercourse as a 39-year-old in Rome is frequently put forward. His biographer Nicholas Boyle also sees the Roman episode with “Faustina” as the first sexual contact that has been documented.

Goethe”s secret departure for Italy in 1786 shook the relationship, and after his return there was a final break because of the committed love affair Goethe had taken up with Christiane Vulpius, his later wife, for whom the deeply hurt Frau von Stein did not forgive him. She, whose whole life and self-image was based on the denial of sensuality, saw in the union a breach of faith on Goethe”s part. She demanded her letters to him back. Christiane called her only “the little creature” and thought that Goethe had two natures, one sensual and one spiritual. Only in old age did the two again find a friendly relationship, without the cordial contact of former times being restored. Goethe”s young son August, who ran many errands between Goethe”s and von Stein”s houses and whom Charlotte had taken to her heart, gave the impetus for a faltering resumption of their correspondence from 1794, which was, however, henceforth conducted by “Sie”.

Trip to Italy (1786-1788)

In the mid-1780s, at the peak of his official career, Goethe entered a crisis. His official activities remained without any sense of achievement, the burdens of his offices and the constraints of court life became tiresome, and his relationship with Charlotte von Stein became increasingly unsatisfactory. When the publisher Göschen offered him a complete edition in 1786, he was shocked to realize that nothing new had appeared from him in the last ten years. Looking at his poetic fragments (Faust, Egmont, Wilhelm Meister, Tasso), the self-doubts about his dual existence as an artist and man of office intensified. In the play Torquato Tasso, Goethe found the adequate material to shape his contradictory existence at court. He divided it into two characters, Tasso and Antonio, between whom there is no reconciliation. While he distrusted poetic reconciliation, he still tried to keep both aspects in balance in reality.

But after the sobering experience of his poetic stagnation in the first decade of Weimar, he eluded the court by taking an educational trip to Italy that was unexpected for those around him. On September 3, 1786, he departed without a farewell from a cure in Karlsbad. Only his secretary and trusted servant Philipp Seidel was in on it. He had asked the duke in writing for an indefinite leave after the last personal meeting in Karlsbad. On the day before his departure, he announced his imminent absence to him without revealing his destination. The secret departure with an unknown destination was probably part of a strategy to enable Goethe to resign from his posts but continue to receive his salary. The author of Werther, who was famous throughout Europe, traveled incognito under the name Johann Philipp Möller in order to be able to move freely in public.

After stopovers in Verona, Vicenza and Venice, Goethe reached Rome in November. He initially stayed there until February 1787 (first stay in Rome). After a four-month trip to Naples and Sicily, he returned to Rome in June 1787, where he stayed until the end of April 1788 (second stay in Rome). On the return trip, he made stops in Siena, Florence, Parma and Milan, among other places. Two months later, on June 18, 1788, he was back in Weimar.

In Rome, Goethe stayed with the German painter Wilhelm Tischbein, who painted the most famous portrait of the poet (Goethe in the Campagna). He also had lively exchanges with other members of the German artists” colony in Rome, including Angelika Kauffmann, who also painted his portrait, Jakob Philipp Hackert, Friedrich Bury, and the Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Meyer, who would later follow him to Weimar and become his artistic advisor there, among other things. He was also on friendly terms with the writer Karl Philipp Moritz; in conversation with him, the art-theoretical views were formed that were to become fundamental for Goethe”s “classical” conception of art and were laid down by Moritz in his writing Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen.

Goethe became acquainted with and admired the buildings and works of art of antiquity and the Renaissance in Italy; his particular admiration was for Raphael and the architect Andrea Palladio. In Vicenza, he was thrilled to see that Palladio”s buildings brought the forms of antiquity to new life. Under the guidance of his artist friends, he practiced drawing with great ambition; about 850 drawings by Goethe have survived from the Italian period. However, he also recognized that he was not born to be a visual artist, but a poet. He was intensively engaged in the completion of literary works: He brought the Iphigenia, which was already in prose, into verse form, completed Egmont, which he had begun twelve years earlier, and continued to write Tasso. In addition, he occupied himself with botanical studies. Above all, however, he “lived”: “Under the protection of incognito (his true identity was, however, known to his German friends), he was able to move in simple social circles, give free rein to his enjoyment of games and jokes, and have erotic experiences.”

The trip became a drastic experience for Goethe; in letters home, he himself repeatedly spoke of a “rebirth,” a “new youth” that he had experienced in Italy. He had rediscovered himself as an artist, he wrote to the duke. About his future activity in Weimar, he let him know that he wanted to be freed from his previous duties and do “what no one but I can do and leave the rest to others.” The duke granted Goethe the requested extension of his paid leave so that he could remain in Rome until Easter 1788. One result of his trip was that, upon his return to Weimar, he separated his poetic existence from his political one. Based on his diaries, he wrote Italienische Reise between 1813 and 1817.

The period of Weimar Classicism (from 1789)

A few weeks after his return, Goethe made the acquaintance of the 23-year-old milliner Christiane Vulpius on July 12, 1788, who appeared to him as a supplicant for her brother, who had fallen on hard times after studying law. She became his mistress and soon after his partner. Goethe”s mother called her the “bed treasure”. Not only from the erotic allusions in the Roman Elegies, which Goethe wrote at that time and in which the figure of his Roman lover Faustina merged with Christiane”s, Sigrid Damm concludes that the two were “a sensual couple, gifted with fantasy in love”. When Christiane was heavily pregnant, Goethe wanted to take her into the house at the Frauenplan, but at the request of the duke and with consideration for Weimar society, he moved with her into an apartment outside the city gates. On December 25, 1789, she gave birth to their son August Walter. On the occasion of the christening, Goethe did not formally acknowledge his paternity, but the child was not listed as illegitimate. Four other children they had together survived birth by only a few days. In 1792, the duke agreed to the move to the house on Frauenplan, which Goethe was able to occupy rent-free with Christiane before it became Goethe”s property in 1794 through a gift from the duke in gratitude for accompanying him on the campaigns of 1792 and 1793.

Little is known about Goethe”s “fleeting, sentimental attachment to a noble lady,” the 21-year-old Henriette von Lüttwitz, whom he met in Breslau on his 1790 trip to Silesia after August”s birth and to whom he proposed marriage, which her noble father rejected.

Christiane, who had little education and came from a family in financial distress, was denied access to the Weimar society in which Goethe moved. There, she was considered vulgar and addicted to pleasure; the illegitimacy of the “improper relationship” was an additional complication. Goethe appreciated her natural, cheerful nature and held on to the connection with his “little eroticon” until the end of Christiane”s life in 1816. It was not until 1806 that he facilitated her social position by marrying her, which paved her way into good society. Goethe had decided to marry at short notice after Christiane”s courageous intervention saved him from mortal danger when he was threatened by marauding French soldiers at his home in Weimar on the evening of the Battle of Jena. The marriage took place only five days later. As an engraving for the rings, Goethe chose the date of the battle and his rescue on the night of terror: October 14, 1806.

In the years following his trip to Italy, Goethe was primarily concerned with nature research. In his relationship to nature, he distinguished only two time periods: the decade before 1780, which was strongly influenced by the experience of nature, especially in the Strasbourg years, and the following fifty years of systematic study of nature in Weimar. In 1790 he published his attempt to explain the metamorphosis of plants, an 86-page monograph received with little interest during Goethe”s lifetime, which made him a co-founder of comparative morphology. With the great didactic poem Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (The Metamorphosis of Plants), written in 1798, he succeeded in combining poetry and natural history. The nature poem, written in the verse form of the elegiac distich, is addressed to a “beloved” (Christiane Vulpius) and presents his morphological teachings in concentrated form. In the 1790s, he also began his investigations into color theory, which would occupy him for the rest of his life.

Among the works of the early 1790s are the Römische Elegien, a collection of liberally erotic poems written soon after his return. In the forms of ancient poetry, Goethe processed not only the memory of cultural and amorous Rome experiences from his first trip to Italy, but also his sensual and happy love for Christiane Vulpius. Twenty of the twenty-four poems appeared in Schiller”s Horen in 1795. Weimar society took offense at Goethe”s Erotica, although he retained four of the most revealing poems.

After his return from Italy, Goethe had the duke relieve him of most of his official duties. However, he retained his seat in the Consilium and thus the possibility of political influence. As “minister without portfolio,” he took on a number of cultural and scientific duties, including directing the drawing school and supervising public construction. He was also entrusted with the management of the Weimar Court Theater – a task that took up a great deal of his time, as he was responsible for all matters. In addition, Goethe acted in an advisory capacity in matters concerning the University of Jena, which belonged to the dukedom. His intercession was responsible for the appointment of a number of renowned professors, including Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Friedrich Schiller. After he was entrusted with the supervision of the university in 1807, Goethe was particularly committed to the expansion of the faculty of natural sciences.

After completing the eight-volume Göschen-Werkausgabe for his 40th birthday, Goethe planned to travel to Italy again. In 1790, he spent several months in Venice, where he awaited the duchess mother on her return from a two-year trip to Italy. He accompanied her back to Weimar, stopping in Padua, Vicenza, Verona, and Mantua. However, the high spirits of the first trip to Italy did not return. The product of this second (involuntary) trip to Italy are the Venetian Epigrams, a collection of mocking poems on European conditions that “exceeded the aesthetic-moral tolerance limits of the time.” In the fourth epigram, he feels “bruised” by the innkeepers and misses “German probity,” lamenting, “Beautiful is the land; but alas! Faustinen I find not again.” Instead, he longed back for Christiane, his “Liebchen,” whom he left.

