A self fulfilled in a modern world

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Goethe
January 28, 2000

Martin Swales praises two books that capture the essence of a great poet.

In a hyperbolic, part tongue-in-cheek, part awestruck remark, Heine once observed that nature wanted to know what she looked like and called Goethe into being. At the heart of this apothegm there is the perception that, for Goethe, nature was more than the name for the totality of functioning matter, but was, rather, a value, a source of profound significance and purpose. One might recast Heine's aperçu along slightly different lines and say that, when the German language wanted to know what it was like, it sent for Goethe.

Now it is something of a truism to say that great writers tend to write well, and that on this account they tend to enrich the language that they use. At the most obvious level, this can be a matter of certain memorable turns of phrase, invented by the creative writer, that become part of the standard repertoire of the language. As we all know, Hamlet is full of well-known quotations. So too, for German speakers, is Goethe's Faust . Yet Goethe's contribution to the German language goes deeper than this because, in ways that are sometimes difficult to put one's finger on, he seemed to make it expressive as never before (and, arguably, only rarely since).

David Luke refers in his introduction to Goethe's genius for the German language. By definition, such genius can pose a problem for the translator - although Luke need not worry unduly because time and again he is a superb practitioner of the art. Of course, certain effects are beyond even him because they depend on the syntactical forms and textures of German. Those of us who teach German professionally often find ourselves in despair when English speakers seem only able to perceive German syntax and word order as perversely difficult, as an unwieldy way of saying what, in terms of any experiential immediacy, is best entrusted to a syntactically slacker language such as (surprise, surprise) English. I have often invited my students to reflect that German word order can shift the emphasis of even such simple sentences as "I have always loved you". There is a felt, expressive difference between "Ich habe dich immer geliebt", and " Dich habe ich immer geliebt ", and " Immer habe ich dich geliebt " and " Geliebt habe ich dich immer ," that cannot be replicated in English.

At the opening of the third stanza of Willkommen und Abschied , Goethe uses the simple inversion as the rider through the night first sees his beloved:

" Dich sah ich, und die milde Freude Floss von dem süssen Blick auf mich ."

("I saw you, felt your soul's outpouring In the sweet kindness of your gaze.") The opening phrase is heart-stopping; and no English translation can quite capture that effect. Or one thinks of that seemingly incorrigible commitment German has to sending the verb to the end in a subordinate clause. Goethe on occasion capitalises on this structural moment to great effect - as in the gnarled, tangled opening to Wandrers Nachtlied :

" Der du von dem Himmel bist, Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillest, Den, der doppelt elend ist Doppelt mit Erquickung füllest ."

("Messenger of heaven, the grief Of our anguished souls restoring, Two-fold balm of sweet relief On twice-wounded hearts downpouring.") Once again, the effect is one that does not travel well. In that same poem Goethe achieves expressive force from (of all things) German gender. Again we touch on a matter that can strike English speakers as sheer linguistic bloody-mindedness. (A friend of mine once observed that he was not prepared to persevere with learning a language in which knife, fork and spoon all have different genders.) Goethe rewrote two lines to achieve a collision of gender and number - " alles Leid und Schmerzen", "all der Schmerz und Lust ". The grammatical crunching viscerally evokes the condition of emotional attrition and mess.

To say this is, of course, to pay tribute to a great poet; but it is not a counsel of translator's despair - least of all when the translator is Luke. He is wonderfully attentive to Goethe's rhythms, to, for example, the force of rhyme and metre. Just occasionally he disappoints - I cannot believe that "How bright, how splendid / Is everything" gets anywhere near " Wie herrlich leuchtet / Mir die Natur ". But time and again he is miraculous. His rendering of Um Mitternacht has all the questing, tentative, wondering feel of the original:

"At midnight past that churchyard I would go, Rather unwillingly, a small small boy, To father's house, the priest's house; all aglow With shining stars, so splendid was the sky At midnight.

And further on in life, going to meet My darling, drawn to her against my will, I saw the Northern lights and stars compete; I came, I went, drinking her sweetness still At midnight.

Until at last the full moon's radiance gleamed Into my darkness; and how well in place, How willing and how swift my thoughts all seemed As past and future lay in their embrace At midnight."

