A heart with testicles

D.J. Enright

  • Goethe: The Poet and the Age. Vol. I: The Poetry of Desire, 1749-1790 by Nicholas Boyle
    Oxford, 827 pp, £25.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 19 815866 1

‘Not to know Goethe,’ A.W. Schlegel wrote poetically, ‘is to be a Goth.’ Nicholas Boyle begins the preface to Volume One of his biography of the great man by stating, altogether correctly alas, that more must be known, ‘or at any rate there must be more to know’, about him than about almost any other human being. A shilling life could never have given you all the facts about Goethe. (Though there must have been a time when G.H. Lewes’s Life of 1855 wouldn’t have cost much more.) On the other hand, £25 (though a distinctly modest price for a book of this size) may seem a bit steep for half of the facts.

The amount of documentation available is indeed fantastic: to go no further, accounts of conversations with him, excluding Eckermann’s, run to some four thousand printed pages, by Boyle’s estimate, some twelve thousand letters from him are extant and some twenty thousand to him. Practically everyone who met him – and a lot of people did meet him – recorded their impressions. It may be that one effect of this mass of secondary material has been to give people, especially the British, the impression of knowing Goethe’s work, and being bored by it, without actually having read it. In a curious sentence, the second of the preface, Boyle says: ‘As the age of paper passes, so he comes to seem its supreme product.’ As the age of paper passes? There seems to be more paper around than ever before. But perhaps Boyle is preparing us for some imminent shortage of trees?

‘But of course what matters now is the writing.’ What always mattered most was the writing. Boyle’s principal aim is to ‘make Goethe accessible, whether to the general reader, to the student, or to the scholar’: one man’s access is another man’s stone wall, and hence this is a trickier ambition than it may sound. Goethe’s works are to be ‘presented against their biographical, social-historical and philosophical background’. At this point the general reader is likely to feel misgivings: he has been here before. That writers, like anyone else, live and move in an ‘age’ is undeniable; equally undeniable, they are in some sense ‘of’ their age. But the great thing about writers is that, in another sense, their age doesn’t count for much, or counts in ways that are barely ponderable; there is of course an ‘Age of Shakespeare’, yet, or so the indications are, Shakespeare ‘was not of an age, but for all time’ (an observation made by someone living in Shakespeare’s age). The trouble with background studies is that they tend, or more than tend, to obscure the foreground. It is the writer – but perhaps I speak only for the general reader, an entity often thought as rare and shy as the Loch Ness monster – it is the writer we want to know about. An interest in the writing entails a natural curiosity, or a contingent interest, concerning the main events of the writer’s life; and it is from the writing that we gain much of what we need to know about the historical and intellectual background. However, this is a notion that scholars are inclined to dismiss as laxly belletristic or ignominiously self-sparing: by their nature they are drawn towards the ideal of ‘completeness’. ‘It is limitation,’ Goethe said (even Goethe!), ‘that makes the poet, the artist, the man.’ He is also reported as saying that for him the main thing was always to make use of experience, and he never invented ‘out of the air’: ‘I have always regarded the world as a greater genius than myself.’ The world being rather too large for us to get our hands around, this suggests that Goethe is the best background to Goethe, his work to his world; literary works are themselves worlds.

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