The first time you read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1782 poem ‘Erlkönig‘ your initial reaction is horror. A father racing, for what is assumed to be help for his ill child, only to fail to reach his destination in time and finds his son has died in his arms. It is a very heart breaking poem. The Erlkönig is a supernatural character who is trying to persuade the little boy to follow him, it is presumed that following this figure would lead to worldly death. Many people read this poem as a horror story, just as was my first impression. However, had not the dying been a child, and had he not took his final breath in his fathers arms, would this story be so scary? Doesn’t what the Erlkönig offer sound grand and exciting? Perhaps like heaven to a sick and dying child? Was this supernatural character really trying to hurt him? Or comfort him (in a rather overbearing way I’d admit) during his last minutes? Whatever Erlkönig’s real intentions were, the story is undoubtedly upsetting, and most interpretations view the Erlkönig as a seductive and evil creature.
Der Erlkönig by Albert Sterner
Below are three verions of the poem:
1. The original German text
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
“Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?”
“Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?”
“Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.”
“Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
Manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.”
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?”
“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.”
“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehen?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?”
“Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.”
“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.”
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!”
Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
2. A literal translation
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He holds the boy in the crook of his arm
He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.
“My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”
“Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and cloak?”
“My son, it’s a wisp of fog.”
“You lovely child, come, go with me!
Many a beautiful game I’ll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the shore,
My mother has many golden robes.”
“My father, my father, can’t you hear,
What the Elfking quietly promised me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind rustles through dry leaves.”
“Do you want to come with me, dear boy?
My daughters shall wait on you fine;
My daughters lead the nightly dances
And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”
“My father, my father, can’t you see there,
The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it well:
The old willows they shimmer so grey.”
“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, I shall use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!”
The father shudders; he rides swiftly,
He holds the moaning child in his arms.
He can hardly manage to reach his farm;
In his arms, the child was dead.
3. An english adaptation, with rhyming verses. (“The Alder King” Edgar Alfred Bowring 1853)
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Elf King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Elf King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”
“Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
For many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Elf King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, thy fancy deceives;
the wind is sighing through withering leaves.”
“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care
My daughters by night on the dance floor you lead,
They’ll cradle and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Elf King is showing his daughters to me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
‘Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight.”
“I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou aren’t willing, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Elf King has hurt me at last.”
The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He holds in his arms the shuddering child;
He reaches his farmstead with toil and with dread,–
The child in his arms he finds motionless, dead.
According to this site this was the inspiration for this poem:
One story has it that Goethe was visiting a friend when, late one night, a dark figure carrying a bundle in its arms was seen riding past the gate at high speed. The next day Goethe and his friend were told that they had seen a farmer taking his sick son to the doctor. This incident, along with the legend, is said to have been the main inspiration for the poem.
The Erlkönig vs. Goethe’s Erlkönig
Der Erlkönig has been translated into English several different ways. The Erlking, the Elfking, and the Oak or Alder King.
The Erlking– The Erlking as a character has its origins in a common European folkloric archetype, the seductive but deadly fairy or siren. In its original form in Scandinavian folklore, the character was a female spirit, the elf-king’s daughter (Elverkongens datter). Similar stories existed in numerous ballads throughout Scandinavia in which an elverpige (female elf) was responsible for ensnaring human beings to satisfy their desire, jealousy and lust for revenge.
The Erlking’s Daughter – Johann Gottfried von Herder introduced this character into German literature in Erlkönigs Tochter, a ballad published in his 1778 volume Stimmen der Volker in Liedern. It was based on a Danish folk ballad published in the 1739 Danske Kaempevisor. Herder undertook a free translation but mistranslated the Danish name elverkonge as “Erlkönig”, “alder king”; the confusion appears to have arisen with the German word elle, “alder”. It has generally been assumed that the mistranslation was the result of error, but it has also been suggested that Herder was imaginatively trying to identify the malevolent sprite of the original tale with a woodland demon (hence the alder king).
The story, as retold by Herder, portrays a man named Sir Oluf riding to his marriage but being entranced by the music of the elves. One of the elf maidens, the Elverkonge’s daughter, appears and invites him to dance with her. He refuses and spurns her offers of gifts and gold. Angered, she strikes him and sends him on his way, deathly pale. The following morning, on the day of his wedding, his bride finds him lying dead under his scarlet cloak.