Last year, 1999, was a Goethe Year (the 250th anniversary of the poet's birth). And it is pleasing to note that English-speaking culture has paid worthy tribute to his genius. Luke's beautifully produced and modestly priced volume is one; there was another similarly important tribute in the form of John Whaley's translation of Goethe poems that appeared in 1998 from Dent. That same year also saw the publication of John R. Willams's life of Goethe. And in 1999 another great biography appeared - volume two of Nicholas Boyle's amazing work. (Strictly speaking, it is only the German version that made it for the Goethe Year; the English text comes only now, in 2000. Still, some things, and this is one of them, are definitely worth waiting for.) Boyle's biography is an immense work. And it is immense in its circumstantiality, a circumstantiality that is, so to speak, culturally and philosophically founded. Boyle has an immense attachment to concrete particulars, and in this he belongs to a long tradition of English biography. Almost no German biographer, least of all a German biographer of Goethe, would be able to muster Boyle's non-ideological attachment to the concrete particularity of Goethe's life. For generations of Germans Goethe had an almost axiomatic - and talismanic - centrality and centredness; hence, German biographies of him have tended to move into the hagiographic mode. But Boyle is proof against any such temptations. Not, of course, that he is devoid of reverence for Goethe's life; the very scale of the biography would prove the contrary. But for him Goethe is exemplary of the possibilities of fulfilled and fulfilling existence in the modern world.

Boyle insists that Goethe was complexly, fluidly, critically in commerce with his age. And for this reason he dislikes such hallowed notions as the "Age of Goethe" because they all too easily impute to Goethe a serene and unproblematic accommodation within his culture; whereas, Boyle argues, he was much more edgy and wary of easy corporate alignments. The Goethe of this biography is supremely representative of modern subjectivity, is a self that lives primarily in the significations of his own making and is unapologetically aware of doing so. At the same time he knows that subjectivism breeds solipsism, and he insists on the importance of acknowledging the limits of the self, of renunciation. The world is not made in the image of the human self; some experiences are simply not available. The human subject must learn to do without. Because of this governing acknowledgement in Goethe's temperament of the interplay of self and world, he is, for Boyle, somebody who is able to live rightly and abundantly in the modern world - somebody who has a thoroughgoing respect for things, objects, materiality, a respect that is empirical but not reductive, that is secular but not disparaging of inwardness or spirituality.

Hence, the circumstantiality of Boyle's mode is grounded in his wish to retrace the practicality and concreteness of Goethe's life. Like the Holy Roman Empire in which he was born, Goethe was, for Boyle, sustained by a magnificent heterogeneity. His instincts were heterodox rather than normative. He was the enemy of doctrinaire simplifications - whether metaphysical, rational, scientific, psychological or sexual. Balanced between desire and renunciation, Goethe somehow got it right, and Boyle's biography is a tribute to that rightness.

In this, the second volume, Boyle highlights two decisive encounters in Goethe's life between 1790 and 1803: with the critical force of Kant's thinking, which is strenuously concerned to understand not so much what people believe as the mental processes that generate their beliefs; and with the French revolution, which, in its concatenation of ideological intensity, mass urban movements, and worship of rational, bureaucratic planning, defined for good and for ill the field of force of modern politics. For Boyle, Goethe's creative life in the period under discussion was one that engaged critically with the conceptual and political temper of modernity. The conclusions he drew were, in Boyle's eyes, for the most part, sombre. The volume ends with a discussion of The Natural Daughter , a drama that advocates renunciation as the only way in which one can cope with the fact that, in the modern world, beauty, poetry, integrity are all forfeit. It bears the imprint of the French revolution, which was the "destruction of the foundations on which he [Goethe] intended to build the wholeness of his life and art".

Boyle is extraordinary on the life. And on the creative work he writes with great vivacity and evaluative energy. Just occasionally he can be a shade apodictic, I feel. And he does not always manage to convey the sense of the continued critical debate to which the works have given and still give rise. And at times some of the judgements could do with more teasing out as in, for example, his comment that Wilhelm Meister's Years of Apprenticeship is "inscrutably significant, rather than poetically symbolic". But this is a minor cavil. The scale and sweep of Boyle's project is breathtaking. Moreover, he writes superbly. Nowhere do we feel that he is just coasting, on automatic (narrative) pilot, as it were. The life is lively and enlivening at every turn.

Martin Swales is professor of German, University College London.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Selected Poetry

ISBN - 1 870352 11 4 and 26 2
Publisher - Libris
Price - £40.00, and £14.95
Pages - 283
Translator - David Luke

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