Critical Essays Faust and Romanticism


The Romantic Movement in Europe, which began in the later years of the 18th century, came to dominate literature and thought during the first part of the 19th century. This movement was characterized by the intense assertion of freedom and imagination, by the glorification of individualism and the virtue of untamed nature, and by a melancholy and sentimental oversensibility. Typical Romantic poets in English literature include Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley.

An extreme form of this movement known as Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress") existed in Germany for several decades and found expression in a great outburst of literary activity. It was marked by a general mood of rebellion against convention and constraint of all kinds, by impetuosity and a strong belief in the validity of natural emotions and feelings. While still a young man Goethe was hailed as the leader of this movement after the publication of his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, in 1774. Many aspects of the style and content of Faust, particularly those sections of it which existed in the earliest versions like the Urfaust of 1773, seem influenced by the Romantic outlook. Mostly in Part One, these include certain of Faust's expressions of suffering, the wild setting of scenes like "Forest and Cavern," Faust's definition of God, and the attitude regarding the divine forgiveness of Gretchen because of her obedience to her natural instincts. As Goethe's philosophical outlook developed, however, he passed beyond the confines of Romanticism to a broader and more comprehensive understanding of life. His mature view of the benefits and defects of Romanticism is best illustrated in the Euphorion episode in Act III of Part Two. Familiarity with the Romantic Movement is an important factor in understanding Faust, but to fully appreciate Goethe's poem it is necessary to approach it unencumbered by the ideology of any particular school of thought.