Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

by Kassandra Schwämmle

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – a great name that most of us probably came across at school in the form of Faust.

But Goethe’s work not only includes the story around the legendary scholar, but also many other important literary pieces, as well as scientific and philosophical considerations.

But who is the man who is considered one of the most important and influential poets? Let us take a journey through his life together and take a look at his work.

Childhood in Frankfurt

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on 28 August 1749 in Frankfurt am Main. As the son of a wealthy and influential family, the ailing yet inquisitive boy was able to receive a comprehensive school education. From an early age, he was taught by tutors in addition to school, together with his sister Cornelia, with whom he maintained a close relationship.

Since Goethe had been baptized in Protestantism, he also received Protestant religious instruction, but this bored him from an early age. He preferred to go out into nature and early on developed a natural religiosity from observations that later found their way into his philosophical considerations.

Study time

At the request of his father Johann Caspar Goethe, the son moved to Leipzig to begin studying law. The young Goethe, however, who took much more pleasure in poetry than in stubbornly struggling with legal texts in narrow, stuffy rooms, attended poetics lectures, took drawing lessons and enjoyed student life to the full. He did not have to worry about money, his pocket money from Frankfurt was generous, so he could afford regular visits to the theatre and made many contacts with well-known personalities of his time, such as the antiquarian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

When Goethe’s health deteriorated, however, he was forced to return to Frankfurt am Main, much to the displeasure of his father without a degree.

For his recovery, the doctor Dr. Johann Friedrich Metz was called in, a good friend of Goethe’s mother’s, who, like herself, was close to the Herrnhut community in Frankfurt. The physician, who was trained in the hermetic-alchemical tradition from Paracelsus to Jakob Böhme, encouraged the young Goethe to study mythical, alchemical and magical writings in order to be able to produce self-healing tinctures.

While studying the works of Welling, Paracelsus, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim and others, Goethe stumbled upon the legend of the historical Dr. Faust for the first time. First ideas for a work about the famous alchemist and scholar were born. Goethe also decided to give his protagonist the first name von Nettesheim.

Besides his occupation with the alchemical works he approached the Herrnhut community. He was increasingly concerned with Protestant teaching and tried to unite this with his world view, which had been shaped by natural religiosity from childhood. For a while he felt comfortable and was able to make some intimate friendships, such as with Susanna Katharina von Klettenberg, who later became the model for the “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul” in the sixth book of Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship years.

But the profane moral doctrine without a vivid and festive fullness, as Goethe himself called it, and the stubborn fixation on original sin and excessive love of Jesus increasingly repelled the young poet. When he finally moved to Strasbourg to finish his studies there, he finally broke with the Herrnhut community, even though the wife of Klettenberg remained a valuable (letter) friend to him.

During his studies and while working on his dissertation, Goethe began to concern himself with architecture, as the city in Alsace fascinated him greatly with its architecture. In Strasbourg the young poet experienced a carefree time.

Here too, the young student, bubbling with energy, was able to make numerous friends and acquaintances, including the cultural philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder brought him to Homer, Shakespeare and Ossian and to folk poetry, which the thirsty for knowledge also studied diligently.

In response to his engagement with Protestant teachings, Goethe was also concerned with the creative power that is inherent in man. The focus was on trust in one’s own talent, one’s own genius, revelation through an inspired knowledge of nature, not waiting for inspiration from a divine power, as he saw it in the Protestant Christian teaching. From these considerations came the work Prometheus, in which the protagonist rises up against the gods and mocks them.

In 1771 Goethe finished his studies and set off again for Frankfurt/Main with a completed dissertation.

Frankfurt / Wetzlar / Darmstadt


Back in his old home country, the newly qualified lawyer opened a small law firm, but he only ran it half-heartedly and mainly for his father. Writing poetry was still the most important and pleasant thing.

So he began to work on Götz von Berlichingen, which was a great success after it was published by himself and made Goethe famous overnight.

