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Goethe | Biography

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Early Life and Writings

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German playwright, poet, and novelist. He was also a critic, artist, theater director, scholar, natural scientist, and statesman. Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt am Main, part of the Holy Roman Empire (a group of territories in central Europe dissolved in 1806), to a wealthy and well-educated family. He was homeschooled by tutors, loved to read, and habitually memorized the beginnings of books. Goethe began writing and composing as a child. At age 16 he left home to study law in Leipzig. For health reasons, he returned at 19 before completing his studies. However, while in Leipzig, Goethe developed a new, less moralistic approach to his writing. While recuperating, he studied alchemy—the study of how to change the basic nature of matter, especially how to change other metals into gold. Eighteen months later Goethe began working on his doctorate in law at Strasbourg, which he completed in 1771. While in Strasbourg, Goethe came to look at literature with new eyes. He saw it as articulating the history and culture of a nation. Similarly, he began to appreciate language, landscape, architecture, and folktales and songs as vehicles of culture as well. As soon as he had his doctorate in hand, Goethe returned home to Frankfurt and became a lawyer, later spending several months in Wetzlar as an intern at the supreme court of the Holy Roman Empire.

Besides changing how he thought about writing, Goethe's sojourns away from home added to his life experience. In Leipzig he fell in love with an innkeeper's daughter, but she left him for a somewhat older man who had already established his law practice. In Strasbourg he fell for a pastor's daughter but left her when he departed the city; his guilt over abandoning her stayed with him, and such betrayal became a recurrent theme in his writing. A variation on the theme can be seen again in Faust, which Goethe began writing in 1773 and continued to work on throughout his life.

Despite his qualifications as a lawyer, writing was Goethe's true vocation. His reputation as a poet and author was growing, and soon after setting up his law practice, he was asked to write reviews for the newly established Frankfurt Review of Books. The journal reflected the liberal values of the Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress") literary movement, which encouraged radical thought, and Goethe became one of the movement's best-known members. His 1774 epistolary novel (written as a series of letters), The Sorrows of Young Werther, with its themes of adultery and suicide, was emblematic of the movement and established Goethe's reputation. Because it seemed to encourage suicide, some considered it blasphemous, and certain German states banned it.

Weimar and the Dry Years

One admirer of the novel and its author was Charles Augustus, the 18-year-old duke of Weimar, who invited Goethe to his court. Goethe accepted the invitation—jilting his fiancée when he did so—and in 1776 began the political career that would occupy much of the rest of his life. Six months after his arrival, Charles made Goethe a member of his three-man privy council. Within eight years of coming to Weimar, Goethe was in all but name the prime minister of the important duchy. Charles Augustus recognized his role by making him a nobleman, which added the "von" to Goethe's name.

Goethe's administrative and diplomatic duties took their toll on his writing. He spent a great deal of time studying other fields, some related closely to his work for Charles Augustus, but some not. These fields included geology, botany, and anatomy, but he was unable to achieve the success he had enjoyed in writing. Finally, at age 37, he left for Italy. With Charles Augustus's permission, he spent two years there. During the first year, he traveled and sketched extensively; the second year was spent in Rome absorbing classical culture. When he finally returned to Weimar in 1788, the duke released Goethe from his official duties so that he could concentrate on his writing. Goethe did, however, begin managing the Weimar court theater in 1791. He also accompanied Charles Augustus several times when the duke led troops against the French in 1792 and 1793 during the Napoleonic Wars (led by Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Empire fought various European powers). He found the experience of battle horrifying.

During this time, Goethe met and fell in love with Christiane Vulpius. The couple lived together and had one son, but Goethe could not be completely happy. After the birth of their son, all Christiane's other pregnancies ended in miscarriages or stillbirths. Also, in choosing to be with Christiane, Goethe had lost the close—if platonic—friendship of another woman in Weimar, Charlotte von Stein. Stein was a member of the Weimar nobility and a fellow writer; although she was married, she and Goethe had considered themselves soulmates. Further, because Goethe refused to undergo the Christian marriage ceremony, people did not recognize Christiane's position as his wife, and her discontent eventually soured their relationship. At the same time, Goethe's struggle to write continued.

Later Life and Writings

It was not until 1794, when the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller asked Goethe to collaborate with him on a new literary journal, Die Horen, that Goethe's circumstances changed. The two men embarked on a close friendship that long outlived their journal. Inspired by Schiller's collaboration and critical support, Goethe again wrote prolifically. The mature Goethe on the one hand embraced classicism, believing that the ancient classical world was far superior to the modern one. At the same time, however, he favored idealist philosophy and the romantic movement in art and literature. Eventually, Goethe returned to an idea he had first conceived as a young poet—to write a verse play about the legendary figure Dr. Faust, which he eventually decided to divide into two parts. Goethe's friendship with Schiller lasted until the latter's death in 1805.

After Schiller's death Goethe threw himself into his work, but his projects were interrupted when Napoleon's armies captured and occupied Weimar. But Goethe was in no danger; Napoleon was an admirer. He told the writer he had read The Sorrows of Young Werther seven times, and he knighted Goethe in 1808. To ensure Christiane's safety, however, Goethe finally married her.

In 1817 three life-changing events occurred: Christiane died; their son married; and Goethe finally gave up his citizenship of Frankfurt. He was close to 70 and felt it was time to get his affairs in order. But Goethe remained healthy and active. At 74 he even fell in love again—with the 19-year-old daughter of a family he stayed with while on vacation. But she refused his offer of marriage, and Goethe once again turned his feelings into poetry. He never left Weimar again and continued to produce poems, stories, and plays, including the second part of Faust, which he completed in August of 1831. Goethe died of a heart attack on March 22, 1832.

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