Authors: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

German poet, philosopher, and playwright

August 28, 1749

Frankfurt am Main (now in Germany)

March 22, 1832

Weimar, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenbach (now in Germany)


Johann Wolfgang Goethe, poet, dramatist, philosopher, scientist, and leader of the German intellectual renaissance of the late eighteenth century, was born to a wealthy Frankfurt lawyer and his wife. Goethe’s poetic gift may well have come from his lively, witty mother, whose love of storytelling was early transmitted to her son. Educated at home in an atmosphere of learning and refinement, the boy displayed an unusual facility for languages and versification.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(Library of Congress)

An unwilling law student at the University of Leipzig at the age of sixteen, his adolescent disgust with all book learning eventually led to his conceiving the original idea for his masterpiece, The Tragedy of Faust, which was not to be completed for fifty years. During his time at the university Goethe was occupied less with studying than with writing (verse and two plays) and with what was to become another lifelong habit, falling in love. With his early, relatively insignificant compositions, the author established his practice of highly subjective writing. Later he learned to universalize the particular, but few of his great works are without a hard core of personal experience; as Goethe himself said, his writings exist as “fragments of a great confession.”

Recuperating at home from a serious illness during the winter of 1768 and all of 1769, Goethe fell deeply under the influence of a pietist friend of his mother and developed a mystic, deeply personal religious feeling. He soon discarded this preoccupation, along with an intense interest in “natural magic” and all things occult, but its mark is strongly imprinted on The Tragedy of Faust. In 1770 Goethe went to Strasbourg to study medicine and law. There he made the acquaintance of the German poet, philosopher, and radical patriot Johann Gottfried von Herder, who taught the young man to admire Homer, William Shakespeare, and all folk poetries as representing the true spirit of their epoch and peoples. He imbued the youth with pride in Germany’s cultural heritage and, above all, taught him to regard authenticity of feeling and fullness of life rather than correctness and good taste as the true criteria of good literature.

Under Herder’s influence Goethe became a leader of the important Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement, a Romantic reaction against the restrictiveness of classical and French influences on literature. Its followers sought to break free of all authority, to put off all that was artificial and contrived and to return to “nature” and “reality,” to the intuitive and emotional side of human nature.

The influence of this movement dominates The Sorrows of Young Werther, a sentimental novel inspired by one of Goethe’s love affairs, this one at Wetzlar in 1772. Written as a series of letters, following the style of Samuel Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this tale of the effects of love on a sensitive, impressionable youth caused an immediate sensation when it was published, and it has remained a classic of its type ever since. The book had such emotional appeal for its time that much of the literary world was plunged into an orgy of brooding pessimism and romantic melancholy, or Weltschmerz.

In 1775 Goethe was invited to visit the court of young Karl August, the duke of Weimar. The prince and the poet soon became fast friends, and a few weeks’ visit became a long stay. During his years at Weimar Goethe held various important governmental posts and eventually received a diploma of nobility, which allowed him to use the von before his surname. There he pursued studies in mathematics, optics, geology, botany, and anatomy, laying the foundations for scientific papers in which he disagreed with Isaac Newton’s theory of optics, announced his discovery of a new bone in the skull, and prepared the way for Charles Darwin and T. H. Huxley by his investigations into plant and animal life.

In 1786 he went to spend a year and a half in Italy, mostly in Rome and Naples. Goethe’s Italian sojourn marks an important turning point in his literary development. Abandoning the romantic outpourings of his Sturm und Drang period, he strove toward the classical ideals of tranquillity of mind and harmony of form. He recast his play Iphigenia in Tauris from rhythmic prose into mellifluous blank verse. When the final version was published in 1787, his treatment of this ancient theme showed that he had returned to the rules of classical forms he had earlier cast off. His Roman Elegies, superb elegiac couplets published after his return to Weimar, reflect this new spirit, as well as the inspiration of Christiane Vulpius, who became his wife in 1806, after she had given birth to several of his children.

Torquato Tasso, a dramatic consideration of the conflict the author felt in his own mind between the claims of art and those of practical affairs, belongs to the poetic dramas that are the culmination of this second phase of Goethe’s artistic development. Reflective and lyrical rather than dramatic in a stage sense, they show a sensitive understanding of human nature and a newly positive outlook on life and the joys of love.

In 1794 a friendship began between Goethe and the playwright Friedrich Schiller that lasted until the latter’s death in 1805. The men had a salutary influence on each other, Schiller continually inspiring the enthusiasm of Goethe, who in turn steadied the thinking of his friend. The two collaborated on the publication of a magazine, Die Horen, and together wrote Xenien, a collection of biting epigrams.

Under his friend’s influence Goethe finally completed and published Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. This novel, which he had begun some ten years before as the tale of a youth’s discovery of his theatrical vocation, had grown into a leisurely, discursive novel of eight books, in which young Wilhelm’s apprenticeship to life becomes a vehicle for the author to develop his philosophy for the conduct of living (this included the necessity for self-discipline) and to give a minute description of contemporary German life. Another product of this period is a patriotic poem in stately Homeric hexameters, Herman and Dorothea. Written against a background of the upheavals following the French Revolution, for which Goethe felt little sympathy, this idyllic and gently humorous poem displays the warm and human side of the poet’s nature.

In the turbulent years of the Napoleonic era Goethe isolated himself from world politics, becoming occupied instead with his literary pursuits, his scientific studies, and work on his autobiography, Poetry and Truth from My Own Life. This memoir is an old man’s romantic recollection of his youth, filled with inaccuracies but displaying the beauty of his mature prose style.

It was not until 1833, a year after his death, that The Tragedy of Faust was finally published in its entirety. This dramatic poem, which reflects Goethe’s mental and literary development from youth to old age, narrates the eternal saga of human struggles for perfection. Lifting many of his own experiences to the level of universal truths, Goethe recounts Faust’s bargain with the devil, who will claim his soul at the very moment when he has given him “something worth living for.” Disenchanted in turn by knowledge, power, and sensual pleasure, Faust is truly happy only when he becomes engaged in useful, humanitarian labor; thus God takes his soul at the moment the devil is about to claim it. The great difference between the two parts of this philosophical drama reflects the fact that the first part was written in youth, the second in maturity and old age. From the subjective romantic realism of the first part, which is dominated by the tragic figure of its heroine, Margaret, Goethe turns in the second to a depersonalized symbolic depiction of the climax of Faust’s struggle. The complicated symbolism of the “classical” second part makes it far more difficult to understand than the first. Taken together, they represent the two most important phases of Goethe’s genius as well as the masterly summation of his philosophy and the culmination of his poetic art.

The poet died shortly after the completion of his greatest work and was buried by the side of his patron, Duke Karl August, and his friend Schiller, in the ducal mausoleum at Weimar.

