The following article is reprinted from A History of German Literature. John George Robertson. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1902.
The phenomenon known as "Sturm und Drang" is by no means restricted to the literature of Germany. There is a period of "Sturm and Drang" in all literatures, as there is, to a greater or less degree, in the life of every individual. There was a "Sturm und Drang" in Italy and Fance when the light of the Renaissance first broke on these countries; there was a "Sturm und Drang" behind the "mighty line" of Marlowe and his contemporaries, in the French literary movement of 1830, and in German literature at the close of the nineteenth century; while, turning to single works, this spirit is as evident in Titus Andronicus or Childe Harold as in Werther or Die Räuber. "Sturm und Drang" is only another expression for youthful vigour. But it would be impossible, in English, French, or Italian literature, to point to a movement of this character so widespread and universal as the "Sturm und Drang" in German literature at the dawn of the classical epoch. The "Geniezeit"--the phrase "Sturm und Drang" was not employed until a later date--was in truth a period of genius: not only were its leaders--Herder, Goethe, Schiller--men of unquestionable eminence, but even the minor writers of the time were poets to whose gifts the word genius is more applicable than talent. Genius, however, was only one factor in the German "Sturm und Drang"; a second was the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), whose ideas gave the movement its peculiar character and tendency. Perhaps in no age has the thought of one man affected a literature so powerfully and universally as did that of Rousseau at this time; not even the discovery of classical antiquity at the Renaissance, or the re-birth of individualism in our own time, can be compared with the enthusiasm for Rousseau which found voice in the "Sturm und Drang".
The "Geniezeit" practically begins with the publication of Herder's Fragmente, in 1767, and closes with the appearance of Don Carlos, in 1787; but these are its utmost limits. It is perhaps best conceived under the figure of an ellipse, the two poles of which are formed by Götz von Berlichingen (1773) and Die Räuber (The Robbers, 1781). Goethe, above all, gave the movement its stamp; his magnificent personality dominated it completely and made it an epoch in the literary evolution of Europe.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born in Frankfort-on-the-Main on the 28th of August, 1749. His father, Johann Caspar Goethe, since 1742 "kaiserlicher Rat", had received a good education as a jurist, and had visited Italy, from which he brought back tastes that influenced his whole life. But he was stern, pedantic, and inaccessible, and little real sympathy existed between him and his children. Of these, Wolfgang was the eldest, and only one other child, Cornelie, survived the age of childhood. The poet's mother, Katharina Elisabeth Textor, who was herself but seventeen when he was born, and of a bright, happy nature, was the real companion of his early years; from her he inherited the better part of his poetic genius. No childhood could have been sunnier than that which young Goethe passed in the patrician house in "Grosse Hirschgraben", with its huge stairs, roomy attics, and quiet corners, its view over the gardens of the town. The boy's literary instincts were first awakened by the stories of the Old Testament, and his imagination was stimulated by the pomp of a "Kaiserkrönung" in the Frankfort "Römer", or town-hall. A marionette theatre and the performances of French players turned his interests in the direction of the drama. During the French occupation of Frankfort, in 1759, Count Thoranc, the "Königslieutenant", was quartered upon Goethe's father: the Count was a man of artistic tastes, and, to Wolfgang's delight, gathered round him the artists of the town, bringing life and stir into the old house. To the enthusiasm which the early cantos of the Messias awakened in the boy, and partly also to the pietism of a distant relative of his mother's, Susanna von Klettenberg--the "schöne Seele" of Wilhelm Meister--we owe the earliest poem which was included in Goethe's works, Poetische Gedanken über die Höllenfahrt Christi (1763).
In 1764, the first romantic episode in the young poet's life occurred, an episode which is surrounded with perhaps too bright a halo of poetry in Dichtung und Wahrheit. But the Frankfort Gretchen, the heroine of this romance, regarded Wolfgang merely as a boy and not as a lover; an illness brought the affair to a conclusion, and, as soon as he recovered, his father sent him to the university. In October, 1765, Goethe matriculated at the University of Leipzig. Leipzig, as he found it, was not very different from what it had been nineteen years earlier when Lessing came to study there; it had become, if anything, more metropolitan, and made even the son of a leading Frankfort citizen seem provincial in dress and speech. In the literary world Gellert was still the chief star, and he had a certain influence on Goethe's prose style in these years. Gottsched, on the other hand, had sunk considerably lower in popular estimation than in Lessing's time. To Goethe, as to Lessing, the theatre and not the university was the chief source of attraction, and it was not long before he, too, was busy with dramatic plans.
