Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in 1749 and died in 1832, and there is little he did not accomplish over his long life. One Goethe scholar, Ronald Gray, lists his achievements as follows: he was ‘a lyric poet, a draughtsman, a playwright, a novelist, a translator, an actor, a theatre manager, a minister of state, an administrator, a geologist, a meteorologist, a botanist, an anatomist, a student of chromatics, a philosopher, a critic, a mystic, and a lover.’ Even within each of these categories, the range that he covered was enormous. He was a prolific writer, with his output covering poems (of all kinds, from sonnets through to elegies), plays and novels. As a result, some people see him as being ‘Germany’s Shakespeare’, even though he was born a good 150 years later. In this resource, we will delve deeper into Goethe’s work as an author to learn more about this broad range of output.
We will explore his play, Urfaust (the precursor to Faust, the play about the man who sells his soul to the devil) and look at what this play can tell us about the process by which a written work comes into being. We will then move on to look at a short poem taken from Goethe’s West-Östlicher Divan (or the West-Eastern Divan in English), a collection of poetry where Goethe takes a playful approach to literary interaction between Eastern and Western cultures. After this, we will come to the genre of the novel, looking at Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) to see how Goethe uses scientific metaphors to illustrate an otherwise literary text. To wrap up our exploration of his works, we will finish by turning our attention to Goethe’s scientific writing, and explore an extract from his Farbenlehre, or Theory of Colours, to learn more about the overlap between literature and science in the period.
Don’t speak German, or you’ve only just started learning? No problem! We will look at every extract in conjunction with an English translation, so there’s no reason to be worried about any language barriers.