Goethe Biography

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Biography

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, c. 1775, engraving freely derived from portrait by Georg Melchior Kraus. Image courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, c. 1775, engraving freely derived from portrait by Georg Melchior Kraus.
Image courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German poet, dramatist and philosopher, was born at Frankfort-on-Main on the 28th of August 1749, the oldest child of Johann Kaspar and his wife Katharina Elisabeth. Of the later children only Cornelia, born in 1750, survived the years of childhood. The best elements in Goethe’s genius came from his mother’s side; of a lively, impulsive disposition, and gifted with remarkable imaginative power, Frau Rat was the ideal mother of a poet; moreover, being hardly eighteen at the time of her son’s birth, she was herself able to be the companion of his childhood. From his father, whose stern, somewhat pedantic nature repelled warmer feelings on the part of the children, Goethe inherited that “holy earnestness” and stability of character which brought him unscathed through temptations and passions, and held the balance to his all too powerful imagination.

Unforgettable is the picture which the poet subsequently drew of his childhood spent in the large house with its many nooks and crannies, in the Grosse Hirschgraben at Frankfort. Books, pictures, objects of art, antiquities, reminiscences of Rat Goethe’s visit to Italy, above all a marionette theatre, kindled the child’s quick intellect and imagination. His training was conducted in its early stages by his father, and was later supplemented by tutors. Meanwhile the varied and picturesque life of Frankfort was in itself an education. In 1759, during the Seven Years’ War, the French, as Maria Theresa’s allies, occupied the town, and (much to the irritation of Goethe’s father, who was a stanch partisan of Frederick the Great) a French lieutenant, Count Thoranc, was quartered in the Goethe household. The foreign occupation also led to the establishment of a French troupe of actors, and to their performances the boy, through his grandfather’s influence, had free access. Goethe has also recorded his memories of another picturesque event, the coronation of the emperor Joseph II in the Frankfort Römer or town hall in 1764; but these memories were darkened by being associated in his mind with the tragic dénouement of his first love interest. The object of this passion was a certain Gretchen, who seems to have taken advantage of the boy’s interest in her to further the dishonest ends of one of her friends. The discovery of the affair and the investigation that followed cooled Goethe’s ardour and caused him to turn his attention seriously to the studies which were to prepare him for the university.

In October 1765, Goethe, then a little over sixteen, left Frankfort for Leipzig, where he entered upon his university studies with zeal. However, his own education in Frankfort had not been the best preparation for the scholastic methods which still dominated the German universities. The literary beginnings he had made in Frankfort now seemed to him amateurish and trivial; he felt that he had to turn over a new leaf, and, under the guidance of E. W. Behrisch, a genial, original comrade, he learned the art of writing those light Anacreontic lyrics which harmonized with the tone of polite Leipzig society. Artificial as this poetry is, Goethe was, nevertheless, inspired by a real passion in Leipzig, namely, for Anna Katharina Schönkopf, the daughter of a wine-merchant at whose house he dined. She is the “Annette” after whom the recently discovered collection of lyrics was named, although it must be added that neither these lyrics nor the Neue Lieder, published in 1770, express very directly Goethe’s feelings for Käthchen Schönkopf.

In Leipzig Goethe also had time for what remained one of the abiding interests of his life, for art; he regarded A. F. Oeser (1717-1799), the director of the academy of painting in the Pleissenburg, who had given him lessons in drawing, as the teacher who in Leipzig had influenced him most. His art studies were also furthered by a short visit to Dresden.

His stay in Leipzig came, however, to an abrupt conclusion; the distractions of student life proved too much for his strength; a sudden haemorrhage supervened, and he lay long ill, first in Leipzig, and, after it was possible to remove him, at home in Frankfort. These months of slow recovery were a time of serious introspection for Goethe. He still corresponded with his Leipzig friends, but the tone of his letters changed; life had become graver and more earnest for him. He pored over books on occult philosophy; he busied himself with alchemy and astrology. A friend of his mother’s, Susanne Katharina von Klettenberg, who belonged to pietist circles in Frankfort, turned the boy’s thoughts to religious mysticism.

