Saturday, February 14, 2009

Goethe in Love

Goethe wrote many beautiful love poems: "Warum gabst du uns die tiefen Blicke"; the cycle West-östlicher Divan; the so-called "Trilogie der Leidenschaft." As with the greatest poets of love, passion played a large role in his compositions. Nevertheless, though Goethe is in some ways a "modern"-- you might say he "subjectivized" his passions -- the relationships with the women with whom he fell in love (with the obvious exception of Christiane) were not consummated sexually. Passion, eroticism, yes, feeling was everything, but when he had got the feeling down in words he was free of it. Among recent scholars I am familiar with only one, Waltraud Naumann-Beyer, who contends that the long relationship between Goethe and Charlotte von Stein was a physical one. In Goethe-Handbuch (4/2), she is even quite specific about when it began: March 1781.

Without Marianne von Willemer there would be no West-East Divan. Goethe was 65 when they first met, in 1814, Marianne 30.  Despite her "theatrical" background, Marianne had moved up in the world with her marriage to the older Willemer, a Goethe admirer. A year later the three of them celebrated Goethe's 66th birthday at the "Gerbermühle" on the Willemer estate near Frankfurt. Jürgen Behrens calls this summer "the summer of Hatem and Suleika," referring to the lovers in the Divan, who exchange poems with one another. Indeed, Marianne also composed poems that appeared in the published cycle in 1819. When they parted in September of 1815, it was not "farewell," but they never saw each other again. Probably Goethe could not recreate the feeling. They continued to correspond, however, and Marianne even sent artichokes, chestnuts, honey, jams, and other delicacies of the Main region for his table in Weimar.

Goethe's ambivalence about love is evident in one of his earliest poems, "Die Nacht," written in 1768 during his "Anacreontic" period. Here is the first verse:

"Gern verlass' ich diese Hütte,
Meiner Schönen Aufenthalt,
Und durchstreich mit leisem Tritte
Diesen ausgestorbnen Wald."

"Gern" -- in the first position in the poem at that! Leaving the cottage of his beloved "gladly"?With relief perhaps? Yes, Goethe always seemed happiest when he was departing from an intense situation with a woman. When the first edition of his works was published in 1789, he made some changes to the poem, and the first line now appeared as "Nun verlass' ich diese Hütte." Interesting? He seems to have been aware of the ambivalence. Here is an English version of the first four lines, following the revision:

Now I leave this cottage lowly,
Where my love hath made her home,
And with silent footsteps slowly
Through the darksome forest roam.

I have written in another connection of Goethe's fondness for the literary form known as the pastoral or idyll. The pastoral typically has shepherds (in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream), whereas the idyll can take place in a quasi-modern setting (as in Oliver Goldsmith's novel The Vicar of Wakefield). This literary form is expressive of contentment, and love is at its center. (Eric Rohmer plays with the form in his delightful Les Amours d'Astrée et Céladon. The above painting is by the pre-Raphaelite Holman Hunt.) Whenever there is an idyll in a work by Goethe, it is either destroyed or in great danger. The best example is probably The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther first encounters Lotte, engaged in happy domesticity, cutting bread for her many siblings. He then falls in love with her while dancing, one of the most characteristic activities of pastoral shepherds. In the end he destroys the happiness that is at the center of his literary form. Another example of a domestic idyll is Goethe's small epic Hermann and Dorothea. Here the contentment is threatened by historical forces, in this case the French Revolution. And, in the final scenes of Faust, the idyll of Philomen and Baucis is destroyed because their lowly cottage blocks Faust's view.

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