Profiles in Poetry: Johann Wolfgang Goethe
"The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation."
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) remains Germany’s most popular poet and arguably its best, alongside Friedrich Schiller. Born into a bourgeois upper-middle-class family in Frankfurt, he spent his early years as a leading voice in the Romantic literary movement known as “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress). However, he would ultimately leave this impassioned and avant-garde movement behind in order to help establish Germany’s most glorious cultural movement, Weimar Classicism.
Even in his early career, Goethe demonstrated his genius through use of classical irony and metaphor – the hallmark of great poets going back to Shakespeare, Dante, and the Classical Greeks. One should read, and then listen to such early pieces as his “Mailied” (May Song) to experience the creative energy whirling within the young poet. In the Mailied, Goethe does not simply use the beautiful natural imagery of spring as a symbol for love; he transforms the idea by describing the true source of his joy within the budding scene – creativity.
The poet implores his love to be as happy as he is in experiencing the power love has on his creative process – ‘‘A mood for new songs.’’ The idea of spring and young love is transformed through the introduction of creativity as the true source of his joy. Just as spring seems to suddenly burst forth, so too does creativity. The poet only hopes that this maiden is able to experience the same quality of joy in her love for him. Goethe was only twenty-one when he composed the “Mailied.”
At twenty-five, Goethe composed his “Prometheus” – a perennial theme for poets, and a perennial nightmare for oligarchs and all Zeusian systems. In “Prometheus,” the narrator addresses Zeus, and asserts his own creative volition, which he declares to be the force that has gotten him through thick-and-thin, rather than the whim of fickle and indifferent Gods. Thus, Goethe describes the sovereign creative individual, a character not reliant on or afraid of the powers that be, who feels no need to pay homage to the established system, who is confident in his ability to carve his own path using his own creativity.
By that age, Goethe became internationally famous due to his novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” Despite the success of the controversial novel, which took up themes of love and suicide, Goethe remained first and foremost a great lyric poet. But while he demonstrated his natural poetic gifts, he still required the deeper philosophical foundation that would allow him to develop his creative powers fully, to sustain them over his lifetime.
Goethe would meet several different scholars and classicists who would have a lasting effect on the understanding of his role in the history of Germany, its culture and literature, and the world at large. He began acquiring a deeper philosophical foundation for his work upon meeting the cleric and historian Johann Gottfried Herder in 1770. Herder was committed to creating and promoting a national German literature. Goethe would take this up as a life-long mission along with his fellow poet Friedrich Schiller. Thus, Goethe began to find one of the most crucial elements of inspiration for any form of sustained creative life: a sense of higher purpose for his work, and an intimation of the Good such work produces.
Goethe’s fame would quickly bring him to the attention of Duke Karl-August von Saxe-Weimar-Eisenbach. After initially meeting the duke, he would accept Karl-August’s invitation and move to Weimar in 1775. By 1782, Goethe was ennobled by the duke.
In Weimar, with a newly informed sense of philosophical direction and purpose, Goethe would craft some of his most passionate and moving pieces. Many of the poems composed in this period would be set as lieder by the greatest musical composers of Germany including Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Brahms. While the excitement the composers felt in reading Goethe’s poems is only imaginable, it is a truly amazing experience to hear how these geniuses decided to set Goethe’s poems to music. Through the lied, or art-song, a new dimension was added to the poems, and with it a new understanding of their meaning, music, and magic. Schubert alone set eighty of Goethe’s poems to music, including the rousing “Der Erlkonig,” the Faustian “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and the deeply moving “Nur Wer die Sehnsucht Kent.” More than any other poet, Goethe’s works were chosen by composers for musical settings. This is without doubt one of the highest of honors any poet can attain.
As his relationship with Duke Karl-August developed, so did Goethe’s role in the affairs of the duchy. He would assume the role of a minister with an increasingly wide range of responsibilities. Goethe initially saw this as an opportunity to work towards the creation of a truly sovereign state with a thriving cultural and intellectual life. In certain respects, Goethe succeeded in improving the state and introduced positive policies. However, he later wrote to his friend, the poet Johann Peter Eckermann, describing how in the ten years in which he had become a significant figure in the administrative and political realm, he had “done nothing,” implying he had been unable to engage in genuine creative work. Goethe realized that he was not going to be able to create the kind of national culture he intended simply by trying to organize one of the many hundreds of nobles that ruled the land of Germany. In a word: he would have to venture beyond simply trying to change the system “from the inside.”
While many things can be said from a historical standpoint about Goethe and the biographical details of his life, his personal romances, travels, and his revolutionary scientific work on color, perhaps no subject is of more importance or relevance for the creation of a new “golden age of poetry” than Goethe’s friendship and collaboration with another poetic genius, Friedrich Schiller. Together they would lead what would be one of the most inspired and creative epochs in human history, the “Weimar Classical” period.
Much can be and has been said about the “Weimar Classical” period. It was named “Weimar” because of the place in which it unfolded, the city inhabited by Goethe, Schiller, Herder, and their friends such as classical scholars Wilhelm von Humboldt, his brother the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, and others. While academics might argue on the dates of this classical period’s beginning and end, Weimar Classicism was typified by the relationship developed between Goethe and Schiller which began in 1794 and ended with Schiller’s death in 1805.
The period was a revolutionary time for creativity in literature and culture. Not only were bold new original works of literature and art emerging, but it was also a period informed by the richest classical traditions of the past, namely that of the ancient Greeks. With a renewed interest in the rigorous forms and composition of classical works from ancient Rome and Greece, the study of Plato, Aeschylus and Praxiteles, a new era of sublime poetry, music and culture emerged.
