Man errs, till he has ceased to strive • Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Romanticism and The Rise of the Novel • 1800–1855

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Man errs, till he has ceased to strive • Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Romanticism and The Rise of the Novel • 1800–1855




Weimar Classicism


1776 Under the auspices of the young Goethe, German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder comes to Weimar and begins to write works on literary aesthetics that hark back to the values of the Greek classics. His ideas provide the philosophical underpinning for the movement known as Weimar Classicism.

1794 Friedrich von Schiller writes to Goethe. Their friendship, after they meet in Weimar, forms the backbone of Weimar Classicism.

1799 Schiller completes his Wallenstein drama trilogy, often said to be the greatest historical drama in the German language and a key work of Weimar Classicism.

It was not until shortly before his death in 1832 that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe finally completed the work for which he is best remembered — Faust, a tragic play in two parts, the first of which was completed in 1808. Faust is also the most notable achievement of the movement known as Weimar Classicism, a period of prolific cultural and literary activity centred on the German city of Weimar, which began in the 1780s and lasted for nearly 30 years.

The two writers most closely associated with Weimar Classicism are Goethe and his friend and collaborator, the playwright Friedrich von Schiller (1759—1805). As young men, both had been involved with the late 18th-century movement known as Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”), which featured novels and plays that broke with the literary traditions of the Enlightenment and promoted passionate emotional expression. However, in the 1780s, as the fire of their youth subsided, Goethe and Schiller began to look back at the Enlightenment values that they had previously rejected, reconciling them with the energy of Sturm und Drang, and revisiting the Greek classics with a view to creating new and finer aesthetic standards.

"Age is no second childhood — age makes plain, Children we were, true children we remain."


Collaborative classicism

Weimar Classicism is often regarded as Goethe and Schiller’s joint achievement, although it included other writers — notably the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744—1803) and Christoph Martin Wieland (1733—1813), a poet and novelist.

In formulating their ideas about good literature, Goethe and Schiller agreed that aesthetic perfection was an impossible goal. Instead, they emphasized the importance of balance and harmony, arguing that a literary work could be considered great if it existed in perfect balance with its own imperfect elements. In this way, a work could achieve the unity and wholeness that the authors of the Greek classics had sought.

This balance, according to Goethe and Schiller, was achieved by a combination of the three elements essential to a work of art. The first, gehalt, the author’s primary inspiration or vision, combined with the second, gestalt, the aesthetic form of the work, which might be based on close study of classical models. The third element, the inhalt, is the bulk of the author’s invention — the “content” or, in effect, the words in a work of literature. The inhalt is therefore the element that must be managed carefully because it can create an imbalance that could distract from the gehalt and the gestalt.

Goethe and Schiller collaborated on each other’s productions and encouraged one another — it was Schiller who insisted that Goethe should return to his work on Faust, a work he had begun in his 20s and later put to one side. The two men corresponded daily until Schiller’s death in 1805, a date many critics take to be the end of Weimar Classicism.


Weimar Classicism argued that works of aesthetic harmony could be created if an author had the skill to keep three key elements in balance.

"Here deeds have understood Words they were darkened by; The Eternal Feminine, Draws us on high."


A universe on stage

The story of Faust is based on many popular legends about pacts with the devil that circulated throughout Europe from the early 16th century onwards, and which had inspired Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 play, Doctor Faustus, among others.

While earlier versions presented the Faust legend as a relatively simple contest between God and the devil, or between good and evil, Goethe’s Faust is a more profound tale that moves beyond simple morality. Goethe argues that through living, doing, and striving humans may make mistakes, but that learning from these mistakes will lead them to righteousness.

Goethe starts his play (after a verse dedication) with a prologue. Here a director, a poet, and a clown discuss what characteristics are needed to make a good play. Each has his own agenda: the director wishes to make a play that will draw in the crowds and be well received by its German audience; the poet is an idealist, trying to portray eternal values and make a work of integrity and inspiration — a masterpiece that will endure; and the clown wishes to entertain the audience through comedy and action. The three finally reach a compromise — the poet can create a play with profound meaning as long as it includes action, comedy, and tragedy. The discussion ends with a promise to the audience — that the whole universe, from heaven,via the world, to hell — will be presented on the stage.

Faust: Part One begins in heaven where Mephistopheles (the devil) muses on mankind and wagers with God that he can turn one of God’s favourite subjects, Faust, to sinful ways and win his soul. God accepts the bet but asserts his belief that Faust will stay faithful, pointing out that while a man may make mistakes in his life, he is basically good.


A man who sells his soul for worldly gain is an idea that has long captivated writers. Part One of Goethe’s play inspired Charles Gonoud’s opera. Here, Bryn Terfel (right) plays Mephistopheles.

A deadly deal

Moving the action to Earth with its contemporary German setting, Goethe introduces Faust, a learned professor, doctor, and theologian. Faust is sitting in his study in despair, feeling that he has reached the limit of his learning and that he is merely “a wretched fool, no wiser than I was before”; he even contemplates suicide. The devil appears and an agreement is made between the two: Mephistopheles agrees to fulfil Faust’s wishes on Earth; in return Faust will serve the devil in hell. As part of the deal, Faust declares that if the devil can provide him with a moment that is so absolutely rewarding that he wishes to remain in it forever, then he will die at that precise moment. The pact is signed in blood.

Faust meets and is attracted to a young woman called Gretchen. With the devil’s help, he seduces her, but what Faust hoped would bring happiness quickly turns to death and tragedy, and in this first part, Faust is denied fulfilment.

Faust: Part Two is the more complex part of the tragedy. It consists of five acts, each different from the others, which leap around between settings: real, magical, historical, and mythical. In effect Goethe, having explored Faust’s personal small world in Part One, now places events in the wider world. Part Two introduces many fantastical, and often confusing, plot strands, such as the marriage of Faust to Helen of Troy (in Greek mythology, the most beautiful woman in the world).

"Whoever strives, in his endeavour, We can rescue from the devil."


A literary landmark

Faust typifies Weimar Classicism in its richness of classical allusion: the play’s characters include gods, goddesses, and heroes from Greek mythology and settings from classical antiquity. It is written in a staggering array of literary styles, referencing Greek tragedies as well as mystery plays about biblical subjects, which were popular in the Middle Ages. It takes inspiration from Renaissance masque and commedia dell’arte (a form of theatre from 17th-century Italy, in which actors improvised around stock characters), and makes use of a variety of poetic forms.

Faust is without question the greatest accomplishment of Weimar Classicism, yet it took such an astonishingly long time to complete, that by the time Part Two was published, a few months before Goethe’s own death in 1832, the movement had long finished.

Faust did not exert a strong influence on the “next generation” of writers, since many had already published numerous works by the time of the play’s appearance. Instead, German Romanticism (which ignored classical “balance”) held sway across much of Europe. Despite its lack of contemporary influence, Faust went on to become one of the most famous and studied works of German literature, and is now considered one of the greatest plays ever written.


Weimar’s Courtyard of the Muses, painted by Theobald von Oer in 1860, depicts Goethe (right, hand on hip) opposite Schiller (reading, left), with Herder and Wieland seated behind.



Born on 28 August 1749 in Frankfurt to a wealthy middle-class family, Goethe was not only a great writer and literary figure but also knowledgeable in many fields from law and philosophy through to botany, zoology, science, and medicine.

Goethe was home-tutored until 1765 when he was sent to Leipzig to study law. There he began to write lyric poetry and his first full-length plays. After graduation, he continued writing, establishing his reputation as an innovatory and outstanding writer.

In 1775 he was invited to take a position at the Weimar court, where he held public offices for 10 years. In 1786 he left for a two-year tour of Italy. From around 1794 he began a collaboration with Friedrich von Schiller that resulted in some sublime and influential literary and cultural work. He died on 22 March 1832.

Other key works

1773 Götz von Berlichingen

1774 The Sorrows of Young Werther

1795—96 Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship

See also: Doctor FaustusThe RobbersLes Liaisons dangereusesThe Sorrows of Young WertherThe Magic MountainThe Catcher in the Rye