Biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German Writer and Statesman

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), German poet, dramatist and scientist, c1830. Engraving.

 Print Collector / Getty Images

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749 – March 22, 1832) was a German novelist, playwright, poet, and statesman who has been described as Germany’s William Shakespeare. Having achieved both literary and commercial success in his lifetime, Goethe remains one of the most influential figures in modern era literature.

Fast Facts: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  • Known For: Figurehead of Sturm und Drang and Weimar Classicism literary movements
  • Born: August 28, 1749 in Frankfurt, Germany
  • Parents: Johann Kaspar Goethe, Katharina Elisabeth née Textor
  • Died: March 22, 1832 in Weimar, Germany
  • Education: Leipzig University, University of Strasbourg 
  • Selected Published Works: Faust I (1808), Faust II (1832), Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796), Wilhelm Meister’s Journey Years (1821)
  • Spouse: Christiane Vulpius
  • Children: Julius August Walther (four others died young)
  • Notable Quote: “Fortunately, people can comprehend only a certain degree of misfortune; anything beyond that either destroys them or leaves them indifferent."

Early Life and Education (1749-1771)

  • Annette (Annette, 1770)
  • New Poems (Neue Lieder, 1770)
  • Sessenheim Poems (Sesenheimer Lieder, 1770-71)

Goethe was born into a wealthy bourgeois family in Frankfurt, Germany. His father, Johann Kaspar Goethe, was a man of leisure who had inherited money from his own father, and his mother, Katharina Elisabeth, was the daughter of the most senior official in Frankfurt. The couple had seven children, although only Goethe and his sister Cornelia lived to adulthood. 

Goethe’s education was dictated by his father and saw him learning Latin, Greek, French, and Italian by the age of 8. His father had very specific hopes for his son’s education, which included his studying law and finding a wife in his travels, before settling down to a quietly prosperous life. Accordingly, Goethe started at university in Leipzig in 1765 to study law. There he fell in love with Anne Katharine Schönkopf, the daughter of an innkeeper, and dedicated a volume of joyful poems to her called Annette. Ultimately, however, she married another man. Goethe’s first mature play, The Partners in Crime (Die Mitschuldigen, 1787), is a comedy depicting a woman’s regrets after she married the wrong man. Upset by her refusal of him and having fallen ill with tuberculosis, Goethe returned home to convalesce.

Profile of German Author Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe: 1749-1832. German poet, playwright, and novelist. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In 1770 he moved to Strasbourg to finish his law degree. It was there that he met philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, the leader of the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) intellectual movement. The two became close friends. Herder permanently impacted Goethe’s literary development, kindling an interest in Shakespeare and introducing him to a developing philosophy that language and literature are in fact expressions of a highly specific national culture. Herder’s philosophy stood in contrast to Hume’s assertion “that mankind are so much the same in all times and places that history informs us of nothing new or strange.” This idea inspired Goethe to travel the Rhine Valley collecting folk songs from local women in an effort to more fully grasp German culture in its “purest” form. In the small village of Sessenheim, he met and fell deeply in love with Friederike Brion, whom he would leave just ten months later, fearful of the commitment of marriage. The theme of the woman abandoned appears often in Goethe’s literary works, most notably in the end of Faust I, leading scholars to believe that this choice weighed heavily on him.

Sturm und Drang (1771-1776)

  • Götz von Berlichingen (Götz von Berlichingen, 1773)
  • The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, 1774)
  • Clavigo (Clavigo, 1774)
  • Stella (Stella, 1775-6)
  • Gods, Heroes, and Wieland (Götter, Helden und Wieland, 1774)

These were some of Goethe’s most productive years, seeing a high production of poetry as well as several play fragments. However, Goethe began this period intent on law: he was promoted to Licentitatus Juris and set up a small law practice in Frankfurt. His career as a lawyer was notably less successful than his other ventures, and in 1772, Goethe traveled to Darmstadt to join the supreme court of the Holy Roman Empire to gain more legal experience. On the way he heard a story about a famous 16th century dashing highwayman-baron who achieved fame during the German Peasants’ War, and within weeks Goethe had written the play Götz von Berlichingen. The play ultimately sets the foundations for the archetype of the Romantic hero. 

