Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832)
Johann was born in Frankfurt, the eldest son of well-heeled parents, who had a further six children, but the only survivor being his sister, Cornelia, and, even with her, Goethe managed to have an intense and somewhat iffy relationship, as he himself was only too well aware. The dad, not content with naming his son after himself (he was Johann Casper), also saddled him with Wolfgang, which means “wolf path” and, according to Teutonic mythology, is the name signifying a hero in front of whom walks the “wolf of victory.” So, right from the start, he was clearly bent on the idea of his eldest lad fulfilling all of the ambitions that he himself had been so frustrated in. Having studied law in Leipzig and Strasbourg and then going on a Grand Tour, Johann Casper came back to Frankfurt to be appointed an Imperial Councillor (but given nothing to do), to settle down to live a life of leisure on his inherited fortune and to find himself a wife. If you’re not given power, why not marry your way in, which seems to have been Johann Casper’s thinking when, at thirty eight, he picked out seventeen year old Catharina Elisabeth Textor to be Mrs Goethe, who also happened to be the daughter of Frankfurt’s leading official. Thus, without actually achieving anything, he had completed his lifeplan and it was this blueprint – study law, get an impressive position, go on Tour then get married – that he had in mind for young Johann.
Thanks to a spot of bother at school (as always), Goethe was educated at home, learning Latin, Greek, French, Italian, English and Hebrew, plus a bit of dancing, riding and fencing, though his real passions were for literature, drawing and the theatre, making him already something of an all-round Smarty Pants. Talking of which, if the lad himself is to be believed, it was around the age of fifteen when he put his first notch on the post of falling in love, with an innkeeper’s daughter called Gretchen, by all accounts. Mind you, there never was any corroborating evidence to support this and the only we account we do have is that of young Johann himself, a fellow who went on to forge a spectacular career out of making stories up, so we’ll put it down to mere adolescent braggadocio. In other words, Johnny boy, we ain’t going to count that one: it’s still Goethe Nil.
Nonetheless, young Johann got into a bit of a state about it all and fell ill, possibly tuberculosis, so in September 1768 he was forced back to Frankfurt without his degree, where he flirted briefly with evangelical Christianity, though not enough to prevent him from studying alchemy seriously, which is when the idea of a Faust play may first have seeded itself in his mind. Despite all this, he still felt the need to keep his eye in with the ladies, so he formed an attachment to Charitas Meixner, a friend of his sister, but she soon found “metal more attractive” and dumped him, once again in order to marry a rich burgher, after which Goethe professed to finding the Frankfurt girls too “stiff and unSaxon.”
In Frankfurt, he finally got his degree, (though more of a comeuppance, seeing it wasn’t a doctorate) and started to practice. According to the saying (and sayings are a field in which Goethe would himself excel), “practice makes perfect” but, alas, not in this case: he was rubbish at it, kept losing cases and had to pack it in. Though it didn’t stop him picking up a nice little earner doing law in Wetzlar for four months, at the Supreme Courts of the Holy Roman Empire where, as with all corridors of power, a complete lack of ability was entirely irrelevant. Goethe, however, found more congenial society at the local inn (didn’t we say as much earlier?), where he took to calling himself Götz von Berlichingen, a name he took from some sort of sixteenth century robber-baron-cum-highwayman whose biography he’d got hold of. Plagued by conscience over his dastardliness towards Friederike and desperate to appease Herder (who had earlier turned him on to the Bard), he thought, I know, I’ll turn this story into a Shakespearian tragedy, which is just what he did, banging it out in under six weeks. Instant hit! Goethe was off and running. Though the name itself became a famous (and vulgar) euphemism known as the Swabian Salute, which delicacy forbids us to repeat here, other than in the original German: er kann mich im Arsche lecken.
Which is basically how Goethe became famous and soon had the fans flocking round, including the Prince of Weimar, Duke Karl Augustus, who met him in December that year. Meanwhile, our man had been up to his old tricks once more and, despite his marked reluctance, he had somehow got himself engaged, to Anne Elisabeth “Lili” Schönemann, a banker’s daughter and eminently suitable in the brides’ stakes, though as soon as some admiring people that he’d never met before turned up, he did another runner and went off with them. Dressed in the blue jacket and yellow trousers of Werther, it seems, no doubt hoping to get kissed, knowing him. Karl Augustus had invited him to Weimar so, when he got back, rather than marry Lil, he decided he’d do that instead, if only to keep himself out of Italy and the terrible fate that awaited him afterwards, according to his old man’s Grand Plan.