In 1789, the European system of rule and state was shaken and challenged by the French Revolution. Most of Goethe”s intellectual contemporaries (e.g., Wieland, Herder, Hölderlin, Hegel, Georg Forster, Beethoven) were enthusiastic about the ideals of freedom and brotherhood that emanated from it, for example, through the proclamation of human rights. In his ode Kennet euch selbst, Klopstock celebrated the revolution as “the noblest deed of the century.” Goethe was opposed to the Revolution from the outset; for him it was “the most terrible of all events” and also called into question his Weimar existence as a “servant of the princes.” He was a proponent of gradual reforms in the spirit of the Enlightenment and felt repelled in particular by the excesses of violence in the wake of the Revolution; on the other hand, he saw their cause in the social conditions of the Ancien Régime. In retrospect, he later said in a conversation with Eckermann, “that the revolutionary uprisings of the lower classes are a consequence of the injustices of the great.” At the same time, because he hated revolutions, he objected to being seen as a “friend of the existing”: “That is a very ambiguous title, which I would forbid myself to use. If the existing were all excellent, good and just, I would have nothing at all against it. But since, in addition to much that is good, there is at the same time much that is bad, unjust, and imperfect, a friend of what exists is often called not much less than a friend of what is obsolete and bad.”

In 1792 Goethe accompanied the duke at his request to the first coalition war against revolutionary France. For three months he experienced as an observer the misery and violence of this war, which ended with a French victory. He recorded his experiences in the autobiographical Campagne in Frankreich. After a short stay in Weimar, he again went to the front with the duke. In the summer of 1793, he accompanied him to participate in the siege of Mainz. Mainz, occupied by the French and ruled by German Jacobins, was retaken by Prussian-Austrian coalition forces after a three-month siege and bombardment.

In 1796, the duchy joined the special Prussian-French peace treaty of Basel. The ten-year period of peace that followed made it possible for Weimar Classicism to flourish in the midst of a Europe shaken by war.

In retrospect, Goethe noted that the French Revolution, as “the most terrible of all events,” had cost him many years of boundless effort “to deal with it poetically in its causes and consequences.” According to Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe experienced the revolution as an elementary event like a volcanic eruption of the social and political, and it was not by chance that he had occupied himself with the natural phenomenon of volcanism in the months after the revolution.

Under the impression of the revolution, he wrote a series of satirical, anti-revolutionary, but also anti-absolutist comedies: Der Groß-Cophta (1791), Der Bürgergeneral (1793), and the fragment Die Aufgeregten (1793). The one-act Der Bürgergeneral was Goethe”s first play to deal with the consequences of the Revolution. Although it was one of his most successful plays – it was performed more frequently on the Weimar stage than Iphigenia and Tasso – he later refused to acknowledge it. Nor did he include it in the seven-volume edition of his Neue Schriften published at irregular intervals by the Berlin publisher Johann Friedrich Unger from 1792 to 1800. Even the Reineke Fuchs, the 1792

The revolutionary events of the time also formed the background to Goethe”s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderter (1795) and the verse epic Hermann und Dorothea (1797). The Unterhaltungen are a collection of novellas in which the revolution is only addressed in the frame story. In order to forget about the political dispute of the day, noble refugees who fled from their estates on the left bank of the Rhine to the right bank of the Rhine to escape the French Revolutionary troops tell each other stories in the tradition of Romanesque novella poetry (Giovanni Boccaccio). This narrative poetry introduced the first volume of Schiller”s journal Die Horen. Hermann und Dorothea dealt directly with the consequences of the revolution; in this epic Goethe clothed the description of the fate of the Germans on the left bank of the Rhine in the garb of classical hexameter. Along with Schiller”s Glocke, the work achieved “unprecedented popularity.

Goethe had been entrusted with the direction of the amateur theater at the Weimar court in 1776, at a time when the courts preferred French drama and Italian opera. The actors at the Weimar theater were noble and bourgeois amateurs, members of the court including Duke Carl August and Goethe. The venues changed. The singer and actress Corona Schröter from Leipzig, hired for Weimar at Goethe”s suggestion, was initially the only trained actress. She became the first actress to play Iphigenia in the first performance of the prose version of Goethe”s Iphigenie auf Tauris in 1779, in which Goethe played Orest and Carl August played Pylades. 1779 was also the first time an acting company was contracted under Goethe”s direction.

After Duke Carl August decided to found the Weimar Court Theater in 1791, Goethe took over its management. The Court Theater opened on May 7, 1791, with Iffland”s play The Hunters. Goethe”s wish to retain the talented actor and playwright Iffland at the Weimar theater fell through, as he preferred the more attractive position of director of the Berlin National Theater. In the course of his 26-year directorship, Goethe made the Weimar Court Theater one of Germany”s leading stages, premiering not only many of his own dramas but also Schiller”s later dramas (such as the Wallenstein trilogy, Maria Stuart, The Bride of Messina, and William Tell). Schiller also adapted Goethe”s Egmont for the Weimar stage.

The duke had given Goethe a free hand in his theater management, which he admittedly exercised with a rather patriarchal treatment of the actors and actresses. When the fully trained and self-confident actress and singer Karoline Jagemann, who had been engaged in 1797, resisted Goethe”s authoritarian management style, he withdrew from the theater in 1817. One reason was that this artist was not only the undisputed prima donna who made Weimar”s stage shine, but also the official mistress of the duke, whose support she found in her dispute with Goethe.

Before Goethe met Schiller in person for the first time in the fall of 1788 in Rudolstadt, Thuringia, the two had not remained strangers. They each knew the other”s early works. As a pupil at the Karlsschule, Schiller had already read Goethe”s Goetz and Werther with enthusiasm and had seen the man he admired standing next to Karl Eugene at the graduation ceremony of his class in 1780 as a visitor together with the Duke of Weimar. Goethe, who rejected Schiller”s Robbers with their violence, had noticed Schiller”s growing fame with astonishment after his return from Italy, and later also learned to appreciate Schiller”s thought poetry and his historical writings. Schiller”s judgments and feelings toward Goethe were at first rapidly changing and designed to be immediately revised. Several times he calls Goethe an “emotionally cold egoist.” Safranski speaks of a “love-hate” and quotes from a letter of Schiller to Körner: “I hate him, although I love his spirit with all my heart. For the liberation from resentment and rivalry, Schiller later found the “wonderful formula” (Rüdiger Safranski): “that there is, in the face of excellence, no freeness but love” (letter to Goethe, July 2, 1796).

The first personal meeting in Rudolstadt, arranged by Charlotte von Lengefeld, Schiller”s future wife, was relatively unemotional. In a report to Körner, Schiller doubted “whether we will ever get very close to each other.” After this “unsuccessful encounter,” Goethe had pursued Schiller”s appointment to a professorship in Jena, which he initially accepted without a salary.

Living as a history professor in nearby Jena since 1789, Schiller had asked Goethe in June 1794 to join the editorial board of a journal for culture and art he was planning, Horen. After Goethe”s acceptance, the two met in Jena in July of the same year, for Goethe “a happy event” and the beginning of his friendship with Schiller. In September 1794, he invited Schiller for a longer visit in Weimar, which extended to two weeks and served an intensive exchange of ideas between them. This meeting was followed by frequent mutual visits.

The two poets agreed in their rejection of the revolution as well as in their devotion to antiquity as the highest artistic ideal; this was the beginning of an intensive working alliance, from which everything more personal was excluded, but which was characterized by a deep understanding of the nature and working methods of the other.

In their joint discussion of fundamental aesthetic questions, the two developed a conception of literature and art that was to become the literary-historical epochal designation “Weimar Classicism. Goethe, whose literary work, like that of Schiller, had previously come to a standstill, emphasized the stimulating effect of the collaboration with the ten-year-younger: “You have given me a second youth and made me a poet again, which I had all but ceased to be.”

In the first volume of the Horen, the Roman Elegies appeared for the first time under the title Elegies and without any indication of the author. This obviously outraged “all the respectable women” of Weimar. Herder”s publication prompted the ironic suggestion that the Horen should now be written with a “u.” In the Horen, Schiller published in 1795

Both poets took a lively theoretical and practical interest in each other”s works. Thus Goethe influenced Schiller”s Wallenstein, while the latter critically accompanied the work on Goethe”s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and encouraged him to continue Faust. Goethe had asked Schiller to help him finish the Wilhelm Meister novel, and Schiller did not disappoint him. He commented on the manuscripts sent to him and was most surprised that Goethe did not know exactly how the novel should end. He wrote to Goethe that he counted it “among the most beautiful happiness of my existence that I lived to see the completion of this product.” For Nicholas Boyle, the correspondence about the Wilhelm Meister in 1795 constituted

They also pursued joint publishing projects. Although Schiller hardly participated in Goethe”s short-lived art journal Propyläen, the latter published numerous works in the Horen and the Musen-Almanach, also edited by Schiller. The Musen-Almanach for the year 1797 brought a collection of jointly written mock verses, the Xenien. The Musen-Almanach of the following year published the most famous ballads of both authors, such as Goethe”s Der Zauberlehrling, Der Schatzgräber, Die Braut von Korinth, Der Gott und die Bajadere, as well as Schiller”s Der Taucher, Die Kraniche des Ibykus, Der Ring des Polykrates, Der Handschuh, and Ritter Toggenburg.

In December 1799, Schiller moved to Weimar with his family of four, initially to a rented apartment previously occupied by Charlotte von Kalb; in 1802, he acquired his own house on the Esplanade. Parties were formed in Weimar that challenged a comparison of the two “Dioscuri”. For example, the successful playwright August von Kotzebue, who had settled in Weimar, tried to drive a wedge between the two with a lavish celebration in honor of Schiller. Despite some intermittent irritation between them, however, their friendship remained intact until Schiller”s death.

On September 13, 1804, Goethe became a Privy Councillor with the honorary title of Excellency.

The news of Schiller”s death on May 9, 1805, plunged Goethe into a state of stupor. He stayed away from the funeral. He wrote to the musician friend Carl Friedrich Zelter that he had lost a friend and with him “half of my existence. For Rüdiger Safranski, Schiller”s death marked a caesura in Goethe”s life, a “farewell to that golden age when, for a short time, art was not only one of the most beautiful things in life, but one of the most important.” According to Dieter Borchmeyer, the formative period of Weimar Classicism ended with him.

