When Johann Wolfgang Goethe came into the world on 18 August 1749 in Frankfurt-am-Main, the town contained 30,000 inhabitants. In Berlin, the largest town in Germany at the time, there were 126,000, whereas both Paris and London had already surpassed 500,000. These figures are an important signpost to the political situation in Germany, for throughout the whole of Europe the bourgeois revolution depended on the big cities. On the other hand, it is a significant fact about Goethe that during his entire life he never lost a powerful feeling of antipathy towards living in big towns. He never visited Berlinfootnote1 and in later life he paid only two reluctant visits to his native Frankfurt, passing the larger part of his life in a small princely town with 6,000 inhabitants. The only cities he ever became more familiar with were the Italian centres, Rome and Naples. Goethe was the cultural representative and, initially, the political spokesman of a new bourgeoisie, whose gradual rise can be clearly discerned in his family tree. His male ancestors worked their way up from artisan circles and they married women from educated families or families otherwise higher in the social scale than themselves. On his father’s side his great-grandfather was a farrier, his grandfather was first a tailor and then an innkeeper, while his father Johann Caspar Goethe began as an ordinary lawyer. Within a short time, however, he acquired the title of Imperial Councillor and when he had succeeded in winning the hand of Katharina Elisabeth Textor, the daughter of the Mayor, he definitively established his position among the ruling families of the city.

The youth which Goethe spent in a patrician household in a Free Imperial City developed and consolidated in him a trait traditionally found in the Rhenish Franconian region: reserve towards any political commitment and a correspondingly lively appreciation of what was appropriate and advantageous to the individual. His immediate family—Goethe had only one sister, Cornelia—soon permitted him to concentrate on himself. Despite this the attitudes prevailing in the household prevented him from contemplating an artistic career. His father forced him to study law. With this end in view he went first to Leipzig University at the age of sixteen, and in the summer of 1770, to Strasbourg. He was then twenty-one.

It is in Strasbourg that we first get a clear picture of the cultural milieu from which Goethe’s early poetry emerged. Goethe and Klinger from Frankfurt, Bürger and Leisewitz from Central Germany, Voss and Claudius from Holstein, Lenz from Livonia. Goethe was the patrician; Claudius was a burgher. There were the sons of teachers or parsons, like Holtei, Schubart and Lenz; members of the petty bourgeoisie, like Maler Müller, Klinger and Schiller; the grandson of a serf (Voss); and, finally, noblemen like the Counts Christian and Friedrich von Stolberg. They all worked together in an effort to ‘renew’ Germany by means of ideology. However, the fatal weakness of this specifically German revolutionary movement was its inability to reconcile itself with the original programme of bourgeois emancipation, the Enlightenment. The bourgeois masses, the ‘Enlightened’, remained separated from their vanguard by a vast abyss. The German revolutionaries were not enlightened and the German enlighteners were not revolutionary. The ideas of the first centred on revolution, language and society, those of the latter focused on the theory of reason and of the state. Goethe subsequently took over the negative side of both movements: together with the Enlightenment he opposed revolution, while with the Sturm-und-Drang he resisted the state. It is in this division within the German bourgeoisie that we find an explanation for its failure to establish ideological contact with the West; Goethe, who subsequently made a detailed study of Diderot and Voltaire, was never further from an understanding of France than when he was in Strasbourg. Particularly revealing is his comment on that celebrated manifesto of French materialism, Holbach’s Système de la Nature, a book in which the icy draught of the French Revolution can already be felt. He found it ‘so grey, so Cimmerian, so lifeless’, that it startled him as if he had seen a ghost. He thought it ‘unpalatable, insipid, the very quintessence of senility’. It made him feel hollow and empty in ‘this melancholy atheistic gloom’.

These were the reactions of a creative artist, but equally of a Frankfurt patrician. Goethe subsequently presented the Sturm-und-Drang movement with its two most powerful manifestoes, Götz von Berlichingen and Werther. But it is to Johann Gottfried Herder that these two works owe the universal form which made it possible to fuse their disparate elements into a single ideological whole. In his letters and conversations with Goethe, Hamann and Merck he provided the programme for the movement—the ‘original genius’; ‘Language: the revelation of the spirit of the people’; ‘Song: nature’s first language’; ‘the unity of human and natural history’. During the same period Herder was busy assembling material for his great anthology of poems, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (Voices of the Peoples in Song), a collection of poems from Lapland to Madagascar which had the greatest influence on Goethe. For in his own early poetry we find him using the folk-song as a means of revitalizing the lyric in combination with the great liberation that had been effected by the poets of the Göttinger Hain. ‘Voss emancipated the marshland peasantry for poetry. He expelled the conventional figures of the Rococco from poetry with pitch-forks, flails and the Lower Saxon dialect which only half doffs its cap to the squire.’ But since the basic mode of Voss’s poetry is still descriptive (just as Klopstock poetry is still conceived in terms of the rhetoric of the hymn), it was left to Goethe’s Strasbourg poems (Willkommen und Abschied, Mit einem gemalten Band, Mailied, Heidenröslein) to liberate German poetry from the realms of description, didactic message and anecdote. This liberation, however, could still not be anything more than a precarious, transitory phenomenon and one that would lead German poetry into a decline in the course of the nineteenth century, whereas in the poetry of his old age, in the West-mstlicher Divan, Goethe himself had already introduced conscious restrictions. In 1773, together with Herder, Goethe produced the manifesto Von deutscher Art und Kunst with his study in praise of Erwin von Steinbach, the builder of Strasbourg Cathedral, an essay whose very existence made Goethe’s later fanatical classicism an additional source of irritation to the Romantics in their efforts to rehabilitate the Gothic.

This milieu also supplied the matrix for Götz von Berlichingen in 1772. The divided nature of the German bourgeoisie is clearly dramatized in this work. The towns and courts as the representatives of a principle of reason which has been reduced to a coarse expression of Realpolitik, stand for the host of unimaginative Enlighteners; they are opposed by the Sturm-und-Drang in the person of the leader of the insurgent peasantry. The historical background to this work, the German Peasants’ War, could easily convey the impression that Goethe had a genuine revolutionary commitment. That would be a mistake, for at bottom what Götz’s rebellion expresses are the grievances of the old seigneurial class, the Imperial Knights, who are in the process of surrendering to the growing power of the princes. Götz fights and dies in the first instance for himself, and then for his class. The core idea of the play is not revolution, but steadfastness. Götz’s actions are redolent of reactionary chivalry; they are the fine, charming deeds of a seigneur, they are the expression of an individual impulse and not to be seen in the same light as the brutal destructive deeds of the peasant robbers with whom he joins forces. We see in this work the first instance of a process which is to become typical for Goethe: as a dramatist he repeatedly succumbs to the seduction of revolutionary themes, only to deflect them or to abandon them as fragments. Examples of the first procedure are Götz and Egmont, of the second, The Natural Daughter. Goethe’s essential withdrawal from the revolutionary energy of the Sturm-und-Drang movement in his very first important play emerges very clearly from a comparison with the plays of his contemporaries. In 1774 Lenz published The Tutor or The Benefits of a Private Education, a work which mercilessly exposes the social constraints pressing upon the world of letters, constraints of consequence for Goethe’s career too. The German middle class was far too weak to be able to support an extensive literary life from its own resources. In consequence, literature’s dependence on feudalism persisted even when the writer’s sympathies had gone over to the middle class. His penury compelled him to accept free-board, to act as tutor to the children of the nobility and to accompany young princes on their travels. His state of dependence went so far as to jeopardize his literary earnings, since only works expressly named by government decree were protected from pirate editions produced in the various states of Germany.