In 1791, not long after Goethe’s return to Weimar from a two-year tour in Rome, Karl August appointed Goethe as managing director of the Weimar Theater. Three years later, he and Schiller began their revolutionary friendship -- after each one had been initially repelled by the other’s character several years earlier. The meeting of these two great minds would ultimately help create precisely the kind of non-linear shift in Goethe and Schiller’s ability to shape the character of a nation, rising to the status of poets whom Percy Bysshe Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’’
Despite Goethe’s increasingly important role within the cultural life of Germany and Europe, and his success as a poet, it wasn’t until he and Schiller became close friends and collaborators that his genius reached its greatest heights. Together, Schiller and Goethe engaged in one of the most productive and revolutionary collaborations among artistic geniuses. An especially noteworthy result of their collaboration is the correspondence and compositions of the year 1797, known as the “Year of the Ballad.” Both Goethe and Schiller wrote some of the greatest ballads in any language. Among Goethe’s ballads in this period were, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, “The Bride of Corinth” (considered to be one of his most finely crafted poems), and “The Treasure Seeker.” Through their correspondence and creative fellowship, each one experienced a transformative effect in their ability to compose beautiful and sublime works – works which every creative individual should have a chance to study.
Goethe and Schiller both benefited from their markedly different personalities. Each offered the other new insights and inspiration that would help transform their poetic powers. Indicative of Goethe’s influence on Schiller is a letter Schiller wrote to Goethe in May 1797: upon reading “The Treasure Seeker,” Schiller remarked that it made him realize that “even a small work, a simple idea, when perfectly represented, can afford the highest enjoyment.” While Schiller always sought to treat the loftiest ideas, with even small and simpler Goethe pieces, he recognized the significance of the idea of form and how one could use both the idea of form and the treatment of a given subject to craft works of the most sublime quality. It became clear to Schiller that regardless of how great a poetical idea might be, without the proper form and treatment, it would fail to achieve the artist’s desired effect on the audience.
In another letter to Goethe, Schiller writes, “you are gradually leading me from the tendency of passing from the general to the individual, which in all practices and especially poetical, is an impropriety, and on the contrary lead me forth from single cases to great laws (June 1797).” The comparison of an early Schiller poem compared to ballads such as “The Diver”(1797), “The Ring of Polycrates” (1797), “The Song of the Bell”(1798) and the late “Hero and Leander”(1804) indicates the truly revolutionary effect of Schiller’s Goethe-inspired insights. Thus, Goethe’s natural poetic instincts, his “surer sensuousness” as Schiller called it, allowed Schiller to refine his own poetic skills and free himself from the limiting effects of overly abstract ideas. The difference becomes quite apparent when the poems of Schiller’s first and second period are compared with those of his third. While Schiller lived in a much vaster world of philosophical thought, evidenced by his numerous writings on aesthetics, history and philosophy, Goethe had a greater naturalness and intuitive sense to poetry.
On the other hand, while the insights Schiller gained from Goethe were in many respects technical, Goethe benefitted greatly from Schiller’s mind and the spiritual effect it had on him. Schiller was a philosophical giant, a universal thinker, an unmatched historian and a dramatist of the order of an Aeschylus or a Shakespeare. He was committed to the highest conception of mankind and sought to develop this through all his works. Being in the company of Schiller had a transformative effect on Goethe. He wrote to Schiller, “You have given me a second youth […] and made me a poet again, which I had ceased to be (1798).”
Their alliance unleashed one of the most revolutionary poetic periods in the history of art and culture. With Goethe’s appointment as the Weimar Theater director, all of Schiller’s greatest dramas including The Wallenstein Trilogy, The Virgin of Orleans, Maria Stuart and Wilhelm Tell were first performed at the Weimar Theater.
The impact of these dramas on the populace is difficult to fathom. Just as Homer had laid the foundation for the Republic of Athens with his epics; and just as Dante had laid the foundation for the fifteenth century Golden Renaissance with his Divine Comedy, so too did Schiller and Goethe rise to the level of poet legislators. Weimar had become a “court of the muses” and Germany had developed its own national culture with classical music and poetry serving as the lifeblood of the nation’s development.
However, despite the great productivity of Schiller and the recent composition and performance of his sublime dramas, he passed away in 1805 after struggling with poor health for many years. Upon hearing of the death of Schiller, Goethe remarked, “I thought I was losing my life, and now I lose a friend, and with him half my existence.” 1805 is also generally considered to mark the end of Weimar Classicism.
Regardless of the sudden end to Schiller and Goethe’s close friendship and poetic alliance, the power of their works and the fruits of their collaboration would continue to spread and inspire Europe and the Americas. Goethe would go on to live another 27 years, finish his masterpiece, the epic drama Faust, and write the Persian-inspired Divan collection along with several other minor works.
Goethe passed away on March 22, 1832 and was buried in the Grand Ducal Vault of Weimar, along with Schiller and Karl-August.
To this day, a study of the Weimar Classical period —to which the works of Schiller and Goethe are central—remains one of the richest areas of study for all those passionate about and committed to ushering in a new age of the Muses. By studying how the greatest minds of the past were able to create a rich poetic culture, humanity has quickest route to re-discovering how a new age of timeless poetry and art may be created, as if before its eyes.
 Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, English Romantic Writers, 2nd edition (Harcourt: 1995), 1135
David Gosselin is a poet, translator, and linguist based in Montreal. He is the founder of The Chained Muse and the founder of the New Lyre Podcast. His first collection of poems is entitled Modern Dreams.