book cover imageThe Essential Goethe
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
edited and introduced by Matthew Bell.
Princeton University Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 1056 pages, $40.

What other writer in the history of the world, not just Germany, has covered as much territory in his writing as Goethe? This volume, edited by Matthew Bell, professor of German and comparative literature at Kings College London, includes selections from his lyric poetry; plays—Egmont, Iphigenia in Tauris, Torquato Tasso, Faust. A Tragedy; the novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795) which, according to Bell, “influenced … the ‘art novel’ tradition of George Eliot, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce”; the first part of the travel memoir, Italian Journey; and selections from essays on literature andart, and—last but not least for Goethe—on philosophy and science.

Goethe was born in 1749 in Frankfurt am Main into a wealthy family. His father wanted him to go into law, but Goethe did so in foot-dragging fashion and only passed the bare requirements. He then devoted himself to literature and in 1774 published The Sorrows of Young Werther, which Carlyle said “appeared to seize the hearts of men in all quarters of the world and to utter for them the word which they had long been waiting to hear,” and which made Goethe into what Auden called “a Public Celebrity”—perhaps the very first one for literature. This was a very mixed blessing because, as Auden wrote, “during the last twenty years or so of Goethe’s life, a visit to Weimar and an audience with the Great Man was an essential item in the itinerary of any cultivated young man making his Grand Tour of Europe.”

This indulgence in romanticism was something Goethe came to regret even while still caught in its spell. As Auden writes,

An art which pits Nature against Art is bound to be self-defeating. What Kierkegaard called the aesthetic religion which puts all its faith in the mood of the immediate moment leads, first, to the ‘cultivation of one’s hysteria with delight and terror,’ as Baudelaire put it, and, ultimately, to despair, and it brought Goethe to the brink of disaster.

Goethe had an “amazing instinct … for taking the leap in the right direction”; at loose ends, he became a civil servant in Weimar. When court life, at which Goethe excelled, became too confining, he left without warning for Italy. He returned invigorated and, Auden speculates, sexually satisfied, confident of who he was—enough so to flout convention and, beginning in 1789, live with a “commoner,” Christiane Vulpius, who bore him a son. They would not marry until 1806. For the rest of his life Goethe devoted himself to literature and science. He did so in a pell-mell sort of way, beginning many projects that he did not finish until years later, and not finishing some at all.

The Essential Goethe presents the poetry first, as is right because Goethe began as a poet. While serving in the Weimar Court, Goethe, appropriately enough, experienced “courtly love” in the medieval sense; he became devoted to Charlotte von Stein, “seven years his elder and married to the duke’s chief equerry.” He wrote a poem to her which begins:

Why confer on us the piercing vision:
All tomorrow vivid in our gaze?
Not a chance to build on love’s illusions?
Not a glimmer of idyllic days?
Why confer on us, O fate, the feeling
Each can plumb the other’s very heart?

Bell comments tellingly on the poem as a whole:

Beneath its urgent and seemingly formless surface, the poem presents a mind disoriented by the dissonance of appearance and reality and teetering on the brink of disintegration. This sense of an enticing but threatening mystery reappears in other poems of the period, such as the brilliantly haunting ballad “Erlkönig” … or the equally perfect “The Fisherman.” Few poets have distilled the conflicts of reason and desire into more powerful and finely balanced forms.

This was the poetry of his youth when even Weimar could barely keep Goethe sane; later in life he wrote less disturbingly beautiful poems. Included here is “The Diary,” translated by John Frederick Nims, “a richly crafted and ironic narrative of a failed adultery” not published in his lifetime. It reveals the same skill and passion as the earlier poetry—it is better in some ways because of its greater specificity—but there is humor too. The narrator fails in bed with a waitress (his carriage has broken down) and he exclaims at the crucial moment:

Lips linger on her lips; toes reach and meet,
But—something funny happening elsewhere,
What always strutted in the leading role
Now shrank like some beginner. Bless my soul!

The fair maiden falls asleep as the narrator bemoans his impotency but, as he recalls his wedding and honeymoon, things, so to speak, look up. He lets the young woman sleep, however.

This humor in the works of Goethe has often been missed, or at least not often discussed. It is missing in the plays here included (except perhaps, unintended, in the tortured dramatics of Torquato Tasso) until one reaches Faust. Along with the tragedy of Gretchen’s seduction and all that follows is humor aplenty, mostly on the part of Mephistopheles, who, when God offers him Faust to tempt (as once he offered Job), says:

I take up your kind offer, Sire, most gratefully;
The dead are of no interest to me.
I like them fresh and full of life, well fed.
A corpse is very boring; I’m like a cat, you see—
It’s no fun once the mouse is dead.

In the context of the other works in this volume, Faust stands out clearly as Goethe’s greatest achievement—the most complete and beautiful: a dark tragedy shot through with beams of comedy. It is also, perhaps, Goethe’s most personal work because Faust is, like his creator, a man devoted to learning and wisdom who nevertheless seeks something more, who presages the modern movement of the search for the sake of the search. A religious person might wonder why Faust, or Goethe, did not seek God or Nirvana.

After a youthful illness, Goethe had indeed flirted with a form of pietism popular in Germany, an episode that finds its way into the novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in the form of a book within a book. It is the most pleasing part of the novel, telling the story of a rich youth who joins and finances a troupe of actors, and it is alive with vivid characters and events. The novel’s later sections by contrast seem contrived, full of piled-up coincidences and unexplained portentous events.

This relates to the only criticism of this anthology: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship would have been better replaced with the novels The Sorrows of Young Werther and Elective Affinities. Bell’s argument that the Apprenticeship is hard to find is true, but if one is presenting a single indispensable volume of Goethe, his two most famous novels should be part of it.

Along with Faust, the Italian Journey provides the most enjoyable reading in this volume. It is a feast of observations on geography, culture, people, art, weather, and writing itself. The following passage from Goethe’s time in Padua may be of interest:

In connection with this purchase I entered a bookstore, which in Italy has quite a characteristic appearance. All the books stand around unbound, and good company is found there all day long. Those secular clergymen, nobles, and artists who are to any degree connected with literature walk to and fro here. A person may request a book, look something up, read, and converse, as he pleases.

The last two sections, of short essays and aphorisms on science, philosophy, and literature were less enjoyable to this reader, although there are many brilliant passages. Goethe warns scientists to experiment with open minds unconstrained by hypotheses and theories. He correctly shows there is no place for God in science but neglects his philosophical importance. He wonders, in words this world needs to hear, “how can it be that everyone demands open-mindedness while denying others their own way of thinking and expressing themselves?”  

Frank Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.