The "Schäferspiel" Die Laune des Verliebten, written in 1767 and 1768, is a reflection of Goethe's relations to Anna Katharina Schönkopf, daughter of a Leipzig wine-merchant. It is a slight play in one act, which shows how, by a friend's intervention, a jealous lover is cured of his jealousy: it is written in tripping Alexandrines, and is at least as good as the pastoral plays of the Saxon school. More interesting than Die Laune des Verliebten is a small MS. volume of lyrics inspired by Käthchen Schönkopf, which was discovered and published as recently as 1896. These poems are essentially juvenile--the collection bears the title Annette--and give little promise of the future master. But before Goethe left Leipzig he had taken the first step towards publicity by publishing a volume of Neue Lieder (1769), which had been written mainly in 1768 and 1769. In these songs his hand has become surer, his touch finer; but the gallantry of the "klein Paris" is still uppermost, the poet's real feelings are still veiled in polite insincerities.
The second of Goethe's dramas, Die Mitschuldigen, although it did not receive its present form until his return to Frankfort in 1769, belongs also to the Leipzig period. It is a more ambitious play than its predecessor, but, like it, does not venture beyond the domain of the Saxon comedy. Suggestions from Molière, the half-frivolous, half-moralising tone of Wieland, together with the young poet's own experience of the problematic side of life, formed his materials; but he has not succeeded in combining these varied elements in a harmonious and convincing whole.
The most characteristic of Goethe's writings during his life in Leipzig were his letters to his friends: here we find best exemplified the poet's clearness and intuition, his power of calling up a picture with a few strokes of the pen, and of giving life to ideas. But the strain of the last months of his life in Leipzig had been too much for him: the excitement and dissipation of student-life, in which he endeavoured to stifle his sorrows, ended with the bursting of a blood-vessel in the lungs, and he lay long ill at home. As he gradually recovered, Frankfort, compared with the free, stimulating life of Leipzig, seemed oppressive in its provincialism: he sought consolation in literature for the friends he had left behind him--in Lessing, Shakespeare, and Rousseau. The pietism that had influenced him before he left home now returned with redoubled force; his letters became religious in tone, and he devoted himself to magic and alchemy. His father proposed that he should complete his studies, not in Leipzig, but in Strassburg, and on the 2nd of April, 1770, he arrived in the Alsatian capital, the university of which, French rule notwithstanding, was essentially German.
In Strassburg, Goethe discovered his genius; under the shadow of the Strassburg Minster, he became a poet. It was his good fortune to make congenial acquaintances at once; at the table at which he dined he found an interesting company, presided over by an actuary, Salzmann. To this circle belonged J.H. Jung-Stilling (1740-1817), an older student, who, after a youth of the severest privations, had ultimately been able to realise the wish of his heart and study medicine. His autobiography, of which the first part was published by Goethe in 1777, under the title Heinrich Stillings Jugend, was accepted as a veritable "Volksbuch", and is still interesting for the remarkable tone of pietistic resignation which pervades it. Goethe's studies in Strassburg ranged from law, which he was obliged to study, to anatomy, from alchemy to poetry. But in the autumn of his first year, he made a new acquaintance who was to mean more to him than any other of this eventful time. Herder--the Herder whose Fragmente had found a passionate response in so many young hearts--arrived in Strassburg, and Goethe fell completely under his spell. Herder brought clearness and order into the young poet's thoughts and studies: he taught him his own stimulating ideas of historical evolution, opened his eyes to the beauties of Gothic architecture and to the greatness of Shakespeare; he revealed to him the heart of the people in its songs.
