Goethe - The German Genius

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a poet, playwright, theologian and scientist of the Romantic Era. From an early age, he had access to all different kinds of private tutors because his dad was so determined to make his children well-rounded. His greatest interests included drawing and literature. In his twenties, he went off to study law at Leipzig University, where he got recognition as a poet and began work on Faust. A few years later he would publish his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther and spend his remaining years going from place to place, gaining knowledge and fame. Along the way, he fell in love with many women, but he married an uneducated and beautiful woman named Christiane Valpuis and had a child, Karl August von Goethe. He was dubbed 'von Goethe', a title of nobility, by Emporer Joseph II in 1782.

Early in his career he was a prominent figure in the Sturm und Drang movement in literature along with one of his closest friends and fellow writer, Friedrich Schiller. This movement is characterized by the expression of extreme emotions and individuality (the name is translated as Storm and Stress) and the rejection of the rigid structure used in Classicism. However, later on, Goethe and Schiller completely turned around and helped start the Weimar Classicism movement. This shows his flexibility and openness. He was always on a quest for knowledge, like the title character in his magnum opus, Faust.

Faust is about a scholar and God's favorite human being, Faust. The Devil makes a deal with God saying that he can lead Faust astray. He then comes to earth and makes a deal with Faust, who agrees to sell his soul to him if he does his bidding on earth in return. A central theme in the tragedy is man's constant quest for knowledge. Is it healthy to be curious or should we obey the limits set by God? Goethe no doubt faced this struggle himself at one point in his life, as he was a devout Christian and prominent figure in the Sturm und Drang movement early on, then later became an advocate of Weimar Classicism with esoteric and pantheistic religious views.

His style was mostly Rococo, or very ornate and elegant, which is common in this era's literature. He also used metaphors, hyperbole, etc. as evident in this sample from Faust:

'Two souls cohabit in my breast,

Each one struggling to tear itself from the other!

The one, like a coarse lover,

Clings to the earth with every sensual organ;

The other struggles violently from the dust and

Soars to the fields of great departed spirits.'

His scientific studies influenced Charles Darwin, who is himself the most influential person in modern biology. His poems influenced Classical composers like Mozart who used based entire compositions on them. And of course, the Goethe-Institut, which promotes the study of German language and culture in foreign countries, was named for him. But if I were to sum up Goethe, I would emphasize his curiosity and constant desire for knowledge, which is apparent in every single aspect of his life from personal to public.





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