Goethe’s Erlking – Although inspired by Herder’s ballad, Goethe departed significantly from both Herder’s rendering of the Erlking and the Scandinavian original. The antagonist of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig is, as the name suggests, the Erlking himself rather than his daughter. Goethe’s Erlking differs in other ways as well: his version preys on children, rather than adults of the opposite sex, and the Erlking’s motives are never made clear. Goethe’s Erlking is much more akin to the Germanic portrayal of elves and valkyries – a force of death rather than simply a magical spirit.
The ‘Erlking’ translation comes directly from Erlkönig, könig = king. The ‘Elfking’ translation comes from the similar Danish story of the Elverkonge’s daughter. This story about the Elfking’s Daughter was mistranslated into German as the ‘Erlkönigs Tochter’. It makes sense that the ‘Alder King (and sometimes Oak King) are frequent translations due to the supernatural character being a woodland spirit in Scandinavian folklore. But all these guesses presume that Goethe himself got caught up in this translation conundrum.
Another theory which takes a completely different course insists that perhaps Goethe knew what he was doing all along. There may be some validity to this idea. A lot of folklore probably does have similar origins.
In the German language essay “Die Erlkönigin” by Burkhard Schröder the case is made that this stories probably originated in ancient Greece and Mesopotamia and that through migrations of peoples those tales came with them and transformed. This is a very intriguing idea to me because I’m very interested in the migrations of peoples around the world and the traditions they spread. So whether the origin of these stories really is traceable to the Mediterranean, or just an artistic output of a common human psyche, I do not know.
Schröder believes that the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary Reference both incorrectly allege that Goethe mistranslated the title, and that it should have been Der Elfenkönig, to coincide with popular English translations of ‘The Elf King’. While Goethe probably did borrow from the ‘Erlkönigs Tochter’ story, Schröder say that he also probably did immense research into the origins of the story and pulled from those original Mesopotamian themes.
We learned previously that many believe the Alder King or Oak King translations come from the word elle, literally German Alder. Elves and oaks/alder may have nothing in common other then the fact that they both live in the forest.
Here is an English translation of a good portion of the essay (my additions to the text are in red)…
The words “Eller könig” or Elberich ( “rich” means “king”) and Alberich have the same ethymological root. The dwarf Alberich, the king of the underworld and has appeared in the German national epic ‘The Nibelungenlied,’ or The Song of the Nibelungs. [This may sound familiar because this saga served as source materials for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen] The root “alb” originally meant “white” and described the color as well as “the fruit”. The Greek word “alphos” is the “white leprosy” (Latin “albula” – from “albus,” white “). An entire chapter of the novel “Moby Dick” by Herbert Melville on the hunt for the white whale is devoted to the question why the color white evokes eerily associations …
That said, it is no coincidence that historical evidence points to one of the oldest myths of the Mediterranean: the legend of the sinister goddess Alphito [according to this site, the Goddess Alphito was the “Arcadian White Grain Goddess who was given sole rights over the ability to inflict leprosy. Also note a plant named ‘Alphitonia excelsa’ whose name an Austrailian government website says comes from Greek meaning pearly barley.]. Alphito terrorized people in ancient Greek times. The words “nightmare”[German ‘Albtraum’] and “Albino” (for “white”) were derived from the name of this goddess, and also the name of the river “Elbe”.
Even a Bible passage is possibly encrypted for a sacrifice to Alphito: In the 3rd Book of Moses, verse 10 [I had the hardest time trying to find out where this was referenced because the chapter wasn’t posted. Finally, I discovered that the first five books of the Bible are refered to as the Books of Moses 1-5 in Germany. The verse is Leviticus 14:10] is arranged that the person of leprosy has been cured, a bushel of barley (in the original text: barley, Luther used Rusk [from the Martin Luther 1912 Bible, the Bibles I frequently use, the New King James Version, and The New Oxford Annotated Bible, refer to flour for the offering]) had to be sacrificed to the goddess. The Albdrücken is a synonym for Nightmare, formerly also Incubus, a demon.
The Roman writer Pliny knew even the old word “Albion” refered to the “British Isles”, and the historian Nennius, who around 820 BC published the Historia Brittonum, claimed that the name “Albion” came from “Albina”, the White Goddess of the Greek Danaan, the legendary ancestors of Mycenae.
