The subject of my dissertation so many years ago concerned Goethe's "escape from the idyll," by which I was referring to his abandonment of one of the literary forms he most loved in his youth, namely, the poetic idyll. Traditionally the idyll was inhabited by shepherds; thus, this form is also often called a pastoral. Goethe wrote many idylls, sometimes seeming to shed the pastoral element, though I contended in my dissertation and later in an article that the pastoral did not really go missing but was instead represented as endangered. For instance, the character of Werther in The Sorrows of Young Werther represents a pastoral shepherd. After all, the chief occupation of poetic shepherds is falling in love, and one of their chief activities is dancing. And where does Werther meet Lotte and fall in love with her? At a dance. His pining for her is also characteristic of poetic shepherds.
As in The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe's idylls are always shadowed by something dark. Though lovers in pastorals often fade away in love, they don't commit suicide, as does Werther. My argument concerning this short novel was that the idyll represented for Goethe a poetic suicide and that, to free himself and become the giant of German letters, he had to free himself from this poetic form, something that Werther failed at. Nevertheless, Goethe did not quite abandon his fondness for the poetic inspiration of his youth; instead, his works feature many idylls in which, however, it ends up being destroyed. One only has to think of one of the final scenes of Faust II, when the idyll of Philomen and Baucis is destroyed.
Love, as said, represents the chief occupation of poetic shepherds, and love is, I dare say, the most prominent theme of Goethe's literary works. Yet rather than the wholehearted poetic-shepherd embrace of the experience, the lover in Goethe's poetry seems more enamored of the recollection of love, from a distance. For instance, a very early poem entitled "The Night." The first two lines in its original version, from 1768, are as follows: "Gern verlass' ich diese Hütte,/ Meiner Schönen Aufenthalt." This is of course a paradox: he is happy to leave the abode of the beloved? Goethe seemed to recognize this paradox, for when he published the collection Neue Lieder in 1789 he changed the first line to read: "Nun [now] verlass' ich diese Hütte."
Love in absentia also characterizes a later and very beautiful poem, "Nähe des Geliebten," from 1795. As has been noted, Goethe wrote this poem after reading a similar one by Friederike Brun, entitled "Ich denke dein." In Brun's poem one has the feeling that the person being remembered has died, which is not the case in Goethe's poem. Here is a translation (from 1844) by William Edmonstoune Aytoun:
I think of thee when'er the sun is glowing
Upon the lake;
Of thee, when in the crystal fountain flowing
The moonbeams shake.
I see thee when the wanton wind is busy,
And dust-clouds rise;
In the deep night, when o'er the bridge so dizzy
The wanderer hies.
I hear thee when the waves, with hollow roaring,
Gush forth their fill;
Often along the heath I go exploring,
When all is still.
I am with thee! Though far thou art and darkling,
Yet art thou near.
The sun goes down, the stars will soon be sparkling
-- Oh, wert thou here.
Interestingly, Aytoun did not translate the title as per Goethe's title -- "Nearness of the Beloved" -- but as "Separation." The poet feels the nearness when the beloved is elsewhere. Of course, it should be added that the poetic voice in this case is feminine, as in Brun's poem.
Picture credit: Bonza Sheila