Goethe: The Poet and the Age. Vol. I: The Poetry of Desire, 1749-1790 
by Nicholas Boyle.
Oxford, 827 pp., £25, May 1991, 0 19 815866 1
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‘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.

Boyle seems to acknowledge as much in his opening chapter: ‘There never was such a thing as the “Age of Goethe”,’ and it is in the nature of Goethe’s achievement, his response to what was happening around him, ‘that the sense and the unity belong to him, not to the several ages in which he lived’; and he was not, with minor reservations, ‘a model which a whole generation chose to imitate’, nor was he ever ‘the most typical figure of a particular literary movement’. In 1798 he wrote, ‘After all, the artist too is a part of the public, he too has been formed amid the same times and events’: but, as Boyle remarks apropos of Goethe’s relations with his native city of Frankfurt, his poetic talent thrived ‘in sympathetic opposition to the national consciousness, in detachment and dependence’.

Even so, interesting though it is in itself as an informed piece of socio-intellectual history, much of this chapter brings back our fears. It looks as if Boyle’s book will resemble a pill in reverse: with bitter thicknesses of information encasing something savoury, sweetness and light maybe, which may even do us good. The chapter’s high point is this: ‘Goethe was almost alone among literary men of his age in owing nothing – through his family, financially or socially – to the Church, and practically nothing to the university, and this is one of the factors that detach him most decisively from the official tradition of German culture.’ A common view sees him as less an Establishment figure than the Establishment itself personified.

On the question of early influences, Boyle faces the same dilemma: which should prevail, comprehensiveness or readability? The word ‘selective’ has fallen into disrepute. An example is J.H. Merck, editor of the twice-weekly journal of reviews, the Frankfurter Gelehrte Anzeigen, for which Goethe (then 23) wrote extensively in 1772, and his circle. G.H. Lewes gives a relaxed and sparing account in two pages; but since Goethe described Merck as a man ‘who had the greatest influence on my life’, Boyle has some justification for going into far greater detail. Though the sheer weight of it presses on the eyelids, he does use his material well: as when quoting Caroline Flachsland’s letter to her fiancé, Herder (1772): ‘Since he [Goethe] lacked all virtues, he said he intended to go in for talents instead. Now there’s a mind that might turn into something.’ Herder wasn’t too pleased by Goethe’s attentions to his future wife. When Lotte Buff, with whom Goethe had fallen in love, married her fiancé, his friend Kestner, the couple must have been discomfited by Goethe’s concern to provide Lotte with material for her nightwear; to make sure he didn’t turn up for the wedding, they brought the date forward by a week. They would be embarrassed far more acutely when in the following year The Sorrows of Young Werther burst on the scene with its painfully obvious parallels, even to the name ‘Lotte’. The narrative was, as Lewes put it, ‘in many respects too close to reality not to be very offensive in its deviations from reality’.

In connection with Goethe’s half-affairs, velleities and frustrations, Boyle quotes a pithy generalisation of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s in 1777: ‘If another and later species comes to reconstruct the human being from the evidence of our sentimental writings they will conclude it to have been a heart with testicles.’ What Goethe was afraid of, Boyle says, was that desire fulfilled would put an end to poetry; if not the spur, then non-consummation was a requisite. At all events, Goethe was as adept at avoiding marriage as Kafka, a man he resembles in no other respect. Lili Schönemann was ‘completely available and very suitable. She was not absent, distant, playing a game, or married or engaged to someone else’; and towards the end of his life Goethe told Eckermann that Lili was the first woman he deeply and truly loved, and also the last: yet ‘I lost her.’ He married Christiane Vulpius (oddly, Boyle prefers ‘Christiana’, as a guide to pronunciation) only in 1806, when he was 57, 18 years after they had begun to live together, and had had five children together (all but one miscarrying or dying soon after birth); and then possibly in gratitude for her courage during the disorder following the battle of Jena.

