The story so far is this. Johann Wolfgang (not yet von) Goethe, the prodigiously talented son of a prosperous Frankfurt citizen, startles his compatriots with a furious and rambling play, Götz von Berlichingen (1771), which effectively inaugurates modern drama in Germany. He then writes The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a melancholy novel in letters, and becomes an immensely influential European figure, a provoker of fashions in dress and suicide, a sort of Byron before Byron. He is 25. Troubled by this success in print – Götz was published to great acclaim but not staged for some time – Goethe seeks a different public and a different relation to the world. He moves to Weimar in 1775, where he becomes confidential adviser and then minister and privy councillor to the Duke. He is made a baron in 1782. Weimar at this time is a city of 6000 inhabitants, compared with Frankfurt’s 36,000. But Weimar is also the centre of a duchy, which includes the territories of Jena, Eisenach and Ilmenau. It is a little world but it is a world. Goethe occupies himself with mines, politics, the development of the University of Jena. He starts several lengthy writing projects but finishes few, although at this time as at all times he writes remarkable poems in many genres. He becomes frustrated, both by the burdens of office and by the stranglement of what appears to have been a long Platonic affair with a married court lady, Frau von Stein. He longs to travel in Italy, a journey he has often imagined, and which he postponed when he came to Weimar. Finally, in 1786, he asks for and is given a leave of absence and takes off for the better part of two years, visiting Verona, Padua, Venice and Naples, and staying for some time in Sicily and (twice) in Rome. He finds a new life among German artists in Italy – ‘artists’ here means painters and sculptors, but Goethe, and Schiller soon after him, convert the word to something like its modern meaning, where it includes writers and film-makers, for example. ‘I have found myself again,’ Goethe writes to the Duke, ‘but as what? – As an artist!’ This is a declaration of independence of sorts, but Goethe knows he can’t stay in Italy. He returns to Weimar, works again on his Faust, finishes other plays (Iphigenia in Tauris, Egmont, Tasso), elaborates an early version of his novel Wilhelm Meister, and publishes his Collected Works in eight volumes. He also grieves extensively for the warm, permissive South and his lost artist colony in Rome, but realises, on a brief return trip to Venice, that his future lies in Germany. Italy had been paradise, or rather a proof that paradise exists and can be abandoned. Goethe is happy with the sterner North, or says he is. ‘The Duchess is well and contented,’ he writes of his employer’s mother’s homecoming from her Italian trip, ‘as one is when one returns from paradise. I am now used to it, and this time I was quite happy to leave Italy.’ Used to his return, he means, and used to the absence from paradise. The words I have just quoted are the last words of the first volume of Nicholas Boyle’s biography of Goethe. The date is June 1790, and other things have been happening in Europe, to which Boyle immediately turns in his new book.
Germany at this time was far from a nation state – it was a confusion of duchies and principalities and free cities, shadowed by the rising power of Prussia and the continuing presence of Austria at the centre of a slightly rickety Holy Roman Empire – but it was full of national feeling, of stirrings and reachings towards a shared culture. Thought and literature travelled fast, and Boyle expertly evokes their journeys. He is emphatic that Goethe doesn’t reflect or resemble his age; but equally emphatic that the writer and his age can be understood only if we look at them together. ‘ “The Age of Goethe” is simply the series of literary and intellectual temptations which, as it happens, Goethe resisted.’ Not so simply, perhaps; and certainly not just ‘as it happens’. Boyle says at the outset of his first volume that 1749 to 1832, the period of Goethe’s life, is not one age but several. ‘To think otherwise is to diminish the man and to misrepresent the time – his time, and ours.’ This must be true in the long run, and presumably will be seen to be true in Boyle’s completed work. But his first volume, and even the second, show us a Goethe rather more associated with his age than not. It’s true there are 29 years to go.
