March 22, 1832: death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774, was an inspiration to romantic writers throughout Europe. Although at the end of the eighteenth century Goethe himself was praising classicism, Part 1 of Faust,published in 1808, was a landmark in romantic art. In part 2 of Faust, published the year of Goethe’s death, he symbolically reconciled the romantic and classical styles in the union of Faust and Helena.

 All of Faust, in an English translation by George Madison Priest, is available here. Here’s a short excerpt from Part 2 (published the year Goethe died), included here because it’s a gem of a description--not of a truly learned man, but of a mind so concrete-bound that it can’t think beyond what’s directly visible.

I see the learned man in what you say!
What you don't touch, for you lies miles away;
What you don't grasp, is wholly lost to you;
What you don't reckon, you believe not true;
What you don't weigh, that has for you no weight;
What you don't coin, you're sure is counterfeit.

 While reading up on Goethe, I also found his startlingly modern “Prometheus,” the writing of a disgruntled theist rather than an atheist. The German original and English translation appear here.


Cover your heavens, Zeus,
with gauzy clouds,
and practice, like a boy
who beheads thistles,
on the oaks and peaks of mountains;
but you must allow
my world to stand,
and my hut, which you did not build,
and my hearth,
whose glow
you envy me.

I know nothing more shabby
under the sun, than you gods!
You wretchedly nourish,
from offerings
and the breath of prayers,
your majesty;
And you would starve, were
children and beggars not
such hopeful fools.

When I was a child
I did not know in from out;
I turned my confused eyes
to the sun, as if above it there were
an ear to hear my laments -
a heart like mine
that would pity the oppressed.

Who helped me
against the pride of the titans?
Who rescued me from death -
from slavery?
Did you not accomplish it all yourself,
my sacred, glowing heart?
Yet did you not glow with ardent and youthful goodness,
deceived, and full of gratitude
to the sleepers above?

I, honor you? Why?
Have you ever alleviated the pain
of one who is oppressed?
Have you ever quieted the tears
of one who is distressed?
Was I not forged into a man
by all-mighty Time
and eternal Fate,
my masters and yours?

You were deluded if you thought
I should hate life
and fly into the wilderness
because not all of my
budding dreams blossomed.

Here I will sit, forming men
after my own image.
It will be a race like me,
to suffer, to weep,
to enjoy and to rejoice,
and to pay no attention to you,
as I do!

And, for good measure, one more quote:

A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world's torrent.

Goethe is buried in Weimar near his friend Schiller, whose bust stands near the bandshell in Central Park.