The Man without Predicates

Michael Wood

  • Goethe: The Poet and the Age. Volume II: Revolution and Reunciation, 1790-1803 by Nicholas Boyle
    Oxford, 964 pp, £30.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 19 815869 6
  • Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by John Williams
    Wordsworth, 226 pp, £2.99, November 1999, ISBN 1 84022 115 1

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.

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