Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

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Any introduction referring to the subject of thi3 book would
be superfluous. It records the opinions, on the most varied
topics, of one of the greatest literary geniuses of the present
century, during the last ten years of a very long life. Goethe
was born in August, 1749, and died in March, 1832, so that his
age is seventy-three when the Conversations begin, and eighty-
two when they terminate.

However, the form in which this translation is presented to
the EnglislTpublic requires, a short explanation.

In.l83G, John Peter Eckermann, who gives a full account of
himself in the " Introduction," published, in two volumes, his
"Conversations with Goethe." In 1848, he published a third
volume, containing additional Conversations, which he com-
piled from his own notes, and from that of another friend of
Goethe's, M. Soret, of whom there is a short account in the
' ' Preface to the Third or Supplemental Volume. " Both these
works are dedicated to Her Imperial Highness Maria Paulouna,
Grand Duchess of Saxe- Weimar and Eisenach.

Had I followed the order of German publication, I should
have placed the whole of the Supplementary Volume after the
contents of the first two ; however, as the Conversations in that
volume are not of a later date than the others (which, indeed,
terminate with the death of Goethe), but merely supply gaps, I
deemed it more conducive to the reader's convenience to re-
arrange in chronological order the whole of the Conversations,
as if the Supplement had not been published separately.

Still, to preserve a distinction between the Conversations of
the First Book and those of the Supplement, I have marked the
latter with the abbreviation " Sup.," adding an asterisk (thus,
Sup.*) when a Conversation has been furnished, not by Ecker-
maim, but by Soret.

a 3


I feel bound to state that, while translating the First Book,
I have had before me the translation by Mrs. Fuller, published
in America. The great merit of this version I willingly ac-
knowledge, though the frequent omissions render it almost an
abridgement. The contents of the Supplementary Volume are
now, I believe, published for the first time in the English

J. O.



This collection of Conversations with Goethe took its rise
chiefly from an impulse, natural to my mind, to appropriate to
myself by writing any part of my experience which strikes me
as valuable or remarkable.

Moreover, I felt constantly the need of instruction, not only
when I first met with that extraordinary man, but also after I
had lived with him for years ; and I loved to seize on the im-
port of his words, and to note it down, that I might possess
them for the rest of my life.

When I think how rich and full were the communications by
which he made me so happy for a period of nine years, and now
observe how small a part I have retained in writing, I seem to
myself like a child who, endeavouring to catch the refreshing
spring shower with open hands, finds that the greater part of it
runs through his fingers.

But, as the saying is that books have their destiny, and as
this applies no less to the origin of a book than to its subsequent
appearance in the broad wide world, so we may use it with
regard to the origin of this present book. Whole months often
passed away, while the stars were unpropitious, and ill health,
business, or various toils needful to daily existence, prevented
me from writing a single line ; but then again kindly stars arose,
and health, leisure, and the desire to write, combined to help
me a good step forwards. And then, where persons are long
domesticated together, where will there not be intervals of in-


difference ; and where is he who knows always how to prize the
present at its due rate ?

I mention these things to excuse the frequent and important
gaps which the reader will find, if he is inclined to read the
hook in chronological order. To such gaps belong much that is
good, but is now lo3t, especially many favourable words spoken
by Goethe of his widely scattered friends, as well as of the
works of various living German authors, while other remarks of
a similar kind have been noted down. But, as I said before,
books have their destinies even at the time of their origin.

For the rest, I consider that which I have succeeded in making
my own in these two volumes, and which I have some title to
regard as the ornament of my own ^existence, with deep-felt
gratitude as the gift of Providence, and I have a certain
confidence that the world with winch I share it will also feel
gratitude towards me.

