Goethe is perhaps the greatest love poet of modern Europe. ‘Love’ mainly considers his poetry, but it begins with his early novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sufferings of Young Werther, 1774), that he wrote about love in a new way which enraptured innumerable readers. 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. Goethe’s personal relationship history is documented and, against this background, the early love poetry is rich in emotional complexity. A recurrent theme is the poet’s need for someone to calm his turbulent emotions.
The Sufferings of Young Werther
Goethe is perhaps the greatest love poet of modern Europe, and much of this chapter will be concerned with his poetry. However, it was in his early novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sufferings of Young Werther, 1774), that he wrote about love in a new way which enraptured innumerable readers. The 25-year-old Goethe, working reluctantly and rather aimlessly as a barrister in his native Frankfurt am Main (see Figure 2), suddenly found himself famous.
The novel, following a favourite 18th-century device, is presented by a fictitious editor who claims to have collected documents with which to recount Werther’s life and the circumstances of his suicide. These documents are letters, all written by Werther to a male friend. They bring us so close to Werther’s experience that many readers have identified whole-heartedly with him, despite warning signals. Werther comes across as passionate, warm-hearted, responding rapturously to nature. His imagination enables him to project himself into other people’s emotions. He is free from snobbery, friendly to ordinary people, loves playing with children, and is repeatedly irked by the social conventions that would restrain his natural impulses. There are, however, ominous hints about his emotional volatility and his past tendency to depression. Nature p. 2↵is not enough: he wants love. ‘What is the world like without love?’ he asks his correspondent. ‘Like a magic lantern without a light’ (letter of 18 July 1771).
Love is soon embodied in Charlotte (always called Lotte), a young woman in her late teens, who supports her widowed father by p. 3↵looking after her six younger siblings (see Figure 3). She is charming, practical, selfless, but thoroughly corporeal: she and Werther meet at a ball where Lotte admits her fondness for waltzing (a dance then considered rather bold because it involved p. 4↵physical contact). Werther is soon enraptured. Their relationship is anchored in everyday events that are described simply and freshly, e.g.: ‘It is a splendid summer. Often I sit in the fruit trees in Lotte’s orchard and with a long pole detach the pears and reach them down from the very tops. She stands below, I lower them to her and she takes them’ (letter of 28 August 1771). But even Werther’s most vivid images are ominous: the magic lantern implies illusion, the pears suggest forbidden fruit. For Lotte is engaged to Albert, a practical, unimaginative, hard-working administrator, the antithesis of Werther who is a dilettante artist. After Albert’s arrival, Werther’s frustration makes him as intensely miserable as he was previously ecstatic. His love becomes a tormenting passion; nature now seems a scene of constant destruction; threatened with emotional paralysis, he wanders about at night, forcing his way painfully through thorn-bushes in order at least to feel something. Separation from Lotte does not help. Werther takes a job as secretary to an ambassador at a small princely court, but his disregard for social convention gets him into trouble; he resigns his job and is eventually drawn back to live near Lotte, who is now married to Albert.
Here the editor intervenes with a commentary that henceforth alternates with extracts from Werther’s letters. We learn that Werther’s constant visits are disrupting Albert and Lotte’s marriage, and that Werther himself is falling into hopeless depression and has already resolved on suicide. As a prelude, he pays two fateful visits to Lotte. When she remonstrates with him for his self-destructive behaviour, he indicates his inner violence by scowling, grinding his teeth, and accusing her of being Albert’s mouthpiece. Later, seemingly calmer, he reads aloud to her from ‘Ossian’, the elegiac prose-poems by James Macpherson which 18th-century Europe took for an ancient Celtic epic; the intense melancholy overwhelms them, and they meet in a passionate embrace. Lotte regains her self-control and dismisses Werther for good, despite his pleas. Returning home, he arranges his affairs and writes Lotte a long suicide note, interrupting it only to send p. 5↵his servant to Albert to borrow some pistols, on the pretext that he is going on a journey (and therefore needs defence against highwaymen). Lotte guesses why he wants the pistols, but says nothing. Werther shoots himself at midnight and is found, dying, early the following morning.
