From the time when he trod the streets of Frankfurt-am-Main as consciously the grandson of its mayor, to his septuagenarian years when his casual conversation made the renown of his Boswell Eckermann, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ran a full gamut of experience, absorbing all that life, love, and letters could give him, and returning it gratefully in wisdom and art.
Frankfurt was a “free city,” dominated by merchants and fairs, but also the imperially designated seat for the coronation of German kings andTHoly Roman emperors. In 1749 it contained 33,000 souls, nearly all pious, well-behaved, and gemütlich. Goethe’s birthplace was a substantial four-story house (destroyed by fire in 1944, rebuilt in 1951). His father, Johann Kaspar Goethe, was the son of a prosperous tailor and innkeeper; he ruined his political career by pride and arrogance, and retired from the practice of law to a life of amateur scholarship in his elegant library. In 1748 he married Katharina Elisabeth, daughter of Johann Wolfgang Textor, Schultheiss or Bürgermeister of Frankfurt. Her son never forgot that through her he belonged to the untitled patriciate that had ruled the city for generations. When he was seventy-eight he told Eckermann, “We Frankfurt patricians always considered ourselves equal to the nobility; and when I held in my hands the diploma of nobility [granted him in 1782], I had nothing more, in my own opinion, than I had possessed long ago.”12 He felt that u nur die Lumpe sind bescheiden”— only rascals are modest.13
He was the eldest of six children, of whom only he and his sister Cornelia survived childhood; in those days much parentage was love’s labor lost. It was not a happy household; the mother was of a kindly nature, inclined to humor and poetry, but the father was a pedantic disciplinarian who alienated his offspring by the harshness and impatience of his temper. “With my father,” Goethe recalled, “there could be no pleasant relation.”14 From him, as well as from experience as a privy councilor, Goethe may have derived something of the stiffness that showed in his later life. From his mother he may have taken his poetic spirit and his love of the drama. She built a marionette theater in her home; her son never recovered from its fascination.
The children received their first education from their father, then from tutors. Wolfgang acquired a reading knowledge of Latin, Greek, and English, some Hebrew, and the ability to speak French and Italian. He learned to play the harpsichord and the violoncello, to sketch and paint, to ride and fence and dance. But he took life as his best teacher. He explored all quarters of Frankfurt, including the Judengasse; he ogled the pretty Jewish girls, visited a Jewish school, attended a circumcision, formed some notion of Jewish holydays.15 The Frankfurt fairs, by bringing into the city exotic faces and goods, added to his education; so did the French officers in the Goethe home during the Seven Years’ War. In 1764 the fifteen-year-old boy saw the coronation of Joseph II as King of the Romans; he sucked in every bit of it, and spent twenty pages describing it in his autobiography.16
At fourteen he had the first of the many love affairs that engendered half of his poetry. He had already won a reputation for his facility in writing verses. Some boys with whom he occasionally mingled asked him to compose a poetic letter in the style of a girl to a youth; he did so well that they had it delivered to a lovelorn member of the group as coming from the object of his devotion. This lad wished to answer in kind but lacked wit and rhymes; would Goethe compose a reply for him? Goethe consented, and in gratitude the lover paid the expenses of an outing for the group to a suburban inn. The waitress there was a lass in her teens, called Margarete—Gretchen for short; Goethe gave that name to the heroine of Faust. Perhaps because of the romances he had read and the letters he had written, he was in a mood to appreciate the charm of girlhood. “The first propensities to love in an un-corrupted youth,” he wrote at sixty, “take altogether a spiritual direction. Nature seems to desire that one sex may by the senses perceive goodness and beauty in the other. And so, by the sight of this girl, and by my strong inclination for her, a new world of the beautiful and the excellent was revealed to me.”17 He never lost that world; one woman after another stirred his sensitive spirit, almost always with reverence as well as desire; at the age of seventy-three he fell in love with a girl of seventeen.
