Goethe in Context

New biography shows the German writer in his cultural environment

By , Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.

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

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Dafur. Gefuhl ist alles,

Name Schall und Rauch

Umnebelnd Himmelsglut.

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 English-speaking readers.

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 figure.

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 his pilgrimage."

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 of "Wertherism."

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.

Boyle, who teaches German literature at Cambridge University in England, offers a profound and memorable insight about this poet's relation to the times in which he lived.

Far from embodying the spirit of any particular age or movement, Goethe lived through an era of many different changes, revolutions, and transformations. He responded to each, while still maintaining a sense of himself.

"His beginnings are without revolutionary chiliasm and his end without reactionary nostalgia, yet in over 60 years of writing ... he never seriously repeated himself. Always judicious, he none the less always grew," writes Boyle .

Boyle has divided his life of Goethe into two parts. This first volume, "The Poetry of Desire," covers the period from his birth in 1749 to 1790, by which time he was already a famous writer, had served as an administrator at the court of Weimar, made his famous, long-delayed pilgrimage to Italy, and become involved with the woman whom he would finally marry in his 50s.

The second, still unpublished volume, "The Age of Renunciation," will cover the years 1790 to his death in 1832, including his marriage, his scientific studies, his friendship with Schiller, his continuing propensity to fall in love, and his later works, including the completion of "Faust" and the publication of his autobiography, "Dichtung und Wahrheit" (Poetry and Truth).

One of Boyle's central theses in the first volume is that Goethe repeatedly delayed the fulfillment and permanence of the married state because he recognized that the dynamic of desire was essential to his ability to be the kind of poet he was.

Goethe outshone his age, but in order to understand his achievement, it is important to understand something about the state of German culture at the time he embarked on his unique career.

Boyle does an excellent job of setting the stage, filling in the details of German literary, political, and philosophical history, discussing the paucity of a German literary past and the growing importance that Germans, not yet united politically, were beginning to attach to their common language.

By placing him in the context of Leibnitz, Lessing, Herder, and other influential figures, Boyle highlights Goethe's ability to absorb ideas while remaining an independent mind.

When it comes to providing us with a clearer picture of Goethe's personality, however, the story becomes a blur. A typical page has Goethe writing a theological essay, meeting a new acquaintance, traveling here or there, corresponding with an old friend. The effect is fragmented.

It's true that even his most knowledgeable admirers find Goethe's ouevre curiously fragmented as well. But it would have been wonderful to have had a life of Goethe that might have pieced those fragments together in an organic whole.

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