In Darmstadt he fell in love with the already-engaged Charlotte Buff, called Lotte. After spending a tortured summer with her and her fiancé, Goethe heard about a young lawyer who shot himself, for reasons rumored to be love of a married woman. These two events probably inspired Goethe to write The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, 1774), a novel whose release almost immediately catapulted Goethe into literary stardom. Told in the form of letters written by Werther, the intimate depiction of the main character’s mental collapse, told in the first person, captured imaginations across Europe. The novel is a hallmark of the Sturm und Drang era, which honored emotion above reason and societal mores. Although Goethe was somewhat dismissive of the Romantic generation that came directly after him, and the Romantics were themselves often critical of Goethe, Werther caught their attention and is thought to be the spark that ignited the passion for Romanticism, which swept across Europe at the turn of the century. Indeed, Werther was so inspiring that it sadly remains notorious for having set off a wave of suicides across Germany.

De to his reputation, in 1774 when he was 26, Goethe was invited to the court of the 18-year-old duke of Weimar, Karl August. Goethe impressed the young duke and Karl August invited him to join the court. Although he was engaged to be married to a young woman in Frankfurt, Goethe, probably feeling characteristically stifled, left his hometown and moved to Weimar, where he would remain for the rest of his life. 

Weimar (1775-1788)

  • The Siblings (Die Geschwister, 1787, written in 1776)
  • Iphigenie in Tauris (Iphigenie auf Tauris, 1787)
  • The Partners in Crime (Die Mitschuldigen, 1787)

Karl August supplied Goethe with a cottage just outside of the city gates, and not long thereafter made Goethe one of his three counselors, a position that kept Goethe busy. He applied himself with limitless energy and curiosity to court life, quickly rising the ranks. In 1776, he met Charlotte von Stein, an older woman already married; even still, they formed a deeply intimate bond, though never a physical one, that lasted for 10 years. During his time in the court of Weimar, Goethe put his political opinions to the test. He was responsible for the War Commission of Saxe-Weimar, the Mines and Highways commissions, dabbled in the local theatre, and, for a few years, became the chancellor of the duchy’s Exchequer, which made him briefly more or less prime minister of the duchy. Due to this amount of responsibility, it soon became necessary to ennoble Goethe, undertaken by Emperor Joseph II and indicated by the “von” added to his name. 

Goethe's garden house
Goethe's garden house in Weimar. Lines written by Goethe about this house read: It doesn't look jaunty/ This quiet garden house/ Everything inside is backward/ Bestowing a good spirit. Goethe 1828. Culture Club / Getty Images

In 1786-1788, Goethe was given permission by Karl August to travel to Italy, a trip that would prove to have lasting influence on his aesthetic development. Goethe undertook the trip due to his renewed interest in classical Greek and Roman art prompted by the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Despite his anticipation for the grandeur of Rome, Goethe was severely disappointed by the state of its relative dilapidation, and left not long thereafter. Instead, it was in Sicily that Goethe found the spirit he was searching for; his imagination was captured by the island’s Greek atmosphere and he even fancied that Homer could have come from there. During the trip he met artists Angelica Kauffman and Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, as well as Christiane Vulpius, who would soon become his mistress. Although the journey was not extremely productive literarily for Goethe, the first year of this two-year journey he chronicled in his journal and later revised as an apology against Romanticism, published as the popular Italian Journey (1830). The second year, spent mostly in Venice, remains a mystery to historians; what is clear, however, is how this trip inspired a deep love of Ancient Greece and Rome that was to have a lasting influence on Goethe, especially in his founding of the genre Weimar Classicism.

