James Sime.

Life of Johann Wolfgang Goethe; online

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“Great Writers.”













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Goethe born, August 28, 1749; his grandfather and grandmother; his
father, Johann Kaspar Goethe; his mother; his sister Cornelia; a
child of an imaginative temperament; his grandmother’s last Christmas
gift; his father’s house rebuilt; his knowledge of Frankfort; the
Council-house; education; Klopstock’s “Messiah”; folk-books; the Seven
Years’ War; Count Thorane and Goethe; lessons interrupted and renewed;
early religious ideas; his first love; in 1765 leaves Frankfort to
study at the university of Leipsic 11


Goethe at Leipsic; nominal studies at the university; dejection, and
recovery of his usual good spirits; his love for Annette Schönkopf;
forms many friendships; takes lessons in art from Oeser and Stock; goes
to Dresden to study the picture gallery; reads Dodd’s “Beauties of
Shakespeare”; influenced by Wieland, Lessing, and Winckelmann; writes
“Die Laune des Verliebten” and “Die Mitschuldigen”; early lyrics;
illness; partial recovery; returns to Frankfort in August, 1768;
renewed illness; influenced by Fräulein von Klettenberg; sees General
Paoli; Annette Schönkopf married; in April, 1770, goes to Strasburg
to attend the university; feels at home in Strasburg; Salzmann;
Jung Stilling; sees Marie Antoinette; impressed by antiquities at
Neiderbronn; meets Herder; Herder’s character; the movement of thought
in Europe; Herder’s influence on Goethe; Goethe and Frederika Brion;
returns to Frankfort in August, 1771; his poetic genius awakened by
love 24


Goethe takes the oath as an advocate and citizen of Frankfort;
holds a Shakespeare festival; reads the autobiography of Goetz
von Berlichingen; writes the drama, “Geschichte Gottfriedens von
Berlichingen”; his friendship with Merck; writes criticism for the
“Frankfurter Gelehrten Anzeigen”; the “Wanderers Sturmlied” and the
“Wanderer”; in May, 1772, goes to practise at the imperial chamber at
Wetzlar; his love for Charlotte Buff; saves himself by flight from
Wetzlar; visits Frau von Laroche; returns to Frankfort in September,
1772; recasts his drama about Goetz von Berlichingen; defects and
great qualities of “Goetz”; “Goetz” published in summer of 1773;
enthusiastically received; Goethe’s depression, and its causes;
Maximiliane Brentano; origin of “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers”; the
story of “Werther”; its relation to the dominant mood of the age, and
to Goethe’s own experience; character of Lotte and Albert; style of
“Werther”; descriptions of nature; profound impression produced by
the book; its effect on the mind of Lotte’s husband; Nicolai’s parody
of “Werther,” and Goethe’s response; “Clavigo”; “Stella”; “Erwin und
Elmire,” and “Claudine von Villa Bella”; “Götter, Helden, and Wieland”;
poetic fragments 47


Goethe begins to write “Faust”; the work in its earliest form; the
character of Faust; the story of Gretchen; Mephistopheles; Goethe
expresses in the original “Faust” his own mood and one of the moods of
his age; his study of Spinoza’s “Ethics”; Lavater; Basedow; Johanna
Fahlmer; his friendship with Frederick Jacobi; the Counts Stolberg;
Goethe’s engagement with Lili Schönemann; the engagement broken off;
poems occasioned by his love for Lili; meets the Hereditary Prince of
Weimar; the Prince becomes Duke; Goethe invited to Weimar; arrives
there on November 7, 1775; a new home 72


Weimar; Goethe’s relations to the Duke, the Duchess, and the Duchess
Dowager; Wieland; Herder settles at Weimar; the Duke proposes that
Goethe shall enter the public service; opposition of Goethe’s father;
Goethe becomes a member of the Privy Council; his friendship with Frau
von Stein; Corona Schröter; his self-discipline; his public duties;
the earnestness with which he discharges them; change of manner as
well as of character; visits Switzerland, and sees Frederika Brion and
Lili on the way; death of his father in 1782; is made “Geheimerath”
and President of the Chamber of Finance; ennobled; visits the Harz
Mountains; devotes himself to the study of science; discovers the
intermaxillary bone in the human jaw; his doctrine of types in organic
nature; “Iphigenie” in prose; change in the methods of his art as a
dramatist; “Wilhelm Meister” begun; “Torquato Tasso”; minor plays and
poems; the literary movement in Germany; longing for Italy; starts for
Italy in September, 1786; edition of his collected writings 86


