Who was this guy, Go-ee’-thee?
I know. I write about German things and especially Goethe a lot. A century ago that would have been the norm. German was taught in the secondary schools. Until the Kaiser thought it neat to try to link up with the Mexicans in WW1 to invade the US, it was a neck and neck race in public opinion as to whether we would enter the war on their side.
Germans, not Englishmen, were amongst the first immigrants to the New World. Buy the time the English got here, they were so settled in that nobody thought of them as foreign.
So right off the bat, pronunciation. I owe it to the last polymath (universal genius) of the Western world to get folks at least a bit closer to how he would have said his name.
- SaY Ger-tuh, Go on, do it—out loud.
- Add a little change to the [-er-]: as you say it, try wrapping your lips around it as if you were trying to say the [w] in [wood]. Yes, you who thinks this is rinky-dink, try it.
- that little change is called an Umlaut, or altered sound. It appears in today’s German as two dots above [a]. [o] and [u] in certain spots: ä (or in older German ae), ö (or in older German as oe – like Goethe—today his name could and would most likely be written Göte or Göthe—[th] is pronounced just the same as our [t] in Getman) and ü (or in older German as ue).
OK, I am done doing German training for old time’s sake.
He was born in 1749 Johann Wolfgang Goethe, he died in 1832 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The [von] was added when someone had been elevated into the nobility. The French use, I believe, the prefix d’ or de’ before a family name to indicate nobility, von (of or from) does the same in German.
What he did between those dates made him the very first international celebrity —Napoleon thought his first novel, The Sufferings of Young Werther, one of the greatest works in western literature. He wrote that at age 24—but I am getting ahead of myself.
When you read the short bio of him below, remember this: by our standards, his way of life was hard, possibly even primitive. The shortest way to describe life in 18th and early 18th century Central Europe is the titis of a great book about life before that time: A World Lit only by Fire.
- you wrote everything by hand: no spell check, no moving paragraphs around, no grammar checks. Lots of crossings out, arrows, etc. Some of Goethes most famous works were written without any edits at all — including the most famous poem in german, considered by many (including me) to be a perfect work.
- he wrote in German when the languages of culture then were French and Italian.
- He did some jail time for having taken philandering too far and too lightly.
- No easy way to compare notes with other like minded folks. Want to share a document? It had to be carried by a friend, or the Post–but only to the borders of the little dukedom in which you lived. It was one of 100+ German speaking little -doms in Central Europe, and you had to arrange visas permits, yellow coach mail service in every one between your home and the end target. Things were MUCH slower.
- Getting sick could well be fatal. No antibiotics, not even antiseptic treatments: bleeding was a favorite, using leeches to draw blood (yours). Surgeons traveled like barbers, announced their arrivals with drums, music: no setting up ahead of time. Some were not too bad, most were quacks.
- Democracy? No. At best, an enlighlened absolute monarch/ Goethe lucked out that way with a supportive, enlightend Duke in Weimar – -but still an absolute ruiler. Lots of mother-may-I to do just routine stuff, like go to the next -dom for a vacation.
- Travel: by yellow coach (yellow easily seen, meant mail too). Dusty, hot, crowded over rutted, bumpy dirt roads that could and did break wheels, axles out where the only help was passengers and lawlessness was more likely than in town. Rest areas? No–inns, to feed horses, have a fast beer, climb. back up and rumble off again. Overnight: unlikely a room of your own. MOre likely sleeping in same bed with one or two others, and having o keep your valuables safe on your own.
- Sanitation? Perhaps partly indoors and private, more than likely outdoors, or even just dump the night pan out the window into the street gutter. That may have been on the wane by then, and bathing … there was a reason for perfumes.
That’s just a short overview. Bottom line is double edged: a life hard physically, mentally, spiritually but at the same time, one that left anyone who lived it on its terms with a very up close and personal experience of all the pluses and minuses of human life. And one that landed in one of the most productive times for great art ever: Goethe, Schiller (poem of Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th Symphon), Mozart, Beethoven and so on. A hard time alive with the spark of learning and creating.
Which is why Faust, which Goethe honed into a great work for a long time, is in its story of selling the soul to the devil not just some theory but the literary-distillation of an unassailable depth and breadth of living by its author.
That legacy is well worth studying, loving, embracing and advocating. 100 years of wars with the Germans on the other side has left us out of touch with their huge contributions to Western Civilization. IT needs to be brought back. After all, we almost went into World War I on the side of the Kaiser. That is why I mention him so much. .
About his life:
“By the time he completed his studies, he had composed a satirical crime comedy, fallen in love with folk poetry, and developed a deep affinity for Shakespeare, the figure responsible for what he termed his “personal awakening.”
Throughout the 1770s, Goethe practiced a unique, progressive version of law across Germany, while maintaining a side career as an editor, playwright, and poet. He wrote his first widely-read novel, the loosely-autobiographical, joyfully-romantic tragedy, The Sorrows of Young Werther, in 1774, at the age of 24. The book was an instant international success. Napolean Bonaparte called it one of the greatest works of European Literature. It sparked the phenomenon “Werther-Fieber” (“Werther Fever”), in which young men throughout Europe began dressing like the tragic protagonist, and brought Goethe to the court of Carl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, where he would become an important advisor….
Despite his success and influence as a poet, Goethe expressed that he took no pride in his literary accomplishments, and believed instead that his work as a philosopher and scientist—in particular his theories about color—would be his true legacy. However, his writings—emotive, far-reaching, prophetic, and formal—stimulated generations of Western literature and thought. Randall Jarrell, who translated Faust from his Poet Laureate’s office at the Library of Congress, called him his “own favorite daemon, dear good great Goethe.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, deeply influenced by Goethe’s merging of science and art, called Goethe the “surpassing intellect of modern times,” and said of his life:
Such was his capacity, that the magazines of the world’s ancient or modern wealth, which arts and intercourse and skepticism could command,—he wanted them all. Had there been twice so much, he could have used it as well. Geologist, mechanic, merchant, chemist, king, radical, painter, composer,—all worked for him, and a thousand men seemed to look through his eyes. He learned as readily as other men breathe. Of all the men of this time, not one has seemed so much at home in it as he. He was not afraid to live.
Goethe died in Weimar on March 22, 1832. He is buried in the Ducal Vault at Weimar’s Historical Cemetery.”