Meanwhile, loyal to his overall idea but scrupulous about individual historical moments, Boyle keeps offering modest disclaimers. Werther has a ‘uniquely close relationship to its public’. ‘Goethe’s personal experience at this time’ – 1773 – ‘was ... approximating to, and becoming symbolically representative of, that of a whole generation’; ‘Goethe at this time in his life, as never again, spoke directly from and to the situation of his contemporaries’; ‘He was very soon seen as the most prominent representative of a movement. For once, this was not wholly a misapprehension.’ Boyle’s general argument seems to be that Goethe was quite different from his contemporaries, but more German than they were – or more attuned to German possibilities, inventor and citizen of a Germany that never quite happened. ‘If Werther is the moment of his nearest identity with his public, Urfaust is the first major work in which he establishes the initial distance of his own subjectivity from that of his contemporaries which will be characteristic of all his subsequent writing.’ Goethe is becoming Goethe as Boyle sees him, and ‘initial distance’ is the phrase which establishes the room for manoeuvre. Weimar allowed Goethe to live ‘on the edge of centrality’, and he settled there because ‘with the unconscious sureness of a sleepwalker, perhaps, he was finding his way to the one place where he could bring the centre of gravity of his own life as close as possible to the political centre of gravity of what was destined to be the nation, while retaining the generously broad and multifarious conception of nationhood of his Strasbourg and Frankfurt years’. Quite apart from the edgy combination of ‘sureness’ and ‘perhaps’, this is an extraordinary proposition, less an explanation of Goethe’s behaviour than an exposition of what the name ‘Goethe’ means, but none the less valuable for that. Goethe’s ‘universal genius’, in this perspective, means not that he was a talented painter and wrote poems, plays, novels, satires, libretti, an autobiography, studies of plant life and a theoretical treatise on colour, having also effectively run a small country, directed a theatre, and established a university, but that he knew how to make the edge of centrality a centre of gravity. A mixed metaphor, but the mixture was his gift.
Boyle calls his first volume The Poetry of Desire because a terrific yearning marks all Goethe’s best work of this period. ‘None but the lonely heart’ is the traditional translation of ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’, a song Goethe gives to his character Mignon in Wilhelm Meister. Boyle calls this poem a ‘half-strangled cry’, and his literal version begins ‘Only he who knows yearning’, but even ‘yearning’ can’t catch the world-emptying force of Sehnsucht, a longing which is more like a disease than a feeling, and whose very existence seems to deny the possibility of fulfilment. Italy complicated this emotion for Goethe, since it showed him that fulfilment, sexual and otherwise, was possible. The place that Mignon dreams of, in another song, ‘the land where the lemon trees bloom, the golden oranges glow amid the dark leaves, a gentle wind blows from the blue sky, the myrtle stands motionless and the bay tree tall’ (Boyle’s translation), really does exist, is not just a Northerner’s fantasy. What Goethe now denies is not the fulfilment of desire but the desirability of fulfilment. It is important in this perspective that satisfaction should actually be possible, just as sexual chances need to exist for celibacy to be a moral option rather than a plight. What Goethe learned in Italy, Boyle says, was ‘where his true spiritual home lay – not, after all, in Mignon’s Vicenza but in a land where only those who knew yearning could know what he suffered’. Not in Italy but in Germany, that is, though both places have become allegories of desire, and strange, exclusive ideas crowd into the very thought of the nation. What you need to be a German is not a passport but a proper sense of Sehnsucht.
The last lines of the dedicatory poem called ‘Zueignung’, which opens Faust: Part One, are translated by John Williams as
What I possess now vanishes before me,
And what was lost alone has substance for me.
Was ich besitze, seh’ich wie im Weiten,
Und was verschwand, wird mir zu
The English lines are graceful and sensitive, but a more literal rendering brings out the paradox more fully, the commitment to the permanence of fulfillable but unfulfilled desire. ‘What I possess, I see as if at a distance/And what disappeared becomes reality for me.’ There is still a mild ambiguity here, and even a literal translation is defeated by Goethe’s crafty plural: ‘becomes realities for me’. Did what disappeared become reality because it disappeared? Because the poet only thought it was there, and now needs it as a memory? That would be a familiar form of nostalgia, and must be an important part of what ‘Germany’ came to mean in what wasn’t the age of Goethe. But the other reading, and the one most consistent with Boyle’s entirely persuasive argument, is that real things are (still) possessed and have disappeared. The poet is saying that among the world’s available realities only the disappeared ones are real to him now. This is not quite Proust’s claim that the only true paradises are lost paradises, but it is close to his idea that significant realities are formed not only in the mind but always in the mind as well. Boyle writes in his second volume of ‘the disappointments of fulfilled desire’, but I’m not sure we have to go that far, or that we have to speak, as Boyle rather grimly does, of ‘the prison of sated appetite’. Satisfaction would be enough, and not enough. We could be happy and also know that happiness isn’t everything.