This was the novel that took Europe by storm and made Goethe a celebrity. ‘I know the book almost by heart,’ wrote a noblewoman soon after its publication. ‘The first part in particular has quite divine passages, and the second is horribly beautiful.’ Napoleon, who talked with Goethe for an hour in 1808, had read it seven times. The monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) reads Werther and finds in it ‘a never-ending source of speculation and astonishment’, considering Werther himself ‘a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined’. A French translation appeared in 1776, an English one in 1779. Today the ‘Lottehaus’ museum at Wetzlar, near Frankfurt, displays not only numerous editions, literary imitations and parodies, but much Werther-inspired merchandise, including plates painted in China and showing scenes from the novel or merely suggested by it (Lotte mourning at Werther’s grave was a favourite). Why this vogue?
Intensely emotional novels in letters were not new. The 18th century was the age of sentiment as well as the age of reason. Two of its fictional masterpieces, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), both based on misguided passion, excited comparable enthusiasm. But while these consist of letters exchanged among several protagonists, in Werther all the letters are by the title character, giving the novel unprecedented concentration and intensity. Moreover, Werther’s experiences are firmly grounded in a familiar German small-town setting with many homely everyday details. Most importantly, the novel presents love as simultaneously an emotional and a physical experience. ‘Oh how it courses all through my veins when by accident my finger touches hers or when our feet touch under the table. I pull back as though from p. 6↵fire and a mysterious force draws me on again—there is a fainting in all my senses’, reports Werther (letter of 16 July 1771). And not long before his death he is shocked by experiencing a highly physical erotic dream (letter of 14 December). 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.
The union of physical and mental experienced in Werther corresponds to a major theme in the philosophy, psychology, and medicine of Goethe’s time. The late Enlightenment was no longer satisfied with the conception of the mind and body put forward in the 17th century by Descartes. For Descartes, the two were so separate that the body could be imagined as a self-contained machine, though its connection with the mind remained inexplicable. Goethe, like the philosophical doctors of his time, uses the term ‘Kraft’ (‘power’ or ‘energy’) to mediate between physical and mental experience and to link the individual to the natural forces at work around him. Werther uses this word continually, as when he complains ‘how narrowly the active and enquiring powers of a human being are confined’ (letter of 22 May 1771).
The interplay of mind and body is emphasized especially when Werther and Albert debate the morality of suicide: the conventional Albert condemns it as moral cowardice, the empathetic Werther imagines a suicidal disposition as a kind of illness, so that the suicide no more deserves blame than does an invalid who dies of fever. Such passages led the novel to be condemned as justifying or even glorifying suicide. It was claimed that the novel prompted a wave of copycat suicides, and the claim cannot be completely dismissed, for one young woman drowned herself in 1778 with a copy of Werther in her pocket. However, Goethe placed in the second edition of the novel (1775) some verses explicitly warning p. 7↵readers not to follow Werther’s example. Even without them, it should have been clear that Werther’s suicide results from his pathology, and also that, being accompanied by a long letter addressed to Lotte, it is an act both of violence towards himself and extreme emotional cruelty towards others. The novel as a whole is a balanced contribution to the late 18th-century debate on how suicide should be understood and judged now that many people no longer accepted the religious sanctions against it.
Werther as confession?
To place Werther in the history of 18th-century psychology is a salutary alternative to focusing on its biographical origins. However, Goethe’s biography and personality are important. In the autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth), which he wrote largely between 1811 and 1814, he famously describes his works as ‘fragments of a great confession’. We must treat this description with all due caution. He also tells us that throughout his life he would cope with his powerful feelings by transmuting them into an image. And it is clear both from his later autobiography and from contemporary testimony that the young Goethe felt disturbingly intense, barely controllable emotions which alternated between boisterous enthusiasm and restless melancholy. A poem written in uncertain English admits the 16-year-old’s volatility: ‘In Moments of Melancholy | Flies all my Happiness’. In the first emotional relationship that we know anything about for certain, with Käthchen Schönkopf, he tormented her with fantasies of jealousy, which she bore submissively till she finally rebelled and left him; he ruefully portrayed his own insufferable behaviour in the early play Die Laune des Verliebten (The Lover’s Moods, 1767). He tells us in Poetry and Truth that he often thought about suicide.