At his father’s urging, Goethe nevertheless accepted an internship at the Reichskammergericht in Wetzlar, but at the same time wrote reviews for the Frankfurter Gelehrten Zeitung. He occupied himself a great deal with the concept of aesthetics, in which he associated above all the imitation of nature in art. At the same time, his preoccupation with this subject area marked the beginning of the Sturm und Drang, in the course of which Goethe joined the Darmstadt Circle of the Sensitive around Johann Heinrich Merck for a while.

Goethe felt at home in the company of numerous writers and poets; he had people around him who were similar to him in their curiosity and in his literary work.

It was during this time that the material for The Sorrows of Young Werther was written. Goethe fell in love with Charlotte Buff, but she was only interested in friendship and rejected him as gently but firmly as Lotte rejected young Werther.

The young poet came into contact with Johann Caspar Lavater, a Swiss theologian and philosopher, with whom, despite some differences of opinion, he exchanged ideas throughout his life and who became a good friend and mentor to him. Inspired by conversations with church scholars, Goethe became increasingly interested in philosophy and discovered the teachings of Spinoza for himself. The poet found himself in Spinoza’s pantheistic view of life, so that he once wrote to his Swiss mentor that he was not a Christian but a pantheist.

In 1775 Goethe became engaged to Lili Schönemann, a young banker’s daughter whom he had met at a house concert in Frankfurt.

Since both parents were opposed to a union between the two and Goethe, despite his great love for Lili, felt restricted by the relationship, the engagement was dissolved and the young poet literally fled to Weimar to accept the invitation of the Prince of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach. But still in his old age and in poetry and truth Goethe spoke of Lili as his perhaps only true great love.

Weimar (from 1775)

In Weimar Goethe entered the service of Prince Carl-August, who was only a few years younger than himself. Together they experienced a wild, carefree time, during which a deep friendship developed between the two men.

According to the wishes of the Duchess’s mother Anna Amalia, Weimar was to become culturally more important and develop further.

For this reason, Prince Goethe offered a job in state services, which the poet accepted after a short hesitation.

During this time Goethe also met Charlotte von Stein, with whom he exchanged countless letters and who was to accompany him as a loyal friend throughout his life.

As a civil servant, he was responsible for the road construction commission and the war commission, and he also tried to reduce the Principality’s debts, which he succeeded in doing partly through savings.

Goethe was often able to combine inspiration and his civil service activities. For example, he undertook a trip to the Harz mountains, during which he was to inspect the silver mines near Ilmenau for development. He drew creative strength from his observations of nature and the ascent of the Brocken. In 1780 he began his scientific studies. In general, the poet travelled a lot, partly on a ducal commission, partly to visit friends and acquaintances, but also to get to know the country and its people.

The life as a civil servant of the prince took Goethe more and more into account, whereby often the success of his undertakings and projects failed to materialize. The poet was also heading for a literary crisis, he started a few more extensive works, but they always remained unfinished, he did not want to graduate, he felt more and more that his civil servant and his life as a poet were incompatible.

So he decided to go on a journey.

Italian journey

Goethe himself described his journey to Italy, the place of longing since early youth, as an escape from the oppressive confinement of his poetic freedom in Weimar. For him, the journey to the south, to the country where the Renaissance had its origins, was also a search for renewal and rebirth. And indeed, the poet found his enthusiasm for art and nature again.

He began to write poems and treatises again, for example on architecture.

Finally he reached Rome, where he stayed with the painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, who also painted the famous painting Goethe in the Campagna. He finished his long abandoned works such as the Torquato Tasso and the Egmont.

From the Italian capital he travelled to Sicily, climbed the Vesuvius and learned, back in Rome, to draw in perspective.

The poet enjoyed the southern life to the fullest, he is said to have even had a mistress in Rome who inspired him to write the Roman Elegies.

Eventually, however, the poet prince had to follow the call of his duke back home and he returned to Weimar after almost a year and a half.

