This Day In Writing History
On August 28th, 1749, the legendary German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born. He was born in Frankfurt, where he lived with his family in a large house.
Goethe's siblings, except for his younger sister Cornelia, died at early ages. As a boy, Goethe received his education from tutors, as his father was determined to give his children all the educational advantages he never had.
The young Goethe quickly developed an interest in literature, with Homer and the German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock among his earliest favorite authors. He was also devoted to the theater and particularly fond of the puppet shows staged in his home.
When he was sixteen, Goethe began studying law in Leipzig, but came to detest it. He fell in love with a girl named Käthchen Schönkopf and wrote her love poems, but failed to win her heart.
Three years later, in 1768, Goethe returned to Frankfurt, as his studies were going nowhere. In 1770, he published his first book anonymously. It was a poetry collection called Annette.
Goethe began writing prolifically, but soon fell seriously ill. His relationship with his father strained, he was nursed back to health by his mother and sister. Bored during his convalescence, he wrote in bed. After he recovered, his father sent him to Strasbourg to finish his studies.
In Strasbourg, Goethe met poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, and they became close friends. Herder got him interested in Shakespeare's plays and in volkspoesie - folk poetry.
After he finished his law studies, Goethe's thesis, based on his own ideas, was published. He was offered a job in the French government but rejected it and returned to Frankfurt, where he was certified to practice law.
Working for the local government, Goethe tried to make the law more humane and progressive. As a result, he was reprimanded and terminated from his position.
Disgusted with law, Goethe decided to pursue a literary career. This time, his father was supportive of his decision and even helped him out. Goethe became an editor for a literary magazine, but he couldn't support himself on his small salary.
So, in 1772, he went to Wetzlar to practice law again. Two years later, in 1774, he published his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. The tragic tale was an important novel of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) era of German literature.
Goethe's novel, which mostly takes the form of a collection of letters, tells the story of Werther, a young, sensitive aspiring artist.
While staying in the fictional village of Wahlheim, Werther meets a beautiful girl named Lotte, who has been caring for her siblings since their mother died. Werther falls in love with Lotte, even though she's already engaged to marry Albert, a man eleven years her senior.
Werther becomes close friends with both Lotte and Albert, but his love for Lotte causes him too much pain, so he goes to Wiemar, where he suffers more embarrassment. Returning to Wahlheim, Werther finds that Lotte and Albert have married.
Lotte, feeling both sorrow for her friend and respect for her husband, decides that Werther shouldn't visit them so often. He makes one final visit, where he delivers a memorable recitation of a portion of Ossian.
Werther ultimately realizes that this painful love triangle can only be dissolved by the death of himself, Albert, or Lotte, but he is unable to harm Albert or Lotte.
Seeing no other choice, Werther has Lotte send him two pistols. He commits suicide, dying twelve hours after shooting himself. Neither Lotte nor Albert nor a clergyman attends his funeral.
The Sorrows of Young Werther was considered controversial and accused of romanticizing suicide, which was considered sinful by Christian doctrine. Suicides were denied Christian burial.
From a young age, Goethe loathed the Church, whose history he described as "a hotchpotch of mistakes and violence." He had no use for its doctrines.
The Sorrows of Young Werther became a huge success for Goethe and made him world famous, but it didn't make him rich. Copyright law was virtually nonexistent at the time and pirated editions of literary works were common.
Goethe thwarted the pirates by periodically authorizing "new" and "revised" editions of his works. His new found fame won him an invitation to the court of Carl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. So, he went to Weimar, where he lived the rest of his life and held several offices, eventually becoming the Duke's chief adviser.
As a writer, Goethe remained prolific and authored a large body of works, mostly poetry and plays, along with the occasional novel.
Some of his classic poems include Prometheus (1773), Hermann and Dorothea (1798), and Roman Elegies (1790). Roman Elegies, aka Erotica Romana, was a collection of poems written during Goethe's two year visit to Italy.
During his lifetime (and afterward) some of these poems were suppressed due to their sexual imagery. Goethe's poetry has inspired the works of legendary composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.
As a playwright, Goethe was best known for his masterpiece, Faust. It was written in two parts. The first, Faust Part One, was published in 1808, and the second, Faust Part Two, which Goethe completed shortly before his death in 1832, was published posthumously.
In the play, God bets Mephisto (the Devil) that he can't tempt His favorite scholar, Dr. Faust. So, Mephisto offers Faust a bargain - he'll do Faust's bidding on Earth if Faust will do his bidding in Hell when he dies.
Unsatisfied by his scientific studies, Faust has a clause added to the contract: Mephisto must provide him something that will satisfy him - a moment that Faust would want to last forever. Mephisto agrees, so Faust signs the contract in blood.
God allows Faust to be led astray so He can lead him to the right path, teaching the scholar that "man must still err while he doth strive." Faust's attempts to satisfy his desires have disastrous consequences for those he cares about.
Faust became Goethe's best known work, one that still influences popular culture today. Goethe's play has been adapted for the opera and for the screen.
The most famous movie adaptation was the 1926 German silent feature film classic directed by F.W. Murnau, starring Emil Jannings as Mephisto.
In addition to his writing and practice of law, Goethe was also involved in scientific work. He had a keen interest in natural science and wrote scientific books on subjects such as insect morphology, homology, and color theory.
But he was best known for his fiction, poetry, and plays, with which he established himself as one of Germany's greatest writers. He died in 1832 at the age of 82.
Quote Of The Day
"None are more enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Today's video features a complete reading of Goethe's classic play, Faust! Enjoy!