What did the elves and the alder have in common? The Danish “Ellerkonge” was in truth of the Old God Bran, the king of the alders, writes Robert von Ranke-Graves in “The White Goddess.” The answer to the riddle is hidden in an ancient Welsh legend, the Battle of the Trees, which the Celtic Druids, and then the later minstrels transmitted orally. This legend describes, in an encrypted form, of the conquest of a dead city on the plain of Salisbury during the invasion of Britain by the Celts – the ancestors of the Gauls – during the Iron Age. The gods of the victors and the vanquished are fighting against each other as trees. Centuries later the meaning of the story has really yet to be deciphered.
The Celtic Druids use a finger alphabet: the letter F (for “Fearn”, the alder) was the tip of the middle finger is displayed, like in today’s sign language. Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Britain, complained later that the Druids had nothing written , but by secret characters they talked with each other and, what neither he nor subsequent Christian missionaries understood is that they allegedly used Greek letters. The English historian Edmund Spenser claimed in 1596 that the British Druids got their letters from a people that came from the Mediterranean Sea and travelled through Spain and had come to Britain.
Another indication that the Druid’s traditional myths and gods come from the peoples who migrated from the Mediterranean region can be found in the ‘Romance of Taliesin’. There appears Gwion, the most famous bard of the Celtic myths. His counterpart is the dark goddess Cerridwen, the shape appears in the theory of the triple goddess [an interesting idea popularized by Graves, the author of ‘The White Goddess’ mentioned earlier, it is an idea of Goddess worship that is traced back to the Near East. This single goddess would symbolize birth, death and regeneration.] , and cauldron boils over [“Cerridwen used a blind man, Morda, to stir the cauldron in order to keep the knowledge of the ingredients and the process of making the potion secret from those who had no right to know” (Celtic Encyclopedia, which also corroborates the following sentences)]. The ancient Greek goddess Alphito is hidden behind the story of Ceridwen, who overseas the harvest of barley and can transform herself into a white, corpse-eating pig. The Old Irish and Welsh word “cerdd” means “white” [this is incorrect. Using the University of Wales English/Welsh dictionary I was able to determine that ‘cerdd’ means poem, and ‘gwyn’ means white. While searching for information on Cerridwen many baby name websites popped up in the search and confirm my translation.] And even in the Spanish language this folklore stays alive. Alphito aka Ceridwen still further: “cerdo” means pig, and the “Cerdaña” is the famous barley and cereal dance of the Spanish Pyrenees [I had a hard time finding much out about this dance, but this research comes from Robert Graves. The dance is called ‘Sardana,’ not Cerdaña which is the region (english translation is Cerdanya) and the festival is held in the capital city of Puigcerda, which translates to pig hill].
In Arles, France the role of death in this mysterious play of the triple goddess can be seen. This can be seen during the end of May when the festival of The Three Marys of Provence is celebrated. This ritual is rooted in the Christian interpretation of pagan tombstones in the cemetery of Alyscamps in Arles [all the research I did on this subject says the festival is in celebration of the tradition that three Marys arrived in France with Joseph of Arimethia after they fled Palestine due to the crucifixion of Jesus. The graveyard itself was for both Christians and Pagans- but the festival is Christian, and directly refers to the visitors from Palestine]. Albert Dauzat’s “étymologique Dictionnaire de la langue française” states that the syllable “Alys” from the Gaulish word ‘Alisia’, which occur in many place names is the Spanish word for alder.
The Legend of the alder-men and elven king shows us only shadowy memories of an age-old white female goddess of death and Trinity, whose original home was in ancient Greece and Spain before their cult emigrated to England, where Alphito aka Cerridwen changed their gender and became Bran.
The myth correctly reported that Bran lured children into another world as his alter ego Erlkönig. The Erlkönig in truth is a woman and she bears a crown and tail, as in Goethe’s poem, this figure is also known in Jewish mythology. The Greek goddess Alphito is much older – and she stole away little boys. The truth is hidden behind Alphito is Lilith, according to the Talmud, the first wife of Adam. Lilith was violated, because they refused to obey Adam. Because they do not return to Paradise as requested, Yahweh commanded three angels to kill one hundred of their children a day. And that’s why she still steals newborn babies. The goddess had transformed into a female night demon. From the revenge thirsty Lilith the following sentence is handed down:
“Know ye not that I have been created for the purpose of weakening and punishing little children, infants and babes. I have power over them from the day they are born until they are eight days old if they are boys.”