The late Goethe (1805-1832)

Goethe felt the death of Schiller in 1805 as a drastic loss. Around this time, he was also suffering from various illnesses (facial erysipelas in 1801). He also found the political situation with the looming war with Napoleon Bonaparte disturbing. In his mind, Goethe already saw himself and his duke wandering through Germany begging and seeking asylum. His last decades were nevertheless marked by considerable productivity and strong love experiences. Friedrich Riemer (since 1805 educator of his son) soon became indispensable to him as secretary.

As an immediate after-effect of Schiller”s death, Safranski assesses that Goethe resumed work on Faust; added to this was the external pressure on the part of the publisher Cotta. The new eight-volume complete edition of 1808 was to contain the first complete version of the first part of Faust.

The marriage to Christiane did not prevent Goethe from showing an amorous inclination for Minna Herzlieb, the eighteen-year-old foster daughter of the bookseller Frommann in Jena, as early as 1807. Safranski speaks of a “little infatuation” that Goethe explained as a “substitute” for the “painfully felt loss of Schiller.” An echo of the inner experiences of this time is found in his last novel, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809). Characteristic of Goethe is how he links poetry and natural science in this work. In contemporary chemistry, the concept of the “elective affinity” of the elements was used, which Goethe adopted to address the “natural attraction between two pairs that cannot be finally controlled by reason.

In 1810, Goethe published the lavishly decorated Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) in two volumes and a volume with pictorial plates. He had been working on it for almost twenty years. According to Safranski, the repeatedly recorded color studies (in the form of experiments, observations, reflections and literary studies) served Goethe to escape from external turbulence and inner turmoil; he had also noted down his relevant observations during the campaign in France and the siege of Mainz. The response to the publication was poor and filled Goethe with displeasure. Although friends testified to respect, the scientific world hardly took any notice of it. The literary world took it as a superfluous digression in a time of violent political upheaval.

In January 1811, Goethe began writing a major autobiography, later entitled Aus meinem Leben. Poetry and Truth. He was assisted in this by Bettina Brentano, who had records of his mother”s stories about Goethe”s childhood and youth. Bettina visited Goethe in Weimar in 1811. After an argument between her and Christiane, Goethe broke with her. The first three parts of the autobiography appeared between 1811 and 1814. The fourth part did not appear until after his death in 1833. The original conception was a history of the poet”s education stylized as a metamorphosis, with an emphasis on the “naturalness of aesthetic and poetic abilities and dispositions.” A crisis during the work on the third part made it seem inadequate to him. He replaced it with the demonic as a “cipher of the overpowering context of nature and history.

Napoleon held a personal fascination for Goethe until the end of his life. For him, Napoleon was “one of the most productive men who ever lived.” “His life was the striding of a demigod from battle to battle and from victory to victory.” In 1808, Goethe met with Napoleon twice. The first time, the emperor received him and Christoph Martin Wieland for a private audience on October 2 at the Erfurt Congress of Princes, where Napoleon addressed him approvingly about his Werther. A second meeting (again together with Wieland) took place in Weimar on the occasion of a court ball on October 6. Afterwards, he and Wieland were made Knights of the Legion of Honor. Tsar Alexander I, who was also present at the princely congress, awarded both of them the Order of the Anne. Goethe, to the annoyance of his contemporaries and also of Duke Carl August, proudly wore the Legion Cross, even during the time of the patriotic uprising against Napoleonic rule in German lands. In 1813, he expressed in a conversation, “Just shake your chains; the man is too big for you, you will not break them.” Immediately after the news of Napoleon”s death on Saint Helena on May 5, 1821, the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni composed the ode Il Cinque Maggio (The Fifth of May) with 18 six-line stanzas. When Goethe held the ode in his hands, he was so impressed by it that he immediately set about translating it, preserving its high, solemn tone.

Goethe had met Beethoven in 1812 in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz. At this time, Beethoven had already set various verses and songs by Goethe to music and, commissioned by the Vienna Court Theater in 1809, had composed

Goethe cultivated many friendships during his long life. The most important medium of communication for friendship was the private letter. In the last decades of his life, he formed two special friendships with Carl Friedrich Zelter and Sulpiz Boisserée.

In 1796, the musician and composer Carl Friedrich Zelter sent Goethe, through his publisher, several settings of texts from Wilhelm Meister”s Lehrjahre. Goethe thanked him with the words “that I would hardly have thought music capable of such heartfelt tones”. They met for the first time in February 1802, but had already established contact by letter in 1799. The extensive correspondence of almost 900 letters lasted until Goethe”s death. In this friendship of old age, Goethe felt that Zelter, whose music sounded more pleasant to his ears than the “roar” of Ludwig van Beethoven, understood him best, and not only in matters of music.

What his friendship with Zelter meant to his understanding of music, he owed to Sulpiz Boisserée for his experience with the fine arts. Boisserée, an art collector from Heidelberg and a disciple of Friedrich Schlegel, had first visited him in Weimar in 1811. This led to a lasting correspondence and a lifelong friendship, which enriched him with new art experiences in the years to come. After a trip to the Rhine and May area with a visit to the Boissée collection of paintings in Heidelberg, they were reflected in the travelogue Ueber Kunst und Altertum in den Rhein und Mayn Gegenden of 1816. During the trip, Goethe became involved in the hustle and bustle of the traditional St. Rochus festival in Bingen in 1814, which fascinated him as the Roman carnival once did and which he lovingly described as a folk festival.

Goethe kept his distance from the patriotic uprising against French foreign rule. He took spiritual refuge in the Orient by studying Arabic and Persian; he read the Koran and enthusiastically received the verses of the Persian poet Hafis in the new translation of the Divan from the 14th century published by Cotta. They put him in a “creative high spirits” that he later described to Eckermann as “a repeated puberty”: he wrote numerous poems in the light and playful tone of Hafis within a short time. Hendrik Birus, the editor of the collection of poems in the Frankfurt edition, speaks of an “eruptive productivity.

In the summer of 1814, Goethe traveled to the Rhine and May regions. In Wiesbaden, he met the Frankfurt banker and patron of the theater Johann Jakob von Willemer, whom he had known since his youth, and his foster daughter Marianne Jung. He then visited them at the Gerbermühle near Frankfurt, where he also took up quarters for a time. The widowed banker had taken in Marianne as a young girl and lived with her in concubinage. While Goethe was still there, and possibly on his advice, the two were formally married in a hurry. The sixty-five-year-old Goethe fell in love with Marianne. She became his muse and partner in the poetry of the West-östlicher Divan. A “lyrical interchange” and a “literary role-play of love” developed between them, which they continued the following year during another visit lasting several weeks. The poems written during the Frankfurt weeks were primarily included in the book Suleika. In 1850, Marianne revealed to Herman Grimm that some of the love poems included in this collection were hers. Heinrich Heine, in his Die romantische Schule (The Romantic School), found words of praise for the collection of poems: “Goethe has put the most intoxicating enjoyment of life into verse here, and these are so light, so happy, so breathed, so ethereal, that one wonders how such a thing was possible in the German language.

On his journey in 1815, Goethe saw his homeland again for the last time. When he left for the planned cure in Baden-Baden in July 1816 and wanted to pay another visit to the Willemers, the carriage broke down behind Weimar, whereupon Goethe broke off the journey. From then on, he refrained from visiting Marianne and did not write to her for a while. He left the West-östlicher Divan unfinished for some time, and only completed it in 1818.

Goethe”s wife Christiane died in June 1816 after a long illness. As in other cases of death and illness near him, he sought distraction in work or was preoccupied with an illness of his own, he also withdrew when Christiane died. He was present neither at her deathbed nor at her funeral. Goethe consistently avoided the sight of dying or deceased people who were close to him. Johanna Schopenhauer reported to a friend that it was his way “to let every pain run riot completely in silence, and only to show himself to his friends again in complete composure.” After Christiane”s death, it became lonelier around him in the large house on the Frauenplan. Even the visit of Charlotte Buff, widowed Kestner, to Weimar in September 1816 did nothing to brighten his mood. In 1817, his son married Ottilie von Pogwisch, who henceforth took care of Goethe as his daughter-in-law. In 1817, Goethe was relieved of his duties as director of the court theater. Contrary to Goethe”s fears, the small duchy had emerged unscathed from the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, Carl August was allowed to call himself “Royal Highness,” and the new circumstances earned Goethe the title of Minister of State on December 12, 1815.

Goethe organized his writings and manuscripts. The diaries and notes, which had been left lying around for a long time, served him as a reappraisal of the Italian journey. At times he immersed himself in ancient Greek myths and Orphic poetry. This found expression in five stanzas that first appeared in 1817 in the journal Zur Morphologie, summarized under the heading Urworte. Orphic. They were related to his effort to recognize the laws of life in the form of primordial plants and primordial phenomena. This was followed in 1821 by the first one-volume version of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, which essentially consisted of a collection of novellas, some of which had already been published previously.

During these years, he wrote Geschichte meines botanischen Studiums (1817), followed by thoughts on morphology, geology and mineralogy, among others, in the series Zur Naturwissenschaft überhaupt (On Natural Science in General) until 1824. Here is also the presentation of the morphology of plants in the form of an elegy, which he had already written around 1790 for his beloved. During this time, he was also in contact with the forest scientist Heinrich Cotta, whom he had already visited for the first time in Tharandt in 1813. In 1818 Goethe had become a member of the Leopoldina, one of the most renowned natural science societies.

In February 1823, Goethe fell critically ill, probably from a heart attack. After his recovery, he appeared to some to be even more mentally active than before.

