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

Criticisms and Interpretations. I. By Hjalmar H. Boyesen

THERE is no name in the literary history of modern times which is even remotely comparable to that of Goethe; with every year that passes it gains a larger significance. In its suggestiveness it is as unlimited as life itself. It is only a shallow critic who imagines that he has exhausted, or can exhaust, its full meaning. Catholics and Protestants, basing their argument upon some detached passage in his writings, have claimed him as their own. Spinozists have pronounced him the most illustrious disciple of their master; and still others have seen in him the apostle of artistic paganism. None of these were either wholly right or wholly wrong. Goethe, with the sovereign right of the artist, could embrace all these tenets in his universal creed, without being in danger of contradicting himself. “For my part,” he writes to his friend Jacobi, “with the manifold directions in which my nature moves, I cannot be satisfied with a single mode of thought. As a poet and artist, I am a polytheist; on the other hand, as a student of nature, I am a pantheist—and both with equal positiveness. When I need a God for my personal nature, as a moral and spiritual man, He also exists for me. The heavenly and the earthly things are such an immense realm that it can only be grasped by the collective intelligence of all beings.”

It is in this universality of Goethe’s mind, this elevation above all the narrow limits of sects and schools and special sciences, that one must seek the true key to his greatness. The study of his writings is a perpetual journey of discovery; it is as stimulating as mountain-climbing: every fresh effort rewards you with a larger view of the world about you. Your intellectual horizon is constantly widening.—From “Goethe and Schiller, Their Lives and Works” (1907).