Goethe worked on Faust for most of his life. A version of 1775-76, now known as the Urfaust, survives in a copy which was rediscovered only in 1887. He published Faust: A Fragment in 1790, and Faust: Part One in 1808. He finished Faust: Part Two just before he died. Williams’s version includes Part One and the Urfaust, and a handful of additional scenes for the Walpurgisnacht episode in Part One. Among the very many things that could be said about this imaginative new translation – even the hardened offender is going to blanch a little at the thought of reviewing Faust – two seem to me to stand out.
The first results from a combination of Williams’s translating practice and a critical point made by Boyle. Williams mentions the ‘huge variety’ of metres and verse forms Goethe uses in the play, and, discussing ‘Commentary of an Old Woodcut’, Boyle remarks that ‘English poetry, whose vehicle is the language of a profoundly class-conscious culture, lacks the middle tone between verse and doggerel in which this poem like most of Faust, is written.’ Many people have wondered why it is so hard to get Goethe to sound even creditable in English, let alone like a major poet, and this is surely an excellent explanation at least for part of the difficulty. The trouble with the simple lyric poems may just be their extraordinary simplicity, and faced with the renowned ‘Über alien Gipfeln/Ist Ruh,’ Boyle just throws up his hands: ‘There is little sensible that literary criticism can say about something so delicate and so matchless.’ I’m sure this is right, and I’m not going to say anything sensible or otherwise right now. But I do think literary criticism ought not to give up so easily.
And it does seem plausible that even in the age of Wordsworth, English couldn’t get close enough to knockabout comedy to use popular verse to real effect. When men spoke like men speaking to men, they spoke slowly and wisely. We might think that in Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes English was still trying, and not quite achieving, Goethe’s ‘middle tone’. Of course the stuff still sounds like doggerel in English, but it’s possible to imagine something that is not doggerel lurking behind it. Take these lines from the opening of the Urfaust:
Medicine, and Law, and Philosophy –
Even, God help you, Theology;
You’ve worked your way through every school
And sweated at it like a fool ...
These jars and cases row on row,
Retorts and tubes and taps and gauges,
The useless junk of bygone ages –
This is the only world you know!
‘God help you’ is a good rendering of leider, ‘unfortunately’, and ‘sweated at’ is a genuinely idiomatic version of heisser Müh, ‘hot care’. Of course nothing in English will quite catch the despair in the last line, heightened rather than diminished by the sense of doggerel and the amazing pantomime word vollgepfropft. ‘That is your world, that is what they (or you or anyone) call a world.’
Hab’ nun ach die Philosophei
Medizin und Juristerei
Und leider auch die Theologie
Durchaus studiert mit heisser Müh’ ...
Mit Gläsern Büchsen rings bestellt
Mit Instrumenten vollgepfropft,
Uhrväter Hausrat drein gestopft,
Das ist deine Welt, das heisst eine Welt!
The other thing that struck me in reading Faust: Part One and the Urfaust back to back, along with Boyle’s excellent comments on the whole Faust project, is the shift in Faust’s passions, ambitions, faults, temptations. Obvious and familiar enough to Goethe scholars, I’m sure, but a mixture of a memory and a revelation to me. The figure in the Urfaust makes no pact with the devil, not because Goethe didn’t plan one but because he didn’t write the scene. The effect, however, is to convert Mephistopheles into the agent not of some malign power but of Faust’s own more cynical thoughts. Not only his shadow, as Boyle says, but something like his negative conscience, the part of his mind which will not tolerate the Wertherian sentimentality of the rest. To put it too crudely, once Faust launches into his romance with Gretchen, he thinks he can seduce an innocent maiden and remain a nice fellow, indeed a romantic hero, rather than a skunk, and Mephistopheles is under no illusions on this score. Gretchen herself, in her distrust of Faust’s companion, could be read as intuiting the other side, or even the real truth, of the man she loves. ‘How you can live with him I just don’t know,’ she says.
