Poets – J. W. Goethe

Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield.

-J. W. Goethe

As per the original terms of my challenge (here), I’ve agreed to do a poem in the style of a poet, in addition to doing a review of that poet’s work. I had planned to limit this to English-language poets, but Mark issued the challenge for J. W. Goethe, who, although not an English-language poet (all poems in English I’ve found are translations) is highly influential. It is very likely that every Romantic writer you know of who wrote in English was familiar with him, and if they were sufficiently educated, they had read him in German. Note that for the purposes of our ‘study’ (if we can call it that) I’ll be abbreviating poets’ first and middle name(s). We’ve got be economical with our bits. Moreover, he influenced also a number of musicians whom we are more familiar with than he. (There is a similar relationship with George MacDonald.)

I myself can only make vague intimations at the content of things written in German (one day perhaps, I will learn the language) so I had to find myself some translations. I do not know if these are the best (note the copyright on them, please); but they were at least sufficient to me to communicate something of Goethe’s style. The style that followed him was called ‘introversion‘, and for good reason. He may be responsible for the oft-heard quote about poetry, that it is overhearing a man’s thought, rather than it being the exercise of a man speaking among men. It does not appear he intended this result, but given the way people treated him, it’s clear he was an early celebrity, and thus people imitated him, likely without a thought of the overall result. Indeed, given that he was a man of immense talents (unlike say, K. West, or basically any of our present notables) it’s rather understandable how moderns might idolize him. Note that Goethe died in 1832, which is well within the modern era in urban environments.

The wikipedia article above gives a decent overview and there is much more to be found about him elsewhere for one willing to search. His works themselves, though not all translations of them, would be in public domain. But our interest is in his poetry. Goethe (pronounced geh-tdeh, which produces a subtle ‘r’ sound, or for the consummate Englishman, ‘gurta’) writes in a style reminiscent to me of earlier English poets, particularly in that he uses what were called metaphysical ‘conceits’. That is, he develops an analogy with a spiritual or metaphysical thing and a physical thing, to tease out some knowledge (hopefully) of that thing that others might not have. Even when not involved in a metaphysical conceit, Goethe is introspective; much of what is communicated in his verse is the mood (or muse) that he is operating under, rather than a specific point, object, or symbol.

He wrote verses, apparently, for his wife (they call her his ‘mistress’ because they lived together prior to marriage, but the language is confusing and scandalous because it implies to us that he, a rather great man, was engaged in infidelity to another. This is not the case from what I can tell.) The major work that he wrote to his wife is called The Roman Elegies. Here is one that particularly struck me:


Beloved, don’t fret that you gave yourself so quickly!
Believe me, I don’t think badly or wrongly of you.
The arrows of Love are various: some scratch us,
And our hearts suffer for years from their slow poison.
But others strong-feathered with freshly sharpened points
Pierce to the marrow, and quickly inflame the blood.
In the heroic ages, when gods and goddesses loved,
Desire followed a look, and joy followed desire.
Do you think the Goddess of Love was calm for long
Once Anchises attracted her in the groves of Ida?
If Luna had waited to kiss her beautiful sleeper,
Ah, then envious Dawn would have woken him swiftly.
Hero saw her Leander at a loud feast, at once
Her hot lover leapt out into the midnight flood.
Rhea Silvia the royal maiden went to the Tiber
To draw water, and the God captured her there.
So Mars conceived his sons! – And so a she-wolf
Suckled twins, so Rome became Queen of the World.

This was a poem I chose because its object is rather simple; but the end of it is … rather neo-reactionary. What is he saying? Obviously, there are people who are taken by desire to sin; but civilization is not founded on calculations, but on desire. The relation of origins to cosmogony (the ‘birth’ in a literal sense, of order) is clear to any who wish to see it (or want to know how great things are made.) The ‘giving’ quickly is not the problem- it is certainly a great thing, upon which kingdoms are founded. Fairy tales communicate this and we, often cynics, laugh about it because our society is in disorder and would pair gods with dogs. “It is so shallow for a man to love a woman just for her beauty” we say, double-tongued knowing that we also did the same! No, the matter is not of the quick-giving, but the enduring and building that must follow; by the time perfect calculations are made, it will be too late. Interestingly, for all of their talk about salvation, our Protestant friends do not often cite one of our Master’s favorite phrases: “He who endures until the end shall be saved.” About this, my own father has a saying, “You cannot control who you fall in love with, but you can control who you associate with.” The idea being that, related to this idea of ‘desire on a glance’ we will not fall in love with those we do not associate with.

For this, I wrote, in Goethe’s style, a sort of addendum – well, you tell me what it is.

