From My Life: Poetry and Truth - pages xx - xxvi


far surpassed his predecessors, indeed, at least from the standpoint of artistic unity, within which we certainly can't miss the little pictures of his time and his world. Plus, above it all, we have the first great representation of German literature around 1765 (in the seventh book.) It is the first history of literature ever written in grand style, and in retrospect it remains to this day an unequalled literary model. Nonetheless one can perceive in this wide range a sense of disturbance somewhat like the many broad deviations in the "Journey Years." Among other things Roethe intended for us to see that the poet wished to describe the "reciprocal action between the individual and the spirit of his age." However it is just this which we miss. That, which is most closely associated with the spirit of the age in Goethe's time, is exactly what we encounter least. Like a naive historian he describes most lovingly and fully what attracts then alienates him. Still less in his representation one notices the early and strong impression he had of his contemporaries. Even the section on the "milieu" painting (and other related passages) does not seem all that happy: the frame span was so wide that we could not see the entire picture, thus the design of larger historical paintings did not correspond to Goethe's sense of fine execution. The whole piece did not form a unity, and many details remained without a sense of cohesion to the main theme. They were accessories, autocratic effusions of overly rich, assembled material similar to the literary and epigrammatic garnishes in "Faust." The tight and closed pictures are much more effective: the old Frankfurt school, the Leipzig of Gottsched


and Gellert, the Wetzlar Circle, and above all the Idyll of Sesenheim — all subjects seem to point back to representations by Rousseau. In toto let the work be recognized by the term used in the Winckelmann book: "Goethe and his Century." However the strictly organic placement of items within the middle is nowhere more carefully thought out than in the autobiography.

In the creation of material Goethe commenced his work with greater care. We have already seen that the individual journals comprise the primary foundation. Then followed — as Alt had carefully tested and demonstrated with success on pages 12 forward — personal sources of related material: the Leipzig letters to his sister, the individual works of his youth, stories about his mother directly rendered or derived from Bettina Brentano, stories and notes from contemporaries such as Knebel, Schlosser, and Jacobi. However later he thoroughly studied print sources not just for history and literary history but for restorative details: impressions on the earthquake of Lisbon, the ceremonies of the coronation, the course of business at the Imperial Court are all supported by material provided from books and pamphlets. — For the most part the poet continued throughout as he had started. However he had "misplaced" some items (Düntzer, Explications on "Poetry and Truth", p.131 forward) and in the interest of artistic cohesion he did not supply dates. Here again we perceive ourselves in the proximity of the historic novel.


However the historic veracity has suffered a little through his conscious retouching as well as by unavoidable lapses of memory, which have been discovered and reported especially through Düntzer's zealous research.

The disposition is of greater import. In a later proposed preface to the third part (Weimar edition 28, 356) Goethe specifically states: "Before I began to write the first three volumes I had thought to build them according to certain rules whereby we learn the metamorphosis of plants. In the first the child should take root and sprout tiny leaves; in the second the youth grows up in stages of leafy green and develops many educated branches; our beloved stalk now blossoms and shows promise of bearing fruit as a young man in the third volume."

This by no means playfully intended comparison I attempted to represent in my article "Goethe as Psychologist" (Goethe Jahrbuch XXII, 1* forward.) Goethe believes in stringent rules for all development and makes the effort to show its life course as "normal" in the highest sense, typical development with one node building off the last. Typical experiences were raised up through protracted observations: the child's separation from the parents' house, the first love, indeed even the "discovery of the father city" and the "unfolding of the outer world."

