WHY did the supreme age of German literature make Weimar its home? Germany had no one capital to concentrate her culture, as France and England had, and no concentrated wealth to finance it. Berlin and Leipzig had been weakened—Dresden had been almost destroyed—by the Seven Years’ War; Hamburg gave its money first to opera, then to the theater. In 1774 Weimar, capital of the duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, was a quiet little town of some 6,200 souls; even after it had become famous Goethe spoke of it as “this small capital, which, as people jokingly say, has ten thousand poets and a few inhabitants.”1 Was its glory made by great individuals?
From 1758 to 1775 Weimar was governed by a niece of Frederick the Great, the vivacious Dowager Duchess Anna Amalie, who, at the age of nineteen, had been widowed by the death of Duke Konstantin, and had become regent for their one-year-old son Karl August. It was she who opened a door between government and literature by inviting Wieland to come and tutor her sons (1772). She was one of several cultivated women who, under her lead, and till her death in 1807, stimulated poets, dramatists, and historians with sex and praise. After 1776 she made her home a salon, and there—though all spoke French as well—she encouraged the use of German as a language of literature.
In 1775 the Weimar court included some twenty-two persons and their servitors. The poet Count Christian zu Stolberg found a pleasant informality there in that year of Goethe’s arrival. “The old Duchess [then thirty-six] is the very personification of good sense, and yet most agreeable and natural. The Duke is a wonderful lad and full of promise; so is his brother. And many excellent people.”2 In 1787 Schiller described “the Weimar ladies” as “very sensitive; there is scarcely one of them that has not had an affaire de coeur.They all strive to make conquests. … A quiet, scarcely perceptible government allows everyone to live, and to bask in the air and sunshine. If one is disposed to gaiety, every opportunity is offered.”3
Karl August assumed the government of the duchy on September 3, 1775, at the age of eighteen. Shortly thereafter, having pensioned his mistress,4 he took a wife, Princess Luise of Hesse-Darmstadt, and captured Goethe on the way. He hunted with fury, drove his carriage wildly through the quiet town, and passed hurriedly from woman to woman; but his impetuosity was checked by an intellect that slowly matured into good judgment. He studied and fostered agriculture and industry, cultivated the sciences, helped literature, and labored for the good of his principality and its people. Hear Mme. de Staël, who toured Germany in 1803:
Of all the German principalities there is none that makes us feel more than Weimar the advantages of a small state, when its sovereign is a man of strong understanding, and is capable of endeavoring to please all classes of his subjects without losing anything in their obedience. … The military talents of the Duke are universally respected, and his lively and reflective conversation continually brings to our recollection that he was formed by the great Frederick. It is by his own and his mother’s reputation that the most distinguished men of learning have been attracted to Weimar. Germany, for the first time, has a literary metropolis.5