The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Poetry and Truth

POETRY AND TRUTH. (‘Aus meinen Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit’). Goethe's ‘Poetry and Truth’ is one of the great autobiographies of the world's literature. It is divided into four parts, the first three of which were written and published between 1811-14, while the fourth was written mainly in 1830-31 and published in 1833. Each part contains five books; in style, composition and interpretation of life, the fourth part is inferior to the other three. The whole treats only of the first 26 years of its author's life, but Goethe held that “the most important period of an individual is that of his development.” The material is distributed in such a way that Goethe's childhood is narrated from book one to the middle of book six; the account of his student-days begins with the latter half of the sixth book and continues through the 11th; books 12-15 are given to the consideration of his early manhood, when his first great successes as an author were realized. In spite of important experiences, part four does not open a new phase in Goethe's development, but it does bring the outer course of his life to its most decisive turning-point — his departure from Weimear. Goethe wrote ‘Poetry and Truth’ from the point of view of the scientist, the historian and the artist. As a scientist he desired to picture his life as developing stage by stage “according to those laws which we observe in the metamorphosis of the plants.” As a historian he portrayed the general conditions of the times and revealed the relations between them and the individual. As an artist he did not feel tied down to facts for their own sake, but selects those that were of significance and moulded them so that they might become parts of a work of art. In the much-discussed title the word 'Poetry' refers primarily to the artistic form of the work. One of the chief objects of Goethe's autobiography is to furnish a commentary for the understanding of his works. The leading topics of the different books are as follows: Book 1, Goethe's birth (1749), family and native city, Frankfort-on-the-Main; book 2, first inclinations toward poetry, fairy tale, ‘The New Paris’; book 3, the French in Frankfort in consequence of the Seven Years' War, Count Thorane quartered with the Goethes; book 4, the boy's many-sided education, study of the Old Testament; book 5, youthful love, coronation of a German emperor in Frankfort. Book 6, Frankfort period concluded (1765), Goethe a student of law and literature at the University of Leipzig; book 7, German literature in the middle of the 18th century, fundamentals of Goethe's poetic talent; book 8, studies in art, return to Frankfort (1768), experiments in chemistry, religious convictions; book 9, Goethe a student of law and medicine in Strassburg (1770), German and French civilization, the cathedral, self-education and passion; book 10, mentor Herder, a trip through Alsace-Lorraine, love for Friedrike Brion of Sesenheim. Book 11, love-story continued, graduation as a student of law, alienation from French literature, admiration for Shakespeare, departure from Friedrike and from Alsace (1771); book 12, back in Frankfort, the Storm and Stress period, in Wetzlar, conditions leading to the conception of ‘Goetz’ and ‘Werther’; book 13, trip from Wetzlar to Frankfort, comments on ‘Werther’ continued, publication and effect of both ‘Goetz’ and ‘Werther’; book 14, Storm and Stress again, trip down the Rhine with Lavater and Basedow, influence of Spinoza, plan for a drama, ‘Mahomet’; book 15, plans for an epic, ‘The Wandering Jew’ and a drama, ‘Prometheus,’ first meeting with the princes of Weimar, idea of settling permanently in Frankfort (winter 1774). Book 16, Spinoza again, poetry and profession, first meeting with Lili Schœnemann, Jung-Stilling; book 17, engagement with Lili, social and political conditions of the time; book 18, problems in prosody, journey to Switzerland as far as Saint Gothard; book 19, return to Frankfort, Lavater and his ‘Physiognomy,’ engagement with Lili broken, ‘Egmont’ begun; book 20, invitations from Weimar, the demonic influence in life, ‘Egmont’ continued, journey to Weimar (November 1775). Consult edition of Goethe's works in ‘Deutsche National-Literatur’ (Vols. XVII-XX, 1882-98); English translation by J. Oxenford, ‘The Autobiography of Goethe,’ “Truth and Poetry: From my own Life” (London 1846-48; new ed, rev., ib. 1881-84); Alt, C., ‘Studien zur Entstehungsgeschichte von Goethes Dichtung und Wahrheit’ (1898); Roethe, G., ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit’ (in Berichte des Freien Deutschen Hochstiftes, Jahrgang 1901, Frankfort am Main).