So perhaps it is not surprising that Werther should be partly inspired by an actual suicide. On 29 October 1772 a young man p. 8↵called Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, whom Goethe knew slightly, shot himself. The case attracted wide attention because Jerusalem’s father was an eminent theologian and churchman. Goethe’s friend Johann Christian Kestner sent him a detailed account of Jerusalem’s unhappiness and death on 2 November 1772. Like Werther at court, Jerusalem had been unhappy in his work, and had suffered a social humiliation; he had an unrequited attachment to a married woman, whose husband forbade him to visit their house; he took long solitary walks through the woods at night; he borrowed pistols from Kestner and committed suicide in exactly the same way as Werther does in the novel, dressed in the blue coat and yellow waistcoat that Goethe would make into Werther’s trademark costume. Even the last sentence of the novel, ‘No priest attended’, is taken from Kestner’s letter.
Goethe’s unabashed use of the Jerusalem material (what must the young man’s bereaved parents have felt?) may be said to illustrate the egotism of genius. So does his treatment of the Kestners. Before her marriage to Kestner, Goethe had been warmly attached to Charlotte Buff, who has always been assumed to be the original of Werther’s Lotte. The parallels are close, and Goethe even wrote an apologetic letter to the Kestners, forewarning them of their appearance in the novel. However, Werther is not a roman à clef, nor a disguised autobiography, and to identify fictional characters with real people is at best simplistic—though it provided an adequate pretext for Thomas Mann’s fascinating novel, Lotte in Weimar (1939; known in English as The Beloved Returns), in which the widowed Lotte visits Goethe, now an elderly dignitary, in Weimar in 1816. What matters is the situation that Goethe’s novel depicts: intense, unconsummated attraction to an unattainable woman.
This situation would recur several times in Goethe’s life, the most famous example being the intimate friendship he enjoyed with the married Charlotte von Stein in Weimar from 1775 till his sudden departure for Italy in 1786. Even while writing Werther he was p. 9↵spending so much time with the newly married Maximiliane La Roche (daughter of the novelist Sophie La Roche) that her husband, a businessman twenty years her senior, became annoyed and may well have banned Goethe from the house. In 1775, for a change, Goethe fell in love with an accessible woman, Elisabeth (‘Lili’) Schönemann, daughter of a rich Frankfurt banker, but he felt that her smart social circle regarded him as an unconventional eccentric, an uncouth bear in Lili’s menagerie (the image used in the poem ‘Lilis Park’), and his unannounced departure on a trip to Switzerland in May 1775 may be seen as an escape from her.
Behind the women to whom Goethe was attracted although or because they were inaccessible, we can discern his sister Cornelia (1750–77). The siblings were deeply attached. Goethe describes Cornelia as unhappy, worried about her plainness, denied any education beyond the usual middle-class female accomplishments, and kept under surveillance by their well-meaning but strict and often authoritarian father. In 1773, much against her brother’s will, she married the magistrate Johann Georg Schlosser (1739–99), but led a lonely and unhappy life with him. The constellation Goethe—Cornelia—Schlosser resembles the triangle Werther—Lotte—Albert. When Cornelia died in childbed in June 1777, Goethe was devastated. He wrote to his mother five months later: ‘With my sister, such a strong root holding me to the earth has been chopped off, that the branches above, which should also have been nourished by it, must wither away.’
‘This heart on fire’
Against this background, the early love poetry is rich in emotional complexity. A recurrent theme is the poet’s need for someone to calm his turbulent emotions. It seems as if Goethe needed love, not to stimulate his passions, but to allay them. This is clear from a famous poem associated with Friederike Brion, a clergyman’s daughter in the Alsatian village of Sesenheim, with whom Goethe p. 10↵had a relationship while studying in Strasbourg in 1770–1. Beyond the highly fictionalized account Goethe gave fifty years later in Dichtung und Wahrheit, we know little about Friederike; it is hard to guess how deep the relationship went, or why Goethe suddenly broke it off in August 1771. But we do not need such knowledge to appreciate the combination of energy and neediness in the poem beginning ‘Mir schlug das Herz’ (My heart beat), which Goethe wrote probably in 1771 and published first in 1775 and later, in a revised and (by common consent) enfeebled form, as ‘Willkommen und Abschied’ (Welcome and Departure). One evening the speaker suddenly resolves to ride off to visit his girl-friend: ‘My heart beat: quick, to horse, | And away, wildly, like a hero to battle!’ This feels excessively, disturbingly impetuous. On the nocturnal ride, the ghostly, sinister landscape seems to externalize the speaker’s suppressed anxiety. His passion feels self-destructive: ‘My spirit was a devouring fire, | My whole heart was melting in its glow.’ When he meets his beloved, her ‘gentle joy’ calms him down. At their parting, she evidently walks back to her house, and he follows her with tearful looks: ‘You went, I stood, and gazed at the ground, | And gazed after you with tears in my eyes’. The former hypermasculine hero is now a vulnerable and anxious person.
