Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2017

Goethe, a Very Short Introduction (2016), by Ritchie Robertson

This Very Short Introduction does exactly what a VSI should do.  It introduces the reader to its subject and explains why it is significant, and it’s pitched at a non-academic audience in accessible language and with a coherent organisation of the content.  Ritchie Robertson’s Goethe, a Very Short Introduction made me want to drop what I’m currently reading and find out more about this great German writer.

Goethe (Wikipedia Commons)Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a celebrity novelist at the age of 25! His debut novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (see my review) was an early example of the Sturm und Drang literary movement, but today its passionate evocation of hopeless young love would place it on the YA shelves (and the film studios would option it and he’d have a mega advance to set him up for life).  But as Robertson explains in the preface, there is a lot more to Goethe than Werther.

Writing on the great issues of his time…

… Goethe produced masterpieces in almost every genre: poems on the largest and smallest scale, plays and novels in varied kinds, autobiography, aphorisms, essays, literary and art criticism.   (p.xiii)

Goethe looks like a respectable German intellectual in this portrait but he was actually quite the non-conformist in some ways.  Robertson says that it’s wrong to think of him as a distant and, nowadays unexciting Victorian sage, and also as a serene Olympian figure above ordinary human passions. [*chuckle* Robertson, being an Oxford scholar, does not mean athletic; he means Olympian as in the Greek gods].  Goethe had to work hard at controlling his turbulent emotional experience and #scandal! he shacked up with his lady friend for many years instead of marrying her.  But politically he was deeply conservative, and indeed his refusal, when he was in a position of power, to reform the death penalty for infanticide, led directly to the execution of a young woman.  His literature, taken as a whole, reveals these contradictions, his irritation with petty restrictions, his questing nature and his reflections on the rapidly changing world he lived in.  Robertson says that he was:

… deeply marked by living through the French revolution and the twenty-plus years of war that followed it.  Intellectually, he was shaped by the Enlightenment, and by its commitment to understanding the world by means of empirical and historical study, though he rejected the egalitarianism and irreligion of the Enlightenment’s radical wing.  (p. xiv)

Lionised in Germany now, Goethe was not so popular in his own day.  He was against trends like Romanticism and German nationalism, and his more difficult later works made him a marginal figure.  He was attacked for having a questionable domestic life, for being detached from Christianity, for being politically conservative and for taking employment at court.  He also outraged his contemporaries with his tolerance for same-sex relationships.  It wasn’t until well after he died that German intellectuals of the German empire massaged his image and turned him into a cult figure.  (Robertson says that criticism of him sometimes arouses fury which made me wonder if these were just academic spats or a prevailing attitude, akin to criticising sacred cows here in Australia).   

Chapter 1, titled ‘Love’ analyses The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and it’s excellent.  It places the novel in its historical context and explains why it was a Big Deal:

Goethe went further than any previous writer in presenting his hero as a union of mind and body.  In doing so, he extended the range of experience that literature could express.  And since literature is not just a commentary on life, but interacts with it, he also extended the range of what people could experience in their lives.  (p.6)

Robertson also says that Goethe extended these literary frontiers in poetry: he shares an uninhibited frankness with John Donne, but the feverish intensity of Donne’s poetry is different to the happy fulfilment in Goethe’s because he evokes a mutual relationship rather than Donne’s use of ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than ‘we’.  

This chapter also tests the biographical aspects of the novel i.e. its confessional aspects and it identifies the recurrent theme of Goethe’s need for someone to calm his turbulent emotions.  It goes on to discuss some poems unpublished in his lifetime but which show Goethe’s achievement in adapting classical metres not only to a modern language but to the rhythms of the speaking voice.  (But as Robertson’s translations show, some of this is inevitably lost in translation.)