"From node to node" we said with Goethe. One typical situation leads to another and he advances through typical subjects, applying polarity,


changing narrow experience into broader interpretation with a rhythm akin to Goethe's view of the world pervading all living things and giving them full measure. For this reason the fourth book, not organically incorporated, falls away from the first three parts, each of which have five books. The drama of childhood, the hollow youth, the awakening brightness are each divided into five acts. Like "Götz" and "Tasso" the first book gives the exposition; the second book shows the expansion and assault of individuality; the third book demonstrates the constraining influence of the outside world; the fourth exhibits a new and intensified expansion; the fifth shows the catastrophic collision between the world and the personality. Carefully chosen mottos, artfully worked out passages at the beginning and especially the end render the basic theme: education — foreboding desires and actions — first powerful encounters with the world. However all three parts are chained together into one novel, or if one would have it, a drama of perpetual ascent, climaxing in books nine through eleven. — The fourth part displays in stark denouement the return to order and a wondrous conclusion, which admittedly seems melodramatic in much the same way as the here cited "Egmont." Our remarks will make the effort to discover the art of this disposition.

The individual sections of the novel are strongly marked by Goethe's fiction technique, about which we recently have a scholarly book by Robert Riemann. Especially Roethe (p. 14 forward) demonstrated the technique in his excellent article on "Wilhelm Meister."


"With typical regularity two young men with sarcastic and superior friends on the side encounter important life moments; premonitions and warnings carry fateful meaning, mystically penetrating into their lives; lusty, silly, romantic disguise yields prickly excitement, ... and around each there's conflict between the ideal and common practice." Most certainly the poet's own experience is set into the novel; and it's even more certain that poetic practice has colored the representation of life. Characteristics of the older epic poet return, less in style (Roethe p. 15) than in inclination towards arranging influential "living models," such as the student of Socrates (p. 18) or the profound inclination towards literary reflection (p. 19.) The poet survives the usual fate described in the "Preacher of Wakefield," Prévost's "Manon Lescaut," or Rousseau's "New Héloise." This is quite different from the modest narrative in "Werther", which is accompished according to Rousseau's lyrical art fused with mythological transfiguration via Homer, Klopstock and Ossian!

I have presented Goethe's main technique in my Goethe biography (p. 496 forward.) "He first allows next to everything to come forward in the moment when it has biographical significance for the hero and thus we are left with the impression that from the beginning this life is set out like a clever piece of art... The house is similarly described, but then after a few pages it states, 'It was around this time that I first became aware of my father city,' and then comes the description of Frankfurt... Here a second technique is introduced, which imparts symbolic significance to an individual life path.


"It is a technique Goethe loves to use in his novels whereby through lengthy observations he brings to the fore the situations in which all more general psychological laws are set in place. The same occurs during his first departure from his father city."

"Still deeper he embraces a second technique: the premonition of future events and the elaboration of contrasting figures." He wants to show that those characteristics he possesses in the fullness of age were already present in youth. However desires, which portent no future truth, are ignored. Contrasting figures serve well to artfully highlight the characteristics of the hero, such as Oranien's bland life highlighted Egmont's and Antonio's highlighted Tasso's. It was in this way that Goethe wrote the history of a life obedient to the laws of nature and thus on the ascent, as opposed to those, such as of Günther, Lenz, and even Merck, who used vital flaws in developing their characters, who then corrupted themselves by a lack of self control. In Goethe's expositions he attempts to soften the harshness of character flaws or set them aside. This to him was the rigor of artistic obligation.

Thus with firm internal structure and external uniformity we have the great history of his higher existence and the story of the development of his poetic individuality. Nothing relevant is missing: the maturation of his tastes is traced while the development of his technique is brought out through external influences such as manuscripts and dictation. Above all else education leads to a specific world view and art perspective imperceptibly guided by a steady hand into an individual style.


The reception of the work was not what Goethe had hoped for. People enjoyed the rich store of images and experiences from an earlier time but rarely perceived the value of the intention behind it. Instead people in Germany, as in England, inserted their moral principles or religious and political party sentiments into his view of aesthetics, and all little sinners felt pleased in denying absolution to a great sinner, who had so freely and completely made his confession. Gradually the German people regained what it had inherited and may now hold onto it forever: a wonderful work of art, a treasury of magnificent and touching images of human existence derived from the life of the German people — and the biography of a great man, which came closer to the apex of philosophic and artistic truth than any other biography ever written.

                                             Richard M. Meyer


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