Saturday, May 24, 2014

Goethe's Roman Elegies - Most annoying to me, nights spent alone in my bed

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.


  1. Perhaps I should give those a try sometime. I've read a bit of Goethe, but not nearly enough. My brother suggested Faustina as a name for our daughter...

  2. I detect a Freudian eroticism that I would not expect to find in Goethe.

  3. I am not so good at detecting Freud, but I have no doubt you are right. Freud would be one of those writers immersed in Goethe. I understood he was actually inspired by Goethe to study medicine.

    Jean, Goethe is worth reading in some depth. Or breadth, I guess is what I mean. I have thought about doing a big reread and writing it up here. It would be a fair amount of work, but highly rewarding.

  4. Well, I remain alert to symbolism in everything that I read, but I do not get carried away with Freudian symbolism (or any symbolism) because I remember that Freud supposedly reassured someone that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Of course, sometimes it is not.

  5. I honestly wish I were better at identifying Freudian symbolism. Plenty of later writers use it deliberately. I would like to be more adept at seeing what they are doing.