Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a poet, narrator, German playwright. Genius among the most powerful and multifaceted in modern history, was manifested in an era in which the awareness of an acquired freedom of feeling and expression was now operating; it was therefore spontaneous for him to participate in it and even increase it, marking a radical change in the German and European cultural consciousness. Defined as "Olympic" for its equilibrium, for it exalted and even censored, and sometimes even mocked, this balance was not the object of satisfied fruition but an ambitious object of a continuous, far from Olympic research, carried out in the various fields of interest, in scientific studies, in public action and above all in poetic production.
His father Johann Kaspar, of a modest family originally from Thuringia, a worthy jurist and imperial adviser, was a model in the seriousness of his studies and in his inexhaustible curiosity; his mother Katharina Elisabeth Textor, daughter of the mayor of the city and belonging to the best bourgeoisie originally from Swabia, gave him the "pleasure of fable". He then grew up in a highly chosen environment, had an adequate education, and already at 16 he was in Leipzig to study law there. In the illuministically open atmosphere of the city he provided his first poetic evidence according to the anacreontic fashion promoted by F. Hagedorn and Ch. M. Wieland, favoring a personalized expression against the moralizing pedantry imposed by J. Ch. Gottsched and Ch. F. Gellert. Thus, in 1767, he wrote in the Alexandrians the pastoral comedy Die Laune des Verliebten ("The whims of the lover"), which is the first profession of agitated and irritable love. In the same vein, when he returned to Frankfurt, in 1769 he wrote the environmental comedy Die Mitschuldigen ("I correi"), an acute and skeptical picture of the bourgeois world. Marginal poetic compositions, collected in Buch Annette ("Book for Annette") and in Neue Lieder ("New Songs") make us feel, beyond fashion, the search for an unusual sense of nature. A serious illness ordered him to suffer the influence of pietistic piety of his mother and even more of her friend, Susanne von Klettenberg, who directed him to seek, as he always did, the trace of the divine in the secret of nature.
In 1770 he moved to Strasbourg to finish his studies; among the decisive experiences that took place there, the "fatal" encounter with J. G. Herder and his theories on history and nature, individual creativity and universal becoming, and the reading of Shakespeare, marked the prodigious production of the next five years. This is testified by the Sesenheimer Lieder ("Songs of St."), dictated by love for Friederike Brion, as a whole explicit act of adherence to the Sturm und Drang movement; the great dramatized chronicle, of Shakespearean imprint, Die Geschichte Gottfriedens von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand ("History of G. of B. from the Hand of Iron", 1771), then (1773) reworked with the title of Götz von Berlichingen, vast and cumbersome fresco of national argument that made other and even more ambitious projects of drama like Mahomet and Prometheus decay, of which only brief but significant fragments remained. To these, however, there are hymns with a cosmic-pantheistic background, which are unequivocal testimonies of a feeling wholly open to an experience of totality, on the wave of a creative ardor that G. never knew again (beyond Mahomets Gesang , "Song of Muhammad", Prometheus, Wanderers Sturmlied, "Song of the Wanderer in the Storm", and Ganymed). After all, this was a period of tormented anxiety even on the existential level, and in poetic production there is a creative craving that sometimes risks dispersal. In the recovery of the popular, in the manner of the distant H. Sachs, wrote the carnival satires Jahrmarktsfest zu Plundersweilern ("Feast of the fair of Pl.", 1773) and Ein Fastnachtsspiel ... vom Pater Brey ("A carnival representation of Father Pappa" , 1773); a farce of strong though not limpid critical emphasis (Satyros, 1773); a religious epic that whips the church's philistinism (Der ewige Jude, "The Wandering Jew", 1774). It is Clavigo (1774), a tragedy of the girl abandoned by her beloved, more for lightness than for responsible choice, proof of a state of mind of unease, long irremediable, for the guilty abandonment of Friederike Brion. Shortly thereafter Stella (1775), the drama of a man who loves two women with equal intensity, denounces the aspiration to sentimental freedom. A very varied production is kept together, however, by the continuous disposition to confession, to link life and poetry to the most intimate convergence. In this spirit was born also the final and most fortunate work of this happy season, the epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers ("The Sorrows of the Young W.", 1774), a passionate story of a love disappointment that ends with suicide of the protagonist; in an era marked by exorbitant sentimentality, it experienced immediate, resounding success. Meanwhile, the theme of Faust, which will obsessively accompany him to the last days of his long life, had already appeared in the spirit of Goethe.