Inspiration in Strasbourg

On his recovery his father resolved that he should complete his legal studies at Strasbourg, a city which, although then outside the German empire, was, in respect of language and culture, wholly German. From the first moment Goethe set foot in the narrow streets of the Alsatian capital Strasbourg, in April 1770, the whole current of his thought seemed to change. The Gothic architecture of the Strasbourg minster became to him the symbol of a national and German ideal, directly antagonistic to the French tastes and the classical and rationalistic atmosphere that prevailed in Leipzig. The second moment of importance in Goethe’s Strasbourg period was his meeting with Herder, who spent some weeks in Strasbourg undergoing an operation of the eye. In this thinker, who was his senior by five years, Goethe found the master he sought; Herder taught him the significance of Gothic architecture, revealed to him the charm of nature’s simplicity, and inspired him with enthusiasm for Shakespeare and the Volkslied. Meanwhile Goethe’s legal studies were not neglected, and he found time to add to knowledge of other subjects, notably that of medicine.

Another factor of importance in Goethe’s Strasbourg life was his love for Friederike Brion, the daughter of an Alsatian village pastor in Sesenheim. Even more than Herder’s precept and example, this passion showed Goethe how trivial and artificial had been the Anacreontic and pastoral poetry with which he had occupied himself in Leipzig; and the lyrics inspired by Friederike, such as Kleine Blumen, kleine Blätter and Wie herrlich leuchtet mir die Natur! mark the beginning of a new epoch in German lyric poetry. The idyll of Sesenheim, as described in Dichtung und Wahrheit, is one of the most beautiful love-stories in the literature of the world. From the first, however, it was clear that Friederike Brion could never become the wife of the Frankfort patrician’s son; an unhappy ending to the romance was unavoidable, and, as is to be seen in passionate outpourings like the Wanderers Sturmlied and in the bitter self-accusations of Clavigo, it left deep wounds on the poet’s sensitive soul.

To Strasbourg we owe Goethe’s first important drama, Götz von Berlichingen. It appeared in 1773, after Goethe’s return to Frankfort. In estimating this drama we must bear in mind Goethe’s own Strasbourg life, and the turbulent spirit of his own age, rather than the historical facts, which the poet found in the autobiography of his hero published in 1731. The latter supplied only the rough materials; the Götz von Berlichingen whom Goethe drew, with his lofty ideals of right and wrong, and his enthusiasm for freedom, is a very different personage from the unscrupulous robber-knight of the 16th century, the rough friend of Franz von Sickingen and of the revolting peasants. Still less historical justification is to be found for the vacillating Weisslingen in whom Goethe executed poetic justice on himself as the lover of Friederike, or in the women of the play, the gentle Maria, the heartless Adelheid. But there is genial, creative power in the very subjectivity of these characters, and a vigorous dramatic life, which is irresistible in its appeal. With Götz von Berlichingen, Shakespeare’s art first triumphed on the German stage, and the literary movement known as Sturm und Drang was inaugurated.

Life in Weimar

Having received his degree in Strasbourg, Goethe returned home in August 1771, and began his initiation into the routine of an advocate’s profession. In the following year, in order to gain insight into another side of his calling, he spent four months at Wetzlar, where the imperial law-courts were established. But Goethe’s professional duties had only a small share in the eventful years which lay between his return from Strasbourg and that visit to Weimar at the end of 1775, which turned the whole course of his career, and resulted in his permanent attachment to the Weimar court. Goethe’s life in Frankfort was a round of stimulating literary intercourse; in J. H. Merck (1741-1791), an army official in the neighbouring town of Darmstadt, he found a friend and mentor, whose irony and common-sense served as a corrective to his own exuberance of spirits. Wetzlar brought new friends and another passion, that for Charlotte Buff, the daughter of the Amtmann there — a love-story which has been immortalized in Werthers Leiden — and again the young poet’s nature was obsessed by a love which was this time strong enough to bring him to the brink of that suicide with which the novel ends.

A visit to the Rhine, where new interests and the attractions of Maximiliane von Laroche, a daughter of Wieland’s friend, the novelist Sophie von Laroche, brought partial healing; his intense preoccupation with literary work on his return to Frankfort did the rest. In 1775 Goethe was attracted by still another type of woman, Lili Schönemann, whose mother was the widow of a wealthy Frankfort banker. A formal betrothal took place, and the beauty of the lyrics which Lili inspired leaves no room for doubt that here was a passion no less genuine than that for Friederike or Charlotte. But Goethe — more worldly wise than on former occasions — felt instinctively that the social world in which Lili moved was not really congenial to him. A visit to Switzerland in the summer of 1775 may not have weakened his interest in her, but it at least allowed him to regard her objectively; and, without tragic consequences on either side, the passion was ultimately allowed to yield to the dictates of common-sense. Goethe’s departure for Weimar in November made the final break less difficult.