Lilith has been in folk mythology for a long time, and has been portrayed with wild hair and protruding wings, reports the venerable Encyclopaedia Judaica. Images of Lilith are already known from Babylon.
In Germany there are very few testimonies of Lilith. The Jewish cemetery in Vogelsberg Grebenau shows a winged creature with a human face. It is not the angel Rasiel, as often claimed, but Lilith, whose second name is Meyalleleth in the book “Sefer Rasiel”. There are also formulas, which would be written on amulets worn by newborns to protect them from the demoness. The crown and the tail of the Erlkönig is a parody of the popular iconographic hair and wings of Lilith.
The computer game Blade knows the character of “Lilith Meyalleleth”. She has been transported not only from literature through time but with the help of the internet these age old myths have also been transported into modern gaming culture. You may just be right to call “Lilith Meyalleleth” the “Erlkönigin”.
I think the research Schröder did was very interesting. I was previously familiar with the story of Lilith, but that people have been able to trace her story all over the world is just fantastic and I would like to do further research into this. My research into the story behind the Erlkönig poem has taken me much deeper into folklore than I had ever imagined, but I’m glad it did!
Schubert’s brilliant adaptation of the text into a composition captures the tone of the poem completely. I spent much longer than I care to admit searching YouTube for interpretations of the Erlkönig. These are the performances I enjoyed the most. Totally different videos. With the artistic differences, the experience of each video is completely different.
Anne Sofie von Otter sings Der Erlkönig
Real life home-made action video
Piano Solo. The way the sound echoed through the room must have created an awesome experience.
Super Artsy. Not set to Schubert’s composition like the others.
The absolute WORST interpretation- A pre-teen pop song?!? This captures nothing of Goethe. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJw2LsXHrzY&feature=related
Posted in Book Reviews/Literature, Commentary, Folklore/Spirituality/Religion | 8 Comments
In the English-speaking world, we are used to thinking of our greatest writer as an enigma, or a blank. Though there’s enough historical evidence to tell us when Shakespeare was born and when he died, and more than enough to prove that he wrote the plays ascribed to him, the record is thin. Indeed, the persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates is a symptom of how little we actually understand about his life. His religious beliefs, his love affairs, his relationships with other writers, his daily routine—these are permanent mysteries, and biographies of Shakespeare are always mostly speculation.
To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.
Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn’t lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name. As it is, in the words of Nicholas Boyle, his leading English-language biographer, “More must be known, or at any rate there must be more to know, about Goethe than about almost any other human being.”
Germans began debating the significance of the Goethe phenomenon while he was still in his twenties, and they have never stopped. His lifetime, spanning some of the most monumental disruptions in modern history, is referred to as a single whole, the Goethezeit, or Age of Goethe. Worshipped as the greatest genius in German history and as an exemplary poet and human being, he has also been criticized for his political conservatism and quietism, which in the twentieth century came to seem sinister legacies. Indeed, Goethe was hostile to both the French Revolution and the German nationalist movement that sprang up in reaction to it. More radical and Romantic spirits especially disdained the way this titan seemed content to be a servant to princes—and Grand Duke Karl August of Weimar, despite his title, was a fairly minor prince—in an age of revolution.
One famous anecdote concerns Goethe and Beethoven, who were together at a spa resort when they unexpectedly met a party of German royalty on the street. Goethe deferentially stood aside and removed his hat, while Beethoven kept his hat firmly on his head and plowed through the royal group, forcing them to make way—which they did, while offering the composer friendly greetings. Here was a contrast of temperaments, but also of generations. Goethe belonged to the courtly past, when artists were the clients of princes, while Beethoven represented the Romantic future, when princes would clamor to associate with artists. Historians dispute whether the incident actually took place, but if it didn’t the story is arguably even more revealing; the event became famous because it symbolized the way people thought about Goethe and his values.