Close upon this friendship followed another important event in Goethe's life, his love for Friederike Brion, daughter of the pastor in Sesenheim, an Alsatian village about twenty miles to the north of Strassburg. As described in Dichtung und Wahrheit, there is no more charming idyll in the history of modern literature; and the lyrics to Friederike are proof enough that, in his autobiography, Goethe did not unduly veil the truth in poetry. The songs which this country girl inspired, placed Goethe in the front rank of lyric poets; since Walther von der Vogelweide, no notes so deep and pure had been struck in German poetry. In his Sesenheim Lieder Goethe first completely freed the lyric from the formalism of the Renaissance. Verses like the following (Mit einem gemahlten Band) mark an epoch in the history of modern poetry:--
- "Sieht mit Rosen sich umgeben
- Sie, wie eine Rose jung.
- Einen Kuss! geliebtes Leben,
- Und ich bin belohnt genung.
- Mädchen das wie ich empfindet,
- Reich mir deine liebe Hand.
- Und das Band, das uns verbindet,
- Sey kein schwaches Rosenband."
To the Sesenheim idyll, the only issue possible was a tragic one, and before many months were over, Goethe felt that the inevitable separation had come. The gulf that lay between the son of a leading Frankfort citizen and the simple villager, who even lost some of her charm for him against the background of Strassburg's streets, was too wide ever to be bridged. The separation broke Friederike's heart and plunged Goethe in despair; it sent him wandering through storm and rain in restless agony, a mood that is reflected in his Wandrers Sturmlied. But his sorrow taught him to see deep enough into the human heart to paint a Marie, a Gretchen, a Werther, and it was now that the great figures of Götz and Faust took possession of him. In August, 1771, seventeen months after his arrival, Goethe left Strassburg as "licentiate of law", a degree which allowed him to use the title "Doctor".
On his return to Frankfort began his initiation into the business of an advocate, but he also found time for social intercourse and gaiety. Among his many friends, J.H. Merck, in Darmstadt (1741-91), seems to have had most authority over him at this time. A man of ripe practical sense, Merck was always ready, after the manner of a Mephistopheles or a Carlos, to keep the enthusiasm of the young poet in check and to lead him back to the path of prudence. In May, 1772, Goethe went for four months to Wetzlar, the seat of the Imperial Law Courts, in order to learn the routine of his profession. Here he soon made a new circle of friends, of whom the chief were F.W. Gotter and J.C. Kestner: here, too, he once more fell in love, and his passion for Charlotte Buff left furrows on his soul almost as deep as those he received in Sesenheim, the conflict being further complicated by the fact that Charlotte was already betrothed to his friend Kestner. But, although Goethe was brought to the verge of suicide, he remained faithful to his friend and Charlotte to her betrothed. A journey up the Rhine and a visit to Frau Sophie von Laroche helped obliterate his grief, and, once in Frankfort again, he devoted himself zealously to literary work. His critical contributions to the Frankfurter Gelehrten Anzeigen (1772-73), in which the signal for the literary revolution was first clearly sounded, and the glowing panegyric on the builder of the Strassburg Minster, Erwin von Steinbach, which appeared in November, 1772, under the title Von deutscher Baukunst, were the immediate results of Herder's teaching. But Goethe's great achievement, the work which made him the chief poet of Germany and the leader of the "Sturm und Drang", was Götz von Berlichingen.