Delight in Italy; the “Italienische Reise”; journey to Rome; arrives in
Rome, October 29, 1786; attempts to think himself back into the Rome
of ancient times; his study of ancient art; the art of the Renascence;
St. Peter’s; friends in Rome; thinks of becoming an artist; re-writes
“Iphigenie” in verse; visits Naples; Sicily; second residence in Rome;
completes “Egmont”; works at “Faust”; leaves Rome on April 21, 1788,
and arrives at Weimar on June 18th 106


Benefit derived from his sojourn in Italy; relieved of most of his
ministerial duties; change in his relations to Frau von Stein; his
informal marriage with Christiane Vulpius; character of Christiane;
relations with Frau von Stein broken off; “Römische Elegien”; his new
ideal in dramatic art; “Egmont”; “Iphigenie”; “Torquato Tasso”; “Faust:
A Fragment,” published in 1790; his discovery of the metamorphosis
of plants; visits Venice in 1790; his son August; his discovery of
the true constitution of the skull; his opposition to Newton’s theory
of colours; becomes director of the Weimar Court Theatre; receives
from the Duke the house in which he spends the rest of his life; the
outbreak of the French Revolution; Goethe’s position with regard to
it; “Gross-Cophta”; “Die Aufgeregten”; accompanies the Duke during the
campaign in Champagne; “Reineke Fuchs”; joins the Duke before Mainz;
returns to Weimar 116


Schiller arrives at Weimar in 1787; his character; meets Goethe for
the first time; settles as a professor at Jena; his marriage; Goethe
calls upon him in 1790, and they talk about Kant’s philosophy; Schiller
goes to Würtemberg; on his return asks Goethe to write for the _Horen_;
Schiller spends a fortnight in Goethe’s house; their friendship; what
it did for Schiller; and for Goethe; the “Xenien”; “Wilhelm Meisters
Lehrjahre”; “Hermann und Dorothea”; “Alexis und Doris”; ballads;
Goethe as a lyrical poet; “Die Propyläen”; “Winckelmann und sein
Jahrhundert”; autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini; “Rameaus Neffe”;
Schiller’s “Wallenstein” represented at Weimar; Schiller settles at
Weimar; great period in history of Weimar; Goethe and the philosophical
movement of the age; Goethe and the Romantic School; Madame de Staël;
“Die Natürliche Tochter”; works at “Faust”; Death of Schiller; Goethe’s
grief 134


The battle of Jena; Weimar plundered by the French; Goethe’s life
saved through Christiane’s presence of mind; his helpfulness in a
time of public trial; his formal marriage with Christiane; his son
August; Johanna Schopenhauer; Bettina von Arnim; death of his mother in
1808; his interviews with Napoleon; new edition of Goethe’s writings;
First Part of “Faust” published in 1808; change in his conception of
the work as a whole; reception of the First Part by the public; “Die
Wahlverwandtschaften”; “Aus Meinem Leben”; “West-Oestlicher Divan”; the
War of Liberation; Goethe’s feeling about it; the Duke of Weimar is
made a Grand Duke, and Goethe becomes First Minister of State in 1815;
death of his wife on June 6, 1816 156


Marriage of August Goethe with Ottilie von Pogwisch; Goethe gives up
the directorate of the Weimar Theatre; Wilhelmine Herzlieb; Marianne
von Willemer; Ulrica von Levezow; celebration of the fiftieth
anniversary of the Grand Duke’s accession; and of the fiftieth
anniversary of Goethe’s arrival at Weimar; death of the Grand Duke,
1828; of the Grand Duchess, 1830; of Goethe’s son August, 1830;
Eckermann; his “Conversations with Goethe”; Heine visits Goethe; gift
from English admirers; Goethe’s feeling as to social problems; “Wilhelm
Meisters Wanderjahre”; “Kunst und Alterthum”; his letters, and the
character they reveal; the Second Part of “Faust”; his death, March 22,
1832; general view of his work. 170