Goethe’s fame notwithstanding, he is strangely neglected in the English-speaking world. English readers are notoriously indifferent to the poets of other cultures, and Goethe’s poems, unfortunately, seldom come across vividly in translation. This is partly because Goethe so often cloaks his sophistication in deceptively simple language. “Heidenröslein,” one of his earliest great poems, is written in the style of a folk song and almost entirely in words of one or two syllables: “Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn” (“A boy saw a little rose standing”). “The Essential Goethe” (Princeton), a rich new anthology, a thousand pages long, edited by Matthew Bell, which valiantly seeks to display every facet of Goethe’s genius, gives the poem in a translation by John Frederick Nims:
Urchin blurts: “I’ll pick you, though,
Rosebud in the heather!”
Rosebud: “Then I’ll stick you so
That there’s no forgetting, no!
I’ll not stand it, ever!”
Nims reproduces the rhythm of the original precisely. But to do so he adds words that aren’t in the original (“though”) and resorts to distractingly winsome diction (“urchin,” “I’ll not”). The result is clumsy and charmless. The very simplicity of Goethe’s language makes his poetry practically untranslatable.
English speakers are more hospitable to fiction in translation, and yet when was the last time you heard someone mention “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” or “Elective Affinities,” Goethe’s long fictions? These books have a good claim to have founded two of the major genres of the modern novel—respectively, the Bildungsroman and the novel of adultery. Goethe’s first novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is better known, mainly because it represented such an enormous milestone in literary history; the first German international best-seller, it is said to have started a craze for suicide among young people emulating its hero. But in English it remains a book more famous than read.
This wasn’t always the case. Victorian intellectuals revered Goethe as the venerable Sage of Weimar. Thomas Carlyle implored the reading public to “close thy Byron, open thy Goethe”—which was as much as to say, “Grow up!” Matthew Arnold saw Goethe as a kind of healer and liberator, calling him the “physician of the Iron Age,” who “read each wound, each weakness” of the “suffering human race.” For these writers, Goethe seemed to possess something the modern world lacked: wisdom, the ability to understand life and how it should be lived. It was this very quality that led to his fall from favor in the post-Victorian age. For the modernists, being spiritually sick was a condition of intellectual respectability, and T. S. Eliot wrote that “there is something artificial and even priggish about Goethe’s healthiness.” Reading Goethe today, even through the veil of translation, is most valuable as an encounter with a way of thinking and feeling that has grown foreign to us.
The key to Goethe is that the spiritual “healthiness” so disliked by Eliot was not that of a man with a perfect constitution but that of a recovered invalid. He knew the “weakness” that Arnold described all too well. Goethe’s early life was a privileged one—he was the only surviving son of a prosperous bourgeois family in Frankfurt—and as a young man he teetered on the brink of waywardness. Though he studied law, at his father’s insistence, and even practiced briefly, the occupation was never more than a cover for what really interested him, which was writing poetry and falling in love. It was one of these early infatuations that plunged Goethe into the despair that would become the subject of his first success, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
This short novel tells the story of an unhappy love affair. Through letters written by Werther to a friend, we learn about his hopeless love for Charlotte, an affectionate and virtuous young woman who is already engaged to a worthy man, Albert. After Charlotte and Albert get married, Werther feels that he has nothing to live for, and decides to commit suicide—a decision that he communicates in a gothic rhapsody of emotion: “You see, Charlotte, I do not shudder to take the cold and fatal cup, from which I shall drink the frenzy of death. Your hand gave it to me, and I do not tremble. All, all the wishes and the hopes of my life are fulfilled. Cold and stiff I knock at the brazen gates of death.”
The book captured the sensibility of a generation, running, as Thomas Mann wrote, “like a fever and frenzy over the inhabited earth, acting like a spark in a powder magazine, setting free a dangerous amount of pent-up force.” At least some of Goethe’s readers took him to be endorsing and glamorizing Werther’s suicide. One young woman, a Weimar courtier named Christel von Lassberg, drowned herself in the River Ilm with a copy of the novel in her pocket. Goethe must have felt much as one might imagine J. D. Salinger felt about Mark David Chapman’s copy of “The Catcher in the Rye”—guilty, but also horrified at being so misread.