Faust & Other Writings

The period from 1771 to 1775 was, in literary respects, the most productive of the poet’s life. Götz von Berlichingen was followed by Clavigo. With Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774), the literary precipitate of the author’s own experiences in Wetzlar, Goethe succeeded in attracting, as no German had done before him, the attention of Europe. WhileGötz inaugurated the manlier side of the Sturm und Drang literature, Werther was responsible for its sentimental excesses. Greatest of all of this period, however, was the dramatization of Faust. Thanks to a manuscript copy of the play in its earliest form — discovered as recently as 1887 — we are now able to distinguish how much of this tragedy was the immediate product of the Sturm und Drang, and to understand the intentions with which the young poet began his masterpiece. Goethe’s hero changed with the author’s riper experience and with his new conceptions of man’s place and duties in the world, but the Gretchen tragedy was taken over into the finished poem, practically unaltered, from the earliest Faust of the Sturm und Drang. With these wonderful scenes, the most intensely tragic in all German literature, Goethe’s poetry in this period reaches its climax. It remained for Goethe, in the next period of his life, to construct on classic models a new vehicle for German dramatic poetry.

In December 1774 the young “hereditary prince” of Weimar, Charles Augustus, passing through Frankfort on his way to Paris, came into personal touch with Goethe, and invited the poet to visit Weimar when, in the following year, he took up the reins of government. In October 1775 the invitation was repeated, and on the 7th of November of that year Goethe arrived in the little Saxon capital which was to remain his home for the rest of his life. During the first few months in Weimar the poet gave himself up to the pleasures of the moment as unreservedly as his patron; indeed, the Weimar court even looked upon him for a time as a tempter who led the young duke astray. But the latter, although himself a mere stripling, had implicit faith in Goethe, and a firm conviction that his genius could be utilized in other fields besides literature. Goethe was not long in Weimar before he was entrusted with responsible state duties, and events soon justified the duke’s confidence. Goethe proved the soul of the Weimar government, and a minister of state of energy and foresight. He interested himself in agriculture, horticulture and mining, which were of paramount importance to the welfare of the duchy, and out of these interests sprang his own love for the natural sciences, which took up so much of his time in later years.

Italian Journey & Classicism

In September, 1786 Goethe set out from Karlsbad — secretly and stealthily, his plan known only to his servant — on that memorable journey to Italy, to which he had looked forward with such intense longing; he could not cross the Alps quickly enough, so impatient was he to set foot in Italy. He travelled by way of Munich, the Brenner and Lago di Garda to Verona and Venice, and from thence to Rome, where he arrived on October 29, 1786. Here he gave himself up unreservedly to the new impressions which crowded on him, and he was soon at home among the German artists in Rome, who welcomed him warmly. In the spring of 1787 he extended his journey as far as Naples and Sicily, returning to Rome in June 1787, where he remained until his final departure for Germany on April 2, 1788.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Goethe’s Italian journey. He himself regarded it as a kind of climax to his life; never before had he attained such complete understanding of his genius and mission in the world; it afforded him a vantage-ground from which he could renew the past and make plans for the future. In Weimar he had felt that he was no longer in sympathy with the Sturm und Drang, but it was Italy which first taught him clearly what might take the place of that movement in German poetry.

The search for the classic ideal is reflected in the works he completed or wrote under the Italian sky. The calm beauty of Greek tragedy is seen in the new iambic version of Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787); the classicism of the Renaissance gives the ground-tone to the wonderful drama of Torquato Tasso (1790). Most interesting of all, however, is the reflection of the classic spirit in works already begun in earlier days, such as Faust.

Disappointment in more senses than one awaited Goethe on his return to Weimar. He came back from Italy with a new philosophy of life, a philosophy at once classic and pagan, and with very definite ideas of what constituted literary excellence. But Germany had not advanced; in 1788 his countrymen were still under the influence of that Sturm und Drang from which the poet had fled. The times seemed to him more out of joint than ever, and he withdrew into himself. Even his relations to the old friends were changed.

