The German Image of Goethe

The German Image of Goethe

The German Image of Goethe

The German Image of Goethe

Excerpt

Great literary reputations are like kaleidoscopes: their basic elements are constant, but the pattern in which they are arranged is capable of infinite variations. Vergil, honoured in the Middle Ages like no other Latin poet, has been much deflated by later generations, who were less concerned with what he.had foretold about the future than with what he had written about the past. Dante was a convinced monarchist; in some periods of history he was blamed for this, and his own city had exiled him partly for that very reason. But the Italian monarchists of the nineteenth century who unified the country blessed him for it and made him their literary standard bearer. Shakespeare's bawdiness was as much taken for granted by his contemporaries as it is by us; to the Puritans it was an outrage. There is no enduring literary reputation which has not had similar ups and downs. It is the purpose of this study to trace such fluctuations in the German view of Goethe.

Why Goethe? Why the German view of Goethe?

The modern German has developed an uncanny sensitivity to the transitoriness of values which were once thought permanent. Perhaps this is an accident of history. Perhaps it is the result of two lost wars, of inflation and depression, destruction and partition, experienced by a people of a strongly speculative cast of mind. At any rate, one cannot quite imagine an American or English critic looking at, say, Hamlet, in terms like these: 'Goethe Faust, read before the War [of 1914] and after, was no longer the same. What earlier had been the continuing vitality of an established tradition, was afterwards the history of a past epoch' (Fritz Klatt). Still less can one imagine Ernest Hemingway, or for that matter André Malraux, making observations like the following: 'Just looked through the Goncourts' Diaries. Strange are the changes in reader and book which this war [1939-45] brings about: I cannot help feeling that countless works of literature will be unable to cross the intellectual borders it has established. These are almost unnoticed areas of devastation. Thus do moths wreak their . . .

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