Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German philosopher, scholar, statesman, writer, and poet from the 18th and 19th centuries. He is most well known for his novels, such as The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774); his plays, such as Faust (1808); and his many poems. Goethe belongs to the Sturm und Drang movement, and his writing style reflects his philosophical influences.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Table of contents
    You may have heard of Goethe before! Germany opened up a cultural institution known as the Goethe-Institut, named after Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, to spread the German language and German literature abroad. It was named after Goethe because he represents one of the most important German literary figures to date.

    Goethe was an influential writer with his literary impact lasting centuries after his death, particularly in the fields of literature, philosophy, and even psychoanalysis.

    A Biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on the 28th of August, 1749 in the Free Imperial City of Frankfurt, Holy Roman Empire, which today is Frankfurt, Germany. Goethe received private tutoring in various Ancient and Modern languages, religion, history, horse riding, and fencing. Goethe discovered his love for literature and theater at a young age, reading the works of Homer and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. In 1765, a young Goethe attended Leipzig University to study law. He spent more time in poetry courses than law courses and began to write poetry, most dedicated to Anna Katharina Schönkopf. His first poetry collection, published anonymously, is titled Annette (1770). Goethe never completed his law degree and returned to Frankfurt in 1768, where he remained recovering from illness for nearly a year.

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German philosopher, writer, and scholar.

    Goethe enrolled at the University of Strasbourg to complete his degree in 1770. There, Goethe was exposed to many works of literature, including Shakespeare. He continued writing during this time. After completing his degree, Goethe returned to Frankfurt in 1771 to open a legal practice, which did not remain open for long as Goethe was not a skilled lawyer. Goethe attempted to practice law once more in 1772. During his law practice, Goethe managed to find time to write, composing Götz von Berlichingen (1773), a tragedy.

    However, it would be a novel that would bring Goethe international recognition. Goethe published a novel in 1774 titled The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) that made him famous. In 1775, the future Grand Duke, Karl August, invited Goethe to live in Weimar, and soon the two became close friends. Goethe worked in the court of the Duke and was even assigned to the War Commission of the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar and Commissions of Mines and Highways. In 1782, Goethe was made chancellor of the duchy's Exchequer, which was a role he held on to for 2 years.

    In 1786, Goethe left for Italy for two years. There he was exposed to classic literature and art through the works of Johann Joachim Winckelmann and became friends with artists, such as Angelica Kauffman. Goethe documented his journey in the form of a non-fiction diary, published as Italian Journey (1816). When Goethe returned to Weimar, he fought in the Battle of Valmy and the Siege of Mainz as a military observer in 1792. Goethe would later write about these battles.

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italy Map, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Goethe was greatly inspired by his trip to Italy.

    After 1793, writing became Goethe's main focus. Between 1793 and his death in 1832, Goethe produced a majority of his major works. In 1794, Goethe wrote his second novel, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795–6), and many dramas such as Iphigenie auf Tauris (1794) and Torquato Tasso (1794). Goethe also began writing Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years (1821), the sequel to Wilhelm Mister's Apprenticeship, around this time as well. Goethe published his famous play, Faust in two parts, first in 1808 and then in 1832. He also wrote the novel, Elective Affinities (1809), and a poetry collection, Eastern-Western Diwan (1819). In 1821, Goethe had an affair with a 17-year-old girl named Ulrike von Levetzow, who inspired his poem "Marienbad Elegy" (1823).

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died in 1832 due to heart failure and is now buried in the Ducal Vault in the Historical Cemetery of Weimar. Goethe's work became highly influential in the fields of philosophy and literature. Some notable writers influenced by Goethe include the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and the psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

    Novels and Plays by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a prolific writer, producing countless novels, plays, and other literary works. Goethe is credited with greatly contributing to the literary movement known as Sturm and Drang.

    Sturm and Drang was a literary movement from 18th century Germany that focused on emotional unrest, individualism, feeling, and the exalted nature of humanity, as well as rejected neoclassical writing norms. Two of the most prominent figures from this movement include Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.

    Let's take a closer look at a few of Goethe's most famous novels and plays.

    The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)

    The Sorrows of Young Werther is a novel written by Goethe in epistolary form.

    An epistolary novel is a novel made up of a series of letters that create a narrative rooted in the real life.

    The novel follows the young Werther who is hopelessly in love with Charlotte. Charlotte, however, is engaged to Albert. Werther does his best to become close to Albert and Charlotte, but the sorrow becomes too much for him and he leaves the fictional town of Wahlheim. The story is told through a series of letters from Werther to his friend, Wilhelm. The novel contains themes such as the power of emotion over reason, social class, and unrequited love.