Weimar again

Despite Goethe, as he himself wrote to Carl-August, reborn and returned to Weimar filled with new youth, he was energetic but grumpier, even more moody and buttoned up than anyone had known him before.

This only changed when a young woman came to the poet prince as a petitioner for her brother who was in financial difficulties. Her name was Christiane Vulpius, with whom Goethe quickly fell very much in love. In the first months, the relationship between the two was still kept secret. But eventually she became Goethe’s first and only wife and bore him several children, of which only the first-born son August reached adulthood.

At the same time, his (platonic) relationship with Charlotte von Stein deteriorated, but the friendship between the two never broke up, even though the tone of their letters cooled noticeably.

1789 marks another decisive year in Goethe’s life: the young Johann Christoph Friedrich (von) Schiller came to Weimar. Famous for his play Die Räuber, the young poet sought new challenges and old quarrels to escape.

The two poets, Goethe and Schiller, were initially very suspicious of each other.

Schiller, although a great admirer of Goethe’s works, could not do anything with the often condescending manner of the other.

He described the poet-prince, not without envy, as a beneficiary of fate who always had enough means at his disposal.

But the common view of the revolution that was breaking out in France and the ideas of freedom brought the two together. Thus a friendship developed that was to be a defining feature of Weimar Classicism. They supported each other in projects.

Goethe, for example, wrote several articles for the Horen, a literary journal published by Schiller, which was dedicated to the education of the public. They also cooperated with each other in the critical examination of works in progress and works that were about to be published. Schiller, for example, provided advice to his friend, who was at a loss in his Wilhelm Meister.

The revolution and its turmoil did not stop at the Principality of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach and so Goethe, in the retinue of Carl-August, went to war against France in 1792 at the side of Prussia-Austria.

In order to be able to process the impressions of the battles, Goethe took refuge, as he had done before, in observations of nature and poetry. He began his work on optics and color theory, for which his first ideas were already developed during his trip to the Harz Mountains.

He also worked again and again on the material of the Faust, wrote scenes and polished the story, bringing in new thoughts and experiences.

After the reconquest of the French-occupied city of Mainz, Goethe returned to Weimar. There, after the impressions of the war, he enjoyed family life all the more and cultivated friendships, but also processed the most terrible of all events, as he himself called the revolution and the subsequent military conflicts, in poetry and natural history research.

At the beginning of the 19th century, some long-time companions died. First 1803 Herder, then 1805 Schiller.

Goethe himself, deeply moved, took refuge in the work and finally completed Faust I in 1807.

He also continued to enjoy travelling, for example along the Rhine, Main and Neckar rivers and visiting old friends.

From the platonic love affair with Marianne Jung and the occupation with the Persian poet Hafis the West-Eastern Divan was born. During this time he also began to sort out old notes and letters and, from 1811, began to write poetry and truth to his autobiography, which he published shortly before his death in 1831, as well as Faust II.

He survived his wife as well as his lord Prince Carl-August, even his son August died before Goethe. This led him to think about immortality and enriched his philosophical writings.

Even in his old age, Goethe was always driven by his curiosity and was interested in scientific topics as well as in the (world) literature of his time. Likewise, his enthusiasm for the female sex never waned and he drew strength and inspiration from his numerous infatuations, as he himself called them. In his later years, the Marienbad Elegies, which he wrote after falling in love with Ulrike von Levetzow, more than 45 years his junior, bear witness to this.

On 22 March 1832 this extraordinary poet died in Weimar.

Now who was Goethe? Not only was he an important literary figure of his time, whose works are still world-famous today. He was also a natural scientist, philosopher and last but not least a civil servant in the service of Carl-August. A man with an alert and, above all, curious mind who never stopped getting to the bottom of things, who was inspired by many things and who himself inspired many, even today. Goethe was one of the great and important for our culture and lives on in his timeless works.

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