Yet, far from ennobling its hero, “Werther” is actually a warning against what Goethe sees as a consuming spiritual disease. What kills Werther is not disappointed love but toxic self-centeredness, subjectivity run wild. Whether he is enjoying the sublimity of a landscape or the company of Charlotte, Werther is always really only involved with himself, his own ideas and emotions. “The rich and ardent feeling which filled my heart with a love of Nature, overwhelmed me with a torrent of delight, and brought all paradise before me, has now become an insupportable torment—a demon which perpetually pursues me,” he writes. The fatal complication of his illness is pride. Werther is not just miserable but proud of his misery, which he takes as proof that he is exceptionally sensitive—finer than the world that disappoints him. Having identified himself with the universe, he finds that when he is unhappy the universe becomes a prison.
So far, Werther strongly resembles Hamlet, who calls Denmark and the whole world a prison, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” But Hamlet’s paralysis of will gives way, in Act V, to a commitment to the deed. “The readiness is all,” he declares, before finally taking revenge on Claudius. Werther, on the other hand, is never ready for action, because he has no momentous deed waiting to be performed. In this, he is a more modern figure than Hamlet, who, after all, was summoned by a ghost. Werther, like us, gets no help from the other world in directing his steps in this one.
Goethe knew his hero’s despair as well as any reader could. In fact, the book became scandalous for its resemblance to real people and events. Werther’s strained triangular relationship with Charlotte, whom he loves, and Albert, whom he respects as a friend, was taken directly from Goethe’s own entanglement with a woman named Charlotte Buff and her fiancé, Johann Kestner. Goethe spliced this story with that of a young man he barely knew, named Karl Jerusalem, who committed suicide—with a pistol borrowed from Kestner, just as Werther borrows Albert’s pistol for the same purpose. So closely did the events of the novel mirror those of real life that its publication, and then its enormous success, ruined Goethe’s relationship with Kestner, who wrote to complain about the way the author “prostituted the real persons whose features you borrow.”
The crucial difference between Goethe and his creation was that the poet found a way out of his labyrinth. In 1775, the year after “Werther” made him famous, he accepted an invitation from Grand Duke Karl August to move to Weimar, then a small independent duchy with a population of just a hundred thousand. Under Goethe’s direction and patronage, the tiny court became world famous for attracting some of the preëminent German minds of the age—notably, the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller, Goethe’s friend and collaborator, and his early mentor Johann Gottfried Herder, the pioneering philosopher of language. But Goethe was not in Weimar simply as an ornament; to the dismay of the local aristocracy, he was quickly raised to the highest level of government, becoming the Duke’s most trusted adviser. During his first ten years in Weimar, Goethe finished none of the major literary projects he had in hand—he was too busy with paperwork.
This might seem, as it did to many at the time, a waste of Goethe’s genius—like harnessing Pegasus to a cart. But Goethe, with the unerring instinct that seemed to guide him throughout his long life, had chosen the existence he needed—an existence as unlike Werther’s as possible. Instead of remaining focussed on his own passions and desires, he subdued his mind to the discipline of the objective, of work and responsibility. He turned toward objectivity in other ways as well, particularly in his study of science. Throughout his life, Goethe published scientific theories and “discoveries,” most of which were wrong and roundly ignored by the scientists of his day. But, while he failed to overthrow the Newtonian understanding of optics, Goethe found in science a necessary distraction from self.
At the same time, he developed a conception of nature that provided an alternative to the mathematical and spiritless mechanism that the Enlightenment seemed to offer. “The Essential Goethe” includes a generous sample of his scientific writing, which reveals how much of Goethe’s science was devoted to the idea of holism—the sense, more an intuition than a theory, that the universe is a living organism that develops and grows. “We experience the fullest sense of well-being when we are unaware of our parts and conscious only of the whole itself,” he writes in one essay. “Life in its wholeness is expressed as a force not attributable to any individual part of an organism.” This vitalism fit in well with the world view that Goethe had learned from Spinoza, who held that nature is God and God nature. “All finite beings exist within the infinite,” Goethe wrote. In this way, science performed something like the office of religion, turning Goethe into a kind of modern, rational pagan.
Ten years of office work, of literary projects left incomplete, finally took their toll. In 1786, in a spirit of adventure characteristic more of a young poet than of a middle-aged civil servant, Goethe abruptly threw aside his work and left Weimar without telling friends and colleagues where he was going. Travelling under an assumed identity, he made his way to Italy, where he spent the next two years studying art and enjoying the country that he described, in one of his most famous poems, as “the land where lemon blossoms blow, / And through dark leaves the golden oranges glow.”
