From My Life: Poetry and Truth - pages viii-xiii


This great man rekindled the faint joy in important individuals. Inspired by Goethe, Schiller published in the year of his death a significant biographical work, Winckelmann and His Century with a meaningful contribution by the poet himself. In the attempt to give a great personality historic context and trace back his value within his organic environment, this writing became a true precursor to "Poetry and Truth." Of similar tendency other works also group themselves around this major opus: the translation of Benvenito Cellini with cultural and historical addenda (1796) and the editing of the life story of the Neapolitan painter, Philipp Hackert (1811), which gave the poet occasion later to add this characterizing observation: "I had cause to ask myself why I wouldn't undertake to accomplish for myself what I had done for another." With justification Burdach (Goethe Jahrbuch XI, 14 forward) placed another group of works in this category, foremost of all the first collected edition of his works (1806-10).

This edition was the unconditional motive behind the autobiography. Goethe saw the plenum of his poetic experience and admissions poured out before him and found that they were merely "fragments of a great confession." "The fragments of an entire lifetime," he wrote to Zelter (June 22, 1808,) "certainly appear wondrous and incoherent when set next to each other." To him they seemed to be only broken pieces calling out to be brought back together — just as he had brought together the fragments and plans for the first part of his greatest poetic work, Faust, to form a completed work of art.


However Goethe also saw his life and above all else his individuality as a rounded out work of art on which he worked ceaselessly and victoriously like no other. It was worthwhile to show these individual characteristics in their totality because each poem only "confessed" to a solitary aspect or moment; and it was worthwhile to demonstrate how these writings formed an organic unity while the published works merely pointed to big holes and did not make known the chronological sequence of their production.

Herewith the works were placed in the context of Goethe's own life story. This was not merely to become a story of his experiences or even a simple historical account of his life and work in general terms (as the Winckelmann history). It was much more, for Goethe defined himself as an artistic individual whose true existence was similarly measured by what was created and produced. By placing them in organic sequence as artistic expressions of life Goethe introduced and established a second, higher and complete form of being. "Poetry and Truth" is the history of this higher life and the story of a specific life path serves merely as a staging — just as it serves as a report of the overall cultural, historic and literary patterns of the era. This point of view cannot be sufficiently stressed in evaluating the definitive worth of this singular work.

Goethe himself expressed in no uncertain terms his intentions. Right in the middle of the work he placed a clear declaration. In the twelfth book it states:


"From now on this book will be what it is supposed to be. It does not announce itself as a self-standing work; it is designated to be much more, to fill in the holes in an author's life, to bridge many gaps, and to retain the memories of lost and forgotten enterprises." Thus here we have the representative totality of "an author's life," not just the life history itself. The progression of true life experiences is only the grounding upon which the life of an author establishes his higher existence. Therefore in a letter (February 3rd, 1826) Goethe later definitively rejected the publication of historic documents related to his Strassburg stay: the good workings of his own representation should not be disturbed "by scattered and incohesive segments of reality." In other words, what does not pertain directly to higher attainment seems to him ancillary and indeed interfering. In this sense the autobiography is a historic novel: facts are important to the poet only in so far as they are significant to the hero's development.

The remarkable and much-discussed title of this work aims towards this goal. Riemer, who for a time acted as secretary for Goethe, maintained to certain associates that it was he, who suggested the title to the poet (Communications concerning Goethe I, 397, also see II, 608.) Although Riemer's assertions may be accepted with caution, one might trust this particular one because such abstract titles did not lie within Goethe's individual nature. One might think how Schiller was similarly prompted by Iffland to dub his tragedy "Luise Millerin" in


in "Kabala and Love." — Riemer wanted to call the book "Truth and Poetry." Goethe reversed the word order "on euphonetic grounds, because the joining of two similar consonants cemented the two nouns together." For a long time it was customary for Riemer to say "Truth and Poetry" because it supported the contention of his important connection to the work and perhaps because people thought the historical details were more important than originally intended by the author. As we shall attempt to show, the title "Poetry and Truth" is introduced for the first time in the 1868 Heinrich Kurz edition, in which the contents are better edited because here we see that Goethe's poetry is the true hero of the narration. Goethe himself specifically commented on the title. He wrote (on February 15, 1830) to Zelter: As regards the somewhat paradoxical title, From My Life: Truth and Poetry, actually portraying the intimate details, experience has taught me that the public always has its doubts about the veracity of such biographical studies. To counter these, I admit I resorted to the use of a certain amount of fiction, not without good reason. It was my most serious intention to represent and express the founding truths which presided over my life, as I saw them. However when in later years it is no longer possible to relate them without allowing the operation of hindsight and imagination, and one always arrives at this scenario, it becomes clear that when we consider the past, we are more the cumulative result


than the correlation of individual details as they occurred. The most common chronicle contains within it the spirit of the era in which it is written. Wouldn't the fourteenth century interpret a comet with greater import than the nineteenth? Indeed, in the same city people would hear of an important event told differently in the morning than in the evening. — All these things pertaining to the telling and the story being told I have incorporated under the word, poetry, so that the truth, as I perceive it, may serve my ultimate goal. Whether I have achieved it, I will leave to the discerning reader since he will raise the questions: Was the delivery congruent? Could one perceive an individual already known by his works based on the step-by-step progression of concepts presented?"

The title should not be understood as the writer's desire to place his work on one side and his life experiences on the other. Rather, the "poetry" deals with the higher reality while the "Truth" deals with simple reality blended together into an organic totality.

It was with this intention that the plan was set for the positioning and ordering of the work.

We have a large number of schemes, designs, and questions, which the poet wrote down before and during the composition; and from these especially Alt could present an external history of creation for "Poetry and Truth" while


the inside story of its creation has yet to be written (according to a remark by Albert Köster in Anzeiger für deutsches Altertum, 1899, p.68 forward.) At this time only the most important details of the prehistory, in part taken in literal connection to Alt's research, can be introduced and these can only be derived in relation to the completed work.

From the beginning Goethe did not seem to have a reasoned and definite end in mind, however the conclusion we have was fortunately chosen in that the biography leads up to the final departure for Weimar. The artistic development of Goethe's personality came to a definitive stop with this migration, or, better put, the feeling that it had reached a state of completion prompted the poet to venture an epoch making move. The first Weimar period pertains to the self education of the man, the ethical as well as the social and scientific development. However by this time the evolution of the "author's life" had already been achieved in its most important aspects.

For the large, complete edition on August 27, 1808 Goethe wrote the closing statement "to set down his thoughts." This was a year and a day before he succeeded to the second age of man [the senior years.] The first notice advertising a work called "Poetry and Truth" appeared on October 3, 1809. Next Goethe assembled the material in chronologically arranged octavos with the help of his old journals. Culturally historic, individual items of significance were now taken up into the first great schemata,


Go to Intro pages xiv - xix


Text provided by the Lockwood Library, State University of New York at Buffalo.
Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks