German Writers You Should Be Reading: Part II – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

While Schiller was the idealistic poet of freedom, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was an artist, scientist, and politician who was just as interested in publishing works on the “Metamorphosis of Plants” and the “Theory of Colours” as he was writing novels and plays. He was good friends with Schiller, and the two of them began the neoclassical movement of literature in Germany. Goethe is so prolific, I only listed a few of his works, mostly the ones l have enjoyed the greatest.

  • The Sorrows of Young Werther – Werther is a tragic tale of unrequited love that ends in suicide. Fans of Goethe should appreciate this novel because of the personal demons Goethe was working out in writing it. In truth he killed Wether so that he would not have to kill himself. This novel was extremely popular and the first that could ever truly be considered a “best seller.”
  • Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship – To call this novel a “coming of age” tale sells it short in a vain attempt to pigeonhole this book. Wilhelm leaves his unsatisfied life as a businessman, dallies in the theatre, and eventually runs with the aristocratic crowd who sneak off to secret society meetings.
  • Iphigenie auf Tauris – This drama is a retelling of a play by Euripides about the Greek gods’ curse of the Tantalid bloodline, and how it is broken by family love, loyalty, and mercy.
  • Egmont – Count Egmont is a Dutch noble arrested by the invading Spanish, and the Duke of Alba. As he is taken to be shot at the end of the play, he cries out for revolution and liberty. Even though he dies, he is seen as a victorious martyr who accepts his fate without complaining.
  • Faust – This is by far the most familiar of Goethe’s works. It teaches the always valuable lesson that if you want to dance, you have to pay the piper.
  • The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily – I’ve included this charming little fairy tale written for adults because, well, I like it so much. The conflict of the story centers around crossing a river, which symbolizes crossing the barrier between the outward physical life in the realm of the senses and aspirations from freedom and liberty within each human soul. By learning how to cross the river, principally through the exercise of our mind through the senses by means of art, the outer life we live can be joined to a soul that is complete.

I was tempted to make this a three-part series and include E.T.A. Hoffman. I may write about him someday. Suffice it to say he is great. I also felt like I was leaving something out by discussing Schiller and Goethe and not Beaumarchais. To me he seems to be so indelibly tied to these men’s ideas, but he’s French, so his article will have to wait, too. There is enough in this series of posts to put a dent in most people’s 2013 reading list. If there are other writers you would like for me to survey, let me know in the Comment section below.

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