Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; drawing by David Levine

This excellent compilation happens to be dedicated to me, but I am not going to allow this honor to stop me from log-rolling.

Many authors, composers, and painters have become internationally famous during their lifetimes, but Goethe is the only one I can think of who became, and for the last twenty-five years of his life remained, an international tourist attraction. For anyone making a European tour, male or female, old or young, German, French, Russian, English, or American, “visiting” Goethe was as essential an item on their itinerary as “doing” Florence or Venice.

This seems all the odder when one remembers that, to most of his visitors, he was the author of a single book, The Sorrows of Werther, written when he was a young man. Even inside Germany, only a few of his later writings, Hermann and Dorothea, Faust Part I, had enjoyed great success: some of his best works, The Roman Elegies and the West-Oestliche Divan for example, were read by few and liked by even fewer, and when the Second Part of Faust was published post-humously, a reviewer said: “Just as this book has physically appeared after the end of Goethe’s bodily life, so also its intellectual content has survived his genius.”

How and why Goethe should have acquired the reputation, among people who knew so little about him, for being a sage and public oracle is to me a mystery, and it is not the only one. What I find really surprising about Goethe’s character is, not that he should have treated some of his visitors with icy formality, that some who arrived, expecting to receive pearls of wisdom, came away with nothing better than an Umph! or a Do you really think so?, but that Goethe should have consented to see them at all. Now and again a stupid visitor might be accidentally entertaining, like the Englishman who, having misread das ächzende Kind (the sobbing child) as das achtzehnte Kind (the eighteenth child) told Goethe he was surprised “that the father in the Erlkönig ballad was described as being so excessively concerned about the boy, when after all he had been blessed with so large a family”; but how many of them must have been plain crashing bores.

HOW ON EARTH did Goethe stand it, year after year? Perhaps a passage from Dichtung und Wahrheit, which Messrs. Luke and Pick quote in their Introduction, offers a partial explanation:

When I was alone I would, in imagination, summon some person of my acquaintance into my presence. I would request him to be seated, and discuss with him the subject that I happened to have in mind. He would then occasionally reply or express his agreement or disagreement by the usual gestures…. The strange thing was that the persons whom I selected for this purpose were never those of my closer acquaintance, but others whom I hardly ever saw, indeed some who lived in an entirely different part of the world and with whom I had only fleeting contact. But usually they were persons of a receptive rather than productive nature, who were prepared to listen quietly, with interest, and with a mind free of prejudice, to things which lay within their scope; although occasionally, for these dialectical exercises, I would summon natures more given to contradiction.

It is clear from this confession that, for Goethe, conversation meant a monologue. What he did with an imaginary audience he could do equally well with a real one. Given a bottle of wine and an attentive audience, he would start to hold forth on whatever was preoccupying his mind, less for the sake of his listeners than for his own. With a real audience, there is always the danger, of course, that the questions or objections they raise may not be those the monologist would have invented for them, but it would seem that in practice, Goethe was seldom interrupted. It is refreshing, therefore, to discover that, on one occasion at least, not only did someone flatly contradict him, but also Goethe had the grace to admit, with an effort, to be sure, that he was wrong:

…on one occasion, at the Duke of Weimar’s dinner-table, he delivered a long lecture on the science of artillery and in particular on the most effective positioning of batteries…I said: “My dear Herr Legationsrat! with all due respect, may I take the liberty of replying to you with Pomeranian frankness? In our country there is an old proverb: Cobbler, stick to your last! When you talk about the theater and literature and many other learned or artistic matters, we are all delighted to listen to you…. But it is quite another matter when you begin talking about gunnery and even trying to instruct us officers in it; for if you will excuse my saying so, this is something about which you know absolutely nothing”…Goethe at first turned quite red in the face at my words, whether with anger or with embarrassment I do not know…but he soon regained his full presence of mind and said with a laugh: “Well, you gentlemen from Pomerania certainly believe in frankness, one might almost say in rudeness, as I have just heard for myself all too clearly. But let’s not quarrel about it, my dear Lieutenant! You have just taught me a very downright lesson, and I shall take good care not to talk about gunnery in your presence again or try to teach officers their own business.” So saying, he shook me very cordially by the hand, and we remained the best of friends; indeed, it even seemed to me that Goethe now sought my company still more than he had previously done.

