Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Wanderer

 I have been on my small island in British Columbia since mid-June. It is a wonderful place to be, for the silence, the stillness of life, the halibut and the prawns, the reacquaintance with friends from previous summers here. In fact, for the first time I really feel it is a second home. I even have a Vancouver Island library card! It is also a good place to work without the interference of robocalls calls and all the distractions  of New York. Which is not to say there are not distractions here. There is many an evening spent on the deck of a friend’s house watching the wonderful cloud formations on this Pacific shore. Thursdays I join a group of folks who wander the various trails of the island. A friend lent me a bike, and I head out to a beach and sit and read of an afternoon.

It is not from such distractions that I am falling behind in posting on the blog. I spent a lot of time on Goethe’s autobiography in the last year, finishing a long article. Also, I don't have my large Goethe reference collection here, and there are intermittent internet outages, which keeps me from some research.

One thing that I have become of aware in writing about Goethe is that you absolutely cannot depend on what Goethe wrote in his autobiography about himself. He is revelatory, but not in the straightforward way that one is used to in autobiography. He alludes often to his youthful unsteadiness, using terms like Unruhe, but such personal turmoil is nothing like what one reads, e.g., in Rousseau or in the novel Anton Reiser by his contemporary C.P. Moritz. The latter in particular overwhelms you with all of the narrator's failings. Goethe is not confessional in that vein. Still, the theme of Books 12 and 13 concern this turmoil, the end result of which will be manifest in the writing of The Sorrows of Young Werther. He goes about ir very circuitously.

Wanderer in the Storm (1835) by Julius v. Leypold

Book 12 of Poetry and Truth opens with this statement concerning his return from studies in Strassburg to his family home in Frankfurt in August 1771: “The Wanderer had arrived back home at last, more healthy, in better spirits than the last time, but there was about his entire being something unstrung [Überspanntes], which didn't comport with complete mental health [geistige Gesundheit].” The reference here to the "better spirits" contrasts with the physical and mental state he was in on his return from Leipzig in 1768.  He doesn’t mention them here, but a “wanderer” is the subject of two poems from 1772: “Der Wanderer” and “Wanderers Sturmlied.” The poems had their genesis when Goethe was actually on the road a lot, traveling by foot from Frankfurt to Darmstadt, a distance of ca. 19 miles. He refers to the effect of these journeys as contributing to "Beruhigung für mein Gemüt."

The person he went to meet in Darmstadt was Johann Heinrich Merck, who would be an important influence on Goethe, another mentor in the lineage of Behrisch and of Herder. Merck was the military paymaster in the service of the court in Darmstadt, and despite that occupation he was a literary man and critic. It was at the court there that a literary circle had formed, Kreis der Empfindsamen, referring to the German cult of sentimentalism during these years, which took its name from the work Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne. Among the members of the circle were three ladies, one of whom was Caroline Flachsland, who was engaged to Herder, and whom Goethe knew in Strassburg. Goethe mentions in his autobiography how much this group nourished his work (belebt und gefördert). He read to them from Shakespeare, and they went on outings during which he recited from his work in progress: Gottfried von Berlichingen. It was this group that bestowed on him the name "der Wanderer," because of what they considered his restless nature.


He wrote and dedicated three poems to the three ladies in the spring of 1772, of which he mentions not a word in Book 12. In fact, the poems only appeared in print after Goethe's death, in 1835. The one to Caroline (whom he called "Psyche") is entitled "Felsweihegesang." The other two recipients were known as "Urania" and "Lila." Fourteen pages later, he mentions learning after her death many years later that a gentle, gracious woman had secretly harbored an affection for him. At the time he was not aware of her affection, and so was able to be all the more cheerful and charming in her company. Loeper is of the opinion that this was probably Henriette Alexandrine von Roussillon ("Urania"), who died in 1773, and it is she whom Goethe has in mind when Werther speaks of "die arme Leonore!" in the first letter of the novel. Indeed, the language of that letter is pure Empfindsamkeit.

Goethe also doesn't mention in Book 12 the two poems mentioned above in connection with this year of being a "wanderer. (Herewith an English translation of "Der Wanderer"; and here "Wanderers Sturmlied." Sorry I can't find translations for the three Darmstadt-circle poems.) The thrust of the book, however, is to lay the groundwork for the really important work that will appear in 1774, Die Leiden des jungen Werther. Toward the end of the book, recounting his introduction to the so-called Supreme Court in Wetzlar, Goethe introduces two figures who will major roles in Werther, although not by their real names. Instead, der Bräutigam and die Braut. Like der Wanderer, somewhat generic.

I hope in the next post on this subject to discuss book 13 in which he tells the story of the composition of Werther, which at the same time moderates the "subjective" or revelatory nature of the Unruhe that he felt in composing it. As a reward for waiting, below is a photo of the beautiful skies I enjoy on this small island.