Jubilee Edition in 40 Volumes
In association with Konrad Burdach, Wilhelm Creizenach, Alfred Dove, Ludwig Geiger, Max Herrmann, Otto Heuer, Albert Köster, Richard M. Meyer, Max Morris, Franz Muncker, Wolfgang von Oettingen, Otto Pniower, August Sauer, Erich Schmidt, Herrmann Schreyer and Oskar Walzer, edited by Eduard von der Hellen
Stuttgart and Berlin
Poetry and Truth
with Introduction and Notes by Richard M. Meyer
Stuttgart and Berlin
|Printed by the Union German Publishing House in Stuttgart|
"Poetry and Truth," Goethe's biographical masterwork, must be assessed from a double point of view as a massive main report on his life story and as a conscious work of art — as "truth" and as "poetry." It could not be helped that in squeezing both aspects together one did repeated harm to the other: artistic construction stood in the way of historical representation and more often than not impeded the biographical intent of poetic talent and execution. A renown example for the first aspect is the wonderful depiction of the idyll of Sesenheim, in which Goethe has already set down his acquaintenceship with Goldsmith's "The Preacher of Wakefield" although he actually read this charming story later. Fine proof for the second aspect comes in the words with which the poet himself expresses regret in the report concerning the visit to the Mannheim antique salon, having to close the eleventh book instead of beginning a new one.
However in most cases both aspects, the veritable and the poetic, do not assault each other but rather complement and complete, so that with their unification lies
an incomparable charm, especially the first part, which works upon any perceptive reader.
My task here is to elucidate this work from these two perspectives, as historical report and work of art. The notes should serve well to accomplish the first task. The introduction should serve for the second, rendering a brief account on the work's origin.
We are given more information about the origin and development of "Poetry and Truth" than we are about most of Goethe's works. In particular we have the ground-breaking research of Gustav von Loeper in the Hempel edition and Heinrich Düntzer's commentary to Goethe's work (volume 34) briefly restated in the Kürschner edition (Deutsche Nationalliteratur, volume 98.) The results of these two researchers' ongoing studies were compiled in Karl Alt's book Studies in the Origins of Goethe's Poetry and Truth (Munich 1898) along with this author's own careful work. In this tome one also finds cited and used other literature on the history of Goethe's autobiography.
From childhood onwards Goethe possessed a lively and indeed passionate biographical interest. His first products incorporated — as do almost all children's works — hero sagas and fairytales, Columbus and Robinson suitable to nourish a sense of active participation with remarkable personalities and destinies. Already his youthful letters demonstrate a lively inclination towards literary portraits and skits concerning definite cultural and social relationships.
The images he sketched out in letters from Leipzig concerning Gottsched or those in Frankfurt describing the kind of girls there could well be considered forerunners of similar pieces found in "Poetry and Truth." His poetic production was already strongly influenced by biographical interests. Not only "Götz von Berlichingen" is a dramatized life story but also in "Werther" we find biographical tendencies and in "Clavigo" there is a segment of Beaumarchais' autobiography brought to the stage. Similar apparitions repeat themselves much later in the "Natural Daughter."
This participation in the fates and character traits of others naturally receded when Goethe was faced with the true passions of his own self-education during the time in Weimar. Instead of involvement with older biographies, this period demonstrates a seasoning of the poet's autobiobraphical interests. Journal notes indicate that he studied himself as a historian would study a remarkable individual, assembled documents concerning that person, distinguished periods, and formulated guidelines for his character. He certainly rejected the repeated famous phrase "Know yourself" as a risky reminder but only in so far as it elicited a crippling quandry concerning the basis of our individuality. He found practical self-knowledge indispensible.
Goethe's interest in pure biography returned during the next decade. His friendship with Schiller reawakened it.
Go to Intro pages viii - xiii
Text provided by the Lockwood Library, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks