• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 the first great European best sellers, which set off a fashionable chain of suicides (according to Gautier) in most Continental capitals, merely left English eyebrows raised. William Godwin, the philosopher, was ridiculed for comparing his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist, to Werther. The book is now probably best known through Thomas Mann’s wry, fictional retrospective, Lotte in Weimar (1939). Everyone recalls that Werther wore a blue topcoat and yellow waistcoat (“buff,” corrects Boyle), and shot himself for unrequited love in a thoroughly Germanic manner. But few know how the “sage” Goethe invented him out of his own Sturm und Drang, or avoided the same fate himself; though it is explained at length in his great, imaginative autobiography, Poetry and Truth, perhaps the most delightful, accessible, and unread work he ever produced.

By contrast, the English biographers have served Goethe most effectively. G.H. Lewes—the intrepid husband of George Eliot—wrote the definitive nineteenth-century Life in 1855, a work so trenchant, humorous, and well-constructed that it delights. “The favorite epithet of the day was ‘infinite’: Genius drank infinitely, loved infinitely, and swallowed infinite sausages.” Boyle himself generously remarked in 1987 that “despite its antiquity,” this was still the “classic” biography in the English manner. Studies by Barker Fairley (1947) and T.J. Reed (1984) have since dominated the field, with their imaginative reinterpretations. (“His work,” wrote Reed, “is a happy constellation, luminous against the dark.”)

Goethe himself, while preparing Poetry and Truth, set out the biographical possibilities thoughtfully.

For the chief goal of biography appears to be this: to present the subject in his temporal circumstances, to show how these both hinder and help him, how he uses them to construct his view of man and the world; and how he, providing he is an artist, poet, or author, mirrors them again for others.

So Dr. Nicholas Boyle, Fellow and Tutor of Magdelene College, Cambridge, and University Lecturer in German, who has already published a critical study of Faust (Part I) (1987), but no previous biographical work, inherits both a great tradition and what is by now a formidable challenge. He is faced by 138 volumes of the Collected Works and literally thousands of letters, memoirs, and commentaries (1,800 letters alone to Goethe’s Weimar muse, Charlotte von Stein). These make the sources for, say, Napoleon or Byron look miniature. Selection, perspective, and narrative coherence are crucial; and holding his readers.

Who are these? Boyle has set out to address not simply the specialist, but like Lewes, “the reader…unacquainted with the German language or its literature, or anything but the outlines of the nation’s political development.” He aims boldly yet modestly to provide “enough information to set Goethe’s life in the context of his age, and his poetry in the context of his life.” So this is much as Goethe wanted. But he will also argue against the received and convenient academic idea of a Goethezeit: “there never was such a thing as the ‘Age of Goethe.’ ” Instead we are to see Goethe afresh, an original and independent force—“limited and even peculiar, no doubt, as well all are, but grand and deep and rich as none of us is.” He is to be mobile, responsive, unexpected, making his own life both literally and “symbolically,” in a rapid cultural tide that shifts perilously between Enlightenment, Sentiment, and Revolution. And this, spectacularly, is what we get.

The first volume (1749–1790) falls broadly into three phases: the Werther period of adolescent upheaval; the Weimar period of administrative retreat; and the Italian period of imaginative escape—which forms a fine orchestral movement. It is executed on a vast scale (660 pages of text, maybe a third of a million words), with exacting scholarship (90 pages of references), and this has already earned the laurel of “definitive for the twentieth century.” But for a biography it is also dangerously long, and this must raise some important questions about the form.

It becomes quickly evident that while Goethe is brilliant as a historical study, as a provider of “information and context,” it is weak as a piece of sustained biographical narrative. It is too long, not because of its page count (we have returned to an age of dazzling three-deckers, like Michael Holroyd’s Shaw), but because it sometimes lacks interior drive and storytelling power. This is not a question of redundancy and repetition (of which there is a great deal, since “works” appear both chronologically in the “life,” and separately in analytical sections); or of daunting, unedited, page-long paragraphs. It is a question of imaginative holding power. The reader is informed, but not always carried; we learn so much about Goethe, but we do not entirely live in him. Possibly this does not matter very much; but with such a distinguished work, and in such a Golden Age of biography, the issue should be raised.

Boyle’s sense of period and detail is superb. Goethe’s native city of Frankfurt (its commercial culture, its geography, its municipal ambitions, even its fourteen smells) is contrasted with the aristocratic, bureaucratic oasis of Weimar, and evoked with sparkling precision and authority. Goethe emerges out of his surroundings with Balzacian conviction. As a Frankfurt teenager, Goethe, the spoiled son of a nouveau-riche lawyer (who purchased a coat of arms boasting golden lyres), has “three separate sets of clothes” laid out for his selection each morning. At Weimar the Dowager Duchess rides to meet him for Sunday dinner in a glass carriage with her crinolines protruding from the windows on either side. At Eisenach, while negotiating complex financial reforms, “Goethe spent his spare time closeted with the skull of an elephant,” and inspecting human embryos. In Italy, using Goethe’s Italian Journey, Boyle produces a fascinating travelogue, with the most lively and revealing pictorial effects:

On the beach Goethe found pebbles of blue and green glass, which he felt could date only from antiquity, mingling now indistinguishably in the shingle with the natural beauty of jasper and porphyry, starfish, urchins, and seaweed….

We eat crabs and eels and they do us no harm—neither will these delicate little creatures, and they may be nutritious,” said Goethe in reply to Tischbein’s warnings, drinking off a cloudy and densely-populated glass of water, and ordering another, drawn from the bottom of the cistern, so he could study the fauna more closely.

At the same time, the pattern of Goethe’s shifting intellectual background is reconstructed with masterful clarity. There is a lucid opening chapter on the “official” Germanic world view, seen through Leibniz’s philosophy of “monadic” and isolated forces; and this is strikingly contrasted with the very different, constructive individualism represented by the English pragmatism of Robinson Crusoe.

Boyle carefully observes, and freshly assesses, the pull between the narrow, stratified culture of Weimar, and the classical liberties of Italy, to which Goethe fled one October dawn in 1786. “Goethe needed Germany to drive him mad, he needed its frustrations and deprivations, its wayward and uncomprehending public, as he needed ‘the seed of madness lying in every parting,’ and especially in his parting from Rome.” The biography critically reinterprets the impact of such feelings on Goethe’s writing, exploding diversely as historical dramas, epistolatory novel, and lyric poems (“fragments of a great confession”). Much of this interpretation will be new to readers, and there is in Boyle’s biography a continual sense of discovery and helpful placing:

For Goethe himself, therefore, the versified Iphigenia in Tauris is a resolution of the conflict between his Frankfurt and his Weimar loyalties, a courtly achievement he has built out of Storm and Stress materials, an apparently classical, “whole,” and “present” work of art, of the kind which he believes to await him in Rome, but which he has none the less constructed from the modern themes of interiority and longing for an absent good—just as Palladio conjured up a classical ideal out of the villas and town-houses, monasteries and churches that his modern patrons required him to build.

  1. *

    Goethe’s Collected Works, twelve volumes (Boston and New York: Suhrkamp, 1983–1989).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print