Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's most famous poet, was born in Frankfurt, the son of Catharina Elisabeth (née Textor) and Johann Caspar, a cultured and prosperous gentleman who devoted himself to the education of his son and daughter. Under his watchful eye they received instruction at home from a variety of tutors. The young Goethe displayed a prodigious memory, particularly for foreign languages, his first being Italian, a reflection of his father's enthusiasms: in 1739 Johann Caspar had traveled to Italy and had penned an account of that journey. Italian was followed by Latin, French, English, and Greek; Goethe even learned Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament. There are indications that he began writing an epistolary novel in six languages at the age of twelve.
His voracious reading was nurtured by his father's enormous library. The letters he wrote home from Leipzig, where he went in 1766 to study law, are littered with references to his reading and show the importance of foreign literatures in his self-conception and in his artistic development. His poetry begins to resonate with literary and linguistic influences that he absorbed and continued to assimilate in his long and productive career.
Already in Leipzig Goethe was affected by the rebellion against the dominant French standards of poetic decorum and taste. His turn away from artificiality and toward naturalness in poetry was influenced by his encounter with Johann Gottfried von Herder in Strassburg, where he had gone in 1770 to continue his legal studies. He absorbed Herder's ideas concerning authentic poetry, which sprang from the Volk, and was introduced by him to the Koran, which, like the Bible, in which Goethe was well versed, became a rich store of poetic images. In 1773 he began a drama on the life of Muhammad that became the substance of the hymn “Mahomets Gesang.”