Thursday, September 28, 2023

Goethe and the oral tradition of literature

Brad Pitt as Achilles

In the previous post, concerning the pastoral genre, I sought to convey how much Goethe drew on traditional poetic genres in his poetry and dramas, but which he "modified" in such a way as to create something new poetically. I have recently come across an illuminating account of the epic poetic transmission that throws light on Goethe's innovations. For instance, he wrote Hermann und Dorothea at the start of the French Revolutionary Wars, which, like the tales of the Trojan war in the Iliad, were a pretty brutal period in history. No one in the 1790s in Europe, however, wrote epic poems in the style of the Iliad about Napoleon's conquests. Novels, yes (War and Peace?), but the epic was passé as a genre. Hermann und Dorothea has been called an "epic poem," but there are no heroes in it, although Dorothea, among the refugees, can be called courageous. Hermann und Dorothea is more properly an idyll, in nine cantos of hexameters. So, Goethe has taken a traditional genre, epic, and a traditional theme, war, and come up with something new.

The account I mentioned is entitled The Mortal Hero, an introduction to Homer's Iliad by Seth Schein, who was a professor of mine in a comp lit class in graduate school. The "overwhelming fact for the heroes of the Iliad" is their mortality, unlike the immortal gods, as Seth Schein remarks in chapter 1. We have learned from studies of history that the ancient world was a battle-filled one, and tales of heroes and of mortality were evidently a "popular" subject of oral literature. The Iliad itself is the "end product of a poetic tradition that may have been as much as a thousand years old by the time the epic was composed," ca. the 8th century B.C. Lesser and greater singers gave expression to the Trojan War, representative of wars of the Late Bronze Age. And the memory of the events of the heroic age was kept alive by these singers, re-imagining the events, re-telling them over and over, and, as an aid to memory, using formulas of scenes, episodes, words, phrases, and so on. Homer's epics were the end products, so to speak, of this tradition, but also "equally the first in Greek literature," i.e. in writing.

Do these guys look like heroes?

When Goethe came of age there was also a strict classification of literary genres, inherited from the Greeks and Romans, each of which had its own subject matter and its own linguistic formulas. In an essay I published in 1996 in the Goethe Yearbook, I wrote about Goethe's five-act play Clavigo. Shakespeare, whose plays young Goethe was enthusiastic about, worked with a five-act structure in his tragedies. And a tragedy, according to Aristotle in the Poetics, is a genre about a noble hero who goes from good to bad fortune. Goethe imitated this pattern in Clavigo: ein Trauerspiel, but the problem is that Clavigo himself was not a heroic individual. He was a courtier who, in order to rise at court at the king of Spain, reneged on a promise to marry the sister of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. It's a very bourgeois situation. As I wrote in my an essay, however, the play received a certain "existential weight" by this generic contamination:  the introduction into a classicist play of a non-heroic (i.e., bourgeois) character literally altered the character’s self-conception.

Picture credits: Warner Bros.; New York Public Digital Library

Monday, September 18, 2023

Goethe in Love

I am back in New York City after three months on a small island adjacent to Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island. As I wrote in earlier posts, my intention was to read as much of "young Goethe" as possible this summer, and I managed it. Today's brief post is simply to note a few things that were on my mind as I flew high in the sky from Vancouver to New York.

Goethe grew up in a time when it was understood that poets imitated other poets, especially earlier ones. Whether writing about love or despair or whatever the emotion, poets employed the conventions of existing poetic forms and genres. Besides love and grief and so on, poets also wrote about events in the world, but these too were clothed in certain poetic conventions. An example from painters might make this clearer. Take Spanish painters of the golden age. Some are esteemed as "better" or "greater," but all of them painted the same subjects: e.g., the Crucifixion, the Nativity, shepherds, kings and queens, battles. Did Murillo, Zurbaran, Velasquez keep diaries? It's difficult to know what the painters' feelings were concerning the subjects of their work. So, too, the poets and dramatists in the period right before Goethe came of age. When they wrote about shepherds in love, did they also feel in love? Probably not. Did they even know any shepherds?

Goethe's earliest poetry collection has shepherds. In other words, he drew on this long-standing poetic genre. But he also used conventional forms to write of something personal. Goethe did not keep a diary in the way of famous personalities, but, unlike the private lives of earlier writers, we know a lot about his life, and he mediated his experience of jealousy in Die Laune des Verliebten, from 1767–68. It is a pastoral play, one of the most conventional genres of the mid-18th century, in which two shepherd couples learn some lessons in love. He wrote many letters at this time of writing this play, some of which are preserved, and several of which portray his youthful ardor for a young woman, an innkeeper's daughter, with whom a young man of his standing would not likely marry. The play details the curing of a jealous shepherd. The letters he wrote at the time document the bitter jealousy to which he was reduced in regard to this girl, to whom his earliest collection of poetry was addressed: Annette. The manuscript image at the top of this post is the poem "Die Liebhaber" (The Lovers) from that collection.

Photo credit: Charlotte Zilm