I think that these conversations not only contain many
valuable explanations and instructions on science, art, and prac-
tical life, but that these sketches of Goethe, taken directly from
life, will be especially serviceable in completing the portrait
which each reader may have formed of Goethe from his manifold

Still, I am far from imagining that the whole internal Goethe
is here adequately portrayed. We may, with propriety, com-
pare this extraordinary mind and man to a many-sided diamond,
which in each direction shines with a different hue. And as,
under different circumstances and with different persons, he
became another being, so I, too, can only say, in a very modest
sense, this is my Goetha.

And this applies not merely to his manner of presenting him-
self to me, but to my capacity for apprehending and re-producing
him. In such cases a reflection * takes place, as in a mirror ;
and it is very seldom that, in passing through another individu-
ality, nothing of the original is lost, and nothing foreign is
blended. The representations of the person of Goethe by
Rauch, Dawe, Stieler, and David have all a high degree
of truth, and yet each bears more or less the stamp of the
individuality which produced it. If this can be said of
bodily things, how much more does it apply to the fleeting,
intangible objects of the mind ! However it may be in my
case, I trust that all those who, from mental power or personal
acquaintance with Goethe, are fitted to judge, will not misin-
terpret my exertions to attain the greatest possible fidelity.

* In the German " Spiegelung," but "refraction" furnishes a
more adequate image. — Trans.


Having given these explanations as to the manner of appre-
hending my subject, I have still something to add as to the
import of the work.

That which we call the True, even in relation to a single
object, is by no means something small, narrow, limited ;
rather is it, even if something simple, at the same time
something comprehensive, which like the various manifestations
of a deep and widely reaching natural law, cannot easily be
expressed. It cannot be disposed of by a sentence, or by
sentence upon sentence, or by sentence opposed to sentence, but,
through all these, one attains just an approximation, not the
goal itself. So, to give a single instance, Goethe's detached
remarks on poetry often have an appearance of one-sidedness,
and indeed often of manifest contradiction. Sometimes he lays
all the stress on the material which the world affords ; sometimes
upon the internal nature of the poet; sometimes the only impor-
tant point is the subject ; sometimes the mode of treating it ;
sometimes all is made to depend on perfection of form ; some-
times upon the spirit, with a neglect of all form.

But all these contradictions are single sides of the True, and,
taken together, denote the essence of truth itself, and lead to
an approximation to it. I have, therefore, been careful, in
these and similar cases, not to omit these seeming contra-
dictions, as they were elicited by different occasions, in the
course of dissimilar years and hours. I rely on the insight and
comprehensive spirit of the cultivated reader, who will not be
led astray by any isolated part, but will keep his eye on the
whole, and properly arrange and combine each particular.

Perhaps, too, the reader will find much here which at first
sight seems unimportant. But if, on looking deeper, he perceive
that such trifles often lead to something important, or serve as
a foundation to something which comes afterwards, or con-
tribute some slight touch to a delineation of character, these
may be, if not sanctified, at least excused, as a sort of necessity.

And now I bid a loving farewell to my so long cherished book
on its entrance into the world, wishing it the fortune of being
agreeable, and of exciting and propagating much that is good.

Weimar, 31st October, 1835.


Now, I at last see before me this long promised third part of
my Conversations with Goethe : I enjoy the pleasant sensation
of having overcome great obstacles.

My case was very difficult ; it was like that of a mariner who
cannot sail with the wind that blows to-day, but must often
patiently wait whole weeks and months for a favourable gale,
such as has blown years ago. When I was so happy as to write
my first two parts, I could sail with a fair wind, because the
freshly-spoken words were then still ringing in my ears, and
the living intercourse with that wonderful man sustained me in
an element of inspiration, through which I felt borne, as if on
wings, to my goal.

But now when that voice has been hushed for many years,
and the happiness of those personal interviews lies so far
behind me, I could attain the needful inspiration only in those
hours in which it was granted me to enter into my own interior,
and, in undisturbed reverie, to give a fresh colouring to the
past, where it began to revive within me, and I saw great
thoughts, and great characteristic traits before me, like moun-
tains ; distant indeed, but nevertheless plainly discernible,
and illumined as by the sun of the actual day.

