Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832) German poet, dramatist, and fabulist

A man of many interests and talents, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe epitomizes the writer's quandary at the fall of an empire. He was born to the lawyer Johann Caspar Goethe and raised among prominent intellectual burghers in Frankfurt, an imperial free city of the Holy Roman Empire. As a child, he studied with his father and a number of tutors, and received a far-ranging education. He read law at Leipzig University from 1765 to 1768 and wrote his first play, The Lover’s Caprice, in 1767. After an illness, he finished his studies in Strasbourg and then began practicing law in 1771 while also pursuing his writing interests.

With his early verse, Goethe mocked the corruption and instability of the Holy Roman Empire, founded by CHARLEMAGNE on Christmas Day, A.D. 800, and then in its final years. As a citizen, Goethe recognized that politics could never fulfill its grandiose promises. In the tragic drama Gotz von Berlichingen (1773), a chivalric tale that assured his fame, Goethe manages a tightrope act: Though he respects the then Hapsburg emperor Joseph II, he introduces Zigeunerromantik (Gypsy romanticism), a popular concept of the Rom as Naturvolker (nature people)—free-spirited wanderers and outcasts who prefer the freedom of nature to the confines of civilization. The poet indirectly charges the absolutist political federation with decadence, hedonism, and senility. The text portrays self-adultatory imperial portraits as a mockery, both of dignity and of artistic principle, and accuses judges of delaying justice through ineffective deliberation, settling only 60 out of 20,000 cases per year. The narrative attacks Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) as the last of the knights, a veiled criticism of outmoded ideals and governance since his accession as emperor in 1508. In the introduction to Puppenspiel (Puppet plays, 1774), a series of political farces, Goethe dismisses all emperors and their realms as, at best, illusory and temporary.

During the Age of Enlightenment, Goethe came under the influence of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81), one of western Europe's revivers of the didactic FABLE. Goethe's bestiary Reineke Fuchs (Reynard the Fox, 1794), a complex frame narrative composed in the style of the Indian PANCHATANTRA (The Fables of Bidpai, ca. 200 B.C.), preceded by five years Napoleon Bonaparte's assumption of the post of first consul of France. In an animal court scene reminiscent of the Hohenstauffen dynasty (1138-1254), the beasts tell Noble the lion their complaints against the fox's crimes:

Nought sacred is there in his impious eyes:

His soul is fixed upon ungodly pelf. Although the Nobles, nay, the King himself Should suffer loss of health and wealth and all And the whole State to hopeless ruin fall (Goethe 1954, 4).

Through the conventions of fable, Goethe illustrates the intrigue that underlies an empire. At the foot of the gallows, the fox cunningly escapes hanging by casually referring to buried treasure and to an assassination plot against Noble, a symbolic pairing of greed and fear, the emotions that impel rulers to the throne. Reynard compounds the image of venality by donning a pilgrim's robe and staff. He flees the court to kill again and to boast of his villainy by stuffing a rabbit head in his hunting pouch. The ongoing threat to Noble forces him to elevate Reynard to lord high chancellor, a promotion that satisfies his ambitions while keeping him under the eyes of the lion.

Harbinger of Chaos

In 1797, Goethe revamped a Syrian fable into “Der Zauberlehrling” (“The Sorcerer's Apprentice”), a folk tale, told in verse, about a foolish helper's lesson in abuse of power. The original, a product of the Roman Empire's second century, was the work of the Assyrian rhetorician and satirist Lucian of Samosata (ca. A.D. 125-ca. 180), who developed the story as an episode of Philopseudes (Lover of lies, ca. A.D. 175), an interlinking narrative of dialogues and supernatural tales. In an effort to halt a magic broomstick from drowning the necromancer's laboratory with water, Goethe's inept helper whimpers, “Stop, now stop! / You have granted / All I wanted” (Goethe 1871, 98). The master, a symbol of godly power, intercedes to supply the magic word to forestall catastrophe from a would-be magician's foolishness. Walt Disney used the fool tale as a segment of the animated feature film Fantasia (1940), featuring the music of Paul Dukas and Mickey Mouse as the water carrier.

Goethe's whimsical prediction of calamity came true in the first week of 1806 with the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire after Napoleon's recent victory at the battle of Austerlitz. In his AUTOBIOGRAPHY Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth, 1811-33), Goethe chooses the language of physical decline and infection to characterize a morbidity that had sapped the empire under its last leader, Francis II. However, during the Napoleonic era, the poet rejected liberalism and Prussian nationalism as threats to a vulnerable public order represented by Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.

In parts 1 and 2 of his drama Faust (1826, 1831), Goethe lauded the rise of Frederick the Great during the Seven Years' War and mocked the tedium of the Augsburg court and of pro-imperial sloganeering. Probably his best-known work, the play is a classic study of ambition and dynastic pretensions as predecessors of downfall. Part 1 highlights the inhumanity of social standards in the stigmatizing of Margaret, an unmarried mother who drowns her infant to ward off the shame of bastardy. A broader commentary on rule occurs in scene five, when Brander, a minor character, scorns an imperial anthem: “A nasty song! Fie! a political song— / A most offensive song! / Thank God, each morning, therefore, / That you have not the Roman realm to care for!” (Goethe 1898, 85). Brander exults that he is neither the chancellor nor the kaiser of the Austro-German Empire.

During the writing of part 2, the playwright started to become nostalgic about the golden age of empire. In a prophetic scenario in act 3, he reenacts revolution as a Walpurgis Night, a hellish Viking holiday during which pygmies slaughter the aristocratic herons of Pharsalia. In the dark preceding the fight, the witch Erichtho comments on the establishment of political primacy: “No one grants the realm unto another: not him whose might achieved / And rules it, none; for each, incompetent to rule / His own internal self, is all too fain to sway / His neighbor's will, even as his haughty mind inclines” (Goethe 1899, 103).

The layering of past glories amid the follies of imperialism suggests that Goethe romanticized German history only so far as his imagination could substantiate its dreams. His romanticism impacted German-Jewish poet NELLY SACHS, and his GOTHIC outlook influenced the English terror writer MATTHEW GREGORY LEWIS.


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust: A Tragedy. Translated by Bayard Taylor. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898.

------- . Faust: A Tragedy, the Second Part. Translated by

Bayard Taylor. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1899.

----- . Poems and Ballads of Goethe. New York: Holt and Williams, 1871.

----- . The Story of Reynard the Fox. New York: Heritage Press, 1954.

Williams, John R. The Life of Goethe: A Critical Biography.

London: Blackwell, 2001.