In its first form, Geschichte Gottfriedens von Berlichingen mit der esernen Hand, dramatisirt (not published until 1832), was written in the autumn of 1771; in 1773, however, Goethe completely revised it and gave it a more compact dramatic form, in other words made a play out of what had only been a dramatised chronicle. And in this form under the title Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand: ein Schauspiel, it appeared in 1773. Based upon the hero's own Lebens-Beschreibung, which was written about the middle of the sixteenth century, and printed at Nürnberg in 1731, Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen is a historical drama of the Reformation period, but a drama appealing immediately to the poet's own contemporaries. The rough knight with the hand of iron, enemy of prince and priest alike, but friend of the oppressed, the champion of freedom, was an ideal that went straight to the heart of the time, and the young Germany of the "Sturm und Drang" greeted Götz with stormy acclamation. But, at the same time, Goethe wove into the story his own life in Strassburg; he pictured himself in the wavering Weisslingen, and Friederike in Götz von Berlichingen's sister, Maria. Adalbert von Weissingen was Götz's playmate at school, but their ways have separated; Götz lives as a free nobleman to whom might is right, in his castle on the Jaxt; Weisslingen has entered the service of the Bishop of Bamber, and is on the highway to become a Court favourite. When the drama opens, Götz has seized the opportunity of a feud with the Bishop to take Weisslingen prisoner. In Jaxthausen, Weisslingen sees Maria and loves her, and Götz's noble behaviour and chivalrous treatment of him wins his heart. He resolves to leave the Court and join Götz, but returning to Bamberg to put his affairs in order, yields once more to the allurements of the Court party; he breaks his word to Götz, his troth to Maria. A heartless Court beauty, Adelheid von Walldorf, becomes his wife. Ultimately, Götz, who has put himself at the head of the peasants' revolt, is taken prisoner, and condemned to die by Weisslingen's hand. Maria comes to the latter and implores him by their love to save her brother's life; he tears the sentence of death, but himself dies poisoned by the hand of Adelheid, his wife. Adelheid is condemned to death by the Holy Vehm, and Götz succumbs to his wounds in the hands of his enemies, with the words "Es lebe die Freyheit!" upon his lips. Such is in brief the contents of the stormy tragedy which opened a new era in German literature. The style of the drama is in complete harmony with its spirit; no dramatic unities shackle its progress; the scenes change with a restlessness which it would be difficult to parallel in the Elizabethan drama. An exuberance of genius breathes through Götz; its figures are picturesquely grouped and varied, and drawn with a marvellous sureness of touch. It may, of course, be objected that the life in their veins is that of the "Sturm und Drang" of the eighteenth century and not of the age of Reformation; their language--bold, straightforward, even to grossness--is only the poet's conception of the tongue that was spoken in the sixteenth century; while Götz himself, from a historical point of view, is idealised beyond recognition. But the tragedy is naturally not to be judged as a realistic drama according to modern canons; it is the creation of a poet--a poet's commentary on, and interpretation of, life.
Götz von Berlichingen was followed, in the autumn of 1774, by another work which was even more widely popular, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). As Götz had been a reflection of Goethe's Strassburg life, so Werther reflects his life in Wetzlar, but more faithfully and directly, for the subject of Werther is not historical. In Werthers Leiden the "letter-novel" of the eighteenth century entered upon a new lease of life, but its immediate model was rather La nouvelle Héloïse than the novels of Richardson. The basis of fact upon which Werther is built up was, in the first instance, of course, Goethe's love for Charlotte Buff in Wetzlar; several traits were also suggested by a passing interest in Maximiliane Brentano, daughter of Frau Laroche, and finally the suicide of a young colleague, Jerusalem by name, provided the novel with a conclusion. No book ever seized all hearts so powerfully as this simple story of unhappy love and suicide; over no book have so many tears been shed as over Werther. Its popularity is often accounted for by the fact that Goethe wrote for a morbidly sentimental age, but this explanation is unjust to the poet. It is hardly possible, for instance, that a man like Napoleon could have read Werther seven times had it been nothing but a sentimental love-story; and, if it appealed only to a passing fashion, it would have long ceased to be interesting. But this is manifestly not the case. The greatness of Werther lies in the faithful picture it gives of a human soul; Goethe never drew a more living man than Werther, and it is only necessary to compare him with a typical hero of eighteenth-century fiction, such as Rousseau's Saint-Preux, to realize where the consummate skill of the German poet lay. This gentle youth in the blue coat, yellow waistcoat, and top-boots, with his love for nature and his faith in Homer and Ossian, this tender, sensitive nature, which breaks under an overpowering passion, is one of the most convincing portraits to be found in the literature of the eighteenth century.
