Goethe is about as hard a figure for me to grasp as any truly major European writer. I think this is part of why he has had not had a position in English literature commensurate to his stature in German, which is almost unfathomable. What if the works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Samuel Johnson had been produced by a single writer? That gives an idea of Goethe’s place in German literature.
He wrote masterpieces over the course of sixty (60!) years in numerous forms – first-rate novels, plays, lyric poems, epic poems, memoirs, and I forget what else. But it is not just Goethe’s scale and scope that are so daunting. Victor Hugo had a sixty year career and wrote successfully in many forms. The difference is that every Hugo work is quickly and easily identifiable as Hugo’s – his books are drenched in eau de Hugo – while Goethe’s personality is more distant or detachable from many of his works. So if it is not immediately obvious that The Sorrows of Young Werther (1773) and Faust, Part II (1832) are written by the same person, sure, they are sixty years apart. But I do not think it is obvious that Faust, Part I (1808) and Elective Affinities (1809) share an author. This is what I mean by “hard to grasp.” The key word is “hard.”
This is all a preface to a glance at one of Goethe’s most charming, most immediately graspable works, the 1795 Roman Elegies, a series of poems in long-lined elegiac couplets about a sexual affair with a widowed waitress during the poet’s long stay in Rome.
One thing I find more annoying than anything else, but another
Is abhorrent to me, so that each fibre revolts
At the thought of it merely. What are they? My friends, I’ll confess it:
Most annoying to me, nights spent alone in my bed…
That is why in Faustina my happiness lies; she most gladly
Shares my bed, and requites strictly my faith with her own. (from XVIII)
How damning is the phrase “daring for its time”? Poem XIVa is a prayer to the classical Roman gods for protection against venereal disease and perhaps pregnancy. Daring for its time. “Always protect my own little garden, ward off, I implore you / Every evil from me.”
The widow presumably shares these concerns, and she also has her own history and worries, including the uncle who is her landlord and boss at the osteria. She even has a personality, most charmingly in poem XV. The affair is a secret from the uncle, so the poet is visiting Faustina at work, as a customer.
Raising her voice rather more than do ladies in Rome, she took up the
Bottle, looking at me, poured, when the glass was not there,
Spilling wine on the table, and then with her delicate fingers
Over the table-top drew circles in liquid, and loops.
With her own she entwined my name; and attentively always
Those small fingers I watched, she well aware that I did.
Finally, she forms a “IV,” the hour the poet should sneak into her room. The rest of the poem begs the sun to set quickly (“Eagerly seek the sea and plunge in”), although the poet actually passes the time writing this poem, abandoning it just after three in the morning, Amor taking precedence over the Muses.