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GREAT LIVES: Johann Goethe: Literary artist, scientist, statesman

GREAT LIVES: Johann Goethe: Literary artist, scientist, statesman

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JOHANN Wolfgang Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on

August 28, 1749. His long life of 82 years was defined by accomplishments that are surprising to those who know him only as the author of that most German of literary works: “Faust.”

Indeed, this dramatic poem—in which a man is so disillusioned with the scholarly life that he turns in despair to the devil himself as an alternative way to meaningfulness—is considered by most critics his magnum opus. Many even regard Goethe as the “German Shakespeare” because of this and other significant plays, some of them path-breaking in world literature.

One such play, “Götz von Berlichingen,” is the most provocative play of the literary movement known as “Storm and Stress,” a school of thought characterized by unease in contemporary society, youthful rebellion aimed at correction of societal ills, as well as robust, even audacious self-confidence in individual expression.

Two other important plays, “Iphigenie in Tauris” and “Egmont,” stand out as examples of the nobility of their principal characters, brilliance of versification, and soaring, moving language.

Goethe also wrote four important novels, the best known of which, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” ranks high on the list of “must-reads” in world literature. Werther is usually called a roman à clef, because it is modeled on Goethe’s personal relationship with a man and a woman he had met and befriended in Wetzlar in 1772.

The novel was a sensation in European literature, but also caused a serious rupture in Goethe’s friendship with that couple, Lotte and Johann Kestner. The novel treats love and friendship, German ennui, and even disgust at life during this time. Mental illness and suicide also emerge as themes, as does art as a potent means of healing.

Goethe even wrote at one point that his composition of the novel had been for him a vicarious cleansing, a preventive from a Werther-like fate.

Goethe’s mastery of another genre, poetry, and in particular lyric poetry, shows further resemblance to the genius of Shakespeare. No longer did he feel restricted by the anacreontic (written in the style of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon), drinking song verse of an earlier period, nor did he feel bound by slavish attention to versification and the poetic style of other national and cultural conventions.

His poetry is characterized by “innerlichkeit,” inwardness, depth of feeling—the deep look into the potentially rich inner life of the soul.

His lyrical poems were suitable to be set to music and meant to be sung. One example is the stirring setting by Franz Schubert of the “Elf-king;” it is one of 71 settings by Schubert of Goethe’s poems.

During Goethe’s lifetime, women young and old, and of diverse social standing and levels of education, all played a vital role in his development.

Whether it was his mother, Katharina, who introduced him to stories and the puppet theater, or teenaged girl friends, to and for whom he wrote his first poems, or Friederike, under whose inspiration he wrote his first truly great lyric poetry, or Lili, to whom he was briefly engaged, or Charlotte Buff, who inspired his first novel, “Werther,” or Charlotte von Stein, certainly the most inspirational and calming influence of all, or his wife, Christiane, who bore him his only child—to them all he owed a great debt of gratitude.

He loved them; he was inspired by them; he often made them the subjects of his greatest works. Appropriately his masterpiece, “Faust,” ends: “The eternal Feminine draws us ever onward.”

There were other influences on Goethe’s life and work, of course, including famous friendships, such as that of the great dramatist and historian, Friedrich Schiller, whose encouragement helped Goethe complete some of his later works, including “Faust.”

Also, Duke Karl Augustus, who had invited Goethe to live and work in Weimar, revealed to him the world of statesmanship. There he lived and worked for 57 years. His duties in the duchy included agricultural issues, road maintenance, soldiers’ pay, mining methods, and theater-directing.

During the early years at Weimar he willingly scaled back his aesthetic writing and devoted time to scientific studies as varied as plant and animal morphology, mineralogy, color theory, and meteorology.

For almost two years, 1786—88, he was on leave in Italy, where he lived life to the fullest. There he once again directed his attention to serious literary endeavors. Works that had stalled in Weimar truly began to flourish as though ripening under the Italian sun.

In “Faust,” the theme of striving predominates. Whether in his scholarship, his romantic relationships, art, or in the affairs of state, Faust is characterized by striving to gain certain goals. He is rarely, if ever, satisfied with achievement—it is the striving itself that saves him from a hellish eternity.

Such drive toward accomplishment even when failing to reach satisfying ends, is mirrored in “Faust’s” author as well. Late in his life, when rebuked for his privileged “life of ease,” Goethe who, like Faust, was never satisfied, said that he had never experienced “behagen,” (contentment) for more than a few days, and that his whole life had been one of work and effort—again picking up that stone and rolling it up that hill.

Dr. Sammy R. Merrill taught German language, literature, and culture at Wake Forest, Cornell, and Mary Washington for 36 years, prior to being named UMW Professor Emeritus of German upon his retirement in 2004. He will speak on Goethe as part of the Crawley Great Lives Series at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 25. The Zoom webinar can be accessed at

Dr. Sammy R. Merrill taught German language, literature, and culture at Wake Forest, Cornell, and Mary Washington for 36 years, prior to being named UMW Professor Emeritus of German upon his retirement in 2004. He will speak on Goethe as part of the Crawley Great Lives Series at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 25. The Zoom webinar can be accessed at

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