Saturday, December 3, 2011

Goethe and Grief

Goethe is known to have felt a great sense of revulsion (Abwehr) when facing the death of loved ones. Thus, when Carl August died in 1828, ending a friendship that went back to the 1770s, Goethe fled to Dornburg in order to avoid attending the duke's funeral. Afterward, for distraction, he immersed himself in his scientific pursuits. His revulsion was probably the result of feeling too much, and in at least three instances Goethe revealed himself to be overcome with grief. The first occasion was at the death of his sister Cornelia in 1777. Goethe speaks of himself, in a letter to Charlotte von Stein, as being "speechless" in the face of her death: "I received a letter at 9 informing me that my sister was dead. At the moment I have nothing further to say." Some months later he wrote to his mother: "With [the death of] my sister a strong root that held me to the earth has been cut down; the branches above, which had their nourishment from this root, must perforce die."

The death of Schiller in 1805 also hit him very hard. He wrote to Zelter in 1806: "I thought myself lost and lose now a friend and with him the half of my existence" (Ich dachte mich selbst zu verlieren, und verliere nun einen Freund und in demselben die Hälfte meines Daseyns).

When his wife, Christiane, passed away in 1816, he first wrote to Sulpiz Boisserée that "his darling wife had "left them." Some days later he wrote him that he could not lie: his condition "bordered on despair."

Goethe of course had the gift of being able to transform grief into poetry. A beautiful example is found in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (book 4, ch. 11). In an earlier version Mignon had sung this song alone, but in the later novel it is presented as a duet between Mignon and the Harpist. The German begins by referring to "longing" or "yearning" (Sehnsucht), though an English translation I found translates this as "grief":

My grief no mortals know
Except the yearning!
Alone, a prey to woe,
All pleasure spurning.

Up towards the sky I throw
A gaze discerning.
He who my love can know
Seems ne'er returning.
With strange and fiery glow
My heart is burning.
My grief no mortals know,
Except the yearning!

At this time my favorite words by Goethe on the theme of grief are to be found in The Sorrow of Young Werther, from 1772: "Ich habe verloren, was meines Lebens einzige Wonne war, die heilige belebende Kraft, mit der ich Welten um mich schuf."

Picture credit: Folsompastor

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