Returning to Frankfurt at the end of the studies, after having stayed in Wetzlar to practice at the supreme imperial court, he abandoned the ambitious career drawings traced for him by his father, and in the autumn of 1775 he left, definitively, his hometown settle in the court of Weimar, the tiny capital of a poor duchy of 120,000 inhabitants. Entered in the sympathies of the ducal family, he was appointed secret advisor and then minister, finally obtaining the noble title. The first decade in Weimar was a relative poetic silence and intense practical activity. The constant contact with the problems of life pushed him, rather, towards the natural sciences. He dealt with geology and mineralogy (among other things he wrote the Über den Granit treatise, "Sul granito", 1784), he passed to anatomy, discovering the inframascellary bone in 1784; finally, he was attracted by botany and natural history, in which his reflection was testimony to the immanence of the divine that he had already felt intuitively. Thus the maturation of that pantheism was fulfilled, which for some time had already been adhering. The literary production of this period can be considered limited to lyrics and to the one-act Die Geschwister ("The Brothers", 1776), inspired by Charlotte von Stein, a woman of great culture to whom G. was linked for ten years and who influenced deeply on his training. In the autumn of 1786, the trip to Italy is almost like an escape and marks a decisive passage for the life and inspiration of the poet. In the "country of lemons", the classic Italy of the south and, even more, Rome, found the synthesis of nature and art, past and present, spirituality and sensuality towards which it was extended, and felt all the poetic aspirations that the Weimar's activist decade had largely repressed. In June 1788 he returned to Weimar and his change brought him very cold welcome. He broke off the relationship with Mrs. Stein, and began cohabitation with the young and humble Christiane Vulpius, who married only in 1806 despite having had a son since 1789, August, who died then in Rome in 1830. The creative industriousness that was exploded in Italy, it continued in Weimar, in a season marked by the succession of almost all works at a high level. In Italy he had completed the Egmont (1787), a drama of human freedom that succumbs only before the forces of the exterior and enemy world, and completed the writing in verses of the Iphigenie in Tauris, testimony of a fully matured humanism, perfect fusion of Greek and Christianity. The Torquato Tasso, a drama of souls in which the autobiographical elements (the poet aware of his own geniality inserted into a deaf and intriguing princely court) are filtered but far from removed. Fruit of the Italian experience, and in particular Roman, were also the Römische Elegien (1788-89), which in the fusion of formal classicism and sensuality of images mark the most evident way the cut between this and the previous poetic season; they will follow, after a new, less fortunate trip to Italy, the Venetianische Epigramme (1790). After the outbreak of the French Revolution, G. on one hand openly declared his contempt for the hypocritical supporters of the new course (in the mediocre comedies Der Grosskophta, "The great Egyptian magician", 1792, and Der Bürgergeneral, "The general citizen", 1793), but on the other hand he himself was deeply troubled by the Revolution, with mixed feelings of adherence to his principles and apprehension for his course. He then vented into what he called his "unholy Bible of the world", that is, in the Homeric hexameter version of the medieval bestiary Reineke Fuchs ("The Fox R.", 1793), more cynical satire than heartfelt vices. A more peaceful and valid position was that of the hermitages of Hermann und Dorothea (1797), which frames the moral values of a healthy, traditional bourgeois ethic.
Meanwhile, in 1794 the association was established with J. C. F. Schiller, which lasted until the latter's death (1805), in the decade defined by classical excellence, led to the mutual enrichment of the two personalities, though very different by extraction and temperament. For G. friendship with Schiller meant a consciousness of his poetic mission fully regained. In the magazine of Schiller, Die Horen, G. published, in 1795-97, the Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten ("Conversations of German emigrants"), especially of a small Decameron, prototype of the still unpublished genre of the classic novel; he also published the Märchen ("Fairy Tale"), from which the romantic fiabistica so much depended. The solidarity between the two even came to the writing in common, from which the collection of Xenien ("Doni hospitable", 1797), epigrams of bitter censorship to contemporary writers was born. Even for a few numbers, G. also published his own magazine, Die Propyläen (1798-1800), in which he propagated his classicism verb. As a theorist, while providing evidence of high interest, for example the essay Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert ("W. and his century", 1805), he was not always able to avoid the pitfall of academicism, in which certain poetic production: this is the case of the fragmentary tragedy Helena, from the 1800s, then recast in the second part of Faust, and the epic Achilleis, dated 1799, conceived as a continuation of the Iliad. The interest in classicism prompted G. to take up also the two "Goethian" themes par excellence, that of Wilhelm Meister and Faust. Even before the trip to Italy G. had begun, and then suspended, a vast autobiographical novel, Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung ("The theatrical mission of W. M."), whose manuscript was only found in 1910; it was the realistic narration of the experiences of a young bourgeoisie in love with the theater. In 1794 G. took up the theme and in 1796 he published a complete draft of the novel under the title Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre ("The Years of Novitiate of WM"), a masterpiece of the typically German genre of the Antwicklungsroman (training novel) and in the same lively picture time of an entire era. Al Faust G. had dedicated itself since 1772, and in 1775 was ready a first and incomplete draft, the so-called Urfaust (whose discovery took place only in 1887), one of the works more related to the poetics of the Sturm und Drang. Mutilation of the terminal scenes was also the first Faust (Faust, Ein Fragment, 1790), and only in 1808 came the definitive editing of the first part (Faust, Der Tragödie erster Teil), after a fractional work over a decade. For the poet, now mature, it was a recovery acquisition, and the dedication with which the monumental poetic building opens evokes the figures of the drama as emerging from a distant past. The immediacy of the presence of Mephistopheles, the tight rhythm of the Gretchen tragedy of previous drafts, have been lost; but the perspective on which the drama opens has finally reached the extreme vastness of the great symbolic drama, which involves the divine and demonic powers and draws cosmic dimensions, yet it remains essentially the psychological drama of man who can not renounce his will to dominate the world.
