Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German writer and poet who is widely regarded as one of the greatest literary figures in Western history. His literary works spanned multiple genres, including poetry, drama, fiction, and non-fiction, and his ideas had a profound impact on German culture and intellectual thought. Goethe was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and studied law at the University of Leipzig. However, he soon abandoned his legal studies in favor of a literary career, and his early works attracted the attention of prominent intellectuals of the time. Goethe's most famous works include the novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," which made him an overnight sensation when it was published in 1774, and the epic poem "Faust," which he worked on for more than 60 years. Beyond his literary output, Goethe was also a scientist and philosopher who made significant contributions to the fields of botany, geology, and optics. His scientific writings influenced the work of Charles Darwin and other prominent scientists of the 19th century. Goethe's impact on German culture and intellectual life was immense, and he is often credited with helping to shape the German national identity. His work remains widely read and studied today, and he is recognized as one of the greatest thinkers and writers in Western history.
2. LIFE AND WORKS
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt am Main. Together with his only sister Cornelia, he received a profound education in old and new languages, science, and musical theories. Goethe himself tells us in his autobiography "facts and fiction" (Dichtung und Wahrheit) how he became interested in storytelling. His grandmother once gave him a puppet theater as a Christmas gift when Goethe was a little one. He soon started to present the plays which he had invented. Even though he was fascinated by literature, his father urged him to get trained for a concrete profession. In 1765, 16-years-old Goethe started to study law at the University of Leipzig. Three years later, Goethe had to interrupt his studies because of pulmonary hemorrhage, which was a severe and life-threatening illness in the 18th century. He moved back home to renew his strengths and spend plenty of time reading books. In 1770, he continued his studies in Strasbourg. There he met other students who were interested in literature. Goethe paraded together with Johann Gottfried Herder, Heinrich Leopold Wagner, Michael Reinhold Lenz and Friedrich Maximilian Klinger their youth and their freedoms. They all had in common an understanding of art and literature, which requires a subjective experience, the so-called original genius (or genius cult). Their writings brought a new literary period into being, namely the Sturm und Drang period. It was characterized by a literary revolt against social conventions. Their own feelings and personal freedoms were the things that mattered. The genius cult justified enjoying life to the full. Friedrich Maximilian Klingers work Sturm und Drang was the name-giver of this unique German literary period. Goethe moved to Frankfurt am Main and started to work as a lawyer. In Frankfurt, he wrote a play called Götz von Berlichingen (1774) that would make him famous overnight. Goethe was 25 years old when his main character of the play, a knight with an iron hand and a larger-than-life figure, came to life at a stage in Berlin. Goethe was talented at handling difficult situations by composing fine literature. When he fell in love with the fiancee of one of his colleagues, he folded up his tents and escaped from Wetzlar to cope with his love for Charlotte by writing "The Sorrows of Young Werther." The work was Goethe's second masterpiece and brought him fame all across Europe. It was the first bestseller in the history of German literature and offered strong identifiability for the readers. Goethe's Werther became a cult, and many young men started to wear the same clothes as the described Werther, and some decided to end a story in Werther's way, namely committing suicide. Fiction was capable of creating facts.
Goethe composed with Faust I and Faust II, the most important works in German literature. The central theme of Faust is based on the biblical story of Hiob, who became the subject of a bet between God and the devil. Goethe depicts the life of Dr. Faust, who seeks knowledge about the mysteries which hold the earth together. As he recognizes that his attempts to gain such an all-encompassing knowledge failed, he meets the devil who comes at first in the form of a dog that transforms itself into a human, introduced as Mephisto. He offers a deal to Dr. Faust, namely to become his servant. Should Mephisto be able to offer Faust a sense of happiness, Faust will become his servant in return in the aftermath. The deal opens the door to the sorrow and destruction of innocent people. Goethe's Faust is a play about values and morals, using various literary devices, making the drama a literary work that scores off all others, a masterpiece of writing that remains unchallenged in world literature's history.
FAUST I: Faust I is a renowned tragic play that follows the story of Dr. Heinrich Faust, a disillusioned scholar seeking fulfillment and knowledge. Dissatisfied with his studies, Faust makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. As Faust embarks on a transformative journey, he explores the depths of human nature, the pursuit of knowledge, and the battle between good and evil. Throughout the play, Faust grapples with his desires, confronts moral dilemmas, and experiences the consequences of his choices. The story also features Gretchen, Faust's love interest, whose tragic fate serves as a cautionary tale. Faust I explores themes such as the human condition, the limitations of knowledge, and the complexities of morality. It continues to be a highly influential work, inspiring adaptations and leaving a lasting impact on literature and culture.
FAUST II: Faust II is the second part of Goethe's epic dramatic poem, building upon the themes and characters introduced in Faust I. Published in 1832, it represents a continuation and expansion of the Faustian saga, delving deeper into the complexities of human existence, metaphysics, and the eternal struggle between good and evil. The plot of Faust II is more intricate and expansive than its predecessor. It follows the further adventures and spiritual journey of Faust, who is now an aged and revered figure. In this second part, Faust's pursuit of knowledge and worldly success continues, but his motivations evolve towards a more profound understanding of existence and the transcendent.
4. THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER
"The Sorrows of Young Werther" is a novel that was first published in 1774. It is an epistolary novel that follows the tragic story of a young man named Werther, who falls in love with a woman named Charlotte. The novel has had a profound impact on literature and has been translated into numerous languages.
The story is set in Germany and is told through a series of letters written by Werther to his friend Wilhelm. Werther is a sensitive and passionate young man who is deeply affected by the beauty of nature and art. He becomes enamored with Charlotte, a young woman who is engaged to another man. Werther's love for Charlotte is unrequited, and he becomes increasingly obsessed with her. He begins to withdraw from society and spends his days wandering the countryside and indulging in his own melancholy. As Werther's obsession with Charlotte grows, he becomes increasingly unstable, and his mental state deteriorates.
Ultimately, Werther takes his own life, unable to bear the pain of his unrequited love. The novel ends with a series of letters written by Charlotte, who expresses her deep sorrow at Werther's death.
WERTHER FEVER: The tragic story of Werther's unrequited love and eventual suicide struck a chord with many individuals, to the extent that some readers actually followed Werther's example and took their own lives. Werther's despair and inability to cope with his unfulfilled love for Charlotte resonated deeply with readers who may have experienced similar feelings of longing, heartbreak, and hopelessness. Werther's tragic end became a symbol of romantic idealism clashing with the harsh realities of life, making him a relatable figure for many. The phenomenon of readers emulating Werther's fate, known as "Werther Fever" or "Wertherism," raised concerns. The popularity of the novel led to an alarming trend where some individuals, particularly young men, sought to imitate Werther's romantic agony and committed suicide. It is worth noting that Goethe himself was deeply troubled by the real-life consequences of his novel. In response to the surge in suicides attributed to "Wertherism," he added a preface to later editions of the book, urging readers not to imitate Werther's actions and emphasizing the need for self-control and rationality in the face of intense emotions.
5. GOETHE'S MOST FAMOUS POEMS
THE ERLKING: The Erlking, or Erlkönig in German, is a poem written by Goethe in 1782. The poem is widely regarded as one of Goethe's most famous works and has been translated into several languages. It tells the story of a father and his young son, who are riding through the forest at night and are pursued by the Erlking, a supernatural being who is said to cause the death of those who see him. The poem is written in ballad form and is structured as a dialogue between the father and his son. The father tries to reassure his son that the noises they hear in the forest are just the wind and the rustling of leaves. However, the son is convinced that he sees the Erlking, who is beckoning him to come closer. The father tries to comfort his son, but as they ride on, the boy becomes increasingly agitated and frightened. As the poem progresses, the language becomes more intense and dramatic, reflecting the growing sense of danger and urgency. The imagery used in the poem is also very vivid, with references to the cold, dark forest and the mysterious figure of the Erlking. The poem culminates in the final stanza, where the Erlking finally speaks to the boy, promising him riches and glory if he comes with him. The boy is tempted, but the father holds him close, and they ride on. The father finally reaches his destination with his son, who falls into his arms, dead. The poem ends with the haunting last line, "In his arms the child was dead." The poem has inspired many adaptations over the years, including musical compositions by Schubert and Brahms.
THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE: The Sorcerer's Apprentice, or der Zauberlehrling in German, tells the story of a young apprentice who tries to cast a spell on his own but ends up losing control of his magic. The poem begins with the sorcerer leaving his workshop for the day and entrusting his apprentice with the task of carrying water to fill the cauldron. As the sorcerer leaves, the apprentice decides to try casting a spell on his own. He enchants the broom to carry the water for him, but he forgets the incantation to stop it. As a result, the broom continues to fetch water, and the apprentice cannot stop it. In a panic, he tries to chop the broom in half with an ax, but each piece transforms into a new broom and continues to fetch water. The apprentice's efforts to stop the brooms only make matters worse, and soon the workshop is flooded with water.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice has become a popular story and has been adapted into various forms, including a symphonic poem by composer Paul Dukas and as a segment in Disney's animated film, Fantasia.
THE DIVINE: "Das Göttliche" or "The Divine" presents Goethe's thoughts on the nature of God, the universe, and the relationship between the two. Goethe's conception of the divine is closely linked to his ideas about the unity and interconnectedness of the natural world. He believed that the universe was not a collection of separate, isolated entities, but rather a single, living organism. In this view, everything in the universe is connected and interdependent, and the divine is present in all of it.
PROMETHEUS: Goethe's "Prometheus" is a powerful and complex poem that captures the spirit of rebellion and the desire for human advancement. The poem embodies the Romantic ideal of the artist as a rebel against authority, who defies convention to pursue his vision of the world. The poem celebrates the power of the human imagination to transform the world, and it exalts the individual who is willing to take risks and make sacrifices in pursuit of a higher purpose.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was Germany's most influential and prominent writer. His works influenced three literary periods, namely Sturm und Drang, Classicism, and Romanticism.