You are on page 1of 6

1

GOETHE'S RMISCHE ELEGIEN Goethes Elegien (later termed Elegien, rmische (1806) before finally receiving the present title), were written during or shortly after the poet's second period of

residence in Italy and published by Schiller in the Horen in 1795-6 without a declaration of their author's identity. It was in the Neue Schriften of 1800 that Goethe officially acclaimed the Elegien as his own work. As the first formal cycle of poems Goethe wrote, the collection of elegies poses a striking contrast to the apparently rambling poems about "The Wanderer" written by Goethe in his pre-Weimar days. First, and most obviously, in writing them Goethe subjected himself to the discipline of conforming to rules laid down by ancient classical traditions, at least to the extent that this was appropriate to poetry written in German. The Rmische Elegien themselves contain two references to the metrical pattern which Goethe followed during their composition. The basic metric unit of the Elegien is the distich, a pair of lines consisting of a hexameter followed by a pentameter. Goethe's commitment to metrical regularity, which stands in complete contrast to the metrical variations in "Wandrers Sturmlied", marks the arrival of Goethe's high classical period. This had its beginnings in his first Weimar years and would last beyond the end of the eighteenth century. Poems composed in his early years in Weimar still express the spirit of restlessness so characteristic of Goethe's poems in the early 1770s. However, in poems describing walks and journeys, such as "Harzreise" and "Ilmenau", the Wanderer, though still betraying signs of restlessness, has become an acute observer of his surroundings. Goethe's classicism involved more than adherence to a regular metre. Schiller, when alluding to the Rmische Elegien in his essay "ber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung" - (contrasting the intuitive and unselfconscious Greek poet with the sharply critical and self-conscious modern poet), referred to Goethe as "the Roman and German Propertius" 1 Propertius had indeed served Goethe as a mode
1

Friedrich Schiller, as the editor of the Horen, however, evidently contended with the objections and misgivings of certain readers of the Elegien. A.W. Schlegel doubted that they could be classified as "sentimental" in the sense of bespeaking the sensibility

and source of inspiration. Like Propertius, Goethe promoted love, erotic love in particular, to a major theme of his poetry, and, when so doing, adopted the standpoint of a first person speaker. His choice of traditional model brought a special advantage. In conforming to a classical precedent, Goethe could forestall comments that the Rmische Elegien provided a record of his amorous adventures in Rome. On the other hand, there could be very little doubt that the joie de vivre expressed in the Elegien corresponded closely to Goethe's elevated mood at a time when he enjoyed fulfillment in his personal relationships. Though "Faustina", the figure who represents the poet's lover in the Elegien, is a fictional character, she incorporates characteristics and aspects of a real woman in Goethe's life. At least Frau von Stein as one of the first readers of the Elegien on their publication was quick to identify Faustina, mentioned by name only once in the work (XVIII, 9) as Christiane Vulpius, Goethe's life companion and later wife. Faustina may also incorporate traits of an Italian woman with whom Goethe had a brief affair during his residence in Rome.
2

However, the

spirit of exuberance that pervades the Elegien did not result only from personal fulfillment in love relationships. In Rome itself Goethe discovered a spiritual and cultural home that far surpassed any Northern city in its wealth of historical monuments and works of art. Goethe exulted in the brightness of colour and the clarity of form that the Italian climate bestowed on his Italian environment. For him, Rome meant primarily an aesthetic experience as he himself observed in a letter dated 8th June 1787 to Charlotte von Stein: Wo ich nun sitze. hier oder in Frankfurt, das ist eins und Rom ist der einzige Ort in der Welt fr den Knstler und ich bin einmal nichts anders. Where I am now located, here or in Frankfurt, makes no difference, and Rome is the only place in the world for artists, and I am no different from others.

of medieval or modern poets. Despite, the appeal of the Elegien to tradition, their impact was revolutionary, even shocking. The theme of erotic love itself had many precedents in Roman classical poetry, but the very suggestion that this had some connection with a modern poet's life was evidently disturbing, for Frau von Stein among a good number of other people. . . . 2 Goethes amorous relationship with an Italian woman seems to have been of short duration, lasting from January to April 1787.

In the Rmische Elegien Goethe presents love as a power not only manifested in a personal relationship but in Rome, its history and present life. In mythological terms the god of Love exerted an influence on Rome no less great than that of Mars. Indeed, Rome, as the offspring of Mars and Rhea Silvia, is revealed in the Elegien as a city owing its existence to an amorous impulse. Feeling himself to be in direct spiritual communion with the spirit of Rome, the poet perceives no division between the classical past and the immediate present. The poet sees more than the material record of a past age; he senses here the creative energy that found expression in it. In Goethes view the products of artistic creation, such as paintings or sculptures, though static in one sense, are both the product of and the producers of dynamic and creative mental and emotional powers, whether acting on the artist or the beholder of artistic creation. It may seem on the surface that the Rmische Elegien have little in common with "Wandrers Sturmlied". However, there is evidence (shortly to be considered) that Goethe had the latter in mind during the composition of the Elegies. The word "Wandrer" appears only twice in the Rmische Elegien, which in such a long work hardly seems noteworthy on the basis of a statistical word count. However, the contextual setting of the word in the second and seventh elegies is significant in the following respect: only in the case of these elegies are there significant variations between the published version in the Horen and one appearing in an unpublished manuscript.
3

In the case of the second elegy these divergences are particularly

marked .The speaker complains that the "Wanderer" is dogged wherever he goes by politically motivated and arbitrary tittle-tattle in much the same way that contemporary British tourists excited by their presence a then popular ditty entitled "Marlborough. This reference corresponds to lines in the unpublished manuscript in which Goethe expresses relief that he was shielded from the celebrity of Werther and
3

Apart from the elegies which never appeared in the Horen, for being considered too explicit for public taste (see: Weimar Ausgabe von Goethes Werken, 143 volumes, 1887-1919, vol. 53, p.3-7), the second elegy as rendered in a manuscript entitled Erotica Romana, explicitly attributes the poet's unwanted celebrity to the fame of his novelle Die Lieden des Jungen Werther, adding that if the hero in this work, had been his own brother, he would have readily beaten this brother to death.

