Goethe Nestor



SHALL we, honoring our stated limits, leave Goethe suspended at this point, with Faust on his pen and wisdom in his age, or shall we, burdening space and risking time, pursue this ever-evolving Olympian to his end? Die ewige Weisheit zieht uns hinan: timeless wisdom draws us on.1

On October 14, 1806, Napoleon defeated the Prussians at Jena. Duke Karl August, allied with Prussia, had led his own little army against the French in that battle. The routed survivors, and then the hungry victors, entered Weimar, sacked the stores, and quartered themselves in private homes. Sixteen Alsatian troops took over Goethe’s house; Christiane gave them food, drink, and beds. That night two other soldiers, intoxicated, forced their way in, and, finding no more beds available on the lower floor, ran upstairs into Goethe’s room, brandished their swords in his face, and demanded accommodations. Christiane placed herself between these soldiers and her mate, persuaded them to leave, and then bolted the door. On the fifteenth Bonaparte reached Weimar and restored order; instructions were issued that “the distinguished scholar” was not to be disturbed, and that “all measures should be taken to protect the great Goethe and his home.”2 Marshals Lannes, Ney, and Augereau stayed with him for a while, and then left with apologies and compliments. Goethe thanked Christiane for her bravery, and said to her, “God willing, we shall be man and wife.” On October 19 they were married. His good mother, who had borne lovingly with all his faults, and modestly with all his honors, sent them renewed blessings. She died on September 12, 1808, and Goethe inherited half of her estate.

In October, 1808, Napoleon presided over a meeting of six sovereigns and forty-three princes at Erfurt, and remade the map of Germany. Duke Karl August attended, taking Goethe in his retinue. Bonaparte asked Goethe to visit him on October 2; the poet came, and spent an hour with the conqueror, Talleyrand, two generals, and Friedrich von Müller, a Weimar magistrate. Napoleon complimented him on his vigor (Goethe was then fifty-nine), inquired about his family, and launched into a spirited critique of Werther. He condemned current dramas that emphasized fate. “Why talk about fate? Politics are fate. … Qu’en dit Monsieur Goet?— What does Monsieur Goethe say about it?” We do not know Goethe’s reply, but Müller reported that as Goethe was leaving the room Napoleon remarked to his generals, “Voil àun homme!” (Behold a man!)3

On October 6 Napoleon returned to Weimar, taking with him a company of actors from Paris, the great Talma among them. They played, in Goethe’s theater, Voltaire’s La Mort de César. After the performance the Emperor took Goethe aside and discussed tragedy. “The serious drama,” he said, “could very well be a school for princes as well as for the people, for in certain ways it is above history. . . . You ought to portray the death of Caesar more magnificently than Voltaire has done, and show how happy Caesar [Napoleon] would have made the world if the people had only granted him time in which to carry out his lofty plans.” And a little later: “You must come to Paris! I make this definite request of you! You will there obtain a larger view of the world, and you will find a wealth of themes for your poetry.”4—When Napoleon passed through Weimar again, after his disastrous retreat from Moscow, he asked the French ambassador to convey his greetings to Goethe.

The poet felt that in Bonaparte he had met, as he expressed it, “the greatest mind the world has ever seen.”5 He quite approved Napoleon’s rule of Germany; after all (Goethe had written in 1807), there was no Germany, only a farrago of petty states, and the Holy Roman Empire had ceased to exist in 1806; it seemed good to Goethe that Europe should be united, especially under so brilliant a head as Bonaparte’s. He did not rejoice over Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, though his Duke again led the Weimar regiments against the French. His culture and concern were too universal to let him feel much patriotic glow; and he could not find it in him, though often asked to do so, to write songs of nationalistic fervor. In his eightieth year he said to Eckermann:

How could I write songs of hatred when I felt no hate? And, between ourselves, I never hated the French, although I thanked God when we were rid of them. How could I, to whom the only significant things are civilization [Kultur]and barbarism, hate a nation which is among the most cultivated in the world, and to which I owe a great part of my own culture? In any case this business of hatred between nations is a curious thing. You will always find it most powerful and barbarous on the lowest levels of civilization. But there exists a level at which it wholly disappears, and where one stands, so to speak, above the nations, and feels the weal or woe of a neighboring people as though it were one’s own. This level was appropriate to my nature; I had reached it long before my sixtieth year.6

Would that there had been, in every major state, a million such “good Europeans”!

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