Goethe, meanwhile, satisfied to continue the freer customs to which he had adapted himself in Rome, found a new mistress in Christiane Vulpius (1765-1816), the least interesting of all the women who attracted him. But Christiane gradually filled up a gap in the poet’s life; she gave him, quietly, unobtrusively, without making demands on him, the comforts of a home. She was not accepted by court society; it did not matter to her that even Goethe’s intimate friends ignored her; and she, who had suited the poet’s whim when he desired to shut himself off from all that might dim the recollection of Italy, became with the years an indispensable helpmate to him. On the birth in 1789 of his son, Goethe had some thought of legalizing his relations with Christiane, but this intention was not realized until 1806, when the invasion of Weimar by the French made him fear for both life and property.

The period of Goethe’s life which succeeded his return from Italy was restless and unsettled; relieved of his state duties, he returned in 1790 to Venice, only to be disenchanted with the Italy he had loved so intensely a year or two before. A journey with the duke of Weimar to Breslau followed, and in 1792 he accompanied his master on that campaign against France which ended so ingloriously for the German arms at Valmy. In later years Goethe published his account both of this Campagne in Frankreich and of theBelagerung von Mainz, at which he was also present in 1793. His literary work naturally suffered under these distractions. 

Tasso, and the edition of the Schriften in which it was to appear, had still to be completed on his return from Italy; the Römische Elegien, perhaps the most Latin of all his works, were published in 1795, and the Venetianische Epigramme, the result of the second visit to Italy, in 1796. The French Revolution, in which all Europe was engrossed, was in Goethe’s eyes only another proof that the passing of the old régime meant the abrogation of all law and order, and he gave voice to his antagonism to the new democratic principles in the dramas Der Grosskophta (1792), Der Bürgergeneral (1793), and in the unfinished fragments Die Aufgeregten and Das Mädchenvon Oberkirch. The spirited translation of the epic of Reinecke Fuchs (1794) he took up as a relief and an antidote to the social disruption of the time.

Two new interests, however, strengthened the ties between Goethe and Weimar: his appointment in 1791 as director of the ducal theatre, a post which he occupied for twenty-two years, and his absorption in scientific studies. In 1790 he published his important Versuch, die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären, which was an even more fundamental achievement for the new science of comparative morphology than his discovery some six years earlier of the existence of a formation in the human jaw-bone analogous to the intermaxillary bone in apes; and in 1791 and 1792 appeared two parts of his Beiträge zur Optik.

Meanwhile, however, Goethe had again taken up the novel of the theatre which he had begun years before, with a view to finishing it and including it in the edition of his Neue Schriften (1792-1800).The novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, about purely theatrical interests was widened out to embrace the history of a young man’s apprenticeship to life. Wilhelm Meister is a work of extraordinary variety, ranging from the commonplace realism of the troupe of strolling players to the poetic romanticism of Mignon and the harper; its flashes of intuitive criticism and its weighty apothegms add to its value as a Bildungsroman in the best sense of that word. Of all Goethe’s works, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre exerted the most immediate and lasting influence on German literature; it served as a model for the best fiction of the next thirty years.

Friendship with Schiller

In completing Wilhelm Meister, Goethe found a sympathetic and encouraging critic in Friedrich von Schiller, to whom he owed in great measure his renewed interest in poetry. After years of tentative approaches on Schiller’s part, years in which that poet concealed even from himself his desire for a friendly understanding with Goethe, the favourable moment arrived; it was in June 1794, when Schiller was seeking collaborators for his new periodical Die Horen; and his invitation addressed to Goethe was the beginning of a friendship which continued unbroken until the younger poet’s death.

The friendship of Goethe and Schiller, of which their correspondence is a priceless record, had its limitations; it was purely intellectual in character, a certain barrier of personal reserve being maintained to the last. But for the literary life of both poets the gain was incommensurable. As far as actual work was concerned, Goethe went his own way as he had always been accustomed to do; but the mere fact that he devoted himself with increasing interest to literature was due to Schiller’s stimulus. It was Schiller, too, who induced him to undertake those studies on the nature of epic and dramatic poetry which resulted in the epic of Hermann und Dorothea and the fragment of the Achilleis; without the friendship there would have been no Xenien and no ballads, and it was his younger friend’s encouragement which induced Goethe to betake himself once more to the “misty path” of Faust, and bring the first part of that drama to a conclusion.