The appearance of Werther was a signal for an outburst of sentimental literature by no means restricted to the German language; all Europe was infected with the "Werther fever." Parodies, such as Nicolai's Freuden des jungen Werthers (1775), were incapable of stemming the flood, the effects of which were felt for long afterwards in German fiction. The best novel written under the influence of Werther was Siegwart, eine Klostergeschichte (1776), by the Swabian, J.M. Miller (1750-1814), who, it will be remembered, was one of the more prominent members of the "Göttinger Bund." In Siegwart, moonlight and lachrymose sentiment play, especially at the close, a considerable rôle, but the book is, after all, essentially an "educational" novel, for which the author's early life afforded materials; also, like the older educational novel, it is pointedly didactic in spirit. One of Goethe's friends, F.H. Jacobi (1743-1819), also followed in his footsteps with two books, Aus Eduard Allwills Papieren (1775) and Waldemar (1777-79), both of which found many readers; but, on the whole, their individual stamp was not sufficient to distinguish them from the ordinary sentimental literature of the time. More important is the influence which Jacobi in his turn exerted upon Goethe by drawing his attention to Spinoza, in whom the poet found refuge from the extremes of rationalism on the one side and Moravianism on the other. Jacobi's philosophic writings, such as his Briefe über die Lehre des Spinoza (1785), have more weight than his novels, which were, after all, merely philosophical treatises, clothed in sentimental garb. His elder brother, Johann Georg Jacobi (1740-1814), stands, as a lyric poet, intermediate between the older Anacreontic poetry of Gleim and the lyric of Goethe.
Among the many new friends which the eventful year 1774--perhaps the most eventful in the poet's whole life--brought Goethe, was the Zurich pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801). Lavater was in his day a spiritual force of wide-reaching authority; his fervid individualistic ideas on religion appealed strongly to his contemporaries. As a poet, he had, as we have seen, written dreary Biblical epics on the model of the Messias, as well as hymns inspired by Klopstock's Odes; but these were soon forgotten. His memory is kept alive solely by one remarkable work which, like Klopstock's Gelehrtenrepublik, bears witness to the unbalanced spirit of the "Sturm und Drang." This was the Physiognomischen Fragmente zur Beforderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe (1775-78)--to which Goethe himself contributed a few sketches--a fervid and totally unscientific forerunner of Gall's "Phrenology."
At the beginning of 1775, Goethe was once more involved in a great passion, this time for Lili Schönemann, a rich banker's daughter in Frankfort. Although the atmosphere of the Schönemann household was unsympathetic to the poet, who disliked the restraint of society, he engaged himself to Lili, and the "neue Liebe, neues Leben" brought in its train a burst of matchless lyric poetry; but as the year went on, he himself felt the force of the words he placed in the mouth of Ferdinand, the hero of Stella, "Ich muss fort in die freie Welt." An excursion to the St. Gotthard with the two brothers Stolberg in the following summer cooled his affection for Lili, and when, at the close of the year, Karl August took him to Weimar, on a visit which ultimately proved to be for life, the engagement was broken without tragic consequences on either side.
The period between Goethe's return from Strassburg, in August, 1771, and his departure for Weimar, in November, 1775, was thus filled with the most varied and engrossing experiences for the young poet; and yet, notwithstanding the many distractions, he was busily engaged with literary work and plans. To these years belong more than half-a-dozen dramatic satires, in which Goethe enforced his own healthy, if still somewhat juvenile, views of literature. In Götter, Helden und Wieland (1774), he sallied forth against Wieland and the latter's superficial and untrue pictures of the ancient Greek world; in Hanswursts Hochzeit and the Fastnachtsspiel vom Pater Brey other affectations of the time were satirized. The exaggerated Rousseauism which had followed in the train of Herder's teaching is the subject of Satyros oder der vergötterte Waldteufel, while in the Jahrmarktsfest zu Plundersweilern the "Sturm and Drang" of the time is held up to ridicule. Lastly, Des Künstlers Erdewallen and Des Künstlers Vergötterung (afterwards remodelled as Künstlers Apotheose), are serious pleas for the honour of the artist's calling.
