Many aspects of Goethe

Access to Goethe can be arduous; tools to facilitate our approach are always welcome. This year they come in the contrasting formats of a 1,000-page-volume of “essential” translations and a paperback addition to Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series. Together they reduce a prolific life’s work to manageable proportions, bearing in mind that the first complete edition of Goethe in German ran to 143 volumes and was put together over a period of thirty-two years.

The dimensions of Goethe’s legacy are less of a hindrance than its diversity. This multi-talented individual was active, over a lifespan of eighty-two years, as a poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, librettist, translator, biographer, diarist, conversationalist, critic, theatre director, collector, painter, sculptor and in many other capacities. He was no less committed to the sciences, conducting experiments and extending the frontiers of knowledge in botany, optics, colour theory, climatology and all aspects of human and animal biology. As a Minister and Privy Councillor, he served in the government of the semi-independent state of Saxony-Weimar, and participated as an observer in military campaigns in the wake of the French Revolution.

Neither Matthew Bell’s edition nor Ritchie Robertson’s commentary can pretend to give us the whole Goethe. He himself believed that his scientific studies would eventually be seen as more significant than his literary output. Today, most would agree that the essence of his work will be found in his poetry and plays, but the search for the centre is complicated by seismic shifts in style and attitude. The over-wrought rococo verse of his youth was soon abandoned in favour of the turbulent “Storm and Stress”, a “new wave” movement that began around 1770 and produced the defiant hymns “Prometheus”, “Mahomet”, “Ganymede” and the groundbreaking novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. For many German readers the true Goethe is the young genius who, in those heady days, took the literary world by storm with what looked like the outpourings of a frenzied iconoclast. Yet within little more than a year of creating the hugely successful Werther (1774), he had become the tutor and companion of a Duke and was rapidly being absorbed by the ruling elite. The same process has been observed in our own times with Günter Grass, the sometime enfant terrible turned praeceptor Germaniae. This might explain why many are put off by what Robertson calls the image of the “distant, unexciting Victorian sage” who in fact departed this world five years before the young Queen ascended her throne. The dramatic works of his middle period, Iphigenia in Tauris and Torquato Tasso, may seem to proclaim the virtues of moderation, but the tranquil mood was not to last. Not content to continue as a princeling’s client, he surreptitiously turned his back on courtly life and absconded to Italy. Two years later he reappeared in Weimar a changed, and, as he put it, a “reborn” man.

His forte, and the theme of many of his works, was metamorphosis. The “Olympian” conservative was to become, in later years, mystic and prophetic. Several of his greatest works, notably Faust and the “novels of identity” Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, were repeatedly revised as they accompanied their author’s meandering journey through life. Their length matches their depth. Part One of Faust takes six, Part Two fourteen hours or more to perform. Goethe created new categories, defying conventions. Werther may look like an old-fashioned epistolary novel whose plot unfolds through a sequence of letters, but in Goethe’s hands it becomes the terrifyingly persuasive monologue of a love-sick youth, more jealous of his beloved’s pet canary than of her fiancé, whom he counts among his closest friends. And yet this book is routinely misunderstood either as a celebration of young love or as a warning against blind passion. One of Werther’s “sorrows” is the harrowing effect of a bigoted, gossip-ridden society controlled by fatuous hereditary aristocrats, which he experiences at the precise moment when he finds a job and begins to recover from his romantic obsession. Robertson may be wide of the mark when he blames Werther’s decline on a disregard for social convention: he is, in effect, maliciously outed for a trivial oversight by a chorus of wagging tongues.

As Wolfgang Goethe was transformed into Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, he simultaneously mellowed and became more vitriolic. The “classical” Iphigenia may achieve her mission and impose restraint on homicidal barbarians, but the more “modern” poet Tasso, stifled by court etiquette and reduced to a performing lackey, lashes out at his perceived tormentors in various tragicomic ways. Driven by a blinding frustration, he starts a duel with a high-ranking courtier and, just when you think things cannot get any worse, is caught trying to steal kisses from a Princess. Shortly thereafter the play breaks off, leaving audiences to speculate whether the poet will recover or founder. Robertson’s application of the term “tragedy” to these two outwardly non-tragic constructs is clearly justified.

Himself no stranger to the torments of sexual frustration, the “reborn” Goethe challenged the hypocrites of his day by living “in sin” with an impoverished, untutored young woman in the heart of fashionable Weimar, impervious to the sneers of most of his former friends. Fortunately, his patron, Duke Carl August, continued to support him, allowing him to regale the German language with some of its raciest verse, including the Roman Elegies (original title: “Erotica Romana”), the Venetian Epigrams, and a little-known narrative poem, “The Diary”, which explores the causes of, and cure for, erectile dysfunction. Bell’s edition reproduces it without its Latin motto, while Robertson relays the beguiling myth that its English-language debut occurred in the form of a “Ribald Classic” in Playboy magazine in 1968. Sadly, not so: a translation had, in fact, appeared four years earlier in David Luke’s Penguin edition.

Goethe’s later prose fiction is hugely complex. As a novel of adultery in which no physical adultery takes place, Elective Affinities suffers from unfair comparisons with the more explicit Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. It is the product of an earlier, manifestly pre-Victorian epoch, ignorant of the demands of out-and-out realism. Its underlying questioning of marriage as a social institution is partly obscured by polarizing symbols and cryptic adumbrations. Yet it is ahead of its times in presenting a relationship that is progressively eroded by futile landscape gardening projects, sham name-day and birthday celebrations and dilettantish musical soirées, no less than by the advent of a seemingly angelic young houseguest. Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years promises to pursue the biography of the “apprentice poet” of the earlier, more accessible novel, reproduced over 380 pages in Bell’s edition, but takes an altogether more mystical turn, frustrating the expectations of readers accustomed to linear plot development. At a time when neo-Gothic Romanticism was enjoying popularity, the publication of Faust, Part Two in the year of Goethe’s death was the final straw. No one had anticipated the counter-intuitive redemption of the man who gave his soul to the devil. The operatic effects, the hero’s absence during protracted scenes at the court of a fun-loving Emperor, the labyrinthine “Classical St Walpurga’s Night”, prophetic colonization and land-reclamation episodes proved too much. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that it came to be recognized as Goethe’s most forward-looking project: the unachievable quest for a fusion of the classical and the modern, through a kaleidoscopic but elusive vision of harmony and beauty set against the self-aggrandizing, conflict-ridden world of the present and near future.

While omitting the second part of Faust and the final Wilhelm Meister novel, Bell’s compilation attempts to give a rounded portrayal of Goethe’s oeuvre. The absence of The Sorrows of Young Werther is regrettable, and it is disappointing to discover that with one solitary exception, the entire selection derives from the twelve-volume Princeton edition of 1980, to the detriment of first-rate contemporary translators such as David Constantine. John Williams’s recent Faust, Part I captures the linguistic profusion of the original; Egmont, Iphigenia in Tauris and Torquato Tasso were competently done by David Luke and Michael Hamburger. It is typical of the low esteem in which literary translators are held that only these four renderings are attributed; no other translations are acknowledged.

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