Review: Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe – Life as a Work of Art

Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe – Life as a Work of Art. Liveright, 2017.


Goethe is too little known in the US and UK despite the existence for over two hundred years of excellent translations, some of the earliest by women (Sarah Austin and Anna Swanwick). Even the best book on Goethe and England (by Jean-Marie Carré, published in1920) is French.

However, Goethe scholarship has long been outstanding especially in Britain. One of the earliest biographies (1855) was by George Henry Lewes, which appeared two years later in German.  Furthermore, modern British Goethe scholars, like the late Leonard Willoughby and Elizabeth Wilkinson, and the contemporary scholars Nicholas Boyle and T. J.Reed, are recognized in Germany and translated into German. As comparatively recently as 1955, a leader in The Times Literary Supplement could refer to Goethe’s work as ‘perhaps the most comforting proof of human capacity in all literature’.

Can it be that the rejecting prudery of Wordsworth and De Quincey, and Coleridge’s fear of Goethe’s atheism, still puts us off? One would think rather the reverse. An early translator of Faust called Goethe’s famous ‘Roman Elegy’ –

‘And is this not education, to study the shape of her lovely

Breasts, and down over her hip slide my adventuring hand . . .

Seeing with vision that feels, feeling with fingers that see’

‘sensuous throughout . . . more fleshimental than sentimental.’

And he meant that as criticism, not as a happy compliment.

Should we not take our lead rather from Shelley (who all too briefly translated the beginning of Faust) or from Byron, who admired Goethe, though not as much as Goethe admired him?  Or is Carlyle’s admiration for Goethe – who he corresponded with – now a deterrent? The Englishman who knew him best was the lawyer and memoirist Henry Crabb Robinson, who recorded his conversations with him in Weimar. However the amiable ‘Crabb’ is long out of print, and is badly in want of a biographer, though he does have a substantial website (The Henry Crabb Robinson Project at QMUL, University of London).

Rüdiger Safranski’s biography could change the British neglect of – and sometimes fear – of Goethe; it is a handsome volume, beautifully translated by the American scholar David Dollenmayer, who has also elegantly translated the many Goethe quotations.Goethe has been called one of the inventors of holism, of the theory of organic development, or morphology applied beyond the field of biology, and this biography is itself holistic, seeing the end in the beginning  (showing, for instance, how Goethe’s first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther– which Napoleon read seven times – and even his mature novel, Elective Affinities, which was considered so shocking that its Victorian translator had to remain anonymous, both had their origins in their author’s self-dramatizing teenage love letters). However, the organic nature of Goethe’s own production is best captured, apart from in his own poetry, in the words of his friend and collaborator Friedrich Schiller:

‘While the rest of us must laboriously collect and examine in order to slowly produce some tolerable thing, he only has to shake the tree and the loveliest fruits fall down, ripe and heavy.  The ease with which he now reaps the fruits of a well-spent life and continued learning is unbelievable’ (Letter to the Swisspainter Johann Heinrich Meyer).

Safranski does not attempt fully to explain this magic, but seems himself to have caught some of Goethe’s natural energy, so that this big book of over 600 pages always seems fresh and never too long. It is strange that he, or perhaps his publisher, calls it ‘Life as a Work of Art’, because – whatever differing ideas Goethe had about art throughout his long life – he was certainly never the aesthete that this title suggests, rather tending towards a functional or perhaps a higher functional aesthetic.

It is tempting to suggest that this study and biography of Goethe works so well partly because detailed discussion of Faust is left to the end.  Faust is a great poetic work – like Hamlet, with many wonderful quotations – but it, especially Part II, is a loose-knit drama into which, almost up to his death, Goethe added the weightiest things on his mind which he couldn’t fit in elsewhere, as well as some of his most beautiful lyric poetry. Instead of being kept for advanced study, which both parts require, Faust appears sometimes to be used or abused in university – and even school – by German teachers to intimidate their students.

This is a pity, because – beside Goethe’s lyric poetry – two works stand out as better suited for beginners than Faust.  The first is The Sorrows of Young Werther, his youthful novel which was at the same time an intense expression of Romanticism and a study of its literally fatal – suicidal – consequences.  This novel is probably best known in the English-speaking world through William Thackeray’s satirical poem –

‘Werther had a love for Charlotte

Such as words could never utter:

Would you know how first he met her?

She was cutting bread and butter, etc.’

Rather than repeat the rumour that the book caused a wave of suicides, which – Safranski points out – seems to have been untrue (perhaps a marketing ploy), it is important to understand that Goethe was himself satirizing and parodying his hero.  As Safranski says, ‘Goethe’s ridicule of Werther-like sentimentalism could surprise only those who hadn’t read Werther closely.’ Goethe’s own not excessively numerous affairs were often passionate, but without love on his side, and he was certainly never suicidal when they ended and sometimes morphed into friendships.The second of Goethe’s most approachable works is his play, after Euripides (but with a happy ending), Iphigenia in Tauris– a model of Weimar Classicism, which is also an astounding feminist work avant la lettre:

‘Yet the lot of women is pitiable.

At home and in war man is the master  . . .

How narrowly bound is the fortune of woman!

Just to obey an uncouth husband

Is duty and solace . . .’

Safranski’s description and discussion of this play is ample and clear, with generous quotation. How Faust, as a play, came to head the German syllabus and not Iphigenia almost begins to look suspicious when another work of Goethe’s more suitable for early Goethe readers is taken into account – the domestic and romantic idyll in Homeric metre, Hermann and Dorothea, because it also contains a strong woman. This beautiful and touching work was for some time Goethe’s most popular. It should be better known here, because it is the clear model for Arthur Hugh Clough’s equally domestic and romantic, but more comedic, idyll The Bothie of Tober-na-Voilich.

‘Hermann and Dorothea’, many times translated into English, is a moving portrait of a son who, supported by an understanding mother, struggles against an overbearing and socially proud father, who looks forward to a daughter-in-law from the right family and with a good dowry.  Dorothea is neither of these.  In having her tell her life at the end of this domestic idyll, Goethe seems to want to give a hint at an aspect of his own political views.  For Dorothea tells how the golden ring that she wears was given her by her first fiancé, one of those German radical democratic sympathizers with the French Revolution who went to Paris, only to die under the guillotine in the Revolutionary chaos. The most plausible model for this man is Georg Forster, who as a sixteen-year-old sailed on Captain Cook’s Second Voyage, and wrote  (in English) ‘A Voyage Round the World’, which Goethe knew. Forster later took part in the French Revolutionary occupation of Mainz, and in 1793 went to Paris, where he died a natural death.

Goethe knew Forster and sympathized with his fate, if not with his ideas. He seems to have wanted to publicize this. Why else would he have tacked his story on to a domestic idyll, like Hermann and Dorothea, which as a result he had to bring to an end with politics and war instead of domestic happiness? Goethe’s own politics were humane conservative. He once rescued a Jacobin (an enemy of his own side during the Prussian Siege of Mainz) from lynching, and proclaimed that it was in his nature thus to break the law rather than risk chaos and mob rule. Why did Goethe raise this literary monument to the so-called German Jacobins (though most of them were moderates, including Forster, and closer to the Girondins), thus spoiling the end of his Homeric, quasi Biedermeier idyll, if he did not want to remember them in his work?  He had always made it clear that the fault of the Revolution lay with France’s rulers: the rest were victims.Goethe’s attitude to Napoleon is another story.

Safranksi approaches Goethe’s life and work chronologically, including the many girls and women who loved or were loved by him as integral parts of his story. Goethe was born and grew up, with his younger sister Cornelia, in a prosperous upper class home in the then Imperial city of Frankfurt-on-Main, one of several such cities of the Holy Roman Empire. Three of Goethe’s siblings died in infancy, and a younger brother aged six.  Goethe’s father was a lawyer, who despite becoming an Imperial councillor, was also an admirer of Frederick the Great of Prussia.