From here on in, we’re going to have to do something of a Goethe ourselves and be nippy on our feet, in order to pack a vast amount into the time we have remaining. Besides which, by now he was both noble and famous, and his achievements have been well documented, though there remain some parts that could stand a breath of fresh air so, if you’re ready, seatbelts on and here we go …
1776 and next on the Goethe hit list is Charlotte von Stein, an older (thirty three, Johann!) married mother of seven, with whom he had a dalliance of some ten years, though it was all quite platonic and innocent, what you might call a “practice match” for him, though the intimate bond between them would be the eventual reason for the commitment-shy (and possibly husband-wary) dramatist’s suddenly doing yet another runner, this time to Italy itself, which goes to show how jittery he’d become. Before that, however, he had been released from his more mundane courtly duties and had finally got back to a spot of penmanship, though mostly for the entertainment of the Duke and his chums.
Soon after his return, he published his plant book (he even found time to garden), the Metamorphosis of Plants and he followed that up with another boffinlike number, the Theory of Colour, which came about because he thought Newton had got hold of completely the wrong end of the stick on this one, putting too much analysis into it and not enough romance. Strictly, it’s more your Theory of Vision but it did hit the mark with Turner, Kandinsky and Mondrian, and they did alright for themselves out of it. Back with the day job, in 1791 he was made Theatre Director and, being something of a Mozart fan, it would seem (Mozart was also a Freemason, like Goethe), he put on the Magic Flute some eighty nine times. He even spent years trying to come up with some lyrics for a follow up album, the Magic Harp (he was mighty keen on sequels), but that seems to’ve sunk without trace.
After 1793, however, it was back fulltime to the old literature for our man and the following year he gets a letter from Friedrich Schiller saying shall we be real mates now, instead of just penpals and, as we all know, they went on to become one of the great double-acts in the history of German Romanticist dramatics. They’re even buried and statued together. This was a most fortunate turn-up for Goethe seeing that when he was suffering from a touch of the old writer’s block, or simply busy with “other things” (being Goethe), he could simply bung on one of Schiller’s and keep the Court Theatre going that way. Then, in 1797, he once again took up Faust, working on it for the next five years and the rest really is history …
Well, apart from a regrettable incident on 13 October 1806, when the marauding troops of Napoleon’s army sacked most of Weimar and even burst into the Goethe place, where our man’s dogged resistance amounts to hiding under the bedcovers trembling and hoping they’d go away, while Christiane gave them a taste of their own medicine and sent them off with “ein Floh im Ohr.” Undaunted, and entirely shamelessly, von Goethe would later write: “Fires, rapine, a frightful night... Preservation of the house through steadfastness and luck.” He failed to mention who was steadfast and who lucky. He did then do the decent thing and finally marry her for it – the very next day, in fact - but was quickly back to his old self once more when he fell briefly and passionately in love with “an unremarkable” young lady, Wilhelmine Herzlieb, extricating himself from the entanglement only with considerable pain. He never did learn, did he?
In 1816, the trouble and strife did the decent thing and let him off the hook by dying and, by 1823, it was a return to form with Ulrike von Levetzow (she was nineteen, he was in his seventies, for goodness sake), going so far as to want marriage with her, only her mum was having none of it, Germany’s all-time leading man of letters or no, though once again he did manage to turn it into words: the famous Marienbad Elegy, which he considered one of his finest works. Oh, and at the same time, he also managed to squeeze in a thing for the Polish pianist Maria Agata Szymanowska.
Then, in 1832, he died. No flippin’ wonder, after all that. He just had time to finish off his latest little number, yet another sequel and the follow up to the smash hit, Faust Part One, disappointingly called Faust Part Two (what’s wrong with Faust II: Return of the Soulsnatcher?), which he sealed in an envelope and was about done. His last words, according to his doctor, Carl Vogel, were, “More light!” but, seeing the good doctor wasn’t even in the room at the time, this is open to question.
On the subject of neat epigrams, let’s leave our hero the last word here, and these really are ones he coined. They’re not half bad either. How about:
“Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him.”
“Divide and rule, a sound motto; unite and lead, a better one.”
“Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must.”
“Das also war des Pudels Kern” (“the core of the poodle”, but you’ll need to see Faust to get that one)
If some of you out there do happen to be thinking of emulating Goethe in any way, well, all we can say is you’d have to be bonkers …
Romantic: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Goethe Family: Johann Conrad Seekatz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anna Katharina “Kitty” Schönkopf : [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charitas Meixner: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Friederike Brion at Home: Photogravure from the painting by Brockmann. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Götz von Berlichingen: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anne Elisabeth Schönemann: By Starke in WeimarJlorenz1 at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Goethe & the Duke: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charlotte von Stein: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Iphigenia in Tauris: (with Goethe as Orestes in the centre; Drawing by Angelica Kauffman) Angelica Kauffman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Christiane Vulpius : By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mozart: Barbara Krafft [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Friedrich Schiller: Ludovike Simanowiz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ulrike von Levetzow: By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons