Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, the brightest star in the literally firmament at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, was born at Frankfort-on-the-Main on the 28th August, 1749. Though of humble descent on his father's side, his paternal grandfather having been a journeyman tailor, his grandfather on his mother's side, who stood godfather to him, and after whom he was named, held a high position in society, being Imperial Councillor and chief magistrate of his native city. The poet's own father, however, rose to be a lawyer of considerable distinction and took his degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Giessen, and being a man of remarkable attainments, great common sense, and, moreover, of a retiring disposition, he was able to exercise a close supervision over the studies of his sole surviving son, whose character was to a great extent moulded and purified by such unremitting control.
But notwithstanding all this influence, apparently for good, young Goethe's education was conducted "not wisely but too well." For a youth of an impressionable and all-devouring nature, receiving and assimilating every production of literary genius, it was highly dangerous to wander, as he did, over so wide a range of subjects, sipping the sweets of each, but exhausting the resources of none. The study of mathematics, music, languages, both ancient and modern, law, literature, and art in all its branches was surely sufficient to ruin anyone of a less robust mind than the young citizen of Frankfort. Lewes, in his Life of Goethe, tells us that he knew several handicrafts, and even learned the art of basket-making. But his wise and farsighted mother kept him to some degree in check. In due course, at the age of 16, he was considered sufficiently advanced in his general studies to proceed to the university, and was entered at Leipsic in 1765 with the ostensible object of continuing his study of law. Leipsic was at that time the headquarters of the literary army, whither flocked the poets, critics, historians, and scientists of the day, the chief among whom were Gellert and Winckelmann; and Goethe - inwardly rejoiced to be free from the trammels of a somewhat pedantic and humdrum home life - absorbed and assimilated impressions from without and, remodelling and reconstituting them, gave them to the world in a new dress in the various forms of pastoral (Die Laune des Verliebten- - The Lover's Caprice), comedy (Die Mitschuldigen - The Fellow-Sinners), and prose (Confessions). At Leipsic he remained little over three years, when a somewhat severe illness, brought about by excesses and low diet, occasioned his return to Frankfort. From this illness he speedily recovered, but a gloomy melancholy settled on his mind, and mysticism and theosophy for a time hampered his progress to a higher sphere.
A turning-point in Goethe's career took place, however, when he entered in 1770 the University of Strasburg and made the acquaintance of Herder, then initiating a new departure in the realm of poetry. We refer to that epoch in the literature of Germany, styled, after a drama of Klinger's, the Sturm and Drang (or Storm and Stress) period, which lasted from 1767 to 1781, and of which Herder was the most striking exponent. It was an attempt to supplant the poetry of art by the poetry of nature, to go back to the earliest periods, when the poetry of the people sprang from the heart of the people, and the false, the artificial, the manufactured, the studied was to be a thing of the past. Here, too, Goethe had his first serious love affair with Frederike Brion, the daughter of a neighbouring pastor, which, though little more than a youthful fancy, inspired some of his noblest lyrics. At Strasburg he took his degree of Doctor of Laws in due course, and returning to Frankfort in 1771 completed his legal education at the court of the Imperial Chamber in Wetzlar. On his return to his native city he brought out in 1773 his first work of any importance, the drama of Gotz von Berlichingen, the most brilliant outcome of the new ideas, and a severe shock to the adherents of the old French school. In it Goethe presents to us vivid pictures of the Peasants' War and the Vehmgericht or Secret Court of the Middle Ages. Shortly afterwards followed the Sorrows of Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther), the disburdening of a mind at that time full of melancholy thoughts. This work created a great sensation, and Napoleon is said to have carried it with him on his campaigns. It was succeeded by a number of minor productions, chief among them being the tragedy of Clavigo. Goethe now sought consolation for an unhappy love affair in a journey to Switzerland and commenced on his return the tragedy of Egmont. It was during this period, too, that his grandest conception, Faust, issued first as a fragment and subsequently as a tragedy, was springing into life and assuming the noblest proportions under the hand of a master.
And now came an important period in Goethe's career. Previous to his journey to Switzerland he had, at their request, been introduced to the young Princes of Weimar by Major von Knebel, the friend and mentor of the younger, and in 1775 Charles Augustus, having come of age and entered upon the government, invited the poet to his court at Weimar. Hitherto his mother, the Regent Anna Amelia, had been one of the most zealous patrons of literature, and to her select circle, among whom only Wieland, Herder, and subsequently, from 1799 till his death in 1805, Schiller need be mentioned, we may be sure that Goethe was a most welcome addition. It was here, too, that he met Frau von Stein, who exercised a considerable influence over her admirer. At the court of Weimar he held for some time an inferior position, until in 1779, at the age of 30, he received the appointment of Privy Councillor. Three years later he was made President of the Chamber and enrolled among the lower nobility (i.e. those who receive the title of von); but the poet felt that he could not give his heart to the dull routine of official business, and that his interests lay in another direction. His generous patron, who appreciated his feelings, gladly therefore accorded him a lengthened leave of absence, and he was enabled in 1786 to fulfil a yearning which for some time past had taken complete possession of him, that of visiting Italy. For various reasons, however, he kept his destination a secret from his friends, and, as he himself tells us, "stole forth from Carlsbad" to the land of song. Here he remained for about two years, visiting Venice, Rome, Naples, and Sicily, of which he has given us a most remarkable description in his two books the Italienische Reise (1814) and Italien, collections of extracts from letters to his various friends. In Italy alone was he able to study art and nature in its purest and sublimest forms, while his literary genius by no means lay dormant. Previous to his departure he had brought out four volumes of his collected works, and while engaged in the issue of the remainder he rewrote in the form of verse his Iphigenia auf Tauris and Torquato Tasso, both originally composed in prose, and completed in Rome his tragedy of Egmont, besides several other minor productions.
On his return to Weimar studies in natural science engrossed his attention, and he began to feel that the life of a court official was highly unsuitable to his tastes. The French Revolution, too, made a deep impression on his sensitive nature, filling his mind with gloomy forebodings, and in his Reinecke Fuchs, an adaptation of an ancient fable, he gave vent to a feeling of bitter resentment against mankind. About this time appeared the first instalment of Faust, but receptive as men's minds were for revolutionary ideas, this undue exaltation of supernatural powers met with no very cordial reception. Gradually, however, its purport came to be better understood, as realising the workings of the poet's mind. In 1794 appeared the first volume of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (apprenticeship), notable, among other excellencies, for the finest criticism of Hamlet extant. The first six books of this work were, however, written before his departure for Italy. This year was an important epoch in the poet's life, as marking the commencement of his friendship with Schiller, which lasted till the death of the latter in 1805. Goethe contributed largely to periodicals issued by his friend, and some of these publications having met with an indifferent reception, they resolved to take vengeance on their critics and exposed the degraded literary taste of the day in a series of epigrams called Xenien, which created at the time a profound sensation. The novel of Wilhelm Meister was completed two years after the issue of the first part, and was followed by Hermann und Dorothea in 1797, This is an "idyllic poem" in hexameters founded on an episode in the career of some Salzburg refugees, but transported to the period of the French Revolution. For some time past Goethe had been endeavouring, in conjunction with Schiller, to introduce reforms on the German stage, and himself undertook the management of the Weimar Theatre. Although nothing of importance appeared after the death of his friend, unless we except the second part of Faust and the first edition of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, a work much inferior in every respect to the Lehrjahre, his literary activity was never allowed to slumber. Many of his former publications were revised, and his Italian correspondence collected and collated. With the words "More light!" on his lips, he passed away peacefully on the 22nd March, 1832, at the age of 83 years.
The greatness of Goethe's genius no one will call in question. Before his appearance German literature was at its lowest ebb, nothing worthy of the name having appeared since the earliest traditions of the nation embodied in the Lay of the Nibelungs. Goethe marked the beginning of a new epoch, stimulating and furthering the tastes of the nation not only by what he himself produced, but by the all-pervading influence of his personal character. A man of such universal genius - genius not impaired by its universality - is a rare phenomenon. Science, literature, art, all came within his ken. It is owing to the fact that he was able, as Emerson expresses it, to cope with a rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and by his own versatility to dispose of them with ease, that he exercised such a vast and beneficial influence over the literature of his country. (For a full account of his life and works see G. H. Lewes Life of Goethe, a standard work, and Dunzer's Life of Goethe, translated by T. W. Lyster.)