Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(1749—1832) German poet, dramatist, and scholar
spent most of his life in Weimar, occupying positions of increasing importance in the government until 1786. In 1791 he was appointed director of the Weimar court theatre, a post he held for many years.
In the field of literature his most famous work was the poetic drama in two parts, Faust. His first important work was Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (1773), a rough, exuberant play which excited Sir W. Scott, who translated it in 1799, and it was adapted for the English stage by J. Arden under the title Iron Hand (1965). Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774) is a semi‐autobiographical epistolary novel. Werther is a sensitive artist, ill at ease in society and hopelessly in love with Charlotte, who is engaged to someone else. This novel, with the eventual suicide of the hero, caused a sensation throughout Europe (see Wertherism). In 1786 Goethe visited Italy and returned with his ideas about art radically changed in favour of ‘classicism’ and cured of the Sturm und Drang tendencies of his early works. In 1787 appeared his drama Iphigenie auf Tauris based on Euripides, and in 1795 his Roman Elegies. Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities, 1809) is a remarkable exploration of love, marriage, and friendship, and the famous ‘Wilhelm Meister’ novels written between 1777 and 1829 are the prototype of the German Bildungsroman. In the first part, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795–6), translated into English by Carlyle in 1824, Goethe describes the disillusioning experiences of a stage‐struck youth as he travels the country. The sequel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Travels), also translated by Carlyle, completes Wilhelm's education. Many of Goethe's poems, as well as the songs from ‘Wilhelm Meister’, were set to music by German Romantic composers.
Goethe's achievement in literature covers an astonishing range of forms. In Britain, Goethe exercised an enormous influence on Carlyle, who elevated him to the status of ‘the Wisest of our Time’ (Sartor Resartus). Through Carlyle a whole generation of Victorians turned their attention to Goethe, and eminent authors like G. Eliot and M. Arnold paid tribute to his genius both in essays on Goethe and in their creative works. G. H. Lewes wrote the first full biography of Goethe in any language (1855), a book he researched, with George Eliot's help, in Weimar in 1854. This biography is still one of the best introductions to Goethe for English readers.