More ambitious are Clavigo (1774) and Stella (1776), both "bürgerliche" dramas of the type which Lessing had perfected in Emilia Galotti. Clavigo, which came, it might be said, red-hot from the poet's brain in the course of a few days, is a variation of the story of Weisslingen in Götz von Berlichingen; and also reflects the Sesenheim tragedy. In the young Spaniard Clavigo, who, incided by his ambitions, abandons Marie de Beaumarchais and ultimately falls at the hands of her brother, Goethe once again dealt out that poetic justice to himself which, in actual life, he had escaped. In the compactness of its dramatic construction, Clavigo is a marked advance from Götz, but its most admirable feature is the figure of Don Carlos, Clavigo's friend and mentor, the man of the world. If Clavigo still harks back to Strassburg, Stella, ein Schauspiel für Liebende, written in the spring of 1775, is clearly an echo of Goethe's engagement to Lili Schönemann; while the name of the heroine and the subject, the love of one man for two women, suggest Swift's biography as a source. Ferdinand is too weak a hero to hold the play together; and the mere fact that it was possible to substitute a tragic denouement for the original--and for its time so characteristic--ending in which Ferdinand took both wives to his bosom, showed that the plan was without true dramatic "necessity." Notwithstanding the psychological insight that distinguishes it, Stella is not one of the poet's masterpieces; and its origin is explained by Goethe's own words, "wenn ich jetzt nicht Dramas schriebe, ich ging zu Grund." Two "Singspiele," which were subsequently remodelled, were also first written at this time, namely Erwin und Elmire (1775) and Claudine von Villa Bella (1776).
Even more significant than the finished plays was the series of magnificent fragments which Goethe dashed off in inspired moments during these years. A great philosophic tragedy on Sokrates (end of 1771) was planned, a religious tragedy on the subject of Mahomet, an epic on the theme of Der ewige Jude. To the year 1773 belongs the beginning of a drama on Prometheus, which breaks off with the noble monologue:--
- "Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus,
- Mit Wolkendunst,
- Und übe, dem Knaben gleich,
- Der Disteln kökpft,
- An Eichen dich und Bergeshöhn;
- Musst mir meine Erde
- Doch lassen stehn,
- Und meine Hütte, die du nicht gebaut,
- Und meinen Herd,
- Um dessen Gluth
- Du mich beneidest."
But all these fragments sink into insignificance beside the tragedy of Faust, which had already received its earliest form before Goethe went to Weimar. With this work, which had occupied Goethe's attention since his student days in Strassburg, the first period of his life culminates. As recently as 1887, a MS. copy of Faust was discovered in the form in which the poet brought it to Weimar--the so-called "Göchhausen'sche Abschrift." This play of 1775 is essentially the Faust of the "Sturm und Drang," and might be said to represent the highest point which this movement in German literature reached. There is nothing in it of the calm philosophic spirit of the completed masterpiece; Goethe is not yet able to rise superior to his hero, as he does in the completed "First Part" (1808), and even to some extent in the published fragment of 1790. He is here one with Faust, and the drama is, in the most literal sense, a confession. He, too, had known the unsatisfied craving for new experiences, on the one hand, and the hatred of what Schiller called the "tintenklecksende Seculum" on the other; to him life was still full of contradictions and inexplicable problems.
The opening monologue reflects in its hearty "Knittelverse," which recall the drama of Hans Sachs, the attitude of the "Sturm und Drang" towards knowledge and learning. The apostrophe to the moon--
- "Ach könnt ich doch auf Berges Höhn
- In deinem lieben Lichte gehn,
- Um Bergeshöhl mit Geistern schweben,
- Auf Wiesen in deinem Dämmer weben,
- Von all dem Wissensqualm entladen
- In deinem Thau gesund mich baden!"
expresses the longing of the age to find in nature what it could not obtain from books. Here, too, in response to Faust's conjuration, the Erdgeist appears "in widerlicher Gestalt"--
- "In Lebensfluthen, im Thatensturm
- Wall ich auf und ab,
- Webe hin und her!
- Geburt und Grab,
- Ein ewges Meer,
- Ein wechselnd Leben!
- So schaff ich am sausenden Webstul der Zeit
- Und würcke der Gottheit lebendiges Kleid."
