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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Johann Wolfgang von Goethecite[1†]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is widely regarded as the greatest and most influential writer in the German language[1†]. His work has had a profound and wide-ranging influence on Western literary, political, and philosophical thought from the late 18th century to the present day[1†]. He was a German poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, and critic[1†]. He is especially known for the drama Faust, considered by some to be Germany’s most significant contribution to world literature[2†].

Early Years and Education

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born into a middle-class family in Frankfurt am Main on August 28, 1749[3†]. He had a thoroughly classical education before entering Leipzig University in 1765[4†]. In accordance with his father’s wishes, he studied law at Leipzig[3†], where he came under the influence of the poet C. F. Gellert, who introduced him to such English writers as Sterne, Young, and Richardson[3†]. When Goethe was 16, he completed his studies at the University of Strasbourg and was awarded a doctor of laws degree in 1771[5†]. The critic Johann Gottfried von Herder introduced him to old German folktales and to the best of English literature in German translation[5†].

Career Development and Achievements

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s career was as diverse as his interests. He held most of the major posts in the Weimar government, including the Privy Councilor at the Duke of Weimar’s court, where he coordinated major mining, road building, and irrigation projects[6†]. In addition to his governmental roles, Goethe also made significant contributions to various fields of science. He conducted scientific research in botany, anatomy, and color theory[7†].

Goethe took up residence in Weimar in November 1775 following the success of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)[1†]. He was ennobled by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl August, in 1782[6†][1†]. During his first ten years in Weimar, Goethe became a member of the Duke’s privy council, sat on the war and highway commissions, oversaw the reopening of silver mines in nearby Ilmenau, and implemented a series of administrative reforms at the University of Jena[1†].

His first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants, was published after he returned from a 1788 tour of Italy[1†]. In 1791 he was made managing director of the theatre at Weimar, and in 1794 he began a friendship with the dramatist, historian, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose plays he premiered until Schiller’s death in 1805[1†].

During this period Goethe published his second novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; the verse epic Hermann and Dorothea, and, in 1808, the first part of his most celebrated drama, Faust[1†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Goethe’s literary career spans a wide range of genres and styles. His first major works, which brought him to the attention of the literary world, were the drama “Götz von Berlichingen” and the novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther"[8†]. Here are some of his main works:

Each of these works represents a significant contribution to their respective genres and have had a lasting impact on German and world literature[2†][8†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Goethe is recognized as one of the greatest and most versatile European writers and thinkers of modern times[10†]. His genius extended beyond the short story to embrace all the major genres: the novel, drama, and lyric poetry, as well as nonfiction[11†]. Much of his work is autobiographical yet goes well beyond the personal in its focus on the individual’s place in society and the struggle of the artist to express his humanity in the face of opposing forces, both external and internal[11†].

His novels “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”, “Elective Affinities”, and “Wilhelm Meister’s Travels” are the prototypical Bildungsroman[10†][11†]. His diverse lyrics and ballads are among the best in Western literature[10†][11†]. His nonfiction works—even extending to scientific treatises—chronicle some of the most important socio-literary thought of his day, especially his correspondence with Friedrich Schiller[11†].

Perhaps his crowning achievement, the Faust plays summarize the artistic and philosophical preoccupations not only of Goethe’s Romantic age but also, in many senses, of the twentieth century as well[10†][11†]. Before World War II, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was read by virtually the entire German populace[10†][11†]. Even in the English world, where he has been neglected, largely because of the difficulty in translating the nuances of so sensitive an artisan, it has been commonplace to assign him a position in the literary pantheon of Homer, Dante, and William Shakespeare[11†].

Moreover, Goethe has had paramount influence on German literature, influencing writers such as Friedrich Hölderlin, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka[11†]. In the English world, his influence is seen on Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Samuel Butler, and James Joyce; in the French world, on Romain Rolland and André Gide[11†].

Ultimately his value may rest with the profundity of his psychological insights, his sense of the human quest with its pain, his mastery of lyric form[11†]. His work needs to be judged for itself, independent of biases[11†].

Personal Life

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born into a middle-class family in Frankfurt am Main on August 28, 1749[12†][3†][13†]. His father was the Imperial Councillor Johann Kaspar Goethe and his mother was Katharina Elisabeth (Textor) Goethe[13†]. He had four siblings, only one of whom, Cornelia, survived early childhood[13†].

In accordance with his father’s wishes, he studied law at Leipzig[12†][3†]. He was influenced by the poet C. F. Gellert, who introduced him to English writers such as Sterne, Young, and Richardson[12†][3†].

Goethe lived the rest of his life as a private citizen[12†]. The income from his fortune allowed him to maintain his household without having to work[12†]. With the exception of a few excursions, Goethe did not leave Frankfurt for the rest of his life[12†]. On August 20, 1748, he married Catharina Elisabeth Textor[12†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a contemporary of thinkers—Kant, Herder, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt—who carried out an intellectual revolution that is at the basis of most modern thinking about religion, art, society, and thought itself[14†]. His writings have been described as “classical”[14†][2†]. In a European perspective, he appears as the central and unsurpassed representative of the Romantic movement[2†].

Goethe’s work reflects on subjectivity—his showing how in ever-changing ways we make our own selves, the world we inhabit, and the meaning of our lives[14†]. He led a long and productive life in which his energy and originality never slackened[14†]. He was, those who met him agreed, an intensely and uncannily fascinating man[14†]. The attractive power of his writing, which has not diminished with time, perhaps lies in the extraordinary strength of personality that it radiates[14†].

Goethe’s legacy extends beyond his literary contributions. He is sometimes even credited with inventing biology itself[14†][15†]. His influence is seen on Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Samuel Butler, and James Joyce; in the French world, on Romain Rolland and André Gide[14†].

Goethe passed away in 1832[14†][16†]. He was buried next to his friend, the poet Friedrich von Schiller, in the “Tumba de los príncipes” (Fürstengruft), the crypt of the dukes of Weimar in the local cemetery[16†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [website] - link
  3. University of Pennsylvania - KNARF Project - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe -- Biography [website] - link
  4. Poetry Foundation - Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe [website] - link
  5. Britannica Kids - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [website] - link
  6. GradeSaver - Biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [website] - link
  7. Goodreads - Maxims and Reflections by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [website] - link
  8. Britannica - Literary works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [website] - link
  9. Wikipedia (English) - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe bibliography [website] - link
  10. eNotes - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe World Literature Analysis - Essay [website] - link
  11. eNotes - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Analysis [website] - link
  12. Wikipedia (English) - Johann Caspar Goethe [website] - link
  13. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von [website] - link
  14. Britannica - Legacy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [website] - link
  15. BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time, Goethe and the Science of the Enlightenment [website] - link
  16. Historia National Geographic - Goethe, el genio del Romanticismo alemán [website] - link
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