In the summer, he set off for Marienbad with great expectations of a reunion with Ulrike von Levetzow. He had met the then seventeen-year-old with her mother in 1821 during a stay at a spa in Marienbad and had fallen in love with her. The following year they had met again in Marienbad and had spent convivial hours together. At their third meeting, Goethe, who was seventy-four years old at the time, asked for the hand of nineteen-year-old Ulrike. He had asked his friend, the Grand Duke Carl August, to be his bride”s suitor. Ulrike politely declined. Still in the carriage that brought him back to Weimar via several stops (Karlsbad, Eger), he wrote the Marienbad Elegy, a lyrical masterpiece and “the most important, the most personally intimate and therefore also the most beloved poem of his age” in the judgment of Stefan Zweig, who devoted a chapter of his historical miniatures Sternstunden der Menschheit to the story of its creation.

After that, his life “still belonged to work alone. He resumed work on the second part of Faust. He hardly ever wrote himself, but dictated. This enabled him not only to manage an extensive correspondence, but also to entrust his insights and life wisdom to the young poet Johann Peter Eckermann, who was devoted to him, in wide-ranging conversations.

For the collection, sifting and ordering of the literary results of his entire life in the preparation of the Cotta edition last hand, Goethe was able to rely on a staff of collaborators: in addition to the scribe and copyist Johann August Friedrich John, these were the jurist Johann Christian Schuchard, who archived Goethe”s papers and compiled extensive registers, as well as Johann Heinrich Meyer, responsible for the text revision of Goethe”s art historical writings, and the prince educator Frédéric Soret, who devoted himself to the editing of the natural scientific writings. The librarian and writer Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer had also rejoined the staff, after a brief rift over the education of Goethe”s son. At the head of the staff since 1824 was Eckermann, whom Goethe took into his confidence and bestowed with recognition and praise. Although he devoted all his labor to Goethe, he was poorly rewarded by him. In addition, he had to earn his living by teaching languages to English educational travelers. Goethe designated him in his will as the editor of his bequeathed works.

In 1828 Goethe”s friend and patron, the Grand Duke Carl August, died, and in November 1830 his son August. In the same year, he completed work on the second part of Faust. It was a work on which the years of becoming were most important to him, formally a stage play, in fact hardly playable on the stage, rather a fantastic pictorial arc, ambiguous like many of his poems. Finally, he intervened in the controversy of the two paleontologists Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (catastrophism vs. continuous evolution of species). Geology and evolutionary theory occupied him as much as the rainbow, which he had never been able to explain by means of his color theory. Also the question, how plants grow, did not let go him.

In August 1831, Goethe was drawn once again to the Thuringian Forest, to the place where he had once received his first scientific inspiration, and he went to Ilmenau. 51 years after he had written his best-known poem Wandrers Nachtlied (“Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh …”) on a board wall in the hunting lodge “Goethehäuschen” on the Kickelhahn near Ilmenau in 1780, he visited this site again in 1831 shortly before his last birthday.

Goethe died on March 22, 1832, presumably of a heart attack. Whether his surviving last words “More light!” are authentic is disputed. They were communicated by his family physician Carl Vogel, who, however, was not in the death chamber at the moment in question. Four days later, he was buried in the Weimar princely crypt.

Goethe”s uniqueness

Goethe”s biographers have frequently drawn attention to the uniqueness and close interconnectedness of Goethe”s life and work. In the subtitle of his biography – Kunstwerk des Lebens – Rüdiger Safranski has put this in a nutshell. Georg Simmel centered his Goethe monograph of 1913 on Goethe”s exemplary spiritual existence with its embodiment of a distinctive individuality. Friedrich Gundolf, a student of George, dedicated his monograph of 1916 to the “representation of Goethe”s entire figure, the greatest unity wherein German spirit has embodied itself,” and in which “life and work” appear only as different “attributes of one and the same substance.” The word of the “Olympian” already appeared during Goethe”s lifetime. Less flowery, the psychoanalyst Kurt R. Eissler in his extensive study of Goethe speaks of a “creative genius” and outlines his unbelievably wide circle of face and activity:

To assume a coherent world view in Goethe would be wrong; it is more appropriate to speak of his understanding of the world. He acquired knowledge in the fields of philosophy, theology, and natural science to an extent and breadth unparalleled by any poet of his time, but he did not unify this knowledge into a system. Nevertheless, he proceeded from the unity of human knowledge and experience, from the connection between art and nature, science and poetry, religion and poetry. “For philosophy in the proper sense I had no organ,” he confessed in his essay Einwirkung der neueren Philosophie (1820). He thus testified to his aversion to conceptual abstractions, in whose sphere he felt uncomfortable. However, the findings and insights taken from the most diverse fields of knowledge fertilized and enriched almost everything he wrote.

For the understanding of his philosophical, scientific and artistic thinking, “Anschauung” and “gegenständliches Denken” are revealing key concepts. He opposed Immanuel Kant”s Critique of Reason with the demand for a critique of the senses. Goethe insisted on gaining knowledge through contemplation and reflection, even about “primordial phenomena” such as the “original plant”. “Anschauung” meant for him the empirical reference to phenomena by observation and experiment; in this he followed the inductionist method of Francis Bacon. “Gegenständliches Denken” is the formulation coined for Goethe by the Leipzig psychiatry professor Heinroth, which Goethe gratefully took up in his essay Bedeutende Fördernis by a single witty word. Goethe also agreed with Heinroth “that my looking itself is thinking, my thinking is looking”. In the further course of his essay, he related this thinking both to his scientific research and to his “representational poetry”. Heinrich Heine recognized with admiration Goethe”s “ability of plastic looking, feeling and thinking”. Andreas Bruno Wachsmuth, the long-time president of the Goethe Society, called it “the eagerness to learn about things”.

Understanding nature

Goethe scholar Dieter Borchmeyer believes that Goethe devoted most of his life to natural science. Stefan Bollmann, in a monograph on Goethe”s research on nature, states: “One will have to get used to the idea that Germany”s greatest poet was a natural scientist.” In any case, Goethe”s entire life was characterized by an intensive contact with nature, whereby his approach was twofold: feeling and experiencing as an artist, looking at and analyzing as a scholar and natural scientist. For Goethe, nature in its infinite facets was impossible to grasp as a whole: it “has no system; it has, it is life and sequence from an unknown center to an unknowable limit. Contemplation of nature is therefore endless His “thinking about nature” provides the key to understanding his intellectual biography as well as his literary work. According to Andreas Wachsmuth, Goethe “elevated nature as a realm of experience and cognition to the highest educational concern of man”.

Since the Strasbourg years and prompted by Herder, Goethe assigned nature a central place in his life. While he was initially influenced by Rousseau, Klopstock, and Ossian, it was his experience of nature and his feeling for nature that touched him. From 1780 onward, he developed an increasing interest in natural research and the natural sciences in Weimar. The philosopher Alfred Schmidt calls it the completed “step from the feeling for nature to the knowledge of nature”. As a nature-observing scholar, Goethe researched in many disciplines: morphology, geology, mineralogy, optics, botany, zoology, anatomy, meteorology. In retrospect, he told Eckermann that he was interested in “objects that surrounded me on earth and that could be perceived directly through the senses.

His key concepts included metamorphosis and type on the one hand, polarity and increase on the other. He understood metamorphosis as a gradual change of form within the limits set by the respective type (“original plant”, “original animal”). The change takes place in a continuous process of attraction and repulsion (polarity), which brings about an increase to higher things.

In the pantheistic thought of thinking nature and God identically, Goethe”s understanding of nature and religion were linked.

Understanding of religion

Apart from a brief phase of rapprochement with pietistic beliefs, which reached its climax during Goethe”s convalescence from a serious illness in the years 1768-1770, he remained critical of the Christian religion. Already early on, he had told the theologian Johann Caspar Lavater, who was a friend of his, in a reply letter in 1782 that he was “indeed not a counter-Christ, not an un-Christ, but nevertheless a decided non-Christ. Goethe researcher Werner Keller summarizes Goethe”s reservations about Christianity in three points: “For Goethe, the symbolism of the cross was a nuisance, the doctrine of original sin a debasement of creation, Jesus” deification in the Trinity a blasphemy of the one God.”

According to Heinrich Heine, Goethe was called “the great pagan In his thoroughly optimistic view of human nature, he could not accept the dogmas of original sin and eternal damnation. His “world piety” (a term coined by Goethe in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre) brought him into opposition to all world-despising religions; he rejected everything supernatural. Goethe”s religious rebellion found its strongest poetic expression in his great Sturm-und-Drang ode Prometheus. Nicholas Boyle sees in it Goethe”s “explicit and furious rejection of the God of the Pietists and the mendacious comfort of their Savior.” If the second stanza of the role poem “Ich kenne nichts Ärmer”s

Although Goethe was intensively involved with Christianity, Judaism and Islam and their authoritative texts, he opposed any religion of revelation and the idea of a personal Creator-God. The individual had to find the divine in himself and not follow an external revelation on word. He opposed revelation with contemplation. Navid Kermani speaks of a “religiosity of direct contemplation and all-human experience” that gets by “without speculation and almost without faith”. “Nature has neither core nor shell

In his studies of nature Goethe found the foundations of truth. Again and again he confessed to be a pantheist in the philosophical tradition of Spinoza and a polytheist in the tradition of classical antiquity.

Dorothea Schlegel reports that Goethe told a traveler that he was “an atheist in natural history and philosophy, a pagan in art, and a Christian in feeling.

The Bible and the Koran, with which he had occupied himself at the time of writing the West-Eastern Divan, were for him “poetic history books, interspersed here and there with wisdom, but also with time-bound folly. He saw religious teachers and poets as “natural adversaries” and rivals: “the religious teachers would like to ”suppress,” ”put aside,” ”render harmless” the works of the poets.” Detached from dogma, he found rich sources for his poetic symbols and allusions in the iconography and narrative traditions of all major religions, including Islam and Hinduism; the strongest evidence of this is provided by Faust and the West-Eastern Divan.

Goethe loved the plastic representation of ancient gods and demigods, temples and sanctuaries, while the cross and the depiction of martyred bodies were downright hateful to him.

