He poured his aging philosophy into Part II of Faust. At the end of Part I he had left his alter ego, broken and desolate, in the power of Mephistopheles—desire punished for its excess. But could that be all, and the sum of wisdom? Faust had not quite lost his wager; the Devil had not yet found for him any delight that could calm his striving and fill his life. Was there anywhere such a fulfillment? Through twenty-four years Goethe struggled to find for the story a continuation and a culmination that should contain or symbolize the conclusions of his thought, and should give to his hero a noble and inspiring end.
At last, aged seventy-eight, he faced the task. On May 24, 1827, he wrote to Zelter, who had grown old with him and was to die with him: “I want quietly to confess to you that … I have gone to work at Faust again. … Tell no one.” The dramatic finale of Byron in the Greek War of Liberation had stirred Goethe; now he could make Byron, as Euphorion [Well-Being], son of Faust and Helen, represent the healing of the torn and questioning modern mind through union with the calm beauty of classic Greece. He labored in the morning hours, achieving at best a page a day, until, in August of 1831, seven months before his death, he announced to Eckermann that the consuming task was complete—fifty-nine years after its first conception. “The happiest man,” he had written, “is he who is able to integrate the end of his life with its beginning.”91 And now he said: “Whatever of life remains to me I can regard henceforth as a gift; and it does not really matter whether I accomplish anything more or not.”92
Only in the assurance of eighty years can one take time to read all of Faust, Part II, today. From the opening scene, in which Faust, awaking in spring fields, describes the sunrise with no word-worn eloquence, the action repeatedly stops for lyric paeans to nature’s beauty or grandeur or terror; it is well done, but too often; Goethe, preaching classic restraint, here sins against “nothing too much.” He poured into the drama almost everything that cluttered his teeming memory: Greek and German mythologies, Leda and the swan, Helen and her train, witches and knights and fairies and gnomes, griffins and pygmies, dryads and sirens, dissertations on “Neptunian” geology, long speeches by heralds, flower girls, garden nymphs, woodcutters, punchinellos, drunkards, pages, seneschals, wardens, a charioteer and a sphinx, an astrologer and an emperor, fauns and philosophers, the cranes of Ibycus, and a “little man” (homunculus) chemically created by Faust’s pupil Wagner. The farrago is more confusing than a tropical jungle, for it adds the supernatural to the natural, and endows everything with oratory or song.
What a comfort it is when, in Act III, Helen appears, still miraculously dia gynaikon— goddess among women—conquering men with the grace of her movement or the glance of her eyes. The story takes on new force, and the chorus rises to a Sophoclean tone, when Helen hears that Menelaus, as punishment for “beauty insolently bold,” has ordered her and her attendant women to be surrendered to the lusts of a “barbarian” horde invading Hellas from the north. Their leader is Faust himself, transformed by Mephistophelean art into a medieval knight, handsome in figure, face, and garb. Goethe reaches the apex of his dramatic art as he describes the meeting of Helen and Faust—classic Greece confronting medieval Germany. Let these two unite!—this is the burden of the tale. Faust, enthralled like all men, lays at Helen’s feet all the wealth and power that magic and war have given him. She yields herself to his entreaties; after all, this was hardly a fate worse than death. But Menelaus approaches with his army and interrupts their bliss; Faust turns in a trice from love to war, calls his men to arms, and leads them to the conquest of Sparta (a memory of the “Franks” conquering the Morea in the thirteenth century).
The scene changes; years have flown by; Euphorion is a happy youth, gladdening Faust and Helen with “caresses, playful banter, sportive calls,”93 leaping recklessly from cliff to cliff, gently cautioned by his parents, dancing wildly with nymphs entranced by his charm (Byron in Italy?); he seizes one of them rapturously, only to have her burst into flame in his arms. Hearing with welcome the tocsin of war, he rushes off, falls from a precipice, and, dying, summons his mother to join him in the nether world.
HELEN [to Faust.]
Woe is me! An ancient adage proves on me its truth—
So ends the third and finest act of this second Faust. This was the part that Goethe wrote first, which he called Helena, and which for a time he thought of as a separate and finished whole; he might have done well to leave it so. Here, by some heroic draft upon his surviving powers, Goethe rose for the last time to the peak of his poetry, mingling drama with music as in Periclean days, and raising to life and blood the figures of a complex allegory for the healing of the modern mind’.
From that height Faust II slips down to a war between an emperor and a contender for the Holy Roman throne. Faust and Mephistopheles, using their magic arts, win the war for the emperor; Faust asks and receives, as reward, great stretches of the Empire’s northern coast, with such land as he can wrest from the sea. In Act V Faust, a hundred years old, is master of a vast domain, but not yet of himself. The cottage of a peasant couple, Philemon and Baucis, obstructs the view from his mansion; he offers them a better home elsewhere; they refuse; he asks Mephistopheles and his agents to drive them out; meeting resistance, they set fire to the cottage; the old couple die of fright. Faust is soon haunted by visions of avenging Furies—gray hags named Want, Guilt, Care, Need, and Death. Care breathes into his face and blinds him. A partly unselfish thought raises him out of despair: he orders Mephistopheles and his devils to dike the sea, drain the swamps, and build, on the new land, a thousand homes amid green fields; he visions this reclaimed terrain, and feels that if he could “with a free people stand on a free soil,” he would at last say to such a moment, “Tarry a while, thou art so fair.”94 He hears the sounds of picks and spades, and thinks that his grand design is progressing; actually the devils are digging his grave. Exhausted, he falls dying to the ground; Mephistopheles gloats over him as a horde of devils prepares to take Faust’s soul to hell; but a host of angels swoops down from heaven, and while Mephistopheles is distracted with admiration of their legs they “bear aloft the mortal remains of Faust.” In heaven Faust, new-clothed in a transfigured body, is greeted by a glorified Gretchen, who begs the Virgin Mother: “Grant me to teach him!” The Virgin bids her lead him upward, and a Chorus Mysticus ends the play:
1st nur ein Gleichnis;
Hier wirds Ereignis;
Hier ist es getan;
Zieht uns hinan.
Is only a symbol;
The ever unfinished
Here is completed;
Is here accomplished;
The eternal womanly
Draws us upward and on.