Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Goethe's Sonnets

Since my posting on Goethe's "Christmas-Box" poem, I have discovered that it was indeed occasion specific. The sonnet was sent from Weimar on 24 December 1807 to Minna Herzlieb, along with a box of home-baked Christmas sweets for the Frommann children. Though Minna is regarded as the immediate inspiration for Goethe's sonnet cycle, I have learned that caution is in order in identifying her with the female beloved in the cycle of poems. I went back to some of the early scholarship on the sonnets, to an article from the PMLA in 1896, by "J. Schipper." How I love this old scholarship, which still has much to offer. And how low in the world of scholarly writing has the PMLA sunk in the meantime! But that is another story.

Schiffer goes into the background of the sonnet tradition in Europe as well as the circumstances of Goethe's composition of the cycle in 1807/08. It seems that sonnets were scorned by a wide range of 18th-century German writers: Bodmer, Breitinger, Hagedorn, Klopstock, Lessing, and Schiller. This is surprising in Schiller's case, since his dramatic language clearly owes much to Petrarchan diction.

Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719-1803), however, tried his hand at the form, but it was Gottfried August Bürger (here in the portrait by Tischbein, from 1771) who reignited interest, beginning in the late 1780s when he was teaching at the university in Göttingen. Schiffer calls his sonnets "formvollendete erotische Sonetten," but the few (e.g., "Molly und Liebe") I found seem hardly erotic in the conventional sense. From this 1771 portrait, Bürger would hardly seem to be in "utter want of moral balance" (as he is described in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica), nor does he look like a moral failure, a term often attached to him. No doubt, a complex heart is concealed by the formal dress and powdered wig: hardly the face of a man who would have written "Lenore." It was at the university in Göttingen that August Wilhelm von Schlegel met Bürger and began writing sonnets with Petrarchan form and content. He expanded his range in 1798 with "Geistliche Gemählden," on famous paintings in the Dresden galleries.

I mentioned in my earlier post the "sonnet competition" in the Frommann household in Jena at Advent 1807, but another female figure must be mentioned here, namely, Bettina Brentano (later von Arnim). Bettina deserves an entire posting of her own, but in connection with the sonnets, it need only be mentioned that in 1835, in Goethe's Correspondence with a Child, Bettina claimed that she was the inspiration for the sonnets and included them as well as correspondence between herself and Goethe in support of this claim. For instance, in a letter dated August 1, 1807, from Wartburg, she writes the following (in her own charming English translation of the Correspondence), clearly intimating that it was the source of sonnet no. 4 ("Abschied"):

"It was indeed a 'last kiss,' with which I was compelled to part, for I believed I must for ever hang up on thy lips; and as I drove through the walks and trees, under which we had wandered together, I thought I must hold fast by each trunk; but they disappeared; the green, well known spaces, melted i the distance, the loved meadows and they dwelling were long faded away, the blue distance seemed alone to keep watch over the enigma of my life. But even the distance was lost, and now nothing was left me but my ardent longing, and my tears flowed at this parting."

She then appends a letter allegedly from Goethe sending her the sonnet of which she provides an English translation. George Henry Lewes (among others), however, will have none of this. Of Bettina and her relationship to Goethe, he writes:

"I do not wish to be graver with Bettina than the occasion demands; but while granting fantasy its widest license, while grateful to her for the many picturesque anecdotes she has preserved from the conversation of Goethe's mother, ... the Correspondence is a romance." And further, "when one comes to think of it, the hypothesis of his using her letters as poetic materials does seem the wildest of all figments; for not only was he prodigal in invention and inexhaustible in material, but he was especially remarkable for always expressing his own feelings, his own experience, not the feelings and experience of others."

Well, there you have it. But Lewes (who was relying on the account of the sonnets' creation provided by Goethe's difficult and not entirely impartial colleague Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer) is mistaken in saying that the sonnets were written before Bettina visited Goethe in Weimar. From his diary, we now know that Goethe first met her there on April 23, 1807. Moreover, she was in Weimar for ten days, from November 1-10, thus right before Goethe reencountered Minna Herzlieb in Jena. We also know that Bettina and Goethe corresponded, though his (authentic) surviving letters to her are not in the warm tone of the Correspondence. Schipper is of the opinion that Bettina may have provided material for sonnets no. 4 ("Das Mädchen spricht"), 7 ("Abschied"), 8 ("Die Liebende schreibt"), 9 ("Die Liebende abermals"), 10 ("Sie kann nicht enden"), and even 1 ("Mächtiges Überraschen"). In these are reflected, according to Schipper, the "passionate, impulsive nature of the author of the Correspondence" as well as the figure of Luciane in Elective Affinities (with Minna perhaps serving as model for Ottilie in the novel), which Goethe began work on in 1808.

The distance between Bettina and Goethe and the later rupture of their relationship (rendered best by Milan Kundera in his novel Immortalitywhich, in a further case of artistic appropriation, steals much from Bettina's Correspondence as well as her other artistic enthusiasm, Beethoven) seem indicative of the rise of Romanticism and the quest for personal authenticity. The "experience," especially of love, which is often said to give rise to Goethe's poetry was not the subjectivity embraced by the German  Romantic writers. The women in Goethe's life have been the subject of much speculation in regard to his creativity, but Schipper suggests we regard the sonnets as "Stimmungsbilder" prompted by close encounters with two such different and attractive female figures as Minna Herzlieb and Bettina Brentano.

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