Goethe treated Islam with respect, but not without criticism. In the notes and treatises for a better understanding of the West-Eastern Divan, he criticized Mohammed for having “thrown a gloomy religious cover over his tribe”; among these he counted the negative image of women, the prohibition of wine and intoxication, and the aversion to poetry.

Church ceremonies and processions were “soulless pageantry” and “mummery” to him. The church wanted to rule and needed for it “a narrow-minded mass, which ducks and which is inclined to let itself be ruled. The whole history of the church is a “mishmash of error and violence. On the other hand, he described with sympathy and profound humor the traditional Saint Rochus festival in Bingen – similar to his earlier description of the “Roman Carnival” (1789) – as a cheerful folk festival at which life was affirmed as good and beautiful and every Christian asceticism was renounced. Nevertheless, he saw in Christianity “a power of order that he respected and wanted to see respected.” Christianity was supposed to promote social cohesion among the people, but in Goethe”s view it was superfluous for the intellectual elite, because: “He who possesses science and art,

On the other hand, the idea of rebirth was not alien to him. His belief in immortality, however, was not based on religious but on philosophical premises, such as Leibniz”s conception of the indestructible monad or Aristotle”s entelechy. From the idea of activity, he developed the thesis in a conversation with Eckermann that nature is obligated “if I work restlessly to my end, to assign me another form of existence, if the present one cannot further endure my spirit.

Aesthetic self-image

As a reviewer of the Frankfurter Gelehrten Anzeigen, edited by his Darmstadt friend Johann Heinrich Merck, Goethe in his Sturm und Drang period grappled with the aesthetics of Johann Georg Sulzer, who was influential at the time. In his early aesthetics, Goethe contrasted the traditional aesthetic principle that art is an imitation of nature with genius, which in its creative expression creates like nature itself. Poetic creation was an expression of unbridled nature, and Shakespeare was its creative power personified.

Goethe”s view of art was formed during his trip to Italy; it was closely connected with the names of Johann Joachim Winckelmann and the classicist architect Andrea Palladio. In Winckelmann”s classicism he recognized the truth of art that was valid for him, as already formulated in the example of Shakespeare: it is not simply imitated, but enhanced nature. He later honored Winckelmann by publishing his letters and sketches in the anthology Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert (1805).

After his return from Italy, the thoughts of autonomy aesthetics, which Karl Philipp Moritz had set down in the writing Über die bildende Nachahmung des Schönen (1788), gained great importance for Goethe. According to Goethe, this writing had emerged from conversations between him and Moritz in Rome. It postulated that the work of art does not serve any external purpose and that the artist is not subservient to anyone, but stands as a creator on a par with the producer of the universe. In this claim, Goethe also found the solution to his dilemma between courtly and artistic existence: as a creator of literary beauty, the artist allows himself to be provided for by a patron, without thereby serving the patron”s purposes.

Unlike Schiller, he refused to conceive of poetic works as the shaping of ideas. With regard to Faust, he asked rhetorically what the result would have been “if I had wanted to string together such a rich, colorful, and highly diverse life, as I have brought to view in ”Faust,” on the thin string of a single continuous idea!” To this is added Goethe”s statement, recorded by Eckermann in the same conversation, that “the more incommensurable and incomprehensible to the mind a poetic production is, the better.” He also rejected Denis Diderot”s view that art should convey a faithful replica of nature. He insisted on the distinction between nature and art. According to him, nature “organizes a living indifferent being, the artist a dead one, but a significant one, nature a real one, the artist an apparent one. To the works of nature the viewer must first bring significance, feeling, thought, effect, impact on the mind itself, in the work of art he wants and must find everything already.” Art, as Karl Otto Conrady sums it up, has a decisive more reserved for it, which sets it apart from nature. The artist adds something to nature that is not inherent to it.

Schiller had characterized Goethe as a naïve poet in his writing On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry – a “poetry typological treatise” very important for the “self-definition of Weimar Classicism” – and placed him in a line of ancestors with Homer and Shakespeare. In the naïve poets, Schiller saw a striving for the “imitation of the real,” their object being the world created by the poet through art. In contrast, the work of the sentimental poet was self-reflexively directed toward the “representation of the ideal” of lost nature. Goethe, the realist and optimist, also refused to let his dramas and novels end with death and catastrophe. In a letter to Schiller of December 9, 1797, he doubted that he could “write a true tragedy.” His dramas and novels usually end untragically with renunciation, such as the novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre with the telling subtitle Die Entsagenden. In the Elective Affinities he shaped (this novel he brought to a tragic end.

With his coinage of the word “world literature,” the late Goethe opposed the particular national literatures with a “general world literature” that belonged “neither to the people nor to the nobility, neither to the king nor to the peasant,” but was “the common property of mankind. In his literary production, including translations from the most important European languages, Goethe impressively demonstrated the range of his aesthetic approach to the literatures of Europe, the Near and Far East, and classical antiquity. The poetry cycles West-östlicher Divan and Chinese-German Tages- und Jahreszeiten bear witness to the reception of Persian and Chinese poetry. Goethe was in correspondence with European writers, such as the Scottish essayist and author of The Life of Schiller (1825), Thomas Carlyle, with Lord Byron and the Italian Alessandro Manzoni. He translated the memoirs of the Renaissance goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini and Diderot”s satirical-philosophical dialogue Rameau”s Nephew. He regularly read foreign journals such as the French literary magazine Le Globe, the Italian cultural history journal L”Eco, and the Edinburgh Review. Gerhard R. Kaiser suspects that in Goethe”s remarks about world literature the author of De l”Allemagne. (On Germany. 1813), Madame de Staël, who had visited Weimar in 1803, was unspokenly present because her work had accelerated the world literary process that was taking place in Goethe”s time.

In a conversation with Eckermann he postulated: “National literature does not want to say much now, the epoch of world literature is at hand and everyone must now work to accelerate this epoch”. While in his last years he found the newer German literature hardly worthy of a mention, he read “from France Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo, from England Scott and Byron, and from Italy Manzoni.

Goethe”s artistic oeuvre is multifaceted. The most important place is occupied by his literary work. In addition, there are the drawings with over 3,000 works left behind, the 26-year theater direction in Weimar and, last but not least, the planning of the “Roman House” in the park on the Ilm. His work overlaps and is permeated by his views on nature and religion and his aesthetic understanding.


Goethe was a poet from his youth to old age. With his poems, he left his mark on the literary epochs of Sturm und Drang and Weimar Classicism. Much of his poetry achieved world renown and belongs to the most important part of the lyrical canon of German-language literature.

Over the course of about 65 years, he wrote more than 3000 poems, some of which appeared independently, others in cycles such as the Roman Elegies, the Sonnet Cycle, the West-Eastern Divan, or the Trilogy of Passion. The lyrical work shows an astonishing variety of forms and expressions and corresponds to the vastness of the inner experience. Next to long poems of several hundred verses stand short two-liners, next to verses of high linguistic and metaphorical complexity simple sayings, next to strict and antic meters songlike or mocking stanzas as well as rhymeless poems in free rhythms. With his complete lyrical works, Goethe “only really created” the German-language poem and left behind models against which almost all subsequent poets have measured themselves.

In his lyrical production, Goethe adopted all the forms of this literary genre known from world literature (old and new) with metrical virtuosity. His poetic expressiveness became as natural to him “as eating and breathing”. In compiling his poems, he rarely proceeded chronologically, but according to criteria of thematic coherence, whereby the individual poems could complement each other, but also contradict each other. This poses great problems for Goethe research in the publication of his lyrical work in critical complete editions. One outline that has proved influential and is readily available is that of Erich Trunz in the Hamburg edition. The two volumes edited by Trunz are arranged in slightly chronological order in the first volume, Poems and Epics I. The first volume, Poems: Early Poems, Sturm und Drang, Poems of the First Years of Man. The classical period. Works of old age. The second volume, Poems and Epics II, contains the West-Eastern Divan and the verse epics Reineke Fuchs. Hermann and Dorothea and Achilleis.


Goethe”s epic work, like his dramatic work, includes almost all forms of epic literature: the animal fable (Reineke Fuchs), the verse epic (Hermann und Dorothea), the novella (Novelle), the novel (Die Wahlverwandtschaften, Wilhelm Meisters Lehr- und Wanderjahre) and epistolary novel (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), the travelogue (Italienische Reise), and autobiographical writings (Dichtung und Wahrheit, Campagne in Frankreich).

Goethe”s first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, became one of the greatest successes in German literary history. The author used a narrative form typical of the 18th century, the epistolary novel. But he radicalized this genre by not depicting an exchange of letters between novel characters, but writing a monologue epistolary novel. In Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) he confesses that with the novel he made poetic use of his life for the first time. With the sensitive portrayal of his unfulfilled love story with Charlotte Buff in Wetzlar, he triggered a veritable “Werther fashion.” People dressed like him (blue frock coat, yellow pants, brown boots), talked and wrote like him. There were also numerous suicidal imitators, for whom Werther”s suicide served as a model (see Werther Effect). His early European reputation was due to this novel, which was accessible in most European languages in 1800. Even Napoleon came to speak of this book during his historic meeting with Goethe in Erfurt on October 2, 1808.

The Wilhelm Meister novels occupy a central position in Goethe”s epic oeuvre. The novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre was regarded by the Romantics as an epochal event and “paradigm of the Romantic novel” (Novalis), and by the realist narrators as the “prelude to the history of the Bildungsroman and the novel of development” in the German-speaking world. In particular, to the realist narrators such as Karl Immermann, Gottfried Keller, and Adalbert Stifter, and later to Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane, it served as a paradigm for the poetic reproduction of real reality. In contrast, the late work Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre appears as a “highly modern work of art” due to its open form, with the tendency to renounce the content-related instance of a central hero and omniscient narrator, which “makes a multitude of reception offers to the reader.” The precursor Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung, published only posthumously (1911) – a fragmentary “Urmeister” – is still closer to the Sturm und Drang in terms of content and is formally assigned to the genre of the theater and artists” novel. The Romantics had already received Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre under this genre.

