Now I leave the little cottage
Of my dearest; through the dark,
Secret, in a dreary silence,
Wander through the wooded park.
Luna peers through bush and oak tree
Birches bow, they strew a fragrance
On the winds of midnight blown.
What a pleasure in the coolness
Of so rich a summer’s night!
What a hush! The feeling spirit
Revels in untold delight.
Rapture I can hardly cope with,
Nights of secrecy astir,
Yet, I’d trade them, by the thousand,
For a single night with her.
Goethe – A Beautiful Night
Embodying the Enlightenment’s ideal of a polymath, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), famed author of Faust, was an all-around giant of German and Western literature who shone as a poet, playwright, theatrical director, novelist, critic, botanist, scientist, and amateur artist. Goethe’s poetry ran the gamut from lyrical to epic, and his 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, is seen as the spark which ignited the Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) literary movement, a forerunner of the Romantic movement that swept 19th-century Western literature and arts.
Goethe was born in comfortable circumstances to a wealthy bourgeois family, and was educated at home by tutors until age 16, when his father sent him to study law at the University of Leipzig, which at the time was the center of German literary revival. He imbibed the literary ferment at Leipzig, and began penning pastoral dramas and erotic verse. A sensitive soul, his university experiences stayed with him after he left Leipzig and were reflected in works published decades later, such as his 1787 Partners in Guilt, a poetic comedy about a woman’s regret for marrying the wrong man, which was unsubtle revenge on a young woman he had fallen in love with decades earlier while a student, but who chose another.
He was already a literary giant by 1794, when he began a friendship with the philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose impact elevated Goethe’s work to even greater heights. The period of that friendship, which lasted until Schiller’s death in 1805, was the happiest and most of productive of Goethe’s life.
Goethe was among a group of geniuses, including Kant, Hegel, and Humboldt, who carried out an intellectual revolution that is the basis for modern thinking about society, religion, art, and thought itself. His impact is such that an argument could be made that Goethe stands in relation to Western culture since the Enlightenment as Dante does to the culture of the High Middle Ages, or Shakespeare does to that of the Renaissance.