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.

Boyle also shows the place of Goethe’s strangely fascinating theories of botany, geology, and color. (They seem to be a source for modern “holism.”) He observes with characteristic finesse that it was Goethe’s scientific work (the search for an “Ariadne’s thread” in Nature) that paradoxically demonstrated how his religious impulse (after he angrily rejected Christianity) reemerged in the quest for principles of growth, harmony, and unity. “The underlying structure of Goethe’s unwearying argument for a new chromatics [science of colors] is that of a defence of Arianism—the heretical belief that Christ was not divine—against the tyrannical sophistries of the established Trinitarian Christology. Light is tortured, indeed crucified, with the instruments of the scientists who…endeavour to split up the pure simplicity of divinity into seven colours or three persons or some other magical number….”

All this makes for a complex, vivid, and intellectually engaging book, which gives a real sense of Goethe moving from the comfortable bourgeois “centrality” (as Boyle calls it) of German society to its spiritual “margins” and extremes, continually transforming confession into art, subjective into objective, with the peculiar force of genius. His final metamorphosis (in this volume) is to establish, through the long dialogues with Herder, Lessing, and Moritz, the concept of the “Artist!” (it first appears, with that exclamation mark, in Rome) as an independent power in European culture: an idea that has shaped all of us subsequently, quite as much as the idea of “democracy” or “freedom.”

Yet the problem of the biographical narrative remains. At crucial moments the focus slips, and we are left in doubt, puzzlement, or psychological confusion. We do not see, quite simply, how Goethe ticks. Here is his first meeting with Herder, an early master, at Strasbourg on September 4, 1770, when Goethe was twenty-one:

The immediacy to [Herder] therefore of problems that for Goethe were incipient though still hardly conscious, the difference in age and reputation, not to mention Herder’s colossal learning and his scathing contempt for any existing achievement including his own, these must all have given him an appearance of imposing maturity in the eyes of the “sparrow-like” Goethe (Herder’s own comparison) who was anyway inclined to rely on the approval and patronage of older men.

The hurried vagueness of this, both grammatically and biographically, is unsatisfactory. But even more disappointing is the omission of any comment on that wholly unexpected “sparrow-like.” Was young Goethe not an eagle? What was Herder implying? It is suggestive that G.H. Lewes instantly pounces on the point, and makes a virtue of the mystery.

I translate the phrase, leaving the reader to interpret it, for twenty Germans have given twenty different meanings to the word “sparrow-like,” some referring to the chattering of sparrows, others to the boldness of sparrows, others to the curiosity of sparrows, and others to the libertine character of sparrows. Whether Herder meant gay, volatile, forward, careless or amorous, I cannot decide.

And in so doing, the reader is captured, and a brilliant little sketch of Goethe’s chameleon-like temperament is brought alive.

This narrative weakness particularly applies to Goethe’s interior life. Boyle has notable difficulties with isolating the autobiographic content of Poetry and Truth to his, or our, satisfaction. Exactly how far is Werther, or Faust himself, an autobiographic projection? How far is the obsessively repeated sequence of frustrated loves—Gretchen, Friederike Brion, Lotte Kestner, Lili Schönemann Charlotte von Stein, to name but a few—directly exploited in the poetry? And how far can we accept this exploitation?

Boyle is content to dismiss much of Goethe’s romanticizing as merely picturesque. Yet Goethe’s love life is still controversial, and one wonders what an old-fashioned feminist critique would make of this apparent complacency. D.H. Lawrence once wrote of “the perversity of intellectualizing sex, and the utter incapacity for any development of contact with any other human being, which is peculiarly bourgeois and Goethian. Goethe began millions of intimacies, and never got beyond the how-do-you-do stage, then fell off into his own boundless ego” (letter to Huxley, March 27, 1928). Biographically one can feel the force of this, without subscribing to its tub thumping; and one wants an answer to the questions Lawrence raised.

Goethe dedicated an entire Book of Poetry and Truth to his first formative “affair” and rejection, with “Gretchen,” the innkeeper’s daughter at Frankfurt, though he was only fourteen when it supposedly happened. This is surely extraordinary, even as a retrospective and “symbolic” account, and deserves the fullest investigation at both a literary and psychological level. But Boyle hurriedly summarizes the matter in one dismissive sentence.

Whether there really was a definite attachment to some one person at this time, whether, if so, her name really was Gretchen, whether any reliance is to be put on the circumstantial detail of Goethe’s narrative, and in particular whether the discovery of the scandal really did coincide with the coronation of Joseph II on 3 April 1764, are all matters subject to varying degrees of doubt.

Yet one definition of biography would be, precisely, the art of examining varying degrees of human doubt.

