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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Early Life and Works

Goethe describes his happy and sheltered childhood in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–33). In 1765 he went to Leipzig to study law. There he spent his time in the usual student dissipations, which perhaps contributed to a hemorrhage that required a long convalescence at Frankfurt. His earliest lyric poems, set to music, were published in 1769. In 1770–71 he completed his law studies at Strasbourg, where the acquaintance of Herder filled him with enthusiasm for Shakespeare, for Germany's medieval past, and for the German folk song.

Goethe's lyric poems for Friederike Brion, daughter of the pastor of nearby Sesenheim, were written at this time as new texts for folk-song melodies. Among the lasting influences of Goethe's youth were J. J. Rousseau and Spinoza, who appealed to Goethe's mystic and poetic feeling for nature in its ever-changing aspects. It was in this period that Goethe began his lifelong study of animals and plants and his research in biological morphology.

Goethe first attracted public notice with the drama Götz von Berlichingen (1773; see Berlichingen, Götz von), a pure product of Sturm und Drang. Still more important was the epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, tr. The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1957) which Goethe, on the verge of suicide, wrote after his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff. Werther gave him immediate fame and was widely translated. While the writing had helped Goethe regain stability, the novel's effect on the public was the opposite; it encouraged morbid sensibility.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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