For a while he was too awed to speak to the charmer. “I went to church for love of her, and … during the long Protestant service I gazed my fill at her.”18 He saw her again at her inn, seated, like another Gretchen, at a spinning wheel. Now she took the initiative, and gaily signed the second love letter that he had fabricated as from a girl. Then one of the group, whom Goethe had recommended to his grandfather, was caught falsifying bonds and wills; Wolfgang’s parents forbade him further association with those boys; Gretchen moved to a distant town, and Goethe never saw her again. He was much put out when he learned that she had said, “I always treated him as a child.”19
He was quite content now (1765) to leave Frankfurt and study law at the University of Leipzig. Like any eager youth he read widely outside of his assigned subjects. He had already, in his father’s library, browsed in Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique,with much damage to his religious faith; “and as soon as I reached Leipzig I tried to free myself altogether from my connection with the church.”20 For a time he delved into mysticism, alchemy, even magic; this too entered Faust. He tried his hand at etching and woodcuts, studied the picture collection at Dresden, frequently visited the painter Oeser in Leipzig. Through Oeser he became acquainted with the writings of Winckelmann; through these, and Lessing’s Laokoon, he received his first infusions of reverence for the classic style. He and other students were preparing a hearty reception for Winckelmann at Leipzig when the news came that Winckelmann had been murdered in Trieste (1768).
The sense of beauty was predominant in his approach to the world. In religion he liked only its colorful and dramatic sacraments. He did not care for philosophy as written by philosophers, except Spinoza; he shuddered at logic and fled from Kant. He loved drama, wrote a worthless one at Leipzig, and composed poetry almost every day, even while listening to lectures on law. The poems which he published as Das Leipziger Liederbuch are in the style of Anacreon, playful, sometimes erotic:
Yet I’m content, and full of joy,
If she’ll but grant her smile so sweet,
Or if at table she’ll employ,
To pillow hers, her lover’s feet;
Give me the apple that she bit,
The glass, from which she drank, bestow,
And, when my kiss so orders it,
Her bosom, veiled till then, will show.21
Was this merely wishful thinking? Apparently not. He had found in Leipzig a pretty head—Annette Schonkopf—who was willing to enter at least the vestibule of love. She was the daughter of a wine merchant who served a midday meal to students; Goethe ate there frequently, and fell in desire with her. She returned his ardor with judicious reserve, and allowed other men to be attentive to her; he grew jealous, and took to spying on her; they quarreled and made up, quarreled and made up, quarreled and parted. Even in these ecstasies he reminded himself that he was the grandson of a Bürgermeister, and that he had in him a daimon—the urge and drive of an omnivorous genius that demanded freedom for its full development to its own imperative destiny. Annette accepted another suitor.
Goethe counted this a defeat, and tried to forget it in dissipation. “I had lost her really, and the frenzy with which I revenged my fault upon myself by assaulting in various frantic ways my physical nature, in order to inflict some hurt on my moral nature, contributed very much to the bodily maladies under which I lost some of the best years of my life.”22 He sank into melancholy, suffered from nervous indigestion, developed a painful tumor in the neck, and woke up one night with an almost fatal hemorrhage. He left Leipzig without taking his degree, and returned to Frankfurt (September, 1768) to face paternal reproofs and maternal love.
During his long convalescence he made the acquaintance of Susanne von Klettenberg, an ailing, kindly Moravian Pietist. “Her serenity and peace of mind never left her; she looked upon her sickness as a necessary element of her transient earthly existence.”23 He described her, years later, with sympathy and skill in the “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul” which he inserted into Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, but he recorded very debonairly her claims that his nervousness and melancholy were due to his failure to reconcile himself to God.
Now I had believed, from my youth upward, that I stood on very good terms with my God—nay, I even fancied … that he might be in arrears to me, as I was daring enough to think that I had something to forgive him. This presumption was grounded on my infinite good will, to which, it seemed to me, he should have given better assistance. It may be imagined how often I got into disputes on this subject with my friends, which, however, always terminated in the friendliest way.24
Nevertheless he experienced stray moments of piety, even to attending some sessions of the Moravian Brethren; but he was repelled by the “mediocre intelligence” of these simple people,25 and soon returned to his casual combination of pantheistic faith and rationalistic doubt.
