Johann Wolfgang von Goethe | The German Way & More

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Germany’s Literary “Citizen of the World”

“Für Naturen wie die meine ist eine Reise unschätzbar: Sie belebt, berichtigt, belehrt und bildet.”
“For natures like mine a journey is invaluable; it animates, corrects, instructs and develops.” – Goethe, der Weltbürger (Citizen of the World), in a letter to Schiller sent from Switzerland, 14 Oct. 1797

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is a giant in German and world literature. In fact, he coined the term Weltliteratur and spoke Greek, Latin, French, English, and Italian. Aside from its quality, the sheer volume of work during his 82-year lifetime is impressive. Among other works, Goethe wrote a worldwide, best-selling novel (Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, 1774), volumes of poetry, and several dramas, including his masterwork: Faust — a massive two-volume drama that was not entirely finished by the time of the poet’s death. Goethe also dabbled in painting and science (Farbenlehre/“Theory of Color”), although his greatest achievements by far were in literature.

Goethe portrait

Goethe in the Roman Campagna” (1786) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Oil on canvas. Displayed at the Goethe Museum in Frankfurt. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main on August 28, 1749 into prosperous circumstances. His lawyer father, Johann Caspar Goethe (1710-1782), and mother, Catharina Elisabeth Textor (1731-1808), were able to provide their first son a comfortable childhood and a good education. (Of their several offspring, only Johann and his sister, Cornelia Friederike Christiana, lived past childhood.) Johann Wolfgang showed an early talent for languages and had studied French, Greek, Italian, and Latin by the age of eight.

University studies
Goethe was only 16 years old when he went to Leipzig in 1765 to study law at the university there, following the wishes of his father. He soon realized that he was more interested in literature and writing than law. By 1768, his studies had faltered to the point that he had to return home. But in 1770 he continued his law studies in Strasbourg (in German Alsace), graduating with a law degree in 1771.

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Goethe-Haus, Frankfurt

Das Goethe-Haus in Frankfurt am Main is a modern museum that incorporates the original house (left) in which Goethe was born in 1749. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

He returned to Frankfurt to practice law, but also continued writing. In 1773, Goethe published the drama Götz von Berlichingen. His first real bestseller, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a novel translated into many languages, became a worldwide success. In 1775, Duke Karl August became his patron and invited him to Weimar. Goethe would spend most of his adult life there.

It was in Weimar (and Jena) where Goethe often met with the renowned German botanist, scientist, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). The two men became good friends, spending many hours discussing science, their travels, and other common interests. Humboldt explored South America and met with US president Thomas Jefferson in Washington, D.C. in 1804 on his way back to Europe. Today many places around the globe, and hundreds of plants and animals are named for Humboldt. Goethe and Humboldt also conducted an exchange of letters over the years before Goethe’s death in 1832. When Humboldt died in 1859 at the age of 89, his passing was noted all around the world. Humboldt’s brother, Wilhelm, founded the Berlin university that now bears his name.

Italian Journey
In 1786, Goethe made his first trip to Italy, where he met Christiane Vulpius (1765-1816), the lady who would become his mistress, and many years later (in 1806) his wife. (The couple had one son, Julius August Walter von Goethe, 1789-1830.) His time in Italy (1786-1788) was very influential to his future work and his view of the world. His travel diaries were published as Italienische Reise (Italian Journey). In 1790, he would return to Italy (Venice). (Also see “Places identified with Goethe“ below.)

Science (Wissenschaft)
Although less successful as a scientist than as a writer, Goethe did significant work in the areas of anatomy, plant morphology and color theory. In 1784, Goethe independently discovered the human intermaxilliary bone, which had been discovered by two other scientists several years earlier. In 1790, he published Metamorphose der Pflanzen (Metamorphosis of Plants), which reportedly influenced Darwin. In 1810, Goethe’s Farbenlehre (Theory of Color) promoted the idea that color arises from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. Largely discounted in modern times, Goethe nevertheless did pioneering research in the area of light and color.

Summer house

Goethe’s Gartenhaus (garden/summer house) in Weimar, Germany is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Goethe’s Later Years
After 1793, Goethe devoted himself primarily to literature. In 1821, while recovering from a serious heart ailment, Goethe, now 72 years old, fell in love with 18-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow while taking the cure in Marienbad. He wanted to marry her, but she turned him down. Their last encounter in Carlsbad in September 1823 inspired him to write the famous poem “Marienbad Elegy” during his journey back to Weimar. Considered one of his finest works, the poem is a very personal expression of Goethe’s extreme sorrow over his rejection. He never saw her again. (Ulrike lived to be 95 and later claimed there was no love affair, and that she had regarded Goethe more like a father. She did not know about Goethe’s poem until after his death. She never married.)

On March 22, 1832, at the age of 82, Goethe died in Weimar, possibly of a heart attack. His last words are said to have been: “Mehr Licht!” (“More light!”), but there is some doubt he actually uttered those two words. He is buried in the Ducal Vault (Fürstengruft) in Weimar’s Historical Cemetery.

The Goethe Legacy
Germany and the world celebrated Goethe’s 250th birthday in 1999. In the early 21st century, the “Gothic Shakespeare” has become a somewhat controversial figure in the German-speaking world. A landslide of Goethe biographies coinciding with the 250th anniversary of his birth (in the 18th century) brought into question many aspects of the person who became the king of German literature. Many of his biographers have tried to demystify the legend and shed more light on the man by questioning everything from his sexual preferences to his religious views. But no one can dispute Goethe’s impact on Germany’s literary legacy as well as Weltliteratur.

Goethe: Selected works

Goethe was a prolific writer. Here are some of his most noted literary works:

  • Götz von Berlichingen (1773, drama)
  • Die Leiden des jungen Werthers / The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774, novel)
  • Erlkönig (1782, poem)
  • Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787, dramatic verse)
  • Faust, ein Fragment (1790, drama)
  • Metamorphose der Pflanzen / Metamorphosis of Plants (1790, scientific treatise)
  • Römische Elegien / Roman Elegies (1793, poems)
  • Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre / Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship (1795-96)
  • Zur Farbenlehre / Theory of Color (1805-10, scientific treatise)
  • Die Wahlverwandschaften / Elective Affinities (1809, novel)
  • Italienische Reise / Italian Journey (1816, 1829) > Text (Web, in German)
  • West-östlicher Divan / Divan of East and West (1819)
  • Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre / Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (1821-29)
  • Faust I (1808) & Faust II (1827, 1832, dramatic verse)
  • Goethe literature online: J.W. Goethe – Projekt Gutenberg (Werke online)
Places Identified with Goethe

Frankfurt am Main
City Guide: Frankfurt am Main (German Way)
Frankfurt am Main online (in English or German)
Das Goethe-Haus – The Goethe museum and birthplace, Frankfurt am Main (English)

LeipzigGoethe studied here.
IlmenauGoethe and the university town Ilmenau (English)
Italy: Italienische Reise (in German, Projekt Gutenberg, with map)
Strasbourg (Straßburg, now in Alsace/Elsass, France)
WeimarGoethe spent most of his life here.
Goethe Institute ( – Worldwide German cultural institution (in German, English and other languages)

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