    Johannn Wolfgang von Goethe, Letters, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel.

    The Sorrows of Young Werther was so popular, that it sparked a phenomenon known as "Werther Fever" in which young men dressed up in the clothing style of Werther and emulated his despair. Even merchandise based on the novel was produced. It is reported that even Napoleon Bonaparte thought the novel was one of the greatest ever written.

    The novel fits into the Sturm and Drang movement with its focus on the emotions and feelings of an individual battling with nature. It is said to be based on Goethe's unrequited love for the engaged Charlotte Buff, in his youth.

    Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795-6)

    Wilhelm's Meister's Apprenticeship centers on Wilhelm, a young man who wishes to separate himself from the growing middle class. To accomplish this, he leaves his job and joins a theater where he is initiated into the Tower Society. Throughout the novel, German values and attitudes are juxtaposed against those of Shakespearean characters. The novel contains themes related to an individual's journey to intellectual self-development as one moves from childhood to adulthood. The novel was inspired by Goethe's introduction to Shakespeare while at the University of Strasbourg.

    Faust (1808)

    Faust is an epic play written in the form of an epic poem.

    An epic poem is a narrative that tells of an individual's heroic journey and is made up of a series of heroic deeds, bravery, and interactions with supernatural forces.

    Faust was written in two parts. The first part was published in 1808 and the second in 1832. Faust tells the story of Dr. Faust, an academic and alchemist, who calls to a spirit for help. In the depth of his despair, he attempts suicide. Angels stop him, but little does he know that up in heaven Mephistopheles, the demon, made a bet with the Lord that he could turn Dr. Faust into a servant of the Devil. The play contains themes such as Nature and science, enlightenment, and morality.

    Dr. Faust was real! Dr. Faust is based on the German alchemist and astrologer, Johann Georg Faust who became a folk legend. He was first written about in the 16th century and was most notably the focus of Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1604), which inspired Goethe's adaptation of the folk legend.

    Faust has been adapted into many musicals and films such as La Beaute du Diable (1950), Mephisto (1981), and the musical Doktor Faust (1925).

    Poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goeth

    Johan Wolfgang von Goethe wrote many poems over his lifetime. His first collection of poems was titled Annette and was written in the Rococo style, and his second collection of poems was the Leipzig Songbook (1768).

    The Rococo Style was an art and literary movement originating in France in the late 16th century and lasting through the early 18th century. Rococo literature contained themes such as humor and lighthearted expressions of joy, amusement, and mythological and pastoral scenes related to nature, leisure, and the enjoyment of life. The underlying philosophy of the movement was to create communities around pleasure. Many Rococo literary pieces focused on lighthearted matters such as budding love and romance. Goethe wrote Annette in the Rococo style and expressed his love for Anna Katharina Schönkopf.

    After traveling to Italy in 1786, Goethe was inspired to write a poetry collection titled, Roman Elegies (1795). Furthermore, during the French attacks on Prussia, Goethe was inspired to write the epic poem, Hermann and Dorothea (1782). Goethe was often inspired to write poetry based on the happenings in the world around him and his exposure to new ideas and philosophies. Let's take a closer look at one of his poems.

    "I" from Roman Elegies (1795)

    Roman Elegies, also known as Erotica Romana, is a series of 24 poems that were dedicated to Goethe's mistress, and later wife, Christiane Vulpius.

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Roman Goddess Statue, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Roman Elegies was inspired by Classical art and literature.

    Here's where I've planted my garden and here I shall care for love's blossoms— As I am taught by my muse, carefully sort them in plots: Fertile branches, whose product is golden fruit of my lifetime, Set here in happier years, tended with pleasure today."

    ("I", Lines 1-4)

    In the first poem of Roman Elegies, the tending of a garden is used as a metaphor for the speaker's love for his mistress. The inspiration Goethe found in Classical literature and art can be seen in his discussion of muses in the second line. The muses were mythological beings that represented different fields of art. These poems represent a shift in Goethe's writing style as they reveal his passion for both Classical art and literature but also his deep passion for Christiane Vulpius.

    The Writing Style of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Johan Wolfgang von Goethe's writing style displays his awareness of his surroundings but also his deep philosophical understanding of his surroundings. Goethe's writing belongs to the Pre-Romantic literary movement known as Sturm and Drang, which rebelled against the conventional writing movements of the day and placed emphasis on the emotions and feelings of an individual. Goethe's philosophical beliefs that saw a balance between passion and moderation finds itself in his writing, which was partly inspired by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

    His works often focus on the emotional aspect of his characters' lives and show that sometimes emotions are stronger than reason.