In April, 1770, he departed for Strasbourg, hoping to get his law degree. A fellow student described him (then twenty-one) as “a handsome figure, with a magnificent forehead and great, flashing eyes,” but added, “All would not be smooth sailing with this young man, for he seemed to have a wild and unsettled air.”26 Perhaps his long illness had unnerved him; his “daimon” was too unsettling to let him gain stability; but what youth with fire coursing in his blood can enjoy repose? When he stood before the great cathedral he hailed it patriotically as not Catholic but “German architecture, our architecture, for the Italians can boast of none like it, still less the French.”27 (He had not yet seen Italy or France.) “Alone I climbed to the highest peak of the tower, … and ventured at that elevation to step out on a platform which measured scarcely a square yard.... I inflicted this terror and torture upon myself so many times until the experience became a matter of indifference to me.”28 One of his professors noted that “Herr Goethe behaved himself in a way which caused him to be regarded as a meretricious pretender to scholarship, a frantic opponent of all religious teaching … It was the well-nigh universal opinion that he had a slate loose in the upper story.”29
A dozen new experiences served to feed his flame. He met Herder several times during the latter’s stay in Strasbourg. Herder, five years older, dominated these encounters; Goethe, in a modest interlude, called himself a “planet” revolving around Herder’s sun. He was disturbed by Herder’s dictatorial tendency, but was stimulated by him to read old ballads, Macpher-son’s “Ossian,” and (in Wieland’s translation) Shakespeare. But also he read Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot. Besides pursuing his work in law, he took courses in chemistry, anatomy, obstetrics … And he continued his study of women.
He felt their charm with all the keen sensitivity of a poet, all the electric incandescence of youth. Forty-seven years later he told Eckermann that he believed in a mysterious magnetic effect of one person upon another, and most of all through difference of sex.30He was stirred by the light and prancing walk of girls, by the music of their voices and laughter, by the color and rustle of their dress; and he envied the intimacy of the flower they sometimes wore in their corsage or their hair. One after another of these magic creatures called to his blood, grew in his imagination, and moved his pen. There had already been Gretchen and Annette; soon there would be Lotte and Lili and Charlotte; later Minna and Ulrike. But now, at Sesenheim (near Strasbourg), there was the most appealing of them all, Friederike Brion.
She was the younger daughter (nineteen in 1771) of the town pastor, whom Goethe compared to Goldsmith’s virtuous Vicar of Wakefield. The pages about Friederike in Goethe’s autobiography are the finest prose he ever wrote.31 Several times he rode out from Strasbourg to enjoy the unspoiled simplicity of this rural family. He took Friederike for long walks, for she was most at home in the open air. She fell in love with him, and gave him all that he asked. “In a lonely place in the forest we embraced each other with deep emotion, and gave each other the most faithful assurance that each loved the other from the bottom of the heart.”32 Soon he was confessing to a friend that “one is not happier by a hair’s breadth by attaining the object of his wishes.”
Meanwhile he was writing, in Latin, his doctoral thesis, which affirmed (like “Febronius”) the right of the state to be independent of the church. It won the approval of the university faculty; he passed the examinations, and on August 6, 1771, he received his degree as a licentiate at law. The time had come to leave Strasbourg. He rode out to Sesenheim to say goodbye to Friederike. “When from my horse I reached her my hand, the tears stood in her eyes, and I felt very uneasy. … Having at last escaped the excitement of a farewell, I, in a quiet and peaceful journey, pretty well regained my self-possession.”33 Remorse came later. “Gretchen had been taken away from me; Annette had left me; now for the first time I was guilty. I had wounded the most lovely heart to its very depths; and the period of a gloomy repentance—with the absence of a refreshing love, to which I had become accustomed—was most agonizing.”34 It is sadly self-centered; but which of us, in the trial and error of love, has not wounded one or two hearts before winning one? Friederike died unmarried, April 3, 1813.
2. Götz and Werther
In Frankfurt the new licentiate grudgingly practiced law. He visited Darmstadt occasionally, and felt the influence of its cult of sentiment. He was now in a strong reaction against France, against French drama and its rigid rules, even against Voltaire. More and more he relished Shakespeare, who had put the nature of man, lawful or lawless, upon the stage. In this mood, and in the exuberant vigor of youth, he was ripe for Sturm und Drang. He sympathized with its rejection of authority, its exaltation of instinct over intellect, of the heroic individual over the tradition-imprisoned masses. And so, in 1772-73, he wrote G ötz von Berlichingen.