The need to be calmed persists after one of the great caesuras in Goethe’s life, his move in November 1775 to the small court of Weimar, where, thanks to his celebrity, he was invited to be companion to the 18-year-old Duke Carl August. There he met, and rapidly fell in love with, Charlotte von Stein (1742–1827), wife of the Master of the Horse. A contemporary describes Charlotte as gentle, serious, with a refined sensibility and expressive dark eyes. Her marriage was probably unfulfilling; she and her husband often lived apart. At first she had to restrain Goethe’s impetuosity, refusing for several years to let him address her by the intimate pronoun ‘du’, and exercising an authority enhanced by her noble status and her greater age. She thus ensured an attachment which lasted till Goethe’s departure for Italy in 1786.
p. 11Early in their relationship, in April 1776, Goethe sent her the enigmatic, deeply personal poem ‘Warum gabst du uns die tiefen Blicke’ (Why did you give us deep insight), which he never published. If it portrays their relationship, it does so in fictionalized form, exploiting poetic licence to address her by the otherwise forbidden ‘du’. She has calmed him: her intimate understanding of his character, conveyed in the psycho-physical terms we have come to expect, has quietened his impulsive blood and given direction to his aimless activity. But, and here the poem becomes deeply strange, this calming effect is said, employing the fiction of reincarnation, to have taken place during an earlier existence, when ‘you were my sister or my wife’. In the present, the two live in a ghostly, twilit condition, with a self-knowledge denied to ordinary passionate lovers, enjoying a secure relationship whose centre is in the remote past.
Similarly subdued emotions are expressed in ‘An den Mond’ (To the Moon), a haunting poem which exists in three versions. The first, written perhaps in 1778, was not published in Goethe’s lifetime. The second, published in 1789, is famous thanks to its settings by Schubert and numerous other composers. And the third was written by Charlotte von Stein, entitled ‘To the Moon after my fashion’, and possibly sent to Goethe to reproach him for his unannounced disappearance to Italy. A stanza from the first version is revealing:
Das du so beweglich kennst, Dieses Herz in Brand, Haltet ihr wie ein Gespenst An den Fluß gebannt
This heart on fire, which you know to be so volatile—the two of you hold it, like a ghost, bound to the river as by a spell.
The moon of the poem not only calms the speaker’s fiery heart, but reduces him to a ghost-like state. It hints that Goethe found his relationship with Charlotte von Stein therapeutic, rewarding, but p. 12↵ultimately life-denying. Other evidence from his first decade in Weimar (1775–86) suggests that his many administrative burdens and his frustratingly platonic relationship with Charlotte hampered his creativity and made him ultimately desperate to escape. Having obtained permission from his employer, but without telling Charlotte, he slipped out of Carlsbad (the holiday resort in Bohemia to which some court members had migrated) at 3 a.m. on 3 September 1786. On 8 September he crossed the Brenner Pass into Italy, where he would spend the next two years.
Rome, Christiane Vulpius, and the creaking bed
Immediately after returning from Italy, Goethe set to work on what would prove one of his poetic masterpieces, the poetic cycle which he originally intended to call Erotica Romana but which eventually received the title Römische Elegien (Roman Elegies). Some of his friends in Weimar, alarmed by their sexual explicitness, dissuaded him from publishing them. It took his collaborator Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), the great dramatist and philosopher, to see that their ‘lofty poetic beauty’ might offend against conventional prejudices, but not against ‘that decency which is true and natural’. Twenty of the original twenty-four poems appeared in Schiller’s periodical, Die Horen (The Hours, referring to the Greek goddesses of the seasons and hence of natural order), in June 1795 (the rest of the issue was taken up, not inappropriately, by Schiller’s essay on the aesthetics of ‘melting’ or relaxing beauty). Set in modern Rome, the poems pay tribute to the Latin love-poets, especially Propertius, by adapting the elegiac distich in which a hexameter alternates with a pentameter. This may sound forbidding, but part of Goethe’s achievement lies in adapting classical metres not only to a modern language but to the rhythms of the speaking voice.
