Have You Heard The One About Johann Goethe?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and one of the hundreds of quotations attributed to him
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and one of the hundreds of quotations attributed to him

by Ray Setterfield

March 22, 1832 — Each was hailed as a genius and both were prolific writers. The big difference between William Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who died on this day, is that we know virtually nothing about Shakespeare and his life, but almost everything about Goethe.

Had that not been the case, as one critic noted, “there would certainly be scholars today theorising that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name.” Such was the brilliance and range of his output.

According to Chambers (1864), Goethe (pronounced “gerter”) was born in 1749 “in the busy old-fashioned town of Frankfort-on-the-Maine; a child so precocious that at the age of seven he could write German, French, Italian, Latin and Greek.

“He grew up a genuine man, remarkable for endless activity of body and mind, a sage minister, a noble friend, and a voluminous writer.”

Goethe studied law at Leipzig between 1765 and 1768, mainly to please his father who wanted him to make a career in the legal field. He was more interested in literature.

Ill, possibly with tuberculosis, Goethe left Leipzig without a degree in 1768 and after another health collapse, which was said to have brought him close to death, for the following 18 months he was nursed at home in Frankfurt by his mother and sister.

During that time he studied alchemy and, it is thought, then conceived the idea of writing a play about Faust, a half-legendary figure who sells his soul to the Devil for knowledge and power. He became the subject of Goethe’s greatest work.

Much to his father’s pleasure, Goethe went to the University of Strasbourg in 1770 to continue his law studies and came out with a degree.

But he was developing as a writer and was particularly known for his bestselling book, The Sorrows of Young Werther. His literary reputation had become such that he was invited in 1775 to join the court of Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, who would become Grand Duke in 1815.

Karl August was a keen follower of literature, amongst other interests, and his court was celebrated for its brilliance. After inviting Goethe to join it, he said:

“People of discernment congratulate me on possessing this man. His intellect, his genius is known. If the world is offended because I have made Dr Goethe a member of my most important collegium without his having passed through the stages of minor official professor and councillor of state it makes no difference to me.”

After being called to court Goethe went to live in Weimar and stayed there for the rest of his life. He became a great friend of the Duke as well as his chief adviser and held a number of offices over the years.

Court life apart, Goethe continued with his literary work and began the "Weimar Classicism" movement with his good friend Friedrich Schiller, producing poems and dramas such as his best known work, Faust. This was published in two parts (1808 and 1832) and completed just before he died.

He was, incidentally, a passionate anti-smoker. Here’s what he had to say on the subject:

“Smoking stupefies a man, and makes him incapable of thinking or writing. It is only fit for idlers, people who are always bored, who sleep for a third of their lifetime, fritter away another third in eating, drinking, and other affairs.

“[They] find mental solace in . . . gazing at the clouds of smoke that they puff into the air; it helps them to kill time.”

Goethe also believed that smoking contributed to what he considered to be another vice. “[It] induces drinking beer,” he said, “for hot mouths need to be cooled down. Beer thickens the blood, and adds to the intoxication produced by the narcotic smoke. The nerves are dulled and the blood clotted.

“Smoking, too, is gross rudeness and unsociability. Smokers poison the air far and wide and choke every decent man. Who can enter a smoker's room without feeling ill? Who can stay there without perishing?”

Obviously a man of strong convictions – and talent. Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch wrote: “Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes.

“Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds.

“He also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colours to the morphology of plants.

“Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men.”

Shakespearean scholars would be thrilled and excited to have just a fraction of such information about the man of Stratford.

“Finally,” Kirsch wrote, “Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre.”

Indirectly, Goethe left us with laughter, too. Peter Cook, the late comedic actor, once said on television that his favourite “intellectual” joke went like this:

A very hard-up university student decided to apply for a temporary job on a building site to make some money.

The foreman said to him, ‘No, you’re no use to me. We don’t need thinkers, we need someone for hard physical labour. Besides, I don’t imagine you know anything about the building trade.’

‘Of course I do,’ snapped the student, thinking it couldn’t be rocket science.

‘OK, then,’ said the foreman. ‘What’s the difference between a joist and a girder?’

‘Well,' said the student, ‘I don’t know what you mean by the difference between them, but Joyce wrote Ulysses and Goethe wrote Faust.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died, reputedly from a heart attack, on March 22, 1832 at his home in Weimar where he had lived for more than 50 years. He was 82.

His good friend, poet and author Johann Eckermann, closed his work, Conversations with Goethe, with this entry:

“The morning after Goethe's death, a deep desire seized me to look once again upon his earthly garment. His faithful servant, Frederick, opened for me the chamber in which he was laid out.

“Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and security reigned in the features of his sublimely noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbour thoughts. I wished for a lock of his hair; but reverence prevented me from cutting it off.

“A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I laid my hand on his heart – there was a deep silence – and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.”

Published: March 22, 2020

Articles on Events in March