The first scene of the drama closes with the dialogue between Faust and his "Famulus," Wagner; the next is that between Mephistopheles and the Scholar, or, as the old text has it, the "Student," a scene in which the young "Stürmer und Dränger" has an opportunity of pouring out his scorn of academic pedantry. There is, however, as yet no indication how Faust and Mephistopheles are to be brought together. "Auerbachs Keller" is a reminiscence of Leipzig, blended with later academic experiences, and, in its earliest form, leaves a fresher and more actual impression than that which the final version makes upon the reader; Faust, for instance, is not the calm onlooker of the more philosophic play; it is he and not Mephistopheles who bores the table and supplies the students with wine from the holes. The scene that bears the title "Strasse" opens the "Gretchen" tragedy, and is followed, as in the completed drama, by that which plays in Gretchen's "kleinem reinlichem Zimmer." Gretchen's naïve delight in the discovered ornaments and the ballad of "Der König in Thule" are, in their oldest form, if less polished, not on that account the less sincere and heartfelt; and the whole of this tragedy, with its fine pathos, the simple beauty of its love scenes in which Marthe takes part, was all already written in Frankfort. Here, too, is the wonderful prose scene, "Trüber Tag," followed by the unforgettable picture of Faust and Mephistopheles rushing pas the gallows on black horses, and, above all, the scene in Gretchen's prison, a scene that seeks its like in dramatic literature; and all this came directly out of the brain of this poet of twenty-five, in his period of "Sturm und Drang."
Still another of Goethe's dramas, Egmont (1788), belongs in its essentials to this period of his life. He began to write Egmont as early as 1775; and it was then planned as a tragedy of the type of Götz, enunciating the same principles of freedom and revolt. But before Goethe left Frankfort for Weimar, he had only sketched out the play as far as the third act; in 1778 and 1779, and again in 1781, new scenes were added; while the finishing touches were not put to the drama until the summer of 1787, when he was in Italy. In Egmont, Goethe has stretched the limits of dramatic form to the utmost; no other of his dramas, not even Tasso, is so deficient in progressive action. The "great" Graf Egmont, the leader of the revolt of the Netherlands against Spanish tyranny, is warned of the danger he runs in remaining in Brussels; he pays no attention to the warnings, is taken prisoner by the Duke of Alba, and executed--such is the slight plot upon which rests Egmont's claim to be regarded as a drama; all else in the play is episodic, and only serves to complete the picture of Egmont himself. The admirable "Volksscenen" are introduced to show how he was regarded by the populace of Brussels; Margarete von Parma, Machiavell and Oranien are only foils to bring his political position into prominence; Clärchen exists to let us see him in love; the various scenes are loosely thrown together without connection or construction. And yet, notwithstanding these shortcomings, Egmont remains one of Goethe's most impressive works. The hero himself, who has but little in common with the historical Egmont, is a masterpiece of dramatic characterization; he is another Weisslingen, another Ferdinand, another Faust; he is again the "Stürmer und Dränger" with "two souls in his breast." Like these characters, Egmont is, to use Goethe's own expression, "dämonisch," but the tragic discord in Weisslingen's or Faust's life has in Egmont's given place to a calmer, more cheerful outlook upon the world. He is not, to the same extent, at war with existence; he wins the affection of all who come in contact with him; his tragic fate is his own trusting heart. But even to a greater extent than to the principal figure, the tragedy owes its popularity to Clärchen. Like Gretchen, Clärchen bears witness to that faculty of laying bare a woman's soul which Goethe possessed in so remarkable a degree: the love-scenes between Egmont and Clärchen are among the truest he ever wrote. Egmont's "Geliebte" is not merely a replica of Gretchen; she bears indeed something of the same relation to Gretchen that Egmont bears to Faust: she is less tragic, and has still that light-hearted "Lebenslust" which Gretchen had lost--if she ever possessed it--before Faust knew her. She is less naïve and more self-conscious than Gretchen; and occasionally, as in her wonderful song, "Freudvoll und leidvoll, Gedankenvoll sein," there is a suggestion of that romantic poetry which forms a halo round Mignon.
Thus, although defective as a drama, Egmont is justified by its characters; it appeals to us by its broad human sympathy, the broader because the turbulence of Götz and Clavigo has subsided. It forms the transition in Goethe's work from the "Sturm und Drang" to the maturity of his life in Weimar, from Götz to Iphigenie.
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