    In the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, the main character Werther reveals his heavy despair over his unrequited love for Charlotte through a series of letters. Werther knows Charlotte can never love him back as she is engaged to Albert, however, Werther's emotions, love and despair, are stronger and more influential than reason. However, Werther commits suicide because he let his emotions take over—this is a warning that humans should find a balance between emotion and reason.

    Goethe's writing style is also influenced by the Herdian philosophical belief that language is naturalistic and creatively impulsive therefore when writing, the words of Goethe feel natural and free-flowing, even if they are methodically planned. Goethe's language feels sensual and passionate, and in the original German, never contains words with too many syllables. This creates an intuitive, engaging style of writing.

    There is no doubt that in this world nothing but love makes another person indispensable."

    (The Sorrows of Young Werther, Book 1)

    Here is a short example of Goethe's writing style. The sentence holds a somber tone as Werther laments over the fact that human beings have no meaning unless they can love. This shows Goethe's tendency to express the intense emotions of his characters. The language he uses contains words with short syllables and contain a toned-down sense of passion that makes the character feel like he only holds value if he is sharing his love.

    Quotes by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Johan Wolfgang von Goethe can be a difficult writer to understand, therefore these few quotes with explanations might clarify Goethe's literary works.

    When gods and goddesses in days of heroes made love, then Lust followed look and desire, with no delay, was indulged. Surely you don't think the goddess of love lost a moment reflecting When, in Idean grove, Anchises caught her eye."(Roman Elegies, "V", Lines 7-10)

    In this poem, Goethe justifies his passionate love and desire for his mistress by drawing comparisons to the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome. If the Gods and Goddesses could follow their passions and indulge in them, then why couldn't Goethe? Goethe writes in a style that imitates Italian Verse, which sees unrhymed lines and commonly uses hendecasyllabic meter.

    Hendecasyllabic meter is a metrical line originating from Classical Greek and Roman poetry that contains lines with 11 syllables each.

    This poem also contains a literary allusion to the story of Aphrodite and Anchises, in which Aphrodite was made to fall madly in love with Anchises by Zeus. Aphrodite first sees Anchises on Mount Ida. This allusion is to show the uncontrollable desire the speaker feels for the mistress and emphasizes the passionate tone of the poem.

    Love and fidelity, the finest human feelings, had transformed themselves into violence and murder."

    (The Sorrows of Young Werther, Book 2)

    In this quote from The Sorrows of Young Werther, Werther had just committed suicide. Here his friend is showing the devastation he feels at Werther's death which was caused by an overwhelming love for a woman he could never have. Here, Goethe shows his philosophical belief that if an emotion becomes extreme, then it becomes a danger to the person. That being the case, too much reason can also be dangerous. Therefore, Goethe advocates for a balance between emotion and reason to avoid endings such as Werther's.

    The time has come to prove by deeds / that man will not quake before the pit where fantasy / condemns itself to tortures of its own creation / when he advances to the narrow passageway / about whose mouth infernal flames are blazing. / Approach the brink serenely and accept the risk / of melting into nothingness"

    (Faust, Part 1)

    This speech by Dr. Faust from Goethe's Faust is a pivotal point in the play. Dr. Faust is about to drink poison and commit suicide. Dr. Faust is so far into his despair that the religious notions of heaven and hell become utterly meaningless to him. Dr. Faust does not realize that Mephistopheles and the Lord placed a bet on him, and right as Dr. Faust is about to drink the poison, a chorus of angels stops him. Dr. Faust is in an incredibly vulnerable position emotionally, which Mephistopheles takes to his advantage. The play is written in the form of an epic poem, and here Dr. Faust, the epic's hero, has reached the "pit of despair" on his heroic journey.

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Key takeaways

    • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German statesman, writer, philosopher, scholar, and poet from the 18th and 19th centuries.
    • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is known for his novels, such as The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), his plays such as Faust (1808), and his many poems.
    • Goethe belonged to the Pre-Romantic literary movement known as Sturm and Drang.
    • His writing style reflects his philosophical knowledge and often reveals the nature of emotions and feelings in an individual.
    • Some notable writers influenced by Goethe include Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Jung.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Who is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? 

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German philosopher, scholar, statesman, writer, and poet from the 18th/19th centuries. 

    How many books did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe write? 

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote over 30 novels and books ranging in genre and topic. 

    What were the accomplishments of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? 

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had many accomplishments over his lifetime, one of which was becoming a dominant leader in the Sturm and Drang literary movement. 

    Where was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe born? 

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in the Free Imperial City of Frankfurt, Holy Roman Empire which today is Frankfurt, Germany. 

    What is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famous for? 

     He is most well known for his novels, such as The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), his plays such as Faust (1808/1832), and his many poems. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What literary movement did Goethe belong to?

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