Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 1749 -- 1832
Poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist. Born in Frankfurt-on-Main, Germany on August 28, 1749. He was the eldest son of Johann Kaspar Goethe and Katharina Elisabeth Textor Goethe. His father was a lawyer of some eminence. At an early age the boy showed a persistent fondness for drawing and learned with surprising ease. In 1759 a French nobleman of aesthetic tastes came to stay with the Goethes, and a warm friendship developed between him and the future author. The friendship accelerated young Goethe's intellectual development.
Shortly after this, a French theater was founded at Frankfurt, and there Goethe became conversant with the plays of Racine; he also made some early attempts at original writing and began to learn Italian, Latin, Greek, English, and Hebrew.
He soon moved from his native town to Leipzig, where he entered the university, intending to become a lawyer. At Leipzig, Goethe showed little affection for the actual curriculum; instead he continued in essay writing and drawing and even took lessons in etching. He also found time for a love affair, but this was cut short in 1768 when he developed a serious illness. On his recovery he decided to leave Leipzig and go to Strasbourg.
There he became friendly with Jung-Stilling (see Johann Heinrich Jung), and his taste for letters was strengthened, Homer and Ossian being his favorites among the masters. Although he continued to appear indifferent to the study of law, he succeeded in becoming an advocate in 1771 and returned to Frankfurt.
Goethe had already written a quantity of verse and prose, and he began to write critiques for some of the newspapers in Frankfurt. At the same time he started writing Goetz von Berlichingen and Werther. These works were soon followed by Prometheus, and in 1774 the author began working on Faust.
The following year saw the production of some of Goethe's best love poems, written for Lilli Schemann, daughter of a Frankfurt banker. Nothing more than poetry, however, resulted from this new devotion. Scarcely had it come and gone before Goethe's whole life was changed, for his writings had become famous. As a result the young duke Carl August of Weimar, anxious for a trusty page, invited the rising author to his court. The invitation was accepted. Goethe became a member of the privy council; subsequently he was raised to the rank of Geheimrat (privy counselor) and then ennobled.
Goethe's life at Weimar was a very busy one. Trusted implicitly by the duke, he directed the construction of public roads and buildings, attended to military and academic affairs, and founded a court theater. As occupied as he was, he continued to write voluminously. Among the most important works he produced during his first years at the duke's court were Iphigenie and Wilhelm Meister.
In 1787 he had a lengthy stay in Italy, visiting Naples, Pompeii, Rome, and Milan. Returning to Weimar, he began writing Egmont. In 1795 he made the acquaintance of poet and dramatist Friedrich von Schiller, with whom he quickly became friendly and with whom he worked on the Horen, a journal designed to elevate the literary tastes of the masses.
About this period, too, Goethe wrote his play Hermann und Dorothea and also began translating Voltaire, Diderot, and Benvenuto Cellini.
The year 1806 was a significant one in Goethe's life, marked by his marriage and also by the entry of Napoleon into Weimar. The conquering general and the German poet found much in each other to admire, and Napoleon decorated Goethe with the cross of the Legion of Honour.
In 1811 Goethe wrote Dichtung und Wahrheit, Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre; in 1821 he began working at a second part of Faust. During this time he had two famous visitors--Beethoven from Vienna and Thackeray from London. Although the composer thought himself coldly received, the novelist spoke with enthusiasm of the welcome accorded him. Goethe was then well advanced in years, however, and his health was beginning to fail. He died March 22, 1832.
Few great writers--not even Disraeli or Sir Walter Scott--had fuller lives than Goethe. His love affairs were many, and his early taste for the graphic arts continued to the end of his days, resulting in a vast collection of treasures. He also expressed an interest in mysticism, which manifested itself in various forms besides the writing of Faust. With a temperament aspiring to the unattainable, Goethe's mind was essentially a speculative one. During his childhood at Frankfurt he did symbolic drawings of the soul's aspirations to the deity, and he later became immersed in the study of the Christian religion. Eventually he grew skeptical on this subject, his ideas being altered not only by his own ruminations but by reading various iconoclastic philosophers, especially Rousseau. Later his intellect was seemingly less engaged by Christianity than by ancient Eastern faiths, as demonstrated by some of his works, notably Westtliche Divan.