French Revolution (1788-94)

  • Torquato Tasso (Torquato Tasso, 1790)
  • Roman Elegies (Römischer Elegien, 1790)
  • “Essay in Elucidation of the Metamorphosis of Plants” (“Versuch, die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären,” 1790)
  • Faust: A Fragment (Faust: Ein Fragment, 1790)
  • Venetian Epigrams (Venetianische Epigramme, 1790)
  • The Grand Kofta (Der Gross-Cophta, 1792)
  • The Citizen-General (Der Bürgergeneral, 1793)
  • The Xenia (Die Xenien, 1795, with Schiller)
  • Reineke Fuchs (Reineke Fuchs, 1794)
  • Optical Essays (Beiträge zur Optik, 1791–92)

Upon Goethe’s return from Italy, Karl August allowed him to be relieved of all administrative duties and instead focus solely on his poetry. The first two years of this period saw Goethe close to finishing a complete collection of his works, including a revision of Werther, 16 plays (including a fragment of Faust), and a volume of poetry. He also produced a short collection of poetry called Venetian Epigrams, containing some poems about his lover, Christiane. The pair had a son and lived together as a family, but were unmarried, a move that was frowned upon by Weimar society at large. The couple was unable to have more than one child survive to adulthood.

Christiane Vulpius - mistress and wife of Goethe
Christiane Vulpius, Goethe's wife. Culture Club / Getty Images

The French Revolution was a divisive occasion within the German intellectual sphere. Goethe’s friend Herder, for example, was heartily in support, but Goethe himself was more ambivalent. He remained true to the interests of his noble patrons and friends while still believing in reform. Goethe accompanied Karl August multiple times on campaigns against France, and was shocked by the horrors of war. 

Despite his newfound freedom and time, Goethe found himself creatively frustrated and produced several plays that did not succeed on the stage. Instead he turned to science: he produced a theory about the structure of plants and of optics as an alternative to Newton’s, which he published as Optical Essays and “Essay in the Elucidation of the Metamorphosis of Plants.” However, neither of Goethe’s theories is upheld by modern-day science.

Weimar Classicism and Schiller (1794-1804)

  • The Natural Daughter (Die natürliche Tochter, 1803)
  • Conversations of German Emigrés (Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, 1795)
  • The Fairytale, or The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (Das Märchen, 1795)
  • Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1796)
  • Hermann and Dorothea (Hermann und Dorothea, 1782-4)
  • Agitation (Die Aufgeregten (1817)
  • The Maid of Oberkirch (Das Mädchen von Oberkirch, 1805)

In 1794, Goethe became friends with Friedrich Schiller, one of the most productive literary partnerships in modern Western history. Though the two had met in 1779 when Schiller was a medical student in Karlsruhe, Goethe had remarked somewhat dismissively that he felt no kinship with the younger man, considering him talented but a bit of an upstart. Schiller reached out to Goethe suggesting that they start a journal together, which was to be called Die Horen (The Horae). The journal received mixed success and, three years in, ceased production.

Goethe and Schiller statue
A statue of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (L) and German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller stands on June 4, 2009 in Weimar, Germany. The two influential German literary figures spent much of their lives in Weimar. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

The two, however, recognized the incredible harmony they found in each other and remained in creative partnership for ten years. With Schiller’s help, Goethe finished his very influential Bildungsroman (coming-of-age story), Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1796), as well as Hermann and Dorothea (Hermann und Dorothea, 1782-4), one of his most lucrative works, among other shorter masterpieces in verse. This period also saw him taking up work again on perhaps his greatest masterpiece, Faust, though he was not to finish it for several decades. 

This period also saw the expression of Goethe’s love of classicism and his hope to bring the classical spirit to Weimar. In 1798, he started the journal Die Propyläen (“The Propylaea”), which was meant to give a place for the exploration of the ideals of the antique world. It lasted only two years; Goethe’s almost rigid interest in classicism at this time went against the Romantic revolutions being carried out across Europe, and Germany in particular, in art, literature, and philosophy. This also reflected Goethe’s belief that Romanticism was simply a beautiful distraction.

The next few years were difficult for Goethe. By 1803, Weimar’s flourishing period of high culture had passed. Herder died in 1803, and even worse, Schiller’s death in 1805 left Goethe deeply grieving, feeling he had lost half of himself. 