Which is why I’m more interested in what Robertson has to say about the novels.  Elective Affinities (1809) has gone straight onto my wishlist.  Victorian readers in England were apparently shocked: they were used to Austenish comedies, which resolve in marriage, but Goethe’s novel apparently explores the difficulties after marriage (predating Madame Bovary by half a century).  I was fascinated to learn that the novel treats marriage, not as a sacrament or a lifelong bond, but as a pragmatic social arrangement.  Unlike in Britain where divorce was difficult and expensive to achieve and carried a social stigma – in Germany it was quite the opposite.  No wonder the Brits deplored a novel which explored the idea of two couples forming different relationships!

Chapter 2 is called ‘Nature’ and it goes into some detail about Goethe’s somewhat eccentric conceptions of science and philosophy.  It sounds as if, from a reader’s point of view, it’s a bit like Zola’s theories of hereditary stains within a family, not to be taken seriously in the 21st century.  When Goethe dabbled in geology and mineralogy, his conviction that nature worked in a slow continuous manner (Neptunism) influenced works like Faust II where he satirised Vulcanism (a theory attributing the formation of mountains to violent changes in the earth’s crust).

But as Robertson says:

Whether such writing is scientifically accurate hardly matters: it enriches our awareness of the world around us. (p. 37)

Mind you, by the sound of it, I’m not in a hurry to tackle Goethe’s longest work On the Doctrine of Colours (1810) – which was an attack on Isaac Newton’s theory about the origin of colours.

Newton’s account of the spectrum remains substantially valid.  Goethe’s essay is a quixotic reargaurd action against the mathematisation of science. (p.39)

*chuckle* He’d be a climate change denier today, I guess… but that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for reading Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-6) which is a Bildungsroman’ or coming-of-age story.  I do like the sound of that one.

Chapter 3 covers ‘Classical art and world literature’, tracing Goethe’s remarkable talents as an artist as well as a writer and reader.  He was a classicist who thought that Greek art (as he saw it in Italy) could not be surpassed and with Friedrich Schiller (you know his Ode to Joy if you hum along with Beethoven’s 9th) developed an aesthetic theory.  This section of the VSI is too long to summarise here, but it’s especially interesting to read so soon after reading the VSI on postmodernism.  Although Goethe (wisely) did not take up art as a career because he was good at it but not great, his love of art influenced his writing.  He looked at the world with a painterly eye, and his essays also influenced opinion about architecture, transforming the attitude towards ‘barbarous’ Gothic architecture into admiration for its harmony and proportion.  (Although he was wrong about Gothic architecture originating in Germany.  It evolved in 12th century France.)

When it came to reading, Goethe was famous for saying that national literature no longer means much, the age of world literature is at hand.   He could read easily in French, Italian, and English as well as Latin and Greek not to mention scraps of Gaelic and an enthusiasm for reading translations of the Asian texts that were becoming available as well as Arabic and Persian poetry.  Just imagine!  He was an enthusiast of Shakespeare’s plays, but preferred reading them to seeing them performed and he was hesitant about the emerging Romantic movement (even though today Werther is considered a foundation text).

But despite his fondness for classical texts, he recognised that recreating them was a bad idea:

… in adopting classical forms, one had ironically to acknowledge one’s own modernity and hence one’s distance from the ancient world. (p.58)

What he did instead can’t (says Robertson) be disparaged as ‘appropriation’ today.  To write his collection of poems published recently by Wakefield Press as The West-Eastern Divan of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe he first explored Persian and Arabic poetry and then wrote his own Orientalised poems.  For although he thought that he was a kindred spirit of the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz (also spelt Hafez) he did not identify with him, nor profess knowledge of the Orient or exert virtual power over it.

Rather, he explores the Middle East, feeling his way into it and suggesting analogies with his own world. (p.62)

I think I’ve given a fair idea of how valuable this VSI is for anyone wanting to make a start with Goethe, but this post is already long enough.    Chapters 4, 5 and 6 are titled ‘Politics’, ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Religion’ respectively.  The complex story of Goethe’s political attitudes affirms that this VSI is no hagiography: some of his actions do deserve criticism. To give just one example, he disapproved of upward mobility but made himself upwardly mobile himself by accepting a position at court – and then wrote plays whose theme is keeping the peasants in their place.

