Why roam so far afield? Look, there’s beauty in abundance here. Goethe (Weimar n.p.)
Weimar, summer 2001: breezes slide past skin heated by a gentle sun, fragrances of hidden gardens please the nose, and Bach sung by violin, practiced by a budding musician tantalizes the ears.
“Was moechten Sie essen? What would you like to eat,” asks the young waitress, pen in hand.
“Sprechen Sie English? Do you speak English?”
“Sehr, sehr bisschen,” she answers, showing with her hands how little English she spoke and understood.
I use the approved method of pointing, a method developed by English-speaking tourists in the last two centuries. She nods her head.
“What did we get,” asks my husband.
“American pizza,” I said.
He laughs. A young girl, maybe sixteen-seventeen, walks down the cobblestone alley in front of the small table we occupy. She looks back at a boy, no older than herself, who watches her watch him. She bounces, then continues up the street into a circular maze of footpaths and alleys.
We relax under a small canopy, eating pizza and sinking into Weimar.
To live, to study in Germany, one hears the name Goethe spoken as the greatest literary artist that Germany has ever produced with Schiller running a close second. The Sorrows of Young Werther and Dr. Faust Part I and II are only a few of the works produced by Goethe.
Goethe’s writings number poems, stories, and plays. He not only produced works of literary merit, but also wrote papers and promoted scientific research on botany, color theory, comparative anatomy, electricity, magnetism, metamorphosis, mineralogy, and morphology. To Goethe, “the purpose of science is to improve the quality—individual and collective—experience of things which we call their ‘appearance’ to us” (Boyle 598). And, in spite of the bewilderment of his “nineteenth-century critics . . . his preoccupation with science (or “natural philosophy”), however tentative and at times wrongheaded, as the essential premise of his literary work” (Lange 3). Goethe’s research of the natural world developed into the themes contained in his greatest work, Dr. Faust.
Goethe, like most geniuses, was an egoist. Even Schiller, who courted Goethe, finally becoming Goethe’s greatest friend, had this to say about Goethe:
He is a strange and wondrous mortal but with all that so very much of a piece, so bona fide everything that he is, for all his egoism so free of malice or rather fundamentally so good-natured and for all the idiosyncrasies of his productive vein a man of such powerful mind and inexhaustible talents that it is impossible for me not to be found of him, however often I find myself wishing this or that about him were different . . . What consoles me in all this is that both G. and Sch. are capable of obliterating in a few years every trace of their misdemeanours by works of genius as good as any of theirs we already have or even better. (Boyle 452)
So Goethe’s personal habits of castigating his friends, chasing women, and displaying supreme arrogance, in Schiller’s words, could be excused because of his proven literary genius. Or, as Victor Lange writes in his essay:
he [Goethe] uses and shapes the resources of his language as no other German poet before him, and creates in his poetry and prose a manner and a style that have, for better or worse, remained compelling to the present day.
We walked to Goethe’s home, only a few feet from the hotel where we stayed. A brick barrier forced us to walk about two blocks before we came to an arched gateway leading to a cobblestone alley.
The straight alley, Siefengasse, bounded by walls with evenly-spaced locked doorways, guarding rose-gardens with captive roses and ivies escaping over the brick-boundaries, led to the Frauenplan, a cobblestone plaza with Goethe’s home, a baroque structure, at one end. We paid our fee, finding out that only a small part of the home, the living area was on display. To see the rest of the house, which was now a museum, we would have to pay another fee.
We wandered through the carefully marked pathways of the house, up two-story staircase, through narrow halls, and then down three stories to the garden. The small garden, laid out in a classical structure, was carefully marked with the descendents of the original plants that Goethe had planted and studied: gingko, lavender, and thyme to name a few.
The top floor contained Goethe’s library and writing room. His library, filled with supposedly original books, was locked. Do not touch signs in English and in German were everywhere. I longed to touch the leather bindings, maybe touch something that Goethe may have touched when he brought the book to his desk. I noticed that a good number of the furniture were reproductions.
