In the years 1818-21 Goethe had two soul-stirring romances, not counting Bettina Brentano. On April 23, 1807, Bettina, twenty-two, came to the aging poet with a letter of introduction from Wieland. She was the granddaughter of Sophie von La Roche, who had loved Wieland, and she was the daughter of Maximiliane Brentano, who had flirted with Goethe; she felt that she had a primogenital lien on Goethe’s heart. Soon after entering his room she flung herself into his arms. He accepted her as a child, and thereafter corresponded with her in that sense; but he enclosed with his letters the latest love poems he had written, and though they were not addressed to her she treated them as declarations of passion, and gave them that color in the Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child) which she published in 1835.
Most of the poems had been inspired by Wilhelmine Herzlieb. Minna, as Goethe soon called her, was the daughter of a Jena bookseller. He had known her as a child, but in 1808 she was nineteen, modest, tender, and blooming. She hung on every word that he spoke, and mourned that age and status forbade her to love and possess him. He perceived her feeling, responded to it, wrote sonnets to her, punning on her name as a loving heart; but he recalled that he had only recently made Christiane his wife. He seems to have had Minna in mind when he portrayed the shy, highstrung, affectionate Ottilie of the Elective Affinities (1809).
This remarkable novel—Die Wahlverwandtschaften— is, as its author thought,20 his best work of prose fiction, far better organized and more compactly told than either of the Wilhelm Meister circumambulations. Note Goethe’s words to Eckermann (February 9, 1829): “In the whole of the Elective Affinities there is not a line which I myself did not actually live, and there is far more behind the text than anyone can assimilate at a single reading.” Indeed, the fault of the book is that there is too much Goethe in it, too much philosophizing put into unlikely mouths. (He makes the girl Ottilie keep a diary in which he deposits some of his maturest obiter cogitata, such as, “Against great excellence in another there is no way of defending ourselves except love.”21) But it is because there is so much of Goethe in this book that it is warm with life and rich in thought: because the Charlotte of the story is again Charlotte von Stein, tempted, but refusing, to be unfaithful to her husband; because the Captain is Goethe in love with his friend’s wife; because Edward, the fifty-year-old husband infatuated with Ottilie, is Goethe drawn to Minna Herzlieb; and because the novel is Goethe’s attempt to analyze his own erotic sensitivity.
He here proposed to think of sexual attraction in chemical terms. He may have taken his title from the Elective Affinities published by the great Swedish chemist Torbern Olof Bergman in 1775. The Captain describes to Edward and Charlotte the attractions, repulsions, and combinations of material particles: “You ought yourselves to see these substances—which seem so dead and are yet so full of energy and force—at work before your eyes. Now they seek each other out, … seize, crush, devour, destroy one another, and then suddenly they reappear … in fresh, renovated, unexpected forms.”22 So, when Edward invites his friend the Captain, and Charlotte invites her niece Ottilie, to stay with them for long visits, the Captain falls in love with Charlotte, and Edward falls in love with Ottilie. When Edward has intercourse with his wife he thinks of Ottilie, and Charlotte thinks of the Captain, in a kind of psychological adultery. The offspring looks strangely like Ottilie, and Ottilie takes to the child as if her own. Then, apparently by accident, she lets it drown; in remorse she starves herself to death. Edward dies of a broken heart; the Captain disappears; Charlotte survives, spiritually dead. A town philosopher concludes: “Marriage is the beginning and end of all civilization. It tames the savage, and gives to the most cultivated their best opportunity for gentleness. It should be indissoluble, for it brings so much happiness that its incidental tribulations count for nothing in the scale.”23 Four pages later, however, one character suggests trial marriage, in which the contract is for only five years at a time.
In 1810 we find Goethe at Karlsbad taking the waters and flirting with young women, while Christiane, four years married, remained at home, flirting with young men. The sixty-one-year-old poet won the passionate love of a darkly beautiful Jewess, Marianne von Eybenberg; then he fled from her with blond Silvie von Ziegesar. In a poem addressed to Silvie he called her “daughter, mistress, darling, white, and slim.”24 Christiane sent him appeals for fidelity:
And have Bettina and that Frau von Eybenberg arrived in Karlsbad yet? They say here that Silvie and the Gotters are to be there, too. So what will you do, between all your flirtations? Rather too many! But you won’t forget your oldest one, will you? Think of me a little, too, now and then. I mean to trust you absolutely, whatever people may say. For you are the only one, you know, who thinks of me at all.25
He sent her little gifts.
He found time almost every day to compose some poetry or prose. About 1809 he began to write his autobiography. He called it Aus meinem Leben Dichtung und Wahrheit (Fiction and Truth from My Life). The title handsomely admitted that he might now and then, intentionally or not, have mingled imagination with reality. He touched only lightly and delicately on his love for Charlotte Buff, but told more fully of his romance with Friederike Brion; both of these women still lived. He analyzed well and generously many friends of his youth—Lenz, Basedow, Merck, Herder, Jacobi, Lavater. Of himself he spoke modestly; his private notes complained that the auto-biographer is expected to confess his faults but not to reveal his virtues.26 The book is the history of a mind rather than of a life; incidents in it are few, reflections abound. It is his greatest book of prose.