With the death of Schiller (1805) and the national catastrophe of Jena (1806), the long season of senility had opened up for Goethe. He had reacted to despair and isolation by immersing himself in scientific studies, particularly on optics, without slowing down the intensity of literary production. In the same year of Faust belongs the allegorical drama Pandora, and in 1809 saw the light Die Wahlverwandtschaften ("Elective affinities"), exemplary novel about the passion of love lived in adulthood. The depth of psychological analysis and the tension of the story are supported by a perfectly supervised writing that dries without obscuring the pathos that runs through the entire narration. After a laborious gestation, the Westöstlicher Divan ("Eastern Western Sofa") came out in 1819, dictated above all by love, as strong as it was painfully devoted to a conscious renunciation, for Marianne von Willemer, a very young poet. It is the only complex of poems published by G. in a single volume, and constitutes the exceptional testimony of a will and a capacity for renewal that draws on the most varied experiences of life and culture, recovered through a selective process that is attentive and constant. Even the style, no longer immediate and plastic, has become rarefied and sometimes touches the sublime in the mediation between the vivacity of feeling and the bitterness of the acquired wisdom. G. in the meantime had realized, after the two meetings with Napoleon, in 1808, the historical importance of his person. At the advent of the Restoration, in a world that recognized less and less as its own, he felt obliged to go back to fix his personal history indelibly. He did not write a true autobiography, but left ample and often suggestive glimpses in Dichtung und Wahrheit ("Poetry and Truth", 1809-14 and 1830), which, although covering only the years until 1775 and without ever being chronically reliable, assumed the meaning of a historical document, that is the interpretation of an entire era. In some aspects, even the most striking document, even if less stylistically accurate, was the Italienische Reise ("Journey to Italy", 1816-17, 1829), which still enjoys enormous success.
In spite of the frequent attestation of esteem from all over Europe and the homage of men like Byron and Manzoni, G. has experienced in the last years the bitterness of almost complete isolation in the new cultural climate created by Romanticism, radically alien to him. In once again reprising the themes of Meister and Faust, he wanted to testify and verify globally his experience as a poet, prose writer and man, confronting a world in which it was not possible to restore the integral humanism that had been the ideal of Renaissance. The Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre ("The Years of the Pilgrimage of W. M.", 1829) reveals the availability and interest of G. for the needs of a new social order, but bears a symptomatic subtitle, Die Entsagenden "The renunciatees". The last Faust was elaborated between 1825 and 1831, with the painful interlude of the death of the child and a serious illness from which G. recovered, perhaps, for the extreme determination to bring to completion the "work of his life. ". This work denounces the weight of the investment that has been made on it and is heterogeneous, overburdened, diluted by intellectualism and generality, but has pages of extraordinary beauty and remains the powerful and disturbing poetic sum of a lifetime. Faust, who at the beginning re-awakens to new life, is destined for the most astounding experiences, to draw ever larger and more global dimensions, passing breathlessness into trouble and guilty guilt until, very old and almost blind, he will greet death with a exhilarating hymn to freedom. The second part of Faust (Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil) was published a few months after the death of G., for his explicit will. He was certain that he would not receive sympathy from contemporaries, and he did not deceive himself: in particular the last G. was not meant to be easily understood, but in general the intellectual and political climate of the years of the Restoration was not for acknowledge an author who seemed to be fossilized on exclusive and in any way antiquated positions. The 1848, and what it kept behind, led to find in Schiller rather than in G. the inspiring genius, as a poet of freedom. The varied, complex, often tragic historical event of Germany over the last hundred years has repeatedly reaffirmed this ideological predilection. But already the so-called "poetic realism" assumed G. as his model and teacher; bourgeois liberalism saw in him the last and supreme representative of a humanistic culture, both typically German and profoundly European; later scientific and philosophical monism looked to him as the poet-thinker capable of great and prophetic intuitions. Despite the variety and disparity of opinion of its countless critics (including Hauptmann, Hofmannsthal, George, Hesse, Th. Mann), it is unanimous the judgment that recognizes it as a brilliant champion of individual autonomy, in the wake of a culture of which it has known to collect and increase the great inheritance.