Fun trivia about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
1. One of the first poems Goethe ever wrote was in English. Although Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German poet, novelist, and philosopher, he began writing poetry in the English language from an early age. One of his earliest efforts is, fittingly enough, about wanting to become a poet: ‘And other thought is misfortune / Is death and night to me: / I hum no supportable tune, / I can no poet be.’ But poet he would be – although not in English.
2. Indeed, Goethe planned to write a novel that would be told in six different languages. The book, as Goethe describes it, would have been an epistolary novel, comprising many letters written in numerous languages, including English, German, and French. However, Goethe abandoned the project early on. Goethe was, as his knowledge of numerous different languages suggests, a true polymath: he is even mentioned in the footnotes of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for his discovery of the intermaxillary bone in human foetuses.
3. His Sorrows of Young Werther is thought to have been responsible for a ‘suicide craze’ across Europe. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, written in six weeks when Goethe was just 24 years old, was an important work in the Sturm und Drang movement and made him a household name practically overnight. Such was its popularity that men across Europe became gripped by ‘Werther Fever’, dressing much as the titular hero of the novel dresses. Unfortunately (spoiler alert!), a number of young men also copied Werther’s suicide: in the novel he shoots himself in the head, following his frustration and heartache over the doomed love triangle into which he has got himself entangled. Such was the extent of the danger of further copycat suicides that The Sorrows of Young Werther was banned in several countries, including Italy and Denmark.
4. Goethe took much of his entire adult life to complete his work on Faust. The story of Faust, the German scholar-magician who makes a pact with the Devil in exchange for power and knowledge, dates back a long time and was memorably told by Christopher Marlowe in his Elizabethan play Doctor Faustus. Goethe’s work originally appeared as a ‘fragment’ in 1787, with an ‘interlude’ to the work following some 37 years later. The final part of the play was only published after Goethe’s death, nearly 60 years after he had originally begun work on his Faustian drama. The play features a Byronic figure who is the lovechild of Faust and Helen of Troy (the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ in Marlowe’s memorable line) – Goethe was a huge admirer of Byron’s work. Goethe also tried (unsuccessfully) to write a libretto for a sequel to Mozart’s masonic opera The Magic Flute, titled The Magic Harp. This interest in combining pageantry, music, epic poetry, and low culture can be seen most clearly and magnificently in Faust.
5. The work for which Goethe thought he would be remembered was a non-fiction work on the ways in which we perceive and experience colour. Wittgenstein said that what Goethe was really seeking was not a physiological but a psychological theory of colours. However, no theory as such really emerges in the Theory of Colours – the book is instead a frustrating, though intriguing, jumble of observations. The book’s real influence was not in the realm of physics but in a field closer to Goethe’s own: art. A raft of artists from the Pre-Raphaelites in the nineteenth century to Kandinsky in the twentieth would be profoundly inspired by it. When the Theory of Colours was translated into English in 1840, J. M. W. Turner enthusiastically devoured it. The titles of several of his paintings refer to Goethe’s ideas. It’s even been suggested that the design of the flags of a number of Latin American countries were inspired by Goethe’s book. The German philosopher Schopenhauer also explored the implications of Goethe’s ideas in his On Vision and Colours.
Image: Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1787, via Wikimedia Commons.