Napoleon (1805-1816)

  • Faust I (Faust I, 1808)
  • Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften, 1809)
  • On the Theory of Colour (Zur Farbenlehre, 1810)
  • Epimenides’ Awakening (Des Epimenides Erwachen, 1815)

In 1805, Goethe sent his manuscript of color theory to his publisher, and the next year he sent the completed Faust I. However, war with Napoleon delayed its publication for two more years: in 1806, Napoleon routed the Prussian army at the Battle of Jena and took over Weimar. Soldiers even invaded Goethe’s house, with Christiane displaying great bravery organizing the defense of the house and even tussling with the soldiers herself; luckily they spared the author of Werther. Days later, the two finally made official their 18-year relationship in a marriage ceremony, which Goethe had resisted due to his atheism but now chose perhaps to ensure Christiane’s safety. 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - title page for the German poet and thinker's tragedy 'Faust', ( Ed. Stapfer, 1828). Lithograph by the French Romantic painter Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Title page for the German poet and thinker's tragedy 'Faust', ( Ed. Stapfer, 1828). Lithograph by the French Romantic painter Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix. Culture Club / Getty Images

The period post-Schiller was distressing for Goethe, but also literarily productive. He started a sequel to Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, called Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, 1821), and finished the novel Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften, 1809). In 1808, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor by Napoleon, and began warming up to his regime. However, Christiane died in 1816, and only one son survived to adulthood of the many children she birthed.

Later Years and Death (1817-1832)

  • The Parliament of East and West (Westöstlicher Divan, 1819)
  • Journals and Annals (Tag- und Jahreshefte, 1830)
  • Campaign in France, Siege of Mainz (Campagne in Frankreich, Belagerung von Mainz, 1822)
  • The Wanderings of Wilhelm Meister (Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, 1821, extended 1829)
  • Ausgabe letzter Hand (Edition of the Last Hand, 1827)
  • Second Sojourn in Rome (Zweiter Römischer Aufenthalt, 1829)
  • Faust II (Faust II, 1832)
  • Italian Journey (Italienische Reise, 1830)
  • From My Life: Poetry and Truth (Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, published in four volumes 1811-1830)
  • Novella (Novella, 1828)

By this time Goethe was getting old, and turned to setting his affairs in order. Despite his age, he continued producing many works; if there is one thing to be said about this mysterious and inconsistent figure, it is that he was prolific. He finished his four-volume autobiography (Dichtung und Wahrheit, 1811-1830), and finished another collected works edition. In 1818, just before he turned 74, he met and fell in love with the 19-year-old Ulrike Levetzow; she and her family declined his marriage proposal, but the event prompted Goethe to compose more poetry. In 1829, Germany celebrated the 80th birthday of its most renowned literary figure.

In 1830, despite withstanding the news of the deaths of Frau von Stein and Karl August a few years prior, Goethe fell seriously ill upon hearing that his son had died. He recovered long enough to finish Faust in August 1831, which he had worked on throughout his life. A few months later, he died of a heart attack in his armchair. Goethe was laid to rest next to Schiller in the “tomb of the princes” (“Fürstengruft”) in Weimar. 

Legacy

Goethe achieved extraordinary celebrity in his own time and has maintained his status, in both Germany and abroad, as perhaps the most important figure of Germany’s literary heritage, equal perhaps only to the English-speaking world’s William Shakespeare. 

Nevertheless, some common misconceptions remain. It is common to believe that Goethe and Schiller are figureheads of the German Romantic Movement. This is not strictly true: as mentioned above, they had their quarrels, with Goethe (perhaps characteristically) writing off the younger generation’s innovations. The Romantics grappled especially with Goethe’s Bildungsroman (coming-of-age stories) Werther and Wilhelm Meister, at times attempting to reject the work of this giant, but never losing their respect for his genius. For his part, Goethe did promote the careers of many Romantic thinkers and other contemporaries, including Friedrich Schlegel and his brother August Wilhelm Schlegel, among others. 

Goethe lived during a time of intellectual revolution, in which the themes of subjectivity, individualism, and freedom were taking the places they have today in modern thought. His genius can be said, perhaps not to have single-handedly started such a revolution, but to have deeply influenced its course. 

Sources

  • Boyle Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age: Volume One. Oxford Paperbacks, 1992.
  • Boyle Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age: Volume Two. Clarendon Press, 2000. 
  • Das Goethezeitportal: Biographie Goethes. http://www.goethezeitportal.de/wissen/enzyklopaedie/goethe/goethe-biographie.html.
  • Forster, Michael. “Johann Gottfried von Herder.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2019, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2019. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/herder/.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/goethe/.