The best sources of information about Goethe are his own works and
letters. It would be ungrateful, however, not to acknowledge the service
which has been rendered to students of his character and genius by
various German scholars. Among the writers whose researches I myself
have found helpful, I may name Heinrich Düntzer, Herman Grimm, Karl
Biedermann, and Erich Schmidt.

J. S.



Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born at Frankfort-on-the-Main on the 28th of
August, 1749.

His grandfather, Frederick George Goethe, who sprang from a family
belonging to the working class, and was himself a tailor, made his way,
in the latter part of the seventeenth century, from Artern on the
Unstrut to Frankfort. Here he settled, and, early in the eighteenth
century, took as his second wife a handsome widow of thirty-seven,
Cornelia Schelhorn, the owner of the inn, “Zum Weidenhof.” Frederick
George is said to have been a man of pleasant manners and a skilful
musician. His second wife was in every way worthy of him, an energetic
and kindly woman, with all the gracious qualities evoked in generous
natures by prosperous circumstances. They had three children, of whom
Johann Kaspar, Goethe’s father, born on the 27th of July, 1710, was the

Johann Kaspar Goethe was sent to school at Coburg, where he heard of the
death of his father and only brother. Afterwards he studied law at the
Universities of Leipsic and Giessen, and took the degree of Doctor of
Jurisprudence. He practised for some time at the imperial chamber at
Wetzlar, and then travelled in Italy. Finally he returned for life to
Frankfort, where he lived with his mother in a house she had bought in a
street called the Hirschgraben. His mother’s fortune made it unnecessary
for him to accept any fixed appointment, and during the reign of the
Emperor Charles VII. he attained a position of considerable dignity by
securing the title of an imperial councillor (Rath). He was somewhat
pedantic, capable of vehement outbursts of anger, but honest to the
core; and he combined with a sound knowledge of law, a real love for art
and literature. He had given much attention to Italian, and was an
ardent student of Tasso, his favourite author.

On the 20th of July, 1748, when he had reached the mature age of
thirty-eight, he married Catharine Elizabeth, the daughter of Johann
Wolfgang Textor, the chief magistrate of Frankfort, grandson of an
eminent jurist of the same name who received the office of first syndic
of Frankfort in 1690. Catharine Elizabeth was only seventeen years old
at the time of her marriage. She was bright and pretty, fond of music
and poetry, and remarkable for her power of inventing the kind of tales
that fascinate children. Her new home was in the house of her
mother-in-law, with whom she was able to live on the most friendly
terms. Her husband loved her warmly, and, although she made no
profession of romantic attachment to him, she responded to his feeling
with sincere affection and respect.

Goethe was their first-born child, and after him came his sister
Cornelia, who was fifteen months younger than he. There were several
other children, but none of them lived long enough to influence Goethe.
To his sister he was devoted, and, as years passed on, there were few
things in the world so precious to him as her love and sympathy. She was
of a thoughtful temper, loyal and affectionate, and in her brother’s
youth no one had half so much control over his restless and fiery

Like his mother, Goethe had brown hair and dark, lustrous eyes, the
penetrating glance of which, from childhood to old age, never failed to
impress those who met him. He was a vigorous and active child, and at an
early age gave evidence of a highly imaginative temperament. His
grandmother’s house consisted of two old houses joined in one, and the
thought of its dark passages and corners often filled him with dismay in
the night-time, and made sleep impossible. From a room in the back part
of the house, where the children were allowed to play in the summer,
there was a charming view, with wide gardens in the foreground, and,
beyond the city walls, a fertile valley stretching towards Höchst.
Goethe himself has described how he used to sit at the window of this
room and watch thunderstorms and sunsets, and how the spectacle of
nature, combined with the sight of children playing in the gardens and
the sound of balls rolling and ninepins falling, often filled him with a
feeling of solitude and a vague sense of longing.