(A Prussian Artillery-officer)

What happens when two monologists meet? After his meeting with Madame de Staël, Goethe reported to his friends:


“It was an interesting hour. I was unable to get a word in; she talks well, but at length, at great length.”—Meanwhile a circle of ladies demanded to know what impression our Apollo had made on his visitor. She too confessed that she had failed to get in a word. “But” (she is said to have remarked with a sigh) “when anyone talks so well, it is a pleasure to listen to him.”

(Amalie von Helvig)

AS A CONVERSATIONALIST, Goethe was not, like Sydney Smith or Oscar Wilde, a maker of witty epigrams. “How dare a man,” he once remarked, “have a sense of humor when he considers his immense burden of responsibilities towards himself and others. However,” he went on to say, “I have no wish to pass censure on the humorists. After all, does one have to have a conscience? Who says so?” Moreover, there is good evidence that, when he felt in the mood, he could make people laugh. The historian Heinrich Luden reproduces from memory an anecdote as told by Goethe about an encounter with an eccentric old Austrian general: It is unlikely that he improved upon Goethe’s actual performance, yet what he gives us is extremely funny.

Nor was Goethe, like Dr. Johnson, a master of the lapidary statement. Neither in his recorded conversation nor his written works will one find an isolated memorable sentence like—“Sunday should be different from other days: people may walk but not throw stones at birds.” (In his prose, that is: many of his verse epigrams are concise enough.)

One might say that Goethe, like Henry James—who also, curiously enough, in later life dictated his literary work—“talked like a book, only one must add, “like a good book.” Goethe’s spoken words, that is to say, while not sounding in the least artificial and stilted, have certain characteristics which we normally expect to find in words written to be read. The thought unit is the paragraph rather than the sentence; the sentences issue from his lips without hesitation, each syntactically perfect, and succeeding each other in a logical order. Goethe is one of the very few persons in history whose talk one wishes could have been tape-recorded rather than reproduced from memory by others.

Of course, the records we possess cannot represent the full range of his conversation. The only person in Goethe’s life who was both his friend and his intellectual equal was Schiller and, though we have their correspondence, we know nothing about how they actually talked to each other when they were alone together. Nor do we know how Goethe talked to his wife, Christiane, when they were alone together. Most of the accounts we have were written by people with whom, however well he may have liked them personally, Goethe must have been conscious of his intellectual superiority, aware that, if he were to tell them exactly what he thought on many subjects, they would find him unintelligible or shocking.

Among the posthumously published poems of Goethe, there are some upon sexual and religious themes of a startling frankness (plug: several of these may be found in the Penguin volume of Goethe’s Poems, selected and edited by David Luke) and we know that he sometimes talked in a similar vein. Those who heard him on such occasions kept the experience to themselves, either because they were genuinely shocked or, which is more likely, because they belonged to a civilized generation which still recognized the difference, today almost wholly ignored, between what may be said in public and what should only be said in private. Conversations and Encounters includes a description of one occasion when Goethe set out to be épatant. The French-speaking Swiss, Soret, had suggested to Goethe that, if he had been born an Englishman, he would have been a political Liberal.


“What do you take me for?” retorted Goethe, assuming the paradoxical and ironical tone of his Mephistopheles, and thus giving a fresh turn to the conversation, no doubt in order to avoid political discussion, which he dislikes. “If I had been born an Englishman—which thank God I was not! I should have been a millionaire duke or rather a bishop with an income of thirty thousand pounds a year.”

“Excellent!” I replied, “but supposing you had chanced to draw an unlucky number instead of the winning one? There are a great many unlucky numbers.”

