With the absent poet’s consent the Duke had appointed a new president of the Council; now, at his own request, Goethe was relieved of all official duties except as minister of education, and henceforth he served the Council only in an advisory capacity. The Duke was kind, but he had taken other intimates, and he did not like the semirepublican sentiments of the rewritten Egmont. The reading public had almost forgotten Goethe; it had taken up a new poet called Schiller, and had enthusiastically applauded a play,The Robbers, full of that Sturm-und-Drang rebelliousness and violence which now seemed absurd and immature to a poet ready to preach classic order and restraint. Charlotte von Stein received him coldly; she resented his long absence, his leisurely return, his persistent rapture about Italy; and perhaps she had heard of those models in Rome. Their first meeting after his arrival was “utterly false in tone,” she wrote, “and nothing but boredom was exchanged between us.”74 She left for a stay in Kochberg, and Goethe was free to think of Christiane Vulpius.
She came into his life on July 12, 1788, bearing a message from her brother. She was twenty-three years old, and worked in a factory making artificial flowers. Goethe was struck with her fresh spirit, her simple mind, her budding womanhood. He invited her to his garden house as his housekeeper, and soon made her his mistress. She had no education, and “cannot understand poetry at all,” said Goethe,75 but she yielded herself trustfully, and gave him the physical fulfillment that Charlotte had apparently refused. In November, 1789, when she was nearing motherhood, he took her into his Weimar home, and openly made her his wife in all but name. Charlotte and the court were shocked at his crossing class lines and his failure to veil the illicit relation; this reaction caused him and Christiane much grief; but the Duke, an old hand with mistresses, served as godfather to the child that was born on Christmas Day, 1789, and Herder, stern but forgiving, christened it August.
Goethe, so often a lover but only now a father, found much happiness in “the little man” and “das kleine Weib” the little woman. She kept house for him, she listened to him lovingly even when she did not understand him, and she gave him health. “Since she first crossed this threshold,” he told a friend, “I have had nothing but joy of her.”76 Her only fault in his eyes was that she loved wine even more than he did, and that it sometimes led her to almost uncontrolled merriment. She frequented the theater, and went to many dances while Goethe stayed home and celebrated her in his Römische Elegien (1789-90), written in the manner of Propertius and with the morals of Catullus. There is nothing mournful about these “Roman elegies”; they get their names from their “elegiac” meter of alternating hexameters and pentameters; and they concern not Rome but a merry widow through whose disguise we see Christiane herself.
All that thy sacred walls, eternal Rome, hold within them
Teemeth with life; but to me all is still silent and dead.
Oh, who will whisper unto me?—when shall I see at the casement
That one beauteous form, which, while it scorcheth, revives? . . .
Do not repent, mine own love, that thou so soon didst surrender!
Trust me; I deem thee not bold; reverence only I feel. . . .
Alexander and Caesar and Henry and Frederick, the mighty,
On me would gladly bestow half of the glory they earned,
Could I but grant unto them one night on the couch where I’m lying;
But they by Orcus’ night sternly, alas, are held down.
Therefore rejoice, O thou living one, blest in thy love-lighted homestead,
Ere the dark Lethe’s sad wave wetteth thy fugitive foot.77
That pretty widow may have been a Roman memory, but the warmth of these lines came from Christiane. After all, was he not studying art?
Yet it is studious too with sensitive hand
To mark her bosom’s lovely curves, and let
Wise fingers glide down the smooth thigh, for thus
I master the antique sculptor’s craft, reflect,
Compare, and apprehend to come and see
With feeling eye, and feel with seeing hand.78
The Weimar ladies were not pleased by this cheapening exposure of their charms, and the stately Charlotte mourned the degeneration of her Galahad. Even Karl August was a bit disturbed, but was soon appeased. When the Dowager Duchess was returning from Italy he sent Goethe to Venice to escort her home. His stay there (March to June, 1790) was protracted uncomfortably; he longed for Christiane, and vented his irritation with Italian shopkeepers and hygiene in Venezianische Epigramme— the least attractive of his works.
On his return from Venice he found that the French Revolution was arousing the youth of Germany to ecstasy, and the rulers to fear. Many of his friends, including Wieland and Herder, were applauding the overthrow of monarchical absolutism in France. Goethe, perceiving that all thrones were threatened, took his stand beside the Duke, and counseled caution; so many people, he said, were “running about with bellows in their hands, when, it seems to me, they had better be looking for cold-water jugs” to control the fire.79 He obeyed the order of Karl August to accompany him in the campaign of the First Coalition against France. He was present at the battle of Valmy (September 20, 1792), stood calmly under fire, and shared in the defeat. A German officer recorded in his diary that when the poet-councilor was asked to comment on the event, he answered, “From today and from this place begins a new epoch in the history of the world”80; we have no confirmation of this “story. In any case, back in Weimar, Goethe wrote vigorously against the Revolution, which was entering the period (1792-94) of its excesses and savagery.
These developments confirmed in Goethe the natural turn of the maturing mind from a zest for liberty to a love of order. As any fool can be original, so Goethe felt that “any fool can live arbitrarily,”81 safely violating customs or laws because others observe them. He had no enthusiasm for democracy; if ever such a system should actually be practiced it would be the sovereignty of simplicity, ignorance, superstition, and barbarity. He was kindly and generous within his sphere, and spent part of his income in secret charities,82 but he shrank from the crowd. In the presence of multitudes or strangers he withdrew proudly and timidly within himself, and found his only happiness in his home. In these unsettling years (1790-94) he fell into a somber torpor from which he was aroused by the touch of Schiller’s ardent youth and the competition of his pen.