Goethe’s time in Italy marked a watershed in his life. He was thirty-seven. As a worshipper of the classical world and of Renaissance painting, Goethe found Italy—especially Rome, where he spent most of his time—to be a revelation and a rebirth. He wrote, “If I had not carried out the resolution I am now carrying out, I would simply have perished, so ripe had the desire become in my heart to see these sights with my own eyes.” Yet the book that resulted from this trip, the “Italian Journey,” has little to say about what was going on in Goethe’s heart. Instead, he focusses on the sights themselves—geological features of the country, garbage-disposal methods in the cities, a court trial, a theatrical performance. Much of Goethe’s Italian sojourn was spent trying, without success, to transform himself into a painter, and the book he wrote is a record more of things seen than of things felt.
Still, there is no missing the fact that this was a time of reawakening for the poet—spiritually and also sensually. As a young man, Goethe fell in love regularly; biographers define the periods of his life by the women who presided over them and the literary works they inspired. But these early romances tended to be platonic and idealized, much like Werther’s adoration of Charlotte. Partly, this was because Goethe took care to steer clear of anything that would commit him to marriage, which he assiduously avoided for as long as he could. An early relationship with Friederike Brion, a pastor’s daughter whom he wooed while he was a law student in Strasbourg, ended with the poet abruptly bailing on what Friederike, at least, had imagined to be an engagement. “Heidenröslein,” with its parable of seduction and abandonment—a boy plucks a rose, which pricks him with the thorn of regret—grew out of Goethe’s guilt over what he knew to be his own bad conduct. Later, at the court of Weimar, the poet engaged in a very intense, decade-long but apparently nonsexual relationship with a married woman, Charlotte von Stein.
Things were different in Rome, where Goethe had a liaison, frankly sexual this time, with a Roman widow whose name is not known. This newly liberated erotic spirit trailed him back to Weimar, where, soon after his return, he met and moved in with Christiane Vulpius, a woman so much his inferior in education and social status that marriage seemed out of the question. He did eventually marry her, but not until almost twenty years later, in 1806, by which time she had already borne him a son. Many in Weimar were shocked by their open cohabitation and by Goethe’s choice of life partner—none more so than Charlotte von Stein, who turned with cold fury on her former spiritual mate. But the joy and liberation of these sexual experiences introduced a new strain into Goethe’s poetry, as in the famous fifth “Roman Elegy,” in which he describes counting the beat of hexameters on his lover’s naked back. This, too, was a kind of education, the poem insists: “Also, am I not learning when at the shape of her bosom, / Graceful lines, I can glance, guide a light hand down her hips?”
Liberated from his more onerous court duties, Goethe was free to take up projects that he had first begun to think about years, even decades, earlier: the gestation period for the verse drama “Faust” spanned more than thirty years, for the novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” almost twenty. Such lengthy gestation gives both books a loosely woven, episodic quality. But Goethe’s persistence also testifies to the continuity of his interests and themes during his entire life. The meaning of education, the difficulty of embracing life and of living in the world, the danger and the redemptive possibilities of love: these questions, which animated “Werther” in the seventeen-seventies, are treated with greater maturity and complexity in these middle-period masterpieces.
The concept of Bildung—a word that means learning and education but also implies a cultivation of the self and of maturity—was central to Goethe’s thought, and he, in turn, made it central to German culture. For Thomas Mann, whose admiration of Goethe took the form of spiritual imitation, Goethe was above all an educator, but one who had first to learn, through experience, the wisdom he taught. Mann wrote that a “vocation towards educating others does not spring from inner harmony, but rather from inner uncertainties, disharmony, difficulty—from the difficulty of knowing one’s own self.”
This is the process Goethe dramatizes in “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” whose title can be taken in two senses. Literally speaking, Wilhelm, a bourgeois young man with artistic inclinations, apprentices himself to a touring theatre company, where he learns how to act and direct. Goethe writes with affection about the wide-open world of the actor, which is full of escapades and love affairs, bed tricks and impersonations. Indeed, so many scandalous things happen in the novel—from adultery and illegitimacy to arson, incest, and suicide—that it often feels more like a gothic parody than like an earnest Bildungsroman.
