From My Life: Poetry and Truth - pages xiv - xix


along with certain scholarly remarks of universal character. However the origins of the individual works naturally stayed in the foreground from the beginning. This first outline seems to have been decided upon as a main goal in 1809.

The first text, written between January and April 1811, leads to about the Strassburg period, indicating the turning point in Goethe's story of youth: in Strassburg Herder — and Friederike, awaken in the genial youth the great poet. Then came the rapid composition of the first three parts from April 1811 to January 1814. Here the plan was significantly augmented by further elaboration of the first text going beyond chronology; the third volume fully belongs to this period. Here was incorporated extensive details on cultural history and true literary character, such as the descriptions of the coronation festivals and the inclusion of children's fairytales. In particular, Alt (op. cit. p. 61 forward) rendered a scholarly comparison of the outline with the full text for signs of artistic mastery, in which Goethe knew how to correlate all the "independent pieces of reality" and join them together into a cohesive unity. On July 24, 1813 the manuscript for the first three parts was as good as done. It was printed January 16, 1814. The attempts by the young author of "Clavigo" to begin a life of wedlock and domesticity form a fitting conclusion, which acts more as an epigrammatic than import-filled ending. It should only be considered a chapter break.


However the execution of the fourth part only occurred after a long period of time and was published after the death of the author. Thus the first three parts stand separate in art and form in somewhat the same way as the twentieth adventure of the fall of the Nibelungen stands separate. Originally Goethe only planned to work on the biography until 1809 and this year was only an arbitrarily derived end date for the publication of the work. A later outline took in the Italian journey as the true conclusion since Goethe deemed this the final period of internal development. However by April 8, 1813 Goethe decided to end with the third part. At that time his decision to publish "Faust" as a fragment rather than a completed work should also be investigated here. The main reason lay in the proximity to his present era, to people and events which were well known and which could not be so freely set into artistic characterization such as those from the Sesenheim and Wetzlar periods or Cornelia and Behrisch. Above all else the retrospective on the still living Lili impeded the representation of the unfortunate path of love relationships. Additionally there lay the danger of interruption inherent to any large, planned undertaking. Weariness and reluctance easily set in.

Goethe also completed a series of "biographical singularities" plus a few sections of the fourth part specifically for the 16th and 20th books between 1812 and 1813. The publication of the Italian Journey (1816 and 1817)


as "From My Life, Second Section, First (and Second) Part indicated the temporary cessation of efforts to complete the running story of his life history. In 1822 the "Campaign in France" was published under the title "From My Life, Second Section, Fifth Part." This pointed more towards efforts to produce various components rather than the completion of one planned work. And even more the "Annals or Daily and Yearly Volumes" became the accumulation of all the singularities, which no longer attested to Goethe's artistic tour de force. (See the introductions to Volumes 28 and 30 of this edition.)

Even though "Faust" would not be completed, it was Eckermann, who prompted Goethe to go on with the other great confession. August 4, 1824 was the birthday of the new decision. However the work lay dormant for another six full years until it was vigorously taken back up on November 9, 1830. The journal received its last entry on October 12, 1831.

Alt (op. cit. p. 72 forward) made an attempt to establish better origination dates for the individual parts.

The work stretched over 24 years with a large pause between 1813 and 1830. In an artistic sense it held as little unity as did "Faust." Indeed, the major intention remains steady to the end but the artistic composition of the first three parts is somewhat disintegrated in the fourth part, tending more towards historical disposition. The well thought out meshing of the first fifteen books is lacking in the last five.


Even in the tone one cannot miss a significant increase in the "older style" with its detachment and stiffness, although — especially in the discussion of Lili — one repeatedly hears the beating of a heart, and although in sections of particular poetic significance one cannot fail to notice the warmth.

Concerning the inner history of the work's origin, one must remember the intention and reasoning behind the writing of "Poetry and Truth." Just about every change in the first three parts and any deviation from the outline has (as previously mentioned) its explanation. An increasingly more intensive effort at elaboration produces a melding of the material in "Poetry and Truth." "The poetics of our biography," states Gustav von Loeper (Introduction to Hempel's edition, v. 23, s. xxviii) "lies less in invention than in artisty of narration, less in content than in form."

Above all others, Herman Grimm points to the mastery of representation with emphasis in his "lectures on Goethe." In my Goethe biography (p. 494 forward) I have attempted to discuss in detail the work's technique, while Gustav Roethe in his beautiful article of August 26, 1900 (Reports of the Frankfurt German society, new series XVII, p. 1 forward) gives an impressive collective characterization of the artistic souvereignty which dominated the poet's work and allowed it to mature. As far as I know this will be the first attempt to analyse and discuss the artistic composition in full detail.


Essentially four questions come into consideration in researching the internal story of the autobiography's origin: How did Goethe set limits for the opus; how did he select the material; how did he set the general divisions; how did he work in the individual details?

Naturally the biographical artistry of earlier masters had an effect upon him. With justification the compilers of the external story of origins also briefly touched on these earlier models. One famous master work exercised the strongest influence, Rousseau's "Confessions." Without reason people have recently begun to devalue its influence. Rousseau had as much influence on "Poetry and Truth" as he did on "Werther." His autobiography created a model for the technique used in all novels: a broad introduction of the love scenes, the painting in of landscape backgrounds, the bright and sententious explication of the psychological steps in the development. Next to Rousseau, St. Augustine with his "Confessions" stood as Goethe's godfather. From him comes the tendency to surround the biography with a unifying narration on metamorphosis. It's even tied to the earlier and later phases of art with the earlier phases seen as "precursors" of the later ones. On a third level there are the reports of two personal friends of the poet: "Stilling's Youth" (1777) by the pietist, Heinrich Jung, and "Anton Reiser" (1785) by the cleric, Karl Philipp Moritz. A contemporary from the Strassburg period


and one from the Italian journey had told their life stories, Jung's Stilling demonstrating the vivid impact of environment and Moritz's with impressive analysis of one's inner life. Both advanced research into Goethe's rendered story of childhood with great love and care. — Eventually other autobiographies had their childhood sections, all of which the poet would have read in the period of his final preparations, including Alfieri's work and others, and "Rameau's Nephew" by Diderot should not be forgotten. These childhood sections of a biographical novel give details on an individual personality operating within a broad cultural and literary-historical backdrop. Furthermore let us consider a short autobiography by the famous history writer Johannes von Müller (1806) prompting the poet to undertake such an assignment. With justification one perceived in his critique of others' writings a program leading to "Poetry and Truth." Men over the ages of 40 or 50 years were supposed to "carefully represent a great unity, even down to the smallest detail." "Good and skillful men, even those insignificant to the world at large, such as parents, teachers, relatives and playmates, should be introduced" and "the workings of greater world events should be sufficiently related to their natural predispositions."

Despite so many teachers, whose direct influence may only be dismissed as unhistoric hero worship, Goethe's conception of the world remains self-sufficient and singular, and certainly with regard to the four questions posed, the answers are found within the internal workings of his autobiography.

Within the limits of the material Goethe


Go to Intro pages xx - xvi


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