I even think, whenever he is here,
My very love for you might ebb away,
And I could never pray when he is near.
wo er mag zu uns treten,
Mein’ ich sogar ich liebte dich nicht mehr.
Und wenn er da ist könnt’ ich nimmer beten.
Gretchen’s last words, apart from her calling of Faust’s name, are ‘mir grauts vor dir’, well translated by Williams as ‘you horrify me,’ although grauen has an additional suggestion of ‘fear’ and ‘shivers’ and ‘creeps’. It is Faust who horrifies her, as well as Mephistopheles.
The hero of Faust: Part One is a fullblown thinker and poet, a one-man conversion of the Enlightenment into the Romantic Movement. He is tired of learning, rapturously contemplates suicide, is brought back to life by memory, ‘the feelings of childhood’. He has fabulous, famous lines, and Mephistopheles is no longer a version of the reality principle but a goad to desire, the cold instrument of endless heat, an indispensable aid to unfulfilment:
But now I see that we can never know
Perfection here on earth. For with this bliss
That brings me ever closer to the gods,
You gave me that cold and insolent companion
From whom I can no longer free myself,
Who makes me feel my shame and my disgrace,
And turns your gifts to dross with every breath.
He fans the flames that burn within my heart,
And fires my longing for that lovely form.
I satisfy desire with pleasure, then
In pleasure languish for desire again.
O, dass dem Menschen nichts Vollkommnes wird,
Empfind’ ich nun. Du gabst mir zu dieser Wonne,
Die mich den Göttern nah und näher bringt,
Mir den Gefährten, den ich schon nicht mehr
Entbehren kann, wenn er gleich, kalt und frech,
Mich vor mir selbst erniedrigt, und zu nichts,
Mit einem Worthauch, deine Gaben wandelt.
Er facht in meiner Brust ein wildes Feuer
Nach jenem schönen Bild geschäftig an.
So tauml’ ich von Begierde zu Genuss,
Und im Genuss verschmacht’ ich nach Begierde.
The deity being addressed here is the Earth Spirit, whom Faust once conjured up but found ‘too terrible’. Williams doesn’t quite manage to get the hectic energy of Faust’s complaint, his restless eagerness for what he says he doesn’t want. The German has him ‘tumbling’ from desire to pleasure, the very image of the intellectual released into the life of the senses. And Faust doesn’t say he can’t free himself from his cold companion, he says he can’t do without him.
And of course this Faust makes a complicated pact with Mephistopheles, which effectively reveals the devil as the instrument not only of desire but of a God who will sanction anything in the name of desire. In a Prologue in Heaven, God says ‘man will err as long as he can strive,’ but he (or Goethe) means or comes to mean the opposite: a man who keeps striving can’t go wrong. Among the last words of Faust: Part Two, delivered by an angel carrying off Faust’s immortal soul, are these: ‘Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,/Den können wir erlösen’ – very roughly, ‘Whoever takes pains to keep striving/Is someone we can redeem.’ The terms of Faust’s pact are, as everyone says, one of the key formulations of a modern morality – ‘the morality of modernity itself,’ Boyle suggests. Faust proposes:
If I should ever choose a life of sloth or leisure,
Then let that moment be my end! ...
If I should bid the moment stay, or try
To hold its fleeting beauty, then you may
Cast me in chains and carry me away.
Werd’ ich beruhigt je mich auf ein Faulbett legen,
So sei es gleich um mich getan! ...
Werd’ ich zum Augenblicke sagen:
Verweile doch! du bist so schön!
Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen,
Dann will ich gern zugrunde gehen.
It’s a spectacular wager, but in Goethe’s world the devil hasn’t got a chance.