Yet the more of the theatre world that Wilhelm sees, the less he likes it, and the more he realizes that he is unsuited to this way of life. What he really needs is education in a deeper sense—an apprenticeship to life and society, which will help him figure out who he really is and how he should live. In particular, Goethe—that son of the Frankfurt bourgeoisie, who was given an ennobling “von” by the prince he served—wants to show how a middle-class man like Wilhelm can find dignity and worth in a society whose ideals are still shaped by aristocrats. In this context, the idea of acting takes on a deeper meaning. “The nobleman tells us everything through the person he presents, but the burgher does not, and should not,” Goethe writes. “A nobleman can and must be someone who represents by his appearance, whereas the burgher simply is, and when he tries to put on an appearance, the effect is ludicrous or in bad taste.”
In short, Goethe the artist and the courtier is arguing against the artistic life and the life of the court, at least where Wilhelm is concerned. Like Werther, Wilhelm can be considered a failed genius—someone who is enough of an artist to be sensitive and ambitious but not enough of one to actually become creatively productive. This makes him a significant modern type, whose descendants will populate a great deal of modern literature. (Emma Bovary is one example.) But, where Werther can see no way out of his predicament except suicide, Wilhelm is allowed to end the novel as a father and a husband, prepared to enter into the responsibilities of adulthood.
Still, good is never as glamorous as evil, and Wilhelm Meister comes across as a little dull and worthy compared with the hero of Goethe’s most celebrated and canonical work, “Faust.” While Wilhelm learns to accept his role in life, Faust is defined by his refusal to be satisfied with anything life has to offer. As in the traditional folktale, and as in the Christopher Marlowe play, Goethe’s Faust sells his soul to the Devil, Mephistopheles. But in Goethe’s version what he asks in exchange is not magic powers or supernatural knowledge. It is, rather, experience—a life lived at fever pitch, “a frenzied round of agonizing joy, / Of loving hate, of stimulating discontent.” The condition of his deal is that the Devil may take his soul whenever he grows too contented with life: “If I should bid the passing moment stay, or try / To hold its fleeting beauty, then you may / Cast me in chains and carry me away.”
This is the central issue of Goethe’s life and work: on what terms is life worth living? For Faust, as for Werther before him, ordinary existence is flavorless and intolerable; like an alcoholic, he demands ever-stronger draughts of emotional intoxication. Above all, he demands the intoxication of love, and he finds it with Gretchen, an innocent and virtuous young girl, whom he seduces and abandons. Not until the end of the play, when Faust returns to find Gretchen in prison for infanticide, and on the edge of madness, does he realize how selfish his quest for experience has been. A heavenly voice announces that Gretchen will be saved—Goethe, no moralist when it comes to sex, can forgive her for being carried away by passion. But there is no salvation for Faust, whose crime is the one transgression that Goethe can never forgive—solipsism, the refusal to acknowledge the full reality of other people.
“Faust” and “Wilhelm Meister” can be considered wisdom books, in that they teach serious moral lessons. But they are the opposite of solemn; Goethe delights in his burlesque Mephistopheles, always mocking and jesting, as he does in the wild coincidences and improbabilities of Wilhelm’s career. This combination of earnestness and jovial detachment is what characterizes the mature Goethe, and what makes him unique; no other writer gives us the same sense that he has both seen life and seen through it.
In the last decades of his life, Goethe brought this Olympian perspective to a series of late masterpieces, from the examination of adulterous passion in “Elective Affinities” to the surreal fantasia on history and myth that is “Faust, Part Two.” (Neither of these works is included in “The Essential Goethe,” nor is “Werther”—indeed, it’s a measure of Goethe’s abundance that you could put together a second volume of another thousand pages and fill it with works that are just as essential.) Old age did not put an end to Goethe’s career as a lover: in 1821, when he was seventy-two, the widowed Goethe fell in love with a seventeen-year-old girl he met at a spa resort, and even proposed marriage. (She sensibly declined.) For Goethe, love and learning and writing formed a continuous cycle, which didn’t cease until he was on his deathbed—and perhaps not even then. At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were “More light!” Probably his vision was dimming and he just wanted someone to open a window. But it is also Goethe’s last perfect metaphor: one final plea for illumination, from a writer who had spent all his life seeking it. ♦