It was a remarkable performance for a lad of twenty-three: a drama uniting war, love, and treachery in a story warm with zeal for liberty, exuding vitality, and holding the interest from beginning to end. Götz was a knight whose right hand had been shot off in battle when he was twenty-four (1504); an iron hand had been attached to his arm, and with it he wielded his sword as lethally as before. Refusing to acknowledge any overlord but the Emperor, he became one of those “robber barons” who, in the name of freedom, claimed full authority on their lands, even to pillaging wayfarers and waging private war. In 1495 Emperor Maximilian I had issued an edict against private wars, under the double penalty of ban by the Empire and excommunication by the Church. Götz of the Iron Hand rejected the ban as contravening traditional rights, and the play turned at first on the struggle between the rebel knight and the Prince-Bishop of Bamberg. Goethe, loving women much more than war, let the center of interest pass to Adelaide von Walldorf, whose beauty and wealth fired a dozen men with reckless passion. For her Adelbert von Weislingen, another “free” knight, broke his alliance with Götz and his troth with Gótz’s sister Maria, and went over to the Bishop. Perhaps in Weislingen’s vacillating love Goethe remembered his own unfaithfulness. He sent a copy of the play to Friederike by a friend, saying, “Poor Friederike will feel somewhat consoled when she sees that the faithless lover is poisoned.”35
The author colored history to suit his drama; Gottfried von Berlichingen was not so noble and magnanimous as Goethe’s Götz; but such emendations are poetic licenses, like tortured rhymes. Forgivable, too, is the rough, wild speech which Goethe ascribed to his hero as echoing virility. When the play was produced in Berlin (1774) Frederick the Great condemned it as a “detestable imitation” of the “barbarism” that he, like Voltaire, saw in Shakespeare, and he called upon German dramatists to seek their models in France. Herder at first agreed with Frederick, and told Goethe, “Shakespeare has ruined you”;36 but he sent the published version to his friends with high praise: “You have hours of enchantment before you. There is an uncommon degree of authentic German power, depth, and sincerity in the piece, though now and then it is merely an intellectual exercise.”37 The younger generation hailed Götz as the supreme expression of Sturm und Drang. German readers were glad to hear of medieval knights, symbols of the mighty German character. Protestants relished the echoes of Luther in “Brother Martin,” who complains that his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are unnatural, who describes woman as “the glory and crown of creation,” welcomes wine as “rejoicing the heart of man,” and overturns an old adage by saying that “joyousness is the mother of every virtue.”38 Even Goethe’s father, who had to help him with his law and regarded him as a deterioration of the paternal stock, admitted that perhaps there was something in the lad after all.
In May, 1772, the young advocate had to go on legal business to Wetzlar, seat of the Imperial Appellate Court. Not at all absorbed in law, he wandered through fields, woods, and boudoirs, drawing, writing, absorbing. In Wetzlar he met Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, poet and mystic, and Georg Christian Kest-ner, a notary whom Goethe described as “distinguished by a calm and equable demeanor, clearness of view, … serene and tireless activity,”39 and so confident of advancement that he was already engaged to marry. Kestner described Goethe magnanimously:
Twenty-three years old, the only son of a very wealthy father. According to his father’s intention he was to practice law at the court here; according to his own he was to study Homer and Pindar and whatever else his genius, his taste, and his heart should inspire. … Indeed, he has true genius, and is a man of character. He possesses an imagination of extraordinary vividness, and expresses himself in images and similes … His feelings are violent, but he is usually master of them. His convictions are noble. He is quite free from prejudice, and acts as he likes without caring whether it pleases others, or is the fashion, or is permissible. All compulsion is hateful to him. He loves children, and can play with them for hours. … He is a quite remarkable man.40
On June 9, 1772, at a country dance, Goethe met Kestner’s betrothed, Charlotte Buff. The next day he visited her, and found a new charm in womanhood. “Lotte,” then twenty, was the eldest sister in a family of eleven. The mother was dead, the father was busy earning a living; Lotte served as mother to the brood. She not only had the bright gaiety of a healthy girl, she had also the attractiveness of a young woman who, simply but neatly dressed, performed the duties of her place with competence, affection, and good cheer. Goethe soon fell in love with her, for he could not remain long without some feminine image warming his imagination. Kestner saw the situation, but, sure of his possession, showed an amiable tolerance. Goethe allowed himself almost the privileges of a rival wooer, but Lotte always checked him, and reminded him that she was engaged. Finally he asked her to choose between them; she did, and Goethe, his pride only momentarily shaken, left Wetzlar the next day (September 11). Kestner remained his loyal friend till death.