Those who call softly, over the waves
Have we heard them, when they call
Did report come of a way that saves
When we sat, listing, upon the wall
And saw the sea – was it only desire
Calling out to desire, yet to be born
As the wave-tips foaming may inspire
Letter by letter, a word forlorn?
The undines call; their listless way
In romances whose end must frown
The sea will calm, and long the day
We men must cast the anchor down.

(Goethe did in fact cast the anchor down, as it were.)

Here is another one, which I enjoyed a lot:

‘Heiss mich nicht redden,’

Bid me be silent, bid me not speak,
Secrecy is a duty to me:
I could reveal my heart complete,
But Fate doesn’t wish it to be.

In due season, the sun’s bright path
Drives the night away, the light must shine:
The hard stone opens its breast at last
And yields Earth water from hidden mines.

Every man seeks rest in a dear friend’s arms,
Where the heart can express its inner pain:
But my lips are sealed by secret charms,
And none but a god can part them again.

(I tried to get a translation of the title, but it’s evidently an idiom. As it is the first line of the poem, it approximately translates to ‘bid me not speak‘.)

Good ole’ Schumman did us a solid on this.

What is the compatibility with Goethe and reactionary ideas? It is clear that Goethe was very influential in Romanticism, and influenced a number of philosophers (Schopenhauer for instance) — but I would guess for German speakers, Goethe holds a similar place to our W. Shakespeare. This does seem to suggest, perhaps uncharitably, that the Germans are a bit behind us along the same path, or a similar path, culturally. That’s not a surprise, given our common origin. One of the problems I have with a lot of writing from this era is its tendency to dabble in the esoteric in an undisciplined manner, which to my sight Goethe does. (You will, for example, find him invoking the gods in a sort of undisciplined way.) Perhaps it is the latent Puritan in me — but this unfocused manner of taking on metaphysical matters either lends to a fashionable dabbling, or to an unstated but underlying disbelief. After all, if you don’t solidly believe in the truth of metaphysical things, one can entertain whatever sort of ideas about them that one wishes.

I doubt Goethe himself had this in mind, but many Romantics did exactly this. It is similar to the relationship between John Coltrane and the Free Jazz that follows him; Coltrane knew how to hold music together in nearly impossible time signatures and tonalities. Almost all of the rest of us do not. Due to the nature of celebrity (rather than the old system of notability and apprentice) the gloss or impression of the noted person is repeated, generally devoid of the inward laws that gave it direction and purpose.

Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship has from time to time been considered one of the greatest novels ever written, though to my mind its corrolaries with a number of liberalizing esoteric movements in the Enlightenment simply mars it. It may be that distance from this liberalizing period will show his poetry to be superior to his prose; I do not know. You can read about the novel in the link itself. His other most-notable work is his reworking of Faust, which is a tragic play in two parts. (It needs not be mentioned that I have issues also with this work, despite how venerable it is.)

What is my final opinion on Goethe? Like Shakespeare, there is a lot there to like and dislike; but overall he is rather a universal figure. I would not expect him to be particularly friendly to Reaction itself, but nor would I suspect he would be particularly unfriendly. Instead, he tends to tap into a number of actually universal themes, and more than this, his poetry tends to be very comprehensible in its translated form.

Thanks to Mark Yuray for the challenge here.

Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.

-J. W. Goethe

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  1. Nice post. But I’m not sure if the roman elegies were dedicated to his wife so much as to his awakening libido when he left Germany for a long vacation in Italy. I cannot speak with authority as I’m not very familiar with them, however.

    That being said, Goethe is the closest thing to cultural perfection that any society has ever produced. I like him more than Shakespeare even though (ironically) Goethe was in awe of Shakespeare. To me Shakespeare is the highest peek in terms of poetry. But Goethe is the largest range in terms of man.

    Wilhlem Meister was translated by (of all people) Carlyle so any aspiring reactionary could kill two birds with one stone there. I believe in the preface Carlyle credited his strength to Goethe, and frankly reaction still has more to learn from Goethe about civilization than it has to educate America on the subject.

    I think any attention directed Goethe’s way is worthwhile but a passing familiarity isn’t enough: he demands a lifelong relationship.

    1. The only flaw being it’s all (originally) in German. Thanks for the ping on the Carlyle translation; these sort of things won’t come up in a cursory search as I was able to do. If anyone has other tidbits on Goethe like this, please feel free to share them — I knew a fellow into the German Romantics, but his focus was more on Schiller.

  2. Ioannes Barbarus July 3, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    I don’t know a thing about Goethe but that bit reminded me more than a little of the Ars Amatoria.

  3. Glad you followed through with the challenge! You have a reactionary’s taste for poetry.

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