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Summary Article: Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

German poet, novelist, dramatist, and scholar. He is generally considered the founder of modern German literature, and was the leader of the Romantic Sturm und Drang movement. His masterpiece is the poetic play Faust (1808 and 1832). His other works include the partly autobiographical Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers/The Sorrows of the Young Werther (1774); the classical dramas Iphigenie auf Tauris/Iphigenia in Tauris (1787), Egmont (1788), and Torquato Tasso (1790); the Wilhelm Meister novels (1795–1829); the short novel Die Wahlverwandschaften/Elective Affinities (1809); and scientific treatises including Farbenlehre/Treatise on Colour (1810).

Goethe was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, and studied law. Inspired by Shakespeare, to whose work he was introduced by the critic J G von Herder, he wrote the play Götz von Berlichingen (1773), heralding the Sturm und Drang movement. The inspiration for Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers came from an unhappy love affair. He took part in public life at the court of Duke Charles Augustus in Weimar 1775–86, and pursued his interests in scientific research. A year and a half spent in Italy 1786–88 was a period of great development for Goethe, when he outgrew the Sturm und Drang movement and worked towards the Greek ideal of calm and harmony.

The publication of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre/Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795–96) established Goethe's enduring fame throughout Europe. Faust, written in the intervals between other work, over a period of more than 50 years, reflects the evolution of Goethe's own thinking and character, from youth to age. The two parts of the work are as dissimilar as the influences under which they were written, the first being romantic, the second classical in form and spirit.

Goethe was educated privately and studied at Leipzig and Strasbourg, where he met Herder who introduced him to Shakespeare, the old German epics, and folk song. In 1771 Goethe qualified as a lawyer and returned to Frankfurt. The influences he had experienced in Strasbourg led him to join the rebellion against the sterile classicism which pervaded much of contemporary German literature, and he produced his Shakespearean-type drama about a medieval knight Götz von Berlichingen. In 1772 he spent the summer at Wetzlar with Georg Christian Kestner and his fiancée Charlotte Buff, with whom Goethe fell in love. The situation was honourably sustained by all three, and provided the material for his next work.

In 1775 Goethe accepted an invitation from Duke Charles Augustus to his court in Weimar. He was created Geheimrat (privy councillor), then president of the chamber of finance, and was ennobled 1782. His love for Charlotte von Stein, which lasted ten years, dates from 1776. During the early years at Weimar, Goethe occupied his time with court duties and scientific research, in which he combined keen observation and poetic intuition. He discovered the intermaxillary bone in the human jaw (thus anticipating Charles Darwin's link between humans and apes); and argued that the skull was a modification of the spine, and that all the parts of a plant are modifications of the leaf. In physics, he argued against Isaac Newton's theory of light. He also devoted much time to the study of painting.

In Italy from 1786, he spent most of his time in Rome and Naples. During this period he changed his intellectual standpoint, leaving behind the Sturm und Drang phase. He recast and published Iphigenie, in which the rules of classical poetry, cast aside with jubilant satisfaction in his earlier writings, were closely observed.

On returning to Weimar 1788, he relinquished many of his court offices to devote himself to writing and, from 1791, to his new role as director of the Weimar court theatre. He fell in love with Christiane Vulpius, who inspired his Römische Elegien 1788. They were married 1806, a son having been born 1789. In 1794 Goethe and Schiller, who had been acquaintances and, in some degree, rivals, began a close friendship which lasted until Schiller's death. The two poets launched a magazine, Die Horen, to try to raise the standard of taste in art and literature.

In his rambling and discursive romance Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Goethe describes the career of a young German artist at the beginning of the 19th century. The weak-willed hero attains self-control and a sense of duty. In Faust, a work of unique biographical interest, Faust, like Goethe, struggles for perfection, often yields to evil, but never comes to love it or to lose his belief in the right and good. His failure in the quest for absolute knowledge leads him to despair, from which he is rescued only by a life of useful labour.


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von




Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

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