In a conversation, Goethe described Die Wahlverwandtschaften as his “best book”. In a kind of experimental arrangement, he brings together two couples whose nature-bound fate he shapes according to the model of chemical forces of attraction and repulsion by imposing their regularity on the relationships between the two couples. An ambivalence of moral life forms and enigmatic passions determines the novel”s events. The novel is reminiscent of Goethe”s first novel, Werther, primarily through the “unconditional, even reckless claim to love” of one of the main characters (Eduard), “contrasted with the self-controlled renunciation” of the others. Thomas Mann saw in it “Goethe”s most idealistic work,” the only product of larger scope that Goethe, according to his self-testimony, “worked on after presenting a thoroughgoing idea.” The work opened the series of European marriage (breakup) novels: Flaubert”s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy”s Anna Karenina, Fontane”s Effi Briest. It was criticized as immoral, even though the author makes the adultery take place only in thought.

Goethe published Die Italienische Reise decades after his trip. It is not a travel book in the usual sense, but a self-portrayal in the encounter with the South, a piece of autobiography. It was first published in 1816-1817 as the “second section” of his autobiography Aus meinem Leben, whose “first section” contained poetry and truth. Goethe used his Italian travel journal sent to Charlotte von Stein in loose sequences and his letters to her and Herder at the time as a basis. It was not until 1829 that the work was published under the title Italienische Reise with a second part: “Zweiter Römischer Aufenthalt”. In it, edited original letters alternate with reports written later.

With Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), Goethe set about writing a major autobiography in the first decade of the 19th century. Its original conception was a history of the poet”s education stylized as a metamorphosis. While working on the third part, he ran into a crisis with this model of interpretation; he replaced it with the category of the “demonic,” with which he sought to capture the uncontrollable of an overpowering natural as well as historical context. The account did not go beyond the description of childhood, youth, studies, and first literary successes.


From his youth until the last years of his life, Goethe wrote more than twenty dramas, of which Goetz von Berlichingen, Clavigo, Egmont, Stella, Iphigenie auf Tauris, Torquato Tasso, and especially the two parts of Faust still belong to the classical repertoire of German theaters. Although his plays cover the entire range of theatrical forms – shepherd”s play, farce, farce, comedy, heroic drama, tragedy – the classical dramas and tragedies form the main focus of his dramatic production. Three of his plays became milestones of German dramatic literature.

Goethe”s breakthrough as a playwright came with the Sturm und Drang drama Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand, which made him famous overnight. Contemporaries saw in him “something of Shakespeare”s spirit,” indeed in Goethe the “German Shakespeare. In addition to the “Götz quote,” the exclamation “It is a lust to see a great man” coined for the main character also made its way into the proverbial vocabulary of the Germans. Another historical drama, Egmont, is likewise organized around a single dominant character, he too in a representative capacity for the author, who understood his works as “fragments of a great confession.”

The drama Iphigenie auf Tauris is considered exemplary for Goethe”s classicism. Goethe himself described it to Schiller as “quite devilishly humane. Friedrich Gundolf even saw in it the “gospel of German humanity par excellence”. The original prose version was written in blank verse in the final version (1787), like Torquato Tasso, the “first purely artistic drama in world literature,” which was completed at the same time.

The Faust tragedy, on which Goethe worked for more than sixty years, is described by Faust expert and editor of the volume with the Faust poems in the Frankfurt edition, Albrecht Schöne, as the “sum of his poetry”. With Faust, Goethe took up a Renaissance theme about human hubris and sharpened it to the question of whether the pursuit of knowledge can be reconciled with the desire for happiness. Heinrich Heine called the Faust drama “the secular Bible of the Germans.” The philosopher Hegel praised the drama as the “absolute philosophical tragedy” in which “on the one hand the lack of satisfaction in science, on the other hand the liveliness of world life and earthly enjoyment gives a breadth of content such as no other dramatic poet has dared before in one and the same work.” After the founding of the Reich, Faust was transfigured into a “national myth,” an “incarnation of German essence and German sense of mission.” More recent interpretations push back the outdated interpretive optimism of the “Faustian” with its model figure for restless drive for perfection and point instead to the “prohibition of rest” and the “compulsion to move” in the modern character of the “global player Faust”.

Goethe rejected Johann Christoph Gottsched”s theatrical theory, which was fixated on French drama (primarily that of Pierre Corneille and Jean Baptiste Racine), as had Gotthold Ephraim Lessing before him. After Herder had introduced him to Shakespeare”s dramas in Strasbourg, the unity of place, action and time demanded by Gottsched according to Aristotle seemed to him, as Stürmer und Dränger, “dungeon-like fearful” and “burdensome fetters of our imagination.” With Götz von Berlichingen”s account of his life, a material fell into his hands that, as “German-national, corresponded to Shakespeare”s English-national material.” Nevertheless, Goethe only dared to use the open dramatic form chosen in Götz in Faust. According to Albrecht Schöne, the play already went “out of the usual dramatic joints” of the “traditional-Aristotelian rules of unity” in the first part; in the second part, the “signs of dissolution are unmistakable.” The later dramas after Götz approached – under Lessing”s influence – bourgeois drama (Stella, Clavigo) and classical forms, the latter most clearly in Iphigenia, in which the unity of place (grove in front of Diana”s temple) and time is preserved.

Writings on art and literature

Beginning with his youthful works, Goethe commented on questions of art and literature throughout his life. He began with two “prose hymns” from the early 1770s: the Speech on Shakespeare Day (1771) and the hymn to Strasbourg Cathedral and its builder, Erwin von Steinbach, in Von deutscher Baukunst (1772). Late in life, he wrote an in-depth appreciation of Leonardo”s painting The Last Supper (1818), in which he neglected the sacramental character of the work and used it as an example to demonstrate artistic autonomy with its own inner legality. In between were numerous works on art and literary theory, such as the essay Über Laokoon, published in 1798 in the first volume of his journal Propyläen, and the translation of the autobiography of the Italian Renaissance artist Leben des Benvenuto Cellini (1803), as well as the collective work Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert, which he edited. In Briefe und Aufsätzen (1805) with its sketches of Winckelmann”s person and work, as well as numerous essays on European and non-European literature, which reinforced Goethe”s idea of an emerging world literature.


In Nicholas Boyle”s opinion, Goethe was “one of the world”s greatest letter writers” and the letter was for him the “most natural literary form. Some 12,000 letters from him and 20,000 to him have survived. The significant correspondence between Goethe and Schiller alone comprises 1015 surviving letters. He addressed about one and a half thousand letters to Charlotte von Stein.


Goethe drew throughout his life, “preferably with pencil, charcoal, chalk, and colored ink,” and several early etchings have also survived. His favorite subjects were portraits of heads, theater scenes, and landscapes. Hundreds of drawings were made during his first trip to Switzerland with the Stolberg brothers in 1775 and during his trip to Italy in 1786-1788. In Rome, his fellow artists taught him perspective painting and drawing and motivated him to study human anatomy. Thus he acquired knowledge of anatomy from the famous surgeon Lobstein. However, he also recognized his limitations in this metier.

Scientific writings

Goethe”s means of understanding nature was observation; he was suspicious of aids such as the microscope:

He strove to recognize nature in its overall context with the inclusion of man. Goethe regarded the abstraction, which science began to use at that time, with suspicion because of the associated isolation of the objects from the observer. His method, however, is not compatible with modern exact natural science: “he has not transcended the realm of immediate sensual impression and immediate mental contemplation in the direction of an abstract, mathematically verifiable, nonsensical law,” (Karl Robert Mandelkow) stated the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz in 1853.

Goethe”s preoccupation with natural science found its way into his poetry many times, for example in Faust and in the poems The Metamorphosis of Plants and Gingo biloba. Faust, which occupied Goethe throughout his life, registers for the philosopher Alfred Schmidt, like “the succession of rock layers, the stages of his knowledge of nature.

Goethe considered his Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) (published in 1810) to be his main scientific work and stubbornly defended the theses it put forward against numerous critics. In his old age, he said that he valued this work more highly than his poetry. With the theory of colors, Goethe opposed that of Isaac Newton, who had proven that white light is composed of lights of different colors. Goethe, on the other hand, believed he could conclude from his own observations “that light is an indivisible unity and that colors arise from the interaction of light and dark, light and darkness, through the mediation of a ”cloudy” medium.” For example, the sun appears reddish when a cloudy haze spreads in front of it and darkens it. Even in Goethe”s time, however, it was recognized that these phenomena could also be explained by Newton”s theory. The theory of color was soon rejected in its essence by experts, but it exerted a great influence on contemporary and subsequent painters, especially Philipp Otto Runge. In addition, Goethe thus proved himself to be a “pioneer of scientific color psychology.” Today, “both Newton and Goethe are partly right and partly wrong”; both researchers are “examples of different types of experimental work within the system of modern natural science.

In geology, Goethe was primarily concerned with building up a collection of minerals, which had grown to 17,800 stones by the time of his death. He wanted to gain general insights into the material composition of the earth and the history of the earth through the individual knowledge of the types of rock. He followed the new findings of chemical research with great interest. As part of his responsibility for the University of Jena, he established the first chair of chemistry at a German university.

