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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.3 (2001) 300-303
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Revolution and Renunciation, 1790-1803
Revolution and Renunciation, 1790-1803. vol. 2 of Goethe: The Poet and the Age. By Nicholas Boyle. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000. xiv + 949 pp.
When Nicholas Boyle published the first volume of his Goethe biography in 1991, there was widespread agreement that this elegantly written work would remain the standard for several generations. 1 With the second of the now-projected three volumes Boyle not only matches his earlier achievement for general informativeness and accuracy but also has written a book that is considerably more original as well. Where volume 1 precisely delineated a Goethe through the Italian journey well known to Goethe scholars and probably to most informed readers, volume 2 will change--I think correctly--the way that Goethe's mature works are read and the context in which they are understood. It explains in terms that even German scholars will have to accept why Goethe is one of the most thoughtful Kantians of the age, and on this basis it rearranges the German pantheon to make Goethe and Hölderlin the most similar and most important poets of German Romanticism.
Boyle's view of Goethe's personal life in the 1790s is also strikingly individual and convincing. The gun-shy poet was coming to terms with his common-law marriage to Christiane Vulpius and to the loss of inspiration that accompanied the satisfaction of desire. The adjustment was difficult, especially since only one of their children survived the first week of life, and the demands of family life conflicted with Goethe's need for peace and for the intellectual stimulation of both Jena and Italy. Traditionally, this is about as much as anyone has said about the relationship (except to quote the cattiness of the Weimar court on the subject). In 1998 Sigrid Damm published an imaginative, extensively researched reconstruction of Christiane's life. 2 It rehabilitates Christiane as a person of dignity and interest but generally ignores or obscures Goethe's feelings. Boyle, by contrast, argues that Goethe loved Christiane so deeply that he gave up his most cherished dream--his long-desired third voyage to Italy in 1798--to return to her. Indeed, Boyle asserts that this was one of the most profound, most positive experiences of the poet's life and that it represents his paradigmatic experience of renunciation, the theme that dominates his later work.
The journey was prevented not only by Goethe's commitment to his family but also by the Napoleonic Wars; the French Revolution, which broke out during the year of his "marriage" to Christiane, was the second great impulse to renunciation in his life. On the surface it made the period covered [End Page 300] in this volume one of floundering discontent. From 1790 to 1795, feeling that his career as poet might well be over, Goethe focused mainly, and not very effectively, on scientific investigations. In the middle of the decade, partly in the wake of his new friendship with Schiller but especially in the wake of his general engagement with German idealism and the intellectual life of Jena, he recovered a new identity as a writer and a new relationship to the German public, from which his anti-Christian materialism and classicism during the early 1790s had estranged him. In Boyle's view, Goethe feels his way through a series of bold but not fully successful literary experiments--considered masterpieces in most quarters, like Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship] and Hermann und Dorothea--to his greatest achievement of the period, the blank-verse drama Die natürliche Tochter [The natural daughter], a text that both preaches and practices renunciation.
It may not be obvious to the general reader that fourteen years of even Goethe's life warrants almost a thousand pages of discussion, especially when he wrote no new literary works during the first five years and was severely depressed during the last, but they really do, for three reasons. First, Goethe...