PD Smith

Goethe Studies

Times Literary Supplement, 23 March 2001

Publications of the English Goethe Society, edited by Jeremy D. Adler, Martin W. Swales, and Ann C. Weaver (Maney Publishing, Leeds).  Annual subscription £15.

Paul Bishop and R. H. Stephenson, eds, Goethe 2000: Intercultural Readings of his Work. Papers Presented at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Intercultural Germanistics, 19-21 April 1999 (Northern Universities Press / W.S.Maney & Sons Ltd. Leeds, 2000), 193pp.

Review by P. D. Smith

“Most European countries and cultures have their great, …their canonical authors. Often one name stands in a position of unchallenged pre-eminence: Shakespeare in England, Dante in Italy, Cervantes in Spain, Molière in France, and Goethe in Germany.” So writes Martin Swales in the 1997 issue of the annual Publications of the English Goethe Society (vol. 66), establishing Goethe’s claim to cultural authority in the land of his birth and justifying the modern reader’s engagement with his rich and varied corpus. That Goethe was one of the most original writers and thinkers in any language in the last 250 years cannot be doubted today, but such a view was not always taken for granted.

In the same volume, E. S. Shaffer writes of the lasting impression Goethe’s life and literature made on George Eliot: “every aspect of her work owes much to the fructifying influence of Goethe”. It was an enthusiasm she shared with George Lewes with whom she collaborated on his Life of Goethe (1855), the first biography of Goethe in English or German. But as Shaffer points out, few at that time would admit to such enthusiasm: “No new writer in England could openly enlist under his banner and hope to gain anything but a large meed of prejudiced resistance.” Thankfully times have changed, as has been demonstrated by the enthusiastic reviews and, indeed, sales of Nicholas Boyle’s Goethe: The Poet and the Age (reviewed in TLS, May 10, 1991, and February 11, 2000).

Founded in 1886 “for the purpose of promoting the study of Goethe’s work and thought”, the English Goethe Society has kept the flame of Goethe scholarship burning brightly. Its journal (known to aficionados as ‘PEGS’) publishes the lectures given to the Society in the genteel Georgian townhouse in Russell Square, London, that is home to the Institute of Germanic Studies. The main focus of the journal — the acme of British research on the Goethezeit — is to cast new light on Goethe’s texts and the context of contemporary science, history, and philosophy that this most multidisciplinary of writers drew on to construct his aesthetic world-view.

The last four issues have featured papers by, amongst others, T. J. Reed (the President of the EGS) on Goethe’s individualistic interpretation of the Enlightenment; Elizabeth Boa on the pastoral epic Hermann und Dorothea (1797) as an example of Heimatliteratur; and R. H. Stephenson (who has pioneered research into Goethe’s aphoristic style) examining Goethe’s prose in his literary and scientific work. Stephenson aptly applies Ezra Pound’s definition of poetic intensity as “abnormal vigour” to describe the rich allusiveness and complexity of Goethe’s style, which led Hofmannsthal to accuse him of “hiding his depths on the surface”.

PEGS does not limit itself to Goethe but encompasses research on other writers from the period as well as comparative themes. Recent noteworthy pieces include Roger Cardinal’s exploration of Goethe’s Italian Journey in the context of travel literature, Paul Bishop on C. G. Jung’s reception of Goethe, two discussions of Thomas Mann (acknowledging a more recent pretender to the throne of literary greatness), and even one on E.T.A. Hoffmann whose stories Goethe dismissed as “morbid works”. However, Hanne Castein’s illuminating discussion of The Sandman and the theme of automata in literature shows that even great writers are prone to the occasional error of judgement.

Two recent contributors to PEGS – Paul Bishop and Roger Stephenson – are also joint editors of Goethe 2000: Intercultural Readings of his Work, a collection of papers presented at the University of Glasgow to mark the 250th anniversary of Goethe’s birth in 1999. The admirable intention of the organisers was “to reflect both Goethe’s own commitment to Weltliteratur and the pressing need in our global village at the turn of the millennium for cultural exchange between scholars of different nations”. To misquote Goethe: whoever is unacquainted with other cultures does not truly know their own.

The intercultural proceedings are opened by David E. Wellbery, who pursues “the look of love that provides the glow of life” through the poetry of the young Goethe, highlighting the dimension of Greek myth. Andrew Fineron, whose essay is typical of the high standard of exegesis in this volume, explores the intertextual echoes of an Indian legend and the Old High German epic fragment, the Hildebrandslied, in Goethe’s Paria verse trilogy of 1823. Continuing the journey East, Paul Bishop takes an “intercultural glance” at the Chinesisch-Deutsche Jahres- und Tageszeiten (1830; Chinese-German Book of Hours and Seasons). Taking issue with critics who have over-emphasised the role of Chinese symbolism, Bishop argues that the poems owe as much to Homer and Heraclitus as they do to Lao Tzu.

Other papers consider English, French and Spanish parallels, whilst the book is rounded off with an essay by John Michael Krois on the philosopher and Goethe scholar Ernst Cassirer. But the papers collected in Goethe 2000, although intercultural in their pursuit of themes and influences, are surprisingly eurocentric in their authorship: given the book’s rubric the voices of non-Western critics seem strangely absent. The editors are right, however, to pose the question does “Goethe have anything to say to us in our (post)modern era?” Given the evidence provided by both their volume and PEGS the answer must be an emphatic “Yes.”

[NB. This may differ slightly from the published piece]