Before returning to Frankfurt Goethe stopped at Ehrenbreitstein on the Rhine, the home of Georg and Sophie von La Roche. Sophie had two daughters, “of whom the eldest,” Maximiliane, “soon particularly attracted me.... It is a very pleasant sensation when a new passion begins to stir in us before the old one is quite extinct. Thus, when the sun is setting, one likes to see the moon rise on the opposite side.”41 Maximiliane, however, married Peter Brentano, and bore a lively daughter Bettina, who fell in love with Goethe thirty-five years later. Goethe resigned himself to Frankfurt and law. Not quite, for at times he thought of suicide.
Among a considerable collection of weapons I possessed a handsome, well-polished dagger. This I laid every night by my bed, and before extinguishing the candle I tried whether I could succeed in plunging the sharp point a couple of inches deep into my heart. Since I could never succeed in this, I at last laughed myself out of the notion, threw off all hypochondriacal fancies, and resolved to live.
To be able to do this with cheerfulness I was obliged to solve a literary problem, by which all that I had felt … should be reduced to words. For this purpose I collected the elements which had been at work in me for a few years; I rendered present to my mind the cases which had most affected and tormented me; but nothing would come to a definite form. I lacked an event, a fable, in which they could be seen as a whole.42
A fellow advocate at Wetzlar provided the amalgamating event. On October 30, 1772, Wilhelm Jerusalem, having borrowed a pistol from Kestner, killed himself in despair over his love for the wife of a friend. “All at once, [when] I heard the news of Jerusalem’s death,” Goethe recalled, “. . . the plan of Werther was formed, and the whole ran together from all sides.”43 Perhaps so, but it was not until fifteen months later that he began to write the book. Meanwhile he carried on with Maximiliane Brentano—who had moved with her husband to Frankfurt—a flirtation so persistent that the husband protested, and Goethe withdrew.
A variety of abortive literary projects distracted him. He dallied with the idea of retelling the story of the Wandering Jew; he planned to have him visit Spinoza, and to show that Satan, to all appearances, was triumphing over Christ in Christendom;44 but he wrote only ten pages of Der ewige Jude. He composed some satires on Jacobi, Wieland, Herder, Lenz, and Lavater, but managed to win their friendship nevertheless. He contributed to Lavater’s Physiognomische Fragmente, and allowed him to physiognomize his head, with flattering results: “Intelligence is here, with sensibility to kindle it,” judged the Swiss. “Observe the energetic brow, … the eye so swiftly penetrating, searching, enamored, … and the nose, in itself enough to proclaim the poet. … With the virile chin, the well-opened vigorous ear—who could question the genius in this head?”45—and who could live up to such a cephalogram? Jacobi thought it could be done, for, after visiting Goethe in July, 1773, he described him in a letter to Wieland as “from head to toe all genius; a man possessed, who is destined to act according to the dictates of the individual spirit.”46
At last, in February, 1774, Goethe wrote the book that gave him a European renown—Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. He had thought of it so long, had so long rehearsed it in brooding and fancy, that now he dashed it off, he tells us, “in four weeks.... I isolated myself completely, I forbade the visits of my friends.”47 Fifty years later he said to Eckermann, “That was a creation which I, like the pelican, fed with the blood of my own heart.”48 He killed Werther to give himself peace.
He was inspired in making the book brief. He used the letter form, partly in imitation of Richardson’s Clarissa and Rousseau’s Julie, partly because it lent itself to the expression and analysis of emotion, and perhaps because in that form he could use some of the letters he had written from Wetzlar to his sister Cornelia or to his friend Merck. He shocked Charlotte and Kestner by giving her actual name, Lotte, to the object of a love obviously describing Goethe’s passion for Kestner’s bride. Kestner became “Albert,” and was favorably portrayed. Even the meeting at the dance, and the morrow’s visit, were in the story as they had been in fact. “Since that day sun, moon, and stars can go calmly about their business, but I am conscious neither of day nor of night, and the whole world around me is fading away.... I have no more prayers to say except to her.”49 Werther is not quite Goethe: he is more sentimental, more given to tears and gushing words and self-commiseration. In order to lead the narrative to its tragic denouement, Werther had to be changed from Goethe to Wilhelm Jerusalem. The final touches echo history: Werther, like Jerusalem, borrows Albert’s pistol for his suicide, and Lessing’s Emilia Galotti lies on his desk as he dies. “No clergyman escorted him” to his grave.
