Sunday, March 28, 2010

Goethe's "Wilhelm Tell" Again

I misspoke in my last post: Nicholas Boyle does mention that Goethe saw material for a new work in the Wilhelm Tell story. Concerning the 1797 trip to Switzerland Boyle writes; "Goethe came down from the mountains back into the world of literature." He visited more "Tell sites" on Lake Lucerne. Tell, as Goethe noted in Tag- und Jahreshefte 1804, would be "a sort of Demos," personifying the power of the people, and Gessler would "represent the individual nature of arbitrary rule."

What Goethe really wanted to deal with at this time, according to Boyle, was "the relation of an individual life to a great and violent historical upheaval, a struggle for political liberation ..." Goethe was stymied, and, indeed, one has to recognize that he never learned to say "what it meant to live in his unprecedented times." Boyle ascribes this inability to not knowing "who he was addressing," i.e., who his public was. The literary market had changed considerably since the success of Werther and Götz, and Goethe was unwilling to write for the new popular tastes.

Boyle goes on: "Goethe made several attempts in 1799 ... to circumvent the mysterious obstacle that was preventing him from producing the major work in response to the [French] Revolution which was his ultimate aim." As Friedrich Schlegel wrote: "the French Revolution, Fiche's philosophy, and Goethe's Wilhelm Meister" were "the significant trends" of this new age. Despite this perception -- especially the comparison of political and philosophical revolutions -- Boyle does not believe that Schlegel, or the Jena Romantic circle generally, showed the sense of history that marked Hegel or Hölderlin at this time, and "certainly no sense of historical 'Fate.'"

Picture credits: Gudrun Zapf von Hesse

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