The children spent much time with their old grandmother, who loved them
dearly. On the Christmas before her death she delighted them by
providing a puppet-show setting forth the story of David and Goliath.
This puppet-show made a great impression on Goethe, and afterwards he
was permitted to find out the secret of its working and to dress up the
figures for new representations.

When Goethe was in his sixth year, his grandmother died; and soon
afterwards his father carried out a plan he had long cherished, that of
rebuilding the house to suit the wants of his family. The work was
carefully superintended by the elder Goethe himself, and the house was
transformed to a handsome, convenient dwelling, with well-lighted rooms
tastefully decorated. He had an excellent collection of books, and they
were now properly arranged in his study. His pictures, most of which
were by Frankfort artists, were also brought together in a room fitted
up for their reception, and the walls of the passages were adorned with
maps and engravings. He had brought back with him from Italy many fine
specimens of Venetian glass, bronzes, ancient weapons, and other
artistic objects. In the new house these treasures were put in cabinets,
and no pains were spared to secure that they should be effectively
displayed. A room on the top floor, looking out upon the street, was set
apart for Goethe.

During the latter part of the time when the house was being rebuilt,
Goethe and his sister were sent to live with relatives, and it was
during this period that he began to have some knowledge of his native
place. As the town in which the Emperors were elected and crowned,
Frankfort held a position of high honour among the free imperial cities
of Germany. Within its old walls and gates it still retained, in its
architecture and customs, many traces of the troubled, picturesque life
of the Middle Ages. Even in childhood Goethe delighted to walk about its
quaint streets, and afterwards he made himself familiar with every link
that was known to connect the town with the events of past times. He
liked to see the gilt weathercock on the bridge of the Main gleam in the
sunshine, and to watch the arrival of boats laden with goods for the
market. On market-days there was always a bustling, lively crowd on the
space around St. Bartholomew’s church, and Goethe found it a source of
endless amusement to push his way among the throng and to note the odd
humours of buyers and sellers. In later years he had an especially vivid
recollection of the spring and autumn fairs, when the town was full of
visitors, and serious business was associated with all sorts of noisy
popular entertainments.

The council-house, then, as now, called the Römer, had a strong
fascination for Goethe. He never forgot his first visit to the imperial
hall in this famous building, where the emperors dined on the occasion
of the coronation festival. Here he saw half-length portraits of many of
the old emperors, and what he heard about them set his imagination at
work to call up graphic pictures of the great events of Germany’s
stirring, splendid history. He examined with keen interest the Golden
Bull of Charles IV., and this naturally led to his visiting the grave of
Günther of Schwarzburg, Charles’s rival, in St. Bartholomew’s church.
Growing up amid such scenes and associations, Goethe naturally acquired
a decided taste for the study of history and antiquities.

Much thought and care were devoted by the elder Goethe to the education
of his children. He himself took the work in hand, but for special
subjects he called in the aid of private tutors, from whom Goethe and
his sister received lessons in association with the children of some
neighbouring families. Goethe’s father and tutors were astonished at the
ease and rapidity with which he mastered the most difficult tasks.
Nothing seemed to be too hard for him. It was often, however, in
childhood, a relief to escape from his father’s rigid discipline, and to
enjoy a little talk with his mother, who was always ready to feed his
imagination with tales of adventure in fairyland. He contrived, too, to
read a good many books - among others, German translations of “Robinson
Crusoe,” and Lord Anson’s “Voyage Round the World.” Among his father’s
books were the works of Fleming, Canitz, Haller, Hagedorn, Gellert, and
other German poets, and he found much in them to awaken and foster his
love of poetry. Klopstock’s “Messiah,” the first three cantos of which
had been published the year before Goethe’s birth, was not thought to be
good enough for a place in a select library, for Goethe’s father, like
many another critic of the eighteenth century, held that rhyme was
essential to poetry. Goethe and his sister were delighted to receive
secretly the loan of a copy from an old friend of the family who
regularly read it, as a pious exercise, once a year in Passion Week.
They learned by heart some of the most striking passages, which they
often recited to one another. One Saturday evening, when their father
was being shaved, they sat behind the stove, and repeated in whispers a
wild dialogue between Satan and Adramelech. Cornelia became more and
more excited as the dialogue went on, and at last, forgetting her
father’s presence, she uttered in a loud voice the words, “How am I
crushed!” The barber was so startled that the contents of the
lather-basin were dashed on the Herr Rath’s breast. Strict inquiry was
made, and Klopstock’s epic was at once ignominiously banished from the

