“Schöpft des Dichters reine Hand . . .”: Studien zu Goethes poetologischer Lyrik by Sebastian Kaufmann (review)
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Reviewed by
Sebastian Kaufmann, “Schöpft des Dichters reine Hand...”: Studien zu Goethes poetologischer Lyrik. Heidelberg: Winter, 2011. 525 pp.

Kaufmann’s meticulously researched volume is a lightly edited dissertation, and the genre is perhaps to blame for the relatively minor flaws in his otherwise-convincing and wide-ranging study of Goethe’s poetological poetry. By “poetological [End Page 265] poetry,” Kaufmann understands poetry that undertakes reflection (in Goethe’s case, more individual than universal and more descriptive than normative) on the role or identity of the poet, the process of writing poetry, or the nature of poetry in general (14–15). Kaufmann advances the claim that, contra the scholarship’s divisions of Goethe’s work into Sturm und Drang, classical, and postclassical periods, Goethe’s poetological poetry exhibits a striking thematic consistency in treating poetry as a genre concerned with the symbolic representation of the divine or absolute. Kaufmann argues that Goethe’s conception of the divine remains pantheistic throughout his career; poetry’s primary task is thus the uncovering of the “offenbar[es] Geheimniß” (342) of the divine in nature. While Kaufmann supports this thesis fully in its most abstract form, the volume underdifferentiates between the periods of Goethe’s work with regard to the role of the subject in the constellation of Kunst/Gott/Natur: there are significant differences between, say, the oscillations between ecstatic dissolution into nature and depressive isolation from it in Goethe’s works from the 1770s and the self-observing observation matched by poetic self-reflection in, say, the West-östlicher Divan. Two other, more minor flaws somewhat obscure but do not detract significantly from the book’s argumentation: first, Kaufmann’s own claims are frequently hidden by the long engagements with scholarly controversies that begin each reading, and second, the majority of the poems treated are not reproduced in full anywhere in the volume. For anyone reading the volume in a research library, this is a small inconvenience, but it reads as somewhat disingenuous to include only the lines or strophes of each work that advance Kaufmann’s argument.

The positive contributions of the volume are far more significant: in addition to tracing a convincing continuity across Goethe’s career, Kaufmann provides succinct and powerful discussions of the cultural import of lyric forms, in particular the ode (treated in chapter 2, on “Wandrers Sturmlied”) and the elegy (in chapter 5, on Römische Elegien), although he does not always follow his insights into the material features of individual poems. He likewise does a masterful job of connecting the poetologies worked out in specific poems to Goethe’s more discursive texts (principally essays, letters, and maxims) from each period. Perhaps even more impressively, his conclusion takes on the question of why Goethe’s discursive work fits better with the poetologies of the lyric texts than it does with his novels or plays and suggests convincingly that this fit derives from Goethe’s treatment of the lyric as a paradigmatic genre for literary production as such (476). The volume acknowledges that this valuation of poetry over prose is somewhat anachronistic even by Goethe’s own lights, but it suggests that although Goethe recognizes the modern era as prosaic and even (in Kaufmann’s view) anticipates Hegel’s thesis of the end of art (484), his poetological poetry insists on the “Dominanz des Ästhetischen” (485).

Particularly since a full table of contents is not available online, I will give a brief chapter-by-chapter overview and mention which poems each chapter treats (not apparent in the chapters on longer poem cycles). Chapter 2 argues that “Wandrers Sturmlied” depicts the failure of an absolutely autonomous subject to emancipate itself from nature and thus shows Goethe opting for a “moderatere Genieästhetik” (90) in keeping with his pantheistic worldview. In the third chapter, on “Harzreise im Winter,” Kaufmann spends too long on the controversy over whether the poem is biographical before arriving at the argument that it shows a (nonbiographical) subject’s progress by way of poetic reflection from unhappy [End Page 266] solipsism to joyful experience of the divine in nature (111). Chapter 4, perhaps the weakest in the volume, reads “Zueignung” (1784...