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Classical Weimar

At Home with Goethe

Leaving aside the accomplishments of its composers & engineers, Germany is seen as the land of poets & thinkers, and the greatest of them all is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). His first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, about a chap who falls in love with a young lady who is already betrothed and eventually shoots himself, was an instant success, and is considered a seminal work of the Sturm & Drang movement. The book attracted the attention of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar & Saxe-Eisenach, who invited Goethe to Weimar in 1775, and gave him a cottage & appointed him privy counsellor the next year. By the early 1780s, Goethe was running most of the ducal government, and in 1782 he moved into smart premises in the centre of town.

The Juno Room at Goethe’s Residence
View from the Juno Room to the Large Collection Room

Today, Goethe’s residence is part of the Goethe National Museum. Eighteen rooms are open to the public, including his study, where he wrote his magnum opus Faust. The rooms, designed by Goethe himself to reflect the classical ideals of his time, were used to keep his ever-growing collections of artwork & scientific specimens, of which I found the plaster casts & maiolica the most eye-catching. Gardening addicts will enjoy the lovely garden at the rear of the house, which looks practically the same as it did in the 1820s. The large exhibition Flood of Life — Storm of Deeds, at the museum next door, explores Goethe’s fascinating life & sheds light on his vastly diverse interests beyond his literary creations. A visit to Goethe’s house & the exhibition takes three to four hours.

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It’s my great pleasure to present Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers here as a free e-book, based on the two-volume first edition (1774) from the Bibliotheca Augusta in Wolfenbüttel. Reading its 18th-century German takes a bit of effort, but at least the text is not, as in the original, typeset in Fraktur. (Click on the title above to download the ePub.)


Goethe’s Werther is loosely based on his own experiences in Wetzlar, where he fell in love with Charlotte Buff, the soon-to-be Mrs Johann Christian Kestner, and those of an acquaintance, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, who, to end another unrequited love affair, shot himself with a pistol he had borrowed from, of all people, Kestner. (Kestner was the model for Albert, the husband of the beloved Lotte, who lent Werther his pistols when he requested them, as Jerusalem had done when he asked Kestner, for ‘an intended journey’.)


The publication of Werther reportedly led to a considerable number of copycat suicides, in which young men dressed like its troubled protagonist — blue frock, yellow waistcoat & breeches — shot themselves as he did in the novel. Widespread imitation of Werther’s suicide was never conclusively demonstrated, but psychologists nevertheless speak about ‘the Werther effect’ to designate the mimicry of suicide after a highly publicized case.


Selbst Goethe bezieht sich in seiner Autobiographie darauf: »Wie ich mich nun aber dadurch erleichtert und aufgeklärt fühlte, die Wirklichkeit in Poesie verwandelt zu haben, so verwirrten sich meine Freunde daran, indem sie glaubten, man müsse die Poesie in Wirklichkeit verwandeln, einen solchen Roman nachspielen und sich allenfalls selbst erschießen.« Der Philosoph Christian Garve hatte zu solchen Gerüchten bereits 1775 das Nötige gesagt: »Zum Selbstmord wird man schwerlich verführt.«


On 14 October 1806, right after Prussia’s defeat in the Battle of Jena & Auerstedt, Napoleon’s troops occupied Weimar, and two months later the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar switched sides & joined the Confederation of the Rhine, the unholy German empire under the aegis of Napoleon. On 2 October 1808, when the Emperor was in Erfurt to see his new friends, he also met Goethe — who in 1792 had joined a military campaign against France as an idle onlooker — whom he greatly admired for Les souffrances du jeune Werther. Later that month Napoleon paid a visit to Weimar and awarded Goethe a Legion d’Honneur, no doubt for his literary rather than his military achievements.


One would think that Goethe projected his own feelings for Lotte Buff on Werther, but by the time he wrote Werther in 1774, about one & a half years after leaving Wetzlar, his involvement with the newly wed Maximiliane von La Roche, whose dark eyes became the model for those of Lotte in the novel, undoubtedly provided inspiration as well. It appears that Goethe assiduously avoided marriage, and one way to achieve this was to take up friendships with women already engaged or married, the most intriguing one being the evidently fascinating Charlotte von Stein, whom he met within weeks of arriving in Weimar and to whom he wrote over 1,770 letters. When Goethe finally settled with Christiane Vulpius in 1788, he scandalously didn’t marry her, at least not until 1806, a few days after she had defended the house against marauding French troops. (Goethe’s house was also spared because a French officer, Baron Guillaume von Türckheim, had designated it as the quarters for Marshal Michel Ney; the Baron was the son of Lili Schönemann, to whom Goethe had been briefly engaged in 1775.) Probably the only time he wholeheartedly proposed was in 1823, at the age of 74, when the widowed Goethe popped the question to the 19-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow, who sensibly declined.


Among his acquaintances nobody regarded Christiane Vulpius as befitting Goethe’s social standing. After they got married, only Johanna Schopenhauer (Arthur’s mum) asked her around for tea, and only once, arguing that ‘Wenn Göthe ihr seinen Namen gibt können wir ihr wohl eine Tasse Tee geben’.


I was surprised to learn that Goethe named the small house in his garden, which he acquired in 1817, Steinpavillion — thinking he must have been pretty stone-hearted to have named it after a previous girlfriend just one year after his wife died. But ‘Stein’ means stone in German, and the stone pavilion is where Goethe stored his hoard of minerals (which is reckoned to have been the largest private mineral collection in the world at the time), so it’s an appropriate name after all.


The popularity of The Sorrows of Young Werther was reflected in the merchandise produced by the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory. The V&A Museum has an elaborate breakfast service painted with scenes from the book, including a teapot, cups & saucers, all made around 1790. The serving of the fashionable hot drinks tea, coffee & chocolate was often the focal point of domestic social rituals in the 18th century. Porcelain tea & coffee sets with matching trays were made for one or two persons, to serve themselves in private apartments, and signalled their owner’s taste & wealth.


Werther wears a very distinctive outfit in the novel, consisting of a blue frock with brass buttons, a yellow waistcoat and matching leather breeches, and bucket-top boots — attire known today in Germany as Werthertracht. However, his costume was already fashionable long before the book was published in 1774, especially among the English aristocacy, but in the German lands as well. At the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin we have a 1768 painting of the Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, dressed in Werther-worthy garments, to illustrate this. (The companion painting of the Duchess illustrates that bicorne hats were already in fashion long before being worn by Napoleon.)


Serving on the Ducal Library Committee of the library known today as the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, together with his co-director Christian Gottlob von Voigt, wrote a set of rules in 1810 governing the use of the Ducal Library, Erneuerte Bedingungen, unter welchen der Besuch und Gebrauch der Herzoglichen Bibliothek zu Weimar verstattet ist. His brother-in-law, librarian Christian August Vulpius, was responsible for carrying them out.


Fun fact: Weimar’s first model railway, a miniature version of Stephenson’s Rocket, an early steam locomotive built in 1829, sat on Goethe’s desk. It shows that not only was he a man of art & science, but that he had a keen interest in engineering as well.

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