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Goethe’s erotic genius

September 30, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, by Joseph Karl Stieler

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, by Joseph Karl Stieler

Draughtsman, scientist, critic, novelist, poet–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) wore many hats. He may have been, as the cliche goes, the last Renaissance man. (Plato, I suppose, was the first, though he wore all his hats at the same time.) Unfortunately–and though it may be unwise to admit this–I am not especially familiar with Goethe’s body of work. It is primarily the poet that interests me.

Particularly, in his mastery of such a variety of verse forms, and especially of the mid-length verse forms, e.g. ballad, elegy, ode, which require sustained forward momentum. In this mastery of these Goethe reminds me of the versatile English-language poets Yeats and Auden (though chronologically speaking, they really ought to remind me of him). Cf. the three recent posts in which I translated five of his lyrics (both for the translations, and for my comments on them); each is at least four stanzas long, and in the course of those stanzas each elaborates a complex, dynamic thoughtworld. Goethe creates, not just narrative momentum, but psychological momentum, in which the mood and thought of each stanza develops unexpectedly-inevitably.from the stanza before it.

The content of these thoughtworlds is, most often, the primordial subject of lyric poetry: erotic love, and its creation through poetry. Goethe’s distinctive contribution here, as I see it, lies in his treatment of erotic love as a philosophical tension, a struggle between real and ideal. He is deeply concerned with seduction, enchantment, and entrapment, with sublimation, freedom, and forgetting. Much of his poetry (especially “Dedication”–see middle link above) recalls Dante’s treatment of Beatrice, but Goethe focuses more emphatically on the question: what does this love have to do with this woman, and what does this poem have to do with that relation? Ultimately, he seems to conclude, very little: erotic love turns, or ought to turn, from the putative beloved to an exaltation of an innate potentiality in the lover; and the lover ought finally to see himself as the (female) beloved of the universal divine principle (which, however, resides within himself); and, through the power of his Genius, the poem escapes the orbit of the poet’s life to become a self-moving mover.

Goethe’s appeals to “Genius” sometimes seems little more than defense mechanisms against the perceived superiority of the poets of the “Classical” era; at other times, they can seem to be one of the most thorough efforts to explore the ways in which the contents of our minds contribute to the constitution of our world. (Cf. Kant, Coleridge.) So this, I suppose, is a third way in which Goethe’s work intrigues me. I’m not sure, however, that I can at this point write much on the subject that would be worth reading.

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