Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Goethe is a great writer because he shows the interconnectedness of all things, because he fuses the personal and the universal, and because he has such a light touch, or as Eric Blackall puts it, a golden touch (see reading list below). Goethe’s writing combines the immediacy of experience with the most profound philosophical reflection. Goethe was also remarkably skilled at making the most out of life.
In the English-speaking world Goethe is often described as a Romantic, but strictly speaking the young Goethe was a pre-Romantic, and the mature Goethe was a man of the Enlightenment.
Goethe’s Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) work of the 1770s preceded and influenced the Romantic movement, however, by the time Romanticism developed in the late 1790s, Goethe had moved on from Sturm und Drang, and he was very critical of the Romantic Movement. Despite this, Goethe was a great admirer of Byron, and some of his poems are comparable to Wordsworth’s.
Goethe was born on 28 August 1749 in Frankfurt am Main into a patrician family. He studied at Leipzig University from 1765-68; and then spent almost two years at home in Frankfurt after suffering a lung infection. During this time, his mother’s friend Susanna von Klettenberg introduced him to the Pietist sect of which she was a member. Goethe made his name as a writer in the early 1770s as a leading member of the Sturm und Drang under the influence of Johann Gottfried Herder, whom he met in Strasbourg in 1770. Other members of the group were J.M.R. Lenz, F.M. Klinger, J.H. Merck and Friedrich Müller. Goethe became famous after the publication of his play Götz von Berlichingen in 1773 and his first novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther[s]; The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774.
In 1775 Goethe moved to Weimar and became a minister for Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (1757-1828). During his first decade in Weimar Goethe was very close to Charlotte von Stein (1742-1827). During this time he gradually started to cultivate a more balanced, mature style. Some of his most important works were produced (or completed) between his stay in Italy in 1786-88 and Schiller’s death in 1805; this period is often called Weimar classicism.
In 1788 Goethe returned to Weimar and began living with Christiane Vulpius (1765-1816); he married her in 1806. Goethe’s friendship with Schiller began in 1794 and lasted a decade until Schiller’s death in 1805. Prompted by Schiller, Goethe resumed work on his masterpiece Faust I which he had begun in 1773. Faust I was published in 1808.
Goethe was politically opposed to the French Revolution, although he rather liked Napoleon. He met Napoleon three times and in 1808 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur; he remained proud of this for the rest of his life. In his later years Goethe became a mentor to the writer Eckermann, who faithfully recorded their conversations. Goethe completed Faust II in 1831 shortly before his death. He died on 22 March 1832; his last words are supposed to have been ‘Mehr Licht’ (‘more light’).
Goethe’s most famous drama, Faust, was published in two parts. Each part is self contained:
Faust I (1808)
Faust II (1832)
Goethe’s other plays include:
Götz von Berlichingen (1773)
Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787)
Torquato Tasso (1790)
Goethe produced works in many other genres:
Please click on the above links for further information.
Further Reading in English
Jeremy Adler, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (London: Reaktion Books, 2020)
John Armstrong, Love, Life, Goethe: How to be Happy in an Imperfect World (London: Penguin, 2006)
Matthew Bell, Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology: Man and other Plants (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)
Eric Blackall, The Emergence of German as a Literary Language 1700-1775 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), Chapter 15: ‘The Golden Touch’, pp. 482-585
Nicholas Boyle, Goethe, The Poet and the Age: Vol. 1, The Poetry of Desire, 1749-1790 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991); Goethe, The Poet and the Age: Vol. 2, Revolution and Renunciation, 1790-1803 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000)
Barker Fairley, Goethe as Revealed in His Poetry (London: Dent, 1932)
Barker Fairley, A Study of Goethe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950)
Leonard Forster, The man who wanted to know everything, 1980 Bithell Memorial Lecture (London: Institute of Germanic Studies, 1981)
Burkhard Henke, Susanne Kord and Simon Richter (eds.), Unwrapping Goethe’s Weimar: Essays in Cultural Studies & Local Knowledge (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 1999)
Paul E. Kerry, Enlightenment Thought in the Writings of Goethe: A Contribution to the History of Ideas (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001)
Katrin Kohl, 'No Escape? Goethe’s Strategies of Self-Projection and their Role in German Literary Historiography', Goethe Yearbook 16 (2008), 173-91
F. J. Lamport, A Student’s Guide to Goethe (London: Heinemann, 1971)
Angus Nicholls, Goethe's Concept of the Daemonic: After the Ancients (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2006)
T. J. Reed, Goethe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984)
T. J. Reed, ‘Goethe and Happiness’, in Goethe Revisited, ed. by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson (London: Calder; New York: Riverrun, 1984), pp. 111-31
T. J. Reed, The Classical Centre: Goethe and Weimar 1775-1832 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)
T. J. Reed, Martin Swales, Jeremy Adler (eds.), Goethe at 250: London Symposium (Munich: Iudicium, 2000)
T. J. Reed, ‘Goethe as Secular Icon’, in The Present Word: Culture, Society, and the Site of Literature. Essays in Honour of Nicholas Boyle, ed. by John Walker (Oxford: Legenda, 2013), pp. 44-51
Ritchie Robertson, Goethe: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)
Lesley Sharpe (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Goethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
Martin Swales and Erika Swales, Reading Goethe: A Critical Introduction to the Literary Work (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002)
Astrida Orle Tantillo, Goethe's Modernisms (New York and London: Continuum, 2010)
John R. Williams, The Life of Goethe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)
Elizabeth M. Wilkinson (ed.), Goethe Revisited (London: Calder; New York: Riverrun, 1984)
Further Reading in German
Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe: Kunstwerk des Lebens (Munich: Hanser, 2013)
W. Daniel Wilson, Unterirdische Gänge. Goethe, Freimaurerei und Politik (Göttingen: Wallstein, 1999)
W. Daniel Wilson, Das Goethe-Tabu. Protest und Menschenrechte im klassischen Weimar (Munich: dtv, 1999)
W. Daniel Wilson, Goethe Männer Knaben - Ansichten zur ›Homosexualität‹ (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2012)
W. Daniel Wilson, Goethes Erotica und die Weimarer ›Zensoren‹ (Hannover: Wehrhahn, 2015)
Bernd Witte et al. (eds.), Goethe-Handbuch, 4 vols (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 1996-99)
The complete works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in ten volumes, trans. by John Oxenford (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1839)
Weimarer Ausgabe, Chadwyck-Healey online database (annual institutional subscription required)
The English Goethe Society. Members receive three issues per year of the academic journal Publications of the English Goethe Society.
Membership for residents of the UK is £24 per year or £12 per year for students. Membership for residents of the USA is $50 per year, or $40 per year reduced rate for members of the Goethe Society of North America. Membership for the rest of the world is £35 pounds sterling per year.
The Goethe Society of North America. Members receive the Goethe Yearbook every year.
BBC Radio 4 documentary on Goethe (2006)