In 1811 he received from Beethoven a letter of admiration, with the Overture to Egmont. Poet and composer met at Teplitz in July, 1812; Beethoven played for Goethe, and took walks with him. If we may trust the novelist August Frankl, “wherever they went, the people on the promenade respectfully made way for them and saluted them. Goethe, annoyed by these constant interruptions, said, ‘What a nuisance! I can never avoid this sort of thing!’ With a smile, Beethoven answered, ‘Don’t let it bother your Excellency; the homage is probably meant for me.’ “Goethe wrote to Zelter (September 2, 1812): “Beethoven’s talent astonished me; his personality, alas, is wholly ungovernable. He is not wrong … in finding the world detestable, but this attitude renders it more enjoyable neither to him nor to others. Much of it is to be excused on the deplorable ground that he is losing his hearing.”27 Beethoven’s comment on Goethe: “What patience the great man has had with me! What good he has done me!” But “the court atmosphere suits him too well.”28
Court appearances and conduct were part of Goethe’s official life, for he was still active in administration. His home life had lost its charm: August, twenty-two in 1812, was an unsalvageable mediocrity, and Christiane was fat and taking to drink. She had some excuse, for his flirtations continued. During his visits to Frankfurt he often stayed at the suburban villa of Johann von Willemer, and admired Willemer’s wife, Marianne. In the summer of 1815 he spent almost four weeks with them. Marianne was thirty-one, but she was in the fullness of womanly beauty. She sang Goethe’s lyrics and Mozart’s arias enchantingly, wrote excellent verse, and exchanged with Goethe a series of poems in imitation of Hafiz, Firdausi, and other Persian bards. (Hafiz had been translated into German in 1812.) Some of the poems are frankly sensual and tell of mutual joy in physical embraces, but this license may be merely poetic. The three met again in September at Heidelberg; the two poets took long walks together, and Goethe wrote Marianne’s name in Arabic letters in the dust around the castle fountain. They never saw each other again after that day, but they corresponded through the seventeen remaining years of his life. Willemer seems to’have cherished his wife all the more for having charmed so famous a man, and for answering Goethe’s verse with poems scarcely inferior to his own. Goethe included hers with his in the Westöstlicher Diwan (West-Eastern Book of Many Leaves) that he published in 1819.
While this correspondence was proceeding in prose and rhyme, Christiane died (June 6, 1816). Goethe noted in his diary: “Her death struggle was dreadful. … Emptiness and deathly silence within and around me.”29 A profound depression clouded these years. When Charlotte Kestner, the lost beloved of his youth, now the sixty-four-year-old wife of the successful Councilor Kestner of Hanover, visited him with her daughter (September 25, 1816), no emotion seemed to stir in him, and all his talk was courteous triviality. But in 1817 his son August, interrupting a career of dissipation, married Ottilie von Pogwisch; Goethe invited them to live with him; Ottilie brought the gaiety of youth into the household, and soon gave the aging poet grandchildren who made his heart beat again.
Ulrike von Levetzow helped. She was one of the three daughters of Amalie von Levetzow, whom Goethe had known in Karlsbad. At Marienbad in August, 1821, he met Ulrike, who later recalled: “As I had been for some years in a French boarding school at Strasbourg, and was only seventeen, I had never heard of Goethe, and had no idea that he was a famous man and a great poet. So I wasn’t at all shy with the friendly old gentleman. … The very next morning he asked me to take a walk with him. … He took me along on his walk nearly every morning.”30 He returned to Marienbad in 1822, and “all that summer Goethe was very friendly to me.” A year later they met in Karlsbad, and soon they stirred the gossip of the spa. By this time the poet had decided that his love was more than paternal. Duke Karl August urged Ulrike to marry Goethe; if she would do this a fine house would be given to her family in Weimar, and after the poet’s death she would receive a pension of ten thousand thalers a year.31 Mother and daughter refused. Goethe returned desolate to Weimar, and drowned his disappointment in ink. Ulrike lived to be ninety-five.
In that year 1821 which led Goethe to Ulrike, Karl Zelter, music director at Jena, brought to him in Weimar a twelve-year-old pupil, Felix Mendelssohn. Zelter had opened Goethe’s soul to the world of music, and had even taught him to compose. Now the skill of the young pianist astonished and gladdened the old poet, who insisted on having him stay with him for several days. “Every morning,” Felix wrote on November 6, “the author of Faust and Werther kisses me. In the afternoon I play for him for about two hours, partly fugues of Bach, partly my improvisations.” On November 8 Goethe held a reception to introduce Felix to Weimar society. On November 10 Felix wrote: “Every afternoon he opens the piano and says, I have not heard you at all today. Come, make a little noise for me!’ Then he sits down next to me and listens. You have no idea how kind and affectionate he is.” When Zelter wished to take Felix back to Jena, Goethe persuaded him to let his pupil remain a few days more. “Now,” wrote the happy boy, “gratitude to Goethe rose On all sides, and the girls and I kissed his lips and hands. Ottilie von Pogwisch threw her arms around his neck; and since she is very pretty, and he flirts with her all the time, the effect was excellent.”32 There are happy moments in history behind the drama of tragedy, and beneath the notice of Historians.