Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (17491832)

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, a great poet and wise man, the greatest, it is alleged, the world has seen since Shakespeare left it, and who, being born in Frankfort-on-the-Main 10 years before Robert Burns, died in the small duchy of Weimar the same year as Sir Walter Scott; was the son of an imperial chancellor, a formal man and his pedagogue in boyhood, and of Elizabeth Textor, daughter of the chief magistrate of the city, a woman of bright intelligence, who was only eighteen at the time of his birth. Spiritually and bodily he was the most perfectly formed, symetrically proportioned, justly balanced, and completely cultivated man perhaps that ever lived, whose priceless value to the world lies in this, that in his philosophy and life there is found the union in one of what to smaller people appears entirely and absolutely antagonistic, of utmost scientific scepticism and highest spiritual faith and worth. “He was filled full with the scepticism, bitterness, hollowness, and thousandfold contradictions of his time, till his heart was like to break; yet he subdued all this, rose victorious over this, and manifoldly, by word and act, showed others that came after how to do the like.” Carlyle, who is never done recalling his worth, confesses an indebtedness to him—which he found it beyond his power to express: “It was he,” he writes to Emerson, “that first proclaimed to me (convincingly, for I saw it done): 'behold, even in this scandalous Sceptico-Epicurean generation, when all is gone but hunger and cant, it is still possible that Man be Man.'” “He was,” says he, “king of himself and his world;... his faculties and feelings were not fettered or prostrated under the iron sway of Passion, but led and guided in kindly union under the mild sway of Reason; as the fierce primeval elements of chaos were stilled at the coming of Light, and bound together, under its soft vesture, into a glorious and beneficent Creation.” His life lies latent in his successive works, above all in “Goetz,” in “Werter,” in “Faust,” and in “Meister”; but as these have not been duly read it has not yet been duly written, though an attempt is being made to do so in the said connection. Of the last of the four works named, Carlyle, who has done more than any one else yet to bring Goethe near us, once said, “There are some ten pages of that book that, if ambition had been my object, I would rather have written than all the literature of my time.” “One counsel,” says Carlyle, “he has to give, the secret of his whole poetic alchemy, 'Think of living! Thy life is no idle dream, but a solemn reality. It is thy own, it is all thou hast to front eternity with.'” “Never thought on thinking,” he has said, Nie ans Denken gedacht. “What a thrift,” exclaims Carlyle, “of faculty here!” Some think he had one weakness: he lived for culture, believed in culture, irrespective of the fact and the need of individual regeneration. And Emerson, who afterwards in his “Representative Men” did Goethe full justice, in introducing him as, if not a world-wise man, at all events as a world-related, once complained that “he showed us the actual rather than the ideal.” To which Carlyle answered, “That is true; but it is not the whole truth. The actual well seen is the ideal. The actual, what really is and exists; the past, the present, and the future do all lie there” (17491832).

Definition taken from The Nuttall Encyclopædia, edited by the Reverend James Wood (1907)

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