Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Goethe and Frederick the Great

Wilhelm Camphausen, Frederick the Great (detail)
In my last post I mentioned the small volume of Voltaire's memoirs that dealt mostly with the philosophe's relationship with the Prussian king. I do not know much about Frederick, so I ordered a biography recommended by Andrew Brown, the translator of the memoirs: Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters, by Giles MacDonogh. It arrived yesterday, and naturally I went to the index and looked for Goethe. And there was a Goethe entry, including "meets Frederick, 332."

I went to page 332 and found this amusing passage, which is preceded by a mention of a visit to Potsdam by James Boswell, who saw the king in parade but not in person:

"Through the duke of Saxony Weimar, Goethe had the chance that Boswell lacked. In August 1776 he wrote to his friend Merck that he had 'been really close to Old Fritz, I have seen the way he lives, his gold, silver, marble, monekys, parrots and torn curtains, and I have seen a great man reasoning with his own dumb dogs.'"

James Kirkland
Not only an amusing passage, but a truly delicious one. Could it be true? I consulted the endnote: Jessen, 456. It took me a while to figure out who Jessen was. MacDonogh's book contains no bibliography, and the full title of a reference is given only on the first mention. In other words, thirty pages earlier: Hans Jessen, Friedrich der Grosse und Maria-Theresia in Augenzeugenberichten (1965). Amazon did not offer a "Look Inside" of Jessen, so I reached a dead end there.

It then struck me that Goethe was not in Potsdam in August 1776. In fact, his only trip to Berlin was in May of 1778, when he traveled there with Carl August. He did not meet the king, as MacDonogh suggests, but he and Carl August did dine with Frederick's brother Heinrich. A letter to Merck about that visit was written in August of that year, i.e., in 1778, not 1776. In the letter Goethe describes his Harz journey and his ascent of the Brocken the previous year, before going on to mention the visit in spring to Potsdam. But it is clear from the letter to Merck that he did not meet the king in person. (MacDonogh: "Through the duke of Saxony Weimar, Goethe had the chance that Boswell lacked.") Here is what he said about Potsdam to Merck:

Auch in Berlin war ich im Frühjahr; ein ganz ander Schauspiel! Wir waren wenige Tage da, und ich guckte nur drein wie das Kind in Schön-Raritäten Kasten. Aber Du weißt, wie ich im Anschaun lebe; es sind mir tausend Lichter aufgangen. Und dem alten Fritz bin ich recht nah worden, da ich habe sein Wesen gesehn, sein Gold, Silber, Marmor, Affen, Papageien und zerrissene Vorhänge, und hab über den großen Menschen seine eignen Lumpenhunde räsonnieren hören.

MacDonogh has misunderstood what Goethe meant by "being really close" to Frederic. Having seen "the way he lives" is also not the same as "ich habe sein Wesen gesehen," while the last part of the passage in English is totally wrong. One has the impression from MacDonogh that Goethe observed the "enlightened" king in conversation with his dogs. Instead, what Goethe says is that he has heard the way that "the scoundrels" surrounding the monarch speak about "the great man."

So, maybe read Tim Blanning's new book about Frederick.

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