10 famous works of Goethe
(Fráncfort del Meno, 1749; Weimar, 1832)
He became the greatest figure in German literature, but his interests ranged from politics to science, from art to occultism. In life he was a respected intellectual who rubbed shoulders with the most illustrious names in his country’s culture and society. The preposition “von” of his surname was due to Duke Charles Augustus, who assimilated him to the nobility in 1782 due to his outstanding work as an advisor and statesman.
He was born on August 28 in a bourgeois home and his father was personally in charge of his education, which included Latin, music and fencing, also becoming fond of drawing from a very young age; a path that led him to master several branches of knowledge. In 1765 he moved to Leipzig to begin his law studies, which he would finish in Strasbourg six years later. It was there that he befriended the person who would introduce him to Romanticism and make him an enthusiastic reader of German poetry, Shakespeare and Homer. Together with Johan Gottfried Herder, a renowned philosopher and literary critic, he later laid the foundations for the “Sturm und Drang” movement, a response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment.
In 1772 he moved to Wetzlar, where he began his practice as a lawyer and met Charlotte Buff, the fiancée of a friend with whom he fell in love and who ended up being the inspiration for his novel The Misadventures of Young Werther. In Frankfurt he commits himself to the daughter of a banker, but ends up fleeing to Weimar, who is also disappointed in his profession. Thus, in 1775 he begins his life as a civil servant, an occupation that distances him for a long time from literature. That which he would take up again in 1786 after a trip to Italy, focusing on the culmination of what would be his greatest work: Faust, the second part of which would be published the same year as his death.
10 famous works of Goethe
1. Götz von Berlichingen. Darmstadt, 1773.
Considered the first work by the movement “Sturm und Drang”, the protagonist is inspired by a famous character of the sixteenth century. It is set in the region of Bavaria and focuses on the conflict between an imperial knight and a bishop. One of the characteristics that separates this drama from neoclassical theatre is the emphasis on individual feelings, emotions over reason.
2. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Leipzig, 1774.
This epistolary novel composed of three distinct parts caused a great stir and made Goethe a celebrity. The story follows the evolution of Werther’s self-destructive feelings towards Carlota, who despite the empathy she feels, cannot return his love and save him from madness. It is a semi-biographic work that impacted the youth of the time in positive and negative ways. There were many suicides inspired by this romantic anti-hero.
3. Prometheus. Frankfurt, 1774.
Poem starring the famous Greek character who rebelled against the gods. As in the myth, Prometheus confronts Zeus, which for some interpreters of Goethe’s work would speak of the agnostic side of the author. Far from that polemic, the verses exalt human genius and suggest that religion keeps people sleepy, that divine beliefs hold back freedom.
4. Venetian Epigrams. Weimar, 1790.
His second stay in Italy would mark Goethe’s later thought, his most critical and sharp side will emerge. In addition to transmitting all the reluctance produced by Venice and its people, he ends up questioning the French Revolution, pointing out the vices of the clergy and touching on other subjects as relevant as sexuality. His epigrams are opinions that seek to demystify the promises of the modern world.
5. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Berlin, 1795.
In his second novel, he distances himself completely from the tragic postulates that appeared in Werther. The protagonist is a member of the bourgeoisie who questions what society expects of him, so he decides to seek happiness through self-realization. In this “learning novel,” Wilhelm aspires to a career as a playwright, although he must first make a personal journey that allows him to know himself.
6. Elective affinities. Tubingen, 1809.
Goethe uses his scientific knowledge to develop this plot in which relationships are the excuse to show the irrationality of passions. In nature, the elements are attracted or rejected without any explanation. In the same way, the four characters of the novel struggle to remain faithful, conditioned by the mysterious laws of the universe.
7. From My Life: Poetry and Truth.. Tübingen, 1811.
The second part of his autobiography would appear a year after his death, which took him two decades to finish. His memoirs cover his youthful concerns, his creative process and the way travel outside Germany affected his romantic ideas. The relationship with his illustrious contemporaries, including the blow that the sudden death of his friend Friedrich Schiller signified for him, is a separate point.
8. West-East Divan. Stuttgart, 1819.
It is a poetic anthology inspired by the Arab world. What would be at the same time a rapprochement of Europe to that part of humanity with which they faced for centuries, but resisted to know. Goethe experiments with Persian poetry, enters Sufism and becomes one of the first intellectuals in his country to refer to Islamic religion positively.
9. Marienbad elegy. Weimar, 1823.
A poem with a melancholic tone that emerged as a response to the rejection of who would be his last love. These verses opt for pessimistic images; they are an expression of his most romantic and visceral side. The presence of Ulrike von Levetzow in the life of the old man Goethe places him at the top of German lyrics.
10. Faust. Tübingen, 1832.
This drama was published in two parts. The first appeared in 1807 and tells of Faust’s relations with Mephistopheles and Marguerite. It took him more than two decades to write the second, and here the plot changes characters and scenarios, it becomes an allegory about salvation. This work, composed solely of dialogues, would make Goethe one of the totems of universal literature. The history of the diabolical pact was not new, the antecedents of his immortal character are found in the third century, but Faust would reach levels of complexity for all the symbolism it contains. Among the topics touched upon are the relationship between good and evil, and how wanting everything can lead man to lose even his soul.