The Flight to Italy: Diary and Selected Letters

By Johann Wolfgang Goethe; T. J. Reed | Go to book overview

GOETHE'S CIRCLE AND
CORRESPONDENTS

Carl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach ( 1757- 1828). The Duke was returning, aged 18, from the Grand Tour to take up the government of his territory when he met G. in Frankfurt and invited him to Weimar. They took to each other from the first and became friends for life. G. at first joined in some of the Duke's wild goings-on, but gently edged him towards a socially responsible use of his power. They became allies in an attempt to reform the Duchy and make it economically viable: a task ultimately beyond their joint powers.

In the 1780s Carl August looked beyond Weimar and became active in the politics of a 'Third Germany', a grouping of the smaller territories that would be independent of both major German powers, Austria and Prussia. But Napoleon's continental hegemony and his abolition of the Holy Roman Empire and nine-tenths of its independent units in 1806 put an end to that dream. After Napoleon's defeat Carl August gave Weimar a constitution ( 1816). It was the first German state to have one, and he was the only prince to keep the promise which had been used to rouse Germans against Napoleon in the so-called ' Wars of Liberation' ( 1813-15). The Weimar constitution provided for freedom of the press (on which the Duke was keener than G. was) and for academic freedom in the universities. In the years of reaction after 1817 the Duke loyally defended both against persistent pressure from Metternich.

Catharina Elisabeth Goethe ( 1731- 1808), G.'s mother, commonly known as Madame Councillor ( Frau Rat), from her husband's Frankfurt honorific title, and as Madame Aya ( Frau Aja) to a wide circle of her son's friends and contacts. She was loved and taken seriously by all of them, whatever their intellectual or social elevation. Carl August came to visit her when he and G. were en route to Switzerland in 1779, and she had a cordial correspondence with the Duke's mother, the Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia. Frau Aja's letters have a vigorous style not a hundred miles from G.'s own, and her forthright and colourful speech must have been as much a factor in the poet's early formation as the maternal love which led Freud to remark, specifically apropos of G.: 'Someone who is his mother's uncontested favourite keeps for his whole life that triumphal feeling, that certainty of success, which not infrequently actually produces success' (' A Childhood Memory in G.'s Poetry and Truth').

Charlotte von Stein ( 1742-1827). A woman of taste and intelligence, seven years older than G. and still attractive enough, after seven pregnancies, to cast

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