After a happy childhood, with a loving and doting mother, Goethe went through a period of misery and depression in adolescence, turning to a Christian Pietist sect for help. However, the young Goethe ‘lacked any consciousness of sinfulness’, which didn’t help with that path to salvation. He once interrupted a Pietist service, asking himself, ‘What’s the point of this darkness?’ and lit a chandelier (‘It brightened things up nicely’). It is important to be aware of this difficult period in Goethe’s life, which he wrote about in his autobiography, as it helps to explain his later effective rejection of great writers like Lenz, Hölderlin and Kleist – sometimes disturbed men who seem to have reminded him of his own precariousness.

At his father’s behest, Goethe studied law at Leipzig University, dropping out aged nineteen without a degree, but having begun to write and make consequential friends.  He continued his legal studies in Strasbourg and Frankfurt, but never qualified. Lingering in and around home until his early twenties, Goethe found work at the Imperial High Court in the Hesse town of Wetzlar, where he fell in love with Charlotte Buff, the model for Werther’s Lotte.   Her fiancé and later husband, the Hanoverian court councilor Johannes Kestner, gave one of the most vivid sketches of his friend Goethe, quoted by Safranski:

‘He is intensely emotional… He loves children and can become very involved with them… He does whatever occurs to him without worrying whether it pleases others… He holds the female sex in high regard… He is not yet settled and is still searching for a certain system… He doesn’t like to disturb others in their settled opinions… He does not go to church. For, as he says, ‘I’m not enough of a liar for that’… He has made belles-lettres and the arts his principal study – or rather all branches of knowledge except those by which one earns one’s bread… He is, in a word, a very remarkable man.’

In his mid-twenties Goethe met the reigning duke, Karl-August of Saxe-Weimar, whose dukedom, Safranski points out, occupied a difficult situation between enlightened Prussia and Hapsburg Austria.  The boisterous duke was only eighteen when he invited the slightly older Goethe effectively to rule his mini-state with him.

The Dowager Duchess, Karl-August’s mother Anna-Amalia, was just thirty-six years old in November 1775 when Goethe arrived there. He was to remain there for most of his life – over half a century – apart from two years in Italy, and short sojourns in Switzerland. He visited Berlin once, wanted to go to Paris, but never got there.

It is well known that Goethe was far from being just Weimar court poet, succeeding the amiable and popular Christoph Martin Wieland. Goethe also became the duke’s first minister, responsible among other things for culture, including the famous theatre, the mines (where Safranski shows Goethe’s policies led to a flooding fiasco), the army, which was comprehensively downsized, and the roads, including the failure to complete a road from Weimar to Naumburg to English standards.  No less a person than Herder complained this was all too much, but he later became very close to Goethe.

As court poet Goethe partly dramatized himself in his great Classical play, Torquato Tasso, about the conflicting  ‘demands of his [Goethe’s] literary and official existence’.  Tasso is an unhappy, conflicted figure, who ends up saying pitifully:

‘When in their anguish other men fall silent

A god gave me the power to tell my pain.’

That of course was never Goethe, and Safranski shows how Goethe – unlike Tasso – managed to unite or at least reconcile his two identities.A famous enigma of Goethe’s life in Weimar was his relationship with Charlotte von Stein, ten year his senior, and wife of the duke’s chief equerry.  The mother of three children, she was the recipient of Goethe’s beautiful but elusive poem:

‘Fate, why did you grant this deep perception

So that we can see what is to come,

And never, blissful, trust in the deception

Of love and earthly happiness, like some?’

and of a series of letters from him.  Goethe was also the teacher of her son Fritz.  Safranski fully depicts the relationship but wastes little time speculating on its exact nature as far as its intimacy is concerned.

When in 1806 Goethe suddenly married his mistress and mother of his son August, Christiane Vulpius, with whom he had been living since 1788, court circles – especially Charlotte von Stein – were shocked.  Christiane was generally considered mere ‘bed treasure’, or just ‘bed mate’ by Goethe’s mother, who liked her.  Goethe’s correspondence with Christiane reveals an endearing unintellectual relationship. They were both enthusiastic gardeners, and his didactic poem, ‘The Metamorphosis of Plants’ seems addressed to her.  His marrying might have been prompted by his gratitude to her for saving his Weimar house and its possessions from marauding French soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. Further, it is generally considered that Christiane inspired the tender erotic poetry of the Roman Elegies, which Goethe wrote on his return from Italy. W. H. Auden plausibly claimed that Goethe lost his virginity and became truly a man in Rome, but it was Christiane who seems to have truly inspired his erotic imagination.

