The extent to which I’ve read into Goethe’s oeuvre is really quite limited. I’ve covered about as much as an average German school pupil can be expected to in the course of their education; the early poems – Prometheus, Willkommen und Abschied, Ganymede etc. Through the uni seminar I’m attending I’ve also looked through Götz von Berlichingen, Clavigo and Stella, and of course the quintessential Romantic epistolary novel –Die Leiden des jungen Werther.
Faust, of the big titles, remains unopened. Apparently some of the settings are inspired by Goethe’s time in Leipzig as a law student; especially Auerbach’s Keller – a Bierhall and restaurant in the historic centre.
Goethe only spent a few of his formative years in Leipzig though. Most of his life he resided in Weimar -a town of huge cultural and historical significance for Germany in which, during the late 18th century, he, Schiller, Wieland and Herder congregated and shared ideas under the patronage of the proto-enlightened absolutist, Karl August, grand duke of Saxon-Weimar-Eisenach. Of course, Weimar also gives its name to the Weimar Republic – the liberal democracy in place in Germany from 1918 to 1933. During the Nazi dictatorship, Buchenwald concentration camp was situated in the outskirts.
The works that I’ve listed above don’t really belong to the artistic movement most strongly associated with the town – Weimar Classicism. After a period criticising French playwrights for sticking too closely to the dramatic rules laid down by the ancient Greeks and French architecture for being more imitation than innovation (instead holding up Shakespeare and the Gothic style as exemplary), Goethe went on a trip to Italy and began a lifelong obsession with antiquity. Each of these artistic ideologies can be evidenced in Weimar. There is a statue of Shakespeare in the Park an der Ilm, which is designed in an “English” style i.e. asymmetrically, as opposed to the French, and built around nature rather than in opposition; the town hall is a beautiful neogothic building which was constructed some years after Goethe’s death. Behind the Shakespeare statue is, however, evidence of a taste for the ancient – the ruins which serve as a backdrop are actually artificial, the stone taken from a burnt-down castle and reconfigured to give the appearance of a grand, mystical heritage. Most of the buildings in Weimar are very rectangular, elegant and mathematical, but there are some striking examples of architectural clashes, such as in the market square and surrounding area…
That said, there is a significant overlap and interplay between these styles and ideas – rather than exact opposites, they represent antithetical ideologies which can practically combine and feed into each other.
The most obvious manifestation of Goethe’s admiration for the classical world in Weimar is to be found inside his town house, which now exists adjacent to a museum of any and all aspects of the poet’s life. He amassed a considerable number of statues and busts in the renaissance style.All the rooms are accessible, and there is barely a barrier in sight; that is, with the exception of the writing room, which cannot be entered, only viewed from the doorway.
What I got from the day was not really an impression of the literary man Goethe, but rather the practical one, who exercised minute control over his life – designing his own staircase, for example, in the pre-lift age to require minimum strain to ascend (the steps are really long and shallow). I discovered Goethe the scientist who was not content with a mere “poetic” understanding of the world, who sought to further “natural philosophy” and who published several theories on colour, geology, botany and biology. Finally, I came to understand more about Goethe the politician, who in service to Duke Karl August became the equivalent of the prime minister, was in charge of fortifications and the university of Jena and got the aristocratic “von” added to his name in 1782.
A full day walking around Weimar and trying to get my head around at least some of the culture that seems to radiate off every façade, statue and sculpture has left me conflicted about the figure who seemed so comfortably to inhabit the role of Germany’s national poet.
On the one hand, Goethe, the person, embodies many of the qualities I would admire in my idea of an artist. He did not, like some of the Romantics who came after try to set himself apart from the world and assume the position of the apolitical observer. In his work for the duke, he participated in and attempted to change the material world. He also saw no dichotomy between art and science, or at least believed that the two could and should feed into one another. This is an idea that ought to be more valued and promoted today in the face of Humanities and Sciences contemporary mutual disdain for the other group.
Despite this, Goethe seems to have allied himself with the aristocracy very closely in an age where the feudal system was far from uncontentious. This must have stifled him intellectually and prevented him from making a critique even if he privately wanted to. An example I found in the museum of this was when young students started convening in secret committees in order to sort out personal feuds non-violently i.e. without duelling. As a politician, Goethe condemned this more democratic method of settling disputes, but from his letters we can see he supported it. The Weimar group were also highly critical of the French Revolution, with Goethe opposing it even before the Terror, whereas Schiller expressed optimism up until this point.
It is in this capacity that I cannot help but compare him with our national poet, Burns. Whatever one might think about his longstanding kitschification, Burns as a figure is far easier for me to accept than the German. For me, you’re already fighting an uphill battle in terms of credibility if you are born into wealth, as Goethe was. He could have addressed this. Perhaps shunned honours and carved his own path, but instead he was happy to accept patronage and position and to furnish his house with ostentatious sculpture and paintings.
By contrast, Burns was born into a relatively poor farming family and when invited into aristocratic circles, declined opportunities for self-glorification. He tackled the inequalities of feudalism directly and championed democracy. Burns also supported the Revolution, which upset the noble connections he had made following the publication of his first volume.
I’ve also considered the Shakespeare comparison, with whom he’s more often measured against. Goethe has the significant disadvantage that we know so much more for definite about his life. Shakespeare can be all things to all because he is predominantly speaking through characters, there are no diaries and little information about his personal life that might shed light on his political allegiances. Perhaps though, it is unfair to judge the artist more than the art. In Goethe’s case, however, and particularly in the journals and poetry, the two are so closely linked that it becomes difficult to do so.