Faust: Still Striving and Straying

Goethe's Faust: Part I

translated by Randall Jarrell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 296 pp., $6.95 (paper)


by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by Walter Arndt, edited by Cyrus Hamlin
Norton, 626 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Forever striving and forever straying, the role of Faust has been adopted as a historic model for Western man. As an individual bent upon self-realization, and caught up in a devil’s bargain with technological forces, he was ideally cut out to be Spengler’s archetype for the modern mind. His black magic has been detected most recently, according to a poem by Karl Shapiro, in a mushroom cloud arising from Los Alamos. His persisting legend, which began in a Reformation chapbook and inspired a powerful tragedy of the Renaissance, has extended to the musical fiction of Thomas Mann and the cerebral dialogue of Paul Valéry. Other legends, notably those of Prometheus and Don Juan, have dealt with forbidden knowledge and facile seduction. But it was Faust who, upon its reaction from the Enlightenment, became the culture hero of Romanticism. And Goethe’s was the masterwork among the many dramas that reanimated this theme for the Sturm und Drang.

But Goethe cannot be ticketed as a mere Romanticist. True, the First Part of his Faust may be regarded as his major contribution to the movement. Yet, as a product of intermittent endeavors over some thirty years, it was already overlapped by his Weimar Classicism, which would culminate in the Second Part. The latter, almost twice as long as the former, was written more or less consecutively during the last few years of his long and supremely creative life. Without its cosmic resolution the drama is incomplete. Goethe himself managed, nonetheless, to live with that suspense for sixty years. If the final work is an organic whole, it reflects the changing stages of its author’s development. The earliest passage that he composed was the most poignant and untraditional, the domestic episode of Gretchen. Readers—and playgoers even more—have appreciably preferred her “little world” to the imperial allegory and the classical phantasmagoria of the sequel.

These two new translations on my desk—surrounded there by a Faustian gathering of other translations, texts, commentaries, and dictionaries—have been preceded by about fifty versions of Part I and a dozen of Part II. The disproportion accords with a ratio which can also be noted in English versions of Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso. Do translators get tired after the first round, or is damnation more interesting than salvation? That they are perennially drawn to the attempt indicates not only that Faust is there, like Mount Everest, but that earlier efforts to ascend it from abroad have not altogether proved satisfactory. Randall Jarrell appears to have felt this challenge deeply and responded to it during the last phase of his career, which all too prematurely ended eleven years ago. Fragments of his translation have been read aloud and published in periodicals. Now, with a short but important gap filled in by Robert Lowell, it stands complete, so far as it goes.

In a candid and devoted afterword, Mary von Schrader Jarrell explains her late husband’s motivation: “Poets know that when you can’t write your own poetry you translate someone else’s.” Temporarily…

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