The achievement of the Elegies is also to write frankly and seriously about a love-relationship that centres on physical enjoyment. p. 13↵While the speaker celebrates the pleasure of being in Rome, away from grey northern skies, political gossip, and tedious questions about the facts behind Werther, he makes clear that antiquarian tourism would be no fun without the added pleasure of love. ‘Roma’ needs its palindrome ‘Amor’. The relationship is both amorous and commercial. The speaker pays a young widow, called ‘Faustina’, for her sexual services, enabling her and her compliant mother to enjoy better food, clothes, and trips to the opera, and allowing him to enjoy sex without the fear of picking up a venereal disease from a prostitute. Faustina’s wider family do not know about the relationship; she visits him at night, and is once nearly betrayed by a barking dog; when they happen to see each other in a restaurant, they can communicate only by secret signs. The poems convey the clandestine thrill of sharing a love-nest which the busy and prurient world knows nothing about. What happens there is robustly physical and also affectionate. The famous Elegy V describes how, after love-making and pillow-talk, she falls asleep and he taps out the rhythm of the hexameter on her back while watching her tenderly: ‘She sweetly breathes in her slumber, | Warmly the glow of her breath pierces the depths of my heart.’ In one of the poems that Goethe withheld from publication, the sparsely furnished bedroom becomes the setting for enjoyment worthy of the Roman gods, enhanced by the details of undressing and going to bed:
We make short work of all that!—In a trice I unfasten this simple Woollen dress, and it drops, slips in its folds to the floor. Quickly, cajolingly, like a good nurse, I carry my darling— Only a light linen shift covers her now—to the bed. Here are no curtains of silk, no embroidered mattresses; freely In the wide bedroom it stands, ample in width to take two. Now not Jupiter’s pleasure in Juno’s embraces is greater, And no mortal’s content vies, I will wager, with mine! Ours is the true, the authentic, the naked Love; and beneath us, Rocking in rhythm, the bed creaks the dear song of our joy.
License my roving hands, and let them go Before, behind, between, above, below.
But, alongside the shared frankness, there are important differences between Donne and Goethe. The feverish intensity of Donne’s poem differs from the happy fulfilment in Goethe’s. Goethe evokes a mutual relationship, in which versions of ‘we’ occur three times, whereas Donne’s poem throughout confronts an ‘I’ with a ‘you’ and uses the pronoun ‘we’ only as shorthand for ‘we men’. Once again, in a more liberating way than in Werther, Goethe has extended the frontiers of what literature can express and, therefore, what its readers can experience.
What made this possible? The account of his stay in Italy, Italienische Reise (Italian Journey), which the elderly Goethe published in 1816–17, gives nothing away. Some think ‘Faustina’ never existed: after all, her name sounds like a playful invention by the author of Faust. However, archival evidence suggests that Goethe did have a clandestine love-relationship at least from January 1788, though his lover’s real name cannot be established. Far from his accustomed surroundings and surveillance, Goethe may well have felt encouraged to kick over the traces.
If so, the effect was lasting. On 18 June Goethe was back in Weimar. On 12 July a 23-year-old woman named Christiane Vulpius, from an impoverished middle-class family, approached him in the Weimar park with a letter from her brother, a struggling writer. Goethe and Christiane became lovers, probably the same day. Their relationship, at first secret, soon became public knowledge, especially after the birth of their son August on 25 December 1789. For many years Goethe and Vulpius lived together as an unmarried couple—a scandal for the stuffy, hypocritical society of Weimar—marrying only in 1806 (see p. 15↵Figure 4). The cheerful, warm-hearted, practical, domestic, devoted Christiane had much in common with Goethe’s mother, who liked her and told Goethe: ‘Such a dear, splendid, unspoiled creature of God is very hard to find.’ There is no doubt that they were deeply happy together, that they had a fulfilling sexual relationship, and that Goethe felt grief amounting to despair after her death in 1816.
p. 16Goethe’s sexual happiness with Christiane underlies not only the Elegies but also a later erotic poem, ‘Das Tagebuch’ (The Diary, 1810). This poem’s sexual frankness caused consternation among Goethe’s early editors: a toned-down version appeared only in 1861, the full text in 1914; the first English translation appeared in Playboy magazine in 1968. It is a narrative poem in Italian-style ottava rima. There are three characters: the narrator, a maidservant, and ‘the Master’. The narrator is on a business trip when his carriage breaks down and he has to stay overnight in an inn. Distracted from writing to his wife by the beauty of the maidservant, he makes an assignation with her. But when she comes to his bedroom at midnight, the Master, also called ‘Iste’ (Latin, ‘that one’), proves recalcitrant. This is the narrator’s penis, which refuses an erection. Frustrated, the narrator recalls his joyful wedding night, and the many occasions when he and his wife have naughtily made love in the open air, and realizes that it is his intense emotional and physical attachment to his wife that causes erectile failure when he attempts adultery. The poem draws the moral conclusion that while duty can accomplish much, love can achieve infinitely more. It affirms a fidelity based on physical love, and implies, once again, that the human being is a psycho-physical unit, in which body, mind, and emotions all interact.
Marriage: Elective Affinities
Love, marriage and divorce are the subject of Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities, 1809). They are treated with a frankness that shocked Goethe’s readers in Victorian England: Thackeray in Vanity Fair deplores how in German society ‘the Wahlverwandtschaften of Goethe is considered an edifying moral book’. The novel focuses on four characters: the aristocratic couple Eduard and Charlotte, their friend the Captain (later promoted to Major), and Charlotte’s orphaned niece Ottilie. Its small cast, its setting on a country estate, its examination of relationships, the many discussions of moral, social, and p. 17↵emotional themes, and its frequent sly humour, recall Jane Austen. But, as a minor figure remarks, comedy treats marriage as the final goal, whereas in real life the action continues. Goethe’s novel is about difficulties after marriage.
The novel treats marriage, not as a sacrament or a lifelong bond, but as a pragmatic social arrangement. In much of Germany, marriage was regulated by the Prussian legal code of 1794, which allowed divorce for many reasons, including no-fault divorce by mutual consent when a marriage was childless. Divorce carried no social stigma or legal disadvantages. Within the novel, a conservative attitude to marriage is voiced by the eccentric (and unmarried) Mittler, an amateur marriage counsellor, who maintains that marriage is the basis of civilization and that the unhappiness of individuals must not be allowed to weaken marriage as an institution. His opposite is another family friend, the Count, who proposes that marriage should be based on rolling five-year contracts.
Between these theories, the actual marriage of Eduard and Charlotte unfolds and unravels. Each is married for the second time. They were attracted to each other in their youth, but married other partners, who have since died. The impulsive, boyish Eduard and the sensible, self-controlled Charlotte seem to complement each other, but the fault-lines in their marriage are widened once the Captain and Ottilie join them. With many subtle and amusing psychological touches, Goethe charts the growth of love between Eduard and Ottilie, and between Charlotte and the Captain. It culminates in the episode that is later described as ‘double adultery’: Eduard and Charlotte make love, but he imagines embracing Ottilie, while she thinks about the Captain. (Had any previous novelist recorded the familiar but inadmissible fact that people have inappropriate thoughts while supposedly absorbed in love-making?) The next morning, Eduard and Charlotte feel guilty, while their house guests, the Count and his p. 18↵lover the Baroness, who are both married to other people, are relaxed after a night of joyful fornication. That evening, Eduard and Ottilie embrace—‘It would not have been possible to say who first seized hold of the other’ (I, xii)—and the Captain, helping Charlotte out of a boat, passionately kisses her.