Author Works Drama: Die Laune des Verliebten, wr. 1767, pr. 1779 (The Wayward Lover, 1879) Die Mitschuldigen, first version wr. 1768, pr. 1780, second version wr. 1769, pr. 1777 (The Fellow-Culprits, 1879) Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand, pb. 1773 (Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, 1799) Götter, Helden und Wieland, pb. 1774 Clavigo, pr., pb. 1774 (English translation, 1798, 1897) Erwin und Elmire, pr., pb. 1775 (libretto; music by Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe-Weimar) Stella, first version pr., pb. 1776, second version pr. 1806 (English translation, 1798) Claudine von Villa Bella, first version pb. 1776, pr. 1779, second version pb. 1788 (libretto) Die Geschwister, pr. 1776 Iphigenie auf Tauris, first version pr. 1779, second version pb. 1787 (Iphigenia in Tauris, 1793) Jery und Bätely, pr. 1780 (libretto) Die Fischerin, pr., pb. 1782 (libretto; music by Corona Schröter; The Fisherwoman, 1899) Scherz, List und Rache, pr. 1784 (libretto) Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit, pb. 1787 Egmont, pb. 1788 (English translation, 1837) Torquato Tasso, pb. 1790 (English translation, 1827) Faust: Ein Fragment, pb. 1790 (Faust: A Fragment, 1980) Der Gross-Cophta, pr., pb. 1792 Der Bürgergeneral, pr., pb. 1793 Was wir bringen, pr., pb. 1802 Die natürliche Tochter, pr. 1803 (The Natural Daughter, 1885) Faust: Eine Tragödie, pb. 1808 (The Tragedy of Faust, 1823) Pandora, pb. 1808 Die Wette, wr. 1812, pb. 1837 Des Epimenides Erwachen, pb. 1814 Faust: Eine Tragödie, zweiter Teil, pb. 1833 (The Tragedy of Faust, Part Two, 1838) Long Fiction: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, 1774 (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779) Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1795-1796 (4 volumes; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1825) Die Wahlverwandtschaften, 1809 (Elective Affinities, 1849) Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre: Oder, Die Entsagenden, 1821, 1829 (2 volumes; Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, 1827) Short Fiction: Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, 1795 (Conversations of German Emigrants, 1854) Novelle, 1826 (Novel, 1837) Poetry: Neue Lieder, 1770 (New Poems, 1853) Sesenheimer Liederbuch, 1775-1789, 1854 (Sesenheim Songs, 1853) Römische Elegien, 1793 (Roman Elegies, 1876) Reinecke Fuchs, 1794 (Reynard the Fox, 1855) Epigramme: Venedig 1790, 1796 (Venetian Epigrams, 1853) Xenien, 1796 (with Friedrich Schiller; Epigrams, 1853) Hermann und Dorothea, 1797 (Herman and Dorothea, 1801) Balladen, 1798 (with Schiller; Ballads, 1853) Neueste Gedichte, 1800 (Newest Poems, 1853) Gedichte, 1812, 1815 (2 volumes; The Poems of Goethe, 1853) Sonette, 1819 (Sonnets, 1853) Westöstlicher Divan, 1819 (West-Eastern Divan, 1877) Nonfiction: Von deutscher Baukunst, 1773 (On German Architecture, 1921) Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären, 1790 (Essays on the Metamorphosis of Plants, 1863) Beyträge zur Optik, 1791, 1792 (2 volumes) Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert, 1805 Zur Farbenlehre, 1810 (Theory of Colors, 1840) Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, 1811-1814 (6 volumes; The Autobiography of Goethe, 1824; better known as Poetry and Truth from My Own Life) Italienische Reise, 1816, 1817 (2 volumes; Travels in Italy, 1883) Zur Naturwissenschaft überhaupt, besonders zur Morphologie, 1817, 1824 (2 volumes) Campagne in Frankreich, 1792, 1822 (Campaign in France in the Year 1792, 1849) Die Belagerung von Mainz, 1793, 1822 (The Siege of Mainz in the Year 1793, 1849) Essays on Art, 1845 Goethe’s Literary Essays, 1921 Goethe on Art, 1980 Miscellaneous: Works, 1848-1890 (14 volumes) Goethes Werke, 1887-1919 (133 volumes) Bibliography Armstrong, John. Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Goethe’s works are analyzed and his life examined in this comprehensive volume. Armstrong discusses a wide range of Goethe’s writings, including his lesser known works, and gives a close study of his personal life. Knowing German and English, he provides translations of several key passages, while keeping his writing style plain and clear. This volume offers readers a better understanding of Goethe’ writing, and the circumstances that inspired it. Atkins, Stuart. Essays on Goethe. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Essays on the apprentice novelist and other topics, by the preeminent Goethe scholar. Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age, Volume I: The Poetry of Desire (1749-1790). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1991. A monumental scholarly biography. See the index of Goethe’s works. Boyle, Nicholas. Revolution and Renunciation (1790-1803). Volume 2 in Goethe: The Poet and the Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. This second volume covers only the next thirteen years of Goethe’s life. Boyle’s extensive discussion of the Wilhelm Meister novels and Goethe’s drama Faust is set amid a period of radical political and social change, fallout from the French Revolution. Brodey, Inger Sigrun. “Masculinity, Sensibility, and the ‘Man of Feeling’: The Gendered Ethics of Goethe’s Werther.” Papers on Language and Literature 35 (Spring, 1999): 115-140. Argues that Goethe’s man of feeling renounces traditional masculine roles and instead exists on the edge of illness, madness, impotence, and silence. Brough, Neil. New Perspectives on “Faust”: Studies in the Origins and Philosophy of the Faust Theme in the Dramas of Marlowe and Goethe. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. Brough compares and contrasts the portrayal of the Faust story in the works of Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. Bibliography and index. Kerry, Paul E. Enlightenment Thought in the Writings of Goethe: A Contribution to the History of Ideas. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001. A examination of the philosophy that filled Goethe’s writings. Bibliography and index. Lange, Victor, ed. Goethe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. The essays collected in this informative volume emphasize Goethe’s extraordinary poetic range as well as the pervasive consequences of scientific and social concerns in his life and work. The wide-ranging critical debate over the author’s classical synthesis of private and collective responsibility is well represented. Includes a chronology of significant dates and a select bibliography. Lukacs, Georg. Goethe and His Age. New York: Grosset amd Dunlap, 1968. While the essays in this volume originated in the 1930’s, a knowledge of those cultural, ideological, and literary struggles that classical German literature and philosophy generated is useful in forming any modern literary assessment of Goethe’s work. Lukacs, a renowned Marxist critic, views Goethe’s work as a bridge between the great realism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Pratt, Vernon. “Goethe’s Archetype and the Romantic Concept of the Self.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 27 (September, 1996): 351-365. Compares Goethe’s concept of archetype with the romantic concept of self as a core plus the expression of the core; contends that Goethe’s archetype is a kind of agent at the heart of a thing, striving for self-expression. Reed, T. J. The Classical Centre: Goethe and Weimar, 1775-1832. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1980. This book asserts that Goethe’s work came as a fulfillment of a need felt by a culture that lacked the essentials of a literary tradition. Narrowing his discussion to the author’s years in Weimar, Reed’s analysis emphasizes Goethe as the center of German literature and the primary creator of German classicism. Remak, Henry H. H. Structural Elements of the German Novella from Goethe to Thomas Mann. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Tests the three constituents of Goethe’s famous definition of the novella against his own novellas. Discusses Goethe’s seminal role in the development of the novella as the supreme literary achievement of Germany in the nineteenth century. Swales, Martin, and Erika Swales. Reading Goethe: A Critical Introduction to the Literary Work. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2002. A critical analysis of Goethe’s literary output. Bibliography and index. Wagner, Irmgard. Critical Approaches to Goethe’s Classical Dramas: Iphigenie, Torquato Tasso, and Diet Natürliche Tochter. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Literary criticism of Goethe’s dramas, in particular Iphigenia in Tauris, Torquato Tasso, and The Natural Daughter. Bibliography and index. Wagner, Irmgard. Goethe. New York: Twayne, 1999. An excellent, updated introduction to the author and his works. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Weisinger, Kenneth D. The Classical Facade: A Nonclassical Reading of Goethe’s Classicism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988. The works covered by this interesting volume all come from the middle period of Goethe’s life. In his analysis, Weisinger searches for a kinship between Faust and Goethe’s classic works. The author asserts that all these classic works share a nonclassic common theme: the disunity of the modern world. Williams, John R. The Life of Goethe: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998. An extensive examination of the major writings, including lyric poems, drama, and novels. Includes a discussion of epigrams, aphorisms, satires, libretti, and masquerades. Discusses Goethe’s personal and literary reactions to historical events in Germany, his relationship with leading public figures of his day, and his influence on contemporary culture. Suggests that Goethe’s creative work follows a distinct biographical profile. Includes large bibliography.

Categories: Authors