Goethe in Context New Biography Shows the German Writer in His Cultural Environment

Article excerpt

WHEN we speak of Western civilization - and we shall continue to speak of it, however unfashionable it has become in some circles of academia of late - we speak, inevitably, of Goethe, the greatest of German writers and one of the giants of world literature.

For those who can read him in German, there is no mistaking the accent of genius: The power of his thought can be felt in the power of his language. Reading him in translation, however, some of this power may be lost.

Nenn's Gluck! Herz! Liebe! --Gott!

Ich habe kenien Namen

Dafur. Gefuhl ist alles,

Name Schall und Rauch

Umnebelnd Himmelsglut.

These lines spoken by Goethe's Faust are rendered by biographer Nicholas Boyle as "call it fortune, heart, love, God! I have no name for it. Feeling is everything - names are sound and smoke, clouding heaven's fire." The translation is accurate, but no translation can quite capture the concision and force of the original.

One of the avowed aims of Boyle's massive new life of Goethe is "to make Goethe accessible ... to the general reader most especially the reader unfamiliar with German literature, which means most English-speaking readers.

Language is not the only barrier. Most of us have a difficult time putting Goethe in context. We can know that he was born Johann Wolfgang Goethe in the city of Frankfurt in 1749, that he is the author of "Faust,The Sorrows of Young Werther,Elective Affinities," "Egmont,Iphigenia in Tauris,Tasso," "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship,Wilhelm Meister's Travels," a stunning body of poetry, plays, stories, novels, not to mention his writings on color theory, mineralogy, theology, botany, or his experience as a n administrator in Weimar.

His life is well documented - to a fault: a veritable sea of paper that further blurs the outlines of this protean, enigmatic figure.

Goethe, like the English poet Byron, was a celebrity in his own time. Unlike Byron, whose fame was enhanced by his role as a brooding outcast and romantic rebel, Goethe was esteemed as a sage.

"Goethe in Weimar sleeps, and Greece,/ Long since, saw Byron's struggle cease," begins Matthew Arnold's 1850 poem "Memorial Verses.When Goethe's death was told, we said/ Sunk, then, is Europe's sagest head./ Physician of the iron age,/ Goethe has done his pilgrimage."

Arnold's image of the wise, objective Goethe leaves out the side of him that first captured the public's heart in "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (1774), a novel that took Germany by storm, mirroring the cult of "Sentimentalism" then prevalent and spawning a new cult of "Wertherism."

The story is told from the viewpoint of its sensitive, not to say self-absorbed, young hero, who commits suicide when the woman he loves marries someone else.

It is, at once, Goethe's tribute to "Sentimentality" and his critique of its excesses.

Goethe remains a hard character to pin down: a man of his age who transcended his age; a dreamer, a pragmatist, an enthusiastic participant and an aloof observer. …