Born in Frankfurt, Germany, on August 28, 1749, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was tutored extensively in languages as a child. Goethe’s father, a lawyer, prioritized his son’s education, enabling him to engage in many literary and cultural pursuits. Goethe was fascinated by writers such as Homer and Ovid, and committed whole passages of these texts to heart.
Goethe’s love for poetry persisted through his legal training, and he anonymously released Annette, his first collection of poems, in 1770. By the time he completed his studies, he had composed a satirical crime comedy, fallen in love with folk poetry, and developed a deep affinity for Shakespeare, the figure responsible for what he termed his “personal awakening.”
Throughout the 1770s, Goethe practiced a unique, progressive version of law across Germany, while maintaining a side career as an editor, playwright, and poet. He wrote his first widely-read novel, the loosely-autobiographical, joyfully-romantic tragedy, The Sorrows of Young Werther, in 1774, at the age of 24. The book was an instant international success. Napolean Bonaparte called it one of the greatest works of European Literature. It sparked the phenomenon “Werther-Fieber” (“Werther Fever”), in which young men throughout Europe began dressing like the tragic protagonist, and brought Goethe to the court of Carl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, where he would become an important advisor. In later years, Goethe expressed his disgust with the novel and the romantic genre out of which it emerged; however, its effect on Goethe’s career and public image were undeniable.
Goethe met the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller in 1794, beginning a collaborative relationship that would result in a creative success for both artists. The two transformed the Weimar Theatre into a national treasure and their cumulative writings form the heart of German literature, having also been adapted by many composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Goethe wrote extensively during this period, including his Roman Elegies, a seductive 24-poem cycle about his trip to Italy, but it was not until after Schiller’s death in 1805 that he produced his most famous work, Faust, about a duel with the devil in the search for transcendent knowledge. The epic poem-as-play has been adapted into an opera and is still performed throughout the world.
Despite his success and influence as a poet, Goethe expressed that he took no pride in his literary accomplishments, and believed instead that his work as a philosopher and scientist—in particular his theories about color—would be his true legacy. However, his writings—emotive, far-reaching, prophetic, and formal—stimulated generations of Western literature and thought.
A violet in the meadow grew,
Bowed to earth, and hid from view:
It was a dear sweet violet.
Along came a young shepherdess
Free of heart, and light of step,
Came by, came by,
Singing, through the flowers.
Oh! Thought the violet, were I,
If only for a little while,
Nature’s sweetest flower yet,
Till my Beloved picked me, pressed
Me fainting, dying to her breast!
So I might lie,
There, for but an hour!
Alas! Alas! The girl went past:
Unseen the violet in the grass,
Was crushed, poor violet.
It drooped and died, and yet it cried:
‘And though I die,
yet still I die
By her, by her,By her feet passing by.’
My heart was beating, swiftly to horse!
Faster even than thought it was done.
Already evening cradled earth’s course,
And night hung over the mountain cone:
Already the misty oak-tree stood,
A vast giant, towering upwards there,
Where from out the shadowy wood
A hundred dark eyes seemed to stare.
From a bank of cloud the Moon gazed,
Sadly out of the mist about her,
The winds beat soft wings, and strayed
Around my terror-stricken ears:
The night begot a thousand monsters,
But my spirit was joyful, lively:
Deep inside my veins what fire!
Deep inside my heart what heat!
I saw you, and full measure of bliss
Flowed to me from your sweet eyes:
I drew for you my every breath,
My heart was wholly on your side.
Springtime’s rose-red glow, it shone
All about your lovely face, lit
Tenderly for me – dear God!
I had hoped, but not deserved it!
But ah, already at morning light
My heart was crushed in parting:
In your kisses what delight!
In your eyes what suffering!
I went, you stood, looked from above,
And saw me go with tearful gaze:
And yet what joy to be loved!
Dear God, to love what happiness!
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