Goethe’s Life and Works

Goethe’s Father, Johann Caspar Goethe (1710–82), the son of a wealthy tailor-turned-innkeeper. He was a man of leisure who lived on his inherited fortune. He studied law in Leipzig and Strasbourg and touring Italy, France. After that he devoted himself to collecting books and paintings and to the education of his children.

Goethe’s mother, Catharina Elisabeth Textor (1731–1808), was one of the daughters of Frankfurt’s most senior official. She was a lively woman closer in age to her son than to her husband. 

Full name Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Born August 28, 1749 (age 78), Frankfurt, Germany

Died March 22, 1832 (age 82), Frankfurt, Germany

Goethe’s Faust

Known for Faust, a half-legendary figure who sells his soul to the Devil for knowledge and power and who became the subject of Goethe’s greatest work. The poem depicts a young scholar who, frustrated by the limits to his education, power, and enjoyment of life. He engages the assistance of the devil at the cost of his soul.

In Faust, Goethe draws extensively from Christian, medieval, and classical sources, complicating the original legend’s dichotomous struggle between good and evil and questioning what constitutes ultimate human fulfillment.

Faust is a morality tale for all of us: he shows us both the pitfalls of life and how we might avoid them. Faust knows a great deal – but he resists being an academic; he loves sex, but he doesn’t give way to debauchery. He likes power. But he doesn’t use it for megalomania: he puts it to work in the service of noble ends. 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is one of Europe’s big cultural heroes – comparable to the likes of Shakespeare, Dante and Homer. 

Goethe’s Work

The child of an imperial councilor, Goethe had a thoroughly classical education before entering Leipzig University in 1765. Though he was there to study law, Goethe earned accolades for his poetry, written in the lyric and rococo style, and completed his first collection, Annette, a collection of love poems.

Goethe was mainly educated at home; he wrote poetry for his friends, took art classes, learned Italian. Goethe studied at the University of Leipzig and later did a master’s degree in Law at the University of Strasbourg.

Goethe’s works include plays, poetry, literature and aesthetic criticism, and treatises on botany, anatomy, and colour. Although Goethe’s great passion was drawing, he quickly became interested in literature

The nobility and the grand and petty sovereigns who figured so much in Goethe’s later life had no part in his early experiences: he was a town child from a rich family in an essentially middle-class world.

 In Strasbourg, Goethe met Johann Gottfried Herder. The two became close friends, and crucially to Goethe’s intellectual development, 

Goethe’s relationships with literary contemporaries were ambiguous, and he was repelled by literary and artistic representations of death.

Geschichte Gottfriedens von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand, dramatisirt (“The History of Gottfried von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, Dramatized”), later titled simply Götz von Berlichingen, was eventually translated by Sir Walter Scott, who was inspired by Goethe’s example to think of using his own local history as the material for his novels. 

Law took up some of Goethe’s time in 1773, but most of it went on literary work—the dramatic fragment Prometheus dates from this period

In 1775, Goethe joined the royal Weimar court, where he spent nearly a decade committed to scientific and metaphysical studies.

The years from 1773 to 1776 were the most productive period in Goethe’s life

Goethe’s journey to the Italian peninsula and Sicily from 1786 to 1788 was of great significance in his aesthetic and philosophical development. 

Thus Goethe’s journey had something of the nature of a pilgrimage to it. Goethe’s diaries of this period form the basis of the non-fiction Italian JourneyItalian Journey only covers the first year of Goethe’s visit. 

Egmont (1788; Eng. trans. Egmont), another historical drama but formally more controlled than Götz, uses the theme of the war for Dutch independence from Spain (Eighty Years’ War) to launch a more explicit assault on the cultural poverty of bureaucratic and military despotism. Also about this time, Goethe’s privileged acquaintances first record getting a sight of the developing manuscript of his Faust.

A boat trip led to the writing of one of Goethe’s most perfect poems, “Auf dem See” (“On the Lake”), and was followed by a walking tour through the mountains, with Goethe sketching all the time. Up on St. Gotthard Pass he contemplated the road down to Italy but turned away toward Lili and home.

Within weeks of his return to Frankfurt, however, Goethe’s engagement to Lili was at an end

Goethe’s distance from the Revolution can be overstated, but, unlike many of his contemporaries, he clearly understood that Germany’s political, social, and economic circumstances were so different from those of France that there could be no question of simply importing Revolutionary principles. 

Goethe’s first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants, was published after he returned from a 1788 tour of Italy. For Goethe, the point of travel isn’t relaxation or just taking a break from routine. He’s got a bigger goal in mind: the aim of travel is to go to a place where we can find the missing ingredient of our own maturity.

His colour theory has real originality as a theory of vision rather than as a theory of light.

The friendship with Schiller began a new period in Goethe’s life, in some ways one of the happiest and, from a literary point of view, one of the most productive.

The year 1817 saw the marriage of Goethe’s son, as well as Goethe’s resignation from the post of director of the Weimar theatre and his final surrender of the Frankfurt citizenship that he still nominally retained.

The period until 1823 was one of tidying up at the end of life. But there was no decline in Goethe’s energies.

The year 1829 brought celebrations throughout Germany of Goethe’s 80th birthday.

Part Two is in a sense a poetic reckoning with Goethe’s own times, with their irresistible dynamism and their alienation from his Classical ideal of fulfilled humanity. As with much of Goethe’s later work, its richness, complexity, and literary daring began to be appreciated only in the 20th century.

Goethe’s comments and observations form the basis of several biographical works, notably Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe (1836).

Goethe died in Weimar on March 22, 1832. He is buried in the Ducal Vault at Weimar’s Historical Cemetery.

Goethe’s Quotes

Goethe Books

Poems of Goethe