Goethe was welcomed to Weimar by all but the politicians. “I must tell you,” wrote Wieland to Lavater, November 13, 1775, “that Goethe has been with us since Tuesday last, and that within three days I have conceived so deep an affection for this magnificent person—I so thoroughly see into him, feel and understand him—as you can far better imagine than I can describe.”28 In that same month a member of the court wrote to Goethe’s parents: “Conceive of your son as the most intimate friend of our dear Duke, … loved to adoration, too, by all the good ladies hereabout.”29
But there were clouds. The Duke relished wild hunts and drinking; Goethe at first accompanied him in both; Klopstock publicly charged the poet with corrupting a virtuous prince. Luise feared that Goethe would alienate her husband from her; actually he used his influence to bring the Duke back to the Duchess despite the fact that the marriage had not been one of love. Some officials distrusted Goethe as a Sturm und Drang radical with pagan beliefs and romantic dreams. Several gladiators of that movement—Lenz, Klinger, and more—rushed to Weimar, introduced themselves as Goethe’s friends, and clamored for plums. When Goethe took a fancy to a garden house—outside the city gate but near the ducal castle—Karl August lost Goethe some public good will by evicting the tenants so that Goethe might move in (April 21, 1776). There the poet found relief from court etiquette, and learned to grow vegetables and flowers. For three years he lived there all the year round, then only in the summer till 1782, when he moved to a spacious mansion in the town to attend to his mounting duties as a member of the government.
The Duke had thought of him as a poet, and had invited him to Weimar as a literary ornament to his court. But he perceived that the twenty-six-year-old author of a rebel play and a tearful romance was becoming a man of practical judgment. He appointed Goethe to a Bureau of Works, and asked him to look into the condition and operation of the mines at Ilmenau. Goethe did this with such assiduity and intelligence that Karl August determined to add him to the Privy Council that administered the duchy. A senior member protested against this sudden infusion of poetry, and threatened to resign. The Duke and the Dowager appeased him, and on June 11, 1776, Goethe became Geheimer Legationsrat— privy councilor of legation—at an annual salary of twelve hundred thalers. He reduced his attentions to the ladies. “For long now,” Wieland informed Merck on June 24, “from the moment that he decided to devote himself to the Duke and the Duke’s affairs, he has behaved with faultless wisdom and with worldly circumspection.”30 In 1778 Goethe was advanced to the then peaceful post of minister of war, and in 1799 to full membership in the Privy Council. He attempted some reforms, but found himself thwarted by vested interests at the top and public apathy below; soon he himself was a complete conservative. In 1781 he was made president of the Ducal Chamber. In 1782 he was given by Joseph II a patent of nobility, and became von Goethe. “In those days,” he told Eckermann forty-five years later, “I felt so satisfied with myself that if I had been made a prince I should not have thought the change so very remarkable.”31
Interwoven with his political career was the most lasting, intense, and poignant love affair in his life. Hear Dr. Johann Zimmermann’s quite un-medical description of one of his patients in November, 1775:
The Baroness von Stein, wife of the Chamberlain and Master of the Horse, has extraordinarily large black eyes of the highest beauty. Her voice is gentle and repressed. No one can fail to mark on her face … seriousness, gentleness, kindliness, … virtue, and profound sensibility. The manners of the court, which she possesses to perfection, have been transformed in her case into rare and high simplicity. She is very pious, with a touching and almost ecstatic elevation of soul. From her exquisite carriage and her almost professional skill in dancing one would hardly infer the tranquil moonlight … which fills her heart with peace. She is thirty-three years old. She has several children, and weak nerves. Her cheeks are red, her hair quite black, her complexion … of an Italian hue.32
Born in 1742, Charlotte von Schardt had married Baron Josias Gottlob von Stein in 1764. By 1772 she had borne seven children, of whom four were now dead. When Goethe met her she was still ailing from repeated pregnancies, and her sense of frailty entered into the modesty and diffidence of her character. Goethe idealized her, for he had the blood of a youth and the imagination of a poet, accustomed and commissioned to embellish reality; yet he did not exceed her physician in glorifying her. She was something new in his rosary of women: she was an aristocrat, in whom fine manners seemed inborn, and Goethe saw her as enshrined in nobility. It was one result of their relationship that she transmitted to him the manners of her class, and schooled him in self-possession, ease, moderation, and courtesy. She was grateful for his love as restoring her interest in life, but she accepted it as a woman of breeding receives the adoration of a youth seven years younger than herself—as the growth pains of an eager spirit seeking experience and fulfillment.
