Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832). Faust. Part I. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, the greatest of German men of letters, was born at Frankfort-on-the-Main, August 28, 1749. His father was a man of means and position, and he personally supervised the early education of his son. The young Goethe studied at the universities of Leipsig and Strasburg, and in 1772 entered upon the practise of law at Wetzlar. At the invitation of Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he went in 1775 to live in Weimar, where he held a succession of political offices, becoming the Dukes chief adviser. From 1786 to 1788 he traveled in Italy, and from 1791 to 1817 directed the ducal theater at Weimar. He took part in the wars against France, 17923, and in the following year began his friendship with Schiller, which lasted till the latters death in 1805. In 1806 he married Christiane Vulpius. From about 1794 he devoted himself chiefly to literature, and after a life of extraordinary productiveness died at Weimar, March 22, 1832. The most important of Goethes works produced before he went to Weimar were his tragedy Gotz von Berlichingen (1773), which first brought him fame, and The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel which obtained enormous popularity during the so-called Sturm und Drang period. During the years at Weimar before he knew Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister, wrote the dramas, Iphigenie, Egmont, and Torquato Tasso, and his Reinecke Fuchs. To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong the continuation of Wilhelm Meister, the beautiful idyl of Hermann and Dorothea, and the Roman Elegies. In the last period, between Schillers death in 1805 and his own, appeared Faust, Elective Affinities, his autobiographical Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), his Italian Journey, much scientific work, and a series of treatises on German Art.
Though the foregoing enumeration contains but a selection from the titles of Goethes best known writings, it suffices to show the extraordinary fertility and versatility of his genius. Rarely has a man of letters had so full and varied a life, or been capable of so many-sided a development. His political and scientific activities, though dwarfed in the eyes of our generation by his artistic production, yet showed the adaptability of his talent in the most diverse directions, and helped to give him that balance of temper and breadth of vision in which he has been surpassed by no genius of the ancient or modern world.
The greatest and most representative expression of Goethes powers is without doubt to be found in his drama of Faust; but before dealing with Goethes masterpiece, it is worth while to say something of the history of the story on which it is foundedthe most famous instance of the old and widespread legend of the man who sold his soul to the devil. The historical Dr. Faust seems to have been a self-called philosopher who traveled about Germany in the first half of the sixteenth century, making money by the practise of magic, fortune-telling, and pretended cures. He died mysteriously about 1540, and a legend soon sprang up that the devil, by whose aid he wrought his wonders, had finally carried him off. In 1587 a life of him appeared, in which are attributed to him many marvelous exploits and in which he is held up as an awful warning against the excessive desire for secular learning and admiration for antique beauty which characterized the humanist movement of the time. In this aspect the Faust legend is an expression of early popular Protestantism, and of its antagonism to the scientific and classical tendencies of the Renaissance.
While a succession of Faust books were appearing in Germany, the original life was translated into English and dramatized by Marlowe. English players brought Marlowes work back to Germany, where it was copied by German actors, degenerated into spectacular farce, and finally into a puppet show. Through this puppet show Goethe made acquaintance with the legend.
By the time that Goethe was twenty, the Faust legend had fascinated his imagination; for three years before he went to Weimar he had been working on scattered scenes and bits of dialogue; and though he suspended actual composition on it during three distinct periods, it was always to resume, and he closed his labors upon it only with his life. Thus the period of time between his first experiments and the final touches is more than sixty years. During this period the plans for the structure and the signification of the work inevitably underwent profound modifications, and these have naturally affected the unity of the result; but, on the other hand, this long companionship and persistent recurrence to the task from youth to old age have made it in a unique way the record of Goethes personality in all its richness and diversity.
The drama was given to the public first as a fragment in 1790; then the completed First Part appeared in 1808; and finally the Second Part was published in 1833, the year after the authors death. Writing in Dichtung und Wahrheit of the period about 1770, when he was in Strasburg with Herder, Goethe says, The significant puppet-play legend echoed and buzzed in many tones within me. I too had drifted about in all knowledge, and early enough had been brought to feel the vanity of it. I too had made all sorts of experiments in life, and had always come back more unsatisfied and more tormented. I was now carrying these things, like many others, about with me and delighting myself with them in lonely hours, but without writing anything down. Without going into the details of the experience which underlies these words, we can see the beginning of that sympathy with the hero of the old story that was the basis of its fascination and that accounted for Goethes departure from the traditional catastrophe of Fausts damnation.
Of the elements in the finished Faust that are derived from the legend a rough idea may be obtained from the Doctor Faustus of Marlowe, printed in the present volume. As early as 1674 a life of Faust had contained the incident of the philosophers falling in love with a servant-girl; but the developed story of Gretchen is Goethes own. The other elements added to the plot can be noted by a comparison with Marlowe.
It need hardly be said that Goethes Faust does not derive its greatness from its conformity to the traditional standards of what a tragedy should be. He himself was accustomed to refer to it cynically as a monstrosity, and yet he put himself into it as intensely as Dante put himself into The Divine Comedy. A partial explanation of this apparent contradiction in the authors attitude is to be found in what has been said of its manner of composition. Goethe began it in his romantic youth, and availed himself recklessly of the supernatural elements in the legend, with the disregard of reason and plausibility characteristic of the romantic mood. When he returned to it in the beginning of the new century his artistic standards has changed, and the supernaturalism could now be tolerated only by being made symbolic. Thus he makes the career of Faust as a whole emblematic of the triumph of the persistent striving for the ideal over the temptation to find complete satisfaction in the sense, and prepares the reader for this interpretation by prefixing the Prologue in Heaven. The elaboration of this symbolic element is responsible for such scenes as the Walpurgis-Night and the Intermezzo scenes full of power and infinitely suggestive, but destructive of the unity of the play as a tragedy of human life. Yet there remains in this First Part even in its final form much that is realistic in the best sense, the carousal in Auerbachs cellar, the portrait of Martha, the Easter-morning walk, the character and fate of Margaret. It is such elements as these that have appealed to the larger reading public and that have naturally been emphasized by performance on the stage, and by virtue of these alone Faust may rank as a great drama; but it is the result of Goethes broodings on the mystery of human life, shadowed forth in the symbolic parts and elaborated with still greater complexity and still more far-reaching suggestivenessand, it must be added, with deepening obscurityin the Second Part, that have given the work its place with Job, with the Prometheus Bound, with The Divine Comedy, and with Hamlet.