Thus did my inspiration arise from my delight in that great
man ; the details of thought and of oral expression were again
fresh, as if I had experienced them yesterday. The living
Goethe was again there : I again heard the peculiarly charming
Bound of his voice, to which no other can compare. I saw him
again in the evening, with his black frock and star, jesting,
laughing, and cheerfully conversing amid the social circle in his
well-lighted room. Another day, when the weather was line,
he was with me in the carriage in his brown surtout, and blue
cloth cap, with his light grey cloak laid over his knees ; there
he was, with his countenance brown and healthy as the fresh


air ; his words freely flowing forth, and sounding above the
noise of the wheels. Or I saw myself in the evening by the
quiet taper light again transported into his study, where he sat
opposite to me at his table, in his white flannel dressing-gown,
mild as the impression of a well spent day. We talked about
tilings good and great : he set before me the noblest part of his
own nature, and his mind kindled my own — the most perfect
harmony existed between us. He extended his hand to me
across the table, and I pressed it : I then took a full glass
which stood by me, and which I drank to him without uttering
a word, my glances being directed into his eyes across the wine.

Thus was I again associated with him as in actual life, and
his words again sounded to me as of old.

But as it is generally the case in life, that, although we can
think of a dear departed one, our thoughts for weeks and
months can be but transient, on account of the claims of the
actual day ; and that the quiet moments of such a reverie, in
which we believe that we once more possess, in all its living
freshness, a beloved object that we have lost, belong to a few
happy hours — so was it with me with respect to Goethe.

Months often passed when my soul, engrossed by the contac
of ordinary life, was dead to Goethe, and he uttered not a word
to my mind. And again came other weeks and months, during
winch I was in a barren mood, so that nothing would bud or
blossom within me. I was forced, with great patience, to let
these periods of inanity pass unemployed, for anything written
under such circumstances would have been worthless. I was
compelled to wait for my good fortune to bestow a return of
those hours when the past would stand before me in all its
liveliness, and my soul would be elevated to such a degree of
mental strength and sensible ease, as to be a worthy receptacle
for the thoughts and feelings of Goethe ; for I had to do with
a hero whom I must not allow to sink. To be truly delineated
he. must appear in all the mildness of his disposition ; in the
full clearness and power of his mind ; and in the accustomed
dignity of his august personality — and this was no trifling

My relation to him was peculiar, and of a very intimate
kind : it was that of the scholar to the master ; of the son to
the father ; of the poor in culture to the rich in culture. He
drew me into his own circle, and let me participate in the
mental and bodily enjoyments of a higher state of existence.
Sometimes I saw him but once a week, when I visited him in
the evening ; sometimes every day, when I had the happiness
to dine with him either alone or in company. His conversation
was as varied as his works. He was always the same, and


always different. Now lie was occupied by some great idea,
and his words flowed forth rich and inexhaustible ; they were
often like a garden in spring where all is in blossom, and where
one is so dazzled by the general brilliancy that one does not
think of gathering a nosegay. At other times, on the contrary,
he was taciturn and laconic, as if a cloud pressed upon his soul ;
nay, there were days when it seemed as if he were filled with
icy coldness, and a keen wind was sweeping over plains of frost
and snow. When one saw him again he was again like a
smiling summer's day, when all the warblers of the wood
joyously greet us from hedges and bushes, when the cuckoo's
voice resounds through the blue sky, and the brook ripples
through flowery meadows. Then it was a pleasure to hear him ;
his presence then had a beneficial influence, and the heart
expanded at his words.

Winter and summer, age and youth, seemed with him to be
engaged in a perpetual strife and change ; nevertheless, it was
admirable in him, when from seventy to eighty years old, that
youth always recovered the ascendancy ; those autumnal and
wintry days I have indicated were only rare exceptions.