There are all kinds of risks in a long biography, but two seem to stand out: that of turning all molehills into mountains, and that of just plodding, when not even molehills are available, through the days and hours of a life. Boyle doesn’t entirely avoid the first risk, although there aren’t too many molehills to start with, but he triumphantly avoids the second through the sheer intelligence of his writing, the firmness of his focus on the Goethe he has in mind. He also has the great knack of turning what is often thought of as cultural or historical background into vivid foreground, so that his sections on Kant or Schiller or Hölderlin or Hegel or Fichte, for example, read like the intellectual adventure they represent, and his account of the Prussian military campaign against the French Republic, on which Goethe accompanied his Duke Carl August, is as harrowing as a harsh war movie.
Over half the army now was infected with dysentery, between the tents lay the bloody excreta of those unable to reach the latrines in time, the latrines themselves were nauseating with blood and matter, and a plague of lice broke out ... Dead horses were left to clog the ditches, human arms and legs protruded from the hasty and shallow graves, and Goethe saw a wounded horse, which no one could be bothered to shoot, entangling itself in its own entrails.
The Bastille falls in Boyle’s second volume, and, as he says in his first sentence, the world changes. By the end of the book Napoleon is in power, and we are seeing what Boyle calls ‘the beginning of the long postponed demolition of old Germany’. Somehow in the turmoil of Europe, Goethe manages to settle down into a de facto marriage to Christiana Vulpius, frowned on and snickered at but finally accepted by aristocratic Weimar. He and Christiana have a child, and four more children are either stillborn or die very early. Goethe’s friendship and partnership with Schiller, who lives in Jena – they edit a journal together, closely discuss each other’s work – develops at this time, and Boyle has many shrewd things to say about Schiller’s understanding and misunderstanding of Goethe, and about Goethe’s gift for privacy in the midst of apparent confessions. ‘There were problematic, even predatory, undertones in the friendship of which both were aware, but both were more generous than their obscure emotions.’ Goethe revises and extends and completes the first of his two Wilhelm Meister novels, writes lyric and meditative poems, the narrative poems Alexis and Dora and Hermann and Dorothea, makes what Boyle calls ‘the decisive breakthrough’ in his work on Faust, and pursues his anti-Newtonian colour theory. Boyle’s theme is now renunciation rather than desire, although given the kind of desire we have been looking at, it’s a little hard to tell them apart.
And above all, something of the old, restless Goethe survives all kinds of apparent lapses into stasis. He is a courtier but still an artist, ‘expert’, Boyle says, ‘at concealing his own modernity beneath the feudal forms’. He is fat and contented, but still inquiring and energetic. He is happy in love, and writes about his happiness, but he still sees love as a provocation rather than sheer comfort. Love is the same, he says in a poem, ‘Wenn man ihr alles gewährt, wenn man ihr alles versagt’ – ‘if we grant it everything, if we deny it everything’. His Faust is a man who has ‘undertaken never to rest in the contemplation of beauty’, Boyle says. Or in anything else. ‘His modern pact with the devil gives him access to every human experience, but only as an object of enjoyment from which he must detach himself in the moment of consuming it.’ This is enjoyment as renunciation.
There are lots of famous descriptions of Goethe at this time, and the ones Boyle quotes all catch something of this paradox – as if Goethe was a myth neither Goethe nor anyone could escape, and as if, miraculously, Goethe just was the person the myth said he was. ‘His mouth is very beautiful, small, and extraordinarily flexible, only it is disfigured when he smiles by his yellow and extremely crooked teeth. When he is not speaking he looks thoroughly serious, but really not morose, and not a hint, not a trace of pomposity.’ ‘He has now lost almost all his Apolline slimness – His embonpoint expands by the day and his eyes are buried in the fat of his cheeks. Only when he reads from Voss’s Iliad is his figure transformed.’ Fichte said: ‘One might imagine him to be treacherous; but he is certainly not that; he is without predicates.’ ‘His appetite for food is appalling,’ Jean Paul wrote. ‘He dresses with the most exquisite taste ... He is a volcano, outwardly snow-covered, inwardly full of molten matter ... At last not just the champagne but the conversation about art, the public etc made him blaze up and – we were with Goethe.’