Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749 22 March 1832) is to German what Dante Alighieri is to Italian, William Shakespeare is to English, Miguel de Cervantes to Spanish or Alexander Pushkin to Russian: the most important author of his language. The quintessential Dichter and Denker.
For the benefit of English-speakers, his name is pronounced (roughly) "Yo-hawn Volfguhng phone Götuh" — not "Go-eth". Born in 1749 in Frankfurt am Main, Goethe rose to fame with the drama Götz von Berlichingen and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther, the hero of the latter story, even was a role model for many young people of Goethe's time, many of them adopting his signature yellow waistcoat and his philosophy. This wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for the fact that the story ends with Werther's suicide. The oft-repeated claim that the book caused a suicide epidemic among young men lacks solid evidence, and is probably greatly exaggerated.
Despite being the author of such an unintentionally controversial book, Goethe soon made his career at the court of Weimar, where he was an important minister for the grand duke, and where he met Friedrich Schiller, the other most important German author; after an uneasy first meeting they quickly became Heterosexual Life-Partners. Goethe got ennobled in Weimar (hence the ''von'' in his name) and most of his works were created there.
Unlike what one would expect from famous German writers at the time, Goethe was relaxed about including lots of rude and dirty jokes in his works. Götz von Berlichingen, a biographical piece about a famous soldier, is known as the play in which the main character speaks the line "Tell him that he can lick my arse!" (Indeed, the subject of the play is said to have invented the insult - Goethe merely quoted him. Also note: "Lick my arse" is roughly equivalent to "kiss my ass" in English; it's the phrase Mozart used in his famously and childishly rude canon in B-flat minor, and Mozart actually jokes about Goethe in it.)
Although mostly known for his literary works, Goethe also dabbled in many fields of science. For example, he discovered the incisive bone, though others had discovered it independently before him. He studied botany extensively and declared "alles ist Blatt" (all is leaf). He also disagreed with Newton's theory of colour and came up with his own, and then could never figure out why nobody agreed that it was his greatest work.
Goethe also traveled to Italy. During his time, Germans loved Italy! He became one of the most well-documented people of all time; he was so famous so early that nearly everyone who met him wrote about him in detail, loads of his correspondence has been preserved and practically every scrap he ever wrote has been published: the standard modern Hamburg Edition of his works runs to 11,000 pages.
Goethe died in 1832 in Weimar. His last words were (allegedly), "More light!"
A tiny sample of Goethe's works:
- "Heidenröslein" ("Rosebud on the Heath")
- "Erlkönig" ("Erl-King" or "The Alder King") — A creepy ballad about The Fair Folk. Also an allegory on the dangers of ignorance and fear.
- Römische Elegien (Roman Elegies) — A collection of poems celebrating the sensuality of Italian culture in general and Italian women in particular, inspired by Goethe's famous trip to Italy in his mid-thirties. It's been speculated that Goethe might have been a virgin when he went to Italy, since although he'd once believed in Virgin Power, by the time he was in his 30s he was beginning to think again, and as soon as he left chilly Germany for warm Italy he quickly made up for lost time. The Elegies include some of the sexiest love poems ever written, belying Goethe's reputation in the English-speaking world for being a bit stuffy and Olympian.
- Venezianische Epigramme (Venetian Epigrams) — A collection of witty epigrams inspired by Goethe's time in Venice, something of a Sequel to the Elegies. They range over a variety of subjects in a mood of cheerful cynicism and are sometimes amazingly filthy and very funny often in unexpected ways; characteristically, Goethe wrote whatever came into his head but was careful not to publish the really filthy ones.
- Xenien (The Xenia) — A collection of epigrams about art and culture, usually satirical, written in collaboration with Friedrich Schiller.
- "Der Zauberlehrling" ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice") — Non-German speakers might know this story better with Mickey Mouse as the apprentice.
- West-östlicher Diwan (The West-Eastern Divan) — Collection of poems in imitation of ancient Persian Muslim poetry, especially the 14th century poet Hafez.
- "Die Braut von Korinth" ("The Bride of Corinth") — a ballad, adapting a ghost story from Ancient Greece.
- Götz von Berlichingen — A historical fiction drama (a "historical drama" it's not), giving the real-life Götz a historical character upgrade.
- Iphigenie auf Tauris — A remake of Euripides' play Iphigenia among the Taurians.
- Torquato Tasso
- The Faust duology, consisting of:
- Faust: First Part of the Tragedy: The origin of the page quote and often considered THE most important work in the German language ever. Probably the most quoted book in the German language (or slightly behind the bible) - some of its phrases have been quoted so often people don't even know where they are from.
- Faust: Second Part of the Tragedy: Depending on who you ask, a late-in-coming cash-in sequel, a send-up of aficionados and critics of the first part, or actually a worthy successor.
- Die Leiden des Jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) — For the reasons mentioned above, later in his life, Goethe considered this one as an Old Shame.
- It was also the focus of some SERIOUSLY Misaimed Fandom, as young people all over Europe actually started killing themselves, in imitation of Werther. This was the first known instance of copycat-suicides, and therefore The Werther Effect bears his name.
- Reineke Fuchs (Reynard the Fox) — a cycle of Beast Fables.
- Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) — Ostensibly a novel about a married couple who invite two friends, a mature man and a much younger woman, to come and stay on their estate, but one of the most persistently mysterious and enduring novels in German. The title refers to a theory from chemistry about how certain elements are attracted to each other.
- Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) and its sequel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years) — considered to be the first proper bildungsroman, or "novel of education".
- Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth) — Goethe's autobiography.