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Published:November 20th, 2006 12:20 EST
Men and Words: Johann Wolfgang Goethe

Men and Words: Johann Wolfgang Goethe

By Krzys Wasilewski

Everyone has been in love at least once. And at least once everyone has learned what it means to have a broken heart. Great romantic poets - Byron, Keats and Goethe " were no luckier. The latter was so desperately in love with one Charlotte and so broken-hearted when she married an uncivilized but rich brute that he decided to kill himself. He succeeded but only on the pages of his masterpiece The sorrows of Young Werther, " the book where fiction mingles with reality.

When the book was first published in 1774, nothing forecast its resounding success. There was no critic who would not maul Goethe`s book. Even the publisher did not have much hope. After all, who would like to read turgid letters of an oversensitive young lawyer-turned-poet who falls in love with a rich woman engaged to someone else. Such stories were nothing uncommon in 18th century Europe where a proper pedigree and social status were in much greater respect than the purest heart and the best intentions. But 18th century Europe was also deeply immersed in the Enlightenment, the epoch praising mind and clear thinking above everything else. Speaking openly about feelings in society was an unforgivable faux pas which could result if not in ostracism then certainly in complete disregard.

The sorrows of Young Werther " was a cultural break through. For the first time in decades someone had dared to write so shamelessly about contemporary taboos: passion, love and lust. American, British or French censors could not conceal a blush while reading the scenes where a man touched a woman`s hand, especially if her marital status was not very obvious. And Goethe`s book not only glorified unholy love between poor Werther and Lotte, a beautiful but engaged to an older local nobleman girl, but also described to the smallest detail the lovers` sinister encounters, furtive glances, secret caresses, innocent kisses.

As if this erotic o*gy was not enough, at the end of the book despair overcomes the eponymous hero and he kills himself. For scores of moralists it was unacceptable. It should be remembered that however secular and enlighten Europe was at that time, Christianity with all its superstitions had not been completely uprooted. On the contrary, as one of the epoch`s leading philosopher and God`s personal enemy, " Voltaire, said: If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. " And in Christianity suicide was a mortal sin which threw souls into the fiery furnace of eternal damnation. The concept of hell was maybe a folly spread by those awful papists, nonetheless the risk was not worth taking.

Europe had not been prepared for such a shock. The moment the book reached bookstores, it disappeared, people lining up to get a hot copy. Printing machines worked day and night to feed the hunger. Suddenly every man discovered a Werther in himself, crying over old loves or agonizing about the new ones. Newspapers from Berlin, Paris, London, and other cities across the continent, reported on waves of suicides of young men caused by failed love affairs. The example came from the very top " Goethe himself attempted on his life, however, the writer had less courage than his literary alter ego. The hypnotizing power of the book was so excessive that even Napoleon Bonaparte could not resist it and kept on carrying a copy wherever his campaigns took him. To say nothing of Mary Shelley`s Frankenstein who found in Werther his soul mate. Unlike the Enlightenment, Romanticism was not very finicky.

Whereas America and Great Britain adored Emerson, Byron and Keats; for readers in Europe it was Johann Wolfgang Goethe who personified the new times. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1749 he patiently climbed the social ladder being praised as a talented poet, novelist, scientist and even politician. A true man of the Enlightenment he could have been called, had it not been for the fact that Romanticism was in total opposition to its predecessor. As if to confirm the recently acquired status of a genius, Goethe published The sorrows of young Werther " being only 25. At the decision to write the book stood a painful memory of his own love affair that, like Werther`s, ended in a blunt refusal and a suicide attempt. Goethe did not succeed and five years later he was crowned as Romanticism`s best writer after bewitching readers with his fantasy-mythical Faust. "

Along with the popularity of the book, a number of German-origin words were introduced to European languages, English included. Goethe did what no kaiser, chancellor or dictator had ever done " he made German culture popular and he achieved so without a single shot. One of such words that put down roots in English is the noun weltschmerz. " Although coined by another great German writer " Johann Paul Friedrich Richter " it is commonly connected with Goethe due to its connotations to Romanticism. In America it first appeared in the late 18th century, popularized by German immigrants who were doubtlessly Goethe`s fans. The combination of two words: welt " world and schmerz " pain; it was widely used by woebegone lovers to express their disappointments with the weariness of the world. From falling in love to falling down is a short way, no surprise the word weltschmerz gained in popularity all around the country.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe died on 22 March 1832. He died as a married man but it was not until 1806 that he decided to sanctify his 17-year-old relationship with Christine Vulpius " much to the relief of his friends and the parish vicar. At the age of 74, however, the great writer shocked his hometown once again when he vanished, chasing the 19-year old Ulrike von Levetzow across Germany. Poetry is ageless but poets are not. Hurt and despaired Goethe came back to Weimar and the faithful wife.

At one point of his life Goethe said to his secretary: It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him."