By the time, we left the house was filled with tourists speaking French, Italian, Great Brit, Spanish, and Turkish. Next to the house was an old stable, containing Goethe’s carriage. Instead of looking like a sedate carriage, it had the sleek look of a sports model, a Porsche of carriages.
We encountered an English family in their upper middle-class accents, wondering if this was all there was to Goethe: a house and a carriage. They expected more from a “World Heritage Sight.” Relieved when they left, we imagined two to four horses and one carriage in this small carriage house. The consensus: a tight fit.
Deluded boy, seduced by empty show!
Despise the land that gave the birth! Ashamed
Of the good ancient customs of thy sires!
The day will come, when thou, with burning tears
Wilt long for home, and for thy native hills,
And that dear melody of tuneful herds,
Which now, in proud disgust, thou dost despise!
William Tell Act 2 Scene 1
Schiller, looking for a place to settle his family, had not endeared himself to Goethe. Goethe had met Schiller as a young man, acting in Goethe’s play Clavigo. Schiller, playing the title role, was so buffoonish that Goethe disliked him, judging Schiller’s work by this one impression. Also, while Goethe hastened from Romanticism to Classicism, Schiller, a renowned playwright, prolonged Romanticism with his play Robbers, a hit with the commoners. But, while Schiller could not act, he did have great personal charm.
Thomas Mann, in an essay “On Schiller,” rhapsodizes on Schiller’s character. He writes the following: “who can overlook the childlike element of Schiller’s nature, the noble naïveté which so often elicits a smile from us?” (9). So, when Schiller put the force of this boyish charm to align himself with Goethe, did Goethe have a chance?
Mann reports that after Goethe returned from Italy, Schiller charmed him with his intelligence, his emotion, his writings. Schiller wooed Goethe (14-5). Their friendship lasted until Schiller’s death in 1805, a mere eleven years.
So, is the story of Weimar only about these two men’s comradeship? Could I forget Nietzsche, Bach, Listz, or Herder? Could I forget the man who made it all possible? Duke Carl August. Without him, I am sure Schiller and Goethe, floatsom on the world tide would have died early. Goethe dying like his Young Werther and Schiller wearing out much earlier than his forty-five years.
We walk down a path built by Duke Carl August for the enjoyment of his stable of artists. The park is appropriately called the “Park on the river Ilm,” and contains Goethe’s garden house, the Roman House, and the Roman caves. The trees, grass, flowers, bees, and river hum a summer song, enticing the poet in each visitor.
With such beauty and energy surrounding an artist, he or she could create. I was envious. Where did could I find such peace today without the worry of paying for room and board? Could the artists of today use the patronage system so that they could spend their time creating? How has capitalism hurt this century’s creative geniuses?
Even so, Weimar entices the artist. We found schools for musicians, graphic artists, photographers, and architects near our hotel. Among the museums, we found a former “arts and crafts school,” and a “school of fine arts.” Young artists in small efficiency apartments plied their craft over streets filled with burgeoning life. I think Goethe and Schiller would enjoy today’s Weimar.
“Since I last wrote to you I have had few good days. I thought I would be lost myself, and now I have lost a friend [Schiller], and in him half my own existence” (The Permanent Goethe 606).
Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age, vol. II Revolution and Renunciation (1790-1803. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
The Permanent Goethe. Ed. Thomas Mann. New York: Dial Press, 1958.
Lange, Victor., ed. Goethe: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1968.
Mann, Thomas. Thomas Mann: Last Essays. Trans. Richard Winston, Clara Winston, Tania Stern, and James Stern. New York: Knopf, 1959.
von Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich. William Tell. Trans. Theodore Martin. New York: Heritage Press, 1952.
Weimar: Dorint Am Goethepark. Ger.: Boebbel/Adam, 2000.