When Boyle escapes from the background, and when he forgets the scholarly division of his intended audience, his dealings with individual works can be quite alluring. Perhaps to describe Werther as ‘still a story of and for our own time’ is stretching enthusiasm a bit. What will be left to say of Faust? The book’s success was immediate, phenomenal, European. And Mary Shelley was astute in making it, with its ‘lofty sentiments’, the favourite reading of her sad monster: an excess of feeling would appeal to a creature officially permitted to have no feeling. But Werther, it seems to me, is of its age, the Age of Sentimentalism, rather more so than the age itself; certainly more so than Elective Affinities, a more complex and ‘modern’ study of love, duty and guilt. Besides maturity’s colder gaze, there is some truth in Goethe’s later comment, to Benjamin Constant, that what made the work dangerous was that ‘it portrayed weakness as if it were strength,’ that what was meant as a warning against elements in the age was taken as condonation if not glorification.

However, Boyle corrects the old view, encouraged by the poet himself, that Goethe ‘avoided’ tragedy. The best rebuttal would be along the lines of Goethe’s potent utterance in another context: ‘I a heathen? Well, after all, I had Gretchen executed and Ottilie starve to death; isn’t that Christian enough for these people?’ Boyle’s overvaluation of Werther goes with an undervaluation of Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission, which has more to offer, I would venture, than he allows; the fact that it is not a ‘realistic novel’ is of no great consequence. Even so, he gives a dutiful and detailed résumé of the work, a process which inevitably makes it sound ludicrous. What he says, in concluding his discussion of Werther, about Goethe’s subsequent literary career deserves to be singled out: ‘The new subject-matter – his own life – will never be available to him simply as material but always in the only half-objectified form of “myself not myself”.’

In November 1775 Goethe joined the court of Carl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, and became the youngest of the three Privy Councillors; he was to stay there until his death in 1832. Why he remained has been a subject of debate. It was not the satisfaction of being a big fish in a small pond, but rather the convenience, on balance, of being a respected presence in a modest but representative princely household. He got on well with the young Duke and, though their relations were not those between Falstaff and Prince Hal, they roistered together. He worked conscientiously for the duchy; and inwardly, if not always visibly, for himself. Possibly, as Boyle proposes, he was in part motivated by the revulsion against the literary marketplace that many authors, including the most successful, experience at times. In Weimar he might achieve an equipoise between the practical and public life and the artistic and private; neither, by itself, was sufficient for this most active of men.

Public duties included deliberations, from 1777 onwards, regarding the re-opening of a silver mine and the issuing of shares to finance it; the seam wasn’t reached till 15 years later, and proved to be of inferior quality; a flood overtook the mine at one stage, and it finally closed in 1812. There could be some connection with the project for reclaiming land from the sea late in Faust, Part Two. At the apex of his administrative career Goethe was both War Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer; in the latter capacity he persuaded the Duke to agree to reductions in the armed forces, thus becoming, Boyle notes, ‘one of the few defence ministers who have voluntarily halved their own budget’. However stuffy we might reckon court life to have been, and however wasteful of Goethe’s time, it remains true that Carl August, jovial rather than cultured, must be judged one of the most successful patrons in the history of the arts.

Then there was Frau von Stein, wife of the Chief Equerry, who had been warned that he was handsome, both stormy and gentle, and ‘for the heart of a woman the most dangerous man’. Charlotte von Stein was seven years his senior, and had had seven children, four of whom died in infancy. Despite Goethe’s ‘tempestuous’ wooing of her, their relationship, which lasted 12 years, remained platonic. Baron von Stein was only intellectually cuckolded, which wouldn’t worry him – rather the reverse, for there was much to be said for this sort of cavaliere-servente. In other respects, the relationship was intimate and fervid; they read together, each taught the other, she smartened him up and smoothed his rough edges, she saw all his writing, he tutored her youngest son. They were inseparable, except at nights. It wasn’t physical love (though almost every other kind) that Frau von Stein wanted: but for Goethe it couldn’t have been so clear-cut. Once again, however, he had latched on to a woman who was sexually unavailable. Boyle sums up shrewdly: ‘He needed the impossible union, for fear of the possible.’ Much later, in his 70th year, Carl August would remark that Goethe ‘always read too much into women’ and ‘loved his own ideas in them and never really felt grand passion’. All the same, he would have felt something.

