Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Biographical Note

J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, the greatest of German writers and the most universal man of genius of modern times, was born at Frankfort-on-Main on August 28, 1749. His father, who came of a humble Thuringian family, was a Frankfort citizen of good standing, a lawyer and imperial councillor. From him the poet is supposed to have derived his balance and stability of character, while his mother’s impulsive and imaginative nature is seen in the more artistic side of her son’s temperament. Goethe’s youth was spent in his native town, where his education was somewhat irregular. The occupation of the city by the French during the Seven Year’s War gave him an early opportunity of becoming acquainted with a foreign language and foreign manners. At sixteen he went to Leipzig to study law, but the influence of the literary society there and a love affair were more important to him than the university lectures. His Leipzig sojourn ended with a severe illness, and on his recovery he was sent to complete his professional studies at Strassburg. Again non-professional influences had the upper hand. Herder, whom he met there, opened his eyes to the beauty of Gothic architecture and infected him with his own enthusiasm for Shakespeare and the poetry of the people; while his love for Frederika Brion, daughter of the pastor of the village of Sesenheim, had a profound effect on his emotional life.

In 1773 Goethe, who had for years been experimenting with poetry and the drama, published his first notable work, the historical play, “Götz von Berlichingen,” which roused great patriotic enthusiasm, and launched the revolt against French classical influence known as the “Storm and Stress” movement. At Wetzlar, whither he went to attend the law-courts, he met Charlotte Buff, and his passion for her found expression in “The Sorrows of Werther” (1774), a work which spread his reputation in the most sensational fashion throughout Europe.

The years 1771 to 1775, spent mostly in Frankfort, were filled with literary activity, varied by his courtship of Lili Schönemann, the daughter of a Frankfort banker, to whom he was for a time betrothed. Both “Faust” and “Egmont” were planned and in part composed during their period. In November, 1775, Goethe went to Weimar on the invitation of the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar, and this town was his home for the rest of his life. Here he was made a minister of state, and showed great energy and capacity in dealing with political and economic problems. He found sympathy and inspiration in his intimate friendship with Frau von Stein, the wife of a court official; and this relation formed the dominating influence of the years 1775–1786. His most important literary work at this time was the composition of a group of his most charming lyrics.

In September, 1786, Goethe set out on his momentous Italian journey, and remained in the south till the spring of 1788. This journey was of the highest importance for his development, for, in addition to the influence exerted on him by his study of the remains of antiquity (the work of the Renaissance hardly touched him), he found leisure to view his life in perspective and lay plans for his future activity. He came back enamoured of the classic, and the new enthusiasm found expression in his “Iphigenie auf Tauris,” in “Torquato Tasso,” and in the completing of “Egmont.” Goethe’s rapid advance during these eighteen months dislocated seriously his relations at home. The Storm and Stress movement he had outgrown, but he found it still dominant among German writers; and even his connection with Frau von Stein could not be resumed on the old footing. He withdrew from state affairs and for a time found it hard to settle down. A second visit to Italy was disillusioning; and in 1792 he accompanied the duke on a campaign against France and saw something of war. Meantime, the French Revolution, which had been shaking Europe, failed to rouse enthusiasm in Goethe, and he turned to the cultivation of two old interests, the theater and science. For twenty-two years he directed the court theater at Weimar; and he worked intensely on problems of biology and physics. He now took up and completed “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”. The year 1794 is marked by the beginning of his friendship with Schiller, who had invited him to take part in a new periodical; and until the younger poet’s death in 1805, the two men exercised on each other a remarkable mutual influence, partly stimulating and partly corrective. The beautiful narrative poem, “Hermann and Dorothea,” was the outcome of interests largely caught from Schiller, and it was Schiller who induced him to finish the first part of “Faust.”

The Storm and Stress period in German literature had been succeeded by the Romantic movement, but Goethe’s classicism rendered him unsympathetic to it. Nevertheless, as the romantic novelists had taken “Wilhelm Meister” as a model for their fiction, so the poets regarded Goethe’s lyrics with the greatest enthusiasm and found, with good reason, romantic elements in “Faust.” Thus, almost against his will, he continued to be a leading influence in contemporary literature.

The last twenty-five years of Goethe’s life were less eventful externally. In 1806 he married legally Christiane Vulpius with whom he had long been intimate; and in 1807 began the friendship with Bettina von Arnim, so delightfully recorded in his letters to her. The publication of “Faust” in 1808 was followed by that of “Elective Affinities” in 1809, a psychological novel of great influence; and in 1811 he began his idealized autobiography, “Poetry and Truth from my Life.” He continued “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” in the “Travels”, and added a second part to “Faust”, the work which crowns his literary life. Meantime, death was depriving him of his more intimate associates, and he was left more and more a gigantic survival from the previous age. His wife died in 1816, Frau von Stein in 1827, the duke of Saxe-Weimar in 1828. In March 22, 1832, Goethe followed them, and Europe recognized that she had lost her greatest literary figure.

No estimate of Goethe’s work in general is possible in this place. “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”, which is here published in Carlyle’s translation, remains in many respects the greatest of German novels. Begun as a picture of theatrical life it was broadened out till it became a study of a young man’s apprenticeship to life. In point of construction it is, of course, extremely loose, a weakness explained by the change made in the plan in the course of composition. But so rich and various is it in content, so crowded with vivid characters and so charged with reflection on a multitude of themes, that one is fain to waive the ordinary standards of structure, and accept it gratefully for the ripe wisdom it contains.

“Werther” is as unified as “Wilhelm Meister” is unorganized. Seldom has any work achieved a vogue so amazing as that enjoyed by “Werther” in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Its influence extended beyond literature to conduct, and young men, distraught by love, shot themselves with copies of the book in their hands. Yet to the modern reader it is clear that, though the book is to some extent written out of the author’s experience, Goethe had already transcended that experience and saw in the young Werther an example of the danger of a type of morbid sentimentalism against which his age stood in need of warning. But the book is not a sermon. Old-fashioned though we may now feel the manners and mode of expression, it remains an exquisite and touching picture of the tragedy of sensibility.

W. A. N.