Of greater influence on Goethe than any of the more formal works he read
at this early stage, were the badly-printed folk-books, which he bought
in great numbers. They suggested to him many a strange and romantic
tale, and it may have been one of them that introduced him for the first
time to the story of Faust.

About the time of his seventh birthday, the civilized world was stirred
to its depths by the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. Goethe’s maternal
grandfather, Textor, sided with the Austrians. His father, on the
contrary, was an enthusiastic adherent of Frederick the Great, and would
not listen to a word against his hero. This difference of opinion led to
serious family quarrels, and Goethe, who, of course, took his father’s
view, was astonished to hear the language used about the great Prussian
king by his grandfather, for whose sayings he had always had unbounded
reverence. Rather more than two years after the beginning of the
struggle, the people of Frankfort were made to realize with painful
vividness some of the more disagreeable aspects of war, for by an act of
treachery on the part of the civic authorities, the French, the allies
of Austria, were allowed to station a body of troops in the city. To
the horror of Goethe’s father, he was told that he would have to receive
into his house a French officer called Thorane, for whom it was
necessary to provide good quarters. In vain the indignant councillor
protested against this arrangement. The decision was final, and he had
nothing for it but to give up to the intruder the rooms on his first
floor, which he had decorated and furnished at so great a cost, and with
so much care. Count Thorane was a cultivated gentleman, with all the
courtesy of his class; and he was anxious to cause as little annoyance
as possible to his host. He could not, however, prevent the coming and
going of many persons who had to see him on military business, and the
result was that the most orderly household in Frankfort was thrown into
dire confusion. This was aggravated by the fact that Thorane, who was
much pleased with some of Dr. Goethe’s pictures, invited various artists
to the house to execute a large number of commissions for him, and
Goethe’s room had to be given up to them as a studio. Frau Goethe, whose
cheerfulness was not easily quenched, made the best of unpleasant
circumstances, and tried to mitigate some of the inconveniences of her
position by learning French; but her husband was irreconcilable, and
became more and more embittered against the French in general, and
against Count Thorane in particular.

Goethe, although sorry for his father, was delighted on his own account
by the new turn of affairs. The monotony of life was broken by a great
excitement, and every day brought with it some fresh and unexpected
pleasure. His frankness, brightness, and geniality won Thorane’s heart,
and they became excellent friends. Goethe was especially interested in
the proceedings of the artists who had taken possession of his room, and
with their aid he began with zeal to practise drawing, in which he
acquired considerable skill. He learned to speak French fluently, and
was charmed to have an opportunity of hearing French plays, many of
which were now acted in Frankfort. Thus, at a most impressionable age,
he passed under a wholly new and stimulating set of influences, and it
was the recollection of these influences that made it impossible for
him, long afterwards, to join the majority of his countrymen in vague
and indiscriminate abuse of the great French people, to whose
civilization he owed some of the best impulses of his life.

In 1761, after more than two years of almost constant irritation,
Goethe’s father got rid of his troublesome guest, but the French did not
quit Frankfort until the end of the following year, when the Seven
Years’ War was about to close. Goethe’s father celebrated the conclusion
of the Treaty of Hubertusburg by presenting his wife with a gold
snuff-box, on the lid of which, set with diamonds, was an allegorical
picture of Peace. Goethe had often to go to the goldsmith to urge him to
make progress with this piece of work, and he took full advantage of the
chance of having long talks with a craftsman who had much to tell him
that was full of interest. This was thoroughly characteristic of Goethe,

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Online LibraryJames SimeLife of Johann Wolfgang Goethe; → online text (page 1 of 18)