To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.
Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn’t lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name. As it is, in the words of Nicholas Boyle, his leading English-language biographer, “More must be known, or at any rate there must be more to know, about Goethe than about almost any other human being.”
Germans began debating the significance of the Goethe phenomenon while he was still in his twenties, and they have never stopped. His lifetime, spanning some of the most monumental disruptions in modern history, is referred to as a single whole, the Goethezeit, or Age of Goethe. Worshipped as the greatest genius in German history and as an exemplary poet and human being, he has also been criticized for his political conservatism and quietism, which in the twentieth century came to seem sinister legacies. Indeed, Goethe was hostile to both the French Revolution and the German nationalist movement that sprang up in reaction to it. More radical and Romantic spirits especially disdained the way this titan seemed content to be a servant to princes—and Grand Duke Karl August of Weimar, despite his title, was a fairly minor prince—in an age of revolution.
One famous anecdote concerns Goethe and Beethoven, who were together at a spa resort when they unexpectedly met a party of German royalty on the street. Goethe deferentially stood aside and removed his hat, while Beethoven kept his hat firmly on his head and plowed through the royal group, forcing them to make way—which they did, while offering the composer friendly greetings. Here was a contrast of temperaments, but also of generations. Goethe belonged to the courtly past, when artists were the clients of princes, while Beethoven represented the Romantic future, when princes would clamor to associate with artists. Historians dispute whether the incident actually took place, but if it didn’t the story is arguably even more revealing; the event became famous because it symbolized the way people thought about Goethe and his values.
Goethe’s fame notwithstanding, he is strangely neglected in the English-speaking world. English readers are notoriously indifferent to the poets of other cultures, and Goethe’s poems, unfortunately, seldom come across vividly in translation. This is partly because Goethe so often cloaks his sophistication in deceptively simple language. “Heidenröslein,” one of his earliest great poems, is written in the style of a folk song and almost entirely in words of one or two syllables: “Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn” (“A boy saw a little rose standing”). “The Essential Goethe” (Princeton), a rich new anthology, a thousand pages long, edited by Matthew Bell, which valiantly seeks to display every facet of Goethe’s genius, gives the poem in a translation by John Frederick Nims:
Urchin blurts: “I’ll pick you, though, Rosebud in the heather!” Rosebud: “Then I’ll stick you so That there’s no forgetting, no! I’ll not stand it, ever!”Nims reproduces the rhythm of the original precisely. But to do so he adds words that aren’t in the original (“though”) and resorts to distractingly winsome diction (“urchin,” “I’ll not”). The result is clumsy and charmless. The very simplicity of Goethe’s language makes his poetry practically untranslatable.
English speakers are more hospitable to fiction in translation, and yet when was the last time you heard someone mention “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” or “Elective Affinities,” Goethe’s long fictions? These books have a good claim to have founded two of the major genres of the modern novel—respectively, the Bildungsroman and the novel of adultery. Goethe’s first novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is better known, mainly because it represented such an enormous milestone in literary history; the first German international best-seller, it is said to have started a craze for suicide among young people emulating its hero. But in English it remains a book more famous than read.
This wasn’t always the case. Victorian intellectuals revered Goethe as the venerable Sage of Weimar. Thomas Carlyle implored the reading public to “close thy Byron, open thy Goethe”—which was as much as to say, “Grow up!” Matthew Arnold saw Goethe as a kind of healer and liberator, calling him the “physician of the Iron Age,” who “read each wound, each weakness” of the “suffering human race.” For these writers, Goethe seemed to possess something the modern world lacked: wisdom, the ability to understand life and how it should be lived. It was this very quality that led to his fall from favor in the post-Victorian age. For the modernists, being spiritually sick was a condition of intellectual respectability, and T. S. Eliot wrote that “there is something artificial and even priggish about Goethe’s healthiness.” Reading Goethe today, even through the veil of translation, is most valuable as an encounter with a way of thinking and feeling that has grown foreign to us.
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