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
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
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
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
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
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. …