There is a chronology of Goethe’s life and works, references, translations and suggestions for further reading, and an index.  I can’t recommend this VSI highly enough.

Author: Ritchie Robertson
Title: Goethe, a Very Short Introduction
Series: Very Short Introductions (Oxford University Press)
Publisher: Oxford University Press,2016
ISBN: 9780199689255
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: Goethe: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


  1. These do sound like great books but I know I just don’t have time to do them justice, so thank you for your summaries. One of the best parts of our last trip to Europe was spending a few days in Weimar and visiting Goethe’s and Schiller’s houses and learning quite a lot about their lives, their work, their relationships. I think of all the places we visited in Germany (including Berlin, Leipzig, Mainz and Bonne, among others), Weimar was the loveliest for me.


    • Did you put photos of their houses on your travel blog?


      • Yes, we did. I can email you the link if you haven’t still got it.

        My post for the day we arrived in Weimar started with this (I’ve just checked): “Do you find that some places just feel right? That they have a certain vibe that captures your attention almost immediately and you feel you a going to love them? We do, and Weimar gave us this feel, even though the walk to our pension from the station at 5pm on a grey Saturday was pretty unprepossessing.”

        (LOL, it’s a small city so avoids that big city comment we discussed, yesterday was it?)


    • Will fix!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    So do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom?


    • Ha!
      And yes indeed I do, that land is our backyard… where we grow lemons and limes; Clementines and mandarins and cumquats too.
      *sigh* But we don’t have any dragons in a cave …


  3. To take up one of your points – it seems from my reading that the C19th was a time of tension for women, and no doubt men, entering marriage, between love and pragmatism. In fact Austen still confounds my expectations of her era with her decided preference for love over practicality, for her heroines anyway.


    • Aw, it’s quite practical to marry a very rich Mr Darcy…


      • Haha, yes, Lisa.

        Austen isn’t that simple Bill. She realised her heroines needed to marry. Economically speaking, their lives were likely to be unhappy of they didn’t. See Jane Fairfax on women being governesses, and see Emma on stating she didn’t need to marry because she had money and a home but she sees that Harriet Smith did need to marry. However, she also knew that marriage without love was an unhappy place too.

        In P&P, Jane Bennet understands Charlotte Lucas’ decision to marry Mr Collins, even if Elizabeth doesn’t. And Austen presents Charlotte as making the best of it. You can go through all her books and see the way she explores and comments on the institution of marriage, even if in the end she has romantic endings for her protagonists.


        • I think Jane finds something nice to say about everyone! But I agree JA doesn’t forget the economic imperative, even if I do read her novels as romances. BTW I have a new s/hand JA biography. I’ll let you know the author when I get home.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. […] going to go with the most recent one I’ve read because it was so good, so very, very good. Goethe, a Very Short Introduction by Richie Robertson.  It just makes me want to read Goethe’s books, and IMO that’s […]


  5. Apologies for the late comment; only just had the chance to read this… One of my most treasured possessions is a multi-volume collection of Goethe’s works I inherited from my father who regularly recited one of G’s poems to me when he put me to bed – strange really because it was a rather scary poem about a father riding with his child. You didn’t mention Faust, but surely this most famous novel of his – according to ‘German’ opinion taught at school, at least – would have been discussed in the book. Goethe was also – like me – in love with Italy, travelled widely around Naples and Sicily and wrote about that in his Ialian travels. And like Sue, I visited the houses of the two most famous German writers of the past and loved doing it.


    • Hi Annette, yes, you are absolutely right, there is a lot about Faust, including some discussion about the different versions of it, and I intend to have this VSI by my side when I read it. But I want to read Elective Affinities first:)


      • I can’t remember that one though I’m likely to have read it…


        • I haven’t got a copy yet, I need to get some advice about a good translation.


  6. […] Goethe, a Very Short Introduction, by Ritchie Robertson #BookReview […]


  7. […] work of literary criticism, also on my TBR (though today it defies my efforts to find it.  But Goethe: A Very Short Introduction by Richie Robertson is in plain sight.  Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther is the […]


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