In 1798 appeared Hermann und Dorothea, one of Goethe’s most perfect poems. It is indeed remarkable — when we consider by how much reflection and theoretic discussion the composition of the poem was preceded and accompanied — that it should make upon the reader so simple and “naïve” an impression; in this respect it is the triumph of an art that conceals art. Goethe has here taken a simple story of village life, mirrored in it the most pregnant ideas of his time, and presented it with a skill which may well be called Homeric; but he has discriminated with the insight of genius between the Homeric method of reproducing the heroic life of primitive Greece and the same method as adapted to the commonplace happenings of 18th-century Germany. In this respect he was undoubtedly guided by a forerunner who has more right than he to the attribute “naïve,” by J. H. Voss, the author of Luise.

Hardly less imposing in their calm, placid perfection are the poems with which, in friendly rivalry, Goethe seconded the more popular ballads of his friend; Der Zauberlehrling, Der Gott und die Bayadere, Die Braut von Korinth, Alexis und Dora, Der neue Pausias andDie schöne Müllerin — a cycle of poems in the style of the Volkslied — are among the masterpieces of Goethe’s poetry. On the other hand, even the friendship with Schiller did not help him to add to his reputation as a dramatist. Die natürliche Tochter (1803), in which he began to embody his ideas of the Revolution on a wide canvas, proved impossible on the stage, and the remaining dramas, which were to have formed a trilogy, were never written. Goethe’s classic principles, when applied to the swift, direct art of the theatre, were doomed to failure, and Die natürliche Tochter, notwithstanding its good theoretic intention, remains the most lifeless and shadowy of all his dramas.

Romanticism & Faust

Goethe’s classicism brought him into inevitable antagonism with the new Romantic movement which had been inaugurated in 1798 by the Athenaeum, edited by the brothers Schlegel. The sharpness of the conflict was, however, blunted by the fact that, without exception, the young Romantic writers looked up to Goethe as its master; they modelled their fiction on Wilhelm Meister; they regarded his lyrics as the high-water mark of German poetry; Goethe, Novalis declared, was the “Statthalter of poetry on earth.” With regard to painting and sculpture, however, Goethe felt that a protest was necessary, if the insidious ideas propounded in works like Wackenroder’s Herzensergiessungen were not to do irreparable harm, by bringing back the confusion of the Sturm und Drang; and, as a rejoinder to the Romantic theories, Goethe, in conjunction with his friend Heinrich Meyer (1760-1832), published from 1798 to 1800 an art review, Die Propyläen. Again, in Winckelmann und seine Zeit (1805) Goethe vigorously defended the classical ideals of which Winckelmann had been the founder.

But in the end he proved himself the greatest enemy to the strict classic doctrine by the publication in 1808 of the completed first part of Faust, a work which was accepted by contemporaries as a triumph of Romantic art. Faust is a patch work of many colours. The very want of uniformity is one source of the perennial fascination of the tragedy, and has made it in a peculiar degree the national poem of the German people, the mirror which reflects the national life and poetry from the outburst of Sturm und Drang to the well-weighed and tranquil classicism of Goethe’s old age.

The third and final period of Goethe’s long life may be said to have begun after Schiller’s death. He never again lost touch with literature as he had done in the years which preceded his friendship with Schiller; but he stood in no active or immediate connection with the literary movement of his day. His life moved on comparatively uneventfully. Even the Napoleonic regime of 1806-1813 disturbed but little his equanimity. Goethe, the cosmopolitan Weltbürger of the 18th century, had himself no very intense feelings of patriotism, and, having seen Germany flourish as a group of small states under enlightened despotisms, he had little confidence in the dreamers of 1813 who hoped to see the glories of Barbarossa’s empire revived. Napoleon, moreover, he regarded not as the scourge of Europe, but as the defender of civilization against the barbarism of the Slavs; and in the famous interview between the two men at Erfurt the poet’s admiration was reciprocated by the French conqueror. Thus Goethe had no great sympathy for the war of liberation which kindled young hearts from one end of Germany to the other; and when the national enthusiasm rose to its highest pitch he buried himself in those optical and morphological studies, which, with increasing years, occupied more and more of his time and interest.

The works and events of the last twenty-five years of Goethe’s life may be briefly summarized. In 1805, as we have seen, he suffered an irreparable loss in the death of Schiller; in 1806, Christiane became his legal wife, and to the same year belongs the magnificent tribute to his dead friend, the Epilog zu Schillers Glocke.