“My dear fellow,” replied Goethe, “not all of us are born for the winning draw. Do you really think I should have committed the sottise of drawing unlucky?…I should have lied and dissembled so hard and so long, both in verse and in prose, that my thirty thousand a year would have been a certainty. One must get to the top if one is not to be crushed, and at the height of one’s greatness one must bear well in mind that the mob is a collection of fools and imbeciles. One would only be increasing their number if one could not turn to one’s own advantage the abuses which have been established thanks to their folly, and from which others would profit if we ourselves did not.

Messrs. Luke and Pick, while doing justice to the obvious sources, like Riemer and Eckermann—I am very glad to see that, in their introduction, they have the courage to stand up for the Conversations which it is now the fashion to decry—have unearthed many items which will be unfamiliar to most readers.

I myself was particularly interested by the extract from Count Alexander Stroganoff’s diary. Stroganoff came prepared to dislike Goethe heartily, for he detested circles of literary adorers and had not enjoyed Goethe’s writings very much, yet, in the end, he was completely won over by Goethe the man.

Again, I knew that Goethe hated men who wore spectacles, but I never knew the reason before.

I always feel that strangers who wear them are treating me as an object to be carefully inspected, that their armed gaze is piercing the most secret recesses of my mind and searching my old face for its tiniest wrinkle. But in trying to get to know me in this way they are destroying all just equality between us by preventing me from getting to know them in return.

What would poor Goethe have suffered if sun-glasses had been invented in his day?

Goethe’s well-known dislike of dogs is in itself a fact of no great significance, except in so far as it points to an area of relative unconcern, surprising in a man with such an extraordinarily wide range of interests. Goethe was passionately interested in human beings, weather, stones, and vegetables, but, in the animal kingdom, although he made one important anatomical discovery, he showed, for Goethe, little curiosity. The reason he gave Riemer for this is rather odd: animals have no conversation.

Animals only interested him as more or less close organizational approximations to man, provisional forerunners of the eventually manifest lord of creation. He did not despise them, indeed he even studied them, but chiefly he pitied them as masked and muffled creatures unable to express their feelings intelligibly and appropriately.

GOETHE ONCE SAID that the only time in his life when he had been really happy was the months he spent in Rome. He may have been exaggerating, but it is certainly true that his sojourn in Italy was the only time in his grown-up life when he was a completely free man, with no obligation to do anything or see anyone unless he chose. In Weimar, whether as a Civil Servant, a theater intendant, or a social lion, he had many irksome obligations.

My real happiness lay in my poetic meditations and creations. But these were very much disturbed and limited and hindered by my worldly position. If I had been able to withdraw more from my involvement in public affairs and business, and to live a more solitary life, I should have been happier and could have done much more as a writer.

His worldly position, however, was of his own choosing and, had he decided to withdraw into a more solitary life, nobody would have stopped him.

My own feeling is that Goethe probably suffered much more from melancholia than he was willing to admit to others, either in his conversation or his writings, and, for that reason, was afraid of being alone. Further, for all his dislike of fanaticism in party politics, in his own way Goethe, too, believed that a writer should be “committed,” that a purely literary life was inadequate for a human being, since every man is, in the Greek sense of the words, “a political animal,” with social responsibilities that he cannot ignore without stunting his nature.

Goethe was an extremely complicated character and, in most Englishmen and Americans at least, he arouses mixed feelings. Sometimes one feels that he is a pompous old bore, sometimes that he is a dishonest old hypocrite or, as Byron said, “an old fox who won’t leave his hole, and preaches a fine sermon from inside it.” Yet, grumble as one may, one is forced in the end to admit that he was a great poet and a great man. Moreover, when I read the following anecdote:

Goethe suddenly got out of the carriage to examine a stone, and I heard him say: “Well, well! how did you get here?—a question which he repeated….

I find myself exclaiming, not “Great Mr. G!” but “Dear Mr. G!”

This Issue

February 9, 1967