This was particularly the case with arguably his greatest love poem, ‘The Diary’, a narrative work addressed to an absent wife. Still little known, Goethe suppressed it himself and it is not in the famous 14-volume Hamburg Edition (1964), though it was published as early as 1904. This mellow poem, which accommodates humour, romance, love, sexual arousal – and its lack – is  often discussed in relation to Goethe’s extraordinary novel Elective Affinities, which begins in the world of Jane Austen, but also embraces magic realism. In this novel, too, sex is treated explicitly, though much more disturbingly, and wholly without the comedy of ‘The Diary’.  In his detailed discussion of Elective Affinities, Safranski neatly sums up ‘The Diary’ – written just after the novel – as ‘a comic, burlesque reply to the tragedy’ of the novel. Yet this is still insufficient, because that poem is also a profound expression of marital love. In that respect, perhaps it is the most erotic ‘moral’ poem ever written.

Safranski offers a particularly rich discussion of Goethe’s West-East Divan, again – but less intimately  – partly the product of a relationship with a woman, Marianne von Willemer, herself the author of some of the loveliest of that work’s poems, some set by Schubert.Safranski is illuminating on and – like most people – not uncritical of the three parts of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, which can challenge the greatest Goethe enthusiast.

Wordsworth told Emerson: ‘It was full of all manner of fornication. It was like the crossing of flies in the air.’ The poet Novalis called it ‘a Candide aimed at Romantic poetry’, and said: ‘The book’s spirit is aesthetic atheism’.  He had a point, for in Goethe’s extraordinary relationship with Schiller, about which Safranski is especially helpful, which began by them both recognizing their profound differences, despite which they worked closely together – particularly as literary editors – Goethe remained as far from his friend philosophically as he had been when they met.   Thus, Goethe thanked Schiller for the manuscript of his great Aesthetic Letters, saying he ‘quaffed it down in a single gulp’.  However, as Safranski points out, Goethe could never share Schiller’s belief that, after the fiasco of the French Revolution, only through art could people be educated to freedom. Goethe, although he produced the greater art, could not share his closest friend’s – or Novalis’s – idealism. That is why it is more than moving when Goethe, who was himself ill, on being told of Schiller’s death (at only 46) by an anxious Christiane who avoided waking him up in the night, wrote: ‘I thought I would lose myself, and now I lose a friend, and in him half my existence. ‘

The other half of Goethe’s existence (he was 56 when Schiller died and had another 26 years of life) brought in a further harvest of great works, including his autobiography Poetry and Truth, and some of his greatest poetry, inspired by falling in love with the seventeen-year old Ulrike von Levetzow, safely chaperoned by her mother, when he was in his mid-seventies.The last years of Goethe’s life were recorded in detail by his amenuensis and friend, Johann Peter Eckermann, whose ‘Conversations of Goethe’ – well translated by the thenTimesdrama critic, John Oxenford, and published in 1874  – offers another reminder of the high regard in which Goethe was once held in the English-speaking world.

The motto of Book Six of Poetry and Truth reads: ‘What one wishes for when young, one has in old age in abundance.’ This aphorism, quoted by Goethe as a ‘good old optimistic German saying’, when himself in his sixties, might seem a little smug. But one can only say that he lived up to it, to the benefit of us all.It is not possible to do justice to Rüdiger Safranski’s harmonious and well- balanced biographical study in a single review.  Safranski is a philosopher and his book contains a very readable and sympathetic discussion of Goethe’s attitude to religion. Thus could a quite different review of this pleasing, manifold book begin.

‘A shorter version of this article is published as a review in Angermion – Yearbook for Anglo-German Literary Criticism, Winter, 2017.


Nicholas Jacobs studied at the University of Warwick (UK) and in Germany (Freiburg and Hamburg), worked in London publishing for over fifty years.  In retirement he teaches at the University of the Third Age, translates from German and writes book reviews. His translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s ‘The Marquise von O –’ will be published by Pushkin Press in 2019.


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