Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

On this date in 1749, Germany's most famous poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was born in Frankfurt am Main, to a comfortable bourgeois family. He began studying law at Leipzig University at the age of 16, and practiced law briefly before devoting most of his life to writing poetry, plays and novels. In 1773, Goethe wrote the powerful poem "Prometheus" [quoted below], which urged human beings to believe in themselves, and not in the gods. His first novel was The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a semi-autobiographical tragedy about a doomed love affair. A line from that novel: "We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things: and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavor to erase them." In his 1797 Hermann and Dorothea, Goethe observed: "The happy do not believe in miracles." Goethe typified the Sturm und Drang romantic movement, celebrating the individual. The Grand Duke of Weimar appointed him an administrator in 1775, where, according to historians, Goethe turned Weimar into "the Athens of Germany." In supervising the arts and sciences, Goethe discovered the human intermaxilary bone, also known as the Goethe bone (1784), among other discoveries. After a sojourn in Italy from 1786 to 1788, Goethe returned to his art, writing for a journal edited by freethinker Friedrich von Schiller and starting his own. Inspired by Christopher Marlowe's play "Faust," Goethe wrote part 1 of his most famous play, published in 1808. Part 2 was published in 1832. From Part 1, Scene 9: "The church alone beyond all question/ Has for ill-gotten gains the right digestion." Although Goethe's beliefs ebbed and flowed, he was uniformly anti-Christian and, at most, a pantheist. D. 1832.

Prometheus

Cover thy spacious heavens, Zeus,
With clouds of mist,
And, like the boy who lops
The thistles' heads,
Disport with oaks and mountain-peaks,
Yet thou must leave
My earth still standing;
My cottage too, which was not raised by thee;
Leave me my hearth,
Whose kindly glow
By thee is envied.

I know nought poorer
Under the sun, than ye gods!
Ye nourish painfully,
With sacrifices
And votive prayers,
Your majesty:
Ye would e'en starve,
If children and beggars
Were not trusting fools.

While yet a child
And ignorant of life,
I turned my wandering gaze
Up tow'rd the sun, as if with him
There were an ear to hear my wailings,
A heart, like mine,
To feel compassion for distress.

Who help'd me
Against the Titans' insolence?
Who rescued me from certain death,
From slavery?
Didst thou not do all this thyself,
My sacred glowing heart?
And glowedst, young and good,
Deceived with grateful thanks
To yonder slumbering one?

I honour thee! and why?
Hast thou e'er lighten'd the sorrows
Of the heavy laden?
Hast thou e'er dried up the tears
Of the anguish-stricken?
Was I not fashion'd to be a man
By omnipotent Time,
And by eternal Fate,
Masters of me and thee?

Didst thou e'er fancy
That life I should learn to hate,
And fly to deserts,
Because not all
My blossoming dreams grew ripe?

Here sit I, forming mortals
After my image;
A race resembling me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad,
And thee to scorn,
As I!

—-Goethe, "Prometheus," 1773

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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