Closing the Goethe Gap

Goethe: The Poet and the Age Volume I: The Poetry of Desire (1749–1790)

by Nicholas Boyle
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 807 pp., $37.50

They tell an Irish joke in my part of North London which the Universal Sage might have liked. An English construction boss is interviewing a Dublin laborer for a building-site job. “But do you have the knowledge, my lad,” asks the Brit sententiously. “Can you tell the difference between a joist and a girder?” “Oh to be sure I have the knowledge, your honour,” replies Patrick, quick as a flash, “for wasn’t it Joist that wrote Ulysses, and Girder who wrote Faust?”

One meaning of this little parable is that the English have never really understood “world literature,” and that Johann Wolfgang von Girder (1749–1832) has always been a particular problem. The difficulties began when one after another the English Romantic poets—Coleridge, Shelley, Byron—each began but failed to complete translations of Faust, and give that extraordinary, haunting poetic drama the early currency it attained in the rest of Europe. (Nerval, for example, made his name in France with a translation done at the age of nineteen.) There has always been a Goethe Gap.

As Nicholas Boyle puts it in his excellent explanatory manner: “Faust to a German audience, like Hamlet to an English one, seems a collection of quotations, and no issue of a German quality newspaper is without a handful of Goethe allusions, acknowledged, or unrecognized.” If Coleridge, the author of Christabel and the translator of Schiller’s Wallenstein, had done Faust in 1815, everything might have been very different.

The suggestion came from the publisher John Murray, but Coleridge backed off, as he later explained to Byron, because he did not think the Great British Public were ready for such Teutonic marvels.

I had the open-heartedness to dissuade him from hazarding any money on the translation of the Faust of Goethe, much as I myself admired the work on the whole, & tho’ ready to undertake the translation—from the conviction that the fantastic character of its Witcheries, and the general Tone of its morals & religious opinions would be highly obnoxious to the Taste & Principles of the present righteous English Public.

There have been many fine translations since, especially of the poetry, by David Luke, Christopher Middleton, and Michael Hamburger; and I have been using the splendid, new American twelve-volume Surhkamp edition, which incorporates much of their work.* Yet Goethe’s impact on the English-speaking audience has remained curiously indirect, and mediated through other forms: the early lyrics and ballads—“The Rosebud,” “Gretchen at the Spinning-Wheel,” “The Elf-King”—through the enchanted musical settings by Schubert and Wolf; the idea of the “Faustian pact” popularized through Berlioz, Gounod, and Hollywood; and the slightly smoky image of the Olympian Sage of Weimar championed by Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and T.S. Eliot. (“Goethe’s sayings, in prose or in verse, are merely illustrations of his Wisdom.”) When Milan Kundera announced in 1977 that “a literature aimed solely at national readership has, since Goethe’s time, been an anachronism,” it sounded almost like a reproach.

Even The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), one of…

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