Goethe and his English Readers

Prof. Peter Skrine, University of Bristol, on 21 October 1999

Joint Lecture with the Bath German Society

Professor Peter Skrine is Professor of German at the University of Bristol. He has published widely on German Language and Literature, for example: Naturalism (1971) with L. R. Furst, The Baroque Literature and Culture in Seventeenth Century Europe (1978), Hauptmann, Wedekind and Schnitzler (1988) and A Companion to German Literature (1997).

Goethe was born on 28 August 1749 in Frankfurt am Main and this lecture was arranged to celebrate the 250th anniversary. He gained early fame throughout Europe with his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, a tragic tale of romantic love. He played a key role in shaping the political fortunes of the Duchy of Weimar. His scientific writings on natural history and the theory of colours are highly regarded. As a Minister of State he knew many famous people such as Napoleon and Beethoven. The second part of Faust, his most famous work, was published after his death in 1832. It is a work which has had immense influence on world literature.

Ian Wallace


Who are Goethe's English readers? Students? Members of Bath German Society curious to know more? There was Tagore, the Indian poet; or R. P. Gillies, who visited him in Weimar in 1821, and Carlyle and the fifteen Englishmen who ten years later sent him a seal inscribed `Ohne Hast, aber ohne Rast', and received the reply: `You Britons have understood me!'. An ever active mind, aware of imposed and self-set limitations, was what Goethe embodied as he carried the classical tradition into the new scientific age. Many responded, the Winkworth sisters in Manchester being a well-documented example. Goethe presents us with two Englishmen in Elective Affinities (1809), a novel with similarities to Jane Austen's contemporaneous Sense and Sensibility. The differences are no less significant: Austen leads her reader from the general to the particular; Goethe leads us from others into ourselves. Has he more in common with his English contemporary, Wordsworth? Both wrote nature poetry — young Goethe even wrote in English! — and in Dichtung und Wahrheit and The Prelude both retraced their paths to poetic fulfilment. But the poetry of Goethe's finest work eludes translation, as his 24-word poem Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh (here analysed in detail) demonstrates. Music, however, did much to make him known. Similarly, Lewes's authoritative biography was complemented by George Eliot's masterly essay, Three Months in Weimar. In Eliot, Joyce and Edith Wharton, as in the Bath Literary and Scientific Institution and its commemorative exhibition, Goethe is subtly present. Faust, however, reveals his personality most fully. This vast tragedy of restless activity ends with the insight that all things transient are but similes of true reality. Our modern British craze for reading as relaxation would have appalled him as mere escapism: from life there is no escape. Countless Victorian readers responded to his challenge and found his works gave direction and meaning to their lives. In our urge to develop the world about us are we perhaps failing to develop ourselves?

Peter Skrine