Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the rare giants of world literature. Throughout a long and full life he demonstrated his prolific genius in many different areas. Goethe composed literary works and established artistic principles that had a profound influence on his contemporaries throughout Europe, and which are still looked to as models. The position he holds in the development of German literature and thought is like that which Shakespeare has in the English-speaking countries.
Goethe was born August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, to a wealthy, middle-class family. He was educated at home by his father and tutors until 1765, when he was sent to Leipzig to study law, his father's profession. Goethe had shown his literary talent even as a child. While at Leipzig he began to write brilliant lyric poetry and completed his first two full-length plays, although these were not produced until some years later.
After a serious illness and an extended convalescence at home, Goethe resumed his legal studies at Strasbourg and completed the course in 1771. He continued his literary activities there and became acquainted with several of the younger German poets and critics.
Following his graduation, Goethe returned to Frankfurt. His mind was filled with many exciting ideas, and he devoted himself to philosophical studies, mainly of Spinoza, and literature. It was here that he wrote his first important metrical drama, Gotz von Berlichingen (1772), and then the superb short novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). These aroused widespread interest and admiration, and established Goethe's place as an important literary artist and leader of the "Romantic Revolt" in Germany. During this period he also began work on the earliest version of Faust, Part One (now known to scholars as the Urfaust).
In 1775 Goethe was invited by the young Duke Karl August of Weimar to accept a position at his court. In the next ten years Goethe held several responsible administrative and advisory posts in the government there, serving at various times as privy counselor, and as head of the Ministries of Finance, Agriculture, and Mines. He showed much skill in the problems of government administration, and his practical knowledge and good sense were soon respected, even by those who had originally resented his presence at court. Goethe and the Duke became good friends, but the poet always maintained his independence of thought and action, and did not allow his sovereign to dominate him.
Karl August was an enlightened ruler who gathered many talented writers and artists at his court. The atmosphere at Weimar was stimulating, but Goethe was a conscientious public servant and gave most of his energy to official business. The security and responsibility of his position at court was an asset to him in solving some of his personal problems, but he eventually found that it interfered too much with his literary work. During this period he was often unable to complete manuscripts he had begun or to bring to maturity many pressing ideas. Finally in 1786 he left Weimar on a two year trip to Italy in order to come to terms with himself and his art.
On his return to Germany Goethe lived in a state of semi-retirement and concentrated on his studies and writing. His friendship with the Duke continued and he kept his affiliation with the Weimar court, but aside from the directorship of the Wiemar State Theatre and other cultural matters, Goethe was no longer involved in public matters. Despite this the Duke went on paying all the emoluments to which Goethe had formerly been entitled, thus giving him the material security his work required.
Goethe continued to cultivate his wide interests. His scientific studies included original researches in botany, anatomy, geology, and optics. He also maintained an active interest in current political and social developments, and accompanied the Duke on a military campaign against the French in 1792. Later on he wrote commentaries on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1806 Goethe married the woman who had been his mistress for many years, and by whom he had a son in 1789. His material and domestic stability, as well as an intimate friendship with the poet Schiller, helped Goethe to maintain his emotional serenity and artistic dedication. As the years passed he became acquainted with many of the most prominent men of his time and was highly regarded by all. Napoleon Bonaparte was among his most famous admirers, and remarked when they first met, "Vous êtes un homme," (You are a man).
The complete edition of Goethe's vast and uneven literary production comprises 143 volumes. This diverse collection contains Faust, Part One (completed 1808), Faust, Part Two (completed 1832), and many other dramatic works, including Torquato-Tasso (1780), Iphigenia in Tauris (1787), Egmont (1788), and Pandora (1810). There are also the novels, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796), The Elective Affinities (1809), and Wilhelm Meister's Journeys (1829); and such varied prose works as The Italian Journey (1817), The Campaign in France and The Siege of Mainz (1821); scientific papers like The Theory of Colors (1810); his autobiography Poetry and Truth (1811-1833), and a collection of reminiscences and literary criticism, Conversations with Eckerman (posthumously, 1837). Goethe's many volumes of poetry include Reynard the Fox (1794), Roman Elegies (1795), Hermann and Dorothea (1798), West-Eastern Divan (1819), and Xenien (1797), in collaboration with Schiller). He also found time to translate many foreign works into German and participated in the editing and publication of several literary reviews. In addition, numerous sizeable fragments of works which he never completed still survive.
By the time of his death, Goethe had attained a position of unprecedented esteem in the literary and intellectual circles. His works and opinions made a deep impression on most of the writers and poets of the early 19th century. His great work, Faust, is still deemed the most important masterpiece of German literature.
Because of the breadth of his thought, his comprehension of human nature and optimistic faith in the human spirit, and his intuitive grasp of universal truths, Goethe is regarded by many as the outstanding poet of the modern world. He died March 22, 1832, but his work lives in its meaning and value for modern day readers.