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Friday, 10 April 2015

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749 in Frankfurt-am-Main, then an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. He was the first child of a well-to-do cultivated middle-class family.

Goethe's birthplace in Frankfurt, Germany. By Dontworry - Wikipedia Commons

His father, Johann Kaspar Goethe, was of north German extraction. A retired lawyer, he led a life of cultured leisure, travelling in Italy and amassing a well-stocked library and picture gallery in his handsomely furnished house.

Goethe's mother, Katharine Elisabeth Textor, was the daughter of a Bürgermeister (mayor) of Frankfurt. She was only 18 when young Johann Wolfgang was born. She once said of him "My wolf and I were children together."

Johann had a a happy, comfortable childhood and had a close bond with his sister, Cornelia.

A precocious youngster, Johann had already acquired some knowledge of Greek, Latin, French and Italian by the age of 8 and wrote a story in seven languages when he was only 10,

Johann acquired from his mother the knack of story telling; and from a toy puppet show in his nursery his first interest in the stage. He wrote his first plays for this small puppet theater.

Johann's early education was personally supervised by his father and was somewhat irregular and informal, but already he was marked by that apparent feeling of superiority that stayed by him throughout his life.

Johann left Frankfurt in 1765 to study law at Leipzig  (his father's old university and then a leading cultural centre). The prodigious teenager did this somewhat under protest, as he would have preferred to read classics in the newly founded university at Göttingen, where English influence prevailed.

His lifestyle at the time would be familiar to today's students: visiting pubs, socialising and not studying a great deal.

Johann's health broke down at Leipzig in the late 1760s after he contracted syphilis. During the year and a half that followed, because of several relapses, the relationship with his father worsened. During convalescence, he was nursed by his mother and sister.

In April 1770, Johann left Frankfurt in order to finish his studies in Strasbourg. At Strasbourg he came under the influence of the writer Johann Gottfried von Herder, who introduced him to the works of Shakespeare.

When he was 20-year-old student, Goethe tried to overcome the vertigo he suffered from by climbing the 470 foot Tower of Cathedral of Notre Dome.

At the end of August 1771, Goethe acquired the academic degree of the Lizenziat (Licentia docendi) in Frankfurt and established a small legal practice


Though ostensibly in practice as a lawyer, Goethe devoted much of his first few years after graduating to being one of the editors of a literary periodical, the Frankfurter Gelehrte Anzeigen (Frankfurt Scholarly Reviews).

Goethe made his literary name on September 29, 1774 with the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther, an autobiographical novel, influenced by his love for a friend's fiancee, Charlotte Buff.

In 1775 Goethe was invited by the reigning duke, Charles Augustus to visit him as a guest at his court in Weimar as a result of his young Werther novel. For the next ten years he occupied increasingly important positions in the Weimar government. During this period Goethe did not have much time to publish fiction.

Goethe was also keenly involved in studies of natural science. His studies led him to independently discover the human intermaxillary bone in 1784,

During a 2-year sojourn in Italy between 1786-88, the simple life of the senses reinvigorated the artist in Goethe. He decided to devote himself to writing.

His first major scientific work, The Metamorphosis of Plants, was published in 1791. The book developed Goethe's ideas on comparative morphology and to some extent foreshadowed Darwin's ideas on organic evolution.

It took Goethe just three days in 1793 to write the play Der Bürgergeneral, satirizing the French Revolution, and it was first performed just six days later.

From about 1794, Goethe devoted himself chiefly to literature. Over the following nine years he developed an intense collaboration with his close friend Friedrich Schiller, a union that many regard as a high point in German letters.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Goethe's 1797 poem about a young apprentice's dubious decision to try his hand at magic while the sorcerer is away.was adapted for Disney's later adapted for Disney's Fantasia.

Goethe completed the first part of his poetic play, Faust, in 1808, a lifelong preoccupation for the writer.Though many others have recounted the story of Faust, it was Goethe who transformed it into a struggle between the good and bad natures of man. Faust’s theme is that of spiritual questioning and hunger for experience and knowledge. This pursuit of insight can lead man to temptation but is derived from a divine spark, which can lead to salvation.

Faust first edition 1808. Source Antiquariat Dr. Haack Leipzig. > Privatbesitz. Author © Foto H.-P.Haack. Wikipedia Commons.
Its publication in 1808 was followed by the revised 1828–29 edition, the last to be edited by Goethe himself.

Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy received its premiere performance on January 19, 1829 in Braunschweig.  Although rarely staged in its entirety, it is the play with the largest audience numbers on German-language stages.

When Napoleon met Goethe he commented "voila un homme." (but this is a man.)


Goethe had eighteen recorded love affairs, from a society beauty to a parson's daughter,

Goethe's attachment in the late 1760s to the daughter of a wine merchant at whose tavern he took his midday meal was reflected in his earliest poetry and in his first dramatic works.

In Strasbourg Goethe formed a friendship with Friederike Brion, the daughter of a pastor of the town of Sesenheim. She later was the model for feminine characters in several of Goethe's works, including that of Gretchen in Faust.

Goethe spent four months in 1772 in Wetzlar at the Imperial Law Courts. Here he made new friends, including a new passion for a girl safely out of reach from the start, Charlotte Buff. Her betrothed, Johann Christian Kestner, a colleague of Goethe, showed great understanding until he found the hopeless affair exposed to public gaze in The Sorrows of Young Werther.

In 1775 Goethe became engaged to Lili Schöneman, daughter of a rich banker, but found the fashionable circles in which she moved restrictive of his artistic creativity.

In Weimar Goethe experienced a passionate devotion to the pious wife of a court official, Charlotte von Stein, seven years his senior. For the first time he found himself in love with a woman who could also meet him on the intellectual plane. She insisted on a relationship governed by decorum and conventional virtue and remained his sister and nothing more.

Goethe had five children by Christiane Vulpius, an unsophisticated village girl whom he'd met in Rome, from 1789 onward. Only their son, August, survived to maturity.

In 1806, Goethe was living in Weimar with Christiane Vulpius, when Napoleon's army invaded the town. The next day Goethe legitimized their 18-year relationship by marrying Christiane in a quiet marriage service at the court chapel.

When Goethe heard in 1830 that August who had caused him much anguish had died in Rome, he reacted "I was not aware that I had begotten a mortal."

At the age of 74 Goethe fell in love with the 19-year old Ulrike von Levetzow. He followed her with high hopes from Marienbad to Karlsbad, and then returned disappointed to Weimar. There he wrote The Marienbad Elegy, the most personal poem of his later years.


Goethe was repulsed by Deism and desired to understand other religions wishing to meet them on common ground. He retained an interest in devotional piety and remained a grateful heir of the Christian tradition--'bibelfest'( rooted in the Bible)--as his language constantly proclaimed.

Goethe in 1828
Goethe had the largest private collection of minerals in all of Europe. By the time of his death, in order to gain a comprehensive view in geology, he had collected 17,800 rock samples.

Goethe was terribly afraid of dogs, hence in Faust, Part 1, Mephistopholes is initially personified as a black poodle bringing evil.

He was a passionate skater.  Skating was not only a magnificent aid to Goethe in producing poetic inspiration but, he was convinced, was most suitable for each and every one, "to keep off stagnant old age."


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died in Weimar on March 22, 1832 of apparent heart failure. His last words, according to his doctor Carl Vogel, were a request to open the second shutter so that more light (“mehr licht”) may come in.

He was buried in the Ducal Vault at Weimar's Historical Cemetery together with Schiller, who died over a quarter of a century earlier.

Sources Europress Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, The Books of Lists, No. 2 

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