IN the small hours of 3 September 1786 a writer, a courtier, an administrator, a natural scientist, and an artist left Carlsbad for Italy. They were not a party, but a single man: Johann Wolfgang Goethe, destined within his lifetime and ever since to be the central figure in Germany's culture, but now at the age of 37 frustrated and divided against himself, overworked yet under-achieving, disillusioned by his failure to reform the administration of one of Germany's many petty states, painfully aware of a backlog of literary works he had begun but not finished, embroiled in a bizarre and increasingly difficult relationship with a married court lady seven years his senior, and--probably as a consequence of all this--suffering from some kind of psychosomatic illness or depression which the gloom of northern skies further intensified. Reason enough to want a break. But that early-morning departure was a positive escape--'they wouldn't have let me go if I hadn't'--and he was to stay away almost two years, turning the break into one of the shaping experiences of his life.
Many years later Goethe published a full and formal account of it called Italian Journey, drawing on jottings and letters written at the time, but rearranging, cutting and adding, shifting the perspective and altering the tone. So the authentic feel of his Italian experience is best captured in his diary of the first eight weeks, the time it took him to get to Rome. The essentials of the journey are all there. Goethe himself had no high opinion of this little document, and it is a wonder he never destroyed it as he did many of his other papers once they had helped him construct his mature retrospect. Yet if writing is the imprint of personality, the diary is a book in its own right, all the more so for being informal, colloquial, impressionistic, under-punctuated, unpolished, with loose ends showing and changes of mind not tidied away. It is Goethe in shirtsleeves, moving not posing. For readers with a taste for spontaneity it is a delightfully zestful book, by a poet who has few equals in the ability to celebrate ordinary experience and convey