The Sorrows of the Young Werther (1774) was an event in the history of literature and of Germany. It expressed and promoted the romantic element in Sturm und Drang, as Götz von Berlichingen had expressed the heroic. Rebellious youth acclaimed it with praise and imitation; some dressed in blue coat and buff vest like Werther, some wept like Werther; some committed suicide as the only fashionable thing to do. Kestner protested at the invasion of his privacy, but was soon appeased, and we are not told that Charlotte complained when Goethe told her, “Your name is uttered in reverence by thousands of adoring lips.”50 The German clergy did not join in the applause. A Hamburg preacher denounced Werther as an apology for suicide; Pastor Goeze, Lessing’s enemy, blasted the book, and Lessing condemned it for its sentimentality and lack of classic restraint.51 At a public dinner the Reverend J. C. Hasenkampf censured Goethe to his face for “that wicked piece of writing,” and added, “May God improve your perverse heart!” Goethe deflated him with a soft answer: “Remember me in your prayers.”52 Meanwhile the little book swept through Europe in a dozen translations, three in France in three years; now for the first time France admitted that Germany had a literature.
3. The Young Atheist
The clergy had some excuse for worrying about Goethe, for he was in this stage openly hostile to the Christian Church. “He reveres the Christian religion,” Kestner wrote in 1772, “but not in the form our theologians give it. … He does not go to church, nor to Communion, and he rarely prays.”53 Goethe was especially averse to the Christian emphasis on sin and contrition;54 he preferred to sin without remorse. He wrote to Herder (about 1774): “If only the whole teaching of Christ were not such bilge that I, as a human being, a poor limited creature of desires and needs, am infuriated by it!”55 He planned a drama on Prometheus as a symbol of man defying the gods; he wrote little more than a prologue, which shocked Jacobi and pleased Lessing. What remains of it is the most radical of Goethe’s antireligious outbursts. Prometheus speaks:
Cover thy heaven, Zeus, with cloudy mist,
And disport yourself—like a child who cuts off thistle heads—
On oaks and mountain peaks!
My earth you must still let stand,
And my cottage, which you did not build,
And my hearth, whose glow you envy me.
I know nothing poorer under the sun than you, O gods!
You nourish your majesty with difficulty
From sacrifices and votive prayers,
And it would starve,
Were not children and beggars such hopeful fools.
When I was but a child, and knew not what to think,
My erring eyes turned to the sun,
As if there might be an ear to hear my plaint,
A heart like mine
To pity a troubled soul.
Who helped me against the Titans’ insolence?
Who rescued me from death, from slavery?
Has not my own holy, glowing heart
Accomplished all this by itself, but, young and good,
And deceived, gives thanks to that Sleeping One up there?
Honor thee? Why?
Have you ever lightened the sorrows of the heavy-laden?
Have you ever dried the tears of the anguish-stricken?
Have I not been molded into a man
By almighty Time and everlasting Fate—
My masters and yours? . . .
Here sit I, forming men after my image,
A race that may be like me,
To grieve and weep, to enjoy and be glad,
And to disdain you, as I do.
From this nadir of proud atheism Goethe moved slowly to the gentler pantheism of Spinoza. Lavater reported that “Goethe told us many things about Spinoza and his writings. … He had been an extremely just, upright, poor man. … All modern deists had drawn primarily from him. … His correspondence, Goethe added, was the most interesting in the whole world as concerned uprightness and love of humanity.”56 Forty-two years later Goethe told Karl Zelter that the writers who had most influenced him were Shakespeare, Spinoza, and Linnaeus.57 On June 9, 1785, he acknowledged the receipt of Jacobi’s book On the Teachings of Spinoza; his discussion of Jacobi’s interpretation reveals considerable study of the Jewish philosopher-saint. “Spinoza,” he wrote, “does not demonstrate the existence of God; he demonstrates that existence [the matter-mind reality] is God. Let others call him an atheist on this account; I am inclined to call him and praise him as most godly, and even most Christian.... I receive from him the most wholesome influences upon my thinking and acting.”58 In his autobiography Goethe remarked on his reply to Jacobi:
Happily I had already prepared myself, … having in some degree appropriated the thoughts and mind of an extraordinary man. … This mind, which had worked upon me so decisively, and was destined to affect so deeply my whole mode of thought, was Spinoza. After looking through the world in vain to find a means of development for my strange nature, I at last fell upon the Ethics of this philosopher.... I found in it a sedative for my passions; and a free, wide view over the sensible and moral world seemed to open before me.... I was never so presumptuous as to think that I understood perfectly a man who … raised himself, through mathematical and rabbinical studies, to the highest reach of thought, and whose name, even at this day, seems to mark the limit of all speculative efforts.59
He gave added warmth to his Spinozistic pantheism by the intensity with which he loved nature. It was not merely that he found delight in bright fields, or mystic woods, or plants and flowers multiplying with such exuberant diversity; he also loved nature’s sterner moods, and liked to fight his way through wind or rain or snow, and up to perilous mountaintops. He spoke of nature as a mother from whose breast he sucked the sap and zest of life. In a prose-poem rhapsody, Die Natur (1780), he expressed with religious feeling his humble surrender to, his happy absorption in, the generative and destructive forces that envelop man.