After the first part of Faust appeared in 1808, in 1809 it was followed by Die Wahlverwandtschaften. The novel, hardly less than the drama, effected a change in the public attitude towards the poet. Since the beginning of the century the conviction had been gaining ground that Goethe’s mission was accomplished, that the day of his leadership was over; but here were two works which not merely re-established his ascendancy, but proved that the old poet was in sympathy with the movement of letters, and keenly alive to the change of ideas which the new century had brought in its train. The intimate psychological study of four minds, which forms the subject of the Wahlverwandtschaften, was an essay in a new type of fiction, and pointed out the way for developments of the German novel after the stimulus of Wilhelm Meister had exhausted itself.

In 1811 the first volume of his autobiography was published under the title Aus meinem Leben, Dichtung und Wahrheit. The second and third volumes of this work followed in 1812 and 1814; the fourth, bringing the story of his life up to the close of the Frankfort period in 1833, after his death. Goethe felt, even late in life, too intimately bound up with Weimar to discuss in detail his early life there, and he shrank from carrying his biography beyond the year 1775. But a number of other publications — descriptions of travel, such as the Italienische Reise (1816-1817), the materials for a continuation of Dichtung und Wahrheit collected in Tag- und Jahreshefte (1830) — have also to be numbered among the writings which Goethe has left us as documents of his life.

Meanwhile no less valuable biographical materials were accumulating in his diaries, his voluminous correspondence and his conversations. Several periodical publications, Über Kunst und Altertum (1816-1832), Zur Naturwissenschaft überhaupt (1817-1824), Zur Morphologie (1817-1824), bear witness to the extraordinary breadth of Goethe’s interests in these years. Art, science, literature — little escaped his ken — and that not merely in Germany: English writers, Byron, Scott and Carlyle, Italians like Manzoni, French scientists and poets, could all depend on friendly words of appreciation and encouragement from Weimar.

In West-östlicher Diwan (1819), a collection of lyrics — matchless in form and even more concentrated in expression than those of earlier days — which were suggested by a German translation of Hafiz, Goethe had another surprise in store for his contemporaries. And, again, it was an actual passion — that for Marianne von Willemer, whom he met in 1814 and 1815 — which rekindled in him the lyric fire. Meanwhile the years were thinning the ranks of Weimar society: Wieland, the last of Goethe’s greater literary contemporaries, died in 1813, his wife in 1816, Charlotte von Stein in 1827 and Duke Charles Augustus in 1828. Goethe’s retirement from the direction of the theatre in 1817 meant for him a break with the literary life of the day.

The Masterpiece Completed

The crowning achievement of Goethe’s literary life was the completion of Faust. The poem had accompanied him from early manhood to the end and was the repository for the fullest “confession” of his life; it is the poetic epitome of his experience. In the second part it is virtually a new Faust who, at the hands of a new Mephistopheles, goes out into a world that is not ours. Yet behind these unconvincing shadows of an imperial court with its financial difficulties, of the classical Walpurgisnacht, of the fantastic creation of the Homunculus, the noble Helena episode and the impressive mystery-scene of the close, where the centenarian Faust finally triumphs over the powers of evil, there lies a philosophy of life, a ripe wisdom born of experience, such as no European poet had given to the world since the Renaissance. Faust has been well called the “divine comedy” of 18th-century humanism.

The second part of Faust forms a worthy close to the life of Germany’s greatest man of letters, who died in Weimar on the 22nd of March 1832. He was the last of those universal minds which have been able to compass all domains of human activity and knowledge; for he stood on the brink of an era of rapidly expanding knowledge which has made for ever impossible the universality of interest and sympathy which distinguished him.

As a poet, his fame has undergone many vicissitudes since his death, but the fact of his being Germany’s greatest poet and the master of her classical literature has never been seriously put in question. Faust is Germany’s most national drama; Goethe could fill his prose with rich wisdom, but he was only the perfect artist in verse.

We may regard him merely as the embodiment of his particular age, or as a poet “for all time”; but all who have felt the power of Goethe’s genius are in agreement with the opinion condensed in Napoleon’s often cited words, uttered after the meeting at Erfurt: Voilà un homme! [Here is a man!] Of all modern men, Goethe is the most universal type of genius. It is the full, rich humanity of Goethe’s life and personality — not the art behind which the artist disappears, or the definite pronouncements of the thinker or the teacher — that constitutes his claim to a place in the front rank of men of letters. His life was his greatest work.


This biography was adapted from an article by John George Robertson (1867–1933, Professor of German Language and Literature at the University of London) in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 12, from the Wikisource 1911 encyclopedia project.


To learn more about Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust, you may wish to explore the following resources:


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