Similarly, the beautiful opening in Goethe’s autobiography of the “Sesenheim idyll” with the pastor’s daughter, Friederike Brion (one of the most famous love stories in the whole German Sentimental tradition), is given short, biographic shift. “Goethe’s entire account in Poetry and Truth of that first meeting has been shown to be a fabrication, and much of the subsequent detail is as misleading as one would expect from that most misleading of autobiographies, but perhaps less so than some later speculations about the affair.”

Yet surely here, the biographer needs to ask, what kind of fabrication. The “poetry” is part of the “truth.” The fact, for example, that Goethe fabricates an entire pastoral tale (an alternative, out of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, to the urban cultures of both Frankfurt and Weimar) must throw a strong psychological light on what subsequently happened in Italy when Goethe returned to the radically simplifed life style of Rousseauesque wanderings and studies through the campagna; and also on the final choice of the humble, uneducated Christiane Vulpius (the artificial-flower maker) as his lasting “bedfellow,” companion, and ultimately, wife.

When Boyle assesses the autobiographic and inward emotional content of the Ur Faust (its first version), these difficulties become really quite tortuous for the reader, and biography gives way to rambling critical disquisition.

We are dealing with what we might call a personal impersonality—“myself not myself”—in which the quality experience has of being “mine” has itself become an experience, an experience which is not at all as simple as the image of the mere “individual…indispensable focus” may suggest, but which is, or can in poetry become, subtly and widely differentiated, can also matter “because it is what it is,” and can be treated with an objectivity to which the attainment of purpose or the satisfaction of will is at least as irrelevant as it ever is in a work of art.

The argument then moves on to Hegel on death.

These kinds of slippage are always hard to illustrate fairly, out of context, for a biographer’s point of view, and they should not be overemphasized; even Homer nods. But they do have a certain cumulative impact on the reader’s confidence and attention. We are not always convinced how Goethe felt in an imaginative way, inside his immediate experience of things. In his own phrase, we do not see how he “mirrors” events. And so the inner narrative, the essentially biographical narrative, sometimes falters.

This is particularly true of Goethe’s relations with perhaps the three most important women in his early life: his adoring mother, his tragic sister Cornelia, and his sophisticated muse, Charlotte von Stein, the wife of the chief equerry of the Weimar court. These relationships are historically analyzed, but not consistently dramatized, not shown continuously at work in his life. Within five pages of her arrival (it was a ten-year friendship), Charlotte is already the destructive “Snow Queen,” condemning Goethe to “frozen longing.”

Instead Boyle develops an interesting, if slightly post-Freudian, account of the frustration of Goethe’s “desire” as the primary motor of his creative power. In sum, this is that marriage would lead to a “fulfilment of desire,” and hence to a “termination” of poetic creativity. (Again, a feminist view might be valuable here.) Variations of this formula are repeated frequently, almost ritually, throughout the book, to become the major theme of the subtitle. For example, as Goethe “hastened towards Rome,” we read:

For the literary art that he had practised in those years of waiting and by which he had gained ascendancy over his fellows was an art not of possession but of desire, of a sensuous presence always suffused with reconciliation, reflection, or anticipation: that unfulfilled desire for the always absent object was the origin of his personal, as of his literary magnetism. We have only to think of Faust, Gretchen, Werther, of Mignon, of Götz’s alienation from his age….

Of course this must contain a great deal of truth. It is particularly effective when Boyle traces a sort of Pygmalion complex running right through the poetry, finally flowering in the “astonishing energy and novelty” of the erotic Roman Elegies. Here under the poet’s hand, and in the bed of his mistress “Faustina,” antique marble becomes living flesh, in the famous lines:

Only thus I appreciate marble; reflecting, comparing,
See with an eye that can feel, feel with an hand that can see.

To bring such poetry closer to us is perhaps, in the end, the hardest thing of all; and it is what Nicholas Boyle does best. He leaves us with the most powerful literary impression of the forty-year-old Goethe, professionally reestablished on his own terms in the Weimar administration, his “center” intellectually and emotionally secured with the birth of a son, and the whole energy of his genius turning outward—like some huge searchlight—to sweep the gathering storms of Europe.

So despite all the problems of biographical narrative I have indicated, Goethe emerges as a tremendous achievement. Though in a very different manner, it is a worthy successor to Lewes and the great tradition. It is, in its own way, a magisterial act of translation between cultures: it gives us “the knowledge,” and makes us part of a wider world. It strikes me particularly that with the reintegration of a unified Germany into the heart of contemporary Europe, we have been given a Goethe for our time, as well as his. Forging his own way between Frankfurt (the West), Weimar (the East), and Rome (the blessed South), Goethe’s life and work form a kind of allegory—as Keats said all serious biography should—for our own age. His powers of renewal, of transformation, are made intriguing and exemplary. Awaiting hopefully for Nicholas Boyle’s Volume Two, one might wonder if the true Goethezeit is only now arriving on the building site.

This Issue

October 24, 1991