Lotte, characters in his sensationally popular novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of young Werther), simply because he was not recognized as the author of that work. A question arises. Why did Goethe expunge any reference to Werther in the published version of the Rmische Elegien? Most probably because he wished to divest the lyrical "I" of any explicit reference to himself after he had come to realize that his very choice of poetic genre precluded an explicit identification of the speaker with himself as a private individual. Any desire to avoid personal embarrassment could hardly have been a decisive factor, as there was no disguising the fact that the events and experiences described in the Elegies were drawn from real occurrences in Goethe's life before and during his residence in Italy. By inserting the word "Wandrer" in the second elegy Goethe could both allude to his own person and cast the speaker as a universal traveller and poet. Set in the context of the second elegy the "Wanderer" is in the first place a traveller, tourist or ex-patriot. In that of the seventh elegy the Wanderer is to be identified with the poet and artist in a mythological setting, as the following lines make clear: Wie ich hereingekommen, ich kann's nicht sagen; es fate Hebe den Wandrer und zog mich in die Hallen heran. VII, 15, 1 How it came about that I entered I cannot tell. Hebe clasped the Wanderer and drew me into the halls.

An explicit association of the "Wanderer" with "the poet" follows a few lines further on: addressing Jupiter Xenius, the protector of travellers, the speaker pleads: Bist du der wirtliche Gott? O dann so verstoe den Gastfreund Nicht von deinem Olymp wieder zur Erde hinab! Art thou the hospitable god. O do not therefore cast thy guest down from Olympus to earth again/ These words call forth the reprimand: "Dichter" wohin versteigest du dich?

"Poet", whither dost thou raise thyself high? The speaker makes an important discovery: to enjoy the presence and companionship of Jupiter, he need not attempt a hazardous mountain climb. Having asked Jupiter's forgiveness for such a foolish assumption, he avers: der hohe / Kapitolinische Berg ist dir ein zweiter Olymp. the high Capitoline hill is a second Olympus" It is almost as if the Wanderer is still smarting from the memory of an earlier traumatic attempt to scale the abode of the gods before plunging into rivers of mud. In the light of the feelings expressed in the opening lines of the seventh elegy we are probably justified in assuming that Goethe did have "Wandrers Sturmlied" in mind when treating the theme of encountering Jupiter, for they recall his earlier days of wandering under a grey northern sky. However, even if we concede that Goethe here mockingly belittles all that he once associated with the Wanderer as a figure in his early poetry, the very use of the word "Wandrer" implies that a continuous development embraces the contradictions that emerge from a comparison of "Wandrers Sturmlied and the Rmische Elegien. The poets original attempt to reach Zeus finds its inverted corollary in the removal from Olympus to the Capitoline Hill. Far from being a remote and unapproachable deity, Jupiter Xenius seeks and finds the poet in his earthy urban environs. In his classical period Goethe discarded his earlier notion that his ruling deity, whatever called, could be approached directly, without the help of a mediating power or influence. This Goethe found in art. The image of Jupiter Xenius, the god who condescends to move among mortals as an unrecognized stranger, was greatly favoured by the Augustan poets of Rome, and of these, by Ovid in particular. His Metamorphoses contains the story of Philemon and Baucis, who entertained Jove and Mercury unawares. Faust and Jupiter merge into the figure of the Wanderer, who enters the cottage of Philemon and Baucis shortly before Faust's apotheosis. In the Rmische Elegien Jupiter is closely associated with artistic creativity, either as a figure represented by sculptors and other artists, or as the power of art itself. Plotinus, we recall, identified Zeus as the source of artistic creativity (cf. Hlderlin; "Jupiter

und Saturn"). In the Rmische Elegien a similar connection between the ancient gods of Rome and artistic creativity is implied rather than directly stated. According to the fifteenth and sixteenth lines of the seventh elegy, Hebe takes the Wanderer to an inner space or room ("Raum" connotes both). In later elegies the word "Raum" is closely associated with the artist's "Werkstatt", his studio or atelier. The close juxtaposition of the words in the following lines and the parallelism they imply are hardly coincidental: Du betrachtest mit Staunen die Trmmern alter Gebude Und durchwandelst mit Sinn diesen heiligen Raum. Du verehrst noch mehr die werten Reste des Bildens Einziger Knstler, die stets ich in der Werkstatt besucht. (XIII, 9-12) Thou contemplatest amazed the ruins of ancient buildings and wander about this holy place with purpose. Thou admirest still more the noble remains of the creations of particular artists whom I constantly visit in their studios. Words in the final strophe of the poem associate the poet's pen, and by implication the written poem, with "the reed" and by extension with the pastoral music often associated with the pipes of Pan. Goethe did not develop so deep an appreciation of music - the music of Beethoven at least - as he evinced in the sphere of the visual and plastic arts, yet few poets have succeeded in achieving the quality and diversity of the sonorous or "musical effects of which poetry is capable. The analogy between his songs and he reeds or rushes swaying in the wind further imply an affinity between the processes of artistic creation and the growth of plants.