Transcripts of conversations

For Goethe research, the extensive transcripts of Johann Peter Eckermann”s conversations with Goethe in the last years of his life, those of Goethe”s conversations with the chancellor Friedrich von Müller, and the Mittheilungen über Goethe by Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer are of considerable importance for understanding Goethe”s work and personality. The transcripts published by Eckermann after Goethe”s death in two parts in 1836 and a third part in 1848 cover the period from 1823 to 1832. Chancellor von Müller, a friend of Goethe and appointed by him as his executor, first wrote down a conversation with Goethe in 1808. In the following years, further conversation reports followed, first in his diary, then elaborated on separate sheets. Two memorial speeches on Goethe published during his lifetime in 1832 revealed the richness of his Goethe records, but they were not published collectively from his estate until 1870. Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer, a linguistic universalist and librarian in Weimar, was at Goethe”s service for three decades, first as tutor to his son August, then as scribe and secretary. Immediately after Goethe”s death, he edited his correspondence with Zelter and contributed to the major editions of his works. His Mittheilungen first appeared in two volumes in 1841.


Goethe was a diligent and versatile translator. He translated works from French (Voltaire, Corneille, Jean Racine, Diderot, de Staël), English (Shakespeare, Macpherson, Lord Byron), Italian (Benvenuto Cellini, Manzoni), Spanish (Calderón), and ancient Greek (Pindar, Homer, Sophocles, Euripides). He also newly translated the Song of Solomon from the Bible.

Goethe received various orders and decorations. Napoleon Bonaparte presented him with the Knight”s Cross of the French Legion of Honor (Chevalier de la Légion d”Honneur) on October 14, 1808. Napoleon commented on the encounter with the legendary saying “Voilà un homme!” (meaning “What a man!”). Goethe appreciated this order, as he was an admirer of the French emperor.

In 1805, Goethe was accepted as an honorary member of the University of Moscow. On October 15, 1808, he received the Russian Order of Saint Anne 1st Class from Czar Alexander I. In 1815, Emperor Franz I decorated Goethe with the Austrian Imperial Order of Leopold. On January 30, 1816, Goethe received the Grand Cross of the House Order of the White Falcon (also House Order of Vigilance), revived by Grand Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. He received the award for his official activities as a Privy Councillor and for his political activities. In 1818, Goethe received the Officer”s Cross of the Order of the Legion of Honor from the French King Louis XVIII. On his 78th birthday, August 28, 1827, he received his last decoration, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Bavarian Crown. King Ludwig I of Bavaria personally attended the award ceremony. In 1830 he became an honorary member of the Instituto di corrispondenza archeologica.

Goethe had a pragmatic relationship to orders. To the portrait painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim he said in May 1827: “A title and a medal keeps off many a whorehouse in a crowd …” The asteroid of the middle main belt (3047) Goethe was named after him.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his wife Christiane had five children. Only August, the first born, († October 27, 1830) reached adulthood. One child was already stillborn, the others all died very early, which was not unusual at that time. August had three children, Walther Wolfgang († January 20, 1883) and Alma Sedina († September 29, 1844). August died in Rome two years before his father. After his death, his wife Ottilie von Goethe gave birth to another child (not August”s) named Anna Sibylle, who died after one year. Their children remained unmarried, so that the direct line of descendants of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died out in 1885. His sister Cornelia had two children (nieces of Goethe), whose descendants (Nicolovius line) are still living today. See Goethe (family).

Goethe had appointed his three grandsons as universal heirs. As the survivor of the three grandsons, Walther secured the family heritage for the public. In his will, he bequeathed Goethe”s archives to Grand Duchess Sophie personally, and the collections and real estate to the state of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach.

The reception of Goethe as an author “who has had an impact on all areas of life worldwide like hardly any other and has left his formative mark” is extraordinarily diverse and goes far beyond the literary-artistic significance of his work.

Reception during his lifetime at home and abroad

With Götz von Berlichingen (first printed in 1773, first performed in 1774), Goethe achieved a resounding success with the literarily educated public even before its premiere at the Comödienhaus in Berlin. For Nicholas Boyle, he was “from now on and for the rest of his long life a public figure, and very soon one saw in him the most prominent representative of a movement” that was called Sturm und Drang in the 19th century. Goethe reached the height of his popularity at the age of twenty-five with the novel Werther. The work found access to all classes of readers and triggered a broad debate, since it dealt with “central religious, ideological and sociopolitical problems” that called into question the “principles of the bourgeois order of life.

German literary historians usually divide Goethe”s poetry into three periods: Sturm und Drang, Weimar Classicism and Alterswerk, while from outside Germany the “Age of Goethe” is seen as a single entity and as part of the “Age of European Romanticism”. As an opponent of Romantic poetry, Goethe was and is considered by German literary critics – his words “Classical is the healthy, Romantic the sick” are among those frequently quoted. That generalizing view, however, neglects this opposition and leads to the image of a Classical-Romantic period from Klopstock to Heinrich Heine, in which Goethe was credited with having broken through the classical conventions of French origin with Romantic ideas and innovative poetic practices.

The contemporary German Romantics” perception of Goethe was ambivalent. On the one hand, he was the “intellectual focus” of the Jena Romantics, who glorified him as the “true governor of the poetic spirit on earth” (Novalis) and his poetry as the “dawn of genuine art and pure beauty” (Friedrich Schlegel). With their concept of universal poetry, they anticipated Goethe”s notion of world literature. On the other hand, after turning to Catholicism, they criticized the previously praised Wilhelm Meister novel as “artistic atheism” (Novalis) and Goethe as “German Voltaire” (Friedrich Schlegel).

With her book De l”Allemagne (On Germany), published in 1813, Madame de Staël introduced France, and subsequently England and Italy, to German culture and literature. In the book, which was received throughout Europe, she characterized contemporary German literature as Romantic art centered on Weimar and Goethe as an exemplary figure, indeed as the “greatest German poet.” It was only after this that Weimar became the epitome of German literature beyond Germany”s borders, and “it was only after this that the pilgrimages of intellectuals from all over Europe to the Frauenplan began; it was only after this that the international exchanges associated with names such as Manzoni, Carlyle, and Walter Scott took place.” Towards the end of his life, Goethe felt less accepted by his German contemporaries than by foreign ones with whom he had entered into exchange and who published articles about his works.

Change of the Goethe image

After the poet”s death until the founding of the German Reich, academic Goethe philology spoke of “an epoch of Goethe remoteness and Goethe hostility” and described his 100th birthday as the “lowest state of his reputation in the nation”. Indeed, in the period between 1832 and 1871, “not a single Goethe biography of lasting value” appeared. But, as Mandelkow reports, this period in Goethe”s history of influence formed a “field of tension between negation and apotheosis.” The Weimar art lovers and collaborators of Goethe – the three testamentary administrators of Goethe”s estate (Eckermann, Riemer, Chancellor Friedrich Müller) and others from the immediate circle – founded the first “Goethe-Verein” immediately after Goethe”s death and laid “the first foundation of a Goethe philology” with their estate editions and documentations. Heinrich Heine”s and Ludwig Börne”s critical appropriation of Goethe stood against their Goethe worship. Both criticized his “artistic comfort” in a time of political restoration, which was concerned with peace and order, but in fundamental contrast to the bitter “Goethe-hater” Börne, Heine valued Goethe”s poetry as the highest. For Young Germany, Goethe was overshadowed by Schiller, whose revolutionary tendencies fit the Vormärz period better than Goethe”s politically conservative stance.

Christian opposition, both Catholic and Protestant, also formed against Goethe”s life and work, with the Elective Affinities and Faust in particular coming into the crosshairs of criticism. With “undisguised sharpness,” various pamphlets by church partisans were directed against the cult of the classics and Goethe that was emerging in the last third of the 19th century. The Jesuit Alexander Baumgartner wrote an extensive account of Goethe, in which he characterized Goethe as a “brilliantly gifted” poet, but castigated his “immoral” lifestyle, “carefree lust for life and hedonism”: “In the midst of a Christian society he openly professed paganism and just as openly arranged his life according to its principles.

After Goethe had already been part of the reading canon at German schools since the 1860s, he was gradually declared the genius of the new empire after its founding in 1871. Herman Grimm”s Goethe lectures of 1874 were exemplary for this.

A flood of Goethe editions and Goethe secondary literature appeared. Since 1885, the Goethe Society has been dedicated to the study and dissemination of Goethe”s work; its members have included the top leaders of the Society in Germany and abroad, including the German imperial couple.

Characteristic of the Goethe cult of the Empire was the shift of interest from Goethe”s work to “the artwork of his well-conducted, eventful and rich life, which was nevertheless held together in harmonious unity,” behind which poetic production threatened to disappear in the general consciousness. Thus the writer Wilhelm Raabe wrote in 1880: “Goethe is given to the German nation not at all for the sake of poetry, etc., but so that they may come to know from his life a whole full man from beginning to end.” From the study of Goethe”s life, which was perceived as exemplary, one hoped for advice and benefit for one”s own conduct of life. However, there were also voices that pointed out the emptiness of content of the Goethe cult in parts of the population. Gottfried Keller remarked in 1884: “Every conversation is dominated by the consecrated name, every new publication about Goethe is applauded – but he himself is no longer read, which is why the works are no longer known, knowledge no longer advanced.” And Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1878: “Goethe is an incident without consequences in the history of the Germans: who would be able to point out a piece of Goethe in the German politics of the last seventy years, for example!”

In the Weimar Republic, Goethe was invoked as the spiritual foundation of the new state. In 1919, Friedrich Ebert, who later became president of the Reich, proclaimed that it was now time to make the transformation, “from imperialism to idealism, from world power to spiritual greatness. We must deal with the great social problems in the spirit in which Goethe grasped them in the second part of Faust and in Wilhelm Meister”s Wanderjahre.” The “spirit of Weimar” was set as a counterpoint to the “spirit of Potsdam,” which was believed to have been overcome. However, this avowal did not have any practical effect. The political left criticized the cult of genius around Goethe with the “nature reserve” of Weimar (Egon Erwin Kisch). Bertolt Brecht replied in a radio interview: “The classics died in the war. However, there were also important writers, such as Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who countered the leftist scolding of the classics with a positive image of Goethe. Hermann Hesse asked in 1932: “Was he really in the end, as the naive Marxists who have not read him think, just a hero of the bourgeoisie, the co-creator of a subaltern, short-term ideology that has long since blossomed again today?”