It was not love at first sight; six weeks after joining the Weimar circle he was still writing verses about “lovely Lili” Schönemann.33 But on December 29, 1775, Dr. Zimmermann remarked Goethe’s awakening to “new virtues and beauties in Charlotte.” By January 15 he was trying to resist the incipient enthrallment; “I am glad to get away and wean myself from you,” he told her; by January 28 he had quite surrendered. “Dear Angel,” he wrote to her, “I’m not coming to the court. I feel too happy to stand the crowd. … Suffer me to love you as I do.” And on February 23: “I must tell you, O you chosen among women, that you have placed a love in my heart which makes me joyful.”34
She wrote many letters in return, but from this first period only one survives. “I had so detached myself from the world, but now it grows dear to me again, dear through you. My heart reproaches me; I feel that I torment both myself and you. Six months ago I was so ready to die, and I am ready no longer.”35 He was in ecstasy. “There is no explanation for what this woman does to me,” he told Wieland, “. . . unless you accept the theory of transmigration. Oh, yes, once we were man and wife!”36 He took the matrimonial privilege of quarreling and making up. Charlotte to Zimmermann, May, 1776: “He stormed away from me a week ago, and then returned with overflowing love. … What will he end by making of me?”37 Apparently she insisted upon their love remaining Platonic, and he was too passionate to leave it so. “If I am not to live with you,” he told her, “your love avails me no more than that of others who are absent.”38 But on the next day: “Forgive me for making you suffer. I’ll try hereafter to bear it alone.”39
He was desolate when she went to far-north Pyrmont for a cure, but when she returned she visited him at Ilmenau (August 5-6, 1776). On August 8 he wrote: “Your presence has had a wondrous effect upon me. … When I think that you were here in my cave with me, and that I held your hand, while you leaned over me … Your relationship to me is both sacred and strange. … There are no words for it, and the eyes of men cannot perceive it.”40 Almost five years after their first meeting he was still warm. So, on September 12, 1780, lonely in Zillbach: “Whenever I awake from my dreams, I find that I still love you and long for you. Tonight, as we were riding along and saw the lit windows of a house ahead, I thought: If only she were there to be our hostess. This is a rotten hole, and yet, if I could live quietly here all winter long with you, I’d like it very well.”41 And on March 12, 1781:
My soul has so grown into yours that, as you know, I am inseparably tied to you, and neither height nor depth can part us. I wish there were some vow or sacrament which would bind me to you visibly and according to some law. How precious that would be! And surely my novitiate was long enough for me to take all due thought … The Jews have cords which they bind about their arms in the act of prayer. Thus I bind about my arm your dear cord when I address my prayer to you, and desire you to impart to me your goodness, wisdom, moderation, and patience.
Some have interpreted the expired “novitiate,” or period of probation, as indicating Charlotte’s physical surrender;42 and yet he wrote to her, six years later: “Dear Lotte, you do not know what violence I have done to myself, and still do, and how the thought that I do not possess you … exhausts and consumes me.”43 If consummation came the secret was well kept. Baron von Stein, who did not die till 1793, bore with the liaison with the courtesy of an eighteenth-century gentleman. Occasionally Goethe ended his letters with “Regards to Stein.”44
He had learned to love her children too, feeling more and more keenly the lack of his own. In the spring of 1783 he persuaded her to allow her ten-year-old boy, Fritz, to stay with him for extended visits, even to accompany him on long trips. One of her letters to Fritz (September, 1783) shows her maternal side, and the human hearts behind the dehumanized façade of history:
I am so glad that you don’t forget me out in the beautiful world, and that you write me in tolerably, though not very well-formed, letters. Since you’re staying much longer than I expected, I’m afraid that your clothes won’t be looking very well. If they get soiled, and you too, tell Privy Councilor Goethe just to throw my dear little Fritz into the water. … Try to appreciate your good luck, and do your best to please the Councilor by your behavior. Your father wishes to be remembered to you.45
By 1785 Goethe’s passion had subsided into long silences. In May, 1786, Charlotte complained that “Goethe thinks a great deal and says nothing.”46 She was now forty-four, he was thirty-seven, and was retiring into himself. Often he went to Jena to get away from the Weimar court and seek rejuvenation among students. He had always refreshed himself with nature, climbing the Brocken (a 3,747-foot peak in the Harz Mountains, long associated with the Faust legend), and traveling with the Duke in Switzerland (September, 1779, to January, 1780). Sometimes, in retrospect, he felt that “during the first ten years of my official and court life at Weimar I scarcely accomplished anything”47 in the way of literature or science. But it was good that the poet had been crossed with the administrator, and that the half-spoiled youth and faithless lover had been disciplined by the responsibilities of office and the deferment of amorous victory. He made use of every experience, and grew with every defeat. “The best thing about me is that deep inner stillness in which I live and grow, despite the world, and through which I gain what the world can never take from me.”48 Nothing was lost on him; everything found expression somewhere in his works; finally he was all the best of intellectual Germany fused into an integrated whole.
Two of his greatest poems belong to this period: the marriage of philosophy and religion, poetry and prose, in Die Natur; and the most perfect of his lyrics—the second of those called “Wanderers Nachtlied”—which he carved on the walls of a hunting lodge on September 7, 1780,49 perhaps in a mood of restless longing:
Über alien Gipfeln
In alien Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur! Balde
Ruhest du auch.
