Thursday, November 17, 2016

Introducing Goethe's Italian Journey by means of a throat-clearing introduction to the whole Goethe thing

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had had two previous opportunities to visit Italy.  He swerved away, though.  Italy was too symbolically powerful.  One of those opportunities was replaced with Goethe’s installation as the friend and right-hand man of the Duke of Weimar when Goethe was twenty-six and perhaps the most famous writer in Europe.  The Duke had recognized, through Goethe’s celebrity, his enormous cognitive abilities.  Sometimes I think he must have been the smartest person in literary history.  In literature, smarts only gets ya so far.

After his thirty-seventh birthday party in 1786, Goethe sneaks away to Italy, informing only the Duke.  He stays for a year and a half – a little more.  His account is in Italian Journey, published thirty years later in 1816 as a strange hybrid book of letters, diaries, memories, alterations, and elisions.  Why thirty years later?  Because, in the last twenty years of his life, Goethe was kind of emptying his desk into books.  Plus, he had been publishing his memoirs.

Goethe financed his extended leave of absence through the advance on an eight-volume collected edition of his works.  His published works, at this point, amounted to four volumes.  Four volumes would contain new work.  This is how enormous Goethe’s stature was – four volumes, unwritten, no problem.  Of course eventually Green Henry spends forty days reading a fifty-volume set of Goethe.  Long way to go.

I had been able to send the first four volumes to the publisher and was intending to send the last four.  Some of their contents were only outlines of works and even fragments, because to tell the truth, my naughty habit of beginning works, then losing interest and laying them aside, had grown worse with the years and all the other things I had to do. (Sep. 8, 1786, p. 34)

Thus Faust, Part I, which is mentioned in Italian Journey as something Goethe will finish up any minute now, does not appear in print for another twenty years.  Part II is published twenty-five years after that!

One irony is that the Italian journey kills Goethe’s literary production for almost a decade, until he meets Friedrich Schiller.  It takes him that long to absorb everything.  Goethe’s life often feels like he planned it with the knowledge that he would live to eighty-two.  Take a decade off of literature – no big deal.  There will still be fifty volumes by the end.  Skip two chances at Italy – no worry, he’ll go when the time is exactly right.

What is Goethe absorbing?  Classical and Renaissance art history.  The fact that art has a history, even.  Architecture, Christianity, the sea, a long growing season for plants, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Sex – the great omission from Italian Journey is Goethe’s Roman girlfriend, a waitress and widow.  But he had written about her in the warm Roman Elegies (1795).

It is such a pain dealing with Goethe.  In the years before Wuthering Expectations, when I spent my time in the 18th century, I read maybe ten volumes of Green Henry’s fifty, and I have trouble writing about any given work of Goethe’s without addressing the enormous phenomenon of Goethe.

Tomorrow, then, I’ll just dive into the book.  Goethe’s study abroad in Italy.

Quotations are and will be from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer – mostly the latter, I think.


  1. The Goethe/Schiller literary production timing thing is new to me and interesting in its own right is the idea that G's Italian Journey is such a hodgepodge of hybrid-rich odds and ends. Penguin Classics edition, you say? That should be fairly easy to track down...

  2. Goethe had a history of allying with other geniuses - Herder before Schiller. He made good use of his peers. The Goethe-Schiller collaboration launched a new phase of German literature.