Reader's Encyclopedia

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)

German poet, playwright, and novelist. Besides writing, Goethe held an important cabinet post at the ducal court in Weimar, directed the theatre in that city, and carried on extensive research in science, especially plant biology, on which he wrote Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (The Metamorphosis of Plants, 1790), and optics, the subject of his Zur Farbenlehre (On the Theory of Colors, 1810). In his scientific studies, he always attempted to see the individual phenomenon as part of an organic, developing whole, in opposition to the categorizing science of his time. His poetic works, too, are characterized by this interest in the natural, organic development of things, rather than in any idealistic schemes.

In his early career (1769-76), Goethe was recognized as a leading figure in the Sturm und Drang. His well - known poem "Prometheus" (written 1774?), with its insistence that man must believe not in gods but in himself alone, might be seen as a motto for the whole movement. Herder's strong influence upon his thinking during these years is reflected, for example, in his essay Von deutscher Baukunst (On German Architecture, 1773). The plays Gotz von Berlichingen, Clavigo (1774), Stella (1774), and Egmont belong to this initial phase of his development, as do the earliest Faust sketches and the short novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Goethe's youth was emotionally hectic to the point that he sometimes feared for his reason, but in 1775, after a relaxing trip to Switzerland, he made a decisive break with his past and left his native Frankfurt am Main for the small city of Weimar. It was there that he first assumed serious governmental responsibility; and it was there that he met the woman he was to worship for a decade, Charlotte von Stein. These years, until 1786, were not very productive for Goethe the writer, but they did contribute much to the characteristic personal balance that appears in his later work.

Goethe spent the years 1786-88 in Italy, a trip that he later described in his Italienische Reise (Italian Trip, 1816) and that significantly influenced his growing commitment to a classical view of art. In Italy, he completed his play Iphigenia in Tauris, which, along with his Romische Elegien (Roman Elegies, 1788-90, published 1795) and the play Torquato Tasso, is customarily taken as the beginning of Weimar classicism.

From this point on, Goethe's life was relatively settled and, though he traveled much, his base was always Weimar, where he was, in effect, the court's cultural director. But his poetic development was by no means finished. In 1794 began his close and fruitful friendship with Schiller, and the ensuing years saw his work expand into new directions, as in the epic poems Reineke Fuchs and Hermann und Dorothea, and the novel Wilhelm Meister. He was also in contact with the founding figures of German romanticism, especially the brothers Schlegel, but marked romantic tendencies do not begin to appear in his work until later: for example, in the novel Die Wahlver-wandtschaften or in Der West-ostliche Divan (The West-Eastern Divan, 1819), a lyric cycle that shares the romantics ' interest in the Orient; and in Part II of Faust.

In a sense, Goethe's development came full circle. At the beginning of his so-called classical period (1788-1805), he had repudiated the emotionalism of his own Werther; but as time went on, he tended back toward his earlier attitudes. In his lyric Trilogie der Leidenschaft (Trilogy of Passion, 1824), one poem, addressed to the character Werther, shows the extent of his regained understanding and sympathy for his own youthful works.

At times, Goethe was grossly insensitive to the merits of such great authors as Holderlin, Kleist, and Heine, but with himself he was never less than honest; despite the extraordinary length of time spanned by his career, he never stagnated, but was always learning and expanding, seeking to grasp more of what he regarded as the poet's proper domain, the entire world.

Valuable material about his life and personality may be found in his autobiographical Dichtung und Wahrheit and in Johann Eckermann's Gesprache mit Goethe (Conversations with Goethe, 1836). See daemonic; Marchen.

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