His self-control was great — nay, it formed a prominent
peculiarity in his character. It was akin to that lofty delibera-
tion (Besonnenheit) through which he always succeeded in
mastering his material, and giving his single works that
artistical finish which we admire in them. Through the same
quality he was often concise and circumspect, not only in many
of his writings, but also in his oral expressions. When, how-
ever, in happy moments, a more powerful demon* was actiw
within him, and that self-control abandoned him, his discourse
rolled forth with j^outhful impetuosity, like a mountain cataract.
In such moments he expressed what was best and greatest in
his abundant nature, and such moments are to be understood
when his earlier friends say of him, that his spoken words were
better than those which he wrote and printed. Thus Marmontel
said of Diderot, that whoever knew him from his writing*
only knew him but half ; 'but that as soon as he became animated
in actual conversation he was incomparable, and irresistibly
carried his hearers along.

If, on the one hand, I may now hope that I have succeeded
in preserving in these conversations much that belonged to
those happy moments, it is, perhaps, on the other hand, no less
advantage to this book that it contains two reflections of

* It is almost needless to observe that the word " demon " is hero*
nsed in reference to its Greek origin, a:id implies nothing evil. —


Goethe's personality, one towards myself, the other towards a
young friend.

M. Soret, of Geneva, a liberal republican, called to Weimar
in the year 1822, to superintend the education of the hereditary
Grand Duke, remained, from that year to Goethe's death, in very
close connection with him. He was a constant guest at Goethe's
table, and a frequent and welcome visitor at the evening parties ;
moreover, his attainments in natural science offered many
points of contact on which to base a lasting intercourse. As
a profound mineralogist he arranged Goethe's crystals, while
his knowledge of botany enabled him to translate Goethe's
" Metamorphosis of the Plants " into French, and thus to give
a wider circulation to that important work. His position at
court likewise brought him frequently into Goethe's presence,
as he sometimes accompanied the prince to Goethe's house,
while sometimes commissions to Goethe, from His Royal High-
ness the Archduke, and Her Imperial Highness the Archduchess,
gave him occasion for visits.

These personal interviews were often recorded by M. Soret
in his journals ; and some years ago he was kind enough to
give me a small manuscript compiled from this source, in
order that I might, if I pleased, take what was best and most
interesting, ami introduce it into my third volume in chrono-
logical order.

These notes, which were written in French, were sometimes
complete, but sometimes cursory and defective, accordingly as
the author found time to make them in his hurried and often
greatly occupied days. Since, however, no subject appears in
his manuscript which was not repeatedly and thoroughly dis-
cussed by Goethe and myself, my own journals were perfectly
adapted to complete the notes of Soret, to supply his deficiencies,
and to develop sufficiently what he often had only indicated.
All the conversations which are based on Soret's manuscript, or
for which that manuscript has been much used, as is particu-
larly the case in the first two years, are marked with an
asterisk (*) placed against the date, to distinguish them from
those which are by me alone, and which, with a few exceptions,
make up the years from 1824 to 1829 (inclusive), and a great
part of 1830, 1831, and 1832.

I have now nothing further to add, but the wish that this
third volume, which I have so long and so fondly kept by me,
will meet with that kind reception which was so abundantly
accorded to the first two.

Weimae, 21st December, 1847.


The Author gives an account of Himself and his Parents,
and of the origin of his connection with goethe.

At Winsen on the Luhe, a little town between Ltineburg and
Hamburg, on the border of the marsh and heathlands, I was
born, at the beginning of the nineties, in nothing better than a
hut, as we may well call a small house which had only one room
capable of being heated, and no stairs, and in which they
mounted at once to the hayloft by a ladder, which reached to
the house-door.

As the youngest born of a second marriage, I, properly speak-
ing, did not know my parents till they had reached an advanced
age ; and, to a certain extent, I grew up with them alone. Two
sons of my father's first marriage were still alive. One of them,
after several voyages as a sailor, had been taken prisoner in
foreign parts, and had not since been heard of ; while the other,
after being several times engaged in the whale and seal fisheries
in Greenland, had returned to Hamburg, and there lived in
moderate circumstances. Two sisters of my father's second
marriage had grown up before me. When I had attained my
twelfth year they had already left the parental hut, and were
in service in our town and in Hamburg.