Nature! By her we are surrounded and encompassed—unable to step out of her, and unable to enter deeper into her. She receives us, unsolicited and unwarned, into the circle of her dance, and hurries along with us, till we are exhausted, and drop out of her arms. . . .
She creates ever new forms; what now is, was never before; what was, comes not again; all is new, and yet always the old. . . .
She seems to have contrived everything for individuality, but cares nothing for individuals. She is ever building, ever destroying, and her workshop is inaccessible . . .
She has thought, and is constantly meditating; not as a man, but as nature. She has an all-embracing mind of her own; no one can penetrate it. . . .
She lets every child tinker with her, every fool pass judgment on her; thousands stumble over her and see nothing; she has her joy in all. . . .
She is kindly. I praise her with all her works. She is wise and quiet. One can tear no explanation from her, extort from her no gift which she gives not of her own free will. . . .
She has placed me here, she will lead me away. I trust myself to her. She may do as she likes with me. She will not hate her work.60
In December, 1774, Duke Karl August stopped at Frankfurt en route to seek a bride at Karlsruhe. He had read and admired Gotz von Berlichingen; he invited the author to meet him. Goethe came and made a favorable impression; the Duke wondered might not this handsome and mannerly genius be an ornament of the Weimar court. He had to hurry on, but asked Goethe to meet him again on his return from Karlsruhe.
Goethe spoke often of destiny, too little of chance. He might have answered that it was destiny, not chance, that brought him to the Duke, and that it turned him from the loveliness of Lili Schonemann to Weimar’s unknown perils and opportunities. Lili was the only daughter of a rich merchant in Frankfurt. Goethe, now a social lion, was invited to a reception in her home. She performed brilliantly at the piano; Goethe leaned over a corner of it and drank in her sixteen-year-old charms as she played. “I was sensible of feeling an attractive power of the gentlest kind. … We grew into the habit of seeing each other. … We were now necessary to each other. … An irresistible longing dominated me”61—so rapidly can that famous fever rise, blown up by a poet’s sensitivity. Before he quite realized what it meant, he was officially engaged (April, 1775). Then Lili, thinking him securely captured, coquetted with others. Goethe saw and fumed.
Just at this time two friends, Counts Christian and Friedrich zu Stolberg, came to Frankfurt on their way to Switzerland. They suggested that Goethe join them. His father urged him to go, and to continue on into Italy. “With some intimation, but without leavetaking, I separated myself from Lili.”62 He started out in May, 1775; at Karlsruhe he met the Duke again, and was definitely invited to Weimar. He went on to Zurich, where he met Lavater and Bodmer. He climbed St. Gotthard, and looked longingly at Italy. Then the image of Lili regained ascendancy; he left his companions, turned homeward, and in September had Lili in his arms. But, back in his room, he felt again his old dread of marriage as imprisonment and stagnation. Lili resented his vacillation; they agreed to break off their betrothal; in 1776 she married Bernhard von Türckheim.
The Duke, briefly at Frankfurt on his way back from Karlsruhe, offered to send a coach to take Goethe to Weimar. Goethe consented, made his arrangements, and waited for the appointed day. The coach did not come. Had he been played with and deceived? After some days of fretful delay, he started out for Italy. But at Heidelberg the promised coach caught up with him; the Duke’s emissary made explanations and apologies; Goethe accepted them. On November 7, 1775, he reached Weimar, aged twenty-six, torn as always between Eros and Destiny, longing for woman, but resolved to be great.