How are we to explain the mystery of mutual attraction? The novel offers several explanatory models without definitely affirming any. Early on, in a famous conversation, the Captain explains to Eduard and Charlotte the nature of relationships among chemical elements: some are drawn to others by an innate similarity for which the technical term is ‘elective affinity’; the addition of further elements can produce different combinations, making it seem as if the building-blocks of nature are driven either by a kind of agency, or by a higher necessity. Throughout the conversation, analogies are drawn with human relationships, implying that people, as part of the natural world, operate by a mixture of agency and necessity that defies analysis. Within the novel as a whole, Eduard’s estate could be seen as a kind of human laboratory, where four people form different relationships under conditions of experimental purity. Moreover, all four have versions of the same name: the Captain is called Otto, Eduard was christened Otto but changed his name, and Charlotte and Ottilie share the syllable ‘ott-’; and the name OTTO, composed of only two different letters, suggests a formula for the deep structure of human relationships.
Chemistry provides an analogy to human behaviour, but not an explanation. Eduard especially looks for other, providential signs that he and Ottilie are destined for each other. For example, a glass thrown into the air after a party is caught on the branch of a tree, and as it has the letters E and O on it, Eduard takes this to signify their eventual union. Again, some readers have detected sinister natural forces at work. The recurrent imagery of water, suggesting the fluidity and impermanence of social arrangements, appears especially with the lake on the estate, where several p. 19↵narrative turning-points (besides the Captain’s kissing Charlotte) take place. However, nothing in the text actually requires a supernatural explanation. Such interpretations should be considered in the light of Eduard’s statement: ‘human beings are very narcissistic, they like to see themselves everywhere and be the foil for the rest of creation’ (I, iv).
Although the chemical analogy may lead us to expect a smooth rearrangement of couples, that does not happen. Charlotte wants to save her marriage. Much as their parting pains her, she encourages the Captain to leave the estate for a job elsewhere. Eduard hopes that Charlotte will agree to a divorce, but that is ruled out when she reveals that she is pregnant. He leaves her, rejoins the army, and eventually returns with military decorations. By that time, their son has been born, and is christened Otto (what else?); and as the product of double adultery, the baby has the Captain’s face and Ottilie’s eyes. On his return, Eduard interprets this resemblance as yet further evidence that he and Ottilie were meant for each other. Ottilie agrees to marry him if a divorce makes it possible. With her emotions in turmoil after this encounter, she prepares to take the baby home by crossing the lake in a rowing-boat, but she loses control of the oars and drops the baby in the water. When she pulls him out, the baby is dead.
Long before this climactic scene, the novel has transferred its focus to Ottilie and begun building her up as a deeply sensitive and affectionate, even saintly figure. In a tableau vivant performed at Christmas, Ottilie represents the Virgin Mary, displaying not only her beauty but ‘purest humility, the sweetest modesty in the receipt of a great and undeserved honour and of an inconceivably immeasurable happiness’ (II, vi). This role contrasts tragically with her later attempt to revive the drowned baby by holding it to her breast. The catastrophe of the baby’s death convinces Ottilie that in her attachment to Eduard she has strayed from her destined path, that God has opened her eyes to her wrong-doing, and that she must renounce Eduard and preserve p. 20↵his and Charlotte’s marriage. The narrator supports Ottilie’s mission by calling her ‘the extraordinary child’ and ‘the heavenly child’. It is as though Ottilie, in a secular age when everyone else regards marriage as a merely social institution, has started a one-woman crusade to restore its religious meaning. To enforce its sanctity, Ottilie tells Charlotte that the moment she hears Charlotte has consented to a divorce, she, Ottilie, will drown herself. In her saintly conviction that she is doing God’s will, Ottilie thus imposes her values on others by a monstrous piece of emotional blackmail.
Penitent martyr or moral tyrant? The enigma of Ottilie is deepened by the novel’s end. She lives with Eduard and Charlotte, without speaking, and quietly starves herself to death. Her funeral is accompanied by an apparent miracle which is recounted with artful ambiguity. Eduard soon follows her into death, worn out by turbulent emotions. The two are buried in the same vault, united in death though not in life, and the last paragraph runs: ‘So the lovers are side by side, at rest. Peace hovers over their dwelling-place, cheerful images of angels, their kith and kin, look down at them from the vaulted ceiling, and what a sweet moment it will be for their eyes when on some future day they awake together’ (II, xviii). It was common in the 18th century to imagine loving couples as united in the next world, but Goethe (who had previously let Werther express an extravagant confidence in post-mortem union with Lotte) subtly varies the motif by making us wonder whether it is their love, or its renunciation, that wins the angels’ goodwill, and whether their union, frustrated in this world, may be consummated in the hereafter.
