Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt, Germania, into an upper-middle-class family.
His father, and tutors hired by him, taught young Johann everything they thought he needed to know to lead a successful life. He studied languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, and English. He learned how to dance, ride a horse, and fence. He loved drawing, watching plays, and reading the books of Moses, Homer, Virgil, and Ovid.
His parents raised him as a Lutheran. He thought of the history of the Roman Catholic Church as a painful blend of falsehood and violence. As an adult he regarded himself as a complete non-Christian.
Law and Literature (1765-1775)
He moved to Leipzig in 1765 to study law but enjoyed writing poetry much more. He returned a failure to a frustrated father in 1768, fell ill sporadically for 18 months, then left in 1770 to wrestle with legal studies again in Strasbourg.
The city of Strasbourg, and its broad Rhine valley context, appealed to Johann. He also benefitted from the meaningful friendship he formed with Johann Herder. Herder stimulated Goethe's thinking by introducing him to Shakespeare's plays, teaching him the beauty of Gothic architecture, and championing the importance of German folktales and Norse mythology to the development of a stronger German nation.
Johann did get his license to practice law, but his career went as poorly as his studies. Mercifully, it ended more quickly.
In 1774 Johann wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther. The book consists of letters written by Werther to a friend. In them he describes his passionate longing for a village woman—young, beautiful, compassionate, and loyal—who appreciates his friendship but marries her one true love. Werther commits suicide believing it to be the only way to resolve the tensions of the love triangle and to cure his own deep pain. Johann wrote the book as his creative alternative to committing suicide under similar circumstances. The fact that Werther's example inspired other young men to imitate his death surprised and distressed Johann.
Early Wiemar (1775-1786)
The book brought Johann instant and enduring international fame. One admirer, Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, invited Johann to join him at his court in Weimar. Johann did so in 1775 and made it his home for the rest of his life.
Johann worked for, befriended, and advised Karl August. He also developed a close friendship with an older married woman named Charlotte von Stein who served Karl August's wife in a similar way. Johann and Charlotte enjoyed a mutually enhancing relationship until Johann abruptly left for Italy. Charlotte was heartbroken that Johann had said nothing of his departure.
Johann said nothing because he simply ran away. He fled Weimar: the responsibilities of court life, his entanglement with Charlotte, and the wearying visitors seeking to meet the creator of the famous Werther.
Johann abandoned Hell for Paradise. He plunged into the context of a classical culture made exciting once again by archaeologist and art historian Johann Winckelmann. He filled with experiential significance the meaningless names of places he had only heard enough about to desire.
In Italy, he visited many cities including Milan, Venice, Florence, Assisi (not because of Francis but for its Olympian temple), Rome, and Naples. On Sicily, he went to Messina and Palermo but not Syracuse. He climbed Mount Vesuvius several times. He met Amy Lyon, later Lady Hamilton and lover of Horatio Nelson. He also became friends with the historical painters Angelica Kauffman and Johann Tischbein. Both painted his portrait. He collected a lot of rocks and made a comparative study of plants.
Johann ended his sojourn in Italy in 1788 by returning to Weimar and his work with Karl August. Once home, he promptly fell in love with Christiane Vulpius. They lived together until her death in 1816.
In September 1792 Johann, acting as historian, accompanied Karl August as Germanian troops invaded revolutionary France to restore the rule of the French king. He observed the French win a small battle but large psychological victory at Valmy. He also observed Germanian soldiers as they bombarded and retook the city of Mainz from the French (April to July 1793).
Johann met Friedrich Schiller in 1788 but their fruitful intellectual friendship didn't develop until 1794. It continued to deepen until Friedrich's death in 1805.
In 1805 Johann published a book celebrating Winckelmann and His Century.
On October 13, 1806, Napoleon's soldiers invaded Wiemar. While there, they broke into Johann's house, drank his wine, and burst into his bedroom. Christiane screamed, attacked them, and got them to leave the house when others came running to help her. She then barricaded the doors to keep them from returning. A wise Johann married his extremely capable companion of 18 years the very next morning.
In 1808, Johann published the first part of his story Faust. Like the biblical story of Job, Faust starts with a wager between God and Mephistopheles (Satan) regarding the virtue of one particular person. Strangely, this person is Faust who, at that moment, contemplates suicide because he cannot master all knowledge and thereby be master of a universe both material and spiritual. Satan offers to give this control to Faust in exchange for his soul. Done! Satan and Faust then deceive, manipulate, and finally destroy the life of a beautiful yet simple young woman named Gretchen.
In July 1812 Johann met Ludwig van Beethoven. They deeply respected each other's works. Ludwig, however, thought that Johann was far too deferential toward people conventionally considered socially superior. Johann thought Ludwig was unimaginably rude.
To the diaries he wrote in Italy, Johann added reflections and fictional embellishments to create his Italian Journey (published 1817). He had fled Wiemar and his past to embrace new life forever in Paradise. While there he saw it had its weaknesses too and Wiemar its strengths. He came to view his flight to Italy as a sojourn. His book inspired thousands of young Germanians to make their own pilgrimages there.
Johann finished his second part of Faust shortly before his death in 1832 and it was only published the following year. In it Faust controls nature, conquers human enemies, interacts with ancient gods and heroes, and works with the devil and his minions. He's learned it all and done it all, as he long had wished, but dies in a moment of supreme bliss only when he commits himself to caring for others. God has the good grace to allow him into Heaven.
Johann's story of Faust inspired many composers including Robert Schumann (Scenes from Goethe's Faust, 1844-1853), Hector Berlioz (Damnation of Faust, 1846), Franz Liszt (Faust Symphony, 1857), Richard Wagner (Faust Overture, 1840, rev. 1844, 1855) and Gustav Mahler (Symphony No. 8, 1907). Thomas Mann recreated him in Doctor Faustus (1947). Johann's poetry also inspired music by Beethoven and Schubert.
Johann died in Weimar on March 22, 1832.
Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.