O’er all the hilltops
Is quiet now;
In all the treetops
Hardly a breath;
The birds are asleep in the trees.
Wait: soon like these
Thou too shalt rest.50
Another of Goethe’s famous lyrics belongs to this stage of his development: the somber “Erlkönig” which Schubert put to music. When has the child’s sense of mystic beings pervading nature been more vividly expressed than in this swift fantasy of the dying child who sees the “king of the elves” coming to snatch it from the arms of its father?
Now, too, Goethe wrote in prose three dramas: Egmont (1775), Iphigenie auf Tauris (1779), and Torquato Tasso (1780)—fruit enough for five political years. Egmont was not produced till 1788. Iphigenie was presented at the Weimar theater on April 6, 1779 (six weeks before the première of Gluck’s opera of the same name); but it was so transformed, as well as versified, during Goethe’s stay in Rome that it will be better viewed as a product of Goethe’s classic phase. Tasso also was remodeled and versified in Italy, but it belongs here as part of Goethe’s enchantment with Charlotte von Stein. On April 19, 1781, he wrote to her: “All that Tasso says is addressed to you.”51 Taking him at his word, she identified herself with Leonora, Goethe with Tasso, and Karl August with the Duke of Ferrara.
Goethe readily accepted the legend that Tasso’s mental breakdown at the Ferrara court was intensified, if not brought on, by an unhappy love affair with a sister of Alfonso II (r. 1559-97)52 He doubtless had himself in mind when he described the working of Tasso’s poetic mind:
His eye scarce lingers on this earthly scene;
To nature’s harmony his ear is tuned.
What history offers, and what life presents,
His bosom promptly and with joy receives.
The widely scattered is by him combined,
And his quick feeling animates the dead. . . .
Thus, moving in his own enchanted sphere,
The wondrous man doth still allure us on
To wander with him and partake his joy.
Though seeming to approach us, he remains
Remote as ever; and perchance his eye,
Resting on us, sees spirits in our place.53
And Leonora, the stately princess who accepts the poet’s love but bids him restrain his ardor within protocol, may well be Charlotte von Stein holding Goethe’s passion this side of adultery. Tasso proclaims—and here both poets speak—
Whatever in my song doth reach the heart
And find an echo there, I owe to one,
And one alone! No image undefined
Hovered before my soul, approaching now
In radiant glory, to retire again.
I have myself, with mine own eyes, beheld
The type of every virtue, every grace.54
Duke Alfonso resembles Karl August in patience with the poet’s tantrums, amours, and reveries, and, like him, mourns the poet’s delay in finishing a promised masterpiece:
After each slow advance he leaves his task;
He ever changeth, and can ne’er conclude55—
which well describes Goethe’s piecemeal composition, and his procrastination with Wilhelm Meister and Faust. Another princess praises Alfonso-Karl August for giving Tasso-Goethe a chance to mature by contact with affairs: and here rise famous lines:
Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille;
Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt.
“Talent forms itself in quiet; character takes form in the stream of the world.”56 But the correlation between the two poets fades at the end: Tasso shows none of Goethe’s capacity for swimming in the worldly stream; he sinks into his realm of dreams, throws caution and proportion to the winds, clasps the startled princess in his arms, and goes insane when she removes herself from his embrace and his life. Perhaps Goethe felt that he had skirted that precipice.
He often thought of Italy as an escape from a situation that threatened his mind. About this time, in the first form of Wilhelm Meister, he composed for Mignon a song of longing that fitted his own hopes rather than Mignon’s:
Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn,
Im dunken Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn,
Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht,
Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht:
Kennst du es wohl? Dahin! Dahin!
Möcht ich mit dir, O mein Geliebte, ziehn!*
Weimar was beautiful, but it was not warm. And the cares of office rasped the poet’s soul; “’tis a bitter way of earning one’s bread to have to try to establish harmony among the discords of the world.”57 Court life wearied him; “I have nothing in common with these people, nor they with me.”58 He had been partly estranged from the Duke, unable to keep the ducal pace of hunting and wenching. His one great love had been worn thin by time and quarrels. He felt that he had to break away from these many bonds, to seek a new orientation and perspective. He asked the Duke for a leave of absence. The Duke consented, and agreed to continue Goethe’s salary. To raise additional funds Goethe sold to Göschen of Leipzig the right to publish an edition of his collected works. Only 602 sets were bought; Göschen lost 1,720 thalers in the enterprise.
On September 1, 1786, Goethe wrote to Charlotte from Karlsbad:
Now a final farewell. I want to repeat to you that I love you dearly … and that your assurance that you are again taking pleasure in my love renews the joy of my life. I have borne much in silence hitherto, but I have desired nothing more intensely than that our relationship might take a form over which no circumstance could have power. If that cannot be, I would not dwell where you are, but rather be alone in that world into which I now go forth.59