Eduard’s feelings for Ottilie acquire a religious tone. We are told that he dies thinking of ‘the holy one’ and may therefore be called ‘blessed’. The elderly Goethe still writes love poetry, but love is p. 21↵increasingly sublimated into the contemplative, even devotional adoration of the beloved. In 1814 he formed an intense romantic friendship with the 30-year-old Marianne von Willemer, who had just become the third wife of a long-standing Frankfurt acquaintance of Goethe’s, twenty years her senior. This was yet another attachment to an inaccessible woman. Goethe visited the couple in October 1814, and spent much of August and September 1815 with them, first in Frankfurt and then in Heidelberg. Marianne was a small, dark, vivacious, multi-talented woman, formerly a much-praised dancer; she sang her own poems and accompanied herself on the guitar. She and Goethe exchanged poems, assuming the Oriental identities of ‘Zuleika’ and ‘Hatem’; Goethe later incorporated these poems into the West-östlicher Divan (West-Eastern Divan, 1819—to be discussed in Chapter 3), of which Marianne thus became co-author. A contemporary records a social evening where Goethe read poems aloud to the company while Marianne’s husband fell asleep. In one of the most charmingly affectionate of the poems, Hatem contrasts Zuleika’s brown curls with his own white hair, comparing himself to a snow-covered mountain illuminated by dawn:
Du beschämst wie Morgenröte Jener Gipfel ernste Wand, Und noch einmal fühlet Hatem Frühlingshauch und Sommerbrand.
You, like dawn, put to shame the grave cliff-face of those peaks, and once again Hatem feels the breath of spring and the burning heat of summer.
‘Hatem’ does not rhyme with ‘Morgenröte’ (dawn), but ‘Goethe’ does. By this little joke, Goethe hints at the emotions behind the poetic fiction, and, as elsewhere, uses rhyme to express the harmony between two lovers—for the dawn represents Marianne herself and the new life she has brought to a man in his mid-sixties. This new life, however, is imaginative rather than physical, and one poem spoken by Zuleika acknowledges that love must be p. 22↵sublimated into spiritual experience: ‘For life is love, and the life of life is spirit.’
A stranger sublimation takes place in the ‘Marienbader Elegie’ (Marienbad Elegy), written in 1823 and published in 1827 as the centrepiece of ‘Trilogie der Leidenschaft’ (Trilogy of Passion). Over several successive summer holidays in the Bohemian resort of Marienbad, Goethe had got to know a young woman named Ulrike von Levetzow. In 1823 he proposed marriage to her. The 19-year-old Ulrike, encouraged by her mother to make her own decision, refused Goethe, less because of the 55-year age gap than because she felt unprepared for marriage (and, in her own retrospective account, feared the irritation of Goethe’s son and daughter-in-law). On his journey home, Goethe worked through his emotions by composing a long farewell poem, in which the strict stanzaic form barely controls the powerful, often searingly painful feelings. At its climax, the poem dwells on the contemplation of the beloved:
Dem Frieden Gottes, welcher euch hienieden Mehr als Vernunft beseliget—wir lesen’s—, Vergleich’ ich wohl der Liebe heitern Frieden In Gegenwart des allgeliebten Wesens; Da ruht das Herz, und nichts vermag zu stören Den tiefsten Sinn, den Sinn, ihr zu gehören.
The peace of God, which for you on earth passes all understanding—so we read—, I can compare to the serene peace of love in the presence of the wholly beloved being; there the heart rests, and nothing can disturb the deepest sense, the sense of belonging to her.
The passage recalls the ‘peace’ which in much earlier poems Goethe attributes to the calming influence of a beloved woman.
If Goethe is supreme among love poets, it is because he explores so many aspects of an experience which in recent centuries p. 23↵has been considered central to human life. Other great love poets—Donne or Burns, or in German, Else Lasker-Schüler or Ingeborg Bachmann—render, however intensely, only a few notes in the scale; Goethe gives us the whole gamut, from youthful yearning via erotic fulfilment to late sublimation.