Unlike with Schiller, Kleist, and Hölderlin, National Socialist cultural policy had a hard time appropriating Goethe for its goals. In 1930, Alfred Rosenberg had declared in his book Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (The Myth of the 20th Century) that Goethe was not useful for the coming “times of fierce battles”, “because the violence of a type-forming idea was abhorrent to him and he did not want to recognize the dictatorship of a thought, both in life and in poetry”. Nevertheless, there was no lack of attempts to use Goethe for the ideology of the Nazi regime, for example in writings such as Goethe”s Mission in the Third Reich (August Raabe, 1934) or Goethe in the Light of the New Becoming (Wilhelm Fehse, 1935). These writings were the primary sources referred to by party officials, including Baldur von Schirach in his speech at the opening of the Weimar Festival of Youth in 1937. As a much-used reservoir of quotations, the Faust poem was misused (especially Mephisto”s saying, “Blood is a very special juice”) and Faust was highly stylized as a “leading figure of the new National Socialist type of man.”

In the two German states after 1945, Goethe experienced a renaissance. He now appeared as the representative of a better, humanistic Germany, which seemed to carry over the past years of barbarism. However, the appropriation of Goethe in the East and the West took different forms. In the German Democratic Republic, inspired above all by Georg Lukács, a Marxist-Leninist interpretation was established. The poet now became an ally of the French Revolution and a forerunner of the Revolution of 1848.

Influence on literature and music

Goethe”s influence on subsequent German-language poets and writers is omnipresent, so that only a few authors can be mentioned here who dealt with him and his work to a particular extent.

The poets and writers of the Romantic period took up the emotional exuberance of the Sturm und Drang. Franz Grillparzer referred to Goethe as his role model and shared with him, in addition to certain stylistic conventions, an aversion to political radicalism of any kind. Friedrich Nietzsche revered Goethe throughout his life and felt himself to be his successor, especially in his skeptical attitude toward Germany and Christianity. Hugo von Hofmannsthal found that “Goethe can replace a whole culture as the basis of education” and “From Goethe”s sayings in prose perhaps more teaching power emanates today than from all German universities.” He wrote numerous essays on Goethe”s work. Thomas Mann felt deep sympathy for Goethe. He felt a kinship with him not only in his role as a poet, but also in a whole range of character traits and habits. Thomas Mann wrote numerous essays and papers on Goethe and gave the central speeches at the Goethe anniversary celebrations in 1932 and 1949. He brought the poet to life in his novel Lotte in Weimar, and took up the Faust material again in the novel Doktor Faustus. Hermann Hesse, who repeatedly dealt with Goethe and, in a scene of his Steppenwolf, opposed a falsification of Goethe”s image, confessed: “Of all the German poets, Goethe is the one to whom I owe the most, who has occupied me most, pressed me, encouraged me, forced me to follow or contradict him.” Ulrich Plenzdorf, in his novel The New Sorrows of Young W., transferred the Werther story to the GDR of the 1970s. Peter Hacks made Goethe”s relationship with the court lady Charlotte von Stein the subject of his monodrama Ein Gespräch im Hause Stein about the absent Herr von Goethe. In the dramolet In Goethes Hand. Szenen aus dem 19. Jahrhundert (Scenes from the 19th Century), Martin Walser made Johann Peter Eckermann the main character and portrayed him in his delicate relationship with Goethe. Goethe”s last love affair with Ulrike von Levetzow in Marienbad served Walser as material for his novel Ein liebender Mann. In Thomas Bernhard”s story Goethe schtirbt, the character Goethe calls himself a “paralytic of German literature” who, moreover, had ruined the careers of numerous poets (Kleist, Hölderlin).

Numerous poems of Goethe were set to music – by composers especially of the 19th century – whereby the poet promoted the development of the art song, although he categorically rejected the so-called through-composed song by Franz Schubert. Nevertheless, Schubert was the most prolific of Goethe”s musical interpreters, with 52 Goethe settings. His settings include the popular songs Heidenröslein, Gretchen am Spinnrade, and Erlkönig. Carl Loewe set several of Goethe”s ballads to music. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, personally acquainted with Goethe, set the ballad Die erste Walpurgisnacht to music. In 1822, Fanny Hensel also met Goethe after complaining that there were too few poems that could be set to music well. Thereupon Goethe, who had a high opinion of her as a pianist and composer, dedicated his poem Wenn ich mir in stiller Seele to her. She then also set the poem to music. In addition to Robert and Clara Schumann, Hugo Wolf also left Goethe settings. Robert Schumann not only set scenes from Goethe”s Faust to music, but also poems from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and a requiem for Mignon. Hugo Wolf set poems from Wilhelm Meister and West-östlicher Divan, among others, to music. Also in the 20th and 21st century numerous composers dealt with Goethe”s work, whereby the musical representation beside the proven genre of the piano song often took place in new instrumentations and recitation forms. Gustav Mahler wrote the “most powerful and significant” Goethe setting, whose “influence on the music of the Viennese School around Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern should not be underestimated”: the large-scale 8th Symphony (“Symphony of a Thousand”) culminates in a setting of the mountain gorge scene of Faust II (1910). Throughout his life, Richard Strauss also regularly set poems by Goethe to music. Increasingly, composers used other texts by the poet in addition to poems. For example, the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth combined smaller passages from the Italian Journey as well as from the Metamorphosis of Plants in her …morphological fragments… for soprano and chamber ensemble (1999). Goethe”s scientific treatise on metamorphosis also served Nicolaus A. Huber as the basis for Lob des Granits for soprano and chamber ensemble (1999). Text excerpts from Goethe”s letters, along with poems such as Gretchen am Spinnrade, form the basis of Goethe Music (2000) by Swiss composer Rudolf Kelterborn. Giselher Klebe”s Römische Elegien (1952), influenced by the spirit of strict twelve-tone technique, is also remarkable in that the vocal part is performed not by a singing voice but by a speaker. Goethe”s Proserpina served Wolfgang Rihm as libretto for an opera of the same name (Proserpina, Schwetzingen 2009). The same composer combined six Goethe texts of different provenance to form the cycle of his Goethe-Lieder (2004

Reception as a natural scientist

Goethe”s scientific work was recognized and taken seriously by his contemporary peers; he was in contact with respected researchers such as Alexander von Humboldt, with whom he undertook anatomical and galvanic experiments in the 1790s, the chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner and the physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, who was his family doctor from 1783 to 1793. In specialist literature, his writings, above all the theory of colors, were controversially discussed from the beginning; with the further development of the natural sciences, Goethe”s theories were largely regarded as outdated. He experienced a temporary renaissance starting in 1859, the year Charles Darwin”s work On the Origin of Species was published. Goethe”s assumption of constant change in the living world and the traceability of organic forms to a common original form now led to his being regarded as a pioneer of evolutionary theories.

According to Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, Goethe did not succeed in “converting natural science to a better understanding of its own essence pupil of Newton and not of Goethe. But we know that this science is not absolute truth, but a certain methodical procedure.”

The Klassikstiftung Weimar hosted the special exhibition Adventures of Reason: Goethe and the Natural Sciences around 1800 from August 28, 2019 to February 16, 2020, for which a catalog volume was published.

Exemplary monographs and biographies

Entire libraries have been written about Goethe”s life and work. The encyclopedias and compendia, yearbooks and guides devoted to him can hardly be counted. In the following, some exemplary works are presented, which analyze and interpret the phenomenon Goethe in an overall view.

Early works of this type include:

For contemporary literary studies, the three monographs offer no direct points of contact.

Two important works from the 1950s

From the last two decades, three works stand out:

Goethe as name donor

Goethe”s eminent importance for German culture and German-language literature is reflected in the naming of numerous prizes, monuments, memorials, institutions, museums and societies, such as hardly any other German has achieved in the cultural life of his country. Thus, the institute entrusted with the dissemination of German culture and language abroad bears his name: Goethe-Institut, which has acquired great prestige with branches all over the world. The poet”s birthplace, Frankfurt, and his main place of activity, Weimar, honor him with the Goethe National Museum (Weimar), the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University (Frankfurt) and the Goethe Prize of the City of Frankfurt am Main. The Goethe Society, headquartered in Weimar and in existence since 1885, unites several thousand readers and scholars in Germany and abroad. After all, the poet gave his name to an entire literary epoch, encompassing Classicism and Romanticism: Goethezeit.


Monuments to Goethe were erected all over the world. The first project in Frankfurt am Main, initiated in 1819, failed due to lack of funding. It was not until 1844 that the first Goethe monument was created by Ludwig Schwanthaler and erected on Goetheplatz. Goethe sculptures also adorn building facades, for example the main portal of the Semper Opera House in Dresden and the main portal of the Church of St. Lamberti in Münster.

Movies with Goethe as main character

Radio play series

To mark the 200th anniversary of Goethe”s birth, Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk in Hamburg produced a 35-part series of radio plays by Hans Egon Gerlach entitled Goethe erzählt sein Leben. The first three parts were produced in 1948 under the direction of Ludwig Cremer. All further episodes were produced in 1949 under the direction of Mathias Wieman, who also voiced the title role. The total playing time is more than 25 hours.

Index of first editions at Wikisource

It was one of Goethe”s particular idiosyncrasies to leave poems he had begun for years, sometimes decades, to subject already printed works to considerable reworking, and to put some completed works into print only after a long time. Therefore, it is sometimes very difficult to date the works according to the time of their creation. The list is based on the (presumed) time of creation.

Editions of works:


Novels and novellas:



Poetry cycles and epigram collections:


Notes and aphorisms:

Aesthetic Writings:

Natural Science Writings:

Autobiographical Prose:

Letter Collections:



Encyclopedias and reference works:


Life and Work:

Life and work in pictures:

Life Stages:

Natural history and science:


Visual Arts:


Psychological aspects:


Other basic literature:






  1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  2. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe