The Works of J. W. von Goethe/Volume 1/Editor's Introduction

The Works of J. W. von Goethe, Volume 1 (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Editor's Introduction


Goethe, in one of his letters written in response to a communication from a sentimental young countess, who wrote him anonymously regarding his "Werther," gives a contrasting picture of himself in two phases. The one is a carnival Goethe, in a laced coat and other consistent finery, illuminated by the unmeaning magnificence of sconces and chandelier, amidst all kinds of people, kept at the card-table by a pair of beautiful eyes, and in varying dissipation driven from party to concert and from concert to ball, and with all the fascination of frivolity paying court to a pretty Blondine: a sentimental Goethe, with affectedly gloomy deep feelings. The other is a wholesome German Goethe, in a gray beaver coat and boots, with brown silk cravat, eagerly detecting the breath of spring in the cool February air, and waiting for his dear wide world to open out once more. This Goethe, ever living, striving, and working in himself, seeks to express, according to his powers, sometimes the innocent feelings of youth in little poems, the strong spices of life in various dramas, the forms of his friends and his neighbourhood and his beloved household possessions with chalk on gray paper, never asking if any of his work is destined to last, for the reason that the very act of working makes him keep rising higher and higher, and he will leap at no ideal, but fight and play, leaving his feelings to develop of themselves.

On the one hand, he found pleasure in the gay coquetries of fashionable life; on the other, he declared that his greatest happiness was to live with the best men of his time. Goethe, when he wrote that, was in his twenty-sixth year. He had drunk deeply of the cup of life and had recognised the danger of the enticements of Circean madness. He was ready for the great career which his good genius whispered to his inner consciousness was to open out before him. The pictures that he drew of his double self were eminently characteristic, but one can see at a glance which one he felt was the real portrait. The carnival Goethe was to be put away with other discarded trumperies of youth. It had served its purpose.

It may be supposed that all men's experiences and their environment go to form them; at all events, that would seem to be the mission of the discipline of life. But the material to be formed has to be possessed of some quality, else the fire burns it out, the stress breaks its fibres, the mould fails to leave any impress, the file spoils it. One cannot polish putty, or mould molasses, or twist wood, or refine granite.

Goethe superbly illustrates the man made by his circumstances; external conditions answering to the inherent qualities. He had all the chances of being ruined; they were offered him freely. A pedantic martinet of a father insisted that he should conform his talents to a preconceived course; gay and dissipated friends helped him to waste his energies; beautiful girls were dazzled by his manly beauty and his brilliant powers of entertaining; an easy-going code of morals prevailed in the circles in which he mingled; he was freed from the necessity of strenuous labour; a tendency to procrastination and the easy-going current of dilletantism conspired to make him grow bright leaves instead of fruit; a petty court for his home and a pleasure-loving duke for his patron might easily have undermined his independence.

But the stuff of the man was too genuine to be disintegrated by such destructive forces. He was subjected to them, but when he found them working against him he withdrew, as the wise man can, as only the fool will not. Late hours, overindulgence in unwholesome food and intoxicants, the more insidious vices of a university town, brought him face to face with the possibility of an early death. He learned his lesson in time, and became a model of abstemiousness and regularity. That is proved by the colossal amount of work which he produced. The collected writings of Goethe, voluminous as they are, fail of completeness. It is reckoned that he penned no less than ten thousand letters, and most of them were of the detailed length which a high postal rate always imposed a century ago, and not a few in doggerel rhyme or more serious verse. Multitudes of magazine articles and reviews of every kind, hundreds and hundreds of poems and songs, dozens of comedies and plays, proceeded from that indefatigable worker. Moreover, he was deeply interested in scientific researches, several of which resulted in discoveries of permanent value; he had general and autocratic disposition of the stage in Weimar; his participation in the councils of the duke was no less real and time-consuming because the duchy was but small. He learned the value of time and shared it wisely with those who also knew its value and his.

Napoleon's laconic comment, "Voilà un homme!" sums up Goethe. The titles and the much-worshipped German particle "von" which beckoned to him like that morning star which he early chose for his armorial designation now seem insignificant and petty. It is Goethe, just as it is Shakespeare and Æschylus and Homer.

Yet he was the product of his age and of his country. The air he breathed and the food he ate no more made his brain and brawn, than the ideas which were then in vogue made his mind. He was fortunate in being the pioneer in an era. All the pioneers of eras are fortunate, for they help to make their native literature and art and science and politics. They set the key for the symphony that is to come. Still more fortunate are the pioneers when they are also men of commanding genius: the Palestrinas, the Bachs, the Beethovens, the Homers, the Shakespeares, the Marlowes, the Goethes.

At the same time, they have all the disadvantages of pioneers,—the uncertainty of their direction, the perils of the unknown, the likelihood of being misunderstood or not believed.

There was Goethe, the many-sided, in peril of being made the mere impresario of a puppet-show for a picayune German court. There is nothing in Goethe's life finer than his awakening to the fact that he had a broader mission than that of a mere purveyor of amusements. It was after his two years' absence in Italy. He came back to Weimar in 1788, and his friends found him strangely altered, with his head high above the petty interests of the cliquey town. He was again fortunate in having a patron of generous instincts. Duke Karl August, with whom, only a few years before, Goethe had been ready to enter into the most extravagant revelries, was quick to recognise the intellectual superiority of his privy councillor, and granted him the freedom he craved.

But Germany at that time was only a parcel of jealous and insignificant principalities, loosely threaded together on the string of a common language. Goethe often mourned that he had not the broad-minded and unified public that he would have had in England. It was to his glory that, by his greatness, he was to help unify scattered Germany, for the sense of possession of such a man is a powerful concentrating influence.

In one of Goethe's letters to Friederike Oeser, whose father was director of the Academy of Design in Leipsic, there is a passage which casts a suggestive light on Goethe's character and development. It was written when he was twenty. He says:

“My present existence is devoted to philosophy. Locked in, solitary, paper and ink, pens, and a couple of books, form all my apparatus. And by this simple road I arrive at a knowledge of truth often as far as others, or even farther, with their library knowledge. A great scholar is seldom a great philosopher; and he who, with much labour, has thumbed the pages of many books, despises the easy, simple book of nature; and yet nothing is true but what is simple, certainly a poor recommendation for true wisdom. Let him who follows the simple path go on his way in silence; humility and prudence become our footsteps on this path, all of which will eventually meet with due reward.”

This shows that he had the true scientific spirit. It accompanied him through life, and enabled him by the aid of his imagination to make his discoveries relating to the morphology of plants and animals which, in a way, anticipated the theories of Darwin. At the same time, the contempt which he even here shows for "library knowledge" and merely academic diplomas, grew into its corollary, a distrust of other scientific men. Such stalwart independence, when misdirected, leads often to error; hence it was that Goethe’s famous theory of colour, supported as it was by very plausible arguments, but based on false premises, was the result of his working by himself, satisfied with his notion that truth is simple, and the road to it straight and narrow. Though never accepted by the scientific men of his day, and now known to be fallacious, the Farbenlehre and the lesson of his advocacy of it are just as instructive as if it, like his new theories in osteology and botany, had been sound.

His early bent toward scientific study took the same general direction; it was led along the same path of which he makes mention in the letter to Friederike Oeser. Her father, A. F. Oeser, of whom he took lessons in drawing and painting, had taught him to find beauty in simplicity and directness.

Before he was fifteen, his acquaintance with a painter who applied his art to the manufacture of oilcloth brought about a practical familiarity with the process. When he was about the same age he got interested in the manufacture of jewelry, and acquired a considerable knowledge of precious stones. He had the acquisitive faculty largely developed, and his precocity made him a welcome companion to his elders.

He would gladly have been an artist, but his genius forbade that. He failed in the ability to express himself in terms of colour, but his art studies and his assiduous practice in Italy had their effect on his development. "Every man is led and misled in a way peculiar to himself," said Goethe, and his whole career is illustrative of that commonplace. Given the soil and the seeds, the garden is certain to produce something.

Goethe had the dramatic gift, and very early began to display it. He tells in his autobiography how he used to delight his old friend Von Olenschleger by graphically, and often through mimicry, depicting the characters and circumstances of the Middle Ages which the historian has related only as a matter of course. The French occupation of Frankfort, when Goethe was a boy of ten, had already turned his attention to the stage. A French theatre was established, and he, as the grandson of the mayor, had a free ticket, which he seems to have used without restraint. He scraped acquaintance with the actors, learned to speak excellent French, by playing with their children, and became familiar with the whole range of the French drama, classic and popular. It was characteristic of him to fall to imitating the French forms; he wrote a little piece for the stage, of which he afterward remembered only that the scene was rural, and that there was no lack in it of kings' daughters, princes, or gods. He took it to a youth connected with the theatre, and had to learn his first lesson in the classic dramatic liturgy. It was an instructive lesson, for it taught the boy to think for himself. He listened to what his friend Derones told him about the three unities of Aristotle, the regularity of the French drama, the harmony of the verse, the probability of the action, and then, after reinforcing it by reading Corneille's "Treatise on the Three Unities," and devouring the whole of Racine, Moliere, and a large part of Corneille, he came to the conclusion that the dramatic freedom of the English drama was far preferable to the artificial scheme of the French. It was not strange that one who as a child had begun by imitating Terence, who before he was eleven had got such an understanding of the three greatest dramatists of France, should become the manager of theatrical affairs for his sovereign, and should produce masterpieces that have held the stage for a century.

Goethe's simple apparatus and reliance on nature for his philosophical researches find their counterpart in his literary work. Only as a child he imitated; though, of course, his acting dramas had to be constructed on familiar lines, he was quick to seize on the occurrences of real life. His absurdly capricious relations with the young girl whom he called Annchen became the basis of his earliest dramatic writing, "The Lover's Caprice." His self-tormenting penance at having caused sorrow and disappointment to Frederica, the daughter of the pastor of Sesenheim, was worked into his plays of "Götz von Berlichingen" and "Clavigo;" his "Sorrows of the Young Werther" were his own sorrows, because Charlotte Buff loved J. C. Kestner. He portrayed his irregular life at Leipsic in one scene in "Faust." He had the power of coining experiences into literature. He himself said to Eckermann, "I have never uttered anything which I have not experienced, and which has not urged me to production."

Though he so quickly seized upon the popular current of sentimentalism to float his romantic productions, his really sound and wholesome nature revolted against the overstrained and artificial. As a reaction against "Werther" he composed "Reinecke Fuchs." The permanent value of "Faust" lies in its wonderful union of realism with mediaeval supernaturalism. The pathetic and exquisite story of Gretchen was suggested by his first love; his friend Fraulein von Klettenberg's alchemistic vagaries took him back into the Middle Ages. His creative imagination embraced many epochs and many countries, but this imagination required a basis of practical knowledge. His acquaintance with other languages was phenomenal, he wrote poems in French, English, Italian, and Latin. As a boy he was not satisfied until he read the Bible in Hebrew. As old man his interest in Oriental poetry tempted him to study Persian, Arabic, and Sanscrit. He had a good knowledge of modern Greek. He took pleasure in etching, engraving, and painting, and this experimental facility stood him in good stead in his official capacity when he was called upon to criticise and select works of art for the ducal galleries.

And, with all this many-sided productiveness, with all the reverence and worship which he inspired, Goethe preserved to a high degree, and to an advanced old age, a calm serenity and imperturbability, a gracious consciousness of his dignity as a man, and a noble humility and freedom from conceit. This is shown in his autobiography, in his letters, and in the reports of those that knew him. He was not free from faults, but, taken all in all, he was as admirable a type of a man as Germany or any other country ever produced. His works have the universal quality that commends them to readers of every nationality. Even when transferred to another language with consequent loss,—as must be the case with the lyric productions especially,—they still preserve the characteristic beauty of thought and flavour of originality which still hold them as the classics of Germany. Even though the sentimentality of "Werther" and the "Elective Affinities" is of a flavour that does not appeal to our day, we recognise it as an interesting phenomenon of an epoch past, and under it we see the genuine heart of humanity beating. In "Prometheus," in "Faust," in "Egmont," in "Tasso," in "Iphigenia," no qualifications are needed. They are built on the eternal rocks, and endowed with all the eternal elements of beauty. This is true of a large part of Goethe's literary remains. We should be much poorer were "Dichtung und Wahrheit" stricken out of existence. It is a unique autobiography; the life history of a poet tinged with the sunny gleams of a tempered imagination. The lyric poems also are wonderful gems of brilliancy, perfect in form and full of undying grace.

Thus it is that there is no danger of Goethe's ever losing his position of supremacy as one of the greatest writers of the world, and each new edition of his works translated into English presents some new phase of his wonderful activity, since from the almost inexhaustible stores of the original the selecting hand has only to take some work hitherto unknown.