1786 was a momentous year. In early September Goethe left secretly for Italy, sending Carl August a farewell note en route: ‘I am going in order to correct all kinds of defects and complete all kinds of omissions; may the health-giving spirit of the world stand by me and assist!’ It was a flight towards a more creative and ‘natural’ life – and, in all probability, consciously or not, away from a platonic love or ‘unnatural liaison’. The Italian episode is related here in somewhat stifling detail (this German tourist didn’t waste his time), and for once it is a relief and a decent pleasure to hear of our subject’s non-artistic activities: namely the business-like yet warm affair with a young Roman widow, ‘Faustina’, the first sexual encounter of his (Boyle notes) for which there is documentary evidence, and in large part the inspiration for the Roman Elegies. In Rome, one of the Elegies says, ‘I follow advice, and leaf through the works of the ancients with a busy hand ... But at nights Amor keeps me busy with other things’; in these rich poems body and soul come together, the intellectual ‘defects’ remedied and the physical ‘omissions’ supplied, under the auspices of a benign humour, verging on self-satisfaction but just saved by intimations of mortality: ‘Therefore rejoice, living man, in the place that is warm with your loving:/Cold on your shuddering foot Lethe’s dread water will lap’ (David Luke’s translation).

After two years’ absence, and after reimbursing Faustina quite generously, Goethe returned – or was recalled – to Weimar, to a lighter workload, with no specific responsibilities, and an increased stipend. In Frau von Stein’s eyes his absence had been an infidelity, and worse was to follow. He promptly set up house with Christiane Vulpius: one of the Roman Elegies begins by exhorting the beloved not to have any regrets that she surrendered herself to him so swiftly. Christiane was 23 years old (to his 39), ‘a spirited, energetic, practical, and straightforward character’, educated ‘like most women of her time, only to a primary level ... but she was not illiterate.’ Boyle’s description is an advance on earlier and scornful reports, representing her as an illiterate peasant or factory worker; the ‘factory’ was an establishment where artificial flowers were made out of silk remnants. She was certainly no intellectual, but this liaison, whatever the court thought about it and however sadly it put Frau von Stein’s platonic nose out of joint, was a natural one. There was now a head on ‘the damned second pillow’. This rueful phrase, incidentally, was attributed to Goethe in a sketch made by the German painter Tischbein, showing the poet pushing aside one of the pillows on his double bed in Rome.

Goethe informed Eckermann, his leading Boswell, that he was not given to plucking poems out of the air: they were all ‘occasional’, rooted in reality. The play Torquato Tasso, completed in 1788, substitutes the court of Ferrara (where Duke Alfonso is proud to have the resident poet ‘as my servant’, but cannot approve when he avoids the circle of his friends) for that of Weimar, in a version of ‘but for the grace of God’ there Goethe might have gone, and Weimar might have been. Tasso’s final solecism is to fall into the astonished arms of the Duke’s sister – a ‘monstrous act’, even more untoward than laying hands on Frau von Stein. Later, in Poetry and Truth, Goethe quoted an assortment of popular sayings on the subject of court life, among them being ‘This trouble at the court you catch,/That where you itch, you must not scratch’ (John Oxenford’s translation). Only one consolation remains to Tasso: whereas other men fall silent in their anguish, ‘a god gave me the gift to tell how I suffer’ – a famous formulation of what has become a truism of the trade. No doubt it would be coarse to suggest that what he lacked was a Faustina or a Christiane. Goethe was later to claim that his depiction of the court and of life and love was ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’. He had stronger bones and more substantial flesh than his Tasso.

Boyle provides an excellent, if slightly indulgent summary of Tasso, as also of the evolving work on Faust, a labour which extended over sixty years of its author’s lifetime. Where Faust was concerned, it is as if Goethe felt that, should he once rest content with it, his soul would be forfeit. In an excited and affectionate letter of 1777 to Frau von Stein – badly though the relationship ended, her educative or eductive influence shouldn’t be underrated – Goethe remarked: ‘You know how symbolic my life is ... ’ Perhaps this symbolic status had since taken something of a beating, but it certainly hadn’t been put to flight.

The present volume ends in 1790, with Goethe in Italy again, missing Christiane and his baby son August, and getting his own back on platonic love (and Christ) through the rude and lewd Venetian Epigrams. He longed to be home: ‘This time I was quite happy to leave Italy.’ There is much more to come yet, and we can trust Nicholas Boyle not to miss any of it.

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