The principal means of supporting our little family was a cow,
which not only supplied us with milk for our daily wants, but
gave us every year a calf for fattening, and sometimes milk
enough to sell for a few groschen. We had besides a piece of
land, which supplied us with vegetables for the wants of the
year. Corn for bread, and flour for the kitchen, we were, how-
ever, obliged to buy.

My mother was particularly expert at spinning wool ; she also
gave much satisfaction by the caps she made for the women of
the village, and in both ways earned some money.

My father's business consisted ">f a small traffic, which varied
according to the seasons, and obliged him to be often absent from
home, and to travel on foot about the country. In summer



he was seen with a light wooden box on his back, going in the?
heath-country from village to village, hawking ribbons, thread .
and silk. At the samejtime he purchased here woollen stocking s
and Beydenvand* (a cloth woven out of the wool of the sheep
on the heaths, and linen yarn), which he again disposed of in
the Vierlande on the other side the Elbe, where he likewise went
hawking. In the winter he carried on a trade in rough quills
and unbleached linen, which he bought up in the villages of
the hut and marsh country, and took to Hamburg when a ship
offered. But in all cases his gains must have been very small,
as we always lived in some degree of poverty.

If now I am to speak of my employments in childhood, these
varied according to the season. When spring commenced, and
the waters of the Elbe had receded after their customary over-
How, I went daily to collect the sedges which had been thrown
upon the dykes and other places, and to heap them up as litter
for our cow. But when the first green was springing over the
'broad meadows, I, with other boys, passed long days in watch-
ing the cows. In summer I was actively employed on our field,
and brought dry wood from the thickets scarce a mile (German)
off, to serve for firing throughout the year. In harvest time
I passed weeks in the field as a gleaner, and when the autumn
winds shook the trees I gathered acorns, which I sold by the
peck to persons of opulence, to feed their geese. When I was
old enough, I went with my father on his travels from hamlet
to hamlet, and helped to carry his bundle. This time affords
some of the fairest remembrances of my youth.

Under such influences, and busied in such employments,,
during which, at certain periods, I attended a school, and barely
learned to read and write, I reached my fourteenth year ; and
every one will confess, that from this situation to an intimate
connection with Goethe there was a great step, and one that
seemed scarcely probable. I knew not that there were in the
world such things as Poetry or the Fine Arts ; and, fortunately,
there was not within me even so much as a blind longing and
striving after them.

It has been said that animals are instructed by their very
organization ; and so may it be said of man, that, by something
which he does quite accidentally, he is often taught the higher
powers which slumber within him. Something of the sort hap-
pened to me, which, though insignificant in itself, gave a new
turn to my life, and is therefore stamped indelibly on my

I •', Linsey-woolsey. — Trans.


I sat one evening with both my parents at tabic by the light
oi a lamp. My father had just returned from Hamburg, and
was talking about his business there. As he loved smoking, h
had brought back with him a packet of tobacco, which laj
before him on the table, and had for the crest a horse. This
horse seemed to me a very good picture, and, as I had by me
pen, ink, and a piece of paper, I was seized with an irresistible
inclination to copy it. My father continued talking about
Hamburg, and I, being quite unobserved, became wholly
engaged tn drawing the horse. When finished, it seemed to me
:i perfect likeness of the original, and I experienced a delight
before unknown. I showed my parents what I had done, and
they could not avoid praising me and expressing admiration. 1
passed the night in happy excitement, and almost sleepless ; I
thought constantly of the horse I had drawn, and longed im-
patiently for morning, that I might have it again before my
eyes, and delight myself with beholding it.

From this time the once-excited propensity for visible imita-

Online LibraryJohann Wolfgang von GoetheConversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret. → online text (page 1 of 56)